A time of sorrow and lamentation

The time of nightmare did not descend as I had feared, at least it had not done so yet. Hendrik again shook his head, this showing a seeming obliviousness that I thought more a matter of 'he has had far too much to hear in far too short a time' than all else. I then learned he had gotten something out of the matter, as he went over to that one lectern with its dangling boarded sides and its numerous riveted padlocks dangling from a multitude of hasps.

“This, if you did not know already, is a Gustaaf word-book,” he said, “and if there were time, you would be tasked with updating it in its entirety and then compositing its plates once that press is done out in the boatwright's shop. It's well along as we speak, if I go by what I have been shown thus far.”

“Do not worry,” said Sarah. “We shall have a better word-book in short order, and more, it will be present in a form that no witch in the five kingdoms will be able to read.” A pause, this to drink, then, “neither their curses nor their intelligence shall matter, as they will not be able to read it – even if they were as strong as that first witch we encountered this morning on our trip to the house proper.”

“He is dead,” said Anna flatly. “I saw his body, and it and his head were separated by the length of my arm – and if I did not know better, he was rotting then.”

“That would be a bad witch if he began rotting that fast,” said Tam.

“He was, sir,” said Sarah. “He would need to be in order to endure those keys, and calling him 'hard' would be calling that witch I shot with a roer soft as springtime mud.” A pause, then, “those papers there” – here, she pointed at those I was yet leafing through, this seemingly aimlessly, yet not so at some level – “speak of what will be needed so as to break the curse entirely.”

“Why would witches...” Hendrik paused, then seemed to choke.

So they know what to look for and then crush it into dust before it can act,” I said. “This 'campaign' has been planned by a multitude of witches since the time of the Curse, if not before then, and while Cardosso made what existed in his day a coherent and orderly whole, these people here” – here, I pointed with my index finger at the book – “had to fill in the many gaps in those plans and then actually work long and hard over the years spoken of in these pages so as to make that horrific vision a reality, a realm at once like that of this region before the war and...”

I did not get to finish my speech, for with a sudden abruptness, the room seemed to whirl like a top, go sideways violently with a tearing roar, then the whole vanished utterly to leave me standing upon a cold and desolate rock-strewn and bomb-cratered plain. The ground shook underfoot with a low and grumbling moan, while screams, these from all points of the compass as well as overhead and beneath my feet, seemed to tear the ever-night of a sunless world apart. Brimstone had come to take his due, the planet had fallen from time and space, and now, he was feeding as per his wont and appetite...

For now, I was standing upon an outpost of hell; a place about to become a smoke-shrouded realm of everlasting fire and ongoing relentless destruction. My eyes then truly opened, and all about me, I saw the massed and billowing flames of hell, the vast and varied droves of spirits found there, the innumerable tree-tall stone wheels that crushed souls into powder as they 'ground exceeding small', only to have those powdered souls regenerate fully before the next slow-rumbling turn of the wheel came once more to smash them anew.

This tableau suddenly vanished as if a switch had been turned; and what replaced it was worse.

More, it was both frightening and familiar, as here, I saw tall grime-streaked brick and concrete buildings, oil-stained concrete roads alternating with crushed stone cemented with tar overlaid with dried blood, vast herds of smoke-trailing automobiles prowling like jungle predators, telephone poles made of dead blackened wood brought unto subjection by spiking it with Live-Iron...

“No, this is not Los Angeles,” I muttered. “It may look a bit like it, but it is not where I used to live.”

As if to remind me of the truth of the matter, a nearby firefight erupted in an explosion of light and noise, and the facade I had previously been mesmerized by tumbled down, as every person I saw other than myself was not only armed, but either participating in a full-scale-mobilized gang war or cheering the participants on while firing their weapons into the air. Sprays of wildly-flying bullets – a lot of them were varicolored tracer rounds – went seemingly everywhere at once, and I ran like a frightened deer for the nearest cover, that being a hefty derelict car, the suspension collapsed and the tires and wheels stolen, the dark blue paint scabbed thickly with rust. My running drew gunfire, however – these witches shot unthinkingly at anyone who ran, as 'La Ley de Fuega' was their law – and as I dove behind the massively heavy car, a fast-moving rocket missed the roof of the car by mere inches and destroyed a building behind it in a blast so strong that it flung me and the car into the air, the car erupting in billowing green and blue flames from its ruptured fuel tanks full of leaking toxic bipropellant fuel, while I sailed high into the air chased by flying bricks and the flames of a massive fuel-air explosive warhead.

“That explosion looked like something out of a science fiction novel,” I spluttered, as I landed on my chest and then plowed face-first into a midden of rotting vegetation and slid down the length of a long greasy alley, bouncing off of walls and toppling barrels filled with trash as I rolled and tumbled. I tried to get up and run, but a wall of hot lead filled the air above me, then the howls of dogs the size of tigers came at a roaring fleet-footed gallop. I found a ladder, leaped up the thing like a monkey with a rocket up its backside, and as I passed a second-story window, the rusted rungs of the toppling ladder dropped me into a window across the alleyway where I fell into the open window and onto a floor covered with hacked-up body parts, these islands in a wall-to-wall sea of slow-clotting blood. The reek of death was everywhere, and upon every wall in the dim-lit 'hole', blazing blood-writ rune-curses mingled with Underworld German – the mandated speech of the realm – proclaimed that the problem of Useless Feeders had finally been dealt with once and for all.

“Now all that live are indeed true-witches,” I said, this in a whisper. There might be more witches close by, and their hellhounds – those massive dogs I had seen and heard earlier – would hear me if the witches themselves didn't. “One part was hell without a trace of falsehood, and the other side of the coin was just another subdivision of hell – and which of the two sides of that nasty slug is worse is an entire mystery...”

I then fell through a weakened place in the gone-rotten floor and landed upon another floor, and when I looked up from among what seemed splintered wood mingled with rotten clothing and the reek of death and flames, I saw a ring of familiar faces. One of them was Hans, who sniffed. He then turned to Anna.

“He was in that place I was eating grass, only I think where I was then was the nice part,” said Hans. “He did not go to that part of the place, but the bad part instead, if I go by how he smells.”

“No, Hans,” said Anna shuddering. “He did not go there. He stayed here.” A pause, this punctuated by frenzied gulping, then a gasp. “He went to the world the witches wish this place to be, and he saw not only much of their desire, but also their end and o-ours!”

“H-how?” I asked.

“I might not have seen or heard what you were seeing,” said Anna, “but I did hear you speaking the whole time you were elsewhere, and if that was a nightmare, then I wish I could endure Sarah's worst ones as amusement.” A pause, then, “Maria, did you..?”

“I did,” she said. “Now, that large foul-smelling book? How did you-all come by it?”

“He needed to kill a great many witches,” said Sarah, “and that with his sword, as they were most-tricky and had rigged this device...” Sarah then looked at me, and asked, “what did they use?”

“Something like one of those, uh, 'pills' we did up,” I said. “It wasn't quite as powerful as one of ours, but still...”

“What is now present in that woodlot is a good deal worse than those bombs,” said the soft voice. “Recall what I said about how one device would turn every tree into kindling and then set it and everything in that place alight?” A pause, then, “there are enough of those devices present to turn that place into a location where nothing will grow there for years afterward.”

“How will that happen?” asked Maria. She was writing steadily. Only Sarah could write faster; unlike Sarah, though, Maria's writing would not need to be written twice to ensure legibility.

“The bombs present will burn so hot that the ground will be melted into a species of black glass,” I said. “Trees will eventually grow there again, but how long that will take is a good question.” A pause, then, “perhaps that glass will begin to break up when the Curse breaks entirely.”

The instant I said that, however, I knew I was wrong. That black glassy place would remain for years after the Curse was fully broken, this as a reminder of just what was to be done to evildoers – and more importantly, just how God felt about them. Truly, it would be a lasting reminder of the phrase 'no mercy, no relent, and no tears'. I then realized I had actually been speaking.

“Good,” murmured Maria. “Those papers in that satchel – why were so many witches carrying them, beyond the obvious?”

“Obvious?” I asked. “Their importance to us, or to the witches that sent that party out, or to those witches who were carrying them?”

“All three, if possible,” said Maria as she continued writing. “This will be a start, at the least.”

“Firstly, they tell us just how much we have been controlled and are being controlled by the witches, and that for their benefit and to our detriment,” I said. “The second portion – that was due to a ranking arch-witch, one of those named as Powers some distance to the south...” I paused, then, “did he get set alight, or was someone else of that title permitted to 'dance on fire' when that witch-compass I sent showed up in his pistol-pocket?”

“He, the whole of his large retinue, and his fortress-like 'dwelling' are now widely-scattered cinders and ash,” said the soft voice. “That is going to cause trouble for witches coming up here, as while his 'compound' didn't actually sit on the secret way, that high-walled collection of gathered-together buildings was close enough to it that he had a well-stocked multiple-story underground warehouse filled with witch-grade supplies and ordnance – and it all went up when that fire got into the 'ready' kegs of powder.”

“It all went up?” I asked.

“Including all of the stockpiles of cursed ordnance he didn't know about,” said the soft voice. “That entire town – a five-street town – is now a huge still-flaming crater as we speak, and you'll see the column of smoke in the distance later today when you pick up those two women.”

Shocked gasps came from all around. Everyone, save perhaps me, knew of the place in question; and it and the hall differed chiefly in their ostentation, their age – the center of this town was hundreds of years old, and was a real fortress, intended to withstand a siege by real siege-guns – and their outward appearance. The central building hid its nature well indeed until it had gone up, with its underground warrens of tunnels destroying the town in the process.

“Another matter, this of some importance,” I said calmly – and with an added aspect of icy chill. “That reigning Power sent that entire column of his people some days prior with his papers so as to take them to 'the uttermost north' for safekeeping, and each night upon their writ-in-detail itinerary, they roped themselves together in 'order of echelon', with several witches to the leader's tail and the bulk of them ahead of him as expendables, with no less than three ropes tied to the device used to trigger the bomb.”

Three lines?” asked Maria. Her voice reeked of incredulity, even if she still wrote as she asked her question.

“One tied to the left feet of each one of those tail-guards, and another to every left foot of the head-guards, and the third string of the three braided-into-one trigger rope in the tight-clenched hand of the leading witch his-own-self – one hand holding the bomb's carved trigger-piece, this in the shape of a blood-encrusted skull, and the other tight-clenched about the butt of a cocked and full-loaded six-shot revolver.” I had said quite a mouthful, and it demanded a lengthy session of drinking, one which drained my cup. It would need retinning when we came back. “I confiscated that pistol after removing one of the thimbles, then this other smaller one that a lot of witches like to carry.”

“One o' them four-shooters?” asked Lukas.

“Yes, though I can now speak of some things about them that I did not know before today,” I said. “Firstly, they're double-action weapons, meaning they don't need cocking before firing – just pull the trigger to fire them.”

Tam spat, “I didn't believe that until I saw a witch use one.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Then, that brass cube-shaped block on the end is not used for aiming.”

“Then what is it used for?” asked Gilbertus.

“Those weapons are intended for assassinations,” I said, “and the way they're supposed to be used is one sticks the barrel into one's victim's ear until the brass cube prevents further entry and pulls the trigger.” A pause, then, “they're simple to use, 'cause there's no aiming needed; quick, because that barrel's tapered at the end and it goes into the ear canal readily, so no real precision is needed beyond that needed to 'clean ears'; and then it's quick because you just need to stuff it in your victim's ear and pull the trigger to kill your prey... Oh, and another matter. There's no warning as you draw back to full-cock, as you don't need to do that. Just stuff it in as far as it will go and pull the trigger, and the ear canal muffles most of the noise. Easiest suppressor known on the continent to man or witch – just stuff that thing in good and hard and 'pop goes the witch'.”

“Then why did you get you one?” asked Tam. “You planning on studyin' 'em?”

“Yes, so as to convert common revolvers to double-action weapons,” I said. “I'm currently not sure just how to do that, but if I can look at one of those things' lockwork, I most likely can perform the needed modifications to the large number of such weapons we currently have.” A pause, then, “though if I can get the right kind of forging dies, then things will get really interesting.”

“How would that be?” asked Maria. She was still writing frantically.

“Because then I can make those pistols so they'll break open and use metallic cartridges,” I said. “Unlatch the top strap with your thumb, the spent rounds hop out like they're alive when you pull the barrel down with the grip in your hand, you stuff in six new cartridges, snap the thing closed, and you can start shooting again – and those weapons will hit hard enough to drop hard-witches with a fair degree of reliability if you do your part.”

“That sounds good enough to suit me,” said Tam. “Sign me up for one when you get them working decent.”

“Figures, Tam would want a Webley,” I thought. I recalled that peculiar weapon in some detail, having seen pictures of them. More, I had actually seen one in action, and I distinctly recalled hearing the flat booming roar of the weapon when it fired. Finally, they did tend to be effective close-range weapons – reliable as hammers for both functioning and lethality.

“That name is known of across the sea, even if they have little idea as to how those weapons actually work and less yet as to how to construct them, due to the nature of most of those intercepts,” said the soft voice. “If you make a few examples, though – they will wish them, and that in numbers.”

“Those things were supposed to be hard to make, though,” I said.

“Not with what they have,” said the soft voice. “Once you get some few working examples, have one traced out and then simulated, and they'll be able to turn them out in quantity readily.” A pause, then, “that type of weapon has real advantages for people who are not familiar with pistols, especially given their simple use and easy maintenance.”

“And stopping power,” I thought.

“That also,” said the soft voice. “They might not stop hard-witches readily, but any time you have an accurate and reliable weapon that's that easy to use, you can 'cross his T' easily – or failing that, you can put enough lead in him to put him out of commission quickly – and then 'cross his T' at powder-burn range after a hasty reload.”

“Thank you,” said Maria. “Regarding that one witch you named a Power – do you have an idea as to why he would send those papers up north?”

“He sensed he was in big trouble,” I said, “and by getting his papers north – he stole most of them years ago, and had added more to them since by both subterfuge and outright theft – he thought he could bargain with those newcomers coming from the south – as there is some really incriminating evidence in that huge collection of letters and, uh, dictation-notes.”

“Some of which we already know of, and it seems we can learn more of readily upon your return,” said Hendrik. “I think between what those in here recall you saying, what Sarah says you spoke of on the trip here, and what happened earlier this morning, Maria and I can draft a letter to be sent south so you can work on it as soon as you can upon your return.” A pause, then, “I am thoroughly glad you put those eggs to Gabriel, as he'll not be able to show himself for the rest of today.”

“Meaning he cannot warn the witches that are coming,” I said. “Some of those we dealt with this morning were spies from the south, and were he 'loose', he'd go straight to one of those people and sell us all out 'because he's been trained to do exactly that'.”

“How?” asked Hendrik.

“The school he went to,” said Sarah. “It might not be Boermaas itself, but it thinks itself to be as bad in many ways, and we were told this by a source not to be questioned.” Here, Sarah paused to drink, then said,” 'begin-quote: if one wishes to be strong in Brimstone, choose Boermaas; but if one wishes to go far in the service of Brimstone, and truly turn the place into hell, just as Brimstone says it should be, choose Maagensonst – and above all, do not give a single thought to the west school, as that place kills witches without mercy, much as if it were fully peopled with entire monsters from the days of long ago, when they were as common as grass and left the sky black with the soot of burn-piles and the ground wet with the blood of those that were not as they themselves were'. Finish-quote.” A pause, this to drink again, then, “I killed more than one witch after I drove him out of that place, and cleaning that flail was not easy once it had his brains on it.”

“Which talk has it that some are being made for you out in the boatwright's shop,” said Hendrik. “Now, is the Curse mentioned in those writings?”

It is,” I said. “Many people will become what the witches name 'monsters', so as to first sail upon the seas of this planet to explore it fully; and then, so as to break the Curse entirely, travel up above the sky so as to go to other worlds.”

“That is as true as any tapestry I have ever seen,” said Sarah, “for several have spoken of the matter, and in order to break the Curse entirely, it is indeed just as he said.” Pause, then, “that means the planet itself must be unleashed.”

“And then defended from those who will wish to return it to witchdom's fiefdom, and that done most-vigorously,” I said. “Speaking of that matter, I can say with a good degree of confidence that most gunners treat their guns and their ammunition as if they were arch-witches dealing with strong fetishes – and I do not speak of those using rotten cannons, but those using the common guns found up here.”

“Willem does not,” said Sarah, “and Manfred does not, and my relatives in the potato country don't, but...” She paused for a moment, then, “I suspect you are right about many of them, though, as there are certain most-expensive colors of yarn most gunners use to wrap their shells.” A pause, then, “you are right about rotten cannons, though, as everyone shooting one of those is a bones-holding witch.”

“No, dear,” I said. “You missed much of what I said. “The usual up here is to treat everything about artillery as if one is an arch-witch and is firing witch-guns – just as if they were the witches spoken of in old tales and on tapestries.” A pause, then, “the usual is to paint the shells themselves red as blood, and use then use blood-red yarn, and separate chants are spoken for each individual operation performed upon artillery and its ammunition, from the very first steps of preparing the shells for filling to actually firing the guns.”

Hendrik shook his head, then mumbled, “you're right. I've seen a lot of gunners do exactly as you say, and they do well to accomplish much beyond make noise when the swine should show.”

“And those who do otherwise hit and kill swine, and send those northern people running more often than not should they get onto them in open country,” I said. “Now, there are other matters here...”

I had come upon the club, this cleaned spotless, its bronze spikes now showing their clean-cut sharpness in vast profusion amid the dark-tones of the laminated wood. While I could not smell anything out of the order, an aura of rotten meat seemed to hover about that particular weapon, and it was all I could do to not spew violently.

Nonetheless, I shuddered, then in a faint voice, this amid horrifying flashbacks, I spoke of coming upon witches 'with the speed of a bronze-shod mare'...

“No, not that fast,” said Tam. “I've seen those go in races, and I saw you run last night, and I think only that horse you ride could have beat you.” A pause, then, “it was like out of an old tale, only this wasn't a tale I saw: he'd come upon witches, either singly or in groups, and he'd go through them at a dead run and send their bodies flying without their heads in this thick red cloud that followed after him like a desert storm-wind.” A pause, then, “Great-Wolf? Not on your life! He was worse than a big clan o' those things acting as one animal!”

“I, uh, leaped over walls and h-horse-barns,” I whispered, “and I seemed to know where they all were, and I w-was moving so fast that I had to start my swing a good ten paces back so as to hit them.”

“You hit them where?” asked Maria.

“Nearly every witch I saw had nothing left above his shoulders,” said Tam. “He was silencing them stinkers good, so that none o' them could say their dying-curses.”

“L-like R-Radar,” I said. “It was like I had radar, and none of those witches could hide from me.” I stifled a sob as I said this.

“That word is in the Gustaaf, but it is stated as being used before the war, and more, it has a strange notation regarding it,” said Hendrik.

“It was probably from elsewhere, sir,” said Sarah. “More than a few words we use today are that way, and the same for many names, mine being one of them.”

“You got yours out of the book,” said Tam, “same as your man there.” A pause, then, “talk has it he has three names, and the first two of 'em are out of that book, and that second one, though – that one's trouble.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I recalled Rachel's speaking it.

“'Cause if a parent names their child that, specially if it's a boy, then that child is either going to become marked enough to need to run for the marshes or the middle of the fourth kingdom afore he starts school up here, or he's going to be sacrificed in a witch-hole just 'cause he's got that name.” A pause, then, “witches know what that name means, and that from the time o' the drowning.”

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“It means war has come to them,” said Tam, “and if you see a Veldter, specially if that person's from certain Totems, they'll tell you about it.” Pause, then, “it's common knowledge among those with long hair, but the best people to speak of it are them on the southern border of the Valley, as they speak of a spirit having that name as being their special protector.”

“The arch-angel,” I murmured. “The one who k-kicked the devil out of heaven.”

“'Zactly so,” said Tam, “and they speak that way, too.” A pause, then, “they call that one 'death from above'.”

“Oh, no,” I moaned. “I was jumping over these tall back walls and killing witches before I hit the ground.”

“See, it's true, then,” said Tam.

Tam had an answer to his speech, though, as did I, and the soft voice spoke, this to me especially:

“Recall just how you were feeling when you were actually in the air?” asked the soft voice. “Remember those two dreams you had before coming here of flying, and how you always have wished to fly?”

“F-fly?” I asked. “Like those d-dreams, where I a-acted like a, a...”

“They'll learn all about those dreams and the related matters soon enough where you're going,” said the soft voice, “and they have aircraft.” A pause, then, “granted, they're mostly in long-term storage, and they'll need to be updated and gone through thoroughly from nose to tail, but they do have aircraft, and the means to make more like them.” Another pause, then, “and you'll need some serious 'fixing' before you attempt to fly one of those planes.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I had had sufficient health problems to not be able to fly where I had come from, and I'd rarely had enough funds to contemplate lessons, much less pay for instructor time and ground school. The health problems I had suffered from made it a moot point – as any one of the several severe ones I had had was enough to keep me out of the driver's seat.

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Recall your most-recent dream involving flight – how one of those people was acting as if out of his mind while flying, and as if that one particular plane was defying all of the laws of physics and common sense?” A pause, then, “you do not need to be ill when 'defying all of the laws of physics and common sense', and you do not wish to be spewing when you're doing things that would make that one plane known as the 'vomit comet' where you came from come apart at the seams in mid-air.”

A tap at the door, which Anna answered, one hand on the door and another grasping the handgrip of the machine-pistol she carried, and when she had closed the door and put up the bar that I had never seen before, she said, “every privy within an easy run in here has seen much use, and there are tubs full of soiled underclothing soaking in lye and laundry soap.”

“I'm still getting that recipe down,” said Tam. “Getting some o' that stuff ain't easy, not if you want to make a lot of it, and I don't know enough to clean up what's called good up here and isn't so.”

“Hans might be able to clean some of those chemicals,” said Sarah, “but he has trouble cleaning enough to keep us cooking the stuff.” A pause, then, “you cook twenty pots to our one, unless my eyes have lied to me.”

“Still, it works better than anything else we can get in quantity,” said Maria. “My underclothing no longer feels itchy or buggy, even if I'm glad to have yours when it is to be had.” Maria then looked at Sarah, muttering, “witches want nothing to do with soap. Now is that spoken of in that stinky mess called a witch-book?”

“It is,” I said. “More, I suspect we will have an answer to Tam's needs regarding both laundry soap and decent powder – though this stuff is going to be a bit touchy to make.”

“Make?” hissed Hendrik. “A powder mill? Here?”

“Not commonplace powder, nor a commonplace chemist,” said Sarah. “We will be leaving to pick her and my cousin up shortly, and between the two of them, they should manage a great deal.”

“Is your cousin a chemist?” asked Hendrik. Maria was still writing, though I could tell she was marking this portion as 'not to be included in what is to be sent out'. We did not need to take chances on the witches learning things they had no business knowing.

“No, she did not learn chemistry where she went to school,” said Sarah. “She is a most-quick study on any matter under the sun, however, much as I myself am – and that other woman is a good teacher.” A pause, then, “anyone who could endure six years of hell in that witch-hole would have to be a most-quick study in order to survive.”

“Witch-hole?” asked Hendrik. He sounded distinctly alarmed. “Do not tell me – she went to Boermaas.”

“She did, sir,” said Sarah, “and it changed her greatly.” Pause, then, “she may have disliked witches before, but now... Now, I know of no one who dislikes them more, outside of some people in this room.”

“Ain't none of us inclined to like witches,” said Lukas, as he moved to another table, it being the one next to where my club and possible bag lay. He then asked, “what is this thing here?”

“That would be a rifle, sir,” said Sarah. “That one kills at a good range for artillery, and I dropped a common pig at a range so far that I have trouble believing it.”

“I saw her do that thing,” said Hans in a voice so unlike him that it was as if he'd been 'transmogrified', “and that pig was dead when I got to it, and those two witches had gone rotten that he” – here Hans indicated me – “shot with the same r-rifle.” A pause, then, “there are worse things, though.”

Worse?” asked Hendrik. “That thing that left bird-whistles all over the grounds put me in the privy, and you speak of worse things?”

“Yes, and he was making that noise last night when he was waking up the town, and he left big piles of those brass things from one end of town to the other,” said Hans. “That was the first part that was noisy. Then he goes after the last of the witches with a club, and he comes back to the house messier than he did when doing the bridge – and then afterward, he brings out the big gun, and blows up a lot of witches, and each time he shoots it is further away than any gun I have seen.”

“Do I want to know about that?” asked Hendrik.

“It was the only way he could get to those witches, sir,” said Sarah, regarding the use of the club. “Gunfire would have scattered them to all of the directions of the compass, and these stinkers had hid themselves well enough while he was shooting up the town that it needed not merely him finding them, but also killing them silently.”

“I heard screaming then,” said Anna – who then looked down at her toe. “I and Georg had to fight off enough witches yesterday afternoon and evening that I wish I just had 'too much swine', and one of those stinkers tossed his knife when I shot him, and it...”

“It removed her toe, sir,” said Sarah. “Do not let these words escape from the room. Anna is now marked, and will become more so in the future.” A pause, then, “as will I, and also some others in this room before this mess is finally done here.”

“If you can recall what you saw last night and this morning before you came, and then bring yourself to put it down,” said Hendrik shakily, “then it needs adding to what we will send to the south.” A pause, then, “if you are able, you” – who was meant by 'you' was rather unclear to me beyond it might involve me doing some of what would be required – “might wish to show us all what else is on that table, and leave that tome...”

“Best put that stinky thing back in that satchel there,” said Lukas, “and put it away in your place back there, or some other place where it's safe.”

“I know just the place for it,” I said, as I hefted the tome and stuffed it in the satchel. I could tell it didn't like me touching it – I could feel it fighting me 'tooth and nail' every inch of the way until I had it 'covered' in that heavy-tooled and ornate-looking satchel, once more among its bags of witch-money. “It's decent for size and it's got a marked doorknob, one without either a button or a place for a key...”

Hendrik looked at me in stunned shock, then gasped, “you opened that place up?”

“He did, and it would work well for that tome and anything else that does not need to be seen by people who are vulnerable to curses or those who wish to advance the Curse,” said Sarah. “We can take it there while about our business before we leave this morning, and give Andreas that bad money that is inside that satchel.”

After I ask that nasty stuff to become bars of 'bullion' once we are standing near his door,” I murmured. “It would cause him trouble the way it is right now, same as that old witch-money that showed outside.” A pause, then, “what would you like to see that you've not already seen or heard spoken of?”

“I can do some of that work,” said Hans, “as I have used some of this stuff, and have seen it, and the same for Anna and Sarah, as you have enough work ahead of you for all of us in this room, and you do not need more of it than you have.” A pause, then as he picked up a surprisingly large string-tied coil of thin grayish woven 'rope', “this here is some rope that explodes. It has a strange name...”

Det-cord is what he called it,” said Sarah. “I am not sure of that name, but I am sure of its headache, and Hans has spoken of that.”

“Yes, that is why I call it headache-rope,” said Hans. “It looks like decent rope, and it holds knots decent, but if you are around it much, it gives headaches like mining dynamite.” A pause, then, “then, there is this stuff that looks like moldy Kuchen dough, only it gives headaches too, and that is for the gray stuff. There is a type that is like solid white-thread, and it has almost no smell to it.”

“Does it give headaches?” asked Tam.

“I think so,” said Hans. “It needs caps, same as mining dynamite, though whether it wants stiff caps or regular ones, or these strange ones with wires is something I need to read about more.”

“They all work, but those electric ones are good for trapping,” I said. “Then, there are mines.”

“Which kind?” asked Sarah. “Those that look like strangely-colored clocks, or those which resemble green-painted bricks? We brought at least one of each with us.”

“What are they used for?” asked Tam. “That door out the back o' this place wants trapping if we got witches using it.”

“Best use a brick, as those are easier to hide among the greenery back there,” I said. “We'll need to keep people clear of it, though, and...” I paused, then said, this with the merest trace of a grin, “the news will get out quick enough, brick or no brick.” A pause. “They don't have any money left to dig up on the property, so they'll come in here and the grooms will most likely pot them, as that one man isn't the only one of those people who has a roer with him.”

“They've got at least three o' those things in the horse-barn, and seems this one man's trick has gotten out about putting a handful of bad musket balls in those things,” said Lukas. “Lots o' bad musket balls that are too loose to shoot good in bags around here if you know where to look for 'em, and I seed at least two stiff leather bags o' those things in the last week here.”

“They'll wish recasting,” said Sarah. “Musket-lead is not the best if one wishes loopers. Printer's lead is better, and not a little better, but what he casts his bullets of is the best I have seen for loopers or shot.” Sarah had indicated my current practice of 'specially-alloying' my silvery-colored 'bullets' for my first rifle. Those no longer looked like commonplace lead, due to the quantities of tin and hardening metals I commonly added when casting them. The added accuracy inherent in using such 'hard' lead helped on the rare occasions I needed to fire long shots. Sarah's speech, however, made for a comment – which was interrupted with a shocking abruptness.

“Then our witches, what few of them who bother to show, will eat...”

Faintly, the roar of a 'cannon' seemed to shake the room. I let that punctuate my sentence.

“Ah, so they have some hot lead in them now,” said Hans with a trace of what could only be called glee. “I am not that person who spoke of using loopers in such guns, as I had only heard of those things yesterday and I sold my roer years ago, as it put me on the ground more often than the game.”

“Some people can fire such guns regularly,” said Sarah. “Once was enough for me.” Here, Sarah showed Hendrik her rifle, and after checking it carefully – she removed the magazine and cleared the weapon before doing so – she handed it to him. He grunted softly at its heft.

“It weighs as much as what Dennis shoots,” said Hendrik. “Does it cause bruises?”

“It does if you shoot it much, sir,” said Sarah. “I put an entire box of its ammunition – here, she indicated the magazine she had removed – into some witches this morning, and then much of another one, and I felt as sore afterward as if I had shot that roer all over again.” A pause, then, “I did not drop but one witch earning that bruise and its soreness, however.”

“How many did you get?” asked Tam.

“I might have missed two out of a great many,” said Sarah, “as there were a lot of those stinkers, and most of them were burning like a bad nightmare fit for doing the Hall again.”

“That place gives me nightmares still,” said Lukas. “It went up worse than a big powder-mill.”

Hendrik only then saw what Anna was 'fondling, and asked, “and what you have there?”

“This is a machine-pistol, and it works well on quolls,” said Anna. “It also works well on close thugs, if what Maarten spoke of last night is true and those bullet-marks I saw earlier didn't lie.” A pause, then, “I shot several earlier today with it, though none of them were especially far.”

“The frightening setting is what Maarten used,” I muttered. I did not speak of just how fast that witch I saw Anna shoot had dropped; only a roer loaded with a handful of hard-cast stiff shot atop a handful of 'musket' grade powder made by the same powder mill I had my powder from would have put him on the ground quicker at that range.

“You do that whenever you shoot one of those things,” said Hans, meaning me and my tendencies toward achieving 'full-auto fire' whenever I shot a cartridge-firing weapon. “I spent half a turn of the glass in the privy when you started using that broom this morning, and I did the same last night once we had gotten home.”

“What broom is this?” asked Hendrik.

“This one here, sir,” said Sarah, pointing to the device in question. “It may look like a broom – a very good broom indeed, better than any such broom I have seen, and that regardless of when and where I saw it – and it sweeps like a broom, again better than any I have used or seen used, but then there is its other use, and you saw him use it that way earlier this morning.” A pause, then, “that was not yesterday, though.”

“What did he do then?” asked Hendrik.

“It was at the Abbey, sir,” said Sarah. “There was a great deal of accursed witch-stuff called wolfram that those across the sea desire more than witches want polished witch-coins, only it was poisonous to handle, and he went after it and left hills of bird-whistles everywhere getting to that stuff.” A pause, then, “I had to help drag him back from a large pile of them when he was shooting that thing, as he seemed to like shooting it.”

Like?” I gasped. I did not like being sore, nor feeling as if about to burn up, but that too-common wolfram was trouble spelled 'large and darkly' – and hence it had needed my doing as I had done.

What I had realized since doing so was that accursed stuff I hadn't yet 'killed' was about to come for us in a huge mass, this with the goal of killing us all – and hence my 'last stand' was a requisite.

“You would not stop until that nasty wolfram was all dead,” said Sarah. “You were up to your waist in smoking-hot bird-whistles then, and you were about to be set alight by them, but you paid that no mind – and that bruise I saw you rubbing afterward said you paid that no mind either, not while that stuff was there and it needed killing.”

“I wrote that down,” said Maria. “If those to the south do not listen to that when it is read to them, then woe to those fools who hear it, as they will be judged on the spot by God and sent to the belly of Brimstone as his proper food.”

“What would it do to witches, as if I had to ask?” asked Hendrik. “You got onto one out back, didn't you?”

“He d-did,” said Anna with a shudder. “It turned that stinker into pie-filling quicker than I can blink my eyes, and the same for the other ones which showed afterward.” A pause, then as a question, “what would what I have here do to witches if they were a good distance off?”

Anna knew what they did if the witch was within a reasonable range: she'd put two bullets in one, and he'd caught fire like a human torch as he crumpled screaming onto the grass. The others, I had not seen her shoot, but she spoke as if they had not ignored being shot.

“Drop them right away unless you're further than the range of a good musket firing powder from that one keg,” said the soft voice. “Note when I said, 'good musket', I did not mean 'a good commonplace musket, but one of the two you have, and then firing those bullets that resemble hard-cheeses, not balls.”

“Ah, that is better than a hundred paces easy,” said Hans.

“That is if you hit them 'solid', much like Anna did with that one witch she shot twice this morning – who was wearing tin under his clothing,” said the soft voice. “If you center their chest, then figure half again as far unless they're wearing tin, and further yet if you drill their heads.”

“That sounds like it might work on deer,” said Anna.

“You want something a good bit stronger for deer that have enough meat to be worth the bother,” said the soft voice, “and you do not wish to turn game animals into 'ready-diced pie-filling' with 'brooms' or those things that act like them.” A pause, then, “and you especially do not wish to use that one weapon that 'sounds like a powder-mill exploding'.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans.

“Since when do you use three inch guns firing tipped shells on deer?” said the soft voice. “You do not wish to ruin most of the meat, do you?”

“What I have tends to ruin some if I'm close,” I said, “even if it does put down elk right away.”

“There are things which act like brooms, but are not brooms,” muttered Hendrik. “You did bring one, didn't you?”

“We did, sir,” said Sarah, who walked over and pointed out the machine gun, complete with its bipod legs extended and a bag of ammunition hung off of its side. The rounds going into the feed tray spoke of it being 'loaded'. “These things need careful work and regular cleaning so as to keep running, as well as the right pill so that they run as they should.”

“Pill?” asked Hendrik. “It needs medicine?”

“It takes a small brass piece with a hole in it that looks a bit like a smaller pill,” said Anna, “and the brass pieces used in those guns have varied sizes of holes.” A pause, then, “a 'Dennis-hole' would most likely not work for Karl, were he inclined to use one of those weapons, but if you put a 'Karl-hole' in such a weapon and give it to Dennis, then it acts just like that broom did – and then it rips witches apart and collapses houses as if it thought itself a three-inch gun stuffed by Willem his-own-self.”

“It is bad enough if that hole is sized fit for me,” said Karl. His voice shook badly. “I had this dream where I shot up this witch with one of those things, and it tore him clean in half before it turned the rest of him into chopped meat, and that before I could think.” A pause, then, “one must be careful with them, as too strong a touch causes that to happen, and one does not want to waste such things as those which they eat when there are lots of witches about.”

“So how many holes do you need to put in a witch, then?” asked Tam pointedly. “Them things sometimes need turnin' into pie-filling if they are hard enough.”

“N-no,” said Karl. “No witch is hard enough to stand up to one of these, not if you hit him solid.” A pause, then, “you want one hole in him so as to kill him dead, and another one to make sure he stays dead – and then you want to go after the next one, as they will be coming in these big black m-masses all at once, and you only have so many of those things that you can carry easy.”

“Uh, they usually drill through more than one witch, also,” I said. “If they're wearing looted spam-plate – even picked spam plate – the bullets tend to ignore it.”

“You get one o' them things what fires once at a time, then I want one,” said Lukas. “I can get witches easy then.”

“Those over there do that,” said Karl, pointing to the mottled gray-black rifles. “I got some witches last night with one, and if I could see that stinker, and I hit him almost anywhere at all, he went nowhere except down, no matter what kind of plate he was wearing – and at least two of them wore plate that I could tell.” Karl then muttered about strange names and how I had named him one in the Abbey while giving him his weapon.

“What name was this?” asked Maria. “Is it important?”

“It probably is, knowing him,” said Gilbertus. “Now what was this name?”

“He called me something with 'thug' in it,” said Karl, “though this was a word I never heard before.”

“Get used to hearing that name and words like it once you go overseas, as what he named you was a common wartime term,” said the soft voice. “You might even get that name put onto you.”

“Your thugness?” I gasped. “What will they call me?”

“Too many names to count, and that being for the 'commons',” said the soft voice. “The functionaries and those over them will be much less complementary in their naming, of course, but they will call you a great many names, and the same for the rest of 'that crew'.”

“That is for those,” said Hendrik, as he moved to another table, one where one of the dismantled rockets lay next to its launcher. “Now this thing here is strange. What is it?”

“A rocket, sir,” said Sarah. “It is not a Harvest-Day rocket, but something closer to one of those large ones they shoot off in the third kingdom, only unlike those, these can be aimed like a gun.”

“They load like one, too,” said Sepp. “You put them together, put them in that gun there, take off that little black cap there, squeeze your trigger once to wake the rocket up...”

“You want to point it straight up then, in case the rocket decides it doesn't like you and leaves before you tell it to,” I said as I pointed to the various parts of the launcher. “Then, you aim it at whatever you want to blow up, wait until this, uh, screen puts the marks on your target, and squeeze that lever there again.” A pause, then, “and that thing was weird to shoot last night.”

“What did it do?” asked Maria.

“Go like a streak of lighting, only faster,” said Sepp. “I saw it go when he shot it, and all I could see is this stuff shoot out the back like coarse dirt, and then this red dot flying off so fast I think it could of caught up with lightning, only I hear this crack like one of these rifles about the time it takes me to count to two – and about the time I can say 'three', the whole countryside goes up like a powder-mill the size of the kingdom house.”

“That..?” Hendrik was shaking now. Before, he'd just been practicing how to show 'raw terror'.

“He'd hit a coach with dynamite in it,” said Sarah, “and it was one of many, and they all went up at the same time.” A pause, then, “those things will toss you good if you're behind them, as they spray grit out of their backsides.”

“They act like a fifth kingdom dust-storm?” asked Lukas. I could tell he was interested in trying out a rocket-launcher.

“No, but they make you wish you were in one of those instead,” said Sarah wryly. “One wishes to be well to the side and right behind the person shooting, as then one can see the rocket as it travels especially well – and those are no rocket I have ever seen before for moving, as they leave those guns as fast as if Willem was stuffing them with his powder, and they travel as far, and then, they go after whatever you are shooting at as if it is tied to your target by a strong rope.”

Hendrik walked back to his desk, shaking his head all the while, until he found the pistol Sarah had laid there. As if to remind him of other possibilities, I collected up my possible bag and put that on his desk, dumping the whole on the first clear-looking spot I could find. I then drew out the other two sizes of pistols – the smaller one with a suppressor, which I then attached – a 'metal pear', a 'firebomb', and then finally that one charge of foul-smelling rag-wrapped plastic explosive. Sarah then showed at my side, this with a sizable cloth bag, and she began to poke nails into the explosive charge, this initially with some trepidation. Hendrik instantly lost all interest in the ordnance and picked up one of the nails.

“This is no nail I have seen, nor a screw, nor a rivet,” he said, as Sarah continued to poke nails into the charge. She was now poking them in rapidly, with the goal of putting in as many nails as she could. I suspected she wished to nail that one cloth-shop thoroughly. “Where did you find them?”

“There are many such things at the Abbey, though you will wish to dress warmly after being done up fit for fumigation before treading those stairs,” said Sarah. “It has no ventilation as we speak, and he really smoked that place up killing that nasty wolfram.”

“Is there more of that material?” asked Hendrik. Hendrik meant the wolfram.

“Yes, a great deal,” said Sarah. “The building alone has enough to fill ten stone-wagons to the breaking point, and the grounds more yet, and five times that weight for lead, copper, and brass each.”

“It is like a mine of sorts, then,” said Hendrik. “All of its metal cursed, and...”

“They have things that can clean up that material,” said Sarah, “and we were told they would bring them in numbers, as they have need of everything you spoke of.” A pause, then, “that is for metal. They also desire paper.”

“We barely have sufficient rags to cover our own needs as it is,” said Hendrik. “I've been putting together the words for a subscription regarding old clothing, as we will need a hundred years of paper in the next six months, and now they will wish it...”

“They have ways of making paper that we do not,” said Sarah. “It seems they can use drop-wood readily and make good paper out of it, and I suspect people would willingly take cooking fuel up here in the place of drop-wood for their stoves had they knowledge of that stuff.” A pause, then, “I know I would.”

“Especially during summer,” I said. “There's no need to turn one's house into a drying-oven by fueling a stove that's warm enough to keep the place passable during a deep-snow winter when all you want is to boil some water or cook some soup – and we found a number of small brass things that would work well for that business.” A pause, then to myself, “do they have..?”

“What you found at the Abbey and what they currently have for such 'stoves' are two very different things,” said the soft voice. “Their current 'stoves' are not only very common, but harder to put out of commission, hold a good deal more fuel, have better heat control, and are able to handle larger pots without tipping over, and that no matter how uneven the surface you should set them on.” A pause, then, “they'll be very popular both overseas and here once people in both places learn of them, at least until some of the people over there get chances to see stoves as used here.”

“What would they want those for?” asked Hendrik. “They need a lot of repairs, constant fueling if you use them much, getting new ones worth the bother is both very difficult and costly, only two foundries make the parts to them any more, Machalaat brothers is still under the thumb of the witches...”

“Yes, that is so right now,” said Hans. “You did not speak of Frankij, either, and they are just getting started with that thing, so they could make stove-pieces easy in a month or two.”

“Half the homes in the first kingdom need their stoves replaced entirely by Festival Week this year, and the other half will be due for scrapping within a few years more,” spat Hendrik. “That place, even when expanded to its limits as shown on what plans I have seen so far, will not make hundreds of stoves a day.”

“It might not, but I suspect the Abbey will able to do in a short time,” said Sarah. “It has a foundry right now, though for some reason, I know that place to be but the faint smell of that mule – and it's nearly as big as some foundries in the fourth kingdom's market now.”

“As in what will be done there?” asked Hendrik. “The plans I have show nothing regarding a foundry, and less than I like about how it is to go together, and that even for me.

I asked to see the 'blueprints, and as Hendrik went back into his 'rooms' for them, Maria called out after him, “fetch out that clothing of Gabriel's that you received the month before last. They need to look at all of that stuff closely, and that inside and out with a magnifier.”

“Do you suspect something?” I asked, as I began digging in my possible bag and then my pack. I hoped I had brought that one Heinrich magnifier, and in doing so, I knew it needed to come on the trip, just like the compass and if possible, a decent telescope. I then recalled Lukas had spoken of one, and how it was useless – unless one wished a headache from eyestrain.

“I do, and that very much,” she said. “I've only been in the second kingdom house a handful of times, but once while I was there. during my third term at the west school. I smelled this one particularly smelly section near the southeast corner of that town – and when that box showed up, all shiny and dark brown with polished brass fittings, I could smell that place once more, just like when I was walking its streets three hours before dawn – and that without undoing the catches or opening the box.”

“The clothing shops there?” asked Sarah. “There are a great many, most of which have more than one door.”

“If you speak of the common-seeming ones, no,” said Maria. “This place I spoke of was fully as black as the Swartsburg was when it tried to return, and every person I saw near that shop was dressed like a General, save when that person arrived in a carriage.”

That late at night?” I asked.

“That district is nearly as bad as those places owned by the Makooij clan in the fifth kingdom house, and it never entirely sleeps,” she said. “Even at that hour, I had to hide myself in shadow as much as I could, wear a dark cloak, gloves, and soft-soled boots, and I still dodged gunfire frequently.” A pause, then, “I had to have some lead extracted when I got back to the fourth kingdom, and that after shedding enough lead while bathing to fill my fowling piece ten times for both barrels.”

Maria then turned, and I looked up from searching in my pack – I had packed the magnifier, only it was near the bottom of the pack wrapped thickly in a bundle of string-tied rags, and every time I grabbed for it I got rags instead – to see Hendrik bringing out a sizable roll of large sheets of paper. The smell I then noted seemed the very essence of ink – much as if Sarah had just brewed up several batches in the basement and was mingling them over a turned-down heating lamp.

“Th-those?” I asked.

“Are both old and missing a great deal of information,” said Hendrik. “I am glad some people know about large buildings and their construction, and I am not speaking merely of those coming up from the fourth kingdom.”

“Some of those people already showed,” said Lukas. “They got in late last night, after that big train o' wagons and buggies left for Roos.”

“Odd, I knew more were coming, but I thought they'd show sometime today,” I said, as I finally got my hands upon the box of the magnifier itself. I then brought it out, and in doing so, I needed to remove my pack.

My left hand brushed the still-rolled-up plans.

The roll 'burst its bonds' as it shot up into the air, and as it flapped maniacally like a fool-hen the size of a condor, I ducked and tried to crawl under Hendrik's desk. I didn't quite manage it, as someone else had gotten there first.

“I was afraid that would happen,” said Sarah softly. “It still scares the dung out of me when I see a document sprout paper and try to take wing.”

“Now who is under that desk?” asked Maria. I could tell she was all-but laughing, but when she knelt down, I saw that she was holding the plans. They were now much larger; more, they were no longer rolled up; finally, they were leather-bound, stamped 'most-secret' in brilliant red lettering – as in 'do not take the original plans out of this room unless the witches are about to blow the place up with a huge cannon'.

“Those are not what he had,” said Sarah, as I backed out shakily. “They've gotten much bigger.”

“Have you seen that happen before?” asked Maria. “Hendrik went to get that smelly wooden box, and now I recall what else it reminds me of.”

“What?” asked Sarah, as she came out. “My, those did grow, just like a lot of things in that one room that wants one to enter while dressed for fumigation and falling ice-carrots.”

“It reminds me of one of those boxed sets,” said Maria. “It may be larger, but if I did not know better, I'd stack money on it being made by the same makers.”

“The same people who print those sets of commentaries, you mean,” I said. “They print a lot of witch-documents, they make that witch-paper we saw earlier, and they're either located near Boermaas or are located in Boermaas.”

“Both of those things, and several other sites in the area, and all of them both underground and connected by the secret way,” said the soft voice. “While much of the fourth kingdom has few such roads, that one region is an area where the witches have been laboring intermittently since before that war long ago, and it was one of the Mistress of the North's main staging areas originally.” A pause, then, “since that time, however, it has become much more than merely a munitions manufacturing, refurbishment, and storage depot.”

“The 'big' area for the fourth kingdom's witches,” I murmured. “They do a lot of their stuff there, at least those who know about it and are high-ranking enough to get an invitation.”

“You mean 'any witch who lives in the fourth kingdom who's serious enough to have a bag of bones,'” said the soft voice, “which means 'nearly everyone down that way who's a witch'.”

“Did those creatures cause, uh, trouble?” I asked.

“They showed up in the big room in one of the main complexes,” said the soft voice, “and since they tend to travel, that area is going to be hazardous to witches for quite some time.”

“There will still be many plain-dressed witches in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “I suspect...” A pause, then, “that one witch-war?”

“Is still growing stronger as we speak, and now the king down there knows he's got a serious degree of witch-trouble,” said the soft voice. “He may have suspected it beforehand, but now he knows – and could he recall 'Willem the larger' from 'a larger-yet enterprise', he would do so.”

“Have I met that man?” asked Hendrik, as he brought out an ornately carved 'coffin'. Maria turned, then held her nose.

“That thing smells like it is filled with meat that has gone High,” said Anna. “What is it, a corpse-box fit for the child of an arch-witch?”

“Best let him” – meaning me – “open it,” said Hendrik. “I recall it smelling somewhat when it arrived, but it never stank this bad before.”

“Did Gabriel ever stink like he did last night before he was buried in dung?” I asked mildly.

Hendrik shook his head.

“Then perhaps the two events are connected together,” I said. “I asked that this stuff be changed into showing purple and green stripes, each of them an inch wide, so he'd look so ridiculous that no one would take him seriously.” Pause, then, “it seems that color combination has a most-special meaning to witches.”

“It did long ago, and I suspect it still does,” said Hendrik. “Green might be easy enough to get up this way, but purple demands dealing with one firm in the fourth kingdom.”

“Matthyssoon's,” said Hans. “I have some of their stuff, but I handle it with tongs now, and that only.”

“Hence this odor,” I muttered. “Matthyssoon's sells that stuff, but I doubt they actually make it, and there's something weird about how they get their hands on it – something that relates to where we are going.”

“As in they make it?” asked Anna.

“The commons, no,” I said. “Not that particular dye.” A pause, then, “they might well be able to make that shade of purple, and lots of other colors, but that dye is both the product of an old formula and was not developed there.” Another pause, then, “I would lay money it was developed in this area before the war.”

I then walked over to the box, undid the latches, then waved my hand over the lid. The odor of 'dead meat' inside the office suddenly increased many-fold, and as I watched, the clothing inside – this carefully folded and tied with string – began to drape itself over the wide-open 'coffin-lid'.

“Thing's even shaped like a stereotypical coffin,” I muttered. “Now let's see... Want those chemically-resistant gloves for this stuff, that and a small sharp knife, either that or a way to turn it inside out to look for those, uh, special marks that those stinky witch-tailors...”

I then pointed at the crotch of the trousers with my right index finger, and spat, “show yourselves plainly, and no hiding!”

At first, nothing happened, but then the cloth jerked as if alive, and faintly some 'tags', these of blood-red leather with black markings, began to 'ease themselves out' of the places where they'd been oh-so-cleverly hidden. These clothes were indeed a piece of work, something so special that I knew that the money Hendrik had sent south for them wasn't nearly enough to pay for this level of tailoring.

“No, not even a tenth of their cost,” I said. “Those Generals knew about this business from the very beginning, 'cause those clerks copied down the letter sent south to the fourth kingdom for his clothing and sent the copy to those Generals – who then wrote up what actually went out and burned the original document while chanting curses at it.” A pause, then, “they also took up a sizable witch-subscription – it's all listed in substantial detail in some of the more-recent letters found in that tome – and they got together enough gold monster coins to fill this box to the brim so as to secure 'carriage-clothing' cursed by the strongest Power of the thirteen then-living leaders and his chamber of counselors.”

“They used the same 'carriage-grade clothiers', also,” said the soft voice. “Save for those colors, what you see there is the very highest grade of witch-clothing currently available in the five kingdoms, and unlike that stuff you've seen before, this has special starch – a type of starch only available to Powers and their immediate underlings.”

“Special starch?” I asked.

“Specially cursed, also,” said the soft voice. “Put on those gloves and feel that stuff, and then you'll know more about 'two-thousand-guilders-a-tin starch'.” A pause, then, “It's quite important that you know about it, as you'll see that stuff again, and that soon.”

A hushed gasp seemed to fall upon the room, and as I found the gloves I had used for handling that gray explosive, Sarah was letting the others in the room look at what had showed. I could hear frantic scribbling, much as if Sarah was drawing rapidly, then Maria said, “you do have me there. I cannot draw nearly as well, and especially if one is drawing clothing.”

“I have made enough of it,” said Sarah. “Now notice those tags there, Lukas. That is a witch-mark, one that dates from sometime between the time of the Curse and the reign of Cardosso, and while it is not the mark of a prewar witch, it is far stronger than anything most witches use today.”

“Especially given that that particular Power was Jodocus' 'Father',” said the soft voice. “He made a number of special trips, he and the entirety of his innermost coterie, so as to make certain this particular secret weapon went into 'that one especial kingdom house which we must and will own entire'.”

“Write that down, dear,” I asked Maria. “That was something I did not know until just now.” I then spluttered, “secret weapon?”

“How many kings have been turned into witches by the use of special 'witch-clothing',” said the soft voice. “That 'tome' you found lists more than twenty during its four centuries of 'progress', with the last example being that man you named 'Blackbeard' down in the fifth kingdom.” A pause, then, “that's for kings. For people like Gabriel – that number well-exceeds a hundred, and that's for people who've not gone to Boermaas and Maagensonst.”

“He went to the latter school,” said Hendrik, “so why..?”

“So they could combine both first and second kingdoms into a single witch-country like it was before the war, and then turn that whole rotten place into what I was shown earlier,” I muttered. “It looked somewhat like where I grew up, but I could tell right away it was not that place.”

“It was fairly close to this area prior to the war, however,” said the soft voice. “The only difference was a matter of time, as getting Geeststaat into the state it was then took well over a hundred years once it became truly 'popular' to be a made-in-the-deep-hole true-witch.”

“And what I saw?” I asked. “How long would that take, presuming they started from where we are now?”

Months,” said the soft voice. “Had they actually been able to accomplish what they set out to do with this clothing – Gabriel has never worn it, by the way, and now he never will – then the first, second, and the northern half of the third kingdom would change so rapidly that within a very few months, three at the most, the entire northern half of the continent would become much like a nastier version of the Swartsburg's second coming – and it would get worse-yet in a great hurry.”

“And now for the gloves,” I said, as I slipped them on. Hesitantly, I touched the trousers, much as if I were playing with an imported poisonous snake – one that made those I had seen in the past seem calm, peaceful, and more-dead-than-alive – and noted an eerie-feeling 'sheen'. I tried folding them, and noted a supple texture, not the stiff-as-sheet-metal common to 'special' starch. I had words for this sensation, however.

“The Kingmaker curses,” I murmured. “Had he put these things on, he'd have become a very strong witch within seconds, made his bones within a day at the most, and then he would have planned and pulled off the worst treason-plot anywhere on the continent since the years of Cardosso's reign – and once he had this house to himself, he'd raise a witch-army within days, turn south at the head of a huge black-dressed mass of witches, and then take the second and third kingdoms – and that whole mess would play out inside of a month!”

“You left out what he'd be turning the first kingdom into as he went south at the head of that witch-army,” said the soft voice. “He would not have had Cardosso's curse-power initially, but in most other areas important to witches, he'd be strong enough the minute he finished putting that clothing on to be the equal of a strong prewar witch – one who could 'cut the cards' with Imhotep and The Mistress of the North and beat both of them readily, two against one – and his curse-power would grow exponentially with each passing day with no seeming limit until he actually supped with Brimstone.”

“Sounds more like a preflood witch to me,” said Maria. “I've but heard of that first witch, but I've read about the second one at some length.”

“Heard?” asked Sarah. “Since when did you learn that stinker's name? It's not spelled right on any tapestry I looked at!”

“Because to spell his name right while he lived in the flesh would have caused him to show in some fashion with the goal of killing the person who interrupted his doings,” said Maria, “and finding that piece of paper was the purest chance, if chance it could be called, I have ever seen or heard of.”

“Where?” asked Sarah. “The west school's library?”

“It was in one really old and dusty book that was kept in a back room, buried deep under rolls of tapestry cloth that looked fit for making paper,” said Maria, “and it sooted me up when I burned it after I looked at it.”

“That was witch-paper, Maria!” screeched Anna. “That was writ by a witch!”

“One of Cardosso's closest people, no less,” said the soft voice, “and I told her to set it alight once she'd learned what she needed to know – and then, I told her to not speak about it to anyone until she heard me say that witch's name just now.” A pause, then, “and that book went to dust by the time the soot-cloud chased her out of the room.”

“Set it alight?” I asked.

“I had barely struck the match when it went up on me!” screeched Maria. “I looked worse than Hans sometimes does, supposedly.”

“If you looked that bad, then it was a bad fetish, and no mistake,” said Sarah. “I've not only seen him covered with soot, but helped scrub the walls when he became sooted up.” A faint mumble: “at least it did not toss you...” Sarah suddenly interrupted herself with a faint breathy gasp.

“Yes?” I asked. “Lined trousers, three layers to deal with the chill witches usually feel, and this inside portion is, uh, at least part-quill cloth.” A pause, then, “it also is covered with rune-curses, though compared to some of those things, these aren't that strong.”

“Strong enough, though,” said the soft voice. “More, that's the first layer of curses. Those garments have three such layers of curses, each one stronger than the one before it, and that third layer of curses is copied straight out of a blood-writ black book.”

“Oh, no,” I squeaked. “One of those smelly things?”

“It's gone now,” said the soft voice. “Recall how many places have gone up in smoke in the second kingdom recently? It went up when one of them was destroyed.”

“What is a blood-writ black book?” asked Hendrik.

“Something you never want to see,” said Sarah with a shudder. “There was one in that deep-hole, and he told it where to go once he'd looked at it briefly – and I saw that thing crushed as if the foot of God had trampled it into dust, just like the rest of that place was crushed as he passed through the Fool's Gate.”

What?” squeaked Hendrik.

“I was told what it was called then,” said Sarah, “and later Katje told me more about what true-witches once did when they went down there.”

“Have concourse with Brimstone, and there meet face-to-face with that smelly lizard,” I said. “That place is gone.”

“Gone?” asked Hendrik.

“It is that,” said Sarah. “That one was the last one on the planet, and now it is no more, which means the witches have their doom upon them.” Sarah then looked at what I was pointing at, and whispered, “no, I do recognize who did these clothes now, and no place comes close to their prices – and they do have lots of carriages showing around that place.”

Never closes, doesn't it?” I asked, as I waved my hand over the rune-curses and the first layer 'vanished' to show the second layer. The former layer had barely glowed 'red'. This layer was positively hazed with that color, that being the too-familiar red faintly tinged with purple; more, the stripes and blobs of 'hellfire' moved as if truly 'burning'.

“The Cardosso level,” I said, looking steadily at the 'flames' as they burned. I could hear a most-familiar thumping rhythm, one that I had heard on two planets – only this one was that once played here by that long dead group of six. “These curses need a witch of Cardosso's level of curse-power to endure that which 'carries' them.” A pause, then, “the third level, though just long enough for me to see what is there.”

The change that then occurred upon the trousers was of such magnitude that the room seemed filled with sooty black smoke; and here...

These curses were writ in blazing neon colors, colors bright, strident, and 'loud', with all of the colors of the rainbow represented and flashing like lightning in their brilliant strobing shapes. I now knew why I commonly saw such bright colors about certain rune-curses: these were true prewar curses for the most part, with a healthy admixture of curses older yet; and that witch that could endure these curses could indeed...

“He'd have that fifth, last, and greatest title,” I muttered, as the third layer vanished, along with the second, leaving only the first layer – which now glowed a faint and 'muted' purplish red color. “Only those great-witches of before the drowning would have been stronger.” It made for a question, however.

“Was his, uh, 'destiny' really mapped out for him when he was a small child? As in this was what he was to do, and nothing less, and nothing more?”

“Yes, as he comes from a long line of witches, one that originally started in this area over a hundred years prior to that war,” said the soft voice. “He's the first person of that lineage to actually fight that tendency in nearly eight hundred years.”

“And most of them...” I then had an idea that was so outlandish that I almost caught my words in time. “He's actually related to Cardosso!”

“True, he is,” said the soft voice. “More, the reason he did not stay at the west school was that the fourth kingdom's well-hid witches deliberately made it harder for him than they did for Sarah's cousin to remain at Boermaas, but unlike her case, they were not caught out in the slightest.”

“You mean they, uh...”

“Everything he's spoken of regarding the west school is but the smell of that mule,” said the soft voice. “The whole time he was there, he was being harassed night-and-day by witches until he went where his extended family had chosen for him to go – and from that point, they chose everything he did while he was there, down to his companions, his food, his drink, and his coursework – in addition to all else that he did while he went there, down to the privy 'rags' he used and which privies at that school he was permitted to use.”

“Paid double the going rates, probably,” I said.

“They paid thrice what they would have paid had he gone to Boermaas, you mean,” said the soft voice. “They kept him almost entirely in the dark about the matter, and he still knows almost nothing beyond what he's said about his time at that school. The witches running that place did a good job of hiding what they did – from him especially, and from many other students as well until they chose the appropriate path laid out for them by their families.”

“What has he not said about the matter, then?” asked Tam. His voice was hard as iron.

“His actual choice in the matter,” said the soft voice. “He has not yet made it, by the way – and he has as much choice in the matter, especially now, as a monster does.”

“Life, or death,” I said flatly. “Now, back to this other matter. We saw the three layers of rune-curses who would have turned him into the nastiest witch this side of the Mistress of the North her-own-self, but these other marks... What do they mean? Do they indicate who made what pieces of this stuff, and where the stuff came from, and, uh, how it was sewn, and with what equipment?”

“All of those, and much more,” said the soft voice. “While Sarah may be a far better tailor than those people were, she has never had access to either their supplies or their equipment – as those people actually have sewing machines.”

“Stinky prewar nightmares that need constant chanting and a steady stream of flogged-till-they-bleed slaves to turn their huge cranks,” I muttered. “Continual repairs, a lot of maintenance, and some supplies that are very hard to acquire unless you've got the right connections and bags of money.”

“Copies of copies of prewar nightmares, anyway,” said the soft voice. “They don't need chanting rune-curses to work, even if those using such machines strongly believe that to be so.” A pause, then, “the other portions, however, are indeed as you said, as they are entirely fetish-built.”

Why do they use such machines?” asked Sarah.

“Faster, neater, and...” I paused in mid-sentence.

“All of those things, and that layered cloth demands their use,” said the soft voice. “It cannot be hand-sewn.”

I took the magnifier out of its case, this while still wearing the gloves, and I began to examine the trousers, especially near their seams. Within less than a minute, however, I had found a most-peculiar marking, this in red and green thread of a strange silk-like fineness. I had never seen such thread here before, even if Mrs. Ulyanov had preferred such thread for hand-mending.

“This is really strange,” I said, speaking of the marking. “Here is what looks like... Sarah, anyone – were there strange units used regarding the witch-money mentioned in old tales and on tapestries?”

“There were, but I cannot say their names,” said Sarah, “as it wasn't just that one stinker of a witch who had his name spelled differently every time I saw it. The several names of witch-money were spelled likewise, and...” Here, Sarah looked in the magnifier's 'viewer', all the while being careful to not touch the clothing or the box, and gasped.

“What we were told about how much this stuff costs is nothing less than the truth,” she said in a faint voice, “as I have seen those numbers before, and they do not refer to common money, but to witch-money, and that only.” Sarah paused, then returned to where he satchel lay to fetch what looked like an old knitting needle, this wooden thing nearly two feet long with a hook on the end. I'd seen smaller versions of these things before while fetching 'supplies' for Mrs. Ulyanov when I was between jobs.

“Crocheting with rope?” I asked.

“I found this thing a long time ago in the fourth kingdom's scrap-market, and I know what it is,” said Sarah. “It's one of those things used by the Veldters to make their rugs, and I've shown it to enough people who've escaped from the Valley to learn how they actually use them.” A pause, then, “if it goes up in smoke when I move these stinky things around, I won't be too concerned, as I have no desire to make that type of rug, and I'd rather use a metal tool for such work anyway.” The implied aspect was, 'I'd rather have you make one for me, as it would be as good as could be had'.

“Three, three, and four?” I asked.

“If one equates that to our money,” said Sarah, “then it might well be a number larger than I have ever seen.” A pause, then, “if there is one such mark, then we need to find all of them in every bit of this stinking witch-clothing, and document them all, as this kind of evidence is something no one dare ignore.”

“That being above what we have heard,” said Maria. “How much...”

“That unit is not only impossible to write in our language – it can only be writ in runes,” I said, “but also, it is very unwise to speak, as it acts like a curse, whether it actually is one or not.”

“If it is writ in runes, then it is a curse,” said Tam – who then nearly spat something. What, I wasn't sure, even if I had an idea as to why he'd made such a noise.

“The witches of before the war used those for their writing?” I asked. “While they preferred using runes for curses, they also used them for 'encrypted' communications, as only those taught at length in witch-lore could actually read them and understand them – and that for both curses and 'secure' communications. Correct?”

“Keep that thought in mind,” said the soft voice. “About all that Tam's been able to find out about those figures is that the witches used – and use – them for curses.” A pause, then, “what you just told him increased his knowledge to no small degree.”

“And Rachel said it was very unwise to either write them or speak their, uh, names...” I then almost laughed. “Secure communications, eh? Does that mean witches are so dependent upon using those things that any species of cipher beyond the very simplest...”

“Again, keep that in mind,” said the soft voice. “Now, keep looking for those markings. There are a lot of them, and you'll need to go over all of those articles of clothing carefully so as to find them.”

“And thusly we will have evidence no one can dodge,” I murmured, as I resumed moving the magnifier along the cloth of the trousers. The crucial markings seemed to concentrate near the seams. “That does not mean they will not try to get around such evidence, and try hard, but when you can send a printed document large enough that it takes a ten-day week to go through it, each of those days listening an hour a day to a 'reader' droning like an old outboard motor...”

“The first words spoken will cause those people's deaths,” said the soft voice. “Their replacements will not only not drone, but speak plainly and not try to hide anything.”