To Arms... To Arms... What are these things?

The bird had thus far been silent in Maarten's hands, and indeed, the nature of this unnaturally tall arch-roofed down-sloping hallway with its close-seeming walls of reddish-brown brick and tan mortar made for an awful silence, save among those not overawed by it. My mind was upon traps, even if the gritty floor beneath my boots seemed to lack them utterly; and my hand was reaching for the key to make certain of its continued presence. While I could speak to this door, using the key was both easier and wiser, for the key required no effort upon my part, and that one witch had had a hand in rigging this place.

I hoped all of the fumes had gone to their component atoms over the last nine hundred and more years, and as I once more looked down, I noted what might have been faint red-tinged footprints that somehow matched my own. I felt compelled to walk in them, and avoided them with due deliberation, setting my stride to that of one with shorter legs in precise opposition to them.

And from behind, there were remarks about dust suddenly showing upon the floor in the places where I walked, much as if the fetish-coverings upon the walls were now attempting to usurp the floor itself with their sheeting ruins of age-old dust.

The bird now chirped, and I looked down at my compass. I was glad for the little 'music-box' with its comforting letters and numbers faintly glowing a soft blue, and as if to reassure me, the bird sang one of its weird theremin-solo 'songs'. This instance, oddly enough, seemed much less 'spooky' and more 'uplifting' – much as if the bird knew the reign of evil in this place was now coming to its end.

“Here, at least,” I said. “That stinker of a witch probably rigged the door.”

“Those went off a long time ago and caught the last of the witches who tried this door from the outside,” said the soft voice. “The door is curse-locked, however, so using that key will help greatly.”

“Exploding curse-locks?” I asked.

“No, mostly a very rusted and complex mechanism,” said the soft voice, “with a lot of cursed parts that only worked right when appropriately chanted at – and with the deep-hole's passing, those parts have not only lost nearly all of their cursed aspect, but they've corroded into nearly a solid mass of 'rust'.”

“The rust-curse?” I asked.

“That's the only part that still remains, even if it isn't called that,” said the soft voice. “The remaining cursed portion is that part that says, 'If we cannot have it alone and entirely to ourselves, then no one else shall have it at all' – and that works out in this building as cursed parts corroding very quickly, just like most metallic fetishes tend to do today if they're used much by witches.”

The curve left our path, and now the downward slant increased as we headed downward and due west. The black paint and rune-curses continued to sheet down soft-sifting dust to each side as I passed, and when I looked to either side as I carefully avoided the red-brown steps of long-clotted blood left by the witch who set the curses upon the door and the realm ahead of me, I noted not merely how the walls seemed somehow 'wider', but that the overall feeling was much less claustrophobic. I looked up, and somehow 'saw' that we were actually out from under the Abbey's foundation and into a realm that was unlike it in nearly every way.

“The building itself is cursed?” I gasped. “Is that why this happened?”

“While the building will need multiple instances of clearing before it is truly free of all such trouble, this portion was built at the behest of the Mistress of the North – and she knew what was needed by both observance and extended study about building structures and the choices involved. She wished this one to stand up to serious attack, and hence its materials, save for those 'half-baked' curses on the walls of this tunnel and its black paint, were not cursed to any degree – and few witches of note were involved in building it.”

A pause, then, “those building the Abbey, however, did so for the most part long before she was born, and witchdom then was a good deal less knowledgeable about cursing and most other matters.” A pause, then, “more, that one witch was just getting started as a witch, so the place still operated more or less conventionally – and hence 'reinforcing materials were reinforcing materials', and the building itself was built by the lowest bidder.”

“Hence it needed hardening,” I muttered, upon hearing a too-familiar catch-phrase. I wondered, however, about the nature of those reinforcements, even if I noticed that the downward slant was now easily ten degrees; and ahead I could see a substantial-looking metal door, one much like the one to the long-room above us.

“Mostly because that door was made in the green area using secretly imported materials and then shipped here in great secrecy,” said the soft voice. “The Mistress of the North might well have been near the top of the hot-list then, but she still was not inclined to pay bags of money and then wait until that one witch felt inclined to deliver the goods – especially when his usual, even for most hot-list clients, was to deliver useless junk that needed complete reworking if real use was desired.”

A pause, then, “she was willing to pay bags of money for things that were worth their price, though – and she commonly did. Hence she had that door done in the green area, and she arranged for the materials to be imported, and she gave precise and detailed instructions as to how it was to be done.”

With each step I made, the door seemed to come closer, much as if I were stationary and the door moving so as to block my way; and when I came to it, not only did I find its glossy black lockplate in the very center of the dull-gray-painted door, but the blue-streaked yellowed 'chrome' handle was of a type that did not swing. I sensed that it pulled out some inches to 'unlock' the door and then pull it open, and when I found the keyhole – a perfectly circular 'black hole' some half inch in diameter in the middle of another of those 'chrome' circlets, I inserted the key with a silent prayer.

The key went in with no resistance whatsoever, and with a shuddering groan, rust spurted from around the door's handle as the 'chrome' flaked off to show 'dirty' metal mingled with rust; then the thing jerked outward nearly an inch...

Stopped for an instant...

And with a final gout of dark-brown rust, it flew out of the door to nearly clout me in the chest and hit the floor with a muffled clang that subsided into faint echoes. I removed the key, and the lockplate itself fell to the floor to shatter like glass while the rusting 'chrome' nuts flew like popcorn – and with a soft moaning noise, the door began to open, all the while grinding like a bad piece of worn-out machinery. I wondered for a moment if it would fall off, at least until I moved back two steps and the door all-but slammed to its full-open position to lock in place with a muffled clacking noise.

“What?” I gasped, as small tendrils of rust now poured out of the seams in the door's bottom to pile itself in small hills upon the floor.

“The cursed parts installed by the Mistress of the North her-own-self didn't like that key very much, and that door is now locked open,” said the soft voice. “It will need removal and then replacement if this area needs to be closed off in the future.”

I looked past the door into the darkness beyond, then gingerly stepped into a small room that seemed a landing of sorts. Its laboriously chipped-smooth stone walls and wide downward leading steps ran counterclockwise, and I recalled the correct term for such a winding staircase.

Were this where I had come from, it would, again, be named 'widdershins', as it was the left-hand path supposedly preferred by witches.

“No supposedly here,” I thought, as I took the first downward step down the spiraling path. “Careful here,” I said. “These things can get disorienting if you don't go slow or aren't used to them.”

“I know about that part,” said Sarah. “There's two like this in the second kingdom house that I know of, and at least one in the one here.” A pause, then, “the third kingdom house, I'm not sure. That place is so big it would need a week to explore it entirely, and I never had that much time to spend in in that place.” Brief pause, then, “they only have a very few tapestries, and most of the people when I last went there weren't interested in documenting anything, even if it was truly important – and it's been that way for ages, if I go by the Annals I saw there.”

“What?” I asked. “It's not that big.”

“It's very deceiving that way, especially if you only consider the parts above-ground,” said Sarah. “It was started but forty years after Cardosso died, and was intended to stand up to anything brigands, even armies of them, might bring against it.”

“Duh, so that's why it looked like a castle,” I thought. “It was a castle.” I then had a question:

“Above-ground?” I asked.

“It has much room under the ground,” said Sarah, “and in places, more than one level, just like some witch-basements supposedly have. Then, there are hoists that are both very old and a lot safer than anything found in a mine, and finally, there are the smelly parts. I avoided those, even if my assigned guide usually found them the most interesting portions of the entire house.”

“Smelly parts?” I asked.

“There's a sizable field directly behind that place where they have somehow found a way to put water to it regularly,” said Sarah, “and they have vines there for wine. It might not be nearly as large as the fields about the second kingdom house, but I know they cask a good deal of wine just the same – and the smell has to be endured to be believed where they roll those smelly things to set for a year or two.”

“Does the second kingdom house have such places?” I asked.

“The whole below-ground regions of that house, nearly,” said Sarah, “and they have so much wine there one might fill a lake with it.”

“That place likes wine,” said Karl, “and so does the third kingdom, if they can get it.”

“And then there are the smellier parts of the fourth kingdom,” I said with a sigh. “Every Public House on the High Way smelled like it was filled with that stinky fermented kerosene.”

“That was much of your trouble,” said Sarah. “If you wish to find more wholesome drink readily, then you need to stay clear of that road there and go to the smaller towns only, where those who work mostly for a living go when they travel.” A pause, then, “they mostly have beer in those places, along with better bread as a rule, and their prices are a little better for what they sell.” Sarah then had a question for me.

“What is that k-ker-kerosene stuff you spoke of?”

“I think it to be a species of distillate,” said Katje. “It looks like close-distilled light distillate, and is perhaps a trifle thicker than most light distillate, but it is about as flammable as thrice-boiled heavy distillate – that being where it is made.” A pause, then, “I have no idea how it would behave here, save for my suspicions.”

“What are those?” asked Karl. I wondered why he asked, as him asking that kind of a question gave me hope – hope for him, and hope for the future.

“That material comes from a place worse than here during the time of that war long ago,” said Katje, “and I suspect it to be fully as cursed as anything that existed then in this area – so it would be ill-behaved at best.”

“More poisonous than Benzina,” said the soft voice, “and more inclined toward fires and explosions than anything the Veldters have made since they began doing chemistry. Only certain chemicals and materials currently present here would behave worse than that material were it available.”

“Those witches like wine, eh?” I muttered darkly. “Let that stuff turn into real fermented kerosene!”

“Now you have done it,” said the soft voice, “as 'fermented kerosene' isn't available here or where you come from.” A pause, then, “it is available in many other locations – and if you think uncorking medicine or Groessfuetchen are bad for putting people in privies, true 'fermented kerosene' makes both substances look altogether tame if you aren't accustomed to consuming it.”

“Will they come out of those places?” asked Sarah. She was most likely recalling my 'dosing' of witch-cauldrons with 'bad magnesium citrate'.

“Yes, but they will be pale shadows of their former selves,” said the soft voice. “Anything that causes someone to spew that much will not merely cause a drastic degree of wasting, but also severe dehydration – and they will wish to answer that promptly with more 'proper witch-drink'.”

“Which will put them right back in the privies,” I muttered.

“Within perhaps an hour,” said the soft voice. “It will cause great consternation among those over those new-minted coach-drivers, as they will need to stop and 'spew from both ends' quite frequently, and they will smell horribly in the bargain.”

“Witches stink enough as it is,” murmured Karl. “Going around like this is starting to make my head spin like a top. How much further do these steps go?”

“Two more turns,” I said, though I wondered if I was right about that number. Each turn needed either nine or ten steps to complete, and each step went down a foot or more. No two steps were exactly alike, and while they were cut into solid-enough stone and seemed passable for evenness, the slightly gritty feeling underfoot made for no little wondering.

What did not make for wondering, however, was the steadily growing cold. I was almost beginning to shiver, it was so cold – and my thoughts seemed mirrored by everyone else.

“This could pass for a c-cold-room in the house p-p-proper,” said Sarah with chattering teeth. “It could almost draw ice-c-carrots, it is so c-cold.”

“It is too dry for frost, so it will not do that,” said Katje – who shivered some herself, if I went by her speech. Her 'cleaning clothing' helped some – or so I guessed. “Is this due to a curse?”

“No, because no curse could endure what has happened in the last two days,” I said. “I'd bet that not only did that witch plan this site specifically in some considerable detail, but she deliberately sited it over an underground river and deep into solid rock so it would not only be cold and dry for best long-term storage, but so it could stand up to anything the enemy might possibly toss at it.”

“Good on all accounts,” said the soft voice, “even if she did put several layers of wire-reinforced concrete over the rock deep underground to be certain the room you-all are about to enter would survive direct hits from potent weapons.” A brief pause, then, “it did, and that multiple times.”

“What kind of potent weapons?” asked Sarah. She sounded as if she'd heard the term before.

“Twice with nuclear weapons,” said the soft voice, “and three times with something from Vrijlaand roughly comparable to a hundred times as strong as everything you did up for the hall exploding at one time.” A pause, then “the weapons from Vrijlaand actually blasted most of the concrete into dust and bit deep into the rock under it, but there weren't enough of those things available to hit the exact same target three times that number again.”

“So how thick is our roof yet?” I asked.

“There aren't any of those Vrijlaand missiles currently in flyable condition,” said the soft voice, “so the current forty-four feet of rock under a hundred-plus feet of gravel mixed with dirt should do the job – and no, there aren't any Hammers in operable condition either, so you don't have to worry about any more of those landing here and 'nuking' the place.”

“Hammers?” I asked.

“Those things were awful,” said Sarah. I could feel the end of the stairs now, and the place seemed now suitable for setting ice-trays. I wanted knit clothing and a cloak, it was so cold now, and I wondered if we wanted some clothes of that nature for the sea-trip as well as for what awaited us across the sea. “They had those bombs in them that turned the place into a wasteland.”

“They poisoned the region where they hit, but they otherwise weren't all that accurate nor that powerful, unlike those of Vrijlaand,” said the soft voice. “Those turned their target-zone into a wasteland, even if they did not poison the ground for decades afterward.”

“What did they use?” I asked.

My question was not answered, for the steps had come to their end, finally; and ahead in the distance, another of those doors awaited. I advanced, my head still wishing to screw around counterclockwise for another three turns, then once actually at the door, I noted this example to have a more-or-less conventional door-handle, much like the one to the long-room upstairs. Again, I inserted the key – and this time, the door not only made no such horrible noises as the curse-locked door we had passed minutes ago, but the lock merely clicked and the door moved from its seat perhaps an inch.

I had to pull it the rest of the way open.

“What, no cursed locks?” I asked.

“She could only get one curse-lock that was dependable, hence that one witch did his business inside here to stop people from continuing to pilfer things.” A pause, then, “go slow, and you'll see where those who died in here fell.”

I put one foot inside, and adjusted my lantern for better light. It only got slightly brighter, and as I 'crept' forward, I kept it low, wary for strings or trip-wires. I nearly stumbled onto an elongated mound of coarse dust mingling with shredded black rags before I found anything else, and when I held my lantern higher, I gasped as I looked around.

“This room is huge!” Then, softer, “what... where are the trip-wires?”

“He used cursed devices that he made, so they needed no such things,” said the soft voice, “and hence they could be readily avoided by those marked workers who came down here – or at least, until the gas-projector he'd rigged actually fired.” A pause, then, “it was in one of the antechambers, so the witches were grabbing things when it sprayed its stuff into the air and dropped the last group down here like so many flies, and the two witches that got out in time to close the door for the last time died not a minute later.”

“If they're all gone off, then...”

“I'd spread out carefully, yet stay close together for more light,” said the soft voice. “Each of you, adjust your lanterns for best brightness, keep them close by and chest high, and watch carefully for the remains of witches.”

“They'll keep you warm that way,” said Sepp. “This one's almost as warm as a small campfire.”

“Not just that,” I said. “This room has lots of things in it that don't want fire getting into them.”

“That especially,” said the soft voice. “First locate most of the dust-mounds, then only go about in pairs, and then move slowly so you don't bump into the things the witches dropped when they died.”

As the others came to each side of me, the light of our lanterns seemed to reinforce each other's, and here and there on the periphery of our collected pool of light, light gray mounds of dust mingled with scraps of bones and black rags lay scattered every few feet. Just beyond the brightness of our lights, however, I saw what might have been head-high looming square 'blocks', these seeming to fence us in with but narrow-looking lanes between them.

“How big is this place?” I whispered. It seemed appropriate to a place that had become the tomb of both witches and 'commons' nearly a thousand years ago.

“I think we should walk around this area while close to one another, until we find out where most of these dead witches lay,” said Sarah. “That, and in case there are things that are not traps, but as dangerous.”

“Uh, explosives?” I asked. “There are some down here – I can smell some, in fact.”

“Those also,” said Sarah. “I am not inclined to go against the clock like that six-spin staircase, so I think we should go to our left so as to go as a clock does.”

I had no preferences beyond 'I do not want to get blown up' and 'I do not wish to stumble upon a stinky witch', so I let Sarah's suggestion go with a soft assent. However, I found that I needed to lead the way, as the aspect of near-total darkness in this place made for a desire on the part of the others – save, perhaps the women – to wish to remain especially close for protection. At least, I thought so until Karl told me otherwise.

“This place might not have anything alive in it except us,” he said, “but only in my dreams has it ever been so dark. It is worse than a bad winter night in here, and I am glad at least one of us can see good when it is dark.”

“Uh, I need some light to see by, at least most of the time,” I said. “That volcano was an exception to that rule, and some few other instances as well, but usually there's been some light. This place...”

“Only our lanterns have that,” said Karl. “Now there is another dead witch gone to dust, and one that might have been hiding behind that thing there...” Karl paused, then asked me, “what is in that metal barrel there?”

“I'm not sure,” I said, as I paused to look at an unusually squat metal 'canister' that was nearly as tall as my waist. It might have been sitting in a roller platform of some kind. “It has some markings on it, though I have no idea what those mean.” I then read them off aloud as 'AB38AF-0023E5'. “Odd, letters and numbers. Must be a code of some kind.”

“Think,” said the soft voice. “What numbering system do you recall has both letters and numbers?”

“Hexadecimal?” I asked. “Is this for easier computer tracking?”

“Not any more,” said the soft voice. “It's still used heavily overseas, however – both the numbering system and what else you were thinking about – so your knowing it will help matters.”

“Don't tell me,” I murmured as I saw two more metal drums, these also marked. They had the proportions I expected to see, which might have influenced what I said next. “They use eight-bit bytes...”

And for some reason, I knew that was wrong. Eight bits didn't carry enough information for their characters and other data, hence they used more 'bits'; and then the logic devices weren't binary in nature, but used some other species of notation – and just what that notation was mystified me.

“No, not even 'not-binary',” said the soft voice, “even if most computer programs currently used use the numeric facilities only of their hardware.”

What?” I asked, as I narrowly avoided stumbling over the edge of another dust-mound. We were now at a corner that broke 'left', and following Sarah's suggested means of travel, I turned left once more. Within a few feet, the 'aisle' opened up, and here there were lines of drums against the wall intermingled with shelf-units three feet taller than my head stacked two and three together against the 'ground-smooth' walls of the place. A glance upward showed not merely a substantial gridwork of still-pristine massive steel reinforcements bolted into a glinting star-like crystalline rock face, but also the bottom of this gridwork itself.

It passed for a ceiling, and that ceiling was easily twice my height and more; and I knew another reason why everyone wished to cluster about me. I dared not speak it, as I was afraid I might hear screaming if I did. I looked at Sarah, and mouthed the words silently: “bone-masses?”

“I hope not,” she whispered. “Two days of those things would put me in a rest-house for a ten-year, and I'm surprised I'm not in one now.” A pause, then, “and this is most definitely an armory of sorts, as that cabinet there has muskets stacked like that place near the king's office.”

“Is that a place where weapons are stored, or is that where they make them?” I asked softly.

“It depends on when and where,” said Sarah. “It can mean both of those things if you are reading a tapestry, and usually it meant both at the same time. Now, it usually means where they are stored, though there are a few shops in that market down there that make enough weapons that they could be called armories.”

“Few shops?” I asked.

“Those tend to be the larger ones, with both many older machines or copies of them from the Heinrich works and sizable groups of workers,” said Sarah. “One place I went to had two floors, overheads on both of those floors, and four larger Machalaat engines with their boilers to run the place, and it ran nearly all of the day and much of the night, with two shifts overlapping for an hour or more.”

“What do they do there?” I asked.

“Mostly make decent muskets by the numbers, though they make to order, also,” said Sarah. “I was told by Gustav that if one bought one of their muskets, it needed but little work to make it into a most-durable weapon, and he commonly bought two or three each month to make over and then sell as 'best' grade guns.”

“Appearance matters?” I asked.

“Not so much that,” said Sarah. “Any place that makes that many weapons and sells what they do at their prices tends to spend less time than is good to correct deficiencies, even if the weapon is both good for working and enduring as sold.” A pause, then as we came to another corner that blocked our way and forced turning right and once more into a narrow aisle, “he mostly just did work with stones and files on many of their parts, possibly grayed some of the lock-work, and then redid their finish and the woodwork so that it was good enough to suit him.” Another pause. “It didn't take him much time, given his tools and things, and he sold those things nearly as fast as he turned them out.”

“He probably got his eating money that way,” said Sepp. “Did he charge much?”

“Less than you might think, given how good those things were to start,” said Sarah. “I wanted one of his short muskets, but getting the money for one was beyond me.”

“'Less than you might think' sounds expensive to me,” I said. Closed two-door cabinets to our left in long rows attached one to another, and more of those stacks of ordnance to our right, and an ending too far away for me to have any idea as to the distance in question.

“No worse than many places who did much worse work, and only the Heinrich works does much better,” said Sarah. “Books are expensive, same as most things students need; and traipsing, even if one is careful, is more costly yet, especially if one must have equipment as I needed – and I wished I could have had one of his guns for that long-trip, as it would have helped with both meals and travel-money in the parts where I did not need to worry much about noise.”

This particular aisle seemed to go on for what seemed forever in the darkness, and to our right, every few feet stood one of those head-high stacks of 'ordnance' or whatever the stack in question actually was, while the closed-door cabinets now alternated with open-faced shelves taller than my head. Each of these things showed close-packed rows of shoebox-sized dull-varnished 'wooden' boxes of some kind. For some odd reason, I knew that while these were some kind of wood-substitute, they not only were fairly durable by most standards, mine included, but they also weren't made of cursed materials in any way.

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “Those are made of wood-pulp of too low a grade – when wood was still fairly common in that place – to make into paper, combined with synthetic binders and then cured in molds under high pressure and substantial heat.”

“Hardboard?” I asked.

“Somewhat greater hardness, a good deal stronger, and much less brittle,” said the soft voice. “It might not have the strength of good lumber, but if those fallen-apart desks had used that material in substantial measure, they'd still be altogether usable – and more, they'd just need cleaning, as that material is impervious to all insect attack and dry-rot, and is entirely waterproof.”

“Then I hope we can get some of it,” said Sarah. “My stool upstairs is about fit for the stove.”

“No, dear,” I said half-jokingly. “Let me get some aluminum and I'll make you a nice chair, one with a padded rest for your feet and back, and places to put your needles and thread so they're handy.”

What did you say?” asked Sarah. “What is this stuff with the name I'm not going to try to speak, as I might not speak again until my tongue unties itself?”

“He meant that he suspected there were materials across the sea that he was familiar with that would work well for a chair for you,” said Katje, “and more, that he would make this chair to be especially comfortable and helpful for your sewing.” A pause, then, “I might wish a chair like that myself, in fact, even if I tend to sew poorly, as those sound good for studying.”

“Does this chair permit reclining?” asked Sarah.

“I could easily build one that did so,” I said. “Why, do you want a reclining chair?”

“I wanted one badly when I was at the west school, and there were lines for those things in the library,” spluttered Sarah. “I had to use one when the place was shuttered and nearly everyone else in the school was asleep!”

“A recliner?” I asked.

“They did not call them that,” said Sarah as she barely dodged the remains of a witch in time. This example still had semi-intact bones laying amid his dust and rags between two of those tall 'boxes' on the right, for some reason, which made me wonder if the witch would 'rise himself up' and act like an accursed 'bone-mass'. I wondered where his 'loot' lay, then the matter was obvious: he'd dropped that stuff right off when he first noticed the fumes from the gas projector, and had been running for the door when he was 'struck down' by those deadly gases.

Thankfully, the bones not only remained where they were, but they didn't even twitch.

“They called those things scribe-chairs, and nearly all of the students wanted to use them for studying and writing reports – and that for nearly a month before term started and they started returning from trips,” said Sarah. “A bed piled with pillows in an inn isn't nearly as good, and that's for studying. Sewing, I would have no idea.”

“I think it might make it less difficult, especially if you could set yourself up with a smaller alcohol lantern with a large reflector shaped so it gives a diffuse light with no shadows,” said Katje – who then squawked, “what did I just say?”

“You described something that would be both very useful for studying and sewing, especially if one sews by hand,” said the soft voice. “Do not speak to Anna about such a chair, as she will greatly desire one for knitting, and then scheme to acquire one nearly as bad as Hans wished a billiard-room.” A pause, then, “and overseas, I would ask for needles.”

“Needles?” asked Sarah innocently. “Do they have those?”

“Yes, many types, including a great many types of sewing needle you have never heard of,” said the soft voice. “Dennis will recognize them, though, as he's actually used a type of machine that used ones like them.”

“I thought I would sew my fingers to the cloth more than once with that thing,” I said, “and I was glad I had help when I needed more than just a little rip sewn.”

“Is this something I might have seen on a tapestry?” asked Sarah. I could see another corner as I mumbled the word 'yes', though the corner itself was yet some distance further; and the head-tall 'blocks' seemed beyond numbering. There had to be hundreds of them, each one having its own special treasures.

“Wait until you come to the north wall,” said the soft voice. “Recall asking about artillery pieces, and how the workers here weren't able to steal or make one? They're along that wall.” I could see the end of our current 'channel' in the distance, so I wondered what further distance was needed to find them.

“C-cannons?” I asked.

“Yes, two of them,” said the soft voice, “and several other weapons, which while they are not cannons for their bores, are nearly as useful as fresh three inch guns should you need to hunt swine.”

“Not cannons for their bores,” I thought, “yet they will be useful against plated-up four-legged tanks. I wonder what they could be?”

And as if to supply a rejoinder, I seemed to hear once more that one piece of music from recollection, only instead of the furious rhythmic sputter made by the 'drum' or whatever, this noise was slower in repetition...

Much deeper in pitch, such that it thundered and bellowed like an angry prehistoric buffalo weighing more than twenty tons...

And far more deadly, as each nine-ounce projectile flew like a bolt of lighting, leaving a streak of blazing red fire behind it as a sign and portent to then drill through the thickest swine-plate as if it were tissue paper – and then...

Then the burning tracer composition, broken up by the forward movement of the hardened central penetrator, burned with such explosive fury that the outer casing ruptured like a small bomb and sent burning white-hot fragments of metal and tracer material for a distance of several feet inside the body of El Porko.

El Porko didn't much care for such heartburn, nor did he enjoy that then-tumbling central penetrator slug as it flew about his inwards wildly and bounced off of his bones; and those two things got to him so badly that two or three such hits dropped him in his tracks more or less no matter where the projectiles hit him – while a single projectile, this landing in the forward portion of his body, usually tumbled him and landed him sprawling on his side or back.

Such swine supped with Brimstone most-quickly, as a rule.

“What?” I gasped. “That sounds like an antiaircraft gun!” I could see cabinets, these facing us, their 'open' doors beckoning between areas of dark stone wall 'ground' smooth. These looked empty, for some reason, and I knew they weren't.

“They were used for that, and they dropped their share of low-flying aircraft,” said the soft voice. “You've seen pictures of similar weapons, at least for shape if not their size.” A pause, then, “this is not one of those, but something substantially larger – and while none of the ammunition here is explosive-filled, it all is the type you just got the picture of.”

“Substantially larger?” I asked silently. “Tripod-mounted, or...”

Another picture, this of the 'gun': a barrel nearly seven feet long, with a bore nearly as large as that of a fifth kingdom rifled musket's; a receiver nearly two feet long, with an under-the-barrel gas tube going nearly halfway down the barrel from the rectangular coffin-shaped box of the receiver; a pedestal mounting, this sturdy, reinforced, and substantial, with bearings that permitted slewing to the right and left, as well as down nearly twenty degrees and nearly straight up; and to its right, a place for the huge 'disk-pack' that held the nine-and-a-half-inch-long bottlenecked rimmed rounds in their two-hundred round non-disintegrating belt.

And on each side of this waist-high pedestal, two wheels, each of them roughly knee-high and rubber-treaded, then a pierced metal platform for the three-person gun-crew to stand on, the extra 'spools' of belted ammunition, sundry containers of essential supplies, and the folding tongue that allowed the small four-wheeled 'gun-tractor' to pull the weapon.

We did not have those, even if we did have horses. They could pull something like this, given some time, harness-making skills – Willem knew about that part, or so I suspected – and perhaps two or more well-tanned elk-hides per gun for the harness leather. I suspected getting those would be the toughest portion, actually. I knew I had the sewing equipment, and I knew where to get 'harness rivets'.

“Or do we?” I asked silently, meaning the gun-tractors.

“Here, no, even if the manual for those weapons shows several drawings of one of those 'tractors',” said the soft voice. “They have parts for them overseas in 'open stock', even if assembled ones are not accessible to the 'commons' there and few if any blue-suited functionaries know of their existence.”

“Meaning we could build some of those out of their parts,” I thought.

And as an answer, I could feel – and almost hear – a distinct 'wait'. There was something a lot better in the foreseeable future than a difficult-to-master vehicle that barely moved faster than a trotting horse – and that when the vehicle in question was urged to its utmost, which was very unwise. A prudent speed for one of these things was about as fast as Francis, that being when that particular mule had been inclined to merely walk at a steady pace and not sit down or 'gallop'.

“I think not,” said Katje. “You'd be better off with a team of horses than one of those things.”

“What are these?” asked Sarah.

“A small four-wheeled vehicle that was slow, quite noisy, and tended to break down a lot,” said Katje, “and more, it used a species of fuel similar to distillate.”

“Those?” said Sarah in alarm. “Did they leave huge smoke-trails behind them and long streams of fire?”

“No, they did not,” said Katje. “These left little smoke, even when they were cold – and none whatsoever when inclined toward their usual tasks – but they were noisy enough to make the soldiers in the area stuff their engines full of worn-out stockings when and if they could.” A pause, then, “they commonly did.”

“Then we do not want those things, as I know what they are,” said Sarah. “They drew the gunfire of witches like fresh mule-dung draws manure-flies, they screamed worse than a boiled witch-cat, and a sleeved buggy with a good team is faster if one wishes to travel any distance at all.”

As if to supply a rebuttal to Sarah's speech, I nearly stumbled over another ash-mound, only in doing so I noticed the different nature of both the rags – a mottled dirty gray with hints of black stripes – and what lay on the ground but feet away from the edges of the elongated ash-mound. This was a machine pistol, and as I knelt down gingerly to look closer, I saw that not merely was the weapon carrying a magazine, but the weapon was probably 'loaded'.

I touched its unfolded stock, and the dust 'fled away' from the weapon; and when I removed the magazine, I noted the cold dry sensation of the magazine's surface upon my hands. No rust whatsoever showed on this weapon, nor did I feel a trace of grease; and when I looked at the just-removed magazine in the light of my lantern as Sarah held it by my shoulder, I noted it seemed 'full'. Working the cocking lever on the side of the weapon ejected a round that rolled some few feet until Katje stopped it with her foot.

“Here,” she said. “Put that one in that box there, then one of us can carry it after you make it safe.” A pause, then, “I think that was one of the 'workers' they had here, actually.”

“A more-interested half-hearted supplicant dragooned into helping the witches,” said the soft voice, “and as he had chosen to help them, he died in agony as the rest of the witches did when that gas 'struck'.”

Chose?” I asked. It seemed hard to believe, given the coercion he'd endured. “With those kinds of threats of being sacrificed?”

“And with guns held to his head until he acquiesced fully,” said the soft voice. “He could have told them no, and been killed on the spot like a number of other workers had been, but he did not – and he'd been told repeatedly about the consequences of such choosing, both for good and for evil. One of those who had told him had been propositioned similarly and died on account of his choice but a few days before he did, so he did not lack for an example of the correct choice to make.” A pause, then, “he took his mark and then turned witch, and is now in hell where he belongs.”

“Took his mark?” I asked.

“That means he became a witch, according to what I have read on a number of tapestries,” said Sarah. “It was the usual choice then for most people when a witch-party came for them: die for the witches' pleasure as a sacrifice on the spot, or become a witch then and there, and there was nothing beyond those two choices available other than staying well-clear of witches.” A pause, then, “at least while those stinkers were at all numerous in here, that wasn't possible.”

“An ink-marking?” I asked.

“This was probably something else,” said Sarah. “Ink-markings took hours to apply then, supposedly – and that being so for each of those things. Most witches had several of them at the least.”

“Uh, that dream implied they took quite some time to do,” I said. “Was this a brand of some kind?”

“Yes, in the customary place for the slaves of that time,” said the soft voice. “Branding the hand was thought far too 'cheap', as the witches knew of many former slaves who had cut their own hands off in the past so as to be rid of their witch-markings, so they branded his forehead and then rubbed their marking-ink into the still-smoking branded place. That was quick and easy for the witches, and permanent for their marking; and while he was being branded – he was kicking and screaming while being held down – he became altogether inhabited, and therefore, he was entirely a witch.” A pause, then, “they silenced him with some torture-drugs like you found in that one drawer so he wouldn't 'snivel' so much after being branded, as was commonly done for those supplicants that weren't entirely 'enthusiastic' about such matters.”

We came to the 'end' of the rows of 'boxes', and for a space of some feet, nothing save inky blackness lay to the left. The cabinets and shelves continued on the right, however, until we came face to face with more of those box-piled things, which meant another right turn. Again, more inky blackness to the right, until as the corner fled away to the left and we followed its' passing, I seemed to see in what looked to be a far distance what might have been a long metal construction of some kind. It was all I could do to not hurry and possibly trip and fall over the remains of a deceased witch, but caution remained a byword, at least until I clearly saw the place where one could hitch something to an obvious field-piece. I stopped, then gingerly, with Sarah in tow while the others 'held' their position and kept watch, I began to slowly walk around this gun with the goal of learning its size.

“This is as big as a three-inch gun,” squeaked Sarah. “They look like this to a degree, save they have much more wood to their carriages.”

I then found the breech of this first 'gun', this opened by a lever on top and to the side with a chill metallic handle at its end; and when I came to look at it closer, the thought occurred to me to grasp the handle from the side and work it smartly. I did so, and then promptly wished I had not.

The breech opened abruptly with a sliding 'Snap!' and a gray-toned – possibly it had once been plated – rimmed artillery shell minus its projectile slithered out of the gun and clanged noisily onto the floor to then roll 'underfoot' for a few seconds. It hadn't gone far, thankfully.

“I've read of those things like that one there,” said Sarah. “Now look at the back of that thing, and tell me if it has holes in it or not. It should have seven or nine, if it is the type that has them.”

I picked up the weighty shell-casing, and to my surprise, surrounding the dime-sized dimpled percussion primer, I saw no less than seven small holes, each one about an eighth of an inch for diameter – and all of them showing definite signs of melting around their edges, such that they seemed both 'blown out' and slightly ragged.

“If this thing has these,” I thought, as I showed Sarah the two-foot long spent casing, “then why does it have such a breech” – where is the nozzle on that thing, in fact? – “and then why does it have a recoil cylinder under the barrel and a muzzle brake like an antitank gun?”

“Because that weapon is a light antitank gun,” said the soft voice, “and it normally used a shell that relied upon a shaped charge to actually penetrate armor and reinforced concrete.” A pause, then, “while they do not have that many shells for these guns here, there are parts for making more shells overseas – and if you hit a pig with this gun, it will rain bacon-crisps for a while.”

Eew,” said Sarah. She sounded as if she would spew. “Bacon is the worst stuff imaginable.”

“H-how would you know?” I asked. I recalled the taste of the stuff – decent, especially if cooked by someone who knew what they were doing, with some pepper-laced types being quite tasty if cooked right – and its slowly-worsening aftereffects in my case, especially in the last few years of my time where I had come from.

I did not wish to suffer that way again, and I had counted the swearing off of bacon and other high-fat materials a cheap price to pay to not feel sicker than I usually did – that being where I came from. Here, the connection between swine, 'uncleanness', evil, and witches was so much tighter – and the effects of consuming pork products so much worse – that even smelling the fumes of cooking pork caused acute illness in myself, and that situation was, if anything, worsening with time. I suspected it to be one of the reasons I quickly needed that much-mentioned protection, in fact.

“I had a dream involving that stuff recently,” said Sarah. “It starts out as a loathsome-looking fatty mass, white streaked with reddish gray for its coloring, and then needs to be nearly burnt to a crisp using a heavy fire-blackened fryer in order to taste such that one might eat it. Anything less, and it is like eating chilled swine-fat, and that stuff is more fat than meat even when it is cooked properly, so it would cork one solid with a single small serving. Then, there is its taste.”

“This does not sound good,” said Katje. Her voice was the picture of 'dubious' upon hearing of a food possibly worse than the fattest 'feathered round-shot' to be had. “What was its taste?”

“It does not taste like squab,” said Sarah, “as it has a very strong flavor, and then it is quite greasy to the palate.”

“Those birds are greasy,” said Katje. “Go on. He needs to look at that gun closer, as I can see parts of another like it but a few feet further away.”

“It tastes vaguely like part-burnt stewed chicken, only much smokier, much like smoke-dried beef, and is quite salty as well,” said Sarah, “and that is for its taste. If one is not a witch, though – it is great trouble, as in my dream, I was not able to finish that slab of stuff that was forced upon me, but I had to run hotfoot for the privy after just two bites, and I needed a bucket for what came from my mouth while I was setting on the stool for three turns of a glass. Then, I could not go ten paces from that place for the space of an entire day, even to drink beer – and I drank three entire jugs of that stuff, one after another, and all of it went into the privy or that bucket within an hour of my drinking it.”

“How was this forced upon you?” asked Katje. “Was a witch trying to torture you?”

“I think so, though this person was quite strange for a witch,” said Sarah. “He did not smell in the slightest, nor did he wear black anything, and he spoke a language that I have neither heard or heard of ever, and he was very surprised that I became so ill after serving me what I understood to be breakfast. He brought the beer to me, in fact, and then that privy! It was the strangest thing ever, as it roared like a nightmare every time I pulled this long lever that led to this round tank over my head.”

“An old-time flush-toilet,” I muttered, as I looked at the nearest wheel rubber-tired of the gun. The barrel, long, slim, and dangerous-looking, was an easy nine feet past the tire's edge. This gun was several feet longer for the barrel than the three-inch gun I had seen in General's Row, and if I went by the open mouth of the shell-casing, it had a larger bore as well. I moved away from the tire toward the muzzle, and bent down to see just below the barrel a most-definite recoil-cylinder – though this item was smaller than I expected it to be, and the whole aspect of the gun was 'light' enough to make me wonder as to its durability.

“This is a prewar gun and they hadn't cut any corners with its construction, so it's durable enough to stand real use,” said the soft voice. “The later wartime pieces, especially once the enemy started to become 'tricky' and use curses 'effectively' on the battlefield, captured enough of these weapons that they needed to make them faster than was good, given the various supply bottlenecks they had found in the process of full mobilization. Then... Then these things had a fairly limited life-span.”

“Like a tosser pistol,” I muttered. “How many rounds...”

“A lot more rounds than one of those pistols,” said the soft voice, “but quite short compared to that of the two of these and those guns like them.” A pause. “The usual was to lose the gun to the witches before it was worn enough to be troublesome or severely inaccurate, which indirectly led to many of those manufacturing decisions made during wartime.”

“And did the witches manage to use them?” I asked, as I came to an obvious 'muzzle brake' with two ports, one to each side. Shining my lantern down the open 'mouth' showed a multitude of grooves and lands, these sharp and surprisingly shallow, with an odd and eerie speckled shine showing. I felt the bore – it readily admitted much of my hand – and the slick feeling I felt there was astounding. This was so much so that I 'forgot' my question about the witches using a gun that was not susceptible to curses that commonly only had a few rounds remaining near it when captured; and upon reflection, I had the distinct reflection that the usual was to slip something in one of the shells or the gun itself that caused it to self-destruct when fired.

“Part of that is the shipping preservative applied before the gun was shipped, but much of that is the treatment of the bore itself,” said the soft voice, “and you were right about them usually slipping something in guns about to be captured.”

“How many shells for these?” I asked.

“A fair number, but not really enough to use them much,” said the soft voice. “More, getting more loaded rounds is going to be fairly difficult in the next few months, as that kind of casing is too overstressed after firing to be safely reloaded, even once – which is another reason that kind of gun was not used that much on the battlefield once the war had started in earnest.”

After passing the muzzle, I began returning toward the others with Sarah in tow, who was mumbling steadily about rotten cannons and their troubles the entire time until we'd rejoined the party. In the process, I not only had to dodge the remains of another witch – this one with black tattered rags and some scraps of bone remaining among his 'dust – but also, pick up a pristine-looking 'Tosser' pistol at the edge of his 'dust mound'. A glance at this latter weapon showed enough difference from those weapons like it I had previously seen beyond its pristine condition that I reached for my test-file and gently touched it to the weapon's slide.

“This isn't a common one,” I murmured, as the file skittered across the surface to barely leave a mark. A regular 'Tosser' pistol, while not 'butter' for softness, wasn't quite as hard as the usual full-polish wrench – which made for wondering as to just how much the treatment spoken of would help such weapons.

More, would such treatment help this example and those like it we might come across?

“No, it isn't,” said the soft voice. “There are a few 'good' pistols of that kind left in the boxes among the usual 'Tossers', and if you look for those pistols, you most likely can arm those going overseas on the trip who can be trusted with such weapons.”

“I would not trust Gabriel with one of those things,” said Sarah, as I first cleared the weapon and then put the round back in the magazine after lowering the hammer. Once the magazine was back in the weapon's butt and the pistol in my possible bag, we resumed walking and tried to pass on the north-going-to-west side of the second gun. It proved impossible, for other smaller weapons were blocking our path; and once we retraced our steps to go between the two 'cannons', I noticed more about the two 'large' guns. I thought to ask as to how large their shells were.

“One hundred and ten point five millimeters nominal shell diameter, not counting the driving band,” said the soft voice. “If you count that, as does the manual, then the shell is one hundred and twelve millimeters even – and the shell itself weighs nearly thirty-five pounds, of which eight and a half pounds is a potent explosive filler.”

“I wished we had one of these things for Iggy,” said Karl. He sounded impressed by the power of the gun and its shells.

“Right,” I thought silently. “It would have scattered Iggy, us, and the whole stinking laboratory when the shell exploded, just like one of those meal-filled wine-bottles I tossed at the hall would have!” A pause, then as I recalled the nature of the 'pills' we had loaded up, “I'm not certain one of those 'pills' we loaded is worse.”

“No, Karl, we would not have wished a gun nearly the size of a siege gun in that laboratory, especially given how fast that lizard moved at first,” said Sarah. “You do not shift a gun of that size quickly, which would have meant a missed shot – and if I go by how that lizard stood up to that bomb I put to it, a miss with such a shell would have done little to it.”

“That type weighs less than one of Willem's three-inch guns,” said the soft voice. “The shell's a good deal larger than a distance-shell and is far more powerful than one of those shells, even one loaded by Willem, and that gun manages a much greater range than any gun in the five kingdoms. Finally, you do not have to dig holes for its 'tail' to get higher elevations than 'ten'.” A pause, then, “that gun can go to 'forty' just by turning a handwheel – and it turns readily, with no wrench needed.”

“No, Karl,” said Sarah hysterically. “We all would have been blown to rags and then set alight by Iggy's fumes if one of those shells went off in there! I know what Willem fills his with, because I helped him load those things up more than once!”

“Yes?” I asked, indicating Sarah with my voice somehow as the gloom once more fled away to show a row of 'smaller' guns. “A special mixture?”

“He gets that stuff from the Veldters, I think,” said Sarah. “It came in these strange gray-metal cans the size of smaller powder kegs, and I think Korn and someone else was involved in getting it.”

“Korn is not involved,” said the soft voice, “as he has no idea of what Willem is doing, even now.” A pause, then, “Willem is far more devious than he seems, dear, which is one of the reasons why he actually has that equipment you saw in his 'workshop'.” A pause, then, “why do you think he's had that stuff so long without the witches finding him out, and the same for that hay-chopper? You know how he has to keep that thing hidden from all save a few people, don't you?”

“Meaning he's got something in his workshop that would normally only 'pass' in certain parts of the central portion of the fourth kingdom – and the thing's up here and running regularly in what used to be called 'witch-country',” I said. “I am not sure what this area is called now, but it is not thought to be 'witch-country' any more.”

“Those coming witches hope to name it that once again,” said the soft voice, “and in dying, they will cement the first kingdom's new name among witches and those wishing to be witches.”

“What is that name?” asked Katje. “It would seem to be a quick trip to the dinner plate of Brimstone, if I didn't know otherwise.”

“Closer than you might think, at least among the few remaining witches in the kingdom,” said the soft voice. “Now I would look closely at these guns, as they'll be quite useful in the near future, and all of you are likely to need to stand as crew on them – or guns like them – at one time or another in the next few months.”

“All of us?” I asked incredulously.

You might, and again, you might not be able to do so,” said the soft voice. “You will need to coordinate most of the coming affairs in some detail at the least, and most likely you will need to issue somewhat detailed instructions to the several strong-points you set up for that one nearest-in-time witch-invasion as matters develop.” A pause, then, “this location does have suitable equipment for doing so, by the way.”

“Radios?” I asked.

“These devices need wires,” said the soft voice, “but they do transmit voice particularly well, and they're very easy to use – unlike any radios you might be able to make on short notice.” This implied that making more radios was a likely event in my future.

“Wires?” asked Sarah. “Are these like those used..?”

“No, dear, they are not like the wires you've seen in the past,” said the soft voice. “These sets have wires that are much thinner, so much so that you can 'cut' their hiding places in the ground quickly with corn-knives, poke the wire in with sticks, and then remove it once the witches have been 'smashed'.”

“Those sound like field-telephones,” I said.

“They are, even if these 'phones' are 'amplified' so they're much clearer and have far greater range than those you've heard of,” said the soft voice. “Each such set has a battery, which is why there are a number of spare batteries down here as well as several sizable boxes of spare parts for those phones.”

I then gave my attention to the first of the row of 'guns', and as I held my lantern higher, I was astonished to learn the picture I had been 'given' was indeed accurate. I went to the front of the huge-seeming barrel of the first gun, then put my index finger down the conical flash-hider to find the bore.

“It's fully as large as I thought,” I muttered as my index finger entered with room to spare. “How large are these things?”

“Nineteen millimeter nominal diameter for the projectiles,” said the soft voice, “and like most shells here, they tend to be a lot longer for their diameter than what pictures you might have seen before coming here.” A pause, then, “it helps quite a bit with range and penetration, as you might guess from that rifle's performance on witches and swine this morning.”

“N-nine ounces?” I murmured.

“They're also heavier for a given size than most such rounds where you come from,” said the soft voice. “That tracer composition isn't quite 'cap-sensitive', but it's close enough to being an explosive that penetration of anything stiffer than thin 'sheet-metal' makes it burn like dust-powder – and not 'normal' dust powder.” A pause, then, “I meant the 'fines' Willem sifts out of what he loads his shells with when he's got that 'special' powder that comes in canisters.”

“I'm not certain what he does with that stuff,” said Sarah, “but I do know he saves it in jugs, and I also know he does not keep those jugs anywhere near his house or his other buildings.”

“He's recently found a use for it,” said the soft voice. “He heard about ink-globes from Andreas, and now he and Paul have begun loading ink-globes with that material.” A pause, then, “he thinks such 'squibs' to be useful for flushing those tinned thugs out of hiding when they're caught out while going through a town.”

“He will want damp squibs for that,” said Karl. “I will give him one of those things the next time I see him.”

“That would be most unwise,” said Katje. “You do not want to wreck the house when you flush those people, and those things would wreck houses if used, unlike what he's been loading recently.” A pause, then, “they're bad enough as they are, as they'll cut any of those thugs who's found in a room to ribbons unless they're wearing decent plate.” Katje obviously didn't know what such squibs did to the unprotected flesh of tin-wearing thugs. I did, and that by direct observation.

“I know,” said Sarah. “What he loads his shells with is too strong for any common gun to use as powder.”

“It's quite a bit too strong for what the Veldters use, also,” said the soft voice, “which is why they sell it 'tinned' that way as 'surplus' to some few tinkers that go into the towns that have powder mills in the Valley – and Willem hid one of those men for some years in his buildings before that individual amassed enough funds to become a tinker, so Willem and a few other cannon-masters who did likewise for that man and three others like him get some unusually 'hot' shell-filling from time to time.”

“Uh, is this what the shells to rotten cannons are filled with?” I asked.

“It is sold as such, but what those people receive is not nearly as strong, nor is it nearly as safe to use, relatively speaking,” said the soft voice. “Black-dressed thugs are not welcome in the Valley, and more than a few members of the Mule Totem have spread tales of what they are like to those not down on the southern border.” A pause, then, “the Rooster Totem, however, is in a class by itself when it comes to such antipathy – and they tend to shoot such people on sight, no matter when or where they're encountered.”

I wondered silently where the guns' ammunition was, and then understood: there were several locations in here that had 'maps' of a sort, and we would find those in our circumferential exploration of the place as well as manuals for the weapons themselves. A brief glance at the first gun, however, told me another matter of grave importance.

“This thing comes apart readily for transport!” I gasped.

“Of course it does,” said the soft voice. “Once those noisy little gun-tractors were either broken or withdrawn from front-line service, they had to get these things around somehow, and the usual was to either dismantle them and ferry the pieces using carts like those you've found in that last cache, or in some rare instances, using a train of pack-horses.”

“No mules, as those tended to need shooting when and where they appeared,” I muttered.

“With very few exceptions, yes,” said the soft voice. “The few exceptions were shipped overseas with the goal of breeding them for draft animals for use in-theater, but they proved to be far more trouble than they were worth and were put down shortly after arrival.”

“So that's how the Veldters got their mules,” said Sarah. “They caught some that had gone wild, and...”

“They did much more than what that tapestry implied,” said the soft voice. “Firstly, the surviving mules had lost a good portion of their cursedness by the time those people had started breeding them, then they ruthlessly culled out any mule with a bad temperament – and finally, they bred them carefully to give a good temperament over many generations and several hundreds of years.” A pause, then “the chief curse of mules now is two-fold: one, their existence is contravened by the book because they're curse-fostered hybrids between horses and donkeys originally, and secondly – the chief reason, now – is that widely-prevalent witch-fostered prejudice on the part of those non-witches living in the five kingdoms.”

“The mules will all die when the Curse breaks entirely,” I muttered, as I resumed leading the way. “I have no idea how the surviving Veldters will endure the loss of their animals.”

“Mostly start raising donkeys instead, as some of them currently do,” said the soft voice. “There are some animals ridden by the Veldters that look like 'undersized' mules, but are not mules in any way.”

“Why is it they have those?” asked Sarah.

“Partly to keep the line alive, as they were entrusted with doing that long ago by some refugees from Vrijlaand just after the Curse 'hit',” said the soft voice, “and mostly because those people can readily live with the 'slow' speed of donkeys and prefer their more-even temperament to that of mules.”

“Those things I saw were not slow,” I muttered. “Go all day, and most of the night? At that speed?”

“Recall what those members of the Mule Totem were riding?” asked the soft voice. “Donkeys are slow compared to those.” A pause, then, “however, if one is a goat-herder living in a wagon, or a mægranté doing likewise, then one wishes a team of donkeys in the valley instead of mules, as one then needs stamina over speed – and most escapees, if they can, try to secure one of those larger donkeys for riding. Only their comparative rarity at this time forces most of those people to ride mules out of the Valley.”

I was about to ask just what a mægranté was when Sarah said, “that is how tinkers are named in the Valley, only that name is not just for tinkers. There are some who live and work there that move around on a circuit as I did while an itinerant tailor, and they live much as tinkers or goat-herders do.”

“Complete with the tools of their trade in their donkey-drawn 'wagons',” said the soft voice. “They aren't exactly rare there, and more than one of those people has escaped with both his life and his home in recent years by heading out through one of the passes late at night and then continuing on north through the west foothills until he or she was out of danger.” A pause, then, “some of those people are now named Vendors in the kingdoms south of here.”

We had passed by five of those 'evil-looking' guns, or as I was beginning to think, 'cannons', and in passing the last of them, we had to go single file between the last gun's barrel and a nearby head-tall 'square'. However, as I led the way past it, I could almost 'feel' what was on that shipping platform – or perhaps 'pallet' was the better word – and I knew that particular one to have equipment that related to the guns we were now leaving behind us.

“It and the next one,” said the soft voice, “and to your left, you'll shortly see some sizable carts ready-set-up and waiting to be used.”

“What?” I gasped. I knew these eight-foot-long things weren't the smaller carts spoken of earlier, as those would need assembly, unlike these.

“They have good tires on them still,” said the soft voice. “They'll just need to have their bearings packed, as they currently have shipping preservative in those things instead of proper grease.”

“And there is no such grease here,” I murmured.

“None that was terribly good when packed, and it's 'gone bad' since it came here,” said the soft voice. “I would wipe the insides of the bearings out with a rag dampened with boiled distillate, and then use a small piece of a rag to wipe on a bit of red-paste. That will work until you can get real bearing 'grease' for those things.”

“W-wipe out the inside of the bearings?” I asked.

“Those use loose balls, much like many bicycle wheels did where you came from,” said the soft voice, “and will need careful adjustment, much like those wheels I spoke of, once they've been cleaned and 'dosed'.” The obvious portion was left out: I had done this many times beforehand, as I had had a bicycle as well as the car. The bike was simply more convenient when I had the time and energy to use it and where I needed to go wasn't that far away; more, there were times I needed to go places while I was working on the car, and that area did not have public transportation.

“Why loose balls?” I asked.

“So they could be adjusted to suit the available lubricants and balls,” said the soft voice. “They didn't have red-paste then, and 'grease', even when the containers it was shipped in were from the same batch, tended to vary quite a bit as to viscosity and other crucial factors. Hence adjustable bearings were commonly used for low-speed applications then, and 'tapered roller bearings' which could be shim-adjusted were preferred for higher-speed devices.” A pause, then, “That, and they could use 'second-rate' balls far more readily in those slow-speed bearings, and some of the machines then used overseas and elsewhere for antifriction bearing production at that time had 'wandering' tendencies'.”

“They moved around some, or they needed constant and vigilant attention to hold tight-enough tolerances?” I asked.

“The latter far more than the former, though some machines vibrated badly enough when mishandled to need 'restraining',” said the soft voice. “Suffice it to say that antifriction bearings were difficult to make in real quantity then, unlike today where they turn them out like so many cheap tin plates.”

“Looser tolerances, or..?”

My thinking received a resounding 'no'. It wasn't a matter of looser tolerances today, but rather a lengthy period of development in all areas of bearing manufacturing; and what passed for 'grade A+++ equipment and bearings' during the time of these carts being made would be considered worthless scrap today, at least in most situations.

And then, I knew that even that all-encompassing way of thinking fell far short of what had actually been done since the time of the war's ending, when 'research and development' took the place of 'maximum production rates, and that at all costs'.

With roughly a dozen more steps, we reached the end of the three carts, and the wall began to slant somewhat to the right. Ahead lay another wall, this one blank like the slanting one had been, and with each cautious step, I could see drawing closer what looked like a large alcove, one that I knew needed careful exploration. It seemed both a prime realm for setting a trap and a location populated with a great many dust-mounds; and I hoped we would not find any more curse-animated 'bone-masses' there.

The word for 'skeleton' didn't have nearly the same impact as the phrase 'bone-mass'; and I had learned recently just what the difference actually was. It had not had that same impact as it did now; and when the wall showed itself 'naked' with a soft gloaming black hole but a short distance to its right, I wondered just what I was actually seeing.

“I think that is how these supplies were put in here,” said Sarah. “That one tapestry described how long it took to load this place up, with the Mistress of the North's boughten people doing all of the work and she herself checking it throughout the process and then sealing that doorway there herself – and that one stinky witch was involved, also, though how that stinker did more than sell her what she needed is a mystery.”

“Mostly because 'that stinky witch' stole everything you see in here, and hence it cost him nothing beyond the cost of shooting down with his shotgun those who had hijacked the various shipments – as payment for a job he thought 'well-done',” said the soft voice. “Because these supplies were deemed 'premium' ordnance in that time and place, he got thrice his usual 'grossly inflated' price for everything.”

A pause, this for emphasis.

“Not only were these weapons and other supplies not terribly susceptible to cursing,” said the soft voice, “but unlike most of what he sold, these supplies were worth every bit of what he charged.”

“Why?” I asked. I could not fathom what I had just heard.

“You saw how well the rifles worked this morning,” said the soft voice. “They usually performed substantially better than any 'common' weapons that could be gotten in this area and most of the neighboring countries, and the 'common' soldiers from this region invariably tossed most – and sometimes, all – of their issued gear if and when they could pick this type of equipment up off of the battlefield.”

“They probably got in big trouble later,” I muttered.

“That only happened if the person inspecting them was not one of those chosen by the Mistress of the North,” said the soft voice. “That witch wanted to win at all costs, and she was all-too-willing to countenance such 'measures' when they made her troops more effective in combat – and having this type of equipment did precisely that.”

“What of those named 'witch-soldiers'?” I asked. We were come unto the 'cavern' itself, and while there were more carts to each side of its mouth, I could see what resembled a giant carved-stone cork inside it that went from ceiling to floor. While the others remained where they were with Sarah and Katje holding them back, I went forward, alone once more, so as to learn the nature of this new evidence. I then heard more information that I needed to know for the future.

“Witch-soldiers were an entirely different matter in every respect,” said the soft voice, “and nothing that they used was stored here.” A pause, then, “their gear was not a matter of state issue, but something they purchased of their own funds.”

Another pause.

“The state charged them a very high price, first for the privilege of being trained to be a witch-soldier, then further substantial sums for the equipment they needed – it tended to be more or less standardized, even if several firms each made all of the long list of required items – and then further per-diem funds for the privilege of engaging in combat on behalf of the state.”

“What?” I gasped. “They paid to serve...”

“It was a very expensive matter to be a witch-soldier, as one needed to purchase all of one's supplies – one's body-armor, one's personal weapons, one's own food and housing, all the way down to every single round of ammunition expended. All of that equipment and supplies came out of the individual witch-soldier's purse, and all of it was purchased from the state; and those 'training' and 'combat' fees further enriched the state to no small degree – which is how it built and operated its war machines.” A pause, then, “and if such an individual died in combat, then his pre-paid funeral expenses enriched the state yet further in the matter of disposing of his body, and his remaining gear reverted to the state – which refurbished it to sell it again as if it were indeed new.”

Another pause, then, “those witches here who were strong enough to use the gear of witch-soldiers kept their supplies in their quarters – and beyond that close inner clique of that head arch-witch, there weren't many witches on site capable of using such gear.”

“Shouldn't 'many be 'any'?” I asked. I had other questions, but that particular one would not wait.

“Not really, as there were a small number of the original complement of witches installed here that could use some witch-grade ordnance if they worked at it hard enough,” said the soft voice. “The chief trouble was they had to work at controlling those weapons to such a degree that they could not do much else.”

“That would seem to be much of a liability, and little help,” said Sarah. I wondered how I heard her so clearly.

“That was nothing short of the dire truth,” said the soft voice, “and the first of that head arch-witch's inner circle to be killed was that one expert witch.” A pause, then, “without his training, his experience, his working knowledge of curses and military matters, the other 'strong' witches were killed off one after another as the hours progressed, until that head arch-witch died in that deep-hole by the command of the Mistress of the North but three days after that expert witch died of poisoned drink.”

I was speechless to hear this, so much so that I resumed my exploration of the alcove. I then heard yet more that I needed to know.

“The Mistress of the North 'desired' the services of that expert witch,” said the soft voice, “and when he spurned her demands, she decided upon the instant to act 'sooner' rather than 'later'; she then decided to kill him first, and then wipe out all possible opposition to her plans before completing what she had planned to do here – and all of that for but one simple reason.”

“What was that?” asked Katje.

“To her way of thinking – which was merely an amplified form of what nearly every witch then and today thought and thinks – only an enemy would not do his utmost to read her mind full and well upon the instant of her thinking, and then follow through so as to give her what she wished, when she wished it, and that to the utmost degree regardless of cost or effort.” A pause, then, “all of you, remember that statement carefully – as it describes the attitude of nearly every witch alive today who's at all serious about being a witch.”

While hearing all of this, I had explored the alcove to the best of my ability; and I had counted four large carts, these identical to the ones I had seen moments earlier; that one huge 'stone' plug; an area behind it, one so small that I could not squeeze myself small enough to investigate what might be there – I was afraid to let Sarah try, as I feared for her safety – and finally, a single elongated dust-mound, with one reaching trail of dust ending just short of the butt of a part-hidden pistol laying just under one of the carts. I picked the weapon up, cleared it – it was loaded, safety off, yet the hammer was somehow down – and I reached for my test-file as I turned to go.

The noise made by my file on the pistol's slide told me enough: we now had two good pistols of this size, and I handed it to Sarah. She looked at it, then put it in her satchel inside what looked like a small newly-added pocket. I wondered if she had used rivets in doing so, as I could faintly see a dull copper gleaming.

The wall fled away to our left but a short distance further, and as I slow-stepped ahead, I could 'feel' something of dire importance ahead. It was of such importance that I only saw the 'terminus-block' about four feet prior to bumping into it, and as I came closer cautiously, I saw two other obvious matters, these side by side and such that I could easily stand on both of them were I inclined.

“I have read of those, but never seen them before now,” said Sarah as she came along my right side. “You know what those go to, don't you?”

“They look like railroad rails,” I said. “They're narrower than what I recall them being, and...”

“They are not those used in mines, as those are both closer together and much lighter in construction,” said Sarah. “This is a portion of that secret way that witches used long ago.”

“She wanted to attach it to the main lines, yes,” said the soft voice, “but she became unusually busy during that time, hence she was able to start this spur, but not drive the rest of the roughly five hundred yards to where she could connect it to a small depot that then existed in this region.”

“How far in does it go?” asked Sepp.

I looked at the rails, then began walking between them, indicating that the others should follow me, but not too closely. In the distance, I could see something blocky and 'strange-looking', and to my right, I saw a yard-wide stack of obvious rails, these stacked neatly on thin supports to the height of my waist. I began counting my paces, all the while watching ahead for a surprise, and when I actually saw the handcar, I was but three feet away from the thing and about to collide with it.

“This is one of those things, all right,” spluttered Sarah to my right. She seemed close enough to touch easily. “They used things like this to travel then.”

“They still do, dear,” said the soft voice. “This type of vehicle is still fairly common, even if the originals are very scarce, no longer usable for their intended purpose, and held dearly by high-ranking witches as prime fetishes.” A pause, then, “they were also used as patterns for copying, and all of the witch-run instrument-making shops in the fifth kingdom usually have at least one 'improved' copy of these things 'under construction', and orders for several more in their stacks.”

“Improved?” I asked. “As in decorated..?”

“No, as in lighter weight compared to the one here and 'more-precise' construction than is usual for those firms,” said the soft voice. “That car there is entirely of metal. The usual witch-built one, especially if it's built in one of those places, uses a fair amount of 'imported' wood and 'decent' grade metal, much like Sarah's buggy does, and since only witches use those, they wish them to work well.”

“Why, if they're for witches?” asked Sarah. “They want shiny fetishes.”

“Yes, but not when time is of the essence and the messengers need to deliver important materials as quickly as possible,” said the soft voice. “Hence the witch-grade 'handcars' commonly roll very freely as such things go, pump readily up to a surprisingly high speed, and use materials that are not the usual grade for the things of witchdom.”

“S-surprisingly?” I asked.

“One like I described, if given proper care and frequent maintenance, can easily achieve and maintain a steady speed of ten to twelve miles an hour, and that with a team of six witches on it taking turns,” said the soft voice. “They usually run such cars in eight hour shifts, so they can readily keep going almost without a break at half again the average speed of a postal buggy – and they carry some modest freight while doing so – again, much like a postal buggy.”

“That means such vehicles can easily beat the post,” said Katje. “No wonder the witches manage what they do.”

“That is for those,” said the soft voice. “There are other 'copied' vehicles that manage higher-yet speeds, but those need uncommon care and unceasing vigilance to run without fear of accident, unlike this type.” A pause, then, “and there are a lot of copied handcars rolling around this area's underground railways at this time.”

Knowing this spurred my efforts, and I climbed up atop the 'handcar'. My initial impression was one of great solidity, with what resembled a pierced species of deck plate extending nearly a foot and a half on each side past the three-feet wide pair of rails; then as I walked on the thing's deck, I glanced up to see more of those dead lights we had seen in the first hall here, only these were perhaps ten feet apart and connected to one another by an oval steel conduit. By my lamp, I made out both installed lights and conduit painted a pale green color, and when I glanced down again I was nearly struck in the groin by a long 'L'-shaped piece coming out of a tall rectangular 'box' in the front. I pushed down on this, and to my astonished mind, the car actually moved forward perhaps a foot to then glide slowly – and noiselessly – to a stop.

It wasn't all that hard to push, which made me wonder just how well the witch-made handcars worked.

“About as good as that one does, actually,” said the soft voice. “They build those things in the fifth kingdom, not in the fourth kingdom's market, so they use tied-together lapped sleeves with oilers like those found on a postal buggy instead of 'real bearings'.”

“Real bearings?” I asked.

“Hand-selected and hand-assembled antifriction bearings made in the green area were used for this handcar,” said the soft voice, “and those bearings have oil reservoirs filled with a 'restricted' species of synthetic lubricant that was secretly imported from Vrijlaand.” A pause, then, “the fourth kingdom's market has access to antifriction bearings, even if one has to know just who to speak to and provide a sizable inducement along with the order for them, and it commonly takes a month or more to then receive those bearings.”

I got off of the car, then continued walking alongside it. I came to the 'orphaned' ends of the rails, and noted the raised portions that still proceeded along the ground-smooth floor, until I came to a rocky face that showed signs of picks and pry-bars, as well as several drilled holes near its center. These last looked about right for black-sticks, if I went by how my fingers fit in them.

“They did not use dynamite, even if their explosive charges looked like what you were thinking of,” said the soft voice, “and while their 'powder' was weak compared to some of the 'hotter' grades of dynamite used by 'farmers', it was comparatively safe to handle and kept well.”

“That's worth something to know,” I muttered, as I reversed my course to join the others who were flanking the car on my right side. “How did they set them off – electric caps?”

“As a rule, yes,” said the soft voice – who then implied there were some of those blasting supplies in here also.

“What?” I asked.

“That explosive commonly needed a 'booster' due to its insensitivity, which meant threading 'rope' through the last stick in a borehole and then tying those ropes together and then taping the cap to the 'rope-bundle',” said the soft voice. “There are two large spools of such 'rope' here, as well as several full boxes remaining of electric caps.”

“And a lot of those boxes with some caps that have been removed,” I thought, as I wished we had nothing but full boxes of caps. I really wanted those.

“You just got them,” said the soft voice. “Now every such box is brimming full with 'best' grade electrical caps – which is enough caps to get you by until you can readily produce more like them.”

“B-best grade?” I asked.

“First, they do not use liquid death compounds, so they aren't nearly as poisonous,” said the soft voice, “they don't have chlorate in them either, so they won't cause rust, and then they're all made sufficiently well that they're more or less as reliable as Dietrich-102 anvils.” A pause, then, “just stick the juice to them, and they'll 'go' like thunder and flash like a bad 'water-closet'.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah. “No one talks like that unless they're on a tapestry.”

“Best get used to hearing such talk, then,” said the soft voice. “It's commonplace overseas.”