Investing the Abbey, part five

I suspected that Katje speaking of rats being a primer was indeed the truth, for when I next examined a hollow under the workbench, I found not merely three mummified dead rats, but also the well-gnawed body of a spider; and when I looked up, I noted Sarah holding her rat-club as if she expected to use it. I was more than a little surprised when something 'leaped' at her from seeming nowhere and she swung on the thing – which sent it flying my way. I dodged it as the stunned rat flew head-over-paintbrush tail in my direction to bounce on the bench-top and then slide off to hit the floor with a thud.

“The rats are bad in here,” said Sarah. “That one came out of a hole it had chewed in a cabinet.”

In the next two minutes, Karl shot another rat with his slingshot, and Sepp spitted one with his sword, while Katje took out something she had hidden in one of her satchels and swatted one past me into the darkness. The sight of a rat flying overhead as if riding a skyrocket was enough to make me duck.

“What did you hit that thing with?” asked Sarah. She'd obviously seen the rat go sailing past me.

“An old ax-handle I shortened some with a bad knife,” said Katje. “I'd give twenty guilders for a club like he has, but...”

Katje's speech faded out. I was hearing a noise I recognized, one that I had last heard in a fifth kingdom money-changer's shop. Rats, when living in 'witch-holes', acquired certain aspects by their mere presence; and while most of the rodents we had dealt with so far were 'domestic' rats, this animal was imported from somewhere much warmer.

“No, not hell,” I thought. Again, I thought of that huge fifth kingdom varmint. Was a club enough to deal with a rat nearly as large? I wondered for a moment, then felt the animal about to spring at me. I glanced to the right – and then down and straight ahead as a gray 'missile' launched at me and I swung on it with a smashing blow that slammed it hard into the wall just above the cabinets to my left.

“What was that?” screeched Sarah.

“I th-think it was a...” I paused, then saw what I had done. The rat, though still alive, was not merely the largest stationary rat I had ever seen, but also well-beyond stunned. I'd smashed it hard enough that it was not doing well, and with a feeble squeak, it went into a convulsion and died.

“This thing's easily two feet long in the body,” I muttered. “I'm not sure if it was as big as that one in the fifth kingdom or not, but... My, look at those teeth!”

While this rat had 'incisors' like I recalled with the small pet ones I had once raised – they were in the same place as those I had raised, if not easily an inch longer – it also had sizable 'fangs' that were in the usual place for the teeth of a carnivorous predator; and when I nudged the nearest paw of the dead animal, the claws that 'extruded' had me gasping.

“Bad trouble,” I muttered. “Claws that big could...”

“That was what I was talking about,” said the voice of Katje somewhere to my left. “Unless I am far wrong, though, that one was cursed, which means the others in here had come to help it.”

Each lantern shed a sphere of light about the person who carried it, but their light seemed to be swallowed up by darkness before it had gone perhaps four feet. I continued walking, now doubly wary for trouble either mobile or stationary, and as I passed the last of the ripped-open cabinets – the bombs had left them untouched – the laboratory seemed to stretch further on, perhaps into infinity. I could feel other rats, however, and when I mashed one unthinkingly with the club, I saw – and this clearly – that with the passing of their 'illustrious leader', the remaining rats had 'gotten the fear' and were making themselves scarce. I seemed to relax a trifle, at least until I heard the 'Thwap' of a slingshot again.

“I missed that one,” said Karl morosely. “I think the rats are leaving, as that one laid dung as it left.”

“Good,” said Gabriel. “I might not dislike rats to the degree Katje does, but that does not mean I enjoy their company.”

“Especially given that we've going to have a large and most irate dragoon in here before long...”

I paused in my speech, for I had suddenly come to the very end of the wall, and as I looked up from the floor to the ceiling, there seemed to be nothing beyond an unbroken wall to nearly the top of my head – until I saw a rust-framed window of many small panes of glass, complete with a long and rust-ridden cylindrical padlock and foot-deep 'tapered' embrasure surrounding it. I then began to come back the way I started, and at the first cabinet under that central workbench, I bent down, lantern in hand, set the club on the top of the bench, and 'looked' for traps inside.

I could not tell if there were any in that fashion, so I gently put my hand on the handle – and just as quickly, drew it away and began reaching for a rag.

“Is that one trapped?” asked Katje.

“I'm not sure if it is or not,” I said, as I began wiping my hand, “but I am sure of one thing: if there are traps, I want to know about them now, rather than learning about them the hard way while dealing with that overweight iguana downstairs.”

“What did you call that thing?” asked Katje. “I cannot speak that word.”

“An iguana,” I said, as I found a clean rag and once more began gently opening the door with the rag around its handle. A gentle pull, then with a faint and dry creaking noise – a long time without lubrication, dirt, and perhaps other things made for such noises – the door came open a crack. I looked down inside carefully, saw no wires or other things of a trap nature, and gently opened the door further.

“Some big glass jugs,” I murmured. I grasped one, first looking and then feeling carefully for anything strange, then took it out to set it on the bench. “That looks like, uh, some language I've seen before.” I was thinking of Korean writing, to be precise.

“Not any language here, then,” said Katje. “At least, I do not think it is one that was used here. Sarah might know.”

As if called, Sarah was by my side but seconds later, and upon looking for a moment at the jug, she said, “this came from where Norden now is.”

“That language?” I asked.

“Is one that isn't taught currently,” she said, “even if I recall it being spoken of on more than one tapestry, and I recall seeing symbols like that before.”

“That one place where you bathed?” I asked.

“That was the best place to see those things,” said Sarah, “but I doubt they print much regarding that language.”

“Mostly because that society has been dead since the Curse,” said the soft voice. “That one place not only has the needed type to print that language, but also a species of word-book that details both the meaning of those symbols, but also some of their words.”

“Some?” asked Sarah. “What good is a word-book then?”

“That society was very secretive while it still existed, so much so that when it sent its soldiers to the mainland to cause trouble, no one – and I mean no one – knew who they were until the hot part of the war was over and they had nearly brought the country that once operated this facility to its knees. Only one place did more damage than those people did.”

“Who?” asked Sarah.

“Vrijlaand,” said the soft voice. “They'd already done the hard part, so those people from the north had a relatively 'easy' time of matters, compared to before that time – when all save their very worst people vanished without trace within days of being sent out.” A pause, then, “those individuals tended to last a few days longer before they 'vanished' as well.”

“Shouldn't that be 'best' instead of 'worst'?” I asked.

“That place to the north was as much a witch-hole for its behavior as this one was,” said the soft voice, “even if they did not believe as those in this area did.”

As I set the jug back where I had gotten it, I could feel the presence of something behind me and nearer the end of the wall. I wondered for a moment if I needed to look further under the benches, then went to the next cabinet in line heading west under the central workbench. There was something important in this region also, though what it was I had no idea of.

Yet still, the thought in the back of my mind now came to the fore, and I spoke of it as I 'felt' for another trap.

“I wonder if this place has something, like, uh, this one really nasty drug?” I said softly.

“Why?” asked Sarah. “You do not need... Are you planning on dosing that dragoon?”

“The thought did occur to me... Oh, now I recall what its name was,” I gasped. “It was called Chlorpromazine.”

“What is that?” said Sarah.

“Recall those pills they tormented me with with?” I asked. “One of them was called that, and calling it nasty was calling it wonderful – and it was not wonderful. It had another name, one that was a little better known – and for the life of me, I cannot recall that name.”

As I continued looking under cabinets, however, I could feel another sensation growing steadily, and when I moved toward another cabinet in the long and endless-seeming row under the rim of that central workbench, I almost ran into Karl. I could feel him growing restive, and more, thinking that I was crazy for being so careful.

“What is it you are doing looking around like this?” he asked.

“That lizard is most likely going to desire us as a meal, Karl,” I said calmly, “and I suspect not becoming a meal is going to demand all of our attention. Hence, we do not wish to get blown up while trying to deal with that stinking lizard.”

Again, I could feel the 'pull' of that far corner of the laboratory, but I now knew more clearly: while it might need me doing most of this particular work, and while it might make certain of the others irritable and restive, I needed to do what I was doing.

“Especially these center cabinets,” said Maarten. “I might not be much good for looking in them, but I know that lizard is big enough to wish to make certain it does not blow us up.”

“Don't you mean 'burn us up'?” asked Sarah.

“It will try to do that regardless,” said Maarten. “Hans told me about those bombs, and I think he told me of the smell of that particular mule, as I'm finding shot from them almost everywhere I set my feet.”

“He needs new shoes,” said Katje, “as do I. At least I have enough money saved to be able to get them shortly.”

I stopped what I was doing, dug out my money pouch, and handed it to Katje, saying, “get the amount you need out of there and put it safe where you'll not misplace it. You'll want to be wearing new shoes before two weeks is out, and you were sounding as if the time frame to having enough money to order them was closer to 'three months'.”

“Why?” asked Karl. “It is good weather now, isn't it?”

“They have to walk a lot, remember?” I said, as I returned to my looking in the cabinets. I'd found more large jugs, these with more of that script that resembled Korean; and I was noticing a fair amount of 'traffic' slow-shuffling through the dust behind me. I was wanting to sneeze from the dust.

“Who's that moving around?” I asked. It made me more than a little nervous, given that I might be dealing with hair-trigger bombs.

“I'm keeping those who want to 'get on with it' busy,” said Sarah. “I don't know what is in those jugs and things you've found so far, but if their contents are anything like distillate for fires and that dragoon smashes them, then we will be in great trouble should it send flame.”

“I was worried about more traps, dear,” I murmured thankfully. “Thank you just the same.”

However, as I continued looking, I noted the following: whatever Sarah and those helping her were moving was having a salutary effect upon me, so much so that I found it possible to move a little quicker when checking once I had come to the end of the workbench and looped around it to once more head east. As Katje followed me – she kept my 'baseball bat' close to hand, then put the jugs or whatever I found on the bench-top some distance to my left – someone else took the cleared items away. As I came to about the middle of the back side of the workbenches, I asked quietly, “where are they taking those jugs and things?”

“There were a lot of offices we passed on the way into this place,” said Katje, “and while a few of them have bone-masses in them, most don't have much of anything beyond dust, dirt, old desks like some in the kingdom house, and some old shelves that look to be made of a very bad species of wood.” I could tell Katje knew what she was seeing was not what it looked to be, but something else entirely – and more, I wondered about the term 'bone-mass'. It made for recollections of horror movies involving 'zombies', as the more-common word for 'skeleton' was different.

“That is not wood, Katje,” said Sarah as she returned and I stood up to move to my right. There were but three more of the central cabinets to clear. “I am not sure what that stuff is, but it is not wood – and saying it looks like bad wood is insulting to trees and and a curse upon woodcutters.”

“Plastic?” I thought, as I started opening door number three. It, like the others, was not rigged. Something was getting through to me – something about 'only rig the good stuff' – and we'd already gotten that. These jugs didn't have 'good stuff' in them – whatever that actually was.Compressed sawdust mingled with glue? Rolled crude-paper impregnated with... What? Agricultural wastes compressed into...”

“Not even that good,” said the soft voice. “What Katje thought to be 'bad wood' is a late prewar 'wood substitute' made from the fibrous portions of roadside weeds and other plant debris bonded under heat and pressure using modified plant resins.” A brief pause, then, “however 'bad' it actually is, it makes that stuff you once spoke of as 'compressed sawdust' look worthless – and that in all useful capacities.”

“Weak, brittle, goes soft when it rains...” I did not like 'compressed sawdust', otherwise known as 'particle-board' in some circles. Even the better grades were tough on cutting tools, poor firewood, and worse-yet building materials. I started on door number two of the remaining doors.

“At least when it was new, it was none of those things,” said the soft voice. “It was nowhere near as strong as 'good' wood is here and now, especially if that wood is carefully selected and treated properly after cutting, but if one speaks of it otherwise, it beats most wood currently available handily.”

“If it's weaker, then how does it beat wood?” asked Katje. Door number two had a lot of smaller bottles, so much so that unlike the mostly-empty cabinets before and that handful of cabinets that had had larger containers, I knew I needed to be especially careful here.

“It kills insects that attempt to eat it,” said the soft voice, “and it does much the same thing to all forms of dry-rot fungus.” A brief pause, then, “and in that time and place, wood of any kind was scarce and expensive – and that stuff was not merely very cheap, it was also readily processed into 'utilitarian' things like those bookshelves you saw.”

“Scarce?” I asked. I was feeling around, not touching the bottles. Most of these were also marked in that 'Korean' language, though some were utterly illegible due to the action of time and perhaps liquids.

“As in 'it's nearly impossible to find usable pieces of lumber, much less buy them',” said the soft voice. “All of the trees left by that time in this area were 'curse-trees', which were not only useless for lumber but also deadly poisonous to touch, much less process into wood products – and burning them just spread their toxic gray smoke everywhere the wind happened to blow.”

“Those huge things at Norden?” I asked, as I checked the last of the smaller bottles. I was once more being reminded of that one drawer – and the feeling that I needed to check all of these cabinets was the strongest it had ever been. That 'dragoon' would mash up some of them; I was certain of it.

Which ones it would mash was the quandary, and I'd checked all of them save one – which needed checking, I now knew.

“Are mutated forms of curse-trees,” said the soft voice. “Their mutations chiefly caused them to grow much faster and become far larger than they would otherwise, as well as 'throw off' the collection of curses that caused them to grow into 'topiary' shapes without any attention past their actual planting.”

With exaggerated care, I began handing out these bottles, and with each such bottle, I could feel their uncommon heft. Whatever was in these containers felt like a heavy inorganic chemical, and with each such bottle I removed and put upon the top of the bench, I hoped and prayed it did not contain a liquid death compound or something with arsenic in it. There were a lot of those chemicals – perhaps twenty inorganic variants having 'liquid death', and over thirty with 'arsenic' – and several times that number of organic chemicals having one or the other element.

With the last of these bottles, I had but one cabinet left, and as I touched its handle with my rag, I felt 'something' inside. With greater-yet care, I pulled gently on the handle using my fingertips without the rag I had used for the others, and felt the faintest tug of resistance. I removed my knife from its pouch, then gently put the blade in the crack and began 'feeling' for the line that I could now discern, almost as if I were looking at the thing itself through the wooden – or 'wood-substitute' – door, and when my knife touched it, the 'string' went taut and then dropped off with a faint slithering noise to the bottom of the cabinet. I'd cut it, somehow.

I tried pulling the handle again, and this time, I again felt resistance, though it was at the bottom. I thanked God the hinges used weren't particularly good on these doors, as their sloppiness meant I could feel such matters readily. I began running my knife around the edges of the door, then when I touched another string, I cut it, then at the bottom of the door as I moved my knife, I cut a third string. I then wondered if I had gotten them all, so much so that I herded everyone out of the room and back into the hallway, and there, ten feet from the corner, I said softly the single word 'open'. There was a faint groaning noise, then silence.

“What did you find?” asked Sarah.

“He found a trap of some kind, most likely,” said Katje. “I'm not sure what kind it is, but if I go by what was in here that was trapped, then it's likely to be important.”

I waited thirty seconds – there might be a delay, or a trigger that I had not detected; using a delay-fused bomb had been tried before in the house proper – then cautiously led the way back into the laboratory, all the while wanting to dive for the floor. I myself was beginning to become restive, so much so that I paused to get a slurp of honey about midway along the benches. When I came to the last one, I knelt down and shined my lantern in front of me to show an utterly empty cabinet, save for the three cut strings.

“What?” I squeaked. “Nothing in here?”

“Those must have been tricky wretches,” muttered Sarah, as she looked over my shoulder. “At least it did not explode.”

However, I wasn't nearly so sure there wasn't something hidden still, and when I pressed on the center of the rear wall with my fingertips, it gave more than a little. I then noted the strings – three – and followed them carefully to three very small holes. I then took out my awl, and began probing the back wall about three inches away from one of the string-holes.

The awl went through the 'material' with such ease that I suspected I had found a false wall, and when I used a bent 'probe' to 'pull' using that center hole once I had enlarged the holes for the strings slightly with the awl – the string was very thin, dark-colored, slick to the touch, and reminded me of a species of nylon – I felt the piece of material bow outward, then come adrift at all four corners. I caught it with one hand just the same, then made another four holes with the awl, one in each corner.

“Tricky, dear?” I asked. “Maybe that stuff with the mines was the bait and this stuff back here is the good stuff.”

And yet, as I said it, I had a distinct impression: what was back here was not merely something I could use here and now, but the 'good stuff' it had once guarded was long gone. I made the fourth corner-hole, then began using the small hooked probe to pull the corners out slowly, each one an inch at a time, until the thin 'pressboard' became loose enough to once more use the center hole. As I drew it out, I threaded the strings through their holes, then once it was free, I almost screamed with delight.

“What are those things?” squeaked Sarah.

“I think those are some small and very annoying squibs, dear,” I said, as I carefully removed one of the devices after cutting its securing wires with some small 'wire-cutters' from my possible bag. It fit readily in the palm, and as I held it carefully, I noted its heft and straightened 'pin'. A touch said 'easy withdrawal', perhaps just ounces of pressure. Whoever had set this trap knew something about their business, and with the first device in my hand, I then truly realized what I had found.

I had found no less than three grenades, and I wanted to speak their name strangely, for some reason – with the usual emphasis upon the first syllable for words in this language. Normally, one did not say the name of these things as 'GREE-nade', but that speech seemed to fit these things.

“Those are the 'less-good' ones,” said the soft voice – which implied there were better ones to be had somewhere. I wondered if what had been referred to as 'real squibs' were in the area. “You'll wish to use those in here, or those ceramic-globe squibs, rather than those bombs you put up that have metal cases.”

“Why?” squeaked Sarah.

“Uh, the splinters from those things will get us and that lizard?” I asked, as I looked around. Both types of bomb wanted plenty of distance and good cover if they were to be tossed, so much so that I wondered if anyone other than myself could toss them. These, on the other hand, weren't in the same league.

“Those will want you taking cover also,” said the soft voice, “though 'cover' with those will be served by either sheltering behind the nearest walls or down low and behind those benches.”

“And with those we made up, such cover will just slow the splinters down,” I muttered.

“The smaller bombs, yes,” said the soft voice. “You do not want to use one of the 'pills' in here, as it will scatter you-all, the dragoon, and the laboratory – and that by its sheer blast-effect alone.” A brief pause, then, “the splinters will travel quite some distance further – potentially far enough to hurt or kill many of those laboring outside.”

“Pills?” asked Gabriel.

“Swine-shells,” said Sarah. “We were told they were nearly as strong as a box of mining dynamite each.”

“That's impossible,” said Gabriel. “Not if they are filled with the usual fillings.”

“These are not filled with anything that can be shot out of a gun, Gabriel,” said Sarah. “This stuff might not be quite as sensitive as blasting oil, but it comes close to it in strength.”

“No,” said the soft voice. “It's actually a good deal stronger, if you refer to common blasting oil – and comparing those things to 'a box of mining dynamite each' presumes that dynamite is the type that is covered with oil – the type Hans speaks of when he says it 'leaves the mill bad' – and that's for the filling. The shells themselves are not the common for shells, but much worse than the usual for splinters.”

“Moist 'meal', with a stiff cap,” I muttered, as I removed grenades two and three. As I did, I noted once more the unbent wires holding back the 'brown-painted' green-blotched sheet-metal lever, the circumferential grooves in the ovoid device, the 'detonator' on one end and the 'filling plug' on the other – and overall, a faint greenish tinge of a streaky nature. “I hope these things work, if they're less-good. Do I need to attach a cap to them so as to...”

I then looked closer at the third bomb, and in the light of my lantern – Katje was holding it for me – I saw not merely the entirely intact firing mechanism, but also the compressed powder for the fuse-type delay, then the detonator itself. The outer 'brown' surface was mostly surface rust due to a poorer-than-usual species of 'lime-green' paint used for painting the devices.

“Actually it was a dip-type conversion coating prior to final assembly that left a thin yet tenacious green film,” said the soft voice. “That one thug in the picture was tossing the 'superior' version, which was about twenty percent larger for its dimensions, had much higher grade materials, and was filled with a far more powerful explosive compared to what is in the device you are holding.”

“Flaked TNT?” I asked.

“Rifle propellant that was judged to be 'too hot' for firearms, with a small amount of an inorganic nitrate mixture similar to 'purified niter',” said the soft voice. “It's almost as strong as what you spoke of, with but somewhat less shattering power.” A brief pause, then, “given that those were issued to the 'common' soldiers in large numbers, and were thought of highly by those people, I would not sell them short.”

“Thought of highly?” I asked.

“The person who planted them had been 'sold short' about their effects,” said the soft voice, “and hence used three when one such 'bomb' would have served amply to deal with those he was trying to blow up.” A brief pause, then, “he wanted one of the grenades like in that picture, but those were a bit hard to get for someone in his position.”

“They would have blown him up instead of his targets,” I muttered. “Things were probably cursed.”

“Their filling was, anyway,” said the soft voice, “and since he wasn't a 'witch-soldier', the cursed filling would have exploded when it could do him the most harm.”

After wrapping each grenade in a rag, I looked around at the now-gathered faces. I could feel an aspect of wishing to 'get on with it', but I knew there were a few more secrets, specifically in that one drawer I had noticed before. Beforehand, however, I needed to oil the others and then be oiled myself; and after doing so, Katje whispered, “you'd best do that again just before blowing that door that Sarah spoke of, as I was starting to feel like 'fighting'.”

“Restive, which results in inadequate preparation; we blow its door, that lizard comes in here – and then it eats all of us, you mean,” I said. “This thing scares me.”

“Is that why you wish to exhibit such cowardice?” said a voice from somewhere nearby.

“Who said that?” spat Sarah.

I looked around, then said, “go annoy a witch with your foolhardy language, idiot.”

The soft yet obvious swishing noise that followed made my eyes open wider, then Sarah said, “now I know for certain what we were told is the truth. That thing is after you more than anything.”

“Because without him, we would be easy meals,” said Gabriel. “Mere bravery amounts to foolhardiness when one is fighting an accursed reptile that should have died prior to the Curse being issued.” A brief pause, “one must think, pray, and work hard to have hope of success.”

“You're making sense for a change,” said Sarah, who had her brush ready to paint me.

After doing so, however, as I moved around the workbench, I had my club at the ready, and when I looked to the side, I had to leap in the air as another large rat came for me. My club found its mark, however, and the rat flew screeching end-over-end into the darkness to there 'vanish'.

“That was the second cursed rat,” muttered Sarah. “I hope there are no more of them, as...” She turned, then jumped and swung furiously on something that began thrashing and screeching. I turned around, club in hand, and mashed the injured rat as it tried to bite Sarah's leg.

“That thing... What did you do?” squeaked Sarah.

“He stilled your rat,” said Karl. “Now what is the name of this lizard? You spoke it, and I cannot say that word.”

“Iguana,” I said softly. The charge of the Rat Brigade had been halted for the time being, and as I drew closer to my 'target' step by dust-muffled step, I said, “I hope there's a really nasty drug handy, as if there is, I hope to feed it to, uh, Iggy when he shows.”

“That is a very strange name,” said Sarah. “At least I can say it, unlike that other word. Now what are those lizards you spoke of?”

“A reptile kept by some as pets,” I said. “That dragoon resembles them for general appearance, if not size, though now that I think about it, the proportions of iguanas are a good deal different.”

“How so?” said Sarah. She was watching out for more 'large rats'.

“First, an iguana's tail is much longer than its body,” I said, “and Iggy's body is longer than his tail. Then, iguanas are much smaller and lighter, and finally, they eat, uh, diced cabbage and grated carrots with an occasional insect for a treat, unlike that dragoon below us.” A brief pause, then, “oh, and they don't flame, either.”

“There are no such lizards here,” said Gabriel. “I hope you find something useful in those drawers you're looking at, as you seemed to know what those bombs were and their use.” The unspoken portion was 'and I would most likely blow myself up if I tried to use one'.

“Yes, now,” said Sarah. “Before the war, there were a lot of animals, plants, birds, and other creatures that are either no longer living or hidden.”

“Like fenny-snakes,” I thought. “I'm glad those are no longer around.”

“It is possible that that dragoon is one of those long-dead animals made larger by witches,” said Sarah. “I suspect the same thing happened with those strange cow-like animals that are common at Norden.”

“They have cows in that place?” asked Karl.

“They look like a species of cattle,” said Sarah, “but are far larger. They make the largest straight-horn bull seem a fresh calf for size.”

“I've only seen two types of cattle here,” I said, “and all of the ones I've seen had the usual number of legs and heads, unlike those weird things up in Norden.” I was getting close to my target, even if the laboratory was playing 'distance-tricks' on my eyes again.

“How are they different?” asked Sepp.

“More heads and more legs,” I said, “and some really strange anatomy, as those things do not drop calves.”

“What do they do?” asked Sarah.

“They lay eggs,” I deadpanned. “Now, if you want to get your things together, the workbench in the center is safe, as far as I know. I only need one person, or perhaps two, to look this area over – and the two women seem to have the most sense, so if they want to come with me, then...”

Sarah looked at me, then at Katje, then nodded. Somehow, I suspected Sepp – and possibly Maarten – would keep Karl out of too much trouble. Gabriel, I suspected, had brought little beyond a well-padded jug filled with beer.

“He brought more than that, if not much more,” said Sarah. “Now Katje, don't touch anything unless he touches it first and says it's permissible to touch.”

“Do you want one of those grenades?” I asked. I meant Sarah. Katje, I knew, had dynamite.

“How hard are they to use?” asked Sarah.

“Hold them such that the lever is in the palm of one's hand, remove the pin, and toss them at your target while diving for cover,” I said. “They're about half again as bad as the latest squibs.”

“For splinters, yes,” said the soft voice. “Those squibs you filled have more blast – and while splinters won't do that dragoon much good if you put the bomb where it will have an effect upon it, you want blast as much or more than sharp-edged fragments.”

“Good,” muttered Katje. “I'll make up a bundle of dynamite, unless it's better to toss a stick at a time.”

“Bundles of three sticks are usually better, especially if that is weaker dynamite that came for you,” said Sarah, as I finally came to the region where I had felt the drawer in question. I began to carefully pull on the handle of each of several drawers that seemed likely, each touch a gentle one that needed wiping my fingers with an aquavit-soaked rag afterward, as these handles were fully as filthy as anything I had touched in the place. Behind me, light shown here and there in a clustered place amid the near-total blackness of this monstrous room, and low speech – Sepp was speaking, mostly, though Maarten supplied a phrase here and there – about making bombs ready for tossing.

“Did he get some friction igniters?” I asked.

“Yes, about twenty waxed ones,” said Sarah, “and I showed him how to do those squibs up so they just need pulling and tossing.”

“Just like those three bombs I found in here, dear,” I said. “They're more or less similar in functioning.

And as I slowly opened the first drawer, I nearly screeched in shocked surprise at what I had found: several long and somewhat thin glass ampules of uncommon size, with slightly corroded blue-painted caps, pink-tinted protruding rubber septums, green-tinted glass, and all of them filled with a slightly opaque liquid, this reddish-brown in color.

As I looked closer at the filling itself – it reminded me of old blood, or possibly ink the color of old blood – I saw atoms arranged into large and intricate molecules, these in unbelievable detail, but no tags. I then turned my attention back to the 'vial' itself.

Printed upon the glass were black letters, these difficult to read due to age and possibly handling, and as I strained to read them, the two 'eyes' below them seemed to draw attention to themselves, almost as if they were looking from a long-dead time risen anew from ancient ages prior, this to look at me and what I was doing.

I then noted the yellow arrows going from left to right crossing each black-printed 'stylized' eye, and a wide blue stripe running partway down the length of the vial overlaid with odd-looking black markings. The resemblance to runes of these last markings was far too close to be a coincidence, and when Sarah gasped upon seeing what I was holding, I looked at her.

“Yes, dear?” I asked. “You recognize any of this stuff?”

“Th-that's... I've seen containers depicted like that on tapestries, and they w-were filled with torture drugs,” said Sarah. “That cross-eyed marking either means death or sleep, and I'm not sure which of those it means. The tapestry did not say, but it implied much in that way.”

“Then we might wish to dose Iggy with it,” I said. “Perhaps a cap, fuse, and string, then toss it in his mouth?” Another look at the eyes, then at Sarah: “this induces some kind of 'sleep'. I wonder what kind, and more, how rapidly does it work?”

While Sarah had no answer for my question, she did have caps, fuse, and string, and after putting out all of these strange and huge-looking vials up on the counter, she began working on one of them.

I then recalled the septum in the center of its metallic surrounding, and its ancient rubber brought back a memory – which triggered a question – one which wished an answer, as dosing Iggy might be easier – and more importantly, the drug would take effect much faster. Then, the final question: if this were indeed a vial, then that meant the drug was prepared for injection. That meant looking further. Perhaps they had harpoons suitable for poking a dragoon.

“Now, are there Spraetzen?” I asked quietly. I almost said the word that meant 'harpoons', that being 'Haarpoenen'.

“What are those?” asked Katje. She knew I didn't mean a 'sea-spear', which is what Haarpoenen meant in the wordbooks we had.

“Long, thin, mostly of glass, with a part on the front like a sewing needle,” said Sarah.

I was glad Sarah had spoken, for I somehow had the impression the ones I might find here would not be like those I had seen, either in the pictures of that one book – never mind that the books had supposedly come from this place; the Spraetzen here were used by witches, and that vial's label seemed to confirm that to be most-likely – or like those infernal plastic things commonly used where I came from. Glass ones were rare at the time of my leaving, at least in medical usage. They could be purchased, however, and I had several modest-sized ones and ground-flat metal needles for 'dosing' carburetors and the like with solvents too strong for the parts of plastic syringes.

The drawer with the huge vials had but little beyond the half-dozen examples I had noted, some dry-and-dessicated rodent-dung here and there, and then a scrap of crumbling-to-powder paper under the vials. This last was utterly illegible, even if there was evidence that it had once been printed, so I moved to my left with Katje holding my lantern to my left.

“More of those monster vials,” I muttered, and as I removed one to compare it with the others, I noted that it seemed quite similar as to size and contents, but different as to all else. More, the 'runes' in this case were not only clearer, they did not have the same shapes as the ones I had seen before. It made me wonder greatly just what I was reading.

The next drawer; the same, but the fourth one from the east end of the row of cabinets had a thick sheaf of age-crumbling paperwork. I was glad of a lantern, even if the light was as much or more for the benefit of Katje than myself.

“Traps, especially,” I thought. “That one with the pressboard hiding the grenades was as tricky as anything I've found here, and...”

“Hence the lanterns,” said the soft voice. “Good light helps to see things that might get you killed otherwise.”

It took roughly a minute to remove the many layers of the messy mound of papers, and with the last such sheaf of paperwork going on the counter, I found a large number of much smaller vials underneath. These clear glass things had no identification save for five 'letters' embossed on the glass in a vertical-running row, and as I reached for one of them – half-again as long as the insulin vials of recollection, bulging sides and bulging rounded bottoms, bulging rubber septums poking out of age-corroded copper ferrules, with the widest portion of the vials being perhaps as large in diameter as my smallest finger – a thought occurred to me. I ignored it, even if I stopped reaching for one. This thought was a long-dead memory, and seeing these vials had triggered it.

“And all of these things are empty...” I thought. I'd emptied enough vials in the past, bags of them.

However, the sight of these vials, and their lonely aspect of emptiness began again to brew a flashback at the back of my mind – a flashback reeking of warfare and death:

Gas, complete with the clanging sounds of the warning-men as they hit the hanging empty artillery shell-casings with truncheons to warn of the oncoming fumes. The shell-casings rattled and screamed horribly, and the sound carried for quite some distance, much like shrill and beaten-to-death bells.

Whistles, these the signals for going 'over the top' of the sheltering parapet and into no-man's land, that arena of death that lay between the two entrenched parties geared for war.

And finally, shells that descended with howls and screams. Shells of all sizes and types, all of them filled with explosives, all of them ready to blot out life as surely as a giant-size version of my baseball-bat sized rat-club.

I shook this off, and looked closer, bending down. I saw something part-hidden, back in the drawer amid the dust and grime of centuries, and I reached for my hoof-pick. With this last in my hand, I began to tease the thing out, and as it came closer to the front – I needed to clear a path through the vials with the hoof-pick to do so – I gasped involuntarily.

I had found a very small all-glass syringe, this with a silvery glass plunger with a rounded and 'contoured' blue-tinted pad for the injecting finger; and at the other end, an utterly conventional-looking all-metal needle, complete with a locking device and a very rusty 'business end'.

Like the blow of a wrecking ball, the flashback returned. I could clearly hear the grunted commands of the government agents as they closed in relentlessly, ruthlessly kicking doors and shooting everyone who got in their way as they came closer to their objective – the chosen one. They had a most-free hand, for... I swallowed, my throat dust-dry.

Dugashvili was a very sore loser, and he had tracked me to this very spot, for here, I saw the calling card of his wrath before me. I looked up to see nothing but darkened shadows amid near-total darkness filled with dim roving lights, these the faint greenish glows of the night vision equipment that the 'special' government agents used for their rifle sights.

I then recalled my vials anew, these being shorter straight-sided things with aluminum ferules. Some ferules were orange, others a purplish color, and a few, a dull-looking raw aluminum. They meant life, and sanity, and health.

More Junkie Lies. They all say they need their drug of choice, so as to live and not die. And, I'd been forgetting to shoot up, this three and four times a day, for months on end. It was a miracle I hadn't been 'kicking and screaming' the whole time, as that particular junk had deadly withdrawal symptoms.

“I'm still alive, though,” I thought, as I recalled the callouses on each side of my half-dozen usable fingertips, these made by the innumerable times I had ripped holes in my fingers with the 'poker' to get the blood to feed the small dark-blue plastic 'heart-shaped box' with its flat gray front that showed my 'death-time', and this followed closely by the burning-nail pain of injecting. I'd forgotten all of that – until now.

More than once I'd tasted preservatives in my mouth but seconds after getting a 'fix' of insulin in a vein by mistake. That meant but one thing, though:

Mainliner. I was a drug-infested wretch that needed killing. The best dope was the white stuff that needed gentle shaking before sucking it into the syringe, anyway – or was it the clear? I used both types, courtesy of what the poisoner had provided when I handed him my swindle-sheet and bribe-money.

And before me lay the proof of my evil, for Dugashvili himself had said so in his innumerable radio addresses on the vast and far-reaching horrible evils of people such as myself.

I shook my head, then reached for the honey vial. One gulp, two of the nauseatingly-sweet stuff, then soft steps came closer, these hesitant. Someone showed light to my right now, and with a faint squeak, Sarah whispered, “that one must be one of those things that the witches used. It's probably still poisoned.”

“What is that thing?” asked another voice to my left.

“Spraetze,” said Sarah, as she reached for something in her satchel. “It's most likely got poison still in it, as I can see it on the pointed end there.” Here, Sarah pointed at the 'rust' with a slender brass knitting needle that I had never seen before. Anna's knitting needles tended to be half again as thick.

The sense was, however, that upon hearing of the device, everyone – save, perhaps, myself and Sarah – wished to fondle and adore this new-found precious relic, and that meant 'painting' and prayer. I had to pray silently the whole time, for as Sarah spoke of the thing, in one ear, I heard her talking softly about torture and killing with such things...

And in the other, the guttural ranting and deep-throated diabolical screaming of Dugashvili as he was cheated once more of my head. His rule – he disregarded every kind of written rule, for only his desire mattered to him – was “fetch me the head of my enemy whose life I hunger for, or I will have the heads of all of you people in its stead. I must have heads!

The prayer I finished as I was painted by Sarah, and I left syringe and paperwork behind me. I realized that the call toward that area was nothing more than a distraction, and I was glad I had – with substantial help – managed to avoid its call before clearing the center region of bombs. I then noticed something else by its equally substantial absence.

“No, that was not a distraction, I needed to find not merely those large vials, but also that evil syringe. It confirmed the cursed aspect of where we are, and who we are fighting, and much else.”

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “Why do you think those rats suddenly came after you two like they did?”

“There's more in that area?” I asked. “Should I s-save that paperwork?”

I turned to see the papers going into dust as I watched them. Somehow, my mere handling had destroyed the paper and what was written upon it.

“That 'paperwork' was the top 'fetish' in this whole room,” said the soft voice, “and your 'crushing' its curses destroyed much of the remaining 'curse-power' currently in the immediate area that would have made those with you easy prey for that lizard.”

“But I did... No, I could not tell it to go to hell, not in here.”

“Especially that,” said the soft voice. “Reconnoiter the room carefully once more, as you were giving your whole attention to keeping the others safe beforehand.”

“I heard that part,” said Katje. “Now I must prepare my things, so the two of you can go look for that trouble spoken of.”

As I walked slowly down the 'narrow' aisleways – I had thought them wide before, but now my eyes were no longer playing tricks upon me; they were amply wide for one person, but two was trouble side-by-side, so much so that Sarah and I had to go one behind the other when we came to the others and what they were working on – I noted a gap in the central bench that I had not seen before. This gap was about four feet wide, with the bench tops actually roofing it over almost entirely with but a hand-width's crack between the two thick bench-tops. I wondered if it would be a good place to use for cover when dealing with the lizard.

“It does seem likely,” I thought. I then turned to Sarah and asked, “do you want one of those 'bombs'?”

“I have three ready squibs,” said Sarah, “and I borrowed one of those part-finished poke-knives.” A brief pause, then, “I want to get at least one of those knives for my cousin, as she's obviously got a use for them.”

“Not just poking thugs, right?” I asked. I was pacing off the distance from that 'hiding place' to the west end of the central workbench. I could feel something else in a drawer ahead, and it needed 'examination' as well. It wasn't merely the papers in this room: there were other things, some of them well-hidden; and this thing was drawing closer. More, I had an idea as to what was present and which drawer it was hiding inside, and this with a clarity that had been missing previously. Those papers, I now realized, had caused a certain amount to be hidden from me.

“I've been bundling up things to take to her,” said Sarah. “When we go to Ploetzee, we can go to where she's working on the way back and drop them off.”

I had passed the others some distance back, and my walking, this slow, silent, and careful, told me the length of the western portion of the central workbench to be roughly sixty feet. I came to its end, turned to my right, reached in the top left-most drawer, and among the dust and dirt in the thing, I saw more papers. I took the first of these 'documents' out and tore its pages in half, which caused a faint shiver and chill to show abruptly in the air, and as I tore each succeeding sheaf of papers in half, the same tearing sound seemed to echo in my mind.

“Are those more cursed papers?” asked Sarah – who then looked at what was happening to the paperwork I had first ripped in half.

“They're going to dust, just like those others did, only faster,” she squeaked. “They must be cursed!”

“True, they are,” said the soft voice. “They were the guard-curses for this corner of the room, as well as hiding those other things he felt in this drawer.”

“I did not feel that Spraetze, dear,” I said. “I could tell 'something' was in that general area before I actually saw it. These, on the other hand...”

I removed the last sheaf of papers, ripped them in half – and faintly, as if it were a mist of the mind, I heard a scream faintly echo. Was it an audible scream, or one that I was hearing otherwise? I could not tell.

“That tin,” said Sarah. “It looks like some I've seen in the fourth kingdom, only better-made.”

“As in those were made by hand, and this one was stamped,” I muttered. Sarah seemed to nod.

The tin in question had no markings upon its silvery unrusted metal, yet upon moving it around with my hoof-pick, I realized I did not wish to touch it directly. I drew out some pincers, and gently grasped the small handle on its side. The recollection I had was that tins much like this one were used to hold 'shoe polish' where I came from, and once it was on the counter, I used the hoof pick to hold it down while I used the pincers to lever up the lid. It came off with a soft plop, and I moved the lid aside.

“Those...” Sarah was in shock, and it showed in her voice.

“Are torture drugs,” I muttered to Sarah's squeaked outburst. I shined my lantern closer, and in its light – it would need adjustment soon – I noted the following:

The actual size of the tablets. These were tablets, even if they were shaped and sized like the dully-glossed green and brown 'horror-capsules' of recollection and colored in an identical fashion, with small blackened embossed symbols showing plainly on some of them.

The smell, this being that of ancient age and 'bad chemicals'. The drugs in question, unlike the odorless capsules I recalled, had an odor that reminded me more than a little of Grussmaan's or some of the smells in the fifth kingdom house – and that was done most-deliberately. This place hid nothing from those they wanted to kill; there were no euphemisms like 'special treatment' and 'resettlement in the east' spoken by their captors to those who had no goodgood as defined by their captors – reason to continue living.

Here, the words 'poisoner' and 'swindle-sheet' were indeed accurate, and bribery was a given as well as a dire requirement for those named Disgraces. I wasn't certain about where I came from...

“No, it was true there also,” I said. “They might not have named that drug poison, and they did not name those dispensing it poisoners, nor was what I presented called a swindle sheet, but...” I did recall distinctly speaking of bribes on more than one occasion, however – and that because of my 'manifested evil' that I could not hide, evil that everyone hated. The only exceptions other than God were perhaps a handful of people I had met in the course of four decades and more of time.

“Those were the common names here,” said the soft voice, “even if 'pharmacist' and 'prescription' were the official names in both locations – and as for the actual treatment of those like you, the seeming difference between what you experienced and what happened here was only the readily-visible portion. The reality you perceived where you came from was not hidden nearly as well here – and that was the only real difference between the two locations.”

“I thought so,” spat Sarah. “You might wish to use your magnifier on those things there, as I can tell there's something written on them, and it's probably either a curse or something worse yet.”

I brought out the device and removed it from its pouch, and once I had removed with tweezers one of the tablets, I laid it letters-side-up on a clean rag. I then viewed it with the magnifier, which made the black-embossed letters become that much more obvious.

“Not just embossed, but actually painted,” I muttered. “An S, though it's shaped like the rune that looks like a lightning bolt, a 'K', a lower case 'u' with those two fangs over it, and an upper-case 'F'.”

Schoerten, Kleiburne, and Friedrichssen,” spat Sarah – whose tone then rose to a giddy screech: “what did I say?”

“The 'export' name of the firm who made those tablets before the war,” said the soft voice. “Recall where you read of it, and how much that clothing itched?”

“And the whole thing was originally written in Underworld German,” I said. That 'umlaut-u' was a dead giveaway. “You could not speak their 'true' forms, but rather the 'common' forms – which was not merely written badly, but also horribly misspelled on that tapestry.”

“The true forms were written in the runes of that place and time,” said the soft voice, “and their pronunciation was chanted like a curse.”

“Smith, K-Kl...” I was recalling the name of the original maker of those diabolical pills where I came from.

“It did not sound exactly like the name of that particular firm,” said the soft voice, “as merely pronouncing the whole of what you just recalled didn't have the same 'curse-power'.”

“It had less?” asked Sarah.

“Saying the name of that firm here tended to cause instant dissolution of explosive violence of the witch speaking it, just like a third-rate 'fool-witch' of that era attempting to master a potent pre-flood fetish, “said the soft voice. “Hence many of the things they 'received' needed changing to suit their capacity.”

“They had trouble speaking certain words, also,” I said. “It was almost as bad that way as it is here and now.”

“For different reasons,” said Sarah, as I once more squinted through the magnifier. “Oh, there are numbers, also – zero, one, seven, either the letter 'b' or numeral six, and then an upper-case 'Z',” I said.

“I'd write that one down,” said the soft voice, “as any records of things like that are going to be needed in the future.”

“The numbers, or the letters?” I asked.

“Both, most likely,” said Sarah. “Those across the sea might know of it.”

“They do, which is why you need to document what you find as well as deal with it,” said the soft voice. “The pills, if not touched, are safe enough, unlike the papers.”

“Which will be at the other corners of this place so as to guard it,” I muttered as I replaced the pill in the tin and put the tin on the rag so as to wrap it up, “and I need to get all of them dealt with, as only then can we give our attention to Iggy.”

I had almost pronounced the last word as 'Iggh-Rhy', and I wondered why after bagging up the tin of pills and then walked around the end of the table. My club was poised, held high and ready to strike, and when frantic skittering came from down the hall to my front, I waited – until suddenly, I leaped to the side, turned in mid-air while swapping hands on the club, and backhand-smashed a rat coming from behind that sent it screeching and flipping into another office, then swung on another rat left-handed as it tried for Sarah. That last rat hit the floor screaming as it rolled to the side, then as it thrashed in its death-throes, I smashed it once more on the upper body with a soul-shattering crunch that 'stilled' it instantly.

“Georg could take lessons from you,” said Sarah. “I heard that one coming from ahead, but not that one from behind.”

“Be glad the cursed rats are coming now and not later,” said the voice of Katje from somewhere to our left and a trifle behind where I stood. I looked over my shoulder to see a long row of people working on their supplies, and noted Sepp was keeping everyone out of trouble. It was obvious that he was 'bomber material' – and the others might be able to learn such things given ample time, close instruction, and closer-yet attention.

“Hans didn't pick it up easily, did he?” I thought, as I left the two dead rats behind. Being double-teamed by two rats almost as big as that huge gray thing in the fifth kingdom wasn't my idea of fun.

“You've gotten no less than half of the cursed rats in the building,” said the soft voice,” and that club is working as intended.”

“Yes, for now,” said Sarah. “I could tell that it won't stand much more of what you're doing with it, though.”

“How?” I asked, as I came upon the next corner drawer and slid it open carefully. I knew what was in here, and as I removed the papers and tore them into quarters and tossed them on the counter without thinking about what I was doing, Sarah said, “watch that one.”

“Why?” I asked, as I ripped another sheaf of papers into four pieces.

“I saw runes,” said Sarah.

“That's why he's doing what he's doing, dear,” said the soft voice. “That northeast corner had the strongest curses, as well as the witches' empty drug vials, and now the south-wall curses are less able to hide – both hide themselves and what lies beneath them.”

“Which in this case is under a false bottom,” I said. I pressed down to be certain, then gasped, “It's a black book!”

“Not just any black book, either,” said the soft voice. “It may be on the verge of falling into pieces now, but if you look at it while it tries to go to dust, you might be surprised.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“Those books originated from before the war,” said the soft voice, “as did everything in this room.” A brief pause, then, “and this time, dear, you will not need to take someone's word for it, as you will actually see one of those books from before the war.”

“But if it goes to dust?” asked Sarah.

“It was handled by a 'lesser' prewar witch, dear,” said the soft voice. “Now do you want something handled by someone about as powerful as Cardosso remaining in this area when it will help that dragoon substantially and hinder you-all to no small degree?”

Sarah was about to speak when a chorus of 'noes' came from behind us, followed by, “whatever you're doing with those messes, keep doing so. I can think a lot clearer now than when we went in here, and we need all the help we can get.”

“Gabriel?” I gasped. He'd been the one speaking.

“Is now much more aware of both the danger and why you did what you did and have done,” said the soft voice. “His previous understanding was both shallow and partial – if you compare it to now.”

The papers out and gone to dust, I poked my awl into the bottom of the drawer, and again, I found it to be made of thin and somewhat flaky 'pressboard'. I enlarged the hole by twisting my awl, then inserted the hooked probe and pulled up. The 'pressboard' came up readily, and I waved my hand over the book while asking for it to follow my hand.

The book came up readily, though I could feel the collection of curses bound to it fighting me for all they were worth; and when I snapped my fingers, the thing fell to the countertop with a weighty thump that suggested it weighed more than that too-heavy concordance we had at home – which was surprising for a book not much bigger than the Hoelm's Bestiary for size and but slightly larger than the 'smaller' black book we had found – at least for its height and width.

It was at least an inch thicker than than the first one I had seen.

I then waved the pages open, and upon the very first page, I saw rust-red runes that had obviously been writ in blood.

Another wave, and the former page went to dust – and here, as I continued 'waving pages', I could see what looked like a table of contents, then actual chapter headings, more rune-curses – these seemed to be on pages that were otherwise blank from the printers, and they all were written in blood – and finally, at the back – each of the pages had gone to powder once I had seen the the contents briefly – the actual publishers, their name-inscriptions writ entirely in runes.

And for some reason, I knew that these particular runes inspired that horrible foursome at Boermaas to produce similar material, including books much like this one. The fact that I had not yet seen their output knowingly did not matter. I could feel this truth.

“Do those people run black books?” I muttered, as the rest of the book became a mound of slow-spreading dust and its curses vanished into thin air. The scent of its decomposition was faint, biting, and obnoxious.

“They do,” said the soft voice, “and while they are far from the only people to do so, their books of that type have a most-peculiar cachet – which quintuples the price of a small one, and renders their 'large' examples almost beyond price.”

“That would make them witches,” said Sarah. “That place felt like that one town we blew up.”

“The appearance of Boermaas then was but its outwardmost seeming,” said the soft voice, “and you and your cousin did not find more than a modest fraction of what was there.”

“Meaning the place might have looked and felt like a witch-hole, but in reality it was closer to the one here for nastiness.” By here, I meant the one in the Abbey. I could feel the place a good deal clearer now than when we first started 'working' in the 'laboratory'.

“I suspect you're right,” said Katje. “They were still building that place when we were there, and while the lecturers seemed decent, they hid much from us, claiming that their doing so would make us more capable in our work.”

“They tend to do that to some degree at all of those schools, don't they?” I asked, as I began to slowly walk along the 'empty' passageway. My club was out, ready and waiting to strike, but with the double-teaming of the imported 'cursed' rats failing, they had given up on the matter for now.

Or were the survivors merely calling the rest of their fellows for an every-rat-at-once charge of the Rat Brigade?

“I would really watch for rats now,” said Sarah, “as now I smell rats.”

“Like at Boermaas?” I asked, as I slowed in my advance.

“No,” said Sarah. “Boermaas never had large rats, at least according to my cousin, even if it had plenty of the usual size for the fourth kingdom.” A pause, then, “I speak of the west school's rats.”

“Where they had...”

I stopped in my tracks, and set the lantern on the bench to my left. The club was now gripped by both hands, as I could feel the stealthy animals coming from every direction. This was indeed the 'last stand' of the Rat Brigade, and as 'someone' screeched on my left, I looked down – and as the rat leaped like the tiger it thought itself to be, I leaped to the side and at the same time, I swung on it as it came within range and my right foot touched down to 'plant' the blow.

The meaty part of the club hit the rat at a quartering angle just above the snout, but there was no time to admire my handiwork. As the rat began to tumble as it sailed out of control and over my shoulder, I turned with it and swung downward, much as if I were practicing 'golf' while jumping ahead and lifting both my feet up.

Rat number one had only started to descend in its trajectory when I sent rat number two to join it in flight, then I whirled and swung on a leaping gray blur that sent it back like a shot the way it had come as one foot landed upon a furry gray 'rocket'. I brought the club down like a pile-driver as the rat I had trodden upon turned about to bite my leg, and the crunch my club made told me it was dead.

I then leaped out of the way to the side as another rat flew overhead, and when the thing slid off of the bench-top to fall on the other side, I saw Katje wallop it with her ax-handle again and again.

A scream from the other side caused me to turn. I saw Sarah with her club in the mouth of another rat and her sword in her left hand, and she sliced on the thing as it tried to claw her. I backhanded the rat with the club in some strange fashion that had my right arm doing something it seemed incapable of normally doing – and the rat shot away from her instantly to vanish into the darkness. She turned to me, blood dripping softly off her sword, and asked in a faint voice, “where did it go?”

“I am not sure,” I said. “I doubt it is doing well. Now did you get hurt?”

“N-no, but it had my club in its mouth,” said Sarah. “I've never had that many rats come for me at once like that.”

“They were not cursed rats then, unlike that 'swarm' you just encountered,” said Gabriel. “It seems I can cut fuse, if someone marks out with chalk how long the piece is to be.”

“That is easy,” said Karl. “Now for these tossers we want...”

“At least a foot, Karl,” said Sepp. “You want some time for those things, as fuse isn't the safest thing when you're tossing dynamite.”

“Tossing dynamite?” I muttered, as I checked the rats I could see, then watched Sarah's back as she went in search of the rat I had smashed out of her way.

“How hard did you hit that thing?” squeaked Sarah as she walked slowly with her lantern held out in front in her left hand with her sword in her other hand. I suspected she was truly ambidextrous, unlike my half-baked imitation of that state.

“I wasn't thinking of tapping it, dear,” I said. “You had your hands full with it, so I, uh, smacked it hard so it could no longer claw at you.”

The rat had slid nearly twenty feet before flying off of the bench-top to tumble and then roll, and while the animal was still alive and gnawing on Sarah's club, it did not stay alive long. I 'crunched' it using the club as a pile-driver, then Sarah was able to safely remove her well-chewed club from the animal's mouth. It was obviously still usable, if marred badly by the animal's teeth.

“That one's bigger than the one I shot,” I gasped. “It's nearly four feet long in the body, and it's got teeth like a hunting cat!”

“The claws are the trouble with rats if they're that big,” said Sarah, “and that's the type of rat I had to deal with at the west school.”

“Commonly?”I asked.

“Not a month went by without running into at least one that large,” said Sarah. “That one white one was but slightly bigger than that one there, even if it was much harder to stop.”

With the Rat Brigade now finished as a fighting force – the young rats they had been raising weren't up to fighting much as of yet, and the chill of the place, compared to the oppressive warmth where their forbears were raised, meant they would only become a bit larger than usually – I could now resume my passage toward the last of the four curse-corners. With this one, I knew there would be a thick sheaf of papers and a false bottom under them, but what was hiding there was a true prize. While we most likely could not use it at the Abbey, we – or someone near and dear to us – would find it most-useful in the very near future.

“It's a weapon of some kind, and it's been wrapped in rags,” I thought. I then wondered something: was it cursed?

“Most likely it is,” I thought, as I reached the corner, then found the drawer with the first pull. Here, I 'tossed' the papers hurriedly, now cognizant of their relative lack of power, and when I found another pressboard false bottom, I carefully put a hole in its rough center with my awl.

And touched metal with a faint scratching noise.

The chill that went up my arm made for wondering, both at what the device would be and also how it would be used, and when the false bottom came up – this false bottom had some careful padding behind it, so it did not give when I pressed on it with my thumb – I had a distinct impression: the last three had their entire contents put in place by witches or supplicants. This person was a supplicant who had secretly given up on the matter, and this thing was a well-hid key to his escape. Finally, it was not cursed – as a supplicant no longer interested in witchdom didn't want any such things handy to serve as 'homing devices' for the witches to track him down.

“He was far from the only 'reformed supplicant' to hide supplies for an escape attempt,” said the soft voice, “and that does not include those people that the witches imported for 'labor'. They had no small amount of trouble keeping this place in line before the first bombs of the war fell, and after the fighting truly started, it was much harder yet – and it got steadily worse over time.”

I moved the false bottom out of the way, and began to carefully pick away at the 'dried sawdust' that lay beneath it with my awl. The stuff had compacted in some fashion to a certain degree, so much so that as it began to 'break up', I noted the outlines of an obvious pistol and three magazines, as well as two tins like the ones we had found earlier.

With the breaking of the compacted waxen 'seal', the sawdust became such that it could be scooped out with a spoon, and I and Sarah began removing the sawdust as quickly as we could with a pair of tinned brass 'camp-spoons'. I could tell she had done things like this before, at least until she got one of the tins loose. It was an inch taller and somewhat larger in diameter than the first one we had found, and when she set it down, I heard a faint rattling noise that indicated metallic contents.

“That one sounded like it was full of rivets,” said Sarah. “It does not have pills.”

“I wonder if witches would like those things?” I asked. I meant the pills, not what we had just 'unearthed'.

“I doubt they know what they are,” said Sarah. “I do, but I doubt much that any witches have seen that place's tapestries.”

“No, but the larger versions of that black book speak of a great many drugs commonly used at the time of its original composition,” said the soft voice, “and while the witches force-fed those drugs you found to people they wished to torment and control, the witches preferred other drugs entirely for their own use.”

“The vials?” I asked.

“Were filled with the witches' preferred drugs,” said the soft voice, “and that syringe, while it was filled with 'poison', was one of a huge number of similar syringes, all of them used by the Abbey's witches to inject themselves.”

“With poison?” asked Sarah.

“The witches did not think it poison,” I said. “I suspected the witches viewed the material in question... I gasped, then spat, “they were addicted to that stuff, and they were getting trashed on it!”

“In no uncertain terms,” said the soft voice. “Sober witches were much less common then than they are now – and unlike now, sobriety was not an advantage.”

“How?” I asked.

“The witches in question were much stronger, and hence the drugs they routinely used had utterly different effects than they had upon 'lesser beings',” said the soft voice, “much like Cardosso and his closest associates could eat a steady diet of 'High Meats' with near-complete impunity from a health standpoint.”

“Eating that stuff must have made them smell horrible,” I said.

“Their precise and chosen goal in eating such food,” said the soft voice. “Witches at that level of inhabitation are physically so disordered that they live as much or more by their familiar spirits as all else, which means that they can routinely eat foods that would poison less-strong witches, as an example.” A brief pause, then, “those witches from before the war could do a great deal more than Cardosso managed that way, including indulging in massive drug habits that killed 'lesser' witches in very short order.”

“Separates the men from the boys, I guess,” I muttered, as I pried the pistol free. It would need cleaning before use, but as Sarah removed one of the magazines, she gasped.

“I've seen things like this at that market,” she squeaked, “and witches pay twenty guilders each for them!”

“The magazine?” I asked, as I pointed at it with my dusty spoon.

“No, those things that are in it,” squeaked Sarah. “This type...”

“Yes?” I asked. “I've not only seen things like these, but I've used them too – and that one looks to be just the thing for discrete carrying for someone, like, uh, you.”

“What would I do with it when I already have a pistol?” asked Sarah.

“Those magazines hold more than five shots, dear,” I said. “If I go by the shape of that one you're holding, I would say it holds closer to three times that number.”

“And one in the chamber,” said the soft voice. “While the bore may be a trifle smaller than that of the pistol you commonly carry, that pistol there has a significantly higher muzzle velocity.”

“What does that mean?” asked Sarah.

“It may be close to the size of one of those small four-shooter pistols that witches like to carry at times,” said Gabriel, “but it is deadlier than what you usually carry.”

“And something of a handful to hold onto, also,” I said. “It might not be a dragoon pistol for size, but it might well act like one when used.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “It isn't that powerful, even if it does hit a fair bit harder than what she commonly carries.”

“Yes, especially if you must pot a hard-witch,” I said. “There's something about high-velocity projectiles that really gets to those people...”

“Which is one of the main reasons why what you commonly shoot is so feared by witches,” said the soft voice. “Had Sarah used your rifle, that witch would not have ignored the bullet.”

“What would he have done?” asked Sarah pointedly.

“Dropped like he'd been hit by a round-shot from a fresh three-inch gun loaded by Willem himself,” said the soft voice. “Those curses presume either edged weapons or low velocity weapons like 'muskets' or fowling pieces are being used, and that weapon has more than double the average musket's velocity – and that with its usual load. Loaded for 'swine', it's far more deadly than it usually is, and that at both ends.”

The silence that descended was so thick that only the noise made by those at the workbench seemed to cut through it adequately, and as I removed the remaining magazines, I found that the drawer went back further into the bench than I thought it had. I removed it entirely and laid it upon the bench, and to my utter and complete astonishment, I found not merely another two magazines, but also three more tins of 'bullets' – and what looked like a sizable cleaning kit in a 'vinyl' pouch. I let Sarah feel it, and her face instantly grimaced.

“This may look a little like leather, but it is not leather I am feeling,” she said. “It feels like tools are inside this pouch.” Sarah then undid the 'button' – it was a snap fastener of some kind – and when she dumped out the contents onto the benchtop, I gasped.

“Not just a cleaning kit,” I murmured as an assortment of tools of various kinds followed by a number of 'wax-dipped' parts to an obvious weapon came out. “That looks like what one would want to keep that pistol working for a considerable time.”

“Exactly correct,” said the soft voice. “That man was planning on escaping to the south, and he knew that between fetching 'food' and possibly shooting people trying to kill him, he'd be doing plenty of shooting – and while those pistols were fairly reliable for that time and place, they tended to break certain parts if they were used much.”

Sarah looked at me and shook her head, and as she did so, I had the impression 'much' was not merely a non-trivial number of rounds, but also the equivalent of a lifetime's use for the better grade of pistols like we currently used. This man expected to not merely shoot all of the ammunition he had hoarded in this location, but any rounds he could 'loot' or remove from fallen witches – they liked this type of pistol; it was thought to have a surprising wallop for its size, and the witches having them commonly carried several loaded magazines at the least on their persons, with more loose ammunition in a small cloth bag in a pocket or 'handbag' – and he wanted to be prepared for the worst, which is why he had stashed an 'armorer's kit' with it.

“How many rounds did he have?” I asked.

“In that cache?” asked the soft voice. “About four hundred and eighty, give or take a few. He had three other caches, each of them larger than this one, and he got those when he escaped. This one was his 'spare'.”

I looked at Sarah, then asked, “how many shots have you fired out of that pistol?”

“N-not even a hundred,” said Sarah, “and that included my practicing right after I received it.”

“Hence years of 'serious' use for someone such as yourself,” I said. “I suspect that normally those pistols we have might manage that much shooting before they are ready for some repairs.”

“Yes, if they are ones you have worked on,” spat Karl. “Those things otherwise are ready for tossing before you put two pounds of lead through them.”

“Uh, I think they do better than that,” I murmured, as I continued cleaning out the drawer with my camp-spoon. Our 'reformed supplicant' had a small number of loose rounds in addition to those in the tins, and the size of them made me wonder more than a little. They looked distinctly lethal, and I would not wish to be shot with such a pistol.

“They do, unless you cannot tolerate failures of any kind,” said the soft voice. “If you can live with a pistol that gets a bit rattly and misses fire now and then, then figure a bit less than a thousand rounds for a typical fourth kingdom example – which is a lifetime's use for most shopkeepers and mounted messengers.” A brief pause, then, “if your life depends upon it working as intended, though – Karl's pessimistic-sounding estimate approaches the reality for all save the very best ones.”

“Yes, like those you work on,” muttered Karl. “I've bagged up that flint-pistol, as it does not work now.”

“Ten, twelve shots since you found it, correct?” I asked. I suspected the pistol wasn't very good to start with, and the nature of Karl's 'cleaning' was a good question beyond 'he most likely did some'.

A generalized grumbling indicated my guess was close to the truth, and I resumed my 'digging' – as I could tell there was more than just the pistol in this drawer

“A second false bottom?” I asked.

“No, just dig harder in the right front corner of the drawer,” said the soft voice. “You'll find it then – and that's the true prize in this drawer.”

“What is it?” asked Sarah, as she began wrapping up the pistol in a soft rag. The faint odor said 'well-washed diaper', and I hoped it would not damage the pistol's slightly mottled gray-green 'Parkerized' finish. “I got these rags from Anna's 'to sell' bag, so they're clean enough for wrapping delicate things.”

“I wondered why I was smelling soap on that one,” I said, as Sarah bent down to smell the other rags.

“She most likely boiled them in lye, actually,” said Sarah. “Anna told me about diapers and how much cloth one needed for them, and I thought she was lying to me until I asked around some.”

“A roll entire,” I muttered. The thought of 'cooking' hundreds of used diapers sounded more nauseating than encountering a head-tall mound of dead Shoeten – and that apart from the reek of the lye.

“Per child,” said Sarah, “and that renewed every month or two, until the children are using the privy regularly.”

“How often do they need changing?” I gasped.

“Anna said that depended upon the child,” said Sarah. “The sign of a healthy child was a substantial appetite – or so she said.” Sarah said this while rolling her eyes. “The other people I asked told me that usually meant changing diapers quite often.”

“Dear, she may be unconscionably ignorant regarding much of what medicine she does,” I said, “but she does know something about that part of the business.”

“Especially the diapers,” said Katje. “I might not hear much gossip, but much of what I do hear speaks of babies and how much work they are – and preparing and cleaning diapers is much of that work.”

“Boiling them in lye?” I asked.

“That is usually done outside,” said Karl. “I remember doing that for the two youngest children in our family.”

“The smell must be horrible,” I muttered.

“No, it is not bad,” said Karl. “The lye smells, and the diapers smell as bad as the lye, but those stinks seem to not like each other much, so they fight each other and not much smell is left.”

Sarah looked at me with saucer-eyes and a mouth in a small 'o', then she shook her head. “I'll worry about that when the time comes for it.”

“I would start your planning for it soon enough just the same,” retorted Karl.

“One mess at a time,” said Gabriel. “I think we should concern ourselves with clearing this place before we do much else.”

“I know,” said Sarah – who sounded more than a little worried. “I can feel that dragoon down there, and I don't much care for what I'm feeling.”