Investing the Abbey: Into the light from a forest of night, continued.

The moans I made soon drew Hans, followed by Anna, and while I tried to cover myself up with what soap-suds that I had managed to create on short notice using the Fell's soap Karl had brought, I found that my arms were solid black and blue all over – while the rest of me was not much better for appearances. I had not seen this before, not once, not ever; and where I was not bruised, I was either cut or I had severe abrasions.

“What did you do?” asked Anna. “How did you get hurt like this?”

“It was that Abbey, Anna,” said Hans. “Anything that would start that many witches, and that all over, is something big, and I do not know what it is, but it is like the Day of Retribution is happening.”

Anna, however, had no eyes save for my injuries; and I now realized I was far too sore to do much beyond let myself be scrubbed carefully with my 'sponge'. A gentle touch to my back made for a gritted-teeth moan, then suddenly white light blasted into my mind and I fainted to then awaken on the couch amid the smells of herring and beer.

And Geneva, this being used as liniment – and both types, the common one which smelled evil and that material which was worse, were in use. I then noticed someone was rubbing on me.

“What is this?” I asked sleepily. The rubbing was very soothing.

“I wish I had one of those glass things to dose you with,” said Anna from behind me, “as the last two people I saw faint like you did died within a turn of a glass.”

“Not that much time, Anna,” said Hans. “Now are you spitting up blood?”

“N-no,” I said. It hurt too much to even talk, for some reason.

“At least you do not seem to have lead, even if this reminds me of what happened to Sarah,” said Anna. “I think we had best rub you with that strong Geneva, and if we spew, we spew.”

“I have a name for that stuff now,” said Sarah from somewhere nearby. She was speaking between gritted-teeth attempts to not vomit. “Someone called it Komaet, and said it causes teeth to turn green because of spewing.”

“I would not speak that way around him, Sarah,” said Hans, “as I have seen him do that some, and so has Anna, and she is glad he will be getting help soon.”

“She and Katje, you mean,” said Maarten. “I may dislike the stink of that Geneva, but I am glad it works on lumps as well as it does.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah, again through gritted teeth. “I did not believe Anna when she told me how badly I was hurt, but after cleaning him up, I believe her entirely.”

What?” I asked.

“You are too big for one person to carry,” said Hans, “and it took four of us, one each for your hands and feet, so as to carry you to this couch here so we could do what we can. Now I wish I had some of that good medicine for infections, as these wounds here are bad for it, at least for most.”

“At least there is Fell's soap,” said Karl morosely. He was using his own cup of Geneva for rubbing, and a small mound of damp rags spoke of his spewing. “It might not be the best for cuts, but it does get the dirt off of you decent.”

It was strange to not be present at the table while the others ate, but at least I found myself crowded with company. The table could not cope with nine people, and that meant it carried the food – two crocks of herring, and three jugs of beer – while everyone else ate when and where they could and otherwise rubbed themselves with whatever Geneva seemed to help the most.

Provided, of course, that Geneva did not make them spray their meals into privy-rags as soon as they were eaten. Sarah had words about the matter, for she was now rubbing her feet with the 'Komaet'.

“If you wish to rub my feet now,” said Sarah tiredly, “and that with this Geneva, I would welcome it.” A pause, then, “I never knew feet could become this sore until now.”

“Believe it, dear,” I said. “Mine hurt too.”

With further rubbing, however, I felt well enough to eat more than a few mouthfuls, and both Hans and Anna were surprised I managed to eat at all. They kept pressing beer upon me, and I drank that freely just the same. After approximately two hours of rubbing, bathing, examination – Anna did examine everyone who had gone, and pronounced me far and away the worst – it became time for talk.

When I or someone else was not yawning or trying to spew, that is.

“They brought a new club for you today,” said Anna, “and I'm glad, as I did not see that old one. What happened to it?”

“He hit this big rat so that it flew nearly twenty paces,” said Karl, “and I wore splinters from that club when it went to kindling.”

“That was the last of the larger rats of the upper floors,” said Sarah. “There were many of them on the first floor, all of them specially cursed so as to guard things the witches wanted for their own, and we had to deal with them before we could try for that lizard.”

“Yes, and how was that dragoon?” asked Hans. He seemed 'oblivious', but now, I could tell he was 'acting'; he was anything but oblivious, as 'dragoon-stories' were quite rare, even among the Grim Collection's tales.

“It was terrible,” said Sarah.

“Did it spew flames?” Hans was genuinely curious. More, he was wondering if there were such dragoons in his future, and he might need to prepare for dealing with them. That last portion made for no small wondering on my part, as Hans planning further ahead than a handful of days, save with those things he commonly did that needed such planning, was entirely new.

“It did, and worse than anything I have heard of,” said Gabriel. “I thought fifth kingdom smelters were bad, but that smelly reptile was worse.”

“Yes, and where is it now?”

“In pieces, and buried in that place's manure pile,” said Sarah. “Firewood is scarcer there than almost anywhere I have seen in years, and the same for manure – and that place will want manure.” Sarah paused, then, “that lizard was named Iggy, and a worse dragoon I have yet to encounter in speech or upon print,” said Sarah. “First, he smelled worse than anything you can imagine, spewed flames worse than anything I've ever seen before...”

“A four legged rocket engine,” I muttered. “Flames of brilliant yellow-white, hot enough to melt metal almost instantly, and at least thirty feet long when he wasn't trying hard.”

“They were longer otherwise,” said Sarah. “Then, bombs did little unless they were put to him from the inside.”

“Did this thing have plate?” asked Hans.

“No, because it had something worse yet,” said Sarah. “He ignored musket balls and injuries that would kill any normal animal...”

“He was cursed for nearly a year, Sarah,” said Katje dryly. “Those curses were intended to not merely make him smarter than most people who would think to try for him, but resist all save utter and complete destruction.”

“He wasn't entirely done until he was in pieces and stinking up that camp's manure-pile, and he took more bombs and sword-cuts and dynamite than any Iron Pig ever to walk this planet.” It was still hard for me to speak.

“Sword-cuts?” asked Hans. “You took sword to that thing?”

“A number of times,” said Sarah. “First, he got much of its tail, and that's when that lizard tried to fly like a skyrocket.”

“How is that?” said Hans. “You did not try to light its tail for a fuse, did you?”

“No, he did not,” said Sarah. “He removed much of its tail with his sword, and that lizard tried setting him alight with flame from its rear.”

“Was this lizard fast for its moving?” asked Hans. He sounded distinctly worried.

“At first it was,” said Sarah. “It may have been thrice the size and heft of an Iron Pig, but it gave up little to those things when it came to agility – and it worsted them for enduring destruction. I am glad Iron Pigs are not that tough, as they would be nearly impossible to kill.”

“They are not easy that way, at least if you want them dead quick,” said Hans. “Now did this thing learn manners before it died?”

“Only when it was in pieces and being carted out of where we fought it,” said Sarah. “Up until he” – here, she indicated me – “did something with his sword that stilled it, it kept fighting.”

“That is no normal lizard,” said Hans. “No lizard is as tough as a black rooster.”

“I almost wish that thing was a black rooster of the same size,” said Sarah. “Then, there was this lower place, and we found the Desmond there.” A pause, then, “we later called it Maggot-Brain, but it should have first been called 'nothing works on it', as no fuse would light, not even those I prepared myself, and no gun would fire, and I have no idea how he put a bottle to that thing to stop it.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “If this Desmond was at all big, it would need cursing to live, as no Desmond survives long enough to get the length of a house otherwise.”

“That one was three times as long as this house,” said Sarah hysterically, and “then, it had a curse branded upon its hide, and finally, there was a cursed doorway in that place that sent both itself and that Desmond where they both belonged.”

“Now how is it his fuse lit and yours did not, and what was this bottle?” asked Hans. He then seemed to 'put two and two together' – and for a change, he got 'four'. “It was one of those meal-filled things left over from the hall's wrecking, wasn't it?”

“It was, and I put up the fuse to it,” said Sarah. “Karl and Sepp both rammed spears with dynamite on them into that thing, and nothing they did worked, and then not even that bomb I did up specially with dynamite worked, and that no matter what I did to start it.”

“Dynamite?” I asked.

“Five of Karl's black-sticks and a lot of bad spikes I found while out running errands,” said Sarah. I had the distinct impression that these 'spikes' were better named 'large nails' – as while these square-cross-section things were nearly five inches long, they were thinner than fifteen lines for the main body. “I figured it would stop that thing, but I used up half a tin's matches trying to light the fuse after the friction-igniter failed.”

“And what happened to that bomb?” I asked.

Sarah seemed to fume, then spat, “then, it was that deeper witch-hole that was under the whole place, and before it killing an especially bad large rat and searching for its entrance. We found this strange thing then that I will show later once I do not feel so tired.”

“The mortar shell,” I said. “Unlike those shells that are dug out of fields, this one needs serious abuse to think about exploding, and has multiple safety mechanisms.” I still wondered what had happened to Sarah's bomb, at least until I recalled all of the explosions in that deep witch hole. “Is that where you lost that thing – that deep hole?”

“Yes,” spat Sarah. “I got busy with my sword, that bag slipped off my shoulder, and then there were more explosions in that smelly place than any other time in that whole building.” A brief pause, then, “that worm though – it almost got him before he put that bottle to it, and then its fumes! Ugh, they were as bad as any gaseous fumigant I have ever heard of on tapestry or in tale or from a lecturer's mouth!”

“Did it smell?” asked Hans. He'd done up 'powders' before, as grain-merchants referred to those materials used for 'fumigation', or so I gathered.

“It did, same as most things did in that place,” said Sarah, “and when we went back into that place after that Desmond was gone, I was seeing purple a lot. Then, we found that secret passage down into that witch-hole below the whole place, and that time was the worst of all.”

“You don't say,” said Hans. “Purple? That is strange. I have heard of people seeing colors if they get stunk up, but not purple.”

“That was bad enough,” said Sarah. Her 'rambling' seemed the product of a pent-up outpouring of frustration, terror, and some emotions that made me wonder just what she had felt. “There are many rusty guns in that place, which while they look to be Tossers indeed, one does not wish to toss them, as they will object to such doings. Gabriel had his hair trimmed by a bullet from one I tossed. Then, there was the passage down to that deep witch-hole...”

“Are tapestries like this?” I asked.

“They tend to be better organized,” said Sarah, “but that is because the writers of those things had plenty of time to figure out what goes where. I know I needed my share of time when I took my notes and made them up into a report.”

“Tend to be, she says,” I thought. “They're probably almost as bad as what I'm hearing for organization.” Sarah continued a moment later, after 'wiping her mouth' with a rag. The 'Komaet' was causing trouble as per its usual tendencies.

“We went down that passage, and it was long, dark, dusty, and stinky, and at the bottom, there was an especially bad witch-hole.” Sarah's speech now reminded me of the first 'tale' I had heard from Willem shortly after coming here, for it had that same aspect of 'cosmic dread' mingled with 'terror beyond understanding'.

“It is a wonder you were not ridden like mules,” said Anna. “What happened there?”

“Dust, and darkness so thick you could not see your own nose, and explosions, and vast numbers of walking bone-masses hiding in corpse-boxes that were long-dead witches come back to life, and then a book-carrier with a large book written entirely in blood, and finally, a mirror that needed breaking.” Sarah had said a mouthful. “That place was so bad that I hope I never go down in one like it again.”

“It was the last of its kind, dear,” I said.

“Ones just like it, yes,” said Sarah. “Bad witch-holes full of bone-masses – I'm not sure. There may be more of those, and I hope I can handle them when they show.”

“Were there witches in there?” asked Hans.

“Live ones, no,” said Sarah. “Ones that were dead and moving by curses – there were many of those, and they were as dumb as bricks and as persistent as bad sicknesses, so they would come at you no matter what you did.” A pause, then, “but that was not the worst. I only saw that part, and it will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life.” A pause, then, “it was all I could do to not scream then.”

“Why?” asked Anna. For an instant, I wondered why she had asked, as while the cellar was 'burning' like the flames found in hell, one could see in the place – and then, I wondered about my thinking.

Especially the phrase 'the flames found in hell'. Sarah's aching voice interrupted my revery or whatever it actually was, and hearing her made me wonder if I wanted that pain tincture so as to endure the nightmares common to it over what she then said.

“My eyes were open,” said Sarah, “and as the dust of that place still settled to the ground, I saw...” Sarah's voice had started out in a most 'spooky' vein. It did not remain that way. “I saw a huge dragoon, one as long as the main hall of the kingdom house proper, and its claws were strange, like the hands of a man only ended like those of a black rooster.” A swallow of beer, a heave into another rag, and then a rapid descent into what sounded like immanent insanity. “Its eyes... Those shimmered, almost like molten gold, and they looked like gold as it sits in the furnace of a fire-refiner.”

“Those people think they do decent work,” said Hans. “Now where was this dragoon?”

Sarah, however, had her thoughts straighter about this episode, and now I realized just why everything else was so tangled up in her mind. She'd had an instance of something so harrowing that it made my times in church standing on the sandy edge of a mile-deep precipice floored with jagged rocks and being commanded to walk seem as nothing.

“That dragoon wore clothing, all of it this odd glossy black with white portions, and then, it had a hat...”

“A hat?” squeaked Anna. “What kind of hat?”

“It was somewhat like a pot-and-saucer hat, but it was not one of those,” said Sarah. “I have seen enough of them to know well what they look like.” A pause, then, “It was taller, at least half-again as tall if not taller yet for the same head, then its top was flat, and the upper portion was as straight as a Kossum's tin for perhaps the usual height for a pot-and-saucer hat, then it tapered outward instead of inward. Finally, it was black, of a very shiny color, almost like the color of blackened iron only without the bluish tint, and then the dragoon itself...”

“What happened to that dragoon?” asked Anna gently. There was an aspect to her voice of oblivion, but it was not nearly the same type of oblivion that I had heard so much of, even if it was no act. Anna simply had never heard anything like this before, and it was beyond her ability to grasp, if I guessed right.

“It was torn to pieces,” said Sarah, “and those things that clustered about it in swarms so as to serve it what it wished were crushed and burned, and the whole of where it was setting then was laid to waste – and that was before that place was set alight, and then that witch-hole leading to it...”

I could see a nightmare rumble through Anna's mind with the speed of a flying bullet. This was the true source of her 'oblivion': she had endured something so awful in the past that Sarah's speaking of the instigator's destruction was pushing her off of the deep end and into the abyss itself.

“Was filled with melted stone.” Sarah had to almost spit this last bit out, and she needed a rag afterward so as to contain the contents of her spewing – and Anna's oblivious aspect vanished like a town centered by a massively powerful nuclear weapon. She shook her head as if to clear it of the too-foul reek that was issuing from somewhere unseen, then gasped before speaking.

“Who did that?” she said in a voice more appropriate to a crushed mouse. She then looked at me, and in a voice that seemed to reek of terror while still having its just-assumed volume, she asked, “did you go a-after t-that th-thing?”

Speech failed me, and I tried to nod. Sarah's speech resumed abruptly, and what she said nearly made me faint.

“He had to, Anna,” said Sarah, “as otherwise, all we had done and will do would have been in vain, and that completely – and this I know, for the portion I described was but the first part. There were more such portions, and each of them, taken by itself, was enough to make me wish to hide myself in the dark closets of a rest-house for the rest of my life.”

“What were they?” Anna no longer sounded oblivious in the slightest, as this was a matter she had some familiarity with.

“First, we would waste our time clearing the Abbey, as that is but the sentinel that watched long years brooding over the birth-realm of the true-witch,” said Sarah, “and then, if that doorway was not closed, and that entirely, that witch to the north would win, and that no matter how we tried or what help we received.” A pause, then, “and that third portion was the worst portion of all.”

“What would that be?” asked Hans. “To hear either of those things that you just said is enough for me and those I know to toss all caution and go to desperation measures without a second's thought.”

“Caution?” I asked.

“Yes, I spent time eating grass today, only it was not like it was before,” said Hans. “I am not sure if I was here or somewhere else, as it seemed like I was eating enough of the stuff for three straight-horn bulls, and I was messy and stinky from dung and what grass does to you if you eat it a lot.” Hans shook his head, then said, “you eat enough grass, and you are fit for gathering dust, your hair gets so long.”

“Hans that only happens...”

Hans cut Anna off, then said, “that is why I was not sure if I was here or not, as a person cannot eat that much grass in a day and expect to not explode like a swine-shell. I think this was more than one day.”

“Seven years?” asked Katje.

“No,” said Hans. “I think this was longer what that king did. I am not sure how long it was, but it was a long time, and only coming to myself with that taste in my mouth and that stink in my nose made it stop.”

Hans then sniffed, and looked at me. “You smelled like I did then, only it was worse on you, and I doubt you ate grass. Now where is it you went?”

Sarah interrupted all of us, for what she needed to say would not wait in its dire immediacy: “the entire planet, all of it, every last particle, would become a portion of hell, and that within the span of three common years – and witch or no witch, plant or animal, it would not matter. All that lived would become food for that lizard I saw.”

The thuds of people fainting and hitting the floor seemed to echo in my mind, and as I looked around the room, there were only three of us who had not fainted: Sarah, myself, and Hans. The latter's hands shook, his face looked bleached white, much as if he was sick unto death; and his voice when he spoke a whisper appropriate to a quarantined sickbed.

“I think I know what you went after, was,” whispered Hans. “I think that thing was Brimstone himself.”

“B-but it c-can't be,” I blurted. My voice rose in pitch as I spoke. “Th-that thing is a spirit, and spirits can take any shape they want, and th-they're not s-solid, and th-this thing was.” A pause, then, “while spirits can stink horribly, this thing and where it was was so bad-smelling I have no idea how I did not faint from the stench, and then the filth in that place was too awful for words!” I gasped, “it was like a crate of eggs gone High, or roasting pigs, or even like Grussmaan's after a shipment's just gotten in from wherever they get their worst stuff!”

Hans stood shakily, wobbled over to the row of books, and with trembling hands, found the volume labeled '1' of the Grim Collection. He went back to his stool, then began flipping pages so as to reach one marked with a feather. “I found this picture after I was done with my grass-eating. Now did that dragoon look like this thing here?”

What Hans showed me was at first a very crude 'etching' of indeterminate form, but when my left hand dropped to the paper to touch the 'print', over the course of seconds, the crudity leached out of the page – and, perchance, into another world, for it did not stain my hands this time – and the print grew color, contrast, depth, and 'presence'. It made for shuddering on my part, for as the seconds grew into something closer to a minute and Sarah came to my side, the formerly crude picture had become something far closer to a very detailed color photograph.

One showing, this amid flaming redness and a vast plain ringed by the ruins of a vast town, an 'alligator' wearing formal dress, complete with glossy black top-hat.

“I was right, then,” said Hans in a tone I had never heard him use before. “That drawing was a bad one, but now it is like that one showing those witch-soldiers.” Here, Hans took up the book with a grunt. “Now this tale is about someone who was in this terrible bad place, one that was called in long-ago times 'The City of Evil Spirits'.”

The name rang in my mind: for in one ear, I heard what Hans was saying, this clearly; and in the other, the name of the sprawling hellhole I had grown up in – and in both tongues, to speak its name was sufficient to cause its former populace of spirits to show in vast and filmy droves.

“That place was full of witches,” continued Hans, “and all of them were really bad ones.” He then looked at me. “Like where you came from, only these people weren't as troublesome and dangerous as those things that lived in that place.” A pause, then, “now listen to what it says here.”

Hans found his stool once more, turned a page, and began to read, this in an astonishingly clear voice. I was surprised at not merely the clarity of his voice, but also at his new-minted ability to read and speak.

He saw there Brimstone, the father of lies and the mother of all evil,

and the reptile then opened its mouth, this to show its teeth; and perchance,

to cook him with its flames. It commonly showed itself in the chief city of

that evil realm, this with all of its many districts, and there, it usually showed

but the merest shadow of its fearsome image to the desiring viewer.”

A pause.

In the deep place, however, if the night was right and the reptile felt itself inclined,

it would come, there to show its face by the window to the heart of the world; and then,

its servants could show true fealty to their lord and master. And by that means, and in

that manner, were true-witches known: they had seen Brimstone, this in his corrupted flesh;

they had smelled his fume, and felt his heat; and from his very lips, those he owned entire,

they had heard of his ever-hunger for the flesh and blood of all living things.”

“The d-deep place?” I squeaked.

“When Sarah spoke of corpse-boxes, I knew what it was,” said Hans, “and I had just read about it, so I knew what I was hearing, as that person who wrote it said he was once a bad witch and had given up on it, and then told some others while he was hiding from this one worse-yet witch who was named the Mistress of the North.”

“I read about that part,” said Sarah – as slowly, this with faint moaning sounds, Anna rose from where she had fainted to run for the privy with her hands over her mouth. There, I heard noises, first of vomiting, and then other noises that suggested that Anna was now sitting on the stool.

“What happened?”

“I think hearing what was said put her in the privy,” said Hans. “Now I hope these others do not crowd that place, as there is but one privy in here, and Anna looks to spend time in it.” A pause, then, “this afternoon, about three hours from sunset, a lot of things started happening, and the gunfire in the distance was so bad...”

“It was bad in town,” spat Anna as she returned, “and now I know how that witch was flushed from hiding next door.”

“The hiding curse no longer works as well?” I asked. “Or is that just a temporary situation?”

While there was no answer to my question, my fatigue supplied one of sorts, and but a short time later, I began to head for the stairs. I found I had to begin to crawl about half-way up, and as I crawled into my room with a sore body and aching limbs, I wondered if I could sleep tonight.

Or more yet, would I die tonight. I put the matter aside, or rather, that was done for me and I collapsed face-down upon reaching my bed. Sleep came abruptly, and even the rumbling roars of gunfire and explosions that began and continued for 'the longest night of the year' did not wake me from my 'thrice-accursed' slumber.

I wished it did, however; for I found myself hearing a deep voice, one that I recognized instantly as that of the horrible singer I had heard clearly for the first time but half a day's number of hours before, and his chanted words were these:

All of witchdom he owns, and nothing he touches is not his;

his sight owns all he sees, both the sight of his eyes and the sight of his

marshaled armies of dread spirits; and when he shows,

Sieve walks and Brimstone follows; and if he does not show,

then the dread traveling witch-table shows in his stead.”

This was but the prelude, for as the ringing feedback-tinged echoes of that damnable voice ceased, I sat up, eyes-wide-shut and yet seeing; and all about me, pitch-blackness reigned amid still-cooling tints of red while my now-open eyes adjusted to the scene laid upon me.

Scattered widely over a miles-wide desolate fire-blackened plain, I saw uncountable numbers of faintly luminous dark figures, these tinted with various shades of red. I knew them to be spirits of some kind, even though these I saw were not the vague-edged filmy forms I had seen many times before on the surfaces of two planets. These beings were of uncommonly solid appearance; they were not vague in the slightest as to their edges; and their forms were of such variety that they defied classification beyond my initial observation as to what they were.

These vast-numbered beings were assaying the reconstruction of a monstrous alligator from a multiplied host of fire-blackened and mangled chunks of still-smoking meat and bones. They were having very poor results in the commission of their task, and as I watched a group of them attempt yet again to put a single burnt-and-blasted-to-pieces claw back together and fail yet another time, the entire tableau flashed into high-speed-rewind to become a shuddering and indistinct bluish-red blur.

What I was seeing was unwinding its way back into time, perhaps as much as an epoch and an added half of such a unit, until with a suddenness only exceeded by its starting, the rewinding stopped – and there, the scene laid before me blared into my unconscious mind.

Unlike the first instance, this one had sound, and the first noise I heard was a nerve-rattling howl that echoed for an eternity as the 'movie' juddered into forward movement once more.

The alligator – this time intact – was dining; its attire formal evening dress of glossy black and white, even to the inclusion of a top-hat. While this dress was customary for it, and 'meal time' was all the time, when that howl rang out again – I had first heard it in reverse – the human-looking hooked forepaws of that alligator trembled, and its well-gnawed meal fell unbidden to the surface of its huge carbon-blackened chiseled-stone dinner plate.

The howl that I heard was unlike anything I had heard before; it was not the sound of an animal. It was far too 'electric-sounding' to be the cry of a wolf, or even the raving lunacy of a rabid dog, for its terrible thunder was mingled with high-pitched electric-sounding feedback, and the ringing multi-octave roar seemed so intense and frightening it made my hair raise up to stand at attention where I was hidden within my 'dream'.

“What?” I thought. “They play that kind of music in that place?”

This sound was not native to the alligator's realm, but imported from elsewhere; and I knew instinctively just where that elsewhere was. I found the idea of that realm having such noises in it to be exceedingly hard to believe, for few indeed thought such noise 'godly' in what few venues I had heard it discussed long ago in my past; and the vast majority who had spoken regarding such noise thought it, and all connected with it, to be the product of the realm I was now looking upon.

And now, even I knew that to be wrong.

Hell had nothing resembling music, much less music itself. A realm that embraced Entropy as a way of life and Chaos as a byword would not tolerate such an expression of 'order'.

The reptile attempted to resume its former activities as it squatted center-stage in the middle of this huge plateau, but the terror that now lay upon it did not permit its hands to grasp its meal. I then saw a hole, one leading up and to the right of this plateau; and once I had seen this hole, my gaze returned to the lizard and its swirling mob of 'attending spirits'.

Their fear was fully as great as that of their lord and master, yet it was qualitatively dissimilar to what that self-absorbed center of attention felt. Their fear was of what their master could do to them, and their slow-changing shapes...

They changed shape with each emotion, I now saw, and fear caused them to become one form and then another, depending upon its nature and its intensity. They did not retain a stable form, as was appropriate for their task of serving a huge, capricious, and ravenously hungry master – a master whose unstated yet insistent demands could be summed up as 'serve me food, or become food yourself'.

The lizard had an idea of sorts now as to what it needed to do to prepare for a soon-coming visitation, and with a profound and weary-looking lethargy, it shambled over to the banks of a muddy black-polished lake that billowed vast clouds of thick and nauseating fumes. It there began to drink, and as it swallowed the lake's contents, the shores of the lake shrank slowly until it had vanished without leaving a trace as the lizard finished drinking. The lizard then began opening its jaws – slow, creaking like an ancient drawbridge – and they juddered to a stop once open wide with a horrific shuddering groan. This was a sign, and the seal of decision came but an instant's time later.

A fireball erupted crazily from the wide-open mouth of the lizard to burn with a thick and viscous red flame for perhaps a slow count of three, and during this age, the entirety of the lizard's realm was lit with a ruddy tint that but slowly faded with the passing of the actual flames as the lizard's mouth closed with a hideous groan. It had 'tanked up' with the goal of incinerating another round of meals, and perchance, cooking its servers as well.

A dim light, one of a bleached whiteness, now showed at the edges of the hole I had seen earlier, and another of those terrible screaming howls seemed to make the entire region rattle in its insane-sounding grip. This white-shadowed light grew steadily brighter and clearer.

The sense now grew upon me: this location was to be under attack shortly, and its attacker in some ways resembled a violent wind, a wind well beyond the raging force of a hurricane. That wind drew nearer, until with a sudden crackling roar, a gust of wind seemed to blast through the whole of the plateau and the tottering half-ruined buildings surrounding it in the distance. A brilliantly blinding-white fireball shot out of the hole like a missile, and that missile then hooked around in a turn at once instantaneous in its violence – and then accelerated like a bullet as it headed straight for the front of the lizard.

While the lizard stood its ground with an open mouth and a billowing 'wall' of sooty fire, it would have had better luck standing up to a nuclear weapon, for in slow-motion, the 'fireball' collided with the front of the lizard – and that reptile seemed to 'explode' as if the blinding-white 'shockwave' of its detonation propagated slow-motion through its body like a stick of dynamite. A huge bluish-red fireball erupted as the lizard's 'fuel tank' detonated near its middle, and all the while, charred and smoking fragments of its body flew in long tumbling crazy arcs as the white fireball was engaged in its enraged destruction.

The entire realm – the flaming fragments of the alligator, the ancient yet familiar-looking gone-rotten buildings, and its inhabitants – then erupted in flames and exploded simultaneously as the fireball launched itself at the hole whence it had entered, and as the blinding light vanished from sight, the whole scene – fragments of the disintegrated reptile, its multitude of servants, the buildings – all went to molten iron or red-flaming stone followed by the whole merging into a dazzling whiteness, burning with brilliant sparkles, covered with flames, echoing with dull-booming explosions; and over the whole inflamed scene, the sound that raveled my mind was that of long, drawn-out, and penetrating screaming.

To which I added my own screams as I woke up, my entire body shaking as if with a fit of the ague, and my eyes, now rimmed with tears, blinked open to see the familiar shapes of my room amid the semi-darkness surrounding me. The small window above my bed let in the still-present light of the moon and stars. Dawn was a long time coming, if I guessed right.

“W-what was that?” I whispered.

“Brimstone does not appreciate reminders of the coming time of retribution,” said a soft voice. “He had the worst reminder of it in quite some time.” A pause, then, “mad dogs are not welcome in hell.”

And faint, echoing, the remainder: “they never were.”

Resumption of sleep was near-instant upon hearing this last, but even then, my dreaming, what little of it I had, was of a disquieting nature; and during the whole of the time, that sense of disquiet, and more, disbelief, reigned with a heavy hand upon my mind. I could not believe what I had been witness to in my dream, for it was impossible. I had been told this long ago, and I had believed those who had spoken thusly, that wholeheartedly and without questioning.

It was dawn when I awoke, and my pillow was damp with tears. I raised myself up from it with a soft groan, then fell out of bed to the floor beside the bed-frame. I had to crawl once more, for my insistent bladder needed to empty, or so I thought as I wriggled around slowly and began crawling toward the door. Three such 'strides', and I found the door-jamb; and as I pulled myself up hand over hand, I noted the knots that seemed to cover the whole of my body slowly left it behind to leave but faint reminders of their former residence. The pain I had felt initially upon awakening was now much less, almost as if what I had endured the day before was more a dream than a reality.

I thought this good, for calling my bladder 'insistent' was calling it patient, and I moved down the stairs with all possible haste to the privy, where I learned I had more than a 'too-full' bladder.

I had the runs, also; and the stench I left behind was such that I emerged from the brown door and sat on the first stool I could find with my head in my hands. I then softly moaned, for speech was yet beyond me in the still-dark house. Finally, I was able to manage a strangled-sounding whisper.

“What is wrong with me?”

I expected to hear something familiar, something about the effects 'serious injuries', or 'fevered delirium', or even 'diabolical attack'. I did not hear any those.

I heard something much worse than all of those answers combined.

“It is hard to believe things as you were shown when all of your life you were told how worthless and incompetent you were, and when many others spoke of having proof beyond any speech to the contrary,” said the soft voice. “The same thing happened when you first were told that you had indeed raised the dead, which is why you were informed in that fashion – first that portion you could believe, albeit with much effort; then the part that seemed impossible once the first part had settled to some degree in your mind. Recall just how hard it was for you to believe she had but half an hour to live had you done otherwise than what you had done?”

I nodded mentally.

“You could not believe that at first, because to do such things demanded a substantial quantity of sustained 'moral quality',” said the soft voice. “That is witch-thinking, to believe the person doing such things must be especially 'good'. Question: when did did Elijah feel worthless? Was it not after he had dealt with all of those enemies, when he had run in terror away from them upon learning their desire for his death?”

A pause.

“What that means is when I am doing the job, the person has to be somewhat willing,” said the soft voice, who implied 'somewhat' wasn't very much at all – almost as if he took that minutely small quantity and multiplied both its size and its intensity to turn it into an irresistible force. “They only need to have something of a desire to obey and then follow through. I then cause it happen.” Another pause, then, “do not worry, nor be afraid.”

I burst into tears, for I knew the truth of the matter, and through these tears, I whispered, “but I worry greatly, and fear yet more.”

“When I said 'do not worry, nor be afraid',” said the soft voice, “that was not a command. That was what a good father does when his boy is terrified of the dark. He comes into the darkness and there holds the boy's hand so he isn't so afraid, and talks to him that way so he is less frightened. The boy then knows he is safe and does not worry about those things out there.” A brief pause, then, “no matter who says otherwise” – the who speaking to certain 'controlling' individuals from my past – “if a lion is able to roar, it can hurt you. Remember that.”

And as if I had heard a voice audibly speak, I knew I needed to not merely 'get into some beer', but also 'take my dose'. I did both of those things, and with a quickly-clearing head, I began to actually believe that I could do what needed to be done today, that first being the lighting of the pressure lantern.

And for some reason as I did so, I felt reminded of birds. I found one of the quartered sheets of paper I kept in readiness in my workbench as the lantern's dim yellow light began growing steadily brighter and whiter, and using a long-sharpened stub of a 'writing dowel', I began listing those birds I had seen or heard about while seated at the table. A creaking groan coming from the top of the stairs told me not merely someone else was awake, but also, I recalled the noise of the gas being released at the Abbey. This recollection seemed to but add impetus to my efforts, and I worked harder at trying to recall the precise name of the small yellowish bird used in mines for warning of fumes. As far as I knew, they did not exist here – but I didn't know much about this area's birds, and there was much I had not seen or heard of.

“It was not a wood-pigeon, nor a quoll, nor one of those things that taste good and smell like bad distilleries gone leaky before they are cooked, nor was it one of those vile things that look like a round-shot and make me spit up green stuff,” I thought, as I wrote down the names of the birds in question. “I wonder if it is in that Hoelm's Bestiary? There were some birds listed in there.”

I was about to get up and get the book in question when Hans spoke from behind me. I had not noticed his approach due to my thinking.

“Now what is this you are writing down there?” he asked as he came to my right side.

“B-birds,” I said.

“Yes, and I think I know why, too, as after you went to bed I heard about that stinker left behind by that bad witch,” said Hans. “Sarah said you would want one of these things, and not a burrowing rodent, as those rodents are not kept as pets.” A pause, then, “these other things are.”

“Birds?” I asked.

“Yes, mine-birds,” said Hans. “They look so strange that they need a stranger name than what some call them.”

Hearing Hans pronounce 'mine' as 'meena' was strange enough to suit me, for the word 'mine' was normally pronounced 'mine'.

“Why do they need a stranger name than 'meena'?” I asked softly.

“You have not seen one of those birds,” said Hans. “They are bright yellow, and Anna thinks they all have liver trouble and wants to dose them with tincture of liver-herb so as to cure them.” A pause, then, “if she does that, she will not cure them, as they will die as if that stuff was arsenic.” Hans sounded as if he knew from either close observation, or perhaps his own experience. He was not speaking from hearsay.

“Liver-herb?” I asked.

“Yes, from the fourth kingdom,” said Hans. “It keeps decent, though fresh batches work best, so I get some more down there every year in case someone gets liver-trouble.”

“Do people keep those birds around here?” I asked. I was having great trouble speaking, for some reason, and a brief glance at the tincture-vial I had gotten my 'dose' from gave indications as to why: it was that vial Sarah had done up specially, and I had taken an entire tube of the stuff. It had utterly erased any semblance of normalcy I might have had, and its effects were increasing by the moment.

“Yes, they do,” spat Anna, as she began to slowly 'thump' down the stairs. “Those birds are so noisy I want to dose them to quiet them down.”


“They fly a lot,” said Hans.

“That, and they chirp, sing, squeak, and fly like wood-pigeons when they are loosed,” said Anna. Her tone was even more irritated than when she had first spoken. “They like to land on people's heads constantly, and they want to pull your hair out then. I stay well clear of those houses in town that have them.”

“Where is everyone else?” I asked.

“Down in the basement sleeping on cots,” said Anna. “It's still chilly enough that it's warmer down there if one must sleep in something other than a bed upstairs and covered with good knit blankets.”

I glanced at the parlor window, and saw the sun was not quite ready to show itself. “Are people in town up now?”

“I doubt it,” said Anna. “Didn't you hear all of the gunfire and explosions last night?”

“I wasn't sure if I did or not,” I said guilelessly. “Why, what happened?”

“Last night was noisy enough,” said Anna, “and I had to stop Sarah from firing your musket, as two more witches showed in town. They had a group of pigs chasing after them, so they were witches, even if they weren't wearing black-cloth.”

“Not living in town, but running through town, right?” I asked.

“I think so, as the one that had been living in town was buried in a cornfield before you got back from that Abbey place,” said Hans. “He was hiding next door, because no one lived there anymore, and I think he got there just days ago.”

“Wasn't planning on staying there long, was he?”

“I don't think so, as Tam was the one who found him once the pigs showed in town,” said Hans, “and Tam put lead in that wretch when that witch tried for him.” A pause, then, “and there were more of those things showing after you went to bed, too.”

“Pigs?” I asked.

“I put lead in one of those things,” said Hans. “It ran off, but I think we will find it soon enough. I hit it solid, unless I am far wrong.”

“More manure for the fields,” I said. “Where did what we bring get put?”

“Some of it is by your workbench,” said Hans, “including this thing that looks a little like an old musket.”

“Old musket?” I asked. The tincture was now really working on me, so much so that I wondered why I was even asking. “Old as in 'this type is so old that it's written about in the Grim Collection'?”

“So that was what they spoke of in that tale,” said Anna in tones of wonder. “I wondered about that, even if I am not inclined to try it out until I know it will not bite me.”

“Bite?” I asked. “As in, uh, act like a roer?”

“It might do that, if I read that one tale she was talking about,” said Hans. “They had some muskets long ago that were said to act like what you shoot, and that for both range and what they did when their bullets hit.”

I stood from where I was sitting and wobbled over to where Hans had spoken of the rag-wrapped rifle, and upon my touching the thick bundle, I saw first one knot of the several binding it come loose, then another – and by the time I had brought it to the table, I was not only dropping lengths of old-looking frayed and knotted string on the floor, but I had left a trail of various-sized rags behind me and parts of the weapon were showing. I looked at Anna, and then at Hans – and both seemed either frightened, or perhaps mystified. I left the rifle on the table and gathered up the rags and string, and as I did so, I could hear faint mutterings coming from behind me.

“Let me get these picked up,” I said softly. “I need to put them under that thing so as to not scratch the table up.”

“That is not what Anna is speaking of,” said Hans. “You were hurt bad enough yesterday to need a month in bed, and now you move as if nothing happened to you.”

“Not quite,” I murmured while suppressing a faint moan. “I still feel sore to a degree, and I'm not sure if I want to ride in a buggy today or not.”

“I doubt there will be room, actually,” said Anna. “Sarah spoke about that part.”

I returned to the table, then began to remove the rest of the rags while simultaneously putting those I removed under the rifle. As more and more of it showed, I marveled at what I was seeing. In truth, it was more like the rifle I had once had than I had initially thought upon first seeing it, and as I went to my workbench to get a few tools so as to check it over and 'clean' it, I marveled at the resemblance.

“Take what I had, stretch it a bit, maybe do a few things different...”

“It may look like what you had, but the resemblance isn't nearly as close as you thought,” said the soft voice.

“Is it as accurate?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “It is nowhere near as finicky regarding ammunition, it is more precise in general, and the materials used in its construction are substantially more durable.” A pause, then, “if you were able to shoot one of these at those matches, your groups, especially at the longer ranges, would have been much smaller.”

“M-more accurate?” I asked. My voice, albeit spoken silently, was incredulous.

“To no small degree,” said the soft voice. “That's a rack-grade weapon, by the way. There were some examples that were specially made that were used for 'long range sniping' that caused absolute havoc during the hot part of that war.” A pause, then, “imagine someone like Gabriel being able to call 'right eye, left eye, or third eye' at five hundred yards with a moderate amount of practice. Those I spoke of are that good.”

“Almost sounds like cheating,” I thought, as I returned to the table with the tools I had had in mind. I then recalled the magazines, and after laying my tools down, I went to look for them. I was utterly surprised to find them in a cloth sack next to where the rifle itself had been leaning, and upon returning to the table, I was astonished to see Anna touching the rifle's buttstock.

“Yes, it's real,” I murmured. “Now I need to look it over carefully, and then test-fire it to ensure it isn't damaged.”

“If this one is like what you usually shoot, it will cause trouble,” said Hans.

“Uh, I'm not sure it will be,” I said, as I reached into the bag having the magazines, touched the smooth cold metal of one of them, and then brought it out to 'look at it' more closely. Upon doing so, I squeaked, “what? They machined this one all over!” The ones I recalled had been made from stampings – specifically, stamped aluminum for the magazine housing itself.

“What is that thing?” asked Anna.

“A m-magazine,” I squeaked. “It holds a-ammunition.”

“I have seen those things, or parts of them,” said Hans. “Now are you going to make cat-whistles, or will you do something else?”

“No, Hans, not those,” said Anna. “Witches fight over those like that.”

“Why do they do that?” I asked. “Without a weapon that fires them, all they are good for is curios.” I then laid down the magazine, and began looking for the rear push-pin that would permit taking the rifle down for cleaning.

I found the pin in question – a small dimple in a 'bushing' with a centered white dot – so quickly that I thought, “why is this thing so much like what I used to have?”

“Take it apart first before you say that,” said the soft voice. “It may look close enough on the outside, but you'll be surprised more than a little once you take it down.”

I pushed the pin in question with the drift, which came out 'most of the way' to remain, then gently swung the lower receiver down. So far, there were no surprises, and when my hand 'found' the charging handle, I gently pulled on it.

The feeling of 'total precision' I felt – it slid readily, but there was no wiggle whatsoever – was so astonishing that I gasped – a gasp that continued as first the end of the bolt carrier came out, then the bolt itself showed.

“What?” I squeaked. It was just as I recalled – until I noted one chief difference: there was no small tube on top of the bolt carrier, but rather a small flat place where something impinged upon it. I then laid the bolt down on the rags, and looked inside the upper receiver.

“What is that rod doing there instead of a gas tube?” I thought. I then thought to once more look at the bolt carrier and bolt assembly, and laid the weapon down.

The eerie 'speckled' shine on the bolt and bolt carrier brought to mind the term 'hard chrome', but upon closer inspection after first wiping with a clean rag and then an oily one, I knew what I was looking at was not hard chrome, but something harder, tougher, and far more durable. I thought to apply a small amount of oil to the bolt itself, and as I found my possible bag's oil vial, I had an impression: I wanted to be quite sparing with the oil application, as this was one of the few crucial aspects with these things.

“I'll use the tip of my awl,” I thought, as I pulled my stool closer and began looking the bolt carrier over. The places that looked to need oil became quickly obvious, and while both Hans and Anna went about their usual morning's business – Hans downstairs, or so I thought until I heard movement behind the house, and Anna somewhere upstairs briefly – I began to first thoroughly clean the bolt and bolt-carrier between dropping oil in likely spots, then wiping the thing off thoroughly with a rag to remove more dirt.

“That oil brings dirt out of this thing,” I thought, as I dirtied another rag and applied another few drops of oil. I worked the bolt back and forth in its carrier, and more 'dirt' came out. It made me wish for hemostats, so much so that when Anna came to my side with one of the three that had been in the trunk, I looked at her in stunned shock.

“I found these hidden in that trunk,” she said. “I thought there were just three of them, but there were more.”

“How many more?” I asked.

“Enough that I'm glad I can let you have this pair for what you are doing,” said Anna. “So far, I've found eight of them, for a total of eleven.”

“Where?” I asked.

“In that one book that describes how to use that small-seer,” said Anna. “I think the last person reading it did not have feathers, so used these instead. Then, there was a sack of parts to them, and I've matched up three others in addition to the eleven I spoke of.”

“M-matched up?” I asked.

“They need screws,” said Anna. “You might not have that metal, but I know you could most likely make screws that would work, and Sarah said these need to be taken to their pieces for cleaning between each use.”

“Hence silver-plated brass screws,” I murmured. “Now why did I think that?”

“Because those people making them didn't,” said the soft voice, “and you just learned the secret of how to make those and a large number of other instruments work like they should.”

“Then you might wish to make a number of such screws,” said Anna. “I suspect Andreas could put silver on them for you, as I know he has the needed equipment.”

“Th-thank you,” I murmured. It was getting lighter outside. “How did you know?”

“I'd like to know that too,” said Anna. “I know he either has or knows someone who has equipment that works better than the common for cleaning gold and silver, and what Hans said about most fire-refiners last night is nothing more than the truth.”

“There are some that are especially careful, you mean,” I said, “and they get, uh, 'close'.”

“Not as close as what some do,” said Anna. “I've seen Andreas' work, and I've seen things made out of the usual metal, and there is a difference one can see, and that's for silver. Gold is worse yet that way.”

“How?” I asked, as I began to assemble my cleaning rod. I hoped it was small enough to fit in the barrel.

“It's brighter and cleaner-looking if the fire-cleaning is done well,” said Anna, “but if you get metal that's been cleaned right, it somehow looks better yet, almost as if it has a light hidden inside it.”

“Like what you have?” I asked. “Like that?”

“That's just...” Anna looked at her right hand, then at me, then at it again.

“He... No, he does not do that process at the house proper,” I said.

“Actually he does,” said the soft voice. “Recall how he's not the only jeweler who does so? Anna had her ring 'redone' where Andreas took his apprenticeship, and that's one of the other locations which has that equipment.”

“The fourth kingdom, near the house proper,” I said. “Now does this place have an unusual sign, one that, uh, changes into this odd-looking animal if you look at it right?” I did not speak about Mithril, either the fictional metal or the real-life silver-colored ferret I had seen of that name.

“I am not sure about that,” said Hans as he came through the back door, “at least about his sign. I do know about the animals, though, as I could smell those things there.”

“I wish we could get one, Hans,” said Anna. “They help with sick children.”

“What?” I squeaked. My voice had acquired a screechy tone, and it wasn't just because my cleaning rod actually fit down the barrel. Hearing that 'ferrets' helped with sick children was one of the stranger things I had heard since arriving here. “How?”

“They keep the child warm,” said Hans, “and then, they tickle a lot, and so the child feels better.”

“No, Hans,” said Anna. “Laughter speeds healing. Sarah told me about how having one in her bed kept her alive when she was small and sick with the crae.”

I ran a lightly-oiled patch through the barrel using a 'revolver-rag-holder' I had found in my junk-boxes some time ago, then another patch when the first one came out 'dirty'. The second came out dirtier yet, while the third, fourth, and finally the fifth came out with less 'dirt' each time. I finished with a dry one, then thought to clean out the chamber with what I usually used for my rifle.

It showed the same matter: somewhat dirty at first, then really dirty, then progressively cleaner with further passes. It made for wondering, especially as how 'motor oil' seemed to act like a type of cleaning solvent for this species of powder.

“It isn't much of a cleaner,” said the soft voice. “That type of finish tends to not merely resist fouling, but also is very easy to clean, even if the right materials aren't to be had.”

“No acetone,” I thought. I'd used that as the chief 'field-expedient' chemical where I came from.

“That has its own troubles,” said the soft voice. “The old cleaning formulas included modest proportions of that chemical, but it was never used by itself due to its troublesome behavior.”

“Inflammable as anything,” I muttered. “At least this stuff isn't acting like that one smelly root-spice did.”

And as I spoke, I knew I was wrong. Acetone was flammable enough where I came from. Here, it was everything I remembered and a good deal more.

After cleaning those portions of the lower receiver that I could reach with an oily rag and the hemostat, I began reassembly of the weapon. If anything, it went back together easier than I recalled my old rifle had, with an aspect of precision that bordered on 'scary'. As I pressed the pin in and felt it click in place and then 'lock', I heard steps coming from downstairs. I turned to see Sarah, and to her side showing through the window's leaded panes, the lightening that comes just before dawn.

“That thing is strange,” she said. “Were you looking at it?”

“I think he was cleaning that thing,” said Hans. “Now if you think to test it, you had best let someone who manages rope decent tie it up for you, as your knots seem to be getting worse rather than better, and that for both of you.”

Sarah looked at me, and while I let Hans look for some 'rope', I began shucking rounds out of one of the magazines. I did so idly while looking the rifle over – at least, I did so until I noted the safety.

“Safe, Fire, and 'R'?” I thought. “R? As in 'repeat-fire'?” A pause, then, “this thing is fully automatic?”

“Yes, and you'd best keep your bursts short and aim low if you use it that way,” said the soft voice. “Full-auto was discouraged save as an emergency matter with those.”

“It's probably unmanageable,” I thought. “I didn't plan on doing that, actually.”

“No, it is manageable, at least for someone with enough training and sufficient strength,” said the soft voice. “It isn't like some rifles you've read and heard about that way, even if it does recoil a good deal more than the one you once had that resembled it.”

“Which would make it unmanageable,” I said flatly. What I had had did kick, contrary to what some had said. It just didn't kick very hard.

“Not as much as you might think,” said the soft voice. “Firstly, how much formal training have you had in using weapons like that, and secondly, have you ever fired a fully-automatic weapon?”

“Little training of any kind, and no, I have not fired one of the latter,” I thought. Then, as an afterthought, I added, “and we do not have piles of ammunition, at least at this time.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “When you are limited to the ammunition you can readily carry, resupply is 'chancy at best' while out in the field, and you've not had 'ample' training, then firing a weapon like that full-auto is a quick route to 'we're surrounded, we're out of ammunition, and the enemy doesn't play by the rules' – and that happened more than a few times during that war, at least until the people doing the training really started speaking about that selector lever and how it needed to be treated as if it had only two positions, those being 'safe' and 'fire'.”

I then resumed removing rounds, and as the pile grew haphazard over the space of three rags, I wondered as to how many rounds the thing carried. I thought to turn it over, then saw the stamped '32' on the bottom plate that closed off the magazine. It too showed faint 'abrasive-tumbled' machining marks.

“Best not put in more than twenty-nine rounds,” I thought, as I resumed slipping rounds out of the thing. “That's still quite a few.” A pause, then, “for testing, though, I'm going to single-load this thing, at least the first time.”

I removed the last round from the magazine, and looked around. Everyone else was gone, but by the noises coming from the basement, someone was moving around down there. I suspected it was Hans, and he was after a rope – only when he returned, he was followed by Karl and Sepp from downstairs, and Sarah and Anna from upstairs. The former had an armload of cloth bags.

“I tried out our clothing-line for the trip,” she said, “and it seems to work in that one room.”

“Clothing-line?” I asked, as I fished out a bundle of string from my possible bag. I was wondering if there was something similar to saddle soap so as to clean it better than I had managed thus far. It was becoming unpleasant to the touch due to all of its fresh-added dirt, and Hans noticed my 'cringing' upon the back side of my hand brushing against it.

“I would not let the tanner clean that thing,” said Hans, “as I know better about what he does than when I spoke about your apron.”

“That wretch will ruin it, you mean,” said Sarah. “He might tan leather passably” – Sarah's emphasis upon the word 'passably' most likely meant 'not very well' – “but he has nothing better than what we have for cleaning that stuff.”

“Perhaps that one man at the house proper, then,” I murmured, as I led the way out back into the yard. It was no longer 'dark', even if the sun was not yet showing itself in the west. “I think we had best be hunting up ear-corks, as if this thing is like what I normally shoot...”

“Yes, I know that,” said Hans. “I have some of those things in this bag here.”

While I held the rifle in place, Karl and Hans managed the rope and its knots; then as I indicated where the 'trigger-string' was to go, Karl tied that place also. I indicated we needed to take cover as I first pulled the charging handle back and let it go, and while I was 'obeyed', I could tell the reasons why varied.

At least until Sepp spoke of that one 'cartridge' and 'that new-looking pistol burning red like it was soaked in distillate and just set alight'.

“When did it do that?” I asked, as I took my place inside the now-crowded 'clothing-draped blockhouse'.

“Just as I looked back before jumping into one of those offices,” said Sepp. “It might not have been flaming before that, but it did then, and it exploded not two ticks of a big clock later.”

“I'm pulling the string now,” I softly murmured.

As I took up the slack slowly, I could tell people were muttering while stuffing in their 'ear-carrots'; I had put mine in on the way back from the tree. I had taken up the slack and was beginning to apply tension to the silvery gray 'rope' that I now knew better as a thicker species of 'string' when I met resistance – until with but a modest amount of further pull, I felt a distinct 'click' – and then, with no warning, a blast of lightning seemed to light up the inside of the bathroom and the dynamite-like crash of an explosion without made the interior of the bathroom ring with high-pitched yet thundering echoes.

“That one is worse for noise than anything Willem shoots,” said Hans. “Your usual one is bad enough.”

“Let me go outside and check,” I said softly. I had almost screamed, the noise was so infernally loud. “That old ammunition...”

I was outside then, and my quick steps showed within seconds that not merely was the rifle utterly unharmed, but the ejected round was lying but three feet away from the trunk of the tree. I removed the magazine, and placed three rounds into it from the handful I had pocketed. If it managed these three, I thought, then I had a weapon I could use – at least until I reinserted the magazine. I then thought more.

“If it's that bad for noise and flash, then I'm wondering if anyone, me included, is going to wish to use it,” I thought.

“Wait until you find a suitable target, then try firing it,” said the soft voice. “You'll most likely find the noise and muzzle flash easier to endure then.”

“Deteriorated powder?” I asked, as I returned to the bathroom's 'bunker-like' stone walls. Sunrise was about due.

“That, and its formulation,” said the soft voice. “They gradually reduced the muzzle flash to a modest degree over time, but that species of propellant has always had substantial muzzle flash.” A pause, then, “it was reckoned a small price to pay, given the other attributes it has.”

“It probably burns hot enough to want a special barrel,” I muttered, as I began taking up slack again. Again, the initial resistance – it was not quite as light as the trigger on my rifle, but it was not at all bad; it was not a two-stage trigger – and then the same earshattering high-pitched crashing echo-ridden bang and brilliant flash of light. I pulled the string again, the same; then a third time – and by that last time, I somehow seemed to 'get used to it' passably.

At least until I found the three added cartridges laying in the hard-packed dirt of the rear yard within a foot of the first one.

“Doesn't toss them very far, does it?” I murmured, as I knelt down to pick up the empties. It was like my old rifle that way. I then thought to wave my hand over one before actually touching it.

“Why are you doing that?” asked Sarah. “Are those hot?”

“Y-yes, they are,” I muttered as I felt their 'blazing' heat. “Everyone except someone good with knots, look out over the wall and tell me what you see. There's something out there past the ends of the fields, and it's important that you look especially good.”

While I held the rifle in place, Karl untied the knots; then as I held it in my right hand and removed the magazine with my left, Sarah softly spat an oath.

“What, dear?” I asked.

“You might wish to fetch your musket, as I can see some wretch moving swine now that the sun just showed him and his shadow,” she said – and as I went inside, I could hear her muttering softly about wanting a fresh three-inch gun and some distance-shells.

“How much time did she spend with those things?” I softly asked as I picked up one of the still-full magazines from the table.

“She sheltered with Willem much of a winter since she came to this area to live,” said the soft voice, “and during that time, she helped him overhaul his guns in his workshop – and when she could later, she helped with first gun-practice and then actually shooting at Norden's people.”

“She fired cannons before that, didn't she?” I asked, as I slipped in the magazine with a subtle click. I was going to follow the suggestion I had heard earlier, even if I brought out my usual rifle in case I needed to make a truly long shot.

“Willem was more than a little surprised at how good she was,” said the soft voice, “so much so that he asked her, 'where did you learn your guns, the potato country'?”

“She did, didn't she?” I asked.

While there was no answer, I went to Sarah's side. She was shading her eyes strangely in the dawning light, and somewhere near the edges of a woodlot, I could see what looked like...

“Pigs,” I muttered, “and someone following them instead of the pigs chasing after him, and then someone else leading that whole stinky mess.”

“I know, and that means a witch,” said Sarah. “I've seen enough witches driving pigs north lately at times that I've wanted to try what you shoot...” Sarah paused, then saw what was not merely still on its shoulder strap, but what I was holding as I began settling into a comfortable aiming position with my arms atop the wall. She grabbed for my other weapon from my shoulder as I began to 'level down' on the leader of the small column of pigs.

“About five stinkers, a lead-witch, and a follow-witch walking drag,” I muttered, as I began guessing at the leading witch's 'lead'. “I wonder if this one will make it out that far...”

I reached for one of the rear dials, this one being the example on the right side of the handle. I was astonished to feel the 'rubber-gasketed precision' of the thing as well as the subtle near-inaudible clicking noises, and when I had eighteen clicks 'up' on the ring of the peep sight, I once more 'settled into' the stock.

“Needs to be about an inch longer in the hind-stock, but I can use it the way it is,” I thought, as I once more began leading the 'front' witch by what looked to be several feet. “Not enough lead, then maybe I hit one of his pigs...”

I got the post centered on the top of the witch's head as he moved slowly in a seemingly datramonium-addled daze, then as the rear of the peep sight centered the post, I began taking up the slack in the trigger. I was waiting for the 'bang' when the sudden crash and flash jolted my mind and the abrupt stab of recoil 'smacked' my shoulder, and as the faint biting vapors washed over me, I was astonished to see the lead figure, tiny in the distance, seem to suddenly 'leap' into the air and then fall to the ground to thrash as if enduring a severe epileptic convulsion.

“What?” I screeched, as the pigs abruptly scattered in all directions and the trailing witch turned and ran in what seemed panic as I settled back down into a solid hold. The still-standing witch wasn't running very well; he seemed thoroughly drunk, and while his stumbling and staggering gate made him a difficult-to-hit target, it also seemed to simplify a 'general' matter of aiming: aim for where his head would normally be, and the bullet would most likely hit him 'somewhere' if I gave him enough of a lead.

I did precisely that; and as the stunning flash wore away, Sarah screeched, “you got that witch too!”

“Is he down?” I asked. “He seemed to, uh, jump behind this bush or something.”

“Yes, because you drilled that wretch,” said Sarah. “Does that one kick like a roer?”

“No, but I think what I was told about not wanting to shoot it a lot right now was nothing less than the truth,” I said. “It isn't as bad as my very first rifle, but it isn't...” I paused, then asked, “do you want to try it?”

Sarah nodded, at least until I handed it to her. She then seemed to wilt under its weight.

“Is it too heavy for you?” I asked.

“About as much as that fowling piece for weight,” she said. “I think I know where one of those swine went.” “Now is this one at half-cock, or..?”

“No, it isn't,” I said. “Handle it as if it were full-cocked with a light trigger. I'll show you how it works after you, uh, drill that pig you spoke of.”

I thought to spot for Sarah, at least until she began aiming. While she looked a lot less awkward than I imagined I did, I wondered if she would actually hit what she was aiming at. My hitting both witches at what looked to be some distance beyond half a mile bordered upon 'fantastic' in my imagination, and I suspected both wounded men were lying up somewhere in the taller patches of grass until they thought it safe to try to find a place to hide and then nurse their wounds.

“Yes, in hell,” said the soft voice. “One of those men is dead and the other is going to be shortly.”

What?” I squeaked. I kept my voice silent, so this screech was a mental one. I did not wish to disturb Sarah's aim.

A sudden crash buffeted me from the side, and as I reeled away from the blinding 'explosion', Sarah muttered, “this one is about as bad as Hans' musket should I use some of that bottled powder of yours in it.”

“It weighs more, doesn't it?” I asked, as Sarah handed it back to me.

“That is all that makes it less inclined to leave bruises,” said Sarah. “I have enough of them remaining from yesterday's labors to not wish to shoot it much.” Her voice then took on a giddy screech. “I hit that pig!”

“Yes, and I think that swine is down,” said Hans. “It is lying there on the ground thrashing, and I see both witches starting to smoke, so that is three shots for two witches and a pig.” Hans then turned to me, and asked, “if you find more of those things, I think I want one for when I must shoot long.”

“No, Hans,” I muttered, this deadpan. “There are better things to be had for long shots.”

Our shooting, however, had awoken the rest of the household; and when I went inside to begin cleaning the rifle, I found that not merely had Gabriel, Maarten, and Katje usurped the table; the three of them were beginning to work on herring and beer. Karl and Sepp were still unknown as to where they were.

“He needs part of that table there so as to clean that thing up,” said Hans. “I will go get one of those birds, now that town is woke up good from all that noise.”

“Best eat first, Hans,” said Anna. “Town may be woke up, but you do not want a scrambled head when you are asking about mine-birds.”

Just the same, Hans ate surprisingly quickly for him, with his breakfast being little more than a few mouthfuls of fish and part of a mug of beer, or so I thought until I saw that he was holding both mug and the remnants of his piece of fish as he headed for the door. I presumed either fetching mine-birds looked to take time, or he knew about our need to not be leisurely in our repasts.

“Both of those things, actually,” said the soft voice. “He spent enough time eating grass this time for its effects to be lasting.”

“Yes, because he ate grass in hell,” muttered Katje around her beer, “and while my lessons were not in that location, the first portions of them were such that at the time, I wondered seriously if doing as he did – and more, where he did it – might be preferable.” Katje then looked at me as I cleaned the rifle – I had it down now – and asked, “now I suspect we dare not tarry long over our meals.”

“You'll have time enough to eat a decent breakfast, if you do not waste time,” I murmured. “At least I can eat while riding, given suitable food – and I suspect that to be true of all of us, at least today.”

Yet still, there was time for me to not merely clean the rifle quickly – it was easy that way, easier than I recalled mine being – but also get another mug of beer and most of a slowly-eaten herring fillet down before I could 'hear' Hans returning, and Gabriel – the slowest eater of all; even I had eaten faster – was finishing his meal when Hans came in the door. I was wondering what I needed to bring beyond what I commonly carried when Hans came in the door, and I was so 'lost' that he came up to where I was standing to tell me he had come.

“The bird?” I asked softly, while looking for things I might 'need'.

“It is in its cage,” said Hans, “and it will keep until you-all are ready to go. I think they are around back bringing out the horses and the buggies, is what I think.”

“Food for the bird?” I asked.

“There is some in a little cup on the cage, and the same for water,” said Hans. “I got some more grain for it, and you can put more boiled water to it once you get to that Abbey place.”

“Good that it is caged,” said Anna as she came out of the brown door. “I think all that noise last night caused me trouble, as I'm still hungry.”

“Yes, and we have time to eat more if we need to,” said Hans. “I think you should send that part-filled crock of herring with them and two more jugs of beer, so they can eat more on the way to that place.”

I paused in my thinking in order to 'listen' – in all senses of that word – and while the others were getting the horses 'in the mood for travel' – three buggies in back meant teamwork and labor, and I was not present out back precisely because I needed to know what I had to bring with me – I was astonished at the silence coming from my left and rear. I turned to look at the couch, and staggered toward the thing, hoping I might find a stool to sit on. What I was seeing in front of me was one of the most astonishing creatures I had ever seen.