Investing the Abbey: “Behind door number five, we have...”


With aches legion and scarce-stifled groans, we returned to the long-room, dodging wheelbarrows and their rumbling like as we went to the room furthest to the east. This was the realm yet of darkness, with dust still piled thickly in many places; and our path to this door was the furthest yet from the outer door. No persons, save for Sarah and myself, had gone down this way yet, for the floor showed in its thick and colorful dusting of ashes mingled with streaks of rust two sets of bootprints, one large, and one small; and both of these boots showed hobnails, these still sharp, still pointed, and very numerous.

“They didn't have this kind of footwear, did they?” I whispered, as I tied Karl's string to the door-handle with exaggerated care. I had meant those coming to this location from elsewhere to fight.

“No, not then and not now, which means there are no records of such footwear to be found save in some very obscure and 'high-security' locations.” A brief pause, then, “and while the 'betters' of that place do have some access to leather footwear, it is scarce, very costly, and treated as 'a precious resource, reserved for those who have great and dire needs for such things'.”

“Meaning what passes for an upper class in that place,” I spat. “Karl, can you help me with this knot?”

While Karl managed the knot fine, I had another impression: even those who could be called 'betters' weren't the true 'upper class' there. Those people were not only very well hidden, but lived in a species of sealed 'time-capsule', one preserved nearly unchanged from the time of the war; and their way of life was too much like that of the witches who once lived here before the war for me to like it.

“Yes and no,” said the soft voice. “They don't live like the witches here did, as that place, while it is large and quite old, it doesn't have the area, the resources or the numbers – even if some people there do have similar attitudes and behaviors as to quality, if not quantity or depth.” A pause, then, “if you want people acting like the witches that once lived here did, then they're to be found in other locations entirely, as those in that place you were thinking of do not, with very few exceptions, have the strength to endure prewar fetishes.” A pause, then, “some few in those other locations do.”

“Then there are witches in that place,” spat Sarah.

While there was no answer, I had a most unsettling impression. Unlike those black-dressed people here – both now, and in the past – those there of real 'power' were like those named Powers or the true leaders of Witchdom here, and their use of concealment was a matter of such great strength that those under them barely knew they existed.

“For those directly under them, yes,” said the soft voice. “For those below that level, those people approach the qualities of myth. Then, there are several major levels of leadership in that place, most of them functioning in a very compartmentalized fashion – and save at the very uppermost levels, each layer knows what it needs to know to do its stipulated job, and no more.” Another pause, then, “and finding 'witches' is not easy in that place unless one knows where to look, as they do all of what they do with exceeding secrecy.”

“Don't flaunt it if you do got it,” I muttered. “Keep it hid, do it right, and live to enjoy what you have – and then pass it on to your heirs, who get more of the same and in the exact same fashion.”

Again, there was no answer, save Karl's straightening up and showing an empty jug, if I went by how he held it. “I have some more string, so we have enough to get to where we can run easy.”

My thoughts regarding Karl were now astonishing, as he seemed to be 'thinking' an uncommon amount for him – even if he did sound like Hans' now and then. I wondered if this trend would increase, and then knew beyond all doubt that it would – and in the months to come, I would see near-exponential growth in that capacity.

And the answer I received was worse yet: “more than you think, and faster than you think, and not just him doing the growing, but a vast number of people, most of whom you do not currently know.”

Karl paused as his string came to an end in the now-deserted room, and began to splice on another similar 'board' of string. I wanted to ask where he'd gotten the piece of wood, but did not, for he managed the splice rapidly; and after testing it by pulling on the strings on each side of the splice, he continued, setting down the jug in the corner as before and continuing to unroll the string off of the carved wooden 'stick' as he walked slowly backward and out into the yet-more-deserted Upper Alley. After passing three rows of columns, he handed the remnant of the string, this some few turns yet on the stick, to me.

“This works best when you do it,” he said. “I will want that string back, as I borrowed it from someone in the camp out there.”

“Is this string common?” I asked. I wanted to get more of it if I could before we sailed, as I had a hunch we'd wish several such 'boards' of string at the least for our trip.

“It is, if you go to the right places,” said Karl, “or so Lukas said. He spoke of some places in the kingdom house, small and hidden well, that sell it.”

“Witches..?”

“No, not them,” said Karl. “I think these people are from somewhere to the south and they were too poor when they got up here to set up the usual for shops, so they sell where they do and move around like they were vendors, save using these small hand-carts that come to pieces instead of what vendors use.”

“Little market..?”

“No,” said Karl. His eyes were narrowed, which was odd for him. He even looked a little like Hans then, at least for facial expression. “I think this is more like people like Sarah or Paul's wife, and I bet that some of them are either marked or on the run from some stinky witch.”

“That sounds very likely,” said Sarah. “I had enough of those stinkers after me when I had to leave the second kingdom between two days.”

The others took their own hiding places, these further back and to my right – and nearer the transom – while I needed a straight line for my string-pulling, so I went further back and then behind another column. My string was near its end then, and I knelt down, seeking cover behind the yard-thick column. This time, I prayed before I even began to pull upon the string, this silently, hoping that nothing awful would come charging or billowing out of the room – and as I prayed, the string first went slack, then...

A faint noise, this of a soft near-silence. Decay accelerates at an exponential rate upon my starting it with the first words coming to the fore in my mind. Grumblingly, curses leave in silence, this constrained by my soft-mouthed 'words'. The string begins to mound itself in front of me, much as if it is leaving the scene of a crime with all due haste, and I begin to wind it on the stick as fast as I can with my fumbling clumsy fingers.

The former sound grows louder, much as if it were that of a distant avalanche. I wonder if this last door was as cursed and as weak as that before it, and knew...

This beyond words or thought...

“That the first shall be last; and the last, first.” I thought.

A soft bloom, this redolent of coughing and the grave, billowed out thickly. It was dark as night and thick with thready soot, and I knew it needed to go somewhere. I wondered where for an instant as the smoky billow grew with shocking quickness and my string outran its clouds, then knew precisely.

“Those actually planning that immigration,” I spat. “Soot, coat them head to toe indelibly; and dust, drop their hair on the ground and dig into their skin like insects greedy for blood; and metal, supplement their blood with iron and...” I paused, this for a gasp of air, then faintly wheezed the question, “arsenic?”

“Cursed metal commonly was alloyed with arsenic, among other common poisons,” said the soft voice, “and that particular arsenic was almost as deadly as what Hans has hidden in his close-stoppered bottles.”

“That will fetch those witches, then,” said Sarah as she crawled closer. “Now why is that string piling itself up like that still, and where did all of that dust and soot go?”

“Th-the second kingdom h-house,” I squeaked, “or wherever those witches who are actually doing the planning for that big messy invasion are hiding right now.”

“And the majority of their retinues, also,” said the soft voice. “The plans they have written and already given out to 'leaders' at this time are sufficiently detailed to suit the vast majority of those planning to yet come up here, but a 'decapitation strike' in such a venture drastically reduces its chances of success.”

“Success?” squeaked Sarah. “With what we have and will receive today?”

“Yes, dear,” I heard. “While you-all knew of the witches coming, did you have any real idea just how many of those people are coming? In this first wave alone, in fact?”

“Enough that they're going to be really common in the area?” I asked. “Vast swarms of them?”

“Enough that you'll think you're living in the dark side of the Swartsburg when Koenraad the first was still alive, if you go to the right places around here,” said the soft voice. “They'll try to take over a lot of towns – and more, these people tend to be a good deal smarter than their near-extinct domestic compatriots, if taken as a whole, as well as better shots.”

“That will not last,” said Katje. “They like that bad food too much.”

“Those of them who can afford it do, and eat little else at this time,” said the soft voice. “Its still-growing popularity has increased the price of such food to such a degree that the 'lesser' witches cannot get it, and so they must make do with 'prime' squabs and well-greased Shoeten – which while not cheap, are now cheap compared to that food.”

“And those people are still smarter than the witches we had locally,” I spat. “Out of the fryer, and into the fire.”

“Yes, for them,” said the soft voice. “They're also quite overconfident, and to a man they think themselves far stronger and smarter than they actually are.” A pause, then, “the one region where they do have a clear advantage over the late unlamented, however, is money – as even those lesser witches have more money than those who once ran the Swartsburg.”

And for some odd reason, I saw a strange picture: someone shooting a rocket – who, it wasn't clear beyond they wore greens and were shorter than the usual for greens-wearing guards – hitting the middle coach of a string of seven as the witches inside the coaches were shooting out windows and riddling shops to each side with shot and balls, and as the coaches disintegrated in a string of massive blasts that wrecked storefronts and scattered cobbles for hundreds of feet, it began to rain...

Rain money, in fact.

And those outside within a several-hundred-yard-radius were pelted and even driven to the ground by vast clouds of silver and gold coins. The gold monster coins were especially troublesome, as those weighty slugs tended to raise sizable lumps when they landed on one's head.

“Awful,” I muttered. “Blow up a line of coaches, and the money flies like rain.”

“And the first kingdom gets the rest of the money it needs to fight that war,” said the soft voice, “both the one with the enemy to the north and that enemy which is elsewhere.” A brief pause, then, “given that most of that money will go to the house proper once the subscriptions for the war-effort begin, it then becomes much easier to process that metal and coin it anew once you-all have the facilities to do so.”

The soot had now gone elsewhere, for it had continued to emerge from the doorway the entire time of this speech to vanish before it had gone but feet from whence it had shown itself; and when Karl came to my side to untie his knot, he sniffed the string.

“What does it smell like?” I asked.

“It does not smell,” he said. “Before, it smelled like that bad dirt that was coming from those turnip places they are digging up outside, but now it is as if it were just washed in Fell's soap and then with that stuff Tam is starting to cook up in that armory.”

“Did he ever find a chemist?” I asked.

“No, but that does not mean he is not looking for one among those people from the Valley,” said Karl. “Hans has enough work for him and two others, or so Tam told me when I saw him last.”

“More than that, Karl,” said Sarah, as she came to my other side. “He told you that before Hans ate grass in hell.”

“While you are right about when he said that,” said Karl, “Tam was speaking of Hans having dung in his head and how he was past due for a good uncorking, so he might have known something would happen.”

“That one town,” I said softly. “Your cousin knows of someone who just got there from the Valley, only a few days ago, and if we bring that woman up here, she'll need to live at the house proper. She's 'hiding' somewhere in that town right now.”

“Why?” asked Sarah – whose eyes then grew large. “She's marked?”

I nodded as I left Karl's string to his hands and began to faintly look at my hands before taking my feet. “She has to go about in burn-clothing around here, as these aren't the kind of markings that you can show in public, and while she wasn't born with these marks, she...”

“She was born with an extra pair of toes,” said the soft voice, “and calling that woman a 'chemist' is like calling someone like that one shoemaker a mere 'cobbler'.”

“He is not,” said Sarah solemnly. “What does this woman do?”

“Make Hans look like an ignoramus for chemistry – the way he is now, that is,” I said. “Before he ate grass this last time, he was one in truth.” I paused, then, “and this woman is a fair to middling teacher, also.”

“She ought to be, given that she taught 'classes' in the valley,” said the soft voice. “She's also bilingual, and sought Sarah's cousin out the very same night she arrived in that town.”

“Wh-why?” asked Sarah.

“Recall where your cousin was educated?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “Just what kind of work she wished to do, and endured six hellish years so as to do it? That woman felt her presence nearly forty miles away, and she knew she'd understand.”

“She had to watch over this woman while she was on the floor in her room,” I murmured, “and then show her where things were in the book, as she came from one of the poorest settlements in that area and the Veldters are all but ignorant of that particular piece of literature, at least in that region.”

“Which area is this?” asked Sarah with alarm.

“One of those places near the valley's southern borders, and while she isn't of the Mule Totem, the one she belongs to isn't a joke.” I wondered just why I had said that a second later when Sarah asked me a question.

“Which one is that?”

“The Rooster Totem,” I muttered, “and God help you if you get into a feud between the Mule and Rooster Totems, as they're both trouble – and one's bad and the other's worse. I'm not sure which of them is clearly worse, come to think of it.”

“Mostly because the Rooster Totem's towns aren't ultra-militarized zones,” said the soft voice. “The Rooster Totem's military training isn't a joke just the same, and unlike those of the Mule Totem, they take both men and women into such training.”

“Did she receive such training?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, as does nearly everyone in that Totem,” said the soft voice. “The Mule Totem's people, taken individually, are usually better, and their best not a little better, but the Rooster Totem's Soldati tend to be far more numerous – and when you go after a small group of those people, you get the rest of them coming quickly if they're at all close – and it's seldom indeed to find those people unarmed if they're awake.”

“Which is why they're on the southern border,” I muttered. “They actually guard that border, and God help any drunken fifth kingdom thug that tries to go up in their area, as they've got equipment and weapons the Mule Totem does not have.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “There are more technologically capable Totems, but they're in the central portion of the valley, and they're not much for fighting compared to the first two that started,” said the soft voice, “and the Rooster Totem is the first Totem of all of them, so they have the earliest histories and the most collective experience, taken as a whole.”

“And some of the worst witches,” I muttered, “which was why this woman needed to both leave her settlement and then get out of the Valley entirely some weeks later.”

“Yes, for that area,” said the soft voice. “There are worse towns for witches than hers, and not a little worse. She told a witch 'recruiting' party to 'go straight down into hell itself, and roost there for a season' when they came to make her one of their number.” A brief pause, then, “she may have been burned years before that party came for her, and she may have shot all of those people on the spot, but she knew why they were asking her when they showed – and it was not because she was thought a good candidate for becoming a witch.”

“Why did they ask her, then?” asked Sarah. It was time to go back into the long-room and clear the one we had just opened. The cursed aspect had died down enough inside that place to make it 'safe'. “Were they going to sacrifice her?”

“No, they weren't,” said the soft voice. “They wanted her skills so as to become 'wealthy', and she – like most of the Rooster Totem's people – didn't hold with such talk.” A pause, then, “and while you are right about that room's cursed aspect, I would watch for trouble just the same.”

Trouble?” I asked. “What kind of trouble?”

There was no answer, at least until I came within twenty feet of the door to the long-room. There, my nose began to wrinkle, and with a faint sniff, I noted what might have been the potent reek of 'ammonia'. This segued to a reek closer to a species of still-rotting dung, and as I came to the doorway of the long-room, a wave of intense nausea swept over me. I did not wait any longer.

“Mess, go find some witches, and stink them up so they can't hide,” I spat.

I leaped away from the doorway, and drew the others back as I first moved right and then moved such that my back was against the wall as my knees buckled of their own accord. The others did as I did, and it was none too soon; for a thick grayish 'miasma' – it was too solid and tangible to be a mere 'mist', and the stench it possessed made that of 'full-odor Mules' seem kind to both nose and mind – began to flow out of the doorway. With each passing second, the 'mess' grew thicker, and here I saw more-solid portions, these also gray and green for color, and long thin 'corkscrew-shaped' things for shape, begin to flow out as well amid the gagging and noxious clouds; and when I turned to Sarah, I noted her face to be both green in tint and having tight-shut eyes...

And both hands clasped tightly over her mouth.

She was not the only one, however: everyone, save myself, was imitating her for looks and behavior; and I wondered why I did not do likewise.

At least until my gorge got away from me and I spewed something grass-green in a long projectile stream and my eyes clamped themselves shut without my bidding.

“G-gas warfare,” I spat. “That isn't dung, that's some kind of a chemical weapon.”

And yet, I knew that it wasn't either a chemical or a weapon, even if it now smelled unlike any mere 'dung' I had ever been downwind of. One of my eyes opened for an instant, and now the 'miasma' was moving swifter, with those long corkscrew-shaped things now bristling with corkscrew-shaped strings of molecules, just as if my speech had somehow morphed the stuff mightily. It made for speech on my part, this taut, compressed, and spoken through clenched teeth.

“Stinking rubbish needs to act like the scent of a stinker, only worse,” I spat, “and be solid ice-blue witch-tables for insanity, and Madame Curoue's worst nightmares otherwise for deadliness.”

And as if the stuff had heard me and my griping commands, it became all of those things upon the instant; and as my eyes once more closed in what might have been a faint – the stench was now powerful, 'hard', and worst of all, mean – I saw what Madame Curoue's worst nightmares might have actually been.

As I might have guessed, this involved poisons, or specifically, a particular kind of poison. This chemical, while difficult to hide from those looking for it, was utterly unstoppable, due to its 'intelligent' aspect; and when it went after one, neither curse nor 'cure' nor distance nor any other matter – save supping with Brimstone – was proof against its machinations. It was most 'sneaky'; it liked to 'travel'; it had a definite mind as to who to kill, and when to do so; and most importantly, it would use others, trusted people, to get to those it went after. Finally, when it struck, it was as the crack of doom, with but a short time between its initial symptoms – vague, difficult to define, confusing, and most of all 'coming and going' – and then its actual physical manifestation; and when it showed itself fully to its victims, it did not waste time in doing its work.

It did waste its victims, however, and left them dried-out mummified skin-taut sacks of bones laying in puddles of blood mingled with dung and vomit, with blackened raised markings covering much of their skin in broad swaths, these markings showing hoards of curses dating from prior to the drowning – and over all of this, on the walls of the blood-floored sepulcher that the victim had crept into so as to die alone and unmourned, were still-dripping blood-writ letters in blazing enraged Hebrew saying, “I am avenged of my enemy.”

“Madame Curoue?” I asked silently. “Her? What was that?”

“That was her worst nightmare, as it showed that even the strongest preflood curses could not stop this particular ailment,” said the soft voice, “and she was not the only one who had their dreams invaded that way. At least one well-known individual where you came from had his dreams invaded similarly, and while what he saw was a good deal different – his place, time, and education were different, which influenced his particular nightmare – he wrote of it, much as she did some weeks prior to her death.”

He?” I thought.

“You've read the story multiple times,” said the soft voice, “and while there never were dukes here, and that name has never been used, and she thought that entire mess an effect of ingesting too much raw flower sap, the outcome – in both cases – was identical.”

“B-blood,” I muttered. “The space of half an hour...”

“No, not yet,” said the soft voice. “The time will come, and then you shall name it – and then, that nightmare will not only be utterly tangible, but also, entirely undiluted – and unlike what you read and what she awoke from awash in chill sweat.”

And then both faint and stench vanished from my mind, and my eyes opened to see the last of the fast-fading murky clouds vanishing from the scene. It made for a question.

Where did I just go?” I asked.

“You and the others were removed from the premises during the worst of the matter,” said the soft voice, “and now a certain sizable pack of witches, these people preparing themselves in a secret location – to them, anyway – somewhere in the fourth kingdom, are now enduring a plague far worse than all of the wasps and all of the hornets you sent out combined.”

“Good,” spat Sarah. “I hope those black-dressed...”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “Those people have already left on the secret way, and are nearing their last 'staging point' a modest distance south of the second kingdom's northern border.” A pause. “These people were preparing to come after them in large part over the next ten days and the balance assume their well-hid positions topside, as there had been a mass initiation in this location within the last few days.” Another brief pause, then, “the ones that left 'full-loaded and black-faced' will get here for the most part, as will a fair percentage of those to come after them – but those they 'seconded' to their former places are now being seeded with death, and they will all die over the next month or two – and die horribly, and that publicly in nearly all cases.”

“And those surviving witches that try to return to their former haunts when it gets 'too hot for them' up here will have no places to return to.”

“No ready places, yes,” said the soft voice. “They will be able to make places, but they will also have both a difficult time of the matter and uncover themselves to no small degree in the process – which will both entirely wake up that portion of the fourth kingdom and tell the rest of that kingdom just who has been trying to run the place for so long.”

“Boermaas?” I asked, as I began to stand. I was still more than a little wobbly.

“No, not that area,” said the soft voice. “This is in a region some distance to its north and nearer the seacoast, one that's both densely populated compared to the surrounding regions and also nearly as backward – by the fourth kingdom's standards – as the third kingdom's back-country.” A pause, then, “you-all can go investigate what's in that room now, but I'd keep your pistol holsters unbuttoned just the same.”

“Was that stuff dung?” asked Sarah, as the others began to slowly stand after I had 'reoriented' myself.

“It was,” said the soft voice, “and while you are not likely to see what made it at this time, those creatures have been using that room for a privy for a very long time.”

“Meaning everything is covered with dung?” I asked, as I cautiously entered the doorway of the long-room.

“No, as all of that material left,” said the soft voice. “All of it – as well as several of the creatures themselves – left for that one region, and those creatures are recognizing those they see as 'disgraces that need killing'. Hence they are chasing after the witches, and the witches think them 'especially bad evil spirits', so the witches are fighting each other with knives, guns, and fowling pieces, as they all think the other witches that are present deliberately caused these 'imps' to arrive.”

“Not able to do much?” I asked. I meant the creatures, whatever they actually were. I had an idea as to what the witches could do, as I'd seen plenty of them in recent days.

“They don't need to do more than just 'be present',” said the soft voice, “as they're asymptomatic carriers of some rather unpleasant yet non-lethal diseases – diseases that were endemic in this area prior to the war.”

“Then how will those witches die?” asked Sarah.

“They are not lethal to people who regularly use the privy,” said the soft voice. “The combination of living like a witch while being severely 'corked' and having one or more of those ailments, though – that kills within a matter of weeks, and the result looks remarkably like someone who has a severe case of the red fever – as it once was, not how it is now in this area.”

“Blood,” I muttered. “Covered with blood, just like in the story.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice, “and while that story is not known of on the continent, there are a number of tales in the Grim Collection which speak of those covered with blood as being judged by God – and hence those witches will be killed on sight and then burnt publicly as a foretaste of hell.” A pause, then, “that presumes, of course, that they weren't found as you were when you stopped that invasion. When the witches learned of what had happened, they did all they possibly could to ensure your demise before you reached home, as what you did to those thugs at the bridge was spoken of in that black book as being what a 'monster' could – and would – do.”

“Is that story known of elsewhere?” asked Sarah. We were all carrying a lantern in one hand, and those of us with pistols had them in the other. I was glad they all were ones I had worked on, as those had working half-cock notches – and I knew at least one pistol was half-cocked, even if mine still had its hammer down on an empty chamber. I had some modest confidence in my ability to cock and fire my pistols with some rapidity, even if I still marveled at how I managed to shoot them as well as I did.

“It is, though in fragmented form at present,” said the soft voice. “Those fragments, however, once 'found', 'collated', 'corrected' and then 'joined together', will show the story in its entirety, along with a great many others.” A pause, then, “those stories that are not fragmented, while not currently common knowledge there, are known of by numbers of people overseas.”

As we continued our slow-walking passage into the realm of the last door, I could hear and feel those that had 'run for the hills' – upon seeing us 'setting up' to open the last of the five doors, they'd left hastily – now, they were slowly coming into the Upper Alley, and with us not present in that room, they most likely would resume their labors – or so I guessed.

“They will, once they get their meals,” said the soft voice. “The cooks currently on-site are most-busy every waking hour they currently have here, and more than one of those people is complaining of working like a deep-slave.”

“How many hours do those people work?” squeaked Katje. I suspected she was hoping her hours would merely be those of the more-industrious students at the west school – which were several hours longer than her 'accustomed' days, if the last few days were not counted.

“About as many hours per day as the dark-haired man some ten feet in front of you,” said the soft voice, “and while he may work those hours out of necessity at this time, these people are used to much shorter hours – as they did not come from the fourth kingdom.”

“Which one, then?” asked Sarah.

“Three came from the third, one from the fifth – she came up from Eisernije, where people do work long hours to the best of their ability – and the rest of them from the second kingdom, again from a poorer region.”

“Those people don't work very hard, save when the witches are actually in the area,” I muttered. I knew how that situation tended to play out. “They know it doesn't pay to do more than their masters demand.”

“Then I think I can guess,” said Sarah. “It would not be that one place the witches think they own entirely, as those people are not able to travel anywhere, nor would it be the potato country, as those people would not complain like that.”

“Those of your relatives and those living near them, yes,” said the soft voice. “A number of other families in the northernmost regions, yes. Many in the more populous region, yes. Those furthest to the south...” A pause, then, “those people are not used to facing swine, nor is life nearly as hard there in general compared to the rest of the potato country, and they tend to be the poorest people in that entire region.” A pause, then, “those were the people that came up here, as many of them were hired laborers or had 'exhausted' fields.”

“So they thought,” I muttered, as I came past the door to the west of our destination. “Poor practices and inadequate manure has had a lot to do with their 'poor' yields.”

“That, and the area's witches have been putting the manure of mules in their fields surreptitiously,” said the soft voice. “While these people were vigilant and careful in removing such dung the moment they spotted it, not all of that dung was found quickly, and hence their soil has been 'poisoned' to a modest degree.” A pause, then, “while their soil will recover its former fertility 'in due time' once they correct their growing practices, those leaving thought – at least those leading the 'buggy-trains' thought in this fashion – 'we do not have that time now, and if the witches win, then all comes to naught'.”

But a handful of seconds after hearing the former speech as we walked toward the east, I saw movement to my front and left; and reflexively, I drew the hammer to full cock and fired 'from the hip' at a distance of perhaps thirty feet from where I saw the eyeblink of blurred motion. The thing I shot at 'leaped', screaming all the while like something that belonged in a horrible nightmare to then vanish as if a mote of dust driven by a screaming storm-wind. Warily, I came closer, each step slow, silent, and with pistol held at the ready, in case the thing I'd shot proved itself vindictive and was hiding so as to ambush me when I came closer.

I could smell blood, however, and when I found the palm-sized splash on the floor but two feet from the left wall, I muttered, “I got that thing some, whatever it was.” Sarah then looked inside the doorway – the door had vanished utterly, and even its hinges were gone, with no dust or rust present upon the floor to mark the door's dissolution – and said, “you really got whatever that thing was, as I can see a lot of blood on these spades.”

“On with the greasy gloves, then,” I muttered. “That grease – I hope – will stop whatever microorganisms that thing had in its blood.”

And as I said that, I nearly gasped – and not at the strong likelihood of acquiring a most-serious ailment. That particular grease, for some reason, made a passable anti-infective agent.

“More than 'passable', actually, which accounts for much of the 'old wives tales' regarding certain foods and their 'healing properties',” said the soft voice. “It not only 'stops' most bacteria, but it also keeps wounds open so they can drain and then heal from the inside out.”

“Must cause a lot of trouble in other ways,” I muttered.

“It does,” said the soft voice. “While it does 'stop' bacteria, it does not kill them – hence frequent and careful reapplication of the material is needed until the wound is fully healed – and its effects upon such open wounds have to be endured to be truly comprehended.”

“What are they?” asked Sarah. She was putting on the gloves in question, and I could tell she was thinking them unpleasant indeed so far as the sensation now covering her hands.

“Recall what you've heard about the pain of firebug stings?” asked the soft voice. “That grease hurts nearly as bad if it's in an open wound.”

“Then no one would wish to endure it,” spat Sarah. “Now where are those people? They'll need greasy gloves and lots of rags that they don't mind burning, as that thing put blood...” Here, Sarah stopped, then pointed with the barrel of her pistol, whispering, “there. Over there.”

“Where?” I asked, as I followed her outstretched arm to then see crumbling scraps of what might have been fur and swiftly disintegrating bones. Dissolution was proceeding apace. “That?”

“That thing was cursed,” spat Sarah, “and it went to hell like a witch.”

“No, not that one,” said the soft voice. “That creature, while it did 'go to hell like a witch', managed perhaps thirty paces' distance into the hidden passage just past the nearest cache before it actually 'stopped', and then it actually died a few seconds later.” A pause, then, “you are right about the cursed aspect of those creatures, though.”

“Where did I hit it, then?” I asked. For some reason, I suspected I had merely 'nicked' the thing.

“You didn't just 'nick' it,” said the soft voice. “You hit it solidly indeed, which is why it only managed to live about twenty seconds after it was hit.” A brief pause, then, “not only are those creatures extremely quick and agile, but they're not easy to kill – which is another good reason why effectual pistols will be needed in the near future.”

“And fowling pieces,” I muttered. “That thing wasn't a rat, was it?”

“No, as no rat is that agile or that quick,” said the soft voice. “These creatures make up for their lack of claws and fangs by their speed, intelligence and agility – and they can and do bite surprisingly hard when and if it suits them.”

“What creature is that intelligent?” asked Sarah. “Are these like something I once saw on a tapestry?”

“Yes, and they're that particular type, also,” said the soft voice.

“Then we have trouble,” said Sarah emphatically, “as those things might not bite like Death Adders, nor have claws like white rats, but they get into everything, and there's no stopping them, hardly.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “I'd form a line and work on those tools, as you'll worry a lot less once you find what's in this room's caches.”

While we did that in short order, I had a question for Sarah; and once I was tossing messy rags and handing out shovels cleaned of blood – these were more 'tunneling' shovels than all else, for some reason – I asked, “what are these things you were speaking of?”

“I am not sure as to their proper name, as that was spelled differently every time I encountered it,” said Sarah, “but the picture I saw showed a creature that looked much like a baby for shape and size, save with a long tail.”

“Like a baby?” I asked. I hadn't seen any of those here yet, so I went by those infants I had encountered where I came from, even if I suspected those here to be somehow different from the 'plump' and 'loud' examples I now but faintly recalled seeing.

“Yes, and covered with short bristly fur of varied colors,” said Sarah. “Their tails were not merely quite long, but quite thick and strong, especially where they joined the animal's rear, and those tails were as wiggly as a grass-snake. Then, they could use those tails almost like their hands to hang onto things.”

“Do those things still exist?” I asked.

“Supposedly they do, though not like those I've read about on tapestries,” said Sarah. “There's a district some fifty miles east of the easternmost edges of the fifth kingdom house that has small ones that are colored as if they ate nothing but corn-shoots, and given that those things like corn in general, I'm not surprised at them having mottled green fur.” A pause, then, “and that place has the worst plagues of anywhere I have heard of that isn't on a tapestry.”

“You did not go to that place, did you?” asked Katje.

“I did, but I was most careful to learn what I could before doing so, and I traversed it at night while riding a well-rested donkey I'd dosed with honey-sweetened grain before riding,” said Sarah, “and I was wearing a type of dark-colored burn-clothing while in that area, in hopes I would not become ill.”

“Burn-clothing?” I asked. I wanted to comment about that not being proof against bacteria when Sarah spoke once more.

“If it is done well of tight-woven cloth and closely sewn on both sides of each seam, and one puts wide cloth strips with laces about each region where such clothing joins and wears a face-cloth with small glass-covered holes for the eyes and thin leather gloves and boots with one's clothing tucked into their cuffs, it will stop many of the insects that carry plagues,” said Sarah. “I asked Liza about the matter at some length, and I spent much of my fourth term doing that clothing with her guidance, as I did this trip just before the start of my fifth term.” A pause, then, “if one speaks of the small poisonous creatures that can live in air and water and soil, then one wishes a different type of clothing altogether, and the only place I have seen that stuff is upon a few tapestries.”

“And breathing equipment, also,” I muttered. “Biological warfare clothing.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice.

There weren't enough people among our group to stand hand-to-hand and pass out tools more than about forty feet from the doorway of this last room at the very most, and as the bloodied rags I used to wipe blood-stained tools accumulated in a small mound near the doorway's north wall and to the right, the shovels – now regular shovels as well as the other type – and other tools began to accumulate along the nearest walls in ranks two and three deep. Soon faint talk and other 'quiet' noises indicated those other workers had – finally – finished with their meals, and once the 'wheelbarrow train' began to run again with its steady soft rumble, I thought to come outside of the room for a breather. This last room was not merely 'huge', but daunting in both its darkness and the close-packed tangled-and-jumbled nature of its contents, and I hoped we would not need to 'empty' it entirely to retrieve all of what its four caches contained.

And within minutes of the wheelbarrow-train starting to rumble once more, I could not merely 'feel' a cache nearby, but the tools began to 'flee away' once more to my front and to the right in a steady arcing path heading for the east wall some ten feet or more away from where I currently stood. As I moved ahead – the thought of a break now had vanished; this cache could not wait – I was scanning for traps; then as I came within a few steps of the cache I had felt – it had a screen in front of it, as I could see the hole dimly outlined in light blue, and that only in the dim lighting presented by a two-lantern lampstand; however, I could not see anything like a passageway – I looked straight down. I could feel something next to my leg, which caused an outburst upon my not seeing what I had expected to see.

“What?” I asked. “No tripwire? Where is it?”

“Not in this room,” said the soft voice. “Those creatures removed all of the traps set by the witches, and did that work many years ago.” I suspected 'many years' could be readily be replaced with 'centuries'.

“What are they?” I spluttered. “Those things sound like, uh, aapken.” The word for 'monkeys' wasn't the most obvious word in the common language, and I doubted anyone within earshot save Sarah knew of it.

“They were not called that on the tapestries, even if those things down in the fifth kingdom are named that,” said Sarah.

“Is this Meerburgh where you went?” asked Karl. He was just behind me, while Sarah was taking a break to look for more 'bloody messes' with her lantern held chest-high in one hand and her pistol in the other.

“Yes, and I think that place is past due for a plague-time, as those happen about as often as treason-plots do up here,” said Sarah softly. She was concentrating intently on trying to find either bloodstains or another cache, and I was not sure which of those was foremost in her thinking, even if I knew she was expecting trouble of one kind or another.

“The bad ones do,” said Karl, “or so Lukas told me. That place has trouble that way all the time, save when it is cold and wet.”

Cold and wet?” I gasped. “The fifth kingdom? How?”

“He said that if one went a long day's ride east of the fifth kingdom house after getting outside of it, the place was like it was here for rain,” said Karl, “and it could get 'cold' during the winter.”

“Not cold like here, Karl,” said Sarah. “It does not snow there.”

“No, he meant 'compared to the fifth kingdom house',” said Karl. “He said that place was closer to parts of the second kingdom for cold during the winter, and I think he was speaking of the area just south of the potato country when he spoke of cold.” A pause, then, “it does not get as hot there as the rest of the fifth kingdom, even if it makes this part of the first kingdom look cold during High Summer.”

“It's like the third kingdom, then,” said Sarah. “I have not been there outside of that place's 'cold' season, so I can speak of what it is like then.”

“And you still used burn-clothing?” I asked. I suspected Sarah had carefully hidden the stuff during the lengthy period she was working on it, as it was not merely intended to protect against insect bites. It was also intended to provide a type of 'nocturnal camouflage', as that area – and a number of others she had gone through during that trip – had had their share of black-dressed itching-to-kill thugs; and unlike most of her other trips in regions where they were common, she would have but few places to hide while on the move. Hence a mottled 'dark blue bordering on black' color would make her – and the donkey; it too wore a covering of sorts then – much harder to see in the darkness. I wondered for a moment how she carried the stuff, then did not: this clothing, while somewhat bulky if not carefully folded, did not weigh much; and the lightweight cloth 'saddlebags' she used for it when it was not being used burdened the donkey she rode but little.

Most 'saddlebags' were of full-riveted full-thickness elk-leather, and were both a good deal larger and far heavier when empty than what Sarah had used when her 'small' ones were full; and while I had no 'hard evidence' regarding either matter, Lukas was not known for lying or exaggerating – he'd told me about the usual for saddlebags – and neither was the other information-source.

“Yes, as that kind of cold does not kill bugs,” said Sarah. “It may slow them greatly, but it does not kill them.”

“Actually, it does kill those bugs, and that in great measure, even if you are right about most other insects,” said the soft voice. “The reason those bugs survive down there in such numbers from year to year is because those animals go underground then – and the bugs go along with them on their bodies.”

“Do those animals hibernate?” I asked.

“They 'feed themselves fat', or so people in that area think, due to how much of their produce is devoured by those animals during both the early and late growing seasons,” said the soft voice. “The truth is a deep, dark, and ancient secret that is not printed on any tapestry, and no currently-alive person on the continent's surface – witches included – knows of its existence, much less what was – and is – done there.” A pause, then, “the last person who knew anything about it who lived on the surface of the continent was Cardosso himself, and he knew of it by reading about it, not by actually visiting that place.”

“It's underground,” I muttered. “Really old, too, and as secret as anything, even for long ago...” I paused, then said, “how much tunneling did this place do?”

“Enough to go all over the continent,” said the soft voice, “and that installation was one they started early, so it not merely is quite sizable, but it saw multiple rounds of 'improvements' and 'extensions' over the course of nearly a hundred years prior to the start of that war – and further work yet during the war and after its conclusion, up until nearly the Curse itself.”

The cache seemed to now draw me steadily closer, and as I removed the last handful of digging implements – now many 'digging' hoes were showing, as well as picks and 'scoop-shovels' of a type I had not seen before in these rooms; I wanted one of the last for the shop's coal-oven-to-be, in fact – I actually saw the passageway.

“These tools hid it,” I muttered. “Stinking thing's about two and a half feet high, and not much wider.”

“Then people would need to crawl inside of here if they used it,” said Sarah. She was still looking for something, and when she spoke next, I suspected she'd found that something.

I myself, however, was kneeling down on the 'scoured-clean' floor and reaching for the wood-framed cloth covering, which held together long enough for me to actually remove it from where it had been carefully 'fitted' to the wall.

It went entirely to pieces then, and Sarah screeched as if she'd been holding it when it 'dissolved':

“I f-found a hole!”

“Do not touch it,” said Katje with a voice filled with foreboding.

I stood back up, then began to go closer to where Sarah was. As I came past the others, Katje took my place so as to 'guard' the cache, then as I drew close to Sarah's side, I saw that where she was pointing was indeed a hole of sorts.

A hole faintly hazed with blue and surrounded by a brighter-yet blue outline, and this on the wall itself some few feet beyond her reach. A multitude of tools, tools both mounded and piled, blocked her way.

“What is that thing?” I asked.

“One of the caches,” said the soft voice. “It's possibly the most-important one of all of them, as it contains some evidence that will help more than a little in the days to come.”

“Possibly?” I asked.

“I think that depends on what you do with what is in that cache,” said Sarah, “and also, if you understand what it is.” Then, quietly, “if you don't know what it is, I might.”

“That's most likely why you found it,” I murmured. “I need to check this other one, as I can tell there's something in it we really want.”

I had to answer questions on my way back to change places with Katje, and as I once more knelt down, I more or less knew what I might find in the 'hole'.

Or so I thought when I removed the first two 'pouches' and found the hole hiding 'behind' them to be nearly six feet deep and filled completely with 'supplies' of one kind or another.

“Oh, my,” I softly spoke. “This thing is crammed with stuff. What did they put in here, an artillery piece of some kind?”

“No, as something that large was a bit too big for them to steal or make,” said the soft voice. “I'd open those first two pouches in that cache out where there's better light, as you do want what's in those – and you'll most likely use those things in short order.”

I had no idea save to do exactly what I was told to do, and when I gathered up one of the pouches, I saw an obvious-looking string-tied 'sack' of that waterproof cloth. I asked Katje to pick it up for me, then as I led the way out of the room with both 'pouches', she commented on something I had missed.

“Those have straps,” she said. “I think they were meant to be carried that way.”

“Where?” I asked.

Katje pulled one strap over one shoulder as I came to a stop, then the other over the other shoulder. “Now try walking. You should have an easier time now.”

I did, and found walking among the wheelbarrows and workers removing tools a lot easier, which meant faster progress. Once outside the long-room, however, I gasped and asked, “where did the birdcage go?”

“It is in that camp outside there,” said Karl. “Those things want plenty of light, and it is still dark in here.”

“Is that what you were told?” I asked. Karl was right, at least if one wished to do 'close' work and had the 'usual' for vision. Otherwise, it was 'comfortably dim' by my standards. I could easily read in much of the 'Upper Alley' if I was at all close to the windows.

“That is what they told me,” said Karl, “and while that is true enough, I think it was those bugs in that camp were getting to them and those birds are good about eating those things.”

“What bugs?” asked Sarah. “Were these red flying bugs, or..?”

“Some, yes, though I think the ones I saw were the old crop of them,” said Karl. He was doing a very passable imitation of Hans for language, if not tone or inflection. “Those new ones have another few weeks to go before they can fly.” Karl paused, then said, “most of these bugs I saw were the big black ones that like to ruin cabbages, and I smelled enough dried fourth-kingdom cabbage boiling in that camp there, so they were most likely wanting to get into that stuff.”

“D-dried fourth kingdom c-cabbage?” I asked.

“You did not go into that market town, as you still had a face like the sun when it burns,” said Karl. “I did, and I did not remember much, or so I thought until I woke up this morning. Now I remember a lot more of what I saw then, and I remember seeing that stuff for sale in some shops we went by.”

“That, and some of those 'shops' were these things like farm wagons with shades over them that the people selling stuff from them park in front of other shops,” I said. “Now is that right, or am I full of dung and need uncorking?”

“I remember those things,” said Sepp. “They were all over the place.” A pause, then, “now what is in that bag there?”

I found the 'bag' spoken of to be 'string-tied' with a knot beyond my capacity, and so I handed that bag to Sepp, along with the last awl I currently 'had'. Upon finding the other bag tied similarly, I tried to find another awl in my possible bag, but when Karl took the other pouch out of my lap, he said, “you need to find what you're looking for in there, and I can undo this knot here.”

A moment later, however, Karl was muttering as if he'd taken lessons from Anna, for he was speaking of the person who had tied this knot being able to teach his aunt how to tie knots.

Karl's grandmother had been killed by those northern people before he was born, so his aunt had substituted for that part of the family – and like most extended families in the area, they'd all either lived in the same house or in the same part of a given town. The exceptions to that 'rule' tended to have members inclined toward the ways and means of witchdom. There were exceptions to that last matter that I knew of, however, Georg's far-flung family being one of them, and Karl's family – at least before he'd lost a good part of it to Norden's people – another.

“Was she good at knots?” I asked absentmindedly as I began to slowly 'organize' my possible bag to a degree. I'd already found one awl and two 'medium' knives 'buried' in the thing's bottom, and I was wishing for a small ground-cloth to set the larger things on so as to go through the bag properly. I was seriously thinking of getting a piece of that waterproof cloth and asking Sarah to hem its edges, much like another lightweight damp-proof cloth I had once had carried before I came here.

“That, and you-all need rest and food,” said the soft voice.

“I can get some food,” said Gabriel. “I might not be good for much else, but I can get beer and bread. I know where the bakery is in that larger camp, and I've seen beer jugs there, also.”

Thankfully, Gabriel had company in the form of Maarten and Katje, and I was glad both of them had gone with him. I hoped each person would get a loaf and a jug, as three of each item sounded about right, given how hungry I was.

“I think he will find himself to be full of dung again,” said Sarah softly. “Karl, did your aunt teach knots?”

“She did not get money for doing that, but this person could have taught her just the same,” said Karl. “I am not sure if Tam could do this good or not, as this one here is tricky.”

“That way, Karl,” said Sarah. She was pointing with a knitting needle. “There.”

A moment latter, I not only had a small covering of assorted rags on the floor, but I was really going through my possible bag – and I was also glad for Sarah's intermittent help in 'organizing' what I removed. I'd found two more knives and a number of other things that had 'gone missing' recently, and within a minute, I had Sarah muttering about Geneva and distilleries.

The tools needed no such muttering. I had plenty of those, unlike jugs of Geneva and 'smaller distilleries'.

“Why, dear?” I asked. “Are you sore enough to want some for rubbing?” I had packed a 'larger' ceramic vial of common Geneva, this stoppered with a waxed fourth-kingdom cork, contrary to what I had thought in recent days – and I had just found it. There was a lot yet remaining in my possible bag.

“Yes, but not right now,” she said. “I wish to keep what food and drink I've managed thus far.” A pause, then, “I've seen Pump pull things out of his bag, but you might well beat him for things of use, if not Geneva or some of the other things I've seen him pull out of his bag.”

Another pause came as I showed Sarah the vial. Her face developed an unreadable expression, though I might guess its meaning as 'Pump usually carries a lot more than that, even if I'm not terribly surprised you have some Geneva in that thing'. She then said, “I think you might want to look in that satchel Sepp has, as he's gotten its knot undone.”

“It is?” I asked, as I set my bag aside. Sarah began looking in the thing with unusual care, much as if it were filled with small yet unusually irritable white rats, then cautiously began to remove some of what was inside, all the while muttering about 'lessons' and other matters I could not decipher.

The reason why I could not decipher what Sarah was speaking of was I had found some 'parts' to an obvious 'gun' of some kind – or so I thought when I removed first one portion, then another, then a piece I recognized instantly.

“This thing's a shotgun of some kind,” I muttered, as I looked at the obvious side-by-side barrels of what looked to be a twelve-gage double-barreled shotgun. The barrels themselves looked both strange indeed and uncommonly sturdy, and their roughly twenty inch length looked 'likely' for rats and 'aapken' if we came upon them suddenly at close quarters. “Now where's the breech, and does this thing have shells to fit it?”

Sepp seemed mystified by my language, at least until I'd found the part in question; then how the rest of the pieces 'fit' together happened instantly in my mind.

They took perhaps a minute to actually put together, and the result was hard to believe for how it actually looked – as this 'gun' had once had wooden pieces of some kind, and those were replaced by 'painted' metal and what might be a species of plastic for the under-barrel gripping place. The resemblance of the plastic part to that portion of some of the other weapons we had found today was uncanny.

“What gives with that thing?” asked Sepp. “It looks like a fowling piece of some kind.”

“It is,” said Sarah. “That...” Sarah paused, then as I worked the side lever behind the twin external hammers and 'broke' the thing, she said, “they had things like that in that place I had to bathe for, only those things were older than time itself.”

“Those were 'well-preserved' and well-used copies,” said the soft voice. “This is an original example, and was substantially modified by the workers here so as to readily dismantle for easier carrying and cleaning.” A pause, then, “just clean it inside and out with boiled distillate and a small piece of an old rag, and it will be ready to use.” The unspoken aspect was 'and you will want it that way, with shells in it and a few shells in your pockets for quick reloading'.

I touched the metal pieces, and found an aspect of 'varnish' to them, so much so that I wondered what had been done until I looked once more in the pouch – and brought out a flaccid-looking cloth 'sack' of some kind. Other than a handful of obvious tools and perhaps some few spare parts, the pouch was now empty; and the shotgun itself was lighter than I expected. Its light weight made for wondering how badly it recoiled.

“What's this?” I asked, as I touched the 'dead' sack. “A preservative of some kind?”

“That one's gone,” said the soft voice. “It can be recycled across the sea, but not recharged, unlike those others you've found thus far.”

I shook the thing, and noted a faint 'fluffing' sound, then saw the lettering. Unlike those I had seen earlier, this one's lettering was nearly illegible due to the 'paint' or 'ink' flaking off – and more came off as I shook it once more. It made for a question.

“The lettering on those things?” I asked.

“Is also the indicator of how much preservative action remains,” said the soft voice. “If the lettering is clear, sharp, and a solid light green color, then they're fresh. As they become less able, that lettering slowly becomes a darker green, and when it's black, they need recharging, like those you found earlier. If the lettering is starting to flake off, they're completely depleted – and when they're like that one in your hand, they need to be recycled entirely, both the preservative material and the bag it's carried in.”

“Those people do that a lot, don't they?” The answer was obvious to me, anyway; they'd have to, given their living conditions.

“More than you might believe it's possible to do,” said the soft voice. “That other pouch has the other weapon like that one, and that bag you found – there are more bags like it in that cache and one of the others in that room – has some loaded shells for those guns.”

“I had best get some distillate, then,” said Karl. “Here, this bag is open.”

By the time Karl had returned with some 'boiled' distillate and a small bag of rags – the distillate jug was just outside the transom, but the rags needed him looking in the nearby camp and asking around – I had not merely put the other shotgun together, but I had begun to put the tools and supplies back in my possible bag. As I cleared the rags off of equipment, Sarah began to remove the tools left in the first bag, and as she laid them out – she was obviously 'mystified' by what they did, or so it appeared to me – I remarked as to their likely purpose.

“That one's used to take this thing completely to pieces,” I said while indicating a folding 'multi-tool' that looked like some I had seen where I came from, “while that there is a jointed cleaning rod – and that piece there is for patches, and that one's a bore-swab, and that's a bronze – I think – bristle brush to get at 'burnt-on' fouling residues...”

Sarah was handling this last, and she set it down abruptly and sucked her fingers. I wondered if she'd gotten poked, at least until she retrieved her satchel and removed a small – and very old-looking – age-faded blue-green glass container about four inches high. She drew out a scrap of cloth, removed the container's 'farmer-made' cork, then soaked the cloth with the liquid inside – and the reek of 'high-test' alcohol burned both my nose and made me wish to spew.

“Tailor's antiseptic,” she said quietly, as she put the cork back into the bottle and set it down near her leg. “Hans got some more of that stuff recently, and I put some of that stuff in this bottle I found.”

“Found?” I asked. “Where?” The bottle's age only accentuated the vast array of well-hidden cracks and other flaws I could now see as if lined-out faintly with gray. The thing was barely holding together.

“That secondhand store where I think Sepp got his bullet mould,” said Sarah. “They've got about the lowest prices of anyone selling stuff I've seen in this area, and they let me have this and some other things I found in there for a guilder.”

“I hope that thing isn't a fetish,” I muttered.

As if the bottle had been waiting for me to speak that very word, both bottle and cork became utterly hazed with a brilliant neon-toned orange-red, with thick strands of red-blazing 'lightning' crawling all over it as if the thing were alive with 'curse-energy'; and I pointed to the door and muttered, “go douse some witch who needs hair tonic.”

The bottle vanished with a faint plop to Sarah's complete surprise, then outside but seconds later, I heard high-pitched piercing screams – screams that were then drowned in a booming rumble of 'large-bore' gunfire. The gunfire wasn't 'just outside', but the thundering booms were loud enough to speak of them being 'close'.

“What?” squeaked Sarah. “How..?”

“An old stinker of a witch-grade 'perfume bottle', dear,” I murmured. “Now it seems that well-hid thug had managed to get himself back into the camp without anyone suspecting he'd even been gone, me included – and he must have really needed some hair tonic.” I paused, then asked, “did he?”

“No, but he was in the smith's shop and the fumes caught the instant they reached the nearest forge,” said the soft voice, “and every smith in there not only had his roer handy, but all of those men shot that witch within seconds of him being set alight by Sarah's bottle after it disintegrated over his head.” A pause, then, “and that was the last – and the worst – witch currently present in the entire camp.”

“And the bottle?” I asked. “That thing was about ready to come apart on its own, if I go by what I saw.”

“There will be a number of nice replacements available in very short order,” said the soft voice, “and unlike that ancient fetish, these will not only not be cursed, but they will not be made of glass – and you do not want to carry something that flammable in a glass container, especially a fetish-made glass container made in this area prior to the war.”

“It was that or nothing back then, though,” said Sarah. “I had just gotten into the area, and I needed something for that stuff...”

“No, dear,” I said. “That bottle wasn't terribly safe. I think you were being protected from its fragile tendencies, especially given some of those campfires you had to use for cooking recently and... What?” I squeaked. “You were using campfires to sew by? How?”

“It was that or s-starve,” said Sarah, “and every tailor, itinerant or not, has that stuff close to hand if he or she wishes to live more than a year while sewing.” A pause, then, “at least I got enough on this rag to keep my hand clean after that nasty brush there gave me a bad poke.”

I moved over to Sarah, took her hand between both of mine, closed my eyes and silently asked, “no bacteria in that wound, and please heal it quickly.” I then opened my eyes, and Sarah no longer had her hand in mine. She was looking at it strangely for a second, and then looked at me in a manner stranger yet.

I then noted the faint bluish glow that seemed to still be present about her as it slowly faded over a slow count of perhaps three or four.

“Now I need not worry about an infection,” said Sarah. “My hand feels really strange now.”

“How is that?” asked Karl.

“It's tingling worse than when I shot that large rat,” said Sarah. “That, and there isn't even a scar.”

“Not just that injury, dear,” said the soft voice. “You just lost a number of recent scars, and for a very good reason – as those wounds hadn't healed right.”

“How?” I asked.

“Much the same way you'll lose a fair number of yours in the next few weeks,” said the soft voice. “That stuff Anna used on that one man's compound fracture you had to pray for is not merely worthless for its intended purpose, but it actually suppresses the immune system in certain crucial ways – and you were dosed with it repeatedly after the bridge, which means you are carrying around a lot of 'baggage' that needs correct treatment to dispose of.”

“Did Anna's mother write in her journals?” I asked. It was my very first suspicion after hearing what I had just heard.

“Yes, and to no small amount, which is one of the chief reasons why she's had such dismal results,” said the soft voice. “It isn't just ignorance on her part. She's been 'fed fat with lies' by both her mother and grandmother, and that mostly by that collection of ledgers she's kept – which is why you had to tell her about how 'strong vinegar' more or less ruins that one drug, among a number of other matters she had learned wrongly by looking in those things.”

“It does do that,” said Sarah. “Now I will need to tell her about that one medicine, and have her toss it the minute I see her.”

“Not just that, dear,” I murmured. “I think those stinking journals need to be put to the stove.”

A faint chortle, then, “Anna will be most surprised when she looks for them next, as they're burning right now.”

“You didn't,” said Sarah.

“He did, dear,” said the soft voice. “Anna didn't lose much, given just how much the two of those women altered those ledgers over the years so as to mislead her and anyone she might possibly teach, and she'll get something that's so much better – and so much bigger – that there is no possible comparison to what she lost. More, she'll get it in very short order.”

“Good, as we all need that,” said Sarah. “Now I will tell her what happened to that big smelly mess of witch-scribbling she had, and why it wasn't worth much save as stove-fuel.”

Smelly?” I blurted. I could smell food coming, and as I put the last of my things away in my possible bag, I began to 'dismantle' the first shotgun for cleaning, this initially in the reverse of its 'assembly' – and as I finished the job, I wondered what had happened to the three people that had originally gone after food.

“They're all standing in line right now, the same as most of the people in the larger camp,” said the soft voice, “and while Gabriel and Maarten are entirely willing to stand in line for two entire hours just like everyone else is, Katje is beginning to think she'd be better off just going to the baker's and fetching bread and then some beer, and forgetting about what currently passes for 'a good meal' in camp.”

“Then let the two of those stinkers fall face-down in the mud where they stand as a sign and a portent!” I spat. “We do not have time to play games like that!”

Again, I heard chortling, though overshadowing what I had briefly 'heard' was a vast – and plainly audible – groaning multitude. I wondered what had happened now.

“Those cooks will not complain much in the future, not after what just happened,” said the soft voice, “as everyone in that huge line, save for Katje herself, just got 'dumped into the mud' – and there wasn't any mud handy, so the stuff 'showed up' just for them.” A pause, then, “of course, that mud got liberally mingled with horse-turnips and mule-dung as a lesson to those people in that area also.”

“How will they..?” I was more than a bit confused now, even if dismantling the shotgun further was blatant to me. The 'multi-tool' was not merely a handy device, it was also disgustingly quick to use – and Sarah was all but agog at how fast I was taking the shotgun completely to bits. The fact that there weren't many such 'bits' had much to do with it, as this weapon was not merely very simple, it was very sturdy – and the places that needed to be hard indeed were, at least according to the sound made when I tried a file on them.

“They'll need to take lessons from that person who came from Eisernije, I guess,” I said as I pulled out a lockplate. This weapon had locks that looked remarkably like those of a fifth kingdom fowling piece, both on the inside for lockwork and externally as well, if otherwise in an entirely different class for fit and finish. The locks I made were more complex, in fact – which made me wonder about both the trigger pull of the gun and just how safe the weapon was. “Seems that the person from the third kingdom was 'lost', as no one currently here eats what she – no, he – knew how to cook, and the reason those second kingdom people were complaining so much is they were not only working a lot more than they wanted to, but were expected to do that work a lot faster than they'd ever done anything in their entire lives.”

“Better, also,” said the soft voice, “and that person from Eisernije isn't a commonplace cook for that region.”

“Those people might have little for food, and less yet that is good,” said Sarah, “but they do know how to cook passably at the least.” Sarah paused, then, “what I ate there tasted decent, even if that stuff had a tendency to make me wish to visit the privy a lot.”

“This lady isn't 'passable', dear,” said the soft voice. “She's about as good a cook as you're likely to find in this area, with the exception of perhaps four or five people.”

“Esther would be one of them, as she's the best cook I've ever seen,” muttered Sarah. “Now I hope Katje got some food, as I'm hungry enough to eat rags.”

“I did, if she did not,” said Karl as he suddenly returned with not merely a dripping jug in each hand but a bag on a string around his neck. I wondered how I had missed his leaving. “There was this big long line of people, and all of them...”

“They ate mud,” said Katje emphatically as she returned burdened like Karl, “and I did what Karl did, as all of those cooking in the camp, save for but one newly-arrived cook, were eating mud also.”

“Just mud, or something else too?” asked Sepp.

“I smelled mule dung on both Maarten and Gabriel,” said Katje, “which means I do not want them in here until they have clean clothing and have bathed themselves twice with that new clothes-soap, as they both smell terribly.”

“Sounds like what was in those big pots...” I nearly gagged, then spat, “stinking fetish-pots fit for a pack of chanting witches! Go to a witch's place and scald those wretches, and let everyone here eat bread and beer until they can fetch some decent cooking utensils!”

“I know about that, also,” said Katje. “They might not be using food that is High to put in those things, but those pots had many large rivets on them, and Anna spoke about what those things do unless the pots using them are brand new, kept spotless and boiled out with lye regularly, and then sold off quickly.”

“Here? They'd last all of three days from new, which means all of that food was fit for witches!” I shrieked. “Who did that, and why didn't they bother bringing cookware from somewhere that makes decent stuff?”

“Because firstly, those who came initially from the fourth kingdom didn't have enough room for such cookware,” said the soft voice, “and secondly, none of those cooks are from that region. Hence they all thought – at least, those cooks who were among that first group of them present: 'if we have to feed so many as are here now, we need large pots, we need them right away, and we need many of them'.”

“They do not use pots like that in Eisernije,” said Sarah. “They use glazed clay ones, if they use pots at all, and they set very small fires under them on their central hearths.” A pause, then, “I tended such a pot once while I was staying with those people during one of my trips down there.”

“Clay...” I spluttered. “Did anyone put in an order where I worked?”

“No, because the king in the fourth kingdom sent out that work once he realized how long it would most likely take to have them done where he is and how that's the only location currently able to make large pots fit to use for any length of time,” said the soft voice. “You haven't made large pots yet, even if you have made a number of things that resemble them, and that potato-country pot is both very old and made elsewhere.”

“You don't have time for that many pots, either,” said Katje. “At least that oven makes decent bread, and those baking aren't a pack of witches.”

“Not now they are, you mean,” said Karl. “One of those baking was shot as a witch.”

“He wasn't a baker, Karl,” I said. “I think he wanted to, uh, 'help' as a baker's 'boy' or whatever they call people who fetch materials when they're needed in really large amounts in places that make a lot of bread.”

“They would normally use apprentices for that,” said Katje, “and I think that place had two of them, if I go by the people I saw there when I got this stuff.” A brief pause, then as I finished dismantling the shotgun entirely, she came to look at what I was doing – or so I thought until she turned and spoke to Karl.

“I hope your knife is clean, Karl, as I just heard his stomach,” said Katje, “and if it is that loud, Anna will set me alight if I don't put the food and drink to him right away.”

“I think you'd best eat before you go any further,” said Sarah. “If I'm feeling faint, you must be worse yet.”

I set the barrels down in front of me, then as I began wiping my hands, I had a tin plate with an inch-thick slab of bread put in front of me – and the uncorked jug near my leg 'woke me up' with its smell as well. I only then realized I was utterly famished, and I did not waste time beyond the minimum needed to wipe my hands clean before hungry attacking what had been put in front of me.

“I thought so,” muttered Katje. “I do not have a tube with me, nor would I know how to use one, and I knew waiting as long as those people were willing to wait for their meals would not work for the two of you.” Katje looked around, then said, “and I hope those cooks enjoy eating dung for a season, as they must learn to not be such sluggards as they all seemed to be.”

“They were being ridden by the presence of a trio of witches earlier today, also,” I muttered between bites. “Now did those stinkers get those smelly pots?”

“Yes, and they 'organized' that kitchen, as they were among the first people who came here to cook,” said the soft voice. “That woman from Eisernije only got here two days ago after a truly long and dangerous trip, and she was working as hard as she could to put things right, but there was but one of her and there was a lot of witch-thinking to overcome on the part of the others present by the time she came – and those three witches were 'running' things, more or less, since the place had more than a dozen people present when she arrived.”

While I finished the first slab of bread handed out, the others ate likewise; and once I'd gotten enough beer to not feel 'faint', I needed to visit the privy. While I used the facilities in the nearest camp – those people had their meals separately from the main group, which accounted for them laboring as they did; it definitely gave me ideas about 'messing' – I neither saw nor smelled either Maarten or Gabriel. I suspected both men were 'elsewhere' bathing, as the reek of mule dung tended to be rather persistent once it was noticed in an area, as well as inclined to travel some; and when I saw some of their clothes still damp and hanging, I suspected they each needed to 'wash' their clothing as well as themselves wherever they managed to actually 'bathe'.

“First bathe to get rid of much of the dirt and stink somewhere a good distance away, then bathe twice and wash their clothing in our camp using the soap we brought – which means both of them will be gone from the camp for at least an hour.” I did not think this unwise, but rather a good idea, as cleaning and then testing those weapons wanted both rest on the part of those still 'clean' as well as about as much food as I could eat in the process of doing what I needed to do.

When I returned, however, Karl and Sepp were each wiping off the parts with boiled distillate – with Sarah supervising the two of them between mouthfuls of beer on her part. I suspected she wanted cheese for a second slice of bread. I knew I did, if I could eat 'that much' right away.

“I'm making certain they both put the parts back in the places you had them, and in the same way,” said Sarah, “and I think Karl needs to learn how to clean guns, as he's about worthless for them if I go by what I have seen him do here.”

“I did not see any soot, so these just need...”

Sarah cut Karl off, saying, “no, Karl. That is not true. Just because these were put down in the grease for a long time does not mean those who fired them last did a good job of cleaning.”

“They would have to, though,” said Sepp, “or would they?”

“I do not wish to burst another fowling piece,” muttered Sarah. “It took me much of a term to have that thing repaired, and I had to sew a great deal to get the money I needed – and that was after I had to replace some of my clothing when I soiled it badly when that happened.”

“When was this?” I asked. I could not keep the astonished tone out of my voice.

“My third term,” said Sarah. “Someone had brought an older weapon with them when they came back from their traipsing, and she had no idea how to clean guns, but it was greased well, so I thought to just clean it well with some 'well-dried' distillate.” Sarah was not recalling this episode with fondness. “I might have done that passably, or so I thought by how it looked, but something was wrong with that gun – as when I test-fired it afterward, both barrels fired at the same time and then one of the barrels exploded not six inches away from my hand.”

“Sounds more like a defective gun than anything else,” I said. “Now did you take that thing to someone to find out what had happened?”

“I did, and that was when I was told about not cleaning it well enough,” said Sarah, “as that man showed me the tight spot in that thing's barrel where some wretch had put a piece of rolled up paper and the grease had glued it in place.”

“It doubled on you, though,” I said.

“That was also my fault, or so he said,” said Sarah, “as this gun had a one-trigger lock, not two triggers like most double-guns, and when the first one fired, the gun jumped hard enough for me to set off the second barrel.” Sarah muttered, “and I hope I never use such a gun again, as that type of lock is not only very expensive to make, but I later learned they need to be done to 'best' grade standards to not start misbehaving shortly after one begins using them, and that gun was not one of those when it burst.”

“Did that man do one of those locks?” I asked.

“The lock was not damaged,” said Sarah, “but he had to go through the gun entirely, and it looked much different when I got it back after I'd paid the inducement and the several sizable payments it needed.”

“Worse?” I asked.

“No, he did not make it worse,” said Sarah, “nor did he decorate it like a witch's gun, but he did make that one-trigger lock behave itself, and his barrels were easily two lines smaller for the bore than what was originally present, and larger at the breech as well.” A pause, a swallow, a comment to the two cleaning the parts, then, “I think that man was marked, actually, as all of those parts showed not only a good bluing job, but a file would not touch any of them afterward when I tested the gun's lock-parts, and that gun would fetch quolls ten paces further away than what I commonly used when hunting.”

“You had a tight gun, then,” said Sepp. “Now that piece there is clean, I hope.”

“It needs to be wiped off better,” said Sarah, “and especially in those corners there, as I can still see dirt in them.”

I picked up the piece in question, then asked for the rag Sepp was using. Reaching into the possible bag, I removed a pair of 'delicate' pincers, then grasped the corner of the rag with them and began to carefully clean the small corners Sarah had indicated. The rapid dirtying of the rag had shown her to be speaking well of a bad situation, if anything.

“I had no idea...” Sepp was astonished, and I nearly as much as he, as I knew he did a far better than average job of cleaning guns if he was at all familiar with the piece in question. He'd picked up on the tricks of revolver-cleaning faster than almost anyone, with the exception of Sarah – who was still teaching Anna how to clean hers properly, unless I knew better.

“I'll need some of those things you're using if I need to clean this type of gun,” he muttered. “I've put in an order for large tweezers at the shop, but they've not come yet.”

“Were these locking tweezers?” I asked. I had found no less than three such tweezers in my bag, and while I had known of possibly having two of them present 'somewhere' in that leather 'cavern', the third one's presence was something of a mystery.

Sepp nodded.

“I did a batch of twelve of those not two weeks ago,” I muttered. “Now...” I finished what I was cleaning, then handed it to him, then grabbed another likely-looking part and began cleaning its details using another portion of the distillate-damp rag. It too became dirty quickly. “When did this order come in? Was it recently?”

“I put it in after the hall went where it belonged,” said Sepp.

“Then it's probable I... No, that batch I spoke of was for an order Georg got while we were gone, and they all went to Albrecht. At least I think they did, as that slate had two examples of handwriting on it, not one, and the second one was not one I'd seen before – and for once, the order was clear about what was wanted and not like they usually are.”

“It was his,” said Sarah, “as I heard about what Albrecht said to Georg about how he expected you to read the customer's mind like witches say they can.”

“They cannot do that,” said Katje, “even if they speak loudly of being most-capable readers of minds, and they somehow have put what they believe that way into everyone's mind that...” Katje had set aside her bread, and was untying the knot holding the smaller cloth sack closed. It came undone readily – this person wasn't a good knot-tier, at least compared to those tying the satchels closed – and when she reached inside it, her face went a delicate shade of red. I wondered as to the cause.

“What is it?” asked Sarah. “Karl, that one there, once more all over. It needs to be wiped down better, as you left a lot of that stuff on it, and this boiled stuff doesn't evaporate hardly at all fast.”

“What is in this bag,” squeaked Katje. She sounded as if about to have a fit. “These things are cold, shiny as fetishes, and...”

“Remove one, please,” I asked. “I really doubt they're fetishes, actually.”

Katje then withdrew an unusually 'stubby-looking' all-metal shotgun shell colored with a faintly tarnished silvery film, and when she came up to hand it to me, I held the thing in my hand. The first thing I noted was an uncommonly thick 'rim', then an even 'thicker' case-mouth plugged with what looked like press-fit stiff cardboard.

“And not crimped in the slightest, either,” I thought, upon looking closer at this 'marvel'. The brass at the shell's mouth was not much less than a 'millimeter' in thickness. “How does that thing stay put?”

“Friction,” said the soft voice, “that, and the mouth-sealant usually applied to such things when loaded – or in the case of these shells, a species of 'soft' wax when they were loaded.”

“Can these be, uh, reloaded?” I asked.

“Yes, and quite easily, also,” said the soft voice. “It might be somewhat noisy to do for portions of it, but it requires nothing more than a few hand-tools to do so – and that cache not merely has those tools, but also enough supplies present in it to reload each such shell several times.”

“What size of shot are in these?” I asked.

“It's slightly smaller than most of the 'common' shot you've seen here, but unlike almost all shot currently available on the continent, this stuff is truly round and very hard.

“Slightly smaller?” I asked.

“It will work on most thugs if you're fairly close,” said the soft voice, “and it will also work on larger rats and those creatures – though the latter will need to be fairly close also if you wish them to not leave the area before they die.”

“What would be fairly close?” asked Sarah.

“Ten paces or less,” said the soft voice. “That presumes, of course, that the thug being shot isn't a hard-witch or wearing well-hid 'tin-plated' vests like some witches coming up here will be wearing.” A pause, then, “shoot those people with one of those new 'muskets'. They'll drop right away if you hit them solidly.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “I'll carry one with me, if I can do so.” A pause, then, “and those animals?”

“Those will drop right away if you're within ten paces when you shoot them,” said the soft voice. “They'll die 'quickly' at somewhat longer ranges, but figure twenty paces or less if you wish them dead in short order.”

“And more than that for distance wants something else,” I murmured. “One of those smaller 'muskets' would work well for both thugs and those vermin-ridden, uh, aapken.” I then had a question.

“What if we load those shells with that, uh, stiff shot? Especially if it's made of printer's lead?”

“Then those guns will fetch thugs,” said the soft voice.

“Fetch?” I asked.

“Much like using a roer,” said Sarah. “I hope those things do not have the kick of a roer.”

“They don't, but if you fire one, you'll know about it right away,” said the soft voice. “Ask what it's like to fire a 'royal' fifth kingdom fowling piece with stiff loads.”

“Trouble,” I spat. “I somehow fired both barrels out of that thing at the same time, and I was told it was as bad as a roer for recoil.” Brief pause, then, “I did not need to be told about how it put me on the floor, or how bruised and sore I was afterward.”

“Then I am not inclined toward one of those things,” said Sarah.

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “It's about as bad as that single-trigger one was when you borrowed it from its owner and loaded it with stiff loads to get dinner during term.”

“I might try it, then,” said Sarah, “though if I fire it more than twice in a day, it will be too much for me.”

“Dinner?” I asked.

“Quolls, usually,” said Sarah, “and loading that thing like that usually meant I had a full bag if I found a good tree for those birds.”

“Bag?” I asked, my tone one of mystery. “Tree?”

“You'd best get into some beer first,” said Katje. “She can tell you about that part after two of those cups full.”