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

Leaving the aborted tunnel behind, we now continued on toward the east. My small 'music box' received a consultation from time to time; here, we found more of those dust mounds. Two more of those 'good' Tosser pistols showed, as well as a blackened 'poke-knife' of a type that Sarah recognized from a tapestry. She said it wasn't a fetish – Rachel had picked up one like it on the trip south, and had written about it on that one tapestry she'd bathed for – and while it wasn't quite as good as a Vrijlaand blade, it had proved itself a decent knife on the rest of the trip, according to Sarah.

“Most likely one made by the people who made this stuff, then,” I murmured, as I continued on. There were other areas needing exploring in this room, and while the dust mounds were numerous enough – several of them had 'regular' tosser pistols, these also in pristine condition; they were picked up and pocketed just the same – my chief concern was to attempt to find a 'map'. More, I hoped I could find more of those 'decent' knives.

“The workers stole some of them, and the witches nearly all of the rest,” said the soft voice. “That box of knives has nothing but 'sawdust' in it now – or so it looks. There are a few more of those knives still hiding in it.”

“Meaning I'll need to finish up that batch before we leave,” I thought, “or failing that, bring them to a usable condition.” They were close enough to that state now to need perhaps three hours to make them 'usable', and then Hans could 'dose' their wooden portions with some of his wood-treatment 'oil'.

“I would do that and take what decent knives you find here,” said the soft voice. “You will wish spares, as those people across the sea can really use decent knives and those over them disarmed them 'far long years ago', as they speak of the time of the war.” A pause, then, “Given a few samples, they can make more in some quantity readily.”

“And these things will serve?” I asked. “They look a little like those I'm finishing up.”

Those you're working on will be coveted, and you'll have people there and elsewhere wanting to 'look them over',” said the soft voice, “and they'll try to make those.” A pause, then, “that design lends itself poorly to their current means of production, unlike those you've been finding – even if they can manage a much better steel than what those you've found so far have.”

“Do they have poor metal?” asked Sarah.

“Compared to the usual here?” said the soft voice. “Not even close to what's common in the five kingdoms, even if what Dennis is working on is significantly better for edge-holding and toughness.” A pause, then, “most witches would fight over such blades, even if they're not as large as those they like.”

“Slip one of those into a thin leather holster stitched to the inside of your riding boot,” I muttered. “Reach down as if to look in your boot for 'hiding' firebugs, then lunge upward with such a knife and get your adversary in the chest before he realizes anything is happening.”

“Exactly, even if most witches would not think to do as you said,” said the soft voice. “They would, however, use such a knife for much of their 'surprise' work – and if you have enough spares, I'd give one each to Lukas and Gilbertus. Both men could use such a 'hideout dagger', and they'd do just as you suggested with their riding boots – which will create something of a market for such knives.” A pause, then, “expect regular orders for such daggers if you do that, however – and that one shoemaker will become even more busy than he currently is, so much so that he'll try to get some fourth kingdom machinery up here so as to keep up with the increased demand.”

“He will have trouble getting it, so such orders will go to the shop instead,” said Katje. “We'll need to turn a bit left shortly, lest we run into one of these stacks of things they have here.” A brief pause, then in a screechy voice, “I have never seen so much Kuchen dough gone bad in my life!”

I turned, and shining my light, I saw what Katje was pointing at. An 'untouched' head-high stack of plastic-wrapped light-gray explosive stood but feet from the two of us, and I gasped at the knowledge of just what we had here. I said a silent prayer of thanks to God for providing for us, as if anything, we had sufficient to fight a not-so-small war here.

“Enough to get started on fighting such a war, you mean,” said the soft voice. “You'll want a lot more equipment, much better equipment, easier-to-use equipment, and a great many items that currently do not exist even in your mind – and that merely to deal with that witch to the north. By the time the place is where it belongs in time and space... You will not recognize it, and that's so even if you resort to what is called 'science fiction' where you come from.”

The wall to our left began minutes later to first slope southward at an angle, then formed a wall that forced us to move right. Here, there was a narrow aisle, then at the end of this odd 'projection', another narrower aisle turned to the left once more. I wished to follow it, but the narrowness of this aisle made for single-file walking; and in my case, I nearly had to go sideways, it was so narrow.

It made for a fervent downward looking for trip-wires, and I was disappointed when I did not find a single example. This situation was all-but made for trapping, so much so that when we passed through the narrow gap, I was astonished to find conjoined mounds of 'witch-dust' laying everywhere upon the floor. It was hard to walk without disturbing the mounds of the stuff, in fact.

“What happened?” asked Sarah. She was looking for a path through the dust. There was a narrow way right next to the wall – provided one faced the wall and walked sideways with great care. Otherwise, the only thing I could think of was to go into the maze of packing crates or whatever was on the shipping platforms, and then somehow return to our path – and I knew that way wasn't a good idea.

“That one witch trapped that place you just went through, and caught an entire party of thieving witches with a collection of 'medium-sized' delayed action curse-activated bombs,” said the soft voice. “If you look carefully, you can see chips in the wall made by his 'shot'.”

I went to the wall, lantern close to my chest, and began walking sideways as I had thought to do. The number of small chipped places was frightening, so much so that I asked, “what did that wretch use – that pelleted wolfram stuff?”

“A smaller granulation than he used in his curse-mines, but otherwise, yes,” said the soft voice. “More, this 'shot' was specially-coated with layered chemicals and highly cursed, so it killed in mere seconds even if a single pellet grazed one of his victims.” A pause, then, “he had this area so covered that those witches dropped in place when his bombs exploded, and he then removed what they were trying to carry off and put it in his pile – which is in hiding, and ahead of you.”

“I hope that w-wolfram stuff isn't lying around,” muttered Katje. “I am not inclined toward cursed metals.”

“It is, though it's lost much of its cursed aspect,” said the soft voice. “Most of that 'shot' is in these dust-mounds, so if you step around them you'll be safe enough.”

“Specially-coated?” I asked. I wondered if this was like those evil bullets put up by Madame Curoue.

“Similar concept, much greater lethality, and vastly quicker 'knock-down',” said the soft voice. “Madame Curoue was trying to recreate that particular poison when her laboratory lost containment and self-destructed while she was working in there – and the 'breach' alarm no longer worked, even if most of the other equipment was in surprisingly good shape.” A pause, then, “no warning whatsoever: just a huge and hot flash-fire and finally a subterranean eruption that buried the whole mess under many yards of fine gravel mingled with a mixture of special surface-coated salts.”

“Gravel mingled with s-salt? Salts?” I asked. I wondered just what she had used, in fact.

“One of the Mistress of the North's innovations,” said the soft voice. “She'd seen what escaping drugs could do in this area when it was still heavily populated, and hence she researched what it would take to prevent such 'escapes' should containment be breached.” A pause, then, “what she did worked, even though it was centuries old, which was why there wasn't a severe 'plague' in the second kingdom.”

Walking around these mounded dust-piles was not the easiest thing, even if I could see places to put my feet; and I thought to carry Katje so she would not be in danger of accidently stepping on one of the jagged-edged tungsten-matrix pellets. While they had indeed lost much of their potency over the centuries, the fact that 'cursed tungsten' was still a fairly nasty poison if touched was no joke, and therefore I picked her up and lightly walked around the worst of the mounds before setting her down. When I did so, she asked why.

“Your shoes, dear,” I said. “Remember how they need replacement? You do not want to walk in that area, as there's enough of that gritty stuff laying about that you might step on a pellet – and those things will cut your feet.”

“Then you had best carry Maarten, also,” said Katje, “as his shoes need rags in them to cover the holes now.”

I then saw that Sarah had organized matters such that Karl and Sepp – both of whom now had trekking boots – were carrying Maarten, while Sarah was scouting a path for them. She led around the mounds, but as she did, she was muttering about how she was now glad for full-hobnail boots of such thick soles. I imagined Karl was learning about knitted stockings, as his boots were obviously new.

“There's much of that gritty stuff on this floor,” said Sarah. “That stinky witch was a thorough wretch with his bombs, and no mistake.”

“I wonder just what he used?” I thought.

“Those he made up from scratch, more or less,” said the soft voice. “He got his 'tungsten' from the green area, where a lot of such metal was actually processed from its pre-concentrated ore.”

“Was this a pure ore, or a mixture of metals?”

“Mostly tungsten, but there was iron and several other metals found in the most-common species of ore with it,” said the soft voice. “Properly treated and 'cleaned up' thoroughly, it made a very good material for inserted tools like you used to have.”

“C-carbide?” I asked.

“A type of it, yes,” said the soft voice. “The green-area shops mixed the raw washed-and-concentrated ore with graphite and some fluoride compounds, then used electrolysis under high heat to remove most of the more troublesome impurities and combine the carbon with the tungsten while reducing the other oxides to their metals. The resulting friable powder was then pressed in molds of the correct size and shape, and then baked at high temperatures in a reducing atmosphere. The resulting 'inserts' were then roughly ground to size, and the powder made from wet-grinding them went into the next batch to be so 'cooked' – which made for better inserts, as a rule.”

“Did they work?” I asked.

“Yes, but they tended to be both unusually inclined toward wear and somewhat brittle compared to what you're familiar with,” said the soft voice. “They did quite a bit better overseas given the raw material – or 'shot' like that witch used, which is a part-compressed and low-sintered 'crude' tungsten-iron-cobalt alloy.” A pause, then, “that was the usual form sold to other countries and the large hot-zone firms that made 'real' inserts, as it reduced bulk and overall weight and simplified further processing.”

The two blocks to the right were behind us now, and turning right showed a wider aisle to our front, as well as two lines of chain-connected poles. These led to a black hole blocked by stereotypical 'barroom' doors, these things hung such that they could flap like the wings of a dead bat.

A dead bat, this hung by its hind legs, was the symbol of a particularly potent species of strong drink; and the witches consuming the stuff desired it greatly. It was not cheap – but then again, no fetish was.

To reach those doors, however, one had to traverse a hallway, this narrow with an arched roof pocked with more of those elongated thermos- style bulbs, and to each side, faintly rustling 'advertisements' stood shoulder-to-shoulder and head-high.

One such advertisement showed the 'power' of a tire-burning Draštic Dödge as it 'launched'; all four rear tires were billowing thick gray smoke, while the driver was sawing on the wheel crazily to keep it pointed straight – while another...

No, all save that one twelve inch high glossy and colorful picture of an insanely powerful vehicle – all save one of these face-high pictures were advertisements showing bottles of high-octane drink; and in each bottom left corner, I saw what looked like a dead bat, the wings shaped like those of a dead fly and the tongue sticking out as if to show the animal's final act of revulsion toward what it had been 'pickled' with.

“I think this to be the entrance to a drink-house,” said Sarah as she came beside me. I was at one of the doors, and about to push it open. “They print little of note in the fifth kingdom house, but they do print this type of rubbish.” Sarah was pointing at the 'advertisements'.

“D-dead... What is that thing?” I asked, as I pointed to the dead 'bat'.

“Those like that are no longer present,” said Sarah, “but they were common in this area then. A supposed test of strong drink then was to drown such an animal in a pot of such drink, and if the animal died with its tongue out like that, the stuff that killed it was thought by the witches to be worth drinking.” A pause, then, “that sounds more like it was a fit poison, if it killed animals by dipping them in it.”

“D-do they still put pictures of those things..?”

“Yes, they do,” said Sarah. “Usually such a bottle decorated in that fashion contains what those mining town thugs call whiskey.” A pause, then, “the very worst type I have heard of is called Red Eye.”

“F-forty chain?” I asked. I then recalled what that stuff really was – namely, Veldter drain opener.

“If it has a dead flying-animal on the bottle, I think it is worse than what the Veldters make, or those bad copies of that stuff sold in the fifth kingdom,” said Sarah. “I know it smells worse, as I've seen those thugs drink that stuff and forty-chain.”

I began to push on one of the doors, this gently with my lantern-holding hand while reaching for my pistol's holster and quietly unbuttoning it. There was a faint rustle of dry ancient hinges, then – I was afraid of meeting a just-woken 'bone-mass' come to find more drink so that it might sleep for another thousand years – I pressed upon the door further and stepped into the room. The door stayed open, and soft steps followed me inside. One of those making such steps then spoke as I 'surveyed' the surprisingly large room.

“And if they get one of your stills for rubbing Geneva, they will need to name that especially bad strong drink she spoke of differently,” said Katje. “Now I am glad for this pistol, as I can smell thugs in here.”

“How?” I asked – until I sniffed a second later. “You're right, though. It smells like a drink-house filled with black-dressed thugs, and...” I looked about the room once more, this time concentrating on its contents rather than where a bone-mass – or some other kind of superannuated thug – might be hiding himself.

Mounded dust usurped the area around a number of stools, while suits of black clothing, this gone to shreds, lay among these mounds of dust; and those pistols Sarah had named 'Tossers' seemed omnipresent. A touch with the 'test file' to the first one I found showed this weapon to be a 'user' and not a 'Tosser'; and as I slowly moved about the room, on average one pistol out of three I tested proved to be a 'user'. Meanwhile, the others began to look around in this now 'small' and 'close-seeming room' – it seemed to have shrunken somehow with more than one person in it – and when Karl spluttered loudly, I looked up from testing a pistol. He'd found something, though what it was seemed an entire mystery until he'd gotten it loose from where it had been hidden behind this one 'dais' in the corner – or perhaps 'bar' would be a better label for this multi-angled plank supported by cheap-looking wooden 'panels'.

The pistol I had been looking at proved a 'user', as did the next one I tested, this second pistol being all but touching the one previous. The ratio of 'users' to 'Tossers' was steadily climbing as I went across the room, and I was wondering where to put all of these 'user-grade pistols'. At this rate, we would have enough 'users' for the five to be going overseas twice over, and one each for Hans and Anna.

“Now this is a brigand's weapon,” said Karl, as he came closer. I then looked up, and was stunned, so much so that I nearly dropped that second 'user' pistol on the table nearest me. I needed to clear the weapon before wrapping it in a rag so Sepp could tie it with string and 'bag' it – and where he had gotten the pair of bags, the bundles of rags, and the brown-toned ball of string was a near-complete mystery.

Karl was not merely wearing a long brown fabric chest-crossing 'belt' filled with those 'tinned' all-brass shotgun shells, but he'd found a wood-stocked shotgun that looked to have 'shortened' barrels compared to the two we had found earlier. The weapon looked deadly indeed.

“A brigand's weapon?” I murmured. “Short barrels like that?”

“I have heard of them using these things,” said Karl ominously, “and both Lukas and Gilbertus told me that, so I think it is likely.” A pause, then, “neither of those two spoke about this way of keeping the ammunition to hand, though, so I think this gun and its belt is something a brigand would wish.”

“I am not sure about brigands, Karl,” said Sarah, “but I am sure about Anna, if those shells are loaded with common-sized shot.”

“How, dear?” I asked. I wanted to ask Karl where he'd found that gun, as I had a suspicion he'd missed a real prize – either due to him not looking terribly well, or his being so enamored by what he had found right off that he'd needed to show someone.

“Because she will fight him so as to have that gun for rats, and she'd wear that belt just like he has so as to shoot them at them when they start showing,” said Sarah. “I have seen her when that house has rats in it, and I'd almost name her ready to live for a season in a rest house, she gets so irritated.”

“What?” I asked.

“She's been after a short musket or fowling piece for shooting those things for ever so long,” said Sarah, “and that one there looks very likely, or I do not know her at all.”

“And if that ammunition has, uh, stiff shot in it..?” I asked. I wondered.

My wondering, however, segued into intense interest, and I went to where Karl had laid both belt and gun, this being on the angled 'table' of the 'bar' in the corner directly opposite the entrance. An examination of one of the shells showed it to be indeed as the others were outwardly, but as I looked at it again with the lantern close by, the brass casing went a trifle gauzy to show what the thing was actually loaded with.

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “These things are not loaded with common shot, either for size or much else.”

“What do they have, then?” asked Sepp. “Those things loaded stiff?”

“I th-think so,” I muttered. “Our Heinrich mould might make larger shot, but this stuff is not small.”

“How large is it, then?” asked Sarah.

“Nearly fifteen lines,” I squeaked.

“Actually it's closer to sixteen lines, which was the common size witches loaded shells for use while 'hunting' sacrifices and on the battlefield,” said the soft voice, “and what's hidden where Karl found that gun is a secret compartment that has not merely more of those shells, but also two 'user' pistols and a tin of ammunition for those weapons.”

“Anna using this thing on rats?” I gasped. I could just see cabinets blown to wide-scattered kindling, furniture torn to rags and wood-fragments, and walls turned into blood-marked 'sieves' in places and ragged-shaped 'rat-holes' in other locations – those being where she'd gotten close to the rat in question and had blown the animal to atoms. “With these loads?”

While there was no answer to my burning questions, I could just feel the 'so?' aspect among the others, at least until I joined Sarah in searching behind the angled – or, perhaps, curved – 'bar' in the corner of the room. The two meeting walls behind this chest-high 'plank' – these showing cracked and age-hazed mirrors behind head-tall shelves made of hand-wide boards – had once held bottles of drink; but the bar itself had its secrets, specifically that 'secret compartment' mentioned. It needed me finding first where it was located, and then opening it with my key. It opened easily, which did not surprise me – unlike what it contained, which did.

“This thing is crammed full!” I spluttered. “It's full of shells for that gun, and what looks like a really strange grenade here, and a sizable knife...”

“Best put all that stuff on this drink-house plank here,” said Sepp. “This is a drink-house, or it was one once, and it was full of black-dressed thugs long ago, as I found the rust to one of those long triangular daggers witches like.”

“The rust?” I asked, as I began laying more 'ammunition belts' up on the 'counter' of the 'bar'. There were three full examples so far, and more of those things yet inside the 'secret compartment' – which was nearly the size of a small refrigerator or 'common-sized' safe where I came from.

“It was by itself next to the dust of a witch, and that reddish dust was rust all right, as I got a chip of a lodestone out of this leather pouch I have and tested it,” said Sepp. “It had the right shape and all, so I knew it was a dagger of some kind, and it was three fingers longer than my foot, so it was fit for a witch.”

I mumbled something about taking that evidence dagger on the trip and Sepp supplied a rejoinder.

“That thing might get a rise out of those blue-suited stinkers over there, but I'd be careful with it otherwise,” he said. “That thing's almost too nice to use, unlike those knives this place is said to have.”

Said to have?” asked Sarah. “Did you hear this, or did you find a map to this place?” A muttered 'something' on Sarah's part as she moved a stack of three hefty square tins of size to the top of the 'bar', then, “that place out there looks just like the inside of an Alley, only they're not nearly that neat for what they have in them, at least for the ones I've been inside of.”

Sarah then let out a screech when I found one of those shorter weapons, or what I thought to be one until I'd gotten the thing on top of the 'plank'. I then saw that not merely had its metal portions had somehow become severely rusted, but it had wooden furniture 'slimed' with a species of 'dipped' varnish, this replete with 'runs'. It did not look good for either its wood or its metal – and that in the places that weren't rusted or 'worm-eaten'.

“What is that thing?” I asked.

“A shop-made domestic copy of those shorter weapons,” said the soft voice. “The 'tender' had it made in the green area, and instead of using the ammunition to the ones here, he used a larger pistol round that was both commonly-found in this area and domestically produced.”

“C-common?” I asked.

“He had his share of trouble getting what's in those tins,” said the soft voice, “as those cartridges came from the same batch as those used by the Mistress of the North in her weapons like that.”

“Oh, no,” I squeaked. “The stuff is cursed?”

“Actually, no,” said the soft voice, “unless you call 'moderately corrosive priming' a curse.” A pause, then, “unlike the weapons made overseas and in most of the other countries on the continent, almost all ammunition made in this area had 'corrosive' primers, which meant one either needed to clean one's weapon thoroughly and frequently – or know the correct curses and chant them often so as to prevent rust.” A pause, then, “it started rusting hours after that 'tender' died, hence that weapon you just found is fit for first dipping in distillate prior to dismantling it and then documenting its pieces – and then tossing those pieces in Frankie, with the wood pieces going for kindling and the metallic ones as part of a charge of metal.”

“Those shells to that shotgun?” I asked.

“Used the primers and the other materials that had been made overseas,” said the soft voice. “The common 'death camp shotgun' shell had a slightly larger diameter, noticeable taper to its brass case, a thicker-yet rim, about an inch more of length, and was 'corrosive-primed', but the pellets used in those rounds were readily available in the green area – and the 'tender', along with a large number of other witches, had gotten sacks of shot there prior to coming here.”

“That big stuff?” I asked. I meant what was in the shells themselves – and so far, every belt I had looked at had at least three or four shells loaded with what amounted to 'buckshot'. It made for more wondering as to just how much damage Anna would do to the house were she to use that weapon on rats with such loads. The other shells – who knew? That shot was still big enough to tear things up.

“Was a common product, as it sold well,” said the soft voice. “Smaller shot, however, was both much more common and a good bit cheaper, as it was used locally for 'pest control' using locally-made weapons similar to what Karl found for size.” A pause, then, “some of that shot was smuggled over the border, as it sold well there, and then some of that 'pest-control' ammunition was diverted for 'hunting' using 'undocumented' weapons.”

“Hunting?” asked Sarah. She was handing up a 'shiny-looking' cloth bag from the cache, which while dark green in color, was obviously not something a witch would desire. It was a bit too well-made to be 'fit' as a fetish, and I suspected the 'tender' had looted it from somewhere out among the hundreds of stacks outside 'his' room.

It looked altogether suitable for a larger woman's purse, at least for its size, and it took straps as well. I wondered briefly if Sarah wished a purse, even if 'leather' – especially close-scraped deer-leather – suited her much better.

Done right, deer-leather had a buttery-soft feel to it, much like Sarah's skin; and both felt good to the touch.

“Yes, for 'wild food',” said the soft voice. “While those people had 'enough' to eat, their diet tended toward both the unpalatable and the monotonous, and while it lacked little for 'energy food', it often lacked certain kinds of needed proteins – and hence certain metabolic ailments were quite common unless frequently supplemented with animal protein of one kind or another.”

A pause, then, “every machine-shop that had the needed equipment therefore made parts for guns – and some of those parts were 'traded' for essential supplies, due to the near-total lack of 'money' in the various green areas.” A pause, then, “you can imagine the results, given the near-ubiquity of such parts and the need to routinely work on the weapons of witches.”

“They made some for themselves,” I muttered. I could see portions of the rear of the compartment now, and the 'bar' was piled high with 'loot', so much so that much of it I had not had a chance to 'inventory' adequately. I had so far found no less than four 'common' grenades, all of them still their 'as-issued' mottled green and slightly greasy to the touch; several magazines for that rusted-solid weapon, all of them loaded with cartridges of a size midway between that of a Tosser pistol's and that of a hand-howitzer for bore and longer than either cartridge for length, bundled lengths of soft braided dark-colored rope, another of those 'usable' daggers, a larger brass-hilted 'Bowie' knife that was more rust than all else, and finally two more of those cloth bags, these having the straps still present. I suspected one of them had the strap missing to the first such bag found. I was still heavily involved in this inventory and finally checking over the inside of the 'bar' when the soft voice 'turned aside' my mind with its comments.

“And hid them well, also,” said the soft voice. “If one person in a green-area village was found with an undocumented weapon, the usual was to sacrifice every person and animal present in the entire region, and burn the place to the ground afterward as a warning to other 'Undermen' – which is a rough translation of the black book's name for those currently called 'commons' in witch-run territories.”

“Undocumented?” I asked. I had resumed looking behind the bar, but thus far, the 'bar' seemed to be cleaned out. It needed another going-over, but I wasn't certain we'd have time today. Sarah had somehow found that one missing strap, and now all that we had found went in the three cloth bags – at least until they were seemingly filled. Sarah supplied two more of those cloth satchels, these from her bag, and the remainder went in those. I could tell there was room left over in every bag just the same.

“All weapons owned by non-witches were centrally registered, locked up when not actively in use, and needed checking out for use and then checking back in, much as if they were library books – and one needed a reason good enough to satisfy the local 'procurator' to check one out. Usually that meant not merely some kind of 'bribe' but also swarming vermin 'interfering' with that witch in one fashion or another, that being usually procuring his food or producing his drink.”

“If they had no money, then how could they bribe such a witch?” asked Katje. She had come to help Sarah and I, and as I finished my portion, I resumed checking pistols. There weren't that many dust-piles left.

“By giving that witch things of value to himself and his fellows,” I said as I found a 'Tosser' and put it on the stool next to where I found it after clearing it and putting the magazine with the cleared round back on the table. “That, and I think some of those people made strong drink for the local witch-trade.”

“Precisely, and jugs of strong drink were both the usual bribe-currency and the reason used to secure weapons and ammunition,” said the soft voice. “The usual spiel was along the lines of 'if you want your drink regularly and in quantity, then we need to be able to harvest the grain so as to make it for you, and if those animals eat all of it, then we cannot make your drink'.” A pause, then, “even a 'double-drunk' witch of that time could see that kind of logic, especially when his superiors were back in the hot zone and he was more or less by himself out in the hinterlands serving at his own expense in hopes of getting higher in the power structure one day.”

“And the only drugs available to that stinky wretch were those he brought out to his post with him,” I muttered. I had but a few more pistols to find and then test in this room, and the routine was now this: 'user-grade pistols' left on the tables for Sepp to wrap and bag; 'Tossers' on the stools – we would get those later – and all of the magazines left on the tables as well. Invariably, those were full or nearly so, regardless of the nature of the pistol itself. One wished to have a number of loaded magazines present for each pistol for rapid reloads in a 'tight' situation, like when being swarmed by blue-suited thugs.

“Actually, that depended on where such a witch was posted,” said the soft voice. “The most-prized drugs, yes – as they were made in one particular district located in this general region, and getting them readily needed money and 'pull'. Lesser drugs of a 'cruder nature' – those could be had fairly readily in the 'frontier zones' of the outlying districts if one was an up-and-coming witch and had the needed funds, as the 'commons' neither made nor consumed drugs.”

“Those would interfere with their work, wouldn't they?” I said.

“No, not just 'witch-drugs',” said the soft voice. “All drugs, no matter how innocuous or commonplace-seeming – and there was nothing of an over-the-counter nature made whatsoever.” A pause, then, “all drugs were forbidden to that place's 'commons', even ineffectual 'home-remedies', and the punishment for violation of that rule was death on the spot by the very same witch that discovered the offender.”

“How did they live, then?” asked Sarah. She was still packing the bags, mostly now with the magazines I'd removed from the 'Tosser' pistols. Katje was not merely helping her gather the magazines, both from where I'd laid them and some few on the floor, but looking around carefully. I was glad she was looking, as I could trust her to not scream about 'fetishes' unless there actually was one present – and retain a measure of mindfulness then. She'd proved that with the rags she'd tied to that one tripwire.

“Mostly the way people currently live in the first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “A few died of work-related injuries, a lot of them died violent deaths at the hands of hunting witches, and nearly as many died of illnesses that could have been readily treated in the neighboring countries.” A pause, then, “and if a witch found a sick person in that time and place, that witch did sacrifice on the spot while naming that individual both 'an enemy of the state' and 'Disgraced' – and often, the others of that household were killed as well so as to slake the witch's desire for revenge upon the person who had to shirked his slave-duty by his daring to choose to become ill and those daring to shelter that rebellious fool rather than reporting his illness immediately upon its detection.”

“There, that's the last of these things,” I said, as I cleared a 'user-grade' pistol – which was indeed the last weapon of its type in this room. A few more remained, these being 'Tossers'. I needed their magazines just the same. “How many of these things did we find so far?”

“I've bagged nine with this last one,” said Sepp, “and I'm about due for another bag. This one is full.”

I made a quick count, then murmured, “eleven, with this one here making twelve. Just right for what I thought we'd find – and better than two magazines per weapon so far, unless my guess is off.”

“Yes, in here,” said the soft voice. “There are more 'user-grade' pistols lying scattered about upon the floor and on benches elsewhere in this general area – and that on top of those remaining in their boxes out on the main floor.”

“Then how many pistols do we have?” said Sepp.

“Remember those that were picked up before coming in this room?” asked the soft voice. “There's another 'batch' of dust-piles not thirty feet from the outer door of this place, and then three more smaller mounds between there and where you started – and each of those mound-collections has at least one 'user-grade' pistol.” A pause, then, “and carrying at least one spare 'user-grade' pistol for each of you is a very wise idea overseas.”

“Why is that?” asked Maarten.

“Because drawing a full-loaded pistol with a chambered round and flipping off the safety is faster than reloading a 'dry' one,” said the soft voice. “Granted, not much faster if you practice a lot, but when you're being swarmed by blue-suited club-waving functionaries who are 'as dumb as bricks', those 'half-seconds' can really count.”

“Almost want to use a sword then,” I muttered.

The silence that descended was broken seconds later by Sarah's soft grunt of fatigue. “There. I stuffed each of these bags we found in that hiding spot, and I have wished many times I could get fabric like this for sewing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It feels good to the touch,” said Sarah, “and I think it is very sturdy and long-wearing, and then this stuff has the tightest weave I have ever seen, so it will hold stitches well.”

“It would make a most-uncomfortable shirt, dear,” said the soft voice. “That cloth is used for such bags for a very good reason, and in fact it was developed for such use.” A brief pause, then, “you do not want to wear a waterproof shirt, do you? You would become death-chilled in winter and 'boiled' in summer, unlike with the linen you have commonly used.”

“And that other lighter-weight fabric we've found is better for rain-clothing anyway,” I said. “That stuff in those bags is closer to that of a mail-sack.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “You can tear a mail-sack, if you work at it hard enough.” A pause, then, “you cannot tear that fabric.”

“Then we will wish much of it,” said Sarah, “as it sounds perfect for packs and satchels.”

“Something a good deal lighter would work well for those, dear,” said the soft voice. “Remember this saying: 'worry about the ounces when you're traipsing, and let the pounds concern themselves'.”

“That's right,” I squawked. I had once said something similar, save I had spoken of grams rather than ounces, and the task in question was not backpacking while 'hunting' – which was pretty close to what most 'military work' would actually be here – but rather an amateur-built rocket that needed to go on a severe diet so as to increase its mass fraction, that being the ratio of fuel-weight to the weight of the entire rocket.

That was not easy to do in a rocket of that size, and the seeming 'obtuseness' of those socially-adept leading people to this and other matters – like 'make your mistakes early, while they're still cheap enough to not weep overmuch' and 'we will need to do these things to a much greater degree of mechanical precision, especially once these things start going higher and faster' – was difficult for me to comprehend. It was utterly obvious to me what needed to happen over time so as to meet their stated goals, unlike the 'corporate gamesmanship' and 'image management' that went on constantly in that environment.

With a final examination of the room – another of those 'good' knives turned up in a corner, where it had been tossed by one of the dying witches, and I found two more Tosser pistols, these tossed by dying witches – we left the drink-house, and turned to the left once past the chain-linked poles. Here again the aisle was wide, but I was becoming aware of just where that one expert witch had hidden his personal hoard; and not thirty feet later, I saw a black hole showing to our left. The width of this 'alcove' was initially astonishingly narrow, and when I went inside it slowly, it seemed that I had once again entered another world, for here, there were shelves lined with sundry supplies of one kind or another, and a sizable 'mound' hiding deep in the darkness that lay some distance beyond them. The whole region warranted investigation, and that thoroughly, but the chief matter now was verifying just what we had present – or at least get some idea of what we had – and then making certain there were no 'surprises' left behind us to cause trouble.

“There are no 'surprises', as this is the 'lair' of that one expert witch,” said the soft voice, “and he personally collected up most of the 'user-grade' Tosser pistols,” said the soft voice. “They're in here, along with several machine pistols, two of those rifles like the one you tried this morning, and his own personal machine pistol, which is similar to the one that tender had.” A brief pause, then, “unlike that piece of scrap-metal, this one was better-made to start with, then substantially improved on-site, very well-cared for, and was 'greased' after each thorough cleaning – a cleaning which he did daily whether he used the piece or not.”

“Meaning it's usable, but mostly as a source of ideas,” I muttered. “That ammunition is probably cursed, and...”

“No, his isn't,” said the soft voice. “His cases take the 'common' primers here, as he machined them himself so as to take those – as he knew enough about 'combat' that finding time to clean one's weapons 'on the instant' after a single discharge was difficult at best, and often one was too fatigued to either chant those 'don't-rust' curses constantly or clean every piece of equipment used with painstaking care. Hence he converted all of his stuff to use non-corrosive primers, and reloaded his own ammunition using non-cursed components exclusively.”

“Why, if he was a strong witch?” asked Sarah.

“Mostly because he knew a fair amount about the 'treacherous' nature of curses,” said the soft voice. “It's a lot easier to watch your back with those things when you don't have enemies trying to plant their knives there.”

“Duh,” I thought at the obviousness of the matter. “Only use cursed stuff when it's greatly to your advantage or when you absolutely must.”

“Most witches – including a great many witches a good deal stronger than he was – never learned what came to you just now,” said the soft voice, “and they paid the price for that lack of thinking sooner or later – and it was usually 'a lot sooner' once that war started.”

I then recalled something as I began looking for the pistols that had been mentioned, and asked, “on the instant?” I was fairly 'warm' to where those weapons were now, and getting 'warmer' fast. They were rag-wrapped – the rags lightly 'greased', and tied with that dark string – and then 'racked' neatly in some of those wood-composition bins looted from somewhere out on the main floor.

“They did not use a priming composition like that used in thimbles, but something much worse for rusting, at least in terms of how fast they started it,” said the soft voice. “Not even 'bad' fifth kingdom thimbles with far too much chlorate cause rust that quickly.”

“Why did they use the stuff, then?” asked Katje.

“Most likely because it, uh, kept well,” I said. “They needed to stockpile ammunition in large quantities in and around this area, so they wanted ammunition that would go bang when the trigger was pulled, not 'click', 'pop' or 'boom' – and it wasn't merely the primers that were 'bad' that way. It was everything in that ammunition that had to be done a certain way so as to go bang consistently when kept longer than a year or two – unless, of course, it was cursed stuff and the witches using it knew the correct chant or chants to 'make it behave'.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “That was one of the main reasons the country across the sea lived so readily with such bright muzzle flash beyond their propellants working so well – their formulas were very stable over the long term, their ammunition was absolutely dependable over a long period when made correctly and stored appropriately, and it did not rust weapons unless the weapons in question were severely neglected for a very long time.” A pause, then, “the one drawback they had beyond that severe muzzle flash was the tendency – at least during the time prior to the war and during the war's earliest days – to deposit fouling in the action.”

“Meaning their powder left much soot,” said Sarah.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “First, that fouling is not 'soot', and then, it's nowhere near as hard to clean up as 'soot' commonly is – and given a halfway-suitable lubricant and periodic cleaning, its presence had little impact on most weapons.” A pause, then, “you have nearly the best lubricant to be had at this time, so if you clean what you use as best you can between 'incidents' and use those rags with that blue oil in them for wiping the parts during your 'quick-cleaning' episodes, you'll have no trouble with fouling-related 'malfunctions' whatsoever.”

I had now 'found' the 'user-grade' pistols, and the sight of three full 'bins' of the things had me squeaking like a just-mashed rat. I began counting their slightly greasy rag-wrapped forms, and knew by the time I got midway through the second 'bin' that this find more than tripled the number of 'user-grade' pistols we had found thus far. While this wasn't a lot of those weapons, it was enough to issue a pair to each greens-wearing guard, two each for Hans and Anna, several each to Hendrik and Maria, equip the party with three or more each, and still have a number of spares in reserve.

“And below, we have bags of his specifically-modified parts,” I muttered, “which he changed out of those things to... What? Improve their reliability?”

“Exactly, and all those pistols there in those bins have had those particular parts already changed out, so I'd use those for the trip and change the parts out of those other 'users' you've found when you return.” A pause, then, “those in those bins just need wiping down on the outside with a rag dipped in boiled distillate, then dismantling and wiping down with those rags dipped in that blue oil – and if you are worried about those parts being cursed, that aspect wore off long ago.” A pause, then, “if you take some samples of those 'upgraded' parts with you, they can be readily duplicated overseas.”

However, as I searched for the other weapons mentioned, I found more of those knives spoken of as being 'stolen' – our expert witch was not merely a military expert, but something of an expert thief – his personal weapons, these being a machine pistol that was a close copy of what we'd found earlier today save for its larger ammunition, several of the regular type, a trio of 'good' knives, some braided wire pieces with ball-shaped handles that I recognized instantly as to their purpose even if I could not recall their names, and then some things I had no idea of either their purpose or prior existence.

“Those were a lot more reliable,” I thought regarding the 'common-grade' machine pistols, “even if witches were more likely to ignore being shot by them.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “The domestic-production propellants weren't nearly as efficient as those made elsewhere, and that green-area-produced weapon may have been a good copy physically of those other weapons, but its materials were nowhere near as strong and wear-resistant originally, which is why that witch reworked every possible part of them he could.” A pause. “Hence, the chamber pressure was considerably lower with concomitant lower velocities, and that meant both a larger case and a larger and heavier bullet to get a similar level of stopping power at all save the very closest ranges.” A pause, then, “the ones he found in this room had a decisive edge when it came to range – so he had those also.”

“Also had a limited number of rounds for 'his' weapon,” I muttered.

“Enough to fill all four of his magazines three times over,” said the soft voice, “but compared to that of the others, you're right – which is another reason why he had those weapons also.”

“The very closest ranges?” I asked.

“Most gun-battles between witches were matters of 'surprise' and then blazing away amid the fumes of strong drink and growing clouds of powder smoke,” said the soft voice, “which meant 'ten paces' was considered a 'far' distance.” A pause, then, “that wall-of-hot-lead approach worked passably when the flames of burning propellants actually marked your targets with scorch-marks, as you surmised – and a lot of witch-to-witch gunfights were such that that situation actually happened.”

“Mining town thugs are much the same, oft-times,” said Sarah. “The usual distance is five to seven paces, unless one or both of those thugs is using a musket.”

“He got Sam Brumm close like that,” said Karl. “That witch was not expecting to get shot from someone laying on the floor with a cocked musket, or at least I think that is likely.”

“He'd be expecting everyone in that place to be either scared out of their minds and not moving at all, or everyone there would be running like frightened deer,” said Katje. “He might not have let on about it much, but many of his victims were shot by him getting close and then shooting them in the back.”

“Which is one reason why he was so feared,” I murmured. “No rules save his inclination of the moment, unlike what most mining town thugs speak of.” A pause, then, “then again, they speak one thing and do another.”

“I have seen them do similar things,” said Sarah. “They only face each other down in the streets when neither thug can catch the other out.”

As I first 'inventoried' our finds here and passed out those weapons we wished – the witch's 'own' weapon, its magazines, its sizable bag of spare parts, and its ammunition-store was marked with a rag for later pickup 'some time in the future', while the common weapons were removed to the front of the alcove for later pickup today – I could tell the big finds in this place were either out among the stacks or in one of the other two alcoves, these latter found between our current location and the doorway we came in.

The bird had become silent, as was appropriate for darkness that seemed as if it were night; and I knew that meant no troubling fumes. Such birds rarely 'died in their sleep' when gaseous poisons were involved; they invariably woke up and squawked at least a few seconds, for some reason. Failing that, the bird would have been lying on the floor of its cage, not still setting head-under-wing on its perch.

That gave me the needed impetus to go beyond the shelves, and here, the alcove seemed again another world, one that made for a tinge of fear as the light from my lantern seemed swallowed up by 'utter-night' – that being a term used long in the past to describe such darkness. This continued, both the failing light of my lantern and the slow increase of fear – until my feet brushed against the shreds of a rag that I instantly recognized as being a long-aged precursor of full-quill black-cloth. I held my lantern higher, and in its now feeble-seeming light I saw vaguely an object of unusual shape some few feet further on, and just beyond it, the rough-carved stone of the alcove's rear wall.

I had found the fume-dispenser, this in the center of that expert witch's 'sanctum sanctorum'.

I thought to adjust my lantern, and moving the bead down slightly gave but a tiny increase in light. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, however, and as I came closer to the centerpiece of attention, I began to notice other details about where I actually was. I looked upward, turning as I did so, and saw a pole with rings that could slide. The rings held small tattered shreds of fabric, this also especially cursed, which the witch had used to hide his greatest secrets.

And now, all of those were so much rust and ruin, unlike the centerpiece that remained intact, that being the thing that made the place dark and deadly until the last few days.

I softly whispered a prayer as I turned back toward the gas projector and took slow and tenuous steps toward it, and something – vague, tenuous, something that was seemingly too afraid to do much other than try to hide itself by creating a wall of blackness about it – fled away, and my lantern suddenly blazed forth as if enraged. In its now-glaring white light, I saw the gas projector clearly by means unknowable, and as I turned around, I once more saw not merely the pole and its rings, but now those rings had an intact cloth hanging from them, its black folds marked up with vertical-running rune-curses painted in raging red slashing brush-strokes.

And about me, all around me in walls of softly-rustling black, I saw the clothing and gear of a genuine true-witch, one who was initiated in the deep-hole years prior and had gone many steps further on down his hell-sent path, one who killed as per his inclination of the moment and did more or less as he felt inclined to those he reckoned beneath him – and plotted to murder many of those over him. The centerpiece, however, was now hidden from me, this with a cloth of scarlet covered with black-brown crusted rune-curses.

Rune-curses writ in innocent blood, so as to have the most power possible. This indeed was the act of a real true-witch, one born in a district of the chief city and raised from birth to be a witch, as was appropriate for one from that especial district.

Those people thought themselves snobbishly superior to other witches, and in his case, it wasn't merely a matter of thinking to be better; it was also a matter of proving that superiority, this done by the means of multiple levels of initiation and hundreds of murders, killings done as a matter of 'prowess-demonstration' and as sacrifices to Brimstone. I then noticed more.

I could feel a vast number of witches overhead, every one of these chill-seeming people evil beyond my comprehension; but the witch in question rode herd upon them, for he had the ear and more of the chief arch-witch who ruled here; yet more still, he had say over this entire realm, this deepest place filled with the implements of war; and here, he had set a multitude of traps so as to guard his things, as was proper for a true-witch born and bred in a singular place that named itself 'the home of the real witches'.

What lay before me, however, was not an ordinary trap, but one of a chosen few that had come into the place in pieces amid secrecy both physical and 'curse-powered'. Many of its parts were specially made by the owner of this 'kingdom'; and while he was not here right now – he had much business elsewhere on the premises and other places that lay nearby – his specially hand-picked guards watched over all of this place all of the daytime and doubly so at 'night'.

I could faintly hear these people 'singing', this in a language so ugly and horrible to hear that I nearly fainted. But one thing remained to me, and I stepped forward, my lantern held high, and I gently pulled off the covering off of the witch's crowning achievement.

What lay before me, I now understood implicitly, both as to what it did, and also how it worked. While little of the device itself was cursed with real strength, the part that controlled it was indeed cursed; and that portion, unlike the rest of the faintly red-glowing thing, absolutely blazed with a flaming red-violet hazing that nearly obscured it entirely. I knelt down so as to look at that portion closer, and understood more as I began to see a series of rapid-strobing pictures in my mind. The effect resembled a somewhat jerky slow-motion 'movie'.

When the curse-trigger activated – it looked like a strange 'valve', this with a long cylindrical portion with a 'pull-ring' on the bottom and a rune-marked can topped with a truncated brass cone on top – the entire carefully-balanced assembly would rock back under the force of the spurting liquid as it launched its deadly streaming contents high into the air...

The scene changed to what it had been before my light had gone from barely burning to 'fiercely blazing' with such suddenness that the only thing I heard was “where did he go now?”

“Right here, dear,” I said. “Something happened, and I saw this thing the way it was originally.”

The thought-train of before, however interrupted, remained close upon my mind; and it continued, with both sound and 'movie' once more playing out what had happened as the air again grew chill and frightful about me by some inexplicable means.

The 'erupting' projector launched its deadly contents high into the air in an arching stream, and the falling fume-trailing droplets blanketed half of the witches that were inside with still-evaporating droplets of the 'gas' that belched out of its conical 'barrel'.

Those witches so 'struck' dropped within the blink of an eye to thrash for a few seconds as their familiar spirits finally realized their hosts were actually and truly dead, for a droplet of this particular material upon unprotected skin killed almost instantly.

It took somewhat longer if one merely was contacted by the fumes, and longer yet if one left the area post-haste and avoided such contact entirely.

Those people still died within a minute's time, hence the two who were 'leaving' managed to close the door and then reach the bottom of the six-spin spiral staircase before they dropped and began thrashing. Unlike the bodies of those killed in the room, this thrashing was initially that of a nervous system 'going crazy' before actually shutting down; their droves of spirits fled them before they died, leaving them to die cold, miserable, alone, and utterly and completely abandoned by everything they prized as they lay dying – and then, crushed into powder by the merciless fist of God, they were thrown down into Hell to land with eternally-echoing thuds upon the wide charcoal-covered stone of Brimstone's dinner plate so as to join their new-arrived comrades in evil.

Learning this made for comments on my part.

“It killed more by curses than by chemistry,” I blurted.

“Precisely, and you will encounter things like it in the future, so you need to see this device and look at it closely,” said the soft voice. “I would not 'send it off' just yet, though, as it will give you ideas about how to deal with those people to the north and some other places as well.”

“F-fumigate them?” I asked. There was no answer, at least in the form I expected.

However, the device lay before me still, and with a lantern that now worked 'better than usually' and no further hiding present, I could look at the thing better. All I recalled was entirely present, even that odd pull-ring on the bottom of the curse-valve; and the gas canister itself – plump, shorter than usual, with a narrowed area where it connected to a short length of pipe leading to the curse-valve – reminded me more than a little of a squat Geneva jug minus the usual long and 'graceful' handle.

The short pipe and 'funnel' was as I recalled when I looked at the other side of the curse-valve. This 'center of attention' made for thoughts of strange and peculiar nature, which I kept inaudible. To speak in the presence of this device might get me in trouble, and not from the cursed aspect of the gas projector.

I might get in trouble from those who remained some distance to my rear.

“No, just use an array of sensitive heat-sensors augmented with short-range radar,” I thought. “No curses involved then. Then, use a smaller cylinder than this weak thing, and finally use a mobile gas-cart so as to deliver the fumes to where they can cause the most trouble.”

I then screeched, “what?” There was no answer beyond the obvious, and I kept the former thoughts in memory. I needed such insights for the future – and that, I knew implicitly.

Further looking: save for the valve itself, this device did not use curses, and more, again save for that infernal curse-valve, the device was not built like a fetish. I was surprised greatly that part didn't burn red like it once did, but as I looked closer at the valve itself – I wasn't about to actually touch it at this time – I suspected that I could learn some of its secrets.

What remained of them, anyway.

I could learn some of its secrets by taking it apart. Because it was triggered by a curse, it would be much of a mystery, beyond the following: how they managed to achieve a good gas seal prior to activation, one proof against both a 'substantial' amount of pressure and an agent both corrosive as acid and of unreal toxicity.

That information could be used. I knew that much. I then learned why the thing was no longer 'burning' with curse-heat: its spirits, once bound to it by curses and blood, were gone. I turned to go, and began walking, my lantern now fading back to a normal level of light for what I was using, and as I walked, I heard some answers.

“That's because most of the valve's cursed aspect faded over the years and the rest left completely when that deep-hole went,” said the soft voice. “It's safe enough now, even if this place still had fumes strong enough to cause serious illness until you told that gas upstairs to go to its component atoms.” A pause, then, “it got the remnants of all the fumes in the place, not just those you 'saw' then.”

I came back among the others amid silence, and without a word, I resumed looking at the shelves once more. There were no questions, at least until Sarah 'finally' got up enough nerve to speak.

“What is that thing back there?”

“A gas projector that was once really cursed and filled with some nasty gas,” I said softly. “Its curses are more or less gone, and it has some secrets that we can use later to deal with those northern people.”

“How far back does this tunnel go?” asked Katje.

“I'm not really sure, as going into the place, it seemed to be playing games with distance,” I said, “and coming out, I did not pay attention to the distance, as I had my mind upon other matters.” A pause, then, “I was worried that you might think me a witch when I came out, in fact.”

“You were gone for long enough for me to count to ten, if I did it slowly,” said Sarah. “Did you learn something important?”

“More than you or he realizes,” said the soft voice. “He learned enough that it will help you all in the months to come.”

I finished the 'inventory' a few minutes later, with my handing out the things we wanted 'in short order' to the others so as to stack them against the nearest wall outside of the alcove. I had found enough that I truly wondered if we could haul all of what we would find today of use home, and more, how we would get it to the buggies.

“Use those carts we found to haul it to the doorway, then take the pieces of those knocked-down carts up the stairs and assemble them there,” I thought, as I led the way out of the alcove and into the main area.

“You will wish to leave some of those smaller carts down here as well as all of the big ones,” said the soft voice. “They'll be needed in here until the place is either utterly cleared out or that stairway is converted into an elevator of some sort.”

“Can that be done?” I asked. I knew we didn't have the needed equipment, even if I could tell such spiraling staircases were best replaced by elevators. Twisting downward upon cut-stone stairs in a left-hand spiral had its own fetish-type behavior, according to the beliefs of many; and without a lot of education, few indeed would be those willing to travel up and down such a 'stairwell to hell'. That was so apart from its disorienting aspect – which was not a joke, as it had affected me that way.

And yet, as I thought this, I knew replacing it could be done 'sometime in the future', and more, we would do so – as this room was a genuinely good place to store perishable supplies. More importantly, we might well wish to make several more such rooms when and where we could in the deep reaches of the Abbey, as we'd be making a lot of things that wished cold dry environments for storage both short-term and long.

“And then the stone from such excavations will prove itself most useful,” I thought. I suspected some, at least, would be limestone – and that was needed for both metal-refining and concrete manufacture.

“That especially,” said the soft voice, “even if the start of such tunneling is some months away and during a period when things will be very different at the Abbey compared to how they are now.” A pause, then, “there's a page in Hendrik's 'book of plans' that shows that planned addition having several such rooms as this one, and all of them are significantly larger for size – and they will be run over an icy underground river, just like this one was.”

“And now we find more ash-mounds,” I murmured, as I began to kneel down so as to pick up a machine pistol and what I knew to be a user-grade pistol by sight alone. “Best deal with them first, and put the stuff we find next to the nearest cleared walls for easy pick-up.”

The distance from that one alcove we had just left and the entrance was easily ninety heart-in-mouth feet with a chest-high lantern held close and a watchful eye present looking at the floor within the lantern's cone of best-adjusted light, and over that distance, I and the others located another three widely diffused clumps of ash-mounds. More, nearly every one of these people had been carrying some kind of a weapon when they been dropped by whatever killed them, and I counted several instances of black-striped gray rags among the black-cloth tatters mingled with the 'ashes' of bodies.

As I removed the third 'user' pistol I had found since looking at this batch of ash-mounds and cleared the weapon after removing the magazine, I looked closer at the ash-mound where I had found it. It made for a sudden blurting of shocked surprise.

“This one here's got this one odd satchel, and... What?”

“One of those rocket-holding vests, minus its rockets,” said the soft voice. “They worked well for holding a lot of things for ready use, not merely rockets – which is why they were so coveted by the witches.”

“Lot of things?” I asked.

“Magazines to witch-rifles, especially,” said the soft voice. “That fool-witch thought he could trade it easily to one of those few witches who still had such weapons.”

“Why have we not found those things?” asked Sarah – who meant the 'witch-rifles'. “Did they all go to rust?”

“Some did, but most of the remaining examples were taken by Cardosso's people when they looted the place,” said the soft voice. “They're 'in the grease' somewhere underground in the second kingdom at this time, though they've been moved repeatedly since they were originally packaged up hundreds of years ago.”

“And no witch today understands what they are or what to do with them,” I murmured.

“If you speak of those witches who live today in the five kingdoms, you're almost entirely right,” said the soft voice. “There are a few witches in the five kingdoms who know what they are and how to use them, and that's because they're originally from the Valley.”

“Do the Veldters have those..?”

“They may have started with some of those weapons as examples many years ago, but they've improved them a great deal since that time,” said the soft voice. “The current Veldter weapons are far more durable, more reliable, are more accurate, have smaller bores, and have much greater effective range – and more, they stand up to harsh conditions very well, which is one aspect of those weapons that was 'good' before they started working on them.” A pause, then, “fed non-corrosive clean-burning ammunition, lubricated properly, and cleaned regularly, that type of Veldter weapon performs admirably – so much so that every fifth kingdom thug worthy of the name wishes he could get his hands on one.”

“C-clean-burning?” I asked.

“One area where current Veldter powder chemistry is only barely exceeded by that of where you are going shortly,” said the soft voice. “The recent-production Veldter propellants have a decisive edge in the area of flash – they have some near-flashless propellants that still perform 'well' – so much so that some 'people' purchase their materials for their own use and consider the lessened velocity and shorter shelf-life of the ammunition an acceptable price.” A pause, then, “that 'shelf-life' is measured in decades, not hundreds of years as with the current propellants made there. It's not what it used to be, however.”

“Some people?” I asked.

“You'll learn about them shortly,” said the soft voice, “and when you do actually encounter those individuals, you'll be ready for them.”

As I found the first 'lumps' of the last grouping of ash-mounds – they started about thirty feet from the door's threshold, and ended but ten or twelve feet away from it – I finally found a workable routine for 'Tosser-type' pistols: hand the 'users' to Sepp, the 'Tossers' to Maarten, and the magazines, knives, and the handful of other weapons to Katje, Karl, and Sarah. All of these weapons were to be piled in orderly fashion next to the nearest 'clear' wall that could be seen so as to pick them up later.

As I finished with the last mound and cleared the last weapon – a machine-pistol, this full-loaded and with the safety off, I thought, “and now, I can go search out those two alcoves.”

“I'd hurry if I were you, as Katje and Sarah have their hands full keeping the others out of those places.” A pause as I sped up into the fastest walk I could manage in the Stygian darkness, then as I saw the nearest entrance upon exiting the 'pile-collection', Sarah said, “they want to get in here bad, so there's something troublesome inside.”

“Do you know what it is?” I asked.

“No, but this is too much like the behavior of a bad fetish to suit me,” said Sarah.

“Mostly because of their beliefs,” said Katje, as she led Maarten by the hand over to where the rest of us were now standing. “Maarten wanted to go into that place and start looking at those shelves, but I told him that was most unwise.”

“Especially as we do not know what is in there, and I might understand what I find,” I murmured. “I found that stinker, though, and it's safe enough now.”

“What are you going to do with it?” asked Sepp. “Ask that it become full again and go stink up some witches?”

“Not at this time,” said Katje calmly. “That device may yet have its secrets, but it should be possible to readily duplicate the important portions – and I suspect that when it is time, there will be suitable fillings to be had for our copies of that thing, which we can then deliver to the inner halls of Norden so as to cause those people trouble.” Katje sounded as if she knew both of their need for trouble, and also possibly what kind of trouble they needed. I wondered if she'd had any foul-smelling dreams of that swarming-with-tinned-thugs place.

“What?” said Karl. He sounded like he'd gone deaf or something.

“Just what she said,” said Sarah, “though sneaking into that place will be trouble, as none of us look a bit like those people, and while they all sleep some of the time, they have few enough beds that they sleep in them turn-about.”

“Meaning finding times when that place doesn't have numbers of wakeful and active tinned thugs in it is hard indeed,” I muttered.

“Yes, at this time,” said the soft voice. “Wait until those people get access to those witch-drugs, and then there will be periods of omnipresent somnolence in Norden. Granted, infrequent periods, but they all will sleep then.”

“Infrequent periods?” I asked.

“One of the effects of those drugs, at least in many 'supplicants' and new-minted witches, is that it makes them inclined toward and 'able' to do 'witch-hours, and witch-days',” said the soft voice, “and then, such use causes 'Fashion' or 'Kultur' to become very important – so much so that every person in a given group who isn't 'exactly like everyone else, and that in all possible ways' is wrong.” The unsaid part was 'you can guess what happens then'. I understood it implicitly, as that had been the rule for my life – both here and where I came from.

“Summary execution, or at least the desire to do that by those who 'fit in',” I muttered.

“That especially, though they name it 'sacrifice' here and 'dealing with nonconformity' where you came from,” said the soft voice. “The goals are identical, even if the means of achieving them are usually not; and here there is little hiding of such desires and the resulting killings, unlike where you came from.”

I then led into the 'narrow' alcove, and here, I was truly stunned for the first time since coming down here. To each side of this tall-ceilinged narrow hallway, shelves went from floor to ceiling, these the width of my arm and spaced but a foot apart, with those wood-fiber boxes stacked in them tightly.

This continued for a surprising distance, easily twelve feet or more on the right and further yet on the left, and as the right wall fell away, I found a metal tube stair-step 'arrangement', this on rollers with five wide steps and assembled of bolted-together riveted subassemblies. I tried moving the solid-looking contraption and found that it moved readily, though its grating noise spoke of solid metal rollers and possibly dry bearings.

“That's for getting to those top shelves,” I muttered, as I bent down to oil the rollers with my vial of motor oil. “One here, and this other here...” I was glad for 'open' bearings, even if that meant an 'easy' ingress of dirt along with the oil. Given frequent dosing with a thin species of grease, a near-dust-and-dirt-free environment, and periodic dunking in a species of solvent, 'open' bearings of this type looked to work 'well enough' for this job.

“Better than you might expect, given that the usual lubricant used was a thicker grease,” said the soft voice. “That oil will work until you can get something suitable in the near future.”

“Red-paste?” I asked.

“Firstly, you have a limited supply of that material,” said the soft voice, “at least for now. Secondly, do you have enough time now to spend 'hours' lubricating something you're only going to use for a few minutes today?”

The point, at least to me, was obvious. Greasing the thing now wasn't needed. Getting it to not be irritating to use for a few minutes was – and in the past, 'laborers fit for such work' were commonplace 'items' in here. Hence 'daily greasing' during the off hours down here made a lot more sense than it did at the present.

“And of course, we have dried-out grease causing much of the grating noise,” I murmured.

“That's due to metal wheels rubbing against a stone floor more than anything,” said the soft voice, “even if softening up that dried grease will make proper greasing a few weeks from now quicker and easier.” A pause, then, “don't be surprised if those wheels are 'changed out' instead of greased, though.”

“Changed out?” I asked.

“As in replaced with others of recent manufacture,” said the soft voice. “That type of 'stair' is not particularly rare across the sea, and hence they make wheels similar to those in some numbers – and there's been a lot of improvement since those there were made, even if the rest of the thing hasn't needed to change terribly much.”

With that, however, I knew another matter: time was truly of the essence now. I needed to quickly find those things we needed to use in the next ten days to two weeks in this alcove while noting as a general matter what was in here, then moving on to the next such location; then finally, we needed to find those things out in the main area we were likely to need for the same time-period. I almost wanted to make a list, but failing a map...

Is there one of those?” I asked as I finished oiling the 'stairs'. A brief moving showed it a good deal less gritty-feeling and noticeably quieter.

“Yes, but you'll need to find one of the still-extant copies,” said the soft voice. “There is one in here, and not just for the main floor area. There are maps for these two alcoves also.”

“Then we want those as well,” said Sarah. “Do you know where they are?”

This last was said plaintively, almost as if the speaker was fatigued beyond measure, and when I turned to see Sarah sucking down some obvious honey, I knew another issue beyond the previously-stated need for haste.

We could only go another hour or two before needing to eat, and we hadn't brought any food down, unless I missed my guess.

“You did miss your guess this time,” said the soft voice. “Those not as burdened as you were took either a jug of beer or a bread-bag with the solid leftovers of your last meal, so you have sufficient food for some few hours.” A pause, then, “I would not waste time just the same.”

Accordingly, I moved further into the more-open area of the alcove, still seeing shelves on my left, until I found a pristine and nearly-dust-free workbench topped with a clear and limpidly glossy black paint. Lifting the just-adjusted lantern above my head showed more shelves, these as tall as those shelves before, deeper by twice, and each shelf-bay substantially taller and packed with more rag-wrapped assemblies and wood-substitute boxes; and as I began to circle about this room, I wondered where a 'map-manual' might be hiding. After noticing the rest of the room seemed taken up with a low workbench backed by a species of 'cork' attached to the wall, I felt inclined to look at the drawers in the workbench; and opened them, one after another.

“Plenty of tools, and no maps so far,” I muttered, as I closed one drawer after another. The tools, while not as good as some I had seen here thus far, looked easily the equal of 'cleaned-up fifth kingdom tools' for appearances and as hard as my 'better' ones – before I had gone over them – by the file-test, which meant they could be used readily, at least for a time. Such was my initial thinking, at least before handling them much.

“No, not quite,” I muttered upon second thought. I'd handled enough of these tools to now know the truth. “Those things really need some time with my files, followed by a lengthy time in a cooking can and then, uh, drawing back to an oil-smoking temperature followed by blacking.”

“True,” said the soft voice. “Those are mostly 'less-good' green-area tools, and doing as you proposed would help them tremendously.”

“They aren't as good as full-polish wrenches?” I asked.

“Cleaner metal, much better metal, a species of 'overall' heat-treating, and a fairly shallow yet 'hard' type of surface-hardening that was relatively quick and easy to do using the equipment available to their makers,” said the soft voice. “Like the metal used in 'Tosser' pistols, it will really respond well to that heat-treating formula that I spoke of, and after heat-treating, a thorough cleaning, and then blacking, you'll actually have 'decent' tools.” A pause, then, “and I would clean these tools up here as much as you can, as the equipment present in the Abbey's shop will not only give a better result for much of what needs doing, but also a much faster one.”

“If this place in here has tools, then what was it called?” asked Sarah. She was looking in the drawers on the other side of the bench, with Katje holding two lanterns for lighting.

“It would be called 'the armory',” said the soft voice, “and while that one expert witch lived, he did much of his hand-work in here.” A pause, then, “he chanted at those tools enough to make them 'behave', which is why they worked passably for him.”

“They are cursed?” shrieked Sarah.

“No, but he was a lot more impaired than he thought he was, and when a witch is that 'messed up', his hands commonly 'have minds of their own' in regards to clumsiness – hence his near-constant chanting at the tools when laying off the drink and drugs to a substantial degree would have helped him a lot more.”

“Like my hands sometimes get if I've not had enough rest and am really tired, dear,” I murmured. “I get so irritated then that there's nothing to do beyond pack everything up and get a nap.”

“He'd just get more drugs or drink,” said the soft voice. “Many current witches like to think they can go entirely without sleep or rest, but the witches of this area prior to that war actually got fairly close at least some of the time – which is where the phrase 'witch-hours, and witch-days' actually came from, at least according to the larger black books.” The instant I heard that I knew the truth was actually otherwise.

“It means something entirely different, and comes from an earlier-yet time,” I muttered, as I finished the last drawer on my side. That map or maps, at least of this region, were still hiding.

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Recall those infernal 'Calenders'? In the time before the flood here, that phrase meant what those things then did, and since that time its meaning has been both warped and grossly diluted.”

“Days that didn't end for most of a week's time, and the witches...” I left off in my speaking, for now I began to feel on the underside of the workbench. There was something hidden here, and when I knelt down to look, lantern held just below eye-level, I nearly screeched with delight.

“No less than three black fabric pouches,” I thought, as I slipped one them out of its riveted-to-the- underside sheet metal 'holder'. “These things look a bit like some document pouches I used to have, in fact.”

“They are document pouches,” said the soft voice, “and they're exactly what you've been looking for – even if some stuff isn't where it's supposed to be, and they all go into enough detail that it'll take you several minutes to find what you're after in here.”

“Because of what they are written in?” asked Sarah.

“No, they were not written in a witch-language,” said the soft voice. “The descriptions of what is in those piles outside, as well as what is in most of these boxes and bins, was written by a trio of especially literate workers who had previously worked as itinerant scribes. That was the chief reason for their drafting to this location, in fact.”

“They had decent jobs for where they worked?” I asked.

“Much more than merely 'decent',” said the soft voice. “Unlike the vast majority of non-witches, the 'better' scribes actually had consistent access to real money – and more, they had sufficient amounts of it, at least up until the last few days prior to the start of the war, that they could get their hands on a fair amount of the better grades of green-area equipment, access to health care actually worth bothering with, and decent food – both decent for quantity and nutrition. Most importantly, they needed all of those things to do their jobs, hence they received far less interference than you might think.”

“What?” squawked Sarah.

“One of the many things that never made it onto a tapestry,” said the soft voice. “A lot of witches were worse for writing than many people are today, and while most workers were worse yet for speech and were invariably totally unable to read or write, there were some exceptions – and those people did a lot of business, business that commonly paid 'well'.” A pause, then, “being an accomplished and capable scribe was one of the few instances where being marked didn't mean an 'instant death-sentence' outside of the less-populated portions of the various green areas.”

The pouches – of a slick dark green fabric with snap fasteners and a plasticized thicker fabric draw-tab with a plastic grommet for hanging – opened readily, and each darkly-printed page showed clear block letters, these close-spaced. They were 'embedded' in that glossy-seeming witch-paper, or so I thought until I actually touched one and knew this process was closer to 'a really flexible species of granulated waxy plastic that was applied with a heated roller to one side at a time'.

“That and the printing itself,” said the soft voice. “That equipment was secretly imported by the Mistress of the North for her documentation, and she had several scribes on retainer, including two marked people.”

“Her?” shrieked Sarah. “She sacrificed every marked person...”

“Save when it suited her purposes to do otherwise, such as for preparing her documents,” said the soft voice, “and she was grateful for both them and the other scribes she had had on retainer, so much so that she protected those people to a substantial degree and 'permitted' their escape out of the country when she was done with them.”

“That..?” I gasped, as I went over the information. “This is written well enough that I can follow it easily.”

“That quality then was sufficiently rare and sufficiently needed by a great many witches that they put aside most of their ideological nonsense regarding such people and those like them,” said the soft voice. “That did not materially reduce the danger to those marked, however, as those not in need of such services – the majority of the witches and most non-witches that lived and worked in 'the hot zone' – were still all-too-ready to hurt and kill them for sport and potential profit.”

“Hence they needed to hide themselves carefully and move about a lot to avoid discovery,” I said. “Now here...” Pause. “Row twelve, boxes sixty-three through sixty-eight – those are said to have electric blasting caps. We need some of those.”

“Where is row twelve?” asked Karl, as he went off to 'begin looking'. Sepp went with him, then but a minute later, “over there, Karl. Watch that lantern so it does not get too close to those things. Now look at the boxes... That one. There.” A pause, then, “how many boxes?”

“Bring one here, and we can find out if the witches went through it,” I muttered. I knew these were not the only caps, even if they were the easiest for us to get to right now. “Row twenty-three, boxes ninety through ninety-five, those have communications wire – though I wonder what we will do with that little wire.”

“How much is this?” asked Katje.

“One hundred...”

“No, it's not,” said Sarah, as she pointed to the entry with one of her knitting needles. “See, there. Three zeros, not two. Now what is a meter?”

“A unit of length,” I said. “It was a bit more than a yard where I came from. Here, I have no idea.”

“It is, and the conversion factor is close enough to what you recall to use what you learned growing up,” said the soft voice. “Only one trouble, but not here.”

“What?” I asked.

“An 'inch' here – the 'standard' inch, the one that will be on any precision tools you find of 'inch' measure – is about four and a half percent longer than that unit is where you came from. Other units vary similarly.”

“Uh, speed of sound?” I asked.

“About ten percent higher, due to the significantly lower air density and different gaseous composition,” said the soft voice. “The real kicker is gravitational acceleration, which is about ten to eighteen percent less, depending on where you are on the planet's surface.” A pause, then, “it's more variable now, due to the 'time'.”

“What?” I asked.

“It's one of the few benefits of growing up on a high gravity planet,” said the soft voice. “You'll be quite surprised when you learn why the gravity is so much higher where you came from compared to here, even when this planet's size and mass are actually greater – and no, it isn't the planetary composition, but another matter entirely.”

Karl brought a dark and sizable brass-hinged box to the bench, this nicely 'varnished' and of dovetailed wooden construction, and showed me its 'label'. This was printed on white 'paper' and obviously applied prior to the application of the 'varnish', and again, was astonishingly clear and explicit regarding the contents.

There was also the 'stereotypical' warning indicating just what was inside the box and how dangerous they were to handle, this in red letters printed on a green background with a deep purple surround. Seeing that told me who made them – even if I wondered as to the meaning of the color purple – and seeing an 'intact' wax 'seal' on the blackened brass latch told me that if the box had seen theft, its thieves were clever indeed.

“That one, no,” said the soft voice. “It has a hundred caps, each one in its cloth swaddling.”

“We'll need twenty at the least, then,” I said. “This place doesn't have fuse caps, does it?”

“It once had a great many, though those caps were in witch-territory,” said the soft voice. “Some more are due up here tomorrow, and they're all stiff ones from Badwater.”

“Then we have no need of those accursed things that would only explode when chanted at with the right curses,” said Sarah emphatically.

“That...” I then looked at Sarah. “That's how that wretch did it! He chanted the cap-curses at them, only he changed two runes in that entire long rune-string and added a four-rune ending meaning 'only go after my enemies, and leave those I choose be'.”

“That's more or less what he did,” said the soft voice, “and a cap thusly cursed made a very simple yet diabolically effectual trapping device with a fair to decent 'reach', depending on how many caps the witch in question used and how he used them.” A pause, then, “some of those here involved runs of 'det-cord', which extended their effective reach to no small degree; and then to catch some marked people, he used carefully-concealed trip-wires made of a type of clear 'fishing line'.”

“None of that left in here,” I muttered, as I began scanning the thickest sheaf of papers. “Oh, good. This gives us a more or less exact map, as here – I pointed with my finger at the first of the three map-pages – it shows the layout of the place, and numbers and letters off the rows and columns.”

“True, that clear line spoken of was also in witch-territory,” said the soft voice. “There's a better material overseas, and you'll most likely find it early on.”

“Better?” asked Sarah, who was looking at the first sheaf of papers. “They have spools of trip-wire here, and it states it as being 'very thin and springy' – I think.”

“Why is it you speak so?” asked Katje.

“Because they use a figure that I have no idea of as to its' meaning,” said Sarah tonelessly, “and I doubt a Gustaaf would be much help, as I've seen this figure used before and looked it up in one of those word-books, and that thing said nothing beyond 'it was used before the war'.” A pause, then, “that book did not indicate what it meant in the slightest.”

“What is it?” asked Sepp.

“It uses a zero, a dot, then a one, followed by two conjoined lower-case 'M's,” said Sarah, “and I've seen that figure before on tapestries, and not one person I asked knew a single thing about what that figure meant.”

“Millimeters,” I said quietly. “That wire's about quarter of a line thick, only it's like, uh, 'clavier-wire' for strength.”

“Yes, if it is not rusted,” said Sarah – who then screeched, “clavier-wire?”

“Not 'common' clavier wire,” I said. “This stuff is closer in strength to one-line clavier wire of the kind you are thinking of, it's so strong – and no, it's not rusty. They put this odd coating on it that makes it really hard to see unless it's lit up especially good with a bright light, so much so that if the witches had used this stuff instead of what they had actually used, they'd have scattered me more than once with their stinking traps.”

A question then: “why didn't they use it?”

“Firstly, they had their wire, which was cursed, and that meant it was automatically 'better' – and then, that one witch didn't tell them about that wire down here, so they never used it,” said the soft voice. “It's just as good, as this wire isn't susceptible to cursing, so it would show up more than theirs did while their curses held.”

“Uh, unless someone who was m-marked...”

“They didn't learn that until it was far too late to go hunting for this wire,” said the soft voice. “Cursed wire shows up a lot more then, so you are right in regard to someone like yourself.” A pause, then, “and the witches learned the hard way about this wire on the battlefield, also.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. “Did they fall for traps using it?”

All the time,” said the soft voice, “and I do mean all the time.” A pause, then, “it never really got much better for them, either, as that wire is truly hard to see in anything less than genuinely bright lighting, and only what you find across the sea is likely to be much of an improvement in conditions where there's ample light. If it's dark, though...”

“It is that way most places over there,” said Karl.

“Then that wire will work very well for catching blue-suited thugs,” said the soft voice. “They'll never see it, even if they manage to get their hands on devices that can see the other stuff.”