The road to Ploetzee

I had never been to this town named Ploetzee, even if I had heard a great deal about it from either people who had lived there, or those who had visited it; and once we'd left the 'dread zone' behind – our systematic reduction of that eight-house stretch had been watched by a great many citizens, who had stayed out of our way while we were doing business; now, the booms of muskets seemed to follow intermittently in our wake as we left the edges of the town – I felt it wise to reload our magazines and make our weapons safe once we'd gone half a mile further, past the damage done by the witches when they had initially attempted to rebuild the Swartsburg..

I also had to rub my hands with Geneva, and until the fast-blooming bruises went away over the course of a minute, I wondered if I had broken something.

“I can say that about those things,” said Sarah. “That one witch supped with Brimstone right away.”

“That one I shot in the head?” I asked. “I actually put the barrel up her nose, and tried to shoot one up each nostril, but her head was gone with the first shot!”

“Good,” said Sarah. “She may have tried for me twice, but there isn't an itinerant tailor in this part of the first kingdom who didn't have trouble with that stinker, and this time was the first instance I'd ever seen her as she truly was.”

“Namely, you saw what she was really like,” I said. A pause, then, “I am glad that witch is done in this world, as a nastier example I've not seen up close and personal in a long time – and I shot that wretch in the head and gutted him with his own knife.”

“You passed your first lesson in house-clearing with flying colors, you two,” said the soft voice. “It will usually be significantly easier overseas.”

What?” I gasped. I had expected that business to be a far tougher matter.

“Firstly, those witches were survivors of first the Swartsburg and then the hall's destruction,” said the soft voice, “and more, most of them had survived non-trivial wounds. When a witch survives a non-trivial injury, especially now, it's like the cheap imitation of being marked.” Pause. “In nearly all cases, such witches become far more inhabited, which means they're much harder to stop.”

“I'd never fired one of those machine-pistols full-auto, either,” I said. “I was expecting a lot more muzzle climb, so I aimed for that stinker's groin when I got onto him, figuring I'd get some hits that way with a short burst.”

“He died quickly enough,” said the soft voice. “One of those bullets hit a femoral artery, and most of the others either cut bundles of nerves or broke important bones.” Pause, then, “he was 'down right there' and unable to do much, and he died quickly enough to not cause trouble for your 'mission'.” Pause, then, “I would be very glad you got as much thread as you did.”

“Uh, special thread?” I asked, while Sarah and I 'put up' our 'loot' in some semblance of order under her buggy's top-cover. “Double-strong stuff, like you need for making cloth packs and similar things, and, uh, magazine pouches, and...” Pause, then, “I hope we can get a sewing machine.”

“They'll have to make one almost entirely from scratch,” said the soft voice, “but if you're only interested in one or two of them, then that isn't terribly hard.”

“Not a hand-cranked horror, hopefully,” I murmured.

“It will not be one of those,” said the soft voice. “Granted, it might be a bit strange, and want a sizable battery that will need regular charging, but it will work passably for Sarah once she gets over her fear of its 'touchy' behavior.”

I'm still afraid of those things, and I used one some before I came here,” I said. “It needed a lot of work on a regular basis to work right.”

“This will be similar as to behavior,” said the soft voice. “It will be able to do more stitches than that one you had – be significantly easier to work on, need less work in general to keep running, and be easier to learn how to use.”

“Not one of those computerized things, I hope,” I said. Mrs. Ulyanov usually spat a great deal of Russian 'oaths' at the mere mention of those, even if I had been willing to buy one for her. She had a definite preference for 'solid metal' Singer machines, these being the older variety, even if they were almost entirely manual and could only run 'straight' stitches.

“They don't have drawings of those,” said the soft voice. “What they do have drawings of are 'field-maintenance machines', which are designed to be used by soldiers to repair uniforms and make special gear – hence they were deliberately designed to be extremely rugged and easily used, and more, easy to keep working under field conditions.”

“Hence sealed ball-bearings, filtered oil places, easy access to the gears, oil baths...”

Well beyond that, even,” said the soft voice. “That design uses a lot of antifriction bearings, a central oil pump with an oil reservoir and a large filter pad, and a lighter synthetic lubricant so as to keep the machine running under field conditions.” Pause, then “that means this thing is designed to handle a fair amount of outright abuse and continue functioning – with soldiers who do not know how to sew trying to repair uniforms and other cloth gear, and in some cases, making what they need for their work.”

“It might just work for us, then,” said Sarah, “though I am not sure about the battery.” Pause. “I doubt he meant guns when he spoke.”

“No, most likely a battery like those we found at the Abbey, save larger,” I said. “We'll either be cranking that charger a whole lot, or we'll wish a generator of some kind – and I refuse to have one like that nasty thing at the Abbey. I want one I have trouble hearing when it is running, and it would be nice if it wasn't inclined toward distillate. Aquavit, fine, but no distillate.”

“I recall hearing an engine that made me wish to sleep,” said Sarah – who seemed to agree about the distillate part. “That type would work well.” Pause, then, “there. Now we are settled for travel. Fill your water bottle, and let me cut you some bread to eat. That nonsense back there gave me an appetite.”

The smoothly-graded dirt road that showed at the end of the cobbles at the east end of the kingdom house was wide enough to travel side-by-side, and here I found it advantageous to eat and drink while riding, weapons slung yet their chambers clear. The area about us seemed 'clear' of witches, so clear of them that when I found the hanging corpse of a black-dressed witch, this hanging by his neck but eight feet from the side of the road, I wondered as to the practicality of the matter – as dead witches belonged naked in manure-piles, and this stinker still had his clothing.

“He did not know about the right way to deal with such stinkers,” said Sarah. “Whoever hung that witch out to dry did it the usual way for around here.”

“Perhaps he simply wished to deal with that stinker in the most expeditious manner possible,” I said. “Given my druthers, I'd just shoot them and leave them where they fall, as that's quick and generally an easy matter, and they'll rot fast enough.”

“You'd best get moving,” said the soft voice, “as that witch had dynamite rigged to him, and he's starting to go up in smoke.”

“Oh, so that's what was done,” I murmured as Jaak broke into a trot ahead of Sarah's team. “The other witches come along, they try to take him down, and...”

A thundering roar cut my speech off, and the crackle of flames that erupted to our rear made me wonder just who had caught and then rigged a witch so as to catch more of them. I wanted to talk to that person, as I just might learn something useful.

“Mathias did that one using the dynamite and distillate-bottles the witch was carrying,” said the soft voice, “and his goal was indeed to 'catch more witches', much like you did hiding those bombs where you did in that shop.”

“That one bomb with the nails?” I asked.

“It was a most-lethal device,” said the soft voice. “The nails flew like darts and ripped holes in most of the still-living witches.”

“They were nailed good, then,” said Sarah. “They are either supping with Brimstone, as I saw those places burning, or they will in short order.”

“They 'supped with Brimstone' right away when that bomb went off,” said the soft voice. “Those nails shot through walls, floors, and ceilings as if they weren't there, and then made ugly holes clear through the bodies of most of the witches within that house and those on each side.”

“It got to that place with the coaches?” I asked.

“Killed over half of those horses outright and severely injured most of the others, all of the coach-drivers died, and a great many coach-passengers died right away or soon after,” said the soft voice. “Then, its shockwave traveled into that underground portion, which had many light-giving firebombs in use and many more jugs of smelly light distillate for use in those salvaged Infernal lanterns – and that stuff blew up most of the place.” Pause, then, “Grussmaan's is currently more or less out of business, as a lot of their stock is now gone.”

Gone?” I asked.

“That fire got into their building when that wall more less let go on both stories, and while they're holding their own regarding the fire, their building is so badly damaged that they need to repair the foundations and then erect a new building.”

“About like some places in the Swartsburg after I went after the first Koenraad's head,” I said. “Parts still standing, but they aren't going to do much for quite a while.”

“Sarah's estimate, given the difficulty in getting 'labor' right now, is a bit optimistic regarding rebuilding – and is completely 'out the window' regarding their likely profits.”

“They will make more money than she said, and make it much sooner?” I asked.

“Grussmaan's will not make a single guilder for the rest of the time they remain in existence,” said the soft voice. “Rebuilding that place is going to cost so much that they'll exhaust their financial reserves entirely by the time the building gets flattened for good – and they've lost most of their business anyway.”

“Sounds like we more or less got rid of the domestic business,” I said. “Now that they must operate openly...”

I was not prepared for Sarah's laughter: she obviously 'got' the joke about 'openly', as in their building – or what was left of it – had no roof, was missing much of one main wall, had a thoroughly trashed second story, and a lot of internal damage on both the ground floor and the basement.

“Worse than that,” said the soft voice. “That grenade didn't just blow up the second story. It damaged the first story's interior to no small degree, and then the splinters killed most of the people that were inside that place.”

“Good, then the witches that still live in there are not going to be up to much,” said Sarah. “Not if they resemble pie-filling in places.”

“Those people will die before the end of the day,” said the soft voice. “The only people in Grussmaan's that aren't dead or seriously injured were those in the deeper underground portions – so they lost all of their knowledgeable personnel, and since the place was run as per witchdom's decrees, they had two sets of books – neither of which survived that explosion in an intact state, and the 'secret' books were more or less shredded.”

“The others?” I asked.

“Are drenched with blood, so they're illegible.”

“Sounds like metal pears are downright nasty,” I said. “Almost too nasty.”

“No, just make sure you get well clear, or toss them like you do,” said the soft voice. “They've got that kind of blast and fragmentation for a very good reason, as they were intended to stop people who were not easy to stop.”

“Witch-soldiers?” I asked.

“Were not easy to stop,” said the soft voice. “They might not have been bacon-sized Iron Pigs for toughness, but they did need plenty of stopping as a rule.”

“Would my first rifle have..?”

“With authority,” said the soft voice. “Only a handful of them could have stood up to being hit by an 'elephant gun' – and those people would have been out of the fight until they could have gotten help.”

“And those, uh, nineteen millimeter guns?”

“Were greatly feared by witch-soldiers,” said the soft voice, “as they'd drill through two trees and three of those smelly thugs before the projectile thought about slowing down much.” Pause, then, “that was for those. Those other weapons like them that fired explosive shells were worse yet, as having a battery of eight to twelve of those usually dropped entire masses of witch-soldiers when they first showed.”

“What size were those?” I asked. I wanted to ask about that one fowling piece, also.

“The nominal bore-size, which is what is currently used on 'riot guns', is twenty-five point three millimeters,” said the soft voice. “The shell weighed roughly three hundred and fifth grams, and was a good deal worse than one of those 'metal pears'. More, that type of gun, unlike current riot guns, had a surprising range for its size.”

“How are those guns they use for riots different?” asked Sarah.

“They may use the same shell size, but both propellant and explosive are a good deal weaker,” said the soft voice. “Generally, they don't need nearly that kind of range or power when 'putting down' riots, so the usual then was to take worn-out war weapons, refurbish them to a degree, and then use that backed-off ammunition in them after the needed adjustments had been made.” Pause, then, “they lost a lot more than just range and power.”

“What else did they lose?” I asked. “Don't tell me – that powder they use leaves lots of crud when it's not loaded 'hot'.”

“If the good stuff is being used, not really,” said the soft voice. “It's got a pretty good pressure range where it burns cleanly.” Pause, then, “what Annistæ uses isn't nearly as good that way, but what is loaded in ammunition used by functionaries and those ranks over them tends to have a very narrow range in which it works well – as in one percent either way either causes worse soot than fifth kingdom powder or a blown-up weapon.”

“Sounds like trouble,” I muttered. “I'd rather live with soot than an explosion.”

“Hence the usual drill is for gun teams to full-clean their weapons before employing them,” said the soft voice, “and then cleaning them likewise when they return the gun, whether the weapon has seen use or not.”

“Helps keep them familiar...” I murmured. “No, it's not that. Is this the 'Duh' factor at work?”

“It is,” said the soft voice. “That one gun you were wondering about wasn't a common fowling piece, but a specially made short-barreled market-hunting gun with two barrels.”

“It was a double-barreled roer,” I spat. “Do I have gages big enough to measure such a weapon?”

“No, because most if not all market-hunting guns are too large to fire from the shoulder, or at least that is believed by market hunters,' said the soft voice. “That witch had far more money than smarts when he had that fetish-built weapon done a few years ago, and hence he killed and injured a number of witches when he dropped it in a full-cocked state when you shot him.”

Some few further minutes of travel, then I asked, “the Main river? Where is this town in relation to it?”

“About a mile east of it,” said Sarah. “The Main wiggles around a bit above that one place where that one Norden-ship was drawn up, and Ploetzee is almost hidden from view, as it's in what looks like a shallow depression in the ground which is actually a lot deeper and bigger than it looks from outside.”

“Trouble with flooding?” I asked.

“Not that place,” said Sarah. “Everywhere save at the entrance, there is this tall dike that has a thick stone wall laid at its core, and the whole area's so overgrown with brush it's almost like that one large river near that market town down in the fourth kingdom.” A pause, then, “then, there's the road getting there, and it goes off of this one in about a mile and heads south-southeast for the most part.”

“In the middle of a woodlot, correct?” I asked. “Tricky to navigate using a buggy, unless you know how to get around the rocks and things, and, uh, where the g-gate is.”

“This one I could drive through, but it's a lot narrower than the usual passage,” said Sarah. “A lot of their stuff comes in and goes out on the canal.”

“Canal?” I asked.

“It's quite old, and I can see places where moldable stone was used to form it, which means it was made before that war,” said Sarah. “There is a wheel for water there, though how it conveys power from that point down into the town is a mystery.”

“No, not really,” I said. “The machinery used is very old, it's well-hidden, and Ploetzee is one of the few 'set-aside' places established by marked people between the end of the war long ago and the 'setting' of that infernal Curse I've heard so much about and know so little of.”

“That situation will change, as you will need to break it,” said the soft voice. “It will need a number of trusted companions, and much preparation prior to your doing so.”

“That much I knew,” said Sarah. “I was just not sure who would break it, or how it could be broken.”

“I'll need to go into that place where it was uttered, that very same room, and there speak so as to break it, dear,” I said. “Now, why is it I'm suddenly reminded of standing up next to a mountain?”

“Because that place is located in the Blue Mountains somewhere, in a particularly large mountain,” said Sarah. “Where, I am not certain, but it is located there.”

“And c-chopping that mountain down with the edge of my hand?” I asked.

“I think it means you are to go personally, and the task is difficult enough that you're not going to be able to do it alone, just like clearing the Abbey needed help,” said Sarah. “Now I've read some strange lines off of that tapestry that needed me bathing, and they go along with what you've just said and some others that I think you may have said – something about not being late for the next world, as in regards to witches who are about to sup with Brimstone?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “It might... It was by that one man the 'commons' like so much overseas, and he s-spoke about there being music in the next world.” Pause, then, “I doubt he meant hell.”

“The book speaks much of music,” said Sarah. “Now if that man spoke of it...” Sarah looked at me, then asked, “you never met him, didn't you?”

“No, he died when I was a small boy,” I muttered. “What little I know about him is mostly through reading – that, and hearing his music now and then.”

“We both know hell has nothing like music,” said Sarah, “unless...” She was looking around.

“About another four hundred yards, er, meters,” I said. “Best get in the habit of using both terms, as they use the 'new' system overseas almost entirely, and those functionaries...”

“Their system is unique to them,” said the soft voice. “It speaks of no numbers used, only certain colors, and while there are a lot of special fasteners, if one speaks of 'commonplace' nuts and bolts, there are only four 'colors' spoken of by functionaries: yellow, blue, green, and red.”

“The four main colors of that stinking chemical weapon,” I gasped. “Here, dear, let me, uh, show you how to get onto that one road.”

Here, I led Jaak through some astonishingly thick undergrowth, this by guiding him mentally via a series of pictures, and as I moved slowly so as to 'break trail', I heard Sarah muttering in some kind of shock.

She sounded more shocked yet when I came out onto a tree-shaded road, this seemingly 'rolled and varnished' as if it were copied by people familiar with that one road leading to the fourth kingdom house, and as we traveled along this road, I noted the 'thinned out' aspect to each side, just as if these trees were being 'farmed' for lumber.

“Nothing quite that 'scientific', even if much of the house's good wood comes from the forests around Ploetzee,” said the soft voice. “Note that you wish to stay on the road for the most part, as while that 'joining' stretch isn't trapped, much of the rest of this area is – and it catches witches with some frequency.”

“That canal?” I asked.

“Actually goes to the rear portion of Ploetzee, where the dike is widened to form a small wharf in places, and that 'paddle wheel' drives some very large line-shafts, or overheads as Sarah understands them,” said the soft voice. “Ploetzee has no trouble running its machinery, even if they do it in what seems a very rudimentary fashion and doing so requires a lot of labor.”

“Mostly checking things, though,” I said. “They send their lighter stuff upriver – the more valuable stuff – and the heavier stuff downstream.” Pause, then, “they have their own coves to load and unload.”

“One of which you will be using the day after tomorrow to sail out of,” said the soft voice. “Ploetzee may have lived a life of isolation for centuries, but it isn't inclined to remain that way one day longer than needed.”

“Good,” I murmured. “I hope the place doesn't get wrecked in the process.”

“It won't,” said the soft voice, “even if a fair number of people there are planning on relocating to the Abbey once they set their affairs in order.”

“No one to buy their places?” I asked.

Those will stay in their families,” said the soft voice. “The general rule there, at least at this time, is 'once those across the sea are there in numbers, then each family sends one or two of its best and brightest, because we must do all we can to make sure we do not end up in the belly of Brimstone'.”

“All too true,” I murmured. I then screeched, “what?”

“They've heard from Andreas,” said the soft voice, “and he, to put it mildly, has the best sources in the house and house proper – and you've spoken that way more than once since your return from that trip.” Pause, then, “they're really hoping for good generators, as they realize they need to do their share in coinage processing, and their current generators have been 'overhauled' so many times that they barely work right any more.”

“Gold, silver, and, uh, smaller denominations,” I said. “That shortage of copper, er, coins, is because the witches are trying...”

“Exactly, though the witches have actually managed to pull that one off more or less entirely,” said the soft voice. “The only way you can produce those in the needed numbers is to coin them the way you thought to do.”

“Cast ingots, long thin things, then rolling, slitting, remelting the scrap under, uh, either a vacuum or inert gas, then annealing the 'blanks' in inert-gas stoves, then stamping them – and there's going to need to be a lot of automation for the entire process for all of the coins, as we're going to need to run five of those, if not ten, for every silver piece – and we need to do lots of those.”

“Exactly, which means stamping them using steam-hammers, as casting won't work for such metal in that size range and what presses you will have are going to be very busy,” said the soft voice.”

“And witches do castings for coins,” said Sarah. “I think, though, that the chief issue is doing enough coins in the time we have, and there is no possible manner in which those can be cast quickly enough.”

“No, there isn't,” I said, “and besides, we'll need similar equipment to make all of our ammunition.” Pause, then, “that includes some they don't currently have the equipment for making, such as our artillery pieces.”

“True,” said the soft voice. “Not just ammunition, though – there are a great many things that are going to need such time on the appropriate machinery.”

The road now seemed even more 'groomed' than before, and within moments, I found the first sign of recent trouble. It took my eyes to see it first, and when I pointed out the bloodstain to Sarah – it wasn't at all large – she said, “the witches have been trying to get into this place for ever so long.”

“And when one turns up dead, or gets shot, or whatever, they haul his body off so as to document what they find, remove his money and clothing and all else, then add his corpse to the communal manure-pile and his other things to the appropriate areas for them. Correct?”

“They do have a large pile of manure, and yes, it is held in common there,” said Sarah. “You answered much of the remainder that I have wondered about for years.”

A small stream appeared about twenty minutes later, and here, I and Sarah both watered our horses and put the last of the mash we had to them. This cleaned out the bucket entirely, but for some reason, I had an odd idea: our mash-bucket would receive a decent-grade refill while in Ploetzee, then another at Willem's – only his would be the good stuff.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “That's one of the other places that uses that mixture, only their 'mash' really is a mash.”

“As in they use stone-buhr grinders driven by water-power?”

“Several of them,” said the soft voice, “one of which is dedicated to animal feed.” A pause, then, “Ploetzee processes a great deal for the house proper, and the only reason they don't run that stuff yet for the house proper is that it keeps a good deal less well when processed like that compared to rolling the stuff in a grinder like yours.”

“Hence they're in the market for one,” I murmured.

“Yes, though they want one of a larger size than what you currently make,” said the soft voice. “Remember, that water wheel might turn perhaps fifty revolutions per minute during flood-time. Most of the time it turns slower – even if its torque is substantial enough to need a line-shaft the thickness of a smaller tree.”

“And what I've done...” I then laughed.

“How can you laugh?” asked Sarah.

“What's at the Abbey, dear,” I said. “I'm mostly limited to what I, can, uh, cast and transport now.”

“Or have made overseas,” said the soft voice. “I'd farm that business out to that location, actually, as your design scales readily and they have the equipment to make larger ones easily.”

“Not the cast parts,” I said.

“No, not those,” said the soft voice. “You just get them the raw materials in compact form, then they make the grinders needed in days – as once you get back, you're going to be very busy on a certain navigational instrument.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “And updating our shop in order to keep up with the new-found and rapidly-growing demand for the more-common things, and fetching iron, and running Frankie, and...”

“Farm as much out as you can,” said the soft voice. “The only thing they have trouble with across the sea is 'conventional' castings.” Pause, then, “for a mill suitable for Ploetzee, they could easily make the parts needed if you give them the needed drawings, and besides, they'll wish such drawings for their mills.”

“Uh, beer?” I asked.

“And porridge. And coarse-flour of several grains, most of which are not currently grown on the continent due to their witch-brewed 'extinction',” said the soft voice. “And recycling cloth worn by functionaries. And a number of other things that design of mill readily lends itself to.”

“Coarse-flour?” I asked. “Uh, does that stuff have higher-than-normal amounts of protein for grains?”

“Yes, it does – now,” said the soft voice. “Once it's not denatured, then it will have three times what it currently does, and that, in combination with the other two grains, is what is needed for making 'tube-feeding mixtures' that work.”

“No soybeans,” I said.

“No, and for good reasons,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn about why they don't have those overseas once you've been there about twenty-four hours.”

“Do they have them here?” I asked.

“In denatured witch-ruined form, yes,” said the soft voice. “They'll fix those soon enough.”

“What would we use them for, and what are soybeans?” asked Sarah.

“Small, sort of roundish, hard, need long soaking...”

“Those sound like common beans,” said Sarah. “They only grow on the fourth kingdom, and they are almost as bad as blood-fruit about drawing birds and bugs.”

“Blood-fruit?” I asked. “Those sound like something a witch would desire.”

“Witches do not wish blood-fruit,” said Sarah, “and they are very costly when they can be had down that way, but if one wishes greens that taste especially good, then a medium-sized one, well-washed and sliced thinly, helps the flavor immensely.” A pause, then, “only cabbage-dressing helps more, and I know Deborah wishes she could get her teeth into one of those things about now, as if your teeth are loose, those will tighten them up faster than anything.”

“Yes, on the continent,” said the soft voice. “They do not have tooth-pullers overseas.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Currently, it's because if one develops a need for such work, it usually means summary execution,” said the soft voice. “If one can get to one of their medical people, though – they can fix damaged teeth.”

“They had best not see yours, then,” said Sarah, “as they might think them damaged badly.”

“No, they know about those,” said the soft voice. “They'll automatically think him a prize example of a space cadet once they see those, and do everything short of turning the place upside down to get him in first an aircraft, and then into space.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “I'm more than a little afraid of heights.”

“Not any more you are,” said the soft voice. “Besides, flying anything over there usually means 'a wearable intensive care environment' is fitted first.”

“Simplifies training?” I asked.

“That and much else,” said the soft voice. “Their planes tend to be capable of doing things that are the realm of science fiction – as in things like inertial dampers are needed in fiction to cope with those kind of forces.” Pause, then, “while they could make those, they simply came up with a much better solution.”

“Which is?”

“Have pilots and aircraft that are able to handle much higher forces,” said the soft voice. “It sounds rather crude, but when you're outnumbered eighty to a hundred to one in the air and you come out on top consistently, that should tell you something is being done right.”

“What?” I squeaked. “I have a... That's impossible.”

“No, not there,” said the soft voice. “Imagine being able to pull twenty times the force of gravity and retain full consciousness and functional capacity – and not only be able to handle that physically, but have an aircraft that can do it without the slightest hint of damage.”

“Sounds like a very tough plane if it can do that,” I said.

“Oh, and be impossible to truly stall, also,” said the soft voice. “Or pull flat turns at speeds too high or too low to believe the aircraft can remain flying, or have an aircraft that defies all of the laws of physics and sanity – as in a fixed wing aircraft that seems to be able to levitate just like an eggbeater, and almost hover like one.”

“What?” I gasped. “Eggbeater?”

“That would be one of those long green things that flew rapidly,” said Sarah. “They looked like bars of soap for shape, and they had spinners, one at each end, with the rear one higher than the other.”

“Eggbeater?” I asked.

“Supposedly they made a great deal of noise when they flew,” said Sarah, “and they could land like a bird, and I do not mean 'land like a quoll', either.” Pause, then, “I meant, 'land like a bee', as those can hold perfectly still while in the air, then shoot off like a wood-pigeon in any direction of the compass and vanish almost faster than you can think.”

“What?” I asked.

“Bees are not slow when they're of a mind to hurry, even if they're a lot smaller than hornets,” said Sarah. “Recall what I said about bee-runners – how one needed to run far and fast after disturbing a bee's nest?”

“Yes?” I asked cautiously. Just the mere mention of 'bees' had me thinking we might run into some.

“You need to think while running from those, as you cannot outrun those things,” said Sarah. “You must get into a tight-sealed house quickly unless you want to be nailed good.” Pause, then, “there are a fair number of bee-logs at Ploetzee, and we just might go past some.”

“Best bag up that honey, then,” I said.

“I have no idea how they know if it is their honey or not, but if it's not stuff they made, then they will leave you be unless they are starving,” said Sarah, “and with all the flowers in bloom right now, I doubt there are any starving bees.”

“And the rest of the year?” I asked.

“There are the crops, then most bee-runners put out pans of sugar-tree sap for their logs,” said Sarah. “That is the chief cost of running bees, is feeding them over the winter – and a bee-log will down three or four jugs of that sap a day.”

“Sounds like bee-runners almost need to tap their own sugar-tree sap,” I said.

“The ones in Ploetzee do, and most of the ones I've gone to up here do likewise,” said Sarah. “In the fourth kingdom, there's always a lot of flowers, so bee-runners are very common, as are bee-logs, and Liza does much business with those people.”

“And overseas, there are no such...”

“Wrong,” said the soft voice. “One ration of honey per every two weeks is a standard part of people's rations there at this time,” said the soft voice, “and while it may be poor-tasting honey as honey goes, it does help keep most of those people alive.”

“Not very alive, not if they're starving,” I muttered. “Almost have to hunt rats...”

“They do that,” said Sarah, “those and these strange creatures that resemble burrowing rodents, only they're bigger than any such rodent I've ever seen.” Pause, then, “I would not wish to be caught by one, as I would be crushed to death by such a rodent. It would hug my chest and I would smother.”

“No, you would not be crushed to death,” said the soft voice. “Those creatures have a tendency to grab legs, and that no matter what their size might be.” Pause, then, “the chief trouble with that size of animal is it tends to break both legs, and do so very quickly should it catch one unarmed and unaware.”

“Annistæ calls them ground-rats, and we call them burrowing rodents,” I muttered. “Now Sarah speaks of, uh, fast-moving bipedal gophers as tall as my waist, if not taller yet.” A pause, then, “what do they call those things?”

“They do not call them gophers,” said the soft voice, “even if that term is used to describe their behavior – as in they 'gopher your leg'.” Pause, then, “think. Their common name over there is based on an especially good late intercept. Now, which common pet is a small yet thoroughly unpleasant animal where you came from, and a much larger creature found wild across the sea from that continent?” Another pause, then, “hint: they also have an intercepted version of a book you once read, only those people actually attempt to grill those things once they've been skinned and gutted.”

“Grilled ground-rat?” I gasped. “Only thing worse I can think of is gopher stew – and I know about gophers, and how those things act.” I then had an odd idea.

“Does this intercept speak of 'ham'? And the animal it comes from, that not being a pig?”

“It does,” said the soft voice. “You are getting warmer.”

“Oh, no,” I murmured – as I made a distinct connection. “Do they call those things 'hamsters'?”

“Yes,” said the soft voice, “and you just answered a question that Sarah has had chewing on her mind like an overseas hamster ever since her second year at the west school.”

What did you call those things?” asked Sarah. “I doubt that word is in the Gustaaf.”

“It isn't, because those people across the sea that took over did a lot of work on the language using ideas that came from another intercept, one Dennis is very familiar with.” Pause, then, “describe the travails of Winston Smith to Sarah, please.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “A whole planet-wide death-camp, one that sounds a lot like, uh, Berky. Three major governments, you had to belong to this, uh, Party to do much of anything, they had proles...”

“That sounds like what I read that one time,” said Sarah. “It was very important, as I recall it now glowing blue at times.”

“Party members know what gives entrance to all known bliss?” I asked. “Describes that place across the sea well enough, doesn't it?”

“Better than you might believe possible, at least right now,” said the soft voice. “Now, Ploetzee is up ahead, so you'll wish to get compass readings as you draw closer to that place 'hidden in the mists of time and space'.”

“Is there some kind of weirdness going on there?” I asked. “Something that helps that whole area remain well-hidden?”

“I think this is so you can see how the road here actually behaves,” said Sarah. “It does tend to make compasses act strangely, that and it dips down very suddenly, so much so that you must watch closely for that dip unless you are very familiar with this road.”

Over the next few minutes, though, as I consulted my compass and saw its needle wavering, I was really wondering what else I was feeling. It was as if I was coming into an area so strange and violent that the word 'feud' didn't come close to how this place could be, and in the past, had been. Those of the Hedjtfeld and Makooij 'clans' had nothing on these people.

“Inbred, people marry their close relatives like the book says not to do, so they become, uh, weird...”

I then knew that was wrong, as witches deliberately did such things so as to engage in 'selective breeding', or what might be called 'eugenics'. That last word had both a special meaning and a special significance in the old version of Underworld German, as they wished to practice 'true racial purity', where everyone was identical, save for some who had 'the power' and did what they wished when they wished to, and to whomever they felt inclined.

“No, more like one individual has 'the power', and if one excludes those marked, then that person has to be a woman, because that black book says women are 'insatiable' and will not quit until a matter is done fully.”

“'As per the law of my fiat and gullet',” said the soft voice. “That's what's in that section of the larger black books.” Pause, then, “this area isn't like that, but precisely the opposite – and the only strangers that are welcome here without a lengthy history of proving themselves trustworthy are those who are marked.”

“Meaning there's a lot of marked people living in Ploetzee,” I said. “That's what I was picking up, about how it all seemed inbred somehow, like it came out of some vanished Appalachian time – a time where feuds reigned like kings and everyone knew everyone else and all about them.”

“That part is one of the reasons why this community has endured so much for so long – it is a very close-knit place,” said the soft voice.

“Wide-flung extended... No, not wide-flung. This place is like Sarah's relatives for how they live,” I thought.

I glanced at the compass, and now... The needle was starting to slowly rotate, going in a complete yet slow circle. The road itself seemed to be bent, such that now and then, it was going vertical to the right or left and we were 'hanging off of a wall' that was somehow in the air. I looked down and saw the road at my feet, but overhead, it was like the infamous 'triple-canopy jungle', with tall trees mingled with shorter ones, and all of them draped with 'moss' and vines that reached nearly to the forest floor and its dense green undergrowth, and one almost expected to see short black-dressed human nightmares showing suddenly out of nowhere, weapons flashing bright and spraying swarms of green flaming tracers...

A slow drone buzzed nearby, and as I watched, a sizable green thing flitted through the forest, bending its way gracefully around the trees. It made a moth seem clumsy in its rapid flight, and I felt reminded of that one 'phrase' about flitting about flitting about like a silly moth and stinging like an angry hornet.

“What was that?” I gasped, as the green thing 'vanished' like smoke.

“I've wondered where this area's hornet nest is, as I've seen those things every single time I've come here,” said Sarah. “I would not be surprised if they feed those things table-scraps, as then they provide protection from witches.”

“A most-effective early warning system, also,” said the soft voice. “The main nest is actually located in Ploetzee, and the hornets there are fed regularly, so they know and understand the people who live there.” Pause, then, “they also go after witches with a viciousness that's not commonly seen up here, as the pure prewar strain of hornet was preserved in Ploetzee, among a handful of other locations.”

“That thing was huge,” I gasped. “It was longer than my boots, and as big around as my forearm!”

“It also recognized you,” said the soft voice, “and hence, it knew you would neither bother its nest nor those who look after it and its fellows – and that is one big hornet's nest.”

“Probably the size of a house,” I muttered.

“If you speak of the houses of wealthy witches, yes,” said the soft voice. “Remember, those insects have had centuries to build and enlarge their 'dwelling', and since they receive ample food, they spend a lot more time than the usual making that nest larger as well as 'patrolling' this area.”

“A real 'dawn patrol',” I thought. “Thousands of those things.”

“Usually not all at once,” said the soft voice. “Figure that there are well over a hundred of them flying in the mile or so region surrounding Ploetzee at any one time during the day, with more flying further out, and hence witches have little chance of getting in here during the daylight hours. Should they try to do so at night... Well, your compass should give you an idea.”

“Compasses don't work right here,” I said. There was more, especially as now I could feel the entrance to the place, that being perhaps half a mile away: here, there was to be found vengeance, this full-grown with malice and death; traitors to God and kingdom were thought to be legion...

“Close enough, given how most people who aren't marked are trained from birth to be fully-owned witch-slaves,” I thought.

And wall-to-wall suspicions regarding those who weren't marked or well-known, much as if every person had taken long and hard lessons from Tam, were enough to get unrecognized people shot on sight. I then realized that in some ways, I was worse, as too often, I knew, and then – I acted; and when I acted, I did not do things by halves unless I had no other ways of doing what needed doing.

“And here is that dip Sarah spoke of, as I went ahead to warn her. Sudden? One had to be told about this thing by someone like me, as if one didn't go in this road once a week or more often yet, one tended to go over the side of a sheer cliff after one's animals if one was driving a buggy. I slowed, then at a slow walk, the abrupt turn to the left plunged down at nearly a twenty degree angle.

“I'm glad you went down that road first,” said Sarah from behind, “as it surprised me again.”

“Again?” I asked.

“The last time I went here I went inside with Lukas,” said Sarah. “The other times, I was walking, and even then it was tricky.” Pause, then, “look to your left once you go down another short distance, and you'll see something that's likely to make you ill.”

I did almost immediately, as this was a steep hill, one that was steeper than anything short of falling down that infernal volcano's vent, and to the left – and both left and right ahead – there were small carved niches in the wall or walls. Their number seemed uncountable, and when I looked directly at the first one, I saw their strange shape.

Shaped perfectly, so as to show the nail-spiked skull of a witch just above the two nail-fixed thighbones of that same dead witch, and as I passed niche after niche, I knew that each such niche had been used more than once.

Kept filled, in fact, both on account of the ceaseless guard put up by 'an early-warning hornet nest' that made radar look like a joke, and a lot of gun-toting citizens.

It made me recall this one strange 'vision' or 'waking dream' where I had seen young children being taught to make war – a place where, while it wasn't ancient Sparta, it inculcated a similar attitude in many ways toward war – an evil, a most-needed evil, but an absolute and permanent requisite so as to remain alive. Hence training for warfare was started very early, and it continued relentlessly into well- advanced middle age.

Annistæ would know about that business, as that's what those people did. Only those I would see shortly did more in that fashion, only they did so with a fraction of the resources.

The road began to slightly level out, and now, on both sides, the skull-and-crossed-thighbones 'death's heads' seemed to surround us. I looked up, and above 'the walls of death, I saw, this otherwise well-hid, the loopholes from which shot and balls could be poured out upon enemies attempting to enter this place. They were not manned right now. Had the hornets warned them, though...”

“You would not have made it this far,” said the soft voice. “The witches have sent armies against this place and lost all of their 'soldiers' while accomplishing nothing beyond their own destruction.”

“Only one entrance...”

“No, usually the hornets would find the witches miles away, which meant they would encounter a slow strategic withdrawal through this forest while being sniped from cover using rifles like Tam's – and between large numbers of witches killed and wounded by that sniping, larger numbers of witches dying by hornet-attacks, sundry well-placed bombs killing and injuring vast numbers of witches, and then this defile running red with blood like a river due to the steady 'wall of hot lead' that ripped its occupants apart, the witches that actually made it into Ploetzee were usually so badly injured that they had trouble objecting to being interred in the manure-pile while still alive and breathing – and the remainder took the entire populace all day to collect up after the still-living ones had been buried alive.”

“Like what I said to do to Gabriel,” said Sarah. “It goes like this for quite some distance, and no witch-army could succeed in passing this place, as there are a lot of well-hid places for people to shoot from.” Pause, then, “I did not know that many of them had weapons like what Tam has, even if most of the men do have roers.”

“They want Dennis' rifling setup, though, as that works better than what they've been using,” said the soft voice, “and not his earlier one, which the ones here are but a slight improvement over, but his later one, the one using a long cam, a rolling follower, and gears to turn the rifling head.”

“And worked back and forth by water-power,” I murmured.

“They already manage that, in addition to fairly precise boring,” said the soft voice. “You can cut precise gears now, but I would have those done overseas if at all possible.”

“Save for that sextant, of course,” I said. “How many of these things are there? They almost seem beyond counting...” Pause, then this unstated yet thought loudly: “it is if someone has said, 'who dares enter this place without leave? They who live here, or those who know them well, and'...”

“And those who are marked, or treated as such,” said Sarah. “I could hear that as clearly as if you'd spoken it aloud, and I would watch such thinking here.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Would it be thought rude?”

“No, but it would be the rare individual who would not hear you as if you'd spoken,” said Sarah. “I've had it happen with me more than once, and I do not speak nearly as clearly, nor as loudly, into the minds of others.”

“These?” I asked, indicating the heads and leg-bones. We were finally coming to their end, or so I thought.

“We are both known of,” said Sarah. “Were it otherwise, we would end as these witches did, and our skulls and upper-leg-bones would be made into old-style death's heads.”

“They don't do smoke-dried shrunken heads here, do they?” I asked. “Did Hendrik speak to you about what I'd said about those and what I called them?”

“He did, and thought it a good idea,” said Sarah, “though it took him half an hour by the clock to get his tongue unknotted after he tried speaking that word you had mentioned.” Pause, then, “I suspect it would take me a few minutes to manage it.”

Tsantsa?” I asked.

“It would take me a few minutes to get the knot out of my tongue were I to try speaking that word,” said Sarah. “It took him half an hour by the clock, and he has one in there, though it's the smallest one I've ever seen.” Pause, then, “I can speak of time properly if one of those is handy.”

“Where is this, uh, clock?” I asked.

“On his desk, in this small blackwood block that folds apart to show the clock-face,” said Sarah. “The clock-face itself is not much larger than that of a pocket watch, so it's easy enough to miss given what he usually has there.”

I had been wrong about this defile: we were not coming to its end. The thing turned about, this sharp enough that I was glad Sarah was a good driver and had a small buggy, and as we did so, I saw what might have been a line of well-camouflaged holes. Behind them, who knew what lay. The thought occurred to me that there was a batch of eight boarding muskets, each with a flared muzzle and stuffed with a heavy load of thick cut-shot – the stuff poured fifteen lines or greater in thickness, and cut using heavy sheet-metal shears. It made for wondering on my part about such lead – as in, 'did we wish to make up some for a burglar alarm or three once home tonight', with me pouring some 'hard-lead' out on a piece of iron.

“Blunderbusses,” I thought. “They do have such things.”

“They do not call them that,” said the soft voice, “even if there are places that, in translated form, do name such guns thusly.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Neither here, nor where you come from,” said the soft voice. “Electric-ignition muzzle-loaders are not common weapons, but they are used on other worlds – and at least three planets within easy range once the curse breaks entirely will not only have those guns, but they'll be commonly carried by those living there.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Thug-trouble?”

“You'll learn more about those places once you get overseas and take the place,” said the soft voice. “Remember, don't toss any idea that comes into your head while you're over there, even if it seems too outlandish to believe.” Pause, then, “it's all too likely to be absolutely true.”

There was no 'likely' here, as now there was a third turning point, one going to the left once more. This was done, I now understood, to slow the entrance of unwelcome visitors, and the sounds made by the hooves of the horses seemed magnified and echoing, almost as if they were marching the true-step.

And once that turn had been completed – another tight-radius turn, one where I actually had to guide Sarah down it and I wondered how anyone would get a 'buggy' like Georg's out of here – the defile suddenly fled away to show more 'triple-canopy jungle'.

Save, of course, where there were roads – and I could tell there were a lot of roads in here, all of them relatively dust-free, of that varnished material, and...

A sudden clangor and faint rattle of hooves upon a hard-surfaced road, and I nearly screeched. Our previously dirt road had turned into a smaller and less-tall – and much-better-done – version of the High Way – only here, to speak of Vrijlaand made utter and complete sense.

After all, some people from that place had first located this area in a once-devastated region, then started it. I then saw the first house, or rather, what might have been a house. For an odd instant, I seemed to see a sign, this signifying that we were entering a realm named 'Krokus Fields', and it was the home of 'the ever-blooming Krokus'. The patch of plants that I then saw made for wondering, as they looked strange and had a very potent smell – a smell that was steadily growing stronger with each passing second.

“Must be a different plant,” I murmured. “What are these things, er, plants?” I was pointing as I said this.

“Smell, and then you tell me you don't know what those things are,” said Sarah.

The odor of 'garlic' hit me, only this stuff needed to be spelled 'Gaerlickie' or some other outlandish name – and written in Cyrillic letters, also – as the smell was now so potent it nearly put me off of Jaak and onto the road. These tall bluish-green plants, each of them possessing bunches of waist-high sword-shaped leaves, reminded me to a degree of huge onions, each of them possessing the stereotypical nature of onions where I came from.

My family had once grown a small number of these things, only the only part these had in common with onions – or even garlic where I came from – was the quality of their size, shape, and odor.

The fields of Krokus here, while small in size, had outsized plants and aromas; and I suspected, or actually, I knew, that 'commonplace' Krokus and the stuff grown here were almost two different plants. It made for a question – only I got an answer before I could speak it.

“They grow most of the first kingdom's Krokus in Ploetzee, and until recently, the house proper did not use it,” said Sarah. “I think I know why, also.”

“Stinking General Thugs wanted to make sure we got the witch-grade stuff grown in the second kingdom's fully-owned slave-country,” I squawked. “The houses here are hid amid the trees, aren't they?”

“They are, and they're a lot more numerous than one might believe, and the same for the fields of Krokus and the other things they grow here,” said Sarah. “We will wish to fetch some minced Krokus here, as this stuff is a lot stronger than what one normally finds in the region's Public Houses.”

“Not the Public House here,” I said. “They have the real deal at the one here, and a mere taste to a witch glues their mouth shut and paralyzes them right away, and kills them inside of ten minutes.”

“I think that is why we wish it, as I heard what you were told about Krokus, or some of that speech,” said Sarah. “I had forgotten about reading that on some tapestry or another.”

“The Krokus bulbs themselves?” I asked.

“A full-ripe one is as large as Georg's fist,” said Sarah, “and if you taste the back of a knife that has diced the stuff grown here, it can make you think you've drank fresh-made Raw-Deal sauce, it's so hot and strong for flavor.” Pause, then, “a pinch per pot is the usual, unless you like the taste of Krokus greatly.”

“Then we may wish an extra, uh, vial,” I said. “I've asked Anna to put some in what I eat, and whatever she's been getting is either badly dried out or completely worthless.”

“Most likely both, as I recognized what she has,” said Sarah. “I think she was sold when she purchased it, as that stuff is not Krokus, but this wild plant that looks a bit like it – or so you might think until you've seen what they grow here.”

“Is it hard to grow?” I asked. I now wondered where we were going, even if I could feel one of the three Public Houses this place had ahead and a bit to the right – at least, until I saw carefully hidden in a tree on my right a pair of finger-thick insulated wires - of mottled green color so as to blend into the jungle-like foliage. I pointed those out to Sarah.

“Those would be wires for messages,” said Sarah. “Ploetzee is large enough that it has three to five such stations, and they send a lot of messages here so as to keep the town informed.” Pause, then, “Krokus is a very labor-intensive crop, which is why most of these patches are small for this area.”

“Small?” I asked. Fifty feet of four lines of these plants sounded like 'two hours of farming, and five hours of spewing from both ends', if I went by the intense reek of the things. For some odd reason, though, I wanted some Krokus in my diet, and that regularly – even if it made me smell like a Krokus-field by doing so.

“These fields are large compared to how they are in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “One cannot hoe a row of Krokus, as it damages the plants, and then it tolerates bugs poorly, hence it needs regular bug-picking in the fourth kingdom, more so than it does here.”

“Weeds?” I asked. I wanted to say, “I hate pulling weeds!”

“Must be pulled by hand,” said Sarah. “The chief reason these fields are so large is that Krokus-bugs need a much warmer climate to do well, and they die off yearly here.” Pause, then, “in the fourth kingdom, the bugs continue to grow larger until they die, and you've not known trouble until you try to grab a Krokus-bug with bug-picker's tweezers and have it spray out its backside at you.”

“You did?” I asked.

“I and Deborah were both sprayed by that thing,” said Sarah, “and we both needed to see Liza down there during the night so she could be back in her rooms before the third hour.”

“That was when they usually started classes at Boermaas?” I asked.

“Their stated hour,” said Sarah. “The reality was that time varied enough that one wished to be in the classroom an hour or more early for a given lecture, as you never knew when the lecturers were going to show – or for that matter, if they were going to show at all – and that was trouble indeed, as they would test you on their day's lecture regardless of them giving it or not.”

“Krokus-bugs?” I asked. “What do they look like?”

“Long, green, slender, and with many claws and sizable teeth,” said Sarah. “Up here, it's rare to see one longer than a finger-joint, and they're very rare, unlike in the fourth kingdom, where one needs to pick and burn them thrice daily – and burn them to charcoal and ashes, as those things are almost as bad as Desmonds for trouble when it comes to enduring fire.”

“How does the house get Krokus now?” I asked. “Andreas?”

“Down the third row and over eight houses from this one,” said a well-hidden voice that took a second to find until a woman wearing dark mottled green 'camouflage clothing' came out of what looked like a jungle-infested brier patch. “These berries are starting themselves, so we should have plenty of good liniment come harvest time.” She then did a double-take and nearly leaped back into the brier-patch.

“And you'll be making the still for it,” she muttered. “You've been expected, and where you want to go first is down two rows and then over two to the right of this one, as that's the main Public House here and they have the tickers for both in here and to the outside.”

“Thank you,” said Sarah, who then took the lead. She obviously knew where we needed go, now that we had learned we were 'expected'. She resumed speaking. “Krokus does not die off with the snows, and it is constantly making more bulbs, so one needs to thin one's rows out regularly – perhaps twice a year here, and four times a year in the fourth kingdom.” A sniff, then, as she looked around, a soft muttering.

“Yes?” I asked. “An unpleasant rotten-meat odor, one that reminds you of Old Shuck. Correct?”

“That makes two of us,” said Sarah. “I hope you have those special witch-bullets loaded up.”

I didn't, but I changed quickly to 'hollow points', and spoke of their name to Sarah.

“That is a new one for me,” she said – and then struggled to speak the words 'hollow' and then 'point'. She almost grasped her tongue with her fingers after saying the second word, which made comments about Hendrik and his difficulty saying 'Tsantsa' all too believable.

“I hope my nose is working badly, as one stinking black dog per day is enough for me,” I muttered. “Still, if both of us smelled that thing, then one is either in the area, or is planning on coming.”

“At least we both have weapons suitable for those smelly dogs now,” said Sarah. “We can both put lead in one of those things if it shows, or...”

“Or more than one,” I said. “Those things showing like this are a harbinger of change of some kind, aren't they?”

“Yes, and here is where we turn to go to this main Public House,” said Sarah. “You may wish to look carefully at this place within and without, as it is straight out of an old tale.”

“It is?” I asked, as we turned from one tree-covered shady lane to another. A house showed mostly hidden, a narrow path, this showing faint wheel-ruts with a green stripe between them, being its sole means of entry. “Two rows?” I asked.

“They must have surveyed this town, unlike most of them up here,” said Sarah. “Each row is about a hundred paces, and is as straight as a musket-shot.”

“Those things go all over the place,” I said. “You need to be close to make sure your ball hits, unless you cut grooves in the barrel and use a patched ball or a 'cheese-bullet'.”

“They're a lot straighter than the flight of a wood-pigeon,” said Sarah.

First one 'row', this mostly hidden by greenery, then 'another' – and then, a darkened lodge, this made dark more by shade than all else, suddenly hove into view. The aspect of age, of carefully-laid dark stone pointed out by much lighter mortar, the steep-pitched green, red, and yellow tiled roof, the obvious second story that overhung the first floor of the place to the front and the sides, and the rows of tall stone chimneys on each side of the large building made for wondering, at least until we came into the yard. There were people in here, but only a handful of horses; in the yet-gathering stillness, I could hear a faint humming, this of machinery – and a less-faint humming, this of what might have been...

With a blurring suddenness and a high-pitched 'shriek', something shot past my head like an arrow. I pulled back, then ran to the stoop and asked while turning about, “what was that?”

“A bee,” said Sarah. “It looked to be in a hurry, though I've seen them go faster.”

“They scream?”

“That is the sound of their wings when they're in a hurry,” said Sarah. “They're not nearly as bad for noise as an angry hornet, and your whistling is worse than both of those things put together.”

I then turned, and this time, I caught the 'bee' in time as it shot past as if on an errand. 'Mad Bee' took on a new aura, one of a distinct unpleasantness, for while this thing was fast to the point of blurring, it was not the small insect of recollection.

It was a good deal larger, and more, it was not an insect, but an odd species of bird: one with dainty feathers, jewel-bright colors, thin legs, and a very long – and very sharp – proboscis. Only then did it hit me as to what it was.

“That thing was a hummingbird,” I thought.

“No, that was a bee,” said Sarah. “Now we must watch for the bee-logs, as seeing two bees like that in the space of such a short time says there are some of those logs nearby.”

As if to prove Sarah wrong, here came a whistling and shrieking swarm of bees, only these things were lower to the ground than the first two – and running ahead of them were no less than three baying black dogs.

I chambered a round as the rifle came up to my shoulder, then fired as the first dog 'came close'. The dog caught fire the instant it was hit, and then burned like a smoky species of soot-billowing flash-powder.

Line up on the next dog, fire. Flash-Boom-sizzle as the ashes of dog number two fall like snowflakes.

The third, fire. Flash-Boom-sizzle as the third dog goes where it belongs.

Sarah looked at me agog, then asked, “how did you do that?”

“What?” I asked, my ears ringing at three rapid-fire shots “I shot those stinky dogs. Why?”

“Because I had no time to think before you'd shot all three, and now all that is left of them is a lot of smoke in the air, some soot on the ground, and three small piles of gray-black ashes.”

“Three less of those...” I then caught my gorge, and began staggering toward the door. Old Shuck was a primer for these things, as their reek was beyond belief, and speaking of nausea... Good Lord, these things could make one spew!

As if to help me, the Public House door opened, and several people bodily pulled me in as I gasped and gagged, then the same happened with Sarah.

Only she wasn't gasping; she had spewed on the stoop due to the vomit-inducing nature of 'Old Nausea' and his friends.

“You shoot them dogs?” asked one gruff-voiced character who reminded me of Lukas.

“Y-yes?” I said shakily, as I removed the magazine and cleared the weapon. “Don't want accidents with these things. I had one years ago and it scared me to death.”

“I don't blame you, not if it got those dogs,” said the man. Again, he reminded me of Lukas. “I've done my time freighting, and I got at least one relative who wears greens...” He then looked me over. “Well, we been expecting you pair, and you look and smell like you got into some witches.”

“We did, sir,” said Sarah. “That one thread-seller in the kingdom house is dead, and I saw her killed myself.”

“Good,” said the man. “I tried burning her out this last year, and we've been keeping notes on that witch for a ten-year.”

“She did not have her bones yet, but otherwise, she was indeed a witch,” I murmured. “I tried to put two bullets up her nose, but the first one scattered her head, so I wasted one on her.”

“You been using dragoons much lately?” he asked. “I know you got some of those things, and Lukas told me about how you used them.” Pause, then, “at least you live with someone who knows doctoring. Now do your hands hurt? Anything busted in 'em?”

“N-no, but they are a bit sore,” I said. “I did not use a dragoon, though – I used something worse.”

“They are that, sir,” said Sarah. “I have a pair, and I have shot them, and I'm not inclined to do that again unless a huge rat is coming for me.”

“Like those they get at the west school,” he said with a chuckle. “Now, you're wanting to see this one lady. It'll take some time to fetch her, as she don't go outside without dressing in burn-clothing, even here, as it ain't safe for her nowhere save maybe at this one place once it gets a lot of people in it.”

“Uh, Rachel,” I said. “Seldom sleeps in the same house two nights in a row, and that being when she sleeps in an actual house and not the back room of someone's shop.” Pause, then, “the witches expect certain things about where she lives, correct?”

“T'ain't just the witches,” said the man. “We keep them out pretty good, but occasionally a tricky wretch gets himself in here for a day or two before he gets himself shot or blown up.” Pause, then, “it's those black dogs, too, and now you shot the three that people been seeing for the last week.”

“Black vomit-inducing dogs,” I spat. “Speaking of vomit-inducing, I was told I might wish to get some Krokus, in, uh, vials.”

“That's why you're here first, then,” said the man. “Come on back to the shelf, as you look like you need to get into some beer.” He then muttered about 'too much swine' and how there were worse things than plated-up Iron Pigs – and he'd just seen a pair of faces showing such things.

“Not even 'too many witches', even though being pelted with coins is not fun,” I said. “We got thumped with enough of them today to suit me.”

A faint laugh, then from off to the side in this snug and 'furry-feeling' mouse-hole, I heard “so it was you causing that trouble in the house!”

My looking to each side as we went far back into this 'hole' showed it to not merely be easily half again as wide as the Public House at home, but also at least twice as deep; and when we came back out of the 'realm of darkness' and into light once more, I saw two turned-down titanium lanterns, their light such that it was a cheering glow over the 'counter'. I turned back to look behind me, again seeing dark-stained wood everywhere, this older than time yet maintained well, stone flags on the floor, numbers of small neat tables...

And in the corners of my mind, numbers of strange-looking characters with hair-covered feet and ravenous appetites – easily able to down entire pies each, if one made allowances for their smaller sizes. I wondered for a moment why I was thinking this way until I recalled just what I looked like, and how now I could pass for a character out of one of those books.

“I'm not sure who I would look like, though,” I thought. “Perhaps... No, I'm too crazy.”

And yet, for some reason, I knew I wasn't. The writer of that stuff had endured something a lot worse than 'too much swine', and hence his books had that same feeling, that of mud, rats, blame, trenches, artillery, comradeship, destruction – and especially, that horrific slaughter known as “The Somme”.

He'd survived that mess somehow. Perhaps it was because it wasn't his time yet, and he had work left for him to do that needed him doing it.

“That will come soon enough,” said the soft voice enigmatically. “Now, you need to speak to the publican about Krokus – and do not be shy about procuring plenty, especially given who else you will be seeing today.”

“Esther,” said Sarah. “She will wish some, and that in the whole bulbs.”

As if by 'magic', a cook of some kind suddenly showed, this a woman tall and spare, with a sweat-stained 'cook's smock' and an aura of 'cooking' about her so strong one could almost cut it with a knife. Sarah's eyes began to bug out as if in shock.

“No, that is not my name, even if I am her cousin,” said the woman. “I had more trouble than she did then after I burned a pig, so I had to come here or die at the hands of the witches for their pleasure.”

“Burns?” I asked.

“Most of them are covered by my clothing,” she said. “Now you were after some Krokus, and getting it to my cousin from here has proved thus far impossible.” A glance at me, then, “with you two, it should make it to her hands readily.”

“And what you do with it?” I asked softly. “Macerated, in vials, labeled carefully?”

“That sounds like you wish some ready for spicing food,” she said. “By the way, I'm the publican.”

“You are?” I asked. I'd never seen a woman in that position before, though this woman looked up to it if anyone did.

“You've not traveled much, have you?” A pause, then, “you had to hurry down south from up here all the way to the fifth kingdom house, then deal with lots of swine and witches, then come back up here with a great-find-crush-kill poured out upon you and the rest of that party, which meant every witch on the continent up to the task was taken off of whatsoever he or she was doing and put upon killing that party in general, and you in particular.” Pause, then, “that trip there and back might be fit for an old tale were it writ down, but most people take a bit more time in their traveling.”

“Yech,” I said. “Witches. I dislike them greatly, and I wish they would just go somewhere far away.”

“I do also, but they're not fit for anywhere save Hell,” she said. “Straight Krokus bulbs in a small sack we can fetch quickly, but the macerated material may take a while, depending upon how you wish it.”

“Three large medicine vials full of part-dried stuff, with waxed corks,” said Sarah. “It works well for silencing witches, or so we were informed – and we will need to silence a number of those stinkers in short order.”

“Part-dried may take a short time to put up,” she said, “but you two have sufficient business to do here that I can easily make up such an order – though if you plan on silencing many witches, I would take more than three vials.” A pause, then, “especially if you also plan on spicing your meals with it, which is how travelers take Krokus if they should carry it.”

“I did not, but he spoke of it,” said Sarah – who then turned to me. “Now, have you had Krokus?”

“Here, not that I know of,” I murmured. “Where I came from, though... I liked that stuff.”

“Then it is likely you had a deficiency in a nutritive factor,” she said. “I served my apprenticeship in Bruckelmann's in the fourth kingdom.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “Not just a cook, but a dietitian.”

“Yes, that would be my proper title,” said the woman.

I felt for my money pouch, this in my trousers pocket, and as I grasped the leather, I nearly shrieked with surprise. I was even more shocked when I put the thing on the 'plank', this wide, dark-stained, and obviously done regularly with care so as to keep it 'good'. It looked to have about thirty carefully hand-rubbed coats of drying oil, with periodic scraping during the process to keep the finish even.

“I told them to each take fifty guilders out of this thing,” I muttered, as I looked at Sarah, who shrugged her shoulders.

“We were pelted with enough money today that I think they did not need what you had in there,” said Sarah. “I saw Deborah put some money in there, but I truly doubt she put that much in it, and I know you didn't have nearly that much to start with.” Pause, then this mumbled, “this is really starting to sound like an old tale.”

“How many, uh, bags were in there?” I asked.

“Five smaller ones of stout cloth, almost like that used for what that boat has,” said Sarah, “and then there were a number of smaller lead ingots, several gray-metal ingots, and one ingot of what might have been brass – though if that was brass, it was bad.”

I unknotted the strings, then carefully dug out two gold monster coins, then added three of the larger silver pieces, saying as I did so, “Sarah told me that stuff was hard to grow. Will this much cover it?”

“Easily,” she said. “This will fetch three large vials and two jugs of our best beer. It might not be Bruckelmann's stuff, as that needs more cold than we can manage, but it does help a lot if you've been shot at and tossed some.” A pause, then, “you two with Hans?”

Sarah nodded.

“Then there is a matter of interest,” she said. “We could regularly use some of the widow's tincture up this way.” She then turned to me, and said, “now, you, I know of, and I know you spend time in the house proper regularly.” Pause, then, “there are several who live here who do likewise, so it might best come in that place with you and you leave it to them to bring here.”

“Done, madame,” I said. “I can make the needed arrangements regarding its transportation.” Pause, then, “the money, however... That might be troublesome.”

“That is calling the pot dirty when it has burnt stew in it,” said Sarah. “I know how you are about that stuff.”

“Then that portion is true, as she's not inclined toward lying, and I've heard the two of you are to be married day after tomorrow early – and you'll be launching out of our downstream cove in this boat that's out of an old tale.” Pause, then, “and you might as well be your own old tale, so there are others I'll speak to about the money.”

“As in money is commonplace, and medicine is not, so the witches ignore money, and go after medicine,” I said.

“They do not ignore money,” said Sarah – who then saw the truth of the matter. While witches did desire money, and that greatly, they even more wished to have a sickly populace, as then enslaving all of us would be much easier.

“And I feel nauseated again,” I said. “Pardon me – another one of those malproportioned Doberman Pinschers is about to show, and I need to settle that hound.”

I was now running for the door, and when a terror-stricken man leaped inside, I gently stepped over him and kicked the door open, my rifle with a round in the chamber and ready for dealing with 'a malproportioned Doberman Pinscher'. I had barely time to see the dog before I shot it, and the deafening bark-scream-howl was pure Doberman – unlike the flash-powder thundering of the dog 'exploding'.

“Rabid Doberman, anyway,” I said, as I closed the door and left the slow-settling soot and clouds of black smoke outside. It was not wanted in the building, and neither were those four-legged nightmares.

I then found I had company, for Sarah had followed me, and as I made my weapon safe, she sniffed, then said, “that one smells more like a burnt Shoet than those first three did.”

“Urgh, no, please, no burnt pigs,” I said. “I am not sure which I dislike more – black dogs, or black-dressed curse-chanting witches.”

“I do,” said a tall mysterious voice, one that I had not heard in what seemed an epoch, and I turned to see a thickly bundled woman nearly as tall as I myself. “I was told to expect you.”

“Rachel?” I asked.

“It is I, and I came in by the back way of this building,” she said. “They have back rooms here which should be safe.” She then saw what I was carrying.

“You two look a bit like brigands for all you are carrying,” she said. “I counted four shots, and I could feel four of those vile black hellhounds going up in smoke.”

“Rabid malproportioned Doberman Pinschers,” I muttered. “Worst dog in the known universe.”

“Here, yes,” said Rachel. “You needed to ask questions, didn't you?”

“Did you get hurt?” asked Sarah.

“No, but what I was given is no joke,” said Rachel. “I've had my hands full teaching people how to speak this language properly, but even I realize there are things I am ignorant of.”

“Hence I must find a full grammar, and then we must disseminate that information,” I said. “We will need radios, good ones, and those in some numbers, and then we will need to teach people by that means.”

“I think you mean 'large numbers', and the word 'good' is an understatement,” said Rachel. “Now, as to where you are going.” Here, she paused, then as we went down this previously-unseen hall and into this room she'd mentioned, she first closed the door, then put the 'bar' in the staples to lock it closed, then led us between mounded bags of 'grain' and other matters through darkened 'alleys' and into a small alcove hidden behind a curtain. There, she lit a brass Veldter's lantern by its 'twist-igniter'.

“I have learned a measure of paranoia about trouble,” she said. “I thought I had learned enough about it living in the second kingdom house for twenty years and more, but it seems what was needed there to survive and what I need to know about it now are altogether in different worlds.”

“Pathological-level paranoia,” I muttered. “You, me, and a fair number of other people have either learned it or are re-learning it, as while you do not have one of these to which you are given” – here, I pointed to my chest, where the pendant lay – “what you do have is fully as needed to our survival, and while what I have is the last of them, I am not so sure about you.”

“Will there be more like me?” asked Rachel. “Yes, when they are needed. In your case, I am not sure – as I can see something very strange about you, almost as if you're not entirely here.”

“He's solid enough to rub my neck,” said Sarah. “Is that what you meant?”

“No, I did not,” said Rachel. “When you have someone who is strongly marked, like he is, and those markings are dominant, as his are, then that person stands in all three worlds at the same time, not just one as the witches manage – even if they speak as if they controlled every world there is, both this one and all of the others that lurk in the ocean of time and space.”

“Three worlds?” I asked. “Physical, spiritual, and..?”

“Deeper than that,” said Rachel. “Real, imaginary, and complex, and there is an old tale, one that speaks of those three worlds and their relationship to the world to come and the world beyond – and you may and may not have heard its name.”

“Alice in Blenderland,” said Sarah. “It has three gates, and all of them strange indeed, but I could never figure out what they meant by a blender.”

“You will see one of those overseas,” said Rachel. “If not one you can touch, then certainly pictures of one” – here, Rachel turned to me, then suppressed a laugh. “Tell her about the one you had where you came from.”

“Noisy, hard to clean, but when I needed to actually use it, nothing worked as well,” I said. “It looked peculiar, this dark rounded base with a number of buttons to control the speed, then this tall, uh, jug with a special closure for the wide-mouthed top...”

Sarah's mouth had dropped open so far that she had to close it with her hands. “Th-that...”

“They look somewhat like that overseas,” said Rachel. “They're similar as to function – but, save for those that are made fit for slaves, they're a much better kitchen tool.”

“Made fit for slaves..?” I asked.

“Those running that place overseas, while most of them are not witches as the three of us have seen witches – they act, think, and sometimes chant as if they were witches indeed, and those blue-suited thugs...”

“You have had them in your dreams?” asked Sarah.

“Several times since coming here, though how I was seeing them was very strange,” she said. “While they are heavily dependent upon their equipment and training, so much so that you may use those dependencies against them readily, if they are doing things they've been trained to do, they can do those tasks especially well.”

“Trained to do?” I asked.

“That would be their chief business, that being enforcing of the will of their masters, hence their designated names,” said Rachel. “That place has been longing for liberation, and they are about to get it, but those thugs will keep coming after you-all without letup or cease until they are either recalled by their masters or they are all dead.”

Or they run out of their drugs,” I murmured. “They need periodic replenishment of those to act that dumb.”

“Precisely, which is why if you take 'the system' down for any real amount of time those truly in charge will need to rethink their entire strategy, which has been in place since their very first days,” said Rachel. “The system itself is as dependent upon those people's addiction to their drugs as anything else, so if the supply of those is disrupted...”

“Drug withdrawal happens?” I asked. “Those silver neck-collars they wear run out of what they use?”

“And they lose all of their capacity to cause harm at the very least,” said Rachel. “Disrupt things for forty-eight hours and take out those interface people, and the thugs lose their drugs, food, and everything else that allows them to function as thugs – and...”

“And those over them know about that weakness,” I said, “and hence they will do all they can to guard against it happening at all costs.”

“Good that you are thinking that way,” said Rachel, “as they will not realize matters have come to an end before it is far too late to do anything useful.” A pause, then, “the best word to describe their attitude is hubris.” Another pause, then, “at least you're not likely to acquire that attitude any time soon.”

“Arm the citizens?” I asked.

“Remember, if you disrupt matters for forty-eight... No, less than that. If you manage that amount of time, even if you don't get the interface people, those they name 'slaves' will rise up and revolt successfully – though they will take many casualties in doing so, and they will have their own concerns regarding survival for quite some time.”

“Long enough to not provide much help to us,” I said.

“Hence, you must take out all three branches, and thereby take ax to the root of that datramonium bush: take down the whole of the thug system, put the fear into the thugs by killing as many of them as you can and arming the populace so they can fight on better terms, and then take down those interface levels of leadership. Do that, and those higher up in the power structure are isolated and unable to control those under them, as that hits the three weakest links in a long, tenuous, and marginally functional chain – one that is currently stretched to near its breaking point.”

“The deep-hole going?”

“That is part of it, an especially important part, but only part,” said Rachel. “Now, as for what you need: take what you would take if you presumed no real support for a bare minimum of seven days, as while you won't have to feed yourselves that long, you do not wish to run out of food should you need to feed guests – and you will need to feed guests a fair amount.” Pause, then, “I'd take all you can, if I were you.”

“That much we were told,” said Sarah.

“More than that,” said Rachel. “When I said 'seven days of food', I meant 'days as we have had them these last three, where they have not only been stretched greatly, but also days where you and those going with you have worked extremely hard' – hence thrice the usual amounts of food per day.”

“Hence realistically the minimum amount we need to take is enough to go for three weeks, assuming we are working hard and sleeping little',” I said. “It's supposed to be very cold there, which means more food will be wanted.”

“She's sewn sufficient clothing to take care of that matter,” said Rachel. “Now, for the most important portion, that which concerns you the most.”

Here, Rachel gathered herself. She had a lot to say, all of it important, and none of it put to paper.

She'd gotten that part right during her two decades of living under the second kingdom house's witches, as anything written down could be and would be stolen in that place. Hiding one's things with especial care didn't make much difference there, as the witches routinely tossed slave-quarters and those of lesser witches – hence, one's mind was the only safe place to put critical information, just like it had been for Imhotep during his days as the true leader of the country up here.

“That place will remind you much of your childhood and early adult life, at least on the surface,” said Rachel, “and save for a few people, things will be as they look to be. Unlike here, little of importance will be hidden from you, at least during your taking of the place.”

“There wasn't that much hidden from me here,” I said. “This was just new...”

“There it will not seem new, but just like what you recalled from where you lived before coming here.”

Here, Sarah gasped. I could see terror washing over her face in waves.

“No, it is not like Berky,” said Rachel. “They do have places like that, and people do disappear into them, but they tend to hide them carefully, rather than flaunt them openly like witches did in this area and in places like Berky.” Then, to me, “that is the chief aspect where the similarity lies – that place hides a lot, which is its chief strength to those ruling there, and renders it weak and vulnerable to someone like you – who is used to having everything of importance hidden from you, who is used to living a life that would have destroyed Charles in the day of his greatest strength and cunning in the space of a single day, who is used to seeing thugs everywhere – tricky thugs, well-hid thugs, thugs restrained by little save the then-apparent need to not act like thugs openly, and hence excelled in their secrecy...”

“That... That is so much worse than any old tale I have heard that it makes the life of Berky seem trivial,” said Sarah. “How did he, no, they... How do they endure that life?”

“By becoming a people united under a single goal,” said Rachel, “and by subsuming their inimical nature... No, those people don't live very long, as they have to operate collectively to continue to exist in any numbers.” Pause, then, “those over them haven't yet begun to realize that they've created a nation of monsters for thinking and most behaviors, if not outright capacity.”

“N-nation?” I gasped. “Of monsters?”

“Yes, they think very much like you do,” said Rachel. “Yet still, you can, you will, and you'll need to teach them a great deal about what paranoia truly means, and the same for what it takes to win utterly and completely over an enemy that has remained much as the witches of old since those days of their first power.” Pause, then simply, “that is all I have. I can recall no more, and there is much that I do not yet understand.” Then, to Sarah, “and no, you cannot get it out of me by questioning, as it is beyond your fathoming, much less the beginnings of understanding, as you've only seen what those witches who run things in the five kingdoms have wished you to see.”

“Me and most others, then,” said Sarah. “I worked at trying to see more, and...”

“And few have worked harder since the creation of the pendants, hence your necklace,” said Rachel. “It's name I can tell you, and that is 'Blessing'.”

“What is on the back?” asked Sarah. “Can you speak of that?”

“You've been told that already, as even if he cannot speak that language I grew up speaking, and still mostly think in, he can understand its meaning.” Pause, then, “give him time. He'll eventually read and speak it as well as I do, as he will need to do so.”

“To break that Curse?” I asked.

“That was spoken in a witch-tongue, one which cannot be spoken by you as you currently are as it requires a different anatomy to speak it properly, which was critical to what she was able to do,” said Rachel. “That witch needed a lengthy preparation, one portion of which was altering her anatomy by means of curses so as to speak those few words that mean a page of our writing as it is now per each syllable.”

“Our writing is a mess, and so is our language, and...”

“Yes, I know,” said Rachel. “I hope you can find that grammar and word-book quickly, as it's hidden over there by those thugs running the place, and by extension, by the witches who really run that country.” Pause, then, “just as, until recently, the witches ran in fact the whole of the five kingdoms, only not nearly so openly.”

Rachel paused, this to drink. I had not noticed her cup until now, and I was more than a little astonished at what she was using.

“I saw the prism on the bottom,” she said. “That's your mark, isn't it?”

“It is, if it has three lines out of one side and a single line going in,” said Sarah. “Now how did it get here?”

“He makes enough of these cups to make me glad he has ideas for making them quicker,” said Rachel, “and this Public House has an ongoing order to where he works for 'as many as we can get readily' – so every so often, a few of them come in with one of those who travel to the outside and who also live here.” Rachel then said, “that curse known as 'The Curse' will matter as to what you say, not how you say it.”

“Meaning I must not only know its exact meaning, but use the language best suited toward countermanding that precise – and lengthy – meaning of what that witch said.”

“Exactly, which is why you will most definitely be multilingual by then, if not earlier,” said Rachel. “You'll eventually have a facility with languages that approaches mine, and all of that hard work you did before coming here will finally pay off handsomely.” A pause, then, “and now, I must figure a way out of here, and go back to another hiding spot, as I've suspected this place has spies in it and those spies know how to dodge both bees and hornets.”

“Then they must be some spies,” said Sarah. “I could dodge neither of those things, and I know that, and the same for my relatives, and...”

“He could,” said Rachel,” pointing at me, “which means there's a very powerful witch involved, one of a strength only exceeded by those of the time prior to the drowning.” Pause, then, “I am not certain this witch is entirely here, though, so how he speaks of what he knows is a good question.”

“Is this one of those stinkers who persisted after death, like that one witch I dealt with in the second kingdom house?” I asked.

“No, he isn't,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn about that species of 'witch' shortly.”

“Meaning there is at least one in here,” I muttered. “Hides from the hornets, the bees, and me,” I muttered.

“Currently, yes,” said the soft voice. “Be glad those people are not only rare, but currently only used for reconnaissance – and getting information of Rachel's whereabouts back to those witches on the mainland takes so much time it's generally useless to the witches here – especially now that they're running for their lives.”

“So much time?” I asked. Knowing this witch was in the general area had me wondering: could I find him?

“The few witches on this continent that knew of where she existed have gone where they belonged in the last two and a half days, with over half of them dying today,” said the soft voice. “and by the time that individual makes it back to his masters so he can get her current whereabouts to them, she'll no longer be present in this location.”

“I shall need to move again,” said Rachel. “I hope they catch him...”

I had gotten up from my chair, and walked silently to the wall with the door. I waved the bar off of the door such that it landed on the floor silently, then motioned the door open as I reached into my possible bag – and quick as lightning, I drew the suppressed pistol out while thinking the slide to work full-stroke, leaped into the hallway with the gun pointed down it – and fired twice while still airborne, the pops being followed by a scream.

“Now where is that stinker?” I muttered, as I recovered from landing with my pistol still aimed downrange. I could not see anyone up the hall, even in the dim lighting of the softly flickering candles. “If I shot that wretch, I had to...” This silent, then I began to run up the hall, pistol at the ready. Within four steps, I had found a blood-trail, one which grew steadily greater as I ran, then as I heard 'movement' along the wall ahead, I fired a 'spread' of four rounds, these about six inches apart somewhat ahead and to the right.

While three of the bullets chipped sizable dints in the wall, the fourth one 'vanished', and I then kicked something 'invisible' to the eye that was utterly solid to my boot. It was met by a silence that spoke of 'death' or 'too close to matter much'.

“Now off,” I spat. “Turn that gear off!”

To my utter astonishment, suddenly a vague shimmering seemed to happen in the air near my feet, then suddenly, a faint, vague, and 'fuzzy' outline showed, this of a crumpled human form. I touched this form, and instantly, I knew what it was.

“Yuck, a witch,” I spat, “though if this character has read a single line out of a black book, then I'm a black dog – and I hate those malproportioned Doberman Pinschers, so I doubt I'm one of those.”

“Congratulations, you just shot that 'spy',” said the soft voice. “That's an example of what that equipment from across the sea can do – their older equipment.” Pause, then, “the newer stuff works better.”

“That wretch is barely visible now,” I muttered.

“Where are you?” asked Sarah's voice from up the hall. “What's there? A rat?”

“No, but I think this person is a strange species of witch,” I murmured. “I doubt much he's up to doing much.”

“He's not up to doing anything,” said the soft voice. “He just died.”

“Then we need to strip this clothing...” I turned around, grabbed Sarah, then ran up the hall and darted in the doorway I had come from as a ripping blast shot flames and sparks up the hallway past the open door. I then saw an arm, this torn off and bleeding, enclosed in an odd-looking fabric sleeve, one clinging yet somewhat wrinkled.

“That witch was worse than I thought if he exploded,” I muttered. “Must have been a bad one to go up like that.”

“That was the self-destruct charge built into the clothing-controller to prevent it falling into the wrong hands,” said the soft voice. “It was command-detonated automatically once his heart-rate monitor had gone flat-line for more than fifteen seconds, as that's the measured time dating from late wartime for 'rigging charges' put in soldier's gear.”

“Measured?” I asked. “Telemetry?”

“Yes, and they started putting it in soldier's gear once the war started going 'badly',” said the soft voice. “That was the ostensible reason, actually – those people who by then had a larger say in how things were being run were becoming more paranoid than they were earlier, so they started suspecting disloyalties that weren't generally there at that time.”

“And in the process of first spying on everyone and then killing 'traitors', they actually created ten real ones where there might have been one half-baked one before.”

“Closer to fifty real traitors, but you do have the idea,” said the soft voice. “That tendency toward rigging people and equipment, as well as an ever-more-paranoid leadership, has become steadily worse since that time – so I would watch myself regarding such matters.” Pause, then, “just let your mind wander down those corridors, and think while doing so, 'now what would I do if I were my parents – especially my stepfather – and I didn't give two potatoes about what other people thought and I had the resources to both buy what laws I wished and do everything else I wanted to do, also'.”

“Did they do that also to prevent analysis of captured equipment by the enemy?” I asked.

“That was another ostensible reason for such rigging of equipment and later, personnel,” said the soft voice. “The real military establishment bought that one, as they'd done some of that type of trapping themselves from the early days of the war – which allowed those 'anti-traitor' charges to be fitted during the last years of the war, when the 'real' military was 'real' in name only and the only soldiers they had were essentially 'camouflage-uniformed functionaries' deemed especially promising as soldiers.” Pause, then, “since that time, there have been periodic 'spy missions' running in this area and in other areas all over the continent.”

“And we will learn that business later,” I murmured. “Now I think it's safe for Rachel to come out, and I hope she's been bought some time by said spy being blown up.”

“She has, and not a little,” said the soft voice. “That spy wasn't equipped to last more than thirty-six hours out in the field without returning to base, and his base location had his automatic monitoring and maintenance hardware, so he was more or less on his own.”

“He was traveling light, then,” said Sarah. She then saw the wrinkled bloodstained fabric, and touched it. “I think we wish a sample of this stuff.”

As Sarah cut the material off of the torn-up arm, I thought to look out in the hall. The spy had been thoroughly scattered by the blast, and the unholy mess that resulted told me this individual was all-too-alive just before the time of his demise; yet the blast had me wondering just how he'd managed to pack such a hefty explosive device.

“Damaged the walls and the floor, made me partly deaf, blew his body up, and now...” I paused in my thinking, knowing that the two of us had but a limited amount of time, even in this far-extended day. Tomorrow, we would be resting to a degree, at least naps during the day, but now...”

Another scrap of fabric, this with a connector. I grab that piece, then a smoldering jagged-edge piece of bright metal, then finally, what might be a piece of black rubber. The feeling is a familiar one. All of these, as well as a distinct mental picture, has me looking at this mess for what seems seconds, until Sarah nudges me with a small sample bag held open by its mouth.

“You can put those pieces in here, where they'll be safe,” she said. “We can have them looked at overseas, and they might well know what they go to.”

“Much more than that,” said the soft voice. “Those pieces supposedly never made it out of the laboratory, and more, they weren't nearly that advanced when they 'dropped off the map'.”

“So we don't just break the system, or whatever those people call it, but we crack it wide open so they can read all of that secret research.” I then laughed.

“This is a big mess,” said Sarah. “What are you laughing about?”

“I know just how to cause them trouble, dear, and get those people things they need,” I whispered.

“What is that?” asked Sarah. She was still 'sealing' the bag.

“I need to root their system,” I said. “Trouble is, I've never done that before, but somehow, I have the impression I can do that.”

“How?” Sarah asked.

“Remember that key?” I asked. “How it can, uh, open things?”

“Yes?” asked Sarah. She sounded distinctly hopeful.

“I suspect it can somehow get me into their systems,” I said. “Then, I can cause lots of trouble, even if I've never used their system before.”

“I would suggest just that,” said Rachel, who then looked up the hallway. “I can arrange to have that mess dealt with.” Pause, then, “now, you two have places to go in this area, then return here when you can pick up your order for Krokus.”