I see that toe...”

I set my buckets down at the bottom of the stairs on the second floor, this some four or five feet out. I could really feel the need to hurry, so much so that I was about to start back up the stairs when Sarah came with her two. She set them down beside me, then said, “best that you stay and guard matters. The three of us can get those carts readily.”

Hans put his buckets down beside the others, then the two of them went up the stairs as rapidly as possible. Anna was ready at the top, and not two minutes later, the two carts were traveling west along the 'balcony', all the while staying between the wooden rail and the thick stone supporting columns. I looked at one in passing, and noted careful masonry and a near ground-smooth finish.

“How do they do these columns?” I asked. “Will the addition to the Abbey have them?”

“It will now,” said the soft voice. “Hendrik and those other men will have some questions when you return to pick up the weapons you will need for those women, and I'd expect to spend a short time, perhaps ten minutes, answering those before you leave.”

“If possible, Hans and I will answer them,” said Anna, who then turned toward Sarah and I. “You two will have your hands full shortly, and you dare not tarry long here.” Pause to think, then, “if this town is where I think it is, it may well be trouble.”

“As in there are a lot of, uh, likely prospects for witchdom there?” I asked.

“I think so!” spat Sarah. “If that town is not witch-controlled in some way, I'm a mule with full odor, and no mistake.”

“We will find some witches there, dear,” I said, as I came within sight of the melted coins. I could still see heat coming off of them in thick billowing waves, much as if they were still nearly molten. I then asked, “how long were we gone from this place?”

“Perhaps ten minutes,” said the soft voice. “It isn't just the day being stretched – you've been dosed with that one tincture, also, so your sense of time is seriously off.”

“It felt like an hour,” I muttered, as I came to the first of the coins. I waved my hand over it – and then dodged out of the way, as the coin lifted clear of the floor with a lurch and flew like a slow-flying quoll toward the nearest bucket, where it landed with a splash and gout of steam that continued with bubbling noises.

“Watch out for those things,” spat Sarah. “Get those buckets closer!”

“Leave the buckets on the carts, Hans,” said Anna. “If he waves again, they'll all take off, and we'll get splashed and steamed up!”

I moved 'out of the way', then as the carts were 'parked' and the others got well clear, I waved my right hand, this time much 'stronger' – as in my whole arm was in the motion, not just a slight flick of my hand – and I waved my arm rapidly.

The result was astonishing – every single coin shot off of the floor, flew like a wood-pigeon, and then splattered into the buckets with gouting steam and a chorus of splatting noises. The steam rapidly billowed up to the ceiling some four or five feet above my head, and the splashing water made me wonder: would we set fire to the buckets?

As the last of the coins 'splashed down', I made to look at the portion of floor they had just vacated. It would need scrubbing at some length, but there appeared to be no permanent damage; more, the buckets with their loads of hot coins were still steaming crazily, with 'evil-sounding' bubbling noises.

“I hope there is a pump in Andreas' rooms,” said Anna, who had seemed to acquire a sudden sense of urgency, if I went by her voice. “Now will he let me see some of what he has in there, or not?”

“He most likely will,” said Sarah. “You're right, we do need to hurry. Help me tow this thing!”

The two women took off at a run, and I grabbed the handle of the cart, leaving Hans running to catch up. He was catching the spewing steam of a heavy load of mingled gold and silver coins boiling the remaining water in my three buckets, and as I dodged around the columns, I noted that the turn was somewhere close by. I slowed, and thankfully I managed to dodge a column.

The cart slid crazily to the right, then straightened out in time to miss the column by perhaps half an inch, if I went by Hans' yelling. I then saw a straight line, and 'left him behind'.

I soon found that 'the straight shot' gave me an edge on the two women, for I soon found I had them behind me as well with Hans now catching the steam from all six buckets. He was likely to be thoroughly damp by the time I'd gotten the fast-boiling coins into Andreas' area, and as I came to the next turn, I noted an open area ahead. This time, I let the cart slide all it wished as I made the turn, and it nearly put me into the wall as I tried to keep it behind me.

“Serious oversteer here,” I thought. “Just like my last car was before I did all of that work to it.”

That work had included relocating the engine to 'mid-engine' status, along with constructing what amounted to a tube frame for the car once I'd gutted the body. While the individual pieces of the body went out to be first cleaned and then acid-dipped for those portions that would remain metallic, I had 'tossed' the floor-pan and built the tubular framework – then once I'd done the bodywork to the car, this involving a lot of cutting, gas-welding, dent-removal, and then hammering the various sections back into the desired new shape with periodic annealing – I was able to bolt the metal portions of the body onto the tubular frame and begin the process of reinstalling all of the remaining parts correctly.

The car was very tricky to drive after that, so much so that I had to wait until the next period of joblessness before I could redo the work I had done wrongly, this being predominantly relocating things like the fuel tank and other matters that influenced the car's handling, as well as proper ducting for the radiators and the engine itself. I was glad this last work was done in aluminum and fiberglass, even if the latter had smelled horribly and made me itch like a mangy hound.

Mrs. Ulyanov had shook her head when I was working with that stuff, then said, “they use worse in the old country.”

I had been thoroughly glad I was not using that 'worse' stuff after hearing her speech, and even more glad when I came up to Andreas' door with a steam-billowing cart. A careful listen while next to the door to make certain he wasn't 'engaged', then a quiet tapping with my fingernail.

As if he'd been expecting me to show and was waiting close by, the door opened within seconds, and he motioned me inside – from a darkness without unto a darkness greater yet – a darkness lit by a few flickering candles, a darkness so awesome that it seemed made to order for that realm described by the words 'Purple Haze'. He had several wooden buckets of water ready, which made me wonder for an instant until Anna came inside towing the other cart. Her lantern added to the available light to no small degree, and Andreas squinted until she shuttered the thing partly.

“Hendrik told you, didn't he?” she asked.

“He did, and half the buckets in the house are out on the back stoop,” said Andreas. “They keep needing to add water regularly to that long line of them, so when I felt those coins in those buckets go, I knew I'd best have plenty of water ready to drown them.”

He promptly did so to the accompaniment of further gouts of steam and bubbling noises, then said, “I have no idea how I'm going to run that much metal quickly” – here, he indicated the contents of our buckets – “as I might manage enough to do jewelry if I do enough work here.”

He then paused in his pouring of water into the steaming buckets, then looked pointedly at Anna's feet.

“One of the witches I shot yesterday cut my toe off after I shot him,” said Anna flatly, “and I and Hans ate grass in hell for a season during these two days past, so I hope the two of us are trustworthy.”

“There might be a handful that are more so, and they're with you,” said Andreas, meaning Sarah and I. “I've shown them more than anyone in the house or house proper, and now I can trust you two also.” A pause, then, “Hans, you're next.”

“Next for what?” asked Hans. “Do not tell me – I will be set alight by a jug and lose something like my grandfather did.”

“He what?” squawked Anna.

“Yes, he had something happen to him,” said Hans, “and that more than once. The first time he lost toes and had scars where he was burned tossing a jug at a pig, and he was a bit stiff from a later pig that he blew up with a trap.”

“I always wondered why he liked Geneva,” said Anna. “I have some idea why now, as it does work well for rubbing when you are sore.”

“He did that as well as drink it,” said Hans, “which is why he made that stuff, that and to sell it.” Pause, then, “something happened to him beyond just getting burned, too – he became a worse farmer, and a lot better at making and setting traps.”

“Uh, he also had what Paul has, only worse,” I said, “and Paul is sick enough that way to need a doctor's care.”

“You're worse yet that way,” said the soft voice. “Hans' grandfather was glad to not be as sick as 'that dark-haired man who will show' – which was why he was as careful as he was to try to teach Hans properly, as he knew Hans would be somehow involved in the matter.”

“Ah, then that tells me a lot,” said Hans. “He never told me about being told what to do that way.”

“Still, though,” said Andreas, as he doused the coins again. The room was becoming quite steamy, though I could tell Andreas had some kind of air-moving devices in the area, as well as multiple chimneys. I wondered if he had an electric-motor driven fan of some kind, and as if to answer me, I heard a faint whirring noise. He then continued: “I can smell the stink of hell remaining upon all of you.”

“All of us?” I asked.

“You smell the most of it, and I'm not surprised,” said Andreas. “Given what you needed to do? Of course you're going to smell of that place.” A pause, then, “you also, dear. You had a hand in his doing so, and those bone-masses were as scary as...”

Andreas paused, for Sarah had abruptly sat down, then began shuddering as if about to go into a convulsion of massive proportions. A heart-rending scream seemed to be building rapidly, and as I knelt to grab her hand, Anna dosed her with a full tube of that one vial.

“If anyone ever complains again of having 'too much swine', I can speak of seeing things that are worse now,” said Andreas. “That was the last such place on the planet, and it needed to be dealt with. Now the witches truly have their doom regardless of what happens, and unless we wish to become meals for that lizard also within a short span of years, we all must do our very best.”

Sarah shook her head, then as she slowly scrambled to her feet – she seemed a little giddy – she asked, “what happened to me?”

“I think it was happening all over again for you, wasn't it?”

Sarah shook, then screeched, “Iggy was bad, that Desmond was worse, but I have no words for that deep-hole!”

“I think you may wish to watch your fingers, Hans,” said Andreas, as he doused the coins what seemed a final time. “You may lose one before this whole thing ends – and that in addition to whatever else is planned out for you.” A pause, then, “in line, and follow me with those carts.”

Andreas went for the curtain, which he pulled aside. Only then did I notice fully the precise all-encompassing nature of the darkness of where we now were, and I was glad for our lights. He then turned into a side room, and here, I learned just why the place seemed so dark.

He'd put every good light he had in this room, and as I gazed about the room in shock, I gasped, “I never saw this place before.”

“This is where I do much of the real jewelry work,” said Andreas. “I had put the things I showed you last in another room, as this room is intended for work.” A pause, then, “now, when you next teem some of that special steel, I'd like some bars cut specially for some equipment I have in another room, one larger than this one.” A pause, then as he led past rows of benches, these lit by either brass or titanium lanterns turned down to a near-noiseless hissing, he came to an unusual metal-topped bench – this metal being a species of steel, its surface scrubbed at length into a near-polished state. For some reason, I knew it wasn't 'common' steel, but something far less inclined toward rusting.

“This is the gold-bench,” he said. “I make finger-rings here, and this one is for you.” He indicated Sarah. “It's a rather special ring, as some unusual things happened when I made it – things for which I have but one explanation.”

“Unusual?” asked Sarah. “How?”

“First, the metal,” said Andreas. “My tanks were acting weird, but they often do that – but this one tank was acting so strange that I was about to disconnect it from the copper bars connecting them until I was told to leave it be and use its metal for special things – so I did, and when I poured your ring, it came out as if it had been polished at length with first red, then green, and finally white rouge.”

“As cast?” gasped Sarah. “That normally takes days to polish something like that to the point of wanting white rouge, and few jewelers that I've seen bother to go past the red-rouge stage.”

“Here, look at it,” said Andreas. “I only had to polish off the areas where the sprues went, and I was told how to do those in a dream.”

“Polish them off, or..?” I asked.

“How many sprues, where to put them, the files to use and how to use them, how to set my lanterns for best light while not burning my eyes, and then how to polish the filed places so they matched the as-cast finish.” A pause, then, “and that is some strange gold.”

“Strange?” I asked.

“It has no copper added,” said Andreas, “which normally means it will not take a decent polish, and will wear rapidly if handled much.” A pause, then, “it acted like it had twenty percent of copper, which is the hardest type of gold I know of that still casts well.”

“That is the cheap stuff,” said Hans.

“Cheap to buy the materials for, but neither cheap for making nor polishing,” said Andreas. “I've never had pure gold act as if it's that hard, nor need that many sprues, nor come out mirror-bright out of the investment.” A pause, then, “your finger, dear.”

Sarah held up the index finger of her right hand, and delicately, Andreas fit the ring. It slid on readily to the point just past the joint nearest the palm, where it seemed to stop and hover there. I could clearly see a faint bluish haze about it, for some reason.

“That's...” Anna was dumbstruck.

“You as much as I,” said Andreas. “I expected to need to size that one, but I was told exactly how large to make it.” A pause, then, “now, Sarah, remove it for a moment. I need to show you all something on the inside of that thing – and how it got there is an utter mystery to me. I know I did not put anything beyond my first initial, but there's a lot more than that there.”

“Hopefully it's not a ruling ring,” I murmured, as I recalled a certain ring and a strange-looking hairy-footed bearer of the same.

“No, it is not one of those,” said Andreas, “though that is a tale worthy of the Grim Collection, and if you can recall enough of it, you may wish to write down those portions once you have the time and the needed equipment.”

“He's not likely to have that for a while,” said Anna. She most likely meant 'time'.

“He won't need to,” said the soft voice. “They have the whole of that tale overseas – in both written and visual forms, no less – and it's kept the people over there motivated for a very long time.”

“Good,” said Andreas. “I hope to read, er, see it some day.” A pause, then, “I think you have the magnifier. If you do, bring it out, as it will show what is on that ring better than anything I have.”

I did have the magnifier, though I needed to first put my possible bag on the nearest clear bench and then doff my pack. As I returned with it, Sarah was marveling at the ring.

“It has writing inside it, though it is very small and faint,” she said. “It is perhaps the height of a line, if that.” A pause, then, “he has a special small magnifier, but this bigger one is better.”

“That small magnifier is for doing things like that sextant,” said Andreas. “This one is for things that need more magnification and a larger picture.” A pause, then as Andreas gently moved the ring under the magnifier, he motioned to me so as to adjust it.

“You have the best touch,” he said, “and you might be able to read what is present.”

I found clear and sharp 'focus' in what seemed seconds, then as I gasped at obvious Hebrew letters, I said, “I do not know what that means.”

“Not yet, then,” said Andreas. “I believe you will be able to read and speak multiple languages shortly, if you cannot already do so – and that will be one of them, as it is a language you must know.”

“He can do that,” said Sarah. “He can read every type of witch-scribbling I've ever seen far better than most witches can, he can understand a fair amount of the Valley's speech, and then he seems to write better than any lecturer I have seen or heard of.”

“For expression and word-choice, yes,” said Andreas. “Otherwise, his handwriting is the subject of more jokes in this place than almost anything.” A pause, then, “the solution, however, is both simple and nearly upon us, and then he will startle you all.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Recall how long it took you to learn to finger those things where you came from?” asked Andreas. “How slow you were just the same, even after all of that effort was expended?”

“It took me...” I looked at my hands, then asked, “how fast will I be able to type?”

“That equipment can keep up,” said the soft voice. “What you'll have access to there will have no trouble keeping up, even when you learn to type hands-free – and while that massive effort you expended didn't pay terribly well where you came from, it will truly pay well here.

“And what I had where I came from?” I asked. I meant my home computer system – the main one, anyway.

“Would have had trouble,” said the soft voice. “You would have needed the 'latest and greatest' hardware, and a heavily optimized operating system – and no, I do not mean the equipment you could get in common stores which sold such hardware.” A pause, then, “I'm speaking of what would be equivalent in power to several of those large things you called Sparkenboxen operating as a cluster, and each of those units having multiple processors and the maximum amount of memory that could be installed in each machine – and the operating system that they were designed to run compiled on that system.”

“Oh, my,” I murmured as I stood away from the viewer. Andreas had gone somewhere, where I did not know, and while the others looked in the magnifier, I heard rapid steps, almost as if Andreas were running. He came back surprisingly quickly, and Sarah gasped at what he had brought.

“That's one of those books they print in that one place I had to bathe for,” she spluttered. “It gives the meaning of all of the words in that language.”

“Yes, I know,” said Andreas. “I hope I can find out what those words on that ring mean.” He then laid the book out on the bench beside me.

“Now open it, and...”

As if I had been commanded, I waved the book open, this marveling all the while at what was happening, and the pages flew like flowing water until my finger came down between a pair of them somewhere in the first half of the book. I then pointed to a phrase, and showed it to Sarah.

“That's e-exactly what it means,” she said with trembling voice, “and this is not an old tale. It makes those things seem silly jokes!”

“How?” I asked. “Does it say, 'be blessed in all you do, and may you be kept safe from harm, for you have a very important job and you must do it especially well or we all shall sup with Brimstone'?”

“Very good,” said Andreas, who took the book away from me. “That's a better reading than this book managed, and only one person in this area could possibly do better at this time.” A pause, then, “you'll be seeing her shortly.”

“Yes, after we fetch my cousin and this woman chemist from the Valley,” said Sarah. “That town is a bad place, and we will need to go straight there from here and bring them back to the house proper.”

“Chemist..?” asked Andreas. “From the Valley?”

“Yes, and she will be able to help you deal with 'weight', among a great deal else,” said Anna. “More, you will have your hands full here in very short order, and this other person is a jeweler of no small capacity, even though those people she's under call her an apprentice.”

“She's an excellent wax-carver, and she will need to live here to be safe, at least for a time,” said Sarah.

“If she's decent, then I will most likely have work for her,” said Andreas. “Does she look like you?”

“About an inch taller, with lighter hair,” said Sarah, “and she's quite peculiar, even if she dislikes witches greatly and tends to kill every one of them she finds.”

“I think I know who she is, then,” said Andreas, “even if that is but by reputation. Those people she's being 'held' by are about worthless for jewelry, at least regarding the important things, and she's paying all of their bills.”

“They will not wish to turn loose of her, then,” said Sarah.

“More than that, dear,” I said softly. I was getting a really strange – and thoroughly unpleasant – feeling about this town. “That place is worse than anyone who has spoken about it has implied, and she's risked her life multiple times so as to hide that woman – and that woman is marked enough to need to wear burn-clothing up here.”

“Oh, my,” chortled Andreas. “Then she's probably a real chemist.”

“More than that,” I said. “This lady's taught chemistry in the Valley, she has a lot of experience, and then she either knows how to actually make the needed equipment, or she can speak to those of her countrymen who can make it – and quite possibly me, if needed.” A pause, then, “even I had some ideas regarding your furnace, and...”

“I wrote them down,” said Sarah. “He spoke of a strange type of furnace using coal-gas.”

“First, a blower, one smaller than what I've made for that cupola,” I said. “You'll want a special lining for this first stage furnace and run it with a carefully-formulated covering flux, then the second stage is done in crucibles with a different covering flux, and then when you run your pots, you'll need transformers so you can run them in parallel, not in series like you do now – that, by the way, is one of the main reasons your pots act 'weird' – they need to have individual power supplies, they need proper chemistry, genuinely pure chemicals, and that two-stage fire-refining process. That will routinely give that weird gold – and weirder-yet silver – metals that are nearly entirely pure and are surprisingly hard.”

“No, coins will want that two percent of copper after purification,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, however, you're exactly right, as those coin-metals will wear extremely well, and then that copper percentage will cause rapid age-hardening in such gold and silver with but gentle heating.”

“Age-hardening?” asked Andreas. He seemed mystified.

“They'll become a lot harder then,” I said. “We'll be coining all of our money anew, but it will first need that properly-alloyed purified metal, then the right tools for rolling and annealing that metal so it's in a uniform thickness strip form, and finally the design for the hammer-dies to bang the coins out – and they'll all come out as shiny as that ring did, and that straight from the dies.”

“They'll also stay shiny,” said the soft voice, “and they'll wear very well. Figure several hundred years of heavy handling before they show any signs of wear.”

“Which means we will not need to redo them,” said Andreas. “At least, not commonly.” Pause. “Now, for two other items, which you will need today. Sarah – first, put your ring on, and then you and Anna come with me.”

“I wonder...”

“He's saving the best for last,” said the soft voice. “You will be amazed by what you see, and she'll need to wear that under some outer clothing, as to show it openly is about as wise as showing the pendant in likewise fashion.”

“And now?” I asked, as I followed the two women with Hans bringing up the rear. This last spoken was audible, if otherwise but barely above a whisper.

“I had to make the metal portions for all of these things, and then attach them myself,” said Andreas. “That new man might drive rivets decently compared to most up here, but he is a poor second to you.” A pause, then, “I am not sure if I can do as well, in fact.”

“Decent rivets help a lot,” I said. “Are those available in Ploetzee?”

“They are, but I dare not use them for those things which will be shown openly,” said Andreas. “They look and act so much different that...”

“Perhaps if you tinned them, then,” I said. “Tinned rivets...”

Andreas halted in mid-stride, then squeaked like a crushed rat. He turned to me, shaking like a leaf, then said, “you keep giving me answers like that, and I will sit your late-night guard-sessions with you!”

I then asked, “tinned rivets work better on leather?”

“Yes, but they are very hard to get,” said Sarah. “Common rivets, if they are decent copper...”

“These were the best common ones I could find,” said Andreas. “I have stores of rivets here that date back to before this house was built, and I hand-selected and then carefully annealed what was needed from my own stock so as to get the best ones.” A pause, then, “after what you've told me, I wonder how hard it is to get a rivet-swage.”

“The new variety?” I asked. “Those work fine if you don't need a lot of rivets, but if you want to turn those things out by the bag-full, then you will need some special tools...”

“If you make those, then I and a great many other people will wish those rivets,” said Andreas. “Now, here, we have a pack. Sarah, examine this and adjust it to suit you.” Andreas picked up a pack like mine, save smaller – and in some ways, a trifle neater in execution. Sarah adjusted it, then as she turned to go, Andreas reached behind another bench and brought out no less than four medical pouches, these marked as such with 'engraved' silver escutcheons riveted on with small copper rivets and neat leather 'handles'.

He handed Anna two, then gave one to Sarah, and finally, to my shocked astonishment, handed one to me. I asked, “why me?”

“Because you will need it,” said Andreas. “I was told that where I lived by this one newly-arrived woman – long black hair, very thin, very unusual, and she is currently living in a most-secluded state.” Andreas looked around then said, “you” – meaning me – “have seen her before.”

“Rachel?” I asked.

“The same,” said Andreas. “Now, Sarah, I have your necklace, and then I suspect you will all need to go to Hendrik's office – where the two of you will need to stay long enough to pack up a cart-full of weapons, and then hie yourselves off to Maagenstaar – and I do mean 'hie'. You do know what that means, don't you?”

“The pendant?” I asked.

“Not a good idea, at least while you two are going there,” said Andreas. “That is a somewhat tricky road in places. The way back, you may well have to if the place decides to go to hell like that one town did.”

“Yes, and I almost got them blown up,” said Hans. “I will want something to test fuse better than just carrying the stuff around and counting my steps.”

“No, not fuse, Hans,” I said. “Fuse is for stump-launching and Harvest Day.”

“What is this about stumps?” asked Hans.

“When someone clears a new field and has, uh, stumps?” I asked. “The usual way involves, uh, bulls, correct?”

“Yes, and most farmers must pay to have it done,” said Hans, “as they do not have those things.” A pause, then, “now how is it you will launch stumps, and what do you mean by launching?”

“Farmer's dynamite under the stump,” I said. “Three feet of fuse in the cap, and several sticks of it.” A pause, then, “why is that stuff called farmer's dynamite?”

“That is what you use for big rocks,” said Hans. “The really big ones want mining dynamite, but for a big rock, you want that stuff, then bulls to move the rock clear of the hole.”

“Best not tell my cousin about launching stumps, then,” said Sarah, “as she will try that out and see how far she can make one fly.”

“Her and Esther,” said Anna. “She needs her necklace, Andreas, and then we must...”

A faint tinkle came, then another, then four faint bleeps: three rapid, then one longer.

“The letter V,” I said. “Are you being summoned?”

“I'm not sure if Hendrik wants me or you-all, or all of us,” said Andreas. Let me go and answer that, then we'll all go together.”

“Besides, you need something to shoot while you're in the house,” said Anna. “You want one of these like I have.”

Andreas was 'gone', and when he returned, he had something hidden in a 'box'. The box turned out to be a nicely-made example, one of an unusually dark wood with wavy black stripes, and I asked, “is that blackwood?”

“Yes, and this is a presentation box, one of two which came with the place,” he said. “Sarah, open that box.”

She flipped the latch, this with some trepidation, and when she opened it, the glaring 'shine' of the thing within seemed to light up her face with an eerie flickering electric glow, almost as if she were looking at lightning caught and made captive. I looked within the box, and there, I saw a softly lustrous silver panel, this with the lettering I had indicated it needed, then another such panel, then as Sarah took the necklace out, the obvious number of panels showed.

“Twelve, one for each of the tribes in the book,” I murmured.

“That is the first one,” said Andreas. “I am not sure who will make the others, but I was told this by someone who does not lie: there will be but seven of those made, same as the number of pendants, and that for all of time and space.” A pause, then, “and that thing has some real teeth. You'll need to spend a lot of time on your knees while you're wearing it – and I would be careful around some people, as they might well try for you, even with it hidden.”

“They already do that,” said Anna.

“Not those people,” said Andreas. “Those were either most-serious supplicants or well-hid yet-more-serious witches.” Pause. “I meant people who currently believe themselves to be totally uninterested in witchdom or anything they think it stands for, but they secretly desire power and all that goes with it – and that thing gives a great deal of power.”

“And it makes demands, demands that are often totally without limit or any semblance of reason,” I said. “And it proclaims one's responsibility, this toward others, both here and elsewhere. And much else, most of which is not something anyone in their right mind would wish to have.”

“Exactly so,” said Andreas. “It's much like one of the pendants that way, save those necklaces have their own set of teeth – and the two complement each other, just as the two of you are supposed to complement each other and together deliver us all from evil.” A shocked gasp, then, “what did I just say?”

“The truth,” said Sarah softly, as she put the thing on. “This thing tends to gain weight. Why does it do that?”

“It's w-working,” I said. “How much does it weigh?”

“Perhaps four pounds, but I can tell there is nowhere near that much silver here.”

“It is merely warning you, then,” said Andreas. “It is telling you that you must be careful in all that you do, and all that you say, and perchance, even what you think – and like what your husband-to-be was given to, its potency will only grow with time.”

“It is named, isn't it?” I asked.

“Yes, and I do not know how to read that language, so I could only put what I was told to put on it,” said Andreas. “It is somehow hidden from me, also, as that portion tends to be covered in bluish haze – and often, that entire necklace was covered that way when I was working on it, more so than anything I've heard of or seen.”

“Seen?” I asked.

“I have had a number of instances where that happened before,” said Andreas, “but those were but the faint smell of the mule.” A pause, then, “with that one, I was riding it, and it was a Genuine Plugged beast with full odor from this one town in the Valley, one whose name I have trouble pronouncing.”

“We'd best go, then,” said Anna. “Will your lights run for a while, or do they need turning?”

“They're good for a while,” said Andreas. “I doubt I'll be kept longer than a turn of a glass.”

With that, we came out of where Andreas did his work, his secretive lair, the lair of an animal seemingly trapped within a cage. I could tell, however, that in the coming days that animal would be unleashed, just like Sarah and her cousin would be in their turns; I hoped against hope that it would not mean injuries, even if I suspected that might occur.

“We must carry on regardless,” I said, as I picked up one of the carts and went down the stairs. As I came down them, I only then noted people starting to show, and that made for a desire to run quickly into the dark shadows of the west wall of 'the main court' or whatever this place was actually called. I was followed by the others without any hesitation on their parts, and as we made the realm once more of darkness, Andreas whispered, “that was well-done.”

“I do not wish people seeing these carts,” I murmured. “They will think them witch-gear.”

“Some might, and some might not,” said Andreas. “Given the fact that you're present, they might just think them to be something you're working on for the house – as it is commonly known you do things 'out of an old tale', and make enough strange things to be an old tale come to life.”

That comment only made for a greater desire to hurry, and when the five of us turned the corner and passed the fold, one of the guards present tapped on Hendrik's door – which opened as I reached it.

“Good, you're back,” said Hendrik – who was holding one of those 'improved' Tosser pistols. “I just might keep this in my desk, and use one of those things like Anna has. I suspect she can show me how it works passably.” A pause, then, “a pressing matter, one that needs all of you here, would be those coins. There are a great many of them, and everyone who wanted to investigate the noise of that dead rat upstairs was sent out to search the grounds for coins – and those things are lying all over the grounds, so there are more than twenty people out looking for them right now.”

“More than twenty?” I asked. “Who checked on the mess upstairs?”

“Mathias,” said Hendrik. “I hear that you two will be present tomorrow to give a proper teaching on these weapons, as well as describe those others you found. Will you have time?”

“They will, and we shall be there also,” said Anna. “Granted, that time will need to be but a handful of hours, but they will be here.”

“Then the matter of the coins remains,” said Hendrik. “I know a process was mentioned, but this will not be merely the matter of the first kingdom's money, but that of all of them – and while getting all of that money up here to be recoined will take time and possibly visits to the other kingdom houses, processing 'weight' is currently far beyond our means – and coining that much money in the time I suspect we will have will need a means far faster than casting.”

“Casting coins is for witches, and it makes witch-money,” said Sarah. “Andreas has been praying about how to run those coins since he became aware of that huge witch-mass coming up here with all of its lard-slimed gold and silver, and now his prayers are answered.”

“How so?” asked Hendrik.

“First, two people, which they will be bringing here today,” said Andreas. “I suspect they both are marked, and one of them has substantial markings.”

“That eases my mind to no small degree,” said Hendrik. “That means there is more than merely one such person handy.” A pause, then, “what does this person do?”

“Chemistry,” said Sarah. “Then, there is my cousin, and she is...”

“I know about her, and her exploits,” said Hendrik. “She is named well, and but I wonder about her.”

“How?” asked Anna.

“They call her the mad bee,” said Hendrik.

“That name is deserved, and an apt one,” said Sarah. “She is much like I am, and very skilled with her hands, save in areas where I have difficulty, she has more yet.”

“More?” asked Hendrik. “Do I want to know what those are?”

“As long as you do not expect her to prepare your food or clean things around here, she is a marvel, but if anyone is worse for both activities than I, it would be her.”

“Or me,” I said. “I might have ideas about cooking, but forget...”

“No, I know how you are regarding food,” said Hendrik. “You can cook, it's merely it would take you far too long to prepare a meal, and you would expend enough effort to cook for the whole house just cooking for one or two people – and cleaning was said to be worse yet.” Pause, then, “cooks and cleaners I have plenty of. It's people who can do difficult matters that are uncommon.” A pause, then, “she's blown up witches and witch-holes, hasn't she?”

“Yes, she has,” said Sarah. “This other woman is also quite capable with weapons, unlike my cousin.”

“She probably can do very well with a bit of instruction,” I said. “This other woman, though – she probably knows more about such matters than I do, as she's had formal training.”

“She would not have held the bridge,” said the soft voice, “nor would she have entered the Swartsburg and made it out alive – the first time, much less the second instance.” A pause, then, “still, her capacity is not trivial, and she will prove a tremendous asset.”

“Good enough,” said Hendrik. “You'd best be about your business, you two, as those two women need rescuing from that town they're in.”

I hurriedly grabbed up an armload of supplies, bagged them, then tossed the bag down on the nearest cart, then as I paused, I grabbed an entire box of grenades, and put that on the cart also. Sarah looked at me in a state of shock as her hands hid her necklace in some fashion, then as I began stuffing the rocket launcher into another bag along with a vest full of rocket-parts, she seemed to shake out of her funk.

“You must expect a lot of trouble,” she said. “Do you?”

“Better to have and not need than otherwise, dear,” I said, as I crammed the machine gun in another bag, along with a smaller pouch filled with belted rounds and a spare barrel. “As for trouble – I do expect some. How much trouble – that depends. I'm not entirely sure about this town right now, but I do not want to go into an above-ground witch-hole owned entirely by a batch of early second-kingdom arrivals without ample ordnance.”

Sarah nodded, then began gathering bags herself as I continued with my grabbing ways and then resumed speaking.

“We might well have to shoot our way in and take those two while on the run,” I muttered, “and then shoot our way out of that place, all four of us shooting and tossing bombs as if we had just escaped from a large crowd of the Mule Totem's people, with all of them riding what I've seen them ride for mules.”

That galvanized everyone in the room, and soon not only were I and Sarah towing carts, but everyone save Maria was carrying an armload of supplies. This made for a surprisingly full buggy, or so I thought until Sarah put some in her new pack and I put some more supplies in mine. I then recalled the crimping pliers, and between directing what went where, I crimped two caps onto foot-long lengths of fuse, then with Sarah's help, I tied a friction igniter onto the other end of each fuse.

Each cap received half a brick of that gray explosive molded carefully about it, and the whole of each charge was wrapped up in rags. Lukas then produced two of those smaller cloth satchels.

“Oh, good,” I said as I slipped each bomb into a satchel. “Now we have satchel charges.”

This seemed to fall flat, at least until Sarah let out a howl worthy of a mother wolf. It made me wonder if she 'grew hair' at times, and I wondered more if I should ask.

“Come back quickly,” said Hendrik. “I will doubtlessly have more questions by then, as Maria and I need to think about what we've been told, as well as ask more questions of those who might have answers.”

A final arranging of matters, two jugs of beer dropped off, a small sack of dried meat, and I went to the hitching rail for Jaak's blanket. As if that were a 'horse-whistle', he came running from the barn, and as Sarah's animals were harnessed, I checked the supplies one last time. We did not wish to lose anything, cover or no cover, and we would need to 'hurry' once we got there.

“Best get your water-bottle filled with beer,” said Sarah, as I thought to get a cupful. “If we are going to do much shooting, we will wish to be filled with beer like jugs.”

“No water,” I muttered. “But when it comes to slaughter, you will do your work on water...”

“Yes, if you are a witch, you will wish water for that business,” said Sarah. “Water may be needed to stay alive, but it provides no nourishment, and beer does that and provides water – and if one must travel hard and then fight on top of that traveling, one wants beer.”

“Oh well,” I murmured, as I leaped up on Jaak. “It was worth a try.”

We headed out at first at a steady pace until the horses loosened up, as was appropriate for what was likely to take an hour or more at our normal pace – normal for Sarah's animals, and normal for Jaak. The sun was still mostly hidden behind the trees flanking the road, and the darkness they shed hid the still-smoking remains of a multitude of witches; the impression was that it was still early morning, almost as if it had only been perhaps sixty minutes in the house.

“Closer to thirty-five, but your sense of time is still seriously off,” said the soft voice. “You'll both wish to get another dose when you water your animals, as both of you have endured enough 'hell' in the last two days to make most people ready to live in a rest-house for the rest of their natural lives.”

Hell, he says,” I said wryly. “First Iggy, then that Desmond, then that deep-hole, then something so bad I do not want to even think about it, then a bunch of bad fetishes and huge rats causing trouble and terror that whole time...”

“That was the first part of the first day,” said the soft voice. “The second day, in its own way, was nearly as bad as the first.”

“I think so,” said Sarah. “I will not forget that smelly lizard for as long as I live, and the same for that one room's fetishes, its wasps, those rats, and those other creatures – and then all the times I felt sick, and...”

“Iggy?” I asked, regarding 'that smelly lizard'. I could think of another reptile that smelled bad.

“Yes, him,” said Sarah. “He was worse than any three old tales that I've read if I put them together back-to-front, and if I ever have to tell children about that thing, or any of the other things that happened those two days, it will be too soon.”

“Don't worry, you won't have to,” said the soft voice. “When they examine you overseas, they'll learn all about how it was dealing with a cursed lizard that spewed fire from both ends worse than a badly-made ballistic missile.”

“Badly-made ballistic missile?” I asked, as I recalled what I had described Iggy as being – namely a 'four-legged rocket engine'. “Do they have those where we are going?” I meant across the sea.

“Yes, but they're not accessible at this time,” said the soft voice. “More, those things are so old that they're no longer 'safe' to launch, much less able to hit their targets – and those targets no longer exist anyway.”

“Why do they still have them, then?” I asked.

“Recall how that one witch was looking for cursed missile parts?” asked the soft voice. “Those were missiles made here.” A pause, then, “those across the sea did not need curses to fly, even if those firing them from their silos treated them as if they were that way.”

“Copied designs – from those missiles that needed curses to work?” I asked.

Partly so,” said the soft voice, “and mostly because they'd license-produced space-boosters that were originally designed in Vrijlaand – and missile launch crews over there, at least then, treated their missiles and everything involved in making and firing – it was all treated as if it all was an interconnected group of potent fetishes.”

“Because... Were those people part of the regular military?”

“No, and for very good reasons,” said the soft voice. “The regular military didn't believe in setting off huge resource-hungry and trouble-prone rockets that did very well to actually make it to the mainland, much less hit what they were aimed at – and hence they were not part of the secret military establishment.” A pause, then “those functionaries that wear blue clothing and those silver collars were originally a sizable part of that secret establishment, and as the war progressed, that secret establishment took over more and more of the military effort and minted more blue-suited functionaries with those silver collars, until finally they took over the whole place near the declared end of that war.”

“And they've been running the place ever since,” I said. “What of those who took it over in the first place?”

“Another faction of the same group of people, this the largest of all of those factions by far,” said the soft voice. “They considered the secret establishment to be 'a necessary evil' at first, then gradually grew to depend upon it more and more as the war first started and then continued – and once the war at home and overseas started going 'badly', then that secret establishment grew like a large and heavily fertilized weed due to the efforts of a handful of individuals who were behind the original takeover but had hidden themselves like Death Adders among their more-pragmatic peers.”

“Power behind the throne, with figureheads for leaders,” I said. We were still on the road leading from the house proper, with some half a mile before we got into the kingdom house. The feeling of 'early' morning was still blatant in my mind, and if the town we were headed into was indeed 'witch-controlled', it would be at least an hour, if not two, before they got themselves started.

“Not for these witches,” I thought. “These people like to believe they don't need to sleep or rest, so they do the old five to nine shift – five AM to nine PM – and that eight days out of a seven day week.”

“Try more like seven to two, with both of those times being 'in the morning',” said the soft voice. “You've got roughly an hour or so before that town starts to wake up, and it's good that you're rescuing Sarah's cousin now, as she's not going to be able to hide that woman for much longer.”

“Not getting enough food...”

“No, actually she is eating enough,” said the soft voice. “That isn't why she needs to get out of there along with that other woman.” A pause, then, “they're working her as if she were a bought-and-paid-for slave, with no days off beyond Sunday when and if it happens – and as these people don't watch the moon very much, they often miss what day it is, so she works that day as well as a rule.”

“What do they do, then?” asked Sarah.

“I have no idea,” I said. “For all I know, they might drown themselves in high-test and stuff themselves with High Meats.”

“Neither of those things, even if they would like to do both of those activities, as well as 'enjoy the fruits of their labors' – which is why they're working her so hard.”

The horses had steadily sped up with the passing 'minutes', and now we were moving at a 'good' speed. The town was coming closer rapidly, and as we passed into its outskirts, I wondered when the many wood-lathes of Houtlaan would start to scream and squall. As if to answer me, a faint screeching began, this insistent and death-shrill, and as we passed that street, I began reaching for my earplugs, then put one in each ear as that screeching marmot-noise rapidly multiplied itself in number – and each such animal increased its screeching in volume and intensity.

“Hanging all five carrots early,” I thought.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “They're just getting started, and that screeching was a marmot that was just waking up and wanting to be fed.”

“The whole town is just waking up,” said Sarah. “It's still very early, and this is not the fourth kingdom, so they don't awake an hour before dawn and continue for hours after sundown.”

“If all you got are candles for light-sources, and those candles are mostly the smelly melt-prone tallow ones, then that way of doing things actually starts to make sense,” I said. “Student-lanterns are thought to be – with justification – rare up here, and tallow won't work in those things anyway.”

“Most people in town have enough money to have some wax candles, but usually those are reserved for those who must use them,” said Sarah. “Tallow is very common, and very cheap most of the year, so most who work here use those when they can and wax when and if it is both needed and can be had.”

“Still rare up here, though.”

“If you speak of good wax, then yes,” said Sarah. “The bees are starting to make honey, so you can expect bee-runners to be bringing in fresh bee-wax very soon.”

“Bee-runners?” I asked.

“You've never dealt with bees, have you?” asked Sarah. “They have quite a number of those logs at the west school, and one must be careful when getting the wax and honey out of them.”

“Lest one get, uh, stung?” I asked.

“The commonplace term is 'nailed',” said Sarah. “I did not believe that happened until I ran my first honey.”

“And?” I asked.

“I had to see Liza once I'd gotten clear of the bees,” said Sarah, “and she had to treat the sore spots for two days in a row.” A pause, then “I was able to run the honey then, and while the honey was good enough – it was greenish yellow, which meant it was a very good species of honey; it tasted especially good on toasted bread – and the wax boiled down nicely, I had trouble figuring out what was left in the pot after I got the honey and then the wax.”

“What was in the pot?” I asked.

“A great many small nails,” said Sarah, “which is why people speak of those dealing with bee-logs as running bees.”

“Sounds like they were running from the bees,” I murmured.

“That was what I meant,” said Sarah. “One must run far and fast when one troubles a bee-log, as the bees tend to not enjoy such log-robbing, and one gets nailed more than a little.”

“And that one bomb with the nails?” I asked.

“I had planned on tossing it in that one place with the thread,” said Sarah. “Those people will feel as if they had thumped on a bee-log when they get hit with those nails, and not the commonplace bees that are found around here, but the larger type that one often finds down in the fourth kingdom.”

“Thumped on it, eh?” I asked. That sounded like a recipe for trouble. “We may wish to put a friction igniter on that one, with a shorter fuse. Or will we?”

“Best not,” said Sarah. “We have two of those things set up right for tossing, and the strap those have will make them fit for tossing long.”

“Long?” I asked. “Like a, uh, sling of some sort?”

“I have used that type for tossing roer-balls,” said Sarah. “They're very hard to use, but if you put a roer-ball up a witch's nose with one, that witch isn't going anywhere except down.”

“Did you do that?” I asked. We were passing one of the shorter dead-end streets on our right, and it smelled of just-starting bake-ovens. We'd passed 'cookie-lane', and were passing 'bread-street' – or so I guessed. The utter and complete lack of road-signs made for terminal confusion as to what street one was on, even if I did know where to find much of what I needed.

“Yes, once,” said Sarah. “I was a good twenty paces from that stinker, and it put him down long enough for me to get out of that area.” A pause, then, “I am not sure if he got over it or not, as I heard that ball when it hit, and I heard some bones breaking.”

I soon found something I did not need, as when we passed the next street, a tall wooden pole, this with a cross-piece, stood at the juncture of that street and the one we were on – and I nearly spewed at the still-horrible odor of rotting meat the thing gave off. The skull atop the pole was missing most of its flesh, but it still smelled and looked awful.

“Yuck,” I spluttered, as Jaak moved quicker and Sarah's horses followed suit. “If I ever see such a pole again, it will be too soon.”

“Follow me, then,” said Sarah. “I know where most of those things are, and now I know where another one is.”

“Will we go faster?” I asked.

“We need to turn to the left shortly anyway, but that path will take us past many of them at a distance,” said Sarah. “If we turn left at the next street, and go along Kokstraat for a bit, we can miss most of them, at least until we go past this orchard. There's one within smelling distance then, as that's near where the hall once was.”

I did not wait a second to agree, but followed Sarah as she turned onto the street in question, then as Jaak caught up with her, I suddenly felt witches in the area. For some reason, I really wanted to use a 'metal pear', and as we passed by the shop in question, I drew one out from my vest pocket, pulled the pin, and then tossed the bomb through the shop's window. The grenade went inside with a resounding smash, followed by a chorus of drunken yells mingled with curses in Underworld German.

Sarah saw what I did, and flipped the reins, and Jaak kept up with her as her horses went to a rapid trot. Not four seconds later, that shop disintegrated in a blast so huge that we were showered with hot clinking objects and what felt like a large number of brick fragments.

“You must have gotten into some dynamite with that thing,” said Sarah, as money continued to land around us on the cobbles to then bounce with jangly clatterings. “It's raining money again, only these things look commonplace.”

“How can you, uh, tell?” I asked, as we came out from under the money-shower as it slowed to a steadily decreasing clattering to then halt.

“One landed on the seat here,” said Sarah, “and I caught the one that landed on my head – and now I do not wonder why you call those things gold monsters.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Do you need a head-rub, because you have a rising?”

“I am not sure about the rising, but I could use a head-rub,” said Sarah. “Those gold coins hurt when they fly like that and hit you.”

“They're the biggest – and heaviest – coins I have ever seen,” I murmured. “They have to weigh as much as a roer's ball, if not more yet.”

“They do weigh a fair amount,” she said. “Gold pieces, at least the ones up here, tend to weigh about four ounces, based on the handful of them I have weighed with that scale Hans has, while the balls of roers vary from three and a half to four and a half ounces, depending on their size.”

“What?” I asked.

“Roers tend to want their moulds fitted to their bores, as those guns vary quite a bit depending on their age and who made them, and whether they've had their bores freshened,” said Sarah. “You have musket-gages, don't you?”

I do, all twelve of them in a set,” I said. “What are their numbers?”

“Nine, ten, and eleven,” said Sarah. “The nine size is the most common north of the third kingdom, but they like 'tens' in the fourth, and 'elevens' are not that rare down there.” A pause, then, “the only time I have seen a twelve-bore is on a ship.”

Twelve-bore?” I asked.

“They have those overseas,” said the soft voice. “You more or less have one in that one bag, along with a number of those brass shells it takes – though that weapon is specified more commonly by its bore diameter in millimeters rather than that intercepted term.”

“Good, Sarah's cousin will wish it for close work when we leave that smelly town,” I said. I then gasped, “Twelve-bore? I had one of those once!”

“Yes?” asked Sarah. “You had a boarding musket. Was that what you were shooting at that one place where your shoulder was getting turned into mush?”

“N-no,” I said. “The common term used to speak of shotgun sizes was 'gage', but in some older writings I have read, the term used for that size of gun was 'twelve-bore', and the shells I commonly used were these mostly-plastic red things with brass-plated bases – and I used to load them up with powder, wads, and shot, and what we have is supposed to be roughly equivalent to that thing I had.”

“Did it have two barrels?” asked Sarah.

“No, just one, but you could put six shells in that gun's under-the-barrel magazine and then fire them all quickly, especially once I had worked on it some,” I said nervously. I wasn't about to mention how that gun – it was a smoothbore – had kicked harder than that one finger-biting rifle when its shells were loaded heavily, especially when I had fired a so-called rifled slug out of it.

I had only done that once. Once was enough to know I didn't like shooting that gun with such 'slugs', no matter what they did to their targets if they impacted.

We were still moving fast, and ahead would come a turn onto the next street. We had been running along Kokstraat, and behind us, I could hear a mob brewing – an infuriated mob, as more than a few windows had had panes removed by flying coinage, and I was waiting for the sounds of gunfire as the witches inside the place 'turned out' so as to collect up their scattered money.

“Did that grenade get into some dynamite?” I asked silently.

“No, but it did explode atop those witches' money-sacks and send those flying along with its splinters,” said the soft voice. “It still destroyed that shop from its blast alone, which should give you an idea as to what that one bomb with the nails is likely to do.”

“Nail every witch within fifty paces, as I put a lot of those nails in that thing,” said Sarah. “That whole area probably has a lot of two-doored shops, and I'd stack all three of the gold coins that landed in the buggy on that place having a black back door.”

“Meaning?” I asked.

“They sell to witches that wear black-cloth, or they did while there were some in the area, and that door is painted black with a red frame, just like Grussmaan's was said to have,” said Sarah. “In the past, Anna had to get for me that special thread that they have, as they would never sell anything to me, and more than once in that place I heard a gun being cocked and pointed boots pounding the floor hard like witches like to do when they're drunk as stinkers and bent on killing someone.”

“The true-step,” I said, as we turned roughly 'east'. I then knew our next turn – south, then take perhaps two more turns until we were on the road that went between farmer's fields and that one large orchard, then we would be on the Suedwaag.

“And how far we must go on that road is yet a mystery,” I thought.

“About two miles past Knokenplats, then roughly 'east' on this one narrow road for another four miles,” said the soft voice. “It winds some in places, as Maagenstaar is an 'out-of-the-way' place, much like Waldhuis is.”

“Hopefully it's not full of huge smelly houses and, uh, barns,” I thought. The thought reminded me of Waldhuis and its three to five scheduled mortar rounds this evening. Perhaps the place needed more than just three tonight, as we'd be gone for anywhere between two and four weeks. My thoughts then went to Anna's talents regarding mortars and things like them.

“Of course – she does need practice in 'nailing' those smelly wretches,” I thought with a smirk. I then had an answer of sorts regarding our destination.

“It looks much like where you live, for the most part,” said the soft voice. “That is but the seeming, however – and as you get closer to the place, you'll learn a lot more about it.”

“I'm learning a lot more about headaches,” said Sarah. “Those throwing-satchels are trouble.”

“We'll be tossing them in that place, most likely,” I murmured. “Turn here, or at the next street?”

“The next one, then we'll be on 'orchard road' or whatever it's actually called,” said Sarah. “I'm not sure it has a name, in fact, even if that orchard is a good place to hide if you can get in it.”

“Good place to hide?” I asked. I knew about one of the roadside ditches a bit beyond the trees, as I had hid once in the west ditch from a fast-moving coach drawn by eight foul-smelling mules.

“Yes, especially if there are witches running coaches,” said Sarah – who must have known about my experience, or endured a similar one. “I have hid there more than once in my travels, and once slept in that orchard, though that wanted some climbing so as to set up in a tree.”

“Set up in a tree?” I squeaked, as we turned onto the street Sarah had mentioned. I could smell another stinky pole somewhere in the immediate area, and I was glad I could not see it. I was more glad yet that I could see the orchard's trees to our right, then as they ended and the farmer's fields began, a straight shot clear of traffic, this going past the walls of the area once 'controlled' by the witches of the Swartsburg.

Another few minutes between the farmer's fields – turnips, cabbages, corn, two unidentified crops, and many fields filled with rows of what Sarah named carrots – had me seeing the ruins of that once smelly place filled with fire, smoke and death; and here, I was astonished – as more of the walls had fallen over or sometimes into those regions underneath them, and now large open 'pits' showed inside these fallen walls in a number of places. I could tell the place was being walked over by scavengers, and more, some people – those truly desperate – dared to enter the semi-destroyed lower realms seeking melted money among the ashes of the ruins.

There was a lot of 'ruined money' yet remaining inside the Swartsburg's walls, and jewelers, especially those along Silberstraat, eagerly bought such metal. I hoped that one place I had bought the silver for Sarah's necklace got their share, as they didn't chant at their pots – and everyone else in that area probably did. I then recalled Hans speaking of the place, and how 'there is no lead in what they sell'.

“No 'probably' regarding every metal-seller on Silberstraat other than Mandelbrot's, even if their 'chants' are verses read from the book and old written-down prayers some have heard about by gossip or other talk,” said the soft voice. “The ones that were witches left their 'abodes' when the Swartsburg went where it belonged – those of them not in the place then, that is.”

“Most of them were, probably,” I murmured, “and the remainder of those people were at that one town or the hall when they went to hell.”

“Correct for the most part,” said the soft voice. “A few individuals among them escaped to the east side when the Swartsburg went up, as there jewelers are both very uncommon and usually do worse-than-bad jobs when they can be found – which means such people can charge 'hefty' prices while doing 'bad' work, provided they look and act more or less like common jewelers.” A pause, then, “they catch gunfire and burn-piles over there otherwise, as much of the first kingdom's east side now knows about the troubles here, due to the messages sent by the wires.”

“Bad jobs?” I asked. “Here?”

“That type of work would bring mobs without exception here, especially now,” said the soft voice. “That one mob is on the hunt for some obvious witches, and has so far shot three of the survivors of that grenade-blast.”

“Survivors?” I asked, this silently. We were now on the Suedwaag, unless I guessed wrongly.

“Those three looked as if they'd been clawed by a dark-gray kitten,” said the soft voice. “They were cut up badly enough to be leaving sizable blood-trails, so they were readily found and then shot.”

“What would a dark gray kitten do to a witch?” I asked softly.

“Most likely kill him,” said Sarah. “Why, do you know where one might be found?”

“No, but that grenade only left a handful of survivors, and three of them looked as if such a kitten had clawed them at some length.” Pause, then, “I'm not sure about the others, if they're still alive and functioning well enough to move.”

“Yes, if you speak of 'an eyeblink per witch' in the case of the three witches specified, and the other 'survivors' were hurt badly enough to die sooner or later where they now lay whether they are found or not,” said the soft voice. “That long-haired cat you saw in the second kingdom is one strain of that type of cat. The dark gray ones are almost another breed entirely, they're so different from what you saw then.” Pause. “Recall how Anna described them?”

“You sounded like one when you were playing with my hair last night,” said Sarah. “He's right, those are fiercer, and they become larger, too – and even the kittens have claws to be reckoned with.”

“Larger?” I asked. I was wondering more than a little about such a kitten – as in how I might find one. Sarah sounded as if she wished such an animal's company. I'd endure one readily, even if said kitten had 'claws that could be reckoned with'. It made for a further question, however, as kittens tended to grow larger. “How large?”

“Big enough to serve as a blanket, and as warm as a just-stoked stove,” said Sarah, “and that one was but a medium-sized one. I suspect he was not entirely grown then, as I saw him many times later, and then he was his full size – and if he was at the west school, no matter where you were or what you were doing, you knew it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, even as I had a distinct impression. “Loud purring?”

“Got me awake every single time if he arrived when I was sleeping,” said Sarah. “He made the buildings move with his purring, it was so loud, but when I did get back to sleep, I knew there were not going to be any witches at the west school for a while.”

“Uh, why?” I asked again. “Don't tell me – he bit them and then pulled them out of the place.”

“I am not sure he bit them,” said Sarah. “I am sure there usually was at least one lecturer gone the day after whenever he showed, and once two students and three lecturers had been taken, if I go by the ripped up bloody clothing he left behind that particular morning.”

“Uh, got witch-students also,” I said. “Usually pulled them down when they ran.”

“So that's why there usually was bloody clothing all over the grounds,” said Sarah. “There were witches coming into the school as well as lecturers and regular students.”

“No, these were people going to the place with the goal of making it into a place like the school Gabriel went to,” I said. “They all tended to band together in the same part of the school, and when that cat showed, he usually cleaned them out entirely.”

Sarah thought for a moment, then said, “no one who wanted to study went to live in those living-halls, leastways no one I knew. I tended to stay clear of that part of the school unless my classwork required that I go there.”

“Lots of wine-fumes and loud yelling?” I asked.

“That and a fair amount of gunfire,” said Sarah. “That whole place was noisy enough with gunfire much of the time that a bit more didn't seem to matter unless one was actually dodging hot lead – and that place had me dodging shot or balls repeatedly.”

“Shall we water in this town coming up?” I asked. “Perhaps the Public House – another jug of beer, if they have d-dark stuff?”

“They usually do have that kind of beer,” said Sarah. “That Public House has gotten a lot better since the witches were shot out of the place.”

“It won't stay that way long, as they'll want to get their old haunts back,” I said. “Place is starting early, I can feel it. I'm glad they ditched those witch-sympathizers, er, people wanting to be supplicants.”

Ditched?” asked Sarah, her voice rising an octave during the word's pronunciation. “Did they put them in a mass grave?”

“Mass grave, no,” I said. “They must have heard the same as our town about using a communal manure-pile, as they put all of those stinkers in it after pulling off their clothing, as well as a lot of pigs – and their manure-pile is twice the size it would be otherwise.” A pause, then, “I think Tam got onto them about it, actually – yes, and he was there guiding the clearance!”

“You're going to have to teach students like a visiting lecturer,” said Sarah. “You're using a lot of words I've never heard anyone say before.”

“Get used to it, dear,” said the soft voice. “It's safe enough to be in this town on account of Tam knowing both the publican's family and that of the place's Mercantile, but go on through until you come to the Public House and get two more jugs of their dark 'ice-beer' for a total of four – and top up your jugs once you water yourselves and your horses.”

“Mash, too, I hope,” I said. “You brought some of that? That one bucket?”

“You do the hooves and mash then, while I go get the beer,” said Sarah. “I've seen you do those things, and you're as quick as anyone, even given how careful you are.”

“I know, dear,” I said softly. “We do not need any of the horses going lame.”

We went through the town, this longer than half compared to home, at a dust-leaving pace, easily a trot for most horses; then once at the Public House, I was astonished both at its size and its recent aspect of having been 'cleaned up a lot'. More, as I did as I said I would do – mash to each horse, check and 'clear' the hooves with my hoof pick, then use the larger bucket Sarah had brought to put the smaller one inside to supply water to the two harnessed animals – Sarah not merely went inside and got more beer.

She also got three 'just-baked' – still warm to the touch – loaves of bread, and each of them went into a drawstring bread-bag right away. It was then she got her dose, then dosed me with the specified tincture.

“I hope you got some cherry jam with that bread,” I murmured, between gulps of beer to get that tincture's vile taste out of my mouth. I had an answer to 'water' convolved with 'slaughter' now, but the words were still forming in my mind. “This stuff might not be the kind of beer that, uh, gets rid of poisons, but it is pretty good.”

“I think Tam took some of our recent yeast here, and they seeded their jugs with that stuff,” said Sarah. “Another two minutes of beer and bread like that, then fill your water bottle and get some more bread for your hands, as we both will need to be full of food and beer when we hit that...” Sarah's voice trailed off as she pointed to the south.

A thin barely visible cloud of black smoke was slowly climbing higher in the sky somewhere to the south and a bit west of where we were, this column of smoke one that went nearly straight up.

“That one ruined town,” I said. “The witches didn't hear the explosion where we are going, I hope.”

They did not, but Sarah's cousin and those in that town who aren't interested in witchdom did,” said the soft voice. “She has had a distinct 'premonition' that today is the 'day of liberation', and hence she's gone to get food at the Public House as well as tell those present at there who will hear to 'get ready to leave all save your clothing you are wearing and what food and funds you can take with you quickly'.”

“Fell on mostly deaf ears stuffed with witch-lies,” I murmured. “Maybe five people listened to her.”

“No, more than that,” said the soft voice. “You'll understand why only a 'few' people in that town listened as you get closer to the place.”

Leaving Knokenplats happened but a few 'minutes' later, and as we left, I could feel my sense of time going completely 'out the window'. Everything that moved seemed profoundly slow; everything that was stationary looked weird, with odd colorings that morphed and changed slowly over time and a pronounced wiggly aspect to both shapes and colors; the sun rapidly became bright enough that it made for pulling out goggles and putting them on – the less-dark goggles, those which I had carried in my pack. The sleep-goggles stayed home atop my bed.

I turned to see Sarah doing likewise to my surprise. “I think we will wish these, as the road to that town is not merely narrow for much of its way, but very dusty at our speed.”

“Poorly maintained in places, also, as doing so helps keep visitors out of this town,” I murmured, as our horses rapidly resumed their former pace – and everything that moved then slowed down enough to make me wonder if we were moving at all.

“Is everything getting really slow?” I asked.

“It is,” said Sarah. “I wonder if it will affect what we do there.”

“It will, and to your benefit,” said the soft voice. “The turnoff is just ahead, and it's sharp enough to need a bit of slowing while traveling in single file. Have him go in front so he can warn you of the road's blockages until it widens out enough to manage both of you.”

“Blockages?” asked Sarah.

Bad maintenance,” I said. “Whoever is responsible for this road is either spread far too thin to do an adequate job, or they deliberately didn't look after this portion.”

“Both of those things, and that by intent of those who've been running this area for so long,” said the soft voice. “Those that listened to Deborah's speech are now starting to head south discreetly, this on foot with what food and funds they can readily carry, while Deborah and that woman are putting what food items they can 'pilfer' where they are living in their clothes and that woman's travel-bag.” Pause, then, “that isn't very much, by the way – the food situation has deteriorated drastically in the last few days, which is why she's been going to the Public House for food on her own.”

“Is that how she's been feeding that woman?” I asked.

“Her 'keepers' tended to get food from the Public House on a daily basis until very recently, as they're not able to cook edible meals.” Pause, “then either that food went rotten or Sarah's cousin tossed it – unless they ate it,” said the soft voice. “They tended to have far larger eyes than stomachs for meals, hence a fair amount usually got tossed anyway. They're not terribly inclined toward High Meats – as of yet.”

“Do they get into high-test?” I asked.

“No, but they are becoming inclined toward consuming such drink in quantity,” said the soft voice. “They are altogether fond of wine, however – currently so much so that it causes Sarah's cousin and that other woman to be distinctly ill, so they don't check on her much at all.”

“Is that other woman helping her?” I asked.

“Yes, and more than a little, even if Deborah has picked up a lot of the Valley's speech in the last few days due to the too-frustrating nature of the tools the two of them are currently using,” said the soft voice. “Her keepers are thinking, 'wine-fumes do not help her output, and neither does disturbance beyond that which is absolutely necessary, and we do our portions of what we do in the warm end of the house anyway and wax-carving does not want undue heat, so we do what we can to advance our cause while staying as close to 'trashed' as we can manage'.”

“They sound more like witches than I thought they'd be,” I muttered, as I slowed for the turnoff and guided Jaak around the huge rut and up a steep curving section. “This place here will make for trouble getting out of that town.”

“You'll have to slow here and in other places in this road,” said the soft voice. “The road's quite a bit better once you get closer to the place, so you can hurry out of it.”

“Your pretty place is going to hell,” I muttered. I but vaguely recalled the line as it was.

“They have several intercepts of that one overseas,” said the soft voice, “and have a very difficult time both understanding the subject and the person singing – even if they do like the music part.”

“Your pretty... Was it place, or was it face?” I asked.

“That's one of the chief problems with that family of intercepts, as they cannot currently determine what that portion is saying,” said the soft voice. “They'll know better within a few days of your arrival as to what that song is both speaking of and what it actually sounds like.”

“Days?” I asked.

“Like many intercepts, it's been awaiting run-time on a computer for a very long time,” said the soft voice. “More, when they analyze you, they'll get a vast number of answers to a lot of what has confused many people over there for a very long time.”

Once Sarah had negotiated the rut – she had to slow quite a bit, and here I noticed the buggy's springing once more, as well as its ready 'articulation' that permitted traversal of 'rough' terrain – then I led off once more. This section of road had numerous 'sumps' and 'bad places', all of which either needed dodging or substantial slowing, but I was surprised – pleasantly – to learn that 'the bad section' wasn't very lengthy as to distance.

It occurred to me when I could see its 'end' that it was 'just long enough' to deter commonplace visitors, while the better section was amply long for those local to 'their' area. I then learned other matters but a minute later.

“That's a well-hidden trail,” said Sarah as I passed a place that was badly hidden by a stick put across the road with hanging 'strings' of what might have been dried 'grass'. The stick was resting on notches cut into the backs of a pair of saplings, these 'smaller' trees among those forming the edges of a 'well-groomed' woodlot, one with no drop-wood that I could see. I would not be surprised to see rake marks, as this woodlot looked very well-groomed; it was utterly clear of the usual woodlot 'duff'. “Those vines are not from this area, but the second kingdom and points south of there, and they probably need replanting every spring.”

“Vines?” I asked. “That hanging stuff was a bunch of vines?”

“They make these strange green-striped yellow round things that need picking with tongs,” said Sarah, as we passed another such 'gate', this one heading to the east and perhaps to the north once it was clear of this 'main' road. “They want tongs because handling them with the hands once they're ready for picking causes long stays in the privy.”

“What is done with, these, uh, fruit?” I asked. I was getting a distinct picture of a really weird-looking gourd – a gourd that was nearly ripe, but not yet 'ripe and ready for picking' with tongs. 'Slimy' was a compliment to these things then, as they had more 'slime' on them than one could believe possible.

“Up here, I am not sure,” said Sarah, “even if I know what to do with those things.”

“Which is?” I asked. “Do they get mashed in this big press after they become, uh, 'slimy'?”

“That's exactly what is done to make uncorking medicine, all right,” said Sarah, “and those fruits would produce a lot of that stuff if pressed when they were full-ripe.”

“Then solvent-extraction of the pulp for the 'second' grade, and then that stuff gets boiled by Roesmaan's chemistry... They do make a fair amount of stuff, dear. I wasn't sure before, but now I am.”

“That's how they get one of the things that goes in that special oil I've seen used down there,” said Sarah. “I think we were told they were trying to improve it and getting nowhere with it.” A pause, then, “I wonder if that woman from the Valley knows how to make that blue oil.”

“Who do you think came up with the formula?” asked the soft voice. “More, she has her things, this in a bag similar to what Dennis carries, save made of a heavy grade of cloth.”

“A smaller pistol, also,” I murmured. “Deborah wishes she had one like it.”

“This is not one of those witches like, is it?” asked Sarah with alarm.

“No, but it is one I can get some ideas from, as it actually takes brass cartridges, breaks open like those weird ones I was speaking of earlier, is double-action, and uses this strange powder that isn't quite smokeless but leaves little residue in the weapon.”

“That sounds like the Valley's powder,” said Sarah. “I'm not sure if what that one man made that is in that keg you use is stronger or not.”

“It is roughly comparable for strength, even if it leaves a bit more residue and is faster burning,” said the soft voice. “The powder she has on her person was intended more for rifles than pocket-worthy pistols, so she's had to live with a severe muzzle flash and a louder-than-desired report when potting 'game' on her way up here – and most of her cartridges are freshly loaded, so she has a decent supply of them.”

“Then she can handle what we have,” said Sarah. “Do they have things like machine-pistols?”

“What they use for 'home defense' is similar enough to those that she'll figure matters out quickly if handed a loaded one, and show Deborah how to use another – and she knows about those fowling pieces like the one you brought, as they have copied those and use weapons like those commonly.”

“Use the same primers?” I meant the pistol cartridges.

“They can,” said the soft voice. “Use a light loading of 'small-pistol grade' propellant from overseas in those pistols, and you can all but forget about cleaning those things beyond 'dunking' them in solvent periodically and then wiping them off with a rag.”

“Solvent?” I asked.

“Hers has a semi-synthetic grip,” said the soft voice, “and when she sees those molds you missed in that machine-shop at the Abbey, she'll be able to give you a 'recipe' for a suitable material, one which is currently unique to the region she lived in.”

“Semi-synthetic?” I asked.

“A species of what resembles a very firm grade of rubber reinforced with fabric-processing 'waste' or salvaged cloth chopped very fine,” said the soft voice. “It molds readily, cures quickly, and can be made in small amounts with what Hans has downstairs for equipment.” A pause, then, “there is but one trouble with that material.”

“What would that be?” I asked.

“It smells terribly,” said the soft voice. “Only that one chemical Sarah made for those jugs smells worse, and it not by much.”

“Oh, I made some more of that stuff,” said Sarah. “If one adds some of it to aquavit, then it seems to clear out soot a bit better from what we now have.”

“That mixture is not a suitable cleaning solvent,” said the soft voice. “That wants chemicals that are not currently available in the five kingdoms – even if you did improve Hans' aquavit more than a little as a rifle-cleaner – and while that one woman knows how to make most of the needed chemicals, they need raw materials that are difficult to currently procure up here.”

“Fermentation processes,” I murmured. “If she has access to the needed culture or cultures, she could brew the stuff needed, then, uh, distill it out of the mash, just like we do with aquavit.”

“What are you speaking of?” asked Sarah. The road had now widened enough that we could travel at both a good pace and side-by-side.

Acetone, dear,” I said. “Use a thick species of oat-mash, only instead of a trace of oats in this stuff, you use mostly oats, and more, you can use really bad oats – even the witch-grade stuff can be used in this process.” A pause, then, “ferment that mash in closed vessels under a covering of carbon dioxide – just put some corks with 'calibrated leaks' in the jugs with this stuff, as it makes some carbon dioxide when it's getting started – and then distill the chemicals out of the liquid resulting from that fermentation when it's gone to completion.”

“Note that that process can also use a fair amount of finely-ground 'household waste' of a vegetative nature in the mash,” said the soft voice. “The yield will be affected for the better for many of the chemicals that can be distilled off of that fermented mash.”

“Chemicals?” I asked.

“Acetone for one, several different types of alcohols 'higher' than that which is in aquavit, and several other chemicals of which you're currently unfamiliar with,” said the soft voice. “That process can be readily optimized overseas, and they'll wish to run it, as their current processes for several heavily-used chemicals are a lot more 'costly' and 'involved' – and acetone, while they do make a fair amount of it currently, is difficult enough to make that it needs 'rationing' as well as special precautions.”

“Then I hope we can get some of that culture,” I murmured.

“Look in your possible bag,” said the soft voice. “There's a medium-sized screw-top test tube with the instructions for its use wrapped around it, and it has that culture.”

“Won't it go off?” I asked.

“Not in this weather,” said the soft voice. “That stuff works best in a warm environment; it needs boiling in a pressure-pot to kill it; and it goes dormant in freezing conditions. It is not easy to kill.” Pause, then, “hence you can try it out once you get back from overseas.”

“Take it with us, then,” I muttered.

“Do that and you'll have a number of such tubes returning with you,” said the soft voice, “and you will have answered many people's prayers regarding chemicals – both overseas and here.”

I then looked ahead, this some distance to the front. My eyes seemed glazed by distance, for some reason.

Faintly, a smell seemed to come to me, much as if it sought out my nose with the goal of crawling up inside my nostrils with the idea of using them in lieu of a chiseled-stone crypt: a reek at once desert-dry and dessicated, this while still rotting; the odor that of mummified corpses piled in mountain-tall four-by-four stacks.

Then, there was drumming, this pounding, ferocious, and horrible to hear; and over all of this infernal noise of drums, I distinctly heard two rhythms, both of which I had heard before. Their jangling dissonance was due to each drummer following his own inclination of the moment regarding rhythm, with 'Boom-Boom, Boom-Boom-BaBoom-Boom!' fighting with 'Boom-Boom-Crack-Crack!'. Both rhythms were those of witchdom, and hearing them made me think of the ever-warring combines found in the fifth kingdom house.

“Ever-fighting nightmares of witches,” I mumbled. “All is warfare in Hell, and it never stops here until the witches are all dead.” A pause. “I can feel that place, and smell it, and it reeks of Iggy and that Desmond and that deep-hole and that big nasty reptile all mingled into one.” I almost spat, then nearly spewed.

“They must be distilling strong drink somewhere ahead,” said Sarah. “I am not sure how I am smelling it, but I can smell forty-chain being made.”

“They are, dear,” said the soft voice, “though this still is a good deal smaller than the commonplace for such things, and their batches are both 'small' and were once highly-sought-after, at least when there still were lots of witches in the area.”

My question, this unspoken: “is this a species of foreshadowing – as in 'this is what it will be like in the entire area when you return'? Will it be better than this? Or will it be yet worse, due to the witches' sheer numbers?”

There was no answer, at least in the manner I expected. For some reason, however, I was reminded of the phrase, “flits about like a silly moth, and stings like an angry hornet.”

The hornet in question was a mottled green thing, this nearly as long as my forearm, with a sharp stinger the size of a ten-penny nail and a disposition that was fury personified once aroused – and when in such an irritated state, it could best a hungry wood-pigeon for speed and maneuverability.

It was not a wasp, even a wired-up prewar example clutching a streamlined fragmentation bomb with a sensitive proximity fuse curse-tuned to 'those not like us'. This thing was a good deal worse.

“No, don't want to meet that bug,” I mumbled. The reek of high-test was starting to make me ill, especially as I could smell penned swine as well as high-test. This place had a lot of small but well-hid swine pens, most of them but recently constructed and yet-more-recently-occupied, and many of the inhabitants had come over the course of the last 'month' from every direction possible – save heaven and hell.

That's why the place is a witch-hole,” I murmured. “It's bad enough, and that one blocked up place has been cleared and they're using that huge underground...” I gasped, spat to the side, then nearly vomited again. “That's how they got in here! The place sits atop this huge underground complex, the local witches only recently learned of it, they came in there over the course of days until they had gathered enough thugs to 'take' the town, and then they came up at night...”

“They what?” squeaked Sarah. “They took the town? Like witches do when they're inclined that way to the south?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “Several hundred of them, their guns all full-loaded and the witches themselves black-faced, and they came up at night and k-killed many of the inhabitants, then took their places and changed their clothing to that of the murdered or driven-off townspeople, and the place changed its ways completely between two days.”

“It was inclined somewhat that way before that witch-incursion, which is why the witches only killed those they caught that would not readily become committed supplicants,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, you are right, as the only people that refused them that they didn't kill beyond those two you are to rescue are those that escaped in the smoke, fires and confusion – or those who could hole up in their houses and give the witches two for one regarding hot lead.”

“Meaning the Public House and the Mercantile in this town,” I said. “They took the whole town otherwise, and those in the places I spoke of...”

“Are very glad they had such store of food, powder and lead on hand,” said the soft voice. “More, they are glad for such buildings as they have, as those were built solidly.” Pause. “This is the chief reason why those two women need rescuing, as that complex isn't just huge – it has a lot of old equipment and some cursed munitions.”

“Blow the place up,” I murmured. “Scatter it most thoroughly.” A pause, then, “look, dear. That smoke we saw earlier. It's a lot clearer now.”

That should warn those people who wish to leave that place,” said Sarah. “I hope those in the Public House and the Mercantile have gone, as that place is going to hell.” A pause, then, “what did I just say?”

Your pretty place is going to hell,” I muttered. “Now I understand a bit more about what I just said – the witches redid the place practically in a single day so it now looks like a bad-smelling witch-hole, and now...” A pause, then, “when did they do this rubbish?”

“A few hours after that woman from the Valley arrived,” said the soft voice, “and those two hid themselves especially well in Deborah's room while the witches searched that house for them, as these witches knew about Deborah from her time at Boermaas, and there was – and still is – a sizable price on her head points south.”

“Good that we are getting here early, then,” said Sarah. “I had no idea they were after her that much.”

“You don't know the half of what she did while coming up here, either,” said the soft voice. “She caused more trouble for witches during her trip north from the potato country than you might believe possible, and over a dozen witch-held towns had fires set or were trapped with stolen dynamite during her trip up here on foot.”

“On foot?” I asked.

“She had to break out of the potato country much as you-all did during your trip back,” said the soft voice, “and for her, it was easier to do so on foot with a supply of well-padded silver coins in her 'satchel' and a list of towns known to have families 'friendly to the cause'.” A pause, then, “those towns were situated roughly twelve to fifteen miles apart, which is the distance she could readily walk late at night near the end of last summer and then hide and sleep during the day – until she got up into this area. Once up here, she found the hall controlling preaching to such an extent that they were only taking bones-holding witches or full-owned witch-slaves for such work as she had trained to do.”

“That's what I thought happened,” said Sarah. “I cannot smell wood-smoke, so why am I smelling bad brandy being distilled? Witches do not use heating lamps under their pots, and I doubt much they bother to use charcoal for such distilling.”

“The reek of distillation remains from last night, as does the stink of the many vats of fermenting mash,” I said. “The witches ran that stuff late last night, so most of the worst examples are sleeping in to a modest degree.”

“They all are,” said the soft voice. “Things are only starting to settle down in that town after its 'hostile takeover'.” Pause, then, “it yet has a ways to go before it's 'satisfactory' to the witches.”

“And those in those two buildings at the end of town?” I asked. The place was perhaps a mile ahead, if that. We would be there in five minutes at the most, and I was glad for a wide straight road of perhaps three miles. More, the sun seemed to have stopped its moving temporarily, almost as if time had stopped for the witches present, much as time would end for them when the witches were supping with Brimstone. We'd have enough time to do this town properly if that proved needed.

“No, just toss those two satchel charges in the right places,” I muttered, “scoop the two women...”

I then knew we would, indeed, need to play this by ear; while we would do both of those things I said, this would be the usual for 'fighting in hell itself' – go for those opportunities the enemy presented to us while using cover, concealment, and what guts and courage we might muster so as to win another portion of his territory from him – and I had a suspicion that with four people shooting and tossing bombs, we could deal with this town if we had to.

And then, I knew a bit more.

“She lives in the middle of town, right?” I asked. “East side of the street between two shops, this really run-down house that needs a lot of repairs, some broken boards on its stoop, half-rotten leather door-hinges that have been there for ages, wider than where we live by half, two or three windows to the front, n-no second story...”

“It has one of those, but it's only half the width of that house,” said Sarah. “It has a double-width yard, and that part that's been added on is a lot more recent than the rest of it. I think it might have been added as a shop-area, as it's a lot newer and done almost entirely with wood.”

“It was, then,” I said. “Those people... How big is that place's basement, and what is kept there?”

“I would guess they now have it filled with wine-casks,” said Sarah. “Before now, who knows? I'd only had a few chances to see her since she came up here, I was so busy, and then the roads into this place become impassible during snows like we had this last winter, and getting in here is really difficult otherwise.” Pause, then, “walking in snow, with poor footwear, is not much better than walking in pointed boots. Both cause a species of toe-rot.”

I then looked around and noted that not merely were we on a wide 'plain' of some kind, but it somehow seemed elevated above the country all about us to the south and west. More, the town itself was at the very peak of this elevated region, and that site had been inhabited for a long time.

“Witches started that place long ago, and they've been driven off or shot out multiple times since that time,” I muttered. “Who filled in that one access-passage?”

“That was done during that one king's reign, the one who was murdered about fifty years ago,” said Sarah. “It mentions that in the Annals – he sent three men with greens to spy out that area, they came back with detailed knowledge, and at night a few nights later they came with all of the house's batteries and every guard that could be spared.” Pause, then, “they shelled the town into ruins and killed every witch in the place over the course of two days and a night, and once the town was smoke, rubble, and ash, they blocked up this big place leading down into the darkness with the broken bits of rock and stuff.” Another pause, then, “they spent more than a week doing all of that, according to the Annals.”

“Then there is a different track out of here, one heading directly to the north for some distance,” I muttered. “It might help us to know where it leads.”

I turned where I sat as Jaak continued forward, and then saw this different path: due north in a nearly straight line, instead of the gentle curve that we had been on for the last several miles; then an abrupt turn of about thirty to forty degrees, one that would have us going more or less northwest until we hit the Suedwaag somewhere north of Knokenplats.

I then turned back so as to look forward once more, then saw in the distance ahead a darkness, a darkness at once chilling and foreboding, a darkness seemingly imported from the gone-to-hell people and fetishes of the Swartsburg; and when I looked at the sun, I saw that it seemed to have receded into the west, so much so that it was now seeming to be just before dawn, with the sky a dark blue-black color.

It was no longer 'early morning'. It was once more that particular time that showed itself before dawn, the time when I usually woke up when I'd had a long and hard day behind me and another such day ahead of me.

I then lifted the lenses of my goggles, squinted for an instant, and again looked to the west.

“What?” I gasped, at seeing the precise same sight. “The sun looks as if it's hiding itself, or it has reversed its course almost two whole hours' worth!”

“It is hiding,” said the soft voice. “You need this time, as you'll need to rearrange the supplies in that buggy, get both of those women settled in it, show them a few things, and then settle that town once and for all – and you will also need to get out of the place in a hurry once you start things, so figure going to the south end of town quietly once they're situated, then heading north at the best speed you can muster while shooting at every witch that shows himself while you're heading north.”

“And then grab the pendant once we're clear of that mess,” I muttered. “Probably start a lot of fires.”

“More than that,” said Sarah. “If that place is setting on a big witch-hole, then it will try to devour us when it goes where it belongs.”

“No, not quite, as that place has some cursed munitions, and it's more a repair-depot than an ammunition dump,” said the soft voice. Pause, then, “still, it does have a large amount of vaporized 'smelly' heavy distillate from the witches' intensive cleaning efforts, so it will be wrecked most thoroughly, and the town will burn to the ground in the process at the very least.”

“Just not try to scatter us,” I said. “Probably scatter a lot of scrap-metal in places, though.”

Sarah looked at me in horror, then gasped, “scrap metal?”

“Yes, a lot of old and cursed machines,” I said. “They were repairing military equipment, remember?” I then asked, “what kind of military equipment?”

“Aircraft of various types, smaller armored vehicles, several sizes of 'military' trucks, and 'personal transport' for higher-ranking witch-soldiers,” said the soft voice. “Larger armored vehicles had to be repaired in the field or driven to one of two locations sited in the Red Mountains, both of them within sight of Berky when it still existed.”

“Larger armored vehicles?” I asked. “Mobile fortresses?”

“Yes, those especially,” said the soft voice. “The ones this place worked on tended to be a bit larger than you might think, though – and they worked on a lot of them.”

“Bit larger?” I asked. “How large?”

“Half again as large for their dimensions as the largest such vehicles you've heard of being used in real numbers where you came from, and nearly twice as heavy as the heaviest ones,” said the soft voice. “They weren't nearly as capable for protection or much else compared to those where you came from, thankfully, as what they lacked in capacity they more than made up for in sheer numbers.”

“Numbers,” I mumbled. I wanted to assemble at least one rocket, as I suspected Sarah's cousin would indeed take to rockets. She might even 'drill' a coach with one, as this place had a number of well-hidden recently-arrived examples. I then was interrupted.

“There are quite a number of those armored vehicles down there just waiting for the witches to unblock that place's elevation shaft, and then bring them up and put them to use,” said the soft voice, “and they do have some 'special' non-cursed ammunition down there that doesn't need chanting to work properly. More, that stuff will still fire out of their guns with but little loss of performance.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “G-good storage facilities, like what we f-found?”

“That ammunition was put there by the Mistress of the North for her use, and yes, those storage facilities are similar for cold and dryness, if not locked up nearly as well,” said the soft voice. “Then, many of those armored vehicles are but notionally cursed, and finally, they are – intentionallyeasy to drive.” Pause, then, “those witches currently in town will learn their use readily, as some of them have used things that work similarly on the secret way, and a number of them were once 'engine-masters' in the fifth kingdom.”

“Where is it, then?” asked Sarah. “That access shaft spoken of?”

“Underneath the Public House,” said the soft voice, “which is why the witches were planning on blowing that place up tonight with dynamite and then blasting the foundations of the place so as to unblock the blast-doors.”

“And now, it is time,” I murmured, as the smell of high-test, swine, High Meats, and other stenches endemic to witchdom began to crowd upon my senses.

These had become amplified, such that the darkness that now lay upon the town was greater than that of the dark blue of an hour before dawn; and the internal clocks of the witches, while they heeded nothing save the desires of their masters in hell...

“No, more like infernal clocks,” I muttered. I could hear one banging its way into 'the first hour' here, the singled-out clangs echoing thrice in my mind. Witchdom would awaken when it chose to stand up and fight for its right to dine at our expense, and such 'parties'...

Party members,” I thought. “They know what gives entrance to all known bliss – and that is the crushing clawed fist of Brimstone.” A pause, then, “that mutual-benefit society is the sole source of 'politics'...

The word 'politricks' echoed within my mind. Witches that played that game tended toward the tricky.

“Best see how many gree-nades I have handy, then,” I thought, as I began feeling all over my vest. I found first one, then another, then two more, then a firebomb...

“Best toss that into the big witch-house, that being this one stinky shop,” I thought as I continued feeling my vest.

I found a great many more grenades than I had recalled putting in the vest, and once I had carefully loosened the flaps that held them inside each pocket, I checked my rifle. I looked at the chamber, noting it was still 'dry' with but a partially retracted bolt – and as I watched, the bolt worked itself all the way back, then tugged at my hand as if to tell me to 'loose it'. I turned loose of the handle, and the subtle dry-sounding clack as a round slipped completely into the chamber ahead of the bolt seemed to bang loudly upon the doors of hell.

“Did you just stuff one in?” asked Sarah.

“I think so,” I said. “I was just checking, thinking to do so when I needed to, and the bolt went all the way back and picked up a cartridge and the handle started tugging on my hand!”

“Then I'd best do likewise, and you'd better do the same with all that you have,” said Sarah – who then moved both satchels closer to her feet once she had done so. “I have these headache-makers here, so either of us can toss them...”

Sarah then stopped speaking and retched, clutching her stomach for an instant and then reaching for a rag.

“That is forty-chain,” she said, as she wiped her mouth. “The stink of that stuff is strong enough to make me spew.” Pause, then, “it just did.”

I then noticed the stench of strong drink had increased, and I asked, “did they bring up a lot of that stuff recently? A whole lot?” I was beginning to know what to say, however, regarding water and beer, and not two seconds later, I knew why we had been told to fill up both of our jugs and get two more of them.

I recognized this sensation in myself, and I knew my fear was but the scent of the mule compared to that our two women-to-be-rescued currently endured. It came out as two lines:

For if you daily endure fear,

Forget the water; instead, drink beer.”

“That is calling the pot dirty when it is full of burnt-to-charcoal stew and has an inch of witch-soot to its outside,” said Sarah. “Now you are speaking sense.” A pause, then, “where did you get that line about drinking water?”

“I had read a poem long ago and remembered a line from it,” I said. “Can't remember the name of it for the life of me, for some reason, but I hope they have that one overseas – as it speaks about the labors of a water-carrier, and how he and some others were carrying on while in a fight of some kind.”

“It will take some digging, but it can be found there,” said the soft voice. “They had to rework many of the lines to make it into a suitable 'army chant', however – and they would have liked that line.”

I could not speak about liking the town up ahead, as calling it a 'fully-ripened witch-hole' would be speaking well of it. I could now clearly smell both the output of the one small still and its mash, as well as at least one other reeking mess of a witch-hole, one filled with bad mash and worse-yet reeks; I could smell the newly-arrived swine, this in herds of eight to twelve animals – while these herds were small in the eyes of witchdom, it seemed every other house or shop had a swine-pen with these stinkers in it; the distinctive stenches of varied types of High Meats; and finally, a vast number of hanging-by-their-legs examples of 'feathered round-shots' waiting to become 'full proper' for devouring.

As if to answer the latter, I heard the distinctive 'love call' of such a bird, this sounding like a deep-pitched and shuddering foghorn – a foghorn that received a number of distinct echoes seconds later.

“Blech!” spat Sarah. “That was a pack of nesters, or I'm a squab.”

“Those stinky birds are there in both alive and dead forms,” I muttered. “This place needs to go – both it and the mess under it.” A pause, then, “we just need to get those two women out of it first.”

“And tell those at the other end to get themselves out, if they have not already done so,” said Sarah.

“That's why we come down the 'main drag' of the place through it to the south end,” I said. “We get an idea as to what is in that town, and, uh, Deborah points out where the bad places are on the way, that and she has time to assemble at least two rockets if I don't have them ready to go for her.”

“I hope you can explain them to her, then,” said Sarah.

“It was easy enough for me to fire that thing, and I'd never fired one before,” I said. “It worked a lot different for me than Sepp had described.”

“How so?” asked Sarah.

“It worked at night, then that screen thing was really bright, sharp, and clear – just like it was daylight – and then it took maybe long enough to count to three before it came all the way up, and then once I'd found the coach I was after, I just had to hold on it for perhaps two seconds before it had locked onto it and the targeting display was solid red,” I spluttered.

The town was coming closer in a hurry, and now, I wanted to hurry, as this place smelled well beyond awful. I was beginning to get the impression Deborah's employers, while currently enjoying the fumes and drunkenness of 'oceans of wine', were beginning to have second and third thoughts about the drastic changes in their town: as even they had a certain level beyond which they were disinclined to go – and while the sudden change had been initially to their liking, they'd learned much of the truth of the matter within a day of the takeover.

They might like wine, and enjoy being drunk on wine, but they had little use for much of the rest of witchdom, and were now giving thoughts of 'lighting out for the territories' themselves – once they'd gotten two casks of 'vintage wine' up their crumbling stairs and loaded them into their worn-out buggy.

“Forget that stuff,” I muttered. “Hauling that much of it openly would get you shot 'most anywhere in this area other than where you currently are.”

“What is this?” asked Sarah. “I think I want to hold my nose. This place smells worse than one of the house's bad Public Houses before those places burned to their foundations.”

“Wine,” I said flatly. “Your cousin's keepers have decided that while they do like wine, and they do like being trashed on that evil-tasting stuff, that's about all they currently like about actually being around witches.” A pause, then, “they're sleeping last night's debauchery off, actually, and they're utterly dead to the world.”

“Then let them rot,” spat Sarah. “If they like being drunk like that, then just give them time. They'll be marching that witch-walk you called the true-step inside of a year while dressed in black-cloth, as I've seen what happens to people who really like wine, and that many times.” Pause, then, “they turned witch every single time, without exception, and that in the year or so I spoke of.”

“Try more like 'a month or so' now,” said the soft voice. “Those people just don't realize the full attractions of witchdom yet, as anyone who wishes to be drunk wants to be a witch at some level.”

“Now that is a sign,” said Sarah. “It just takes time for it to show, which means...”

“No, we do not 'do' Gabriel once his 'usefulness' to us is at an end on the trip, as then we would be no better than he is – or perhaps wishes to be,” I muttered. “We do 'do' this town, as it does not fit into God's plans – for it has been a seat of evil for centuries, and has had its chance to turn away from that evil.”

“Listen to that, dear,” said the soft voice. “Those people weren't 'cursed' to the degree Gabriel was – they were merely 'cursed' with the usual desires for people in the five kingdoms, and their choice was that of witchdom.” Pause, then, “they did not 'fight' their slide into hell much at all.”

There seemed to be a sudden dip in the road, then an even-ore-sudden rise, then another dip yet deeper than the first, for the town ahead vanished from sight and then reappeared with the suddenness of a blackout at once total and derelict; then we were in the place even more more suddenly than all that had happened just before. To each side, everywhere I looked, I saw signs of raking gunfire, thick windrows of splattered blood, and sloppy black paint freshly applied; each door was a black hole, this surrounded by red, each window painted over with black paint to make another black hole, each stoop coated thickly with darkness, a darkness waiting and eternal...

“They brought up gallons of black paint from the fifth kingdom and painted this smelly place black!”, I spat – though I kept my voice down. “No more than whispers now, dear – at least until the noise starts.”

Sarah seemed stunned, or perhaps horror-struck, for between each house, I could now see those reeking sewage-filled places she had once called dykes; the part-dried blood of sacrifices now naming each house 'an eternal realm of witchdom'; the little road-signs sprouting suddenly in every gap between two houses or shops that was wide enough to run a road or trail, these bullet-ripped signs speaking of witchdom's ever-increasing entropy.

“No, not entropy,” I thought. This hellhole was an insult to that term. There was a better: “decay.”

This shuddery vista flashed for an instant with a dark bluish light, and indeed, I now saw the place as it had been before the witches had 'prettied it up' during three days of 'around-the-clock' hard labor; indeed, this was 'the place of the skull': as here, the town was rotten to the core, and its frail wooden frame had gone rotten entirely. The buildings, all save those built to 'start' the town atop its last ruination some fifty years ago, were fetish-built by well-disguised witches imported from points south; for the witches in reality had known of what was under it for centuries and had always rebuilt the place quickly every time it had been ruined, and this solely for they themselves. More, in this instance especially, they had hurried their labors, such that within a year at the very most it looked much as it had done before, save for a few details...

Your pretty place is going to hell,” I thought. Speech was unwise in this hellhole. “And there it is...”

I looked across to the west, and now, I saw the witch-house, it having its northern tail-guards and a vast line of southern expendables in front so as to protect it from a dire onslaught coming from that direction; here, I saw the first honest-to-God triple-wide lot I had ever seen here. I felt drawn to Sarah.

“If that is not a witch-built house,” she whispered, this seemingly into my ear, “then I am a mule.”

“Its size?” I asked, this also whispered. “Its color – that strange dark brown verging on black that cannot make up its mind as to whether it wants to be brown or black? Almost a stain, and not a paint... It's c-cursed?”

As if to tell me of my 'guess', the house abruptly showed itself to be outlined in reddish haze, and I felt reminded of somewhere 'deep down' in the fifth kingdom house. This town bested Waldhuis in that way, and I now knew where that wretched place had gotten some of its ideas.

“Or the bad parts of the second kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “and that curse both still works and is mentioned in some currently-popular witch-literature – as well as that big load of witch-letters you recovered. It is mentioned clearly in there as a 'recent' discovery.”

“Which it is not,” said Sarah. “I would stack money on it being very old.”

“It is, dear,” I whispered, as we resumed our course. We had stopped for what seemed seconds while discussing this prime target, one which needed a firebomb.

“Straight down that one quick-dug access shaft it has in its cellar floor...” I then gasped. “There's more than one such shaft, and that house we just passed is sited on the chief one?”

“There are three such locations,” said the soft voice. “The Public House sits upon a large one, one with stairs, while that one you just learned of is an 'air shaft' that just needed clearing out to a certain degree so as to pass individuals up and down it.” Pause. “There's another air-shaft, and each of those air-shafts will wish a satchel charge in addition to a 'firebomb'.”

“One such bomb for the non-cursed munitions, and the other...” I paused in my thinking, then looked across the street to see another triple-wide lot, one with a center section having an upper story atop the lower to form a common-width stoop, with two single-story wings, one to each side. I instantly knew what this place was: “a stinking salon, one that's set up...”

A pause. Here, this place wasn't just a salon. It was also a brothel, as it had a red light burning brightly at night and it had the usual 'pole' put in front of a brothel, just like that one red-lighted place I had seen in the Swartsburg.

“I know where the other one of those bombs goes, then,” said Sarah. “That place does services as well as sells strong drink, and...”

“These other shops, er, houses, are all different from what is usual up here,” I whispered. “There, up ahead...” I then glanced at the street. It wasn't what we had at home; this street was nearly fifty feet wide, not the twenty or so of Roos at its widest. “What gives with this street?”

“This is like the second kingdom house, or much of the fifth kingdom house, or...”

“Or like Waldhuis,” I whispered. “It's witch-built...” Pause. “Where Maarten and Katje live?”

“Is also a place the witches 'like' that way, and it too was 'witch-built,” whispered Sarah. “It had wide streets like this, and every house looked a lot older than it really was, and it all had much more wood to it than is common up here, just like...” Sarah looked at me, then asked, “is that why witches can build places so fast? They use a lot of wood?”

“That, their tendency to work seven days a week, use of slave labor, and a tendency to cut corners when and where they can when they aren't building to withstand a genuine-article siege,” I whispered. “Then, non-witches do none of those things...”

“And waste much time and energy trying 'to do it perfect' – which is also mentioned as being a witch-inculcated practice in that letter-sheaf,” said the soft voice. “Non-witches expect houses to take 'forever' to build, which is why Hendrik is now rubbing his head when he's trying to look at those updated plans.”

“He think 'he's not a builder', so he cannot understand these things,” I thought, recalling as I did one of my drafting classes and then once working for a builder doing architectural plans – and that on top of both reading and drawing engineering drawings for many years. I then looked to the east once more, my thinking regarding Hendrik and his confusion arrested, and pointed at the building but a hundred feet ahead.

The 'addition' of this black-stained house had its own window in addition to the two one expected to see in most 'houses' in this area, and as I looked, each red-rimmed portal – both doors and windows, this in both house and the newer addition – partook of its own accursed nature, and the darkness grew apace from each spot to make it an exemplary black hole among these other black holes surrounding it. I could how see the stain spreading rapidly, and I knew another reason why the two wine-bibbers wished no part of how this place was:

“They now see the true nature of their house far better,” I thought. “They think it is decaying as they watch, when all they are seeing is the decay it had built into it intentionally using those brought-from-the-second-kingdom spores everything here made of wood had been seeded with.”

“No, just the usual dry-rot organisms commonplace in this area,” said the soft voice. “There's a reason why most wood in the first kingdom is put in a readily-accessed place if it's used in a home, and that's because most things built of wood tend to only last about ten years unless they are carefully tended – and they endure perhaps a few years if totally neglected.”

“No attention at all in this place,” I thought, as I dismounted in the lot of where Deborah and this other woman lived. As if my arrival had been expected at some length, however, someone came to the window, opened the painted-black 'curtains' to show the 'bright' light of a multitude of burning candles – and then turned to look back into the room.

The resemblance of this woman to Sarah was so strong I gasped: her hair was a bit longer and a several shades lighter in color, but as I looked at this 'vision', it vanished and hid itself behind the curtains. I then was shaken from my revery by soft steps, these faintly crunching on the part-embedded gravel of the place's yard. I looked first behind me to see the western sky, and saw now utter and total darkness, so much so that it once more seemed a moonless night, then at Sarah. She was working on the buggy's cover-ropes.

“As dark as if it were an hour before we left home,” I softly muttered, as I went to help her.

“I am not surprised,” said Sarah. “Help me with this cover, as we will need to first remove it and its ropes, then bag it up.”

Then, from somewhere, a faint whisper: “Es Dié de Libertæ.”

“It is that,” said Sarah, as I helped her with the rope. I only now noted the small bronze castings that had two claws for rope. They practically 'screamed' Andreas.

“No, not his work,” said the soft voice. “Those were done in a Ploetzee foundry, one of two smaller ones they have there.” A pause, then, “he did do the screws used, however, and they were dipped in Hans' wood-treatment before they were put in.” Pause, then, “they were installed but days ago.”

“Those other screws weren't, though,” I thought.

“They've been wiped down with a paintbrush repeatedly by Sarah using some of Hans' stuff since that buggy was completed,” said the soft voice, “and I told her to dilute it with distillate, so it seeped in well.” A pause, then, “I would start arranging the supplies shortly, as those two women are about to come outside.”

“I knew it,” whispered Sarah, as I helped her fold the covering, then saw her tuck it into a carefully-sewn cloth bag closed with a buttoned flap. “I'd assemble that launcher and a pair of rockets at the least. This town wants at least two rockets. I can tell that – it wants at least two of them.”

I did precisely that, but for some strange reason I first found the machine-gun while looking for the rocket launcher, then I found the fowling piece – and only then did I find the launcher, all the while moving the bags to the sides of the buggy to give a central area for the two women to sit.

“I hope you two have bread, as that smelly place at the other end of town didn't bake any today,” said a strange-sounding voice. It was very 'Potato Country' sounding, that being a 'flatter' version of the fourth kingdom house's lilting speech – almost as if those living in that war-zone had originally come from that kingdom hundreds of years ago, and preserved their speech carefully by systematic interbreeding.

“They do tend to keep matters within that area, as they are usually far too busy to travel much, and few that are currently alive outside of that region and a few others wish to deal with constant danger,” said the soft voice. “Now, look at the two of them while they're side-by-side.”

I looked up from what I was doing, and thought as I compared the two, “first, Sarah looks like a woodland sprite of some kind, and now this other lady reminds me more than a little of Tinker-Bell – a lot darker hair, much darker than the usual for here, and no wings, and perhaps more-modest clothing, but otherwise I can tell the two of them are closely related.”

As if this strange 'vision' had heard my thoughts, she turned from her whispered conversation to glance at me, and here, I saw first her eyes.

“Why do they look, uh, oriental – as in they've got this odd 'tilt' to them?” She then turned back to Sarah, and here, her hand went to her hair to show me – much as if she intended me to look – at her ears.

“They're p-pointed,” I gasped. “Not terribly so, and you have to look closely to notice it, but they are pointed.”

As if to show me another matter, Sarah glanced at me – and her eyes were precisely the same as those of this other woman. I thought to come closer to the two of them, and ask about their eyes – as now I possibly had an idea as to why Sarah was so 'attractive' to me – namely, she had a peculiarly oriental appearance, almost like a woman from Korea I had once known. She had been very nice to me, for some reason.

“No, not that,” I thought, as I came around the rear of the buggy. I could barely hear their whisperings, and here, I now saw why they were so quiet.

Lift the hair, exhale, then whisper into the ears, almost as if the witches kept a herd of nasty Doberman Pinschers in this town. I listened closer, then saw the woman lift Sarah's hair so as to whisper into her ear.

“You have awfully long hair for a man,” she then whispered to me. “You do get it cut, don't you?”

“He's been a bit busy lately to set for a hair-cutter, or even Anna at home,” said Sarah. “He works more hours than anyone I know, and then I've seen his hair grow a lot lately, and so has Hendrik.”

“A question, dear,” I whispered, this to Sarah. “Why do her ears look like they do?”

“Haven't you ever seen your ears?” she asked – this in a whisper, one that seemed uncommonly loud. “Have you ever looked in a mirror to see what you look like?”

“Why, do I..?” I was stunned by this probing question, and I wanted to ask how to do so due to the total lack of mirrors when Sarah motioned me to bend down so she could reach my head.

Only it wasn't just Sarah who was now looking; this other woman desired a look also, and a shocked gasping noise spoke volumes. “Just like someone out of an old tale. No wonder he needs long hair – he has to keep those things hidden!”

“You know those?” I asked, meaning the 'old tales' spoken of. I wanted to ask for Sarah to keep 'playing' with my hair, as it felt wonderful. It was really helping me calm down, in fact.

“More than a little, though not as much as she does,” said this new woman. “You probably hear things that animals have trouble hearing, don't you?”

“He does,” whispered Sarah flatly. She was now looking around at the buildings near us. I'd arranged the inside of the buggy 'passably', though I needed to screw together some rockets and fully assemble the launcher. She'd want all of the rockets I'd brought, most likely, which had me start work upon rockets and launcher in earnest. “His nose reminds me of a scent-hound's, his touch...”

“You two are about due, aren't you?” asked Deborah pointedly. Her voice was still a whisper, but it seemed to echo strangely in my mind. “I wish I could catch such a...” Her abrupt stopping of speech then rang like a bell, then a shake of her head. Again, I saw her ears for an instant. “I'd watch him close, if I were you.”

“Why?” whispered Sarah. Again, that quiet breathy sound. She was trying to be as quiet as possible, while this other woman could feel matters in the area. We had perhaps ten minutes yet, or maybe fifteen – enough to show both women how to operate what most of we had.

I hoped the pill in the machine-gun was sized right for them in case they needed to use the thing.

“The witches – both those here, and elsewhere – speak of monsters, and I have heard much of their talk,” whispered Deborah, “but there is one such being in particular they speak of, and that one...” Here, Deborah parted Sarah's hair, then said into her ear, “He's the one. Annistæ told me of what they in the Valley speak of, and that person isn't entirely a person, but something unlike anything that has walked this planet since it was birthed.”

“No, I am not, uh...” It was hard to remember to whisper as to this revelation; I was not a divine messenger, even if that second dream of flying implied an unreal capacity for both speed and power – while both dreams of flying spoke of an inhuman temperament, one so alien to those around me that it was an obvious cause of hatred in and by them.

They hated it – and by extension, those exhibiting it – because it showed them for what they were.

“That is not what I meant,” whispered Deborah, this to us both, seemingly. “She spoke of the spirit of fire, and how he was like a shining giant, one with a great-sword, and his name... They dare not speak his name, not any of those people.”

“Any of the Veldters, or..?” I whispered.

As if to answer me, an exotic voice, one seemingly imported straight from the Yucatan peninsula, a voice at once young as spring and ages-old, then whispered a single word, then the name of Sarah's cousin.

“Cé, Deborah”.

Her accent was very peculiar, and when she suddenly 'showed', her visage was stranger yet: obviously female, though how I could tell beyond the sound of her voice was a mystery, for here was a woman swathed in such clothing that all I could see seemed a faintly glowing fog and an eternal mystery, for all of her was covered such that it hid everything save her eyes.

Those had a narrow slit to permit vision, but otherwise, her arms, legs, body, face, even her hands and feet – all of those were covered: soft and well-padded flowing clothing for her body, soft leather gloves for her hands, and long boots, these also of soft leather, for her feet. She looked to be about Anna's height, and possibly had a similar build. Her clothing hid a great deal, more than the usual worn by men and women in this area.

“No, a trifle thinner,” I thought. She then looked at me as if she'd heard my thoughts clearer than anyone I'd yet encountered, save for one person.

“I weigh two notches less than she does, or I did before I left where I last worked as a chemist,” she whispered. “Now, there is something I wish to see about you, as then I will know for czertátzé.”

Absolutely certain, Madame?” I asked. That word she had spoken was enough to tie my tongue into knots – as those two first letters were spelled out clearly in her speech, and the 'z' sound was rare in the common language of the five kingdoms.

“You know my words, or do you know my thoughts?” she whispered pointedly.

“It is likely he knows both,” whispered Sarah. “He knows nearly as much of your speech as I do, and I studied it for years in school.”

“I won't need years to know this matter,” whispered this strange lady. I had named her one, as a mark of my respect. “Veñijeré Sé.” A pause, then as she confirmed my reading of her words, “come here to me.”

I did so, then she took a small silver 'fork' of some kind, and lifted up my hair away from my ears. “Esté. It is true. He is the one.”

“One?” asked Sarah.

Espirutu Calienti,” she said. “He is real, and he is here, and the great-time is at hand.” A pause, then, “does your sword flame, and is it marked, and do you wear it?”

“I think it wears him, and in many ways,” said Sarah. Her emphasis of the 'unique form' of the word 'it' could only mean one thing, or so I guessed – and that one thing was not my sword. “There are bags of weapons in the buggy.” She then looked around, and spat, “we do not have much time remaining to speak, save upon matters needed regarding saving our lives and getting out of this smelly witch-hole.”

“I think so,” said Sarah's cousin. She went to the buggy, then picked up a machine-pistol quickly, much as if she'd somehow seen the thing through 'special' vision.

“Careful...” Sarah was becoming nervous, as Deborah knew little of such weapons. I went to the other side of the buggy, then as the three women began whispering to one another, I hurriedly assembled the rocket launcher the rest of the way, then began screwing together rockets as if crazed. I'd managed two rockets and was working on a third when I looked up from what I was doing to see that one strange woman sighting the machine-pistol as if she knew exactly what she was doing – better than I did, in fact.

She then 'chambered a round', though how she did it as quietly as she did seemed an utter mystery.

“So,” she whispered. “It is set for safe now, but you put it here” – here, she pointed with a gloved finger, this to the other two – “to fire once, and then up all the way to get repeat-fire – though you will wish care with that setting, as it eats the cârtuchæ rapidly, and you do not wish that for this ....” Here, I heard an oath in the Veldter's speech, one so 'strong' that it took an entire sentence or two to adequately describe. The best I could manage in the common language of the five kingdoms was 'Blech! This is a stinky place full of evil bad-pigs that eat unfit meat and drink drain-opener, and those foul-smelling stinkers like such food and drinking materials! Blech!'

It needed two instances of 'Blech', as this was an oath peculiar to those Veldters that dealt with such evil stinkers as those who had come here. I then thought to ask her about her clothing, but now was not the time for it.

She went to the front of the buggy, then picked up a satchel charge. Turning to the other two, she whispered, “it feels as if Ese Puerc has sat himself upon my head!”

“That stuff in there causes headaches,” said Sarah. “It has friction igniters at one end of a foot of fuse, and a cap at the other end of that fuse, and...”

“It is not mining-explosive, then,” said this woman. “It is the bad explosive these smelly bad-pigs like to use.”

“No, not that, Madame,” I whispered. “You-all can drop those things without scattering yourselves.” A pause, then as I reached for one of the firebombs to then tuck one in the bag she was handling, “there. Now it will cause a big fire as well as an explosion.”

“That thing you had – what was it?” asked Deborah. I was tucking another firebomb into the other satchel. I wondered just what these 'charges' would do beyond 'explode very hard indeed and start a big fire'.

“Those strange-looking things would be firebombs,” said Sarah. “Now into the back of the buggy here, and arrange yourselves, one pointing east and the other west, unless you can change sides readily for shooting. We must go to the other end of the town, then head north, and the two of you will most likely need to do a lot of shooting.” A pause, then, “mind that fire-breather, as we didn't pack much ammunition for it and it can eat a great deal if you shoot it much.”

The two women got in with alacrity, and for some reason – I was quite surprised at this – the buggy did not 'sack out'.

“Neither woman weighs much more than Sarah,” said the soft voice, “and that buggy can haul far more than it looks capable of, provided you stick to firm smooth roads and go slowly.”

“It is a lot for it, though,” said Sarah, “firm roads or not.” A pause, then, “what of those you were staying with?”

“They like wine greatly, and they smell too much like witches for me to endure them, especially now,” whispered Deborah. “If they come to check on me again, they will not enjoy the surprise I left for them.”

“Why?” I asked softly.

“Because I filled one of their large wine-bottles with smelly distillate and put a friction igniter into the cork,” said Deborah. “They burn that stuff in this strange lantern that they use, and they don't want me using one, as they think I will set their house alight.”

“You do not wish such a lantern, as it burns naftá, and not farolcumbusteblé,” said the woman. “It is not alkoli either, so it will cause trouble, and that no matter its thickness nor its fumes.”

“Especially that type,” said Deborah. “That was the smelliest light distillate I've ever smelled in my life, and how those people endure the stink of that thing when it runs is beyond me.”

“They chant, don't they?” I asked. “They speak this odd rhythmic way to that lantern, almost as if it were alive...” Pause, then, “does that lantern have a picture of a strange-looking, uh, reptile on it?”

“It does,” said Deborah, “and she knows about that type of lantern and how dangerous they are. It was scaring me colors to hear her speak of those things, and I was praying night and day like I did at school that it would not explode until I could leave.”

“It is good that we are leaving now,” said Sarah. “Now, I may have to shoot as well as the two of you, or toss bombs, and...”

“Yes, squeeze that lever there,” I said, upon seeing Deborah pick up the rocket launcher. “You'll want to point that launcher well up in the air when you do, and keep both ends well away from any part of your body.”

“How?” asked Deborah. “Oh, like this?”

“Best let him...”

Non, he is busy looking,” said the woman. “I have seen pictures of these.” As I watched, she carefully inserted a rocket into the launcher, then maneuvered herself such that the back end was pointing down and over the side of the buggy. She then squeezed the lever through a full stroke.

“Ai, it is working,” she whispered in clear astonishment as she brought it down and began 'scanning'. “Look, Deborah. See, how it is showing these smelly pig-sties as being what they are? Ai, look at that! It is putting letters and markings on the s-screen here.”

“Put those marks on whatever you wish to shoot,” whispered Sarah, “then hold steady on the target for a bit and squeeze, though you do not wish to have that funnel in the back there pointing at someone when you do.”

“What will happen?” asked Deborah.

“That thing will toss them badly, and they will wear this stuff like sand,” whispered Sarah. “I smell something...”

“They're waking up, finally,” I said, pointing at a house near the south end on the west side of town. “I hope the Public House and Mercantile are empty of people.”

“If they are not, then those that remain within them wish to be witches,” said Deborah – who turned back to where she had come from. “Those people there are about to wake up, as they use something that drips water to tell time...”

“A water-clock?” I asked softly. I could feel more than one houseful of witches waking up – the people next door to the Public House were thinking of moving the prearranged timetable up a bit and doing a 'dawn patrol' or something similar.

“Try more like, uh, 'dumb patrol',” I thought. “Those people are either gone...”

As if to apprise me of the true situation, a massive white-tinged explosion lit up the 'night' sky and sent a cloud of gouting fire over three hundred feet into the air in red and yellow tints mingled with white 'blots', and I yelled in shock. As if to tell me 'not to yell', the house – or shop – next to this building began burning as if soaked in heavy distillate. Running figures, these trailing smoke and bright red-yellow flames, began to scream and run about in panicked circles, while the shattered stones of the building that had obviously been trapped began to land about us in vast profusion.

I didn't wait for the rocks to stop falling: I leveled down on one of the runners, then shot him – and the muzzle flash of my rifle seemed to blast the rest of the 'night' away.

The whole of the darkness that had come down upon the town then fled over the course of seconds to give bright daylight as my finger smoothly worked the trigger, spent cartridges flying crazily out of the ejection port as the scope 'centered' the witches and I shot them down; then as Jaak wheeled without my prompting as I reloaded, Sarah turned around while lifting the inside wheels a foot in the air and put them down in time to head north with me. She was urging the horses to the utmost from the very beginning, but the buggy responded far slower than its usual 'rocket-like' acceleration when the reins were 'shaken'.

A witch came out behind us, fowling piece cocked and ready. I could plainly feel this stinker as well as hear his running steps as he came closer, even when my back was turned to him, and my left hand found the rounded form of a grenade. I glanced at it as somehow, the pin vanished before my eyes, then I flung the grenade over my back left-handed, all the while asking the thing to find the dynamite this witch was somehow carrying in a satchel.

The grenade seemed to rush back behind me with a tearing hiss, and this 'snake-like sound' seemed to urge Jaak to a rapid trot.

It was good that he'd sped up that way, as the explosion behind us was such that I knew it wasn't 'a few sticks of dynamite', nor even the explosion of the grenade itself.

This was closer to 'three boxes of drippy mining dynamite, and a wagon-full of smelly distillate and Benzina mixed'. This last material was most-clearly indicated by the towering and brilliant-white flames that followed the explosion, and its distinctive and intense stink – that, and the entire town to our rear was now a sea of tall-burning fire, one that was 'seasoned with screaming' and peppered liberally with rapid-fire explosions of a sizable nature.

This place was going to hell, pretty or not.

“Hurry!” whispered Deborah. “They're going to get into that distillate-bomb I set up in my room! I can tell, that last big explosion just woke them up!”

I came up beside the buggy, then reached down to my left, now seeming to float in midair as I reached for one of the satchels. As if it had waited all this time for me and my reaching hand alone, one of the satchel charges leaped into my hands. I resumed my seat, then reached inside the bag with my left hand while holding it with my knees and shooting my rifle with my right at any witch I happened to see. A pull of a knotted string, a sudden 'pop', and smoke erupted into my face. I began swinging the charge about my head left-handed, this while still shooting, then suddenly turned the thing loose when it was heading 'in the desired direction'.

It flew like a rocket, this as if it had a mission to complete ahead of the hard-charging distillate-urged flames mingled with dynamite explosions that roared hungrily amid earsplitting crashes to each side of the wide street and the equally loud bangs of gunfire coming from my left and behind me, then the thing suddenly hooked left, its handle flying behind it like the weaving tail of a smoking comet, and the charge flew into a house. I heard the crash-tinkle-smash of broken glass as it smashed the window on the ground floor to bits, then a billow of shouted rune-curses mingled with Underworld German seemed to echo in my mind. I ripped off several rounds at the front of the place and piled up a bleeding mass of witches on the stoop. That blocked the main egress-point, so the witches within were trapped.

“Here's the other stinker,” said Sarah, as she tossed the thing to me. Only then did I see it smoking.

I whirled the thing twice, then it seemed to tear away from me with a suddenness that startled me – especially as I was still holding a piece of cloth from the satchel's handle while shooting more witches. I was more startled yet when Jaak tried to follow the rocketing bomb, at least until he came ahead of Sarah's buggy. Only a second later did I learn why.

All three women were now shooting for all they were worth, and seeing witches showing at the stoops to each side and ahead of us told me the one thing I needed to do beyond merely 'shoot every witch I saw'.

Bullets, even the all-purpose variety, weren't that effective when one was dealing with full-loaded and black-faced masses of witches.

“Grenades,” I thought, as I removed one from its pouch and pulled the pin with my teeth, then threw it well ahead of us. I was surprised to no small degree at how well I could throw left-handed – and more surprised yet when the thing detonated as a chest-level airburst right in front of a stoop over a hundred yards away on the west side of town.

It not only scythed down every witch within thirty feet of its titanic flash, but it caved in the entire front of the house – and then the falling-to-pieces house exploded so hard that it wrecked both itself and each house to its side, with the resulting mass of kindling erupting in high-reaching distillate-fueled flames.

I slung my rifle, for now, I knew clearly that I needed weapons that caused such destruction, and I began removing grenades from my vest and tossing them with both hands, all the while ripping out pins with my teeth like a destruction-bent beaver.

“Faster, dear,” I yelled, between biting grenade-pins and tossing bombs with both hands alternatingly. The grenades were detonating like a string of firecrackers, I was throwing so many of them, and more often than not, houses blew apart and then ignited to burn explosively. Even with witches being cut down in droves by the blasts of the grenades and being lit on fire in greater-yet numbers, there seemed to be more of them than ever, and every one of them that could shoot was shooting – though their aim was best described as 'well-beyond terrible', and the humming noises of bullets were usually well over my head or some distance away.

This made for another comment. “These stinkers seem to not be getting the picture!”

I could hear the horses directly to my side breathing hard – they were working, and doing their best – and I was doing my best on the back of a trotting horse as I tossed grenades to our front and to each side. The erupting grenade-blasts were causing fires and destruction of such magnitude that we had but a narrow region where we could avoid the thick smoke and billowing flames, and when I looked over my shoulder, I knew another reason why Jaak had pulled ahead of Sarah's team.

Sarah had put down her rifle and picked up the rocket-launcher, and was about to fire a rocket while somehow trying to control her team with the reins held in her lap. This was a matter beyond me, even if what happened next was somewhat familiar.

The rear end of the tube spat a blast of multi-colored grit worthy of a lightning-hare's dust-storm; while out the front, the rocket seemed to vanish.

I knew where it had gone an instant later when the warhead's explosion nearly put me on the ground, and flames to our rear billowed up hotly such that Jaak moved to the side and further ahead. Sarah now had her hands full controlling a team that was now doing its best to gallop, while the town... The whole of the place was now a solid mass of flames. We had left the middle of town behind...

“She fired a rocket into that house to make certain it went where it belonged,” I spat, as I resumed tossing grenades, this with both hands and at a speed that astonished me – as to how I seemed to be finding so many grenades, how far I was tossing the 'bombs', and then, how the grenades themselves were acting.

More than once I knew I hadn't removed the grenade-pin in my haste, yet the bomb detonated at waist-height in front of a crowd of witches – when it didn't actually hook to the left or right and then shoot into a building as if shot out of a rocket-launcher. I was wondering about the state of matters to our rear, even as I now somehow saw that one brothel to our side. I once more wondered as to the state of this infernal town, even if I didn't wonder as to just what that nasty place needed.

I pitched a firebomb into its central 'portal' just as the door opened to permit the bomb to enter and then as suddenly shut, and the blast that erupted within the place not two seconds later lit all three sections and the second story entirely on fire amid a vast chorus of screams as the windows disintegrated amid sprays of broken glass. Flames shot out of every window of the place as it swiftly crumpled due to the actions of first the bomb disintegrating the main support-beams, then the blazing high-temperature fire burning up both the 'home of ill-repute' and its multitude of occupants within seconds.

“Woke that place up,” I thought, as it crashed down into a mound of high-flaming rubble.

“Wait no longer,” said the soft voice. “Fall back, get next to that buggy close enough to almost touch it, and then get into the cloud.”

I somehow slowed Jaak enough to touch the buggy, now noticing the women and their frozen-in-time aspect as they each fired what weapons they could, reached out with my left hand, and my right hand touched the pendant. The sudden eruption of blue haze seemed to make us shoot out of the town as if we were straddling cannon-shells, and to our rear – we had finally gotten clear of the 'stinky mess' – a vast and crazy multicolored eruption of light and sound chased us out of this infernal black hole and into a region truly and fully lit with the light of the sun once more.