Are we finished loading yet?” “I hope so...”

“There are a lot of dead witches, aren't there?” I asked as the last of the thundering cannon-volleys subsided into the still-ongoing spattering crackles of musket fire. The entire 'quarter' or whatever this region was called was now 'turning out', this for hunting down the sooted-up and blood-dripping survivors of the huge swarm of witches that had so suddenly burst forth from an 'unknown' source.

At least, those not witches in that area did not know where they came from. Among witches, the witch-ways of travel in this area were more or less an 'open secret', and those among them who knew more than rumor of such well-hid pathways used them routinely to get in and out of those buildings they connected together.

Hundreds of them,” said the soft voice. “With Willem going north, they – or rather, that Power – had decided that now was the time to make his move, and he was preparing to take that market-town. More, he was planning to do so today.”

“They would have had much trouble, even if those stinkers were numerous,” said Sarah. “Those shopkeepers in that town tend to have more muskets, better muskets, and bigger muskets than they do around here.” What Sarah had left unsaid, I understood: these people didn't get thugs often, but when they did get thugs, the thugs in question tended to be uncommonly hard – hard for lead-absorption, and hard for attitude. Hence, most shopkeepers in that town kept several loaded weapons handy – and they liked revolvers. More than a few such pistols used the 'larger' size of revolver bullet, even if the guns in question were the common size I had seen and worked on for much else about them.

“True enough,” said the soft voice. I understood this to mean Sarah's speaking of muskets. “That one power, though, had really gotten into those new drugs, and hence he thought himself fit to take on Brimstone himself with the goal of kicking that reptile out of hell and taking over in his stead.” Pause. “He decided to declare his own war on the fourth kingdom's people.”

What?” I gasped. “Does that stuff make people stupidly optimistic and overconfident to the point of insanity?”

“Among other things, yes – and that is doubly so if the stuff is consumed the way those blue-suited thugs receive it,” said the soft voice. “Unlike nearly every such drugged person on the continent at this time, however...”

There was another pause, this one seemingly lasting a minute. All six of us were to hear this matter, for everyone present had an empty or near-empty cart; Karl and Maarten had indeed been busy with transporting and then stacking supplies. This was the last mile, all of our carts were to receive their ordnance-piles; and then, upstairs we would go, round and round with dizziness our close companion.

“Not quite that soon,” said the soft voice. “Maybe some of it will start going upstairs quickly enough, but you'll need to look over that one room down here before you go upstairs. There are things in there you want, and there's more out here that you-all want than you realize.” I then understood I was the one being referred to by the use of 'you-familiar-singular'. A pause, then, “that one Power managed to get some of the other supplies that one drug-producing location is planning on eventually sending in real quantity, along with an assortment of those drugs which were prepared to be used that way – so he was entirely trashed, fully as much as a just-starting-out blue-dressed thug.”

“That would make those people witches indeed,” said Sarah.

“Most blue-dressed thugs do not start out as thugs, and they generally know so little about witchdom that it's difficult to name them 'witches' save by their behavior, unlike this man – who was a Power for some years prior to his very first dose,” said the soft voice, “and hence the effects upon him, compared to a person just selected to be a blue-dressed thug, were markedly different.”

“He didn't react the same?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Ask some of those medical people over there how the drugs those functionaries use affect those who are not functionaries, and you'll get almost as big an earful as if you ask them about how they affect the attitudes and behaviors of functionaries – even if the two earfuls are entirely different as to tone and nature.”

“How so?” asked Sarah.

“Recall how mining-town thugs act when they get into forty-chain. and how you felt when you tried Geneva that one time?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “The difference is greater yet with those drugs, and that in all aspects.”

“They would become deathly ill if they weren't much-used to them, then,” said Sarah. “Unless they were witches first...”

“Those people still get sick from forty-chain,” I muttered. “They might have their bones...”

“I think that might be the case for some witches, but even I know there are witches and there are witches, and I suspect what we were told about Cardosso's eating High Meats with no effect beyond making him and those with him smell horrible is but the smell of the mule.” Sarah paused, then said, “with these drugs, I suspect it is closer to the mule itself.”

“Closer than you think,” said the soft voice. “The chief drug that man was taking has varied effects, depending upon how one feels toward the goals and things of witchdom: if one is committed fully against witchdom, it makes one deathly ill in small doses and kills in but slightly larger ones; if one is somewhat inclined toward becoming a witch, it makes that goal a much greater and fast-growing attraction; and if one is a witch, especially a stronger example, it causes both a further infestation of spirits and a greater hunger for those things near and dear to witches – and the stronger the witch, the more those attitudes and behaviors are amplified and extended.”

“Hence that stinky wretch got a good dose in and thought to run amok,” I muttered. “Probably didn't take him long at all to come to the conclusion that 'now is the time'.”

“No, it didn't,” said the soft voice. “The first dose hooked that man solid, the second made him fully as crazy as if he'd been using Snurf by the handful at some length, and the ones after that just made him worse with each succeeding dose – and that was for that drug. He was using some of the other drugs supplied as well, which made him worse yet that way.”

I began to walk west and slightly north. I could smell the explosives, those being somewhere to my right and slightly ahead, while what lay directly in front of me were...

“Rockets,” I muttered. “That woman didn't spare matters laying those things in, didn't she?”

“How many rockets do we have?” asked Sepp from behind me.

“Uh, at least two pallets of them, and at least half a pallet of launchers,” I said in hesitating voice. I knew there was more than that, but how many more of each was a mystery, and more, there was one of those special 'annotated' manuals, this one the thickest of the lot thus far – and what it said about these things was a mystery beyond 'it's a real prize' and 'it's better than you think it could be'.

“Given I know almost nothing about these things, I'm about ready to be surprised,” I thought. “I know they're shoulder fired, they've got good range, they're not that tough to use...”

The mystery vanished with a flash. That was about as much as one needed to know to effectively use these things if one had those 'magical-seeming thermal recognition seeker heads' at the tip of one's rocket, while these examples needed good concealment...

“That is the part that will help much,” said the soft voice, “as while its' writers hadn't done as much shooting in built-up areas as they and those they trained did later, those unpleasant people from the north did get into some small towns near the coast – and they had to use these weapons there so as to 'root them out'.”

“And their tactics carry over into a more-general region, this involving rifles, grenades, machine-pistols, improvisation...”

“Especially the last,” said the soft voice. “The goal of military training, at least as it should be practiced, is to teach people unused to obeying orders and functioning as a well-integrated team to be able to do both of those things well – and that no matter how tired they are and how they happen to feel about themselves or those orders. Once that goal is accomplished, it's then a matter of teaching people how to think on their feet while consistently making 'decent' decisions – and that while under fire in a combat zone.

“As in 'the enemy dies or runs off, and our people don't do either of those things'?” I asked.

“That also,” said the soft voice. “As you're well aware, there's a lot more to such matters than that simple one-sentence statement.”

“Simple, he says,” I muttered. “That statement condenses down whole books.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice, “and you're about to get your hands on one, so look carefully for it while checking out what you've found here.”

The first 'rockets' I found proved to be already 'bagged up', these in wearable 'rocket-holders' that held warheads and the two-part 'boosters' separate for ready attachment prior to firing; and while the witches had gotten into these things some, the Mistress of the North must have known that would have happened, as she did not lay in two tall pallets of rockets.

She had laid in six head-high pallets of them, so even with the looting the witches had engaged in, we had hundreds of these thoroughly-unpleasant – to the recipient, anyway – missiles. The launchers, though – those were a different matter entirely.

“The witches barely touched those,” I muttered. “They're not cursed, so they didn't want them...”

“Not that,” said the soft voice. “Recall that manual spoken of? It, and a 'bad' witch-made copy, are the only good ones to be had on these things, as the others found with the launchers are little more than the usual 'brochures' intended to refresh the minds of those with training and identify dangerous materials to those who lacked such training.”

Bad witch-made copy?” I asked.

“It may be a badly-done witch-made copy, but it has a lot of notes made by that expert witch, and he had a lot of contacts out in the field,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, he fired off enough of these things to put a sizable section on their use in that country's training manuals before he was killed.”

“Stupid witch,” I muttered regarding the Mistress of the North. “Kills someone who could have been a real asset...”

“Her single area of true weakness,” said the soft voice. “The Mistress of the North had to be entirely in charge of any enterprise she was involved in, and one needed to 'walk upon the eggshells of quolls' when around her if one wished to stay alive and unharmed.” A pause, then, “and that man not only did not do that, but he told her 'no' – and that, to put it mildly, meant 'war unto death and beyond' as far as she was concerned.”

“Stupid witch,” I muttered again. “She must not have had much foresight at all...”

“She had far more foresight than you might think,” said the soft voice. “She had a great deal of foresight so far as he was concerned, as he would have been troublesome indeed in due time – and she didn't want that kind of trouble, not when she had invested as much time and money into 'getting ready' for war.” A pause, then, “she may have won that battle, and a great many others in later days, but she eventually lost her war – and had she not killed him and those other ranking witches at the Abbey, Brimstone would have had the planet as his playground nearly a thousand years ago.”

“That was what I m-meant...” I spluttered. That witch seemed to only think about three steps ahead of where she was at best; and to win wars, I knew you needed to not merely mind that which was right in front of you, and mind it well indeed, but also pay attention to those matters which were far afield – and the entirety of the territory in between those two extremes of distance and thought needed one's attention as well.

“I think you are right,” said Sarah. “I've read enough about that witch to know that her inability to endure those who might prove her equals meant she killed those who could have helped her if she thought them to be a possible threat, and that witch sounds likely indeed in both categories, based on what I have heard and read.”

“He was mentioned?” I asked. “Was he spoken of on a tapestry?”

“Not on any tapestries that I know of, but I think he was spoken of in at least one old tale,” said Sarah. “I am not sure which one without my notes handy, but I recall mention of this one especially-capable witch that was growing rapidly in power...”

“Had he stayed alive much longer,” said Katje darkly, “and had she accepted him, then that one smelly wretch who sold her this stuff would have tried to kill both of them, and I think that he would have done so sooner rather than later.”

There was silence for what seemed seconds; everyone froze. It was as if I heard of one especially evil witch, and then was informed of another witch that was so much worse that the first witch seemed gentle, kind, knowing, and wise – and the first witch mentioned was none of those things.

“She was neither gentle or kind,” said the soft voice, “but she was knowledgeable and intelligent, and knew a number of people who knew more than she did – including the most intelligent witch that lived during that time – and between her suspicions and what she was told by various sources, she knew that to be her choice: either 'take' that deep-hole and do whatsoever was needed to secure it and its guardians unto herself alone, or dwindle into obscurity and then die as the object of adoration at the hands of a more-powerful witch – and she wasn't about to do the latter.”

“Would that smelly wretch have killed her had she..?”

“Yes, he would have, as between the two of them they could have unseated him from his position of power in due time,” said the soft voice. “That was another matter she was told, as while she was not afraid of Imhotep in regards to the things of witches, she was told most-explicitly what he would attempt to do if given anything remotely resembling a suitable excuse to kill her – and when that witch purposed to do something, especially by then, it tended to happen exactly as he planned.” A pause, then, “and when it came to being 'in charge' and tolerating no interference whatsoever from underlings, much less 'equals', she was bested by that stinker.”

While this talk had been continuing, I had continued with my looking; and while that manual seemed inclined toward hiding itself from me, the other matters pertaining to rockets seemed in front of me wherever I happened to look: the launchers, these in plastic 'zip-lock bags' with bright-green-lettered preservative packets; the 'gunsights', these in their own padded 'ammunition cans'...

“Those don't go 'boom', so are the metal cans better for protecting things?” I asked.

“Yes, and not a little better, especially at that time,” said the soft voice. “They were just starting to get into this type of fiberglass then, and it took them quite some time to get a process that permitted rapid quantity production of sturdy-yet-inexpensive containers that were altogether air and water-tight.”

“And now they seldom use anything else – or do they?” I asked.

“Metal cans are still fairly common overseas, but most of the ones you-all are likely to find are old cans that have been refurbished a number of times,” said the soft voice. “Fiberglass, especially that grade, is not merely a most-common material over there, but is also easy to use.”

“Stinky, messy, causes an itch so bad that it needs a new and different vocabulary to describe...” I muttered.

“It may well be all of those things,” said the soft voice, “but the 'bin-lines' are sufficiently automated now that people only need deal with the finished product as a rule – and then, it's fully cured, smooth, warm, and very strong.”

“Does it crack?” I asked. That had been a problem with the less-expensive materials that I knew of, which is why I commonly avoided them unless the job was large enough to demand their use. It usually wasn't, thankfully.

“Not any more it does,” said the soft voice, “and that's for the 'cheap stuff'.” A pause, then, “these bins were not made using that material then, which is why they're still usable.”

“It sounds like they improved that material a great deal,” said Katje, who then held up a satchel. “I found several of these things, all of them gathered together, and none of them are light.” Katje gave the satchel she held a shake, then said, “this one sounds like rag-wrapped tools of some kind, if I go by its noise.”

I went over to where Katje was standing, and as I came by one particular bin – it seemed all by itself, for some reason, even if it was not – I pulled it down, put it on the floor, levered up its handles – and there, on top of several satchels similar to what Katje had held, sat a surprisingly thick 'book'.

Unlike those manuals I had seen previously, this one – while retaining an unmistakable 'home-made' flavor – was both a more-substantial text and a more-finished article, for its binding was a species of heavy cloth, this cloth a mottled gray-flecked three-shade green and sealed carefully around its edges to prevent fraying; then when I set the manual down to look through it, I was stunned.

I had found the manual for these things, this being the original printed example included by merest chance in the shipment, for stamped on the top-center of the 'frontispiece' were the dread red letters 'R C S', these squat symbols separated by blocky periods and part-hidden by bamboo-looking 'greenery'.

“Nowhere near as faint-looking as the last instance,” I thought. This instance was bright and 'clear'.

“Mostly because that document you're currently reading had a higher overall level of secrecy when it 'escaped',” said the soft voice, “and those colors have meaning, also.”

“Colors?” I asked innocently. “Do they, uh, use colors that way still..?”

“More so currently than when that document was written,” said the soft voice, “and the aspect of secrecy grew immensely during wartime.” A pause, then, “it relaxed partly after the war ended.”

“The 'ministry of propaganda' probably told the 'people' – no, not 'people',” I thought. For some odd reason, the hearing of secrecy made me think for a moment of George Orwell's best-known and most-infamous nightmare vision of a state, a state obsessed with secrecy, a state seeing enemies everywhere, a state possessing...

Long rows of blue-suited thugs, these chanting their orders so as to keep them memorized, sticks in their hands and silver 'control-leashes' reminding them of their duty every second of each long day...

The goose-step march, the en-masse quacking speech, like that of a mesmerized flock of ducks...

Orwell's world needed 'memory holes' to erase facts that contradicted the current propaganda-defined truth handed down by the omnipotent leadership. This place had better things than those clumsy ash-belching tubes that led to great furnaces that consumed both contradictions and that evidence supporting them; and their propaganda and other matters of similar nature were far more potent. After all, computers had still used vacuum tubes and relays when Orwell wrote of his nightmare, and this place then did far more than the when and where of my much-later time.

“Big, heavy, power-hungry, hot-running...”

“And most-secret, also,” said the soft voice. “Watch for colors there, and listen to those people you first come in contact with. You'll be reminded of that 'story' more then.” As it was, I recalled the name of one such computer, it being the chief secret of those early shrouded-in-secrecy 'monstrosities', and recalling its home nation as being that of Orwell himself did not help much.

“C-col...” There was no word for 'Colossus' here, not in this language – and trying to speak such a word...

No, I dared not even think that word. There was a dread reason for not thinking it, one far beyond the mere concept of a dire secret hidden carefully in an unseemly location, both here and where I came from; and when I looked down upon the printed pages before me once more after this 'revery', the strobing colors of runes spelling out that very word nearly blinded me as the pages before me first went a faint grayish-white – to then blast this particular strobe-color rune-string into my eyes.

I then knew I had just seen those runes show upon the screen of a military computer, one once used in this ancient witch-hole, and the dread word that had occurred to me was a curse indeed.

“That one witch,” I muttered. “He had...”

“Yes, he had one, or rather two, one a portable example and another fixed unit of greater 'power' in his quarters,” said the soft voice, “and those systems were both confiscated by the Mistress of the North. He'd put almost all of his data on those two systems, with only that information which he was currently working on, that still being put to paper or 'skins', not being present.”

“Skins?” I gasped, as I recalled an old word. While not 'skin' then – this material was a species of thin-scraped 'hide' long ago – I had once used the 'modern' version of this stuff in a college drafting class. “V-vel...”

“Do not speak that word,” squeaked Sarah. “It was writ with runes upon that tapestry I bathed for!”

Again runes – jagged black lines and angles, these surrounded by first a noxious shade of ragged-looking pink and then one of virulent purple – blasted into the screen of my 'view-box', this being witchdom's chiefest name for a laptop computer; that moniker was an apt name, for those made here used curses as much as circuitry – or so it seemed likely to me, upon an instant's thought.

“They wished they could use curses that way on those,” said the soft voice. “While there were some heavily-cursed machines of a vaguely similar nature, the regions of cursedness in military hardware of an electronic nature tended to be those portions which recognized the user.” A pause, then, “and that portion across the sea, though it does not use curses, does not function in a fashion you are familiar with.”

“N-no passwords?” I asked.

“No, it does use those, as well as user-names, just like many systems did where you came from,” said the soft voice. “It just recognizes such user-data in a totally different fashion, one that you currently have no knowledge of at the conceptual level – and it does not use software, hence the principle of recognition is closer to 'witchcraft' than 'programming'.”

“Does it use witchcraft?” I thought – and only then recalled that now-ancient dictum about 'sufficiently advanced technology' appearing to be something that used curses and fetishes instead of minute lines etched in precise patterns and peculiar electron structures in close-arrayed atoms.

“No, it does not,” said the soft voice. “The computers over there that you-all encounter, at least initially, will not use witchcraft in any way, shape, or form, as they're the versions the commons use; and there aren't many people there who currently can use the other kind of computers – and there are grades of 'other' computers there, some of which were actually imported from this area long ago, and some of which merely 'stole' their ideas and actually 'went somewhere with them'.” A pause, then, “and those machines are cursed.”

This interlude, however, had me first find the index – there was one of those in this inch-thick book, which surprised me more than a little, so much so that when I turned to the section titled 'how it functions', I was astonished to have the launcher's parts enumerated in such exhausting detail that I was stunned. More, upon going to the next chapter heading, I was astonished to learn that not all of what was listed came from the eight 'periods' of 'extensive' use here on 'the north coast' spoken of in the first paragraph. The second paragraph on that page indicated why.

Some of this data was 'from other locations, at this writing not clearly identified' – and those locations provided not merely many of the ideas behind the devices themselves, but also a lot of ideas as to how to use them.

“And also how not to use them,” I muttered, upon seeing a grainy-looking 'four-color' picture of a trio of obvious infantrymen hiding somewhere in a thick jungle but a short distance from a heavily-traveled road. As if to show me my error, the picture somehow then changed its focus and 'drew back' to show me this 'jungle' was merely a largish copse in the middle of a city – a city surrounded by a near-desert region, one bounded by sizable rivers and having a people of a tongue so alien-sounding that I wondered if it was located on the planet where I came from. The copse itself was watered by a small tributary of one of those rivers, which made the three infantrymen wish they were somewhere far away.

“Of course it is,” I thought. “That's got to be somewhere in the Middle East, and those, uh, thugs there are going to shoot that thing off...”

“That's a captured image from a video intercept, as are many of these pictures,” said the soft voice, “and while the terrain is close to what you were thinking of, that location is not where you came from.” A pause, then, “those people had a lower level of manufacturing technology than the place that made these, hence they copied that design slavishly and paid the price in dead and injured due to their version's many shortcomings.”

“And these here are well-debugged..?”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Not only are there late versions of those thermal recognition devices in various locations overseas, but also newer versions of those aiming devices and newer versions of most of the parts to make these rockets and their launchers.” A pause, then, “figure faster flight times, greater range and accuracy, 'hotter' acceleration – and no need for a slow count of ten for the rocket to 'get the picture', assuming you aren't using the thermal seeker heads.”

“How long, then?” I asked silently.

“With someone who isn't marked, a quick count of three before they squeeze the rocket off,” said the soft voice. “In your case – figure 'as fast as you can squeeze that trigger through its stroke', assuming you've got the missile 'close' to being lined up when you start squeezing it, and the sight's 'hot' and ready to 'calculate' the lead and other matters needed to hit what you're aiming at.”

“Still needs to have good light..?”

“Oh, much less light than those in here,” said the soft voice. “If you can see the target – meaning there's enough light to actually see what you're aiming at – you can hit it.” A pause, then, “that presumes the latest versions of that sighting equipment, as that version has not merely an image intensifier built-in, but also a variable-magnification wide-field 'telescope'.”

“What is this about images?” asked Katje. “Is this something I should know about?”

“Uh, if we can get those, they'll actually work after dark, unlike these,” I said. “I'm not sure if that means a full moon is needed, or just starlight, but...”

“If you can see it,” said the soft voice. “That image sensor in the sighting device translates some of the more-important portions of the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums into visible light, as well as effectively magnifies the available light – and it does both of those things well.

“Well?” I asked. “As well as that one thing I once tried?”

“I suspect these work better,” said Sarah. “One tapestry I read spoke of weapons that could see in the dark as if they were witch-bred biters, and I think them to be those just spoken of.”

“Yes, the earlier versions,” said the soft voice. “These I spoke of are the later versions, and while those functionaries try to put versions of those devices up everywhere over there, those units have two troubles, one of which is avoided in the seeker heads for missiles like you have here.”

“Which is that one?” asked Sarah.

“Those functionaries tend to damage the devices when they install them,” said the soft voice, “and that presumes they don't ruin them by banging them around or dropping them.” A pause, then, “of course, the rocket guidance systems are 'militarized', and these related devices are not.”

“Which means they can stand some rough treatment,” I muttered. “What is the other problem?”

“The devices used for 'routine surveillance' are readily blinded by 'grease',” said the soft voice, “and while the 'commons' put grease to every such device they can find, the functionaries tend to put more grease and 'better' grease on them when they clean the devices 'as per schedule'.” A pause, then, “hence such readings are often sufficiently ambiguous that the software cannot make up its mind as to just what it's seeing, and it's a rare functionary indeed who's got enough 'smarts' to not just ignore what such a device is sending for a picture.”

“One in thousands, and those people get, uh, 'kicked upstairs' almost the minute they demonstrate that capacity,” I muttered.

“That's the biggest single reason that you might have such people on duty,” said the soft voice. “Anyone who can survive functionary training with their mental faculties reasonably intact is one out of hundreds, and anyone who has that much smarts by the time they become a data-monitor is rarer yet.” A pause, then, “and of those people, there are some few individuals who can go higher-still in the command structure there.”

“How do they get such people?” I asked.

“You'll learn that soon enough,” said the soft voice. “Suffice it to say there are a number of ways that the leadership there gets the various levels of functionaries, with those blue-suited ones being recruited regularly in some numbers, other low-level functionaries by similar means, and then there are some much-higher-level individuals who are 'stalked' at some length before being 'grabbed'.”

A few more minutes, these while we 'loaded up' with rockets and their launchers and I paged quickly through this manual. It was one I wanted for my 'reading time' in the foreseeable future, as if ever I needed a text 'on how to wage war', I had found one; and if I was interrupted on a frequent basis, this to find and then identify what was found while supervising the loading of the carts to a degree, I considered it little more than a minor nuisance.

At least, I thought it a minor nuisance until Sarah brought me a small fiberglass box, this painted in odd-looking 'striped' camouflage, almost as if there had been a row of people somewhere on an assembly line with airbrushes spraying the four colors of paint or 'dye' used on this thing. Sarah looked at me and shook her head.

“I've never seen one of these before, not once, not ever,” she said, “but when I looked inside to read its sheets, I nearly ran screaming for the stairs.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“I had to be told explicitly that this device was not cursed,” said Sarah. “I've seen pictures of things like them before, and I thought this one had runes on it I could not see, so I brought it to you.”

“What is it?” I asked, as Sarah put the box where I was sitting on the floor.

“They called it a trigger,” said Sarah, “but it looks too much like one of those cursed things called detonators for me to not wish to run from it and scream before it exploded.”

I opened the box, and inside, I found a surprisingly 'small' device, this with a handle that folded out cleanly and easily. I used that handle to pull the 'tin' outside, and there, I saw printed on its side 'how to use it'.

“Connect wires, wind up one turn with the handle, press the 'test' button, and look for the green light,” I muttered, “then wind up three turns, push in the carrying handle” – here, I folded back the 'winder' and found it was the handle in question – “and then press the 'fire' button.” I then had a question beyond the obvious, that being 'where are the binding posts'. I found those when I turned the little 'tin' over.

“What happens then?”

“If the device has had proper maintenance recently – which it needs a lot of – then it usually fires the cap or caps, presuming decent caps and a fairly short run of wire to said caps,” said the soft voice. “Look more carefully in that box, and you'll find not merely the 'brochure' for it, but also the list of the tools and other supplies needed to keep it in 'proper' condition.” A pause, then, “most troops just used pot-batteries, as they tended to be quicker and more reliable.”

“And they were already carrying such things,” I muttered, as I pulled out the 'brochure' – which was a three-part-folded plastic-laminated sheet. The very first page, however, showed some things I hadn't expected, this being a row of odd 'scratched' symbols that had me rub my finger over.

They changed instantly to 'the cache is two rows over and two columns west, and we put that stuff he had hidden in there'. That statement changed a second later to 'this thing cannot be cursed, as it has nothing in it which will accept domination and control', while the third message was this:

“The Mistress of the North holds my soul in her hands,

and she plays with me like a toy, for I am her witch-puppet.”

“Now show us the rest of what's hidden in this thing,” I muttered.

The three-folded page suddenly seemed to erupt under my hands, and went from a thin three-folded 'brochure' into a thick 'wad' of stitched-together pages bound in the skin of some kind of creature. It was leather of some kind obviously, but its odd coloration – a muddy and variegated green-brown, much as if it was copied straight from Iggy's rotting-in-a-manure-pile hide – and the scaly aspect, made for wondering as to just what kind of a creature had died to give up its covering. Looking inside the new-found book, however, showed not merely the original device's documentation – which had grown mightily; easily one line had gone to one or more paragraphs, and not short paragraphs, either – but also, a clear divide showed about midway through the pages of this infernal tome; and there, I began to see pictures and drawings, these of a device so strange and outlandish it made me gasp in shock and caused Sarah to screech like a mashed rat.

“That's a d-detonator,” she said in trembling voice as she pointed to one of the 'pictures' – which were, in truth, 'high-grade etchings' or something similar, “and it's c-c-covered with r-runes!”

“Painted in dried blood, no less, according to this information...” I said slowly. “This isn't their documentation, but rather that of someone who observed the real thing somehow – and that at close range and at no small length. Correct?”

“I'd go to that location spoken of and find what's in that cache,” said the soft voice. “What curses they managed to put on those things wore off a long time ago, and in the process, you'll go by where Sarah found that one device and pick up some more supplies, ones you'll need to actually use it.”

“Not to take it with us, right?” I asked. “Not on the trip to use, anyway.”

“It needs a fair amount of work before you can use it, as well as some replacement parts,” said the soft voice. “They have fair-to-sizable stocks of such 'new' parts overseas, and if you put those in that thing, then it will work well, unlike during the first portion of the war when most soldiers considered those things more trouble than they were worth.”

On the way to the witch-cache, Sarah showed me where she'd found the box. There were a number of similar fiberglass boxes, along with a number of smaller cloth camouflage satchels. Picking up one of the last showed the device's true manual, this surprisingly thick – easily the thickness of a finger – and not defaced...

“Defaced?” I gasped.

“That was a witch-written 'manual' you received earlier, minus its cursed aspect,” said the soft voice, “and indicates not merely what they actually thought of these 'trouble-boxes', but also it speaks in considerable detail of the chants and curses they used to 'make them behave'.” A pause, then, “they usually didn't behave themselves, no matter how much their witch-users chanted at them; and that one witch determined that not merely were they 'not-susceptible' to curses, but also that they needed a lot of maintenance with the correct tools and the proper supplies to ensure they'd work as intended.” Another pause, then, “that manual there is the one that came with these, and it goes into great detail as to the quantity and quality of work that is needed to keep these things working right.”

The manual itself went into more detail than I expected – a lot more, in fact – and calling these things 'trouble-boxes' began to sound believable, at least until I saw the first of a series of drawings showing the parts, and in particular, the detailed points. One of the most salient aspects took up an entire page, in fact, and showed just where the bulk of the trouble actually resided: the breaker-points.

“Points?” I gasped. “This thing is a spring-driven low-tension magneto with an impulse-coupling!”

“Complete with a number of those then-common user-adjustable bearings that needed cleaning and greasing regularly with a special low-viscosity grease, a rather highly-stressed spiral spring, and a set of points that tended to oxidize very quickly – when that grease didn't get in them,” said the soft voice. “Standard procedure among the troops that used these with success was to clean and service them daily and test them hourly when in position – while keeping a pot-battery handy just the same, in case Magraat decided to show herself in spite of those precautions.”

“Who is Magraat?” I asked.

“A semi-mythical being then commonly thought to be bad-luck personified,” said the soft voice. “It's based on an early intercept, more or less – an intercept where those who heard the individual mentioned not only had great trouble with static and fading, but they also had trouble speaking that person's name – and hence 'Magraat' was the best they could do.” A pause, then, “given the state of their equipment and life in general during that time, 'Magraat' soon acquired a rather complete mythology, including a host of pertinent aphorisms – many of which you will hear in short order.”

“Murphy's laws,” I thought. I wondered if I could still speak that name, actually – and more, if it were not a deadly curse here. 'Dodge' had been bad enough.

“Right idea, wrong location,” said the soft voice. “This was an early intercept. They didn't have the equipment needed to get information from where you came from then, and hence when they tried to speak that particular alien name, that was the best they could do – and no, it was not 'Margaret' they were hearing.”

“What was it then?” asked Sarah, as I resumed looking.

There was no answer, at least at first. Seconds later, however, a soft humming noise seemed to become infiltrated with a pulsating irregular hissing noise, one that spoke – to me, anyway – of a receiver that needed some serious work and an antenna designed to pick up noise rather than desired signals. Amid this static-ridden crackle, I heard a word, one initially so faint that I wondered just what I was hearing, for its sounds were 'just a hair off':

The 'M' sound was 'hummed', with a buzz like an infuriated beehive followed by a faint trill at the end.

This was followed by an 'Ahh' sound, this more belched than vocalized.

The third 'syllable' was 'GR', this growled like an angry dog and yet somehow subdued; for that portion which followed it was louder, so much louder that it pounded upon my ears as if someone were cursing out an especially nasty white 'RAT'. This last portion was drawn out, much as if it were not spoken, but now howled like a mad dog – much as if one of those fabled desert storm-winds was yelling instead of just blowing sand like a gigantic grit-blasting nozzle.

The fact that I had done grit blasting a number of times – both at work and at home – over the course of two decades and more didn't help with that last part pounding on my ears and mind as if my head was a nail and the sound a four-pound cross-peen hammer.

“That still sounds a bit like Margaret,” I thought, amazed I could still recall bits of the language I grew up speaking. I'd almost forgotten it entirely, or so it seemed. “How would that name be said here?”

“It would not be said in that way, nor in some other ways you might be thinking of,” said the soft voice. “Try Ma-ha-greth-ha-ij – and emphasize those three syllables that are spoken 'hard' like you mean it, as that name is not merely a rare one here, but it commonly has bad associations.

I just knew I'd get an earful after hearing that, though I was surprised at how fast that earful came on the heels of what I had just heard.

“Ooh, no one likes that name,” squawked Sarah. She seemed to 'get echoes' somehow. “Everyone I've ever read about or heard of having that name either was a witch or became one quickly, and all of those stinkers caused more trouble than one might believe – and calling a woman named thusly 'bad luck' would be calling a pot dirty when it is filled to the brim with burnt-to-charcoal food and has an inch of greasy soot to its outside!”

“An iron pot, correct?” I asked. I had some intimations regarding 'greasy' soot – as in the fuel involved fat or distillate of some kind. “This foul-s-smelling woman is always stirring it with an iron ladle or something similarly rusty, and hence when that smelly pot overflows, it pours out trouble and, uh, 'bad luck'. Correct? Overflows a lot, doesn't it?” My unspoken thoughts were, “that would account for part of that grease, anyway – that woman likes greasy meals, like 'swine soup' or 'Sopa con Puerc' done wrong.”

The Veldters didn't much care for badly-done 'swine soup', as they were careful about cooking such food. Indigestion was not a joke in the Valley; it might as well be badly-treated cholera when it came to inducing prostration. People there had died from it, in fact.

“Yes, in that old tale it does,” muttered Sarah ruefully. “There is a tale called 'The way of Mahagrethhaij', and that tale...”

“Is a very commonly-told one,” said Katje. “Now I hope that stinker doesn't show with her pot of trouble, as then nothing will go right – and no one in my recollection has named their child with that name or those that sound even somewhat like it.”

“Your recollection,” I murmured, knowing Katje hadn't heard much at all until fairly recently. I then returned to my reading. “No semiconductors in these, so if you cannot use a battery, and you don't mind pulling the needed careful maintenance to keep it working like it should, you can use these things to set off mines and bombs.” I paused, then, “probably just the trick when you're traveling long hard hours at your very best speed – for days on end, no less – and you don't have the strength to carry a lot of those heavier-than-they-look pot-batteries and their charger so as to keep at least most of them fully charged.”

“Which is why they were still used in certain situations,” said the soft voice, “and that overly-long name is a most-common one among the upper ranks of witch-women, even if naming them that usually results in a lot of trouble and often an early death from matters unforeseen by their parents.”

“A lot of trouble?” I asked silently.

“When you first see pictures of infants here, much less the real article, you'll be very surprised,” said the soft voice. “They don't look or act like babies where you come from – and you're not likely to see the infants of witches, as they usually keep those hid particularly well until they're old enough to 'not embarrass their parents'.”

“That means adolescence, if not a bit later,” I murmured. The terms used regarding embarrassment of one's owners were too familiar; they had been applied to me – personally, and in those very same wordsand I had recognized my slave status earlier than that 'age of respectability'. It was a needed mechanism in both my case and theirs, but I suspected such children needed to recognize such matters earlier than I did – and then, much as I had needed to, they had needed to learn to 'walk on the eggshells of quolls' whenever and wherever they found themselves in the presence of their masters.

“Usually much later,” said the soft voice, indicating when such 'slaves' were released unto another species of 'slavery', with their long training in both tyranny and deceit approaching its fullest bloom. “What no one has told you thus far about Boermaas is nearly all of its students are male, unlike the other higher schools.”

“It was not that way when I went there,” said Katje. “There may have been more men than women then, but in my class, I knew at least fifteen other women like myself, and that was not a large class.”

“It has changed greatly, then,” said Sarah – who implied that there were but a few 'girls' other than her cousin when she'd last visited the place, and that out of hundreds, unlike the time of Katje and Maarten, where but four regular lecturers dealt with a few dozen students. “Now that pouch there feels like it has tools, and after hearing about these things, I think we wish one and its tools, so that we may get what we need so as to use it.”

“And use the tools in that tool-kit,” said the soft voice. “They may be intended for those devices, but those tools will be especially useful when you're dealing with the gear that functionaries use.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I could tell someone else was thinking to get one of these kits after hearing about 'functionaries' and their gear. Their thinking was probably along the lines of 'they need trouble, and this sounds about right for causing it'.

“Some of those wrenches are 'odd' sizes,” said the soft voice, “and others of them have 'odd' shapes, and then some of the other tools are very difficult to find over there at this time.” A pause, then, “why not look at them quickly now, and you'll get a much better understanding of just what's involved in keeping an old-style trigger 'running good'.”

I did so, and was shocked at both the sheer number of 'special' wrenches, all of them dark mottled black-gray and color-coded with sizable dots of paint on their handles – and numbered as well – but also at the presence of two new-looking wire-cutters and two pair, a large and a small, of needlenose pliers. It seemed manna from heaven, as here were the tools I needed to work on electrical equipment in general, and radios in particular.

“Just need some nutdrivers,” I muttered.

“Those are on the other side of that fiberboard-stiffened divider, along with some cracked plastic tubes of gone-to-dust grease and a trio of special lubricators for the various points of lubrication on those things,” said the soft voice. “This tool-kit was one of the most-heavily coveted items on both sides of that long-ago war, and it was worth a 'great deal' to those having one.” A pause, then, “and it's not just useful for working on electrical equipment, should you speak of what functionaries deal with.”

“What?” I asked. “Do they use, uh, special hardware on their stuff?”

“Yes, and to a degree that few over there know of outside of those who routinely deal with that hardware,” said the soft voice. “There's a lot of tool-making needed in those shops so as to deal with 'the system' as used by those in leadership, and while it causes great trouble to need to make such special tools to work on 'mandated equipment', the functionaries tend to regard all such tools as theirs whenever and wherever they are found should they happen to see them.”

“Wh-why?” I asked.

“Because they think themselves to be the only ones permitted to have such tools,” said the soft voice, “and because they're clumsy at best and invariably 'trashed' to the point of idiocy, they not only tend to both lose such equipment frequently, but they also tend to ruin a great number of tools and much of the equipment they're trying to either repair or install.” A pause, then, “speak to the right people over there, and you'll learn of both currently-used systems of measurement and the multitudinous families of fasteners used there.”

“The common list, and the, uh, secret one?” I asked. “As in 'if you don't have the special tools, you cannot mess with things that are not permitted your use?”

“One of a great many tenets used to keep the 'commons' there where they currently are,” said the soft voice, “which is under the boots of their leaders.”

“Those people do not wear boots,” muttered Sarah as she looked down at her feet. “Now where is this witch-cache?”

That took some few minutes to find, as while it was nearby, it needed me to first find it, and then Sarah, Katje, and myself to take down the cans of ammunition erected around the narrow and well-hidden hiding place so as to actually uncover the cache. Here and there, however, I noted some unusual-looking labels on the ammunition cans, and when I found some labeled as being 'tracer', I thought to take that can.

“What sort of ammunition is this?” asked Katje.

“I think it might be for machine guns,” I murmured, “and there's some tracer ammunition in this stack.”

“Three different types, in fact,” said the soft voice. “There's 'regular' tracer, which is bright red and starts almost as soon as it gets clear of the muzzle; there's 'dim' tracer, which while they're red also, burn much dimmer and take nearly a hundred yards to start showing their light – and finally, there's stuff that's called tracer that is better thought of as 'incendiary' ammunition.”

“Which is what I think you just got,” said Sarah. “That will be most-useful for airing out those smelly coaches those witches will be coming in.”

“You mean those bullets will start fires,” said Katje flatly. “Fires in coaches usually mean they explode, if what talk I've about those things heard is true.”

“Every coach that I saw on fire exploded sooner or later,” I said. “Now where is that regular tracer – that stuff might not be as bad for starting fires as that incendiary ammunition, but it's worse for causing fires than most people thought it to be back then.”

“All tracer ammunition in that size was bad for starting fires,” said the soft voice, “but there was 'bad' and there was bad – and that can of ammunition you found first was the latter type.”

The witch-cache proved to be something of a disappointment, for all we found were three of those camouflage satchels, and their lightness made for wondering, at least until I opened one and found what looked like a leather-bound book. The first page showed writing of a sort that was so familiar in nature that I instantly put my hands on that book and said, “no hiding, please.”

The book all-but exploded as it grew in size to nearly three times its former thickness, and as I removed 'tome' after 'tome', they all did the exact same thing. I then thought to look at these 'bulging' 'books'.

“These are that witch's ledgers,” I spat. “They... No, not just common ledgers. That stinker kept something of a diary.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if he did write down nearly everything he did here before entering it in those computers he had.” A pause, then, “you asking those journals to not hide anything gave you everything that witch did of a useful nature during his tenure here and for quite some time beforehand, hence you'll not only get an unusual degree of insight into the nature of what this place and the surrounding area was actually like prior to the war, but also a lot of useful information regarding what to do, and more importantly, what not to do when fighting witches.”

“Given they use that black book so much, that does sound likely,” said Katje.

“They use nothing else,” said the soft voice, “and that book was being 'proofed' over here then, so these documents more or less are useful commentaries on any such books you find – and unlike most of the other currently-available documentation on witchdom's chief treatises, these are not written in 'Ye Writtenn Formatte', but in plain language, with all of the strange terms used by the witches of that era thoroughly explained in detail.”

“Why did I hear extra letters in what he just said?” asked Sarah, as we resumed 'clearing' the cache. There was a bag of those stolen knives, some bags of 'looted' ammunition, and an obviously 'decent' attempt at converting one of those shotguns we had just recently found into a 'sawed-off shotgun'.

“More than decent,” said the soft voice, “as that was one of that expert witch's own weapons, one he left 'loaded and ready' in this area in case he should need to use it.”

“Hence it's...” Here, Sarah picked it up, and spat, “how tall was that witch?”

“About as tall as your cousin, with somewhat shorter arms, so this weapon just needs some modest work to suit you.”

“What would I do with a short-barreled fowling piece?” muttered Sarah. “Its stock might be a passable fit, but I'd rather use a pistol on rats, and I've shot my share of close rats recently with one.”

“Thug-disposal,” I muttered darkly. “Remember how those blue-suited thugs tend to come out of nowhere...”

“You're right,” murmured Sarah. “They do that in... In that third kingdom port, and at that market town, and I had to blast one there when I fell on my rear!”

“That wasn't the only time, either, wasn't it?”

“That was the first instance I had to shoot a thug with that gun,” muttered Sarah. “Most thugs down that way spring from hiding with no warning, and you need to put soot on them or burst their heads with a flail!”

“B-burst th-their heads?” I gasped.

“I've sent brains flying more than once,” said Sarah. “It takes some practice with those, and a good flail made of well-seasoned third kingdom blackwood, but you can break heads with those things, and I've done it myself several times.”

“Break heads,” I muttered. “I wonder what my club will do?”

Those do that,” muttered Katje darkly. “I've heard about Georg and his club, but I've seen what you do – and he doesn't send fourth-kingdom-sized large rats flying.”

“No, but he does send pigs flying, as I've seen him do that,” said Sarah. “There, got that pistol.” She'd found one of the smaller examples, and it looked to have seen some serious work done to it. She then looked at what it was in, and spat, “and this holster is about fit for the stove, as it's as bad as one of those things these people made for grabbing!”

“Try it, dear,” said the soft voice. “That witch wasn't nearly as good as your husband-to-be when it came to leatherworking, but that holster does work passably.”

Sarah grasped the pistol, and with a slight jerk, removed it with but modest struggle. I still shook my head.

“That one would get you killed if you had to use it,” I muttered. “Better to just reinforce a pocket in what you're wearing and slip the thing in there – perhaps a pocket-insert of deer-leather would work.”

“I might manage that,” said Sarah. “Now what is a pocket-insert?”

“I suspect it's like a holster, only you do not wear it on a belt, but put it into a pocket,” said Katje. “It works well for concealment, which I suspect this pistol-holder was intended to do, and its maker lived with its somewhat tricky and grasping tendencies.”

“Part of that 'grasping' tendency' is due to the poor grade of 'home-tanned' leather that witch had to work with,” said the soft voice. “While one could purchase leather, getting decent stuff meant one needed to know the right people out in the green areas and slip the requisite stacks of coins to the right people.”

“'Hands' of coins, correct?” I asked. “Stacks a hand tall, with two or three such stacks to some people and but one such stack to those actually producing such leather..?”

“Essentially correct, even if the size of the needed bribes was a bit on the 'heavy' side for a well-connected ranking witch,” said the soft voice. “Those would be the size of bribes a marked scribe would need to get such leather, though – and such people not merely needed such leather, but usually tried to get their hands on both pistols like Sarah just found and knives of one kind or another.”

“To keep the witches off of them?” asked Katje.

“Not merely some of the witches,” said the soft voice. “Some of the animals found in this area needed quite a bit of hot lead to 'leave', hence the possession of such weapons by a marked scribe was usually regarded as 'an unfortunate necessity'.”

“As in 'those people don't merit such weapons, but we need our documents',” I muttered.

“Worse than that, especially the first part,” said the soft voice. “The need of ranking witches for documents done well was so dire that even 'the disgraceful unfit' could carry such weapons when and if they were doing 'government work' of an important nature.” A pause, then, “they needed to be careful, of course, and it was certain death to show them openly – but yes, they could and did carry some weapons in a concealed manner when and if they had sufficiently important 'business'.”

“And bribe-money for those witches who decided to shake them down,” I muttered.

“Those thugs usually died on the spot,” said the soft voice. “They would not be bought off with a bribe, and both those marked and their ranking patrons knew that – hence a muffled 'pop' resulting in an added eyehole was the required and preferred solution to such matters.”

“Muffled pop?” I asked.

“Ask Sarah to look closer at that pistol,” said the soft voice. “Especially the end of the barrel. It does protrude slightly.”

“You're right, it does,” she said.

“Now,” said the soft voice. I was the one being spoken to. “Look in that northwest corner, slowly and carefully, and remove that leather 'pouch'.” Pause. “It will have the other parts to that pistol, those being some that witch made himself of green-area materials.”

“Probably need to make...” I'd found the pouch, and the sense I had was first, 'what curses this had were of the notional variety', and second, 'I can duplicate these parts readily, and make my own personal examples of 'rat poison'.”

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “He made enough spares to make two suppressors, and those devices, while not the quietest things, will not wear out quickly.”

“Need subsonic ammunition to make them 'quiet',” I murmured. “Now is there some of that in here?”

The impression I had was so strange that after handing Sarah the pouch – heavy, greasy-feeling, and more than a little lumpy – I asked, “could I have a small tin of such ammunition? With a recipe for more? I'm going to need to deal with some rats in short order, I suspect.”

“Now what is this?” asked Katje, as I began 'cleaning' out the last portion of the cache. “It's one of those strange containers, only this one is a solid green color, not like these others, and it's got what looks like the language of the first portion of the book itself molded into its top!”

“Uh, what?” I squeaked. I'd asked my request silently, as I suspected I was asking for a bit much.

“I'd open that, even if I cannot read what it says,” said Sarah. “I might not be able to read that language, but I do know what the first part of the book looks like in its original words, and that is how it looks, Katje. I do know that much. It looks just like that, and that's how that language is writ today by the scribes of the Chosen. I've seen them write it many times, and I've seen their writing.”

I was continuing to work, as this cache hid more than was first apparent. I'd found several more greasy leather pouches, and the grease was not lard.

It felt more than a little like torment-grease, but it was not that, either. It had a definite waxy sense to it, as well as a greasy sense; and the ideas I was getting were so bizarre that it made for an outburst.

“That wretch came up with a leather preservative that actually works!” I spat.

“More than merely a leather preservative,” said the soft voice. “The workers managed to make up something similar in that wax you found on many of their cached supplies, but they didn't have his connections or his materials, and hence they managed a half-baked equivalent to what he managed.”

“There's writing inside this box here,” said Sarah. “It speaks of wax and a number of other things that I have no idea of.”

“Show that to some chemistry people across the sea,” said the soft voice. “They'll make some up for you.”

“The chemicals?” asked Sarah. “They name them this way?”

“No, that 'wax', said the soft voice. “Deodorized tallow may work decently, but that stuff makes it look worthless – and that's for leather. It works on a lot of things.”

“That tallow is not worthless,” said Katje. “I've glad I've managed to get some, as it works better on leather than anything I've seen.” Katje then felt one of the 'greasy' pouches. “It feels better than this does, and not a little better, but what is this stuff here?”

“Some very greasy leather, I think,” said Sarah. “This person was not a good knot-tier, as here... Oh, this has some pistol parts in it. This here looks like a barrel... It has threads on the end and is as long as my hand.” Pause. “Why would someone take a thread-die to the barrel of a pistol?”

“For a suppressor, dear,” I murmured, as I found another such 'greasy pouch'. “Now I know you can pot rats while they're on the move, and I've put at least one hole in a fast-moving rat with a pistol, so if we have two of those things, then we can deal with the rats at home without making much of a mess or waking half the people in town.”

“Those things do move at night, and they like beds then,” said Sarah. “I've tossed more than a few rats out of my bedding until I learned to hang my bed from the roof during the warm season.”

“That will not stop rats,” said Katje. “They will either jump from the roof, or they will...”

“I think not,” said Sarah. “It was quite the unusual rat that tried to get in my bed once I did that, and though I was woken by rats now and then once I did that, they tended to be both young and merely interested in warmth.”

“Interested in warmth?” I asked.

“They were not inclined to sneeze in my ears, nor search for grain in my bed-clothing,” said Sarah, “and that was so even when I was forced to use grain-sacks to make that stuff.”

“Grain-sacks?” I gasped. “You w-want s-soft l-linen for that, don't you?”

“Yes, and well-washed grain-sacks, especially if they have held sifted flour, do very well,” said Sarah. “Wash them twice with plenty of lye in the soap, hang them for a week in the sun, then press them with a hot copper, and then one has a good source of cloth fit for underclothing.” A pause, then, “such clothing may look peculiar, but it does work, and cloth like that is not cheap if it is bought from more-common sources.”

“Does it feel as if made of bugs?” asked Katje.

“No, not unless you've worn it a long time,” said Sarah. “If your underclothing gets buggy quickly, you can bet a small stack of coin that whoever made it stinted on their cloth – and I do not stint on cloth for underclothing, and that's double-true if I intend to wear it.” A pause, then, “buggy underclothing is fit for rag-merchants, and that only, as it makes me wish to scream if I am wearing it.”

“And grain-sacking..?”

“Makes better-than-decent underclothing, even if it does look strange,” said Sarah. “If it holds flour well, then it's got a tight weave, good thread, and has a high count of such thread, so it's decent for sewing, and then it will hold its stitches, and finally, it will stay soft and clean-feeling for a good long time – and I want that on my skin.” A pause, then, “I do not go out in public in my underclothing, so no one will see the designs the grain-merchants put on it, and I was not the only person in my class to use such underclothing once that secret got out.”

“What secret was this?” asked Katje.

“That well-washed grain-sacking worked well for such clothing, and more, that it wore like a good copper pot,” said Sarah. “My cousin told me that, and she was good at finding such cloth, even if she was lost with needles and thread.” A pause, “I wasn't, so between the two of us, we had plenty of good-paying work in regards to underclothing while we were at school down that way.”

“Given that she'd heard it from her mother, you should not be surprised,” said the soft voice. “That's an old secret in that family, as 'grain-sacking' fit to hold flour has always been 'machine-woven' stuff, much like the better grades of tapestry-cloth and some clothing-cloth.”

“That roll of stuff you bought at that one shop for our travel clothing,” I muttered, as I found the last – long, lumpy, somewhat hefty, greasy, and of leather – well-hid pouch of the cache. Whoever hid these things knew what he was doing, and it made me wonder at that one witch's abilities. Trashed or not, I would not wish to go up against him, as he seemed to function...

“Much like that one man I once saw,” I thought. “He could down a moderate-sized bottle of liquor like it was water, and it seemed to have no effect beyond making his breath smell awful.” A pause, then, “he supposedly consumed a great deal of that stuff, and he didn't act drunk at all.”

This witch had that man beat handily, if I went by his apparent abilities – and his 'trashed' competence was not a joke. It made me wonder how well he would have done had he been well-rested and sober.

“Why do you think most of that country's leaders came from that small and inbred enclave?” asked the soft voice. “Their families practiced a form of 'selective breeding' so as to 'create' witches that were both especially 'strong' and peculiarly intelligent.”

“Did that one dark-haired witch come from that area?”

“No, she did not,” said the soft voice. “She was the other well-known exception to that rule then. Secondly, she was born before Imhotep, and she lived longer than he did. Finally, she possessed uncommon 'guile' as well as uncommon power – and a degree of foresight that has not been bested by any witch on this planet from the time of its manifesting until the present day.”

“That would make her especially dangerous,” muttered Sarah. “I am glad there are no such witches alive today.” In softer voice, “this box here has some tins in it, and I think they are full of ammunition.”

“No, actually there are,” said the soft voice, “and while they do not possess a fraction of her power, they have both a full measure of her 'guile' and her intelligence.”

“Guile?” I asked. I was wondering about the ammunition Sarah had just found. Was it indeed subsonic? Would it function in those pistols we'd found? Would it even deal with rats?

“How else could a witch so disinclined toward violence survive in such a location?” asked the soft voice. The pointed tone seemed a dire harbinger, one that had me longing for a nightmare. “While that witch could kill, and did kill, she did not enjoy such 'labor'; more, she avoided violence when and where it was possible to do so, and she was not the only one inclined thusly.” A final point: “she argued against going to war, and that with some vehemence – and again, she was not the only one inclined toward 'reform' rather than warfare.”

“That witch still sounded and felt awful,” I muttered, as I backed out of the cache. “I hope I don't encounter the current versions, even if they don't have her ability to toss curses.”

“You'd be surprised at what she called those,” said the soft voice. “Witches currently inclined toward 'guile' do not call what they do 'curses', and they avoid such language with vigor.” A pause, then, “you might be altogether surprised as to how they use runes, in fact.”

“How?” asked Sarah. I had come to her side – and while I had asked for a single small tin of ammunition suitable for dealing with annoying rodents, I had not received 'a small tin'. We'd received a sizable number of medium-sized square tins, all of them carefully marked in dark red lettering on a light green background as to their contents; several gray-green cloth bags, these with tags labeled as 'parts', and a number of plastic-wrapped devices that looked like elongated small engine 'mufflers'. I then wondered, “what gives with all this? Are we to be invaded with rats at home?”

“Much as some of your mathematics lecturers used letters from the new portion of the book,” said the soft voice. I was not sure if I was being referred to, even if Greek letters were used extensively in both mathematics and electrical engineering, among a host of other disciplines. I was most familiar with those two, even if I'd encountered those letters in many classes. “They prefer to not profane sacred letters by common use, and hence use those to refer to variables and suchlike.”

“What would a witch call sacred?” said Sarah. Her voice was as hard as I'd ever heard it.

“What do you call sacred?” asked the soft voice – again, pointedly.

“Why, the book, especially as it is writ in its original languages, and all that came with it when it first showed here,” said Sarah. “That may be thought an old tale, but I know it to be true, and that by both prayer and looking in certain tapestries.” To hear this astonished me, even if I had heard of such things happening before. While those stories where I came from were most likely rubbish, I doubted greatly that they were rubbish here, especially as what Sarah was talking about still existed – in intact and fully-usable form, no less – in a certain well-hid location, this being a location she had visited but did not have 'full' access to.

“So do they,” said the soft voice, “and hence they use carefully-modified forms of runes to refer to such values.” A pause, then, “they do not write them in the same fashion as 'real witches' do, so if you ever see 'strange-looking' runes on something, you can be assured they were involved somehow.”

Strange-looking runes?” I asked.

“They aren't all straight lines and angles if they do them,” said the soft voice. “They brook no discontinuities in such symbols; and therefore, such 'runes' have about as much 'curse-power' as those strange letters named 'runes' in those three books you've read a number of times.”

“Meaning they're essentially an odd form of writing especially suited for a particular purpose,” I said.

“Not even that,” said the soft voice. “They use them for 'special lettering', and 'decorations', as well as mathematical and engineering symbols, and they do not use them to form anything resembling a curse.” A pause, then, “those people think common letters ample for such 'work' as they do – and they do that well by current standards.”

This portion regarding 'witches with manners' was sufficiently distracting that I had not noticed what my hands had been doing while I had been involved; and when I looked down to see what my fingers were actually doing, I was utterly shocked and more than a little frightened.

“T-that...” squeaked Sarah. “I-I've s-seen that before.”

“The glowing?” asked Katje. “My, such fingers. I had no idea you could do such work that quickly.”

It was astonishing to me, also, as I had completely stripped the pistol Sarah had found, and was now changing out those parts needed to make it 'right'. I found myself silently praying, and as I did, I could feel faint twinges, almost static-like sparks, in the tips of my rapidly-dancing fingers as they reassembled the weapon with its new parts; and when it was together but a minute later, I thought it to be an utterly new weapon. I reached down, removed one of the suppressors, and screwed the thing on as if it was the most-normal thing in the world, found a loaded magazine, slipped it into the butt of the weapon with a faint click, then pulled the slide back gently and gently returned it. I could see the round chambering as I looked in the ejection port while I brought the slide back to battery – I did not turn it loose, but kept my hand on it, so as to be 'quiet' – and as I put the pistol on safe, I asked softly, “what did I just do?”

“I think you just made a fit means of rat disposal,” said Sarah. “Now what else did you do?”

“You'll want to have that weapon's part's copied instead of the one you found yesterday, as he didn't just fix all of its problems – he essentially redesigned it so that it's now about twice as strong as it was beforehand.”

“W-what does that mean?” asked Sarah. I could tell the pistol had been 'worked on' fairly extensively before I touched it.

“That pistol will eat that 'hot' ammunition that just came like it was fry-bread and ask for more of the same,” said the soft voice, “and if you can hang onto it, it will drop hard-witches as if they were common-sized rats.”

“What was this about fry-breads?” asked Karl's voice. “The air is bad enough in here without you starting a fire so as to cook those things, and getting enough oil up here to cook them is really hard.”

“Karl,” said Sarah. “That small pistol you found earlier. Let him have it so he can fix it, and then you can keep those rats out of your bed at night.”

Again, the strange blue glowing, though in this instance, my hands seemed to have learned the rhythm of their dance, for they seemed to blur before my eyes. Sarah was agog; she had seen something like this before, but as the saying was in what we spoke, she had but gotten a hint of that mule's stink. Now, she was seeing the mule itself; and this instance was not merely the Genuine article, but it was a fully Plugged example; and it was as fierce an animal as had ever been sent through Mekhicho.

“Plugged,” I murmured. “People here cannot pronounce that Veldter word, so they call them 'plugged' when they've been inspected, passed, and made ready for transport to the outside world.”

“More like a short paragraph, actually,” said the soft voice, “and a 'Plugged' mule means the animal has no diseases or other ailments.”

“Worms?” I asked. I remembered them being confused with 'lead'.

“Fully de-wormed, checked over carefully, and immunized,” said the soft voice. “The Veldters, contrary to common opinion in the fifth kingdom and points north, do not sell inferior stock.”

“Then those I saw in the fifth kingdom...”

“Were the absolute cream of that crop,” said the soft voice. “That grade of mule is roughly comparable to Jaak or another animal of his currently-rare bloodline, and is valued accordingly in the Valley – and no, the Veldters do not mistreat such animals.” A pause, then, “the usual 'Genuine Mexican Plug' is a fairly good animal, as Sarah learned that one night when she rode a 'smelly mule'.”

That was what I rode?” gasped Sarah. “There, Karl. Now you have something fit for rats. You'll want a small leather pouch for your ammunition, and two of these things some wretch calls magazines in addition to the one in that pistol.”

“More than two, dear,” said the soft voice. “Look behind you, and you'll find the other box. It has more of them in there, ready loaded, with more ammunition yet.”

“There must be many rats where you live,” said Sepp. “I have one of those pistols...”

“I'd let him have it, then,” said Sarah. “I know the house proper has its share of rats.” A pause, then, “will white rats ignore these?”

“They will wish multiple solid hits if they're larger ones, but no, they won't,” said the soft voice, “and neither will functionaries, should you need to quietly 'deal with' some of them and cannot get close to poke or thump them.” A pause, then, “there will be times when you can do that, and when it is possible, I would.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“There are a lot of functionaries over there,” said the soft voice, “and knives, flails, and swords, like clubs, don't run out of ammunition or need reloading.”

“I hope my sword comes before we go, then,” said Karl. “Sepp told me Georg was waiting on his new buggy to bring them, and that thing was said to be almost done.”

“You two have decent ones, don't you?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, but there is decent, and then there are those he does from that special metal,” said Karl, “and if one must use a sword, one wants the best, as it can mean your life then.” Karl looked around, much as if a witch were once more stalking him. “I still stare a bit long from that last time I took sword to a witch, and that witch sometimes gets into my dreams.” A pause, then, “he did last night, in fact, only this time I did not have a sword to slice on him.”

“What did you use?” asked Sepp.

“One of those things we found earlier,” said Karl. “One of those swine-guns.”

“And what happened?” asked Sepp, as he got his pistol back and someone else handed me another. “This thing is the strangest pistol I've ever seen. What is this thing on the end of it?”

“I think that makes it quieter,” said Katje. “It has writing on it. May I see it?”

As my hands continued their ever-faster 'dance', Katje said, “I was thinking this to be Hebrew, but it is not. It says...” Here, Katje paused. “Rat-Poison... Pistol... Muffler? This is no muffler! I have seen those things, and they're made of cloth, not metal. What does this thing do?”

“Perhaps 'moderator' would be better,” I murmured. “By the way, that word 'muffler' does work to describe what they actually do, which is reduce the noise made by the pistol when it fires.” I then had a question.

“How loud will these be?”

“Depends on what ammunition you put in them,” said the soft voice. “The nine-gram bullets won't hardly make any noise at all beyond a soft thumping noise and the noise of the pistol's metallic parts working as it ejects the spent casing and loads another round.” A pause. “The full-power rounds will make a good deal more noise, but they'll still be a lot quieter than usual.”

“Wear it out faster, though,” I murmured.

“Yes, somewhat faster,” said the soft voice – who implied these suppressors to be quite the durable thing, just like the rest of the now-drastically-upgraded pistol that were coming together in my hands. Saying these things would eat 'hot-loaded ammunition' like 'candy' was something of an understatement. “The drawings for those devices are in that folder Sarah has, along with all the other drawings needed to produce those pistols.” A pause, then, “you'll still need to design the rest of the weapons that will be needed, more or less.”

“M-more or less?” I asked, as my hands continued working. I knew we needed spares of every weapon we could take, and hence every such pistol we had was going to get its 'new and improved' parts.

“Exactly what I said,” said the soft voice. “You can do it.” Another pause, then, “I said I would help you, and I do keep my word.”

“Help?” I asked.

“I said I would help you,” said the soft voice. “You can do it. Don't worry, nor be afraid. I'm here, and I'll never leave you.”

“That is from the book itself,” said Sarah. “Now once you are done with those, then I have an idea as to what is next for us, and we shall wish to look at them, even if I suspect we have sufficient at this time for our use.”

“What are those?” asked Maarten. “Do I want to know?”

“Yes,” said Sarah tersely. “You need to know, and you may need some teaching as to how to use one of them correctly, but you will need some of these things, same as a number of people I have met since I came up here to stay.”