Investing the Abbey: Now we have rockets, continued.

A brief check of the rocket showed it to be indeed solidly 'together', and I wondered as to what lay under the small black cap at the tip of the warhead. Sepp cautioned me, however, saying, “there are these things that come out when you unscrew that cap there, and they are hard to put back up so you can get the cap on.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“They look a little like what's on an arrow or a throwing-bottle,” said Sepp. “I think they steer the rocket, as in my dream, those coaches could not get away from one of those rockets if I did my part.”

“How is that?” asked Karl.

“The rocket would chase after the coach like it was tied to it by a string,” said Sepp with incredulity, “and if I was at all close, I could barely count to two before that coach exploded after I shot a rocket at it.”

“At all close?” I asked.

“A bit less than three hundred paces,” said Sepp. “They work if you're further away, but if you're that distance from them, the witches cannot hit you unless they've been doing business in the fifth kingdom for a ten-year as a traveling brigand, and that rocket goes so fast that it's on them before they realize anything has happened.”

“And further away, they might see it coming?” I asked.

“They have to be a lot further away to see one of those things,” said Sepp. “At two hundred paces, those rockets are moving like a round-shot out of a fresh gun stuffed by Willem his-own-self, and they don't slow down much until they're further away than Kokenstraat is long.”

“Those sound like they'd work for pigs,” said Maarten.

“They do,” said Sepp. “Trouble is, you have to see the pig, and then it takes a slow count of ten once you squeeze the first time for that picture to circle and then put lines on what you're shooting at – and a slow count of three is often about all the warning you get with swine unless you're in open country and the pig's not trying to hide itself.”

Sepp paused, then in a tone I'd never heard him use before, “they got these other things across the sea, though, that are pure death on pigs, and if we find some, I want a bag of 'em.”

“Uh, what are they?” I asked.

“The nub in those rockets unscrews with a special wrench,” said Sepp, who then looked at the just-opened packing case and drew out a dark-gray-mottled-with-black wrench. “Like this one here. You remove the usual nub and put in this special one that looks like a nightmare fit for a baby, and then you are set for swine.”

“You are?” I asked.

“You need this special thing that talks to them,” said Sepp, “but they know what they're supposed to go after then, and if you have one of those and you think there's a pig in the area, it'll tell you – and then that pig is going to supp with Brimstone if you squeeze that rocket off, as that thing will find that pig unless it goes to hell on its own.”

I was wondering just what Sepp meant by 'a nightmare fit for a baby' as I got help with the third door. This one was further from the main entrance to the long room than either of the two previous doors, and while Karl tied the knots in his string on the door's handle, I finished oiling the five hinges.

The door opened without drama beyond the noises I expected it to have, but when we first came into the long room, the odor that came to my nose was such that I wondered if the room in question had been used to age certain species of cheeses. For some odd reason, I recalled speech of a malodorous cheese found in the fourth kingdom, as well as Anna's ravenous hunger for the bacteria-suffused 'golden wheel'.

“Essammen, wasn't it?” I muttered, as I opened the third door wider. “More shovels, obviously but what is that smell?”

“I think that...”

Sarah ceased speaking, then grabbed my arm as she ran for the doorway to the long room. The others all piled out ahead of the two of us – they needed no urging whatsoever, as they seemed to be less ignorant of that particular smell and its likely source than I was – and as Sarah dragged me to the bottom step of the transom, I asked, “what is wrong?”

“That is not Essammen cheese,” spat Sarah as she hustled me up the stairs. “That's a wasp nest!”

While I had heard of wasps where I came from, I somehow had the impression that these things had little in common beyond their basic construction as insects, and when I had clambered up the steps of the transom behind Sarah, the others had already scattered in all directions of the compass save whence we had come from – and Sarah was yelling loudly about wasps.

I followed her closely, and with her first shrieked yell, the entire region within half a mile seemed to drop whatever it was doing; while her second yell a second later had them all turn tail and 'run for the hills'. I came to the buggies, turned around in my peculiar 'daze', and thought, “no, we do not need wasps. Waldhuis needs wasps, lots of them, and big nasty wasp-nests made of wasp-paper...”

A golden object the size of a hummingbird emerged from the transom, and over a slow count of three, it faded from sight. I then noted something by its absence.

“That humming noise is gone,” I muttered. My ringing ears had masked that noise before now. “Is Waldhuis humming?”

“It is, when it is not yelling and screaming,” said the soft voice. “Recall that unpleasant yellow-and-brown wasp that got into your trousers on the way home from work that one time when you worked really late and had ripped them out in the crotch while at work?”

I nodded mentally.

“The wasps here are not only nearly three times as large in all dimensions compared to what you encountered then, but are far hardier, much longer lived, and perpetually irritated.”

“The ones where I came from seemed irritable enough,” I thought. “Are these worse?”

The impression I had was 'worse' needed to be replaced with 'there's no comparison' regarding the temperament of wasps found in the first kingdom. More importantly, they were nearly as bad regarding their stings as firebugs, save where they were worse yet.

“Be glad they aren't prewar wasps,” said the soft voice. “Those were the size of wood-pigeons, flew nearly as fast as those birds, and had lethal stings nearly two inches long loaded with neurotoxic venom worse than that of a cobra where you came from.” A pause, then, “the ones here currently, save for their infection-causing tendencies, are otherwise about as bad as firebugs for lethality from the sting itself.”

“Assuming you just get stung by one wasp, of course,” I thought. “You'll die in a big hurry if you get swarmed, won't you?”

“Why do you think Sarah ran out of there like she did?” asked the soft voice. “She's seen people killed by wasps suddenly swarming them – and she's seen more than one person die from the infections wasps cause, also.” A pause, then, “it only takes one sting then, not more a dozen.”

“Infections?” I asked.

“Wasps here not only sting, they also bite – and wasps are notorious eaters of carrion, hence 'wasp-bite' is no joke.” The soft voice was definitely not joking now. “The trouble is, what's commonly called 'wasp-bite' is usually the damage induced by the stinger, which is worse than that done by the wasp's mouth alone – as wasp-poison here isn't just neurotoxic, it also suppresses the immune system for quite some time, and the wasp's stinger issues from a pouch off of its anus, so it's liberally coated with wasp-dung when it comes out for use.” A pause, then, “wasps here usually 'stop' live food by biting it, as their saliva is a good deal more toxic than the venom of wasps where you come from – and it too is neurotoxic as well as bacteria-laden.” Another pause. “The stinging apparatus is used otherwise.”

“Meaning not merely poison if you're stung, but also a bad infection,” I muttered.

The wasp's hind-gut bred not merely huge colonies of the bacteria it ingested, but some unusual strains found nowhere else on this planet – strains that resembled the infamous 'flesh-eating bacteria' where I came from. “Sounds like wasps need to be killed when and where found, then.”

“They do, and I've shot my share of them when I could,” said Katje. “They might have firebugs and other nasty bugs down south, and I was nearly spiked by firebugs a number of times while at Boermaas, but the wasps up here make them look tame for trouble should they show.”

Should they show?” I asked.

“They were more common when I was younger, but given how everyone treats those things like witches with wings, I'm not surprised they've become scarcer.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “Wasps have not become scarcer for that reason.” There was the briefest of pauses. “The witches have been catching the wasps with close-woven nets and then removing the nests they find in hopes of attempting to both revive the wasps' full prewar powers and then breed them – and unlike blue-back spiders, it is not possible to breed wasps in dimly-lit smelly smoke-filled rooms filled with datramonium fumes.”

“The witches have been killing them off?” I gasped.

“Inadvertently, yes,” said the soft voice. “They're the main cause for the first kingdom's current 'scarcity' of wasps, not people shooting every such bug they see and burning every wasp nest they find – which they do with as much diligence as they can muster.”

“Why would witches gather wasps?”

The answer to why witches were gathering wasps was at first a matter difficult to believe, but then not: the first kingdom's wasps preferred to locate their nests in the just-below-ground portions of certain old ruins, as they had been 'conjured' by the witches of that time to serve as 'spies' and 'killers' of those not witches; and until that rune-collection known as 'The Curse' was uttered, they were all of what I had just learned – and a great deal more.

“They also lost most of their cursed aspect when they reverted to their former size,” said the soft voice, “even if the anatomical and behavioral alterations caused by the witches' cursing more or less remained untouched.” A pause, then, “the current species of wasp found in the first kingdom will become extinct with the breaking of The Curse, as 'wasps' were originally conjured by witches prior to the drowning.”

“Current species?” I asked. I was the only person I could see within miles, seemingly, or so I thought when a faint boom coming directly from the region to the east of the now-completed towers of the gate was answered by a spattering of gunfire, then seconds later a second such instance crackled forth.

“They caught two more of those 'disinclined-to-work' people who had left the camp and hid themselves earlier,” said the soft voice. “Those who shirk work as they did are now suspected of being witches, and such slackers are dealt with accordingly, especially given what Sarah's told the camp leaders now.”

“They'll be back shortly, won't they?” I asked. “Oh, is there another wasp nest on the premises?”

“More than one, actually,” said the soft voice. I could just hear the question coming after.

“Oh, the witches wish to have wasps in their places, don't they?” I asked. “Why not let them have the wasps on site, nests and all... Oh, and some large swarms of hornets too, just like the ones the book talks about being sent ahead of the Israelites when taking Canaan.”

The boiling high-pitched hum that now seemed to pound out of the Abbey was of such a monstrous nature that I wondered if the place had a volcano-sized arc welder in use, then as I watched, first one ruined place where a window had once been erupted a gold-flickering dark and swarming cloud, then another, then two more, and finally a fifth ragged hole billowed its massive angry dark cloud. These places were all easily several stories up from the 'ground floor', and the insects – huge things; I could now tell their size, as well as sense the unrelentingly malevolent disposition of the 'flying daggers' the witches had once 'brewed up' – joined together into a long and billowing southbound cloud that rapidly gained speed, altitude, and several smaller yet otherwise similar swarms that came from the other side of the building.

“What happened?” I asked, as the swarm still grew in size as more boiling black swarms came from places previously unknown to me. The Abbey seemed a locus for 'wasp-production', and the main swarm itself was now easily five hundred feet above the ground and half a mile long, with billowing gloss-black roiling clouds liberally tinted with sparkling glints of gold.

The swarm yet continued to elongate as more clouds of insects boiled up from hidden places along its flight path, while the swarm in general, especially near its southbound head, continued to 'go higher' in altitude. This tendency made me wonder as to if the bugs were finding prevailing winds so as to fly faster. They seemed to be, as with increasing altitude the yet-growing bug-swarm moved more rapidly.

“The chief region where the witches engage in wasp-raising in this area starts where that one town used to lie,” said the soft voice, “and continues on to just south of the border with the second kingdom, and is bounded to the east and west by the Main and West rivers. Some of those insects will go further south, however, as your speaking of hornets 'reset' their curse-wrought 'programming' to 'go find evildoers and bother them'.” I could almost hear chortling. “That, and it's also changing the insects more than a little as they fly south.”

“What would that be?” asked Sarah. “Did you call those things hornets, like the book speaks of?”

I nodded nervously.

“Then those witches had best put on their black-cloth and get themselves full-loaded and blacken their faces fit for charcoal,” muttered Sarah, “as they are going to sup with Brimstone for certain.”

“Many of them will, anyway,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, the witches will think their century's worth of chanting and cursing to have finally borne fruit in the form of prewar-sized wasps, so they will take these insects inside their homes and their other places, and then the insects will wait until opportunity provides suitable times to cause trouble. More, they'll keep causing trouble for over a month, as they now have intelligence to match their larger size and greater irritability, so the witches will spend their powder and lead as if they were trying for especially cunning wood-pigeons – and hornets do better far underground than accursed wasps, as hornets here have always made underground nests.”

“Oh, such as making certain portions of the secret way too hazardous to use if real numbers are involved?” I murmured. “Force almost all of those witches coming north to come up here openly, rather than a bit less than half of them?”

“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “Those witches that think to try that way anyway will find themselves pursued relentlessly the entire time, and in many cases they'll be killed.”

With the wasps 'gone', the Abbey's workforce gradually returned, each man and woman now carrying a weapon of some kind. While most laid these and their shooting supplies aside on cloths near where they were digging – I could almost see the ditches moving northward by the second as they followed the boundaries of the seemingly-without-number 'turnip patches' – some yet stood watch, their eyes wary and seemingly 'ready' for trouble. I felt reminded of one portion in the book, one speaking of the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls upon the Israelites' return from captivity. Its name here was pronounced much as I recalled it, though the 'Z' in 'Ezra' seemed lengthened with a trace of an 'H' sound, and the 'R', as usual, was 'rolled' – and a lot of people had trouble saying that name properly, Maarten included.

Katje managed it fine.

“This whole business is like that,” I thought. “Now I hope we can get back to our business soon.”

'Soon' happened quicker than I thought possible, for while the others seemingly took their time, I soon learned the chief reason they had gone into the camp wasn't to warn the others of possible 'hunting wasps'. They had done that initially, according to Katje, but once hearing and seeing the wasps swarming out out of the Abbey and heading south, they knew that trouble wasn't a matter for current worry.

“And food was,” she said. “I'm glad I brought a bread-bag, as I've never worked as hard as this before.”

“It will be good practice, dear,” said Maarten. “We'll have our hands most-busy for the next few months, even with that long train of witches being delayed like they have been by those insects.”

“Delayed?” I asked. “How much?”

“Enough to make the matter such that the two of them can do what they need to do without trying to work your hours,” said the soft voice. “They'll be working like students at the west school do instead.”

“That is no joke,” said Sarah. “I know what my hours were when I was there, and...”

“I'm not sure I can manage the hours of a fifth kingdom deep-slave wearing a trusty-cap, even for a few days,” said Katje. “I think I can work student's hours, as that's not that much more than we were doing recently.”

“It is more than you might think,” said Gabriel ominously. “You would do well indeed to endure a week at the hours you would have needed beforehand, and you've got a month's hard work ahead of you – easily – and that before you attempt to turn the place into something defensible against a massive onslaught.”

“Massive onslaught?” I asked, between bites of dried meat. “Is that train of witches they are gathering up intended to build more than just one town?”

“Several well-fortified towns surrounded by thick stone walls and tall palisades, and then man them, with the witches living in each town gathering two supplicants from the surrounding area per witch at the least,” said the soft voice. “When Karl spoke of the column, he spoke of its length, and not its width – and that when 'camped' in open country, not when traveling 'in column' on the roads.” A pause, then, “Those portions of that group that are heading up from the fifth kingdom on the High Way at this time are each nearly as long as where you live, and when the witches form up to advance across that wide field to the south of where Maarten and Katje live, they will be in a close-packed swarm wider than it is long – and that was what Karl saw in his dream.”

“And now to see what those things were guarding,” I murmured, as I began moving back toward the transom. The sun was now where it commonly was for the time of the morning guzzle, if not a little later, but I could feel this day being stretched nearly as much as the one before it. My sense of time was being stretched also, and when I actually came to 'the third door', I noted the following:

The odor of 'long-aged cheese' had been replaced in full by that of 'long-aged greasy shovels'.

The door was fully open, much as if the wasps had pushed it open the rest of the way while coming out of hiding.

The contents of this room – about the size of the first one opened, if my guess from the doorway was right – was row after row of narrow-bladed shovels. For some reason, however, I knew that this room didn't just contain shovels; it also had a few 'imported' hoes, as the witches had needed good tools that could endure the cultivation of true-turnips; and those packing these rooms – the last three to be loaded up, unless I missed my guess – put some of their laborer's tools, those that survived the long and hard use given them in the turnip fields. in this room as 'guards' for the remaining tools.

“Probably cursed, too,” I thought.

“Yes, by the witches handling them,” said the soft voice. “Those curses left when the witches died, and your take on needing good tools for the cultivation of true-turnips is an understatement of the case.”

“There are hoes in there?” asked Sarah.

“Not many in this room, as it was the third one filled,” said the soft voice. “The last two rooms are not merely the largest ones of the five, but also have the rest of the tools used by the witches to do their work here – and they all lost the balance of their cursed aspect when that deep-hole went.” A brief pause, then, “this one, however, has not merely one cache, but two – as well as a secret passage.”

Once inside the room, however, I soon learned that both caches, as well as the secret passage, were within fifteen feet of the doorway; and while this room was about as deep as the first, it was the widest of the three thus far. I began handing out shovels, this near the front, and as the others began to pass them back, I heard plainly a chorus of other voices coming inside the long room to resume their labors.

At least until I found the first hoe. I remarked on how it looked to be decent – it looked like an unpleasantly-greasy-to-the-touch version of a potato country 'digging' hoe – and within less than a minute, our 'shovel-line' had more people on it, so much so that now I and Sarah were passing back shovels and hoes as fast as we could handle these slimy things.

“I had no idea witches would bother with this type of hoe,” muttered Sarah. “Did they steal these things?”

“Yes, they did,” said the soft voice. “More, unlike the shovels – which were well-made but otherwise unremarkable foreign-made implements – these hoes are mostly from Vrijlaand.”

What?” screeched Sarah.

“Wait until you get into the last two rooms and find the rest of the tools the witches used, dear,” said the soft voice. “It took a truly unusual tool, one highly resistant to both the abusive tendencies of that era's witches and their long-chanted curses, to last any time at all while 'farming' true-turnips, and the ones in this and the last two rooms filled were the only ones that endured that abuse long enough to be 'put away'.”

A pause, then, “that may be counter to what every tapestry you've ever looked at said, but remember – the tapestry writers were usually either supplicants or witches who were new to witchdom before being turned back, and hence they didn't even think to try working as turnip 'farmers'. They wrote what they did about this area's turnips based upon what they had overheard as gossip and what few lies they were told about the matter by higher-ranking witches – who were not about to give potential competitors anything resembling assistance.”

“The reason those people didn't know much about those nasty turnips, Sarah, is because body-fed true-turnips would be inclined toward them as meals, and not endure them otherwise,” I muttered, as I handed back what looked like an unusual five-tined rake. Its sturdy teeth and 'heavy' forged head, as well as its multiple rivets and screws holding the stout red-striped laminated wood handle in place, spoke volumes. It was almost as if this wasn't a mere gardening tool, but rather a weapon – a weapon intended to combat a brutal species of near-jungle that never relented in either its growing or its persistence, and everything about it was intended to endure.

“Which is precisely what those were intended for,” said the soft voice. “Most of Vrijlaand's territory was either 'full-jungle', or 'near-jungle', and crops not only had worse issues with insects and opportunistic plants than anywhere else at that time, but they also grew faster and larger than anywhere on the continent then or since.”

“They spoke of their growing seasons as being the whole year round,” said Sarah. “It rained more than it does here during the ending of a winter like last, and it was nearly as hot as the fifth kingdom, and their soil made that in this area look worthless.”

“Mostly because they rotated their crops such that each field was only cultivated one year in three,” said the soft voice, “and when such fields were made ready once more for planting, the trees and undergrowth that had sprouted in them were made into lumber, paper, fiber, and chemicals.”

“Did they put anything back?” I asked.

“More than anywhere on the planet since that time,” said the soft voice. “They didn't just use substantial quantities of processed animal wastes, but chemical fertilizers as well.”

“Ugh,” spat Sarah. “Those made the crops taste terrible.”

“Yes, when they were used exclusively,” said the soft voice. “The farmers of Vrijlaand knew that, which was why the processed 'manure' they had accumulated went onto the ground just before each of the four growing seasons in a given year, and the chemicals – the right chemicals – were used the other two years in a given plot. Their goal was to not merely replenish the soil, but actually improve it to a level that was far beyond what they initially started with – and they succeeded handsomely.”

“How?” asked Sarah. We were still passing back 'garden implements' as fast as the two of us could grab and move them, and while the shovels were engaged in their usual multiplying tricks, the 'hoes', the three-tined 'spading forks', and those heavy-duty 'rakes' seemed to have learned similar behavior. I was finding one of the other tools about every fifth time I reached for something, whereas when I first began removing tools from this room, I had handed back nearly thirty shovels before even seeing something different, and another ten shovels before I had laid my hands upon the tool in question.

“Vrijlaand's soil was originally a 'jungle-only' species,” said the soft voice, “and crops suitable for food grew poorly in that stone-filled reddish clay – at least, until they learned what to do, and more importantly, how to do it – so as to achieve maximum sustained yields.” A brief pause, then, “it took them three generations, all of that time with those involved working as hard as possible, to change the place from being mostly a chaotic jungle that could support a handful of people into an orderly 'jungle', one divided by aqueducts and crossed by roads, that could support tens of millions with its deep rich near-black soil that held water and nutrients like a sponge.”

“They didn't have that many people, at least not at first,” I muttered, meaning the quoted figure. I could believe 'several million' all-too-readily, especially by the time of the war, but somehow, tens of millions sounded very hard to believe. I put the matter aside quickly, however, for pressing business was but right in front of me.

I could feel the first of the caches, and was moving in its direction, while but perhaps ten feet away, I could see the mounded spades that had collapsed into the fallen walls of the once-blocked 'secret passage'. Unlike the first two caches, this one had something that was but a short distance inside it, much as if the person storing things there knew about who might learn of matters well enough to take advantage of the situation.

“She did,” said the soft voice, “even if she was not able to retrieve any of what she'd spent so much time gathering, making, and modifying.”

“She?” I asked.

“Rachel,” said the soft voice. “You might find her supplies useful as well as instructive.”

The spades and hoes seemed to now move out of my way while I handed back everything I could reach as I moved forward and to the right, and within perhaps another three minutes, I could see through the remaining utensils the first of the caches. It was within perhaps four feet of the nearest edge of the passage's 'doorway', and its small size – perhaps three feet tall and a bit more than two wide – spoke of it holding something particularly useful to those who had placed their supplies there long ago. I moved closer, then glanced down to see another reddish line showing, this one thin, 'flaming', and perhaps two inches off of the floor.

“More curse-rigging,” I muttered, as I knelt down, slow as molasses – and as suddenly, I knew that while this one was cursed, it was also an actual tripwire of some kind. “Everyone, out of the room, slow and easy, and back toward the entrance with the stairs going out of the place. This one has a trap.”

And yet, as Sarah moved out of the room and I backed away from the 'tripwire', I all-but laughed. This particular example was not set by the Mistress of the North; she was elsewhere at the time. Nor was it set by that one particular expert-with-traps witch. He was dead by then, and in hell where he and those he'd tried teaching his particular skill-set belonged.

This tripwire was set by a witch just barely smart enough – when sober, relatively speaking; he was usually drunk as a stinker twice over – that he might be able to handle devices that weren't very susceptible to curses and not blow himself up while doing so; and hence, his trap...”

“Is more dangerous than it would be otherwise, just like that one supplicant who thought to become a witch-tailor,” I thought. “Still, though, this one is pretty 'dumb'.” And then, an idea, this sparked by the conjunction of a 'dumb' trap and a 'dumb' supplicant separated by nearly a thousand years of time:

“Let this particular trap – tripwire and all – go find an especially high-ranking witch-tailor, one of those really special ones up near the north-tip that the really wealthy witches go to, just like that one Stinker did for his clothing – and then set up shop in his sewing-cabinet. Oh, and not blow up until he thinks that tripwire to be especially good witch-thread and tries to poke it into that one special fetish-needle he likes to use for the pure quill.”

I jumped backwards as I cleared the door, then turned and ran for the long room's exit. The trap was coming after me like an angry flying creature of some kind, and I dove for the floor as it shot over me as if it were an unusually 'smart' wasp, one that had been cursed at some length prior to the war. As I turned on my side and glanced out of the corner of my eye, I saw a canister-shaped device trailing a knotted and glistening wire all but rocket out of the room's doorway, and amid soft-sounding shouts and fainter yells, I could hear the swish of the thing as it dodged first the columns of 'The Upper Alley', then getting outside and heading almost due north while quickly building further speed; and as it cleared the Abbey's structure – it had climbed to about the tenth floor by then – it altered its heading some ten degrees to the west. It was flying higher and faster with each second, as that tripwire was still unwinding from the spool that one 'fool-witch' had left it coiled upon.

He had thought the thing to be an especially curse-sensitive trap, and had therefore attempted to arrange all of its portions by chanting rune-curses at it after putting it roughly 'in position'.

“That bomb is changing as it travels,” said the soft voice. “It was not primed when you found it, but it will most definitely be primed, and that entirely, once it 'takes up shop' in that witch-tailor's place.”

“Sewing cabinet?” I asked. “Special, uh, extra-long fetish-grade needles, like those used for sewing certain types of leather, at least for their points?” I was thinking of glover's needles, to be precise. I had used those, and needles like them, before coming here; and during the longer periods of unemployment, I'd sewn my share of small leather pouches, among other things, so as to earn funds. They'd brought in surprising amounts of money, and had been ready sellers – even if that income was nowhere near what it took to pay even a fraction of my bills.

“They don't have sharp edges to those points, but otherwise you're right,” said the soft voice. “Black-cloth containing quill-fiber, especially that material named 'the pure quill', demands a lot of special tools so as to make such cloth into clothing, and most of those tools are both fetish-grade and fetish-priced – which means such witch-tailors not only chant constantly while working and tell their secrets to no one, but they also 'manifest the power' of many of those fetishes by extensive, time-consuming, and costly rework in witch-run instrument-making shops.”

“They send them down to the fourth kingdom?” I asked.

“There's a witch-run instrument-making shop up near the north-tip, though it's quite small as such places go and very well-hidden in a large woodlot,” said the soft voice, “and more, it's sited fairly close to a main node of the secret way, so that witch can hie himself south readily to get his own supplies without wasting time or attracting unwanted attention between here and his various destinations down that way.”

A pause, then, “that witch-tailor might get a fair amount of money by tailoring, but he gets much more by being the local agent for almost anything a witch might want in the farthest north of the continent – and that for domestic and imported witches. It isn't surprising, given his basement is a huge multi-story affair sited upon the secret way itself, and his much-smaller house is merely a front for what's beneath it.”

“Wealthy, eh?” I thought. “Just his luck that his place will go up in smoke when he's entertaining both black-dressed clients and witches from Norden.”

“Not quite, even if he is one of the main suppliers to those people of items from the continent,” said the soft voice. “He's sold Norden most of their good anvils over the last twenty years, as well as most of their better tools until very recently.” A brief pause, then, “Norden's tool production has improved enough in the last year or so that they're importing a lot fewer tools of the 'common' grade – and that means he and his people must locate and then steal the best ones they can find so as to get ready buyers from among those people.”

“Probably planning on cleaning out the shop in Roos,” I muttered.

“He and his people were indeed going to do that, at least until after the third ditch and word about you started to make the rounds via the witch-messengers,” said the soft voice. “He's figured it's cheaper and far safer to use four or five layers of intermediaries – intermediaries that only know their immediate contacts, which is far more care than is usual for witches in the five kingdoms – and then pay outrageously high fetish-quality shipping costs from the fourth kingdom than to try to invade your 'ever-expanding territory' so as to steal things he wants – and when that bomb goes off, it will really get to those people.”

“Who?” I asked.

“That handful of smallish witch colonies at and near the north-tip,” said the soft voice. “The region within ten miles of the north-tip proper is one of the very few regions left in the first kingdom at this time where witchdom has 'few' restraints on its behavior – and that for the following reasons: those colonies are well-hidden from prying eyes; they're all out in the middle of nowhere, and far from regular towns – and with no exceptions, they are either very near or actually on entrances to the secret way, which gives a ready market for the products they make or acquire that travel readily.”

“They must like it, or do they?” I asked.

“He does, and a few of his contemporaries do, but most of the lesser witches in that area wish the Swartsburg was still intact,” said the soft voice. “That witch made a decision over eighteen years ago that it was better to live a life of 'sober industry' out in the middle of nowhere than to be able to gratify his wishes 'readily' and end up dead much sooner.” A short pause, then, “it paid off handsomely for him, as while getting many of his wishes gratified takes a good bit longer than it would in the 'hot part' of the second kingdom house, he can otherwise now do so with minimal risk to life, limb, and property – and he, and those witches who were among the first to follow his example, call that a bargain well paid for.”

“No bargain now,” I murmured. “That bomb's not exactly a weak one, especially given that it has some of that really potent cursed filling in it – that evil stuff that explodes with a bright purple flash.”

“It now has that precise filling,” said the soft voice. “It might have been about as bad as that mortar shell you found before, but currently it's worse than an entire box of oil-dripping mining dynamite that's about to turn – and it won't wait for him to thread his needle with the trip-wire, but it will explode as soon as it roosts where it can do the most damage to his bunker-like dwelling.”

“Scatter that mess good, then,” I mumbled. “Really good, that and start some big fires that, uh, burn down all of their cover so they can no longer hide themselves.” I seemed on a roll of some kind. “Oh, and find all of that hidden distillate those people have been hoarding for years, every single stinky jug of the stuff, especially all of those thousands of jugs of lighter distillate for those pressurized firebomb lanterns they are so in love with, and, uh...”

The question was there. I could feel it.

“And turn all of that distillate into the nastiest Benzina ever made, complete with plenty of the best purified niter and a good dose of that one stinky chemical!”

“That will flush those wretches,” said Sarah with finality as she came back into the larger room. I then saw that I was still laying on the floor, and I wondered just what I had done.

“Those witches up near the north-tip were said to have numbers of rotten cannons,” said Sarah, “but if you turned all of what they have jugged for distillate into doctored Benzina, then when that one bomb goes, there will be little left of them.”

Nothing left of them, you mean,” said the soft voice, “as the North-Tip has enough explosives now to turn every witch-settlement within miles into smoke and dust.”

“Good,” spat Sarah. “They will not try shooting at us then.”

“And Norden will lose its 'most-favored' port, also,” said the soft voice. “That entire region has had all of its regular inhabitants – what few of them there were – either sacrificed or driven out at gunpoint long ago so as to accept witchdom's remaining refugees of 'substance', and now....”

A pregnant pause.

A brilliant flash of light seemed to erupt somewhere far away, almost as if a sizable nuclear weapon had just detonated, and within what seemed like seconds – perhaps a slow count of ten – the Abbey faintly trembled for perhaps another slow count of ten. Sarah was still the only person inside the long room with me, but as I followed her to the door of the long room, I could feel the brief stoppage of all work outside. I soon learned the truth of the matter from Gabriel. He'd been outside using the privy.

“First, you send that bomb up to the north-tip, and it was moving as fast as a wood-pigeon before I lost sight of it,” he said, “and then, I could smell something a bit like what is used in the mining country for cleaning not ten seconds later, and then the whole region to the north goes white and brighter than the sun for nearly a slow count of three.”

“Does the North-Tip still endure?” asked Sarah.

“It does,” said Gabriel, “but nothing lives there now, as that bomb wasn't just gathering speed to it when it left my sight. It was also gathering size and power, and both of those things in great measure.”

“S-size?” I asked.

“It was the size of a large beer mug when I first saw it, but by the time it had climbed fifty feet in height and two hundred paces for distance it was as large as a smaller Public House cooking pot, and its line had gathered length and hooks to it as well.” Gabriel paused, drank, then said, “first, those witches coming to the south receive both wasps and hornets, and now those at the very top of the continent, those who thought themselves completely safe, are currently supping with Brimstone.”

“Is the river still passable?” I asked.

“It is, but we had best forget beaching in that region, as no cover remains to it,” said Gabriel. “That series of explosions set huge fires around each of those towns, and by the time the north-tip's usual rains dampen those blazes tonight in that region, those witches up there will have lost all they have.”

“And their visitors, also,” said the soft voice. “Three ships of Norden are now adrift and ablaze, while every single one of those witch-settlements are huge smoking holes in the ground – and the secret way is no longer usable in that area.”

“Good,” I muttered. “They might not have as much access to those places up there as they do around here, but that location was important just the same.”

“They lost all three of their turntables, also,” said the soft voice, “and while they can – and will – put those particular underground portions of the secret way back in order such that they can be 'used' by through-traffic, much as they have in other devastated sections recently, they will not be able to do much beyond that – and what they are able to do will not happen overnight, even if they put every slave and supplicant that they currently have laboring underground upon that particular task and drive them to the limits of drink and datramonium.”

“Another day, another batch of witches gone to see who they most wish to see,” I murmured. “Now where was I? Oh, that stinking trap interrupted what Sarah and I were doing.” Then, under my breath, “cussed distractions cause me more trouble than anything.”

The contents of the cache proved to be two rifles like that first one I had found, or so I thought until about half an hour passed and another two hundred tools had been passed out. Sarah and I – and everyone else passing out tools – was ready for a breather, and when Karl began to wipe off the greasy weapons I had brought out with a rag dampened with boiled distillate on the ground-cloth nearest the transom, he began comparing the two weapons within less than a minute. Their grease had cleaned off surprisingly rapidly, even though he'd still fouled a small mound of rags with grease. That boiled distillate was becoming disgustingly slimy with torment-grease, and I wondered if we'd have time to distill any real quantity of that particular material. I knew I could find the time to distill some, or so I suspected.

“This one is not like the other,” he said as he held both weapons, one in each hand as he sat. “This one here weighs more, and it has a thicker barrel where one can see it, and this thing here only goes to two places, and then it feels strange.”

“The grease is what feels strange, most likely,” said Gabriel. “They were lacking rags, so they dipped both of those in grease more times...”

“I think not,” said Katje. “Those planning the escape had a most-definite idea as to which caches they would want access to first, and I think that was one of the ones they wanted to get to quickly – it was closest to the door, and right next to that one secret passage. Hence, they put enough grease on those two to protect them passably, but they left off the string-tied greasy rags they put on those other weapons.”

“Where did those slimy things go?” I asked.

Katje held up a grease-stained satchel, then said, “it seems they fold up to a degree for carrying.” A pause, then, “if ever one wished a compact weapon for use around one's house to deal with rats, this one would seem as likely as anything I can think of.”

“I know,” said Gabriel morosely. “I wished I could have had one of those weapons when I was visiting the schools, as I could have endured the west school far better with one of those and some few larger tins of those things that seem to go to them.”

“Those things?” I asked.

“They take the same cartridges as those Tossers do,” said Katje. “There was a package that had a number of their ammunition containers, and I tried to see what would fit, and one size of those brass things do and nothing else does like that does.”

“H-how?”

“I used one of those loaded ones that fit those large pistols as a guide,” said Katje, “and since these were apparently similar in concept, I suspected they would be similar for how one put those things in them.” A brief pause, then, “one wishes gloves for that work, as it makes for sore fingers otherwise, and if one tries to put in more than a dozen of those brass and copper things, then one either has gloves and merely sore hands, or one has blisters upon one's thumbs.”

“Sounds like really strong magazine springs,” I said. “I've heard of those...”

“Katje needed to dismantle and clean that magazine thoroughly, and similarly clean that weapon as well,” said the soft voice. “The grease was still a bit hard inside that magazine, and there was enough of that grease still present inside it to make for difficult loading and a malfunctioning magazine should its use be desired.” A pause, then, “those will need to be cleaned eventually, but there are plenty of ready-to-use ones in that armory.”

“We need to clear out those shovels and traps first,” said Sarah with a trace of weariness in her voice. “I hope there are no more traps in that smelly room.”

“We have not been tossed, nor injured, even if everyone is becoming very sore,” said Katje. “I know passing shovels out of these rooms is tiring.”

“And greasy,” muttered Sarah. “I need more gloves, as these things are more grease than leather anymore, and while distillate would get the grease out of the gloves soon enough, it...”

“It makes them want to chew on your hands,” said Sepp. “I already tried distillate on a pair today, and they're worse if that distillate is still working on them.” A pause. “About all that one can do is put them in some distillate fresh from the jug while it is set out for its drying, then take them out the next day and let them dry for a ten-day out where the wind and the rain can get to them – and then dose them with tallow and beeswax so they're usable again, as otherwise distillate makes them like raw-leather.”

“Which we do not have,” said Karl, meaning the tallow and beeswax. “This grease is starting to get to me now, and I wonder if I will have grease in my dreams when I sleep tonight.”

That seemed a prime catch-phrase for the whole of the remaining business, even when I cleared enough shovels, hoes and rakes away from the 'secret passage' entrance to begin handing them out of the passage itself. The dust I stirred up from the dust and gravel remaining from the witch-made masonry plug seemed to float slowly up and away from where I was, and as I continued following the shovels – they had fallen down inside the passage for a surprising distance, so much so that I wondered just what had happened – I could see a passage that branched into two other passages, one of these being quite narrow, and the other much wider. This latter passage was mostly blocked by a dark-colored – and sizable – sheet-covered object, and as I passed back the last of the spades laying upon the floor, I knew beyond all reason that we wanted the thing's covering-sheet at the least.

“It's one of those lighter ones, and I bet Sarah can make some rain-things out of those quickly,” I thought, “just like I used to do with trash-bags.”

“It will take her longer than the five minutes you needed, but otherwise you're right – and more, you will want one each of those for the sea voyage, as your time near the north-tip is likely to see some rain.”

“Some rain?” I asked, as I picked up a 'short-handled hoe'. A glance told me this item wasn't part of the witch-cache, but something used by those 'working' here – and while it wasn't quite as good as some of the hoes and other things we had been passing out, it was easily as good as the common shovels. I could easily see it being either copied in the shop for general sale, or failing that, used as a digging tool at home for a revival of that long-dead 'herb garden'. It made for a brief wondering about carrots, to be precise, and perhaps a small raised bed for them.

“It came from the same hijacked shipment, in fact,” said the soft voice, “and was modified on-site to suit by those working here.” A pause, then, “one of those people planned on taking it with him during his escape, in fact, but he died before the rest of the escaping survivors could leave.”

“Why?” I asked. “As a keepsake, or...”

“Rachel's party took a few digging implements with them, chiefly their spades, as they'd not merely proved decent tools for agriculture but also passable weapons for close combat,” said the soft voice. “Besides, by that time, that group that went with her pretty much was agreed as to what they needed to do: move as quickly as possible; move at night when cover wasn't available and otherwise stay in cover when moving or resting; leave no traces behind them for tracking to the greatest degree they could manage, which meant digging waste-holes when they stopped and filling them before resuming their march; and only cook food when it was absolutely necessary to do so.”

“And otherwise go without eating anything beyond what they each could carry readily that was ready to eat,” I thought, as I came closer to the covered mound. I used the hoe's handle to touch it, and knew instantly it was not rigged.

“They didn't need to rig this one, not with what they said about those other caches being done to it also,” I thought. “No witch could ever see this in a million years.”

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “You can see it clearly. Sarah would need to find it by touch before she saw it. Katje would know it was nearby and find it by feel – if she was inclined to spend close to an hour looking. Everyone else, save for a few marked people on site – they'd walk by it as if it was not there, and think themselves 'clumsy' for banging into the wall if they bumped into it.”

I removed the sheet, then gasped. I had found a very-well-preserved four-wheeled cart, complete with a black-painted metal towing handle tilted up and waiting for use, and as I began to tow it back the way I had come, I noted first the near-complete silence it initially made, then faintly, a crumbling noise – a noise that steadily grew in both frequency of emission and volume. I stopped at the sand-mounded juncture of passage and room, and in the light of several catalytic lanterns, I looked at the nearest of the cart's four tires.

“Old rubber, and it's gone rotten,” I thought.

“It may be old, and it may be rotten, but getting more 'tires' for that cart is an easy matter,” said the soft voice. “There are more knocked-down carts like that one in that armory, and a number of entire spare wheels as well as more preservative-coated tires in storage cans.”

“The tires went bad on this one?” I asked. This was audible.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “I saw but one of those things on a tapestry before, and now you found a real one.” Sarah began to look over what was on the cart's thin metal platform, then as she removed an old-looking copper pot, she removed its lid and looked inside.

“I... This is what she wrote about,” spat Sarah. “It's hers, all right. This is what she said she had to leave behind when she left this area.”

“Rachel?” I asked. “She wrote about this..?”

“This is a complete cooking set,” said Sarah, as she drew out a small cloth pouch from the pot she'd picked up, “then there is one of those pistols that give me nightmares to think about them, there's bagged ammunition for one of those rifles, and then there's a lot of folded bags that she didn't have time to fill.”

“Or they split up the things those bags contained among them and kept their loads light so as to travel as quickly as they could,” I muttered. “They were on foot, a lot of them were hurt – not just Rachel, but many of the others were injured in that last gun battle – and they were going to have to go through a fair amount of hostile territory and live off the land while doing so, which meant that what she'd planned on doing wasn't going to work terribly well and she – no, they – had to improvise whenever and wherever they could.”

“Not with her injuries, no,” said the soft voice. “She may have been the worst injured of those surviving, but that last gun battle that killed the remaining witches also resulted in nearly a third of those who had spoken of going with her dying from their wounds, mostly due to the witches' poisoned bullets.” A brief pause, then, “and that wasn't the only thing. They had to leave the Abbey quickly, also – which meant she and the other injured workers had to leave behind most of their long-hoarded and carefully-made supplies.”

“Why was that?” asked Sarah. I had the impression she was hearing something utterly new.

“That very last witch – the one that shot her, in fact – had triggered a delayed-action gas-projector when he was shot in the chest,” said the soft voice. “He thought it would go off soon enough for him to see them all die, but the runes he read as 'three Nakronæ' weren't.”

Here, there was a pause, and the units seemed to flash before my eyes. It was strange to see the runes and understand them so readily for a change, but the soft voice resumed speaking a second later.

“What he saw, however, was 'thirty Nakromisa' – which is a lot more than a few seconds.”

Again, another rune-string showed for a fraction of a second, and here, I saw a clear difference between it and the former rune-string: the three conjoined runes bound by a 'bar' implied that there was 'more' than merely a single rune repeated thrice as a number, but as I scanned the other runes, they seemed all the same, save for an added 'lightning bolt' upon the end and the next-to-the-last rune being reversed. I noted also, that excepting the 'O' sound – that rune had a meaning all its own in conjunction with the other runes – all the consonants were omitted, which did not surprise me at all.

Runes were the most secret species of writing among witches; and one had to truly read the mind of the writer for the reader to understand their precise meaning.

“Especially then,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, you're right.” A brief pause, then, “that latter time unit is close to three minutes each, which meant that Rachel had time to deal with that last witch appropriately, briefly attend to those dying from their wounds, and then get everyone wishing to get out of the building right then well clear of it before that gas projector turned the place and the area around it into a deathtrap.”

“Three months?” I asked.

“That one you encountered was filled with one of the 'common' gases, not the stuff this one was loaded with,” said the soft voice. “There was a very good reason that gas-projector had a nearly two hour delay on it, as that chemical was persistent – and it liked to spread a fair amount.” A pause, then, “in a darkened and windless environment like the Abbey as it quickly became after everyone on the main floors died, it remained exceedingly deadly for more than three years, and to approach the Abbey caused dire and lasting sickness for nearly a decade after that.

“Were there others still alive in the building when that trap went?” asked Katje. I wanted to ask about the attic, but I had a distinct impression: that region was 'sealed' off early by strong witches, and this particular chemical was heavily cursed. Hence, it did not bother with that region, as there was nothing up there of interest to the spirits that made the stuff kill so effectively for so long a time.

“Yes, and they all died, as well as a fair number of witches attempting to shelter in the place during the years that bomb made the place a deathtrap,” said the soft voice. “The reason you did not find that gas projector is some hundreds of years later, one of Cardosso's closest circle came up this way and sent out over twenty 'fool-witches' so as to 'give the place its due' while he went looking around inside. He knew the place had a finite appetite for 'witches', so if he 'sacrificed' enough people both that lizard and the Desmond would become glutted, he had much of a day to look the place over for prime fetishes – and he found enough to send an entire 'troupe' up here to look the place over properly.”

“So that's why there were so few,” said Sarah. “That wretch got most of them.”

“Cardosso got the best ones that were remaining in the place when his representative came,” said the soft voice, “which was quite a number at that time. What he took needed a number of sizable 'wagons' to cart it all off, as well as weeks to remove what he wanted.”

“Wagons?” asked Sarah. “There were no roads then, not in this area.”

“The secret way,” said the soft voice, “and the word 'wagon' is a bad translation of the Underworld German phrase used in his writings to describe just what was used for transportation.”

The cart had its own secrets, those being the things hidden in less-than-likely places: a pair of those small pistols, these showing obvious signs of being 'worked over' at some length; three tins of ammunition for them, as well as a number of loaded magazines; another of those 'lamps' used for cooking, this one showing the least use and patina of all I had yet seen due to a thin coating of preservative grease; three medium-sized 'brass canteens' that proved full of liquid cooking fuel; another shortened 'hoe', this one also lightly greased; and finally, a most-unusual Tosser pistol, this one showing the obvious mottled-gray colors of case-hardening through its thin coating of sticky grease.

“Why was that done?” I asked.

“Recall what you were told about how half a day in a cooking can would solve most of those weapons' troubles for a while at the least?” said the soft voice. “Rachel and a few others actually did that, and that's one of her personal weapons.”

For some reason, however, as I returned to removing spades and now 'spading forks' alongside of Sarah, I had a peculiar intimation: Rachel had done what she and several others had done after learning the weaknesses of those particular weapons, and by the time she'd loaded up that cart, she wasn't about to go traipsing eight hundred miles or so through war-torn and hostile territory without the best weapons she could get her hands on.

“And those big ones were too hard to hold onto,” I thought. “She could handle one of those passably. Is that why she did that – she planned on shooting it much?”

While I received no answer, the slow-dawning ideas as to what I commonly did to revolvers seemed to bloom rapid-fire in my head – to then be suddenly overlaid by what was needed to turn a 'two-hundred-round Tosser' into something worth the trouble of carrying on a long and dangerous trip. This treatment didn't give the weapon that much added durability, but it made it function significantly 'better' for far longer – as two hundred rounds was not 'two hundred rounds before it becomes inaccurate and malfunctions a lot'.

It was closer to 'two hundred rounds, and it's more dangerous to the shooter than the target. It starts misbehaving a lot sooner'.

“So an overnight stint in a cooking can...”

“Add some cleaned niter, a bit of 'blue' potash, and some of that bad 'dust' to the can's charcoal, and powder that mixture fine and pack those things up close – and then moisten the contents well with boiled distillate,” said the soft voice, “and then put the luted-with-clay can or cans in the crucible furnace with a heaping load of charcoal, with a small amount of burnt-coal for added heat. Let that fire burn slow all night, take out the cans, let them cool slowly buried in the ash-heap, then reheat them in the long-forge for an hour or two and then dump the parts into heated oil. Fish them out, leave them on the edge of the forge until they begin to smoke, then dump them in a pot of slow-boiling lye and then blacken them as you usually do with weapons and tools.” A pause, then, “that would give a result that's quite a bit better than Rachel and her helpers managed, by the way, and would extend their useful life a good deal.”

“I heard that,” said Sarah. “I can help you pack some of those things up, as my speaking of those things as Tossers seems to be giving them credit they do not deserve.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “They do work for a limited number of rounds without such treatment, even if they weren't intended for full-power ammunition in the first place.”

What..?” I gasped.

“Those were 'practice' pistols,” said the soft voice. “The practice ammunition – it had the exact same dimensions as the real stuff – had a lead-dust-filled copper-flashed plastic bullet and was propelled by a small charge of an entirely different propellant, and they worked fine for that business.” A pause, then, “they even worked 'fine' for close-range rodent disposal, provided said rodent was neither particularly large nor tougher than the usual for the place and time of their manufacture.”

“Meaning like the common rats around here,” said Sarah. “Now the pistols we have like them need either reworking or replacement, as otherwise they're not much good.”

“If they are treated as per those instructions given, they will work well enough until you can get workable replacements for them,” said the soft voice, “and there are lots of those pistols overseas.”

“The Tosser-grade ones, or the real ones?” I asked.

“Both are common enough if you look for them, but unless you have a test-file handy, you'll have trouble telling the difference,” said the soft voice. “A far more troubling issue is that that was one of the few less-good designs that place turned out, which is why those were given out to people who were unlikely to use them in the heat of battle, at least initially. Later on, however, they became desperate enough for weapons to give them out commonly, and a fair number of soldiers then died because of weapon malfunctions.”

“Tossers, or..?”

“At first, they gave out the 'improved' hard-metal versions, but as battlefield losses increased, it got to the point where people were being given out 'practice' pistols and not informed as to their true nature,” said the soft voice, “and of those, they were said to be 'two full magazines before it needs tossing, and save the last bullet in that second magazine for your own head, as the witches will cook you and eat you regardless of whether you are dead or not when they find you.”

“That sounds like propaganda,” I muttered.

“That was the truth,” spat Sarah. “Those witches marked their territory with spiked death's heads, or at least some of them did.”

“The Mistress of the North did that commonly, and she also 'nailed up' at least three or four people a day when her troops were on the move,” said the soft voice, “and the bulk of her troops lived as entire predators once they were thoroughly hardened and the faint-hearts that had remained to her were sacrificed unto Brimstone.”

The third cache showed but another fifty shovels and a handful of spading forks later, and here, I was surprised: I found not only four plastic-wrapped 'bricks' of that one smelly gray-toned explosive, but two 'large' cloth bags of rifle ammunition wrapped carefully in that thin 'waterproof' cloth and tied with age-darkened string – and finally, a small and grimy coarse-stitched cloth sack of 'greasy' grenades. Examining one of these slimy things showed its uniform green coloration unmarred by even a trace of rust, and counting them made me wonder just how much opposition these people expected.

There were no less than nineteen grenades, to my astonishment – and while these were the 'common' grenades, I had a distinct impression that the 'squibs' spoken of as being down in the armory were a different matter entirely. I wondered just what was lurking in those boxes of grenades we had recovered, and put the matter aside.

We'd look at those later, as they most likely came from the armory.

“They must have been planning on breaking out sooner than they actually did,” I thought, as the contents of that cache went under that one sheet of 'waterproof' cloth to join the cart's other supplies – or so I thought until Sarah indicated one of the sacks I had thought empty had several such sheets, all of them cut to the same size and raggedly hand-hemmed with coarse dark thread. I suspected Sarah would wish to redo that portion, if time and opportunity presented itself before we sailed.

“Uh, look carefully on those things to see if they have markings, dear,” I asked, absentmindedly, as I went back toward the long room from where the cart now lay to the north side of the transom next to the cage of the bird – which seemingly had gone to sleep as its cage lay in deep shadow. That other gang of people were taking a break; food seemed likely if I went by the smell, and as I paused to give my nose further attention, I spat, “bread! They're baking bread somewhere in the area!”

“That particular oven's first load,” said the soft voice. “Note that it's an oven such as the house proper has, only a good deal larger, as befitting a sizable camp that knows it will soon become much bigger yet.”

“L-larger?” I asked.

“I think he means ovens like I have seen many times in that market town,” said Sarah, as she came along side of me. “I have seen bread-ovens that are nearly as long as the house where we live, with multiple fireboxes along their lengths and carts they pull through them using a box of gears and long chains such as some old clocks once had.” A pause, then, “I've only seen those smelly brass-wired things on tapestries.”

“Those things...” My outburst was punctuated by a mostly-clear picture of a tall and somewhat strange-looking clock, one 'rioting' with carving and covered with inlaid-brass 'filigree'. I felt reminded of those clocks named 'Grandfathers' where I came from, only I knew that the only thing common between what Sarah was speaking of and my recollection was the tall and somewhat thin silhouette that both timepieces possessed.

“Are found in some of the homes of the second kingdom's wealthiest witches, and are reckoned and priced as beyond-prime fetishes,” said the soft voice. “Moreover, they tend to still 'work'.”

“Tend to work?” I asked. “Work?”

“They gain or lose up to five minutes per hour when they can be gotten to run,” said the soft voice, “as their replacement parts were fetish-made, and the remaining original parts are commonly badly corroded or severely worn.”

“Sounds like they're mostly for looks, then,” I muttered, as I went inside the long-room. This time, I turned left, going all the way back to the room furthest to the west. Here, no one had been since the place had been 'cleared', and the ash-dusted floor showed no footprints before we made our own.

Again Karl's string wastied to the door and an empty beer-jug for a 'pulley' at the corner of the long room's doorway, only in this instance, I needed nearly the entirety of Karl's string to reach a reasonable distance from the doorway in question. As I began to 'encourage' the lock to open by my silent thinking, I heard little beyond grumbling 'tumblers' as the cursed lock's parts suddenly began to corrode with a vengeance, then a sudden crackling noise that made for a brief wondering – and then it was all I could do to not sprint for the stairs in fear of a just-unleashed chemical weapon or a bomb about to explode.

“No, it isn't that,” I muttered as I reined in my terror. “Those witches only had so many locks they could curse, and they used them up on those doors as those rooms had their things in them.”

While there was no answer, the grinding sensation I seemed to feel roosting on my hands made me wish to scream, and at the entrance to the long room, the faint clouds of soot told me some kind of fetish had gone where it belonged. I knew what to do with the soot, at least initially.

“Go find a witch...”

The question now bloomed: which witch in particular? One of those stinkers in the second kingdom house – one of those who was forming up a column? Or perhaps that wretch's 'master'?

“Of coaches, no less,” I thought. “They're going to run those things up here with no one in them save the drivers, because the main witches think to use the secret way and don't know about those wasps and hornets yet.”

“They will learn of them very soon,” said the soft voice. “More than one witch has been stung already, and the main body of that swarm is just about to cross the border.”

“They're not planning on riding in those coaches, though,” I thought. “They're really fixated on that idea – they want to get those things up here overnight, and that means the lightest possible loads, long teams of full-stink mules, and wheels slimed thick with grease, then assemble up and load them with plate in this town they think they still own...”

“Think is right, given the current state of that town,” said the soft voice. “It went up in flames when a witch shot at a just-arrived wasp and hit a pressure-lantern instead, and the place is now burning like a torch while every farmer that knows of the matter – as well as two gun-teams – is shooting at the fleeing witches as they attempt to escape the region.”

“They were plain-dressed witches, though,” I thought.

“They are also now 'full-loaded and black-faced',” said the soft voice. “They got sooted up good before that wasp showed.” A pause, then, “that wasp – it was uninjured, as the witch used a poorly-maintained flint-musket and the insect flew back and out of the window before the main charge fired – rejoined the swarm shortly after the fire started, and is now fully as large as the rest of those insects comprising that swarm.”

“So then soot up all of the leaders of the coach-parties,” I muttered. “Give every one of those thugs indelible soot for his whole body, and make the stuff itch so bad that each such sooted-up witch gets thought insane by his fellows.”

“They will shoot them then, or carve them with knives or swords,” said Sarah. “Witches do not run rest-houses, and those among them needing such care are usually killed on the spot.”

“Beaten with clubs,” I muttered. “That one witch that went after your cousin when she dosed him with that chemical you made.”

“That is when they must use quiet means, which is the usual in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “If this is somewhere in the second kingdom, they have no such strictures upon their behavior, and they will use those means that give those killing the greatest pleasure.”

“Or which secure the desired results quickest,” said the soft voice. “Those witches he sooted up – not merely the leaders, but every witch chosen to run a coach up here – were under great constraints regarding time, and hence were being driven to the limits of drink and datramonium with their overseers using the lash liberally to 'urge them on'. Those overseers – those of them that still live – now need to find more plain-dressed witches who are yet new enough to witchdom's ranks that they're willing to undertake a very hazardous job with real enthusiasm – and that means a lot of work for those surviving overseers, as those over them are 'screaming' for those coaches to run according to plan.”

“That sounds like their planning is a mess,” said Karl, as he came to my side. “Now that door there is about to fall off, as they used bad hinges on it and a lock that is worse yet.”

Closer investigation with lamps held at waist-height told a grimmer-yet story: the previous doors had had 'decent' doors and 'passable' hardware. This one, though, had a door that was of two sheets of thin sheet metal 'spot-welded' together with the space inside it filled with a grainy gray powder that was drifting out of huge and growing rust-thinned patches. It was hung from a multiplicity of hinges that were going to rust before our eyes, and the remains of the fallen-apart door-lock now lay in small fragments upon the floor. A slow push upon the door with my free hand, and all of the five hinges crumbled instantly and the door folded up upon itself to all-but-disintegrate by the time its multiple pieces hit the floor.

“What was that?” I gasped.

“A door made with cursed parts,” said the soft voice. “They used cursed parts when they could and 'common' parts otherwise when doing this room up, and the last two doors 'went to hell' when that deep-hole went where it belonged.”

“Five hinges?” I murmured.

“Any door with more than three hinges is hung by someone who thinks like a witch,” muttered Sarah. “I've read that on at least five tapestries, and if I go by what I have seen in various places, I think witches still want five hinges on their doors if they can get them.”

“They can get those things easy,” said Karl, “but getting that many hinges to agree with each other so the door closes easy is a hard thing to do.”

“I know,” said Sarah. “I may not have done much carpentry my-own-self, but I have spoken to enough carpenters to know about door-hinges, and I have seen fights over tied sets in that market town.”

“That, and only three shops in the fourth kingdom make ones worth bothering with at this time,” I muttered, “and all three shops do all of their own work – from selecting the bronze to actually tying the sets together – and at least two of those places toss a fair amount of what they do.”

“I know about that, also,” said Sarah. “Machalaat may make its share of hinges, but were I a builder, I'd pay their price and three blessings over it to have theirs, as they generally don't need tying so as to work decently.”

“Better bronze, also,” I said. “Oh, their door-pins are hardened and have this little place on the top to put, uh, grease.”

“I drew that part for my notes,” said Sarah. “It's in our Compendium set, both as to how those hinges are better and how the others might as well be witch-tools for working.”

“Mostly because the other two firms spoken of are secretly owned by witches and their ostensible leaders are inclined to follow the dictates of the instrument-maker's books,” said the soft voice. “Most door-hinges, unless they are very old, were – and are, as a rule – made in the manner of fetishes.” A brief pause, then, “these hinges were older still, and they were fetishes.”

“And more spades inside, no doubt,” I murmured.

While there were spades inside – vast numbers of them; this room was the largest yet opened – the front ranks seemed heavily populated with hoes, spading-forks, picks, and other digging implements of species previously unknown to me; and once those tools began to actually go outside the room, the noise that seemed to gather without was such that within minutes, Sarah and I were once more passing the things outside as fast as we could manage them. Every time a pick went out, there was a great 'hue and cry' from without, and the same for one of those five-tined 'heavy-duty rakes'; but when I first encountered a long-bladed shovel with a somewhat triangular-shaped blade and a rounded tip and passed that thing outside, the screech that came from outside the building some minutes later nearly made me jump.

“What was that?”

“I think you found a tunnel-digger's spade,” said Sarah. “I've only seen those on one tapestry, that being the one that needed me bathing, and now I know that person who wrote of them was a liar.”

“Why, dear?” I asked, as I handed back another 'digging hoe'.

“He said only witches made those things, and no witch would dare mark that thing with Vrijlaand's words,” said Sarah, “and I saw Vrijlaand's markings on that one you just passed out.”

“The witches of this area commonly chose that particular shape for Night-Tools,” said the soft voice, “which is but one reason why Norden's digging tools are pointed.” A brief pause, then, “a pointed 'spade' of thick 'iron' and sharpened edge works better for digging in near-permafrost-condition soil and as a weapon.”

“So that reformed supplicant was ignorant,” I murmured. “They might not have had permafrost down in Vrijlaand, but they did have 'heavy' jungle and lots of tough-as-old-leather roots to dig up and cut through...” I paused, then, asked, “who came up with the idea for pointed spades in Norden?”

“They originally used classic-shaped Night-Tools for agriculture, as they found some 'laying around' during the years immediately after this part of the continent began dumping their 'freaks' up there,” said the soft voice, “but since Thinkers have become more common, the two types have diverged in shape and overall construction to no small degree, as soft-metal shovels chiseled with runes work poorly in Norden's rocky soil.” A pause, then, “they still make a fair number of classic-shaped Night-Tools, however, and those they deign to 'export' are coveted by the continent's witches of substance.”

Hand by hand Sarah and I passed out tools, and as the lanterns shed their light further into the gloom – Sepp had found an iron stand during his latest foray outside, this thing red-painted and able to hold two of our lanterns, and he was moving it forward to give us light when he wasn't 'tossing' tools back to someone else – I could see upon the edges of my vision a carefully-concealed hidey-hole near the middle of this impossibly long room. Though its width was about the average, or so it seemed, when we took a break from passing out tools, Sarah paced off the cleared area, and spat, “this one is a good two feet wider than the last, and it must be twice its depth.”

“At least there's something interesting in that hiding place,” I muttered. “I think there's a couple of mines, in fact.”

“They are mines that were made in this area, which are different from those in that armory,” said the soft voice. “The other things that they hid there will really interest you, though.”

“Other things?” I asked.

“This was one of the things the workers here built from an assortment of scavenged parts,” said the soft voice. “It will definitely give you ideas.”

With that spurring us on, Sarah and I resumed. The spades and other tools – the witches loading this room up seemed to have thought 'best put our guardian tools in last so they protect all of the others good' – and had insinuated their things among the 'common shovels' such that one could not pick up ten spades and not touch a hoe, rake, pick, or one of the other stranger-looking tools that Sarah said were once used for 'weed-chopping' during the time spoken of on the tapestries.

“How is it you know?” I asked.

“First, I saw it on more than one tapestry,” said Sarah, “and then things like those are used in the potato country during the 'hot' part of the growing season to keep the weeds down.” A pause, then, “and between picking the bugs, and hoeing those weeds with those things, there isn't a day there during High Summer that one isn't as busy as an iron-founder, and nearly as warm as one of those people from such work.”

Busy as an iron-founder?” I asked. I wondered what she meant: during the time of pouring, or afterward?

“I thought that to be just a saying until I watched Georg's while Frankij was running that last time, and then I knew I had just smelled that mule from a distance,” said Sarah. “I've watched Knaadelmann's pour iron, and they're a pack of laggards compared to what you-all did that last run.”

“A bigger yard and a larger crew, dear,” I murmured.

“Frankij is a better furnace than theirs, even if he is on the small size compared to most such furnaces,” said Sarah, “and I have seen how he can devour iron.” A brief pause, then, “and talk has it that iron bar Georg has sent down to the fourth kingdom has had fights start when shops learned of its showing.”

The spades kept coming, but long before the hidey-hole was within reach, we all – both our party, and those helping us – needed a break. This time, we needed to return to the buggies, as this labor now wanted a solid meal, and here the cooking fuel Sepp had brought came into use using a small iron 'tray' he'd found somewhere. Its 'new' seeming, as well as the cooking stand that went over the 'tray', made for wondering, at least until I vaguely recalled an unusual 'order' given me by Georg some time since our return from the trip. This one was written clearly, and in some detail – and wonder of wonders, included a crude-seeming drawing, complete with dimensions in 'inches and lines'.

“Did I make that?” I murmured.

“It and two others in that one order Hendrik put out recently,” said Sepp. “Those stands you must make by the numbers, as I know they're popular with those new batches of guards.”

“N-no,” I said. “I have patterns for those things. They're not measuring cups or bathing dippers, or k-knives.”

“You've made enough of them for him and most others to think that,” intoned Gabriel. “I myself know every guard currently having greens has one and a heating lamp, as well as much of what some wretch calls a mess-kit.”

“Gabriel, you're the wretch,” spat Sarah. “I may have only seen that term in three places, but it is not something that speaks of messes, but of food and its preparation.”

“Three places?” I asked.

“Once on that tapestry I needed to bathe for,” said Sarah, “and once in one of your ledgers, and the third time in Hendrik's Gustaaf.” Sarah was more than a little irked, and her next comment proved it. “That book said nothing more than, 'this is an old term from before the war, and is thought to be one that came from elsewhere'. Sarah spluttered something unintelligible, then turned to me and asked, “where is elsewhere?”

“You'll learn that soon enough, as those across the sea have a lot of information on such words,” said the soft voice, “and a fair amount of what they know and have done is based upon such 'received' knowledge.” A pause, then, “and they received information from a number of sources, not merely the one you might be thinking of.”

I suspected I might be the one referred to, and after our quick meal – the sun was 'dragging its underclothing' once more today, as the saying went – we went back inside. We were the vanguard, however, as a small mob of dirt-stained individuals seemed to come and go like waves on the edge of a ragged storm, and these people bore away tools in an endless-seeming stream. A brief break showed why:

The long-room now had people handing tools out of every room we'd thus far opened and 'cleared', and this such that the place was not merely getting crowded, but here and there like the multiple eyes of a crazed hurricane, other individuals were cleaning up the various messes in the room so as to keep the dust down. They were bagging the 'rust' and other materials up in old-looking cloth bags of varied sizes, and for an instant, I wondered why.

“They were instructed as to the appetite of Frankij,” said Katje, “and I know about that, as I told several people while we were eating this last time.”

“That, and they will wish good castings, not those awful things some few hopefuls have planned for the place,” I said.

“More than that, really,” said the soft voice. “Talk has it that if they want good castings, they either need to send their orders back by donkey-train to the fourth kingdom's central portion, and expect the end result some months later, or they can send their orders to where you work and get the castings within a matter of days – and in most cases, done much better as well as much faster.”

With the added help, the spades and tools seemed to melt away before me, and though I was handing them back with both hands – grab the tool in question, gently move it first to find out if it was tied with string to a bomb of some kind, then pass it back and around me with a slight twisting motion at the hips to then release it into the ready-or-not grasp of the person behind me – I was moving steadily in the direction of that one hidey-hole. This one was not merely a smaller one – knee-high for tall, and perhaps that width for wide – but also hidden with a wooden screen holding a species of cloth 'painted' to resemble the wall. It was one of the first hiding places made that actually 'worked', and those making 'certain' were both substantially marked and exceedingly paranoid.

“They needed to be, as not merely did those thefts cause great hue and cry among the remaining witches present, but there were some strong examples left on the premises then, as those thefts were done just prior to the closure of that upper witch-hole.” A pause, then the soft voice said, “they worried a lot less once it closed, as every truly strong witch was in the deep-hole for good then and those that remained were not in the same class, especially when it came to finding well-hid caches, unlike those who would be looking for this cache and the remaining caches in these rooms.”

Reaching the cache, however, needed another lengthy stint of labor and then a rest for beer, and while sitting on one of those waterproof cloths among the columns of 'The Upper Alley', I wondered aloud if that was the only cache in the last two rooms. I soon had an answer.

“There are other cache-places, and you'll need to find them,” said the soft voice. “The room you're currently emptying has two others, and the last one a total of four – and all of them are small, well-hid, and contain useful gear that you're not going to find in that armory downstairs.”

“How will it be useful?” asked Katje.

“Those overseas either have no records of it whatsoever, or it's so old and drastically reworked that they will have trouble figuring out just what it is,” said the soft voice. “Those 'common' grenades will confound those detailed to surveillance to no small degree, which is why you'll wish to use them initially and only use the ones in that armory and those like them you find once those 'greasy' ones are used up.”

“That grease won't help them much, either, will it?” I asked.

“That's one of the reasons they'll have trouble identifying them,” said the soft voice. “What few records they have on those things are not only old, they're also in locations that need the right kind of 'security clearance' to access – and those running the surveillance gear, as well as those over them and their supervisors, do not have anything remotely close what's needed.”

This seemed to spur me on when I returned to the mob-scene inside the long-room, and as first I then Sarah followed by Sepp wormed our way through the long slow-moving seams of steadily-moving spades and other digging tools, I had a distinct intimation: the long-room and its five 'claws' would be cleared of spades and other tools by tonight, or at the latest, sometime tomorrow morning, even if it took a good deal longer to get the tools clean enough to actually use.

“That is if they work as they do now and do not stop for anything except to get food or go to the privy,” said Karl. He must have heard my mumbling; my voice was getting worn down by fatigue, and it was hard to 'speak up', I was so fatigued. I suspected a nap would be very wise prior to investigation of the armory, and as I came to the front of the now-blatantly-obvious cache surrounded by the tools of digging, I knew it wasn't merely a good idea.

It would be a requirement, as that one expert witch had rigged the place.

“Yes, and his traps caught their share when they went off during the first few weeks right after his death,” said the soft voice. “No one went down in that place after his last trap went off, as not merely had he put curses on the lock that only his people could open, but also effectual curses on that gas projector he used.”

“Which made the witch-thefts stop entirely,” I murmured. I wondered if it stopped other kinds of thefts as well, though I left those thoughts unsaid.

“It made the place more or less 'lethal' to enter from the time that device caught the last would-be thieves until that deep-hole went where it belonged,” said the soft voice, “as he didn't use just any gas projector, but one filled with the very worst gas that place ever made.” A pause, then, “only one type of gas was worse than what he used, and this region neither invented it nor managed to steal its formula.”

“It was spelled with runes on a tapestry,” muttered Sarah, as she knelt down beside me in front of the cloth-covered wooden framework. “That one there is tricky, as I can barely see it.”

“You can see it,” spat Sepp. “I'm looking right at it, and I can only see the wall.”

I then pointed to the center of the aged wooden framework, which I could see clearly behind the age-and-dust-coated cloth. It was cheap cloth, cloth from a dead workman's 'slave-clothing' issued by the witches in lieu of those clothes he had been wearing when he was 'drafted', and those making this particular hiding place had spent their time and effort profligately in hopes this particular cache-cover would do its intended job.

More than a few such hiding places had been found before, and that one expert witch was good at finding such places. This one, in fact, was one of a mere handful that had actually fooled him, and as I looked around, I seemed to see several other locations in the room, these seeming to faintly glow in the dark with a diffused bluish haze

“That wretch found those,” I spat, “and those people filled them with bait so as to feed his 'ego'.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “He might not have been drastically overconfident, but he did place great store by his reputation – and when he found the multiple instances of 'bait', he was sufficiently flushed with 'victory' that he relaxed his vigilance enough for this cache to not get found.” A pause, then, “once he and the other stronger witches were in that deep-hole, however, those things that those preparing to escape planned to actually use – they'd loaded those first caches up with their first attempts at escape-gear, which they knew wasn't likely to be good enough to do the job – actually went in these and other caches.”

“And they had to leave all – no, not all. They held some of it back in readiness, and made more as they were able up until the last minute.”

“Also correct,” said the soft voice. “However, their injuries forced many of them to abandon nearly everything beyond small and lightweight personal weapons, some few small things for cooking, a few days' worth of 'keeping' food at very short rations, and some few spare articles of clothing.” Another pause, then, “Sarah carried more with her when she escaped from the second kingdom, and not a little more.”

“I was not carrying lead then,” said Sarah, “and I was moving on familiar ground, unlike those people.”

“They also did not have a 'great-find-crush-kill' called out after them,” said the soft voice. “They only had to deal with a burnt-out wasteland with little cover, scarce water and scarcer food, and for the first few days, the relatively remote possibility of witches showing.” A pause, then, “they weren't dodging droves of coaches and hundreds of horseback-mounted plain-dressed witches for over two hundred miles.”

“Food got better once they'd gone south a day or so,” I murmured.

“More like a week's steady travel at the best speed they could manage, actually,” said the soft voice. “They had to go hundreds of miles through a region that had been all-but-totally-destroyed by the Mistress of the North.”

“She left nothing behind her save ruins, smoke, ashes, and rotting bodies,” said Sarah. “That's on nearly every tapestry that speaks of that witch, and I suspect I've seen most of them.”

“Fewer witches in that area, though,” I muttered. “Not many people at all, in fact, and those few that were present weren't interested in them.”

“Which is why Rachel led them that way,” said the soft voice. “She, and most of those with her, were in no condition to endure another gun-battle when they set out, and hence 'the burnt-over lands' were the safest.”

“No active poisons, either,” I muttered. “The heat of burning neutralized them.”

“That was another large reason,” said the soft voice. “Any other route would have been far more dangerous, even with most of the witches gone to ground and those hunting them then being few and far between.”

This speech, though needed, seemed but the appetizer for what was to come: and as I reached toward the shield, the thing shuddered faintly, then suddenly...

It 'jumped' toward my hands and simultaneously crumbled into powdery wood-fibers and rotten threads of cloth with a burst of a faint and musty odor, leaving behind it a surprisingly shallow hole and a diffuse powdering of gone-to-dust near-odorless powder in front of the opening.

And within that hole, I saw a compact stack of rag-wrapped brick-shaped articles, these untouched by grease or even that dark string that had been so commonly used before.

“He'd smell that stuff, right?” I murmured.

“They rubbed them with old candles,” said the soft voice. “They'd stolen those candles from a deceased witch's desk-hoard but minutes after his death from an excess of drugs, so that witch smelled 'nothing' unusual.”

“Did they have a hand in that witch's demise?” I asked, as I carefully felt one of the cloth-covered things. These were tied with string, but it was an utterly different type compared to that used before, almost as if someone had found a ball of 'witch-grade' string and used it instead of 'the good stuff' which was slowly accumulating in well-hid locations branching off of the main secret passages used by the 'commons' for transporting themselves and their own supplies.

“No, but they were watching many of the higher-ranking witches as closely as they could,” said the soft voice, “and witches commonly died from excessive drug intake, both then and now.” A brief pause, then, “clear out that hole and take its contents out into better light, as you'll really learn something when you unwrap those things.”

Sarah, Sepp, and I did precisely that, each hand holding one of the parcels, even though it took us two frightening trips to carry out the sundry packages while wading among the madding crowd now swarming in and out of the long-room's door. They were waiting for us to clear the remaining rooms, as I could feel that caravan spoken of earlier getting steadily closer.

“It's but a few miles away, in fact,” said the soft voice, “and while those people all will wish food first and then baths, they'll then hustle as they are able to so as to get on with the job.”

“And those clearing out those rooms know that,” said Sepp.

“They'll also be surprised at what those people speak of, as they're the last of the 'vanguard',” said the soft voice. “They have many tales to tell, these being of masses of people sleeping with their clothing on and their packed supplies by their beds waiting for when their ships could leave port, and the same for hundreds of well-hidden mostly-packed buggies in the central part of the fourth kingdom alone.”

“And tonight...” I muttered, as I found a place to sit so as to unwrap these treasures and suck down some beer in the process.

“Tonight is when those waiting in abandoned houses in this area will come into the camp,” said the soft voice. “They've been waiting for a sign, and they're getting one today.”