Investing the Abbey: The advent of the Hand-Howitzer.

The third rumbling scream of metal dragging on the rough floor of the spade-filled room was both longer in duration and worse for noise compared to both of the first two times, and when I had removed that third box and was returning, this to either be scattered by mines or retrieve something we could really use, I wondered as to how to actually open the three sizable and sturdy metal boxes. They reminded me more than a little of some ammunition cans I had once used for toolboxes long ago, though these containers were both heavier by far and significantly larger.

“First to get these other things,” I thought, as I got down on the floor. I was by myself, alone once more, and it was strange-seeming to find that I wished it to be this way. I knew more than ever before about my ever-wandering attention and how badly it functioned if I tried to divide it, and more, how well it worked when I only dealt with one matter at a time.

Like now.

I wormed myself into the hole, and as my eyes adjusted further to the gloom, I saw that my previous estimation of 'a few tins' was closer to 'this whole back area is packed with greasy brass tins, and they look just like those tins I've seen before that have had bullets in them'.

“Is that what these are?” I thought.

“Yes, and they go to what's in those cans you've taken out so far,” said the soft voice. “There are more of those weapons in the armory, but these were hidden by a reformed supplicant that was later killed by witches before he could leave the premises.”

“The tins or the cans?” I asked.

“He and another two people hid them,” said the soft voice, “and by the time the surviving pair were able to escape, the door to this room was closed, the long room had been filled with the finds of witches, and that outer door was curse-locked and unable to be opened by those in that last group of escaping laborers – hence every supply-cache hidden in here has remained until now.”

“Probably figured he would need to shoot his way out,” I muttered, as I brought out a rag and grasped one of the tins. The faint rattling noise, as well as the sheer heft of the tin, spoke volumes. It weighed two pounds easily, and when I got it closer to my eyes, I noted its actual size.

“This is a bigger tin,” I muttered as the grease-shiny brass glinted dully. In the darkness, I could not tell if this glinting was visual or merely in my mind. “How many rounds does it hold?”

“Sixty-six, same as is usual for most bullet-tins,” said the soft voice. “The reason those are larger is that the ammunition itself is larger – and those tins have the full quota of rounds.”

I brought out another, then two more, then wormed my way out. I could tell there were easily another fifteen such tins inside the hole, but I could tell I wanted someone – preferably someone accustomed to thinking – to help me move them out. I piled the tins, and using rags, I brought them out and laid them next to the three boxes. As I straightened up, I asked softly, “I need some help getting these things out. I doubt this part is trapped.”

Sarah was the first to come, followed by Katje; and as the two women followed me into the room, I asked softly, “the others?”

“They're behind us,” said Katje. “I suspect they'll hand these things outside.” A pause, then, “are they tins of some kind?”

“Yes, of ammunition,” I said, “and I can tell there's at least ten more of them back here.” I then muttered, “how much shooting did these people plan on doing?”

“A great deal,” said the soft voice, “as the three of them were not planning on 'waiting matters out' like that one woman eventually did.” A brief pause, then, “before her, there were but few successful escapes.”

“That one man?” I asked. I meant the one whose cache we found in Iggy's Silo.

“He made it safe to Vrijlaand,” said the soft voice. “He received added markings in the process of getting out of this region, so much so that when 'Rachel' got the remainder down there, she was most surprised to find him waiting for her.”

“Who was he?” asked Sarah. I was in the hole now, and working hard at passing back the hefty tins.

Jochen the Brave,” said the soft voice.

“Oh, my,” said Sarah. “He was one of Charles' closest people, and wherever he went, 'the ground wept blood and the trees dangled witches and witch-slaves'.”

“Only 'Rachel' was more ruthless, and her but a modest degree,” said the soft voice, “and he too was a 'monster' by the time he'd gotten 'free' of witches and their territories.” A pause, then, “he left a sizable swath of destruction in his wake, as the war was still quite warm then in places and he received his share of attention from the combatants.”

“These things are heavier than the other tins, and larger, also,” said Katje. “Maarten, be careful with these. They won't want dropping, and watch Gabriel so he does not get into trouble with them.”

“Trouble?” I thought. “Maybe he needs a rat to show so as to keep his mind on his task.”

The resulting screams were so loud that I flinched involuntarily, and both Katje and Sarah turned. The latter shouted, “Sepp, shoot that thing!”

A revolver cracked once, then twice more, and finally something large and heavy 'thudded' several times. Sarah then reached down for a tin and asked, “now did you put that rat to him?”

“Uh, maybe,” I murmured, as I reached for another tin. This one was the more-common size we'd seen the day before, and its heft showed it too to be 'full'. “Why, what happened?”

“A large rat suddenly showed next to him, and wished to become most friendly,” said Sarah, “and it needed lead and a club to learn manners.”

“Did it get him back to work?” I asked.

“I think so,” spat Katje. “He was speaking ill of your taking these precautions...”

“I think it was closer to 'I'm tired' – wasn't it?” I asked softly. I was still removing tins, all the while wary for traps.

“I suspect you are right,” whispered Sarah, “and we all are tired, at least in our arms and legs.”

“He's tired in more ways than that, Sarah,” said Katje. “You'd best watch him close overseas, and be ready to deal with him should he cause trouble.”

“I will,” said Sarah, “and he knows that.”

“No, not that kind of trouble,” said Katje. “He knows to do things like that will get him killed quickly, and not just by you two. I meant what he was doing just now, and things likewise.”

“Especially overseas,” I murmured. I could now see the end of the tins, and these last ones looked to be more of the heavy brutes that were crammed as full as those packing them could fill them. “He'll need to watch close over there so a group of those thugs doesn't show up all of a sudden and beat him into mush before he knows what's happening.” A pause, then, “we'll all need to do that, at least at first. There, got that one.”

It took nearly another five minutes for me to actually remove all that had been cached in this hidey-hole, as hiding behind the ammunition tins were no less than three grease-coated 'common' grenades. These weighty monsters had their pins bent down still, and as I felt the nasty-feeling things to make certain they weren't rigged, I said, “figures, they were really expecting trouble, and now I've got it on me.”

“What did you find?” asked Sarah.

“More grenades, only these weren't used for rigging, dear,” I murmured. “At least, they weren't expecting someone like me to remove them, as they are coated with some of that stuff that was on those spades.”

“They'll need wiping, then,” said Sarah. “Let me hand you down some rags to wrap them in, and some rags to wipe yourself.”

I received the rags, and once I'd first wiped myself off of the worst of the grease, I wrapped the three grenades up each in its cocoon of rags. They then went out past me, one at a time – and I needed to inch myself in nearly another foot to finally feel the emptiness of the cache with my right hand. I began backing out slowly, and as I finally got out enough to slowly first kneel, then stand shakily, Sarah handed me a vial of honey.

“You need this,” she said. “Now how will we open those large boxes, in case someone put a surprise to them?”

“That spear someone brought,” I murmured. “Let me look closer at one of those boxes with a cup of beer handy, and I should able to give a better answer.”

The beer not only was a wise idea, but also a general cleaning session of the sundry tins. No one attempted to open one, at least until Sarah gave a shriek and both lid and tin fell into her lap atop a thick nesting of rags. She looked at me in horror.

“Yes?” I asked. I was downing not merely beer, but also some food, that being a thick slice of somewhat dry rye bread followed by a strip of that peppery dried meat. That honey had given me an appetite, or rather, it had brought that appetite to my attention; and that needed to be dealt with before I did anything else. A hypoglycemia attack while potentially dealing with a trap was not a good idea.

“I-I've never seen these before,” said Sarah with more than a trace of panic. “They look like what a Tosser pistol uses for shape, but they're much larger, and the coppery-colored portion looks as big for diameter as that of a common musket.”

“How long are they?” I asked idly. My stomach still had my attention, and I wondered if I had somehow acquired lead recently without my knowing it or Anna's finding it.

“Your injuries,” said the soft voice. “They have their price, and an appetite like you now have is but part of their fees.”

“Do I have well-hid lead?” I asked silently.

“None that is immediately dangerous,” said the soft voice. “Be glad you won't get much more lead and other metal fragments between now and when you can get real medical attention.”

“L-lead removal?” I thought.

And as my thoughts echoed in my mind, I recalled speech regarding the Veldter treatment for Benzina poisoning and other talk of what was done across the sea beyond the seeming omnipresence of blue-dressed thugs.

“As long as two finger joints, if I use those of my hands which are longest,” said Sarah, as she held up a glittering brass cartridge, “and these do not rattle at all should I shake them.”

“Rattle?” I asked.

“Yes, like a bottle with shot in it when shaken, only much quieter,” said Sarah. “Those which go to those Tossers rattle some, though not much, and the same with those longer brass-and-copper things, but not these.”

I finished eating but a few minutes later, and once I had refilled my beer 'mug' – the large tinned copper cup I now most-commonly used when thirsty – I went to the wall to examine one of the three 'ammunition cans'.

While the length of each of these weighty things was close to what I recalled for the larger versions I had once used for toolboxes, and the height was similar to what I remembered, the width was easily half again as much more. The solid dark green color, this slick, smooth, and utterly free of rust, seemed not merely a species of paint, but an uncommonly tough and durable coating, and as I looked at the latch, my fingers played over its well-recalled forms, at least until I saw clearly the telltale markings of obvious machining.

“These were stampings where I came from, not machined,” I thought. “What did they make these things out of – cast iron?” I then recalled the possible use for that one spear, and I asked that it be brought. Karl left at a run for the buggies, and returned a moment later with the now-obvious 'swine-spear' – only now I actually noticed the business end.

It was bent nearly double, and was cracked in several places, and Karl was about to erupt when he handed it to me.

“The wretch who said these things were for poking pigs is a smelly witch of a liar,” he spat. “I lost this one yesterday on the way here, and when it turned up this morning, its head was messed up like it is now.”

I looked closer at the head, then asked silently, “who makes – or made – such spears?”

“Mostly witches in the second kingdom who masqueraded as blacksmiths,” said the soft voice, “and that one was purchased at the usual fetish-price by a long-dead graduate of Maagensonst.” A brief pause, then, “that spear is roughly as old as Tam is, and it's the last of that batch of twenty.”

“At lest the wood is decent still,” I murmured. “They did use passable wood, or did they?”

“The wood portion was most recently replaced by the boatwright's shop,” said the soft voice. “The original wood was not much better than non-cursed Bloatwood for strength, and the metal was done as per the black book's teaching on the subject, so that deep-hole's going caused it to show its true witch-made nature.”

“I hope we haven't ordered any more of these things,” I thought. They deserved the epithet of 'Tosser', and not merely because they were spears.

“An order was about to go out when you dealt with those traitors,” said the soft voice, “and everything they have worked on in the last year and some has been copied when and where it was deemed necessary and then the original documents burnt in lieu of stove-wood – and otherwise, what has been found in their chambers and offices has been going in the stoves as fast as it's found.”

“Yes, and I know about that part, too,” said Karl, “as I have done my time on the third floor where those stinkers were working.” He paused, then, “now how will you use this bad spear here?”

I wasn't exactly sure, at least until I found my riveting hammer and tried to bend the spear-blade back somewhere close to 'straight' while holding the spear on the floor in the surprisingly-bright light from the still-filthy windows flanking the transom. The rattling clatter the thing made as I 'beat it into submission' was only exceeded by the gritty noise of glassy 'disintegration' that occurred after the fifth blow to leave pieces of brittle-fractured slag-riven metal that went to piles of rust and dust before my eyes.

What?” I gasped.

“They must have used an old spearhead for that one,” said Karl. “Tam said that any spear that is still decent is either older than time or was made recent by a witch, and none of them are good for either those people or pigs if they come from Norden.”

“N-no,” I muttered. “B-bad metal to start with, three or more blanks ruined so as to get one piece that wasn't a tosser, then...” I ceased speaking, for the enormity of what was involved in witchcraft-based forge-practice was so outlandish that I found it impossible to believe. My voice grew shrill with utter disbelief. “B-bone h-hammers, and the b-blood of the previous night's sacrifices for quenching?”

Bone-forged and blood-quenched,” said the soft voice, “and had they been strong-enough witches, that spearhead would have not only worked as per the black book's description, but it would have also been seriously cursed.” A pause, then, “as it was, the result 'looked decent' to the drunk-as-stinkers witches doing the work, and was nearly worthless for functioning, as is common with recently-made fetishes.” Another pause, then, “use the pole to steady the box you're working on as a compression member, tie your string to the latch, pull hard enough, and those boxes will open readily.”

I did as instructed, though finding just what was meant by 'the latch' meant for perhaps three minute's examination and pondering. Karl tied my string for me, then once I had arranged matters such that I was on one side of a column and the pole-supported box was on the other – and the others had taken their own cover behind columns – I began pulling on the string. With a surprisingly modest pull and a faint 'thump', the box opened, and as I cautiously looked from behind the column, I wondered why it had taken so little effort to open.

Just the same, I was glad it had not exploded. Karl came to untie my 'string', then retied it to another box as I moved the first rag-packed box some twenty feet distant and closer to the wall. The odor of the thing spoke volumes, as it was the strangest reek I had ever smelled on the surface of two planets.

Boxes two and three had the same lack of drama in their opening, and as I brought number three over to where the first two – they had been moved further away, and were now setting near the east wall about thirty feet north of the transom's steps – I noted that all three of their lids were still securely attached, much as if they were hinged. I wondered what the normal use for such boxes was, in fact.

“Long-term storage of ammunition under extremely adverse conditions,” said the soft voice, “and that odor you're smelling is that of preservative packets.”

“I hope that stuff isn't poisonous,” I thought as I began to lay down my travel-stained ground-cloth. “Is it?”

“Not unless you eat the contents of the packets,” said the soft voice. “It's labeled appropriately, and the material is still good.”

“Still good?” I asked.

“You could put your tools in those boxes without any protection whatsoever beyond those packets and they would not rust,” said the soft voice. “The preservative packets can be recharged across the sea, so don't toss them or anything else you find in those boxes.”

The comments the others made once we were all seated in a rough circle around the three boxes, however, were most instructive; with Sarah's 'Eew' being the prototype and Katje's comments but merely adding to what Sarah had said first. I found the odor 'strange' at best once I pulled back the lids of each box entirely to see that they were indeed securely hinged.

And the boxes themselves were both riveted and welded, as if the comment about 'adverse conditions' was an understatement. I took out the first rag-wrapped bundle, this being tied securely with a thin dark-toned string, and set it aside after a shake showed no loose parts, then removed another such bundle. The bundles were packed so tightly in the boxes that they were almost wedged in place, and while some of them did have loose parts – some bundles sounded like bags of tools, in fact – most did not.

Some bundles, however, gathered suspicion in my mind the instant I lay eyes upon them, for while these bundles were at the bottom and surrounded by dark-colored cloth packets with faded red writing indicating their preservative function, their shape was that of obvious – and large – pistols.

“Only those dragoons at home are bigger, and them, not by much,” I thought, as I emptied the first box of its three most-suspicious objects and began working on the second box. The box's contents went beside me on 'clean' rags atop my ground cloth. “Someone, please,” I murmured. “Please untie the strings without unwrapping the rags.”

“Are these trapped?” asked Sepp, as he picked up a bundle.

“I'm not s-sure,” I said. “I don't wish to learn the hard way.” I wanted to add, “being blown up is not fun.”

“You'll wish to pad the floor under them with rags, like he's doing,” said Sarah as she picked up another bundle, “and use a sharp knife to cut that string if you must.” A brief pause, then, “if you have trouble untying them, and have no knife, let me try.”

“You have a good knife?” asked Katje.

“I do, though it is a smaller one,” said Sarah. “I... Let me look. I might still have that one we found in here... Yes, I do. It's decent for its edges, even if it wishes some time with a dark stone.”

The other boxes had similar packings, though in one case the rags gave way to show a thick 'hardbound' book with plastic-like covers of surpassing thinness. Embossed upon one of these covers, however, was something that frightened me mindless.

M-my G-g-god,” I spluttered. “That isn't...”

“What is it?” asked Sarah – who came to look over my shoulder.

I was not prepared for her reaction, for she fell to the floor while screeching of dragoon-pistols and things yet worse. I turned to her and asked, “did you fire one?”

“Y-yes,” she said. “Once.”

“And?” I asked.

“It escaped!” she squeaked. “I could not hold onto that thing!”

I had a question: “how old were you?”

“I-I was in the fifth term of the lower schools,” said Sarah, “and my cousin and I were exploring in the attic of one of their outbuildings, and we found a great many trunks, one of which had one of those things...” Sarah seemed to be remembering something. “N-no, it wasn't a rotating pistol, but a larger one which used flint.”

“Did it escape from your hands?” I asked.

“It did,” said Sarah. “I think I know why, as my cousin was not familiar with guns then, and I wasn't much better, and I think she mixed up the coarse and fine powder – as she needed to empty the smaller powder container to fill the pistol-measure and the other container was much larger, with a larger spout.”

It was all I could do to not laugh: Sarah's cousin had filled an old 'flint-pistol' with priming powder, and had put the usual propelling charge in the pan; and the only reason the gun hadn't blown up was that it was an unusually well-made piece, one intended by its maker for a regular diet of heavy loads, and the priming powder had been somewhat damp for long enough that it was no longer 'fresh'.

“Her cousin also used a smaller-than-usual amount of shot, and forgot to use the ramrod, also,” said the soft voice, “which is the chief reason why that weapon only flew out of Sarah's hands and put her on her posterior some feet downrange from where she fired it.”

“And those other pistols I brought back from the trip?” I asked. I meant those I had taken from Sam Brumm.

“She has had nightmares about those, as she's seen them used,” said the soft voice. “More than once, she was downrange from thugs firing them, and only because she was protected is she still alive.”

As the bundles became untied, I moved off to the side and set out my 'new' double-folded ground-cloth, and began to work on one of the pistol-shaped bundles. I somehow had the impression that each of the three boxes was packed similarly, and as the strings proved impossible to untie and I needed to use a knife, I began to have eyes-open nightmares.

Specifically, about a particular pistol I had once had, one which I had given a most-appropriate name after firing it a few times:

The Hand-Howitzer.

With each string cut, and each knot falling away – these people did not stint the rags or the string, so much so that I knew why Sarah wanted the string and why I had been told to not toss anything, as I myself needed rags like infants here supposedly needed diapers – the shape became more and more confused. One second, I was seeing that infernal hand-held cannon I had once owned, and the next, what I was actually working on; and with each such strobing change, my hands shook, my heart raced, and my mind shook like Jello; for while I had never fired an overcharged flintlock pistol, I had...

...Many Times...

Fired the weapon of my past and present nightmares. Its recoil was such that only by judicious hand-loading – cast lead bullets of moderately-hard lead, these being truncated cone-shaped things nearly thirty percent lighter than the usual 'hardball' such weapons supposedly craved – and light powder charges could it be fired without it attempting to fly out of my hands, and that presumed a white-knuckle-tight two-handed hold on the thing's grip.

While that pistol was stated as being 'tight' and 'quite accurate' by people who were more accustomed to such hand-held artillery, I still had trouble keeping the monstrous holes on the paper when I was shooting at targets. It had given me a horrible flinch, so much so that I did well to continue firing it. I commonly preferred using pistols of less 'roar' and less 'kick' when I could, and only a relative lack of funds had prevented me from from having that particular weapon modified to take a less-powerful round of smaller bore.

I had not gotten it for self protection. None of my weapons had been purchased with that in mind, even if I had heard about this type from many sources; and the main reason I had kept shooting it was that I had figured my 'fear' of the thing could be mastered eventually if I just kept at it.

“My usual is about right for me,” I thought. “It might be about as bad as the cast-lead bullet loads I usually used in that one cartridge revolver I once had – and that was not a light pistol, either.

Those were fairly mild, even for that caliber, and most people there would have considered them 'marginal at best' for thugs where I came from. I was more than a little surprised that most thugs here didn't routinely ignore being shot with the pistols I carried, in fact.

“Hard-witches, though... Those people are another story.” That one witch who had needed 'two in the chest and one in the head' to finally quit still inhabited my nights now and then, as did the 'dragoon's-lead-eating foursome'.

The last string came undone, and with its passing, the rags draped themselves off as if by magic to show the weighty prize that had hidden itself until now. I nearly dropped the thing in horror, and as I held it gingerly, the overpowering resemblance to the pistol of my nightmares burned through my mind.

“Model of 1911, type A-1,” rang the echoing bells of hell that clanged steadily in my ears. “Forty-five Automatic, John Moses Browning...”

And yet, my eyes told different: a noticeably longer slide than the eight to nine inches I recalled – this one was easily a foot long – almost as if it were a customized item, one called by those knowing of them a long-slide pistol. A barrel, this threaded at the end and protruding nearly an inch, with an eerie speckled shine that I'd seen but hours before.

“Are there suppressors for these things?” I thought. The question went unanswered. I resolved to get an answer for it, though.

An 'ergonomic' curvature to the butt, a 'sculpted' trigger enclosure... Odd markings, these on both sides of the slide and the receiver... Rounded stippled grips, these of an oddly cool-to-the-touch dark fiber-reinforced 'plastic' that reminded me of a firm species of rubber when I touched it gingerly.

“And yet, the resemblance otherwise is unmistakable,” I thought. “It looks like some custom pistols I've seen. Oh, that backsight is adjustable, also.” My fingers felt for the magazine release, and as if the thing had moved to the location of my expectations, my probing fingers found its crosshatched button and pressed gently.

The magazine fell into my outstretched and waiting hand with a faint clicking noise, and from over my shoulder, I heard a shocked intake of breath.

“You didn't have one of those, did you?” asked Sarah.

“N-no, not one of these things,” I said. “I had one that was close enough to it that, I, uh, have waking nightmares looking at this one.”

“You should manage it passably,” said another voice that seemed to gather oblivion to itself so as to hide behind such high-piled woolly rubbish. “Anyone who could fire dragoons like you did would handle such a weapon easily.”

“Gabriel!” spat Sarah. “Since when do you speak like that?”

“I saw what he did,” deadpanned Gabriel, “and each thug that wasn't turned into charcoal by burning distillate was hit solidly, most of them at ranges that would give Hans trouble were he to use a common musket.”

I ignored Gabriel's speech, for I was hypnotized by the gleaming copper and brass cartridges. While those of the recalled 'nightmare pistol' were large enough to resemble small artillery rounds, these things...

“Were those this big?” I thought. “They looked similar, but somehow I doubt they were quite this large.” So as to answer the question, I stripped out one of the cartridges from the magazine, and looked at it.

“That's one of those that scared me, all right,” said Sarah. “It looks to be trouble.”

The bullet proper, while nominally 'round-nosed', had a pronounced flat tip and a slight and definite 'ogival' aspect to its visible shape, while the brass casing had an unusually thick rim, slight yet noticeable taper – those of my 'nightmare pistol' did not – a deep-set smaller primer than I expected, this of copper color and near-hemispherical nature, and as I looked closer yet at the case, I noted the rim to be slightly larger than the case-head itself.

“Thing's semi-rimmed,” I thought. “Did they have headspacing trouble with these things?”

“No, but fully-rimless cartridges invariably had reliability issues here unless they had substantial taper, were made of good brass, used clean-burning powder, and were properly plated using compatible metals or alloys,” said the soft voice. “Going to either rimmed or semi-rimmed cartridges mitigated nearly all of those troubles, and made quantity production of reliable ammunition a matter of care and logistics rather than 'luck'.” A brief pause, then, “and those pistols were among the most reliable ever made by that nation.”

“Reliable as in 'they usually go bang when they're supposed to'? or reliable as in 'they usually frighten their users mindless'?” I asked.

“Both of those things, which was why those weapons Sarah named 'Tossers' were commonly used for initial pistol training,” said the soft voice. “Not everyone was able to graduate to 'the real thing', which is why other weapons were soon developed for 'personal protection' once conflict began to look 'remotely possible'.” A brief pause, then, “and when those weapons became common, most soldiers used them instead and left the hand-held artillery for the 'experts'.”

As I continued unwrapping the other examples – a total of nine of these huge weapons, which made me wonder how three people could handle three each with only two hands, unless they expected loss or breakage of some kind – I heard comments about other matters, chiefly that Katje had gone in search of a wooden desk with Karl to help her. Upon hearing this, I muttered, “I hope she finds at least one decent chair, as I think we want to test some of these things before we go much further.”

“Why would you wish to do so?” asked Sarah.

“Three bullets from a pistol and then several whacks with a club?” I murmured. “How big was that rat?”

“About as big as the smaller large rats we saw yesterday,” said Sarah. “I think someone from outside picked it up, as they've been adding every dead witch they can find around here to their manure pile, and the same for the rats.”

“There have been a lot of those things outside lately,” said Sepp. “Now this here feels like tools. Should I go further with it, or what?”

“If it feels like tools, then unwrap it carefully,” I murmured. I was still hoping for a solid chair of some kind, firstly for pistol-testing and then for Katje's own use. The chairs and most of the furniture they had where they lived were as much fetish-built as their house was, and Katje, while astonishingly handy with tools, was not a carpenter.

“They've received two or three stools recently,” said the soft voice, “but for study, you're right. They do need a pair of decent chairs and a desk. The kitchen table will last 'long enough' if it's used solely for eating and they use the couch for seating visitors only.”

“I know,” muttered Sarah. “I'll need to get onto Willem so they can borrow his buggy to get that stuff there.”

“And set up a place here for when that house becomes untenable,” I murmured. “They're going to be quite surprised when they get back, both at how bad the place has gotten since they left and also...” I then asked a question, though it was silent.

“Are they going to stay there long?” I asked.

“No, because that house is worse right now than you thought it was, and then fighting off that witch-horde will bring it down around their heads should they be inside it during the fight,” said the soft voice. “They'll have help doing that – a lot of help, in fact – but when that mess is over and done with, there won't be anything salvageable of that place save their books, some clothing, a few keepsakes, and whatever they're using then for a buggy and team – and that presumes they remove all of what was mentioned before the battle commences.”

“Where will they live, then?” asked Sarah.

“The Abbey will be habitable enough by that time,” said the soft voice, “and living here will work far better than 'out in the middle of nowhere' miles from the nearest sources of the neccessities of life.”

“That's right,” whispered Sarah. She was sitting beside me, handling some of the things I unwrapped and checking them carefully. So far, two packages had been pistol parts, another of those alarming-looking books had showed, and then the rest of the stuff looked to be ammunition packed in square tins – which made me wonder as to why round tins seemed so popular otherwise.

“The round tins were of domestic manufacture and sold to witches at high prices, while those tins there were what that ammunition originally came in,” said the soft voice. “They're a bit more compact for transportation and storage, somewhat sturdier than the round tins, and they seal slightly better against the elements – but both types of tin work well for convenient storage of rounds.”

Cursed tins?” I asked regarding the round tins.

“The witches handling them have been dead for a very long time, so the cursed aspect has worn off of those tins,” said the soft voice. “Given that such tins were among that small group of things where the cursed ones tended to be useless for the purpose intended, and most witches wanted ammunition storage containers that worked, cursed ammunition containers were very rare, at least in that size.”

“And bandage tins?” I asked.

“Are hand-made copies of old ammunition tins,” said the soft voice. “This region 'stole' the idea of round tins from Vrijlaand, where such tins needed to seal well against that place's humidity and heat; and while their copies may have been regarded as worthless outside of this area, they worked well enough when kept in desk drawers and other dry places.”

“Meaning they're next to worthless for real use,” said Sarah.

“What we use for bandages is but little better,” I murmured. “They might not be cursed in any way, so far as I can tell, but I've still noticed more than a little variance in those things.”

“One of the few areas where the copies are sometimes better,” said the soft voice. “Anna was very picky about what she bought that way, and she specially picked the 'tightest' tins she could find. She might have paid a premium to purchase 'best grade tins', and it took her years to get a decent number of them given her rigorous selection criteria, but the ones she has, even if they 'look' uneven enough, do seal tightly enough to 'work'.” A brief pause, then, “each tin and its lid are marked with a blunt awl, so they're not merely 'tied' to one another, but indexed as well.”

“And if we spun tins...”

“You would be buried for work once the word got out,” said the soft voice, “especially as you would be more-or-less duplicating the methods used by Vrijlaand for their tins, and if you used cast iron forms and got the process 'dialed in' right, they'd seal quite a bit tighter than the best tins Anna currently has.”

“She would toss those things if you did that,” said Sarah. “Now I had best go find Katje, as I think she forgot to use some string when she needed to use it.”

“Best let him go find her,” said Maarten, “as that place is tricky for directions, and she gets lost easily.”

I was about to start when I heard a woman's voice speak, then as Sarah moved off toward the entrance to 'the hall of offices and dead bodies', Katje appeared, followed by Karl. Both were carrying 'substantial-looking' wooden chairs, and when I saw how dusty they both had become, I was going to ask a question, but Sarah beat me to it.

Where did you find those things?” asked Sarah.

“In this one room that I think was a closet of some kind,” said Katje. “Every desk I saw, save for three of them, is a mound of wood-dust, and those three aren't very good, even if they look to be made of real wood.”

'Perhaps a bit of refinishing...” I knew that wasn't hard or time-consuming to do, even if the quickest and easiest way I knew of wasn't particularly cheap if the item in question was 'desk-sized'. Hans' wood-treatment, on the other hand, took a while to dry completely save during the warmest months of the year, and I had a suspicion about the boatwright's shop, especially this one fairly large and tight-sealed room they had.

Georg had recently sold the house a lot of stovepipe, and those offices I had seen having stoves didn't look to need work that way anytime soon, especially given that quite a number of them were now empty of occupants and most of those which still had occupants usually had at least two people in them so as to have an easier time keeping the stoves fed and looked after.

The fact that I suspected there was more to the matter than 'the Swartsburg's last occupants got every stick of drop-wood within a five-mile radius' was a matter I kept to myself.

“No, I just think they need dusting and cleaning,” said Karl. “I told her about what those witches were likely to do, and I would not waste a jug of drying oil on a desk that will be kindling before they use it two months.”

Katje looked at Karl, then shook her head before asking, “don't tell me. Those witches aren't going to come in a line of coaches. They will...”

“Not five or so coaches,” said Karl. “Those people will have a line of those things as long as Roos is, and they will have rotten cannons coming with them so as to 'root you out proper'.” Karl sounded uncommonly sure of himself, for some reason. “I heard that three days ago from Andreas while he was finding the stuff fit for firewood up there on the third floor in those clerk-roosts, and he said he had his ways of knowing.”

“I think you want bunkers around the place for you and your help, as well as some trenches arranged between those bunkers,” I muttered. “If we get a machine gun, I'm going to want to site that thing...”

“Not just yet,” said Sarah. “Those witches might be planning such things now, but anything that big takes some time to put together, even in the second kingdom house, and then they will need to form themselves up and...”

“Andreas heard on the wires, dear,” I said. “That means they're all-but on their way now.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Andreas is not intimately familiar with how the second kingdom and its witches operate, while Sarah knows more about them and how they do what they do than she wishes she did.”

“I know,” muttered Sarah. “I lived close enough to the hot zone down there to smell it every night much of my younger years, and when I wasn't at home then, I was in the potato country, and the witches have laid siege to that place longer than my relatives' records go back.”

“Then how long do we have?” asked Katje.

“Enough that you can move your important things here before they come and build the trenches and other things he was talking about,” said the soft voice, “and you will want trenches, as they've hired on people from the fifth kingdom house to fire those guns.”

“There's going to be a lot of dead witches,” I murmured.

“What about us?” screeched Katje.

“Your house will be trashed worse than it is now,” I muttered. “If it's not burnt to the ground or blown to kindling by the time that mess is done, I'll be very surprised.” A pause, then, “you will not be in that house, but in some, uh, trenches some distance away from it – and those witches are going to be facing rifles like we found yesterday, as well as some other weapons...” I nearly laughed at the idea of 'springing a trap' on that many witches.

“Exactly correct,” said the soft voice. “A huge column with that many witches means they will be fully as overconfident as those present at the Swartsburg's rebuilding; and then, recall what they purpose to do after they 'root out' those two 'traitors'?”

“R-rebuild that town, only entirely fit for witchdom?” I asked.

“Exactly, which means that while many of those witches will be passable shots at the least, most of them will be not be – and all of them will be as drunk as stinkers.”

“Those fifth kingdom thugs, though,” squawked Katje. “They will...”

“The best shots are dead, dear,” said the soft voice. “Between what happened at the fifth kingdom's border on the way down during that trip, what Dennis did with that poison in the house proper, and what he did with Cardosso's coach, most of the 'more-capable' witches of the fifth kingdom are dead – and the ones that remain wish to remain alive, so they're lying low right now and are 'waiting on developments' before they return to the house down there.”

“There still are a lot of witches in that place,” I murmured. “Granted, they're mostly the type that substitute volume of fire for accuracy, but if there are a lot of them, then...” I was recalling the cornfield, to be precise. None of those people had aimed terribly well, and we were moving rapidly, and we all were still hit more than a little.

“It will not be like the hall was,” said the soft voice. “They're going to set up in the open at 'long range', and then begin shelling the house with their guns. Once it's burning well, they'll fire the cannons a few more times and then do a massed frontal assault like that battle you saw in the fifth kingdom house the night of your leaving.”

“Ooh,” I squeaked, upon hearing such news. “Like shooting fish in a barrel, only using squibs. They'll not have a chance!”

“Were they facing what those planning expect to face, they'd carry the place easily,” said the soft voice. “If you fortify that area as you think to do, and site your weapons properly, it will be nothing less than a complete – and one-sided – slaughter.”

“And, given that size of a column, we will have ample notice of their coming,” I murmured. “They might be witches, and they might wish to go around the clock, but that isn't possible when they're coming from over a hundred miles away.”

“For the closer ones, anyway,” said the soft voice. “A group that size manages perhaps forty miles a day if it tries what you were thinking of while moving openly. They're going to try to achieve 'surprise', so they'll move slower yet.”

“And that means closer to four or five days of actual warning,” I murmured. “You cannot hide that big of a witch-column unless it travels by the secret way, and these people aren't smart or well-connected enough to do that.”

“The ones that are smart enough won't be by that point in their planning, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Recall all of those wonderfully tasty foods they've just learned about? The ones that will cause them to become 'demented'? They've just learned about those, and those planners are now eating little else.”

“Hence increased overconfidence, manifesting in...” I suddenly dropped the matter, for some reason, as now I saw a more-important matter directly in front of me than the destruction of a huge 'witch-armada' a month or more in the future. Such manure-in-the-making could keep until later.

I wanted to test some of these pistols now; that rat that bothered Gabriel was a harbinger, and it would have come 'out of the woodwork' soon enough without my speaking on the matter. If these pistols were manageable, we would want them for 'rat-stopping'.

Over the next ten minutes, I 'supervised' the unwrapping of the rest of what had been in the boxes, and at the end of that time we had the following:

Nine huge pistols, all of them in 'new' condition. They had a faint 'varnish' aspect to their visible surfaces that spoke of a thin application of preservative, or so I thought until I asked and learned that was due the preservative packs' effects over nearly a thousand year's of 'hermetically-sealed storage'.

No less than fifty-four loaded magazines, or six for each pistol, and several dozen unloaded ones.

Several sizable bundles of spare parts, all of which were also faintly coated with 'varnish'. Unlike those small pistols, however, I had the intimation that with these things, the spare parts were mostly insurance, rather than a practical necessity if the weapons were used 'hard'.

A cleaning kit for each weapon, each example having two empty thick-walled glass bottles labeled 'lubricant' and 'solvent'. A sniff said neither container of the kit I examined had ever held either liquid, and the size and shape of these things was something of a marvel, as they looked to be 'handy' for size, if little else.

Three of those 'books', these describing the weapons in question in such detail that I knew they weren't merely user's manuals. These were 'armorer's manuals', and their language was unlike anything I had thus far read here, so much so that I was the only person able to understand them properly upon my initial reading. Sarah came closest otherwise, though after a minute she was speaking of needing to read with a Gustaaf at her elbow.

“This is how those thugs talk, though,” she said. “They speak just like this.”

“And those people not thugs..?” I asked

“Will be able to help you to no small degree, should you need to decipher what those manuals mean,” said the soft voice. “More, they have 'word-books' also – and theirs have words the Gustaaf leaves out, as well as all of the words one of those huge books has – and all of their words are actually defined clearly, with many having somewhat lengthy entries as well as illustrations.”

And finally, enough 'rags' to fill three cloth satchels to the 'bursting point'.

I began reading one of the manuals with an eye to finding an index, and to my astonishment, I found it where it was supposed to be. A quick run with my finger down the several pages – movement that had Sarah muttering as she watched – and I found the pages listing the specifications. I turned there and began reading, again with my finger running down the page an inch or more each second.

Sarah was all but beside herself, for she had a question and could sit upon it no longer.

“How fast do you read when you do so without speaking?” she asked.

“Fairly fast, I suspect,” I murmured. “Now here it says...” A eyeblink of time. “What?”

“That is not fast,” spluttered Sarah. “I have no words for it, but it is not fast.”

“Then what is it?” I asked idly, as my eyes once more moved down the page at their usual speed. I had been able to read through entire novels – shorter ones – at one sitting during periods of no work before I left, and my speed then was but a fraction of that I could achieve when younger. Based on my current progress, however, my reading speed was, if anything, faster than it had ever been – which meant entire pages of what passed for technical literature here or even the worst forms of 'Ye Written Formatte' took a good deal less than a minute.

“I am not sure how to speak of what I am seeing you do,” said Sarah, “but I could read faster than anyone I knew, and you make me look to wear a brass cone for that business.”

“Practice, dear,” said the soft voice. “Recall how long it took you to learn to read with your mother helping you? Now imagine if you received no real help, and you learned to read passably almost the moment you first looked at a book with an eye to reading it.” A pause, then, “it was that way for him, and he was reading well within perhaps a year of being initially taught.”

“When was that?” asked Sarah.

“He was older than you were,” said the soft voice, “but had his mother been inclined then, and had been as able as yours for teaching, he most likely could have learned much earlier.” A pause, then, “then, he had to do this as part of both his schooling and later his job, and he did not receive the usual twelve years as is done on the continent.”

“How much?” asked Sarah.

“Closer to twenty in total,” said the soft voice, “and that's formal schooling. He did a lot more on his own.”

“Th-that's...” Sarah was flabbergasted, and now, so was I, for I had found the part of the specifications I had been after. It took some doing to get the words out, and my voice came out as a tinny-sounding squeak nearly as high-pitched as Sarah's normal voice.

“T-type forty-one military pistol,” I squeaked, “with a caliber of e-eleven dot six two m-millimeter nominal b-bullet diameter.” I paused, then my voice went higher yet in pitch, until it was higher even than Sarah's 'squeak': “I've heard of that unit of measurement, but I'm not sure that word means the same here as where I came from.”

“What did it mean there?” asked Sarah.

“A unit of length,” I said, as I moved my fingers slightly apart to indicate roughly how much. “About two and a half lines, I think, if the unit is the same as what I recall.”

“That is thought close work by most blacksmiths,” she said, “and a tenth of that is close work indeed unless one speaks of places like the Heinrich works and a few others.”

“Me?” I asked.

“You would most likely best them were you inclined,” said Sarah, “as I've seen the work on your musket, and it's as good as anything I've yet seen on a weapon – and you've gotten better since then.”

“Especially the rear sight, dear,” said the soft voice. “Did you look closely at that?”

“I have,” said Sarah. “I've not seen anything like it.” A brief pause, then, “you're oiling those?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. My awl was out, as was the vial of 'motor oil', and the stuff was up to its usual tricks of 'jumping into cracks' from the tip of the awl if that tip was at all close to a spot that needed oil. I found that the weapons seemed 'hungry' for the stuff, and wherever it occurred to me to add it, I applied small droplets. I then heard a gasp.

“No, that is no oil I have seen,” said Sarah, who was watching me closely. “I had no idea it did that. Can I try some?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “Everyone who has a vial of oil, come and watch me oil these things up and then do likewise.”

I found that both Karl and Sepp also had their own vials, as did Sarah; while Gabriel 'had not given the matter thought' and Maarten and Katje wished they had some. I spoke of giving them a vial each, and as I finished 'oiling' the pistol I had used for 'teaching', I knew that was not merely a good idea.

It would be a requisite, as both of them needed to go home and practice shooting when and as they could when they weren't actually repairing their house or working on their sermons.

“Almost makes sense to just work on things as they can and repair to the basement for living in that place,” I thought. “That roof's gone really leaky, and their furniture, what's left of it anyway, is...”

“What's left of it is right,” said the soft voice. “That deep-hole's going has caused witches and witch-made things trouble everywhere, and the same for most fetish-built things that depended on those 'libraries' of curses that were built on that particular foundation.” A brief pause, then, “many currently effectual curses, however, were not affected in the slightest, which is why the witches will be but temporarily discomfited for the most part.”

“Long enough for us to sail, though,” I thought.

And as I once more showed the others just where and how much oil to apply to the various places using another pistol as a guide, I knew that witchdom, even with its actual leaders rapidly becoming 'raving idiots', was astonishing resilient at its current level of functioning; and more, those 'raving idiots' would retain a measure of effectiveness as witches until they were either murdered or died by other means.

“More so than you think possible,” said the soft voice. “The chief matter is that those sober witches that make the whole mess actually work will become much less 'sober' in very short order, and their 'raving idiocy' will take some months to become even close to fully apparent to those near them – which means they will make many bad decisions between now and that time, and those bad decisions will have a rapidly-growing impact on the whole of witchdom as practiced in the five kingdoms, even if that impact is but little apparent at the outset.”

“This may look like Waal oil,” muttered Sarah as she oiled a pistol's slide-to-receiver joint, “but it is not that stuff.”

“Have you seen such oil?” asked Sepp.

“Yes, many times,” said Sarah, “and this stuff...”

“Recall how Hans got all of those little jars?” I asked. “He...”

“Sent most of them down already via donkey trains,” said the soft voice. “Donkey-trains now regularly come up into this area, as no other overland means of transport is currently secure from witches.” A pause, then, “and he's now very glad he ate grass in hell, as Anna's told him about some of the money that but recently came back as payment for them.”

“So much money,” I muttered. “Nasty, evil stuff. I wonder why we're getting so much of it, beyond perhaps the need to melt it down, then clean up that metal and coin it anew.”

“That, and some other reasons that will become much clearer in the next few months,” said the soft voice, “as what Tam said about the money currently used is partly true.”

“Our money is cursed?” asked Katje.

Some of it is,” said the soft voice, “and while Tam overestimated the percentage to no small degree, he's otherwise right.” A pause, then, “the rest of it just needs redoing in general.”

“Poor practice by those making it, most likely,” I thought.

“Not all jewelers are as Andreas is, even if they aren't witches,” said the soft voice. “The ones you've met aren't witches, as is true of almost all of them, but...”

“They might as well be witches for thinking,” I muttered.

“That is more common in some places than others,” said Sarah. “Here, it's fairly rare, if I go by those jewelers I've seen in the central part of the first kingdom, and the same for most of the fourth kingdom.”

“Fire-refiners...” I muttered.

“Those people chant as bad as anyone,” spat Sarah. “I'm surprised most of them don't end on burn-piles, they're so inclined toward acting like witches.”

“Mostly because many of them are witches,” said the soft voice, “and that means a fair amount of money is tainted by their contact with the raw metal – which is why Andreas processes all of his gold and silver by electrolysis.”

“It also makes the metal behave a lot better,” I murmured. “That's no small thing if you're a jeweler.” I paused, then said, “Karl, Sepp, we need to tie up this pistol here to one of those chairs so as to test it. Can you help me with the knots?”

While Karl brought up one of the chairs, I began to look for some string thicker than what I had, and upon finding nothing better for either heft or strength, I thought to use it. Sepp seconded the notion upon feeling it.

“This is the best stuff to be had for string,” he said. “It's hard to get up here, and it costs like Brimstone's underclothing, but it will stand up to any bird that lives if you make nets of it.”

“That lizard does not have that stuff,” said Karl, “even if this stuff is strong for its size. Now why is it you want to tie it like that to this chair?”

“I hope the chair won't go over on its side,” I muttered. “I'll want the, er, string back undamaged, as it was expensive.”

“That was what I meant,” said Sepp. “I heard that talk about underclothing from Lukas, even if I know about nets, birds, eggs, and string my-own-self.”

I worked the action of the pistol I had first oiled several times, and then tried dry-firing it. The abrupt click as the hammer went home was such that I was astonished – as only those pistols and weapons I had worked on were smoother and more abrupt that way, and those but little compared to this weapon. I took a magazine and single-loaded it as Karl and Sepp tied the pistol down the way I had indicated, then Karl tied another string to the trigger.

That was one way this weapon was substantially different from the weapon I recalled, as it had an area behind the trigger where one could actually tie a string. The pistol 'like' it I had once owned, however, did not. With the magazine inserted, I racked the slide by grasping its rear portion and letting it go forward slowly, feeling it out; and that done, I began to slowly back up to then duck behind a column as the others did likewise. I wanted at least twenty feet distance from the chair as I had a feeling about this weapon, and with the string in my hand and kneeling down behind the column, I began to take up the slack. I wanted to feel the trigger for creep and 'grit', as this pistol's trigger seemed commendably light. The string became tight, and as I slowly increased the tension, I waited, ears primed for action, nerves on edge...

The high-pitched ear-shattering roar was so sudden and violent that I dived for the floor while screaming for help amid thundering echoes that rang in my ears, and when I ceased with my 'fit', I slowly gathered both myself and my wits to investigate the 'obvious' crater the pistol had made in the floor. I could tell the others were most likely as shaken as I was, at least until Sarah shrieked, “are you all right?”

“I think so,” I said shakily. My ears were ringing like chimes. “That thing was awful.”

'Awful' wasn't close to how I felt when I found the chair, for it was on its side with over a foot of skid-marks on the floor trailing back from where it had originally sat, and the still-smoking muzzle of the pistol was pointing upwards toward the ceiling. The 'string' had held, even if it obviously would wish retying before trying such nonsense again, and as I began to slowly circle the fallen chair in a widening circle so as to find the shell casing – I could smell the acid-reek of burnt powder in the air, and that wasn't helping matters in the still-gray twilight of the morning as it diffused into the room from the still-grimy windows – the others came out from their hiding places.

“What happened to this thing?” squeaked Sarah. “It is pointing up, and its parts are showing, and... What are you looking for?”

“The shell-casing,” I said. “Oh, over there. I found it.”

The casing was nearly twenty feet from the pistol, and when I came to it, I knelt down and put my hands close above it before attempting to pick it up. The still-raging heat of the thing made for the use of pincers to pick it up, and a glance at the primer showed a 'normal' looking example, one flat against the breach-face with a dimple in its center and the merest of margins remaining about its edges – which meant these rounds were loaded quite 'warm' indeed.

Murmurs came from behind me, and over these soft drones, Katje's voice carried clearly. I could hear her speak, much as if she was reading my mind and repeating what was ringing inside that hollow space as clear as a bell:

“I am not sure I want to hold one of those and then fire it,” she said. “Now why is that outer piece caught back like that?”

“I think that's supposed to happen,” I said, as I came back to the chair. I wanted to try firing three rounds from the magazine, and I also wanted a weight for the chair. I looked at the 'engine', and thought it would serve well as a weight; and as I began to move it closer a few feet at a time, I could hear more soft murmurings.

“Remove the magazine, yes, that button there. The slide should remain open,” I said.

Sarah did, her fingers tentative at first, yet as I came closer, she walked toward me, the empty magazine in her hands. She seemed to wonder what needed to be done.

“Like with the rifle this morning,” I said. “I'll put three in there, and then try it, and then we have one of these, uh, weapons for any more large rats we see.”

“I think we want to test more than one of those things,” she said, “but I am not sure if my nerves can stand their noise enough to test all of them right now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“You did not see the flame that came from its front, did you?” she said. Sarah was sounding more than a little hysterical. “I did, and it was almost as bad as that made by that musket this morning. Then, the bullet was screaming for nearly a count of two while it was bouncing around, and it came close enough to where I was hiding that I jumped for the floor.” A pause, then, “I think it hit in the column to my rear, as I saw a new-made hole there, and the hole was big enough to put my thumb inside it.”

I slipped three rounds into the magazine, then with great care and trepidation, I slipped the thing in the butt of the pistol. I was not quite surprised when the slide went home with an abrupt clank. The hammer was still 'primed for action' at full cock.

“Why did it do that?” asked Sarah.

“I think it was intended to do so,” I said. “It can make for faster reloading, and that can be important.”

“Yes, I know,” deadpanned Sepp. “I was glad my knife did not need such work when I went after my papers, and the same for my sword.”

“Keep that in mind,” said the soft voice, “especially when one must deal with many blue-dressed thugs in a tight situation.”

“Poke them anywhere, and they scream,” said Karl.

“That screaming does not merely indicate the poked thug is hurt,” said the soft voice. “It gets to every such thug that is in the area unless they're really experienced – and most of them are not that experienced.”

“They're used to having uncontested affairs that are quick and quiet, with no real possibility of either failure or casualties,” I murmured. “These things may be quick enough, but they are not quiet.” A pause, then as I began moving toward 'my' column, “three times this time, and everyone hug the floor like I'm planning to do.”

Hugging the floor did not help my nerves much, for the roar of each discharge now seemed to become progressively louder and more violent, and even with the engine's weight upon the seat, I found a row of interrupted skid-marks where the pistol had attempted to overturn the chair thrice more upon checking the weapon – and now, my ears rang steadily, with a steady tinny warbling screech a potent deterrent toward more pistol-testing.

“Still need to test at least one more, so we have two of them,” I thought, as Karl and Sepp untied the first one and I began to make ready the second example to be tested. I was so absorbed in looking at first the one weapon and then at the other that was yet to be tested, that when that one man suddenly showed just to my right and asked about the noise, I nearly fainted where I sat.

“No, we are not dealing with traps,” muttered Sarah. “These pistols need testing, and this place has rats large enough to wish something stronger than a rotating pistol for settling them.”

“Those sound like dynamite, and not that which is labeled as being fit for farmers,” he said. “How bad are they for kick?”

“Enough that you would probably find a dragoon pleasant if you tried one of them,” said Gabriel.

“I'm not interested in one, then,” said the man, “even if I do have a fowling piece done up specially for rats.”

“Common rats, or those found at the west school?” asked Sarah.

“I learned about shortening the barrels there,” said the man, “even if I tried Guymus for a month and thought it not worth my trouble after that month had passed.” A pause, then, “I wondered more than a few times if I'd chose wrong after that, at least until I got my papers – and then I'd knew I'd chosen right, as getting into Machalaat Brothers was easy, and the rest of the schooling wasn't that hard. I finished it a year ahead of schedule, in fact.”

“What?” I asked.

“The schooling part wasn't that hard in that shop,” said the man. “The work, though – that was, and I left after five years without any sign of getting my walking papers anytime soon.”

“Left, or...” Pause as a thought roosted new-fledged in my mind. “Did you get a summons from the king? One written on this, uh, special paper, delivered to you personally by someone from the house proper, and the missive itself sealed with green wax?”

“That very thing happened not two weeks later after I was asked to leave,” said the man, “and I was one of them in the front of that group o' people that arrived late last night.”

“Then I suspect you were not tossed,” said Sarah emphatically, “but you were thought to be needed up here, and matters were arranged that way by the king his-own-self.”

The man shook visibly, then said, “what?”

“You were drafted, sir,” I said, my voice growing colder with each further word. “That means you get orders, and you do what you are toldor you regret your disobedience in hell.”

“Now that makes sense,” said the man. He then leaned closer, and said, “so it is you.”

What?” I asked. It was now my turn for added consternation. The pistols supplied ample as it was.

“He – the king, that is – spoke about the last of the pendants turning up, and who it claimed, and he enjoined me to secrecy – and seeing as how you're the person who was given to it, then I can talk to you about such things.” A glance at Sarah, then, “her too, or I'm a fool, as I remember the talk about her when I saw the king.”

I wondered if he would remain, at least until I made ready to pull the string from cover while face-down upon the floor, and as I watched him run out of the corner of my eye, I began tightening the string.

The roar this time was of such mind-sundering intensity that I wondered if I could remain sane if I fired one of these weapons again, and when I put three rounds in the magazine, I asked for volunteers. Five such blasts were enough for me, I said, and I wished to observe for a change. Sarah's speech on the matter seemed intriguing – even if I wished I had a soundproofed reinforced-concrete bunker with bulletproof glass to observe from.

“I'll try it,” said Katje shakily, “but don't call me names if I scream.”

“You will not be the first one to do that,” said Sarah. “I already did.”

“Me too, and I did so the first time I fired one,” I muttered.

Here, I took my own cover, this behind one of the columns midway between the chair and the transom; and when the pistol fired, I saw the chair buck backward...

Shuddering, it scraped across the floor in a series of jerks as the engine leaped and shook like a feverish man in the midst of a death-spasm...

And with my eyes closing involuntarily, I saw seared across both retinas the bluish-white muzzle flame, this nearly as long as I was tall and as big across as my chest near my armpits, while the wind from the muzzle-blast threw my hair back straight from my head as if I were facing into a brief and violent hurricane.

All of this happened at thirty feet and more from the weapon, and as my eyes slowly jerked open in spasm, I heard the shriek of a woman amid dying echoes. Her voice was the very picture of insanity.

“M-Maarten?” shrieked Katje's insistent voice as the roaring echoes died away. “C-c-come quickly! I n-need to v-v-visit the privy!”

Katje had soiled herself, or so I gathered as she left at a near-run with Maarten hot on her heels. While she was gone, Karl offered to take her place. He managed passably for the remaining two rounds in that magazine, or so I thought until he ran for the stairs not three seconds after pulling the string the second time.

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“I think that thing got to him, also,” said Sarah. “If we must test another, I'll try pulling the string. I've fired enough cannons that I might manage it now.”

As Sepp helped me with the knots securing the second pistol, first Karl returned, then Maarten; and finally, Katje. Her reddened face told me enough that she wanted no part of pistols that thought themselves artillery, and while I had been on the receiving end of cannons, only Sarah had actually fired them.

“You'll get your chance that way soon enough,” said the soft voice. “Those are new weapons, so the two that have been tested are sufficient, even if the others can wait on their testing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I wanted to test another one, actually, even if I did not enjoy the report or the 'lightning-flashes'.

“Wait until you see what happens to a rat when it gets hit by one of those bullets,” said the soft voice.

I wondered as to who would take the pistols, actually, and while I was willing to put a loaded example in my possible bag, no one else – except Sarah – wished any part of carrying them in a manner that meant for ready use. A brief glance as to what was available for carrying these large and weighty weapons spoke of one reason for such reticence: while there were holsters dangling from several belts, they tended to be already occupied – though when Sarah tucked two of them inside her belt with the butts nearly touching one another for a 'cross-draw' by both hands, I felt reminded of a 'strange' and long-past memory. As I went back inside that one long room, this to feel out another door with first my hand and then Karl's string, I asked Sarah, “have you ever worn your hair in a bun?”

“Not in many years,” said Sarah – who implied she was a small child then. “It is very hard to keep it clean when one must travel, and while I could wear it that way during term and keep it passably clean, traipsing made for a desire to trim it so as to look after it easier – and when I was a messenger, I needed to keep it trimmed shorter yet, as I often had little chance to bathe, much less look after hair done that way.” A pause, then, “why?”

“You look a little like a certain fictional princess, and you putting those things in your belt like that reminded me...” I paused, then, “as for your hair, though – that woman wore hers that way, and if you did your hair up in a bun...”

“You would have trouble keeping him out of it then,” said Katje. “He's been biding his time just the same.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “I wished he had the time to play with it more, but we've both been very busy.” A pause, then, “this door looks likely. Do you know what's in it?”

“N-no,” I said. “We were told there would be r-rocket launchers, but which of these doors has those beyond it is a mystery... No, not quite. Sepp said this door had at least one rocket-launcher, and I mentioned vests for carrying the rounds, so it probably has some.”

“Good, then,” said Sarah. “Now I hope you do not plan on testing those rockets in here, as those bullets were bad and these rockets sound worse.”

“No, as we don't have that many of them right now,” I said. “We'll wish to try one before we go on the trip, but finding a coach to blow up isn't going to be easy around here, and witch-run Public Houses are scarce in the area.”

“They do exist, though any more they're very well-hid,” said the soft voice, “and you don't want to blow them up at this time, as they're currently witch-traps.”

“Witch-traps?” I asked, as I felt the door-in-question with the palm of my hand. While it had at least one rocket-launcher and some few rocket rounds, it had other things of a useful nature also, I now understood.

“What's currently roosting in their soup-pots,” said the soft voice. “Now don't you want to see the witches enjoy that 'really bad magnesium citrate' and the other poisonous things you've let them have?”

“If it is half as much trouble as he said it was, then I think those places will kill their share of witches before they finally do go up in smoke,” said Sarah.

“They will do that, especially when those immigrating witches arrive with huge appetites,” said the soft voice. “They'll keep coming up here fairly steadily for some months, however, so anything that keeps their numbers in check without you-all having to exert yourselves much will be something you want to leave be for the time being.”

With string on the door's handle, and an empty beer jug for a 'pulley', we repaired to suitable hiding places, these being behind pillars for all concerned. As these places had been 'loaded up' relatively early and the first one had been proven to not be trapped save by some articles covered by a species of 'torment-grease', I was not expecting the noise this door made when it came open, which was a muted squeaking among the other sundry rackets made by a door that had not been opened for nearly a thousand years.

However, it did not make the 'rusty' noises the last one did, as I'd oiled its hinges while Karl was tying the string, and I'd begun dosing one of the other doors that way by the time I found myself in the long room without anyone for company.

“What was that squeak?” I asked as one particularly long and drawn out 'steam-whistle' screeching noise made its presence known. “It did not sound terribly amusing.”

“It might have been a rat,” said Sarah, “and if it was, I hope it is not a mother one.”

With trepidation in my heart and my club in my hands, I came out from behind my column; and as I got within perhaps ten paces of the door, I could tell something 'unpleasant' was going to come out of the long-room shortly. This was so much the case that I did not notice Sarah coming to my right and Sepp taking a place just to my left, and when the doorway suddenly 'exploded' with rats, I 'made ready' – and both of the others began shooting their revolvers.

The first rats dropped fast enough in the rapid-fire crackle of revolver fire, but I could tell this particular 'rat-mine' was something of a 'mother-lode' for rodents, and when 'Big Mama' suddenly showed in the doorway, all four feet and more of her a species of bleached-white fury and moving like a bullet, I moved forward without hesitation so as to 'meet' her.

And to my right, a thundering roar nearly tossed me onto my face and some feet to the side as a massive lightning flash erupted and turned the twilight of the room into brilliant day for an instant.

It also stopped 'Big Mama' colder than a dead hammer, and as the other smaller rats swarmed over and around her blood-spattered corpse, I recovered in time to begin swatting them every which way to each side, at least until they broke and ran to each side of me as if they were a river of gray encountering a rock unmovable. I turned for an instant to see the others embattled once more with Karl and Katje firing revolvers as well, while Maarten was readying a musket; then without thinking, I turned again while leaping to the side, and while still airborne, I got 'Big Mama's' bigger partner with the meat of my club and both hands on the handle. The crunching noise the club made when it connected was louder than the sharp ear-ringing bangs of the pistols.

The rat did an abrupt reverse, flipping end over end as it did so, and sailed nearly twenty feet through the air to strike the wall at a quartering angle after bouncing twice and spraying blood and brains from a shattered head the whole time it was airborne.

The other rats kept coming, however, and as I came to earth from my leap, I knew the two most-worrisome creatures were done. The same could not be said for the other rodents, for as I turned around, my club still in my hand – clubs needed no reloading, and now I knew why people like Georg used them beyond 'anything smaller than a cannon tends to not fire if I try to use it' – the rats seemed to be forming into a solid gray-and-white tide, one heading for the steps of the transom leading to the outside world.

As the last of the rodent-swarm shot out of the room, I asked, my breath high-pitched and squeaking, “what was that?”

“You got one of those big ones, and Sarah got the other,” said Karl, “and you getting that second one took the fight out of the smaller ones, so they...”

A few pops and bangs began to ring out outside, then suddenly the sporadic noises briefly swelled to 'Gettysburg' levels of gunfire, complete with a host of cannon-like rumbling booms.

“And they are getting the rest of those things,” said Karl as 'the battle of Gettysburg' slowly faded out. “Now that one she shot is a mess, and I am surprised she is not hunting up a privy.”

I looked at Sarah, who was not merely shaking as if she wanted to go into a convulsion, but was holding one of those huge pistols in her hands. It was still trickling smoke from the muzzle, which but added to the reeking blue-gray powder smoke in the air.

“Did you shoot that rat?” I asked.

“Y-yes,” said Sarah. “I needed both hands on this thing, but I could manage it once.” Sarah then looked down at her hands. I could clearly see her grimace with pain.

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

Sarah tried moving her fingers after putting the still-cocked pistol in her belt, then touched those of her right hand with her left, and shook her head. “I can barely feel them, and they've gone all numb and tingly.”

“That will go away in time,” said Gabriel. “It stopped that first rat right away, and I'm not sure if his club did a better or quicker job.”

“How do you know that?” asked Sarah shakily.

I wondered if she wished me to rub her hands, and the instant I thought that I went to her and began to massage first the one, then the other. “You don't like that feeling much, do you?” I asked.

“No, I don't...”

Sarah instantly leaped to the side, then as I watched in seemingly slow motion, she drew both pistols. I turned, my hands now reaching for the club laying against my waist, and as the largest rat I had ever seen in real life slowly cleared the doorway, first one lighting flash lit up the room amid terrible ripping thunder, then another such flash, then two more brilliant strobing flashes at the same time.

And the rat stopped dead before it could clear the doorway amid Sarah's nightmarish shrieks. I dropped my club to the floor and now took each tight-clenched pistol out her hands slowly to hand them to Katje, and began praying while rubbing her hands. Within a second, I was not merely 'submerged', but seemingly in another world, one formed with claustrophobia in mind, with tall-seeming walls of bleached-white stone and a surprisingly low roof, dim in places and bright-lit in others, among benches neater-by-far than what Hans had; and the reek of chemicals was omnipresent in the stuffily hot and oppressively muggy atmosphere. I could smell another odor, though, and as I looked about through the gunsmoke-choked chambers of this now-obvious chemical laboratory, I saw a short dark-haired 'girl', her face – indeed, most of her body – smudged with soot and her clothing splashed here and there with large splashes of brilliant crimson blood and a myriad of bloody droplets; and in her shaking hands, a fowling piece, this begrimed beyond belief and with both hammers yet at full cock as she walked slow and hesitant toward me, much as if I were an angry elephant and she a huntress bent on killing me.

And in the corner to my left and behind me, torn, blood-dripping, and huge, lay a rat of such size I wondered how it could actually move were it still alive.

“It must be a mine for lead,” I murmured upon seeing the nearly innumerable bullet holes in the thing, as the scene began slowly fading and I came back to the present, where I was still praying and rubbing Sarah's other hand.

“What was this?” asked Karl. “I could not see you for a second there, and then you're back here and rubbing her hands.”

“They need rubbing, Karl,” said Katje. “I hope you can stand the stink of this better than I can, as your hands are...”

“They no longer hurt,” said Sarah with finality, “but I am not firing those things again unless I have no choice in the matter, as they hurt my hands badly.”

“Was there ever a really big rat you had to deal with?” I asked. “Not four feet and more, but bigger yet?”

“Yes, and that one there...” Sarah pointed with her finger at what was crowding the doorway still. “That one there is bigger.”

“Then it needed what you used to shoot it,” said Katje, “as that...” Katje's voice went up an entire two octaves, then in a giddy screech, she said, “where did that thing come from?”

“I am not sure,” said Sarah's abnormally-low-pitched voice. It had gone down in pitch from her usual. “I doubt the witches brought it, as fitting that thing into a coach would have left no room for the witches, and a rat that large would have thought them meals had they tried to get in the coach after it.”

“Does that room join a secret passage?” I asked.

“Not 'one' secret passage, but three of them,” said the soft voice, “and those three passages were the main conduits for 'commons travel' until that long-room began to have witch-gear put in it.” A brief pause, then, “the 'commons' kept most of their pilfered supplies in further-away parts of those passages, in fact, and only the fact that the witches had put more of those 'accursed spades' in that room kept them from clearing out those rocket-launchers and other weapons they had cached there out of the room itself.”

“So those passages are filled with rat-mines,” I muttered.

“Not any more, not with 'Big Mama' and her two still-surviving litter-mates dead,” said the soft voice. “Those rats grew that large because of the deep-hole's curses, as normally all three of them would have died more than forty years ago.”

“And in the fourth kingdom, and other places where it's usually warm?” I asked.

“They grow a lot faster down there, and I think they live longer, also,” said Sarah. “That one attic may be warm enough to grow rats big enough for the forth kingdom, but a rat that big needs a lot of food – and food for large rats isn't that common in this place.” What Sarah left unsaid was 'there's plenty of suitable food outside of here, but there's no way to get enough food in here for those things.”

“Which is why there are no more 'rat-mines' in the Abbey at this time, as those three lived as 'entire predators' and ate every smaller rat and other creature they could catch in those passages.”

I then noticed that save for myself, Sarah, and Katje, the others had vanished – and within moments, I learned as to why they had done so. First that one man returned, then nearly twenty more like him, all gloved and bundled with ropes and carrying sizable pulleys, and when they came to the nearest rat – that being the one Sarah had shot first – there were a chorus of whistles. The bird added its own 'tones of mystery' as a following rejoinder.

“This thing was hit by no musket,” said one, “as this size of white rat will eat a roer's lead in most places and ignore it.”

“It was hit in the head,” said another of the group. “You, Thomas, get its front leg there, and we can drag it outside.”

There were men left after that group of four began dragging out rat number one, but the whistles that resulted from seeing the rat I had hit with my club were almost deafening. That one man turned, then said, “whoever hit this one used something that would stop a big grunter right off, and that if it was an all-black one with plate!”

“N-no,” I gasped. “It can't be...”

“I think you might wish another club,” said Sarah softly, “as you might have cracked that one.”

“Sarah, he sent that rat flying worse than Georg does with swine,” muttered Katje. “Common pigs that size aren't white rats – and I recall seeing white rats several times in the fourth kingdom.”

“This 'un here isn't entire-white, as it's not got the shape of the head for one thing,” said one of the men, “even if it's bigger than any white rat I've ever seen.”

“Do they get that big down in the fourth kingdom?” I asked. I was starting to feel quite sore from thumping a huge rat.

“They do, but not if they're all-white,” said the speaker. “That one in the doorway there, though – that one there's going to be trouble.” A pause, then, “I only saw ones close to that big at the west school.”