We shall work as we are able, and labor as we ought...

I lifted up the rifle from the cloth spread under it as one last concussion seemed to slap me from the right, and I turned toward the source of it to see Sarah. She was holding that one rifle I had used earlier in the evening, and she seemed to be muttering about strange sights. How I knew this beyond seeing her lips move was a minor miracle, as I now noticed not merely the weight of the rifle, but also, the smoldering aura of fire seeming to have spread itself abroad in the land.

I then looked down at the cloth, and though I had thought it to be burning, it wasn't. I laid the rifle down, my foot under the buttstock, and reached toward my ears to remove my earplugs. As the first one 'popped' out, I could hear a lot of muttering, and as the second one came out, I knew I was the only person not speaking. I thought to ask as to why everything had seemed so unusual – and then did so, my voice so soft that it seemed a whisper compared to those of the others.

“I think the first kingdom's near shot-out o' witches,” said Tam amid faint rumbling echoes that seemed to wash over us. The purple 'mess' was still slowly dissipating to the south and east, and a tall cloud of smoke was still climbing skyward under the brilliant moon. “If they're still alive, they're on the east side o' the Main, and a good day's ride from it and heading east about now.”

“Uh, there may be some more of those people on the west side of here, but they're a good deal scarcer than they were,” I said. “What happened that first time I shot?”

“I was nearly put on the ground by what you were shooting,” said Sarah. “I had to get further away, which proved very wise when you shot again.”

“Uh, the noise was like one of Willem's guns?” I asked.

“No,” said Hans. “That thing was a powder mill exploding, and it tossed Anna good the first time you shot it.”

“It did not,” said Anna indignantly. “I had to give him some more room once I got up from the ground.”

“I been tossed worse,” said Tam. “Lots worse.” A pause, then, “all o' them witches was carrying dynamite, and old dynamite if I go by what I saw that first time you shot that thing.”

“Brown?” I asked.

“Brown with purple streaks in it,” said Tam. “You had best run if you ever see dynamite like that, no matter what kind it is, as that stuff will explode when it's of a mind for exploding.”

“Ah, so then it is more sensitive than I thought it was,” said Hans. “I knew it was bad when it was brown, and I had heard about the stuff getting worse yet, but I have never seen that kind.”

“I have,” said Tam. “It don't matter if it's fit for farmers then – it'll explode if it gets touched, or if the sun shines on it, or if you speak too loud near it. It's that bad, and no mistake.” Tam then rubbed his head, and asked, “now I smelled something like that stuff, only it wasn't near as bad as dynamite for its headache.”

“The dough, sir,” said Sarah. “We should probably go inside and clean these things, and then you may learn of both dough and these rifles, as I suspect you'll wish one sooner rather than later.”

“I think I might, at that,” said Tam. “I saw how far off you-all was shooting, and mine won't get out that far.”

“I think it actually might do that, but...” I said. I had no idea why my voice had trailed off.

“Not if I want to shoot it much it won't,” said Tam. “I've no idea how you endure yours, and what you shot tonight – I know about it n-now.” To hear Tam stammer was indeed a first.

“Yes?” asked Anna. “What do you know, beyond it shoots further than anything I've ever seen?”

“It's one o' those things which bite,” said Tam. “That thing on top he was looking through is out of an old tale, and I never thought I'd get to see one.”

“Want to look through it?” I asked innocently.

“I'd best give it a wide berth,” said Tam. “I know about what you've been given to, and that thing is near as bad, unless my guess is far off.”

“Not merely the pendant, you mean,” said Sarah. “There are a number of things, and I've seen several of them.”

“More than that, dear,” said Tam. “I don't know much beyond what I just said, but I do know it takes more than missing toes to handle something like what he was shooting, and no mistake.” A pause, then, “if those tales were right, it took markings that would get you killed on sight today, and that in this town as it stands now.

“I think that is why his are hid good,” said Hans – whose voice then dropped in both volume and pitch. “We want to get inside, as we do not have much time left, and I know I have a lot yet to do tonight, and that is for me.” A pause, then, “it will be later yet for the two of them.”

I was about to ask as to why when I suddenly knew. I waved my hand over the empty shell casings, seeking to learn of how hot they were, and Hans suddenly 'materialized' next to me. He touched his fingers to his mouth, then touched one to one of the cases. The sizzle was the hiss of an enraged snake about to strike – or that of a hot soldering iron, one 'turned up all the way'.

I'd once had one like that, and its 'name' was best not mentioned here, not after what I had been shown about those two people I had once known and their particular names. The woman's name, and the name I had given the soldering iron, were one and the same – and no living witch dared to 'appropriate' that name, on account of its associated hoards of spirits.

One needed to be born an uncommonly strong witch and have grown great among witches to be named thusly. Cardosso, had he been a woman, would have been devoured upon assumption of that name – and that at the time of his greatest strength.

“Those things are hot still,” said Hans. “I want to look at one close when they are cool.”

“Uh, douse them with water?” I asked – and instantly knew that was a very bad idea.

“You do not do that with brass that is that hot, as it makes it soft,” said Hans, “and I am not sure you want those things soft.”

“Then why is that cloth not on fire?” asked Sarah.

“I think you'll wish to look closer at that cloth once we're inside,” said Anna. “It may well have changed in some way.”

I thought to make another trip outside to pick the cloth up once I'd gone in with the rifle, and as I turned to go, I knew it was most unwise to leave the 'cloth' outside unattended. I asked that it 'become folded', this silently, and suddenly the cloth gathered itself up and 'flowed' into my free hand.

There was a hush, this so awful that I marveled, and as I once more turned to go, I saw the door suddenly 'open' to once more show us light and the way inside. I hurried along the path, as the rifle seemed to be gaining weight like the pendant did whenever time and space was being bent to its will.

Once inside, I set the cloth down, and to my astonishment, it 'unbunched' itself to roll out and over much of the south end of the table, its edges draping over the sides nearly a foot for the south end and more than that for its east and west edges. In the center were the three still-gleaming cartridge cases, and under them, were the dread letters 'MILNO' in bright harsh-looking red followed by a twelve-digit number – and the color of this 'cloth', its weave now so fine I could not discern it, was a peculiar reddish-purple overlaid with varied-sized flecks of green – a sea of green flecks that changed their color and position if I moved my head slightly.

“I did not see that before,” said Sarah, indicating the number. “How did that linen cloth..?”

“I think it changed,” said Anna, “as that...” Anna then touched the cloth, and gasped, “this is not something old, but new, so new that only a few people where you are going know of it, and none of them are among the commons!”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That's the label it will have, not the label it currently has, and while that material is still in the 'laboratory' over there, those that know of it are sufficiently commonplace that those in leadership think them a species of those you named 'commons'.”

“Who are they, then?” asked Anna. I could hear an edge of fear in her voice, much as if she was seeing someone I'd only seen clearly since coming here.

“Those who are as you once thought yourself to be,” said the soft voice. “Most of the new ideas in that place come from the medical establishments at this time.”

“It has been that way for quite a long time, or so I suspect,” I said. “Those people do more than just 'medicine' – they practically have to make everything they need to do their work due to those over them...” My voice trailed off, even as I began to remove the bolt from the rifle so as to look at it carefully. I was not prepared for what happened when I had taken it out of the receiver.

The three remaining cartridges 'leaped' out of the magazine, this to tumble and roll on the strange-feeling cloth. I thought to ask just what it was as I gathered them up, leaving the spent casings lay.

“That would be a shooting mat,” said the soft voice, “and that material is sufficiently heat-resistant that you could pour molten iron on it without damaging it in the slightest – and it's a most-efficient insulator, which is why the wood of the table isn't trying to burn under those three still-hot spent rounds.”

“What?” shrieked Sarah. “How?”

“M-magic,” I spluttered. “This is as beyond me as it is you, dear – they don't have anything like that where I came from.”

“Yes, 'magic',” said the soft voice. “That place across the sea hides that sort of thing quite well at this time, but that situation will change soon.”

This time, I found that with but a handful of people to actually teach, I could teach 'rifle-cleaning' much easier, and I was astonished to see how fast Tam picked up 'basic cleaning' of the rifles. Only Sarah seemed to pick matters up faster, with Anna but a hair behind Tam; and Hans...

He wasn't nearly as slow as I'd expected him to be, even if Anna had to show him a number of important details. She looked down at her foot more than once during the process, this being the one that was bandaged, and I then recalled that the person who had started her journals was marked.

“Not the only one, either,” I thought, as I put the large rifle back in its case after finishing its cleaning and oiling. I reminded myself that I would check the rifle Sarah had used before we left; it was not the one I'd used earlier, but the one she had picked out like it – and then knew beyond all doubt that not only did I not really need to, but also...

“I made certain to do my very best with it, as I will be shooting nearly as much as you yourself – and I will need it to work as it should if I wish to remain alive,” said Sarah. “I hope we can take one to my cousin, as...” Sarah then looked at me in what passed for horror.

“Not merely our visitor from the Valley, dear,” I said. “She's not going to be able to hide that woman much longer, and I suspect suspicions have already fallen upon her in that town.”

“Meaning she'd best go live at the house proper along o' that chemist lady,” said Tam. “I've heard about her.”

“The chemist?” I asked.

“I know she's around, and she's better than anyone who does chemistry this side o' the Red Mountains, and better than most who live on the east side of 'em,” said Tam. “I meant Sarah's cousin, and she's named right.”

“I know,” said Sarah. “My mother said that about my name, also, and I have wondered why she said that ever since.”

“What is your cousin's name? Is it Deborah?” I asked.

Sarah looked at me as if she was about to faint, then nodded. “It's a common name among my relatives, as is mine.”

“Yep,” said Tam, as he finished cleaning his rifle. “Now, I'll want two magazines and a bag o' them things you call cartridges, as I'm going to be hunting witches some while you-all are gone.”

“I would not worry about the bag, Tam, save to gather those you empty,” said Anna. “I would get more of those m-magazines instead...” Anna hitched, then whispered, “how did I s-say that word?”

“Your toe, dear,” I said. “Now that witch-dagger went to hell most-quickly, and your toe vanished with it. Correct?”

Anna nodded soberly. It wasn't a cheap price to pay, and I felt reminded of my left hand – the hand that had been ruined long years before I came here, so never would I be again able to turn toward 'the left hand path', nor could I greet Brimstone with 'the left hand of darkness'. It worked as if intact here, but I wondered: would it remain hidden 'forever'?

“It will continue to work as it does now,” said the soft voice, “even if when you're being 'examined' and 'healed' overseas it will show up clearly, along with your other markings – the kind of markings that they know about and are not written on any tapestry or in any tale now known in the five kingdoms.”

“Would those in the Valley..?” I asked silently.

“They'd find some of them,” said the soft voice. “Those people where you are going will find all of them – and most of them are not things you currently know of.”

For some odd reason, I felt above my right ear, and felt distinctly beneath my hair that one odd place – the one where the hidden screw with its magnet lived. I felt as if eyes were riveted upon me, and when I looked around the table, I noted Anna was gone.

“Where'd she go?” I asked. She'd vanished.

“I think she might be after something upstairs,” said Hans, “though I do not know what it is she is wanting, as she finished that thing there before I did and was showing me how to put this one back together so it is right.” Hans then pulled the bolt back, and let it go home with a clank so as to 'test' the weapon. He'd not chambered a round, thankfully; there was no magazine in the weapon's well.

The noise spoke of 'appropriate' oiling – appropriate if one expected to burn through ten magazines in as many minutes while shooting vast black-clad masses of witches advancing as if they were part of a machine.

“I know what that part of that tapestry means now,” said Sarah. Her voice sounded as if chastened, much as if she'd seen hell itself arise to present itself full-formed and fuming with the smokes and fogs endemic to that place. “If Hendrik should speak of masses of witches, I can tell him what...”

“And Generals,” I said. “And swine conducting war. And a machine, one that keeps on turning, a machine built for conducting war. And...” I squeaked, then, “that's... That's in that black book!”

“True, it is,” said the soft voice. “That version is also based on a stolen intercept – a bad one.” A pause, then, “overseas, they'll have a good one before you leave, as a few people have managed to work on that one some over the years, and it just needs a few hours more to fully present itself.” Pause, then, “they think it explains much of that war, and they're right – even if they're wrong about just how much it does explain regarding the nation that once existed in this region.”

“Bad one?” I asked. I meant the intercept in question.

“The earlier programs that processed the multitudinous receiver inputs used more interpolation, and tended to 'guess' a lot more in general,” said the soft voice. “The later versions have more processor power available, a lot more memory, improved programs, and then their receiver assemblies tended to have lower noise and higher gain – hence they were able to pick up more and clearer signals, and then they could and can process them with a lot less guesswork and interpretation – hence they're currently able to know instead of 'guess' like they did earlier, and like some countries on the continent still did.”

“I understood a fifth of that at best,” said Sarah. “Now what did that mean?”

“It would most likely take him time we do not have right now,” said Anna's voice, “as he would need to educate you a good deal better than is done in the five kingdoms before he tried explaining it – and he's not that sure himself right now as to exactly what was meant.” A pause, then Anna came to my right side, pressed something against my head above and slightly behind my right ear, and squealed, “I knew it!”


“I borrowed one of Sarah's needles,” said Anna, “and it sticks to a place on your head near your ear.” A pause, then, “I wondered why those knives we used to cut your hair off when you were brought home from the third ditch acted like they did, and now I have a much better idea.”

“He is not an iron-head trout, so...” Hans paused, then said, “he has something like a chip of a lodestone in his head, Anna.”

“No, it isn't that, Hans,” said Anna, as she put the needle on the table. It glinted evilly, for some odd reason, and it reminded me of a suspicion I once had as well as the questions that might confirm or refute that suspicion. I then asked Sarah how much the difference in price was between the commonplace needles, those like I had, and 'bright-needles'.

“That depends on where you go to buy them, and which ones you want to use,” said Sarah. “I test those things carefully, as the 'cheap' ones are no better than the commonplace needles for working and they feel bad in the hands.”

“They're still three times as much,” said Tam. “Now those you like must be those from some places in the fourth kingdom, and they're more than that.”

“They are, sir,” said Sarah. “Even of those, I test them for how they pass through cloth, each and every one, as it meant my life to have the best – and I was able to trade those I bought in excess of my needs to other wanderers who did as I did.” A pause, then muttered, “I think some of those things are polished by slaves, they feel so awful.”

“I would ride money on it,” said Tam. “There's a lot that I don't much care for that I need to sell to stay in business, but I'm careful about what I buy from the fifth kingdom, which is why I don't carry bright-needles.” A pause, then, “I needed to get those on order specially, and I usually got onto Albrecht for 'em when people wanted 'em.” Pause, then, “around here, that wasn't at all often.”

“He has trouble now,” said Hans. “It is almost impossible for him to get past the witches.”

“Not now he does,” said the soft voice. “You don't realize just how much those people have been disrupted, do you?”

“N-no,” I said. “You mean there are places where they're really thin? As in they're not able to watch more than a few roads, and none of the roads in those regions especially well?”

“Yes, especially along his usual route,” said the soft voice. “More, while they will recruit more to their ranks quickly, those people will not be 'old hands', so they won't learn the tricks needed to stop him.”

“In time they might,” I said. “How long..?”

“It usually takes years,” said Tam. “People lose a lot o' smarts when they turn witch, and it's almost as if they have to learn how to do everything all over again when they get their first bones.”

“Up here, yes,” said Sarah. “That is not so in parts of the second kingdom house, and also some few places in the fifth that I know of.” Sarah implied most-strongly that there were places she either wasn't certain of, or that in many cases, she'd not had the chance to learn much at all about them, due to the sheer number of witches present at that time and how difficult it was to learn anything that those witches wished to keep secret.

There were large sections – whole districts – in the fifth kingdom house that were like that: you had to be recognized as a witch to go in them, and the witch-guards were both numerous and efficient. More, all of the inhabitants of those regions acted upon suspicion – as in they needed no proof whatsoever to kill anyone they saw – and that meant that many lesser witches died in droves, as they had thought themselves safe upon reaching the threshold of such 'medieval' regions.

Finally, those regions never truly slept, and those guarding their borders – as well as all who lived in them – knew of all of the commonplace means of hiding who and what you were, as well as how the vast majority of those not marked hid themselves in crates or other containers.

I wasn't sure I could go in those regions and survive longer than a very few minutes, not unless I was hidden by means I did not currently understand – and that being the case even on a moonless night during the wee hours of the morning. My thinking was then interrupted by someone who knew.

“Those portions of the second kingdom house are either smoldering ashes, burning still, or have full-scale wars in them,” said the soft voice, “and while those disruptions will be put down quickly enough and the burnt regions rebuilt shortly thereafter, the replacement witches won't have the same level of ability as those before them.”

“They'll simply recruit a lot more supplicants,” I said. “Their end capacity will be similar...” A pause, then, “they can't do that forever, can they?”

“Not in the time they have left, no,” said the soft voice. “They'll manage about as well as the Swartsburg did, or maybe one additional time beyond what the Swartsburg managed before its total destruction – but after that happens, it will be mostly hoards of rank amateurs who know little beyond 'life is coming to an end, and we shall meet Brimstone regardless of what happens, so let us worship him as we may and do what we will'.”

“That's a witch, all right,” said Sarah. “You think that way and you'll act like a witch, and probably have more spirits in you than a bad fetish from before the war.”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “They will not have that many spirits, even if the other parts are and will be true enough.” A pause, then, “and now, the two of you need to get to your unpacking and documenting what you find, Tam needs to return to his end of town with his weapons, and Hans and Anna have business in the basement and the kitchen.” A pause, then, “Tam can learn about the various colors of 'moldy Kuchen dough' during your trip overseas and back.”

“The kitchen?” asked Anna.

“He will want to check those knives over,” said Hans, “and I think you will be able to test them for fit, now that I think about it.”

“That, and bring up the candles we run,” said Anna, who then addressed Hans specifically. “You need at least two more tables downstairs, folding ones, and they need to have pegs to hang them on the walls when they aren't needed.”

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “You're right, he does.” A pause, then, “could you tell me their size or whatever should occur to you before we go on that trip so I can draw them up for the carpenters?”

“Those people in town are going to be busy with doors, and you're going to be busy drawing other things,” said Anna. “I'll use a measure like Sarah has and speak to those at the house proper tomorrow.”

“They're faster than those people in town,” said Tam, “even if they like that stinky varnish stuff.”

“Where is that material made?” I asked, meaning the varnish.

“I think it's made in the fifth kingdom,” said Tam, “though you almost have to be a witch to get it.” A pause, then, “I could never get it, as you got to make more than one trip down there and back with your money, and I never had that kind of time or those sacks filled with money.”

“You need to go to the right places,” said Sarah – who in speaking, implied that Tam was right about the number of trips needed to get 'varnish' – at least, to get it initially. Once a relationship was established with a given firm, one could put in orders for the stuff, much as the house proper probably did. “While most places that make that stuff are either owned by witches, or they are filled with witches, there are some places that are neither of those things, and I've been inside two of them.”

“Two of them?” I asked.

“I was not able to stay long in either,” said Sarah. “The fumes of varnish, especially if it is decent stuff, are not much healthier to endure than the fumes of Benzina. I was sick for days after each time.”

“And hence that stuff they use at the house proper..?”

“I am not sure what that stuff is,” said Sarah. “It smells like varnish, and it looks like varnish while wet and when dry, and it's brittle enough to be varnish, but it does not make me sick should I need to be in that place for more than a half a turn of a glass.”

“Better ventilation,” I said, supplying the obvious reason. I knew something about toxic species of paint, having applied them once at a place where I worked – and one particular type of paint used there could pass for a chemical warfare agent when it came to its toxicity.

I could not recall its name, even if the color – 'wicked white' was the name I had given it when I had worked there – was better called 'evil white' here, as it seemed to live at Norden. I once more turned to the conversation. “They have screened shutters that are open to what might be had for a breeze when they're putting that stuff on, and they take turns applying it.”

“Not merely those things,” said Sarah. “It is not the same material. I know that much – it is not the same thing, and I'm not certain just what it is.”

“Ask 'Annie' when you drop her off at the house proper,” said the soft voice. “She'll tell you just what it is the instant she sees the boatwright's shop.”

Tam left but a minute or so later with one of those camouflage-pattern bags containing a cleaning kit, one of the small bottles of 'blue' oil, and five loaded magazines, the bag slung over his right shoulder and his usual rifle slung over the left; his 'new' one was in his hands, much as if he expected to use it momentarily. To my complete surprise, I saw a lightning-white flash in the window but seconds after he closed the door, and the earshattering bang that rattled the window told me he'd shot at someone.

“That wretch is dead,” said Hans with finality. “Now it is downstairs for the two of us, and I think you two might want your all of your drawing things handy and the table to use for unpacking.” With that, both Hans and Anna went downstairs, though I knew one matter that needed doing downstairs beyond candles and knives.

“Sarah, we might wish some powder from that one keg I use,” I said softly. “We'll need it for traps.”

To my surprise, Sarah left at a run for downstairs, and not two minutes later, she came up with a too-familiar 'old' powder measure. Someone, however, had obviously been 'working on it', as it looked a lot less old; more, it had some added 'features', this to make it a good deal more 'secure' regarding the retention of its contents. The wire bail over the top cap was obviously 'new', and I hoped it would keep the 'bad' screw-threaded cap down tight enough to keep the powder both 'dry' and in place.

Just the same, I knew that all of the joints in that thing needed 'dosing' with that waxy species of 'grease', so as to keep that powder both dry and 'fresh' in the humid atmospheres of first the ocean and then our destination.

“This one is now filled,” she said, “and I had Andreas work it over, as it was not terribly good to start with.”

“I once used one like that, I think,” I said.

“That one is still downstairs,” said Sarah. “I bought this one at a second-hand store in my travels while you were gone on that trip to the other kingdoms, and I took it to Andreas a few days after you finished that one buggy. It did not take him long to make it 'decent'.”

Sarah then pointed out the turned wooden plug for its 'spout', and said, “this will make certain it does not leak from that end, even if he said it would now hold its powder well.” A pause, then, “now, let me fetch my drawing things, all of them I have, and you go get those things we must look at. I know there are many of them, which will give me time to get set up entirely.”

While Sarah was right about there being 'many' bags, what she meant by 'getting set up entirely' had me entirely surprised by the time I'd brought down the third pairs of bags, as she was setting up one of the 'light stands' we had used at the Abbey, and a trio of tent-lanterns were on the table, as was some folded cloth and a large ledger, as well as those things I commonly used for drawing from my supplies. I was about to go back up the stairs to my room when I heard steps coming up from the basement, and I turned to see Anna in the frame made by the downstairs 'entrance'.

For an instant, I seemed to see a faint halo about her head, this a bluish-white color. It made me think of her return from the underworld, and this in more than one sense.

“Good,” she said, looking at the things Sarah had on the table. “We need to husband our candles most-carefully, and I think I want some loose-woven cloth for the windows.”

“You do not wish leather, or thick cloth, no matter what its color,” said Sarah. “Those witches that will come know of such tricks, and hence they will know this house is one they wish to...” Sarah stopped, then said, “they wish to blow this town to hell entire, so why should covering our windows matter to those stinkers?”

“Because I do not wish it to be obvious to those people that will tell those witches,” said Anna. “If they look from the street and see a weak and feeble light from our windows, then they will think we are using those smelly things that are best cooked up into that other kind of tallow rather than burned.”

“Supplicants, you mean,” I said, “either supplicants, or people who might become supplicants if they encounter one of those imported witches and get slipped some money so as to 'sing'.”

“Them especially,” said Anna – meaning those I spoke of 'singing'.

There was no word or phrase for 'stool pigeon' in this language, even if Anna most likely knew what I meant by 'singing'. I knew she'd been around Lukas enough to possibly hear him speak that way, which is how I'd learned of the phrase and its meaning that way.

“There might be hundreds upon hundreds of those smelly things coming from points south,” said Anna, “and they may try to blow this place up with massed batteries of rotten cannons firing shells, but there will be an end to their numbers, and no witch alive can walk upon the wind like he's come out of an old tale.”

“Hence they must use spies,” I said, “and...” I paused, then asked, “yes? One of the knives?”

“That was the chief reason I came up here,” said Anna. “I'm checking those things with those gages you made for the smaller size of knife, leastways where I can do so,” said Anna. “These need a different shape for their handles, so I tried this one in my hand and it seemed to feel 'decent' to me.”

“May I see it?” I asked.

Anna then set the rag-wrapped knife upon the table, and carefully unrolled it. To my utter astonishment, I could see how Hans had been using some of the 'fitting bolts' I had made for these knives, and when I picked it up, I said, “good enough. Do them like this, and...” I turned toward my workbench, then found my stool and the spokeshave I had been last using, this with one of the concave blades in it. I then asked, “how did Hans..?”

“It seems you had several of those,” said Anna as she indicated the spokeshave, “and one of them worked well enough for him once he'd spent an hour with the carpenters and they adjusted it so as to work on the blackwood you're using for these knives.” A pause, then, “I think you need to do it as you did your usual one, though somehow I doubt it needs nearly as much work as what you use regularly, as the carpenters nearly fought him for it, and he spoke of it being a near thing once he came back.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Don't tell me – the first one I had was a 'bad' one, and it needed as much work as many of my other tools.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That one was ordered specially from Machalaat by Albrecht, but those three stinkers 'botched' it deliberately once they found out who was buying it and who it might be going to.” A pause, then, “had you found what Hans managed to find this morning in those three remaining boxes you haven't had much chance to look into, you'd of tossed that 'Tosser' and used what he found instead.”

“Why, who made it?” I asked.

“That's something of a secret, at least until now, as it has no readily discernible markings of the usual type for tools,” said the soft voice. “The Heinrich works generally doesn't sell woodworking tools, but that one was part of a special order filled nearly eighty years ago, and it came with several 'shaped' blades of their then-current best-grade 'tool steel'.” A pause, then, “best hope Albrecht does not find out about that one, though – especially given what you'll shortly have for tool steel.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. The steel in these knives would most likely be thought 'excellent' for woodworking tools where I came from, and that by professional woodworkers.

“Because no one else in the five kingdoms has one that's that good, and he'd bury you for work making others like it,” said the soft voice. “The one that Hans found is just short of 'restricted' grade – and what you have makes it look poor indeed.”

“Then you may wish to shape that handle properly,” said Anna. “If you get it right, and make the gages...”

“He does not have time to make those, Anna,” said Sarah. “We might have two hours...”

“I've seen him make gages, Sarah,” said Anna somewhat sharply, “and something is happening to me, such that now I seem to be able to see things I could not see before today.” A pause, then, “with the three or so gages needed beyond what Hans was able to find, then we could get them much closer – and I think the time saved that way will be more than if he must do them up...”

While Anna had been talking, I had put the knife in the 'special' padded vise I had been using to work on the handles, and within seconds, I was making the shavings boil off of the upper side of the knife's handle. Each stroke was so rapid that within less than a minute, I had one scale 'done', then as I flipped the knife over in the vise, I glanced out of the corner of my eye to see Anna looking through the box of brass 'gage-blanks' I had received with my tools. She was obviously finding ones that were 'about' the right size. I began to shave the other side down, the spokeshave now once more spewing dust and fine shavings in a small cloud and my hands blurred.

“Come over here and watch him work, Sarah,” whispered Anna. “I think you'll learn something.”

Faint steps came closer, then a hush seemed to gather itself as I finished the 'shaving'. The knife's handle had indeed been 'close', and I thought, “if I was only making a few of these, I'd not bother with gages, but I know I'm going to be doing a lot of these, so gages tonight...”

“Are a very wise idea, as Anna's beginning to show what she's going to become,” said the soft voice. “She'll make certain Hans gets them right, and then she'll be able to more or less put them nearly all the way together, which will save you a lot of time with them, even if you do a full set of gages tonight.”

“I figured that much,” said Anna. “I'd like to feel that one, if I could.”

I wordlessly handed the knife to Anna, and as I began looking for more gage blanks – she'd found two that were 'close', but in seconds I found three more, these 'full-sized' and entirely ready, just as if I'd planned to use them for this particular task.

“Three more beyond these here,” I said. “Dear, the stamps. I'll need to mark these in order...”

Without a word, Anna moved to my other side, and Sarah began bringing over the lampstand she'd already erected. From it, she hung two tent-lanterns, and as I heard her rummaging around for both more tent-lanterns and another of the stands, Anna found my stamps and the things I used for lining them up so as to make the lettering evenly spaced and 'linear'. I'd had real trouble that way before making the 'liner' and the various 'spacers' needed to keep the letters 'even'.

I'd needed to do that exact same thing where I came from, which gave me the idea – even if the stamps available here were not as clear or distinct for their letters as those I had left behind. I'd had to make my share of the things from scratch so as to replace those 'too far gone' to save, and every so often, the reworked ones became 'troublesome' enough that I needed to make one or more replacements. Mine, thankfully, tended to hold up better and give clearer markings, even if the spacers needed for each of those letters needed careful selection on the basis of their individual neighbors.

“I've watched you do enough that I thought I had a decent idea of where you kept things, but since earlier today, I've known much more.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, as I set up my sawing equipment, then began sawing out the 'cutout portion' of three of the blanks at once. The 'two-line' brass sheet cut like 'butter' with my fresh-waxed saw-blade, and as I cut the three other blanks a trifle larger, I suddenly found that I had more light upon my task – which helped to no small degree. I could easily see the scribe lines I had made with an awl now.

“I had no idea you could...”

“I thought I did, Sarah,” said Anna. “I've watched him more than a little, but it seems like I watched long and learned nothing compared to what I am seeing now.”

“It's like it's all coming together and starting to make sense,” I said. “That sound about right?”

“It does,” said Anna, as I began to fit one of the gages to the knife. The brass 'dust' fairly flew from my files as I used the smaller 'common' vise to hold the gage blank, and two tries with the knife had it 'right', such that no light showed. I marked that gage 'station one' with the stamps, indicating it went near where the hilt of the knife would go. Thankfully, I could rivet those on quickly, as they would just need a little filing to bring their 'close' portions to their finished size. My bronze-founding had progressed to such a level that I commonly got a surface finish of surprising smoothness – one that was nearly as good as what I had achieved with that costly oil-bonded sand where I came from when I had needed to do castings at home.

'Station two' – half an inch back from 'one' – took but a minute longer. Sarah was agog, seeing just how rapidly I was working, while stations 'three' and 'five' went 'at the same time'. Station four took the longest to fit, and the last two – stations six and seven; stations three and five used the same gage size, and I marked them accordingly – took less time yet. Finally, I used a 'blank' piece, and stamped upon it 'first model poke-knives' – and then drilled a hole in the entire stack for insertion of a round bronze 'clip', which I then clinched in place with some special 'locking' pliers that had turned up in my early inventories, along with a small cloth bag of such 'clips'. I'd ordered three further bags since finding that first one, and the last such bag – this one – had come recently. More, it was the largest yet, much as if my needs for gages would become far greater in the weeks and months to come, and whoever had this order filled knew of how that matter would become.

“There,” I said as I handed the gage set to Anna. “Full gages. Now how long did that take?”

“L-less than half a g-glass,” said Sarah. “I just need help with these lights now, and...”

Anna had vanished like 'smoke' with both the gages and the finished knife, and by the excited speech coming from downstairs, she was 'getting onto Hans' as if 'possessed' by some strange 'spirit'. I looked at Sarah, then said, “I might have to, uh, scrape them a little now to get them smooth.”

“Not even that,” said the soft voice. “They'll finish the wood pieces for those knives tonight, and the knives themselves will be ready for use by the time you leave tomorrow morning.”

“What will I need to do, then?” I asked, as I began cleaning up my mess out of 'habit'.

“Bring down the rest that needs unpacking, check the knives 'in process' as one or the other of them bring them up, fit the hilts and peen the rivets for the handles, and otherwise document and check over what needs doing tonight.” A pause, then, “figure perhaps an hour and a half to two hours before you can call it a day, and this will be by far the easiest portion of that day, also.”

As I made further trips upstairs – this time, I found both the rocket launcher I had used that evening and the portions to a rocket, this so we could both show Hans and Anna what they looked like and so that Sarah could draw them while apart – I could clearly hear further work progressing downstairs. The third trip up to my room had me find a knife blade with its scales present on my workbench, and I final-fit the hilt in what seemed seconds while Sarah watched me. My hands seemed nearly blurred to me, so fast did they move, and when I took the 'finished' knife over to Sarah, she touched it as if it were alive. The hilt waited on blackening the blade before it received its trio of brass 'rivets'. They would show up 'gold' against the countersunk bronze of the hilt. I would smooth them with a few strokes of a fine file while assembling the hilt to the blade.

“It just needs blackening now, and the wood pieces...” Sarah looked at me as she paused, then said, “that wood-treatment! Hans should just dip these pieces in that stuff and then cook them!”

“For a short time, yes – perhaps half a turn of a glass in that one thing he's done up with firebricks and a heating lamp,” said the soft voice. “He'll want to wipe them off with some drying oil after that time and then let them resume cooking, as that will both give a good finish and hasten their curing to no small degree.”

I laid the knife portions back where Anna had laid them, the hilt sitting next to the blade, and when I came down next with the next to the last portion of the bags we would wish to look at tonight, not merely had the blade vanished, but four fresh-molded candles were sitting in a row at the north end of the table.

“He's done that many so far,” said Sarah, “and Anna is starting that blacking stuff to boiling.”

“Does she, uh, know..?”

“I wrote down all of what you did, and I did my notes twice,” said Sarah. “She has my second-notes, so she should be able to read them with little trouble.”

“Second-notes?” I asked. “Is this where you concentrate upon legibility and other appearance issues?”

“That and expression to a small degree, though I tend to do that between writings – and when I was at the west school, I not only left the width of a finger between each line I wrote with a writing dowel, but I commonly used up entire more than one rubbing block.”

“For your reports?” I asked.

“No, that much for each report I was to turn in, and those were the large rubbing blocks, not the common size sold down there,” said Sarah – who indicated with her fingers just how large these blocks were for length and width. They were easily twice the size of anything like that I had used here. “That got worse with each term, as I not merely learned to write better with practice, but I had to do a job that was the very best that I could do each and every term.” A pause, then, “it is not easy when you are at the top of your class, as every lecturer expects work as good or better than their own once you've done that once – and that is not the case when your papers are being read by the king himself.”

“Yours were?” I asked.

“Every single one of them, once I had done my second year's traipsing,” said Sarah. “I was told by several lecturers that he learned no small amount from his reading.”

“Much more than you might think, dear,” said the soft voice. “You went to a lot of places no one had gone in a generation's time, and in some cases, where no one had gone in hundreds of years – and that's for the locations. For the attitudes of the people you saw – no other person came close during your time there, and only a few people had done so in his recollection.”

“Where didn't you go, other than the Valley itself?” I asked. “The secret way?”

“I did not go on that, even if I did explore a great many ruins and found what once might have been ways to access it,” said Sarah, “and I spied upon a number of witch-filled woodlots, ones where the witches had great workings underground.”

“G-great workings?” I asked. I wondered just how one got close enough to one of those places without discovery, especially given the tendency of the witches to be especially vigilant – even if they were trashed.

“Much like that one place that went up and nearly cooked you, Lukas, Gilbertus and Jaak,” said Sarah. “That hole still smokes in a few places, and scavengers still find money in that area.” A pause, then, “I found an entire bag of gold coins in part of an afternoon about a week after that place went up.”

“An entire b-bag?” I asked.

“That was for those,” said Sarah. “I still have them. They're hidden well somewhere in the house proper, so they will not cause Hans trouble.” Pause, then, “I used some of the smaller silver coins I found then to pay my remaining debts, and I have most of the larger silver coins I found hidden at the house proper as well, though the bag of silver is a bit easier to get to compared to the gold pieces.”

“Good that you did that, as seeing a bag of those gold things would have me turn witch,” said Hans. “Now Anna has that stuff for blackening going, and she should start blackening those blades soon. Here is another that needs checking and its hilt made ready.”

“Does she know about the cleaning portions prior to blackening metal?” I asked.

“I wrote down everything we did, and I drew pictures, also,” said Sarah. “There are more than twenty pages in that ledger speaking of that process, and those would be the pages I inked.”

“That many?” I asked.

“Nearly each page has a drawing,” said Sarah, “and I wrote comments to each side of those, with arrows as I have seen you do with some of your drawings for the carpenters.” A pause, then, “since when did you learn to do drawings as they do them in some few places in the fourth kingdom?”

“He did those for a living, dear,” said the soft voice, “and what you saw for such drawings in the Heinrich works and what was commonly demanded of him are not the same things.”

“Had to do them fit for a Geeststaat witch?” I asked.

“You would have been hired by the Mistress of the North as her chief scribe, the one she would protect at all costs,” said the soft voice, “and that provided that one dark-haired witch didn't learn of you first.”

That time, I was not able to stop the oath in time, and I spat the word 'rat-dung' before I could think.

“Ah, so you are learning about witches,” said Hans. “That is a fit name for those things, is what I think, and a good one, too.”

Sarah looked at me, and said, “be glad no one else heard you, as that is what Tam would say were he most-irritated.” A pause, then, “I do not blame you much, not after hearing what would have happened here had those stinkers known about you.”

“They did, dear,” said the soft voice. “Why do you think that black book spoke of 'the return of the monster'?”

Return?” I squeaked. “How can I return if I wasn't born then and did not come here?”

“Recall how Madame Curoue had her share of nightmares?” said the soft voice. “What she had was bad enough, but what witches then sometimes endured that way left more than a few of them rotten upon their couches.” A pause, then, “most of the leadership of this area during the years prior to the war endured nightmares in which 'a certain tall dark-haired fiend' caused such incredible havoc that their beliefs regarding Sieve became a most-plausible matter, and more than one witch in that time and place thought that being to be Sieve.” Another pause, then, “that dark-haired witch knew better, and she had much input regarding what was written regarding 'the return of the monster'.

“As in these were not normal dreams?” asked Sarah.

“If you refer to those you have experienced, then no,” said the soft voice. “Recall that one time where he smelled of burnt lard after being shown what was happening in Norden?” A pause, then, “those witches that woke up after such dreams commonly smelled burn-piles everywhere, and in some cases, they had severe gunshot wounds – those usually killed all save the very strongest witches within a few hours, no matter what sort of help they received – slashes from swords, cracked bones, missing limbs due to various injuries –and all too often, a permanent state of psychosis on top of other injuries.”

“Hence they believed their dreams were the present reality, and they had the injuries to prove that what they endured was the real thing,” I said. I then squeaked, “what?”

“It wasn't merely belief on their part,” said the soft voice. “They had traveled in time, just like you have, only in their case, they were not hidden nor were they protected as you have been – and the where and when, while the actual time and place was hidden from them, was most-obviously the future.” A pause, then, “and while they did not receive a good picture of you, they did see enough to be able to record certain salient features.”

“They did not get a good picture of me?” I asked. I was helping Sarah get 'entirely set up', which meant not merely finding every tent-lantern we had, but also setting up all of those light-stands and one of the battery chargers. I would need to 'service' it before retiring, most likely.

“Much as those witches you killed with that club had no idea of what hit them when you came upon them,” said the soft voice. “While great-wolves were justifiably feared by the witches of that time, they were neither that fast nor did they swing clubs with such force – and they especially didn't kill like you did when you came upon groups of witches.”

“Those things killed them in droves,” said Sarah. “More than one tale speaks of entire parties of witches being pulled down in minutes.”

“He didn't take minutes,” said the soft voice. “He 'cleared' the town in minutes – traveling all over it and around it and through it.” A pause, then, “when he came upon witches, that club was slinging brains and blood as fast as you can fire a rotating pistol when your life hangs in the balance.”

“N-no,” said Sarah. Her voice reeked of disbelief. “I've fired those things, and while I can empty one before I can count to three if I work at it, I...”

“Recall what the publican said?” said the soft voice. “Five witches in what amounted to the time it takes to blink your eye, and that happened a number of times.”

“That tended to happen so fast I could not even think,” I said. “I'd leap over a side-fence behind the houses here...”

“And over horse-barns,” said the soft voice.

“T-those?” I asked.

“You weren't just leaping side-fences,” said the soft voice. “You were clearing those with several feet to spare as a rule, and you usually needed to, as you usually needed to leap over the horse-barn as well as the 'taller' stone wall that formed its 'back' side.”

“I have no idea how I did that, either,” I said. “I'd land among a group of witches...”

“You usually hit at least one witch before your feet touched the ground,” said the soft voice. “Dropping seven witches in less than a second takes some unusual capacity, and you were given that capacity tonight – again, because you needed it to avoid getting 'filled with lead' while eliminating the most dangerous witches then present in the first kingdom.”

“How..?” Sarah paused, then said, “they were stronger than they appeared to be, they hid themselves especially well from those not as they were, they were far wealthier than they looked to be, and they usually carried guns and knives.”

“Which they used regularly,” said the soft voice. “These people weren't the usual for first kingdom witches when it came to fighting, dear – as nearly all of their guns were well-maintained by witch-standards, and their knives, while they were commonly marked up with runes, were usually imported from the fourth kingdom and then bit with acid.”

“Hence shallow markings and passable metal at the least,” I said. I wondered about the guns enough to wish to learn what kind they were using. I suspected revolvers were very common – and not the commonplace for such weapons, but a fairly high grade of revolver, including many of the 'larger' bore weapons that were the same size outwardly as the ones I had reworked numbers of.

“More than a few of their knives were made by Machalaat Brothers,” said the soft voice. “Be glad those accursed things went to rust when those stinkers died, as knives that good would be most-coveted in this area, and not just by witches.”

“Those would be picked up by people here, as most in town do not know about runes,” said Sarah.

“Oh, they're learning fast enough about them now,” said the soft voice. “Removing the clothing of those headless stinkers is showing an awful lot of people just what runes look like, and also what else is commonplace as for ink-markings found on witches today.”

“Healed wounds, also,” I said. “They're learning that they know next to nothing about fighting, and, uh, war compared to those that I killed tonight.”

“That especially,” said the soft voice. “Hence they are far more inclined to listen to those who've shown themselves capable that way, and that's when they're not being lectured on the subject by Tam.”

A rapid string of shots then crackled up the road, and the screams that broke the night told me Tam was definitely 'hunting' witches. As if I had 'planned' matters, I reached toward one of the bags I had just brought down, reached inside it, found my 'vest' where I had put it earlier – and then, as if I had wished it to do so, that one 'coddled' grenade flew into my hand.

I turned, ran toward the door, which opened for me, and as I leaped the stoop and ran out into the street, I pulled the pin on the grenade, a prayer on my lips. I did the three hops needed for a 'maximum range' throw, then threw the grenade 'high' in the air.

The silence that followed was of such magnitude that when I saw a brilliant white flash that turned into a blazing holocaust upon the road some distance north, I gasped, “what did I just do..?”

As if to answer me, a thundering roar seemed to wash over me like a hot wind from hell; and then, I heard an answer.

“That group of witches is now learning of Brimstone's long-unsated hunger for them,” said the soft voice. “That was another group of especially dangerous witches, as they were those planning the just-before-dawn 'assault' upon the 'north' ford of the Main.”

“And who Tam was shooting at?” I asked.

“Look about twenty feet in front of you to find the first of them,” said the soft voice. “He dropped every one of those he shot at, and all of them were dead before they hit the ground.” A pause, then, “go on, look. You need to see these people.”

I did, each step cautious, watching carefully all around me. For some reason, I could seemingly see what was happening around me, even what was happening in the arc to my rear, and the continuing hum of activity spoke of the night being both 'especially long' and 'especially wild' – and remaining more or less so until this area was going to receive no more attention by witches tonight.

“Not merely tonight,” said the soft voice. “Word is just starting to get out among the remaining witches in this area as to how entering Roos' territory is a most-certain means of supping with Brimstone.”

“Mostly because those who learn about this place being too hazardous usually don't live long enough to meet up with those of like mind,” I thought, as I came upon the first witch. He was lying 'face up' – and Tam had obviously aimed 'center of mass', as the entire chest region of the witch was a solid sheet of blood.

“He aimed a bit 'high' for 'center of mass',” said the soft voice. “He hit that witch about two inches too low to blow his head and neck clean off of his torso.” A pause, then as I turned the witch over by the edge of his 'lousy' – it had a distinctly 'crawling' feeling, as if his clothing and body was crawling with some very unpleasant insects – clothing, I then saw how the ground he had hidden was entirely soaked with his blood.

“F-fist-sized exit hole,” I gasped upon seeing the huge ripped place in his back and the shattered white bone chips among the gore-spray. The witch's body hadn't hidden all of the mess; I had just been so focused upon him that I had not seen the mess that lay north of him – until now. “At... Where was Tam shooting from?”

“About fifty yards north of the Public House,” said the soft voice. “He's learning about 'killing power' and 'flat trajectory'.”

“Mine...” I meant what I had shot prior to the last two days.

“Yours does worse things at nearly all ranges,” said the soft voice. “It drops elk – those animals herereliably, which these rifles won't do unless you hit them multiple times in the head.”

The next witch, however, had been hit 'center of mass', this in the upper portion of the 'gut'. He'd fallen face-down, and when I turned him over, what met me beyond the gore upon the road was so astonishing I gasped again.

“There's m-meat on the road here,” I spluttered.

“Not just where that witch fell,” said the soft voice. “Carefully, look at the ground for some five or six feet in front of that witch, and you'll see most of his liver and other bits of viscera.”

“Liver?” I gasped, as I began moving to the side of the witch. I'd dropped him, still crawling so as to not miss any clues. I moved to the side just in time to avoid a small blob of 'witch-burger', then did so twice more before I came to the end of that mess and found another witch, this one laying on his back. Again, I saw a thick sheen of blood, and only by gazing closely did I find the 'entrance' hole.

“Centered his chest,” I said. “No more coke-bottle.”

“Look at the others,” said the soft voice. “Tam did that with the other witches as well.”

I took my feet, then walked faster, this time finding the witches face up in every case. Only one had been back-shot, as the others had been crossing the road in 'open order', and when the first witch had been shot, only one of them – the last one hit, in fact, which was the second one I had found – had had time to turn to run up the road.

The others had just enough time to turn south to see the source of the gunfire before they themselves were hit in the chest. I wondered why Tam had shot them there, other than that was a larger target.

“He usually aims for there, just like you tend to shoot them in the head,” said the soft voice. “With these rifles, both shots are lethal at all practical ranges.”

“Uh, why do I aim for the head?” I asked – and then wished I hadn't, as I then heard a horrible fragment of a song I'd once written, one called 'Bus Driver' – a line that went:

Two in the chest, one in the head,

Subhuman scum gotta be dead.

“Did I write it that way, or did that get translated?” I asked. I had completely forgotten I had even written that horrible 'poem', it seemed so long ago.

“It was intercepted in the form you originally wrote it, and then machine-translated into the common language spoken here,” said the soft voice, “and it was commonly sung by recruits overseas as an 'army chant' during 'physical training'.” A pause, then, “it proved to describe the enemy most accurately – and indirectly, it told of what it took to stay alive while dealing with him.” Another pause, then, “Tam has only recently become familiar with dealing with witches wearing 'armor', while you knew about several types of body armor years before coming here.”

“Th-that place,” I spat, as I turned for home. “They s-sold that stuff, and...”

“Yes, and you had to do a certain amount of research regarding that material so as in order to do your job,” said the soft voice. “But then, think: which type of shot 'turns off' the enemy right away? A destroyed heart, or turning his brain into mush?”

“Th-the latter?” I said, as I ran for the stoop and leaped inside the parlor as a bullet ricocheted off the outer wall next to the doorframe at waist-height. The door then banged closed behind me, much as if a sudden gust of wind had caught it and slammed it shut, and Sarah came to help me up.

“Now who was the witch that shot at you?” she asked pointedly.

“Are you sure that was a witch?” I asked. “A trigger-happy, uh, farmer – one who used a musket to...”

“I think not,” said Sarah. “If someone yet lives in this town, and they do not live here, or where the publican lives, or where Tam lives, then they are either cleaning up those brass things, or they are carrying bodies, or they are behind the church and stripping those witches of their clothing and valuables prior to dumping them in that manure-pit.” A pause, then, “were it Tam shooting, he would not have missed, and I suspect August would not have bothered, as he does not have any weapons capable of shooting the length of town with accuracy.”

“And that was not an ordinary musket,” I spluttered as I then heard the crack of Tam's new rifle. “I hope...”

Another scream rent the darkness, and I thought, “that one got that wretch.”

“I hope so,” said Sarah, as she laid one of the longer-barrel shotguns on the table next to two more still-warm candles, for a total of six. “I should begin drawing this rocket's parts directly, as I finally found all of my drawing things.”

“The launcher?” I asked, as I assembled it.

“I think you might wish to draw it,” said Sarah. “I think that figure of two hours presumed both of us drew as we were able, and I know you can draw well.”

I was not about to answer, as I suspected Sarah was correct, and when I drew the launcher, my hands soon moved so rapidly that I had Sarah watching me from over my shoulder.

“I think so!” she said. “I wish I could do half as well.”

“Yes, for non-living things,” said the soft voice. “Remember, dear – he did this type of drawing for years in school and then more years for a living – and he started doing such drawings at an age when people start school here. Now ask him to draw a picture of a wasp, and you'll learn something else.”

I did not wait for Sarah to ask me, but in the upper corner of my ledger, I drew a wasp – or rather, I thought it was a wasp. My hands were again surprisingly quick, and Sarah's shocked intake of breath had me wonder for an instant.

“Awful, isn't it?” I asked. It didn't look very much like a wasp, or so I thought.

“I think not,” said Sarah. “If I were to draw a prewar wasp, that picture is precisely what I would try to do, as those do not look like wasps do today for their shape.”

“Ask him to rub the picture with his finger, dear,” said the soft voice.

I did so, not waiting to hear a command that to me was already painfully obvious; and before my eyes, the penciled drawing acquired color, depth, an odd sheen at first, and then a shiny finish, much as if it were a picture taken by a very good camera – at a distance of perhaps two feet, and that using slow film and a macro lens, one especially good at capturing fine detail at such ranges.

“Now that is a prewar wasp, correct as to color patterns and all else,” said the soft voice. “By the way, if he drew something else that was alive, the result would be similar.”

“I could not do that where I came from,” I said, “and that was for the drawing itself, not what happened when I rubbed it with my finger.” A pause, then, “what I did with my finger would most likely be considered to be the province of fiction.”

“That is not fiction,” said Sarah. “That is out of an old tale, one of the more-trustworthy ones.”

“The less-trustworthy ones?” I asked, as I added further details regarding the rocket launcher, then began to add lettering. “This part is really difficult, by the way – I'm working a lot harder than I did during the drawing itself.”

“I would leave that, unless you know you cannot recall all of those details,” said Sarah.

“Why do you think he's writing that material down, dear?” said the soft voice. “When you are stretched that thin, you either write things down or you forget important details – and then, recall that Anna's handwriting is not much better than yours, and Hans' vocabulary is not up to the task.”

“Mine isn't either,” said Sarah. “Those words there may be spoken of in a Gustaaf, but their meaning is beyond me, as that book says nothing useful about them beyond when they were known of.”

“They're commonplace across the sea,” said the soft voice. “Remember, the witches have done all they possibly can to make people here ignorant, if not actually stupid, and have done so since before Cardosso was born, if you speak of the time since the Curse struck.”

“And one of the pendants' job was to deal with that ignorance,” I said. “The fifth one, correct?”

There was no answer, and I resumed my writing. I soon found that I needed prayer to make the stuff legible, even to me, and when soft steps came up the stairs, I turned to see Anna.

And without thinking, I passed my hand over the drawing I had done, much as if I wished to hide the horror of my hideously crude-looking writing. I wanted a computer, it was so awful.

Anna put the knife and its handle-pieces down, then ran back downstairs without a word. She was obviously attending to multiple tasks at once, something that in my current state of fatigue was totally beyond me. I put my drawing down, now knowing one matter that I needed to give my attention to.

“Beer, several cups,” I thought.

“And a dose of that tincture Sarah mixed up,” said the soft voice. “Two drops, and no more until it is bedtime.”

“How much will Gabriel need? An entire tube?” I asked, as I wordlessly found my cup and the most-recent jug. The chill of the thing spoke of a most-recent stay in the cold-room downstairs, which made for wondering: was Hans now 'lagering' the house's beer?

“No, he has not, even if he now realizes that cold beer helps with hard work,” said the soft voice. “He'll ditch that old habit shortly.

“What old habit?” I asked. “How he stores his beer? As in the stuff needs to do most of its work in the c-cold-room?”

“Once the jugs have stopped their 'noise', then they need to go in the cold-room for two weeks or more of 'finishing' – which will allow the favorable organisms in that beer to proliferate and put a stop to the other type which can cause beer to turn or lessen its effectiveness.”

“A two-stage fermentation?” I asked.

“No, the favorable organism needs to 'get started',” said the soft voice. “Have that beer cultured overseas and then 'looked at' by the medical people there, and then use that for seeding your brew – or better, do all of your preparation under conditions of maximal sterility, and then you'll have a fit material for invalids.”

“I-I have heard of such beer,” said Sarah with a shaky voice. “I have tasted it twice, in fact.”

“Where?” I asked.

“I-in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “I needed it then, as I was very sick.”

“V-very sick?” I asked. “With... That's what that one medicine does, dear. It stops d-dysentery!”

“Think something closer to 'a witch-brewed bioweapon, one where they started with the disease you know as cholera and turned it into something that prostrates the survivors for months at a time and kills people in droves'.” A pause, then, “that particular 'beer' is better thought of as a species of medicine, which is why Anna got her original yeasts from that place.”

“How..?” I asked.

“By purchasing a jug of that beer, most likely,” said Sarah. “I doubt she was able to keep it cold enough, as that stuff is served cold there, and it helps a lot more when you are as sick as I was.”

“They always serve it with, uh, sliced yellow-fruit?” I asked. “A small shaker of c-cleaned salt, to help with the heat down there and the sweating? No, not normal salt if you're sick, but 'special' salt, a type they prepare with chemicals from Roesmaan's?”

“They did all of that, and I needed it,” said Sarah. “I was so dry I needed most of a jug both times.”

“Who was the stinker that poisoned you?” I asked, my voice suddenly turning angry without my thinking about it. “I hope that wretch drops dead.”

“He did earlier today,” said the soft voice. “One of those creatures bit him, and he was already bitten by his own 'bug', so he was well on the road to hell before you sent that plague upon those massed witches.”

“Did he brew up that thing?” asked Sarah. “Who was this?”

“You disposed of him, remember?” asked the soft voice. “He was one of those lecturers that left between two days, and you were instrumental in making him and a number of other well-hid witches leave the west school.” A pause, then, “he had that poison brewing in another part of the city, one of the underground passages that the witches have dug there over many years, and he'd been working on turning a what is a commonplace illness in the fourth and fifth kingdoms into something Madame Curoue would envy.”

“Sounds like he succeeded to some degree,” I muttered, wondering as I did if that stuff he'd 'brewed up' had 'gotten loose' down there and made some portions of those vast subterranean delvings untenable. I then looked at my drawing, and shrieked.

Sarah came at a run, then began muttering. “How did you ink this thing?”

“I d-didn't,” I said. “I might have touched it, or perhaps rubbed my hand against it, or something, but I-I don't k-know.” I then once more saw the knife, and without a word, I took it over to the bench to fit its hilt.

That took perhaps a minute, and when I returned, Sarah was mumbling more.

“You drew more than just the launcher,” she said. “There are four pages here, all of which are not only inked, but also lettered – and they show what is inside that thing as if you'd pulled it apart.”

“You'll wish to keep those drawings and add them to the manual you have,” said the soft voice. “The ones they have overseas are not nearly as neat or clear that way, as those doing them were artists first and their technical understanding of what they were drawing was altogether limited.”

“As in 'this is a rocket-launcher – duh'?” I asked. I had added the 'duh' as if the person drawing the thing was 'stupid'. Perhaps ignorant would have been better in a way, but for some reason, this person needed to have the 'duh' added, much as if they were truly incapable of learning about technical matters.

“Not much better than what you were thinking, actually,” said the soft voice. “They were about the usual for mechanical illiteracy over there, which meant that they essentially translated the crude drawings done on a computer into 'decent' ones fit for viewing – and because of their near-nonexistent understanding of what they were drawing, they made it 'look good' from an artist's perspective while subtly distorting or at times eliminating important details.” A pause, then, “that set of drawings shows everything.”

“I think that is one of the reasons why the Compendium set we have shows a number of your drawings, dear,” I said. “They showed an unusual degree of understanding – or did they?”

“I know they included a number of them,” said Sarah. “I was never told how many, but I know the that the times I and my cousin got in there to check their work, they usually had engraver's work in process, and I saw a number of my drawings in that place.”

“You saw the tip of the ice-mass, dear,” said the soft voice. “The general rule, at least with this particular printing of the Compendium, was 'if she did a drawing, use it' – and that by order of the king himself once he'd read some of your reports.”

“Just one of several reasons why the witches were after you,” I muttered. “At least this rocket launcher is drawn. Now what next? Those grenades?”

“I should be done with my drawings here soon,” said Sarah. “If that happened with yours, then I think you wish to check them over, as what happened with what you drew may happen with these – and I cannot draw that well.” A pause, then, “that is straight out of an old tale.”

“Just wait until he gets his hands on a computer, dear,” said the soft voice. “Give him the right tools, and his drawings will look as good as what you just saw, if not better still.”

“L-like I used to do a-all the time,” I muttered. “Do they..?”

As I said this, however, I felt reminded of what I had been told: the reason the computers overseas could not be addressed as if they were out of a science fiction novel was because the needed parts had not been installed, not because that technology was beyond their capacity – and the level of power available, compared to what I had used prior, was most likely well beyond my understanding.

“Weird logic devices unlike anything I ever studied,” I mumbled. “They clock blocks in those things, not individual stages or groups of registers, and whole sections run asynchronously, such that their speed is limited only by the logic devices themselves.”

“More than you could believe possible,” said the soft voice. “Just wait, though. You will encounter 'computers' that you can talk to, and that within a matter of a few months.”

“Read m-my mind?” I asked. I had been told they would do that. “H-how?”

As if in a dream, suddenly I was 'transported', and all about me, in three hundred and sixty-degree screaming colors, a whirlwind of sound and light seemed to blast at me as if I were in the midst of a kaleidoscopic explosion. In every direction, even as I rotated rapidly upon two axes, I saw strobing images overlaid with sounds at once thundering and shrill, and...

“This is worse than encountering a jet engine on the loose,” I squeaked, as the noise and light became harder, sharper, and more 'brilliant' and 'screaming'. “This would fry your brain if you endured it for very long. It makes me long for the effects of...” I tried to speak the word in question, and could not do so. I was thinking of the commonplace name for the stuff, that being 'acid'. The actual name was one I could not remember particularly well, even if I both knew that name and doubted that drug could be made here.

No matter. What could be made here that was like that 'drug' was easily worse. Those mushrooms – 'witch-tables' – Sarah had spoken of sounded like a natural equivalent of that drug at the least.

This state suddenly vanished with such abruptness that I 'fell' to the floor, and I looked around. My eyes were but inches from the tabletop, and to each on the floor next to me, I could see what looked like fresh-made kindling. This stuff had no lead in it, thankfully; it could be gathered up as it was and put in the stove when Anna was of a mind for fast-burning wood that lit readily.

“Now where did you go, and why are you laying on the floor like that?” asked Sarah, as she came around the table. “You vanished for about the time I could count to three if I did so as quickly as I could, and then you seemed to drop out of the ceiling and...” A gasp, then, “Anna! He mashed the chair!”

Fast steps coming at a run from somewhere – it felt as if the issuing location was somewhere above my head and to the right and behind me, actually – then suddenly, out of breath and sweating, Anna 'materialized' next to me. She began muttering, and now I knew: Sarah was an amateur at that game. No one – no one – beat Anna at that business, and I was seeing clearly now how I had misjudged both Anna and her competitors.

“That is not one of our chairs, Sarah,” said Anna. “That one is showing behind him, though it got tossed some, so it probably needs pulling to pieces and then shaving its old glue off.”

“It does?” said Sarah. “Then what is all this kindling?”

“Wood,” said Anna tonelessly. “It looks like a chair from the house proper, one that Hendrik would not trust his rear to for the space of a finger-crack.” Anna then demonstrated exactly what she meant: she snapped her fingers, then looked at her hand in wonder.

“How did I just do what I did?” she asked.

“I am not sure, as I cannot do that, and I've only seen it done a few times before,” said Sarah. “Now could you look at my drawing, and perhaps tell me what I missed? I think he needs more beer before he gets up off of that floor, that and a dose so he's not so shaken up. I'm not sure what just happened, but I can tell it turned his brain around about and flipped it, and that twice over.”