Investing the Abbey: “Such Treasures these, that...” continued.

The next shelves showed things other than 'glossy advertisements', which seemed surprising to me, at least until I found under the flung-aside dusty cloth – a cloth that went to rags as I flung it, and it landed in unraveled threads growing dusty upon the filthy floor – a number of things, these individually wrapped in their own armors of rags. These, unlike the covering sheets, had a much-different appearance – one that looked as if generations of moths had seen them as choice meals.

“Those look like clothing that has seen large shot and a too-warm drier,” muttered Sarah. “Now what is that thing there?”

“That thing?” I asked, as I pointed to the topmost article in the small mound, this corralled by a going-to-rust wire basket that once had been painted a deep and unnaturally glossy black.

“Yes, that,” said Sarah.

I reached to touch it, and as my finger got within an inch of the rectangular object, the faint static-like charge of the thing seemed to warn me off. I touched it anyway, and the red-flashed eruption under my finger sent a puff of smoke into the air.

“No, not in here please,” I murmured, as the smoke seemed to congeal into a gelatinous mass that hung in the air, and then darken with slow-growing threads of soot. “Find a witch and soot them up.”

The smoke vanished with a soft thump and a faint flash of bluish light, and from somewhere – where – I could not tell, but I knew it wasn't that far away – my ears strained themselves in hearing an animalistic screaming noise that segued to the sound of running feet and the thundering booms of 'large muskets'. I felt reminded of 'roers' and 'loopers' – so much so that I hoped those weapons were being used for dealing with such screeching witches. I then saw the 'obvious' nameplate that had once been wrapped with such 'touching' care. I wondered for an instant if witches did up 'mummies' of their dead – and then noticed the nameplate slowly shrinking as I looked at it.

“How did that thing shrink to half its former size like that?” I asked softly to no one in particular. “Especially that thing?”

It was more than a little surprising to suddenly find an obvious 'DÖDGE' nameplate showing after finding the vehicle's 'real' or 'front' nameplate. This one was a 'find' of some kind, and I wondered if it was one of those recovered by that one unnamed covetous witch.

I then had a question.

“The blue of that background?”

“That means smothering, as that is the color of a strangled body,” said Sarah. “I might have had enough confusion to last me for a ten-year's time about whether that word there was the name of a district or a strange vehicle, but I understood most of the rest of that portion of that tapestry passably at the least.”

“The shape of those letters?”

“That is how they did such things,” said Sarah. “Witches then used much strange writing, and I think whoever wrote that part on secret markings in the second volume of those instrument-maker's books knew of their lettering.”

“That is 'official DÖDGE' script,” said the soft voice. “Keep looking in those baskets. They'll hold together until you look at all they hold.” The unsaid portion, was 'all of what you find, commit its salient characteristics to memory, as it's important'.

I set aside the nameplate, and as I reached for the next part in one of the three baskets, I saw the nameplate slowly crumble into dust – and then the dust itself seem to blow away in an invisible wind to vanish as I touched the next article. Its rag covering went up like flash-powder under my hand, and again, I asked its slow-drifting remnants to 'go find and then soot up a witch' as I looked at my hand and saw it untouched even by soot.

“You know what you're doing when you speak that way, don't you?” asked the soft voice.

“Uh, examining these parts so as to commit their shapes and whatever else I can to memory so I can recognize them when I see them again?” I asked. I knew that was a dumb answer the moment I finished speaking.

“No, when you send that dust and smoke to 'soot up witches'?” A pause, then the soft voice continued. “You're flushing out the very last of the 'die-hards' in the surrounding area, and the camp to the rear of the property is now on the hunt for the rest of those 'drunkards' that bathed and changed their clothing prior to returning to the camp.”

“Hunt?” I asked.

“Yes, with roers stuffed with 'loopers', as per your suggestion. Those witches are not merely truly expert hiders, but some of them – the domestic ones, anyway – have spoken those 'hardening' curses.”

“Hence they will wish roer-loads of lead,” said Sarah emphatically. “I suspect those people are hunting in teams of two or three, if they are from the fourth kingdom, as that is the usual for dealing with witches down there.”

“Roers?” I asked. I wanted to ask about the idea of teamwork under such circumstances, as it sounded like a good idea in general.

“They do not have elk down there,” said Sarah, “but there are plenty of people with roers, and the usual is to use those things on witches with smaller pistol balls or stiff shot – which is why they do not call those things 'elk-muskets', but 'witch-muskets'.”

“Witch-muskets?” I said, my voice rising in pitch with each syllable spoken. It was all I could do to not laugh at the end. “I wonder what I shoot is called?”

“Trouble for both the target and the shooter,” said Karl wryly, “though I would rather shoot it than be shot by it. Now what is that thing you are holding there? It looks like a handle to a bad privy door, like some I saw in the house's bad places.”

'Bad privy door-handle' seemed the best name I could call it, for the 'overall' resemblance to what I had seen on a handful of detached privies in the kingdom house was not a joking matter. Its long, streamlined, yet spiky nature made for wondering as I handled the thing, then when I set it down, I noted the following:

The 'plating' was going to hell in a hurry on the thing, both the 'white' plating – it was like an unnaturally glossy species of faintly yellow-tinted chrome, only somehow 'deeper' in a certain hard-to-discern way and more-shallow by far than the chrome I recalled when it came to rust-resistance and other important matters – and the dark plating, this a midnight-blue coating that outlined the thing and gave the spikes...

“Those are fasteners, aren't they?” I asked, as the plating utterly gave way to a dust-dribbling whitish corrosion on first one such spike and then another. Where the chrome was gone on the other pieces, the metal below it first showed the dusky yellow of 'bad' brass, then a poisonous blue-green speckled color that roosted in fast-growing pockets of corrosion, then a grainy bluish 'sand' that vanished into faint dust as it trickled onto the shelf below the one it sat upon through a rusted-through place on that particular shelf. The whole thing was 'going to hell' in a hurry, and my thinking that way but accelerated the process of the handle's dissolution. I just hoped the shelf would endure long enough for me to examine that which I needed to look at, as it too was rust-ridden and dusting down red-brown powder whenever I looked at it too closely.

“Fasteners both physical and spiritual, which was why that handle's parts were made of curse-alloys,” said the soft voice. “It will go completely to dust by the time you examine the other things in those baskets, so look at it good before you go much further – and I would keep my hands off of it, also, as those corrosion products are not good for the skin.”

“Probably about as poisonous as 'cheap' arsenic,” I muttered.

“Given that 'curse-brass', among many other curse-alloys, had an appreciable percentage of arsenic as one of its ingredients, you're close enough.” A pause, then, “the important matter is your injuries will not be helped by touching its corrosion products, as your hands – and many of your other injuries – are not entirely healed.”

“I hope they heal soon, then,” said Sarah. “We cannot wait a week here.”

“No, but there will be time to rest before you have trouble again,” said the soft voice, “and more, you will be able to really rest then, which is not possible locally at this time.”

The next rag-wrapped article was tied with a species of unnaturally-darkened coarse string, and before I tried picking it up, I asked the string tie the feet of a witch. As the string vanished and the rag went to dust and soot – I asked that to burn its way into the skin of a witch such that it was indelible, and more, that it marked that stinker as a witch until he or she died – I gasped.

“What is that thing?”

“A rear-view mirror that was fitted to the door of a vehicle,” deadpanned the soft voice. “Everything about it speaks of its nature as a fetish.” A pause, then, “any time you see something decorated with spikes like what you've seen and will see in the future, you can be all but certain a witch was involved at one level or another, and the thing is – or was – most probably at least thought to be a fetish.”

“It most likely is a fetish, then,” said Sarah. “I've seen pictures of things like that on tapestries, but I could never figure out what they were.”

“And no one else you spoke to knew either,” I muttered. “Now we know.” A pause, then, “maybe we ought to write our own commentaries on those tapestries, dear – some time in the future, so people know about this stuff.” A pause. “What do you think?”

“Not now,” said the soft voice, “even if your eventual documenting of such matters is nothing less than a requirement. You'll need to do so prior to breaking that one particular curse, in fact, and those documents will be instrumental in keeping witches and witch-thinking out of the place in the future.”

As I began to now really look over the mirror, I noted first its complete absence of glass – it had once had some, if I went by the going-to-rust holding arrangement and the coppery-shaded 'steering mechanism' inside the bullet-shaped housing – the angular and horribly-bent holder, the spiky parts surrounding where the mirror-housing mounted to the car's body, what looked like a bullet crease...

“This wasn't to one of those vehicles, was it?”

“Not that particular one, even if those mirrors were fitted to them,” said the soft voice. “Remember, our witch was hoping to find a mostly intact vehicle that could be brought here and repaired, but the two he managed to find had suffered multiple direct hits by cannon rounds. Hence, he got what parts he could from those, and from other damaged and abandoned vehicles he got parts he knew were fitted to what he was after.”

“Cannon rounds?” I asked.

“Yes, from aircraft,” said the soft voice. “There were a lot of low-altitude ground-attack sorties during the first part of the war, and those flying strafed and bombed anything and everything that looked even remotely useful to the enemy after the first handful of sorties indicated doing so was a very good idea.” A pause, then, “they became utterly serious but a short time later.”

“Utterly serious?” I asked.

“When they realized the enemy didn't play by any rules whatsoever beyond 'woe to the vanquished',” said the soft voice. “After that, the gloves came off, and they stayed off for the duration.”

I laid the mirror down once I noticed the two 'bullet-creases' in its metal and its 'heat-warped' aspect, but after I had laid it down and began reaching for another rag-wrapped part, I glanced back once more at it. Not merely was it too beginning to go the way of all fetishes, but I seemed to see the thing wreathed in flames. I did not hesitate; I knew what such flames meant to me.

“Go into a witch's house and set it alight,” I muttered.

The mirror vanished with a faint plop, and within seconds, as I began removing the multiple rags wrapping another item from the nearest basket, I felt – and heard – a thunderous explosion, though not with conventional hearing. I glanced around, then asked, “did anyone..?”

“I did,” said Katje, “and whoever interpreted your request placed that nasty thing where it would cause witches trouble.”

“Where?” I asked. “In the middle of a hidden witch-run powder mill?”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “About fifty miles north of here and nearly the same west, one of the best-known 'explosives-merchants' north of the second kingdom house just had his entire stock detonate.”

“Explosives merchants?” I asked. I had the sense this person had received at least some of his stock by sea, as he was fairly close to a surprisingly deep 'canal' or something similar that connected to the sea.

“Among witches, anyway,” said the soft voice. “His sizable two-level basement was connected to the secret way by its very own witch-dug stone-walled tunnel, and that house had far more room underground than it had above-ground – and it was like houses in Waldhuis above-ground for size and 'decor'.”

“One less witch, then,” said Sarah.

“More like 'one less witch-run town',” said the soft voice. “It was the only town remaining that was still witch-owned 'within' the boundaries of the central part of the first kingdom – though in his case, it was far enough away from here to be considered 'distant'.” A brief pause, then, “he was stockpiling large quantities of dynamite and distillate 'on speculation', because he knew the market for both materials would be soon renewed in the area and viable competition was more or less 'gone' – hence he stood to make a great deal of money in short order.”

“Sounds like he was trouble,” I muttered. “Now what is this, a piston? It looks like it's ruined.”

“It is, and that through use,” said the soft voice. “A lot of parts in there are 'used' parts, as our witch wasn't very knowledgeable about those vehicles beyond what he had heard and seen – and he was not a mechanic.”

I held the flat-topped piston up closer to my eyes, and as it came within a foot of my face, I saw – through the gummy black material coating it – the vast array of cracks, most of them too small to see conventionally – at least until I looked closer at one of the quartet of valve cutouts. I then turned the piston over, and gasped, “it was about to burn through! What were they running in those things? A mixture of nitromethane, acetone and propylene oxide, with a dash of hydrazine now and then for added kick?”

“About the usual fuel for those vehicles,” said the soft voice laconically. “Recall how often you had to work on what you drove?”

I nodded mentally.

“Now imagine if you ran 'exotic fuel', like that stuff you just mentioned,” said the soft voice. “Your engines would need more frequent maintenance, and far more substantial maintenance, and you'd blow them with some frequency, also – and none of that last chemical you mentioned would be needed.”

“I came close enough more than once,” I muttered. “I'm glad I changed that one engine out when I did, in fact – that connecting rod had a crack in it.”

“After less than a hundred total hours in use, also,” said the soft voice. “These engines commonly did very well to run half that much time between 'major overhauls', and they weren't using modified 'commonplace' or 'homemade' parts like you did – you should have had that titanium billet dye-penetrant tested before milling it out, but you were short of funds then – but the best that could be had, and that nearly regardless of cost.”

“F-formula one?” I gasped.

“Similar in terms of cost and effort,” said the soft voice, “even if the engines weren't nearly that high-revving.” A pause, then, “yours revved higher, in fact.”

I set the piston down, and as I did, I felt the thing crumble into chunks that 'corroded' so rapidly that the thing was a soft-sifting mound of yellowish dust but seconds after I laid it on the shelf. I asked its remaining chunks and its dust to go in a witch's stew-pot – and to my astonishment, I heard faint giggling.

“What did I do now?”

“There are going to be a lot of witches with the runs,” said the soft voice, “as that piston went into a witch-run 'roadhouse' up near the north-tip.”

“Why?” I asked. “Don't tell me – that thing crumbled into magnesium citrate powder.”

“Now you have done it,” said the soft voice with the faintest trace of a chortle, “as that 'soup' will not only cause those consuming it to rave about its taste, but they will go into privies afterward and never come out alive.”

“The roadhouse..?” I asked. I wondered just what a 'roadhouse' was in witch-parlance.

“They'll have trouble with the pot itself and anything else that 'soup' goes into, also,” said the soft voice. “Magnesium citrate, especially when it is made from prewar witch-cursed alloys, is not merely a most-subtle poison – it takes days to act, in fact, even if it acts most strongly when it finally does go to work – but it is also distressingly flammable should it become dry after wetting, and both copper and tin catalyze that reaction.”

“And hence the dirty dishes will..?” I asked.

“Start fires,” said the soft voice. “They might not be incendiary bombs, but the sudden fires and thick choking smoke that results from them igniting the remnants of meals will not help that place stay in business.”

The next part I unwrapped was an obvious hubcap, this dented, fire-damaged – the plating was 'torn' and 'lifted – and gashed by something sharp such that it was torn nearly in half. The 'DÖDGE' marking, this in thick red 'paint', was effectually 'crossed out'; and I asked that it go find the privy of a witch and 'roost' in the stool so as to throw whatever dung the witch or witches dumped in back at them.

“Yes, even your privy now has secrets in it,” I muttered, much as if I was speaking to an 'imaginary' witch or group thereof. “Maybe that thing needs to have some teeth...”

“What did you mean by that?” asked Sarah.

“A privy that bites those setting on it,” I murmured. “Witches need those, as they so seldom visit the privy, and if the, uh, stool has some teeth, they'll need to stay there for a while so they can become uncorked properly.”

“That is good,” said Karl. “Hans told me how he was corked in his head, so...” Karl ceased speaking, then said, “that will get those things good.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Sarah told me about using privies for a source of poison,” said Karl, “so if you got something that lives in a privy, and it bites them where they sit, then they will be poisoned as bad as if they were bitten by Death Adders or spiders like those with the blue markings on their backs.”

“Especially Death Adders,” intoned Gabriel. “Those were said to like to hang on if they got their teeth into you.”

“You heard that where?” asked Sarah. “You've not seen those snakes, have you?”

“He has, dear,” I said. “Granted, he was not looking for them, but he has seen them. Didn't you?”

“I had to run twice,” said Gabriel, “and that's not counting the times I came too close and the snake wasn't inclined to give chase.”

What?” I asked.

“Death Adders can be most aggressive,” said Sarah, “which is why I wasted no time in thumping – or in some cases, shooting – them whenever I encountered one.”

“Shooting?” I asked.

“If I was in the central portion of the fourth kingdom, I could use a fowling piece,” said Sarah dryly. “I've seen those snakes up near that market town on occasion, though I doubt much they came up into that area without help.”

“A witch brought them?”

“Those she saw, yes,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, however – the southern third of the fourth kingdom has its share of Death Adders, and they do sometimes migrate further north if their territory runs out of their preferred food.”

“And hence they sometimes get up into the more-populous regions,” I said. “The main reason Death Adders are scarce around that market town is that they don't live long enough to, uh, bear young.”

“As a rule, yes,” said the soft voice. “The central portion of the fourth kingdom is as heavily armed as this region, if not more so yet, even if most of their weapons are intended for shot use.”

“That place has a lot of birds in it,” said Karl. He then turned and asked, “what are you doing with that stuff there?”

“Moving it out of here so as to check this place properly,” said Katje. “I think this place has at least one decent desk in it.”

“Decent as in..?”

“It has several old desks made of metal,” said the soft voice, “and like a number of other things yet hiding in here, they were not only made elsewhere, but they were not terribly susceptible to cursing. Hence, Maarten and Katje will wish one, at least for the time being.”

“I think so,” said Katje. “Now that chair there looks fit for firewood, so toss it in the junk pile out there.”

“Is she removing clues?” I thought.

“She is removing things that are hiding clues, which is why she and Maarten are receiving what guidance they need,” said the soft voice. “They need a good desk, also, which supplies 'motivation' to their 'too-tired' limbs.”

The first of the three baskets was now nearly empty, save for the bottom pieces. I removed another piston, this with a top that was broken through entirely; then two more like the first piston I had examined, another 'burned-out' piston, and then finally an obviously damaged piston that went to pieces in the process of my unwrapping it. The sharp-edged fragments were blackened, burnt, and all-but disintegrating as I handled them.

“Detonation, most likely,” I thought, as I set the mound of going-to-powder metal fragments down on the now very rusty shelf. It was dusting down rust rapidly, and I could see holes showing. “Now each of you piston-shaped fetishes find a witch-kettle or whatever those things are called in witch-run roadhouses or Public Houses, and turn into a really bad version of magnesium citrate – one that altogether dumps its consumers' tripes into the privy when it decides it's time to act.” I then had a question once the pistons had vanished with a chorus of thumping noises.

“What is a roadhouse?” I asked.

“Those huge 'Public Houses' with two stories you saw in the second kingdom were 'roadhouses',” said the soft voice. “They were sited by main roads, they were large enough to provide anything a traveling witch could wish for, and they were far enough from 'common' habitations to allow the witches full 'enjoyment' of their facilities and services.”

“They do that also,” muttered Sarah. “That thing there makes me wonder as to what it is.”

'It' turned out to be an octagonal-headed gas-cap, this showing 'official DÖDGE' script on the shiny 'stainless' head in embossed red letters, and the near-intact aspect of the thing – save for its checked and cracked corrugated rubber gasket, it looked as if it came off of a parts shelf recently – made for wondering, especially as to whether people stole parts off of 'DRAŠTIC DÖDGE' vehicles when and where they could.

“Not everyone who could afford one of those had servants of a sufficiently trustworthy nature to mount armed guard over them,” said the soft voice, “and hence they took such precautions as they could and replaced readily removed parts when needed – and 'DÖDGE' gas-caps were popular-enough fetishes among the up-and-coming witches of that time that the firm making them sold at least ten gas caps for every vehicle, and three other firms made copies for sale to the unsuspecting.”

“They probably worked passably,” I murmured.

“For a time, yes,” said the soft voice. “The designated firm's products cost more, and tended to get stolen as fast or faster than the copies, hence the copies commonly served well enough save for when such vehicles were 'stored' for any real length of time. Then one wanted a 'real' gas-cap, as most of the copies would not endure the usual fuel's vapors for very long.” A brief pause, then, “that's one of the 'better' copies, so its life expectancy was nearly as good as that of the factory part that way.”

The rest of that bin turned out to be more blackened pistons, these to a different engine entirely, as they had but two valve cutouts – one on each side, such that I suspected the engine had a hemispherical combustion chamber – and a pronounced domed portion on their tops, which all but confirmed my suspicions. They too were ready for scrapping, and after sending all eight of those crumbling-to-dust scrappers to the stew-pots of witches, that first basket was now empty – and as I reached for the second basket's contents, the first basket 'lost all restraint' and went to powder and faint clouds of dust with an empty sighing sound. I wondered if I had heard its dissolution with my ears.

The next basket of the three – as well as that basket which lay to its right – was filled with rag-wrapped items of a troubling nature, and when I removed the rags from the topmost item, I found a glass container that looked enough like those infernal 'IV bottles' that I found the resemblance frightening. I held my lantern close, and made out the raised red letters 'KÄSTRÜL-R42' in the otherwise clear glass.

Clear save for a species of dark brown 'varnish' coating part of it, that is.

Removing the other objects one by one showed them to be the precise same thing, at least until I got to the middle of the rightmost bin. One bottle didn't just show its usual: it was also wrapped with an old and dusty piece of green-slimed paper glued to it by 'varnish'; and as I held my lantern to it, I saw the following:

34 Ugürü' Oüle needed.

And overshadowing this, floating in the thin dust-moted air as if a holograph, was this:

'For an oil change'.

“Thirty-four... What is that word?”

“I'm not terribly sure,” said Sarah, “even if I've... No, that isn't true. I do know what that word means, at least now. That jug there held one of those things, and if it took that many jugs to fill one of them, then those things needed ten gallons of that grease.”

Sarah was pointing at what I was holding, and I set it down quickly. I did so just in time, as it – and every other such bottle I had unwrapped thus far – went to fine sparkling dust with a faint constellation of crunching noises. Sarah had more comments, however, even as I mentally asked the glass particles to find the beds of witches so as to 'give them the itch'.

“No evil engine is that thirsty for grease, not even those with more than the usual numbers of holes.” Sarah seemed to have 'inside knowledge' of some kind to speak with such assurance. It made for questions on my part.

“Holes?” I asked. “How many?”

“One such engine I saw had six of them,” said Sarah, “and I had trouble getting into that place and back out without getting caught by the witches guarding that stinky brick-pile.”

“Where?” I asked. “The fifth kingdom house?”

“Yes, and that huge place smelled almost as bad as the inside of Kossum's,” said Sarah. “It was named after the family owning it, and the place had writing spelling out Blomfels on its gate.”

“What else did you do?” I asked.

“I added some foundry sand to that engine's grease,” said Sarah with a smirk, “and I heard the fire was trouble.” A pause, then, “I was back in the fourth kingdom and about two months into the term before I heard it spoken of.”

The shelves above the three baskets had more of these dust-filmed bottles, and as I handled them and set them down on the shelf which had once held the three now-vanished baskets, they kept going to dust within seconds. This grainy dust had a definite 'itchy' aspect hiding among its myriad of salt-like cubes, and I now asked it to find the clothing of plain-dressed witches so as to make them easier to find. In each instance, the stuff vanished, and after one such instance, I heard – this plainly, with my own ears – a scream coming from outside. It was answered by a dull booming of gunfire that petered out over the course of seconds.

“Now what?” I asked.

“One of those witches who was an expert hider is now where he belongs,” said the soft voice. “There are some others getting that glass dust who will show themselves soon enough.”

“Sounds like you're clearing out every witch that thought to endure in this area,” said Sarah.

“That and the latest crop of supplicants, that is,” said the soft voice. “The remaining witches had managed to recruit a fair number of people by their carefully-couched talk of wealth and power, and seeing those who gave ear to such nonsense coming out and scratching themselves bloody is thought to be a sign of their evil.”

“Gets them gunfire at the least,” I said. “That witch-inculcated nonsense drilled into people's heads around here demands killing someone like that.”

“True,” said Katje, “it does, especially given how it is spoken of in old tales.” A brief pause, then, “now what is this thing here?”

I turned and left the shelf, and as I walked toward Katje – she and her 'crew' were working on the packed section to the left of the entrance, much as we were taking inventory of those things lining the right path – I marveled at just how much 'junk' she'd brought outside. A glance as I passed the doorway showed no less than three medium-sized desks outside, these dusty, old-looking, mostly metal, and obviously yet-usable; and a broken-up jumbled pile of wood chunks mingled with grainy 'sawdust' steadily coming from those pieces made of wood-substitutes. The growing mound of sawdust I saw was quite sizable, and I hoped those paper-interested individuals could make ready use of such material.

“Best to bag up that bad wood and stack the sacks someplace easy to get to,” I thought. I then saw clearly what Katje was pointing at.

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “What is that thing? It looks like a turntable of some kind.” I left the part unspoken about that one infernal song, at least until I found the faint reddish fine-grained powder covering the embossed metal disk in the center. “Did it have something on it that went up in smoke?”

“Yes, it did,” said the soft voice, “which is but one of the reasons you heard that one witch-chant so clearly when you first came here.” A pause, then, “this thing was used to play that chant and other such 'music' until the witch owning it died and his effects were rifled, and it was put in here to 'avoid temptation' by the presence of a player that operated nearly as much by curses as by all other means.”

The seeming sturdiness of the thing's execution – it looked as if made prior to my birth where I came from, and that by a high-end company – made for wondering, at least until I saw the 'cast bronze plaque' proclaiming the name of the thing in runes. The first rune was the open mouth leading to hell, the second meant night or darkness, the third was a tool of manipulation and control, and the fourth was the command-formative that sent out the hell-spawned manipulation that ran amok in the witch-authored darkness the device was designed to 'spawn'. It seemed a prime fetish, so much so that I nearly forgot to commit its details to memory before 'disposing' of it.

The first items I noticed were a number of round metallic disks that reminded me greatly of the finned cylinder heads of larger model aircraft engines minus their glow-plugs and hold-down screws. These were in sockets, much as if they were a species of vacuum tube; but a brief touch of their surface spoke of an unnatural chill, one far deeper than any mere metal I had felt here. These things seemed to live in a freezer, they were so cold. It made for a question.

“Did those run things hot?” I asked.

“They did, and the ones that were produced here needed those 'chill-curses' that were – and are – embossed into the backside of each such module,” said the soft voice, “and while they were solid state, they were also heavily cursed, which meant they needed to be periodically cared for and possibly replaced when they crumbled into dust 'prematurely' due to insufficient chanting on the part of their users.” A brief pause, then, “those modules there, however, are neither cursed or domestically made, and that player sounded a lot better because of their presence – and that chill you felt is due to a rather unique physical construction, not the acts of a collection of spirits bound to them by curses.”

“What are they, then?” I asked. “A 'crude' species of integrated circuit?” I was thinking of thick-film circuits, ones similar to those I had seen in some older automotive devices where I came from.

“Correct on the second portion, and very much off on the first,” said the soft voice. “Those are some very sophisticated multi-chip modules, in fact, and each one has far more circuitry in it than you might well believe possible. The ones on the right are switch-mode amplifiers, the one above them and to the left is a digital signal processing device that was programmed to serve as a tone control, the next one to the left was a digital control interface module, and the last one controlled the motor and other mechanical components – and the witch who once owned them had no small trouble sneaking those modules into the country on his person.”

“Like those, uh, gun parts?” I asked. “Smuggled in past the border guards paid by that one witch?”

“They were bribed to not look too closely,” said the soft voice, “and those smuggling gave up a certain amount of 'plunder' and sizable 'gratuities' so as to get the 'important' stuff past the half-dozen checkpoints established on the southern borders of the country's territory.” A pause, then, “that country's border was not open, but closed hard, and there were a lot of 'crossed' 'T's with the remains of those summarily executed when found with contraband or caught while trying to avoid the checkpoints.”

“And the knobs?” I asked.

Instantly, the markings blazed redly on each of the gray-black controls, and by each control showed a small white tag. The uppermost knob, that near the pedestal that supported the tone-arm, was labeled 'volume', the one below it 'tone' – that one had some indication that it wasn't merely rotated, but had several positions that one activated by a combination of dexterous manipulation – both axial and radial manipulation – and the correct curses, such that its true function was a multiple-band active equalizer with some truly unusual traits – and the last knob was labeled as being 'loudness'.

“Loudness?” I asked.

“How that device functioned in the spirit world,” said the soft voice. “It too had one of those special 'multi-level' controls that needed both chanting and uncommon care to access each channel successfully, and each of the player's sixteen outputs had its own volume and loudness 'channel' accessed by such controls.”

“Sixteen outputs?” I asked.

“Large speakers weren't readily available then, hence the use of ones about six inches across and large partitioned cabinets to give a 'wall-of-sound' effect, and the individual amplifiers only managed two watts or so each. The aggregate effect of such an arrangement was similar to that of a much more powerful unit.” A pause, then, “and the runes for that nameplate spell out a name that was both received and thought especially potent.”

“Most likely because it was,” I thought. “Now this thing needs to find some really awful witch-hole, one of those huge underground places, and it needs to play its last song there.”

As if it had been waiting for me to send it where it belonged, the turntable lifted up from its 'last resting place', then as I moved out of the way it shot out of the room and did a hard left as it accelerated – and then, with a rush of gusting wind it blasted out of the Upper Alley and accelerated into the wild blue yonder as it left for its last home this side of Hell.

“No record, so it will... What?”

“It was given a record as it left the premises,” said the soft voice. “The witches will enjoy its sound greatly, because everything it plays will happen to them as they hear it.” A brief pause, then, “they will not expect those events, but they will happen – and they know this song especially well, given that they chant it regularly.”

“Break on through?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “You've heard portions of this one more than once, and while it has little in common with its namesake, a witch-turntable playing that song will cause the witches hearing it no end of trouble.” A pause, then “it ought to, given that the last 'record' that thing played before it was packed away was a song the witches call – and called – 'The End'.”

“The m-message that defines evil?” I asked.

“Those that speak that way speak in ignorance,” said the soft voice. “While it does define evil, and does that especially well, and that player will conjure its share of troublesome evil spirits before that place goes to hell, it is not the message that defines evil. That's another song entirely, and you – or no one else currently living – has heard it.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah, as she retraced her steps. I hastened after her, as what we were about to find was of grave importance, and when we came back to the shelf that had held the engine parts, the thing had already lost its structural integrity and was beginning to collapse with faint squeaks and spurts of red-brown rust. We left it to its dissolution, and passed by two more such going-to-rust shelves to find a 'framed' picture of some kind pasted over with a coarse species of cloth. My putting my finger to this last caused it to go up in smoke, soot, and a flash of flame and sudden shock, and I asked that the soot find itself in the coach of a witch gathering his things up for the trip north.

And as if to answer, faint, so faintly that I wondered if I was hearing it conventionally, I heard a rumbling roar that segued to a series of thundering detonations.

“What was that?” I asked.

“That convoy of coaches is now scattered over an area not much smaller than Roos,” said the soft voice, “and that section of the Low Way is now rendered impassable for the next few weeks.” A brief pause, then, “look carefully at what you just uncovered, as that 'advertisement' will explain much.”

“What is that thing?” gasped Sarah.

“A prewar sulfur-candle in back of a burning sun,” said the soft voice. “Burning such candles while chanting the correct curses was supposed to cause the sun to look like that picture illustrates, but it took 'The Curse' to make the sun actually 'burn' like that.” A brief pause, then, “those severe solar flares are not merely curse-induced – by the cumulation of millennia of cursing from prior to the drowning to now – but also, that cursing actually directs the solar radiation, much as if the sun concentrated all of its light down upon the planet like a death-ray with the goal of producing a flame-embroiled planet suitable for the ongoing habitation of Brimstone.”

“And modern-sulfur-candles are a pale shadow of what I see here,” I muttered, as I saw the red-flamed ball heavily streaked with yellow hiding in the tall long shadows of a yellow and gray striped red-flame-burning smoke-palled 'chimney' that left a thick and noxious sable plume of slow-growing smoke. The blue-streaked green 'floor and the chilly gray-blue 'sky' behind it were both utterly unnatural creations of a cursed realm: the blue-streaked green was not that of grass, but of bile; and the gray-blue showed a sky devoid of light and so crowded with thick and noxious pollution that no life lived save that which could endure such pollution readily – pollution both physical and moral, so much so that nothing lived, save by curses – and all of those things that lived, they lived by curses alone.

“The current ones merely smoke, burn brighter than is normal for candles, and smell bad, depending on how much sulfur those preparing them leave in the 'wax',” said the soft voice. “The vast majority of the curses involved with them are more or less forgotten, as firstly, no black book – not even those writ by individuals – mentions them; secondly, those books which do mention them are sufficiently cursed that no witch of a stature less than Cardosso could read them and survive; and three, those books are not currently accessible to most witches.”

“Witch-libraries?” I asked.

“Not the ones known of by witches today,” said the soft voice. “These libraries have not seen 'witches' in hundreds of years, for the most part, and the last living visitor of some of them was Cardosso himself. That's why his writings mention those curses, even if they do not name or explain them.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “He wished to keep them for himself?”

“They would have caused him to go up in smoke had he tried to invoke them,” said the soft voice, “and he had sufficient sense to not do anything of the sort. He wrote what he did in hopes that 'real witches' that came after him would have the capacity to speak those curses and endure, even if they were too much for him.” A brief pause, then, “however, that witch that said 'The Curse' was not merely familiar with them, but she activated them to a greater extent than any prewar witch had ever managed.”

“Why did that thing do that?” asked Sepp. Sarah and I were now alone on the right side; everyone else was clearing garbage and 'other matters' out of those areas 'devoid' of fetishes, as this room was not merely large, but Katje had indicated it needed to be cleared out as much as was possible.

“Not merely a desk, Maarten,” she said. “There are other things in here, truly important things, and while we can use a desk, and that as soon as we can get it home privily, I suspect those other things will help us all survive the next month or two.”

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “I hope you don't mind having a rocket launcher, as you'll need one when a witch-convoy shows to try to rebuild the town where your house is the only one yet-standing.”

“I thought so,” muttered Katje. “I hope you can teach me to use such a device, as those things...” Katje cut loose with a screech, then yelled, “what did you say?”

“There will be at least one witch-convoy of size coming into your area with the goal of reestablishing the presence of both the town and a well-hid version of the former hall,” I said, “and if you put a rocket into one of those coaches, their means of self-protection will prove itself a strong and dire liability.”

“How is that?” asked Karl.

“Coaches can pass for rolling powder mills,” I said. “Now if you have coaches nose-to-tail, and one blows up, what happens to the others?”

“They all go up, one after another,” said Sarah. “I think that is going to be trouble for the house, as if a line of coaches goes, it will cause trouble for every shop that fronts on the street.”

“And the road itself,” said Sepp. “Lukas told me when coaches go, they wreck the cobbles under and to each side for several paces.”

“That is for good deep-laid cobbles and a light-loaded coach,” said Sarah. “I've seen holes in that market town down in the fourth kingdom that took weeks to repair, and that with dozens of people working on them all hours of the day and much of the night.” Sarah paused, then said, “the reason that witch speaking the Curse wanted those burning curses to be stronger is because of that one message we heard yesterday – she, like those cursing those guarded by that Desmond and Iggy, wished all that lived upon this planet to be 'entire monsters or entire true-witches', and she was hoping they could use her window to the heart of the world where she saw Brimstone herself.”

“Does that one still exist?” I asked.

“No, because it went where it belonged when 'The Curse' struck,” said the soft voice, “and those few of her 'people' that survived that witch's reign were bent irretrievably away from her and her kind – and that trend has continued and accelerated ever since her dying day.”

“What?” I asked. “They aren't entire true-witches? They've become, uh, 'Monsters'?”

“No, even if such people are welcomed there with open arms,” said the soft voice. “That witch's 'folly' cured those people good.”

I looked again at the 'framed' advertisement, and strange thoughts rummaged through my head with frantic urgency: “...but two poles of existence permitted, at least for a time... Entire monsters, entire true-witches, the witches to kill off the 'monsters' utterly... The world to belong entirely to the witches... And then, the red light shown by the candle's flame, its unnatural and raw-meat red fire...

“The fires of hell,” I thought, “and the black smoke, that being symbolic of power and the might of dread curses; the yellow sun, ablaze in its glory, such that it overshadows the usual color...” I paused.

“What is the sun here normally for color?” I asked.

“A whitish color, though usually with a faint tint of blue,” said Sarah. “The blue tint is more noticeable in winter, when it looks like the flames that sometimes cover old examples of the book and some other things I have seen.”

...The red streaks across the sun, those showing how it and the world it guarded were but barely kept from falling into hell. Such 'brinkmanship' showed the absolute power of witchdom and its capacity to keep its own world under its complete control, for those first to be devoured by Brimstone should the place fall into hell's 'domain' would be the witches and their works. These people, or at least some of them, knew this...

The first portion of falling into hell, according to witchdom's beliefs – their truth – was that the sun would be erased, and the world would then be darkened. There, by virtue of their 'blackness', the witches would show forth then all the more, and therein acquire preeminence.

That thought blanked and then was replaced with the true reality. The witches would show forth all the more because of their darkness without and within, and when the arrival of Brimstone commenced, there to take ownership of the planet as his vouchsafed due, those especially darkened realms within that feral and all-encompassing darkness would become especially beckoning to himself – and he would visit those people and locations first, there to take his foreordained meals.

The chief among sociopaths always got what he wanted, and that when and as he wished it. It made for a comment, this one I thought I kept to myself as I tried my weary best to commit the matter before me and all of its varied meanings to memory:

“You cannot buy divine favor, nor real love, nor true happiness,” I thought, “even if most everything else is negotiable, given sufficient funds and a willingness to expend them – and the truth is this: without those first three things, you can have all else that exists in this life, and not live at all. You'll be dead to all that matters, and not knowing it.” A pause. “That's all there is.”

And with that last thought, the 'scroll' before me, frame and all, crumbled into dust with a slow crackling sound to sift foul-reeking dust down in slow-drifting and noxious gray-tinted clouds.

“No, not here,” I muttered. “Find somewhere where witches are plotting, this some long distance to the south, and, uh, go into that nice stinky punchbowl they're using. They'll enjoy that flavor.”

The screams and howls – these of laughter – were so sudden that my marrow nearly froze, and I turned to see Sarah all but doubled-up in laughter. Once she had resumed normal standing, however, I asked, “what happened?”

“They will enjoy that taste, all right,” said Sarah. “That stuff smelled too much like that arsenic Hans put to that huge pig for me to know otherwise.”

“No, dear, not arsenic,” said the soft voice, “even if those long-cursed coloring agents are toxic enough to make those people wish they'd each downed a large spoonful of the material you spoke of.”

Our further travel down the long and narrow shadow-strewn pathway was next attracted to another shelf, this one strangely intact and covered with a single dusty cloth. The latter was also near-intact, and when my hand came near, the cloth went up like flash-paper to show a carved grainy wooden bust, this of such horrifying nature that I shrank back and got in front of Sarah so as to protect her.

“What is that thing?” I gasped, as I shook in horror. I had never seen anything quite like this before.

“I think that is an especially evil idol of some kind,” said Sarah calmly as she moved to my right side, “and it is named strangely, for I have seen my share of rune-curses and those runes there are not like they usually are.”

“Such strange eyes, and a pointed head...” I then realized just what I was seeing: while the thing did look vicious and horrible, an idol with a pointed head was too much. I almost laughed at it, it was so ridiculous-looking, even as more of the formerly glossy blue paint covering the thing flaked away to show the haphazard 'grain' of the wood. For some reason, I was reminded once more of 'particle board'.

“Idols cannot save anyone,” I muttered. “Now if we had a stove handy, we could at least...”

“Not with that one,” said the soft voice. “That 'grainy stuff' may well be wood of a sort, but 'witch-grade particle board' is fully as poisonous as the trees of Norden – and that in every possible aspect.”

“First a bad wood substitute, and now this,” I muttered in disgust. I did not like particle-board. “Did they give that stuff a special name?”

“Yes, they did,” said the soft voice. “It was called 'Goatwood' by high-ranking witches, who never dealt with it save in its finished form, and Bloatwood by those working with it, because it would not hold its dimensions when worked unless one was a very strong witch and knew the correct chants and curses so as to 'stabilize it' – and carving idols out of Bloatwood needed a strong witch, even for that time and place.”

“Meaning it's a prize fetish,” I muttered. “It will most likely go to dust quick enough, now that the deep-hole is gone.” A pause, then, “the witch doing it must have done his carving down in that place, in fact.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice, “and those looting parties found it in a wrecked 'palazzo' not two hundred feet from both of those destroyed 'DRAŠTIC DÖDGE' vehicles.”

“Well, if we cannot burn it in a stove and do something useful with it, then perhaps the witches can use it for firewood in what they use...”

As if to remind me of unguarded speech, the idol vanished with a plop and a faint reek of ozone commingled with burnt rubber and perhaps a hint of acetone – and not two seconds later, my mind all but exploded with the sounds of deep-pitched hoarse screaming. The idol had shown up, complete with a full – and new – coating of bright blue paint in the huge and darkened antique-choked house of a very wealthy witch while said wretch was 'entertaining', and as the black-dressed drunkards gathered in thick stuffed chairs around a massive fireplace crammed with crackling part-seasoned logs, the idol showed upon the wide half-circle-shaped stone hearth with a muffled 'thud'.

The witches took perhaps two seconds to notice the idol's presence; then their drunken stupefaction was replaced by a warlike ardor, and as they began to fight among themselves with long pointed daggers so as to have this new-arrived fetish for their very own, the idol hopped – just like a frog weighed down but somewhat with buckshot – into the fire, and as the battle raged among the curse-spewing scuffling witches and the idol began 'dancing' amid the flames, the choking fumes of first the accursed blue paint, followed by those of the thrice-accursed binder, and then finally the poisonous gases made by the wood particles – these lethal fumes began spreading in the wide rooms and the hallways of the massive house.

The fighting witches didn't notice the fast-spreading fumes until they all were gasping for air, hands on throats and dropping to their knees, while the other occupants of the house – witches apparently had large retinues or families, as this huge house all but swarmed with witches and those who wanted to be witches – slowly fell or tripped over their stumbling-drunk feet as the fumes continued to spread with the speed of harried quolls. Meanwhile, the dying witches were now being set alight by the newly-freed spirits formerly bound to the idol as it came part to finally burn free of all 'enchantment'; and as the words to a certain long-worded chant rang out clearly in the house with ghostly precision, the dead and dying witches, now wreathed and coated by flames that devoured their starched clothing and then their flesh with avidity, began dancing a strange and jerky spirit-ridden dance in time to certain of the words of the witch-song.

These words, of course, were the following: “dance on fire as it intends,” and the witches were doing precisely that, much as the idol had done once amid the flames.

“And now, spread those flames to the whole of that witch-warren,” I thought. “They all need to dance on fire, with their abode burning likewise as a sign and a warning to that region and its people.”

The screaming was instantly replaced with a thunderingly hungry roar of flames, this punctuated by pops and bangs as the numberless small individual hoards of dynamite, the powder flasks for each weapon – these witches and supplicants, all of them, carried well-hid firearms every waking minute, and 'court-jester' revolvers and 'derringers' of large and stubby shot-filled bore were very common among them – and the blasts of Infernal lanterns punctuated matters with thunder and 'lightning-flashes'...

“That place has so many of those stinky things it's ridiculous,” I thought. I then noticed that I was not merely speaking out loud, but I was smelling something strange, almost as if I myself had barely escaped the flames of the witch-warren. I then absent-mindedly swatted off a thin dusting of soot from my arm.

“I think so,” spat Sarah. “If that wasn't somewhere in the hot part of the second kingdom house, I'll toss a live rat like a juggler!” A brief pause, then, “I know what that thing was called now, as those witches spoke its name before they began fighting among themselves so as to each have it for their own.”

“Yes?” asked Katje. “Do not speak its name, then, as that idol was as unpleasant-looking a thing as I've ever seen, even if it looked silly enough to make me wish to laugh.”

“You saw it?” I asked. “How?” I was really smelling that huge fire now, and I wondered how that reek seemed to be boiling off of me like bad year-old sweat.

“It landed on the fire-step of one of those things witches burn wood in,” said Katje, “and that house looked like the very worst one of all of them before town burned.”

“How was it unpleasant-looking?”

“It had a head shaped like that of a pin,” said Katje, “and eyes that looked as if made of buttons, and this mouth stolen off of one of these fish they have in the sea, and...” Here, Katje could not contain herself any longer, and howled with laughter.

“If you cannot flout Brimstone with verses from the book, you can always laugh at him and what he likes,” I muttered. I then noted what the idol had hidden by its presence, this being a glossy black and white 'advertisement' of sorts – and that explained to me exactly what we had seen, and more, answered a host of recently-born questions in my mind.

“I thought so,” I muttered. I then kept my lips sealed, this by effort, and thought, “so the witches of that time used names out of the book itself.” I then noted the reddish aura the 'advertisement' seemed to be gathering to itself, which meant that the 'idol' – that hideously-overpriced 'bad joke' of a carving – was hiding a real curse under it; and seeing 'money-manipulation-answers' – 'disgrace-walking-travel' – 'gates-walls-fortress-strength-power-predator' – 'mouth, specifically dealing with hell' and finally 'darkness and night, this both physical and spiritual' made for a brief wondering.

Both as to what the curse I was looking at actually meant, and also, if it was a curse. The combination made but little sense to me save if the runes I was seeing were used as letters to spell out the name 'Dagon'.

And thinking that made me wish to spit. “Go find a witch's privy, and let that wretch use you in lieu of privy-rags,” I spat.

The 'advertisement' vanished with a sudden wind-rushing hush, then from outside, a sudden, long, and loud scream seemed to rend the air. I turned to see Karl carrying the remains of a 'busted-up' chair outside, and as he went out the doorway, I heard him laugh.

“What?” I asked.

Karl came back in the door, and said, “I think that was the worst stinker of those that came to help clean up after that lizard's mess, as I recognized his voice while he was screaming.”

“Served that wretch right, then,” said Sepp. He was digging through a sizable mound of what looked like glossy-varnished long-hoarded firewood. “These things are all old broken chairs and tables, and I have no idea why they put them in here.”

“To hide something important,” said Katje. “I can tell there's something, either under this stuff or behind it...”

“Behind that door,” said Maarten mildly. “This pile of wood is hiding a doorway, as I can just see the crack between door and wall behind this pile of wood here.”

“But why would they put broken-up chairs and tables in here...” I thought for a second – until I recalled the on-site drink-house the place had once had.

“Correct as to the source, and those chairs and tables were all supplied by that one witch,” said the soft voice. “The reason they're 'real' wood and not 'Bloatwood' or 'the cheap stuff' is he had warehouses full of stolen and 'confiscated' furniture, and 'real wood' carries curses better than the substitutes doled out to that time's 'commons'.” A pause, then, “the witches of today believe likewise, even if 'Bloatwood' and 'wood substitutes' are currently unknown in the five kingdoms outside of the pages of larger black books.”

“Cursed tables?” I asked.

“Are most common in the second kingdom house,” said Sarah. “The house proper has its share, supposedly.”

Supposedly?” I asked. That word, especially when Sarah spoke it, had suspicion bound to it most firmly. Sarah was not inclined toward accepting a particle of uncertainty when she could prove matters.

“I didn't have time to look on the underside of every table I saw in that place,” said Sarah, “and while I and those with me explored much, there were many rooms that we could not get into.”

“That, and the makers of those tables hid their curses very cunningly,” said the soft voice. “Recall how common ornately 'carved' tables were in those rooms? How many tables you saw with brass and silver-gilt wire driven into their tops to form 'designs'?”

I could almost see Sarah nodding. The only reason I had not seen any such tables was that I had had my hands full with other matters when I wasn't actually sleeping – and our room had had its three tables of that type removed prior to our coming, as the witches running the place didn't want to give me those things of power – namely fetishes – that I could use against them.

“At least at first they didn't,” I thought. “Those light-giving firebombs came when they decided the rumors were true as defined by witchdom's thinking, and their hope was I would use those smelly smudgepots and be destroyed by them during a moment's inattention.” I then came back to the 'present'.

“Every single one of those tables you saw like that was cursed, dear,” said the soft voice, “and more, they were all made by deep-slaves.”

“Koenraad the first's rat-hole was a bit too smoky for me to notice those things when I was there,” I muttered, “and I was quite busy then, also.”

“He had nothing but such cursed tables,” said the soft voice, “and his private table was the worst one of all, both for curses and 'decoration'.”

As I resumed my wandering with Sarah down this narrow dust-choked aisle – it had somehow gathered dust since our entering the room but half an hour ago – I glanced to the right and left. Where shelves did not show 'things' covered by cloths or hidden in boxes, I saw here and there, the following:

Filing cabinets, these looking ancient with their faded filmy green coating now showing huge blotches of rust, and sometimes, genuine holes where the curse-halted action of time had been quick to seize its new-given opportunity to devour all held precious and dear to witches.

Desks, these commonly of wood leavened heavily with either 'Bloatwood' or that cheaper wood substitute. They were crumbling as I watched, save when and where the pieces of real wood provided strength beyond the capability of mere curses and chants.

Chairs, these usually of a singularly poor grade of wood reinforced here and there with gone-to-rust pieces of metal. A longer side-glance spoke of wood being used to 'hold the ground' with 'the cheap stuff' used when and where it could be used otherwise. The relative dearth of chairs we had seen outside of those two secretariat rooms – if there was a chair in an office, it commonly had bones or the remains of bones upon it; otherwise, if an office had no skeletons, it had no chairs – was now explained. They had been gathered here so as to 'protect' them.

From what, however – I had no clue.

As we came closer to the east wall of this impossibly long room, however, the aura of the place's contents began to change perceptibly: the shelves began to be replaced by other objects, these mounded and piled in alien-seeming heaps; and the whole 'sense' of what I was feeling was that of going from the familiar into the deep darkness of an alien world. This was a world shrouded in malice, of great darkness, with the day dark and the night darker still; and as my roving eye slid itself slowly over a 'gloating' – I could only use that word, as it alone sufficed – mound of what looked like computer monitors, I now noted solid bright colors, these red, yellow, blue – an eye-burningly bright blue – a haunted brown, a glaring envious green, a putrescent purple...

“Can purple seem so rotten as that?” I thought. It made no sense to me, even if all of what I saw needed to be recorded in my mind so that I could recognize it better...

Two 'office chairs' blocked my way. I moved one to the side, then the other – and learned that I could not move, save if I leaped like a cat to then bang my head on the too-low ceiling.

“I think we should take those things there out,” said Sarah softly. “The stuff we saw before was just to bait us, as I've seen things like these here on tapestries.”

“Things?” I asked, as I moved one of the chairs into the aisle so as to 'roll' it out on its six – or was it seven? – crumbling-into-dust casters.

“Yes, like you're moving,” said Sarah as she moved around me somehow to get to the other one. “I have no idea as to what to name these, but I cannot speak of them as chairs.”

“They look like chairs to me,” I said, as I began to move the one I had back through the maze. The thing was wasting no time in coming apart on me, as I was leaving trails of what looked like smoke with each step – or so I thought until Sarah sneezed.

“That thing is leaving dust behind you,” she said.

“Perhaps this... No, best not,” I muttered. “Dust, a little at a time, please, slowly drift out of here and, uh, into the houses of witches.” A pause, then, “antiques only look right when they show ages of dust upon them, and the same for those people wanting such awful falling-apart furniture.”

And as if on cue, I heard a faint rumbling that segued into a tormented chorus of screams. I looked around, shook my head, then asked as I passed the now-collapsed shelves we had first investigated, “did anyone hear..?”

Maarten turned to me, then as he resumed gathering 'kindling' – the mound of broken wood was only showing its true size now, for enough of the 'junk' surrounding it had been cleared away – he said, his arms quickly filling with wood, “no, not really. Then again, I'm not paying attention to much beyond getting this wood out of here so we can see what is behind that door there. I can tell it's important, more so than I could when we started removing the wood.”

“More than that,” said Katje. “What's hiding in that place is something we both desire greatly and need even more, and we must remove much of this witch-junk to get those things they hid under and behind it.”

As I came to the in-and-out passage of wood-bearers, however, the 'chair' I was pushing lurched to the side and down, and a tormented rumbling screech of falling-apart rollers and cheap going-to-rust metal colliding with the floor set my teeth on edge.

“Best carry it the rest of the way if you can,” said Karl, as he squeezed beside me with his arms at his side. “That thing looks fit for Frankij, at least for its metal.”

“Metal?” I asked, as I lifted the surprisingly heavy 'chair' up. “Melting would remove its cursed aspects, wouldn't it?”

I could feel the 'chair' seem to scream and squirm as I carried it, then when I came out of the room, I noted 'neat-looking' piles. As I wondered where to put the chair, I could feel its 'rivets' popping as if they were kernels of corn in a camp-oven, and as I ran through the space left between two sizable and growing mounds of scrap wood, the chair creaked hideously – and as it came apart entirely, I both tossed it hard and leaped back to nearly trip over a broken-to-bits wooden chair.

The crash made by the disintegrating chair was enough to set my teeth on edge twice over, and the tormented grumble coming behind me, this noise at once utterly familiar yet totally alien, made me turn to see Sarah and Sepp manhandling a chair that was trying to trip both of them up – this, with its seven spidery-looking legs – and come apart as quickly as it could manage the job. I could see small metal fragments coming out of the thing amid dustings and spits of powdered rust.

“If this is a chair, then I am a mule,” spat Sepp. “It has legs like a nightmare, it had wheels like a coach, and now it is falling apart while we try carrying it, just like a bad witch-tool.”

“I think that is what it is,” said Sarah. “I've read of these things on tapestries, and they were trouble when they were new.”

As I ran to give help, I did not speak, but as the three of us came back from where we had piled the remains of two fallen-to-pieces chairs by themselves, I asked, “how were they trouble?”

“They would not stay put,” said Sarah, “and that tapestry showed pictures of them while speaking of them moving around as if they were alive.”

“Probably cursed,” I said, “and most of that curse-collection went to rust when that deep-hole went where it belongs.”

“They were that,” said Sarah. “That tapestry said they worked entirely by curses, but I did not believe that much until I tried getting that nasty thing out of that room.” A muttered sigh, then, “I find it much easier to believe now.”

“Wheels like a coach?” I asked, as we went back into the room. Sepp needed a breather from his wood-carrying, and while the others continued their steady labor, he came with Sarah and I.

“They fell off, just like I've seen happen with coaches,” said Sepp, “and it left bits of itself behind us, just like coaches do when they toss their wheels.”

“You're next, Karl,” said Katje as we passed into the realm of darkness. “We'll get our rests one at a time.”

“Why are they all working on that wood?” I asked.

“Because carrying wood is a lot safer than what the two of you are doing,” said a far-off and somewhat echoing voice that took nearly five seconds to recognize as that of Gabriel. “I am not about to do anything other than what I'm told to do while we're in this room.”

“I know,” whispered Sarah. “If he saw half of the things the two of us have seen since coming in here, he'd either get ridden...”

“Or he'd turn witch,” muttered Sepp. “I was watching some of that stuff, and I put his head into the woodpile when I saw that blue thing fly out of here.”

“Blue thing?” I asked. “That idol flew?”

“So that was what it was,” muttered Sepp. “I could tell it was trouble for me, but Gabriel...”

“Would have been much worse-off had he seen it,” said Sarah. “More than once in recent days I have wondered about him.”

“Wondered?” I asked. We were come to the desk that the two chairs had sheltered, and now I knew why we wished three people. This was a metal desk, and more, it wasn't cursed save by being used by its long-ago users.

“That one witch probably stole it,” I muttered.

“Yes, by hijacking a shipment in a foreign country and then bringing the entire caravan of trucks into the warren of underground warehouses he owned on the other side of the border,” said the soft voice. “He sold desks like these at prices you'd have serious trouble believing.”

“The price of a witch-house?” asked Sarah.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “This one came out of another palazzo that had taken a trio of smaller aircraft bombs.”

“Smaller bombs?” I asked. “How small?”

“Small enough that the aircraft in question could carry up to a dozen of them readily,” said the soft voice. “They weren't much good against hardened targets, but against homes and other 'soft' targets, they worked fairly well.”

“Fairly well?” I asked.

“The floors of that palazzo were covered in dried blood,” said the soft voice, “and that looted desk not only needed a decent-sized 'truck' to remove, but also days to clean it enough to be used again.”

“I do not see any, uh, dents or things wrong with it,” I said. “Days to clean? Why?”

“It was covered with blood and other body fluids,” said the soft voice. “Those bombs may have been at the smaller end of the range used during the beginning of that war, but when aimed correctly against appropriate targets, they were devastating.” A pause, then, “imagine something qualitatively similar to those 'pills' for blast and splinters, only longer, much more streamlined, a multitude of fins on the back end, and about ten times as heavy for metal and filling.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “They turned the people inside into, uh, witch-burger.”

“And shredded most of the furnishings, and ripped holes in the interior walls, and started fires, and tore up equipment, and much more.” A pause, then, “that desk was in an 'office', which had triple-thickness walls of reinforced 'concrete', and the injured took shelter in that location as the bombing and strafing of the area continued all around them.”

“Probably died there,” I said.

“The last of those three bombs hit the roof directly above that room,” said the soft voice, “and while the walls of the office were more than thick enough to deter witches thinking to break into the place, the roof was a good deal thinner. Those sheltering in the room absorbed nearly all of the splinters when that bomb detonated at shoulder-height in their midst.”

I then learned another aspect of the desk when I tried to move it. It was heavy, and it needed both opening its upper drawers – it had two shallow examples, one to each side of where one sat – as well as 'grunt-straining' the thing with Sepp clambering over it once I'd gotten it out slightly to then push from the back, to actually move somewhat to the side. As it came to a grinding stop some three feet to the side and turned around ninety degrees, I looked in the drawer I had opened and gasped in shock.

A small oblong glass vial, this defaced with a horrible brown scrawl, lay in the desk drawer; and while I wasn't inclined to pick it up with my hands, I did have the pair of hemostats Anna had let me have. I drew them out, then used them to grasp the vial at its slenderest point and put it up on top of the desk; and as I put away the hemostats, Sarah brought her lantern closer to it. Sepp reached for where he had put his, and as for mine...

“Where did I put that thing?” I asked softly.

“Over there,” said Sepp. “Let me fetch it for you.”

While Sepp went to get my lantern – I had left it on one of the most-intact shelves I had seen so as to give light to those removing that vast and seemingly ever-vaster mound of wood – I knelt down to look closer at the vial in the light of Sarah's lantern. As my face drew closer, I noted further details: the vial had a label of some kind indicating what it had once contained, but the brown 'paint'...

“I know what that is,” said Sarah softly. “That wretch must have been as drunk as a stinker when he wrote that.”

“What, dear?” I asked.

“Blood-writing,” said Sarah. “Only blood-writ runes are worse...” Sarah paused, looked closer, then, “I was wrong.”

“What were you wrong about?” asked Sepp, as he brought back two lanterns. “I want to know, as I've never heard you be wrong about anything.”

“No, I do make mistakes,” said Sarah. “You never saw the two bags of rags I have at home.”

“Two?” I asked.

“I save all the scraps of cloth and leather from those things I make,” said Sarah, “and some of those scraps are from where I cut pieces wrong, either as to shape or size – and I do that often enough to know I'm not even close to being perfect.”

“So?” asked Sepp. “What were you wrong about just now?”

“Th-that,” said Sarah, as she pointed a shaking finger at the vial. “That's a blood-writ rune, and that one there is specifically directed against marked people and those friendly to them.” A brief pause, then, “I think that vial once contained scent of some kind, and witches hate such odors and those things producing them.”

And yet, with Sarah's speaking, I longed for a sizable container of flowery-smelling perfume so as to give to the women of the house. My thinking was thus: “Anna really needs to wear perfume regularly, and I think Sarah could really use it for when she's tired.”

I then glanced to the side, this into a small region part-hidden by the desk and its two chairs before we had moved them, and I thought, “that looks like a typewriter.”

I had to revise that thought to 'a really big typewriter' once I had gotten the light of my lantern upon it, for the size and seeming heft of the device – a dark dusky gray finish coated with a thin layer of dust; a huge-seeming number, easily over a hundred, of cracked keys showing letters, numbers, and symbols; a dark black roller, this showing a vast number of deep cracks in its dessicated-looking 'rubber'; a number of surprisingly shiny rods parallel to the roller serving as 'paper-holders'; several areas where the upper body of the machine showed dirt-crevassed cracks and seams; and finally, a number of obvious long-levered switches, these of archaic form and part-hidden along each side. I was so lost in the process of 'inspection' and committing these various details to memory that Sarah's voice startled me when she spoke.

“I have seen two of those things before this one,” said Sarah as she came to my right to shine her lantern's light upon what I was looking at, “and both of those things were trouble.” A pause, then, “they were said to print letters upon paper, but both of those things ruined every such piece I tried.”

“Said?” I asked.

“Yes, on tapestries and in tales,” said Sarah. “About half the tapestries I've seen speak of them at least in passing.”

“I've seen them before also,” I said. “I even used a few at one time or another.” I recalled the letters of one device, these belonging to one especially troublesome unit that I had been coerced into typing the first few of my stories upon. These were for a class in the writing of short stories, and the two examples I'd submitted were both mind-raveling outpourings of raw terror. One fellow-student spoke of them as being 'too intense for him' – and that seemed a common theme in the whole class.

Sarah looked at me, then said, “they were not those like that one I see there.”

“Yes, you're right,” I said. “Those I used were smaller, and, uh, looked a bit more workable...” I tried touching one of the keys, and to my astonishment, the grating noise as the thing balked at my touch was only exceeded by a faint screech like that of a distant dying rat and a spurt of dust from the 'pit' where the type 'lived' when not in use.

“Locked up solid,” I muttered. “Douse it in smelly distillate for a week, maybe.” I then turned to Sarah, and asked, “did those keys like I just pressed move on the two you tried?”

“Yes, they did,” said Sarah. “Those things still tore up every sheet of paper that I put to them, and every time I touched one of those things like you just touched, it tore the paper up more.” A pause, then, “at least those two machines did not have tails, as those are worse yet.”

“Did you use a scribe for what you turned in?” asked Sepp.

“I usually could not afford their services,” said Sarah, “otherwise I would have done so. Why?”

“If those waste paper like you say, then those using them would be better off hiring scribes,” said Sepp. “Who uses them now?”

“No one, as far as I know.” Sarah seemed uncommonly certain of her words.

“In the five kingdoms, yes,” said the soft voice. “They are used elsewhere.”

“Not across the sea, though,” I said – though the instant I said so, I knew beyond all doubt that my 'guess' was dead wrong. While typewriters were seldom used where I came from at the time of my leaving, there was something about those secrecy-obsessed portions of the world of blue-dressed thugs that disdained anything of an electronic nature when it came to sending important information, chiefly as it was an easy matter to spy upon what those using such equipment did; and as there were vast numbers of blue-dressed thugs, courier-duty was a common means of 'keeping them busy and out of trouble'.

And within seconds, I knew that wasn't entirely right either. While there were vast numbers of blue-dressed thugs – and electronic spying, given the right equipment and software, was a fairly easy matter – it was more than merely a matter of busywork and security supplying the reasons for the use of couriers. There was something more, much more – and I hoped Rachel had an answer as to what it might be.

“Do those blue-dressed thugs use these?”

“Yes, but theirs are not like that one,” said Sepp. “That was why I asked Sarah about it... No, not the thugs themselves. They don't use them, but they close-watch these other people who do use them.”

“Do they carry papers?” I asked. I recalled speech regarding their use as messengers – bad messengers – but quantity supposedly had its own quality, assuming vast numbers and profligate usage.

“Sometimes they do,” said Sepp. “That place has lots of those people.”

I recalled something that Sarah mentioned, then asked, “uh, tails?”

Sepp looked at the typewriter, then began feeling around its rear. He seemed to be looking for something, so much so that as I thought to help him feel the edges of the thing, my hand seemed drawn to a region on the device's left side near its rear portion. Sarah was watching me, and when I reached behind the huge knurled roller-knob and found an obvious flange surrounding a coarsely-serrated tapered spline, I muttered, “what is this thing here doing on an office machine?”

“What is it?” asked Sepp, as he drew back.

“It's a tapered s-spline, with a flange, with, uh, several holes for bolts,” I murmured. “The one I used that was motorized had the motor built inside it, but this one...” I recalled speaking of 'large and inefficient motors' and asked, “an external motor? For one of these things?”

Sarah looked at me in the strangest fashion, then wormed herself into an impossibly-small area on the machine's right side. I thought to look at what it was sitting on, and noted the solid-seeming framework of what might be called a typing table, with a rivet-studded drop-leaf on the left side of uncommon sturdiness. It looked capable of supporting a great deal of weight.

“Is there something like part of a table on that side, dear?”

“Y-yes,” said Sarah's straining voice. “I found the other part to that thing, and it's really heavy.”

I moved over in alarm, and as Sarah set down her heavy load with a stifled metallic clank, I gasped, “what is it?”

“These have two parts,” said Sarah, “and I've never seen both parts together save upon tapestries before now.”

“How did you know to look for the other part?” asked Sepp.

“He spoke of an external device,” said Sarah. “The tapestries mention more than one type, and I am glad this one does not have a tail, as those...”

“They what?” asked Sepp.

“They were said to smell like dead Shoeten,” said Sarah with a tone of profound distaste, “and they were the tools of most-serious true-witches.”