In Hendrik's Office

On the way to Hendrik's office – it would indeed be a crowded office, as while most were going for their 'real' breakfasts, I, Esther, Paul, Willem, Sarah, Annistae, Deborah, Hans, and Anna – would be 'taking our meals' in there. I quietly asked Deborah regarding this mould as to just who made it.

“I think this is a Heinrich mould,” she said, “It spoke of fourteen-line shot, which is a bit small for what most people consider stiff, but if we put enough tin...”

“Shot that size wants a fair amount of tin and that hardening mix to come out right,” said Sarah. “You want one part in ten of each metal, and eight parts of lead once you've cleaned it – and that makes for some very hard shot that tends to be a lot shinier than is the usual.”

“We can do that now,” said Deborah. “Now, that type does not eat one's barrel?”

Here, Deborah became rather distracted, as both guards were holding 'short muskets', and while one was an 'assembled in Ploetzee' model – decent for looks, and good for performance, if I went by the look of what I saw, as this one was an 'upgraded' model, one that wanted a small stack of gold monster coins and the parts to get – the other was one of those I'd made.

Deborah was staring at that gun, and she muttered about 'Heinrich guns' once we were inside Hendrik's office.

“Good that we have another of those moulds,” said Hendrik. “Hans, you do try to keep that one you have warm as much as you can, don't you?”

“He does, and he's not the only one,” said Anna. “We recently got onto some of that shiny stuff, but it's supposed to eat softer barrels.” Pause, then, “she knows how to plate some up so it doesn't do that, and lead is scarce enough down that way that they had to use whatever they could.

“It was very scarce,” said Annistæ. “We did not wish the Cabroni to get their smelly hands upon our lead, so we never sold that stuff, and when we ran into Särpientæ do Mallé, we took their headless bodies back to get the lead out of them.”

“Yes, and what did you do to the rest of them?” asked Hans.

“Those work well for farolcumbusteblé, so they were boiled down, and their fat skimmed,” said Annistæ. “That causes the shot to drop, while the fat in them comes to the surface, and then what remains goes into our manure-heaps, same as Cabroni once they are dead and without their heads.”

“Boil them down too?” I asked, meaning the witches.

“They have little fat,” said Annistae, “so we would screen our manure to retrieve the lead for them, and then we would search their towns once they had been burned and those living in them killed.” Pause, then, “it was common to find small amounts of lead among the ashes, but those smelly Cabroni down there need much warm lead to cease with their noise and trouble.”

“That's about the only time one of those places is quiet,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, they are never quiet.”

A tap at the door, and Georg came. He'd obviously been hungry, though Georg with a red face had a distinctly comical look.

“I see you like cherry jam also,” said Deborah. “If one goes into such a town about two hours before dawn, then it is relatively quiet, as that is when those thugs are asleep.”

“Ai, that is when one sets fire to those places,” said Annistæ.

“I hope you can do that with the fifth kingdom house,” said Georg morosely. “Those people are involved in this business, and that much I know.”

“That place will go up in smoke soon enough,” I said. “You were speaking about, uh, settling down smaller versions of that vast and stinky place, dear?”

“I might not recall many tales, but I have heard some talk from her about what happens at times should some of those Mule people take a dislike to one of those places,” said Deborah. “I have a much better idea as to what happens now.”

“Yes, and how is it you know?” asked Hans. He was grinning.

“We did something like what those people do yesterday, Hans,” spat Deborah, “and I want rockets and one of those things to launch them!”

“Ah, so you want rockets,” said Hans. “They might be trouble to make.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “They ship us the parts, and we put them together. A session on the couch, with a small table, four of us, and we could do up a dozen inside of an hour – and these will be modern rockets, not those like we have now.”

“How would they be different?” asked Hendrik.

“Mostly be faster, work better in general, and then, we would have these special things that go to the front that are so strange I barely have words to describe them.”

“They sound like the nubs for a tipped shell,” said Hans. Hendrik understood those. “They are not those things, though, as if one of them gets onto an Iron Pig, it just needs to be fired at that swine, and that thing will find that pig.”

“How is it you know?” asked Sarah.

“I was shooting one of them, in a dream,” said Hans, “and I had to wear this thing like he has for this strange thing that gets music, and then it started squealing like a burnt Shoet.”

“Most people would not endure that, Hans,” said Anna. “I might, as I have to when tuning my violin, but still.”

“Yes, and I have heard you do that, so I was not bothered,” said Hans. “Now, when these things squeal, you need to listen for how they squeal, as you want that noise to be as loud and as high as it can go, as then, you squeeze off your rocket, and then it will cork that swine good.”

“Cork it?” asked Hendrik.

“Yes, either its mouth or its rear,” said Hans. “It does not matter what that swine does, either, as these things go into trees like a hornet when it is angry, only so fast you think them to be a hot-loaded round-shot from a cannon that is worse than what we were shooting last night, and then it will find that pig unless it decides it wishes to sup with Brimstone on its own.”

“They do that,” said Deborah. “Spray a lot of stuff out the back, so you want your rear-way clear.”

Hendrik was getting nervous just hearing Deborah. I could tell he had visions of 'man-portable rotten cannons' that leaked out of the back end every time.

“That sounds like a rotten cannon,” he said a second after Deborah ceased speaking.

“No, they are not those,” said Deborah. “They are much easier to use, much faster to use, and then if you center a coach or a house, it will stay centered, more or less no matter what it does.” Deborah paused, then, said, “it was a near thing for us anyway, as that place went straight to hell before I could count to three once he'd been told to get us right out of there.”

“Yes, and mining towns to the south usually do not explode like they have read old tales,” said Annistæ. “That place has much metal, and though it is bad metal, there is a way to take that metal and make it good.”

“Yes?” said Hendrik, suddenly interested. I noted the chair someone had put behind me, and sat down, this to rub both knees. “It has to do with this one recently erected furnace, correct?”

, in this one town that has a flower for its symbol,” said Annistæ.

“Flower?” I asked. I could, for some reason, smell those strange lilies. Most of them had survived, and we would need to keep them safe from all of those stinky southern-imported thugs.

, a pretty red one, one that smells good,” said Annistæ. “They commonly have thorns, but there is one place which has them without thorns, and I have seen that place and who lives there, and I will remember the smell of those flowers for a very long time.” A pause, then, “sometimes, she smells a bit like one of them.”

“Sarah?” I asked.

, she does, though now is hard for her,” said Annistæ. “If she smells of that type of flower, then there are no Cabroni in the area, that and she is well-rested. If things are otherwise, or she is tired, then she needs scent, as she is supposed to smell that way.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “Do you...”

, it is important, especially when you are fighting, to smell good,” said Annistæ. “It reminds you who and what you are fighting for, and Cabroni hate the smell of flowers.”

“I do not,” said Esther. “I like flowers, and if scent could be had, I would wear it commonly.”

“Hence a need for bathing,” I said. “More are expected, aren't they?”

Hendrik nodded, then, “much of what needs to happen concerns those in this room, as most of you seemed relatively unaffected by that one room.” Pause, this to make a spitting noise. “Ballroom? That place always felt bad, and I've wondered why for the longest time, and now we know a part of it.”

“Thank you for reminding me, sir,” I said. “We need to clear out the fetishes in this place, as while it it isn't a control-room fit for witches, the witches have definitely given it a lot of attention. Everyone, spread out, two to a group, and try to feel these things. If there are fetishes, or you suspect...” Here, I went to the edge of the rug, peeled it back, and found a carefully folded piece of paper.

“Get clear, everyone,” I said. “Old curse, been there for ages, and it's bad.”

As if that had 'set the thing off' it erupted in soot, which I asked to find the eyes of witches and 'dust them good'.

The soot vanished with a thump, but when I came to where the paper had laid, I found a faint bluish-white outline, and putting my hands upon it, it was as if I knew instinctively what was present. “First, this one had the hiding curse,” I murmured. “Then, it had several still-potent... Duh, this was a list in those Red books of Cardosso – how to control one's leader like a puppet if he's not a witch, make him into a witch if he's even a little inclined that way – and if he is a witch, then make him a worse one, and finally, in all cases, make this office's occupant into a puppet to be controlled by some people...”

I paused, then said, “this is why we need to clear your office and living quarters, as you're dealing with a lot of fetishes in here – they've been putting them in here for years, more years than you've been alive!”

“Double that and then some, and that one you just found was a key foundation to that interlocking mess of cursed objects used to do just what you said.” Pause, then, “now the others can help. Let the women go in the living quarters with Maria, and you look this place over out here.”

“Oh, so they get all the fun?” I murmured.

“No, getting tossed is not fun,” said Anna. “I hope I do not get tossed more, but at least we all have been tossed once or more.”

“More soft things in there than here,” I murmured. “Mind that soap-dish, ladies – they really did up the bathroom.”

“What?” gasped Hendrik. “The bathroom is full of fetishes?”

“I think so!” screeched Deborah. “It stinks like a witch-hole!”

“Is that just backed up plumbing, or..?”

The muffled thud that resulted was enough to get Hendrik up and rushing into his quarters, but when he returned a moment later, he muttered about chemicals and 'at least Maria has done her share of those'.”

“Does she have soot?” asked Hans.

“Yes, and so does everyone else in there,” said Hendrik crossly. “Now I know it's important, and we'd best do all we can to find those things, as I think you dealing with that one... I could see that one glow red for a minute.”

“Yes, and I can see something nasty in here,” said Esther. “Maria, we may look like we got into some especially bad chemicals, but this is normal for dealing with witch-holes. It mostly washes off... Oh, good. You have decent soap, even if this soap-dish is the worst witch-tool I've ever seen. I'm not going any closer to it.”

“Uh, go find a witch's watch-pocket, and set him alight – oh, and that perfume bottle that has been there for ages – go find a witch-consort, and roost in that woman's support-garments.”

“You have no idea what you just did, do you?” asked the soft voice. “You just caused a huge riot in the second kingdom house.”

“Huge riot?” I asked.

“Yes, because that district was run 'as per the dictates of the black book', and in their case, their rules were from a large one – and seeing 'El Supremo' in convulsions means only one thing.”

“What?” I asked.

“Brimstone is most displeased with them, and hence they're now at each other's throats, as in witchdom, suspicions and crimes are one and the same, and dealt with identically – and what 'justice' there exists is the summary species.”

“Summed up as 'I want it, I am taking it now, and I will kill anyone who stands in my way',” I said. “Power does what Power wills, and that is to increase its reach and potency – which means that the witch with the most, uh, power runs the entire thing, and... El Supremo?” I asked.

“Yes, that witch-woman,” said the soft voice. “There may be but a few districts where that is currently the case, but if you find one, you may be certain the person who is waited on hand, knee, foot, and tongue is one of those strange-looking 'beings' you once saw.”

“Here is another one, Maria,” said Anna. “Now I hope...”

A muffled thump, then, Maria said, “at least you landed on the bed first.”

“I still ended up upon the floor,” said Anna. “I just wish I could give every nasty fetish in this room to a witch, and make them eat those things for meals!”

The gout of soot that 'launched' several sooty women out into the room to then land in a pile included Anna, and when Hendrik came to look at his room, he said, “ugh! It looks like a coal-mine in there now.”

“Yes, but you can clean up that soot,” said Esther. “I have no idea how many fetishes went up when she said that, but only that one woman from the Valley can otherwise...”

“Aieeeh!” came a deafening shriek, then what sounded like a 'top-of-one's-lungs' prayer. I could hear Annistæ invoking God in such a strange manner that only when Hendrik's rooms exploded and everyone inside them came running out with soot chasing them that I wondered what had happened.

“That got more of those things,” said Anna crossly. “I must have gotten knowledge of what she was saying, as I understood it perfectly.”

“That first word?” I said.

“I think that's close to what I might say if I found a rat in my potato sack,” said Anna, who was dusting off a lot of soot.

“Anna, and the other ladies, as well as Hendrik's quarters, do not need soot,” I said. “Dust those witches that are traveling to Waldhuis with soot, lots of it, but we do not need it in here.”

As I watched, Anna became steadily cleaner, until the soot was almost entirely gone from her. I then heard another of those terrifying yells from Annistæ, only this time, she came out of the room without having a trace of soot on her.

“What happened now?” I asked.

“The dust, it is gone!” she said. “All of that bad Carboné is gone!”

“So that is what they call soot,” said Hans.

“No, not normal soot, even the type that chemicals make, Hans,” said Anna. “That uses a different word. That word is better translated as 'hell-soot', and it comes from fetishes, according to her.”

“And now, we must find the rest of these things,” I said, as I began scanning the books. For some reason, I could feel a fetish, and when I came to a bookcase, I moved it out and nearly yelled at what had been hiding behind it.

“A calender, or rather, a witch-calender,” I said. “Sarah, please come here, and bring everyone so they can see this awful thing.”

“Awful is right,” said the soft voice. “They didn't have to know much about those, merely copy them well, and that one killed over a dozen witches in the process of making it.”

“A dozen?” I murmured. “Poisonous inks, uh, toxic paper-production processes, need to be drunk as a stinker to run those mills, so now and then a witch falls in and is incorporated into that run of witch-paper. Probably gives that special cachet.”

“More than you might believe possible, as that's one part that got left out of those directions, and when a witch falls into the apparatus, those curses become cemented in place – hence that particular document had enough spirits bound to it to kill any witch handling it within a matter of days unless said witch had as much curse-power as Cardosso.”

“So we need to send this one to the Blomfels combine main headquarters,” I murmured. “No, not just yet. Need to touch this thing up a bit.”

I then made to touch the vile-looking thing, and as my right index finger came closer, I could see what was starting to look like an electrical discharge coming from my finger to the evil-looking document.

“Now, move this here, this color needs to go there, background color needs to become, uh, black...”

“How are you doing that?” asked Deborah.

“Ssh,” said Esther. “Watch. I suspect he's just the sort to paint that one statue I want to carve, as he's got a good sense of color.”

“This line – oh, increment those numbers three digits,” I said. “Darken this color, lighten that one, change this red to green, so it really goes places and does things...”

The silence that was accruing as I changed this calendar were astonishing, but when I suddenly on a whim drew a round happy face sticking its tongue out at the witches while waving its arms and its hair, then the whole thing took on an utterly new meaning. Finally, I had an odd question.

“Terminal constipation,” I murmured. “Let's see – this one backwards, this one upside down, this one – oh, change it to this other...”

“What are you doing?”

“Corking those Blomfels people up solid,” I said. “They think that retaining dung helps them to smell worse and be nastier witches, so this will act like a solid concrete plug in their bottoms.”

The calender was changing even more, now that I was dealing with it at a higher level of abstraction, and its colors began to change and 'come through in waves'. That gave me an idea.

“Oh, and they need to have the horrors on a routine basis,” I said. “So much so that they only places they are free from them is their privies, so if they leave their privies, that stuff shows up around them, and if they stay there... Ah, ha! I know just the thing. They need to suck on weeds, especially Veldter weed, so they become so corked that they explode.”

“Yes, if they don't die in a big hurry,” said the soft voice. “Now send that thing off to them before matters get too out of hand.”

“Oh, OK,” I said. “Now go find the uppermost head of that nasty combine, that really stinky wretch that juggles that mess, and then become glued to his fetish-desk so he cannot get it off – oh, and glue that desk to the floor, such that it becomes impossible to remove, and then glue his eyes to that thing, so wherever he is, waking or sleeping, from now until he sups with Brimstone, he's always seeing that thing.” Pause, then, “now go, and give that man and his people a foretaste of hell.”

The calender – or Källendäré, more properly – vanished with a soft plop, and Georg gasped. He then turned to me, asking me as I began once more examining the books and other matters, “what will that do?”

“I am not terribly sure,” I said. “I asked that the head of that combine see the horrors all the time and become severely constipated, so he'll be in the privy a lot – and hopefully, it isn't just him having the fun.”

“He will also become progressively more insane,” said the soft voice. “He may have been getting into enough whiskey for three mining town thugs, but he was sufficiently inhabited that it was having a small fraction of the expected effect.”

I then heard a faint bellow, then a howl of rage followed by the banging of a revolver. The booming roars sounded like a dragoon was in use.

“It just got onto his desk,” said the soft voice, “and now, he's seeing this thing and has no idea of what it means.”

“He understood the one put here, as he had it done – or did he?”

“His grandfather commissioned it,” said the soft voice, “which is the main reason why the Blomfels combine is so large. They have a sizable witch-library, one book of which contains the meaning of those things that are extant, and he's quite familiar with them.” Pause, then, “he is really not liking that face spitting at him while making 'bad noises'.”

“Bad noises?” asked Deborah. Everyone else was utterly agog at what had happened, and I could tell why: that one under the rug was a big player, but this infernal calender provided much of the 'power' – and in my playing games with it and then sending it back to its issuer, I had confounded him.

I then illustrated what 'bad noises' most likely were, that being 'the raspberry' sound made by sticking one's tongue out and blowing. Deborah thought this altogether amusing, but what we heard next took things from 'silly' to 'no words for it'.

“That whole combine is being confounded, as every single witch belonging to it has two things happening,” said the soft voice.

“Yes, and what are they?” asked Hans.

“They all have to go worse than if they drank down an entire beer-jug full of uncorking medicine,” said the soft voice, “but they are corked so badly that they are utterly unable to.”

“Uh, huh, terminal constipation,” I mumbled. “Just the thing for witches – they like to eat squabs and other indigestible lard-filled foods, so now they get their fondest wish: they are corked as thoroughly as if they'd eaten sacks of cement, and they have to go, so they wish to live in the privy while having unrelenting instances of the horrors.”

“Ah, then I think I want some,” said Hans. “If it corks witches, then I think I want it.”

“Why?” asked Anna. “I suspect getting it down them may prove troublesome.”

Hans shook his head, then asked, “what is it?”

“Uh, a species of m-moldable stone,” I said. “Hans, there should be some of that stuff being used at the shop inside of a week's time, either that or mortar, and cement is like a very fine-grade type of mortar.”

“They will be as if they swallowed rocks,” said Anna. “Now I would watch myself, as I can feel something in this area. It's probably hiding in one of these books...”

I reached up, grabbed one of the volumes, then held it by its spine and shook it. Anna was correct as to nature, but substantially off as to quantity, as here, no less than four sheets fell out, and as they hit the floor, then all went up in smoke.

Thick, sooty, coughing smoke.

“Blomfels privies, please,” I said. “They need to think that stool has teeth so it bites them in the rear, and the inside of their places needs to be so sooty that they come out 'full-corked and black-faced.”

“Why are you going after that combine so much?” asked Georg.

“They're troublesome,” I said. “I was told they own a great deal, and had a lot of money – and in the varied worlds of witchdom, money is equivalent to power.” Pause, then, “oh, and cause them much trouble, such that, oh, several of them become manic and gamble like absolute fools.”

“They already do that,” said Sarah. “Now what does this word manic mean?”

“Uh, cannot sleep, act like they're absolutely crazy...” I murmured.

“Those people already do that,” said Sarah. “What you are doing is making them more so?”

“Very much so,” said the soft voice. “Many of them will start taking those drugs in an attempt to escape what he unloaded on them, and that will be their doom.”

“Good,” said Georg. “That bunch that put a fowling piece to me some time ago was from that place, and...”

“What?” squawked Hendrik.

“They tried what some wretch called a double-barreled inquest,” said Georg. “It was why I was forced to take in that stinky witch Hieronymus – it was do that or die, and not just me, but all of my relatives.”

“Were it just you..?” I asked.

“I would have told those stinkers to shoot me and get it done with,” said Georg, “but since it was over a hundred people then and more yet now, I could not do so.”

“That sounds like the worst kind of witch-bribe,” said Sarah. “Those are very hard to fight against unless all of your relatives live in their own fortified town, like mine do.”

“Yes, I know,” said Georg morosely. “Those Blomfels people were behind that, and then they were behind other things, and I suspect they had a hand in what happened this morning, even if I don't have a clue as to how this other matter happened.”

“Good, then perhaps you can tell me what you know while they find the rest of the fetishes,” said Hendrik. “It feels a lot different in here already.”

“Best be careful, Hendrik,” said Anna. “Keep that machine pistol handy, in case someone decides to crash the door and cause trouble.”

“Me?” asked Georg.

“No, not you,” said Anna. “One of those people he thumped with the legs of a supplicant – those that are still cleaning up that mess he made out there. We had three of them try for us while we were trying to learn in that place that should have been called a coven-room but everyone called it otherwise.”

“I would have called it a rodent for cleaning,” said Esther. “Now what is this here..?”

The resulting thump tossed several of us together, and for some reason, I was glad I was on the bottom, even if Sarah ended up on top of me and Esther fell atop Sarah.

“Urgh,” said Sarah. “Esther, get up. This is like being between an upper and lower millstone, and you're the upper one.”

“Sorry, Sarah, but we both know how fetishes are, and this place has enough to make me wonder just how much time and effort the witches put into it.”

“They put enough work into this thing to make me wish odor, estéa buén,” said Annistæ. “You were calling it scent, but after today, I hope I can get some that smell like those nice red flowers, as I want to wear it.”

“You?” asked Anna, as she got up from the floor.”

“Yes, it is best after a hard day or during a hard fight, and this is reminding me of a bad fight, one where many are hurt and some die,” she said. “One wants reminders of nice things then, as it helps one fight better.” A sneeze, then, “and this trouble makes me wish for being dressed fit for chemicals.”

“What is that like?” asked Anna.

“It is a great deal to wear, but it is what is needed to deal with many chemicals safely,” sand Annistæ, “and if they do what a lot of chemicals do, then it is much easier to clean oneself off.”

“Sounds like this clothing at the Abbey,” said Anna. “Does it do other things?”

“Yes, if you must deal with chemicals that smell bad, it keeps most their stink out of your nose,” said Annistæ. “Now, I can feel some bad witch-writing... It is in this book here, but I think whoever did this one wrote it in the book, and hence we must be careful so if it goes to where Cabroni wish to be, it does not take the rest of the book with it.”

I picked up the hefty book, then set it down on the floor. With Annistæ looking over my shoulder, I waved my hand, and saw the pages flow.

“How is it you do that?” she asked. “You do not know, do you?”

“No, not really, but it does come in handy when you've got a lot to do... There it is. Wonderful – smelly blood-writing, though this stuff is older than I am.” I put my finger on it, then said, “now, off with the blood, but leave behind what that smelly wretch meant in plain language, so we can determine who commissioned it and why, as a lot of this stuff is connected.”

The blood lifted off the page, hovering in midair, and I wondered just who needed an especially unpleasant nightmare so as to 'get through to them'. For some odd reason, I thought to once more 'pound on' those unpleasant people named Blomfels – though in this case, I knew just the nightmare they needed to see, and more, just who were those who needed to see it.

“They need to see the Sand Man arise from their foundry heap, and then devour... No, not that. Too easy.” I paused, thought a moment, then said, “no, this needs to coat those awful shot-glasses those people like, so that it never rinses off and never goes away, and every gulp of high-test now tastes like it is truly High.”

“Now why did you do that?” said Anna.

“They like High Meats, so they should enjoy High Drinks,” I said. “Really make them stink awful, oh, and this stuff gives them such wonderful versions of the horrors, also – ones where they have these big ninety-legged creatures a yard long that tend to show up in their witch-undies, and, uh, firebugs in those expensive carved armoire chests they like, and then the one with the two headed raven with a one-word vocabulary, only this thing is speaking 'Nevermore' in the Valley's language, and since these foundry people are constantly trashed, they think someone of the title of 'El Vato Loco' is coming for them.”

“There are no such Totems,” said Annistae, “so they will think that bird a to be a black rooster, and they do not like roosters coming for them.” In saying this, Annistæ had meant 'they do not like my people coming for them', as while 'the Fighting Mule' was bad enough, 'the Black Rooster' simply tended to be everywhere at once, fought with unusual skill and tenacity – much like a fighting cock of that color from where I came from – and indeed, that bird did not quit until it was dead, and it took a lot of killing to deal with – and that was one fight no Blomfels man in his right, left, or terminally-trashed mind wanted to deal with.

“Well, I guess they're going to get clawed, scratched, and, uh, ripped up,” I said. “Now, where are the rest of these things. I can feel more of them in here... I think there's one behind this bookcase here.”

It was hiding, though this one was brass, clinch-nailed on near the bottom, fairly small, and so old that seeing a fetish so hazed with red made me wonder just what to do with it – other than if Blomfels had any of those infernal witch-women, one of them needed to get this thing in its support-garments.

“Especially those things on the chest, whatever they actually are,” I said. “Those things act as if they're alive, don't they?”

“I've seen what they do with those,” said Anna ominously. “I saw one man knocked silly by one of those women, and she used whatever those things are on her chest to thump him in the head.”

What?” I screeched.

“Just what I said,” said Anna. “I had to help him wake up, in fact, and he had a very swollen face, much as if someone had used a fryer on his head.”

“I've seen them do that also,” said Esther. “That's why I know those things are not glands. I do not know what they are, but I do know they are not glands – as no mere gland can move like I've seen those things do, and then no gland is as hard as a rock, and then no gland hits as hard as a rolling round-shot when they've been fired a far distance away and they've getting used to being on the ground again.”

“What?” I asked.

“Those things roll a lot, and they sometimes jump then, which is why you do not want to touch a fired round-shot until it has come to a complete stop,” said Esther. “I've heard of those northern people being flung up into trees by bounding round-shots, and they usually do not get themselves back down.”

“They don't?” I asked.

“Not when they've been tossed well up into a tree and that thug has broken an arm and a leg,” said Esther. “It was not the commonplace break, either, but the kind that usually means at best a long, slow recovery and permanent crippling injuries, so with those people, they usually kill those injured that way.”

“Kill?” I asked.

“Three of their archers turned that man into a needle-cushion,” said Esther. “That's what they usually do with people who cannot keep up – they kill them on the spot, and the same happens for any witches that are from hereabouts. They do the same thing to their people, because they figure that person both chose to get hurt and then did so to cause those not injured trouble.”

“Sounds familiar,” I said. “Now, the next fetish... It's over in this strange thing that looks like a closed bookcase but is not one of those, and it's where... Oh, my.” I walked straight to this thing, then opened its doors. It was the 'museum' itself, and seeing runes cut into its backside behind a thin painted cloth screen showed just how tricky the witches doing this work actually were. “Here, help me quickly...” I began passing the things out of this 'cabinet' as fast as I could, now and then having to handle things with great care. I found that this was where Hendrik kept that one nightmare-conjuring ax, sword, and dagger, though I could tell that Deborah thought the last a suitable 'sword' of sorts.

“Non, Deborah, none of that stuff, as it has bad-writing on it, like out of one our old tales,” said Annistæ. “They would write curses that way.”

“Uh, that one is not a curse, but they use those for common writing up there as well as doing curses,” I said, as I passed out gear to the others, who were putting it wherever they could all over the 'main rug'. “That part on that dished section there says this thing got some meteoritic iron in its third remaking, hence it started out a lot better than their usual, but once I did something to them that I still don't understand...”

“I hope you can do something like what I have heard of you doing,” said Hendrik, “as those two swords made for guards were stolen out from under Georg in spite of his best efforts to prevent them from vanishing.”

“I was told as much,” I said as I worked feverishly. “What did they leave in this thing... No you do not. Here, help clear this thing out. This cabinet itself is a stinking fetish, even more than I knew...”

That got everyone clearing the thing out, and once it was empty, I waved it toward the door. The cabinet lurched off the ground, then Georg opened the door and I ran after it, waving it on. It began to billow smoke and fire, the flames trying to push me away, but I kept running after it, herding it away from Hendrik's office. A door to General's Row showed, I kicked it open, grabbed the chest bodily through its billowing flames, and then slam-pushed it inside using my shoulder.

I then pulled the door to, and ran backwards. Not three steps from the door, the door I'd stuffed the thing in so as to roost in General's Row exploded so hard that I was flung backwards up the hallway and hit to tumble and roll nearly to the guard-bench.

“That one was bad,” I muttered, as I got up. “What was that smelly thing, a well-disguised armoire chest? One made of witch-wood, fastened with witch-grade glue, made by witches, and cursed by witches more than that cloth-covered batch of rune-carvings that I saw through that nasty veneer?”

“Precisely, and it was the strongest fetish in the whole place,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, it was made on these premises.”

“When?” I asked.

“About eighty years ago, when this was 'witch-country' in the truest sense of the word, and that place called the boatwright's shop could best be called 'the first kingdom's worst fetish-factory' – which it was at the time, and only Cardosso's own example beat it for power then or now.”

“What?” I gasped.

“It was the head fetish,” said the soft voice. “The rest of the fetishes in there, what few of them remain, are neither particularly good at hiding nor terribly powerful, so you-all should clear the place inside of twenty minutes without any more of you getting tossed or sooted up.”

It took nineteen minutes by the clock, but these were nineteen minutes that each felt closer to an hour each, with now, us split into pairs, we could find fetishes everywhere – I removed no less than three 'smokers' from Hendrik's desk alone, another 'smoke-bomb' from the underside of his trash can – it was part of what the manufacturer had put there to make it a 'powerful fetish' – and then, two sulfur-candles from a pair of 'looted' student's lanterns that had come from somewhere.

“Where did those come from, General's Row?” I asked.

“Good light sources are hard to find, and Lukas brought those here,” said Hendrik. “I had no idea they had fifth kingdom candles in them.”

“There were enough fetishes in here so that you knew almost nothing beyond the ability to act like a witch,” said Sarah, as she followed the other women into the suite of rooms. Within moments, I could hear talk about finding loads of fetishes, with one or more of the women running out to toss the smoking items out into the hallway. This was causing no small consternation among the trio of guards, until Esther came out with a small basket and tossed it outside, this to come back in trailing wisps of gray smoke.

“They know what they are now, as I told them,” she said. “I've handled witch-yarn before, but I never saw stockings that worked made of that stuff.”

“I'd best get their yarn, then,” said Sarah. “Here's more of that stuff, a whole big sack of it, and all of it nothing but witch-yarn.”

“I know where that belongs – In another of those witch-women's clothing, or rather, in her support garments – one for each, uh lump, in fact, or whatever those things are. Oh, replace those support garments entirely with something made of it! Really irritate those, uh, bludgeons, and get them into a fight with each other.”

“That will cause another riot, I hope you know,” said Esther as she came out with a hazed-with-red sack of knitting needles. “Sarah really needs to get Maria her knitting supplies, though why she is doing so is beyond me.”

“Perhaps she frets?” I asked.

“I'll say that again.” said Anna. “I now wonder if that's why I worked at it so much.”

“In your case, that was an activity your mother 'approved' of, as well as something every woman you know of does, and you dare not do something you like or can do well in lieu of it, even if knitting is something you have little time for and drives you into a state of fury more often than not.” Pause, then, “I suspect your knitting needles, yarn, and much else are actually witch-grade rubbish foisted on you, as it seems you need to be someone like Sarah to know what the good stuff looks like and where to get it.”

“You may say that thrice over,” said Sarah. “Good yarn is very hard to find up here, and if you want to be certain to have good needles, let him make them to suit.”

“You wish some knitting needles?” I asked.

“I may, especially with your stockings,” said Sarah. “I'd like some made of that one metal that does not tend to rust, in fact, as the brass ones need regular rubbing with rouge.”

“That is the trouble with the brass ones,” said Esther. “I suspect there are answers to that.”

“Tinning is the short-term solution,” I said. “I could wipe-tin them, but the best material for those is to use, uh, these sculpted wooden handles of laminated blackwood and that other lighter-colored wood, then put blackened tool-steel points on them, with the metal portions done to a high-polish before blackening.”

“What would that do?” asked Sarah.

“Make ones that work extremely well,” said the soft voice. “Done to Anna's measurements, they would permit her to actually knit passably as to outcome and speed, given decent part-synthetic yarns.”

“Not hardly wear them out, either,” I said. “The shaft goes down the middle, all the way down it, and it's got this ground finish there, but the part that shows outside of the wood needs to be gently tapered according to this special formula, highly polished, and then the whole thing blackened – and then it will just need occasional wiping with drying oil diluted with boiled distillate to 'stay' good.”

“Improve them over time, actually,” said the soft voice. “If you use such hard woods, especially bonded using glues from across the sea, then wipe those sticks well with drying oil and use some of their fine scrubbing pads between each instance, then you'll have something akin to some of your tool handles – and each such further application will just improve them as to shine and 'feel'.”

“Shine?” asked Anna as she came out with a smoking bucket and tossed its contents out into the hall. She shut the door quickly, muttering about bad fireworks all the while.

“They'll become quite nice-looking, as would the right type of blackwood,” I said. “I suspect Sarah will wish some of blackwood, carved to fit her hands precisely, and that in small, medium, and large as to thread-running.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “I would like those, that and some decent yarn bought in the fourth kingdom, though if you do those, I would watch out.”

“Why?” I asked. Sarah's speech sounded distinctly ominous.

“As every woman I know who does any real amount of knitting will wish the full set,” said Sarah. “In my case, I would wish them simply because regardless, I will no doubt be doing a lot of knitting in the months to come, if only for our stockings.”

“You wear them out also?” I said.

“Wearing trekking boots tends to do that, it seems,” said Sarah. “One wants stockings with thick soles to stand those, though I think weight has a say in the matter, also. Mine might endure a few weeks, as I just noticed how my feet were starting to hurt some.”

“Too much time on your feet,” I said. “You'll be able to rest your legs shortly.”

We were done with the 'clearance' shortly thereafter, and when I needed to go fetch that one huge collection of documents we had secreted in that one room, I had Sarah for a companion. We were both armed and ready for trouble, though I suspected the rats in the area were going to be inclined for corn-meal and not us, not with their accursed leaders no longer in the area, and while I heard rats, and smelled rats, these creatures stayed away from us.

They were not staying clear of some cleaners in the area, as I heard someone yell, then the thud of a club of some kind.

“I think they are turning more of those rat-clubs, and now cooking their glued ones,” said Sarah. “I heard talk in the kitchen that it is thought wise to take a club in one hand, and one's cleaning bucket in the other, as places are finally getting cleaned in here that have not seen cleaners inside them in a dog's age.”

“The rats have made nests in them, ofttimes,” I said, drawing my suppressed pistol and drilling a large example in the head. The rat screeched and flipped away. “That one was not expecting me to pot it.”

“That one did not sound like a white one, thankfully,” said Sarah, “though it did sound a bit on the large size, so it might well have been brought up here.”

“By our nasty little coven of thirteen now-deceased witches,” I said. “Each one...” Pause, then, “how did they ferry those things up – by coaches?”

“Mostly the secret way, then unloading them in their cages on the upper levels,” said the soft voice. “While the witches haven't been above the third floor of the house in thirty years or so, they did make somewhat frequent trips up to the third – and more than one such room was their 'rat-room'.”

“Which we need to clean out,” I said. “Say hello to my shotgun, Señor Rat. He not like you very much.”

“What?” asked Sarah. “Where did you hear that?”

“The original was on a poster I once saw,” I said. “It showed this one really awful-looking thug saying something about 'say hello to my little friend', and it was a scene from this one movie, er, visual story, that I never had the chance to see.” Pause, then, “that second-hand store was about worthless, so I went inside it but once and never bothered going inside it again.”

“Speaking of rats that way?” asked Sarah. “Annistæ would not speak of them that way, as the word for rat is not one they assign gender to.”

“Even their pet rats?” I asked.

“You were not speaking of a rat as being a pet,” said Sarah. “If you were speaking of it as being a person, the word is 'Ćèro' if it was male, and 'Ćèra' if it was female.”

“Chair-ah?” I asked.

“That would be appropriate to a rat were it inclined to become a mother and not an actual mother one,” said Sarah. “They have a special word for mother, and that word is 'Doña' – and you speak of mothers there with respect, especially if it is the wife of a settlement's leader, same as you do of such a man.”

“El Jefe?” I asked.

“That would be the proper way to speak of such a person, though that person is usually more the leader of a large settlement, or more properly, one of their towns,” said Sarah. “The more usual word is 'Don', though that word might better be spelled Dón, as that 'O' sound is a bit lengthened, at least among some of the people I've heard speak.”

“Or the word is pronounced 'strong' when such a person has learned to suck on weed-bundles and powder his nose,” I said, as we returned with that one stout leather satchel.

The change wrought in the place during our absence was remarkable: two new-looking folding tables, these being small 'rimmed' examples of laminated light and dark woods, one table having beer and the other bread, the bread piled high, sliced, on two waxed wooden platters, one bread-pile toasted, the other not so, with jam pots and tubs of cheese-spread much in evidence. I wondered if I was going to need to share a jam pot with Deborah, at least until I was handed my own 'tin' half-filled with jam and a slice of toasted bread.

“I know what I shall do, if we have the chance on the trip,” said Sarah. “Toast bread.”

“Perhaps I can manage that without smoke-signals,” I said.

“I hope not!” said Sarah in horror. “You do not plan on setting the boat alight, do you?”

“I suspect he was speaking of the bread,” said Esther gently. “Now this bread looks good. You grinding your own grain, like I told you months ago, and getting it in the whole stuff?”

“No, but I did change the supplier of such grain to a mill in Ploetzee,” said Hendrik. “That one grinder we have here has its crank turned for beer much of a day every day, as every day is a beer-making day if there are more than four cooks in the house.”

“Perhaps make a small run of porridge-grain with it,” I said. “We may wish some...”

“Yes, if you could get some grain in that thing edgewise, given how much Kuchen they are baking,” said Anna. “They are making a lot of those things, and someone told me about this special type of long-cooked jam that uses honey in it instead of the usual long-boiled sugar-tree sap, so I told them about doing up 'three full pots'. They should have that done shortly.”

“Jam-pot?” I asked. “You'll wish one large enough for the house proper?”

“No, not that large,” said Anna. “If it's the size of a larger beer mug, then it should work, though if Sarah's cousin is over much, then we may well wish a house-size one. I've never seen a girl so taken with cherry jam.”

“Her teeth wish it,” said Annistæ, “though I like that kind you spoke of enough to want to have it stewing up in our rooms on a small lamp filled with Alkoli.”

“With honey?” asked Georg, as he developed his own interest in beer and bread. “I can usually eat these without griping, though if the bread isn't fresh, it's been known to cause some trouble.”

“Stuff had white-thread starting,” as I took over another table and laid out that smelly tome. “Almost wish an old wooden knitting needle for turning this thing, as it feels as if it has had lard-slimed hands caressing it for nigh on three hundred years.”

“More than that, if you speak of the earlier missives,” said the soft voice. “Much of what pertains to today is in the last finger's width, that being what they planned to do to Georg.”

I was given an old wooden rug-hook, this thing made of a whitish wood and extremely hard, and Annistæ told me she wished it back, as she had found enough rags to start a 'sitting rug'. I asked her as I looked if this meant one sat on the rug, or if one put one's bench or stool upon the rug and it kept one's feet off of a cold stone floor.

“The latter usually,” she said. “There are a lot of clothes that feel like they have these nasty bugs that Cabroni like in their clothing, but they have no such things, so I have set them aside for making paper, but there are clothes that are not fit for wear or repairing other clothes that I was told were fit for rags, and those I could use for such a rug, so I have been bagging those up when I wished to have a break from sorting out what is upstairs.”

“Probably make one of these out of that 'brass' for practice,” I said. “Perhaps two or three, as that way you have spares, and then they work well for a lot of things. Oh, right here. Here it says...”

“Yes, what does it say?” asked Hans. “Is that one about that witch Hieronymus?”

“It is,” I said ominously. “It seems that he was to keep watch for someone who was spoken of in this one book... Oh, no. They were sent to watch for some creature that would be as destructive as Sieve, and he was trained at length to identify it – and if it did not show during his tenure, then he was to train those others...” I paused, then said, “others?”

“I was told he dumped a lot of curses,” said Georg. “Those people that came might have been from the second kingdom, and they got their instructions from there, but they knew about those who've been causing trouble, and those stinkers were from the fifth kingdom.” Pause, then, “is that why you went after Blomfels so much?”

“Not sure,” I said. “I'm not sure just why I do some of that stuff. Only part I know less about is how it happens – and there, beyond someone we both are familiar with is involved, is very much of a mystery to me.” Pause, then, “here we go. This details what they first planned to do, and this stuff is really detailed – oh, that, and there were a lot of higher-up witches arguing about the whole mess, complete with fightings and poisonings and assassins doing their nonsense all among those people – and that's just for the earlier stages. They really were spying on you good, and me, almost as much, at least as if I go by this document here.”

“At least their spies were telling them a lot, which too often was guesswork on their part as they could not learn much about you,” said the soft voice. “Keep telling Georg just what they were planning on doing with and to him.”

“Not just an ordinary double-barreled inquest,” I said. “They were intending some real threats, including the presentation of one or more severed heads of your relatives...”

“They didn't manage that,” said Georg, “even if they did kill enough of them and enslaved a fair number more.”

“He told me about what they tried to do, and just how many people in his family have been killed recently, and that just to get onto him,” said Hendrik. “Now he spoke of money. Anything in there about how much?”

“Precise amounts?” I asked. “This is more by inference, as this was apparently done over a long drunken session at a five course full witch-meal, where there was more high-test consumed than all else, so they barely knew what they were saying, much less doing, by the time it was over, but the amount was altogether sizable – five bags full, all full-minted gold in witch-money, and each bag to weigh ten on our scale....” Pause, then, “ten on our scale? What were they using, a special witch-scale?”

“Yes, and you've seen those in the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “complete with some of the more-usual tricks done to them.”

“Play with the weights, and they go exclusively by weight if one speaks of witch-coins,” I murmured. “Witch-money?” I gasped. “That is a lot of money, given that we were told it took that whole box full of commonplace money to get one suite of Gabriel's stinky clothing...”

I looked at Georg in horror, and he gulped audibly. Witches that high up arguing about who did what and how much to do to a commonplace man was enough to scare anyone colors. I then had some other answers to the matter of Georg. “It involved a double-barreled inquest, only the other hand held a large and sharp knife and not a sack of full-minted witch-coins...” I had a question.

“I can give something of an answer to what those are,” said Sarah. “They spoke of coins that no longer properly exist, as those coins you speak of were the coins of the witches of long ago.”

“There are witch-coins, and there are real witch-coins, which we earlier learned of,” I murmured. “Full-minted must mean the current version of those things, ones which they tried to copy as well as they could...” Pause, then, “that meant dealing with but a few 'groups' or families, Gabriel's being the best known.”

“Got it in one, and they made a good deal of money on those transactions, especially as that much witch-money involved lengthy periods of 'buying' their services,” said the soft voice. “Also, Gabriel's family had examples of prewar witch-coins, and their boughten jewelers, at least those of them who were strong enough witches, did the final processing to produce what was deemed to be 'the only true witch-coins currently minted' – which has meant a steady and sizable income since the time of Cardosso, as most of those old witch-coins were melted down during the time of Charles.”

“Hence now, the real money is in the holding of witches,” I said, “and until those people were killed off, more and more of it was getting converted daily into 'real' witch-money.”

I then noticed that I had advanced into a realm that bore no true resemblance to Georg's current plight, but took on the larger picture. This was the debasing of 'commonplace' money by its steady and stealthy recasting, with more and more being done in various witch-enclaves, fewer and fewer jewelers elsewhere having time due to the education of the populace into a pack of full-owned witch-slaves....

“That process started hundreds of years ago,” I said, “the person who dictated this writing knew that much, if not much more, even if he did know that it's done fairly well today, well enough that any witch can more or less do whatever he wants when he's of a mind to do it in the bulk of the first kingdom if he exercises a certain level of discretion.” Pause, then, “that's during the daytime. At night, the witches had no such restrictions.”

“Had?” asked Georg. “No one goes out at night, unless it's a witch. That's what a lot of people believe.”

“So they still believe that prime bit of rubbish up here,” I said. “I might be able to go out at night and not worry too much as long as I stay well clear of most towns, but the majority of people just stay inside asleep as if dead, due to some very old curses that still...”

“Are you reading from that document's words, or from what it is truly saying?” asked Hendrik.

“Not sure right now,” I said. “Oh, here. It speaks of swords. Oh, nothing but the truth. They think that 'whoever makes those things in Roos' must be a witch of the old line, as they shine like mirrors, have the right shape and act 'as per ye tenets of ye black booke'.” Pause, then, “what?”

“Especially treacherous to use,” said the soft voice. “Continue reading. That's just one instance of why Georg has had so much attention put to him recently, even if they've been after him for a long while.”

“Here it describes the precise nature of that double-barreled inquest...” Pause, then, “it was about swords?”

“Yes, and that before you came, as it seems he knew something of what it took to make good ones,” said the soft voice. “His tools had a tendency to work, as he had to figure out a lot of such matters on his own because he was deemed not fit to become a witch during his apprenticeship; hence he took in other 'outcast' smiths when and if they showed, and those people tended to band together. Together, those people made both a lot of tools, and more, tools that were nearly 'potato country quality' for working – least until they shelled his out-of-the-way shop into ruin and he had to head north.”

“They did not like that place much,” said Georg. “At least I had enough money hid in various places that I could hide for a season and then come north on foot, as if I were marked. I was treated like such a person by the witches then, and it seems I still am.”

“And now, here it describes the orders that were cut to your most recent hit-team, other than the one you endured earlier today, that is,” I said. “Oh, they even called it a double-barreled inquest – one with the doubled-eight bore fowling piece stuffed with mingled 'silver' shot and twenty-line stuff, which is what normally goes into those smaller pistols...”

That made for muttering, until I read an 'addendum': “such pieces are to be procured 'new' and then gone through from muzzle to butt-plate, as 'silver shot devours barrels', and this gun” – here, I pronounced it as written, that being 'gonne' – “must have tight bores, fully choked, and regulated to ten units...” I then spat, “they have this figure, only it's a special one. Probably a tangled-up rune-string that's a curse of some kind, one of those things a lot call 'secret markings'.”

“No, that's a tangled-up rune-string used by witches when they wish to write of that unit that is commonly referred to by 'commons' as 'paces',” said the soft voice, “only now, people need to realize that unit is really a witch-minted unit of measure and use gunner's talk instead.”

“Decent gunners, anyway, those who hit their pigs at least some of the time,” said Sarah. “They usually used the figure 'yards', in calculations, though some old tapestries spoke of meters, and they use that term in the Valley.”

“It's a bit longer, perhaps the width of three or four fingers, depending on the size of your hand. Mine, perhaps a bit more than three,” I said. “The precise term is 'three dot three-nine' inches, if you want to be exact – and people are going to need to be exact with such terminology if we...” Pause, then, “simple. Give units first in yards, as in 'Y-units', then in meters as 'M-units'. That way our gunners know their stuff regardless of what they learned with, and we give out gun-protractors and things like them that are double-sided, so that one side does meters and the other yards.”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “Those mechanical figuring devices like Sarah has lend themselves to such calculations, as hers has two scales on it that permit easy figuring between the two and it only develops real inaccuracy when at the limits of its range to each end.”

I then resumed detailing the plans regarding Georg, and here, it got ugly: they had waited for him as he did his rounds, then rushed him in a small mob from both sides, with one of the most-hardened – a trained killer imported specially from the second kingdom house – holding his knife to his throat, and another such thug training his new – as in just bought and well-proofed – weapon upon Georg from the other side and a bit to the front, with 'full loads and stiff witch-grade powder'. They then put a message in his hands, one he dreaded seeing, as he had been fearing such a summons for a very long time. They then rifled his buggy, and finding none of what they were looking for, 'vanished' as if by smoke.

“Obviously well-drilled and well-practiced thugs,” I murmured. “I wonder of any of those people are still alive?”

“Yes, some, but getting together that quality of thugs in that number is nowhere near as easy as it was then,” said the soft voice. “It still can be done, but those looking are going to have to pay a lot of money for their services, they're going to have to hire them away from people who want them handy that already pay them a lot of money, and then they're going to have to ride herd over such a pack of thugs with some force – as in 'there aren't that many loose well-qualified brigands handy any more'.”

“It sounds as if your labors recently have thinned them out greatly,” said Sarah. “I would still be careful, Georg.” She then nodded to me to continue with my 'translation'.

“That message dealt with swords, and what they demanded of him,” I said flatly to Hendrik. “It was 'any good ones you give to us at the prices we deem, and for each one of those, we shall give you two of our choosing, one which you may sell to witches, and the other which you are to deliver to your buyers in the place of those you give us.”

“I did no such thing,” said Georg.

“I know, as I have good information as to who makes those where you have your business, and more, how much care you exercise in keeping them safe,” said Hendrik. “He doesn't have time to make many, and the way he does it – it seems mostly a mystery to you, but it is no mystery to me, based on what I have been able to learn.”

“Uh, you know why they're done that way?”

“Something about 'they have to be that way because they're intended for real use, and not merely to look at mostly,” said Hendrik. “Now the king of the fourth kingdom should arrive here shortly, as he had a hard ride of it getting here and he's barely had any chance to eat – and he needs to eat proper food, as a great deal gripes him.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“He's survived two assassination attempts, and that second one, it was a near thing for him,” said Hendrik. “He was stabbed multiple times in the gut, and he's quite limited as to how fast he can eat, but also what he can eat, and the only person who stinks up privies worse than he does is you.”

I then returned to 'the writ-down plan B', this done as per ye tenets of 'ye black booke': “if the subject proves obdurate, then he must be burgled with great regularity, so that all may be known of what he does and who he is with, with planted fetishes many and strong, and those who surround him be true-witches in truth and in deed, so as to make him one in thought if not in full nature'.” I then spat, and gasped, “great regularity?”

“They did try, but pulling it off was a bit much while I was at home,” said Georg. “About the only time they could have done so was when I was either in a place like this, where every witch with a bag of bones has pass-keys to every door, or when I was sleeping out of town, which was not often. I killed more than one witch who tried where I lived at night, as I slept with my club in my bed, and strings tied to my door as well as my safe-box, and had I known about traps that would have gotten witches without blowing my house to bits and setting it alight, I would have set those also in front of both doors.”

“The large rock over your door?” I asked. “The one held up by a stick?”

“It has collected blood more than once,” said Georg. “I doubt that the witch in question managed to go far afterward, as I found where a coach had been parked in my yard that morning, and there was blood on the yard from my doorway to where that coach had been parked.”

“My, you do tend to be thorough,” I murmured.

“That's about the rule for cannon-masters that are decent,” said Esther. “Now this here speaks of what they are after, that being 'swords like those done long ago'.” Esther looked at Georg, and said, “did they think that you had done those?”

“I never did, but it seems they thought that of his,” said Georg. “I did, at least in my old shop, make a few decent corn-knives, but those were more due to the three or four of us testing and learning and making a lot of scrap until we got ones that worked – and we'd test those a lot before we turned loose of them, so what we did was regarded as 'very good' in that place.”

“Very good?” I asked.

“Any blade you make makes our best ones look to be scrap-metal, only fit to be tossed in Frankij,” spat Georg. “Now Hendrik here has shown me some plans, and while you are gone, he wants those other two men put here so they cannot contact any witches, so...”

“Best fetch them in a hurry, then,” I said. “They might be somewhat laggardly about starting, but they know where the money is for hunting right now, and once they get going, then there will be no stopping them from getting to 'those prime fields'.”

“Resume, please,” said Hendrik. “He needs to hear what I think comes next.”

I did so, and here, I learned just what had been planned: during my absence on the trip – it was known of well in advance of our leaving, this by postal interception – the shop was to be more or less taken over by witches, and there, they were to beat out as many fetish-grade blades as they could, using 'ye lair of ye monster' to birth them. More, upon learning just what Georg was making, they were to dismantle his planned equipment and put up their fetish-wrought equivalent in its place, with the goal of turning it 'from a great haven of witches into a yet-greater one, one worthy of Cardosso, as that witch that runs the place is the greatest seen since him, if not yet stronger, for his blades have killed thousands, and only...'

Here, matters became indecipherable, and only rubbing had me learn just who was referred to. I spat the 'common' name of that witch, as speaking his rune-writ name was very unwise.

“They compared me to Mangle,” I spat. “Him and his blades seem to be especially well-known.”

“No, go further,” said the soft voice. “That is what they know. Read next what they could not prove.”

That took more rubbing, as here, the messed up letters then spoke of people like Blaine, Imhotep, Bertha, Morris-son, The Mistress of the North, and then including some names writ in letters so strange-looking that it took me some seconds to learn that they were mangled runes.

“These others could only be writ in runes,” I spat. “What were they?”

“Possible names for that witch of the fifth title,” said the soft voice, “and like all other pre-drowning witches, that meant a witch of power eclipsing all they had ever known. Now read a bit more. Here, it comes to the meat of the matter, which is who they really think you are.”

I then read aloud, “this new man may well be Sieve itself, with just enough meat to him to fool the uninitiated, for he kills all that he sees and will deed the planet to Brimstone in its entirety should we not placate him.”

“What?” I screeched. Here, my voice made the place ring like a bell, and more than one book on the bookcases crashed to the floor to then vanish into gouts of dust. “What happened there?”

“Fetish-grade binders that were slipped to Hendrik's predecessors without their knowledge,” said the soft voice. “The other fetishes in the room hid them well, but there was nothing in them worth reading anyway, as it was all written as if the writer was far gone in Geneva – witch-grade Geneva, that is.”

“Witch-grade Geneva?” I asked.

“Is made much like Komaet, and is nearly pure aquavit for strength,” said the soft voice. “It takes a very strong witch to consume it, which is why the last regular consumer of it was Cardosso himself.”

I then read that most of the scrap metal was indeed made by witches: they had labored in their vast and foul-reeking swarms, doing all they could to both make 'swords fit for a multitudinous army', as well as duplicate Frankie from the yet-incomplete drawings, while Georg's work was defaced.

What little of it he had managed, as he knew he was in over his head from the very beginning, unlike these drink-sodden fools, who took much of a week to learn this type of furnace was beyond them also.

It was not a fifth kingdom smelter, one of those huge squat things that used size, mass, and masses of 'educated well-broken slaves' to build and rebuild after each run. This thing was in another class altogether for sophistication, and their copies of what drawings Georg had – crude, near-indecipherable, according to the account – were here reproduced.

The results were so outlandish that I gasped. “This thing looks like a volcano, and likely indeed to erupt when it first runs,” I said. “Now were they going to bring up one of those fifth kingdom horrors?”

“They were, had they been able to erect that thing,” said the soft voice. “Your return prevented that from happening, as it takes time to get those done fit for fetishes, and capturing a suitable number of slaves takes time also, and you were supposed to be gone several months, not a few weeks.”

“And when they burgled Georg's house?” I asked.

“They did not realize just what they had until they undid the strings he had tying those rags in place,” said the soft voice. “They did pass those off before they were killed, and both are long south and nearing the hands of the Powers scheduled to receive them.”

“And here, it says what got them interested in Georg,” I said. “Fit to go to the west school, but his family too poor by half, and not fit to go anywhere else because of a lot else, and then he's a good cannon-master, and tends to cause more trouble for domestic witches than anyone else, and he's a holy terror when it comes to coaches.” I looked at Georg, and “five coaches?”

“Yes, with my best gun,” said Georg. “I put a distance-shell in each one of those things, and each time I did so, that line of coaches went up like a string of powder-mills like down in the fifth kingdom.”

“Five lines and five shells?” I gasped.

“Sounds like Willem could take lessons from him,” said Esther. “You weigh your charges?”

“No, because I had no fit means of weighing them, save this old balance I had, so I loaded my charges ahead of time, bagged my powder in used diapers, and then, I tried when I could to get this especially hot powder from this one man,” said Georg. “Usually, it was quite scarce, so when I had to, I put it at the red-string tied end of the bag, and the rest of the powder, that with the black string, had common powder, though I screened that stuff and kept the fines for loading shells.” Pause, then, “those shells, I loaded myself, so as to make sure the end of the charge with the red string went in first.”

“Hence the effects of using a hotter powder...” I gasped. “Duplex loads for your guns? What did that do?”

“Give two hundred yards more range on swine, if I had it,” said Georg, “and twice that more for distance-shells, even if it meant replacing gun tubes about twice as often as a rule.” Pause, then, “sometimes, though, I got a good one, and that one had a true bore and stayed tight a lot longer.”

“How could you tell?” I asked.

“I had a marsh-made instrument,” said Georg, “or so I was told. I think Willem or someone else who fires guns got it, at least I hope so, as it went missing during the time I was hurt after that last pig climbed onto my gun.”

I turned to Hendrik, then said, flatly, “now you know why they're so interested in him, why he goes out of his mind around witches as well as swine, and now why every witch worth his bones thinks him marked.” I glanced down, then spat, “they bought his brother the wheelwright just to cause him trouble, they killed his relatives just to get to him, he tried to make that furnace right in spite of his ignorance... No wonder that place needs a watchtower.”

“So these plans indicate,” said Hendrik. “They might be a long way from complete, but there is enough here to draft a proclamation.”

“This whole mess predates my arrival, sir,” I said.

“Your arrival just raised the stakes quite a bit,” said the soft voice. “They don't just want you – they want him, and have wanted him for quite some time.”

I had to drink beer after this whole mess, as it was indeed a thirsty matter, as well as a bit shocking, and after using the rug-knitting tool to turn a handful more pages, these dealing with the various and sundry goings on of witchdom in a surprisingly detailed fashion, I found more 'dirt'. I then noted that I had everyone who could write legibly doing so, with Esther dictating to Georg.

“He does write fairly well, better than Willem does,” said Esther. “His penmanship is not bad, either.”

“Now, go a bit further,” said the soft voice. “You'll find more 'dirt' on their plans regarding where you live – and by extension, just what they've been working on for so long here.”

As I was speaking of the implications of the overall scheme for the first kingdom, this by implication of just what they were doing where we lived and where I worked – “his subordinated people must be ours, and ours alone” – and then, what Hieronymus actually did...

“He was surrounded by nothing but witches and witch-slaves,” I spat. “They do that everywhere, so that's all people learn, that's all they think, no wonder they see the life of a coach-riding smelly thug that drinks high-test and does nothing of worth or value so cursedly attractive!”

“Now what is he doing with that book?” asked a soft voice. I then turned up to see the king of the fourth kingdom by Hendrik, who was taking notes like made. I could not recall his name, for some reason.

“Giving me a lot of information about witches, what they have been doing here, why they have so gone after our people, and by example, what they are doing to us all, and that's for the ones here. The ones from Norden – we can only assume they mean to do something similar, only there are a vastly greater number, and they have less use for us than the ones here.”

I paid them little more mind, for I had found something even 'nastier': “now, there is this new witch, one who is not ours, and who may be...” The rest of that line petered off, until later, on the next missive, this speaking of the third ditch and the horrors found there.

“That is no witch, but a marked person” – here, I pronounced marked as 'mark-ED', which was the witch-version – “and no common one...”

Flip, the next missive, then, “on the subject of this new marked person in Roos, this between two Powers, writ on the ninth instant, this day of Cardosso 863,14...” I paused in my 'translation', and said, “the witches reckon days and years differently than we do. Cardosso wasn't that long ago.”

“I think they reckon time from when the curse struck,” said the king from the fourth kingdom, “and what you said just confirmed it. Go on, even if I know that witch had nothing to do with the Curse.”

“Save attributed its coming to himself,” I spat, before resuming 'translation'. “'We know what that thing is', this said over drinks in the upper room of Funkelmann's in the third kingdom port.” Pause, then, “they're very careful when and where they speak of matters germane to their cause, which is one of the chief reasons we know so little about them, even if they record everything in exhaustive detail.”

“It is good they do so, however, as now we are or will be aware of all they have done, more or less,” said the king of the fourth kingdom. “How far back does all of that go?”

“Several hundred years, but most of it he's already told me,” said Hendrik. “He'll need to go over that book more and then go over what is written, and write the final report, then read it back to us for writing – unless he can get one of these special devices...”

“He was told he would have one,” said Sarah, “and I suspect we will receive a number of them. If that is the case, then it is likely our issues with printing, within a fairly short time, will no longer be an issue.”

“If you mean 'large quantity' printing, then we'll still need to do it using that screw press for a while,” I said. “If you mean 'one, two, or ten', then that capacity we'll have quickly.” Pause, then, “those large-quantity printers are heavy brutes, and they need to get a lot of paper to print that stuff in numbers.”

Pause, then, “where, exactly, is this place called Funkelmann's?”

“That would be in the port of the third kingdom, and it is the largest drink-house there, though the one seaward is but somewhat smaller, and the same for the one to the east. I can name those places also, and I suspect many of the witches where I govern go there when they wish to learn important information.”

“It seems they come from all over to that location to give and learn secrets,” I spluttered. “Nothing like it outside of a handful of locations scattered here and there, many witches can take ship to that location with few being the wiser, the 'commonplace' witches can get trashed in those places... They're almost as big as large Public Houses... No, they're like Roadhouses, services and all!”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “Now you know why they're known throughout witchdom, and why the upper rooms of all three places were where much of what you are reading was recorded, save when it was writ at the homes of Powers themselves in private.”

“Secure, also,” I said. “Those places all sound fit for round mines blasting in their doorsteps, and that place named Funkelmann's – it needs a brick of military cooking fuel tied to the front, and put against their doorstep.”

“What would that do?” asked Hendrik.

“Funkelmann's would be destroyed,” said Sarah. Here, she turned to me. “Goortmann's is nearest the sea, that one I just spoke of is near the center of the Long Wharf, and then near the east end of that wharf there is Snoggwaart's.” Pause, then, “every one of those places is as large as what you named, save they are not commonplace roadhouses for size, construction, age, nor much else, as their noise never stops and they are usually so full of drunken thugs that one thinks them each fit for a thousand pirates, and that's for Goortmann's and Snoggwaart's. That center one is the largest, oldest, and worst of them all.”

“Can you describe this building?” asked Hendrik. “I may have seen it briefly.

“I have, though mostly late at night, when that place is relatively quiet,” said Sarah. “All of those places are as wide as a very large Public House, they all have tall overhanging second stories with many shuttered windows, and then each has a tall peaked tiled roof, which has an attic with many more rooms in it, so they are three stories above ground. Below ground, I have but rumors, but those rumors are fairly consistent.”

“Yes, and what are those?” asked Hans.

“More than one level to their basements, and it is likely there is communication from those basements among themselves and to other locations by mining-cart tracks,” said Sarah. “They all do a great deal of underground business in that port, and that I can speak of reliably, as I have talked with many on the Short Wharf in that place, and some on the Long Wharf, and then, there was what I heard from Pieter and his crew when I took ship with him for a trip of two and a half weeks.”

“That is no mean voyage,” said the king of the fourth kingdom. “Now this man here – I have heard of him. What were those witches speaking of him?”

Only then did I recall this particular king's name: Rolf.

“Something like this: 'we will learn all you say, and follow you everywhere, and compel your every action, such that we shall own you as a slave, fool',” I said. “Those were the instructions given to those who were to attack him. What he received in that one missive, unless he has it still, is something of a mystery so far, but I suspect it has to do with the swords I make. I do know he was compelled at gunpoint more than once, he's had witches come after him a host of times, and there's more to this than that – oh, and they think I'm an especially bad arch-witch, one so bad that I'd need runes to describe my cult-name, presuming I actually had one.” Pause, then, “are what you were 'given' in lieu of those swords the burglars took present?”

“Yes, and they are fit for Frankij,” said Georg. “Worse blades I have never seen, and rusty things in the bargain.”

“And I wonder just what they managed where we worked?” I asked softly, as I moved toward Georg's 'strongbox', this being on the floor. “Probably didn't do much better, more than one died in there, and then they used slaves to quench them...”

“Hence the rust,” said the soft voice. “They still got a lot of money for those coarse-ground rusty blades, and that strictly because of where they were forged. They did the other work on those later, and each of those soft slaggy things is now hanging on a wall somewhere as a prized and costly fetish.”

“And what I actually made is now out causing trouble,” I murmured. “Well, I hope they slice up their owners well when they handle them badly while trashed. Perhaps bite each hand that holds them until they finally get back to those they were made for.” Here, I turned to the two kings, then Georg. “Karl, and Sepp, right. You get waxes of each man's dominant hand?”

“I had no idea that was what you did,” said Georg. “I know they both have hands that are a bit like mine.”

“Best send such people to Anna or I,” said Sarah. “I would be glad to ask them precisely what is wished, and between the two of us, we should find out if they wish swords for work, or for fetishes, as some people who ask you want the latter.”

“Yes, and I tell them to sup with Brimstone, and that with my club in my hand,” said Georg. “Now, I shall air out their smelly hides with this gun that thinks itself a doubled roer for kick and execution.”

“It does?” I asked.

“At ten paces, or perhaps less, if you hit a witch solid with that thing, he does not get back up, at least he does not do so quickly,” said Georg, “and it thinks itself a doubled roer for kicking, as I came here very sore and wanted Geneva for rubbing. The bruises I had were no joke.”

“And now to take a look at what they left him,” I murmured, this upon finding a lock unlike any I had seen anywhere. This thing looked not only especially well made, but the iron-bound box was coated with what looked like a species of peculiar varnish, one red-tinted, deep, and quite strong.

“This box?” I asked.

“Was not particularly cheap, and the lock cost as much as the box, given both came from a firm in the fourth kingdom,” said Georg. “That type of lock was described as being impossible to pick, and...”

Deborah appeared as if by magic, took one look at the lock, shook it, then said, this in a high-pitched voice, “I have picked those, but each time, it was tricky, and it took me a good ten minutes at the least.”

“Meaning it's a so-called hard-lock,” I murmured. I took the lock in my hand, and the thing opened as if it had never been locked, this with a resounding click.

“Sounds like you were sold, Georg,” said Deborah.

“No, he was not,” said Sarah. “That is one of those locks that would give you trouble, Deborah, as I have seen those, and they are not only hard to pick, but hard to break, and then, they are very hard to cut on. I've seen chisels ruined, saws worn out, and a great deal more done to those.”

“First, they use decent steel in those, stuff they cook up much like I do, and they put a fair amount of blacking in their wrought iron, as well as small additions of welding flux, and then they cast the parts, and finally finish them to size in drop-dies, and use rivet-stock of the same material – and they really beat on those things. Oh, oil-quench, deep cases, file-hard exteriors, or nearly so, and then tougher than you might believe.”

“That would be good enough for many lecturers to think you had seen that place,” said the Rolf. “Now what is this I hear about your doings?”

“This,” indicated Sarah, whipping out her dagger. “Some of the latest batch. Across the sea, much of what we will be doing will be in darkened realms, and therefore, one does not wish a shiny knife, and this one has been tested at some length and proved itself most deadly – as has his.” Here, she pointed to me. “This stuff can cut chisels and bad slaggy rivets with no damage to it whatsoever, and we shall have better yet within a short time, as then we will have proper tools. We may even make small lots here, come to think of it.”

“Small lots?” asked this man.

“Yes, for special tools,” said Sarah. “This would be regarded as prime tool steel, even at the Heinrich works, but what he has planned will beat their best by a mile.”

“Then that must be guarded, and guarded closely...”

I had opened Georg's strong-box, and laying there, two 'double-edged' horrors, these done so crudely I wept. I touched one, and screamed.

“What?” asked Sarah, as she came to the side. “I know you put so much time...” Pause, then to look at me, then she asked, “they quenched those in blood.”

“Witch-blades,” I muttered through my tears. “Accursed.” Then I screamed, and cried, “Accursed blades, go and kill those who made you, at least the curses, only each of you become a scythe, and cut down every witch you see as you track those wretched beasts down, and then send all of them to hell, and leave the metal behind!”

The blades suddenly went to rusty bars of iron, this with a stunning blue flash, and then, I noticed my hand had become hazed with blue. I moved it along each blade, speaking as I did, “become fit for those who made them, this of what I shall do upon my return, with the proper size and shape for each man, the way I had made them, only fit properly to each hand, and leave a small token behind, this in a place where there will be no effect upon their usefulness, a token of both those they are wedded to, and also who gave them these weapons so as to destroy witches and their evil, and put the enemies of God where they belong, which is with their master in hell!

The flash this time was huge, and sent us all reeling back in stunned shock, then when I returned, I saw two blades, ones identical to those I had made, though upon picking one up, I asked for a rag, and began wiping down the blade. As I did, both of my hands were hazed with blue, and when I saw the tin tag tied by string to the pommel naming this sword as being for Sepp, I pictured his hand in my mind, and prayed, this silently, that this one needed to be especially for him, in fact 'wedded to him', much as if I had fit the thing to his hands alone, and as I stroked the blade, the rag became dirty.

The blade also began to truly shine, and here, I knew the story: even with the metal being right, there was still dirt and 'voids' in it, and this portion was a requisite, that and the cold portion, and as I did that, I softly asked for a folding table, as there was a part that needed to happen that I did not understand.

“Much of this I understand but little,” I said, “but with this metal, even as it is now... Oh, my. This stuff isn't like what I made for them. It's better, and not a little better – so why the dirt?”

“Because it's not 'vacuum arc refined' steel made in a clean room,” said the soft voice. “Notice how you've only dirtied up one rag to any real degree?”

I nodded mentally.

“That's real crucible steel there, the stuff tough tools are made of, and that material... You make Georg one of those strange corn knives of that stuff, and he'll go through witches like he was a butcher in a meat-shop.”

“Strange corn-knives?” asked Georg, as I continued rubbing the sword. I could feel it changing, this all over, with the guard and handle doing odd things also. I could feel that portion lengthening a fraction, such that the blade's balance was changing, and now, I knew another matter that needed to be done personally – the fitting of such a blade. They each had to be 'tied' to their user's reach, strength, and even how they used such things.

In my case, I had one uniquely tailored to me, I guessed, or I had learned of its peculiarities, and I silently asked it to 'get the right stuff in it' while I was working on Sepp's. I laid it down upon the table, and the thing grew a thick coating of smoking frost instantly.

What gives with that smoke?” gasped the Rolf.

“That causes them no small amount of help,” said Anna. “I am glad for what he did for those, but the surgical knives – all of them – they are now marked, at least those for my use, and all of them smoked like that.” Pause, then, “they are marked for me, actually, and I am not sure if he marked hers for her or not.”

“It has a rose-bud at the tip,” said Sarah, “and it works very well indeed.”

“That, I think, will be the difference,” I said. “Women's swords will receive rose-buds, men's – I'm not sure just yet, though if they want something special, I can try to make one. Mine has no such thing, just a simple cap I made of, uh, this weird alloy of silver and bronze, but it was the first one, and then the thing somehow got marked, which was not my doing, and when it's irritated or something, that marking seems lit with fire.”

I then asked the dumbest-sounding question I had asked since coming here: “is this like those special blades burning blue when evil is around?”

“No, as your 'reach' is quite a bit further than anyone in that story,” said the soft voice. “Recall how you could tell the state of your immediate area, then that of the country in that one election, even though you did not follow politics? Then you knew who was going to get elected no less than six weeks prior to the election, because you could feel the mood of an entire nation?” I nodded. “That capacity has grown drastically, and hence if your sword flames, there's something really unusual going on.”

“And now for Karl's, which needs to be about an inch longer, because he's taller, a slightly plumper grip than mine – mine is about the shortest one I've made, as most are about an inch longer, and have a different shape... I really need wax casts of people's hands, unless I can get modeling clay for such matters, that or this special thing that measures grips... Perhaps a 'dummy' sword that actually measures what and how they do things?”

“That will come later, as you will need to teach people how to use those, and anyone who flies, they'll need to have one,” said the soft voice. “Yes, it sounds antiquated – flying 'above the sky' and having swords, even when you have weapons fit for 'old tales' otherwise, but remember – swords do not run out of ammunition, they don't need reloading, and they do work well in close quarters.”

“And we will have close-quarter work where we go,” I said. “We are going to be our own space-going soap opera.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah. “What are you talking about?”

“Alien soap operas, dear,” I said. “Don't have a clue where we will be going, or what that thing or – no, things will be named, but we will be producing our own 'alien soap operas' about how much fun it is dealing with alien life forms – almost like, uh, 'Starship Troopers', or some such rubbish.”

“They have that one,” said the soft voice. “They have a lot of those, including a whole long list of ones you've never heard of, because those come from places closer than where you came from – including a long list of some which may surprise you.”

I had been rubbing Karl's sword this whole time, and the changes wrought in that instrument of death were beyond comprehension. His had acquired a slightly greater curve, as he was a 'slicer', while Sepp could do both. In my case, I did whatever the situation demanded, and hence mine was closer to 'does both reasonably well', and I knew it could poke as well as slice.

It had done that, and now, I was nearly done with Karl's. Sepp's was still smoking, and I suspected that when we went for first training Gabriel, and then our rat-hunt, they would prove decisive. I laid Karl's down, then asked for Deborah.

“Your knife, dear,” I said. “There is something...”

The Rolf held up a third rusty rod, this one shorter. “They left this behind.”

“First your knife, then,” I asked. “It needs to become better, as you're going to use it a lot. Then, there is something else planned for you.”

“Yes?” she asked.

“I wondered what to call it, but the name so far for this piece will be 'the sting of the hornet',” I said. “It's kind of like this one dagger I have with the label of evidence, but it's not quite as heavy as that one is.”

“What is it?” asked Deborah, as I began praying over her knife and felt the thing 'go nuts' in my hand. It was now absolutely hazed with bluish fire, and small lightning bolts came off of it. It seemed to be changing before my eyes in some unfathomable way.

“That comes next, after I get done redoing this one,” I said. “You need one fully as good as what we're taking to take that place overseas, then you need this other, as you're going to be among the first to actually encounter witches in here, and they will try for you, this in hallways too close to use a regular length sword, but perfect for these.” Pause, then as I set her dagger down and the thing instantly became covered with frost, then using rags, I took up that one slaggy 'bar' of metal, closed my eyes, and instantly, I was elsewhere.

I was also 'holding' this new species of blade, that one called 'the sting of the hornet'. While it was a good deal larger than a knife, it was closer to a species of short sword, and its straight blade...

“Thing's almost like a court sword, save shorter, a much stouter blade, still as sharp as a razor, and the tip on this thing... Oh, good. It will carry the usual temper line. That says a differential temper was done, though it's a lot harder to do with a double-edged blade. They almost need this special treatment.”

To my surprise, I now saw this odd multi-strike die pound the nasty-looking metal into its final form, then the metal utterly changed into 'vacuum-arc-remelted' steel using specially purified ingredients. More, this new steel had a surprisingly high content of both cobalt and wolfram, such that it was true 'high-speed steel' – yet it would be impossible to chip or break.

That was quite important when one might need to spike through plate or other matters, and 'the sting of the hornet' ignored anything short of the very best swine-plate to come out of Norden.

The usual thin sheet metal 'plates' sewn onto swine-hide vests worn by these incoming thugs would not even slow a determined thrust by this thing down. It would rip through them like that stuff was warm cheese spread, in fact, and its slashes would be absolutely deadly.

“And now, the second forging, this to final shape and size,” I murmured, as the brilliant red-orange billet now went under these battering hammers again. These essentially forged to completed size, and more, they did so in an inert gas atmosphere, one with a modest amount of carbon monoxide present for reducing properties.

This gas combination also did some rather unusual things to the metal, imparting an uncommon degree of hardness with no loss in toughness whatsoever – and this was a very tough blade, just from its construction alone.

Deborah would become known indeed as 'The Mad Bee', and she would become feared by the witches, as she would come up out of nowhere to kill them in droves.

She would also pick up a lot of markings in the process, smaller ones, but these would but prepare her for 'the big time', that being where one encountered all the varied and myriad things found in a realm filled with Purple Haze.

That gave me hope, and I worked more upon this blade, my hands dancing over the keyboard when I was not moving them slowly over this odd stationary domed surface. I soon found that nowhere near precise enough, and I asked for the glitter ball.

That device was of the highest precision, and its glittering faceted three inch sphere rotated effortlessly. To use this device, as well as this strange computer, reminded one constantly that there was indeed a world filled with purple haze, and with the glitter ball under my hand, and the keyboard under my left, I now forged out this fitting weapon for a warrior of the shadows, one who became one with the darkness, one who endured purple haze and came forth from that realm aged beyond her years, bowed, unbroken...

And smiling?

Yes, she was smiling, even if it was hard to tell in a person who resembled an astronaut to an astonishing degree – an astronaut of agility so astonishing that it seemed she could leap twenty feet straight up like a cat, run like the wind, and literally dodge bullets.

“See them coming, also,” I thought. “Can she climb walls?”

“You already do so,” said the soft voice. “Recall what you did banging heads earlier this morning, how you had to do a 'berm shot' to make the turn at speed?”

I nodded, then put the finishing touches on Deborah's blade. It had been an intense few minutes, but with this equipment, that was all it took to make one of these. I then had 'the sting of the hornet' in my hand, and with a few wipes, the work was complete.

“Now, darken it, nice blue-black, mottled, stripes, darken the silvered wire grip, nice little rose bloom on the end to remind her of just who we all are fighting for, and then cryogenesis. That is what forms the crystal structure and causes the intermetallic boundaries to fully form in this metal.”

The blade, this nearly sixteen inches long, slender of width and yet nearly a quarter of an inch thick along its central spine, grew a coating of frost nearly three inches thick. I set it down, slid it into another 'womb', and there, I 'grew the metals' together, this being the 'genesis' portion. This turned the blade into something not of this earth, and I wondered briefly if I could do that with my sword.

“You already did,” said the soft voice. “This is slightly quicker and a lot less draining. That's the only difference. It's a good deal faster, it takes less out of you, it's a bit less hazardous to your health, and the results are a trifle more consistent. That's all.”

The blade grew frost over its entire surface, then the frost subsided abruptly to then be as suddenly replaced. The whole time, the blade was surrounded by what looked like lightning, but when the storm and the frost was gone, the tray slid out, this to show a blade at once 'evil', and yet, the instant I touched it, I knew, this beyond knowing.

“This is only evil if you are a witch,” I spat. “If you are not a witch, then this – this is a weapon of your guardians, those sworn by oath and blood to protect you against those who would destroy you for their amusement.”

I then came to myself to see Deborah on the floor, and heard her weeping. I knelt down, both blades in my hands, and asked, “dear, why are you crying?”

“She was giving oath, for she heard what would happen to her,” said Sarah, “and I think I might have known where you went this time.”

“Where did I go?”

“It's across the sea,” said Sarah, “either that, or a place much like it, and I think I know someone else who will become a monster.”

“Wish to fly, dear?” I asked, my speech addressed to Deborah. “You will, one day. I promise.”

For some odd reason, though, I pictured Deborah as a gunship pilot, one who flew one of those strange delta-winged aircraft which could stay aloft while moving at such low speeds they seemed to nearly hover – only when this thing 'launched', it went from 'near-hover' to 'rocket-like' in the blink of an eye.

More, it did some things that were so strange that I wondered if the pilot was insane, for he or she was shooting the absolute hell out of someplace. That gun or guns on that plane seemed to be firing at nearly everything in sight, and not a single shell missed its target.

Target-rich environment indeed. We would soon have one, and now I knew why both Sepp, Karl, and the young lady I was helping to her feet and wiping her tears away needed blades now.

We would be dealing with rodents, and sometimes, when a rat mine rose up out of nowhere, there was no time for a reload.

One wished blades then, as then, that bought one time enough to do a reload.

I handed Deborah her knife, which she marveled at, at least until the rainbows glinted off of its edges. She looked at Sarah, then asked, “is this like yours?”

“I cannot tell them apart,” said Sarah. “Why?”

“It has this small rose next to the prism marking,” said Deborah, “and now this thing here. What is it? It is too big to be a knife, as it makes one of those things from Machalaat brothers look small for length, it has this strange gold-colored crossguard that I can tell is not common brass but something far stronger, it has silver-wire-wrapped places for gripping, and then it has this rose bloom on the end here.”

“That,” Hendrik said, “would almost be called a court sword, were we in an old tale.” Pause, then, “because we are not, and because there are many dark places of surpassing narrowness, then I think you have a sword fit for them.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “That there is 'The Sting of the Hornet' – and you're going to use it in very short order.” I then paused, drank deeply, then said, “come, those who wish to clear the house of its rats. We've got to show someone how to use weapons, and then...” Pause. “Then, it is likely the house will sound like the west school for a while.”

“I thought so,” said Hendrik, with a trace of a smile. “I thought you would teach people how to shoot that way.” Pause, then, “don't put shot or balls in any cleaners, unless they look likely to cause trouble in the future.”

“Oh, we will avoid them unless they glow red,” said Esther. “I need to practice my shooting, as I'm going to be putting holes in a lot of witches within, oh, perhaps ten or twelve days.”

I remained silent, but as I led out the door, I asked, “leave those two swords where they are. I'll bring back the two men to pick them up when they have lost their chill – either that, or I'll send them to pick them up.”