Investing the Abbey: Fire and Explosions

As I looked Gabriel over, Karl, Sepp, and Maarten came out of the two offices nearest where he had dove for the floor, and Karl began walking slowly down the hall toward where the pistol had finally landed. I could hear him counting, this slow and hesitant as he moved around over a fairly sizable area of hallway; then as I looked over Gabriel's back – there was a fresh rip in the cloth of what he was wearing, but otherwise, he seemed unhurt – Karl yelled.

“What gives with all these brass things around this rusty thing here?” he shouted. “There are a lot of them, and...”

I turned around, then with my lantern held out in front of me down low and my club in my right hand to ward off possible charging rats, I began drawing closer to where he was standing. Karl had easily gone fifty feet past Gabriel, and as I passed the fourth office doorway, I thought, “how far did she throw that thing?”

“Far enough that she's surprised Karl,” said the soft voice. “He's thought himself to be good at throwing things, but Sarah's not much less able that way than he is.”

“Karl,” I asked, as I came up on him. He was still gathering shiny bright 'empties'. “How many of those things did you find?”

“Fourteen so far,” he said. “I see at least two more.”

“Sixteen?” I asked.

“Look in the office to your right,” said the soft voice. “You'll find the other three in there.”

“Nineteen rounds?” I gasped. “How..?” It did not seem possible to have that many rounds in a magazine that did not protrude from the pistol's grip – even if that pistol had a large grip, both for length and thickness. The empty shell casings had me wondering more than a little, as they were easily an inch in length.

“Partly the size of that magazine, and partly its design,” said the soft voice. “Recall how 'large' and 'hand-filling' that grip seemed?”

“Y-yes?” I asked.

“The spring used in those magazines is quite unusual,” said the soft voice. “It alone gives two more rounds than the more-usual type of spring used then by the weapon's makers – and you've heard of pistol magazines holding that many rounds.”

“Now what is this thing?” asked Karl. He'd gone in the office indicated, and now had a small bag dangling from his free hand. He seemed to be indicating the pistol, which he had not touched. I wondered why he had not done so for an instant – the slide was locked back, which showed pristine-looking internal parts as far as I could tell – and then I thought about why he asked me what it was.

His not touching it made more sense then.

“A pistol,” I said. “The brass things...”

“Those are like that one that was cursed,” said Karl, “only these are missing the coppery part that one had, and they smell weird.”

“Weird..?” I asked. I wondered what Karl meant by 'weird', as he'd never used that word in my hearing before – and moreover, that word seemed one of the more-seldom used words in my recollection. Outside of my own ledgers, I'd only encountered it three times before – and Sarah had been the one speaking two of those times. The third instance I wasn't sure of beyond 'it was someone who either went to the higher schools, or did something that had a similar effect upon their mind'.

I promptly wished I had not said that word, for Karl almost shoved one of the empty shell casings up my nose before I could block his hand. I then noticed the odor of the shell case itself.

The smell was not merely intense, but also unusually biting – and more, it seemed to indicate a yet more-unusual aspect that but added to my recollections of what my revolver had smelled like when I had been told to sniff it. I then had a question.

“Not the same material, correct?” I asked.

“No, it was,” said the soft voice. “The loading density was a lot less in the case of what you were shooting last night, which accounts for most of the difference in odor.” A brief pause, then, “look carefully at one of those casings.”

Karl handed me the one he had tried to stuff up my nose, and when I looked it over, I noted the following:

Firstly, there were definite markings on the breech face of the casing, though the markings were sufficiently small that I wondered about them, and sufficiently faint that I knew I wanted better light and a magnifying glass to read them with the goal of their possible deciphering. I then rubbed my finger over the back, and to my astonishment, the markings became noticeably clearer. I looked at my hand, and wondered why I had bothered; my hands were still fairly clean.

“Numbers,” I murmured. “This is most likely a date-code, isn't it?”

“That and much more,” said the soft voice. “Look closely at the primer.”

I then noted the primer itself, and saw that it had plenty of margin remaining – enough to know that the primer in question was not the customary 'rounded-edged can' that I recalled inserting into things like I was holding.

It was currently closer to a partly-flattened hemisphere, with a pronounced circular dent in its precise center.

“That's because that powder lost its sharpest edge,” said the soft voice. “It is still altogether usable, if an older formula.”

“That will help, won't it?” I asked.

“It will, and that far more than you suspect,” said the soft voice. “Their 'sniffing devices' don't have enough room in their dedicated memory to accommodate every batch of powder that place has made, which is why they have no such records of that propellant.”

“No records?” I asked.

“Not on those sniffers,” said the soft voice. “They do have complete and accurate records of every batch of powder that place has ever made, and they could prepare those records for loading into those devices, but that takes time to do – and that for reasons that will occur to you once you've been there for a day or so.”

“Time?” I asked. “How much time?”

“Longer than you might think, given their equipment,” said the soft voice, “and more than long enough to do what you need to do once you arrive.”

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Karl. “I hope it is not going to be like that hall place was.”

“I'm not certain,” I said calmly. “If you find any more of those brass things, you may wish to bag them up, as I suspect we can eventually use them.”

“This type will not work for whistles,” said Karl. “Those are shaped different, and are a lot longer.”

“No, not whistles,” I said, as I looked down inside the empty shell and saw a small centered round hole. “These can be reloaded, most likely, and I would bet...”

I then ceased speaking, for now I knew another issue: we could potentially make our own supplies for these if needed, but I suspected we would not need to do so.

The previous pause had been perhaps a second. I then thought to ask the question that came with such thinking.

“Reloading supplies, right? They got some of those here, don't they?”

There was no answer, but as I gave Karl back the casing, I had a suspicion as to why no answer had been given: if there were such supplies on site, we could not safely access them before the 'real' witch-hole was dealt with; and once that place was done, then everything else we needed to do here at this time would become vastly easier for all of us. Hence, I needed to concentrate on doing that which lay directly in front of me, and being distracted by such matters as 'ammunition' and 'weapons' were problems best avoided beforehand.

Even if that distraction was truly important, dealing with that place below us was more so.

And as I turned to resume looking in that one 'huge' office with the women crowding my heels, I could feel a faint below-ground shuddering; and I knew yet more.

“Tricky,” I thought. The spirits involved with the curses below us knew my weaknesses, and were doing all they could to take advantage of them. The sense was a familiar one, even if the last time I had previously thought in that precise way was some years prior to being taken here; and once inside that one office, I stood, lantern held to my left by my outstretched arm and club at the ready, and 'looked' carefully.

There were rooms and desks that needed checking, more out of an attitude of thoroughness than all else, and as I got a 'nip' of honey, I knew that such checking needed to be 'expedited'.

At least until the thick gluey-tasting material I had sucked down 'kicked in' some two minutes later and I shook my head. Another such 'nip', several swallows of beer, and my head continued clearing. It made for a comment.

“No, we need to make certain of these offices,” I said as another faint shudder seemed to vibrate up through my boots. “That place down there might not be f-filled with explosives, but we will need to hurry on our way out.”

“No more explosives than what we bring into it, you mean,” said Katje. “I know Karl is bundling up more dynamite whenever he gets the chance to do so, and I still have my bundles, and Gabriel has one bundle left – and we will wish that stuff in that place, that and those round squibs we have.”

“Yes?” I asked, as I carefully 'surveyed' a desk. Sarah seemed to be getting hints from my rapid 'checking' of the drawers, and while Katje was most cautious – she did not wish to be surprised again by a rat – she was beginning to 'hustle' also.

“That entire group of witches are down there,” said Katje, “and while that one witch has diminished greatly as to his power, those he cursed before he ceased with his moving have not done so.”

“As in 'it is better to have an army of commons than just one truly capable witch'?” I asked.

“It is not quite that simple,” said Katje, “as an army would not fit in that place, and that witch was quite full of himself in thinking to do as he did.”

“Any idea as to its size?” I asked.

“It is nowhere near as large as that room named Desmond Alley,” said Katje – who then paused to look around. “It's bigger than this room, but not much bigger.”

“That is not a small room,” said Sarah, “and I am not certain if you could fit an 'army' down there.” A brief pause, then, “This desk is done. What did you mean by an army?”

“H-hundreds?” I asked. I was moving even faster now, as I 'surveyed' as much by 'looking and feeling' as all other means, and only rarely was I opening drawers for more than a few seconds – when I bothered to open them. This room had its troubles, but most of the truly worrisome ones were not in its desk-drawers.

“I am not sure there are that many,” said Katje, “even if I know that group was large enough to fill the biggest room I saw at Boermaas while I was there.”

“Which room was that?” asked Sarah. “That big domed room where they have receptions?”

“They did not have any such room then,” said Katje. “The biggest room I saw while I was there was a bit smaller than this one.” A brief pause, then, “when I said 'filled', I meant 'everyone in it is standing, as there is no room to sit down'.”

“That's enough to scare me,” I muttered.

“At least until you actually slice on one of those things,” said the soft voice. “Imagine a less-capable 'thug' than those blue-dressed people you and a few others have seen in your dreams, and you'll get an idea as to how they are.”

“For hardness, or..?”

In general,” said the soft voice. “Oh, that presumes those blue-dressed thugs are not doing things they've been trained to do – things they've never encountered in any way.”

“Then each of us is worth many of them,” murmured Sarah. “There, that desk is done. I've not seen any ratlets or rat-nests other than the one Katje found. Have either of you seen sign of rats?”

“Rat dung, yes,” I said. “Two long-dead rats that are so old they're more dust than bones, yes. Live rats of any size or color, no...”

A blur shot from under the desk and without thinking I swung on it as I leaped into the air to avoid its quick-slashing claws. The deafening screech that followed the crunching strike of my club spoke of but one thing.

“Yes, now there are no live rats, as you just mashed one,” said Sarah as she came closer with her revolver in her hand. “That club will do well to endure another day's use, I think, as I might have just heard it crack.”

“There was no might in what I just heard,” said Katje, as she came to see what I had 'mashed'. “Now how did that rat get in here?”

I then shined my lantern on the rodent in question, and as I looked at the huge and shaggy gray-coated 'wolf-sized' rat, I shook my head before speaking.

“That's the main reason we need to search these offices,” I murmured, as I began going around the desk to find the rat's other end. “The remaining large rats...”

“The remaining large rats are now deceased,” said the soft voice. “You just mashed the last and largest of them all.” A pause, then, “be glad you can collect up another club when you get home tonight, as that one has got about another three swings like you just did in it before it turns into stove-wood.”

“How big is this thing?” I gasped, as I saw the huge 'paintbrush' tail and hindquarters of the creature sticking out from under the other side of the desk. The tail looked about right for a lion, or so I guessed, even if the other portions were likely to be somewhat smaller than what I recalled of earthly lions.

“Large enough that it could do a most-passable lion imitation had you not killed it when you did,” said the soft voice. “The witches had no small amount of trouble getting that animal up here, in fact.”

“Probably killed several of them,” I muttered.

“Several dozen, you mean,” said the soft voice. “That one had an 'entire-white' mother, and many other white rats in its recent family tree – so it had just enough 'gray' to look common, but otherwise, it's very close to a white rat of that size as far as hardness and ferocity – and that does not increase proportionately for size with white rats, unlike the common ones.” A brief pause, then, “white rats are closer to 'double the size means four times as bad'.”

Sarah then came to my side, and let out a barely-suppressed shriek before speaking. “That's a white rat that looks to have been painted cheaply with bad paint,” she said.

“How can you tell?” I asked, as I grabbed the animal's tail with both hands and began dragging it out from under the desk. It was astonishingly heavy.

“First, the hind-claws,” said Sarah. “The white rats have longer hind-claws, and more of them, and then there are...”

Sarah paused as the blunt-nosed head of the animal showed, its eyes bulging clean out of their sockets and its mouth, nose, and ears drooling blood and gray matter mingled. I guessed its weight at close to a hundred pounds at the least – and I did not have to guess as to why my club had most likely cracked when I had smashed its head one-handed.

“That one would easily need two notches on the long bar of a grain-scale,” she said, as I dragged the 'huge' rat out into the hallway. It seemed to have gained no small amount of weight with Sarah's pronouncement. “It's bigger than any rat like it I have ever seen.”

“Two notches?” I asked.

“It weighs more than I do,” said Sarah, “as I managed but one notch on the long bar, and seven out of ten on the short one when I last weighed myself earlier this year at Willem's.” A pause, then, “and I think you might barely touch three long notches. Hans is about two and seven, or so Anna told me.”

“He's good for three and three,” said the soft voice. “He's heavier than he looks.”

“People usually underestimated my weight where I came from, and that by a substantial amount, at least until a few years before I left,” I said matter-of-factly. “I then became very thin, in fact thinner than I am now, and then people thought I weighed more than I actually did.”

“I spoke as I did as I think Anna's speaking of you weighing less than is good is but the faint smell of that mule,” said Sarah, “and though she has tried to stuff me more times than I can count...”

“Good,” said Katje. “You need it badly.”

“She needs to tube you nightly and fill you with beer like a cask,” said Sarah. “You do not look at all well. Only a handful of people I have ever seen were thinner than you are, and most of them were but recently escaped from slave-dens.”

I could almost hear audibly the “see, I told you so.” To my surprise, I did not – at least from one source. Katje almost made up for its lack, however.

“I am most glad that lack will be addressed shortly,” she said, “as I would otherwise be most afraid of your dying, and that soon.”

See, I told you so,” said the soft voice. “You have heard it from two people, and neither one of them is inclined toward either chiding nor exaggeration.”

With that office cleared and the 'dead rat' next to a wall in the hallway, the three of us quickly cleared the half-dozen 'normal-sized offices' that lay to the south of the 'secretariat'. Once done with that fifty feet of hallway I thought wise to clear – we found nothing more promising than two somewhat less-rusted 'tosser' pistols hiding in desks, and one long-empty brass 'bullet-tin' that Sarah stuffed in her bag – I led the two women out into the hall and back toward that one room. With each step I took closer, I seemed to hear and feel the other four winding up their searching, and when I came even with the doorway of that one particular room, I thought to check on their progress and continued down the hallway toward where I heard the noise of movement and soft speech.

At least, I did so until Sepp came out with a clanking filthy bag and set it down by the doorway of the room in question.

“What's in there?” I asked.

“More of those tosser pistols,” said Sepp, “only these things are so filthy I could barely recognize them until Gabriel told me what they were.”

“How many of them did you find?” I asked.

“At least one of them in every desk,” said Sepp, “and there were a lot of desks in that room.”

“L-lot of desks?” I asked.

“Gabriel said it looked like a scribe-room, whatever that is,” said Sepp, “only I doubt much those scribes he spoke of had ever been in it, as every drawer was neat enough to tell me we were in a witch-hole that was once filled with people like those blue-dressed thugs.”

“What?” I asked. “Neat?” I nearly said “excessively neat?” but managed to keep a hold upon my tongue.

“I'm not sure if those blue-dressed thugs are witches,” said Sepp, “but I remember how they had to get everything just so and keep it that way all the time – and when I said that, Maarten told me that whoever trained them to be like that had to be witches from long ago, as those things were really fussy that way.”

I wondered about the matter myself, at least until Gabriel came out of the room, and he was shaking his head in an emotion I could not decipher beyond 'he is not happy'.

“Yes?” I asked.

“He's right,” said Gabriel. “Witches, at least according to Freek, speak loudly of perfection, and while that perfection is but an outward seeming at best, they do work hard at showing those otherwise how 'perfect' they appear to be.”

“Witches are not perfect,” spat Karl. He was still in the room, and by the sound of it, he'd found more of the pistols Sepp had spoken of – only his bag was large and heavy enough that it could not be carried. It needed dragging. The noise stopped, then steps, these tentative, followed by “there is this strange thing like a throwing-bottle in here, only it is thinner, and it is all made of metal.”

“Do not touch that thing,” yelled Gabriel once he'd ran back to the door. “It's likely to be trapped.”

“If this thing is trapped...”

Karl's voice was buried amid the sounds of a scuffle, then to my total astonishment, Maarten dragged him outside with his hand upon Karl's shoulder with Karl's other hand held behind his back. Maarten slammed Karl against the wall with no small amount of force, then brought out his oil bottle and poured its entire contents on Karl's head such that it ran down his hair, onto his clothing – and then began to puddle as it dripped onto the floor. Karl had become something of an oily mess.

“Why are you doing this to me?” Karl yelled.

“You were being ridden,” said Maarten breathlessly, “as that thing was cursed for certain, and I didn't have time to hunt up a brush for this oil.”

“Cursed?” I asked. “You might want me to look at it.”

“I think that would be very wise,” said Maarten. “Our copies of Grim Collection's volumes might be old things, and we may have gotten them but very recently, and I know little enough about those tales, but I have heard enough talk about things like what he what found in there to know that one is cursed.”

“You know it's cursed?” I asked, as I went to the doorway and looked in another room done just like that 'secretariat' office, save somehow a good deal 'neater' and much 'less-used'. I did not go in, however, and I turned back toward Maarten. I knew what he had yet to say was important, for some reason.

“Every town I've been in regularly has at least a few people that can speak of things like what Karl found in that room,” said Maarten, “and when they speak, they do not speak hearsay, but at least one of their relatives or friends have died on account of those things exploding.” A brief pause, then, “and when I was at Boermaas, it seemed every lecturer I heard there was one of those people, and the same for about half of the students, which was one of the explanations given for why they drove us like they did.”

“No traveling?” I asked.

“And no time off, either,” said Maarten. “Both of those things were as true then as they are now, and while Katje and I were there, we envied those students that had six hours in the day to look to themselves and sleep, as we seldom slept more than four hours a night and every waking minute of our days had to count in that place.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “It is worse now, and not a little worse – at least for hours – and then you left out the added year of 'labor' instituted within the last twelve years as well as the routine after-dark assignments that are the case currently.”

“My cousin did not speak of those,” said Sarah. “Now what happened to Karl?”

“He was being ridden by this fetish in that place,” said Maarten, “and if I ever saw something more cursed than that thing that exploded earlier, I saw it when he was holding it.”

“Was it glowing?” I asked.

“No, it seemed ordinary enough that way,” said Maarten, “but that was but the seeming, for everything ever made like that was as cursed as anything those witches used in that war long ago, and that thing exploding back there like that one did was a primer for those like he was holding.”

“What did it look like?” asked Sarah.

“Like these things that people use to play games with in some Public Houses, only without the point on the end,” said Karl, “and it had these odd round things on the back where the fins are, and then this strange thing like a knitting needle near the place where the point would usually go, only it was sideways and had a loop holding it in place in this small hole near the tip.”

“What color was it?” asked Sarah.

“Blue, I think,” said Karl. “It had this odd red writing on it that uses words that I have never seen before.”

“Were these words those of witches?” asked Sarah. Her insistent tone brooked no denial.

“Most of them, no,” said Karl. “It said something about making certain to not set fire to it, then to handle it carefully, and then finally it said something about this m-something.”

“M-something?” I asked.

“Yes, it started with 'M',” said Karl. “I could not say this word, so I did not try, and then when Maarten sees me holding it, he makes me set it down on the nearest desk as if it is a bad witch-tool, and hauls me outside and dumps oil on me.”

“Did this writing have two marks that look like the fangs of a Death Adder? Over an 'O'?” asked Sarah.

“No, it did not,” said Karl. “It was spelled M-O-E-S-U-E-R-E, or something like that, and I know it was not a mouse, as I have seen those things, and I have had them in my bed lots of times in the past.”

Sarah shook her head, then said, “Maarten, if that thing is cursed, I am a mule.” She then turned to Karl. “I am still very glad he got you out of that room, though, even if your hair has enough cooking oil in it to make me wonder if you like fry-breads too much.” Sarah sounded distinctly 'wry'.

“He does like fry-breads too much,” muttered Sepp. “If he smells those things boiling in a pot of hot oil, he will devour them until he is glutted.”

After hearing all of this speech – save for the portions regarding fry-breads, or so I suspected – I knew it was important for me to learn of what Karl had found, and I adjusted my lantern prior to going into the office in question. Before I had taken three steps, I knew that this office, unlike the one where I had mashed the huge rat, had had very few people inside it once it had been 'stocked' – and the instant I saw the device Karl had spoken of, I moved quickly in that direction.

“Th-that's a mortar shell,” I squeaked, as I came up on the roughly foot-long 'round' – and as I came closer, I had a distinct impression: the reason Maarten had thought it was cursed was because at one time, it had been.

“Yes, long ago,” said the soft voice. “It was not terribly susceptible to curses, so within days of the witches who had set it as a trap dying, the curses wore off and it became 'safe' again.”

“N-not terribly susceptible?” I asked, as I gently touched the shell. “Safe? Oh, that pin there – you have to remove that before dropping it down the barrel.”

“Exactly correct,” said the soft voice. “While there are more of those nearby, there is but one slight problem with their use.”

“No mortars to fire them, correct?”

“No, there are mortars,” said the soft voice, “and save for a handful of parts, they're entirely intact.”

“Handful of parts?” I asked. “They're missing these parts?”

“No, the parts were poorly heat-treated originally and hence were of soft material, and they bent after dropping a few drill rounds down the tubes,” said the soft voice. “Hence, all four of those mortars cannot fire until their firing pins and the other damaged parts are replaced – which is an easy job given the correct materials and tools.”

“Didn't they have those here?” I asked.

“They did not have suitable materials,” said the soft voice. “They had materials that machined especially readily, but the alloying elements and processes that made those materials susceptible to cursing also made them need cursing to actually work as intended – and more, they needed the right curses and an adequately strong witch to say those curses at the right times during the process of making them.” A brief pause, then, “there weren't any such witches within fifty miles of this location when those on site tried to make new pins, and hence those pins crumbled into rust before they could be installed in the guns.”

“And the rest of those materials are..?”

“Mounds of corroded slag and piles of rust at this time,” said the soft voice. “Materials that needed cursing to work tended to corrode especially readily prior to cursing – and what they had here was no exception to that rule.”

“Is that why ferrous-metal fetishes tend to rust so much?” I asked.

I received no answer, and I turned to look at the mortar shell itself once more. I carefully picked the 'bomb' up, then began turning the streamlined 'salami-sized' shell over in the light of my lantern. When I saw the writing Karl had mentioned upon it, I nearly gasped.

“What?” I squeaked upon reading the 'caution' statement. “Duh, it's a mortar shell. You're supposed to coddle these things...” A pause, then as I grasped the true enormity of what I was reading, I gasped “aren't they supposed to explode?”

“They are, and they can, and given the state of some of the soldiers that place had when that shell was made, they needed such labels as well as redundant safety devices,” said the soft voice. “Think of someone like Karl, only utterly ignorant of all weapons – and such people were then tasked with handling such things as part of their training so as to cause them to both 'get in shape' and become familiar with what they might find on the battlefield.” A brief pause, then, “besides, you've heard of people getting blown up by such things who should know better – people who've been formally trained at length in their use.”

“I had to learn the hard way,” I muttered. “I've read about these things, and seen deactivated examples in museums, but I've never actually touched one before.”

“Had you been playing with one of these then, you would not have learned anything,” said the soft voice. “Hence the label.”

I gingerly picked the shell up with my right hand, then softly walked toward the hall down the place's center aisle. Before I came close to the doorway, however, I said softly, “it's just me – and this thing's safe enough, as long as it's handled carefully.”

“Yes, for you,” retorted Gabriel.

“No, this thing isn't like any trap I've set since I came here,” I said. “Apparently, this device has several safety mechanisms...”

I came to the door to be met by Sarah, and as she held her lantern, I showed her the writing. She muttered, “I thought so. This one is not cursed.”

“You know about these?” I squeaked.

“That one place's tapestries had pictures of them,” said Sarah, “only most of the ones I saw there were quite a bit larger.”

“Larger?” I asked. I then showed Sarah the gray cylindrical 'increments' between the half-dozen fins on the tail end of the shell. “Did those have this type of tail-fin assembly?”

“They did,” said Sarah. “There was one type that was fired out of a gun, and another type that was said to be dropped from a flying vehicle of some kind – and that type you have there was fired out of a gun.” Sarah then looked at me, and asked, “I heard about those guns they have here, and I know you can fix them.”

“Yes, after we deal with that room below us,” I said. “Can we wrap this thing in rags and then, uh, put it somewhere down the hall where it'll be safe?”

Sarah nodded, then as I went back inside the office to there wrap it up, I heard a shambling mob come closer to the doorway. I had wondered where everyone went, but as Sarah led them inside, I could hear her asking for and then gathering up rags from the others.

“What is that thing?” asked Karl. “It is too big to toss in a Public House, and it will not stick to the target.”

“If you pull that pin out and toss it, it will not need to stick to the target,” I said. “The target and a good portion of the Public House will be gone.”

“No, actually not,” said the soft voice. “That type of shell needs to be fired out of the gun to become fully live, at least with its current fuse.” A brief pause, then, “there were later wartime fuses that were sensitive enough that if such shells were slapped hard on the base, they would detonate when tossed – and they did not need to be tossed all that hard to explode, either.” A pause, then, “that shell is from a batch made some years prior to the beginning of that war, hence 'safety first' was firmly stuck in the minds of those designing and building ordnance.”

“That sounds like the nub for a distance-shell,” said Sepp, “and that thing looks like one of those shells that has been stretched a lot and then thinned some.”

“Where did you think they got the idea for those?” asked the soft voice. “Some of the remaining old stocks of shells like this one were fired out of smoothbore guns hundreds of years ago when the pigs first started coming to the continent, and while there were a lot of shells available for both sizes of muzzle-loading gun currently common in the five kingdoms, they eventually ran out of them – and it took nearly a hundred years to produce substitutes that were worth bothering with.”

“And many wrecked guns,” said Sarah, “and a lot of dead gun-teams, if I go by the Annals of some of the kingdom houses that date back far enough.”

“Those in this area don't,” I muttered, as I wrapped up the 'bomb' in the last of the rags present, “and then those of the second kingdom are worthless in general, and those of the fifth kingdom are not at the kingdom house but hidden somewhere else, so that means those of the third or fourth kingdoms. Correct?”

“The latter location far more than the former,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, you're right, as I've heard about the second kingdom's Annals.” A brief pause, then, once Sarah had handed me some string, she said, “I've never seen those things, and that in spite of spending much time looking for them.”

“Which ones?” I asked. “The 'Annals' that are occasionally produced for students, or the real ones, which might as well be copied out of a black book for language and much else?”

“I've seen those prepared for students,” said Sarah, “and I knew they had nothing truthful in them not half an hour after trying to read what I was shown.”

“Trying?” I asked, as I tied two knots one after another. I knew they would not hold terribly well, but they did not need to, either – as I was merely going to set the device down just inside an office perhaps fifty feet further north. Two more knots, these nearer the tail of the shell, and I gathered the bundle – and while I went north, the others went south. I glanced back to see them waiting at the doorway to that one office, and the faint talk I heard as I continued walking north indicated someone – Sarah most likely – was trying to 'organize' what needed doing so as to find the pathway to that room below.

And as I came to the fifty foot mark, I knew it wasn't far enough away. I needed more distance, or so I thought until I realized it was not a good idea to leave the others unattended at this juncture. I ducked inside the first office on my right, set the bomb down just inside the doorway on the floor next to the wall, then came out and walked at a rapid pace back toward that one room.

“No, she is not organizing them,” I said. “She's trying to keep them out of that place, and all of them are acting like accursed puppets!”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if that witch-hole down below is playing games with their heads.”

“And what I did?” I asked.

While I received no answer from the person I wished to hear most from, I knew as I came within ten feet of the group that what I had done was indeed the best choice of the handful of choices I had had with that one bomb. If it detonated, we would not be scattered by it at this distance, especially given I had put it inside an especially thick-walled chamber.

“The walls were thicker in that room,” I muttered. “Why?”

“That was one of those places that sold food on this floor,” said the soft voice, “and the extra wall-thickness was to provide both an aspect of insulation as well as 'securing' the food from up-and-coming witches thinking to supplement their diets cheaply by theft.”

“That does not surprise me,” said Sarah as I came to her side. “They all wanted to go in there, and I knew it wasn't a good idea without you doing so first.”

“Cursed entrance?” I asked.

“No, but I doubt any of them have been in witch-holes,” said Sarah, “excepting Karl – and I think I know why Maarten took him outside when he found that shell, now.”

“He was, uh, ridden then?” I asked. “I do recall needing to drag him halfway up the stairs of that place before he woke up, and he said he was afraid – and I told him I suspected it was not normal fear.”

As I went inside, however, I recalled one chief difference: the appearance of Karl and the other man then was not what I had seen since in people who had been 'taken over'.

“They were in a dimly-lit witch-hole,” said the soft voice. “Had that happened in better lighting, their status would have been much plainer to you then.”

For some reason, I went directly to the back of the room, angling slightly to my right as I did, then when I found a desk, I clambered up upon it. I pressed against the back wall with my right hand – and as I pressed slightly harder upon the first place I had touched, I felt a faint grinding sensation that quickly segued into a crumbling noise as an area of brickwork collapsed and fell with a clatter to leave a hole the size of a dinner plate. Faint steps came from behind me as dust puffed out of the hole and the stuff I had pushed bounced and rattled another three seconds to finally stop somewhere on the other side of the 'false wall'.

“I thought you might do that,” said Sarah. “Now once you get off of that desk, we can move it out of the way.”

I slid off of the dusty surface, then grabbed the desk – and with astonishing ease, pulled it back out of my way. As the others came to 'pick it up' and move it back and out of the way further, I went back to the hole, and as I held my lantern in my left hand, I drew my riveting hammer and began tapping on the bricks bordering the hole I had made.

With each tap, more bricks fell – and more dust flew into the room. A faint juddering noise came from behind the wall and 'down', then as I tapped in a line to my right, the dust coming out of the steadily enlarging hole became so thick and choking that I backed away, and spat, “dust those witches down there, and not us.”

The dust suddenly 'vanished' to the sound of faint and muted thunder, this shaking the ground; and as I resumed tapping, this time in a vertical line below and to the left of where I had hit 'solid' bricks, larger chunks of wall began to fall.

And crumble, also. I then looked around, this first to my right; and there, I saw the fractured black-brown oblongs I had tapped in finding the edge of the secret passage's opening slowly crumbling before my eyes as their sustaining aspect fled.

“Those things are going to sand,” muttered Sarah. “If that doorway is not entirely clear in a few minutes, I will be much surprised.”

“Sand I can live with,” I thought, as I ran my tapping hammer rapid-fire, much as if driving rivets, down the wall from chest-high down to waist-level, and the bricks crumbled and broke as fast as I could hit them.

“I would keep doing that,” said Katje, “as these bricks like that are going to sand and, uh... A-tchoo!” Sniffling sounds, then the sound of someone blowing their nose, followed by Katje's resumed speech. “That tar is going to dust and s-smoke.”

“No, no fire here,” I said. “Let such, uh, fire go down to prepare our way, and that sand... I don't think we want that stuff in here.” A pause, then, “perhaps in the nearest Kossum's or places like it?”

A muffled thud seemed to softly echo, then running steps. I turned to see everyone run out of the doorway as a softly whirling dust cloud now began spinning. Smoke came billowing out from every wall as well as the floor, and as the bricks lining the room slowly 'dissolved' and went to sand, the slowly-gathering whirlwind took the sand...

“Sow the whirlwind,” I muttered, “and the witches will reap what I see. Let every... No, let every tin and crock of witch-food in those places have this sand collect in it, and let every witch that eats such food find their gizzards filled with dust and dirt and, uh, whatever that tarry-looking stuff really is.”

The room suddenly shook violently, and now the bricks seemed to fade away before my eyes as a roaring scream seemed to come from below and every wall I saw. I seemed in the eye of the storm, in the midst of the maelstrom; and as the whirling wind took unto itself sound and fury, I could see...

This with crystal clarity, almost as if I were standing in the numerous places in question.

Sediment, this lively, brick-red, pulsating, and virulent; and with each grain of sand and particle of tar, I saw a tin or crock being 'seeded'. For some odd reason, I know knew that some if not most of these tins and crocks were yet to exist; and more, as I saw them being seeded with death in the process of their making, I saw the symbols of all the heavy metal contaminates that had been compounded into the 'curse-bricks' along with their clay binder to give them the desired color and 'mass'.

It was an especially deadly species of industrial waste, this from a long-vanished time. I could see numbers as well as letters, some of them combined, and others separated one from another by dashes and other markings.

And as I watched, the now-deadly foods became multiplied in their numbers and disseminated widely in their positioning. The witches would gladly eat them; yea, and they would rejoice in their especial potency, and from the north-tip to the southern points of the continent, those witches of greatest finance and power would fight over and then imbibe their slow-growing poisons, and do so as frequently as they could do so, this with cumulative effects. More, while these witches would not actually die quickly, they would slowly but surely become as if dead to the ways of witchdom.

Stupid,” I muttered. “Even those on the continent that name themselves great for thinking will lose what intelligence they have to irreversible dementia if they so much as taste such food but once; and those who take their places will partake of the same meals, and then...”

“They will become ineffectual even quicker, as what you just did will spread widely,” said the soft voice. “Look around you.”

I did, and to my astonishment, the curse-bricks, as well as their 'mortar' and the sand and mud the two had been turning into – all of these things were gone. I turned in place, and there, I saw a still-smoking dusty crevasse roughly three feet wide and some six feet tall bordered by ragged-edged stone blocks set in whitish mortar. The whole tableau somehow looked scoured by sand and ravaged by a strange species of virulent fire.

“No concrete?” I asked.

“The concrete you saw on the outside was used for reinforcement of the original walls of this building,” said the soft voice. “It was originally made of stone nearly two centuries prior to the war, when witchdom was yet young and feeble in this area.” A brief pause, then, “that, and the building on this site before this one was made entirely of stone for an entirely different reason, and its foundations in part were reused and its stone recycled for the most part.”

Steps came from behind me, then as I turned, lantern in hand, I saw the others file in, one at a time, mouths gaping. Sarah was the first, but as she looked around, she said, “I heard right, then.”

“What?” I asked, as I began making ready for the descent.

“You put poison to every witch of substance,” said Sarah, “and those who eat such food are doomed.”

“Yes, though not to that poison,” said Gabriel. “It will be most attractive to them, as it will cause them to think themselves much stronger witches when they eat it.”

“And it will 'fetch' those sober witches,” said the soft voice. “They may stay clear of most of witchdom's vices, but once they learn of those foods, they will sample them at least once or twice.”

“And then they will turn into fools,” I muttered. I then wondered if that label did not apply to us, and I thought, “Paul called himself one, didn't he? Didn't he say the world labeled those not as it was fools and worse?”

“Their foolishness will grow, not lessen,” said Katje. “I have heard of sober witches, but what those people will do after tasting such food will make the effects of strong drink seem as nothing, and that very soon after eating such foods.”

“Act more like witches, also,” I muttered, “and...”

“That will not help them much,” said Katje. “Because they were seeded with the evil of the time prior to the war, they will act like those witches who made such evil, and in doing that now, they will bury themselves deeper in the grave.”

“That, and they lack the strength to endure that type of life,” said Sarah. “That room below is not waiting, and neither is the sun, and I wish to be headed home before the sun goes down.”

“No travel at night?” I asked.

“I am not fond of dirt,” said Sarah, “and this place has the worst dirt I've endured outside of a few places in the fifth kingdom house.” A pause, then, “Karl did not bring that Fell's soap, and I forgot to bring proper washing soap.”

“I brought two bars,” said Katje. “Is it your clothing?”

Sarah held up her arm to Katje's nose, and she let out a faint screech.

“Yes?” I asked. “Only I smell worse?”

“You should smell worse, but you do not,” said Katje. “I think this last portion...”

I did not hear the remainder of Katje's speech, for I took what Sarah had said to heart. I had been given what I had needed to clear the path quickly, as we did need to hurry; and while we could easily go home in the dark, there was a matter of much-needed rest for the whole group after this affair below finished.

“No, it's more than that,” I thought, as I went in the doorway and turned left to begin slow-stepping down into the realm of darkness below. I paused after three steps, then adjusted my candle-lantern for its best brightness. I then spoke. “Come with me.”

Within less than a minute, I had gone down thirty steps amid a slow-growing current of floor-hugging dust with the others behind me. While this dust was of sufficient thickness to make seeing our feet impossible in the light-devouring darkness that seemed to draw steadily about us with each step downward, I could feel fear once more arising, much as it had done when the fuse was gnawing its way closer to the cap prior to blasting Iggy's doorway and letting him once more loose upon the world. In other ways as well, however, this affair reminded me anew of Iggy – and as I continued downward slow and inexorable, I noted a sense of 'warmth', at once familiar like a recent memory and yet foreign.

That, and it was not a conventional warmth, but one of a type I had endured long ago. It reminded me of a certain clothes-filled closet I had once dealt with, one in the deepest reaches of Southern Hell.

“That closet was warm, too.” I said.

“Which closet do you speak of?” asked Sarah. “The one where I work at sewing, or the other one in the house?”

“Neither, dear,” I said, this in a chilling voice that reeked of death and whitewashed sepulchers. “This was another one, one where I came from – and while it was warm, I still went inside it so as to clear it out.” A pause, then, “and then, the cellar was burning, also. I did not leave that place until I was finished with it and what I needed to do there.”

A sudden scream chorus shrieked out from eons away in time and space, and it echoed about us and the rough-cut narrow walls of the passage to raise more slow-settling dust up from the time-frosted walls and the gritty steps leading downward.

“Perhaps they know that,” said Sarah, “and they think to frighten us.”

“I think so,” said Karl. His voice, while still the utter picture of stolidity, now had an aspect of fear that I had never heard beforehand. “I heard something screaming down there, and I have never heard such screaming before now.” I understood Karl to mean 'never' as in 'he'd never heard such screaming before in his life'.

With each step downward and forward, I found it hard and growing harder to count them, for the number of such stairs seemed to grow itself like a long-dead weed but newly brought back to life. With each shuffling tentative step upon the rough-chipped yet gritty steps, the dust rose in faint clouds to add to the thick whitish shroud that gathered itself about our feet. I had the impression – now – that people did occasionally visit the upper area, even as Hans and Anna had done the two times they had come inside before either Sarah or myself accompanied them; and while the overarching whole had had an aspect of fear, the true reason neither person had gone further down that one hallway was that neither Hans nor Anna had thought to do so.

They had found those things of usefulness close at hand as they checked the offices and found first those books, and then later those things in the laboratory; and the idea that anything else in the vast place could be of further use simply did not enter their heads. It wasn't fear, and both people wished nothing to do with witches then – and more, they had to...

“So that's why,” I thought, as I made another step down into the growing thick white smoky fog that covered the steps like slow-seeping gray paint. “They had to come here in 'secret', and they dared not attract attention.”

“True, but not to that degree,” said the soft voice. “The witches knew about their functional illiteracy, as well as their attitudes. What they did not take into account is Anna's childhood oath.”

“Did she..?”

“Hans was much more vulnerable to the chemistry-curses that hid much of what you found,” said the soft voice, “and he wasn't inclined to look that much until he found something related to chemistry. Anna found most of the 'good stuff' like the books and everything other than those obvious chemical things Hans saw, and only a dream she'd had beforehand made her disinclined to go further inside than the realm of 'easy pickings'.”

“Her dream?” I asked.

“Recall how she spoke of being sacrificed in a witch-hole?” asked the soft voice. “She was dreaming about where you are going – and the reason the steps seem to be growing in number is firstly, there are a lot of them, and secondly, that curse-collection is playing games with distances worse than it ever has done.”

“And people visiting the Abbey?” I asked silently.

“No small number of marked people have hidden themselves in here over the centuries,” said the soft voice. “All save the most-foolhardy witches tended to avoid coming inside after them, and if the witches remained in the general area for more than about twenty minutes, they tended to be visited by Iggy or Maggot-Brain. Those witches that Sarah saw watering their animals stayed no longer than they absolutely had to, as they knew – granted, mostly by what passes for gossip in witchdom – what would have happened if they had dared to 'tarry' overlong.”

“Then why did they wish to stop there at all?” asked a faint-sounding voice that took me nearly three steps to recognize as that of Sarah.

“Because this is a 'great monument' in the eyes of today's witches, and more, that black book speaks of it as being a very special place.” A pause, then, “while it is a special place, no black book – no, not one, not even those books written in blood by individuals – has ever spoken of just why it is so special.”

With further stepping, however, I knew another matter: this location, even more than Desmond Alley, had not seen any traffic in hundreds of years – and while Iggy was troublesome enough, especially given he could show anywhere after dark within twenty miles of the Abbey, and that Desmond traveled further than one might think possible if the night were dark enough and there was dampness beyond the trivial in the air – this place below us had its own special trouble.

Even with idiot-soldiers with little true capability, it had its own trouble, which is why we had to get the obstacles out of the way so to deal with this place. It was hard to believe that all prior to this had been obstacles, but in the larger scheme of things, they were nothing more than just that.

With such thinking, I looked about me in the light of my lantern, and thought to adjust it. It seemed to be going dim unusually soon, and as I carefully moved the bead up and down, I noted a modest improvement at best. I found the best spot, then locked down the wire – and as I twisted the collet lever, I noted the claustrophobic walls to each side of where I stood, these being a species of rough-chipped stone that seemed older than time and filthy with age, and overhead, but a foot or so above my eyes, the star-glittering rough-hewn aspect of the arch above our heads seemed to proclaim an aspect of age that made for wondering.

Did this place we were going to only date back as far as the war?

Or was it older yet, a remnant of the time prior to this world's drowning?

As I resumed my slow and steady stepping – rapid movement made 'listening' harder and raised more dust, while taking one's time in walking downward kept the slow-drifting 'fog' below our knees.

“It was around my ankles but a minute or two before,” I thought, “and I've never seen such crude work in my life!” A further glance around, and then, “and there is nowhere to hang lights, not even a rusted candle-holder!”

My mental speech paused at seeing what looked like small traces of soot hidden here and there. A near-millennium of non-use had caused almost all of the soot of the last torchlight processions to fall to the ground, but I could still see small portions clinging still in cracks and crevices; and below us, beyond the ten feet or so of our feeble-and-growing-dimmer lanterns, the darkness of the place set before us seemed to gather to itself added dimensions, these unique to itself, so as to enlarge the grasp of its 'kingdom'.

Our steps downward and 'away' numbered now well over a hundred, and there were easily that many more yet to come. Yet as I trod my downward path slowly and surely, I could feel something growing inside of me, a sensation I could only name by the handle 'horrible'; it was much like that time with the traitors, only in some vague and difficult-to-fathom fashion, it was both more-measured and vastly 'stronger'; unlike that time, this state was less 'infuriated' and more one of 'ice-chilled calculation'.

And far more ferocity, also. Had I seen Ultima Thule standing before me, I would have bitten her throat out with my teeth while ignoring her filth, her stench, and her evil aura – and more, I would have done so, even had she been surrounded by Spams that would slow-roast me over an open fire for amusement after I got done ripping her throat out and being doused by her blood.

“Or would they name me the new 'leader'?” I asked silently. There was no answer, and now, I suspected, one was not needed.

I was not facing Ultima Thule, but a long-dead witch and his ranked-in-many-rows skeleton-army, and behind and around him, lay trappings unseen by the eyes of witch and man for over a thousand years prior to our coming – with the last visitors, those being the chief arch-witch set over the Abbey and those bearing him down so as to kill him and become arch-witches themselves...

“No, not mere 'arch-witches',” I thought. “They were serving him up to get something interested down there, something that they'd only heard about and no witch of that time...”

“No, not 'no witch',” said the soft voice. “That place did the choosing, not those going, and the last person to come up alive from that place left one of her most treasured possessions there so as to seal the place unto herself.”

“Who?” asked Sarah. “Is her name one I have read?”

“Her name, no,” said the soft voice. “She had her name as a witch, and was called that here among those near her in rank who she knew particularly well, but everyone else called her another name entirely – and only a handful of witches here have ever ranked high enough to have 'titles' bestowed upon them.”

“Titles?” I asked.

“Those were rare before the drowning,” said the soft voice, “and since, there have only been five such titles to be claimed. She was the fourth witch to win one.”

“The fifth?” asked Sarah.

“Will go unclaimed,” said the soft voice, “though in the minds of a great many witches now and far more in the future, there looks to be a claimant to that title now – which is why they do all they can.”

“Who would that be?” asked Sarah.

There was no answer, and I had a plausible reason as to why. Jodocus was where he belonged.

“No, it was not him,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn who that person is soon enough, but now is not a good time to hear such speech.”

“I know,” I muttered, as I felt what lay below us amid the knee-high whitish fog that hid our legs from our sight and put them in another dimension. I had more to say, however. “Bottom floor: Dungeons, Dragoons, Desmonds, Witches, Black Stone Knives, and Lingerie.”

“I hope not,” spluttered Katje. “Iggy was enough for today and the rest of my year, thank you.” A pause, then a question, this coming from Katje herself:

“What is Lingerie?”

“Women's underclothing,” I said.

“I am glad for that laundry soap, as my underclothing was acting too much like it was alive to suit me,” said Katje. “It might have been washed often enough to keep bugs well clear of it, but it was old enough that it felt like it was made of those things and not cloth.”

“She had trouble with clothes-bugs at Boermaas,” said Maarten from what seemed another country – and perhaps, another century. “Boermaas might not have been near the trouble it is now, but the other schools must have gathered their bugs and put them in the student's quarters at Boermaas.”

“I think not,” said Sarah. “That place had about as many bugs then as did the surrounding towns, if what I read of their Annals is right.”

“Annals?” I asked.

“One of my nighttime visits there to see my cousin,” said Sarah. “She was about a year from her leaving Boermaas, and I was close to my leaving of the west school, and that night, we entered that place's offices and took notes of what we found there.”

“What did you find?” asked Karl.

“If you have ever been in General's Row,” said Sarah, “then imagine some place like it, only much larger, much smellier, and seemingly far older and wealthier – and then you will get some idea as to how their offices were then.” A pause, then, “I suspect they are both larger and worse in other aspects now.”

“Very much so,” said the soft voice.

“Their Annals were locked and chained in a Gustaaf-carrier, and it took my cousin nearly half a turn of a glass to unlock all of that carrier's locks,” said Sarah. “By that time, she could have any lock made unlocked almost as fast as if she had a fresh key from its maker, but that thing had some strange locks on it.”

“At least one curse-lock, also,” I muttered.

“All five of those locks were curse-locks,” said the soft voice. “Granted, recent-vintage curse-locks, but real curse-locks nonetheless.”

“R-real curse-locks?” I asked.

“They needed more than their keys to unlock, at least for witches,” said the soft voice, “and the curses on those locks needed someone on the level of Koenraad the first handy to open them in addition to the proper keys.” A pause, then, “in her case, it was mostly a matter of care, skill, silent prayer, and a bit more effort than usual for her.”

“And what else you said?” asked Katje.

“A joke, though I never said it when it first occurred to me during guard-training,” I said. I was amazed at my calmness on the outside, even if on the inside, I felt far too much like a wild animal – a crazy wild animal, something along the lines of a five-legged three-hundred-pound wolverine or a two-ton razor-clawed weasel – and both of those creatures with bad attitudes and long-pondered scores to settle.

“When was this?” asked Sepp. He sounded uncommonly nervous for him. Sepp normally had a level of fearlessness approaching that of Karl – though unlike Karl, Sepp's lack of fear was not founded upon in part upon ignorance. Sepp, to put it mildly, was well above the common for a first-kingdom butcher in terms of speed and sharpness, and his getting his papers early was but the smell of his particular mule, as Sarah had learned to her chagrin.

It took someone good to catch her out, and Sepp had done so easily. Hendrik had him near the top of the list for greens, in fact, or so I suspected with due deliberation. Only a handful of people were higher on that list, Mathias being one of them and Sarah's cousin another, if Hendrik knew of her.

“When we were being led around and got close to the cellar,” I said, in normal voice – and as my mind grew a greater chill, my voice followed it down in coldness: “I have a feeling about this place we are about to get into – it is the witch-hole for the entirety of the region, it has not been used since years prior to the start of the war...”

“Then what about those witches from here?” asked Sarah.

“He said 'used',” said Gabriel's spooky voice. “Those people did not use it save as a crypt in which to hide themselves from disgrace.” A brief pause, then, “he meant – I think – use as in the usual for that place.”

“Uh, I think so,” I said – and then, for some odd reason, I felt inclined to howl like a mad dog. This thinking seemed to trigger something in my mind, and I laughed, screamed, and yelled at the same time a second later – and the echoing roaring thunder seemed to make the whole of the long thin step-ridden cavern echo and vibrate like the long and saw-toothed 'thunder-pipe' of 'a vast organ'.

From dim and dark places, these many long Laengen to my rear, I heard a faint and dusty comment that spoke of roaring. I ignored it and the idea behind it, for I was now becoming a 'crazy wild animal'; and if I went by how I was feeling, I had to give that two-ton weasel added mass and power, as well as a thoroughly irate nature. This was so much so that I crouched down so as to spring, 'tossed all reason and sanity behind me', and with a soul-shattering animalistic roar, I leaped to the attack with a bounding rush that ended but scant seconds later to land in silence upon a soft floor, this of mounded dirt, chips and fragments of bone meal, assorted scraps of going-to-dust blackened cloth, and the ashes of a vast dream, the whole covered in soft and gloomy darkness with but a slight glow in my left hand and my eyes rapidly becoming accustomed to the ever-night of this underground realm.

In less than a second, I knew beyond doubt that Katje had but hinted at the size of this room – or rather, she had been dead and stinking wrong about its size, almost as much as I had been. The place was huge; it was vast, with a tall and spiky ceiling dripping jagged stalactites and bowing high above my head in a natural amphitheater-type arch. Where I was, nearer to one jagged-chipped edge, the ceiling was easily twenty feet above my head; and as I moved ahead in the darkness to the sounds of faint voices coming closer quickly from my rear, I realized then what Katje had been describing.

The worrisome portion, that portion which we needed to contend with, was indeed as she had stated; and what filled the region between myself and the beginning of that region nearly a hundred yards distant with a narrow path connecting the two could only be described as 'the debris of war' – and as I set off at a padding walk, my boots spurting dust with each step I made, I saw to each side the mounded 'trash', the torn and rusted scrap-metal – there was a lot of that stuff – the vast collections of going-to-dust bones liberally hazed with red, and the many other signs of a battle at once grim, vast, and horrible long ages ago.

“Wait for us!” shrieked Sarah from behind me. “Wait!”

I did no such thing, for such were the thoughts that meant our deaths and that of all life upon the planet. Hell had claimed this place as an earnest of what it desired in regard to all of time and space; and the evidence that lay in ruined state about me only confirmed the dire raging hunger of Brimstone. He truly did wish all of reality to rest in his belly, where it could rot 'as per my desire, and as per the law of my gullet and fiat'.

The path I now trod might be wide enough to accommodate perhaps two at a time if they were thin to the point of starvation and careful to the point of paranoia, but my flame-auraed 'shadow' seemed to bulge out enough on each side of me to shoulder the stuff aside. I could feel not merely the junk actually moving away from me, but also, as the darkness to each side of me seemed to gather a hazy redness, I could hear crunching noises...

Faintly, the tracks of an earthmover groaning their dry-metal song, the screech of a bulldozer...

Sounds of sharpening claws, this done at a diamond-impregnated grindstone. Sickle-shaped claws of adamant needed similar hardness to but touch them, and harder yet to give them a lethal-edged hone.

I glanced to neither side, even if footsteps upon the dust I left behind me came closer like the tread of an advancing army. An army, in truth as well as numbers, lay ahead; and while we each were the equal of a number of these boxed-up fools, they were indeed fools; and hence, they would spend themselves in the manner of the curse-spitting Brimstone-loving fool.

Like the last multitude down here had done when they realized the true goals of their 'leader', and the very flower of witchdom had died that she might sup full at their throats and grow her power greater thereby; and then, seal the place up as this, her very own fiefdom, her own blood-purchased realm; and more, she then had had an audience with the chief of traitors in hope of kicking him out of his vouchsafed realm and then taking it over for her own pleasure and power.

No witch since the drowning had given thought to do so, and even those people had had a measure of caution.

This woman had no such thing.

No, not a woman, not by the time she came down here with her ranked cohorts and then came up by herself, alone. This person was, in truth and in consequences, far closer to 'a really nasty evil spirit' with just enough flesh to give its 'body' substance as it walked across the surface of the world above, and her killing that vast multitude 'by fire and sword' had but increased her power in a manner only a handful of witches on the face of this planet had even dared to contemplate.

“No, not a handful,” said the soft voice. “She might not have been the smartest witch ever, and she was not the strongest witch ever, but in terms of sheer audacity, she took the prize by a large margin for the whole of the planet from the day of its birth until the time of now.”

My red-flashed vision ahead grew tones of sepia and black to my front as I began to see clearly in the varied realms of infrared, and as faint further bright-white fireflies came in a slow-running gaggle to join me so as to shadow my way and make my own shadowed form become larger by their light, I saw ahead the beginnings of the enemy army, all boxed up in their ranks of rotten wood. Overhead, a mote of sand sifted down to dust the hair of my head, and to each side, furtive movement, this also of sand, seemed to draw the 'trash' of war back away from where I walked my lonely path.

A new killing field was needed for the great sport of slaughter, and I – and perhaps, those with me – were to be the contestants in the soon-coming war below.

“Or will they merely watch?” I thought, my thinking gone through the inversion point of absolute zero and now blazing forth into a new realm of cold-burning ferocity. “It does not matter anyway.”

Certainly not as I was thinking then. Calling my thoughts those of a crazy monster weasel was calling them tame and calm – and I was neither of those things, and my shadow proclaimed my insanity louder than the ancient coffins stacked deep and wide to each side of a jagged and narrow aisle – an aisle I would need to walk, until I had come past the two degrees of separation, gone among the enemy army, straight unto the table laid before me where the chief arch-witch, this man surrounded by his army, lay in wait for me like a steel trap, ancient and strong, waiting for this very hour, this minute, this year, and this day.

And that was but the beginning, for now I realized just who had supplied both poison and ideas to this large group of witches, that being the witch who now owned this realm below and thought to rob Brimstone of his chiefest lair.

The planet wasn't big enough for this woman, and she wanted to add the territory of Hell to what she had once owned here.

“Sounds like Brimstone himself,” I thought. “Who was that witch?”

“Unlike those two names that occurred to you from your past, that woman had a 'name' you've never heard or heard of before – and while one of those people whose names matched those you recalled had a title also, this woman's title was ultimately acknowledged to be the greater of the two.” I was surprised to hear the soft voice in this place, even as I came to the first degree of separation that the woman's willing slaves had set up, enabled by their deaths, and finally cursed it with their life's blood that it stand strong and unmovable.

“What is that stuff?” asked Sarah as she came up beside me. “At least the path through this mess is wide enough now.”

“Wide enough?” I deadpanned. My voice was suitable for the occupation of a crypt in lieu of its usual contents.

“Yes, it's now wide enough for all of us to link arms and walk abreast, while before it might have passed a running hare.”

I let the mild surprise fall off of me as if it were just nightly mist, just like the faint motes of sand this place had dumped down upon me from the instant I had come down here. A glance up showed starlight cracking through the yards of soot left by hundreds of years of torches, and I raised up my lantern.

And suddenly, the light from within that riveted brass box and its feeble blob of wax and tormented thread glared forth as if tortured and sibilant fire, and in its whitened glare, I saw – and this truly – that first degree of separation for what it was.

“Barbed wire – bad barbed wire, in fact – and all of it solid rust.”

I could not but speak, and the wire, previously showing but traces of surface rust here and there in its otherwise mirror-polished blue-black brilliance, went to powder in the course of seconds. Faintly, from the edge of hearing, I could hear the haunting notes of a bone flute, one the Abbey's chief arch-witch had once used.

He had taken it from the chief of his assailants, and fought back with the thing. The cursed men were like rats, and he become the piper.

And he had blown the piper's tune that caused all of the other witches to 'take their rest', and in doing so, enabled the power of that one female witch who stood unseen over all of them, this done by his own sheer 'cussedness' and 'striving with great longing for the will of Brimstone'.

She had not been merely powerful, and wily; but also possessing an intelligence beyond that of all save a very few, this being for all who had lived upon this planet since its inception in the mind of God. Cardosso was but a faint and pale shadow of this woman in that way, and the fact that she was a woman made it all the more improbable – until I recalled one chief train of thought in that smelly dream of Norden and its people.

All of this happened in the time it took to make two steps, a right and a left, and for the thick and tangled strands of head-tall barbed wire that had once barred our way to crumble completely into an impalpable brick-red dust mounding that portion of the ground-smooth stone floor.

“This was a matriarchy then,” I thought. “Men did all the work, and the women did little save rule.”

All those before me were mere men, even if they were witches of a long-dead era; and their ruler, as was the custom then in this region and the custom still in Norden, was a woman; and there was something about women's inward desires; now, well hidden, but in that time put to the fore and running amok amid their tangled jungle of strife-ridden thoughts:

Stopping at nothing to achieve their desires, whatever those desires might be. That was a woman's duty: to do all that could be done, and that irrespective of anything and anyone else.

No, it was not that. I had proven that to be false more than once in recent memory by my own actions. Another step taken, this over the dust of the barbed wire – there had been two rolls of the spiky stuff, one intertwined with another, this appearing but as one narrow-pitch coil from the front – and then, it was the turn of the spiky obstacles forming a wrought-iron 'spike-fence' of odd form. These set-in-stone constructions reminded me of what was supposedly used to block armored vehicles.

Again, the strange thoughts about women came. They were insatiable.

“No, I don't think so,” I thought, as I came to the second degree of separation. A glance to my right, then my left – and I moved through the one small gap that lay awaiting my tread. The first step beyond it caused the ground to shake, then as I glanced right, I saw the massive concrete-stone-and-steel obstacles go to dust as if a massive hidden hand was crushing them into ashes and powdery rust.

Yet again, strange thoughts: men tended to compromise short of the ultimate goals of Brimstone. Women, however, did not even contemplate such ludicrous foolishness; they 'broke on through to the other side' without a care for aught else.

“To hell with Brimstone,” I thought. “They called me every evil name in the book where I came from, and I wished that they had called me things like 'Monster' and 'Useless Feeder' instead.”

And with that, I knew one chief and mortal error in these witch-spawned lies. In the eyes of the witch, there were three classes, those being firstly, witches; secondly, men and women who were not witches; and a third class, this being the neuter nastiness that was expunged at Berky and locations of similar vein; and when they spoke of the word insatiable, and thought of women only having that quality, they did not count those 'things' that they named monsters.

“Witches have the cheap imitation of the real thing that God gives as he chooses,” I spat. My mouth was silent, but the rage within me was boiling and progressing toward eruption like Frankie sprung all of his seams at once under the pressure of a dynamite-stoked blower the size of a mountain. “It takes a monster to show witches what the word 'insatiable' really means.” A pause, then I put my fingers to my mouth, and blew.

The faint bubbling noise came, much as I expected; yet in another dimension, I heard something so intense, so dire...

So violent...

That calling it a 'horn', even that blown by someone like Georg's too-huge shadow when that being was smelling swine, was an insult to what I had done. And as if to buttress the matter and crush all opposition to it, the entire cavern rang with a single dire note, one deep and throbbing, a note that rattled my brain and raised up the dust of death that lay to our rear into a whirlwind of noise, dust, and sound.

Insatiable?” I screamed, as the former noise faded. “You don't know nothin' 'bout insatiable, fools!

The echoes of my voice faded out over the course of seconds, and the silence I heard then was of such eerie nature that as I walked among the coffins toward the black stone 'bier', I saw for the first time that atop it lay an intact corpse. With each step, I saw more: flesh undecayed, its pallor stilled and chalk-white, emaciation profound yet potent in its miserly flesh, and two hands, these more bone than flesh, clutching the age-blackened handle of a long and blood-stained fetish dagger buried deeply in the chest of the corpse.

The dagger – it was a near-twin of that dagger that remained at home in my workbench with the tag of evidence – was buried deeply in the chest of the 'just-stilled' witch, and the witch had killed himself in obedience to his will – his will alone, or so he had thought...

Thought is right,” said the soft voice. “That witch had her share of guile in addition to those things you just learned about her, and she gave him that dagger as a gift. He was not able to discern the treachery her curses had bound to it, or much else about the true nature of what he had actually been given, even if he knew the dagger was cursed more than any fetish he'd ever laid eyes upon and he had bent the first and second layers of those curses to his will – and thereby laid himself open to the still-hidden deeper layers that played with him much as if he were a puppet.”

“And he did as she willed, and as per her inclination of the moment,” I thought.

“More even than your saying,” said the soft voice. “That witch was not merely controlled like a string-tied toy; he was owned, and that in his entirety, even down to those legions of spirits he had indwelling him; and when he 'died', she took those spirits by main force to add to her stable thereof.”

“I know who it was, then,” said Sarah, “and I can tell I should neither think nor speak her name.”

“Not here, anyway,” said Sepp – whose voice now showed real fear in true measure, unlike Karl, who was speechless.

The witch, however unwitting as to his true purpose, had still used his 'beloved' fetish-dagger to pin himself to the black stone altar like a bug in a collection, and thereby safeguard 'his' most treasured thing of all; and now, arrayed in long serried ranks to each side and to his rear, his legions...

“No, her legions,” I thought.

...His legions of leaning corpse-boxes, each of them made of old and accursed wood so as to stand the tests of time and preserve their contents like oddly-shaped Canopic jars imported from a wood-loaded version of ancient Egypt, each of them with its bounded-by-box body; and this mob of bodies, 'his' army of the dead, lay in state, ready to act upon the actions of the puppet-like thoughts of the curse-controlled dead witch.

“That witch probably had all of that done to guard her stuff,” I thought.

And as I came within a spear's length of the center of attention, I noted what else was present: thirteen misshapen black lumps arising from the earth, these forming a horseshoe-shaped 'region', each lump surrounded by mounded dark 'lava' that represented hundreds of years of outpoured blood. I seemed to see through the blood, and saw as the inches of dried blood faded away the true and inward nature of their foundations: carved black sandstone, same as the black block upon which the dead witch lay pinned like a dead insect, their shapes special, grotesque, marked with power and painted with rune-curses older than time or the witches in question; and with this knowledge, I knew this place was a lot older than 'a hundred years before that war long ago'.

Faint in the background, I heard – I was not certain if it was audible or not – the clatter of a wooden box-lid falling upon a hard stone floor, then another such clatter; and as this clattering grew echoes and numbers, I heard soft rattling noises, these noises those of a horde of baby-rattles being shaken by epileptic infants the size of grown men.

Again, the falling sound of a lid coming adrift, and as I tried to find the source of the noise, a shrill trilling whistle came from every direction at once. The clattering falls of the coffin-lids now became a rattling cacophony – and more, it was truly conventionally audible. As I watched, one of the front-ranking coffin-lids fell away from its coffin to go to dust and rotten kindling before it hit the ground; and inside that coffin, a rag-sprinkled skeleton lay in state, its jawbone working as if trying to speak and faint red glows showing from the long-vacant eyesockets, much as if it had taken lessons from long-gone Old Shuck.

Only that was not the only coffin which had 'shucked' its lid; more and more, now several such coffins dropped their lids, and as the skeletons inside them rattled, I saw shreds of gone-rotten black cloth hanging on the bones suddenly become larger in size and more substantial, and then, the bones became covered, this with what looked like close-woven skeins of fibrous gray yarn. It resembled salted meat that was long past due for adding to the nearest manure pile; and then, I noticed the smell.

“Like fifth kingdom thugs eating a steady diet of High Meats, only worse,” I spat, as the flames that were previously confined to their eyesockets slowly flowed down and around so as to cover their entire 'rope-clad' beings. My attention was once more fastened upon their heads, for their skulls...

Their skulls were changing, with the vestiges of the nose-hole stretching out while the back of the skull grew 'horns' – or so I thought until a near-flat arch formed between them and the gray-dusted skull grew upwards and forward to fill that line. I then saw the eyesockets themselves.

The original two had subtly changed, somehow becoming wider as the nose enlarged and lengthened, then at the upper edge of what was growing into what looked more and more like a truncated hard-edged triangle, a third eyesocket was forming rapidly. The skull itself had grown its own gray yarn-like covering, but as I watched, the yarn covering the middle of the flat-plane cheeks parted to show another pair of eyes beginning to develop; and deep-shaded thick and bony ridges – these were not eyebrows, but scoop-like projections that were forming inexorably over the eyes so as to 'shade' them...

No, not shade them. This being had but one purpose, that being destruction; and these 'eyeshades' had the effect of those things used upon horses named 'blinders'. The being thus fitted could only see straight ahead, neither to the right or the left; and that was done with the goal of focusing down into a single activity – and that activity only.

And then, I saw the arms. These withered gray and knotted cord-covered things were no longer merely two in number; each side of the rag-covered trunk had acquired not merely another three such arms, but also, in each hand, an ethereal sword of filmy red-hazed construction.

While I had watched but one eight-armed being taking its new form unto itself, I knew – both by glances in my peripheral vision, and also by 'knowing' – that this horrific transformation was occurring on a wholesale basis among this infernal army, and as the new-fleshed being flexed one of the eight arms it now had, the sword it swung was no longer filmy and vague, but solid – solid, uncracked, and marked by dozens of runes forming death-curses – and the atrophied brain that had suddenly grown mushroom-like inside the death-dry skull knew but the following, much as if it were a most-simple electronic controller with a small memory and a limited functional capacity:

1) Find Enemy.

2) Destroy enemy.

3) Return to first statement.

With this knowledge, I ignored both the thoughts and feelings that had arisen unbidden upon seeing the skeletons to each side of me change so radically, and came to the blood-caked bier of the corpse. With sure steps, I came to its side, grasped the dagger's handle – and both it and the witch it pinned to the black sandstone block went to dust and rust with a rustling moan that sprung a small tornado of dust that blotted out the light of our lanterns – and as if this very thing had been waited for, the ring of 'most-active' skeletons, those of the first rank, came out of their boxes stiff and wooden in a 'charge of the dead-brigade'.

I had four come for me alone, and I stood not to meet their challenge, for I drew my sword and leaped at them, this with a roaring howl that shot dust into the air. I came to my feet right in front of the first skeleton to 'come to life', and while I saw every sword wielded by this tall and lumpy creature burn as if with fire, its frightful slowness...

I slashed at its midriff, then as I return-sliced on the one to its right at the uppermost right shoulder, the first skeleton erupted into a blizzard of dust and rust amid a thick and sooty cloud. The third one – I was being crowded by these creatures, while shouts and yells spoke of the others going into action as well – received a sword-hack near its right eye-socket, and this one disintegrated with a blazing red-hued flash and eruption of white-sneezing dust, with the whole raining down more thready soot. I whirled, leaped high, then on the descent – I had leaped over a fourth skeleton – I sliced on its backbone between the second and third of its sword-arms, and it went to flame and ashes to vomit faint white smoke that turned to soot and a blizzard of dust as the second rank of these things came on: stiff, wooden, dumb as boards and foolhardy beyond belief.

I could hear the swishes of other blades, as well as more shouts, and a glance to the others showed those of them with swords to be using them with abandon, while Maarten was swinging his ax and Katje her club – and this last was no mean weapon, even if it required her to get close enough to dodge a small forest of swords to swing it. I then wondered where my rat-club had gone, and to my utter astonishment, Gabriel was swinging the thing as if he'd had lengthy lessons from Georg on the use of clubs and had become 'skeleton-crazy'. He was flinging more bone-fragments and dust amid billowing yellow-tinted flames and gouts of soot than Maarten and Katje put together. Only Sarah – and now myself – were clearly worse when it came to making dust and soot and sending bone fragments and 'dried meat' flying.

Amid this noise and 'smoke' – there were eruptions of fire all around, and thick black smoke resembling that of a burn-pile began to pall with inexorable progress – I could hear the lids of more boxes start to fall to the dust-caked stone of the floor, this now dozens at a time. The witch had brought down a true 'army of death', and his 'overlord' didn't do things by anything close to halves.

“Must have used up half the witches in the place,” I muttered – and as I swung on three skeletons one after another quick as thought and then dodged their eruptions of fire and bone-dust, I saw in my peripheral vision a spark-spitting bundle of black-stick-dynamite go flying somewhere close by. I dared not duck, nor cower, for if anything, I was being swarmed by sword-waving skeletons, and when the blast erupted in a thick-seeming yellow-white fireball, the light became abruptly brighter – and then every lantern went out when the shockwave blasted forth and tossed more bone dust and soot into the air.

The area was now so thick with sawdust, bits of black cloth, billowing thick thready soot, and bone fragments that I could barely see at all, and through this murk, I could hear, this clearly as a bell through my ringing ears, a most-familiar chant:

Yoh-Ki-Hogh! Ya-Gogh-Nagh!”

The strobing rune-colors – in this case, they were not just in my head, but flashing like overwrought lasers at a devilish light-show – made the red-flaming skeletons all the easier for me to locate, and made it harder for them to surround me.

A sudden yell, this by someone I could not name, and I dove for the floor as I realized who was yelling. The words 'LOOK OOUUUT' dinned in my mind as my nose found the reeking sawdust-bone-fragments-soot-charred-cloth-mingled-with-dirt floor, and a massive white flash lit up the room worse than if a doctored jug of Benzina had detonated nearby. I got my face up, sneezed hard, and saw red flames burning slowly somewhere off to my right.

There was no time for contemplation, as I was being swarmed again by skeletons, and I somehow leaped from a prone position over the heads of a small mob – and as I came down, my right boot found the head of one of these things and crushed it to the floor as I landed on top of its going-to-powder 'suite' of black clothing.

I then had another thought, this as I resumed swinging.

“No, I do not need lightning strikes making me blind,” I muttered soundlessly as I swung on another skeleton in the near-charcoal blackness. “Now where are all of these stinkers coming from?”

The fire – slowly beginning to fade – backlit the scene in a ruddy haze of light, and onrushing skeletons were everywhere at once. More, this burning had given life and energy to the bone-collections – or perhaps the phrase 'bone-masses' was a better one – coming on steadily, and here, I saw – in a flash – what they actually were wearing: black-cloth, only this stuff was a good deal less stiff than the near sheet-metal starched stiffness preferred by witches topside, and someone – who, I did not know – had another flash of inspiration involving dynamite. A sizable spark-spitting bundle flew end-over-end through the air to detonate with a flash and roar somewhere 'over there', and the blizzard of dust and bone meal became worse yet. As the echoes of the blast died out, I heard someone I recognized – Sarah – yell:

“Who tossed that dynamite?” Sarah sounded peeved beyond belief. “That one almost blew me up!”

I left those skeletons to my front behind and began slicing on those closer to where she seemed to be, and as I saw her picking herself up from the floor amid a malodorous mound of dust, a pair of skeletons lurched out of the 'fog' and she swung at the legs of first one, then the other – and as the two of them erupted like bombs into mounds of sooty dust and smoke, she leaped away from a third one.

I sliced on that skeleton, and its 'blast' sent me staggering back to then turn and wade into a solid wall-like mob of them. I managed to deal with two before the hair rose in static on the back of my neck, and I dove for the floor as a massive white blast of fire shot over my back and 'exploded' a path through that endless onrushing mob. The smoke of their burning...

No. These things had been turned to vapor by that stroke, and the smoke and fog filling the room was now so infernally thick and choking the lanterns were useless – if they still burned; mine had gone in my possible bag after I had found it some feet from my outstretched hand after the first dynamite bomb had detonated – and seeing more than a few feet, unless there were charging skeletons providing the light by their burning, needed divine intervention. I hoped no one would toss more dynamite.

My hope was in vain, for somehow I dove for the floor as another titanic flash and roar blasted soot, smoke, and dust into the air, and when I looked up, I thought, “can't see my hand in front of my face, and my hearing's got bells – and bells only.” A pause, then as I got up, “oh, over there. More skeletons!”

I had gotten but feet from that altar in the process of 'fighting the dead', and as the 'rankers' came on heedless of all save their simple and singular command-list, I continued making them 'headless' with my sword. The others all seemed to be equally embattled, with yells, oaths – Sarah was shouting “Curse you, Gabriel! Watch it with that club!” being one that stood out in my ringing ears – and occasional smaller flashes coupled with sharp-sounding explosions. Someone was tossing squibs, at least until an unusually large 'squib' erupted with a massive white flash and a prolonged and echoing roar – and this was followed by someone yelling unintelligibly – save for a single word, that being 'Katje'.

I was still most-busy, for the chief stock of skeletons seemed to have me as a prime target, and when another sparking fuse shot overhead like a missile, I dove for the ground as the blast roared to my front and dusted me with bone-fragments and scraps of black-cloth – and as I leaped to my feet, sword in hand, I wondered what had happened to the skeletons.

“What am I, a monster?” I thought. “I'm the last one standing?”

As if to answer, another wave of skeletons charged forward out of the murk, but as I cut them down quick as thought, I could see – and this clearly – that the skeletons were nearing their end in my area. They came at me heedless of all save their single and simple-minded programmed 'mind' that might have had the smarts of a 'dumb' eight bit microcontroller with a handful of instructions loaded into the thing, and I continued cutting them down and being blasted with soot, flame, and bone-meal.

I sliced, slashed, dove, and kicked – and as I blasted through three skeletons in what seemed like seconds to my 'rational' mind and what was closer to a lightning stroke from a disinterested observer, another flickering fuse flew overhead and I dove for the filthy mess below – to then be lifted up to a sitting position as I flew through the air to land hard on my posterior near the feet of someone who wasn't a skeleton.

“S-Sarah?” I asked. This person was quite short.

“It is me,” she said with finality. “This place stinks, and Sepp's trying to get his lantern lit so we can find ours.”

“Here's mine,” yelled Katje. “It's still lit, so...”

Sarah turned as I stood, then I heard her mutter, “Gabriel gave her his dynamite once he got busy with that club of yours, and I know I tossed one ready-squib when those things were too thick for me, but someone likes tossing dynamite, and I think I know who it is!”

“Who, dear?” I asked, as I found Sarah's shoulder by feel in the murk and began gently rubbing it. She seemed sore, and the soft smooth sensation under my hand seemed to 'calm me down' more than a little.

“It was not me,” muttered Karl. “I was too busy with the sword there to toss what I have, and my satchel fell off of my shoulder.” A pause. “What gives with this thing here?”

“What?” I asked. Karl was somewhere nearby.

“There is this big rock here,” he said. “I just bumped into it, and it feels terrible and stinks bad.”

“Stay away from that thing, Karl,” said Sarah, who began moving forward, one slow shuffle at a time. The dust was now blinding, intense, thick, and settling very slowly. I thought to ask it to fall down, but that seemed very unwise. Our destruction of the 'army' now set in motion certain other things, and they lay in wait like traps with hair-triggers for our first – and our last – mistakes.

Yet still, it was needed, and I softly whispered, “could the dust settle?”

A soft shuddering took the ground under our feet, and with a roar like thunder, a massive blue-shot flash sent Sarah and I sprawling. I turned over, spat out the dust from my mouth, then in the darkness, I gasped, “what happened?”

“You got the dust out of the air,” spat Sepp, “and every one of those lanterns is right here in front of me, and all of them are lit and glowing brightly.”

The glowing mass some distance away made for groping progress, my hand in Sarah's, until we came to a region not twenty feet from the 'altar'. That was intact, but now the room seemed utterly empty of its former 'debris of war', and the number of wide-spreading mounds of ashes and 'dirt' mingled with wood chips and fast-disintegrating fragments of rotted bones was such that I asked, “how many of those things were there?”

“More than that witch knew about, and a lot more than he 'sent to their rests',” said the soft voice. “That witch sent hundreds of 'lesser' witches by that one cursed pathway, and while she thought them lesser – they were, compared to her – they were quite a bit stronger than that witch who pinned himself to the altar with his 'precious dagger'.”

“Those skeletons?” asked Sarah. “They were all witches?”

“The very 'flower' of witchdom,” said the soft voice – “or more accurately, those witches who opposed what that one witch thought to do here first and then later on the battlefield. She was the last person in that long column of her enemies, and she spoke the last curses uttered in this 'realm' before bricking up that room above with her own hands.”

“Her audience?” I asked.

“She had that, and Brimstone kept his 'realm' while promising her the whole of this one,” said the soft voice. “She did not get it, and she died with her desire in that fashion unmet – which was the only thing she purposed to do in her entire life that she failed at, either real failure or that which was 'defined'.”

“And now those things that remain unto us,” I muttered softly. “They have to go, and then this other thing...” I had passed the slow-smoking black stone of the altar while talking softly, and was walking among the still-smoking mounds toward something that still showed redly in the murk. It seemed a lectern of some sort, and I could hear soft whispers, these of insanity...

Were they urging me on?

Or were they chiding me, like so many such 'whispers' had done in the recent past?

No matter. I had seen what I needed to see thus far of the remaining things in this room, and it had indeed been cleared of its ancient-aged wreckage while we had been engaged. We had filled it anew with smoldering mounds and the remnants of a long-vanished age, and now the wall of sawdust and bone meal in front of me moved out of my way as if it were afraid of my presence. Again, soft whispers:

“...Entire Monsters, or entire True-Witches...”

I had gotten the curse mixed up, but that did not matter. What lay before me did, and behind me, a soft army of shades came marching, these the millions of sacrificed and bled-dry victims of a long-lost world.

“No, don't go there,” said a voice. It was Sarah's, and I pointedly ignored it. There was still a supreme danger here, and more, that curse we had heard repeated – those had not been the actual sounds of the runes of the hiding curse, but rather, their true meaning – had been authored by the witch who had caused all of this trouble.

To each side of where I now stood – I was but feet from that thing or place that had glowed red in the recent past and still burned with faint reddish flames – I could see two other red-glowing sentinels but a short distance to right and left in the gloom, while ahead lay a great mystery; and as I came closer, I moved to the right side of the central 'flaming' object. It was indeed a lectern, this with a cut-out portion for the speaker such that its shape was a squared letter 'U' if viewed from the top, and as I looked around, I knew there were but a handful of things here that yet needed my attention. I would not see a place like this one again, as it was truly the last one of its kind on the planet. I then turned to my left, and then left again while taking a single step.

I looked at what lay upon the lectern, and there, I saw a massive book, this easily fourteen inches tall and its spread while open nearly twice that, each side being thicker than my hand, and written therein in neat rows were reddish-brown letters that took seconds for me to recognize as words of Underworld German sprinkled liberally with either individual runes or short groupings of them to form curses. The thick rotten smell billowing up from the thing told me enough to know what it was likely to be, and Sarah's speaking of 'blood-writing' now had its definition bound to the sights, sounds, and smells of recollection. More, this was one of those few remaining books, large or otherwise, that was written by individuals. I waved my hand, and three pages flipped, one after another, to show another page, this page marked with a single black feather and lines of carefully-written blood-inked runes forming numbers of virulent curses. I had seen enough of this book to know what to do with it.

“The front, please,” I said, waving my hand with slightly more vigor.

The book literally 'jumped' in place, and slammed shut with a puff of dust and a thump that echoed loudly. Writ upon its binder of dark black leather in silver-gilt were the following words:

Behandlung des Nord-Kaiserin im Weltes

“Noord-Keisseraan?” I thought. “The Emperor, er, Empress..?”

And in thinking this, I knew otherwise, for I was using the word as I recalled from my lessons in class. The meaning in Underworld German was different, and a better term – in fact, the correct term – was 'mistress' – as in 'The Mistress of the North', with 'the North' meaning more than merely all lands to the north. North to a witch of that era meant 'everything I see that is mine, and all I see that is not mine as of yet, and wherever I should step, and all that I can conceive – it too is mine for the taking'. This witch had thought that, and had come appallingly close to doing all of what she had wished to do.

“Now go,” I said softly, as I turned to face the darkness to my front, and behind me as I walked forward into the unknown, I could feel a slow and crumbling sensation amid cracking sounds that sent chills down my spine. That which lay ahead was the gate that barred the 'place of meeting', where this witch had spoken with the king of traitors, but that gate before me...

In my peripheral vision, tall 'rows' of black-iron torch-holders slowly crumbled into rust with my passing as their human-tallow-saturated wicks burned with a dull reddish glowing for the very last time. The thought within my mind as I came closer to the still-hid gate that barred my way was “This Iron Be truly Dead”, and the meaning of Live-Iron and Dead-Iron, those two once-thoroughly-enigmatic terms, became as clear as crystal in my mind.

Dead-Iron, that common metallic stuff used by non-witches and worked by people like myself, was weak and inclined to rust; while Live-Iron was that metal once it had been made totally subservient to Brimstone in the form and manner of a fetish, with curses to make it both 'live' and 'serve' its master. More importantly, Live-Iron was that metal found in real fetishes, where the metallic particles forming the object were so thoroughly mingled with fiery curse-energy that the iron indeed 'lived', much as did the witch who had cursed it; and weapons made of it did not merely 'live', but they thought and served but one master: they themselves, and that alone.

Such blades demanded mastery by those wielding them, this in full and complete measure, lest they kill those that used them; and that with aforethought malice and unrivaled treachery. Then, in contrast, Dead-Iron had its special and varied uses in the witch-world: making live sacrifices into dead meat being the chiefest use of Dead-Iron, and the thing that actually killed such over-fools and made them fit meals for Brimstone was the dead aspect of such iron, not the edges or shapes of the weapons used for killing.

This thought process took the time of perhaps four slow paces forward, and I glanced to my left to see more going-to-hell torch-holders lining a long and narrow rocky alcove. There, I knew the Mistress of the North had made herself ready when all otherwise was suitable, and she passed the gate I was coming close to, there to pause at the portal of meeting. I knew the name of the gate, and it merited that name, for only a fool would dare to pass it.

“What?” I asked. “The Gate of the Fool? The Fools-Gate?”

“That word has several possible meanings in witchdom, and the meaning here is 'don't dare to pass it if you are not strong and wise enough to not be devoured like a fool',” said the soft voice. “The 'glass' beyond it was where such meetings took place.”

And with each step, I could see the outlines of this gate yet further. It looked tall, thick, and impossibly strong, and beyond it, darkness reigned supreme and yet unchallenged.

This did not matter in the slightest to me. I was going to the glass, and then, I was going to break it. Beyond that, I knew not yet what I would do.

And yet I did. Long ago, I had spoken of fighting the devil in hell. I wondered if that were possible now? Could I? Iggy was supposedly proof against 'monsters', as the witches cursing him knew about such people and had cursed him especially to withstand their otherwise unstoppable onslaught.

“They did not know about you,” said the soft voice. “That is but one reason for what the black book speaks of as 'the return of the monster'.”

The distance shrunk, and with each step, I saw the gate seem to shrink in its size and seeming strength. Barring its two leaves – thin, spindly, and weak they now seemed – was a long gray-tinged white object that glowed redly. I came up to the gate with what seemed three long strides, then looked closely at this object before me as if it were prey and I a predator. It was a carved bone, this perforated with holes and with an odd-shaped offset mouthpiece. It looked like it was originally made from a human thighbone.

And instantly, I knew. It was indeed what it looked to be. More, it was a thighbone specially chosen from a Disgrace for its added power and potency; and when I reached out toward it, I knew but one thing to do with the cursed thing.

One hand grasped the blowing end of the 'flute', and it squirmed in my grip as if alive; my other hand took its other end, and I raised my right knee. I slowly raised the accursed flute high with both hands, and as I did, I looked up briefly and noted the blackened carved letters spelling out the letters of the witch's titleNord-Kaiserin; The Mistress of the North – redly flaming along the whole of its length.

Not a second thought did I have as I paused for the fraction of a second I needed to set my mind like stone and my face like flint. I brought the bone down, this like lightning, and my knee up yet further.

The flute snapped like a twig, and the rumble that shook the ground beneath me was only equaled by the gate's erupting into rust and soot as if it had suddenly 'died' with the breaking of the witch's 'power flute'. With the crackling noise now erupting in my hands making for a sense of wonder, I looked down and saw the shards of the flute go to dust as my hands then crushed the thing utterly, and I dropped the fragments of bone to the floor and ground them underfoot. I paused where I stood, now at the threshold of the gate, and murmured, this soft and barely above a whisper: “hold them back, dear, but when I return, run for those stairs as fast as you possibly can. This is why those offices needed clearing. This is truly the real witch-hole – and it must go where it belongs, or we labor in vain.”

And with that, I passed over the threshold of the now-destroyed Fool's Gate, and with each step, the narrow rock walls seemed to shrink back from me as if the monsters named Fear and Terror followed in my wake. Ahead lay a dull oval mirror, this softly gleaming in the darkness that had hidden it beforehand, and as I felt for my usual things, I noted that I did not have them with me. I had my sword, which was enough for this job; and as I took my last steps upon this cursed plane of life, I came to the mirror itself. Its oval 'picture' now seemed to jut out aggressively from the rough-carved stone of the wall, and red-writ upon its dull shining surface I saw faint slow-moving trickles that reminded me of long-dead blood-streaks. To a small degree, and for an instant of time, I wondered what it all meant.

“Open,” I spat. All else save this need was now completely forgotten.

The 'mirror' shattered like the cheap and tawdry glass it actually was to fall in pieces to form a mound of glittering dust at my feet, and a round tunnel, this head-tall and glass-smooth, lay beyond it. Again, I spoke, this while my face hardened yet more into something much harder and tougher than mere flint. I faced the future, that which lay before me, and knowing this put words in my mouth.

“If I do this, it's all downhill afterward... But if I do not – then we, and all else that yet lives...”

As if from a far country, one long forgotten in the past, a strong female voice spoke: “they waste the whole of their time and effort. Go and do what you must.” Katje spoke this as a farewell.

Or so her words seemed. They did not matter any more, for that sense of becoming 'a crazy wild animal' had not left me during the fight; and now, with each step I took into the hole, I could feel heft, and power, and heat, and something else – insanity, perhaps – being added to my body.

I paused a handful of steps inside, looked down at my left arm, and saw soft glossy hair beginning to show through the rents in my clothing, and as I looked at my left hand, I noted its larger-than-usual size, the boulder-crushing power of its stubby fingers – and with a movement too quick for thought, the hair sprouted full-grown upon my hand and the long hooked claws came out without my thinking about them.

These were not the claws of recollection, either that of the night of arrival or of the bridge; they had just been sharpened, honed especially for this particular time; and as I looked at them, I growled in my throat and then screamed – only the scream came out as a horrible roaring thunder that shook the ground and made the remnants of those things of witches I had left behind me go up in smoke and fall to the ground in flames.

I began moving downward at a trot, this now faster than my first few steps, and with each lengthening stride, I felt a steadily growing fury that was beyond the compass of mere words. It added to the maniacal sensation I had felt while engaging the skeletons in battle, and ahead I saw thick smoke and churning mists clogging the passage. Again, the thoughts in my mind: if I dealt with what was down here, the balance of the Abbey's clearing would be a truly easy task. If not, then...

We were indeed wasting our time, and that in all possible aspects physical and otherwise.

That witch to the north would win her battles and the war, and that irrespective of our labors beforehand and what assistance we might receive. There was more, however.

It would truly be as that infernal song I had heard snatches of stated: “this is the end, of all that stands, the end.” More, I knew what would actually occur and how this event would happen: all that lived, the witches first and foremost, would be utterly and completely destroyed in the jaws of Brimstone, and the planet itself would fall from time and space to then be added to Hell as its newest subdivision – and that would happen quickly. We would have a few years left to us at the very most.

With each step downward, I not only gained speed, but I also knew that this was the true reason for why we dared not wait until tomorrow. It was to be done now, or it was to never happen, and I was glad my hesitation at the portal had been so brief.

Or had it been longer, I thought, as I now started into a dead run. This speed, at once frantic and relentless, built rapidly once I had achieved my utmost; and while I still had no clear perception of what I was actually doing or where I was going, or even what I would do once I came to where I needed to go...

No, that was not true. I was to find the enemy, and then rip him apart. No thought was needed beyond that, and what that witch had sought to create was now coming to her master to there give him what he fully deserved.

This thinking but built the fury I had felt before into a blazing white rage, and it built my speed as well. I seemed to now burn, this with a dull glowing redness that progressed rapidly to a welding heat – and then, it increased yet more as to heat and 'speed'.

And in my mind, an odd thought grew instead, it being a single line of ancient song that seemed most appropriate: “hell-hound on my trail.”

“He wishes he had one of those after him,” said a strange and echoing voice that I did not recognize in my now comet-like blazing flight.

And yet, like the dog in question, I smelled the enemy, and in my mind and heart, there was but a single and forbidding desire: I wanted, and that with the whole of my being, to rip that enemy apart. This made for a mad and howling laughter that suddenly changed to a furious roar – and then, something happened to the black walls of the tunnel, this being a change I could not explain as to what was happening, and a change so rapid I could but scarce describe it: one instant, my sight saw walls that had gleamed like polished blackened steel, then a soft and vacuous black for an instant – and then the blackness to all sides was replaced by a flaming redness, this showing to all corners of the compass.

I laughed yet more now, for now, I knew where I was: a realm much like the cellar for composition, save its populace was far more diverse and much more packed together, and the place was a lot bigger as to seeming size. There was one creature, however, that lay in the center, both of the realm and of attention, and this thing...

Long, dully glowing, scales on it like new-forged iron. Its shape, reptilian. A monster for size, this fitted into the shape and skin of a crocodile. Orange eyes, these faceted like diamonds and burning like molten steel. Clothing, this it had, and I saw it all instantly: formal dinner wear – tie, tuxedo, a real top hat, and gloves for its claws to hide their hideous nature from those whom it wished to fool.

Gloves minus their tips. This thing used its claws as well as its teeth for its chief activity, that being eating, and it wanted its claws free so as to hook them into its prey and then convey them to its ever-hungry mouth.

The lizard usurped the center of an indescribably vast plateau, with masses of 'servants' clustering about it, clinging close to the center of attention so as to read its mind and cater to its merest and fleeting whims. The sight of this creature did not engender fear in myself, but rather the reverse; I was now so insane with anger that my desire to rip that reptile apart came forth as a scream that made the entire place ring like a deep-tongued bell. I had no idea as to my words – perhaps they were in an 'unknown tongue'; I had done that before many times, and knew of its power – and when the lizard replied by spewing a gout of yellow flames in my direction, I did not duck them as I had with Iggy.

I ignored this reptile's flames, crashed through them – my fire was hotter than his, and now burning with a heat closer to that of the sun's – and then I waded into his head.

While I had sliced on Iggy and wondered as to how my sword had held together under such abuse, this beast was a whole lot bigger and in another league regarding 'toughness'. By some strange 'chance', however, something had happened to both my sword and myself, for when I swung on this critter, my sword cut through its thick and scaly hide and its massive iron-like bones as if those things were the consistency of smoking-hot cheese-spread.

His nose erupted in a crimson ball of flame and smoke and gobbets of flaming meat as my sword sent it flying, and his hat and head followed his nose in a volcanic eruption of yellow-trailing fire and destruction. Gobbets of meat and bone, billows of black-smoking blood, and a vast number of unidentifiable things flew in crazy smoking arcs as I waded through the body of this reptile step by rapid step, my sword now moving so rapidly it formed about me a massive ball of brilliance and light that eclipsed my own.

Its light like lightning, both for brilliance and intensity, and the speed of my travel through this monster was but little less.

Pieces of that thing flew burning, these in long dizzying arcs, to leave smoke trails amid the growing pall of destruction that grew apace amid the sulfur-stoked heat and fumes endemic to this realm of horror and derision. The supplicants crowding the creature were crushed and buried by its fire-billowing remains, and I laughed at their plight. I did not care about them, for they were also the enemy.

While this reptile was 'large', I cared not more about the matter than that; I was in the middle of his carcass now, and how I felt was beyond describing – for my viciousness had grown, and with it a hunger impossible to slake save by the destruction of this enemy and bringing doom upon his 'empire'; for this, indeed, was the enemy, and I wanted him dead. I did not care what happened to me, as long as he died; and I would stop at nothing whatsoever to ensure his demise.

As I came to its pelvic region, I somehow seemed to be in two places at once, and the lizard's entire 'butt' disintegrated in a massive blue-tinged blast that sent fragments of his legs flying like the smoking debris of the war that I had brought to his territory. But his tail remained untouched, and as its size shrank, my forward speed increased in proportion – and as I neared its end, I saw the hole ahead of me, the one whence I had entered this accursed region; and upon finishing up with the lizard, I turned, flung its smoking blood off of my sword with a flash of bluish fire, raised the still-burning sword high above my head, and screamed a curse:

God curse you all, fools, and may your evil come back upon you a thousandfold!

Rest in pieces, idiots, and may the wrath of Heaven rip every one of you to shreds!”

The former noise of the place left it dead for a fraction of a second, and in that mote of time, all, save for myself, froze as if made statues of red-flaming ice. I ran for the hole, and as I made the entrance of my refuge, a massive blast of fire and ruin detonated behind me that sent me flying up the hole like a bullet from a gun.

I was running again, this at a dead run, and behind me, light of brilliant whiteness and the heat of an atomic explosion was following fast and coming faster. I could hear a steady crackling amid the ongoing roar of thunder, and the walls about me broke and shattered amid a rumbling ongoing roar – this separate from the former thunder – that spoke of both rapid 'flight' and something I could neither picture or name. I had no idea as to the feeling of riding a comet, but my current state was close enough to suit me.

The passage down had seemed both beyond time and longer than space could specify, but my return trip seemed foreshortened to a drastic degree; and how this was happening – it too was beyond me. Ahead, I could see a faint dimness, this growing more clear and distinct with each apparent second of time, and now, behind me, I discerned more clearly the noise: both thunders and the other sounds had now merged into a whole, this a high-pitched crackling howl with thousands of harmonics, these of high amplitude and higher-yet frequency; and the rock behind me that had once formed this passage was breaking up and going to powder prior to its melting.

I felt reminded of that accursed rewrite of a once-popular song where I came from, and in an eyeblink of apparent time, I knew beyond all doubt and all reason that 'breaking on through to the other side' had just become much harder, at least for this area.

And an instant later, I knew that was wrong. This was the last true 'deep-hole' that existed on the planet. Becoming an entire true-witch had just become entirely and irredeemably impossible, for one needed to speak face to face with that lizard, and one could only do so through such portals as I was now destroying.

And would destroy in its entirety, for the room of reception needed its destruction as well as the portal, for both things were part of a coherent and mutually-supporting whole. This second portion now needed addressing, and I screamed out a warning:

“Sarah! Gabriel! Katje! Get them up those stairs, and do it now! I will finish this mess!”

With this, I could now 'see' the 'light at the end of the tunnel', and what I had screamed out was thankfully happening. Sarah, God bless her, had heard my speech and urged the others on into a run for the stairs, and her insistence was such that she was smacking the laggards with the flat of her sword as she screamed “Run, curse you all! Run! RUN!” I then knew another issue.

I would need to slow down enough to 'clear' what remained in that hole and then get up the stairs myself.

“That will be done,” said the soft voice. “Do not worry, nor be afraid.”

I blasted through the remnants of the portal like a bullet shooting from a gun, and as I flew past the remains of the Fool's Gate, the thing explosively erupted into flames and burning lava behind me. I was still flying, yet in my speed, I somehow found it possible to maneuver such that as I flew over the altar, I saw in an eyeblink of time the sculpted portion that I had filled with ashes when I crushed that dagger-spiked witch, and as I came to the middle of the slab, I swung down with my sword...

From the tip, a ball of blue-white fire built instantly into something not of this world – and then a brilliant flash erupted from the tip of my sword that caused me to move even faster as the ground shook violently 'somewhere behind me'. All around, flames billowed hotly, but I was hotter yet, and I steered for the landing, there to land...

No, there wasn't time to land and then run, even at my utmost speed. I could hear scrambling steps fleeing, these seeming impossibly slow. I then knew a final matter, and as I flew closer to this landing, I somehow roared and screamed strange and unintelligible words...

Words that turned loose the floodgates of divine rage, such that the entire massive room now blazed whitely with fire that but urged me onward – and as I passed the landing, I aimed for the stairs and shot up them like a rocket with a blazing and raging fire coming after me. The sound, though...

That was an earthquake and a nuclear explosion mingled for rumbling and roaring, mingled with it a shrill scream worthy of a jet engine three times the size of Moby Dick himself.

The tunnel's length – it was no longer playing any games with distance – was such that I was rapidly closing upon the scrambling 'herd' that someone – someone other than Sarah – was now belaboring with a stout club. This person was also scrambling with all their might, and as the blast behind me slowed and I slowed with it, I saw who the person actually was.

“Katje,” I thought. “Where is Sarah?”

“At the top of the stairs, where she's herding people out of the gateway,” said the soft voice. “She's already sliced Gabriel twice with her sword, and Maarten is going to talk about his scars for the rest of his life.”

“She sliced on them?” I asked.

“Yes, as using the flat of her sword didn't get them moving fast enough to suit her,” said the soft voice. “Katje, unlike Sarah, began hitting her very hardest from the first, so she's leaving lumps and bruises every time she hits someone with your club.”

Move!” I screamed. “Move your sorry behinds! Move!”

My shouts seemed to have a greater effect than all else, for the entire group now shot up the incline at a speed that nearly matched my own, and when I finally slowed enough to 'land', I touched down at a dead run to rapidly catch up with Katje just before someone abruptly grabbed her club and bodily flung her out of the tunnel somewhere to the right. I jumped out myself of the hole myself, and as Sarah 'bum-rushed' Katje out of the room by her clothing, I caught up with Sarah in a single bound and grabbed both women – one under each arm – and then leaped for the door, where I twisted sideways to clear it and then twisted once more to then toss them to both sides as I hit the wall face-first with a soul-shattering crash.

The flames, however, did not follow me, even if the smoke of immolation and the stink of sulfur did; and when I picked myself off of the wall, I felt my nose. I wondered if it was broken.

“What? No blood?” I murmured as I looked at my hand amid chiming ears.

“I wish I could say that for myself,” said someone up the hall. “I'm glad I have a rag left, as I'm needing to use it to stop the blood of that cut Sarah gave me.”

I shook my head, trying to clear it of what I had just endured, then someone – someone covered in soot and looking more than a little like a character from a minstrel show – came to my side. I turned to see Sarah – and she was indeed 'all sooted up'. It seemed fitting, given the filth and stench of what we had just endured.

“I heard you tell us to move, and I could see you coming,” she said, “but only when I started using the edge of my sword and not its flat side did they truly run – and I know that it is better to have scars and live to speak of them than to die unmissed and unmourned as an over-fool.”

I had no words to speak, and when I tried to speak once more, I could only cough up nasty-tasting messes that ignited to burn putridly the instant they hit the floor's concrete.

“That was not a smelter,” muttered Sarah. “I do not know what that place was, but it was not a smelter.”