Investing the Abbey: the last of the rooms' treasures

The bags, thankfully, were not as a rule tied with 'grandmother's' knots, and therefore those that were tied that way received attention from Karl or Sepp. The only person who needed 'help' with the rest of them – as well as one of my 'spare' awls – was Maarten; and with the passing of the minutes while we unloaded these various satchels, their contents became obvious:

Ammunition tins, these of brass or what might be unusually thick gold-toned 'brushed' aluminum, depending upon their shape – with the brass ones being round, as a rule, and the 'aluminum' ones square with rounded corners. All of them were covered in string-tied rags, and every single example's cloth covering was greasy enough to be altogether unpleasant for me to touch.

A batch of smaller – perhaps the length of my outstretched hand for their upper diameter, and an inch smaller for their bottoms, with the shape being somewhat squatter than the 'pots' which went to those mess-kits I now made in batches of five to eight – hand-raised tinned copper pots, these sized such that they nested one inside another with a thin layer of grease-suffused rags for padding and with greasy brass bails that somehow didn't get in the way of one another. I wondered as to the why of 'grease' on copper and tin until I thought to wipe the grease off a small area with a rag still damp with the Rooster Totem's gun-lubricant, and then noted 'new' copper and bright shiny tin. The bails had but slight corrosion, and most of that wiped off readily when I tried one of the rags padding the whole nest of five pots.

“They'd clean these things with damp sand before they used them each time,” said Sarah. “I've done that many times in the last ten-year. Then, just smoke them some over a fire...”

“I doubt they'd wish smoke, dear,” said Katje. “They were trying to remain unnoticed.”

“They also thought the 'region of devastation' would be much smaller than it proved to be when they left the Abbey, and they thought they'd have a lot more cover once they got past where the former 'green areas' used to be,” said the soft voice. “They had no idea that the devastated regions went far to the south of the previous 'border' and from where the Red Mountains then stood all the way to the coast on the west side of the continent, and they had less idea yet just how little cover would be available for nearly the first half of the trip south.”

The next items that showed themselves were three smaller ceramic jugs of cooking fuel, these with waxy corks and well-padded with string-tied rags. Sarah looked at me and mouthed the words silently, “I think so,” when she saw these, and I knew that we'd want to take at least two of these particular jugs, breakable or not. I still thought it wise to take those brass canteens just the same, as these jugs were breakable and the others weren't – until I recalled just how prevalent and numerous the various sensors were in that place. What was more, I suspected I thought I knew more than I actually did.

Those sensor arrays would have no idea what the ceramic ones were, though, and their contents would therefore be an entire mystery. That would not be so with the 'canteens' – even if I really doubted they'd ever made those.

“Now what is this stuff?” asked Karl. He'd brought out an unusually-sized 'brick', this having no gray aspect to it whatsoever among its thready-seeming light tan-tinted whiteness. He held it up to his nose, and muttered, “it may look like the worst moldy Kuchen dough I have ever seen, but it does not stink like that stuff we found earlier.”

“That gray-stained material is a bit stronger and a trifle more brisant, but that material there you'll wish to take with you overseas,” said the soft voice. “They might have records of that other material, and there might be three times as much of it in that armory, but that's another 'escape from the laboratory' that got over here unnoticed.”

“Do they have records of it?” I asked.

“They do, but they're buried so deep that no one's going to be able to get to them in a timely fashion, and the same for the gray stuff that's in that armory.” A pause, then, “the white stuff, chiefly because it has so little smell, will prove most useful for trapping.”

“Do they have more of this material where we're going?” I asked.

“Yes, but nearly all of it's that smelly gray stuff,” said the soft voice. “The material overseas will smell a good deal worse than what's in that armory, and for a very good reason beyond what initially occurs to you when you speak to their chemistry people about it.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl.

“Those blue-suited functionaries are quite familiar with that odor,” said the soft voice, “and while it's rare to find one who knows more than to 'stay well clear of anything that smells like that', every blue-suited functionary knows that much.” A brief pause, then, “I'd wait until 'the system is down' and those thugs can no longer use those sensors they have before you use that gray stuff much.”

“Is that a clue?” I asked.

I then knew beyond all doubt just how those sensors 'communicated' their findings: that place had a nearly-omnipresent 'network' of some kind, and if it was taken down early and taken down hard, those thugs – and especially those over them – would be nearly 'blind'. The only means of 'spying' would then be 'direct observation', and then 'runners' would be needed to communicate such findings to their leaders and then more runners would be needed to communicate orders to those on the front lines.

“And the whole mess is so centralized regarding 'command and control' that none of those blue-suited thugs dares to do much of anything unless he's given explicit and detailed instructions to act,” I thought – and in doing so, I recalled those achy-looking earphones worn by a good percentage of blue-suited thugs.

“They have some training on how to act independently, but you're mostly right regarding what those thugs do and how they're 'controlled' by those over them,” said the soft voice. “The chief trouble is the entirety of that training they have in regards to independent action is based on some very old protocols, and those rules assume a defenseless, inept, and drastically outnumbered populace in the 'attack zone' – and it is none of those things at this time, even if their weapons are severely limited in both number and type.”

“Those thugs have better clubs,” said Karl. “Those things might not stop rats that good, but they don't break no matter how many rats you mash.” Karl left unsaid the last and most-obvious portion: they didn't break no matter how many people you killed, also.

“They do work well on rats if the rats are small enough,” said the soft voice. “More than a few functionaries have learned the hard way about their clubs when it comes to large rats.”

The next items that turned up were what looked to be a thick bundle of tinned brass spoons, these tied together with string and thoroughly greased; another of those pocket-sized brass stoves, again well-slimed with grease; three small copper 'fryers', which Sarah shook her head at until she accidently unfolded the handle on one of them and then looked at me as if in reproach.

“What?” I asked audibly. Those 'fryers' I had made for mess-kits had a detachable handle that had other uses beyond 'holding the frying pan'. Firstly, it was not 'tied' to the frying pan, which made for a fully self-contained assembly that had few projections of any kind and was readily padded inside with dish-rags for minimal noise. One could carry the thing in a padded sack, and I hoped fervently that Sarah had made at least two such sacks for mess-kits, as I'd held an example back for our trip from one of the latest batches of five such 'full kits' I had made; and with the finding of another smaller brass 'pocket stove' I knew I had done the right thing in doing so. We were now 'covered' regarding 'food preparation', and the only reason to need a larger pot and a 'regular-sized' stove was if we needed to 'boil' clothing or heat bathwater. Somehow, I strongly suspected that place had real showers and washing machines hidden somewhere; and the water, while unpleasant-tasting unless boiled first and then chilled in what passed for a 'refrigerator', didn't have rampant bacteria colonizing its tanks and pipes. They'd gotten that part right in that place, and the shockingly unpleasant taste of the stuff was commonly endured as the price of truly healthy-to-drink 'pathogen-free' water.

Besides, the usual was to boil the stuff for a short time before actually drinking it, or so I suspected, and 'refrigerators' weren't at all rare over there, even if many 'homes' either didn't have them or had units that worked 'poorly'.

“You may wish to copy these things,” said Sarah as she folded the pan's handle back across its five inch width, “even if they are the smallest fryers I have ever seen.”

“His are better,” said Karl. “That handle they have comes off, so you can use it if you must crack a boiled egg or thump a Grossmoend fish.”

“Or mash a firebug when it tries to get too friendly with your toes,” said Sepp, who sounded as if he spoke from personal experience. “That one there and those like it next to your leg might be lighter, and that handle might not have a chance of getting lost, but you'd need a rag to hold it if you want to cook with it and not burn yourself.” A pause. “His don't.” Sepp then looked at me, and smiled before resuming speech.

“Yours don't snag on clothing, and that type there would,” he said, “and if you put your dish-rags in 'em right, they don't make noise when you're traveling.” A pause, then, “Lukas told me about that part, and how he was going to get one of those kits as soon as it could be had.”

“For that trip the two of them took to the third kingdom?” I asked.

“That and one of your smaller heating lamps,” said the soft voice, “and the way you did yours is now not merely well-tested by 'experts', but also 'well-advertised', so I would give some serious thought about getting a spinning setup done as soon as is possible.” A pause, then, “there are tools at the Abbey that will make such matters easily accomplished, in fact – and you will wish to take advantage of them.”

“What did he mean by 'well-tested'?” asked Sarah.

“Ask them when you see them before you leave on that trip,” said the soft voice. “Remember how many times you had to be careful while cooking your meals? They were in much the same situation as you were during much of your traipsing between terms and after you graduated as well, and that both coming and going.”

“No smoke, because the witches will see it for miles, and then you'd have to be especially quiet, especially in some areas they passed through,” I murmured. “I more or less came up with the idea for those things while I was inside that stinky volcano full of cannibals, and the need for quiet then was beyond anything I'd ever encountered before in my entire life.” A pause, then, “only a few situations have come close to that time since, and at least two of those instances were on the trip back from the fifth kingdom.”

“Hence you were guided in your choices of how to make those kits,” said the soft voice. “While that volcano's interior had a need for exceeding quiet, there are other situations that are similar regarding noise and smoke that everyone sitting with you has either heard of, or actually experienced in some cases.”

“That is why you'll wish a faster way to make those things,” said Katje. “That king in the third kingdom wants 'enough of those sets to pay your entire wages for two years', or he is thinking about the matter strongly and trying to keep those around him who are witches from causing him trouble when he sends his order north by means other than the post.”

“Two years?” I gasped.

“He has no idea how fast you do those things, and I suspect he's using the fourth kingdom's standards for such work,” said Katje.

“While you are correct regarding the first, you are seriously off on the second,” said the soft voice. “There are only a few places in the fourth kingdom currently able to make such utensils, and they've got substantial 'stacks' of orders already – and that man is familiar with those firms by reputation, not by actually dealing with them. Those firms who he has dealt with recently are all witch-owned, and they all make nothing but fetishes – fetishes for both working and cost. Seeing that kit opened his eyes some as to what was needed.” A pause, then, “once that one Power and his retinue dies, though, then he'll get truly serious about what he needs to do, as real opposition will be temporarily absent, and it will never be quite the same again.”

The last of the packages from the cache contained two of the smaller pistols, these looking to have seen not merely some careful file-work in places, but also some added 'heat-treating' and overall 'smoothing' with file and strap so as to 'draw' quickly from one's pocket without snagging on clothing. I wondered just how what I was seeing related to that one pistol that had had its deficiencies 'corrected'.

“Similar outcome, save this took a lot more time and effort, a substantial amount of ammunition used to deal with vermin while testing functioning and accuracy, a non-trivial amount of added experimenting, some ruined parts, a lot of stolen pistols from witches to get 'selected' parts, and somewhat less overall durability,” said the soft voice. “These pistols survived a serious 'torture-test', so they can give you some ideas and serve as 'back-up pistols' for two of the party overseas.”

“And I bet there are more of them hidden, also,” I muttered, as I made a mental note to pack at least one of the two in my things. “Now all we need to do is hide this stuff after putting it away, and clean out that last cache.”

That spoken, the matter became clear to everyone, so much so that I was surprised to see everything put back in its satchels and covered with a large piece of that waterproof cloth in a matter of minutes. Only Katje and Sarah remained behind with me as if to remind me of one last needed task, and it took perhaps ten seconds for me to recall what I needed to do. I was tired, and it showed blatantly.

“Oh, let this not show either,” I murmured.

“Now it too will not be seen,” said Sarah. She then turned to go, and moved at something akin to a rapid walk with myself and Katje in tow.

We moved quickly down the 'hall' among the seething throng of wheelbarrows and them loading, and faint moans as we passed that door where Gabriel was 'laboring' were answered by the slashing crack of a whip. Sarah visibly cringed and nearly ran upon hearing that with me hot on her heels, while Katje seemed to be urged on as well by the noise of that whip. We came to find everyone else in the room now 'widening the path' I had made to the last cache, and as I came closer, Maarten said, “now I hope I can think straight. He was making me think like I was some kind of witch while we were standing in that line for food.”

“Did you?” I quietly asked Katje. I hoped she had spoken to him about what we'd found earlier.

“I hinted at it,” she said softly. “He'll need some more work for me to convince him fully. Gabriel, I don't know. You may need to truss and gag him with raw-leather and bundle him inside one of the buggies for the trip home.”

“No, drag his sorry behind after the buggy on a rope tether tied to his hands,” I muttered half-jokingly. “Rough him up some so he's fit for Brimstone's dinner plate, so he knows we're onto his stupid ways of causing us trouble.”

The silence that greeted me was such that I asked, this in a feeble squeak, “what did I say?”

“I would tell him that is your plan,” said Sarah in all seriousness, “and should he not obey you perfectly, then do just what you said and drag him behind a buggy until he is nothing but raw meat and scraps of what clothing he might have on him.”

“Uh...” I was speechless, so much so that all I could do to escape what felt like dire censure was to crawl in the wall's hole, slowly and gingerly turn around, and then ask softly for a lantern. One was handed in, and as I adjusted the collet and moved the small brass 'knob' to find the best spot, the light increased to its usual brightness, then increased to nearly the intensity of that fourth kingdom lantern when turned down to a comfortable level, one suitable for 'close' work at my workbench at home.

“This place has a lot of stuff, but it's all boxed up,” I murmured, as I went to one 'box' and found it actually tied shut with a thicker species of that black waxy 'string'. The chief difference from that string encountered before was the distinct 'braided' aspect this stuff had, which made knots hold well without needing a 'grandmother' to tie them. Even so, I had questions. “What were they going to carry these things on, carts of some kind?”

“Look closer, and you'll find the four knocked-down carts hidden in this cache,” said the soft voice. “I would pass those 'boxes' out first, as they're 'hiding' a fair amount behind and under them.”

The boxes, thankfully, while 'bulky-seeming' at first glance, were not nearly as bulky when I touched them; and picking them up showed them to be much lighter than I thought they would be. I wondered for a moment just what was in them, and then the matter was 'dead obvious': these were the 'routine-use' travel supplies, and those who planned on pulling the carts...

“No, they'd switch off every hour or so, so as to keep moving as quick as they could, with a helper running drag to hurry the thing along if it got hung up or needed portaging,” I thought, as I slid out the second box to show what looked like 'varnished' wood pieces under it and small cloth pouches made of that waterproof material that were previously hidden to its side in the gloom. A touch of those spoke of 'wheels' of some kind, and I recalled just how that one cart's wheels had gone to pieces within the first hundred yards once we began towing it.

“They waxed these, so they're usable still,” said the soft voice. “They'll last long enough to carry much of what's present to suitable hiding places in the house proper, and then the spares in that armory can be used to replace them.”

“And the 'dead' wheels can be, uh, re-tired overseas soon enough,” I muttered to myself.

“That may well take some time,” said the soft voice, “but eventually, they'll be able to make new tires and new wheels.”

While I continued pushing out boxes, I had the impression that 'eventually' was really closer to 'a few months which will seem like a much-longer time' due to reasons that were for the most part out of my hands – and 'new' meant more than just new-made replacements. There were a lot of well-hid ideas for improvements in that place, and those would be implemented as fast as they could be applied.

And as if to supply a rejoinder, the soft voice said, “if you fetch them the 'old' cracked tires and some of their pieces, it is very likely they can 'renew' them fairly easily to give 'usable' wheels.” A pause, then, “some might well look askance at their appearance, but they will work long enough for easy replacements.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I pushed out another box. The lantern I had hung from a dangling wire hook, this waxed well yet still somehow quite rusty, and its light shed a deep-shadowed cone covering an area easily eight by fifteen feet, with a number of 'nooks and crannies' present to provide places to 'hide things'. Given the near-total absence of dust on the floor, I had an idea as to why those creatures had ignored these boxes and other matters: the creatures, even though they were nearly as smart as a fair number of people where I came from, knew enough regarding things they should not touch if they wished to survive...

“What?” I gasped.

“Those creatures, like a fair number of others found here, are a good deal more intelligent than their counterparts where you come from,” said the soft voice. “If you really want to be stunned, though – wait until you encounter what Sarah and some few others have called ticklers.”

“Why?” I asked.

“They may look like those animals you've seen, but they're so different in so many ways that there's nearly no way to compare them,” said the soft voice. “While Iron Pigs have a form of speech and these creatures have their ways of communicating – both vocal and using a form of writing – and those birds named Howls are quite intelligent...” A pause. “None of them come close to ticklers that way.”

“I know about that part,” said Sarah as she slipped inside to 'help me'. “I had no idea this place was so big, and...” What are those things there?” Sarah was pointing at some 'boards' and pieces of 'stiff cloth' on the floor.

“Carts, dear,” said the soft voice. “I'd start passing their pieces out, as Sepp can figure out how to put them together well enough to let you-all clear out this cache in two trips at the most.”

While Sarah at first seemed flustered, I continued pushing boxes out while I indicated which of the 'mounds' contained the portions to carts; and within a minute after pushing the first collection of cart parts out, Sarah ducked her head out of the hole and then came back inside. She seemed excited, surprisingly.

“Those things are just tied together with leather thongs,” she squeaked.

“Those 'thongs' are to keep the tied metal pegs in place,” said the soft voice, “and while those straps may look like leather, they are not that material.”

“It would rot unless it was waxed up good while hot,” I said. “Now where did they get that wax?”

“Someone 'caught' a small swarm of 'bees' early on in their captivity, and built a sizable 'beehive' out of scrap wood. It took quite some time for that swarm to become large enough to produce wax and honey in significant amounts, but like the pigeons they had here – every bee that lives today on the continent is descended from that wild swarm kept at the Abbey during the hot part of the war.”

“First the place swarms with pigeons, and then it hums with bees,” I muttered. “What else did they have up here?”

“Some very fertile crops,” said the soft voice, “as the bees, even from the very first, made certain that every flower that bloomed became fertilized, and between intensive gardening practices, large amounts of well-composted 'manure', and careful selection of the seeds they planted, they effectively 'bred out' a lot of the more-troublesome aspects of the crops they grew.” A pause, then, “they also caused them to need a lot of care to get the best possible yields, which is why the forth kingdom does so well with their small plots compared to this area.”

“And all of our crops come from what Rachel brought,” said Sarah.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “While they did carry small samples of each seed-bearing plant they had with them on their trip, Vrijlaand was still functioning 'fairly well' in the southern third of its territory, and the rest of their slowly-expanding territory was being quickly rebuilt and cleaned up by the time Rachel's people arrived. Their seed-bearing crops mingled with those native to Vrijlaand, and the resulting plants are mostly what are grown today nearly everywhere on the continent.” A pause. “Those plants that are otherwise have a most-secret source, and those growing them are very close-mouthed about where they get their seeds.”

“Slowly expanding territory?” I asked.

“Vrijlaand had a lot of refugees coming in by that time, and while many of them needed a most-thorough education in 'real knowledge' before they were of any use in that society, those people needed places to live from the first. Hence, they 'paid' for their training by first cleaning up and then rebuilding the regions that were damaged by invading forces, then as their numbers and effectiveness steadily increased, they began going beyond the prewar boundaries of Vrijlaand to both the north and the west – which is how what is today called the fourth kingdom actually got started, and where many of the survivors of the Curse eventually arrived to 'rebuild everything anew once more'.”

“Because they needed to, most likely,” I muttered, as I found another stack of boxes. Sarah was dragging a sizable bag-collection out of one of those 'nooks'. “How much stuff did they put in here?”

“Enough to get everyone that was still alive out of the Abbey when the last witch was killed in the place,” said the soft voice. “Those that remained behind wanted to wait until matters 'cooled down' further, but Rachel knew by her dreams that it would not get much better than it was at the time she 'planned' on leaving.”

A pause, then, “she was right, even if she didn't know about that gas until some half-hour after she'd led those leaving out of the place at a shambling run, because many of the region's capable witches had survived below ground in large numbers, and they had ample store of munitions remaining in various caches when she left.”

Another pause, then, “they only learned some years later that they had left during a surprisingly narrow window of opportunity, as not merely were those hiding witches much more common on the surface shortly thereafter – in some locations near here, but a handful of days after their leaving the area – but also that location across the sea resumed medium-intensity conflict for over a year so as to wipe them out utterly.” A pause, then, “they nearly succeeded in doing just that, and the only witches from among those groups that survived that time were those individuals who left the area by the secret way before the main groups emerged topside.”

“They did not succeed in living long, as the Curse killed those witches of that time which remained,” said Sarah. “Is that package part of a cart, or is it something else?”

“Best push it outside, dear,” I said. I wasn't sure just what it was, even if I suspected someone would find a use for it. “If we don't use it, those working here will most likely try to do so.”

It took nearly another thirty minutes, or so I guessed, to clear out this last and largest cache.

When we had finally cleared it out – it needed careful exploration with another lantern to find 'everything', as some things were hidden in holes chiseled into the walls – Sarah went out first; I passed the lanterns to her one at a time through the hole in the wall; and then, I followed the lanterns out. I was spent utterly, so much so that I barely noticed what was happening until I 'came to myself' with an empty vial of honey in my hand, a sticky region below and to the sides of my mouth, and my shaking body leaning at an odd angle – forward and listing some thirty degrees to the right – near yet another somewhat travel-stained ground-cloth crowded with bagged supplies and four 'jammed full' carts of surprising size. Only their near-intact tires – their rubber was a pale white-coated blue-black, this hazed with a fine network of gray-white cracks – was more surprising.

These tires hadn't gone to pieces, and the carts indeed looked altogether usable as they were.

“These carts have decent wheels,” murmured Sepp. “We got all of that stuff on these things, and everyone not towing one of them had their hands full coming out of that room and into this place here.”

“I did?” I asked.

“You carried more than anyone else, least until you got here and I put that honey to you,” said Sarah. “Now you and the rest of us had best get into some more beer and some bread, and this time I've half a mind to go fetch a tin of cheese.”

“They did have plenty of that,” said Maarten. “I'll go fetch a tin.”

While Maarten left 'hotfoot' – he limped some nonetheless – for the cheese, Karl and Sepp went across this wide room to where our supplies had been first laid earlier in this long-and-growing-longer day, and as I sat where I was in something 'resembling a daze', I somehow saw the back side of the concrete 'fold' we were actually in. It was almost like a wide-mouthed alcove mostly hidden by pillars, and my eyes involuntarily closed to then open sometime 'later' at the smell of someone actually cooking a meal where we sat.

“There was more than enough food in the buggies,” muttered Maarten as he stirred a smaller 'common-sized' pot with but a handful of small tinned rivets showing – it was one I had made – “so why did we even bother to ask those people?”

“Shouldn't that be 'why did he talk you into demanding they feed you as if you owned them?',” I asked pointedly. “Why did you buy his rubbish-talk?”

Maarten was speechless, even if Sarah was not:

“They most likely smelled food, and being cold and hungry, I suspect Maarten thought to ask them if they might have some,” said Sarah. “Gabriel – who knows what he had in mind if he was thinking like a witch again.”

“I did not teach him 'manners',” I muttered. “I taught him how to survive Iggy, mostly, and...”

“You cannot teach someone like that much in one night,” said Sarah. “Not when all they know is how to think like a witch.” In lower voice, then, “I wish we could go across the sea without him, but I somehow doubt that much, not with the way the third kingdom is going to be.”

“It will have had the worst portions of its troubles expunged by then,” said the soft voice, “and much more of that trouble will be gone by the time you return – which leaves enough 'nonsense' that his presence will be needed for that portion both departing and returning.” A pause, then, “his capacity might be needed for across the sea, and then, it might not, depending on what happens and who you see over there.”

“So leave him in the third kingdom port,” said Sepp.

“That's not really possible,” said the soft voice. “Those across the sea are expecting certain individuals to show, and if their number is more or less than the number spoken of, then they'll call the whole matter off – and that number, as well as a brief description of several of the party's members, him among them – was issued in the documents Lukas and Gilbertus hand-carried down there.”

And as if to punctuate what had just been said, I heard – or did I feel ?– a faint tremor in the earth, one where it shook under my posterior for nearly five seconds. I looked at Sarah, who said, “I felt that too. What was it?”

“That 'Power' is now in the process of meeting Brimstone,” said the soft voice, “and that entire depot, along with the sizable witch-owned town that rested on top of it, is one huge smoking hole in the ground.”

“Uh, didn't just have part-dismantled rotten cannons in that mess, did they?” I asked.

“Those, their limbers, a vast amount of ammunition of various kinds, hundreds of kegs of powder, vast amounts of dynamite, jugs of distillate and southern cleaning solution, a lot of spare parts to coaches, a vast number of mules being dosed with strong drink for shipment north some distance by the secret way, and huge 'stables' of flatulent drink-dosed swine – and all of that came up recently,” said the soft voice – who implied those shipments but added to the already vast stores of munitions both recent and old present. “That was a depot of sufficient size that rerouting the paths north for the secret way is not going to happen overnight, and repairing it 'enough' to return it to a measure of usefulness will take months at the least, even in that area.”

“Which forces the bulk of those massing witches... Oh, so they'll drive those coaches – or will they?” I truly wondered, even if I didn't wonder at the dire need for a 'meal of substance' not infused with haste. We needed time to eat, go through these packages, get naps while hidden behind them – and then, and only then, could we do the remainder of what was needed today.

It wasn't just me, I now knew. Everyone present was 'sore' and 'tired' – and neither condition was conducive to what we needed to do later.

“No, as they've found a huge number of 'callow' supplicants and 'mass-initiated' them at gunpoint,” said the soft voice. “They'll dose those new-made witches with strong drink infused with datramonium and some other drugs that only a few witches currently know of in the whole of the five kingdoms, and then those people will follow their orders blindly and unthinkingly.” A pause, then, “little do they know that those drugs will become most popular over the coming months among anyone more than slightly inclined to be a witch who can locate them, and dosing those people like they did will be the cause of that popularity.” Another pause, then, “that is the first major dementia-and-drink-induced 'bad choice' made by witchdom's current leadership, and more of such stupidity will be forthcoming in the future.”

That quick?” I gasped.

“Remember, those people are now eating no other foods,” said the soft voice, “and given the combination of being 'thoroughly trashed' and the beginnings of 'brain-rot' caused by that prewar industrial waste, they're currently acting 'entirely insane' – much like Sarah has spoken of the effects of long-term consumption of forty-chain brandy on mining-town thugs.”

“Good, then,” said Sarah with finality. “Now for food, and then dealing with this stuff such that it's all looked over passably, and then a nap.” A pause, then, “and I wonder what will happen after we sleep.”

Sarah's wondering was indeed a question that now rested hard and heavy upon my mind, for as we went through the travel supplies – numbers of pistols of all three sizes we had found thus far; three more rifles; substantial amounts of bagged and tinned ammunition; rag-and-string-bundled smaller weapons; eight more mortar rounds, half a dozen 'larger' cooking utensils – none larger than perhaps a gallon and a half, if I guessed right – what might have been gone-to-dust supplies of food that Sepp indicated was at one time a species of dried meat; numbers of small crudely-labeled bags that looked and felt like small crucial parts to something or another – I found myself not merely preoccupied with food; I was now so hungry that I was not paying close attention to anything beyond the state of my stomach – but now and then, I was forcing back yawns between cheese-slathered hunks of bread and a delicious dried beef soup that someone had 'thickened' with diced potatoes and a few slivers of carrots. This last was something Sepp had charge of, and I furtively glanced at what looked like a surprising thick string-tied stack of palm-sized pasteboard 'recipe cards' he had in a small cloth bag.

“Good that you have those,” said Sarah as she both tried to eat and put away a 'smaller' hand-raised pot. “This one we might want to take, as it's decent for work and a handy size.”

“If we have room for it, yes,” I murmured. I then yawned in spite of myself.

“I would get some more food, then find a clean cloth and sleep on it,” said Sarah. “You need a good dose and then a nap.”

And as if to put action behind this, Sarah 'dosed' me so rapidly I could not object, and as I gasped at the taste – it was from that one vial she'd put up specially containing the tincture for pain and the bull formula, and I'd gotten an entire tube of the stuff – my fatigue caught up with me, and I fell asleep with such abruptness that I forgot about both what was happening and what I was eating.

I was even more surprised when I awoke in the shadow of one of the buggies outside with a sizable folded-double ground-cloth underneath me. There was a soft yet steady wind, which was something of a first in this area. The central part of the first kingdom normally did not have wind of any real nature during the day, and this wind – it smelled faintly of wood-smoke, and much more of sweaty labor, and now and then of distillate – made for wondering.

Specifically, how that wind would be when we sailed.

“Ask for it, and you'll get it,” said the soft voice abruptly. “Do not be shy about asking, either, and don't worry if what I told you about that boat actually comes to pass.”

“F-fly?” I asked. I had the impression the boat would be tearing across the surface of a glassy sea as if it had twin outboard motors of substantial size and power attached to it.

Instead, this impression changed utterly, and I found myself riding something that acted far more like a hang-glider than any normal boat. A dark-painted ship, its lights out save for that of a pulsating light-giving firebomb on deck, was rapidly coming nearer as we came from behind it and somewhat to its left; and when I leaned to the right and back slightly, the thing I was sitting on climbed slowly up from the surface...

And up some eight feet higher than the deck-surface of the near-immobile larger vessel; and as I shot over the heads of the obviously drunk-as-stinkers black-faced sea-going witches, I gently tossed a grenade over the side to land among them and then leaned to the left and forward as I passed the ship's opposite railing – which caused the thing I was riding to dive like a fast-flying flat rock and bank nearly thirty degrees at a speed that made for wondering.

“F-fly?” I asked.

There was no answer, even if my 'landing' on the ocean was a surprisingly soft one, much like that of a graceful seabird, and we left no wake behind us to give our enemies the ability to track us with their forward-facing guns. That could not be said for the boat that received my grenade: the bomb didn't just scatter the pirates, it turned the entire upper works of the ship into a bright-burning torch that exploded with a bright flash some miles and minutes behind us.

“Th-that fast?” I asked in my 'dream'. “A m-mile a minute? Faster yet?”

Again, the enigmatic answer: “Ask, and you'll get it – and don't be shy about asking, either.” A pause, then, “and you'll want to thin out those stinkers some if you can, as that's the other 'secret' way a lot of witches are coming up here.”

I then woke up for real; and again, I felt the wind. Soft, steady wind, wind of an enigmatic freshness, wind of secret portents yet undivined and unknowable.

“He makes his servants winds, and his messengers flames of fire,” I whispered.

And the wind, somehow, seemed to whisper back an answer, though I was not able to understand it.

“Understand it currently, yes,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn the answer shortly.”

Shortly, however, proved quite soon, for I had to use the privy; and in searching for it among rows of neatly-laid-out tents, I found myself mystified until I found someone putting up a strange-looking signpost. I thought to ask him, but he was 'short' and the post a foot taller than his head, and his hammer was that of a stereotypical carpenter, complete with too-long handle and bulbous carved 'face' on the end. I suspected he was using it because nothing better was available, as he was speaking oaths under his breath involving accursed witch-made hammers that needed time in a foundry's furnace.

“Here, let me,” I said, as I grasped the hammer. Two blows sank the post into the ground, and two more made it 'stiff enough to handle wind', as the short man said afterward. My bladder then got my attention once more.

“The p-privy?” I asked.

“Right there,” he said, pointing. “This is the first of those signs Willem did up, and we need lots of them if this camp gets as big as he thinks it will.” A pause, then conspiratorially with his mouth to my bent-down ear, “he's got missing toes and needs to wear gloves on account of an accident, so I trust his judgment.”

As I ran for the privy – my bladder felt like it would burst, and my backside was just behind it for wishing to erupt – I could tell that my presence was causing something of a stir in the still-settling camp. I found the privy, this with a structure bounded by cloth curtains staked to the ground, and shaped such that one entered a cloth-walled 'fold' and then turned right to find a wooden 'stool' with a hole in it, and first urinated and then spewed from my backside. The stench was atrocious, for I not only had a profuse amount of watery dung that verged on diarrhea; I also had a prodigious amount of gas emerge along with it.

“Save that stuff for the forges, you in there,” said someone passing by the privy. “Those people need all o' that stuff they can stand.” A second later – he was busy, and had work to do, hence he was walking rapidly, “they're wantin' burnt-coal bad in that place, and one o' them screaming blowers made in Roos for their forges, they're so busy.”

Further comments, these some distance away as I finished my business in the privy and then left – this furtively, as I'd been 'found out' again – “them things is trouble. They make enough noise to make the dead jump out o' the ground and go traipsing like they was going to the west school, and you can see the fire o' that thing for miles, if what I heard is true.”

“Screaming blowers?” I thought. “That thing may be loud, but it howls more than it screams.”

“It 'howls' if you're in the shop,” said the soft voice. “The higher overtones really carry on that thing when it's running without a 'brick-lined muffler' – and that's what they are talking about.”

“But you don't need to run it that hard for forging,” I murmured.

“They don't know much about that blower save by what they've heard from teamsters coming through Roos,” said the soft voice, “even if that entire blacksmith's shop is going to get a serious overhaul within the next few days once some of the Valley's people show here.” A pause, then, “and expect someone from here to put in an order for a blower and some other things while you're gone on that trip, as those people know about ducting and controlling 'wind'.”

I came back to where I had lain on the grass, but to my surprise, I found not merely my 'ground-cloth' gone – I noticed that one of the buggies now had some of what we had found inside it, and another travel-stained 'ground-cloth' laying over a portion of it. I wondered just how long I had laid outside, and more, how I had gotten outside, when Sarah 'materialized' next to me.

“At least we can get help with some of this stuff,” she said, as she put one of those cloth satchels into my hands. “Here, put this in that buggy there. I'm too short to manage it.”

“Help?” I asked, as I lifted the heavy satchel and put it where Sarah indicated.

“The others, save for Gabriel, are still sleeping,” she said. “I think some of those people wanted breaks from handling greasy tools and moved some of our things, at least those of them against the east wall, into this buggy.” A pause, a yawn, then, “I just got up, and I need to use the privy.”

“Which privy?” asked someone's voice. “There's three o' them things in the camp here, and two more to be dug afore the night falls tonight – and today's stretched, as the sun says noon and my watch says three hours past it easy.”

“Your watch never told time well,” said the voice of the short man from somewhere nearby, “and I am done using that smelly hammer. Now if we could just get it about twelve miles south of here and inside that iron furnace they have there, I'd be happy as Pump after he's gotten his Geneva down inside him.”

Sarah looked at me with a face painted with what might have been horror, and whispered into my ear, “that's the man who redid that single-trigger fowling piece!”

“Do you recall his name?” I asked. I had a suspicion as to who 'Willem' actually was – and the man, not recognizing me, had spoken of himself in the third person so as to protect himself from possible enemies.

“It isn't Willem, as that's who's watching Gabriel,” said Sarah. “I don't recall what his name was, even if I do remember what he sounded like...”

And as if by 'magic', that short man suddenly showed himself right by Sarah.

“Gustav,” he said, “and I know Willem good, on account of I started out with the same number of toes he did, and I did work on his guns regularly as a clock ticks so they worked when he needed them to.” A pause, then, “I didn't chase after witches as much, so I kept my toes – and I have more than ten of them, as I suspect you might have.”

“No, I only have ten toes,” said Sarah as she glanced nervously at her hands, “even if...”

“That's quite strange, as I could have sworn you had something different about you to get all of that attention down there from those stinkers,” he said. “You got more attention that way than I did, and if talk be true, you get more of that attention up here, same as your cousin does.” The man moved over to the other side of the buggy's bed, then, “I thought so. You two are matched right, that's certain. Now I hope I can get myself to that wedding, but there's talk of running wires into this camp from both the east and the south, and they'll want me in on that if they do it.”

“Matched right?” I asked.

“Both of you are dark-haired, you look like each other some except for mostly your height, and you” – here, I understood myself to be indicated – “are known more than Willem is, even down in the fourth and fifth kingdoms.” A pause, then, “and I hope you get you-all some good stuff in there, as only one person has a bigger price on his head among the witches than Willem does that I know of, and that would be you.”

I do?” I asked.

“And you warrant it, if talk be true,” he said conspiratorially. He then smiled, and said slyly, “now tell me this: how did all of those witches in camp get blacked up like they did? Was it you doing something?”

“I...” I was tongue-tied.

“I know I didn't blacken up those stinkers, even if I put lead in every one of the four I aimed at, and though I don't do well with roers, I dropped three of those things right off,” he said. “The fourth one might have managed ten paces before he dropped, though he was a far distance off when I got him.”

“H-how far away were they?” asked Sarah. She sounded more than a little frightened, as she didn't want me to be 'found out' any more than I did if I went by her tone.

“One was an easy hundred paces,” said Gustav. “The furthest one – ha, that wretch thought he was going to wash that full-body ink off when I drilled him, and he drowned in that pool at the river's edge in the east camp before I could drag his sorry carcass out of it.”

“How far was that?” I asked.

“For what I have?” he asked. “About far enough that I know it wasn't just regular practice on my part.” A pause, then, “had I what you have to shoot, I would have thought it more practice than all else.”

“You would not want that rifle,” said another man who came up. He had his hands full of bags and satchels, and deposited his load in the buggy. “There, that is the third one for me since they all dropped off to sleep.” He then looked up to see Sarah and I. “It might have a smaller bore than what you have, Gustav, and it might weigh at least two pounds more, but I've heard it thinks itself a roer for its kicking, and it can drop elk right off no matter how large or angry they are.”

“Sounds like something a marsh-man might use,” said Gustav. “I've worked on some of those.”

“No, it is not a marsh-gun,” said the man emphatically. “This one weighs more than a marsh-gun, and it has some very close aiming equipment, and its barrel is larger than that of a stout fowling piece for the muzzle, and its breech nearly twice that.” A pause, then, “I have never seen its like.”

“I saw that part, and I've seen marsh-guns with gear like that,” said Gustav. “They weren't that close for working, but some of them had aiming equipment like that at the least.” A pause, then to me, “now, does that one gain twist from breech to muzzle, or is it straight-pitched?”

“It gains pitch, sir,” said Sarah. “I measured it myself.”

“Like I taught you to?” asked Gustav. “I know you most likely clean guns right after that one let go on you.”

“She does,” I said, “and I, uh, made up the rifling jig so that it cut the grooves with a gain twist. It's easy enough to change pitch and gain, so...”

“Then I'd like a drawing of it,” said Gustav. “I'm staying here for the duration, same as most of the people that have come up here these last two trips, and the rest of my equipment should come up within a ten-day. It's coming up the back side, but some freight wagons from this area need to meet it, and a building needs making, probably.”

“No more smelly hammers?” I asked.

“That one especially,” said Gustav. “I think one of those stinkers owned it, as that cussed thing was reeking of strong drink when I asked for a hammer and it turned up instead.”

I then noticed Sarah had left for the privy, and I thought to follow the man who had brought our supplies to the buggy back into the 'Upper Alley' so as to retrieve more of the bundled packages and tins. I was surprised to no small degree to see just how far the trenches had progressed in removing the foundations of the turnip patches – and also, how many digging implements were both being cleaned and actually in use. Several large semi-neat mounds of tools lay next to a number of fume-billowing metal tubs, and one after another, a pair of men put tools in the fume-spewing vats and removed other dripping examples but seconds later, with the output of the vat nearest the transom receiving those still-greasy tools and the one further away those tools coming out of the first vat. Its output typically came out more-or-less grease-free and dripping distillate – and those tools tended to vanish within the turn of a glass, and that no matter what they were.

“They'll be runnin' those things out of those rooms long past dark,” said the man I had followed, and I found him easy to believe as I leaped out of the way of first one wheelbarrow going down and then another coming up just as I was about to go in the transom. I dodged the later, then leaped out the way

of a third fully-laden barrow coming up the boards to drop its weary and greasy load by the nearest vat.

“Are they cleaning those things..?”

“As fast as the distillate comes up here, it goes down to Roos with that grease in it,” said the man, who was looking at one of about thirty pairs of gloves laying on the deep sill that fronted on the back of the windows. “Someone needs to clean those pieces of glass better, and I know there's more gloves getting dosed with light distillate somewhere far to the east in the east camp.”

“L-light distillate?” I asked.

“It dries faster,” said the man, “so if you put 'em in a crock o' that stuff, and then take 'em out a glass's turn later and hang 'em in a tree like washing, you can just put wool-grease to 'em once they're dried through and it makes 'em usable again. It's a lot faster than heavy distillate, specially if it's distillate that's been boiled decent.” A pause, then, “and we got enough of that up here, and not just from south of here. Two others been bringing that stuff beyond the man who's got a red arrow hung out on his buggy and running his horses so they're lathered.”

“Where does that, uh, light distillate go?”

“Back in jugs once it's full of grease,” said the man. He was still looking for his gloves, and I wondered why until I saw what he was carrying in his other hand. “These here are greasy, and those on the sill there are the ones they brought back from soaking in that stuff.”

“Wool-grease?” I asked. “Where do you find that?”

“Roesmaan's chemistry has about the best, even if it costs more,” he said. “You can't find it up here, so everyone who can is bringing some up, including that man who's got the red arrow hung out on his buggy. He don't have much, though, so I'm glad others have showed with some.”

“Hans had wool-grease?” I gasped. “I didn't know...”

“That's him, and he said he's been finding more things downstairs than he thought he had,” said the man, “and though his stuff isn't from Roesmaan's, it's decent enough for gloves.” A pause, then, “talk has it's nearly decent enough for drawing thimbles, or so I was told.”

“It is not,” said a woman's voice, “and your gloves just got taken to be cleaned but ten minutes ago, so they will be ready in two turns of a glass.” I turned to see Katje, and she was trying not to yawn. “Now, let me guess. You-all have dug more privies, and every one of those things not only has odor, but is in use.”

“Not sure about the women's privy, but you're right about the men's privies,” he said. “Not many women came up with the group that arrived this morning, on account of most of them needed to stay home so as to sell out entirely once the witches were discomfited.”

What?” I gasped.

“That was what a lot of us dreamed,” said the man – who included himself in 'us', if I went by his tone. “The witches were doing all they could to see Hell keep this place to itself, which was why we needed to leave now and the women needed to stay home and sell our things, but that once we got up here, the witches would have their troubles and those left behind could sell out quickly and come up with little worry of gunfire or the other things that we endured.”

“I think so,” said Katje, as she dodged an outbound wheelbarrow. “I'll be back directly, and roust those sleepers myself.”

While Katje was commendably quick in both finding a privy and then returning, and Sarah and I busied ourselves with loading that one buggy with the 'loot' we had on the east wall, our sleepers were 'disinclined to awaken themselves'. Katje needed to 'poke' Maarten with an awl to get him to wake up, and only his yelp of pain awoke Sepp – who was about to do something similar to Karl when the latter stumbled to his knees and then ran for the outside.

“Now what got into him?” asked Sepp, who put away his 'borrowed' awl.

“I think he wishes to use the privy,” said Sarah. “Now Maarten, I must tell you, if Katje has not. You may have heard these things spoken of as being fetishes, and while some were fetishes, only one place could make that type – and this thing is not one of their weapons, so it is not a fetish.”

“What is it?” asked Maarten – who then suddenly recalled his own need for the use of a privy, and dropped the question forthwith.

“No time for talk now,” said Katje. “Let's get those things out there while they are still wrapped up, and then cover over that buggy.”

We'd managed much of that by the time Karl returned from his time in the privy, and our long heavily burdened 'train' was slowly coming out of the transom by the time Maarten was finished. Katje took him aside as the four of us began packing, and though Sepp had some idea, and Sarah more yet as to how to pack our 'loot', I had to be intimately involved during the whole of the process so as to pack matters such that they fit compactly and would not be jolted unduly on the trip home. Finally, Sepp secured the cover, this being lashed down with ropes; and with that, we could now 'search' for the armory that had been referred to so much in the last few days.

“Maarten, find that bird,” said Katje in a no-nonsense tone. Only Anna's 'Empress Mode' was more so that way. “We will need it, as I suspect both fumes and possible fume-spewing traps.”

Katje then turned to me, and said, “now you can check matters to ensure we will have less trouble than if we just 'got on with it', as I suspect his being with Gabriel for a time unguarded did not completely rub off.”

While I understood what Katje was referring to at some level, I could feel little beyond 'it's hidden very carefully, there are no traps of a worrisome nature left, and it's actually some distance below the Abbey's 'underside' through a passage that winds like at least one staircase at the house proper'.

“We'll want every lantern we have, fresh candles in them, at least one spare candle for each of us and several more for the group, and each lantern adjusted for its best brightness,” I murmured.

“I thought so,” said Katje. “I have some knowledge of how distractable you are based on what I have seen today and yesterday, and I doubt much Maarten understands that.” A pause, then softly, “do you know where it is?”

“Not really, beyond it's in a room off of one of those narrow halls the other way from that one cross-path where we found the rats and the passage to the deep-hole...”

“That's more than I knew,” said Sarah. “I might have found it had I two long days to look, and that only – but we might have an hour to look, if that. Rachel wrote of where the place was in the building, but I think she got confused more than a little as to her directions.” Pause, then, “she had to use a sewing needle hung by a thread for a compass much of the time then, and that thing was commonly confused as to where north actually lay.”

“Where?” I asked.

“In the 'northeast' corner, hiding in a smaller room down one of those close halls where the witches stored their supplies,” said Sarah. “Normally there was a guard-witch present, at least until that deep-hole closed, and that's when they stole most of what they got from inside that place.” Sarah paused, then said, “at least that was what was on the tapestry I had to bathe for, if I remember it right.”

“The traps stopped the witches, but not the workers?” I asked.

“Some of those people could dodge the traps, at least until the witches that were still alive set them off,” said Sarah. “Rachel was the chief thief among several then, or so that tapestry said.”

Once back inside with the bird in column – Maarten was holding its cage between Sarah and Katje, with the former 'watching my back' pistol in hand – I had a much better idea as to where to go. With a sureness that astonished myself, I led past Iggy's Silo at a steady and unhurried walk; past the 'drink-house'; and then all the way to the blind end of that lengthy run. There, I turned left; and when that passage blind-ended, I turned right. I could now feel the location much better, so much so that I moved with an astonishing rapidity, glancing mostly downward at the now nearly-free-of-dust floor to look for traps.

I found none, even if a lot of fresh-looking craters the size of common tin plates now pocked the floor. Some smelled strongly enough that I knew this region had been well-strewn with mines of some kind within the last few days.

“Odd, they weren't there when we passed this way before, as I came past the hallway to that one location with the gas projector.” We would need to return that way again after finding this 'armory' – and there, we would have business. The generator figured in that, though I knew but little more at this time.

“Mostly because they were still 'waiting' when you passed that time, and they detonated roughly two hours after you left when the rats resumed their hunting for insects.” A brief pause, then, “curse-mines were one of that expert witch's specialties, and he rigged nearly the entire path to where you are going with them.”

“Just follow the holes in the floor?” I gasped.

“Close enough, actually,” said the soft voice. “They'll lead you to the guard-box, anyway – and the entrance is not only no longer hidden, but it's about five minutes' looking to find, assuming it doesn't 'get to you' sooner.”

“I suspect it will,” said Sarah. “Ooh, that witch was a stinker, all right. I can see lots of bad shot up next to these walls.”

“That can be collected up and bagged,” said the soft voice. “It might be an impure species of that material, but those from across the sea will desire it greatly.”

“What is it?” asked Katje. “It is very heavy, heavier than lead, and much harder...”

“Tungsten,” I thought. “That wretch used tungsten 'shot' in making his curse-triggered below-the-floor 'curse-mines'.”

“The more common name here is wolfram,” said the soft voice, “but to all save Sarah, both words will be a mystery at this time.” A pause, then, “there's a lot of small sacks of that 'shot' downstairs, and carrying a sample of such shot overseas will get a rise out of the right people should you encounter them.”

“Are there more curse-mines?” I asked.

“There were, and many of them,” said the soft voice. “There are a lot of floors that have such pellets scattered over wide regions in this building, and that place needs that metal badly, more so than their supposed desire for coinage metals.” A pause, then, “and don't be surprised if some of those people start 'prospecting' the local area for that stuff, as the country that used to be here was the chief supplier for that metal and had several sizable tungsten mines – not all of which were in its territory.”

“Sounds like that one witch's work,” I said. The craters were continuing down the hall, one every foot or two, and the grit underfoot was nothing compared to that which had pocked the walls and lay mounded in places next to the walls both left and right. “There's a lot of this stuff, isn't there?”

“Nearly a kilo per mine, and that one witch and his stable of slaves were busy putting those things together and then in place while the place was being 'hardened',” said the soft voice. “He expected nothing short of an 'invasion', so he put those curse-mines in so many places that there's nearly eight thousand pock-marks in the floors alone from mines in this building, and well over nineteen thousand kilograms of 'tungsten' shot laying around waiting to be picked up inside.” A pause, then, “the Abbey's grounds, and the region immediately around it, have a lot more near the surface of the soil.”

“Did the workers use it?” I asked. I could feel the place now. It was less than a hundred feet away.

“No, because it was cursed tungsten,” said the soft voice, “and witch-tungsten was nearly as toxic as that arsenic compound Hans has.” Brief pause. “Unlike most arsenic compounds, the mere contact of such shot with the skin caused a debilitating and lasting illness long ago, and it's still capable of causing trouble that way today.” A pause, then, “melting it in small amounts in the correct type of furnace will both remove the bulk of its many impurities and remove the curse-taint.”

“And they have those,” I murmured.

“At this time, no,” said the soft voice. “They have most of the parts needed, however, and making most of the remaining portions won't take long at all.”

“Most?” I asked.

“Some few parts will need equipment that is currently inaccessible to them,” said the soft voice – who implied that such equipment could readily be made accessible if I was inclined to first find it and then open the needed doors.

“For which I was given a certain key as evidence,” I murmured, as the trail of mine-pocks – or pox – turned to the left down a narrow hallway. I turned to my right as I passed the corner in order to look carefully; and there in a small alcove, I saw, wreathed in shattered glass and fragments of wire reinforcing, the guardhouse spoken of. It had no door to either the west or east, nor a knob to the front of the obvious south-side door, but I suspected it needed a special transmitter of low frequency waves to actually unlock it – and the activation code was changed in a random fashion each time the guard was changed, so the guard-witch was locked in place until he was relieved by his replacement – who would come when he was 'entirely full-inclined, and that toward his espouséd duty'. That often meant a very lengthy guard-shift – and in some cases, that shift endured unto days, this without a hint of respite.

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “Relief for this location only came at the whim of the witch next on the duty roster, which was a change put in place by the Mistress of the North. She wanted witches – and by extension, witch-soldiers – who would stand guard at their posts no matter what happened; more, she insisted they both remain fully vigilant and at their posts, this until they either died or were relieved of their duty – and which happened first of those two things mattered not a whit to her.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “I thought I was being 'harsh' when I wrote of such matters...”

“Be glad today's witches think they measure up to what the black book teaches, even if the regime you were informed of would actually work far better.”

“Work better?” I asked. “That much better?”

“Only strong witches could remain alert and on guard much longer than the time-frames you specified in that portion, while most ordinary people, given training and adequate beer, could manage four hour stints readily unless they were either severely sleep-deprived or deeply into their cups,” said the soft voice. “Drunken witches make poor guards in general, and extending guard shifts into days usually meant witches who were both blind-drunk and dead to the world – and that no matter who gave such orders or much else that could happen to them if they caught 'napping'.”

Speaking of summary on-the-spot executions for such dereliction of duty wasn't going to help someone like that remain alert, even if the person both speaking and killing – killing personally, in fact – was 'The Mistress of the North' her-own-self.

The hall seemed endless in the clutching gloom, and I passed both of the first offices to the left and right. Those were indeed offices of a sort, places where track was kept of the stores of ammunition and other things below. The next room to the right was where the armory's guards themselves lay or lounged in a state of half-trashed readiness, while the one beyond it on the right...

No, not that one. There was a thin wall, one just feet beyond it on the left, one erected and 'carefully' plastered over once done...

I turned to the left, took out my riveting hammer – and forgot about the hammer and simply kicked roundhouse-style to strike waist-high at the wall.

The whole shoddily-done red-outlined mess crashed inward explosively to leave a gaping man-tall hole, and a few half-hearted swings of my hammer knocked every stinking fourth-rate brick that remained into falling shards that went to red-brown dust within seconds after they hit the floor.

“They bricked it up,” muttered Sarah. “I had no idea they did that, as she did not speak of it...”

“Mostly because the witch who bricked it up was one of the few 'strong-enough' witches who was taught the proper chants to say by that 'expert' witch so as to have that particular batch of curse-mines ignore him,” said the soft voice, “and because he had to chant that collection of curses nonstop the whole time he was present in order to survive, he did not waste an instant's time or effort bricking up the wall and then 'plastering it over' so it 'matched' the rest of the walls here.” A pause, then, “his wall lost most of its staying power over the centuries since his death in a gun-battle a short time later, and that wall lost the rest of that power when that deep-hole went – hence a single kick broke it down, and a few leisurely swings of a hammer destroyed the rest of it.”

“And now we have dust,” I muttered. “Brick-dust, no less.”

I could just feel the question coming.

“Which collection of witches needs brick-dust, and just where do they need it?” I murmured. “Their underclothing, obviously, as starch wants brick-dust, and grease really needs brick-dust...”

The dust began to vanish steadily, even as I continued speaking of it finding the hair of witches, the wheel bearings of coaches, the sumps of evil engines, and other places where it would cause trouble. It was becoming something akin to 'valve grinding compound' on the skin of witches somewhere. I could feel this happening, and that educated what I said next. The other matters were more delayed in their effects, and needed no further attention from me – unlike what I had put to the skin of a small multitude.

“Now those witches will all have the itch most severely, and they will not be shut of it,” I murmured. “They will scratch at themselves as if they were dogs infested with fleas, and slap at themselves as if insane, and their entire skin will acquire the bright red color of ancient brilliant-red curse-bricks, even where their clothing does not hide the stuff, and then... And then, their mules will recall what the smell of bricks meant in the old days of their long-ago ancestors, and they will become most fractious and irritable...”

“Those things are already that way,” said Karl. “I spoke a good hour with that groom after he sold his.”

“No,” I said softly. “Every mule today was once a true-mule in some fashion hundreds of years ago, and those were much worse for behavior, unless you were a most-strong witch and knew the mule-curses and chanted constantly those curses loudly so as to control them.” A pause, then, “I meant those mules, not Genuine Plugs with full odor fresh from Mekhicho – which merely need some modest education on the part of the rider as to the nature of mules and perhaps an occasional treat to be willing mounts.”

I then gasped, and spluttered, “what?”

“That is very close to the truth,” said Sarah. “I rode one once, remember?” A pause, then, “what sort of treat would such a mule wish?”

“B-barley, or coarse-ground rolled corn, or something similar to 'mash',” I said. “Oh, perhaps carrots. They like those, especially new-carrots with a bit of honey or sugar-tree sap.”

“I'll remember that should I ever need to ride a mule again,” said Sarah. “I hope I do not, but with times like these, one can never be certain.” A pause, then, “and I think I need to adjust my lantern here.”

That proved a most-wise reminder, for when I looked at mine, while the light was as bright as it was usually, when I adjusted the bead downward the light flared briefly and then went out entirely. A glance inside the lantern showed but a thin film of wax remaining on the bottom as well as a tiny charred fragment of wick, and I dumbly brought up the collet and slipped a candle into mine after removing the remnant of consumed wick with my finger. As I brought down the wire 'spring' to first give the faint hazy glow of ignition and then a flame which quickly grew brighter, Sarah shook her head.

At least until Katje did much the same thing after removing a much-used candle-stub and passing it to Sepp. He had the bag for candle-stubs, and when I looked at him in unfeigned shock, he said, grinning, “I got five feet of first quality wick from Tam three days ago, and I hope I can get some more. Now are you going to bring a candle-mold and a punched tin piece so we can make more of these things across the sea if we need them?”

“I'll make certain of it,” said Sarah. “I told Anna to run what candles she could, if she was not too busy.”

“She's been that,” said Katje, as she adjusted her lantern. “I hope we can borrow ours while you-all are gone, as decent lighting is scarce at home.”

“I think you might wish the fourth kingdom lantern,” said Sarah, as...”

“They'll only want to show common tallow candles outside of their basement, dear,” I said. “That big column won't be showing for quite some time, but you may rest assured there will be watch-witches within a week at the most – if they are not already there now.”

“Those people are scratching themselves raw, when they are not thumping each other with lead-loaded clubs,” said the soft voice. “You just gouged out the witches' eyes when you asked that brick-dust go find some witches.”

“Gouged out their eyes?” asked Sarah – whose tone indicated there were things too severe even for witches to endure. I suspected she knew of what I had done to one of the traitors regarding his eye and then making him swallow it whole like the snake he was.

“Blinded them, in a word,” said the soft voice. “These people were the vanguard of those coming by the secret way, and they were more or less living underground during the day and emerging at night so as to spy on those regions of interest to those soon-to-arrive immigrants – and given that they'll either be comatose or dead within the hour due to their 'insanity', witchdom's 'charge to the north' is now a blind one.” A pause, then, “they weren't the only ones to get brick-dust in their underclothing – a lot of other witches in important places got 'the itch' as well, and that particular event happening when it did is starting to give some witches the fear.” I wondered about the effects on 'evil engines' and coach-axles, then did not: both were readily replaceable, even if the troubles that resulted weren't trivial.

“That itching will do little to many of this lot,” said Katje. “Those drugs he spoke of, especially if given with strong drink, make witches so stupid they cannot feel fear – or much else, for that matter.”

“Not at first, anyway,” said the soft voice, “and you are correct about the stupid part, which is something that they have in common with the vast majority of blue-suited thugs across the sea. More, that stupidity is both immediate in onset and altogether lasting in duration, as those drugs, especially when given in combination with strong drink, are extremely addicting.” A pause, “only the way they are administered across the sea is worse that way, in fact – which causes a yet-more-intense species of that stupidity in most who are thusly addicted.”

Stupid?” I asked.

“How else can a people like those currently found overseas become so 'hard'?” asked the soft voice. “They are not like the people here, and that brittle 'hardness' those thugs possess is bought at a very high price – if you go by the standards found here. If one uses the standards found among the 'commons' overseas, then that price is beyond their comprehension.”

The brick-dust was now gone in its entirety; and thus, the last barrier now lay bare. Lanterns adjusted bright, such that I was shadowed darkly by a light-storm at my back, I crossed the threshold to find a realm of sooty darkness that sheeted down to the floor to vanish as I passed. I seemed to see vast hoards of curses, these all writ in blood-inked runes, slide down the arched roof of this tall passage and then fall to the floor in vanquished ruin, this to vanish as I left them behind; and with each step, I noted the nature of the lining of this 'tunnel to nowhere', it too being bricks.

Real bricks, these put in place by someone of real power, and that long before the shutters came down to close this place off from the real world of witchdom; and their enduring nature spoke of either very strong curses of an unknown species...

“Or someone went out to the green area and bought these bricks there,” I muttered. “Real mortar and real trowels, because fetishes would need constant chanting to endure and those that put those things on the wall afterward...”

“They added those as an afterthought, and those masons knew much more about brickwork than they did about curses and curse-painting,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, you're right. This portion was built during the 'hardening' stage, and these bricks, while not 'officially rated', are nearly as good as the best bricks used during that time in this area – and the same for this mortar.” A pause, then, “given that the Mistress of the North wasn't above bypassing the official channels when she felt thwarted, her use of green-area materials isn't surprising.”

“Most builders did, didn't they?” I asked.

“Those constructors who weren't on the hot list, yes,” said the soft voice. “Buildings in this area either needed to be especially cursed to endure for long periods, or they needed to be built properly – and the cursed ones didn't stand up well to bombs and artillery, so it was non-cursed materials for the bulk of this one.”

“Those, uh, Villas?” I asked. I wanted to ask, “is this hallway playing games with distance, or am I becoming disoriented by something I'm ignorant of? Do I need some honey?”

“Many such dwellings in this region were heavily cursed,” said the soft voice as I got a slurp of that strange-tasting thick liquid, “and this hallway, while it is giving up its cursed aspect readily, is still playing some games with distance. It's also longer than you might think in reality, as it's curving steadily to the right as it goes down through a solid-rock channel until it's actually outside the Abbey's augmented foundations.”

“This place has a basement?” I asked. “One we haven't seen yet?”

“Yes, though it's not much as basements go,” said the soft voice. “That diary you found speaks of it as being a realm of dampness, bad smells, vast numbers of sizable rusting pipes, and deep slimy pools of sewage, and even the rats stayed out of it then.” A pause, then, “the sewage pools are dry now, and it's a lot less damp. Everything else is much the same, as the rats learned long ago there wasn't any food there, even if those other creatures found more than one way of getting in and out of the Abbey using paths they made long ago and still use today.”

“And they then go all the way up into the attic with the things they've stolen from the surrounding area,” I murmured.

“Precisely so, and for a very long time,” said the soft voice. “You'd be surprised how far afield those things often go of an evening.”

“How far?” asked Sarah.

Miles past the town where Korn lives on the west side, a similar distance to the north, several miles past Roos for the south, and to the banks of the Main on the east side – though they're staying out of the camp here currently, as it's sleeping little now and will not sleep at all in the very near future, and they know parts of Roos are far too dangerous for them, especially since you came here.” The you, I understood, meant 'me' in particular, and to a lesser degree, Sarah.

“How much do those things take?” I asked.

“Quite a bit, actually,” said the soft voice. “It isn't at all rare for them to carry off nesting birds and their nests, any small animals they encounter in their raids, vast amounts of crops both before and after harvest, clothing left hanging outside to dry in the summer, the occasional calf that isn't penned up stoutly at night, and a great deal else.” A pause, then, “they're quite capable burglars, actually, and getting inside of most dwellings is no trick at all for them.”

“Stinking things can squeeze through a hole not much bigger than that of a common rat,” I muttered.

“The smaller ones can do that easily,” said the soft voice, “and when this area had large numbers of witches living in it, their houses received a lot of attention, much more so than those of mere farmers.”

“They stole from the witches?” gasped Sarah, as I brought out my compass to check our heading. We had been told correctly: this passage was now heading southwest, and it originally had gone nearly due south.

“Those creatures love shiny things,” said the soft voice, “and because witches demand their fetishes of a metallic nature have – and retain – a high polish, they're very attractive to those animals. Hence when you clear out that attic in the future, you'll find a lot of fetishes up there.”

“All of them fit for melting,” I muttered. “Probably tens of thousands of pounds of tarnished third-rate cast brass rubbish.”

“No,” said the soft voice. “They've gotten a lot more than that, and that's just for the fetishes. They also like to steal gold and silver – they're shiny also – and there are mounds of coins all over that attic.”

“I have yet to see a shiny coin,” muttered Sarah, “so how is it witches have their coins that way?”

“Much of what 'witch-jewelers' do is 'polish' coins,” said the soft voice, “and their actions taint a surprisingly large number of the coins currently in circulation.” A pause, then, “granted, that taint does wear off in time with handling, but that's one of the chief reasons the common coins are impossible to read.”

“That, and they're investment-cast by jewelers, so what marks that do show gradually get erased or distorted with repeated copying.”

“No, most jewelers manage genuinely faithful copies of their 'master-coins', and they tend to trade their best impressions among themselves so as to produce more-faithful copies,” said the soft voice. “More, several individuals in the fourth kingdom's market actually 'sharpen up' the best master-coins they can find with careful engraving work, and those go for 'fetish-prices' among honest jewelers.” A pause, then, “Andreas did that with his master-coins to some degree over the course of several years, even if what he started with aren't the best examples to be found and he wasn't entirely certain what the originals looked like.”

“So the chief reason our coins are so vague for markings is the activity of the witches,” said Katje.

While there was no answer, the fact that witch-jewelers had 'polished' so many of the coins in circulation added yet another reason to why all of our coins needed to be minted anew: there were specific curses involved in the production of witch-money, such that 'money' was to be the property of witches only; and by others using such cursed coinage, they were to become the slaves of witches, if not witches themselves.

And perhaps that was part of the reason why I felt money to be so 'nasty-feeling' here. One portion, however, I knew for certain: I had never enjoyed speaking about money, this since my childhood; and it had always felt 'bad' in some strange way, at least since I began working after finishing my last degree. Before that time, I had seldom given the matter thought, this mostly due to the sheer 'scarcity' of the stuff in my life for all save a handful of years while at one particular firm.

Most of that time I had been too controlled by 'torture-drugs' to find 'pleasure' in anything.

“There is a chapter in those black books about money, its usage, production, and restrictions,” said the soft voice – whose tone implied I knew something about the last topic – “and while current witches know at least some of that information, they understand what they know poorly at best unless they're most familiar with those red books Cardosso wrote. If they have those, then they not merely know why this region only let witches actually have money and issued 'tokens' to non-witches, but it also gives them the much-needed background regarding the curses written in the larger black books involving the production of proper witch-coins.”

“Meaning you need both a large black book and those three volumes to effectively curse money,” I muttered. The compass heading was still turning west – it seemed the only answer I was to hear, or for that matter, need – and our path, though barely perceptible before as to slope before this time, now sloped downward noticeably. There was no answer to my question beyond my recollection of what was written in the book about how loving money meant hating God.

“Now we're going closer to west-northwest,” I murmured, as I stopped to adjust my light toward further brightness. “How much further?”

“About twenty yards once you come to nearly 'due west',” said the soft voice. “You're below the 'slime-pit' now, and by the the time you reach that door, you'll be another twenty feet lower down than you are now.”

“Yes, and it is getting cold here,” said Karl. His teeth were beginning to chatter with his next words. “First all of that work to get h-hot, and n-now it is c-cold.”

“That will make things keep better, Karl,” said Sarah. “You do want your guns to work well, don't you – ones that all they need is wiping their insides with oily rags so you can air out the smelly hides of some witches?”

That silenced Karl most effectively, as I suspected he'd recently given oath in a church near his home. What kind of oath, I wasn't certain, beyond it had to do with the demise of witches in some way.

“More than merely that,” said the soft voice. “He wants to see every single witch in hell where they belong, and he's prepared to do all he possibly can to make that happen – and he said that oath when he was last home four days ago to get his last things for the trip.” A pause, then, “that oath, or ones like it, are commonly being said as people leave for here from the fourth kingdom – and like Karl, they are 'in' for the duration of hostilities, however long that might possibly be or whatever the eventual outcome.”

“P-pendant,” I thought. I then realized that word had come forth somehow as a faint and breathless whisper.

“Those need no oaths,” whispered Sarah. “I am glad I do not have that thing about my neck, and I suspect Karl now has an idea as to why he would not wish it either.”

“It is like a miller's upper stone, which is the big one of the two stones millers use,” said Karl, “and you are right. I would not want one of those things, not any of them, as I would turn witch for certain if one of them had me.”

Karl might just as well have said 'owned me', as that was the nature of being given to a pendant.

“I would not be too certain of that, Karl,” said Katje, “even if you said what you did then in a state of ignorance.” A pause, then, “that oath, especially the way you said it with your face in the dust on the floor of that church, will demand assistance so it does not crush you like an insect; and when you receive your markings, you will be glad for having them – as then, not only can you not turn aside from your duty no matter what or how horrible it is, but you will then wonder if one of the pendants would have become a lesser burden in time than that oath.” Another pause, then, “yet still, you are right about that particular pendant. I spoke of one of the other six, as their assigned labors were small in comparison to it.”