Boom-times have come again

The door worked for Annistæ, much as I suspected it might, but when it clicked open easily for Sarah, I said, “no time like the present. Deborah, show Sarah where that lock needs oil, and I'll dose the hinges with my oil-vial and an awl.”

I soon found that I had help, as Annistæ had an awl of some kind also, and within three minutes we had the door oiled and the lock dosed such that its working now bordered on the inaudible. As we then hotfooted down the stairs, I asked, “what should we take, dear, beyond our rifles, a machine pistol for Esther, some more bagged ammunition and magazines, some grenades, a few firebombs, and..?”

“And food,” said Sarah. “We will wish at least two jugs of beer and two loaves of bread in bags, and I hope to buy two more jugs on the way to Willem's, as that boat will wish all the jugs of beer we can carry safely and the easiest way to get them is to buy them two at a time at a number of Public Houses.”

“Easiest?” I asked.

“If you buy three or more jugs at a time and your party isn't particularly large, then the witches suspect something needs them looking close at you and yours,” said Deborah. “One jug is common, as are two if you look like you've been traveling hard, but three jugs usually needs a long stay in such a place to keep the witches from thinking you're about to try something they don't like – and if you two stop, I'd pick smaller towns, stop at the Public House only in such towns only unless it's a safe town, go out of town the way you came in, then go across country until you hit a road going where you want.”

“Sounds like you need to contribute to the rat-catcher's manual,” I said. “You told me something I had no idea about.”

“I think not,” said Deborah as we went past the third floor landing. “I think you would move sufficiently fast on that horse that no witch could keep up with you, and I've seen how you can move when you're afoot. You hide better than I do.”

“How else do you think he did the Swartsburg twice, dear?” said the soft voice. “You just simply put into words something he mostly knew but was too busy to write down in that book he spoke of.” Pause, then, “you may wish to coordinate matters for the trip while the two of them are gone today.”

“You?” I asked. This was the plural form. The word translated as 'you-all' implied a number greater than two.

“Both women will be measured for clothing once you two leave, while Hans and Anna help Hendrik and Maria try to understand what is needed for 'right now'. You'll need to speak briefly, this mostly while you gather your supplies for the rest of the day's trip – and I'd pack plenty of ammunition in magazines and bagged in your packs as well, as well as a machine pistol apiece and a half-dozen magazines for your weapons, in addition to what you plan to give Esther and Willem.”

“And a smaller ledger for notes, as he will come up with matters fit for a list,” said Sarah. “I know that much.”

“Yes, but much of that will need its collection today,” said the soft voice. “That's where the two women come in – as both of them know how to travel through hostile country without expecting reliable aid from any sources beyond what they themselves could find – and as you and some others have suspected, both of them are marked.”

“Hence your cousin... My, she could do up a better list than I could!”

“Not quite, but she will be able to help a good deal, as will Annistæ,” said the soft voice. “She's made one long and hazardous trip, with the Valley's equivalent of a great-find-crush-kill called out upon her, and Deborah has been dodging witches for many years.”

“Eleven hundred and eighty miles on foot, with the first portion carrying some bullet wounds and shedding lead...” I gasped, then, “you might as well be Rachel of the...”

“Non, I am not her, even if my family is said to have had her as an ancestor from long ago,” said Annistæ. “I do not look like her, nor did I dodge hundreds of old-witches, nor did I become what the witches name Besté.”

“Beast,” I said. “M-monster.”

“Yes, that is what they said of her, and she was no such thing,” said Annistæ. “She killed many Cabroni, and we have some of her writings, these chiseled into copper so that they will endure until there are no more Cabroni and the world and all that is in it obeys Déo in every way that it should.”

We were now traveling down the last run of the back stairs, and when the four of us showed, as if by magic, Anna opened the door as I was reaching for the doorknob. She was shaking her head side to side slowly, then as I came in, she whispered, “it's almost like he's got a fetish hidden in his trousers, what with the trouble he's having with these plans again.”

Does he?” I asked. “If he does, then it needs to go where it belongs.”

The result was utterly unexpected: Hendrik's desk erupted a geyser of paper, the drawers shot out to hit the floors with loud crashing bangs, then as he backed away, his desk leaped up to waist height and toppled over onto its side like a gut-shot bacon-sized pig. A high-pitched screaming noise seemed to ring in the air, and I found one of my pry-bars in my possible bag.

I didn't need a two-foot example now; this was not 'we show them the tools, and they tell us – hopefully – what they know'. This was a matter that required care, finesse, and perhaps some choice words mingled with silent or whispered prayers – and as if I'd been preparing for it, I leaped over the upturned desk, and saw nailed to the underside a chiseled brass 'shield' covered with runes. It looked older than time due to its tarnished aspect, but when I had pried it up and then used my smaller sheet-metal shears to cut it into several fragments, the noise the thing made – a deathly high-pitched shrieking that continued during the whole time I was using my shears – was enough to make me spit like a snake. Finally, I had endured enough of this noisy rubbish, and my irritation came out in what I said next.

Brass, eh?” I spat. “I know just the thing for you. Find one of those stinking Powers, that new-minted stinker down south wherever he's currently hiding himself, and then get inside his throat and cut his head off from the inside out.”

The brass vanished with a muffled thud, and as Hendrik began to sort though the mess 'I' had made of his desk, he was shaking his head. “If there was time, I would say you needed to search the whole house proper for fetishes, but there isn't nearly that much time...”

“No, he does not have nearly enough time right now,” said Anna, “but I seem to be developing a sense of such matters, as I spoke of you acting like you had a bad fetish hidden in your trousers, almost – and if I feel like this within a day and some of having one of my toes removed, then...”

“Not just the loss of your toe, but also how it was removed,” I said. “It seems that markings incurred while fighting witches count a lot more than commonplace ones, and only those one is born with that are too severe to hide count for much more.” The unspoken words: “like what I was born with.”

“That, and I could feel something the moment I walked into this room,” said Annistæ. “I think we can find such things in here, though it will take us more work and time than it does him.” A pause, then, “he spoke of things you needed to do so your stomach does not eat itself up from worry while we were traveling up to those rooms on the fourth floor.”

“What is up there?” asked Hans.

“A fit place for a Kemikalé's shop,” said Annistæ. “Once it is done so it is usable to a degree, I will teach you as I can, and that for the both of you two, as you both must know these things, and know them as well as I can teach you.” Pause. “They are very important, that much I do know. They are very important.”

“Doubled emphasis,” I thought. “That's the way you're supposed to speak of such matters, and no one does it any more.”

“Recall the work of that one pendant-bearer who was supposed to straighten people's speech out and instead made matters a great deal worse in the process of becoming a bad witch?” asked the soft voice. “You recognized that grammatical error right away.” Pause, then, “overseas, their speech is very close to how it should be, so it will be a shock for everyone who goes except you – and you will find the grammar book for this language while you're overseas.”

Hendrik, for all his 'poor grammar', did not lack for diligence, and within what seemed moments, he had put his desk to rights. He seemed to be missing something, and when he asked, “where did most of that paperwork go?” Deborah didn't wait.

“It was sent by witches to keep you busy so as to waste your time and give it to them instead,” she said. “I saw many of their markings on some of that stuff before it went off with that one curse-plate – and I have seen those before, also, both real ones like the one he cut up, and drawings of them done by my relatives so as to fight witches better.” A pause, then, “ignorance will get you killed if you must deal much with witches.”

“R-real ones?” I asked, meaning brass plates like I had 'destroyed' and sent off as a series of 'knives for the throats of witches'. I now knew those brass pieces hadn't just decapitated that one Power: they'd cut down a number of that man's retinue, which meant another 'war for succession' would soon commence in the area – and that area, at least those not witches, was becoming thoroughly disgusted with the witches and their interminable warfare – disgusted enough to actually shoot at the witches, and not merely close their shops until the gunfire ceased and the witches lay dead and dying in their blood-riven streets.

“They put those on coaches,” said Deborah, “and every coach that has had one of those things smelled worse than the usual, it rolled stiffly, and then it tended to glow red at times, though this was not the red of burning coals.” A pause, then, “it was this strange purplish-red color, and that thing that you just pried up was glowing the exact same way.”

“But how...” Hendrik was very confused.

“Just when did you get that desk?” I asked. “A new one, right – you were new here, just elected, and you fell for letting those stinking witches called Generals order you a brand-new slave-made deluxe fetish-desk fit for an arch-witch, in hopes you'd actually become an arch-witch.” A pause, then, “I'll bet a stack of gold monster coins that very thing is mentioned somewhere in that letter-collection, and that curse-covered brass plate was a tricky brute, waiting until you needed to do something....”

I paused, then gasped, “the deep-hole. It's triggered a bunch of things, and those two fetishes were among them.”

“Precisely, which is why you have this opportunity to liberate that island to the west and gain a much-needed ally in fighting witchdom – and you want this ally badly.”

“Uh, why, other than they aren't about to compromise short of the bitter end?” I asked.

“That would be part of it, but only part,” said the soft voice. “Recall that they will 'read' you completely when you're examined over there after taking the place?” Pause, then, “that will get onto them far more than learning of what the Mistress of the North had planned to do, as your coming was the very thing that witch had feared the most.”

“She almost didn't know the meaning of the word 'fear',” I muttered.

“For the most part, that was utterly true,” said the soft voice. “There was one thing, however, that put terror in her heart and death upon her mind frequently, and that was 'the return of the monster'.” Pause, then, “and when they examine you after you liberate the place, they'll have an answer as to just what she – and by extension, all witches then and now – feared and fear most.”

“And now, your own fears,” I said calmly, as I began to reload a magazine with loose rounds from a bag labeled as having 'all-purpose bullets'. I wanted at least six full-loaded magazines, those being full-to-the-brim and then three rounds pushed out to prevent the springs from sacking or possible failures to feed. This 'simple' task seemed oddly calming, and I spoke absent-mindedly to whomever in the room might listen to what advice I had.

“First, you'll need to plan things at that job site such that everyone concentrates on what he does best,” I said, as I continued to stuff the 'all-purpose' rounds into the magazine. By the feel, I had at least ten more to put in it before I could push three back out. “Then, special tools, many of which have showed already. You'll need to keep hands on those things all hours of the day and night, with four overlapping shifts so that everyone stays on track with what needs to be done...” A pause as I 'filled' the magazine and began pushing out the three top rounds, each such round clinking to accentuate the chief point of what I was now saying: “I'm sorry, I cannot be in two places at the same time, and I cannot tell you what to do as if you were a witch-puppet and I were an arch-witch.”

“I know,” muttered Hendrik. “It's really hard to do anything when you've been living a lie for four decades and more, and have just learned it to be one of those, and you're scared mindless that you're headed straight for the plate of Brimstone no matter what you might do or how hard you try to do right.”

“Then listen carefully to what he says, and do that as best you can while spending as much time on your knees as you can possibly manage,” said Deborah. “That's what I had to do, and that in Boermaas for six long and lonely years when I had witches after me night and day.”

“Each shift of the four to be no more than eight hours in length, with a break every two hours,” I said as I began working on another magazine. Two tracers in the bottom, then more all-purpose rounds. I'd want at least one mag for hollow-points, in case I needed to 'get onto' a black dog or three, and another with those 'hot' tracers, as I wanted to test those on any coaches that might show. “Beer-carriers with a pair of chilled jugs to give beer as needed; each worker to have his own bagged mug and bread-bag hanging from his belt with ready-cut pieces of bread, or better, Kuchen to put in them at the start of each shift; food carriers, and mobile soup-kitchens that move to the job-site with hot food so people can eat often so as to keep their strength up...”

Frantic scribbling. I could almost see the dust flying from the surfaces of at least two ledgers.

“Everyone needs to do their best, every hour of every day, and that every second they're awake – and they will need dosing so they will sleep soundly,” I said. “right now, the chief labor is surveying out the foundations of that addition, then digging the hole...” I paused, then, “will those people from the fourth kingdom be able to understand those drawings?”

“I wonder,” said Hendrik. “I truly do. I know that no one up here bothers with plans, even that smelly long-bearded man whose name I disrecall, and now these plans...” Pause, this to ponder for perhaps three seconds, each seemingly an hour in length. “They make the Heinrich works' drawings seem as if the scribbling of a child.”

“Mostly because the Heinrich works either copies old things slavishly, brings in things secretly and sells them under their name, or in some few cases, a marked person comes up with an idea and develops it to the point where it actually can be built by a pack of curse-chanting brainless witch-puppets.” I then almost bit my tongue, as I'd uttered blasphemy. I could almost hear the cries of 'death to the witch and his evil speech'.

“I never saw it that way before,” said Sarah softly, “but now that I think about it, you're right. They don't chant there, not even out of the book, and they are careful, but the only people who seem able to do things that are new or really important in that place are marked – and the others more or less do those things they are able to do adequately.”

“Which is far less than you might think possible, even for that place,” I muttered. “The only reason the fourth kingdom survives is because there are more marked people in the central portion of that place than anywhere else in the five kingdoms, if you don't count those places that exclude others out of concern for their safety.”

A pause to fit a last round to fill the magazine I was currently working on, then as I pushed out the first round of the three needed, “back to this work at the Abbey. As for surveying, at least those from the fourth kingdom can do that work passably, even if they are slow enough to make me wish to spit small nails and a few fifteen-line rivets, and the same for digging, as the prevalent attitude of the first kingdom's really starting to rub off on those new arrivals.”

Set the magazine aside, start on another. My hands knew their business. All that practice long years ago was starting to pay off, and the life I had lived four decades and more on another planet was paying off also. That educated what I said next.

“They think... No, it's more a lot more than just 'think' on their part about how this needs doing, and how much time they have, and how much time, effort, and supplies are needed to 'do the job right', just like at home – which is slow, chiefly because the witches demand that it be so, with the witches showing themselves indeed full-loaded and black-faced in the broad shining light of daylight.”

I laid the magazine aside, and started topping up another. I'd brought a total of eight, I now realized, and I wanted all of them ready for business – even if I doubted I'd do a lot of shooting beyond perhaps a few rounds at that one thread-seller's place, a few more in Ploetzee, then at any witches that showed on our long trip to first the Abbey and then Paul's town, that being 'Laidaan'. I had not known its name before this time, as it had never been spoken in my recollection. I then had more words, these being spat as if I had just tasted forty-chain brandy.

“These people arriving honestly believe they've got all the time in the world, as the 'best' people in the fourth kingdom aren't in any hurry to leave their 'high-paying jobs' down there.” A pause, then, “send south what you currently have of that documentation, with a promise for more when I come back. I can clearly see the point now of needing to rule with an iron fist and a drawn sword, as witches and witch-slaves listen to nothing else – and everyone who isn't marked, or who has not eaten grass in hell, is one or the other of those things.”

I then noticed that I had somehow ceased stuffing the magazine I had been working on, and instead, my sword had somehow found my hand. That wasn't what was troubling me; I'd had things like it happen before, at least since coming here.

What was troubling was the wild and franticly energetic electrical storm that seemed to be leaping and dancing along the whole length of the blade, with foot-long lightning bolts of violent blue-white energy spitting off of the central 'pole', much as if I were holding one of Nikola Tesla's finest coils. I held it up, noting how it lit up the entire office with a flickering bluish-white actinic light, one that reminded me of but one place and the one who lived there.

I then asked, “now do you get the picture? It isn't just me ranting and raving like I've downed an entire jug of forty-chain, like some drunk-as-a-stinker fool of an arch-witch. I'm owned by this pendant, and the weight of this entire world rests upon my shoulders, and I can only do one thing at a time, because I'm as human as anyone else in this room – so it's me that's due for the ulcer, not you.” A pause, then, “and why this thing is doing this is beyond me, save for one possible reason, and you probably can guess as to just who is probably behind it.”

“I think he has told you all he can right now,” said Anna. “If you wish more answers, there's but one place to go.”

“Hell, so as to eat grass for a season?” asked Hendrik. He meant it, and that entirely.

“No, on your knees,” said Deborah. “He's not God. God is God, and all he” – here, she indicated me – “can do is do as he's told, just the same as you – and I can tell you that he does not have all the answers.” A pause, then, “I think everyone in this room right now knows who does.”

Deborah then saw what I was trying to put away – the light show had ceased, thankfully, even if the sword still glowed an eerie bluish-white that was but slowly fading – and she drew closer as I managed to slip it into its sheath with that quiet yet deadly-sounding hissing noise. Quietly, she said, “that one was unlike any sword I have ever seen.”

“It usually does not light up like that,” I said, this quietly. “I was about at the end of my tether right there, as I have to go across the sea.” Pause. “Why? Because if those of us who are going don't do that, and there do what we must, then we all might as well cut our own throats and let the witches contest things among each other until Brimstone takes it all.”

“Why is that so?” she asked.

“Because those people over there know a great many things that we need to learn,” I said, “and they need many things that we have in abundance – and we both have more than our share of witches to deal with, only theirs either act like prewar witches and are everywhere, or they're so well hidden that they're going to take a great deal of hard work to find and then deal with – and while the blue-suited thugs that are everywhere have their chief strength in their vast numbers, those others – their chief strength is guile for the most part, and in the case of a handful of those people, they're able curse-tossers.”

“That, and there's a lot of very old cursed things that are hidden over there,” said the soft voice. “By the way, Sarah's been busy writing what you were speaking of, and now Hendrik has some idea of what he needs to do.”

“Not much he can do right now, save get that report worked on and get 'the first draft' headed south to those who will listen,” I said. “The other business will just blunder along, stupidly, just as if it has all the time in the world...”

“Not quite that badly, even if you are right about most people at the site thinking they have a lot more time than they actually do.”

“Twenty years?” I asked.

“The estimate of the fourth kingdom's king was closer to eight months, actually, but he thought the existing building needed little more than an extensive cleaning and some modest level of modification.”

“And if he knew the truth...”

“He will know the day after tomorrow, as he's actually coming to the wedding,” said the soft voice. “That 'ceremony' gives him a potent excuse to come up here to deal with the vastly-more important matter involved with the Abbey's addition, as all he has to go by are the original plans of the place as they were drawn up by people that had escaped from there and gone to Vrijlaand – and they were faded, water-damaged, and badly done in the bargain.” Pause, then, “what Hendrik received when he sent word south asking for a copy of those plans was a witch-mangled and witch-abbreviated copy of a bad document – a document intercepted while traveling via the post.”

“That fourth kingdom man doesn't yet understand that using the usual channels guarantees the witches will learn about what he sends that way, does he?”

“The post generally is safe enough in most of the fourth kingdom, and some parts of the third,” said the soft voice. “The chief region for interception and tampering is in the northern half of the second kingdom, with the southern third of the first kingdom, until very recently, being a very close second.” A pause, then, “there aren't enough 'ready' witches to do postal interception right now save in some few parts of the second and fifth kingdoms.”

“As in 'those people got kicked upstairs, and their replacements are new to the job'?” I asked.

“That, they're new to the lives of witches, they're new to the use of those drugs, and in general, witchdom is running out of 'smart' people in many places in the five kingdoms – and it takes a certain level of intelligence to do a 'decent' job of postal interception, fraud, and a number of other things that are mentioned in that letter collection.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Recall the effects of those drugs?” asked the soft voice. “How they make people mindlessly follow orders because someone 'in charge' issued them?” Pause, then, “between the effects of being new to the lives of witches for the newcomers and the witches in leadership either becoming dead or drunken brain-damaged fools, witchdom, at least in the five kingdoms, is genuinely running out of smart people.” A pause, then, “that, however, means less than one might think, as 'witch-idiots' tend to give spirits a most-free rein – and these new people and older 'idiots' are becoming most inhabited indeed.”

I then noted that I had somehow resumed stuffing ammunition in magazines, and when I looked to reload another magazine – I had but one remaining of the eight, to my surprise – I discovered that I had received a certain amount of help with loading up my 'soldier's load'.

“How did you..?”

“I saw what you were doing, and I was showing Deborah how to do this work,” said Annistæ. “Besides, that man over there needs time alone so as to think and get his worrying done, and then get on his knees, as he will not get an answer until he does that.”

“Yes, I know,” muttered Anna. “I might not be able to stuff these things more than half-full, but I stuffed four of them for you.”

“They need to have their followers relieved and their springs, uh, changed...”

The magazine that Anna was holding – it was the fourth one she'd been filling – suddenly shook crazily, such that she had to hold onto it with both hands as her eyes grew wider and the magazine tried to 'escape'; then once the shaking of the thing had subsided, she then began stuffing more rounds in it as if her life depended upon her doing so.

“Ai, now it is working right,” said Annistæ. “These things felt as if they were full of sand from El Vallyé, and now... What is this writing here on this polveré? It is like none I have seen before.”

“The writing in the older portion of the book, which is the larger one of the two portions,” said Anna. “I think these magazines ch-changed...” Anna began looking at the one she was holding for a minute, then, said, “it no longer says it holds thirty-two of these..”

“How much does it hold?” asked Sarah, as she fetched out a cloth bag of cartridges.

“It says it holds forty,” said Anna, “and this writing here says...” A brief period of squinting, much as if engrossed in thought, then, “positive-feeding magazine, with precision-machined follower and constant-tension spring.”

“Ai, it is much easier and quicker to load,” said Annistæ. “See if there are others like these that have changed, as we will wish them to be handy for rats and Cabroni.”

Within perhaps five minutes, the matter of the magazines had become obvious: my commenting had caused a major change in all of the machine-pistol magazines, so much so that they were effectively new items. More, they had previously had a single-six hexadecimal designator, but now it was a double-six number, this surrounded by a shield – and somehow, struck through the markings, were the dreaded block letters R. C. S. in stippled form, these forming a strange background for the other clearer markings.

“Secret magazines?” I asked.

“No, they aren't,” said the soft voice. “They never got this far with them.”

“Then why the RCS designator?” I asked.

“Because instead of getting those newer magazines, you'll wish to have these copied,” said the soft voice, “as well as ask to have certain new parts made or existing parts gone over that will occur to you beyond your current thinking on the matter.” Pause, then, “the magazine design change alone significantly improves the weapon's reliability, by the way, and if you surface treat most of the wear-prone parts in these, that will do well enough until the lines can be tooled up to start making more of these weapons with the improvements that have and will occur to you.”

“Especially with that new-production propellant,” I said. “They'll need serious upgrading to last any real amount of time at all shooting that stuff.”

“No, they'll manage more than that,” said the soft voice. “Remember, most people that will have these aren't going to be shooting like they're members of a 'heavy scout team' doing house-to-house fighting where they're using that 'scary' setting a lot.” Pause, then, “the usual use, both here and over there, will be much as Anna has used hers today – single shots, two or three at a time, perhaps once or twice a day.”

“Load it up on Sunday and shoot all week,” I muttered.

“That, realistically, is what the average shooter of these weapons both here and overseas will manage,” said the soft voice. “Three to four thousand rounds of 'hot' ammunition gives ample time to tool up a production line for the improved versions.”

“Hot?” I asked.

“About another thirty yards range in general,” said the soft voice. “That, realistically, is about as far as most shots are going to be over there for the majority of people – a hundred meters or less, which means 'hit him somewhere in the upper half of the torso, and the functionary or witch drops right now'.”

And yet, as I continued stuffing magazines, I could hear what sounded like prayer. I wondered if I were going to do some house-clearing today, and as if in a dream, I had a strange feeling...

A wide street, a deserted-seeming town, a stray dog – rare indeed and seldom seen in the first kingdom – yapping, then a sudden scream, and a swarm of pigs ripped out of a house, the door going to kindling and the window splintering as the pigs used both exits in profusion. They all – from Shoeten to swine sized fit for preparing bacon – were screeching as if they were on fire.

Thankfully, these were common pigs, and not those nasty black animals that seemed to have as much iron inside of them as they at times wore outside, and when I hit these pigs with the machine pistol, the usual 'triple-tap' – the first round hitting just behind the animal's shoulder joint and the next two behind it going rearward about three inches apart – dumped El Porko on his nose.

I then discovered the big advantage with this type of weapon: it had very low recoil in 'single-fire', though full-auto required a firm grip, short bursts, and aiming low to account for the weapon's tendency to rise and move to the right. Aiming a foot or more low usually made sure some bullets hit the target.

El Porko, however, tended to ignore misses, save where they made him run faster; and therefore two or three shots hitting just behind his front leg usually slowed him quickly and dropped him in a minute or two. During that time, he did not go far, and save for screeching like a marmot caught in a wringer-style washing machine, he did very little.

I then came back to the present, and heard Hendrik exclaim, “now I understand!”

“Yes?” I asked. My hands were still working, as now, I was doing a hasty weapons cleaning session, and I had two women watching me with serious expressions and grimly intent eyes.

“I had to read what Sarah had written about five times before it started to sink in, that and find the pages in these plans here that describe how to actually conduct that excavation,” said Hendrik. “The fourth kingdom's master builders could not come up with this information in a week if they worked your hours, and if I went by her speech, you spoke of the matter in seconds.”

“Yes?” I asked. There was more to be heard, even if my hands were finishing up the job of cleaning my rifle. It had surprisingly little dirt in its action, but I did not wish to take unnecessary chances, and I would do the same with the machine pistol and the other weapons I had used thus far today.

There were not likely to be many chances to clean anything again until we arrived at Willem's house, and we would need to truly hurry between here and that location – and we would do some shooting. The only issue was 'how much'.

“I hope you can speak such sense to those overseas,” said Hendrik, “as the way I see it, the only reason you have four people going over with you is to provide security, and...”

“No, it is much more than just that,” said Sarah. “Here, read this part again until you understand what it is saying. It speaks of the need to take that place from those running it and give it to those who live there.”

I resumed giving my full attention to my rifle, then as I finished it and slipped it back together and pressed in the securing pin, I heard someone else do the same thing. I looked up to see Deborah with another such rifle, and she was softly wondering as to the differences between mine and hers.

“There are more of this type, dear,” I said, indicating mine, “but we did not think to get more than a few of them. The others are much more common, and both types are very accurate – with this type being a bit more so and easier to use if you wish to make every shot drop a witch.”

“Yes, and then you must take Gabriel,” said Maria, “as the third kingdom's port will only treat with a king's officer, and they will expect him to be wearing clothing fit for such duties...”

“As it is right now, yes,” I said. “Once the place has been cleaned out...” I shook my head, then pointed to the place on my chest where the pendant lay hidden. I could feel the jewels surrounded by their golden setting lying there. “Between cleaning that place up and perhaps showing three people what I've been given to, then about all Gabriel needs to do is fill out some paperwork – they won't ditch that overnight – handle some monetary fees of one kind or another, and then actually be 'present' in some fashion both in the port and across the sea.”

“Which would normally need such clothing as you caused to become p-purple and g-g-green,” said Maria. What happened next was so surprising I nearly keeled over in shock.

Maria utterly howled with laughter, so much so that she nearly fell down. After finding a chair, she then screeched, “purple and green do not go together with one another, and only a fool – someone who existed to entertain rich people in an old tale – would wear such colors.”

“That, or someone in a Pump and Tilly show,” said Deborah. “They often wear strange colors then.”

“But not in the third kingdom,” I said, with utmost seriousness. “Showing purple and green, while it most likely belongs in a laughing contest as to see who looks the most ridiculous, would be thought of as the clothing of Cardosso himself, or that of a close associate at the least.”

“Not after that place has its pirates cleared out,” said Sarah. “My, this works a lot better. I've put thirty-five of these things in, and my thumbs are not sore.” Pause, then, “use these things to drive off most of the drink-house patrons, and...”

“Perhaps a round mine or three, also,” I added. “We could use some satchel-charges, or a few metal pears – whatever looks likely when we get there, actually.”

“If we do that,” said Sarah, “then that place will listen to sense, if it is presented reasonably.”

“Which we will do,” I said. “Granted, most of those smelly drink-house patrons will be providing meals for a certain most-unpleasant reptile, but they will, to a man, not be present to cause trouble – and that suffices for our purposes.”

“You left out one other matter,” said Maria, as she came closer to watch what I was going to do next, namely do a hasty cleaning of a machine pistol. “The king of the third kingdom has long suspected he has had witches causing trouble in that area, and if you clean up that port, then...”

“That place already has a lot fewer witches compared to two days ago,” said Sarah. “If the port is cleared of them, then there will be very few of them left in that kingdom, and of those that remain, most will either leave the kingdom for a safer location in all haste, or they will hide themselves most thoroughly for quite some time.”

I had begun dismantling the machine pistol I was planning on using when as if by magic, Andreas showed. He seemed impressed, much as if he commonly dealt with such toys regularly. He then asked, “now, how well do those round squibs I saw work?”

“Altogether too well,” said Deborah. “He was tossing those things with both hands, and they were blowing up witch-houses left and right, and that was in that one town.”

“Which is now a very large and smoky hole full of broken up pieces of bad iron,” said Andreas. “We can use that metal, though how Frankij will devour that much is much of a mystery.”

“Not just him, Andreas,” said Sarah. “Those people across the sea will bring furnaces also, and I suspect they would like such metal.”

“They will, dear,” I said, “even though they most likely will prefer it in cleaned-up ingot form with a semi-known composition.”

“That is not the reason I came here,” said Andreas – who now seemed to be addressing everyone in the room. “The gathering of coins is going well, with perhaps one coin in three being usable as it is once doused in hot lye solution...”

“You will wish to save that used lye,” said Annistæ, “as I can make things out of it.”

“What would those be?” asked Andreas. “Lard makes poor soap, or so I hear.”

“Non, not soap,” said Annistæ. “Farolcumbusteblé can use most types of animal fat in its production, though it is best to use these small fish that are filled with oil.”

“And what does that liquid work in?” asked Andreas.

“Wick-lanterns,” said Annistæ. “They give much more light than candles, even wax ones, they do not cause fires no matter how careless one is, and they are very cheap to run.” A pause, then, “I have smelled much bad tallow here. I could easily make it into such lantern fuel, and I know where to get a number of these lanterns.”

“Tinkers?” I asked. “Perhaps you know two or three?”

“I know most of them,” she said, “and I heard a stringed instrument being played here, so I know there is someone in the building I can ask about lanterns.”

“I was told there was someone making lantern fuel...”

“That is what I meant,” she said. “To make proper farolcumbusteblé, the kind that neither smokes nor smells when it burns, one needs the proper metals for the catalysts, then cast metal reactors with controlled heating, and finally, a good filter, one with first fine sand and then special charcoal – and the crude fuel works poorly, compared to that which is made correctly.”

“Which you know how to make, I hope?” I meant the charcoal.

, I do,” she said. “More, I know how to make the common type and the special type that works especially well, and that we used to sell to tinkers who would go to this large market to the west to sell it there.” A slight laugh, then, “I think they made their eating money doing that, so all else they received from their travels was pulqué.”

“Pulqué?” I asked. “A drink of some kind?”

“It is like beer here, only not as good on the tongue,” said Annistæ. “If I had the choice, I would choose beer, and put the pulqué in those animals that scream so they will be silent.”

“She does not like marmots,” said Deborah. “There, that magazine is stuffed.”

“Three cârtuchæ out of a full one, Deborah,” said Annistæ. “Full is only good if you plan on emptying it very soon. If you must hold it in readiness, then a long magazine wishes full minus three cârtuchæ, or a shorter one minus one or two cârtuchæ.”

I continued cleaning the machine pistol, but as I wiped its parts down, I was praying so as to see what actually needed to be 'redone' on these weapons. For some odd reason, whenever I cleaned a part carefully, I was noting a need for certain contours to be subtly changed as to shape, a smoother and much harder surface, and then subtle relieving in many small places, such that unburnt powder and 'dirt' could accumulate to a degree without tying up the weapon. Finally, I knew that this weapon needed a means of keeping oil 'handy' in much of its action.

My mind seemed to have gone blank, for now, as I was assembling the wiped-clean parts to the weapon, I was noting a great many differences, most of them subtle – and many of them less than subtle. I was seeing a lot of mottled gray-black parts now, as well as mirror-polished areas with small oil-holding 'pits' present, these often in the shape of triangles and seeming to be etched by a laser if I went by how sharp they seemed to be. As I slipped the bolt in the bolt carrier and inserted the pin, I noted a drastic change: before, there had been a tiny amount of 'slop', while now, there was none whatsoever. The bolt worked with an eerie smoothness, so much so that as I slipped everything back together, I shook my head as if dealing with a blasting gelatin headache – one that made the once-familiar term migraine seem trivial – then asked, “what did I just do?”

“A great deal, so much so that I'd have that weapon's parts copied rather than attempt to draw anything regarding them.”

“Uh, the parts have become harder?”

“The alloy content of the steel parts became significantly higher overall, and most of those parts now have a 'deep' and 'wide' strengthening, rather than the shallow wear-prone quality that was there beforehand,” said the soft voice. “Then, the weapon's barrel changed slightly.”

“Slightly?” I asked.

“It's now gain-twist rifled, hard-lined so it's much less prone to fouling, slight taper to maintain a tight seal, and then highly polished, so your muzzle velocity is nearly a hundred meters a second faster with the same ammunition.” A pause, then, “it's quite close to seven hundred meters per second with the ammunition you currently have – and that weapon can eat 'the hot stuff' as if it were toasted rye bread smeared with cherry jam.”

“Another thirty to fifty yards range, then, and it hits with more authority at all ranges,” I murmured. I then looked at Andreas. I suspected I knew where Deborah had gone, given the mention of jam.

“I had no idea you understood such matters to that degree,” he said. “Now, you spoke of my pots and how to run them. You know of that business also?”

“That, and much more,” said Annistæ. “This weapon changed in its parts as I cleaned it, and now it is much better, almost like one out of our old tales.” A pause, then, “I do not know where he went to school, but he did not go to the usual places that I have heard of – both in El Vallyé and on this side of the Red Mountains, and I have seen the best and the worst of them.” She looked, then said, “she must be after the cherries and some bread, bread that is fried in a fryer which has been but wiped with oil after heating it. She spoke of desiring such food very much.”

“He did not go to school here,” said Sarah, “and she was speaking of toasted bread.” Pause. “I was told he had nearly twenty years of school in total.”

“I thought so,” said Annistæ – who then looked at Andreas. “You wished to speak to her? About her apprenticeship, or rather, where you were apprenticed?”

“Ticklers is what that place is usually called in that part of the fourth kingdom,” said Andreas. “I was doing good work before a year was up, so the seven years were mostly a formality.”

“Why was it called that?” asked Deborah – who had just as suddenly appeared, this with a distinct odor of cherry jam about her, and a reddened 'kitchen rag' in her hand. She finished wiping her face, then belched demurely. “That jam was the first I'd had in months, and I nearly went through a tin of it!”

“First, there is the signpost, which indicates they work in silver and gold,” said Andreas.

“That signpost is weird, Deborah,” I said. “I saw it change from a pole into this animal, and...”

“That is said to be a fairly common thing among people in that area, actually,” said Andreas, “given the fact that my uncle runs the place and has nearly a dozen of those animals in his shop.”

“Don't they get into everything?” I asked. Earthly ferrets were notorious for such behavior, or so I had been told by many who kept them, and I'd been around them enough to know of some of their more peculiar tendencies.

My first instance of encountering such a creature had been most-hilarious, as the little varmint had gone up my trouser-leg, and I had howled with laughter at the sensation of being tickled by its moving.

“Those?” asked Andreas. “Not in the slightest. They're not only very intelligent, but if you can learn their speech, you can ask them for help – and they're very good at doing jewelry, let me tell you.” A pause, then, “the place where they were the most help was in the basement, however, as down there we were reworking these old machines – and there, one wishes one of those animals for a helper, as those machines are impossible to work on otherwise.”

“Basement,” I said. “Twice as wide as the shop itself, goes back behind it into the side of the mountain a good thirty feet, lots of thick columns with lots of places to hang alcohol-burning lanterns that fold out of the way when not being used, has this really well-hid elevator shaft with a hand-cranked elevator good for lifting a pair of horses, and an air shaft with a small fan, this driven by a steam engine made in that shop – one that's far more capable than any Machalaat brothers fetish-built clunker.”

“All of it too true,” said Andreas. “Your engines turn much faster, but then they need to, based on how small they are and the power they need to give.” A pause, then, “given decent tools, however, you're not limited in their size. Your only real limitation now is 'how large do I need them to be'.” Pause, then, “and then, there were the pots. We had those down there, and running their wires, especially from that generator, was an especial source of trouble. We needed those animal's help, as they understood that stuff better than we did.”

“Trouble?” I asked. “How?”

“Such power tends to behave such that even someone like me thinks it wise to speak passages from the book while working on it and pray when and where I can.”

“Bad insulation?” I asked. “No, no insulation – pieces of lathe-turned varnished wood holding it clear from the walls, flat copper strip over an inch wide as a conductor, everything open to the elements, the generator poorly made in general because it was originally made for witches by witches...”

Andreas looked at me, then gasped. “You're probably right, as I only recently heard about the Groesenwerk.”

“I told Hendrik about it when you were in here, Andreas,” said Anna. “Now your wiring was probably done by the same place, wasn't it?”

Andreas nodded, then said, “that place was recommended highly by everyone down there at the time.”

“The Groesenwerk has made nothing but fetishes for witches for quite a long time,” said Anna. “If you treat your equipment like a fetish, then you are worshiping Brimstone, and you might as well make your bones and get your smelly carcass ready to go where it belongs.” Anna then looked at me, for some reason.

“Uh, I was running wiring where I lived when I was the age children start apprenticeships here, and that with no one whatsoever teaching me,” I said. “It was easy for the most part – very simple, in fact.” A pause, then, A pause, then, “my stepfather didn't know enough to stay out of trouble when I was not around, as he wired a switch across the wires, not in line with them, and he nearly started a fire.”

That wretch sounds like a fifth kingdom witch if he did that,” said Sarah. “They chant while they run their plating things.”

“Non, one does not speak at one's pots as if they are alive,” said Annistæ. “One wishes the right volume and pressure of current, the correct chemicals, the right amount of warmth or cold, and the other things needed to make good plating, and the same for refining metals.” A pause, then, “now, do you run your pots across the wires, or in line one to another?”

“I've run them in line, but he” – here, I was indicated – “told me I needed to do it differently, using things I'd never heard of before,” said Andreas. “At least he knows what he is talking about.”

“He should, as he would be named a Brujé for a number of things were he where I came from, and if he were there, whole towns would work hard to keep him safe.” A pause, then, “there is one thing that I miss, and that is music.”

“Music?” I asked. I wondered about the little 'music box' we had found. Could it pick up the Valley's transmitters? Did they have such things?

“Yes, it is played much there, and some have small devices that receive signals, and others transmit in many of the settlements,” said Annistæ. “I think that man I heard play may have done some work in front of a transmitter, but there is one man, and everyone listens to him when he plays, as he is very good.”

“Who is he?” I asked. I was stuffing my vest, and now packing a bag up with supplies. I looked at Sarah, and noted she was getting 'close' to ready also.

Roberto hijé Ion,” she said. “I have heard him several play times, and he can make a stringed instrument sing on all of its strings, and then he can sing too.”

“Sing?” I asked. “All of its strings?”

“Cé, there are eight, and the two thickest form the rhythm, then the melody is done with the central four, and then the two thinnest add to the melody when they are needed,” said Annistæ. “He sounds good whether he is playing his instrument clean or wired.”

“Wired?” I asked.

“Cé, as then he can get tone,” she said. “It sounds like nothing I had ever heard before, but it feels like it will bite your ears, it is so...” She then lapsed into a spray of 'Latin-sounding' language that spoke of a searing sound, one that was so bright, sharp, and shattering that it felt as if nails were driven into one's skull. I'd heard sounds like this before. I knew that much.

“Overdriven,” I thought. “He's running an amplifier, probably using distortion and a bit of feedback to get the right sound, and...”

Annistæ was looking at me, and nodded. “Cé, you understand what I mean by tone.” A pause, then turning so as to address me and Sarah, “I can explain further what is needed to clean up this dirty metal that is being collected here. The two of you must be gone, as the sun is not waiting for either of you.”

“Oh, there's some other matters, things which have nothing to do with coins, but things like what you spoke of,” I said. “One wishes to plate copper wire with silver for best performance in some applications, and gold plating on certain connectors so they do not corrode and develop high resistance.”

“You are speaking of matters that I have no knowledge of,” said Andreas.

“I have some understanding of what you are saying,” said Annistæ. “This is important enough to need you speaking now, but be quick.”

Radios,” I said. “Transmitters. Receivers. Music. News of that witch and what she's doing.”

The room grew a hush. It was speak what was needed now, or not say it for some time.

“Radio frequency energy tends to be mostly at the surface of a conductor due to an induced magnetic field in that conductor, and the higher the frequency, the more that energy flows at or near the surface,” I said. “Hence, plating with silver or gold helps the functioning of such equipment – and there are other alloys...” Here, I paused, and said, “twenty-four parts gold, seventy parts silver, three parts platinum, and the balance copper – and it looks really weird when it's done right. That's that stuff that makes the really high frequencies 'behave' themselves, so you need a lot less 'trickery' to get working equipment that runs such frequencies.”

You left out the special processing needed,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, however, it's easy to apply, as the plating process used for small parts involves a 'wand' and a pot-battery.”

Brush-plating?” I gasped.

Similar in concept, and it once was commonly done,” said the soft voice. “More, that plating builds up to a useful thickness quickly.”

Now you can go,” said Annistæ. “I will explain much to these people, and they can measure me for clothing here, as they can for Deborah once she returns from the privy, as I think she went there after getting her first good meal in much time.”

“She did not go to spew,” said Sarah, as she quickly filled her bag. “I do not think we need the rocket launcher – or do we?”

“If Willem shows tomorrow...”

“He will,” said Sarah. “He knows we found things that work like artillery, so he and Paul may well stay at our house tonight so as to listen in on this teaching you will need to give here.” Pause, “there. Now for the kitchen, and then we must hie ourselves. That thread-seller's place is waiting, and I want that thread they have without their nonsense!”

Behind us, as we left the room and before the door closed, I could hear Anna's speech about Sarah's tone – and yet, even as we crossed the hall of the main floor, I could hear her speak of her suspicions regarding that particular shop – and more, that area, it being a bit to the north of Grussmaan's on the same or a parallel road.

“We will each wish a loaf, a jug of beer...” A pause, then, “if we can carry them, I think I want two loaves and two jugs of beer.”

“Perhaps ask someone to tow a cart behind us with food?” I asked softly. “We would make better time that way, and not strain ourselves unduly by carrying both these bags and our other things.”

“You're right,” said Sarah. “Why did I forget what I learned during my time in the forest?”

“Perhaps you're intent upon toasted bread...” I paused, “no, wrong. Cheese spread.”

“A tin entire, and the same for jam, and a refill of our honey-vials,” said Sarah. “I know you're not picky, but I suspect you'll wish ample cherries over there so as to avoid trouble, especially with your teeth.” A pause, then, “oh, Maria left me a small mirror. I can let you see yourself while I speak to those cooks and ask them about help carrying food for 'a long and difficult journey, two days of travel done in one day's time'.” Pause, then, “they will understand that.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Is that a common line in many old tales?”

“It surely is, especially most of those I have heard told in this area,” said Sarah. “Now you can watch the weapons and get into some beer while I speak to the cooks about our desires for food, as I think it wise – that, and visit the privy. You tend to forget such matters more than anyone I know of.”

Sarah proved right, as once I had staked out a 'new-looking' table – many tables were gone in the refectory, while two more new-looking ones had shown – I needed to head hotfoot for the nearest privy, where I spent several minutes on the stool 'going both ways'. I was glad that was possible with such equipment, as otherwise needing to sit and stand to do both things was annoying.

“They deal well with that issue overseas,” said the soft voice. “The privy-lids here are cut for use by men and women, not for one gender or the other as is commonplace in most Public Houses and places like them.”

“Overseas?” I asked. “Women ship-crew members?”

“Currently the leadership does not permit them to deal with anything on ships, not even medical matters,” said the soft voice. “Their loss, as there are a number of activities aboard ships both surface and submersible where women commonly have a distinct edge over men here.”

“Uh, what?” I asked, as I finished my business. Thankfully, someone had removed the lye, so I only had to deal with the reek of a heavily-used privy that received a lot of attention – both use and cleaning.

“Women used to be trained for many critical activities aboard ship, including that of ship-leader,” said the soft voice. “They tended to panic less in critical situations, especially when given suitable training – but there was one area where they clearly excelled.”

“Which was?” I asked. “Steering the ship?”

“Yes, which is why Pieter Huygens has a mixed crew, as does the ship that does the trip out into the sea between the main continent and that island,” said the soft voice. “The women usually have the best capability as steering-people, and that is especially true at night, as their night vision tends to be somewhat better.” Pause, then, “ask Sarah when she's secured the food about what it was like to steer a ship.”

“Uh, she did that?” I asked.

“Yes, and with no teaching,” said the soft voice. “The ship-leader was not surprised, especially when he looked closely at her hair.”

“Her ears?” I asked, as I left the privy. I wanted to feel mine, as the last time I had done so was during the time of my arrival. It had sufficed then that I had two good ones, but with the sudden growth of my hair...

I felt that first, and to my astonishment, it was fully as long as many women I had seen here. “I have hair like a m-musician,” I muttered, as I began to carefully feel my face with fingers of uncommon sensitivity, even by my standards. That had grown also. I was met at the doorway by Sarah.

“I doubt you need to hunt up a tooth-puller, so why are you feeling your face like that?”

“Have I changed since I got here?” The question of steering a ship had gone clean out of my mind with Sarah's probing 'inquisitory' question. She could easily beat Anna at that business, in fact – or me, were I not so routinely knowing what those I questioned had upon their minds.

“I think so!” said Sarah. “Your face has changed noticeably in the last week, in fact.” A pause, then, “here, take this mirror while I go in the kitchen. Look at yourself, but I think you will wish to be sitting down when you do, as it might show strange sights.”

“N-no,” I said. “I am not planning on, uh, 'mirror-gazing' or whatever witches do to play games.”

“I did not mean that,” said Sarah. “Your face is quite a bit different from when I first saw you, and you might well faint when you see what you look like.”

“Do I look bad?” I asked.

“That depends upon if one is a witch or not,” said Sarah. “I had a dream recently, and in that dream, to look at a face like yours, if one were a witch, would inspire terror worse than any spirit save one, that being the spirit of God.” A pause, then, “to me, you just look like one of my relatives – save in those aspects where you look better than they did.”

I did as instructed, this with a tinned copper mug of beer in one hand and the small mirror – palm-sized – in the other. I decided to get a dose of the widow's tincture beforehand, as I did not wish to be terrified.

When I did so, however, I winced. I had gotten something closer to the bull formula in undiluted form, if I went by the taste of what had been in the tube – and I had gotten much of a tube of the stuff.

“No, it isn't undiluted,” said the soft voice. “That's Sarah's mixture, and Anna's planning on cooking up enough to fill more vials than she has fingers and toes, as the saying is commonplace in this area.” A pause, then, “you'll wish to wash that down with beer, as then you will not be frightened.”

“Uh, why?” I thought, as I did as instructed. “Will I hallucinate, or...”

I drained the cup, then refilled it from the cold jug. Only then, with the mirror in one hand and the cup in the other, did I look.

The first thing I saw were my eyes. They were the same color as I recalled, save the green tint was much more prominent – not grayish green, but now a solid iridescent green, one like the supposed color of envy. The eyebrows, bushy as always, their hairs protruding like those of a wildcat, were now darker and a bit more prominent. The eyes, however...

“I've gone oriental,” I muttered, at seeing eyes like those of people I had once known. “Not like someone from, uh, China or Japan, but like someone from the Philippines – like that one fellow had.”

“True,” said the soft voice. “You can also see a much wider visual spectrum – changed or otherwise.” A pause, then, “you can see nearly as well in infrared as you are now as you did when you were inside that volcano, and the same for ultraviolet. Now, see how close your eyes can focus. Use your thumb.”

I did so, and I found that I could see my thumb clear and sharp when it was nearly touching my eye. Before, I could focus perhaps three inches away when I still wore glasses and took them off.

“That's another reason why you have eyes like you do,” said the soft voice. “Now, look at them more closely. Notice any other details?”

“Uh, larger?” I asked. I was guessing here.

“Not drastically so, but yes, your eyes are 'plus three size', which means they are the largest size documented overseas for those like you.” Pause, this with a distinctive aura of giggling, “they'll think you to be a fit 'space cadet' when they see your eyes.”

“I know I'm spacey enough...”

“Their term for what was called an astronaut or cosmonaut where you came from,” said the soft voice. “It's an intercepted term, and is used to describe people like you.” Pause, then “that screw will really put a fire under them when they find it, as they know about those – and yours especially.”

“That screw?” This time, it was nearly audible.

“Yes, the one near your right ear,” said the soft voice. “Both of your ears are an undocumented size and shape for this world, even if there are intercepts depicting ears like yours. Feel them carefully if you must, or ask Sarah when she returns to hold the mirror for you so you can see one.” Pause, then, “continue looking at your face until she does return, as you need to see what you look like.”

I did so, now noticing the kinked area up near my nose. That had, if anything, become worse than I recalled, and I wondered if it was considered a marking or not. Then, my nose had seemingly not changed as to shape, even if the skin was no longer especially greasy nor filled with that multitude of small pits that needed regular cleaning to avoid troublesome and painful infections.

“Every trace of that skin trouble is gone,” I muttered.

“Mostly because it has been replaced with much worse things,” said the soft voice. “Now, your cheekbones and the lines of your face. Look at them closely.”

Here, I did nearly faint, as the lines and planes of my face stood out in stark hard relief, almost as if the bones in my head had been machined and the machine-operator had not bothered with a file to remove the sharp edges before covering them with a smooth whitish-toned skin. I actually looked like someone from Europe now – eastern Europe, or perhaps Central Europe, like someone from Romania I had once known.

My mouth was the same size, even if...

“No, it's actually a bit smaller than it was when you arrived here,” said the soft voice. “Now, slowly, open your mouth so you can see your teeth.”

I did so, and nearly dropped the mirror in fright, as I had teeth like a beaver – a meat-eating viciously predatory beaver with an vast and ever-hungry appetite, and that being for the incisors both top and bottom – which meshed perfectly, like the shears I had made Sarah or those we had found the day before. Those teeth to the sides, the canines, these both top and bottom, also met in a meshing array of razor-edged spikes, and when I opened my mouth – I had to catch the mirror with my knees, for I had dropped it in shock and terror.

“D-Dracula,” I gasped. “I have teeth like a v-vampire!”

“There never have been anything resembling such tales here, even if there are many tales about those like you – and in many circles, especially those of witches, they would much rather hear tales like the one you mentioned – with themselves being those hunted by such 'witches'.” A pause, then, “more than one witch has had his throat bitten out by someone like you in this area's old tales.”

“No, I'd be spitting for a week,” I said. “Yucky taste, and especially blood. No blood in the food.”

“It will rot quickly if you do not get the blood out of it,” said Sarah. “I see you finally have seen what you look like, at least from the front.”

“N-no facial hair at all,” I murmured.

“It is likely it went to your head,” said Sarah dryly. “Now, do you wish to see your ears?”

“Y-yes?” I said. “I took a dose and drank some beer to wash it down, and...”

Everything was starting to gradually slow down again. It felt as if I were living in a slow-time world, one where one had hours to work to each minute of the real world, and in a seeming daze...

No, this was not a daze. This state was the exact opposite of 'dazed and confused'. My mind seemed as sharp as a lathe-turned and highly polished tack, sharper than normally, quick as lightning.

Sarah grasps the mirror as I part my shoulder-length hair. The stuff is fine, like threads of thin silk, yet its sheer abundance makes it look like a striped dark-chocolate waterfall. I look to the side, and there, I see an ear.

“Eek,” I thought. “I really look like an alien with an ear like that. It's wider by at least half an inch, has this odd oval shape, and this, uh, hooked aspect near the top, with a most-definite point to it.” I then gasped audibly, “hooked?”

“That's the kind of ear it takes to hear better than many animals,” said the soft voice. “By the way, your auditory range is not twenty to twenty thousand 'cycles' any more – it goes a good bit higher.”

“Higher?” I asked.

“You can hear into the ultrasonic range now,” said the soft voice. “That explains what you 'hear' usually when you whistle.” Pause, then, “you know what your whistling does to swine.”

“I know what it does to my head, also,” said Sarah. “I heard part of it when you drove those pigs out of hiding, and it nearly gave me a sick-headache.” Pause, then, “Karl will be out directly, as I gave him a list he can start on once we leave.”

“List?” I asked.

“I had to ask him some questions after asking for the food,” said Sarah. “I wrote down at least ten things for him and Sepp to fetch in town or places nearby, and I told him to expect another such list, one that is longer, sometime later today.” The faint sound of wheels, these rubber-shod, now came to my ears, and Karl showed, his rifle slung and a trouser-pocket obviously bulging with a pistol.

“I hope you do not have one under the hammer, Karl,” said Sarah. “You do not wish to shoot off your toes.”

“Lukas told me about that,” said Karl, as he towed our cart. Both of our bags had gone on it, and now we all moved faster. It made me wonder if we wished to take one of the carts in dismantled form on the trip. “I got in that habit with rotating pistols, and though it is harder with these, I do the same.”

“The rifle also,” I said. “Dry chamber, safety off, magazine full less three.”

“You'd best speak of that tomorrow during your teaching, and I hope you can get better magazines for those shorter weapons, as the most I have seen anyone put in them is twelve of those brass and copper things.”

“They were made badly, Karl,” said Sarah. “We have some now that are much better, and we might be able to get you some of those tomorrow.” We were walking along the main floor now, out in the open, the light still that of morning, perhaps an hour before the usual time of 'the morning guzzle' at the shop where I worked. I could feel a certain buggy being readied for its trip out of Ploetzee, and I wondered for a moment if I would need to drive it to where we lived. Sarah then looked at me.

“You'll need to check that thing at Ploetzee before it goes off,” said Sarah. “Georg had his team of four taken there three days ago, and I suspect they've been gone over as to their shoeing.”

“How?” I asked, regarding Georg's team being taken to Ploetzee. That place seemed more or less large enough to be self-sufficient, and more, it seemed to have a definite need to come close to that state regardless.

“I think Lukas was involved,” said Sarah. “Beyond that, I'm not terribly sure, even if I do know that buggy is ready for delivery.”

“Georg will like it, I hope,” I murmured.

“He should,” said Sarah. “Those who work wood in Ploetzee are fully as good as those in the boatwright's shop here, and I need to stop there for a minute once the horses are gathered and hitched.”

That proved easy enough – I was able to help Sarah to a degree this time – and while Jaak was 'handy', his aired out blanket on his back, I went into the boatwright's shop with Sarah. I had a distinct idea as to what she was after, at least until she found a long 'cane' tube, this in two parts and joined with an obviously machined metal socket.

“Good, it merely needs some drying oil or that wood treatment,” she said. “I'm glad I can get the needles readily.”

“That one shop has a lot of suitable ones, though they've never sold them to you before,” I murmured.

“Then we will secure them today,” said Sarah. “Now for the flail-pieces.”

Those were under cover, seemingly waiting for inspection, and when I picked up one of these pieces, I noted their length – that varied, but the shortest pieces were fourteen inches, and the longest nearly twenty, with a definite aspect of graduation between the various sets, these being two to three pairs of each of the five 'sizes' in the range – and also, their smoothly lathe-turned aspect where one gripped them.

“These grooves?” I asked, regarding the shallow and somewhat narrow clean-cut 'scallops'. “The slightly bulbous part on the end?”

“Those are so they don't fly out of your hands when you use them,” said the man who had met us. “I've seen them used before, even if I've no inclination to try using them.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“These things break heads when they're used, and that dead-easy,” said the man. “Every person I saw hit with one either was dead or dying, and every single stinker of a witch who was thumped with a flail had leaking brains coming out of his ears and nose.” A pause, then, “now, Sarah. The end for the rope on these things. Does it look decent for the rope you have, or does it need to be bigger?”

Sarah picked one of the shorter sticks up with a practiced eye, then held it such that she could look at its thickest end, that being the end opposite that which formed the gripping 'knob'. She asked, “were you planning on putting lead to these?”

“We could do that, but no one here knows how, and neither Lukas or Gilbertus can be spared right now.”

I picked up another flail piece, and noted how readily it seemed to fit my hand. Somehow, I could just imagine swinging these things like someone I had once known in my youth. He was an expert in such matters, having earned a black belt for his efforts along those lines, and his training had started when he was a small child.

“We could use bad shot,” said another man. “Plenty of that around here. Then, we could put corks in and pin them with dowels.”

“I think I might have an idea for lead-loading clubs, one that you can do with these,” I said. “First, bore the channel so it's most of the length of each stick. Leave plenty of wood surrounding it, as the wooden pieces will need to soak in cold water for a while. Then, while they're doing that, melt that bad shot down and clean it up from its contaminants...”

“You will wish some flux from Andreas in addition to beeswax,” said Sarah, “and a low fire, one done well away from any buildings, and then stay upwind of both the fire and the pot when cleaning lead.” Pause, then as she turned to me, “I didn't know about soaking the wood. Will that keep it from igniting?”

“Yes, but there is more,” I said. “Once you clean that lead, you'll wish to add tin to it...”

“That gives a sharper casting, if you use one part in ten of lead and your mould is a good one,” said the man with a grin. “I hope I can get a good musket, even if those that got used here earlier put me in the privy.”

“Those were not muskets,” said Sarah. “One of them is worse than anything one might find in an old tale, and it sounds like tearing tapestry cloth, or so someone said.” Pause, then, “he has not heard tearing tapestry cloth. I have, and that broom is worse.”

“Uh, trench-broom?” For some odd reason, I could clearly see a Thompson Submachine-gun – one of the earlier versions, one having a finned barrel, the cocking knob on top, forward handgrip sculpted for holding and all the other things that gave those their deadly 'cachet'. That term I had used was a historical one for those weapons.

Sarah looked at me sharply, then gasped. “Now I know what they meant!”

“They?” I asked.

“Yes, in at least two old tales,” said Sarah. “There were marked people using brooms to clean out trenches filled with witches, and you speaking that way and seeing what that thing does to witches now makes entire sense.” Pause, this while she once more handled some of the flail pieces, then, “I'm not sure I wish something like what I just saw.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It looked to weigh a great deal, and one does not wish such a weapon to weigh that much, even if its magazine holds that much ammunition,” said Sarah. “Besides, we have thirty-seven shots in these now, and they work well on their single-shot setting – and those like that didn't have one.”

“Uh, are you sure?” I asked. “I think they actually did, dear – at least the first ones did.” Pause, then, “I think what we have is better, actually, as those were supposed to be really heavy and, uh, noisy to carry, especially when they used drum magazines.” A pause, then to the two men, “if you add more tin to the lead, it will melt at a lower temperature, and you want that for filling clubs.”

“How many parts of tin?” asked th other man.

“Thirty out of a hundred,” I murmured – though this was said with a distinct tone of doubt. I then asked silently: “what is the eutectic point of a lead-tin alloy here? I'll bet it isn't thirty-seven percent lead and sixty-three percent tin.”

The answer was unexpected: “the usual amount is roughly half and half for molten-lead filling of clubs, even if you do want to mention those percentages you were thinking of to those overseas – along with a few percent of silver to help matters 'flow' better for soldering electronic parts.” That source was the best there was, it being the soft voice I now heard so much. Sarah then clarified matters to the two men.

“Half lead, and half tin,” said Sarah archly, “and soak your unturned pieces like he spoke of, until they're soaked through, then pour your lead. It will dry them out, so I'd keep a water bucket handy and watch them closely to make certain they don't catch fire.” Pause, then, “once they're just warm, dip them in either drying oil or that wood treatment, then put them in that warm-room you have so as to dry faster.”

“Done,” said the later-arriving individual. “I'll get those to soaking in hot water.”

“Just short of boiling,” I said. “It will soak them through faster, then let them set an hour before you pour the lead – and make sure your dipper is hot and your lead mix hot enough to be really melted, so it would normally fill bullet moulds completely, even moulds that are cold.”

On the road into the town, however, I thought to ask Sarah about just what those things were called 'bathers' by Deborah and 'rag-hunks' by myself. What she told me was surprising.

“First, those things are part of every student's traipsing-kit,” she said, “and the usual is to go to the places where they are sold and hand-select two or three, all the time keeping a close eye out for their size and their feel, as that is how you tell the good ones from those less-good.” Pause, then, “everyone down there calls them bathers. Across the sea, they may well know their proper names.”

“Good ones?” I asked.

“I know Anna tested every one we have, and I went with her the first time she went to look at them,” said Sarah. “Then, they go bad over time if used much, which is why we were told to examine ours regularly while at school and then replace them at the first sign of them going to pieces – or yearly, whichever came first.” A pause, then, “mine usually endured a good deal longer than a year's time, and I think that's because I used mine as much as I did.”

“Bathing every day keeps those things decent, as they normally are found in water, correct?” I asked, as we passed along the front of the house proper. Most of the witch-remains had been already 'looted', or so I gathered, but the number of people still wandering the area on hands and knees with bags handy was a matter of astonishment.

“They must have thirty people out there,” I muttered. “I wonder what they are finding?”

“A great deal of metal that was once witch-medals, in addition to some still-scattered coins,” said Sarah. “I know that anything of gray-metal is to be set aside once bagged, as Hendrik knows what I told him of your plans for that stuff and how to make it into something truly useful.”

“How do they get, those, uh, bathers?” I asked. Houtlaan must be resting its marmots, as I could but hear a few isolated screeches.

“They commonly use small lead-weighted drag-nets near the shore south of that market town,” said Sarah, “and the usual is to use a small flat-bottomed boat with hollow wooden cylinders on poles to each side. One uses a paddle strangely to so as to fish for those, and one often catches fish in one's nets as well as those things found on the sea floor.”

“Fish?” I asked.

“Fishermen, especially those who fish for bathers, do well to eat regularly, and much of their meals is their catch,” said Sarah. “Like most crafts that require 'little' apparent skill in the fourth kingdom, fishing for and then cleaning 'bathers' does not pay terribly well.” A pause, then, “good. Houtlaan is taking its first break of the day.”

“The marmots?” I asked.

“A hard-worked marmot needs a great deal of rest,” said Sarah, “which means even if they have several such animals for each wood-lathe, the usual is to put grain and water to them after each round, which is a needed thing in this area.”

“Less noise?” I asked.

“Not merely that,” said Sarah. “Wood-lathes often give a poor finish, which means their workpieces need either time with a good spokeshave or liberal use of a scraper so as to be smooth enough to work well.” Pause, then “the fourth kingdom's wood-lathes commonly give a fairly good finish in comparison, and I suspect those are in use at the boatwright's shop.” Pause, then, “I know the carpenter's shop in Roos has one, as I've seen it in use.”

“Foot-treadle lathes?” I asked.

“Yes, one must pump those, much like you do with your lathe,” said Sarah. “This other one, the one you are doing castings for, makes me wonder as to how you will drive it.”

“I am not planning on using marmots to drive it,” I said. “Now a question. Andreas has his existing furnace, one that can handle a certain amount of metal – perhaps two medium crucibles. What does he use for forced draft, or does he?”

“I am not sure,” said Sarah. “He does use some of the old equipment that was there before him, and I think that furnace might be one of those things.”

“Uh, you haven't seen it, have you? Not even read of it in the Annals? There might have been a drawing in those books.”

“Not that I'm aware of,” said Sarah.

“Does he have pets?” I asked.

Sarah looked at me in horror, then gasped, “he does, and he looks after that thing as if it were a prize pure-bred scent-hound.”

“What is it?” I asked. “Don't tell me – he has a marmot, a large and well-fed example, and it has helped keep him safe by scenting witches and 'alerting'.”

“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “He's going to be giving that animal a thorough workout shortly, and both Annistæ and Deborah will not like it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Recall how noisy your blower is?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “He doesn't have an electrical blower at this time, nor does he have a steam-driven one, so he must make do with a marmot-powered blower – and said blower, while it does not sound like a marmot-driven wood-lathe, is in its own category for making tormenting noises.”

“Uh, how, beyond the noise made by the marmot when he hangs carrots to control its running?” I asked.

“The gearing on that blower's treadmill is of a very crude species, as this blower was built during 'the dark ages' for a non-marked worker of silver and gold, and as that person had been educated at a higher school other than at the west school, he not only treated that entire device like a fetish, but chanted verses out of the book during the whole time he was running that furnace – and Andreas has not been able to improve matters much over what that 'fully-owned witch-slave' had had done.”

“I think I know who it was, then,” said Sarah. “He was shot as a witch but a few years after he started working here, and that by the king's own musket.”

“Which was a well-made ten-gage roer,” said the soft voice. “That man might not have had the 'power' of that one murdered king, nor the intelligence of Hendrik, but he was a very physical man, he did work very hard – and he often killed his own meat; again, using a thimble-ignition, number-ten-gage roer.” Pause, then, “he often fed the whole house's workforce with that gun.”

“Uh, how?” I asked. “A handful of larger common shot from a Heinrich gang mould, and shooting at a tree full of roosting quolls?”

“That usually meant roasted quoll for the entire house,” said the soft voice. “His reign was during a particularly impoverished time for the entirety of the first kingdom, hence such 'economy measures' helped keep the house proper and indeed the whole kingdom solvent – and, in due time, gained for him a substantial following, as the kingdom's economy began improving slowly but steadily after a few years of his tight-fisted governance.”

We took a route that led us up Houtlaan, as Sarah said during one of the quiet periods the place was best observed, and here, I saw the whole of 'Wood-lane' during daylight. While not every place I saw on Houtlaan actually worked with wood, I could 'feel' clearly the numerous semi-underground stone-walled and tile-roofed drying sheds filled with varied and sundry lengths of part-sawn wood, most of which was being slowly 'kilned' by the use of small 'cookers' like I had seen used by those Vendors in the third kingdom. I thought to ask Sarah about what this street was normally like, rather than this usual quiet 'break-time'. That last phrase almost had me think of the word 'break-down' – as in an old-time species of dance.

“Were this later in the day, we would see bull-pulled wood-wagons arriving with rough-cut lumber driven by tree-cutters,” she said, “and while quarrymen can be very unpleasant, tree-cutters can be nearly as bad, especially if they are of the sort that consume Geneva.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I recalled Hans speaking of that material – and how I was dressed when I had arrived home last night 'as if dressed fit for circling chairs while sipping Geneva'.

“They tend to destroy tables by trying to dance upon them once they've gotten into the Geneva, and more than once in the town here, a publican has had to drive one of those men out of his building with a fowling piece,” said Sarah. “I have no idea why tree-cutters try to dance on tables up here, but they certainly do that, and I've seen them wreck tables while doing so.”

“Hard work, so they think that nonsense to be suitable 'play',” I murmured. “Is there any town that you know of named, uh...” I was thinking of a particular practice common to old-time logging, one called the 'Kalispell Hop'. I had but read of it, but this practice of dancing on tables sounded very similar. I then knew I wasn't about to speak of that place or the state it happened to be located in where I came from, as the names of both the town and state were indeed 'names to conjure with' here. “No, I don't want to say that name, as it's probably a curse of some kind. Probably written in runes, also.”

“Does it begin with a 'K' and end with an 'L'?” asked Sarah. “If it does, then it might well be a division in one of the districts of Geeststaat during the time prior to the war.”

“Did this, uh, district begin with an 'M'? Followed by an 'O' and then an 'N'? End in an 'A'?”

“I think it did,” said Sarah – who was actually fairly certain of the place in question, but did not wish to say it either. “The worst portion of that district was named after a high place, one which we do not have here – and as far as I know, we have not had any such places here since the drowning.”

“That volcano thinks itself to be one,” I murmured, “and those cannibals inside there are a pack of rune-yelling witches – and I've heard them chant more than one curse, including that one used for hiding.” A pause, then, “was this place or its people referred to as, uh, being 'sporting'?”

“Yes, it was, it and all that lived there,” said Sarah in a dire voice. “We'll turn right at this next road, as there's a honey-seller there, and we could use some more of that stuff beyond what we were given from the house proper.”

“Does the name Irene mean anything?” The turn in question was but a short distance away

“Yes, it was the name of an especially bad witch, and you probably should not have said that thing's name.” Sarah looked around nervously, much as if she expected vast swarms of foul-smelling and unpleasant filmy forms to suddenly show.

“That one's been dead a long time,” I murmured. “While that name isn't one to speak much, it isn't like Mangle's actual cult-name – as that one's a real curse, one that still actually works to a degree.”

“Try more like 'it works nearly as well now as it did when he was actually present',” said the soft voice. “You can speak of the place called 'The Butte', as that place endured a lot of fighting, and it was there that those living overseas then encountered their first real difficulties regarding fighting in this area.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I didn't need to ask about the odd coloring of those words in my mind: it was populated with a lot of really bad witches. “Was it the headquarters of the Mistress of the North?” Here, we were actually turning, and the odor of the region quickly changed from 'wood' to 'beeswax and honey'. Sarah had her preferred shops in this area, but many people on this street sold both products, and I suspected there were numbers of bee-logs hiding in the rears of these shops.

I did not wish to encounter the bees, as Sarah's speaking of them implied these creatures to be nearly as amusing as cursed wasps regarding irritability, if not lethality.

“She never went there, and never needed to, as that entire district was the most heavily armed of all of the twenty-six major districts of Geeststaat,” said the soft voice, “and then there were a sizable number of especially troublesome witches beyond the one you named located in 'The Butte'.”

“Especially troublesome?” I asked. “Uh, really hard, relatively good shots by the standards of Geeststaat's witches, tricky...” The honey-seller Sarah had in mind was about six shops distant, unless I missed my guess.

“All of those things and crazy as well – genuinely crazy, not 'too much swine' or 'too much hell', but truly insane,” said the soft voice. “They were so inhabited that they were almost impossible to stop, and each one of those fiends was worth a large-group or more during the vicious house-to-house fighting needed to clear out the Butte once and for all.” A pause, then, “the many chemical plants there were made for such 'suck them in and kill them all' defense, much like a certain location where you came from, one named after 'the man of steel', or so he was commonly called.”

“Oh, no,” I squeaked. I knew who that was. “Not Dugashvili.”

“That name is one I have never heard of, even if I have heard witches speaking of having iron heads,” said Sarah. “I suspect that saying came out of that black book, as they do not look like trouts.” A pause, then, “here's the shop.”

While I looked after the horses, Sarah went inside, and but two minutes later, she returned with two small jugs clearly labeled as containing 'first-quality honey'. She also was looking around, her head turning this way and that as well as up – and this very nervously, as if she expected a cursed wartime wasp-swarm to dive on us.

“Uh, why so nervous?” I asked, as she left the yard of the place 'smartly' and I followed. I wondered if I should get the fowling piece out and load it up – as I had made certain to take it and some shells, in case quolls or fool-hens showed. We'd not had a chance to sample the 'flour-mush' – it had not been quite ready – but the odor was getting to Gabriel, increasing his flagging diligence regarding cleaning himself in hopes of glutting himself on the stuff.

“That place has no less than eight large bee-logs in its rear, ones that need ladders fit for loading Frankij to check entirely, and those bees back there were sounding very irritated,” said Sarah. “They might smell this stuff, and then they will come for it and us.”

Sarah needed no such added speech from me to concern myself entirely about 'travel', and once we had gone several hundred yards along the street and made first a left and then a right turn – we were able to return to the former subject, that being the history of a forgotten era that influenced everything and everyone in the continent – when it did not control them like puppets.

“That witch used a stolen intercept for his 'commons' name, which is how – and by extension, where – most witches learned of what that one individual Dennis spoke of commonly named himself,” said the soft voice. A pause, then, “his cult-name, however, was Dugashvili – and he was a crony of the Mistress of the North, hence the place operated as per her desires without her ever actually going there.”

“In charge of propaganda, correct?” I asked. The name Dugashvili came straight out of my hypoglycemia-induced nightmares, even if it was historical where I came from. The name 'Stalin', though – that name was made to be writ in runes as a curse here.

“It was writ in runes as a curse, and they of 'The Butte' named their main fortress 'Stalin-Grad', or 'the world as made by Stalin',” said the soft voice. “That's where those huge turret-housed guns put on some of those enormous mobile fortresses were located, and their ability to clear huge areas of everything was used to great advantage by the witches during 'The Siege'.” Pause, then, “you'll hear about that place overseas.”

“Clear huge areas?” I asked. Kokenstraat was but four to six 'blocks' ahead, these being smaller ones, as were usual for the northeast quarter of the town.

“Recall what happened to Anna's relatives when they unearthed that one 'medium' shell?” said the soft voice. “Think of something a great deal larger, and proportionally more destructive and lethal.”

“Kills everything for hundreds of yards in all directions,” I muttered. “Almost as destructive as a tactical nuclear weapon.”

“Those cursed shells essentially duplicated what you spoke of,” said the soft voice. “Only when those vehicles were destroyed along with their remaining cursed ammunition was it possible to take 'The Butte' – and there, Irene died in a hail of gunfire as she was chased out of her sniper's hide by a small battery of smaller artillery pieces and several teams of rocket-firing troops.”

“Hail of gunfire, eh?” I asked. “Sounds like broom-work.”

“Three marked people firing machine-guns with common-sized pills in them,” said the soft voice. “She was turned into witch-burger and her body scattered over twenty paces of ground in less than a second when that crossfire caught her.”

“Blech,” said Sarah. “Witches are not fit to turn into pie-filling, as such a pie would taste terrible.”

“Most likely that woman would have ignored being merely, uh, stitched,” I said. “Probably needed the equivalent of a siege gun stuffed full of hard-cast loopers to put her down so she didn't 'get over it'.”

“How can you speak of sewing regarding such a smelly fiend as that one?” asked Sarah – who then sniffed. “I can smell one of those stinky poles, and I think it's up ahead. We'd best turn east shortly.”

“Uh, what happens when you get onto a witch with something like a machine gun with the correct-sized pill,” I said, as we actually turned east. “Similar to using loopers in a roer, only you catch the witch with the edge of your gun's pattern and not its center.” Willem knew about what happened then, or rather the local and the imported people of that name. The local one had used bagged musket balls in his guns on a few occasions – and those produced witch-burger at times.

“Loopers tend to make more than one hole in witches otherwise,” said Sarah. “Willem says he usually puts several balls in a given witch when he's using those things and centers them.”

“Similar idea, only each bullet does a lot more damage,” I said. “I was definitely stitching that one Iron Pig when I was shooting at it, and it only quit when I put three bullets in its eyes and then four more crosswise going in its chest.” A pause, then, “where is that thing likely to go?”

“It will most likely not be put to a burn-pile, as those are worse for spewing and sickness when they're burned compared to the common pigs, and the word has gotten out in this area about pig-disposal,” said Sarah. “I think someone spoke of drowning it in lye, as that kills the stink of those smelly pigs better than anything I've heard of.” Pause, then “I did some talking on the matter in the last week or so in a few Public Houses in the house here, and I suspect I wasn't the only one doing so.”

“Perhaps take then said lye-drowned pig to the house proper, so that Annistæ can make lantern-fuel out of it?” I asked. “I'd like its well-cleaned bones, in fact, as those, once they've been burned to charcoal, will probably make some especially good case-hardening compound.”

Sarah looked at me oddly, then asked, “why?”

“Let's see,” I said. “I was shooting that thing in the head, and even when I shot out both of its eyes it was just acting like it had a sick-headache – which means those things have some very hard bones indeed.” A pause, then, “why weren't those bullets penetrating?”

“Partly the hardness of that bone, partly the shape of the pig's skull, and mostly the shape of those bullets,” said the soft voice. “Recall what shape of bullet is normally used for 'solids' – how it commonly has a round-nosed profile, not a sharply pointed one?”

I nodded.

“Then, how heavy such bullets typically are?” asked the soft voice, “as well as their typical diameter?” Pause, then, “finally, ever wonder much about why you'd heard that one particular song that handful of times to remind you what your first rifle here is like?”

“John Rigby,” I murmured. “Elephant guns.”

“Which is what you're shooting when that weapon is loaded normally, even if it loads from the muzzle,” said the soft voice. “But one chief difference when you load it for swine.”

“Uh, what?” I asked. “It came close to really hurting me then.”

“They'll fix that injury overseas,” said the soft voice. There was nothing implied here; pig-loads killed at both ends. “The usual load you use could handle any animal where you came from if you did your part – and yes, it's normal for a weapon like that to cause bruises like that one tends to do.” Pause, then, “Iron Pigs tend to need a great deal more stopping power than anything that lives where you came from of a similar weight, hence you needed to put most of a magazine of 'armor-piercing' ammunition into a bacon-sized version and why you needed a 'pig load' to drop that one pig.”

“And putting a 'solid' from an elephant gun into their shields overseas will break them up,” I murmured. “Hopefully I won't have to do that much.”

“Twice at the most, at least at those,” said the soft voice. “If you do have to use that rifle over there, you'll count the cost of doing so a cheap one.”

“Because then we will have our own artillery, and we can root out those functionaries good and proper,” I muttered.

“That and much more,” said the soft voice. “They'll be able to refurbish those weapons and assemble more of them from the parts they find given at least one semi-functional gun, and then those functionaries will have plenty of trouble.”

“Have to change how they do things a lot then,” I said. “Now where are we – oh, about another half mile to where this road hits the Oestwaag, and then a short distance east until we get into about the only bad section of town that's currently left.” There were some 'bad' shops and other places yet in the town, but as far as 'bad' went – there were enough pigs running loose that those places would be taken before we left for the ocean.

“It won't remain that way very long,” said the soft voice. “Not when you take 'enemy headquarters' decisively.”

“Enemy headquarters?” I asked. “That one shop?”

“Is not 'enemy headquarters',” said the soft voice. “The building directly to the east of it, however, is.”

As we drew closer, I kept looking about me. I was feeling nervous, as I could hear at least three mobs on the hunt for witches, with the still-living pigs – some had died due to gunfire, but other pigs had joined the huge and yet-growing swine-herds now roving the city once they were liberated from their former masters.

The pigs were quite numerous now, and they were more than hungry enough to scent out their black-dressed 'eternal feeders' if such people were within the range of their noses. Over the throbbing noises of mobs and the high-pitched screeching and squeals of swine, the mutter of musketry formed a steady background booming and crackling. Once, perhaps twice, I heard a distinctive series of gunshots from what sounded like a rifle like I was carrying; I wondered if Karl and Sepp were out 'chasing errands' with Sarah's list in hand.

“I hope they're dealing with the list first and potting pigs and witches when and if they must,” I thought. “The witches are scarce enough now that these stinkers can more or less be ignored by our party, save if we must deal with them so as to avoid being hurt or killed – or if they happen to have something we need.”

“I think so!” spat Sarah. “I hope you have a plan regarding that thread-seller's place, because if you don't, I'm going in full-loaded and I'll put some soot on that stinky witch who runs that place before I do ought else!”

“Uh, soot?” I asked. “This stuff doesn't put soot on people. Or does it?”

“No, it doesn't put soot on close targets,” said the soft voice. “The burns from the muzzle flames char skin black if they're fired at close range, however, so the end result looks more than a little similar.”

Burns?” I asked. “That huge white muzzle-flash this stuff gives?”

“Superheated hydrogen and methane, with traces of carbon monoxide and some remaining free radicals to drastically increase the burning temperature of the end products when they come out of the barrel and into the atmosphere,” said the soft voice. “That's one of the secrets of 'six-base' weapons propellant:it evolves light gases at very high temperatures, with a reducing atmosphere so the barrel doesn't burn up.” Pause, then, “it gets a good deal hotter than the inner cone of a gas welding torch's flame, so if that muzzle flash touches skin, it turns it to charcoal instantly.”

“That is worse than putting soot on them, then,” said Sarah. “I hope you have some kind of a plan, because I don't have any ideas beyond what I had said earlier.”

“No, I don't,” I said. “Go in with our weapons plainly visible and 'full-loaded' – namely, rounds in the chambers and safeties off, with our fingers near the triggers – and ask nicely for thread and those needles they've got.” Pause. “Then, we'll see what they do. Their actions will then determine what we do.” Another pause, this to look ahead. I could feel something 'bad' not a hundred yards away, and I loosened a flap holding a grenade-pouch. Having done so, I resumed speaking.

“Worst case, we buy what you want or need, and I toss a metal pear at their back rooms as we leave out the front door – and when it goes 'boom', I run next door and toss that other bomb so as to nail enemy headquarters – whatever that actually is.” Pause, then, “it's just like fighting Iggy, that Desmond, that deep-hole, and the rest of what went on at the Abbey... We need to do as well we can, but what the enemy does determines just what we end up doing to him or her. We do whatever we need to so as to stay aliveand we make absolutely certain that all of them die. That much I know. All of those stinkers need to die, and they need to die today.”

“That sounds better than what I could come up with,” said Sarah. “I still want to nail those people good with that one bomb.”

“Don't worry, dear,” I said softly. “We will.” I removed the grenade from its pouch, then pulled the pin with my teeth and threw the thing at a shop. I then noticed how easily that pin had come out, and spat the pin into my hand so as to look at it later. Hence, it went into the pouch the grenade had yielded.

The bomb shot away from my hand as if rocket-propelled – I had tossed it forcefully, but it was going a good deal faster than I expected – then suddenly it hooked right and shot through the window of a shop to then detonate with an explosion so huge that the shop disintegrated – and this time, Sarah and I tried to get under the eves of the shops across the way, as not only was it raining torrents of money...

It was raining chunks of brick and bad mortar, also, and as the towering smoky flames of 'heavy distillate' burned away the remainder of that shop's thin wooden 'veneer of civilization', the still-standing remains of the shop showed themselves for what they actually were.

“That thing was made of brick!” screamed Sarah. “It was a witch-hole!”

“I could tell there was something wrong with that shop, dear,” I said. “Now, let us get out of here before a big bad-tempered mob brews up and tries to hunt down the surviving witches.”

“There aren't any,” said the soft voice. “That grenade nailed every one of those thirteen stinkers, as they were getting their coaches ready, and they were all chanting in the parlor while passing the jugs of 'high-test' prior to 'setting out'.”

“And hence Mr. Metal Pear settled their hash nicely,” I said. “A bit toasted by their drink, perhaps.”

Scattered their hash is more like it,” said the soft voice. “It also damaged their previously well-hidden piggery in addition to destroying their 'dwelling' – and they were planning on turning most of their pigs loose for a diversion just before they planned on setting out today.”

The reek of 'pig' was now potent enough to be oppressive to the senses, and when the first of a vast herd of Shoeten came out of the smoking ruin's rear area, I pointed down the street and yelled, “go find some witches, you smelly pigs! There are some of them hiding down that way!”

“Where?” yelled a chorus of musket-bearing men and women that had suddenly 'materialized.

“Just follow those pigs,” said Sarah. “He got those witches with a bomb, but they are not the only ones left in the city.”

“The pigs know their 'eternal feeders' in there are all dead, or they will know very soon,” I said, “so they will look for more suitably stinky people, find them, and then demand to be fed.” Pause, then, “of course, when the pigs become insistent enough to drive those stinkers out in the open, you can then air out their smelly hides with shot and balls – and then leave the pigs be so as to find more witches, until they're actually out of the city and into open country.”

“What then?” asked a woman. She was toting a surprisingly hefty-looking musket. It looked like a 'stout' number four, though when I looked closer, I was even more surprised.

“That's one of those things made using parts from the Swartsburg,” I thought as I tried to come up with an answer for the woman. I then had something of one, though not spoken. “I hope she can handle its kick.”

“She can, but she's a bit unusual that way,” said the soft voice. “She only has a few of those slugs left, which is why she plans to see Georg about having her 'new' weapon fitted with a suitable mould.”

“Hollow-base conical slugs?” I asked silently. I was wondering just how to say “leave the pigs be then, as there will be lots more witches shortly and those pigs will help you root those stinkers out.”

“There will be quite a need for such bullets in addition to 'freshening' guns shortly after you get home, as 'cheese-bullets' are becoming widely known as being more effectual than balls,” said the soft voice. “What is not known is that one wishes a slower grade of powder if it's locally-made stuff, and a lighter charge of that powder – as this is not the fifth kingdom, where the powder is weak and slow-burning in comparison.”

“Madame,” I said. “Once the pigs leave the city boundaries, let them run off wherever they seem inclined to go. There will be more witches in the area shortly, and then they will help you find them also. Besides, that type of pig likes to eat weeds, and you-all do enough hoeing as it is if you have farm-fields in the area.”

I had just signed my own 'death-warrant' by the mention of hoeing, as good hoes in the area were rare and my work was well-known in the city – even if I had not yet made hoes, and I was still figuring out plows.

The mob seemed to be waiting for a signal. I wondered for a second if I had been heard, then I realized what, exactly, they were waiting for: the pigs to show out in the street heading north or wherever the nearest witch or witches were hiding themselves. They would follow the pigs, as what I had just said merely reinforced what was common 'gossip' about 'common' pigs in the town's Public Houses. I then thought more about that woman's musket-trouble, again as usual to avoid 'fretting' about an upcoming nightmarish encounter with an unpleasant swarm of witches.

“Smoky, leaves a lot of rubbish in the barrel?” I thought regarding the usual for fifth-kingdom musket powder, as I led off slowly out from under where we had sheltered from the bricks and money and once more toward the Oestwaag. I then saw what street I actually was on.

“We're on Maasstraat,” I gasped. “I went this way when I did the Swartsburg the second time.”

“Good that it is gone,” yelled a shopkeeper some distance to my rear. “Now where else are you headed?”

“Fetching more witches, probably!” yelled another person, this one a very-excited woman. “There go the pigs! After them!”

The pigs had erupted, traveling forward at a rapid trot in a massive and foul-smelling herd of well-over a hundred animals; while some of these smelly creatures were indeed Shoeten, many of them were a bit large to be considered 'weaner pigs', and some were about the right size for making into bacon. Those last were the leaders, as they had both the greatest size and the largest appetites – and the speed all of these animals managed was astonishing, even if they were sufficient sooted up to make me wonder about the priorities among 'common' swine.

Did food count over injuries with these pigs, or were they merely dirty and thought to clean themselves in the nearest horse-troughs after getting into some food?

“Mostly dirty, if I go by how fast those things are moving,” said Sarah. I then saw she was close enough for me to touch her, and I began to slowly rub her neck. It was more than a little 'tight' under my hand, and it helped me more than a little to feel soft warm skin.

“Thank you,” she said gratefully. “I've had enough trouble with these people to be glad you're with me, as I'm about convinced they'll try for me the minute they see me come near their place.”

“Shoot our way in and take the stuff, then,” I said. “If I need to, I'll stuff the barrel of one of those hand-held cannons up that woman's nose and squeeze two of them off to get her attention!”

“I think that might actually be a good idea,” said Sarah, “though I think you might wish to use something smaller so your hand does not become injured.” Pause, then, “I'd use a smaller pistol, only leave off the suppressor. I've dropped two witches with mine, and they both went down quickly.”

“No, she needs see a full-loaded dragoon,” I said in a joking voice. “She really needs to face up to her fears today, and one of those pistols is about as big as a dragoon – and I think they look scarier than those pistols.” Pause, then, “they both make my hands go numb, even if I can shoot them passably.”

“They are worse for their noise and flame, if one compares them to dragoons,” said Sarah. “I was scared more than a little when we were test-firing those things, and I want some gloves for my hands.”

And yet, for some reason, I knew using one of those huge pistols was the very thing I wanted to do. This woman was altogether full of herself, so much so that she genuinely wanted to wear that nasty-looking black face-grease – and that all of the time, no matter where she found herself or in what company she might be, or how advisable doing so might actually be. Certain death might deter her.

Then again, she might call that price a cheap one so as to flaunt her 'darkness'. After all, wearing that stuff did pay homage to Brimstone. It made for a question, however.

“I wonder what that stuff is actually called?” I thought. “If she's wanting to wear it, though, I think I do have a name for it.”

“What would that name be?” said Sarah. I was continuing to rub her neck. I recognized fully now that it was helping me as much as her, as I had been 'fretting' more than a little, and I needed to rub something soft and smooth. “That black face-grease is described upon a number of tapestries, but none of them ever gave its name.”

“Probably writ in runes, and it's a still-effective curse,” I spat. “There's the Oestwaag. This place is about a hundred yards or so north of Grussmaan's, on the same side of the street, and... Oh, my. Grussmaan's is going to have some real trouble when that thread-seller's place goes to hell.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “Hans has told me how he wishes he could put a brick of that gray explosive to the place's parlor, as he wants nothing to do with them now save when and if he absolutely must – and that isn't very often any more, now that he's eaten his fill of grass in hell.”

“No, the place doesn't get flattened today, even if they are going to need to do plenty of substantial repairs in order for the building to not fall down flat when it next snows,” I said. “Grussmaan's is the west 'anchor' for 'witch-row', that one shop is near the east end, and the true east end is on the other side of 'enemy headquarters' – and all of these places are connected by tunnels to one another, Grussmaan's excepted, as they're wanting to be 'respectable'...” I paused, then said, “no, it's not that. There are two different factions, like combines in the fifth kingdom only a lot smaller and weaker, and Grussmaan's would like to see that other group go somewhere else so they can take over their customers – and not just for chemicals, either.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “Now what would you name that black grease?”

“In her case?” I asked. “With her smelly attitude?” Sarah was listening with 'bated' breath. “Why, I'd call that stuff ultra-witch beauty treatment.” I then contorted my voice, it going into a 'squeak' higher than anything Sarah could routinely manage: “my, dear, how that greasy datramonium ointment becomes you! You could pass for the Toxic Lady, you smell so badly – and is that some black face-grease I see remaining as a reminder under your eyes? What, you couldn't wipe off all of your beauty-mud so as to rob customers and try to poison them?”

Sarah was all but convulsed with trying not to laugh, and when she looked at me, it became impossible to hold it back any longer. I was glad I was close enough to catch her in case she fell out of the buggy, as she was laughing so hard that I wondered if there was something wrong with her.

“Get your giggle-fit over with, dear, as you needed to get a chance to laugh before we deal with that smelly woman and her, uh, cohort of thugs,” I muttered. “I really ought to call her the Toxic Lady, though she might think that a complement.”

And as I said this, I somehow knew that everything I had said about this particular woman, joking or not, was nothing short of the absolute truth: she did like that black face-grease; she was wanting – badly – to make her bones; she hoped to do sacrifice today, in fact; she was customarily armed, this with those unpleasant little four-shooters that worked well for assassinations; and, like most most-serious supplicants, she respected little save terror, raw force, and the raging 'power' of Brimstone.

“Time to see your first – and lastmonster, dear,” I muttered, as Sarah finally stopped laughing. I found a clean cloth in my possible bag, surprisingly, and gave it to her so as to wipe her eyes – for she had laughed to the point of tears.

“I had best be careful when I tell what you said to my cousin, as she will fetch up on the floor,” said Sarah. “I almost fell out of the buggy, what you said was so funny.”

I was glad one of us had had a chance to laugh, for with each second's travel closer to the Oestwaag, I could feel something of such horror that I wished to scream. It was crawling over my skin, this sensation, and as I glanced to each side, I nearly expected to see dykes, these winding open sewers teeming with rotting offal and corpses, jet-black potato-bellied water lizards, and too-common slime-covered fenny-snakes, and over all of these slow-running rivulets of filth, a slow-droning cloud of potato-sized sewer-flies, these last things too large and clumsy to be able to fly well.

Like the manure-flies of the fifth kingdom, however, these things made much the same noise when they were awake, this flying or merely crawling across the ground or whatever they saw handy as food; and that unsteady old-outboard sputter of their beating wings was a fit accompaniment when seeing such corruption-filled mires as I now saw.

I shook off that nightmare, and now faced another one: darkness, this a blue-black nightmare-realm seeming to blot out the near-cloudless light blue of the morning sky of late spring and replace it with its own witch-brewed scheme of death-color. That lay but just ahead, though how I could see it while still some distance away was yet a mystery.

The witch-world seemed to have drawn its line upon the cobbles, this near the junction of Maasstraat and the Oestwaag, and as we drew closer to this line of demarcation, the hundred-year chill of a dead-winter seemed to gather about me like an undead witch-puppet's multitude of death-cold arms. I could also see what Sarah had called 'ice-carrots', these being the long and knotted stalagmites of ice that came during certain winters long ago when the snow was both intensely cold and yet 'drippy', coming down steadily as a form of freezing slush mingled with slime.

Slime was a product of the old-times Källendäré, those as done prior to the drowning here. The witches of before the war wished they could produce such horrific slime, this coming out of the sky in the varied colors of rainbow putrefaction and piling up upon the ground to make it impassible for all save they themselves – but in spite of all they did, they received strange-colored skies instead of slime.

Slime?” I thought, as that deep-cut line upon the cobbles came steadily closer. It seemed now to be 'coming through in waves', though how it was doing so was a complete mystery. I then recalled my dosing earlier, and how everything had seemed to become slow once more. It was now doing so greatly.

Each tick of my 'internal clock' seemed like a minute or more, and the minutes – were there such eternities of time? Were there such periods, epochs, rather, that could be named minutes? – were either hours or days, if those units of time yet existed. I could not tell which was the case, if indeed hours and days were still to be had, even if I could tell more and more about this hellhole we were about to descend upon like a pair of commando-type thugs tumbling out of the sky while riding upon strange snow-white galloping parachutes.

“No, no perfectly good airplanes to jump out of, at least not yet,” I thought. “I'm not sure I wish to leap out of one if it's still working.” Pause. “I would certainly foul my underclothing, regardless of the condition of the aircraft.”

Such distractions were indeed useful, as with my mind working as it did now, I not only could focus well – I tended to focus a bit too well, so much so that I was glad for the goggles covering my eyes. They gave but little mystery as to what my eyes were like, but as we came up to that infernal line of demarcation, I knew I would wish these goggles in that place.

They used Infernal lanterns in that stinky shop, and the customary setting for these 'light-giving firebombs' was 'a full knob', with as much pressure as the lamp's fuel tank could possibly stand.

They wished to blind their customers, that they might rob them more readily while so blinded.

“And at least three of those glaring monsters in the front portion, all with a caricature of Brimstone grinning broadly upon the nickeled brass of the fuel tank,” I muttered. “They must have gotten the high-priced article down south.”

“That requires dealing with one particular plating firm in the fifth kingdom, and they did not have the connections to manage that trick,” said the soft voice. “They did have the money to purchase those parts and whole lanterns that remained to be found in the ruins of the Swartsburg, and one of their long-sheltered refugees was sufficiently adept in working on those things that he made three working ones out of the parts to eight of them – with some parts left over as spares.”

“His way of paying for his week-long stay in their basement,” I thought. The line ahead was now clearer than ever, and I could see it readily, this red line glaring at me with a hideously angry face that slowly rose up from the cobbles of the road. It thought to frighten me thusly, but I ignored it pointedly. I had seen such faces before many times, and the last person I had seen thusly glaring, this earlier today, had died at my hand. I'd blooded my 'commando dagger' then.

“Go away, you stinker,” I spat. The face vanished abruptly, so abruptly that I was altogether surprised.

And yet, here was the line, this break from reality one as sudden as the sun falling from the sky. Daylight was displaced by darkness, this darkness one total, unrelenting, brutal, and vicious, with the near-cloudless sky and the morning warmth of the sun now gone in totality.

This... This was like the winter of Norden, with its months-long total darkness without, where no one dared to go out among the flash-freezing storm-winds and 'fourteen-foot drifts' of snow – snow that grew nearly as cold as solidified carbon dioxide – unless necessity mandated it.

We had crossed this line in an eyeblink of time, with a single step of a horse; and within that mote of time and space, we had gone from a fairly clean town of the early nineteenth century to one that wished to dwell in the twelfth century, where blood-dripping might was absolutely right – and from what might pass for an early eighteen-hundreds 'clean-as-lightning' Dutch colony into a place that could only be described as 'savage, utterly alien, totally evil, and beyond horrific', its streets mired in filth and its air a smoky mass of pollution both physical and spiritual.

This sensation both crushed all of my senses and beat upon my mind as if it were a 'both-feet' kick-drum, and as I looked straight ahead – we were midway in the turn onto the Oestwaag itself – I first saw the sign of Grussmaan's, then, suddenly, a change so total and mind-sundering came upon me that I nearly screamed.

I was seeing in all directions at once. This felt much as if I were being whirled about in a blender, only at a far slower speed than such a kitchen implement commonly managed; I could see and feel everything that I saw and felt and smelled and heard and tasted: all of it, all at once, all coming in hard, fast, sharp-edged, burning red and yellow and green and blue, like that one witch-concocted chemical weapon some prewar witches liked to indulge in.

“Try more like 'most of the ones around here tried to stay trashed on that stuff day and night',” I thought.

We were moving on what most thought of as 'the wrong side of the street', only here, it made complete sense. Grussmaan's was nearly south of our current position, while some eight shops east of it, I saw, this clearly, that place that had been named as being 'enemy headquarters'. This building was utterly unlike anything I had seen in this town before, even if I vaguely recalled seeing buildings like it in the fifth kingdom house.

This building was uncommonly tall, which again reminded me of the fifth kingdom house, and as we moved slowly eastward, I looked at it more and more. Each second that passed, I saw more details, these being recorded as if I were a video camera, and my director producing a movie.

It had a tall 'facade', this made of white-painted boards, the white paint beginning to peel, and the dead wood under it the pallor of a just-killed sacrifice, as was appropriate for a witch-hole that dealt in death and destruction populated by dead-serious witches.

The facade was propped up by a profuse number of thin and spindly sticks that only showed if one was mounted as I was and looked carefully from some distance away, and upon the front of this facade, I saw the name of the place, this painted a darksome reddish brown, faded in places, nearly the color of dried blood. That name indicated its ostensible function, while the lettering itself was similar as to that of Grussmaan's for style, if not the orientation of the individual letters. It made for a comment, this spat out like a vile oath.

“That place looks like it came out of the fifth kingdom house and landed here like a grain-stuffed quoll,” I spat. My voice echoed, its sound boomy, like the thunder of a cranked-up full-loaded siege gun firing a monstrous tipped shell from some three miles away.

I had an answer, this seemingly instantly. “I think you mean 'grain-stuffed witch-horse',” said Sarah. “Look at the ground here.”

“Horse-turnips, and they're all over, and then the tracks are, uh, unusual,” I said. “The shoes are altogether different from any I've seen thus far – not mules, not those shoes made in this area, not even those Jaak has that I made – and I doubt they're bronze-shod animals, as those shoes are as thin and light as is possible to make them, and then the clips used to hold them on would show as well.” A pause, then, “I think I know what kind of horse dumps that type of load – those horses that go whenever and wherever.”

“Yes,” said Sarah. “Someone has been running those animals here, in substantial numbers, and that within the last day or two.”

“Witches like those things,” I said as we came closer to the area where we would spring our mine. “They're symbols of power and money if you are a witch, and only full-odor mules have a more potent meaning as far as 'travel'.” I then had a question, and pointed, my arm moving slowly like a strange movie being filmed in very slow-motion.

“That building there, the one set up like it's imported from a bad part of the fifth kingdom house?” I asked. “It looks like a hostelry, and if it is, then it's the only one I've seen so far in this town.”

“Yes, now,” said Sarah. “I've heard enough talk while spying on those stinky people who once populated General's Row that such places were common indeed in the Swartsburg, and they are common in the second kingdom house, and also in most parts of the fifth kingdom house.” Pause, then, “that one does look like they usually are in the fifth kingdom.”

“And?” I asked. We were still moving closer, hiding in the shadows under the darkened sky, like predators of the night coming closer to our yet-unsuspecting prey.

“That is but the seeming for that building, and I have suspected that since the first time I came into this area while at the west school,” said Sarah. “My suspicions as to that building, and the number and size of fresh-looking horse-turnips I see around here, tell me they've got to have some coaches inside.”

“Possibly the last real number of them to be currently found in the kingdom house,” I said. My voice had dropped in pitch and volume, and I wondered just how that one woman was going to take to having a hand-howitzer stuffed into her face. I knew now that was precisely what we would do: we were going to take this shop, just like we would take that place overseas, and in much the same manner.

In effect, this was practice for 'the big time' overseas. We were learning how to be total complete thugs, and that in a great hurry.

As if to confirm matters while I checked my possible bag – death-awl where it belonged, pistols ready, the pistol I planned on using within easy reach, that one bomb studded liberally with nails, such that their heads covered the whole of the cloth, nearly – I heard faintly the sounds of drunken yelling; then guttural, roared: an oath, this in blatant Underworld German. In my mind, the question blared: how these people could expect to continue to hide their evil was a mystery to me, as now it was so obvious that only the deaf, stupid, and blind could not know of it, and that to the core of their beings.

Or, was I hearing an otherwise well-hid oath in an unconventional manner?

The sense of dread – as in 'this is a real dread zone' – began to steadily increase with each slow clopping horse-step toward the shop we would 'take'. More and more, I knew the approach this business needed was that of the very worst species of brigand – only amplified so far beyond these peoples' collective experiences and knowledge that they'd just stand still and be shot down like the fools they unknowingly were.

“No, not even the work of the Mule Totem's men,” I thought. “This time, here, shall be the work of the monster; and those who see it done will speak of it at length to the witches that come, such that dire fear and worse-yet trembling will stalk them in their waking moments and while they attempt to sleep.”

I found a tin of matches in my bag, then the string-tied fuse of that nail-poked bomb as well, and I slid off of Jaak as we came even with the shop itself. It too had its facade, its made-up face that it showed to the outside world; though its showy exterior was a bit better contrived than that of the 'livery stable' which held their three teams of fat grain-loaded horses and their long 'ships of the road', this trio of vehicles being living-in coaches appointed in a manner suitable for a woman who thought herself a queen of some kind.

A Queen needed their retinue present for when she screamed 'off with their heads'; and hence three such long glossy black horror-vehicles were required for her and her bought-and-paid-for people.

“Given that she's read out of a large black book at some length,” I thought, “and especially that section that speaks of both the nature and the ruling of women in witchdom's worlds, then it's not much wonder at all that she acts like she does.” I then turned to see Sarah dismount from her buggy, and as she did, I noted her weapons. She had both of those huge hand-cannons out where they could be readily grasped. I thought to reassure her.

“You look dismally formidable, dear,” I whispered. My tone was most-appropriate to the realm of miners and high-test drink, and I thought to remind Sarah once more. “There is no such thing as a mining-town thug who would think to bother you.”

“What?” she asked. Again, her voice soft, a near-whisper. Yet still, she needed more reassurance.

“You look to have several private graveyards, each one sizable and well-populated with graves,” I whispered darkly, now looking at my feet and wondering why I didn't have clanking spurs like Sam Brumm had had. I then commented about myself. “I'm not sure what I look like, but if these people have heard of the Mule Totem's people, they're about due for a surprise.”

In speaking thusly, however, I somehow knew...

Steps, these slow, walking across the wide dust of the street, the hobnails of my boots silent in the soft floury material. The cobbles here were gone beneath my boots, and while I had no spurs, I did not need them; for I had the largest private graveyard on the entire continent, and my long hair proclaimed just what I truly was.

My name was War, and that to the Knife, and the very person of such conflict: this walking, slow, sure, like a wild animal stalking its prey and steadily homing in for the kill.

As far as the witches were concerned – these people possibly included – my current reputation was easily as troubling to them as that of any group of the Mule's people, even that group said to be led by the man some had named Pancho – if that, indeed, was his actual name. I thought to ask Annistæ when and if I had the chance to find out if that was his actual name. I suspected it wasn't.

I looked up, now roosting comfortably under the darkness of a witch-brewed night, and saw the chain-hung sign of this thread-seller's shop. It spoke of selling 'Notions', but I thought, this with a surety and thoroughness that surprised me, that a more-truthful sign would speak of matters in this shop being 'Notional', as in 'we might have what you want, but we will rob you regardless if you think to come in here'. I looked down, my feet moving slowly through the dust of the dessicated street, and here, I saw the boards of the shop's stoop before I announced my presence by touching them with my boots.

They were uneven as to length and wavering as to width, poorly surfaced, gouged deeply in many places, poorly painted – what paint that still adhered to the wood was wearing quickly – and the dead wood itself was badly worn in many places.

This status – dead and dying, of rotten materials caught in the process of dying further and slipping farther into a state of decay – was the norm for those realms which witchdom kept under its feet; and as my feet touched the boards of the first step leading up to this stoop, I asked that there be no noise to alert those I now saw as dinner. I wished to be as silent as the wind until it was actually time to strike with the speed of a serpent yet unnamed, either in this world or the next one – and no, that snake was never late when it came to killing.

There was no noise made by the warning boards, either for myself or Sarah. Two strides, these long enough to cross the narrow gap measured by these badly-done boards, then grasp the handle of the door.

I would not tap in a place that lived by the rules of witchdom. Witches didn't tap. They banged in whenever and wherever they were inclined and started killing right off, and these people did that routinely, if less bloodily than what I now proposed to do.

After all, if I bothered to do a job, I tended to do the best job I could, regardless of what that job entailed; and killing... I knew how to bathe in blood and leave behind myself mountains of corpses, if that was what was required to achieve those goals set before me by the hands of my master.

The door flew open, this crashing like a gunshot with a twisting force under the influence of my hand, such that all of the hinges became twisted and bent, and two of the five actually snapped and sent pieces of cast iron cascading down, slow and noiseless, to the floor. This door would never close itself again, not while I was here; and I let Sarah go in, while my hand went toward my possible bag, there to grasp the butt of the hand howitzer. I had a most definite thought regarding the chambering of a round, but I knew not to do that just yet.

There was but one person showing, this a 'tall' woman of surpassing plumpness; and in her case, this surfeit of flesh was not hidden by clothing. Instead, it was flaunted openly as the gift of Brimstone that it most surely was. Her face was lined, creases running darkly through her fleshy round plate of a face, even though the lighting inside this malodorous room was brilliant enough to cast distinctive shadows; and I now recalled again what I had spoken about this woman and her 'smelly' attitude.

No time for joking, now. All was a matter of business, and every word I had said for the sake of amusement was as accurate as if it had come out of the book itself. I let Sarah speak her piece.

“Your thread, please,” she said calmly – though I could feel the fire before the explosion in her icy no-nonsense tone. “You know of what kind I speak.”

The woman's fat-rounded face grew hard under its layers of lard, harder than granite. It was as if she could indeed read Sarah's mind; she knew of this precise species of thread; she knew of her bloodshed-earned monopoly regarding its presence in the first kingdom; and hence she felt herself a species of queen, much as if her hard-won title was 'The Mistress of Geeststaat'.

Yet in my mind, and in my nose, I could smell the variegated reeks of hell amid the sundry species of odors common to witchdom.

“Long needles, also,” said Sarah. “You know which ones, and that precisely, and you know just how many I want.” An instant's pause. “Fetch those needles and thread immediately.”

The woman's face changed imperceptibly, yet somehow abruptly upon hearing this sharp-toned voice of command.

My hand was faster than her thoughts: I thought 'chamber a round' as my hand grasped firmly the butt of the pistol, then as it moved up and around from my possible bag in what seemed slow-motion, I clearly saw the foot-long slide of the pistol work full-stroke and a round show in the ejection port as it went home; and equally slowly, my finger found the trigger, even as the massive pistol found its rock-steady 'point' but an inch from the bridge of the woman's nose.

My voice then found its work; and its sound, the growl of an angry lion, its words slow and its pitch deep, like that of thunder as a bolt of lightning struck in the street outside to blast away the everlasting night and fogs of witchdom.

The light was coming, pouring in behind me as if it were my shadow.

All of that thread, you stinking witch,” I roared, this as cold as the space between the stars, “and all of those needles, you smelly whore of Babylon! We are not paying a single copper, you scum-licking witch, as you have robbed Sarah a hundred times over, and that every single time she has dealt with you!” Pause, this an eyeblink of apparent time, then, “you stinking witch, you tried for her twice your-own-self, damn your accursed eyes! Now fetch those things, and do it on the double-run, or you die here and now, accursed witch!”

My voice had risen in volume and pitch with each word, such that the last word 'witch' was a high-pitched ringing scream to my hearing – and now, the lights, once bright, had gone dark. Only the lighting coming through the door, this a torrential flood of brilliance, was present. It was glaring into the witch's face, it flowing around me as if I were indeed the edge of a knife, and lighting up her face like a rainbow.

“Now decide, witch!” My commanding thoughts flying faster than the light that placed a searing brand upon her face, showing her for the witch she truly was. Again, my thinking crashed like a bomb. “Life, or death!”

She did not move fast enough. My pistol dropped perhaps an inch and a half, and as the protruding portion of the barrel found her nose, the pistol angled well 'up'. I then fired.

The deafening blast flung her up off of her feet and sprayed gore over the wall behind her and portions of the ceiling, while my second round blew off the remainder of her head as I adjusted my aim as she 'launched' and fired again.

That second round was unneeded, but I said I would attempt to put a bullet up each nostril. I then glanced at the witch.

“No need for a second round,” I thought. “That first one destroyed most of her head, and now... There's nothing left from the ragged stump of her neck up.”

More than that, her head was indeed gone; disintegrated, scattered thoroughly, splattered against the shelves behind her as her corpse lay upon the floor billowing blood from the stump of her well-larded neck. I leaped the counter like a panther, landing on my feet with a soft thud, then helped Sarah clamber over it. I tried to stay clear of the fast-pooling blood “If you need or want it, get it. I'll cover you, and...”

A witch showed at the far edge of the counter to my right, 'full-loaded and black-faced' – though in his case, the 'full-loaded' aspect was that he was as drunk as a stinker. I had sufficient time to aim carefully at the base of his neck, and then 'squeeze' the trigger gently.

The pistol bucked in my hand, trying hard to go vertical and above my head, just like a dragoon; unlike the effects of a dragoon, however, this second witch I had shot wasn't merely dead.

He was laying on the floor with his head parked squarely on his chest, the bloody stump of his neck providing a platform where it belonged such that it was obvious to all that he was dead. I'd decapitated him with a massive high-velocity slug.

I put the pistol away in my possible bag, putting it on 'safe' as I did so, and now took up the machine pistol as I went after Sarah. I flipped it up to the 'R' setting, and when I saw another fast-coming witch as we passed an aisle, I pivoted in mid-stride and 'tapped' the trigger with a deliberate piston-like motion, aiming somewhere near his groin to account for the bullets climbing. I figured I'd put at least one in an important place that way.

The short 'burp' flipped him end over end to land in a sprawling heap, where he lay, thrashing as he spurted blood from at least two holes. I could feel the presence of another witch, and flipping to the 'single-fire' setting, I turned to the other side and snap-shot him, again aiming with exaggerated care as everything became slower yet.

He dropped in place like a sack of grain, his head now having a small hole in front and a huge one in back, his skull devoid of gray matter. That stuff, along with a stream of bone-chips, had splattered the wall behind him.

“You'll have to teach me how to use that one setting,” said Sarah. “The needles are up this way.”

“No good ones in here, most likely,” I said, watching and following close behind her. “You want those really long ones, right?”

“Yes, I do,” said Sarah. “For darts, the chief thing that matters is that they be straight and sharp at one end, not that they be polished or have temper-colors.”

“You just need a lot of them, as some of these things are...”

I didn't get a chance to finish speaking, as I saw another witch. This wretch had a knife held low in his left hand as he 'charged', and I shot him in the chest at a range of perhaps eight feet. He tumbled, twisting as his feet fell from under him, landed heavily on first his shoulder and then his back, thrashing on the floor face-up. I walked over his still-thrashing body, picked up his knife from where it lay near his feet, then turned – and threw it such that it pinned his chest to the floor. He stopped thrashing then.

Once more, witch.

I ripped the knife out of his chest as I went to a kneeling position, then spiked him rightly to the floor by plunging the blade into his forehead and through the rest of the bones of his head. This was a very large and stout knife, one that was a decent copy of the rigging knife save for its added five inches of length and its substantially thicker blade, and but an inch of its finger-thick blade remained protruding from his forehead after I spiked his head to the floor with it.

Sarah gasped, then hurried on. I had business to do to this witch.

I took out a metal pear, then carefully removed the pin and slipped the bomb under the dead witch's buttocks such that his dead weight held the lever down. There, it would not ignite until he was moved. That would give us both a warning of trouble to our rear, but also it would kill more witches in the process.

“That knife plunged through the head like I did will get to them, won't it?” I thought.

“It will, as doing that precise thing is mentioned as 'ye work of ye monster' in that black book,” said the soft voice. “Unfortunately for them, trapping bodies like you just did is not mentioned – and that grenade will get them when they come across his body and attempt to remove that knife.”

“Hopefully it will let us know when they're attempting to encircle us,” I thought, as I rushed to catch up with Sarah, and in the process shot at a witch as I passed him on the run. I found her calmly walking over the corpse of a witch, the butt of her suppressed pistol protruding from a surprisingly deep pocket.

“I potted that one in the head,” she said, indicating the corpse and the small blood-weeping hole just over one eye. An inch to the right would have 'crossed his T', but he was dead – and that was what mattered. “Could you reach up there and get those needles? I think they're the ones I want.”

I did so, though it needed jumping nearly a foot in the air, and when I brought down the hefty wooden box, Sarah opened its brass-hinged lid and quietly gasped.

“They've been stealing and hoarding these things for years,” she said. “There more needles in here than I can count!”

“Any of them possibly decent for sewing?”

“There might well be some in this big of a box,” she said, as she closed the lid and its latch, then asked me to hold it. “Now for the thread.”

“Get plenty of thread, dear,” I said, as I put the hefty box in my pack, then went after Sarah at a rapid walk, now 'stalking' any witches that might think to come near. “We'll have to make what thread you get today last until we can import it ourselves from the fourth kingdom – that, or get better thread overseas.” A pause, then, “we could take them a sample and see if they can make thread like it for strength and other matters.”

“I'll indeed do that, but I suspect making such thread might take a while, and I and many others will be doing much sewing upon our return,” said Sarah. “Hence I must secure all I can of this thread.”

Sarah, however, in speaking of 'thread', had a very definite idea of what kind: she was grabbing sizable spools as if a lunatic – no thread-sticks in evidence here; this place carried spools five inches tall and nearly as wide, with thread occupying as much as it possibly could of each spool – and then tossing them in first her satchel, then her pack, and finally in my pack; my possible bag was full enough as it was. I did not mind this, for some reason, even if I could tell that the witches had – for the moment, anyway – decided it was not a good idea to bother us while we looted 'their' world.

After all, they knew about the ways of brigands, and we were doing a more-than-passable imitation of Sam Brumm's people

I, however, had a better idea than they did. Three long strides, setting the machine pistol to 'R' as I walked and then knelt down using the cover of a shelf, then as a mob of witches showed in a hallway leading out of the main area, I fired three short bursts that put them all down on the floor, some squirming in near-silence, others yelling in pain as they thrashed; then as an afterthought, I removed from my vest another of those strange green-with-a-red-label 'tins', and this time, I looked at it a bit closer.

“Training aide?” I asked silently as the witches able to do so now moaned and shrieked. I'd aimed up a bit from the last instance, such that I caught most of them roughly 'center of mass' or perhaps a bit lower for the tallest. “One hundred grams of... What? What is this stuff?”

“That's the best they could do with that intercepted name and material,” said the soft voice. “It's not what you think it is, either.”

“What is it, then” I asked.

“A 'rocked' form of what is in that gray moldable explosive,” said the soft voice. “You've heard of 'artillery simulators', haven't you?”

I nodded, this mentally. It was quicker than actually doing it, and this conversation was not happening at anything close to the usual lightning-quick exchanges.

It was happening a good deal faster. My mind parsed out the syllables of the word printed on the 'label': “Cyclohexanite.” An obvious question followed: just what was Cyclohexanite?

“They had somewhat more realistic goals regarding simulating artillery shells compared to many armies where you came from,” said the soft voice. “That device is nearly as strong for blast as one of those mortar shells, and is a bit too 'touchy' to stand the handling grenades commonly get in the field.”

“Hotter, more sensitive...”

“Throw one of those things hard against a stone or concrete wall and it will explode,” said the soft voice, “detonator or no detonator, it will go off – and it's about the strongest stuff in their inventory at this time.”

“As strong as that headache-inducing 'Vlai'?” I asked. I was getting a slight one holding the thing, even sealed in a metal can, and that headache was growing steadily.

“'Vlai' has a slight edge,” said the soft voice. “Note I said 'slight' – as in it's a trifle stronger and a good deal more sensitive.” Pause, then, “those devices like that can be used as 'offensive' grenades.”

“Then I'd best toss this one at those witches about to come up the hallway over their dead and dying fellows and go on the offensive,” I muttered, as I pulled the pin and threw the thing up the hallway.

The complete lack of smoke it left as I threw it did not deter my running back to where Sarah had stuffed another bag full of thread; if anything, the massive blast followed by a huge chorus of screams had Sarah asking me if I'd used a 'satchel charge'.

“No, just one of these weird green cans labeled as being a training aide,” I said. “It seems they were used for simulating artillery shells exploding, and...”

“Their chief lack compared to 'metal pears' is the quantity and quality of their splinters,” said the soft voice, “and while they're fairly common overseas, that type you have isn't terribly common right now.”

“How did we get them, then?” I asked.

Sarah giggled quietly, then said, “they looked just like Harvest Day squibs, even as to the color, so I got two whole boxes of them, and Katje got three, as she hasn't had a proper Harvest Day in years.”

Harvest Day squibs?” I gasped. “That was some squib!” Pause, then, “here, let me put that bag in my pack.”

“You'd best hurry,” said the soft voice. “That 'squib' you tossed started a sizable fire, and it's about to get into some jugs of light distillate.”

I knew what to do then: I placed the bomb with the nails on one of the shelves, then after lighting its fuse with a match from the tin using my 'match-file', I motioned to Sarah to head toward the front of this overly-long building. She 'got the message' immediately, and we both moved as rapidly as we could up the long halls formed by the towering shelves. As we ran, I could feel another onslaught of witches quickly brewing, this the biggest one yet in their frontal-assault-at-all-costs method of dealing with life in general, and I snap-shot three of them coming up one of the cross-aisles in the blink of an eye while hustling after Sarah. One had a fowling piece, though what kind gun it actually was was an entire mystery – until he dropped it and the two thundering roars were met with a host of screams coming from his general region.

“What was that gun? A double-barreled roer?” I thought. “No time for investigating it now – we've got to get over that stinking counter with all this 'loot'.”

That's what makes the boys get up and shoot, and the same for the girls!” said the soft voice – who then seemed to speak to Sarah, as she loosed several rapid shots from her machine pistol that caught a pair of witches and dropped them screaming to the floor.

The witches were obviously trying to flank us in a pincer movement as well as get to us to our rear, and as I came to the counter, I leaped over it as if it were inches high and not the height of my chest, then hauled Sarah over it bodily as a hefty charge of shot hit the place where she'd been an instant earlier. I drew the hand-howitzer as I pulled her the rest of the way to cover and fired once, hitting the witch who had shot at Sarah – and his fowling-piece's other barrel fired when he hit the ground, which was received with more inhuman-sounding screams as his hefty load of stiff shot 'nailed' more oncoming witches.

Sarah needed no urging on my part to get her overburdened self out of the door, while I fired two short bursts from the machine pistol while walking backwards to cover her retreat. As I turned at the threshold and ran out of the door, I tossed a grenade over my shoulder, hearing the thing thump repeatedly on the floor behind me with booming noises, then as we made the buggy and Jaak, first one thundering blast detonated amid a host of animalistic screams, then another such blast erupted amid screams – and then, as the two of us got behind a watering trough...

A blinding flash erupted deep within the shop, like suddenly-loosed lightning flashing hard and bright to now bring its total nature unto the witches. It was a foretaste of the crushing foot of God's judgment landing on the head of a certain reptile – a reptile that usually looked more like a crocodile, as those had legs – and especially, claws – and a snake didn't.

The entire shop literally leaped several feet into the air amid gouting smoke and dust, while whistling objects ripped, whirled, and shrieked overhead to bang, clatter – and all too often, shatter windows on our side of the street.. I glanced up, and saw embedded in the nearest stoop-post but a foot above my head a five-guilder coin, this dug into the wood sufficiently deep that I first needed to tug it loose and then toss it in the trough where it hit with a hissing splash.

“Time to leave, dear,” I said – though I then held Sarah down as another explosion, this one the largest yet of all, destroyed first 'the enemy headquarters', then as we watched, shop after shop erupted with distillate-fueled fire and smoke until a shuddering pavement-ripping blast suddenly leveled all eight of them and sent flaming kindling up some ten to twenty feet above the roof of the sole building left standing of the witch-group – Grussmaan's – to then pile sloppily on top of the razed foundations and some distance out into the street, there to burn briskly amid a vast horde of inhuman-sounding drunken screams.

I then saw the east wall at Grussmaan's.

“That wall probably needs to be totally relaid,” I muttered. “That last shockwave broke all of the mortar bonds, it broke many of the stone blocks they used... Bad stone to start with, badly laid...”

The corner of Grussmaan's nearest us suddenly sagged a trifle, then it crumbled into a mound of fragments that cascaded to pile in the street; then, as I watched, slowly, over the course of seconds as the massive fire across from us roared like a hungry beast from another world, more portions of Grussmaan's east wall crumbled and fell to the ground. I could see the furniture and other articles inside that place beginning to slowly slide as the upper floor of the place tilted downward and then gave way, then the pieces of furniture themselves fell and burst apart one by one, the chairs and tables scattering into fragments like poorly-made compressed-sawdust when they fell and hit the ground.

“Panic time for Grussmaan's, I guess,” I said softly. “They're going to be...”

I then saw a black face inside that now-open-to-daylight place, this individual wobbling drunkenly on the still-tilting second story of Grussmaan's; without thinking, I reached for my vest, loosened a pocket, and tossed a grenade at the face. The near-spherical device flew from my hand like a bullet, smashing the face-greased individual in the forehead and knocking him flying to land on the floor that yet stood behind him; then a second later, the bomb detonated with a thundering roar – and the entire second floor of Grussmaan's bulged out in slow motion, all of the mortar bonds shattering like glass; then slowly the broken-up blocks of stone fell down to mound itself head-high and man-wide around the somewhat sturdier first floor of the building. The roof collapsed along with the outer wall that supported it, and the interior of Grussmaan's second story – what was left of it – was now totally exposed to the elements. The first floor was barely standing as it was, and I seriously doubted it had a usable level of protection from the elements remaining.

“No, Grussmaan's is not destroyed,” said Sarah, “but if those people that still live in that place sell anything at all for two months and make a guilder of profit for six, even if they sell a great deal to those coming witches, I will be most surprised.”

“Time to go, dear,” I said as I mounted Jaak amid the growing heat of the fire across the way as it billowed black smoke and towered higher than the ruined portion yet remaining of Grussmaan's second story amid soft crumping noises as the various bottles and jugs and powder flasks burst to set alight more witches and their tools. Faintly, I saw smoke starting to come from within Grussmaan's.

I was primed for war still, and I would clear my weapons when I thought it wise to do so – that being at least a mile clear of the house, when I could not 'feel' witches. Sarah evidently had the same idea – haste at all costs in leaving the area and its fires as they burned the remainders of the witches, and as her horses built up to a rapid trot headed east on the Oestwaag, I watched carefully for trouble as Jaak kept up once the road widened enough to run abreast.

No one followed us. I was thankful for such small mercies, even though I had wrecked a large part of a town and killed hundreds of evil people – with no mercy, no relent, and certainly – no tears.