The last night, er, nightmare.

Deborah then looked up from where she was gnawing on a toasted slab of bread covered with cherry jam, and saw the fume hood nearest where we were sitting drawing the worst of the saw-fumes steadily upward, and as I saw the smoke in the entire center area steadily clearing, I knew one particular issue with such saws.

“Best see how much fuel and lubricant it used,” I thought, as I went after the fuel jug.

The saw had swilled nearly a third of its tank in that brief period of running, but it had barely touched both lubricants, and when I asked about how often we would normally need to check these things, I was altogether astonished.

“Why do you think those fuel containers have that peculiar camouflage scheme on them?” asked the soft voice. “You might pick them out readily if you know what they look like, but your average drug-and-drink-addled witch is going to only know about them if he trips over one.”

“Red, black wavy stripes... No, orange-red, yellowish in places... This is almost like one of those round mines, only redder, and it changes in the light also!”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “Now, that saw is new, and it will be possible to lean it out slightly as it breaks in, but save for that power jetting you did, you'll only be able to lean it out slightly.”

“That one stays where it is?” I asked.

“I'd leave it there as long as it's warm, yes,” said the soft voice. “Figure about two decent-sized trees and you'll be sucking fumes with that saw.”

“How is it you can cut wood with it, then?” asked Katje.

“I guess you cut down a tree,” I muttered, “and run like you thumped a bee-log so you don't get slapped by the branches as it comes down, and you kill the engine while doing so... Does this thing use up a lot of fuel at idle?”

“Of course it does,” said the soft voice. “That's a full-bore racing engine in that thing, which means it sucks a lot of fuel and it needs a lot of work if you're going to use it much, but think – how much wood are you realistically going to be able to cut on a given outing?”

“Depends on transportation, then much else, and about all we can really do right now, er, once we get back...”

“Toréo knows of people who have bulls, so they can remove wood, and if there is a buggy or wagon, then we can fetch some wood for the shop here,” said Annistæ.

“Not enough,” I murmured. “You'll fill Georg's buggy in fifteen minutes, and you'll spend more time putting fuel in that saw than you will running it!”

While I had endured my share of chainsaws before – I had run two or three, two running fuel of one kind or another prior to this one, and one electric one, and I had been around a number of them, as had Annistæ, but I knew we needed a good deal of blackwood; and more, if we wanted that wood in real amounts, there was one especially fine stand of the stuff in a place that most likely would wish clear-cutting, or a state that resembled a 'logged off' region, one where every tree had been cut and their stumps removed by blasting prior to a serious building effort.

“More than you think, a much bigger area than you think, and those two saws will earn their keep then,” said the soft voice. “Further, you will have help both removing the lumber and then transporting it to the area where you live by stone-wagons heading back toward Roos.”

“Will we make more of these things?” I asked, meaning 'race-tuned saws'. I knew we would need to make parts for the two we had, and those with a fair degree of frequency.

“You will need more saws like those, yes,” said the soft voice. “However, most of the saws you will make will be smaller, much tamer, and far easier to look after – even if those like you have there will be in some demand here and in great demand elsewhere – and they will need a lot of repair and replacement parts.”

I could just see the usual for a busy woodcutter: a saw in his hand, a saw being looked after, and a third one ready to be used, all of them turn-about. I then had a question.

Some demand here?”

“There won't be that big a market for lumber,” said the soft voice, “a near-non-existent one for firewood, and when you have saws that work that well – you can basically figure your average farmer is going to want something a good bit tamer that he can use around his farm, not some fire-breathing 'monster saw' that could clear-cut the back of the house proper inside of fifteen minutes.”

“This one might have trouble doing so that quickly, as those are large trees,” said Annistæ. “That one there, though – it could do so, and quickly, as most trees I have seen in my travels north are the kind that this one could cut quickly.”

“A lot faster than you can currently 'skid' them, dear,” said the soft voice. “Those saws will be in great demand at that port when it is being set up, as will the two of you to use them, and you'll have more help than you know what to do with – knowledgeable help, also.” Pause, then, “now, wipe the saw you used down with a clean rag, top its tanks, and then put it away. You-all have a lot to do yet tonight.”

“Drawers,” I murmured. “Cupboards. Lots of assorted trash. Darts for Sarah's blowgun, as well as some dart-dip that will, uh, drop those blue-suited thugs quickly at a distance...”

While Graćiella was busy still looking after Hans and Katje, and Anna was helping her, the rest of us now had more work than we knew what to do with. As I began working on a drawer that looked as if a rat of some kind had been living in it for several years, I asked, “that lead?”

“The last of it should be coming in within an hour,” said Lukas. “Them new guards are going to be sore from shooting, as the witches were massing bad, almost as if they were coming up here from every direction.”

“I thought this portion of the first kingdom was, uh, cleared,” I asked.

“Most of these stinkers came from points south, and 'most all of 'em had made their bones, if I go by what I found on those witches I looked at. Near all of 'em had leather sacks with their bones in them, and those usually glowed red afore they caught fire and burned.”

“You removed them?” I asked.

“Them witches I looked at I did,” said Lukas. “Now, you best take it easy, as getting tossed like you did isn't going to help much.”

I found that while I did need to take rest-breaks, I found that I needed to be 'intimately involved' in a great deal, as Annistæ was setting up chemistry glassware to 'run' something – and the speed at which she was doing so implied this was something she knew how to do, and do well.

She soon had help from Anna and Sarah, and I soon learned what was 'running'.

“Solvent-extraction of that Krokus juice,” I murmured. “Now just need some 'weird nickel' in that reflux column, and...”

“Aieeeh!” screeched Annistæ. “I will not waste time with this, as this is special metal!”

“You really need to read that silly poem again,” murmured Deborah. “I now have a much better understanding of what it means, as we are using a catalyst here, and this thing is a reactor, and this stuff could easily go 'pffupft' and soot up the place if we don't watch it very closely.” Pause, then, “I think I want those chemistry clothes if I do this much, as they protect you if something like that poem talks about actually happens.”

“Which poem is this?” asked Sarah.

“Toxic Lady... You know, you a cute little poisoner,” I murmured. “Toxic, toxic...”

“Cé, this is a bad Toxé we are making, as that metal there will do something to it, and I am not sure what it will do,” said Annistæ. “It is a special metal, one called niequéle, and I think I know what kind it is.”

“What would that be?” asked Anna. I was working on another drawer, with Sepp hauling off the bagged trash and 'rat-nests' I was finding. Now and then, however, I was noticing that our newly-erected clothes-dummy was getting poked with some frequency by knife-wielding persons, and I somehow thought it altogether unwise for me to poke the dummy.

I'd ruined the first one with my dagger, and there were others among us who needed an intact dummy so as to learn how to 'poke' thugs. Gabriel was listening intently to Sepp when he was nearby, as he – like many people in the laboratory – was engaged in 'cleaning' the drawers – and in all-too-many cases, while there was a lot of trash, there were also a great many useful things.

Anna said to put those on the countertop, and I thought it most-wise, even when I thought to check on the dart-dip 'synthesis'.

Smelly heavy distillate?” I asked. “A bit of aquavit, some of this one chemical, about two pinches of sulfur per vial of that stuff, reflux it using that catalyst-grade nickel there until it's more or less an even yellow tint...”

Cé, only now I have an idea as to why I did it differently, and you are right about that metal, as it is working like some I have used before, only better,” said Annistæ. “I will add the sulfur once I get things ready, but how will it change?”

“'Instant' knockdown,” I murmured. “You dart a thug with one of those darts with that stuff on it, and it will seize-up his entire nervous system, and that no matter where you hit him.” Pause, then, “this stuff actually 'travels' along the nerves in a person's body at the rate of about ten metrâè per second, so if you hit one of those stinkers in the behind, he's going to drop face-first before you can count 'two' – and that presumes you count fast.”

“I planned on hitting them in the neck, actually,” said Sarah. “Now we wish Roesmaan's chemicals for this, correct? Their 'special' sulfur, the kind that is not yellow, but an almost white color?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “That's exactly the type we wish, as this process changes that stuff a lot. Then, we'll wish about two to three volumes of the smelliest heavy distillate we can get for each vial of that juice.”

“Do you know what will happen?” asked Deborah.

“Increase the neurotoxicity of the Krokus extract by an order of magnitude, if not more still,” I murmured. “Between that 'modified' sulfur, the contents of that smelly heavy distillate – Houtlaan's stinkiest stuff, if we can find it – and that special nickel, that 'Toxé' is going to become seriously rearranged.” I paused, then actually saw the strange molecule – and it looked like a sharply tapered screw with bulging projections.

“Oh my God,” I squeaked. “Dear, I really hope you've got some good grease for that stuff, as it's almost as deadly as some of those poisons used long ago in that war.”

“Yes, if it's 'injected',” said the soft voice. “Dip each dart three times while letting that material dry so it builds up on their tips, put them in those unbreakable 'test-tubes', carry a number of them ready-dipped, and you've got a perfect 'sentry elimination' weapon.”

“How many will I need to shoot?” asked Sarah – as she went past the clothes-dummy and suddenly left a slash that dumped a third of its filling on the floor within perhaps a second. She looked at it in shocked horror.

“Oh my,” she whispered. “I poked that thing, only I tried what I saw Dennis do yesterday when he used his knife on those blue-suited thugs when he was getting to them, and I r-ruined this thing.”

“No, it just needs mending,” said Katje. “I might not be up to much walking or standing, but if you can get that thing down and give me a decent needle and some good waxed thread, I might be able to mend it.”

“She could never sew before,” said Maarten, as he led in three men carrying jugs of beer. “She'll be all right, won't she?”

“Yes,” said Katje. “I'm marked, I was fighting witches, I gave a blood-oath on the spot, and now I can do my portion of tomorrow's work, as I have stood my ground against evil and killed hundreds of witches in the space of an hour's time.”

“I believe that, as I saw how many of those brass things you left around you,” said Lukas, who was untying the clothes-dummy. “They're going to be cleaning those things up for a while.”

“But I thought the lead would get here before it was an hour after sundown,” I said, as I went though another drawer. This one had, beneath its assorted mounds of chewed-up string and piles of rodent dung a layer of 'strange' cloth, stuff so old it went to dust when I touched it, but what lay beneath it had me squeaking like a mashed rat.

That drew Esther like a magnet, and when I saw her hand upon the butt of her suppressed pistol as if something needed shooting, I said, “no, no rodents in this one, but I've heard about these wrenches.”

Esther came near, then muttered, “those things get fights down in the fourth kingdom when they turn up, and only yours would do more that way.”

“He found hieramentæ, non?” asked Annistæ. “We need all of those we can get here. Now this is old grease for the joints here, but it smells like it is the good kind, from El Sierra do Nuëstra Bruje.”

“Joint-grease?” I asked.

“Cé, in this tin I found yesterday,” said Annistæ. “Our alkoli reactors are receiving much dung and trash from those drawers, and I can tell they will make much of such fuel.”

“Uh, lantern fuel?” I asked.

“Cé, an especially good type for these lanterns we have,” said Annistæ. “It may well be as good as that which they make across the sea.”

“Better, actually,” said the soft voice. “Liberation of the populace there will get that mess fixed in short order.” Pause, then, “someone is planning on adding 'dung' from outside into the bucket of kitchen scraps they've been collecting for that process.”

“Who would do that?” I asked.

“That one woman who came up earlier with Lukas' niece,” said the soft voice. “That manure will really get matters started, especially given how much 'blood' and 'fresh meat' is in it.”

“Won't need to do that regularly, will we?” I asked, as I removed tool after tool, all of these having a mottled gray-black finish, all of them 'wondrously smooth' with no surface roughness anywhere, and then faint etchings indicating their sizes, which became much more visible when I wiped them down with my oil-rag.

Esther was using another such rag, though like me, she needed extra ones when the sensation of 'oil' became troublesome upon her hands, and as she cleared the drawer next to mine – I was now using a stool to sit upon, so as to rest my knees and deal easier with the three lower drawers of the four in the column – she wiped off tools as well.

She had found a most-full drawer, all of it full of 'good' tools.

She'd a;ready removed two bronze-headed hammers and a set of screwdrivers, as well as what looked like a smaller socket-set and ratchet – one suitable for the work done here. I hoped to get one like it overseas, in fact.

At least, I thought that to be what she was finding and cleaning until she screeched, “there are three pair of bronze cap-crimping pliers in here, and they look to be almost new!”

“Good,” I murmured. “We will need to get some fuse-type caps, mostly for removing stumps and other similar matters – and we will need to get stumps out quickly.”

“Stumps?” asked Esther. “We have bulls for those, and Paul gets money for pulling them, as Laidaan is finally growing again.” Pause, then “how would you do this? I have plenty of dynamite, and that place where those people will come will not wait for bull-pulling, not if you must clear a large area rapidly.”

“Uh, dig a hole under the stump, put in a stick of 'farmer's dynamite' with a cap and three feet of fuse, use that to, uh, make a good hole under it,” I said, “then put in another larger charge to remove the stump – and you do not want to use 'fast' or 'strong' dynamite for 'stump-launching'.”

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “There are few things like that in El Vallyé, but we take the stumps of trees when we can if we are cutting wood where we go to cut it, and we use weaker types of mining explosives to do so – and what he said is exactly what we do if the stump is a larger one, even as to how much fuse we use, should we use fuse.” Pause, then, “we commonly do, as the wired caps are costly and we keep those for fighting Cabroni.”

“Larger stumps?” I asked.

“One such tree gives enough wood for the whole group when it is dropped, and it takes several hours to make it ready for taking,” said Annistæ. The unspoken part was 'it usually means working while shooting at witches and assorted unpleasant thugs'. “Such a tree will have a trunk sixty or more centimes wide, and it needs two charges, just as you spoke of. The smaller trees need a small hole under them and a single charge of explosive, with the dirt around that charge packed carefully, and that type of tree is much more common where we cut wood.”

“That fifty-five will go through those things like they were warm cheese spread,” I murmured. “We'll only need the big one for large trees, as that thing's up to cutting most trees around here.”

“Yes, most, but a good stand of blackwood trees will want that larger saw, as that area you'll need to clear has a sizable number of such large trees – and you'll really want to kiln-dry some of that wood as quickly as possible.”

“Cé, as one needs such wood for patterns,” said Graćiella.

“No, not merely that,” said the soft voice. “Get planks of that wood to those overseas, and they can pressure-laminate gunstocks for you, at least until you are set up to do that at the Abbey.”

“Will we need to?” I asked.

“That's the most-efficient use of such wood, as it allows you to use wood that would otherwise be better used for making paper or fuel,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, if you specify the shapes and clearances of such a stock, you can more or less machine-to-size such laminated blocks using the Abbey's tools, then just finish the work using hand-tools – and that pressure-laminated wood will stand up to hard-recoiling weapons far better than the regular material.”

“Is that why that one rifle has a striped stock?” I asked.

“Yes, only they had extreme difficulty getting blackwood or other close-grained strong pieces of wood,” said the soft voice. “What they had for 'wood' wasn't terribly good, and hence pressure-impregnated laminated strips of wood was the only way they could make such pieces.”

“But blackwood would stand up to...” I paused, then realized something: finding a suitable blackwood piece without a substantial flaw took both a lot of time-consuming looking and wasted a lot of such wood, and we would need to make a lot of these weapons – hence we would need to utilize our available wood in the most-efficient manner possible, as well as producing a stock that could stand up to a weapon whose recoil would commonly be compared to that of a 'full-charged roer'.

Then again, given the right loading, this type of rifle could drop elk consistently if one was within a hundred yards and did one's part regarding bullet placement.

“That bad?” I asked.

“But somewhat less than your rifle,” said the soft voice. “More than a few people are going to learn about 'Elanor Rigby' when they get issued those weapons.”

“Yes?” asked Esther, her voice the picture of curiosity. “This is a song, correct?” Pause, then, “I might have heard portions of it today, as I was shooting a great deal, and it's quite a nice song, though I could not understand its relationship to how I was feeling at the time, and I was wanting tinctures and Komaet, I was so sore.”

“I think I might know,” said Paul. “You shoot his rifle, the one that tossed me, and you will hear that name spoken as you wake up afterward.” Pause, then, “that's the name of a woman, isn't it?”

“Not terribly sure,” I said, “even if when I heard it the first time, it was just before I shot my first deer – and only recently did I learn what I was shooting would drop more or less anything in the five kingdoms that wasn't cursed by a pack of prewar witches for most of a year.” Pause, then, “that phrase has to do with a famous maker of 'dangerous game rifles' where I came from, and that's when I learned what I really had been shooting all along.”

“Yes, and I'm hoping to get one that works as well,” said Paul. “Now Georg was telling me he's been getting good barrels regularly, and...” Paul paused, then asked, “do I want one done like your old one, or one like you'll be doing shortly?”

“I think you'll wish whatever he can manage,” said Esther. “I hope to get that newer type, though, as those can be fired far more rapidly, and you barely have to aim up unless you're over four hundred yards distant from what you are shooting, and then the bullets! You hit one of those people from Norden, and it will not matter if he's wearing tin or not!”

“Blow a hole clean through that wretch if he's within a mile and you hit him,” I muttered. “They're a bit lighter than what I have, a good deal easier to carry if you must do a lot of traipsing, they can fire a lot faster, and for most people, they will be far more accurate, as they'll mostly have optics on them of some kind, so all most people will need is some teaching as to how to use them...”

“A great deal of teaching, you mean,” said Esther – who then sniffed. “That stuff is nasty.”

“That dart-dip?” I asked.

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “It is a clear yellow liquid, and I was told that that metal is special nickel, of a kind that is very costly and hard to get, and it is changing this Toxé a great deal.”

“Meaning it's about as deadly a poison as can be realistically used by people not dressed up for chemical warfare,” I murmured, as I moved to another drawer. “Now I'm glad we have so many, uh, lanterns for light in here, as this drawer has something special in it. I can tell it's got...”

I had to grasp the drawer with both hands, then gently feel for the latch, which was hidden on the underside of the drawer. Pressing it in allowed the drawer to move out smoothly, and the sensation of pulling out this drawer was so utterly unlike the others I had done that when I found it packed with things wrapped in rags suffused with a waxy material that felt a lot like our recent combination of torment-grease and beeswax, I asked, “do we have any, uh, cleaning solvent? I've found something really strange here.”

“Cé, let me get you some,” she said. “This reaction is ready for another run, as that metal in the reflux column is the best I have ever seen.”

“Will we need more of that stuff?” I asked softly.

“Yes, as you are not the only person who will have a need for such materials,” said Esther. “They'll need them in here, and I know that while Sarah got the first of those tubes and she's going to do many of those needles, there are several more tubes being made as we speak, and that box has many suitable needles for such darts.”

“Yes, and I put money on one,” said Deborah, “so I need to have darts for when those stinky witches come here and ring that bell down below.”

“You're not the only one,” said the soft voice. “I'd run all of the Krokus juice you have, as it doesn't just work on darts – it will work if swallowed, also.”

“Take longer to work?” I asked.

“Yes, but that material isn't just going to kill them now,” said the soft voice. “That stuff will do a good deal more than cause rapid paralysis and death, depending upon their level of inhabitation.”

Annistæ gave me this small copper cup, this older than time, of a clear yellowish material, this having a barely perceptible odor, and when I dipped a rag into it so as to 'dampen' the waxy substance covering the hefty pieces that seemed all-but-glued-together, the oily feeling was remarkable.

“This stuff feels a bit like boiled distillate, but it is not that material,” I said. “It works well as a cleaning solvent. What is it – that lantern fuel?”

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “It is already filling the container that holds it, and I can see liquid in the glass tube, though the level is still near the bottom fitting.”

“There's a receiving tank?” I asked. “How large is it?”

“Easily enough to fill several large jugs,” said Deborah, “and I've been putting the rats to that thing steadily ever since those three barrels of them came here.”

“How..?” I asked, this in a state of confusion. The 'solvent' was dissolving the 'wax' with a vengeance, and as the individual pieces became 'unglued', I peeled off the waxed rags to learn that at least one of these pieces was a rather elongated species of bullet mould. Further cleaning of this item, however, had me yelping as if I'd dropped an anvil on my foot.

“This is a Heinrich mould,” I screeched. “Ten cavities, and eighteen-line shot!”

That made for a stampede, including Hans, who was no longer speaking of pain-drug nightmares, even if he was moving slowly and carefully due to his other injuries. He was drinking a lot of beer, and if I went by his use of dark goggles, he'd gotten a dose of that one tincture. He looked at the mould, used a rag, dipped it in the container of solvent, then with a degree of care that I had never seen him exhibit before, he painstakingly cleaned up the mould, and held one of the blocks up to the light.

“Yes, that is so,” he said. “There are ten places for shot in this thing, so you are right, and this is the larger size of stiff shot, and so if we can get the handles for it...”

I wordlessly removed another thing that had 'gone loose', and after peeling off its rag wrappings, I held them out to Hans.

“Ah, these are the handles for armory moulds, and they are from the same place, so they should still be good,” he said – and then looked further in that drawer. “That drawer is not like the other ones, as it was made to hold a lot of weight, so if this is a handle-pair and you found one mould, I think those other things there might be moulds also.”

They proved to be exactly that, and more importantly, all of them were 'armory' moulds, each having a minimum of four cavities: one was a ball-mould for the common size of revolver, another was a flat-tipped 'cheese-bullet' to that same size of weapon, with a peculiar arrangement of lower portions that retracted automatically when the handles were moved apart.

I had planned on doing that, but my means would need compressed air and a microcontroller, and it would be entirely automated – as in it would turn out bullets as long as it was powered up and it was given sufficient lead alloy.

“That mould there is a Heinrich mould also, and it makes cheese-bullets for pistols,” said Sarah. Somehow, she looked as if not merely 'due' for a bath, but also her attitude toward that one 'magical' place seemed to have changed in some strange manner – or so it seemed.

“Their reputation may be far greater than what they actually do, but few if any places do better that I know of,” she said. “Good, that one there has commonplace balls for pistols, and it runs six bullets.”

I looked closer at this mould, and after wiping it down more with solvent, I squeaked, “no, dear, this isn't for pistols. These bullets are a bit smaller, unless my eyes are playing tricks on me.”

“Then what is it?” asked Sarah. “It is a Heinrich mould. I can tell that much, even if that waxy stuff hides much of its writing still.”

“How large, in lines, are the usual balls for rotating pistols?” I asked, as I scrubbed the preservative off.

“Twenty-four to twenty-five lines,” said Sarah. “Why, what size is it?”

“Twenty-two lines,” I spluttered – and my voice rose an octave higher. “Ooh! Loopers for guard-muskets! This will really put down those smelly black-dressed thugs!”

There were yet more moulds in this drawer, and when I drew out another four-cavity item that looked 'likely' for pistols, I found Annistæ at my elbow. With a practiced eye, she took one look at this mould as I cleaned it, then said, “that one will run bullets for my pistol, as it has special markings like those in our museum.”

“Special m-markings?” I asked.

Annistæ pointed at the side of the six cavity mould, then when I held it up to the light after wiping it down further, I found a row of five six-pointed stars.

At least, they looked like stars, though Annistæ corrected me, saying “they want a magnifier, as then you can see the special markings rightly. I have seen them before, and that type of mould is very rare in our area – so the ones that are there are kept warm.” Pause, then, “I am glad for that other pistol that is like it, though.”

“Cartridge belts?” I asked, as I brought out that one 'magnifying glass' to see that these markings looked closer to a strange species of gear, this contained within a circle. “Enough loops for, uh, perhaps as many as fifty cartridges?”

“Ai, that is just what we did when we needed to travel a far distance,” said Annistæ. “For many of our weapons, that was the easiest way to carry the cârtuchæ, as it was faster to get them from such belts than from bags so as to load our rifle magazines and pistols.”

“You'd need to carry a lot of those belts, wouldn't you?” I asked. Annistæ then surprised me: she wasn't speaking of 'Mexican Bandit'-style belts, but something a lot more modern in concept.

“They go over one's shoulder, and then down to the waist,” she said, “and they loop about crosswise, and then they would have these special metal holders to hold the cârtuchæ, with ten per such strip. Each pocket in one of those belts holds three such strips, and a belt held twelve such pouches.” Pause, this to drink. “We would carry two such belts under our packs and satchels, with our rifles shouldered and our pistols in their carrying pouches, as well as the belts for their cârtuchæ.”

“Did those have individual loops?” I asked.

Annistæ surprised me by removing something from her waist in an astonishingly rapid fashion, then she showed me a well-made holster and gun-belt, with a large number of loops for cartridges – most of which were filled with loaded lead-bulleted rounds. I thought to ask her how many when she answered, “this is the usual size, which holds fifty, and if we expected much trouble, the usual was to carry another belt like this, only without the pistol, for a total of a hundred cârtuchæ.”

I had a question about the other ammunition, however, as I cleaned another 'armory mould' that did sixteen-line 'shot' – and this one was also a ten-cavity mould. This location would make its share of 'buckshot', also.

“Your rifle ammunition was on stripper clips?” I asked.

“Cé, and three of those would fill a magazine quickly if one used the tool that we carried in its own pouch on each such belt,” she said. “Our usual number of such things was four in their pouches and one in the rifle, and two belts and five magazines was our usual load.” Pause, then to drink – chemistry was a thirsty business, especially when it required uncommon care and someone with 'substantial markings' to produce what was needed. She then surprised me. “That was what we usually carried for things like wood-cutting, but if we knew were going to deal with many Cabroni, we would take more.”

More?” I gasped. “More magazines, or more ammunition?”

“Both of those things,” said Annistæ. “I once fired over eight hundred cârtuchæ during a fight in this one bad place, and this fight was after the time I was shot in the hip, and I made every one of those bullets do something to those smelly Cabroni, as there were many of them, and they all wanted much warm lead.” Pause, then, “I might have missed those smelly people twice, but there were so many of them that our group was pressed very hard, and it took using these special mines...”

“Yes?” asked Hans. “You used mines. I'd like to hear about them, as at least I can wipe these things off enough so they can be read easier. They'll want better cleaning before they are used, as greasy moulds give bad shot and worse bullets, and you cannot burn that stuff off unless there is but a trace of it.”

“They'll most likely need further cleaning with aquavit or 'cleaning solvent',” I said, as I removed the last mould in the drawer. There had been a total of eight of them, with one six-cavity mould being 'thirty lines' – which I knew was the 'standard' size for first kingdom muskets. It made 'balls', which made me wonder about all those people in Ploetzee with roers, and the insatiable desire of such guns for 'loopers'. This was what they usually used, or so I had heard from someone in the last few days. Who – that was a mystery. Too much had happened to keep track of much save that right in front of me.

“These mines are made of soldered metal sheets with a place for a cap that is normally closed with a wooden plug,” said Annistæ, “and they are filled with explosives and some special hard nails, and we used those to finally put a stop to those smelly Cabroni, as they kept coming until they were all dead or too hurt to move – and we cut those Cabroni when we took their town so as to set it alight.”

“Oh, I think I know what those are,” I murmured, speaking of the mines as I attempted further cleaning of the mould blocks. I had the impression that while 'lantern fuel' was a very safe solvent, it was like boiled distillate for oiliness, if not more so, and its slippery feeling made for wondering as to how well it worked as a lubricant. “Were those directional mines, like some we have? Did you place them beforehand..?”

“Non,” she said. “I put a rope about one, swung it hard, and turned it loose with a burning fuse in the cap, so it exploded in front of them. I had to toss three of those mines that way, and then they stopped coming for us, and those of them that yet lived ran off.”

“Didn't go far, did they?” I asked, as I cleared the bottom drawer of 'my' four. Esther had gotten those to my right, and I could tell some other drawers had been cleared by others.

“Non,” she said. “We tracked them and their trails of blood back to their smelly town, the ones that still lived, and we attacked it about two hours before dawn, and we killed everyone in that town and then burnt the place to ashes.” Pause, then, “the worst ones, though, were these smelly women, and they were all in this bad place that showed a badly-painted picture of a rising sun and lettering below it.”

Here, Annistæ paused to drink once more, then said, “that was why there were so many of those smelly Cabroni, as each of those women was a Cabroné of the worst kind, one of them who has bad glands and a rump that is like a rock for shape and feeling.”

“Stinky, look really strange?” I asked. “I think I saw one of those women once, and that w-woman – was that thing a woman? – looked really strange, and it or she smelled horrible.”

“They smell of flowers grown in hell,” said Annistæ. “I used my knife on those pig-eating Cabroni, and each one went to dust before I could count to ten once I had cut them, and when we killed the chief of those Cabroni, which was a bad one, she went to dust and tossed me and the others good, which was a good thing.”

“Why would that be good?” asked Anna. “There, that drawer has its trash bagged. This other stuff, I'm not sure of, as I have no idea what it is.”

I walked over to Anna's drawer, then reached inside of it to find a number of greasy-feeling wooden boxes. Opening the lid had me screeching, and I all-but-ran to where Annistæ had gone. She was getting ready to 'make another run' of 'dart-dip', while Sarah was minding another setup.

“Glue?” I asked of Sarah.

“Yes, and I think we will wish to use this for any more hide glue we should get,” said Sarah. “It removes the smell completely and I suspect it becomes a better material, one that holds better and is not subject to rot – and any more, if I should smell that stuff, more often than not I see this bad witch who has a name that's very similar.”

“Bad witch?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so, and he smells awful,” said Sarah. “He must work for Kossum's, he smells so badly, and his name is a very strange one.”

“Strange?” I asked.

“I think you know about this wretch,” said Sarah. “You've spoken of him more than once, and I had no idea who or what you were speaking of until I actually saw him for the first time this morning.”

Hyde?” I asked.

“That would be him,” said Sarah emphatically. “It seems he likes to get into something much worse than anything that can be drunk in a mining town, as when he would consume this stuff, it would not merely make him crazy enough to be an especially bad thug, but he would become a thug in his entirety – until he was became so pickled he stayed a thug, and he could not revert to his former state.”

“Yes, that is what Cabroni do,” said Annistæ. “Now it was good I got tossed by that bad woman, as when I did, I went out into the street of that smelly place, and the whole town was on fire, except that building, but it did not stay up long, and it burned when it had fallen down completely.”

“What happened?” asked Sarah.

“The whole place fell down, and it had started to do that some minutes before I killed that one Cabroné, so before she went where she belonged, we were running down the stairs as they fell down behind us, then big places in the floor opened up so as to devour us, and then when that smelly Cabroné showed, I stabbed her, she went to dust, and while Tomas was using his large-knife on the door so as to open it, she exploded like things Cabroni desire greatly and blew the whole front of that bad place out, and her explosion flung all of us out into the street as the building went to dust and smoke and flames behind us.”

“And?” I asked. I knew there was more.

“I needed time in a Téatré after burning that town, as I had broken bones in my feet and ribs, and the same for the rest of us,” said Annistæ. “Then, some of those stinky Cabroni had these bad pistols that are small and easy to hide, and though they have trouble hitting what they aim at with those things, they can still cause death and injuries, and we had all caught some lead from them.”

“Those smelly double-action four-shooters,” I spat, as I went to another 'column' of drawers. Anna was bringing out more of those wooden boxes, and laying them upon the countertop. Esther was by her side, and soft words between the two spoke of things of great importance.

“Meters,” I squeaked. “That's what those things are – they're meter movements. If they don't have those overseas, then we're covered for our test gear.” Pause, then as I opened the top drawer, and as I removed the gnawed string and other matters, I knew this was another 'bad' drawer – as in while it had a lot of rubbish, it also had a large number of screw-top test tubes, three 'new' thermometers of 'laboratory grade' if I went by their protective sleeves – and a small scale, this for weighing 'postage', or so I guessed. I mentioned this matter idly, and Sarah came up from behind me, then 'tweaked' my nose.

“Ooh, that's fun,” I squealed, as I then pointed to my latest find. “Postage scale?”

“No, not that,” said Sarah. “That type of scale was used commonly at the west school, when one needed to weigh small amounts that did not need a close-balance.”

“Perhaps use it for making up some of that nice blue-black ink for filling up those pens?” I asked.

“You keep pulling things out of that drawer,” said Deborah as she came up behind me. “Sarah gave me a list of what she needs for ink. Esther, can you come with me? We need to make up a lot of this ink so as to load up all of those pens and fill some tubes with it for spares, and Sarah's given me a recipe for it, and I'll do it next bench over so she can correct me if I do something wrong.” Pause, then, “besides, once that stuff is mingling, I'm planning on soaking for a bit in a tub so as to get this dirt off of me.”

“Yes, I know, and there is a line for the tubs,” said Esther, as the two of them 'faded away'. “I hope you put your mark down. I know I did, and I'm due three people from the current person on that tub.”

However, for some infernal reason, I thought to stand back from the long row of cupboards and drawers, and with what seemed a species of 'x-ray vision', I knew that the others either had already been gone through, contained 'trash' to a near-total exclusion of all else, or were things that those coming up here could do in the days to come.

It would be a lot more than two or three people, I suddenly knew. Two people had arrived at the settlement at the northeast end of the kingdom house late last night, and they were trying to learn what they could before going on further north.

“They're waiting for Toréo,” I said. “They might as well come here, as the stragglers are finally starting to return, and he's riding 'drag' to make certain everything possible that could be of use has been gotten tonight.”

“Oh, he did more than that,” said the soft voice. “That entire area, especially those trenches, was thoroughly rigged with bombs of one kind or another, most of which were confiscated from dead witches and supplemented with a few grenades and strings.”

“Those people might as well come here, then,” I murmured.

“They are doing that, as soon as they learn what they can there and town quiets down enough that they feel 'safe',” said the soft voice. “They've been traveling hard, and two of those people have been wearing burn-clothing for most of the distance since they left their homes by sheer necessity.”

“Oh,” I said, now knowing that we would have more people with substantial markings present in the house proper. This next was unspoken. “Now why is that green-painted and metal-bound door near that nice-looking fume hood over there so infernally attractive?” Pause. “Is this a trap?”

“I doubt that,” said Anna – who had obviously heard my thinking as clearly as if I had spoken. “I think they got most of the rest of these things already, and I'm about due for a dose, as I've been expecting to find a mother rat in every one of these drawers since I came here after fetching that lead.”

“You have?” I asked, noticing her suppressed pistol 'ready to hand' in her 'lab coat'. “Oh, you'll want a lantern, preferably one of those good ones.”

“Battery or alcohol?” asked Anna.

“I think we want battery ones for the most part, as I'm not sure what's back there,” I said. “I know that's what I want, and... Oh, now I know. This is really important, and no one has looked back there yet.”

“Wait,” said Annistæ. “Let me get this set up, and I will go with you, as I have been too busy to think about anything save doing these matters.”

“Sarah?” I asked.

“I can watch both of these reactions, I think,” she said. “Try not to be too long, even if what is back behind that door is really important, and we need to know about that stuff now.

I soon found out why this strange green-colored door with the dark iron frame bound with a multitude of screws was such a problem: it was not merely a keyed door, but the key was so strange that I was tempted to ask the door to open, but at the last minute, I thought to use the 'evidence' key.

“I thought so,” said Anna. “That door needs a key, as that lock isn't a commonplace one, nor is that door a common door for construction. It looks a lot like this one lock in the tailor's shop here, one of those called a hard-lock, only I think this one might well be different in some crucial fashion.”

“Uh, where are the keys?” I asked.

“Tied to the other side of the door,” said the soft voice, “and that door is much like some others you've encountered, where if you open it without using a key, you will get a very unpleasant surprise.” Pause, then, “and Anna's right about that lock being a 'hard-lock', as it is indeed difficult to open without a suitable key – and that door is iron-bound on both sides, and made of selected blackwood planks glued and then painted with imported paint.”

“As in there's a short-barreled roer filled with cut-shot ready to hose us down if we do this one wrong, and this gun's actually loaded?” I gasped.

There was no answer, but when I unlocked the door, I went to the side of the door, then nudged it open with my foot while kneeling and facing the wall, then leaping to the side in hopes of 'dodging' the coming gunfire.

The dull 'snapping' noise that resulted had me wait for nearly a minute, but then when I heard the hissing 'plop' followed by a thick billow of sooty gray-black smoke and a rattling as if something had sprayed gravel downrange, Anna spat, “you were right, it was rigged, only that gun's thimble must have gone stale, and that powder isn't very good.” Sniff, then, “it smells almost like it came from the fifth kingdom, only it isn't that stuff.”

“Stale?” I asked.

“Thimbles keep for years if they're made right, but this place hasn't been used in so long that even the best thimbles are going to be like old friction igniters,” said Anna. “I've heard Lukas say that if a thimble is more than ten years old, it needs tossing, at least for most thimbles.” Pause, then, “I'm not sure about what you've done with Hans – those might work well for longer periods, but that gun probably was loaded before Tam was born.”

However, I was still wary, and as the haze of smoke slowly filtered in, I went on my hands and knees, and not two feet inside the door, I began to find near-black cubes of lead nearly a quarter of an inch in size, these sharp-edged things scattered over a surprisingly wide area, and when I looked for the gun that 'belched' them, I found it to be 'hiding' some thirty feet away in this angled 'corner'.

I stood up, turned toward the two women, and indicated they needed to follow me, though I had to move aside the cut-shot so Annistæ would not have her feet injured. Anna, however, was muttering, speaking of how we needed to either cut our own shot for the trip once in the port, or bag some of this stuff up before leaving.

“Wasn't Georg cooking something in a lead-pot under one of those fume-hoods in the main area?” I asked.

Neither woman knew, but as I cautiously advanced, this moving next to the wall, my light held low so as to see trip-wires, I thought to ask Annistæ a question. It had been 'eating on me', as the expression went, and now was a likely chance to get an answer.

“Is there a leader of the Mule Totem known by the name of 'Pancho'?” I asked. “I heard him called that, but I suspect that is not his real name, and those who name him that are...”

“I think those people are among those who think everyone in the Valley is a witch,” spat Anna. “I don't know his name, but I know he isn't called that, and I asked Graćiella enough about that place while shooting witches and gathering lead that I know that most people in the Valley are not witches.”

“The only ones who name him that are Cabroni,” said Annistæ with some heat. “I have met him several times, and had iced drinks with him when he was traveling through our town at the head of his pack train. His name is Pedró, and he is a good man, even if one goes by those of his Totem.”

“Then I shall call him Pedró, as I do not like to be called names either,” I said. “I suspected that name wasn't right, and now I know, Madame.”

“Yes, and why is it you call me such a name?” she asked. I had come to the corner where the gun had been hidden, and here, I saw the issue: a thick green cloth drape hung from hooks on the ceiling, and the gun's muzzle flame when it 'fizzled' had burned a huge smoldering hole in the drapery. I moved to the far wall, then grabbing the drape by the corner once the women were behind me, I pulled the drapery aside, and there, I saw on its pivot, a flare-mouthed 'boarding musket', this with perhaps an eighteen inch barrel and a 'busted' thimble under the well-greased hammer. Anna sniffed, and said, “that's why. They used a bad thimble on that gun, and we'd best clean it thoroughly if we're going to use this thing in here.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It smells a great deal like one of those thimbles that are made in the fifth kingdom house,” said Anna. “Now what is that there?” Anna was pointing to a very dark and narrow passage behind that smoldering green drapery, this passage seemingly without an end due to its sheer darkness.

“Not sure, dear,” I said, as I came closer and moved the 'gun' to the side. The stinking thing didn't just have a trigger tripped by a trio of thin fishing lines and arranged with pulleys and a lever-type 'magnifying system', but that trio of strings actually aimed the gun at whoever was triggering it – it fired down the 'line' of the string. That meant it fired down one of two halls, and more, those triggering it were going to be centered by its short-range wide-flaring pattern of quarter-inch cubes of graphite-tumbled printer's lead. As I went down this narrow passage with the two women to my rear and my light held low in my left hand and my suppressed pistol ready in my right, however, Annistæ, being my 'second', had a question for me.

“Why is it you call me as you did?” she asked.

I was not able to answer that instant, for here, there was another green-painted iron-framed door seeming to suddenly 'show' as if it had materialized, and as I touched the doorknob, it clicked with alacrity. For some reason, I felt reminded of a strange song – one that spoke of a green door, and the secretive nature of what lay behind it – and how getting past that green door was hard.

“Another marked door,” I squeaked. “This entire place back here has to be for marked people only.” Pause, then, “I wonder why – it's too dangerous for anyone else to be here?”

“They needed to keep some things from common knowledge,” said the soft voice, “and yes, it was often dangerous for them, so they needed hiding places that were difficult for the witches to get into. You just found one of them, and I would replenish its survival supplies soon, as you-all may well need to use it should the witches try for you in here.”

“Cé, then I shall do that,” said Annistæ. “It will wish food and drink, those to be checked regularly, a light, and possibly much else.”

“You'll wish a jug of aquavit, a special lantern normally used for kitchens, and a small heating lamp,” said Anna.

“No, not just that,” I murmured. “I really do hope to get some, uh, 'spy cameras', so those in here have ample warning of coming trouble, and then some means of causing intruders trouble – like some of those weaker green cans rigged up good with smaller shot, or cubes of plastic explosive and smaller nails, or perhaps some of those 'screwballs' like Sepp seems so fond of.”

I then softly laughed, as I looked around the room. It was a good deal bigger than I thought, with places where one could stack a lot of supplies, these being old shelves that looked to have had fifty coats of hand-rubbed drying oil applied to well-made blackwood planks. They were more than merely 'good': these were in prime condition, and the coolness of this room almost made it a good place to put beer to 'laager' – especially that type of beer that was closer to 'medicine'. I knew just the things that went in here, though: refrigerators. Annistæ would desire at least three in here, and the place had room for a dozen large ones and then a few cots and a rifle-rack or two. It definitely wanted several rifles, each in its sealed pouch, with half a dozen loaded magazines, as well as caches of the commonly carried ammunition for personal weapons. I had in mind to make that a 'rule' in this laboratory: always keep a capable weapon on one's person, and daily cleaning sessions an absolute must.

“No, it's not in here,” I said. “I can feel this thing, and we want it badly, and we can really use it.”

“What is it?” asked Anna.

“Why, it's a washing machine,” I said in a deadpan voice. “Just the thing for 'steam-thrashing' one's clothing, especially as this thing is more or less set up and can be put to use with minimal work.”

“That is very good, as then we do not need to make one,” said Annistæ – whose voice then acquired a more-serious tone, one which I had not heard her use before. “Now, why is it you name me as you do?”

“It is intended to be an honorific,” I said. “The closest thing I know of would be 'Doña', but Madame is a good deal 'higher' in terms of honor, at least 'locally' it is.”

“It is that,” said Anna. “I've had it applied to me, and it's not easy living up to people's expectations, as while you might not be the king or the queen, you are regarded as a very important person by everyone who encounters you, and that more or less wherever you are known of.”

“Precisely,” I said. “The closest thing I know of at this time in the language of El Vallyé would be 'Doña', but Madame is a good bit 'higher' in terms of honor.” Pause, then, “among this other group of people, though, one of whom I have met, their titled ones are named 'Oom' for men and 'Ouma' for women – and I suspect I have met one who will receive that title in truth, even if she has it now.”

“Cé, Rachel was named that,” said Annistæ. “She was an Ouma.”

The thought then occurred within my mind: would the Rachel that I had met be named 'Auntie' in the future? A term of endearment in this language, much like Madame was both one of respect and love? I then had a slightly better explanation than Anna could manage, and I could only suspect one source.

Auntie 'Wolf'? Would Rachel become such that she grew hair? Being such a person, and then being married to another who did so, and that meaning children who would 'grow hair'... It gave me the shudders for an instant. I then went back to the matter at hand, that being explaining why I called Annistæ 'Madame', or 'Lady' – as in 'yes, your Highness' – or stronger yet in my mind, 'yes, dear'.

“One could call Maria 'Madame', but she's the queen,” I said softly, as I left the room and headed back into that main hallway. “For someone like her, as far as I can tell, you need to go 'higher'. 'Madame' is what you call women that are just a little below what is considered 'royalty' here, just like most of our, uh, guests would be called 'Madame' tomorrow – the women, anyway. The men, it's a bit different – there's less graduation in honor, as far as I can tell. Hendrik is properly called 'Sir', and that 'strongly', as I've done when addressing him in the past. Me, I'm not so sure I want that kind of recognition. I'd like to be called by my name, actually – and that is enough for me.”

“I am much the same, I suspect,” said Anna, as she paused to look at the 'twelve-bore boarding musket'. “Good, that gun dismounts. I think you can pull that pin there that holds it to the wall and lay it upon the floor, so we can pick it up for cleaning and what-not on the way out.”

I did so, laying the gun pointing toward the wall crosswise in front of the cloth drapery, then as I led back out into the narrow main hall, I could feel another doorway nearby, this one perhaps as close as twenty feet away. Anna then surprised me.

“I have my suspicions about myself and such recognition, but I only lost my toe a few days ago,” said Anna. “I have no suspicions about Sarah – she has no desire for such recognition, no more than you do, and if you were to ask me, I doubt it to be needed, given the names you two have. That is not a common name for a woman, and your name is even less common for a man – and I mean your first name, same as with her.”

“Oh, no, my names,” I gasped.

“She told me about hers, all three of them, and that tells me she may well be what her name actually means,” said Anna. “Her mother named her as she did for a reason, and... No, there is yet more. I but slightly understood beforehand, whereas now I understand more. How much more, that is a mystery, but I can tell I understand more.”

“Cé, so what is it you know, other than one of our mothers had her name, and she was a companion of Rachel, and she too was Besté,” said Annistæ.

“She has shown herself worthy of that name, so far as I can tell,” said Anna, “while you...” Here, I understood I was being referred to, and only as I noticed another green door did I hesitate in my paying attention to what Anna was saying. “You, I can not be certain, as your mother wished to name you otherwise...”

Ringing echoes banged in my head, these speaking of being 'son of a lying snake' and worse yet. I shook these off, found the key, and in this instance, I found no place to put it.

No matter. I touched the door in its middle with the key and the lock clicked just the same.

“That was a marked doorknob,” said Anna. “You did not open it by touching the knob, but using that key?”

“I was told it would open doors – no matter what kind of door, and no matter where they were located,” I said. “It seems it does not need... Ugh! I used that key on Kees, and it did something so weird to him I have but one explanation – an explanation that frightens me witless.”

“It works on witches as well as doors, then, as I've learned more about him – and I can tell that man will become marked before this all comes to its finish,” said Anna. “Sarah told me it also seems to work on strange pieces of equipment, too. Does it?”

“Uh, I seem to be able to root any computer system I address – three so far, in fact – and it's the easiest thing in the world,” I said. “Now, who named me – my grandmother? I recall but little of her, but she was not my mother for ambition or much else, and that woman was religious – as in they have Saints there of that name, and a version of it is mentioned in the book, just like it is here.”

“I would ride money on it,” said Anna. “She most likely told you mother what to name you, and she did so for good reason, as you've lived up to everything all of those names imply.” Pause, then, “I'm glad I brought this tent-lantern with me, and I'm glad I could figure out those things that charge them up.”

“You what?” I gasped, as I went inside the room and shined my light upwards to see a room whose ceiling was taken up entirely by a huge fume hood, this of truly massive size with a large number of metal supports attached in some fashion to the walls of this room; and center stage, with ample room about it for ready movement, was a firebrick-laid furnace, this easily eight feet long, four feet wide, arch-topped, and nearly as tall as I was, with an obvious manifold coming along first one long side, and then another joining it on the other.

“Now that is an oven,” said Anna. “It looks fit for cooking bread.”

“Non, that is no bread-oven,” said Annistæ. “That is what we must use for melting that bad metal and then casting it into these special molds for that room which refines metal.”

“Open-face ingot-molds, with a ladle dipping into the crucibles, and that's why you've got plenty of room about this thing,” I murmured. “It looks as if it's new or but little used, and if I go by the fuel used in this thing, it either can use burnt-coal, or...” Pause, this as I circled around it, then found a sizable metal pipe with a valve, this in addition to the manifold. The valve was against the wall of the place.

“It may use gaseous fuel, now that I think about it. We do make plenty of fuel gas, or will in short order – and that burns hot, clean, and will not dirty up our metal, unlike all save the very best burnt-coal.” Pause, then, “now here is something interesting – there's this plinth here, over to the side, and then this weird-looking cast metal manifold, and if I were to guess at what went here, this plinth used to seat a blower of some kind – one as large as that on Frankie, or but a trifle smaller.”

“And now it is gone,” said Anna. “I hope a witch did not steal it.”

“How could they get in here past two layers of marked doors made of iron-reinforced blackwood – and that's not 'common' iron, but something that was made in the fourth kingdom by a supplier of the Heinrich works?” I asked plaintively. “They weren't the Mistress of the North, dear – she's dead, and has been since before that stinking Curse got dumped.”

“Mostly because that blower was not removed by a witch, but by one of those running this furnace when it became worn enough to no longer turn, and it was sent south by donkey-train to the fourth kingdom, and from thence to the third by the Low Way once it had been properly crated up,” said the soft voice. “The trouble was what happened en-route to where it could go overseas – those running that place started a big 'crackdown' on everything, so it's been sitting over there 'in hiding' ever since.”

This made for a question, one at once fueled by need and hope: “could we have a suitable blower, one of variable power and run by electricity?”

The resulting 'thump' put all of us sprawling upon the floor, and when I got to my feet, the first thing I did was help both women to a standing position. There was but one trouble.

In the process of going to where they had fallen, I had nearly tripped over a sizable dark gray device, this an obvious – and sizable – electric blower painted dark gray, save for the air intake itself: that was orange-colored, with black bars crossing it so as to keep an unwitting hand clear of the whirling fan inside the housing. The blower was completely hooked-up, with a very obvious braided metal housing protecting its thumb-thick cable.

Just the same, one wanted to give that air intake a wide berth when this blower was running – the control panel was next to and above the 'gas valve' – and I wondered for a moment if it would develop adequate volume and pressure to melt 'hundreds of pounds' of copper or the other metals we would run in here.

“It's connected to the machinery generator, as you already determined, and is controlled by that panel there that shows the two dials and has that 'magnetic amplifier assembly' controlled by that rheostat,” said the soft voice, “but given those people who are currently here and those that are coming here – two are on the grounds now, both in burn-clothing, and two or three more will come within a few days – they will be shortly be melting and refining witch-money in substantial amounts, as you do have some ingot molds in here now.”

“How?” asked Anna. “Where are these molds?”

“Look behind you,” said the soft voice. I turned, and gasped.

“Yes, there are a number of covered crucibles, these having a doubled-six METNO number, that will do the job for the second portion of the fire-refining process, and the same for those stacked ingot-molds to 'pig' the metal after the first portion of the process,” said the soft voice, “and lining the walls, you now have the supplies and tools needed to do this portion of the job, including a manual for all of this equipment hanging from a leather pouch on the backside of the door.”

“And hence all we need are a number of suitable ingot molds for the pots, those being the strange ones that resemble 'trees',” I murmured. “When we next run Frankie? We make a number of them?”

“Yes, as the boatwright's shop received three sheets of treated paper so as to make four patterns for those molds and several times that number of pattern-boxes,” said the soft voice. “You'll want a large number of them, so figure that each time Frankie howls, you'll wish to run at least a dozen of those molds, until they have a lot of them here.” Pause, then, “they'll run similar molds in Ploetzee once they get their iron process up and running, and the Abbey will turn out something utterly different due to a much-more automated processing arrangement.

“This question is strange,” asked Anna absent-mindedly as she looked around the now-completely-arrayed room. “When most speak of that furnace, I heard its name spelled as 'Frankij', but when you are being spoken to, you hear a different pronunciation, one that is subtly different. Why is that?”

“Because I wrote something on the outside of that furnace cylinder when it came with a piece of chalk as a joke, dear,” I said, now seeing that there was an anvil in the corner, an electric-blown forge – a long-forge, so this type could easily reach a welding-heat given proper fueling – and next to that furnace, a new-looking Dietrich-102 anvil on a metal-reinforced wooden stand with a forge-bucket next to it. I looked at this anvil carefully, then as if I were focusing upon it with extreme care so as to commit all its salient characteristics to memory, both those visible conventionally and otherwise – I seemed to see the thing suddenly go into 'wire-frame' format, then the shape of the thing subtly morphed, it acquired depth, perspective, instructions – and for some odd reason, this series of pictures wasn't just seeing an 'anvil'.

It was seeing what it was made of, its heat-treating, and much else, all in extreme detail, much as if I were seeing it being done in real life; and as I 'committed' this to memory, I asked, “forging dies?”

“Now?” asked the soft voice. “Your mind will fill in those precise details that are not on the data card that just showed, but figure they can now make those forging dies and those anvils.” Pause. “You just saved yourself a lot of time and effort by doing as you did.”

“And I also know our washing machine is not in this room,” I murmured. “I do not see it, so it is not here.”

“Yes?” asked Anna. “You keep speaking of this thing. Can you tell me where it is?”

“Next room over,” I said. “That room also has a marked door, but that one I'm just going to touch the usual way, and then that thing is on wheels, it's more or less self-contained, and then...”

“Ai!” yelped Annistæ. “That is just what they are like where I lived until some months ago!”

“Good,” said Anna. “I hope it works well.”

“Oh, it does,” I said. “But one trouble.”

“What is that?” asked Anna. “Is it in need of repair?”

“It is going to need some cleaning, but otherwise it's pretty much ready to use,” I murmured.

“Some cleaning?” said the soft voice. “Figure Karl, Sepp, Gabriel, and possibly two other men are going to need to expend some serious effort getting the torment-grease off and out of that thing, but given that Annistæ's 'farolcumbusteblé plant' is getting fed so many dead rats, it's making more than three gallons an hour of 'high-grade lantern fuel' – and Toréo is admiring both the equipment and the lantern-fuel itself, as are those two people he guided up here and assured safe-passage by his presence.”

“Are they chemists, or does it matter?” I asked. I knew these people were marked, and more than 'missing toes' – and one, as much or more than Annistæ herself.

“Neither person is a chemist by training, but given they're both as marked as Annistæ herself is, they will be most useful almost immediately,” said the soft voice. “One of them is an 'expert mechanic', and the other, an Elektrikalé – and not a commonplace one, but one of the best people for that business in the entire Valley.”

“Expert mechanic?” I gasped.

“Figure that short and slight-looking woman will keep that generator humming well, and also run the machines that will be coming here, and as for that man who is an Elektrikalé – well, he's not a conventional example.”

“Uh, don't tell me,” I murmured. “He's an electrical engineer, and he knows as much about that stuff as I do.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “While he is an engineer, his area of expertise is more along the lines of the design of generators, transformers, power transmission, and similar matters – with some small training in semiconductors and 'valves'. Figure he can make certain the place gets wired right.”

“I did that stuff when I was thirteen years old,” I murmured. “Both wiring and valves. I built my first transmitter from scratch then, and I got tossed when I was trying to tune it up because I got bit by its' Bee-Plus supply!”

“True,” said the soft voice. “He's not in your league, but he does know how to do a lot of the work needed to get the best out of those pots – and while he's never used a computer, he'll pick that business up quickly.” Pause, then, “the person who will truly surprise you regarding those, though, is Deborah.”

“Will she learn to do programming?” I asked.

“Figure that once she gets her hands on a computer and a 'glitter ball', she'll start taking their 'correspondence courses', and within perhaps two months, she'll be a capable programmer in 'medical code' – and she only will get better from there, both as to what she understands and what she can write, with eventual graduation to class 'C' and possibly 'D' languages – and both of those in 'pure-numeric' and 'Symbolic' modes.” Pause, then, “you need to get to that level to write 'symbolic' in class C and class 'D' code, which is what you were doing when you got inside of those two devices.”

“Good, I won't have to do it all,” I murmured, as I led the two women out of the room. I then had an outlandish thought regarding Anna.

“Anna, I know you need good yarn and knitting needles, to manage your fretting,” I said, “and I have a set of the latter planned for you and Sarah and possibly Esther if she's inclined that way, at least at first, but there is one strange question I have for you.”

“Yes, what is it?” asked Anna.

“You want to learn how, uh, write code?” I asked. I'd done enough of that before coming here, and those three 'dope-minders' I'd managed to build and then debugged were rumbling through my mind. Ivan had wanted something like them for use 'In the not-so-Old Country' – meaning some of the people he saw when helping his wife do her 'cleaning' – as there were a lot of his patients who had needed them in the Ukraine as bad or as worse as I did here – and some of his wife's clients were elderly or disabled, and they both were 'spacey' and took sizable numbers of pills. The patent aspects of those things had had me wondering just how I could do so while living where I did – as those were a potential 'gold mine', as Mrs Ulyanov had spoken of.

Hopefully she did not mean a place I had read about in a certain Russian writer, that being a freezing cold region of Siberia where gold was mined. He had named it the Kolyma, and I had mentioned that name once in her presence – and then had needed to help her sit down and dry her eyes as she wept and nearly screamed for twenty minutes. From what I gathered, she had known people who had gone there to die during the revolting 'justice' imposed by 'The Man of Steel himself, that wretch named Dugashvili.

Ivan had needed to speak about the Shpagins, as those guards commonly toted them in a ready-to-use state, and he'd fired them a number of times during his period as a conscript.

“What is this code, first?” asked Anna. I hoped she had not learned about the nature of the Shpagins due to my thinking about them, as Chucky liked Shpagins, and he'd turn you into a pot-strainer with them if you gave him the chance to do so – and he'd air out your smelly hide if you gave him any chance at all.

“Instructions for computers and related items,” I said, trying to remain calm while recalling once holding a real Shpagin machine-pistol. Granted, this example was unloaded, even if its 'seller' had a 'class three license' and hence could legally sell automatic weapons. It was a long time ago that I had held that crude-looking yet sturdy – and fully functional – beastie. It was surprising heavy. “A lot of medical instrumentation needs coding, and... They use 'B' languages for that, correct?”

The sense was I was indeed correct, even if I heard nothing on the matter. I'd be able to ask those involved in such writing within a few days and get a reliable answer, if not actually look at some 'medical code' while laying in a hospital bed.

“Perhaps if we go to the lower-numbered 'C' languages for that equipment, so as to improve its efficiency and capacity?” I asked. “Write some, uh, libraries in that stuff, then over time...”

“During your time in the black sack, a fair number of people will become capable programmers,” said the soft voice. “Deborah will be one, Rachel will become something of one, but the person you wish to watch out for, should he choose correctly, is Gabriel.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “He doesn't have the most logical mind, as far as I can tell.”

That is almost entirely due to being cursed, and you will see a side of him that's been hidden since birth once you're overseas for a few days,” said the soft voice. “He may well startle you then – and his capacity for logic rival that of your own current state – and no, you are not like that one character, even if you could do much of what he did and surpass him in many of those areas.

I felt the sides of my head and recalled that this character had strange ears – as did I now, and my eyes had a distinct 'Filipino' slant to them. They reminded me of Norman's eyes, or perhaps those of Hi-Sun's – she being that Korean woman I had once known.

“Uh, what?” I asked. “Don't tell me – he's going to act like that one character I recall... I always wondered why that other fellow named Kirk found him so infuriatingly logical.” Pause, then, “I understood him quite well then, and I suspect he would have not bothered me that way in the slightest – even if he was a lot faster at doing things in his head than I was then. Now, not so sure.”

I was not sure about now – not after doing a nasty convolution integral in my head and getting a correct answer within perhaps three seconds in apparent time. For some reason, though, I knew Rachel would be the math person, while my understanding of such matters would be more of an issue with programming and design – namely, I'd be doing things that needed coding, and they would sometimes involve math as part of the code, just like it had been in school and during my unemployed periods before I came here. Gabriel – he'd be so strange that he'd come up with stuff that confused nearly everyone until he produced the finished article – assuming that in the future he chose 'rightly', which I suspected he most likely would. After all, he had been doing that to the best of his capacity for about as long as Deborah had.

“Yes, and they have intercepts of that series and those following it, which are the ones you're not very familiar with due to the press of time and your loss of inclination regarding 'the magic eye',” said the soft voice. “Should Gabriel choose correctly, he will become rather much like that individual in some ways, and when he becomes marked, that tendency will grow further – and that because of the work he will be tasked with, and how it will be of critical importance to the future of the planet.”

Once back out in the hall, however, I could tell there were other matters, these being such that not merely would we wish many handfuls of cleaned rags to push this washing machine out into the main area for cleaning, but that also there would be a large number of lanterns present in the same room, these red-painted 'copies' of those made in the Valley many years ago. Finally, this room could be used for hiding, which meant those shelves needed survival supplies and a small rifle-rack, much like that one which held three muskets on the ground floor in an area which had seen some discrete improvements. I hoped those masons would make further improvements along those lines, actually.

“Save with some improvements to these examples of lantern, including larger fuel tanks,” I thought. “I wonder just what those improvements are?”

“How are these lanterns improved?” asked Annistæ. “They are not the bad type, those that burn distillate?”

I shook my head in negation, then commenced answering: “firstly, they do not need tools to dismantle for cleaning, and then they are easier to put wicks in, they can use hand-made wicks of clean rags or vegetable fiber in an emergency, they give a bit more light for a given amount of fuel due to improved vaporization of the fuel supplied by the wick, and finally, they're nearly entirely smoke-free – even if you burn that crude brown 'stuff' that Toréo is now wondering just how he can get it here so as to 'clean it up' to a state like what your equipment manages.”

“And then, there are a lot of these lanterns present, several shelves worth of them, all ready to go with little beyond some small wick-trimming,” said the soft voice, “and the rolled-up plans, these neatly done in ink, are handy in case you wish to produce more yet of these things.”

“Wonderful,” I murmured, as I came to the very last door. This door was also thick green-painted wood with a bolted and substantial metal frame; it too had a marked doorknob, only this one demanded 'the touch'. The door swung open easily after the lock clicked under my hand, and looking about a moment later with my lantern held high showed this to be a very well-stocked storeroom, with room for more supplies, shelves, and several refrigerators as well.

Those needed BEER in them, beer suitable for DRINK. I was about due for a cold one, one from an icy jug with a chunk of it floating in my rag-wrapped cup.

“Complete with the washing machine and a lot of nice-looking red-painted lanterns,” I murmured.

“Cé, that is one of them, or a very good copy of what we used,” said Annistæ, “and those work well as they need to when one fights Cabroni much,” said Annistæ. “That type needs a fair amount of attention when it is running, but it will get your clothing clean, no matter how bad it has become.”

“Before we bring it out,” said Anna, “we had best put our gloves on, as it has a good coating of that nasty grease that drives me out of my mind should I get it on my hands any more, that and these rags I brought just in case.”

“Then it is good you have gloves, and so do I, and I think he does also,” said Annistæ, “and then there are your rags. Those look like they will help much.”

I did have a pair of leather gloves and Anna had a small bag of rags, and while I found it an easy matter to move the washing machine with its 'tub' filled with those red lanterns and the women walking behind me carrying two lanterns each by their red-painted wire bails, I knew it would take a minimum of three more trips with both trailers to fetch the remaining lanterns, and each trailer carefully watched so none of the close-packed lanterns fell off to crack its glass. It made me wonder if we should take one, as they could make this type of lantern overseas, and they had lots of bad rats, and lots more bad hamsters.

“Do we need all those lanterns now?” I asked quietly. “Annistæ, how are these machines used?”

“One puts water in their tank, some soap or detárgienté in with it, the dirty clothing, then water in their boiler, and one starts a small fire in this little place at the bottom of that boiler. It takes very little fuel as a rule and it builds steam quickly, but then one must have a bucket of water handy for that boiler's water so it can keep it filled, and then when the thing has thrashed your clothing, we would use our dirty water for other things, especially if we had been fighting Cabroni or working hard.”

What?” asked Anna, as I turned the corner and collected up that one gun. It went in muzzle-first in the 'tub' among the lanterns, and doing so showed some fairly skilled forging – this arm, and indeed all the work of the weapon, had been forged and then carefully machined, with some file-work to debur the various parts, and then that metalwork 'painted' or somehow 'treated' so it did not rust. I suspected wiping with cooking oil and then setting it next to a forge, as that did work to some degree, especially if done to lye-cleaned metal and cooked to the point of where it had ceased smoking, this done so as to both protect and temper the metal. The forge fire would need to be a smallish one, and the forge having thick firebricks so the pieces being cooked stayed amply warm but did not have their temper drawn. Failing that, a bread-oven was about perfect, if one did not mind the odor of this 'oil' in it for a time afterward. Gun-Kote – the dark gray kind – that was better in all ways, according to my thinking, and I hoped we could get some, as both saws would wish such treatment when they were pulled to bits for maintenance. They'd look absolutely mean then, and run a good twenty degrees cooler as well.

“We would put the dirty water into our alkoli equipment, as it worked well, especially if it was dirty from fighting Cabroni,” said Annistæ. “Once those men clean this thing up, we will wish to put it to use, as there is much dirty clothing, and I know how to run this type, as there were two of them where I last lived.”

“Uh, that one 'expert mechanic'?” I asked. I was getting a distinct and clear picture of the 'settlement' where Annistæ had once lived – this place was easily a hundred and fifty yards square, it had two 'floors' below ground and two above, and nearly five hundred people lived in the place, with their crop-fields just outside of the walls and the inner 'court' having a surprising amount of this strangely coarse grass that was used to graze donkeys, goats, and several instances of 'cattle' – these being a type of straight-horn bull, one with much shorter horns than those found further to the north.

The example I had seen was a bad one to start with, one that would have been shot and then burned, rune-curses or not. A normal straight-horn bull had a temperament closer to the ones around here, provided you understood its nature, as was spoken regarding animals in El Vallyé – and the ones kept on the place's southern border were both the shortest-horned and the most placid-tempered examples present in the place – as well as very strong.

They were not as strong as the bulls of the first kingdom. Those things could pull like tractors, and not small tractors, either – and the limit with those animals was their capacity to find traction, not their strength – as given sufficient traction, one of those animals could pull out a large tree by its roots with ease. One did have to understand their nature if one wished them to do as well as possible, much like many things and creatures here. I was then interrupted in my ruminations regarding cattle, the nature of Annistæ's former home – that place was closer to a somewhat smaller version of Roos, only much easier defended from attack without and within, and far better suited to an infernally inhospitable region and what I was pushing slowly up the hall with the women behind me talking quietly.

“That 'expert mechanic' will get that machine running quickly, so you-all can mostly concentrate on your remaining packing,” said the soft voice. “That's what you'll mostly need to do for the rest of the night: finish packing, bagging up your supplies, eating, bathing, and then getting ready for bed in the 'quarters'.”

“How?” asked Anna, as I grabbed the keys off the back side of the door and handed them back to her. I then opened it, and moved out into a room that now had many of our supplies being taken into the room by several men. Toréo then showed, and his high-pitched yell of 'admiration' caused a slight and somewhat short individual to 'jump, tumble, and then run for cover'.

Even in burn-clothing, this person leaped vertically nearly to the height of Toréo's shoulder, and nearly shoot into a blistering run when they landed like a cat in a crouch ready to spring. I felt more than a little reminded of Sarah or Deborah as to 'agility' and 'strength' – and then both women's capacity for hiding, as this short and slight individual seemed to then 'vanish' behind Toréo, almost as if he was a mountain.

“Non, no trouble, Angelíca” he said to this person who was trying to hide behind him. “That machine you have there is for washing clothing, and what you are wearing needs such washing, as you have traveled long and hard in it, and it needs work so as to do better.”

“Can I have help in cleaning it?” asked this faint high-pitched voice. She sounded like a 'frightened out of her mind' version of Deborah – with an accent similar to Annistæ's, though her frightened speech showed her trip had been long and especially difficult – but when she produced a 'small' pair of those chemically resistant gloves, Toréo looked upon her with admiration.

“Ai, such lanterns as those will give plenty of light in this building, but those are barely enough to light that which is up this area,” she said, as I brought the washing machine near her.

“We do not necessarily wish to routinely light up where we are, as that will only cause such lanterns to be stolen or destroyed by the witches,” I said. “There are a lot more of them in the room where we found this machine, and we have plans for them here so we can make more if they are needed.”

“How many are they?” asked Toréo.

“I counted at least thirty more than these, but it's fairly dark in that storeroom, even with our lights, almost as if it were meant for ready defense and ease of hiding,” said Anna. “I can lead you back there, so you can look at those things and decide if we need to bring out more of them right now.”

“It may be wise to have them out here and have them fueled and setting on a shelf for ready use, in case they are needed,” said Toréo. “What you may wish to do is once you have more of them is to issue two or three of them to those doing cleaning in this building, and have those doing such work do it in small-groups, with at least two people of such a group armed for trouble in case riedáæ should show, as there are many of them in this place, and then there should one person who is in charge of providing light for such work, with a cart for the lamp-stands and lanterns, and then the others are to be towing carts for their work.”

“Good idea,” I murmured, as I followed Annistæ to where Sarah was 'driving' no less than three complex and troublesome reactions on a single bench. She was very thankful Annistæ had come back in time to do up another batch of that Krokus dart-dip, as her current batch had run to 'completion', and Sarah was 'scared colors' of this particular material.

She now knew just what that silly poem called 'Toxic Lady' was all about, as that catalyst did not waste a minute's time in turning something that was 'very poisonous' into something closer to 'instant-full-blown-symptoms of the worst kind of Ebola' followed immediately by 'right-now spontaneous human combustion'.

“Now where are Karl and Sepp?” I thought.

“Fetching more food, along with making arrangements to get all of the supplies up here for proper packing, as the last stragglers from fetching that lead and the other things are arriving and now the lead is coming up floor by floor.” Sarah had spoken without turning her head, as the reactions she was running were at a touchy stage, even with Annistæ handy to deal with removing that one 'chemical warfare agent'. I suspected we had a material in that dart-dip that would give effects 'out of an old tale' – if not a good deal worse yet.

“Passing those heavy things hand-over-hand up the stairs one floor at a time?” I asked.

“Two at a time per ingot, so everyone available can do that supply one floor at a time,” said the soft voice. “It's not just lead coming up the back stairs, though – there are things coming up the front stairs, when people can be spared to transport them.”

“Uh, Esther?” I asked.

“Is supervising bringing all of what is in that white receiving room up to this room, and that will be via the main stairs, as they're a bit closer to that room and most of those things are light enough for people to handle individually,” said the soft voice. “That lead-handling chain will take about an hour to get all of that lead up to the fourth floor landing, and from that point, they'll all then start moving your supplies up here by the main stairs while you-all locate suitable rooms for storing that lead.”

“Baths?” I asked. I wondered for a moment as to how we would get everything downstairs in the morning.

“Those working in the laboratory thought you three had vanished like I've seen you do more than once lately, and I told them you probably were working like irritated hornets and would have appetites to match when you returned from wherever you had gone,” said Deborah. “I might not be one of those bugs, but I am hungry enough to pass for one, what with doing this chemistry business. It makes for quite an appetite.”

“And of course, all of our battery lanterns need a thorough charging up,” I softly murmured, as I shed my gloves and wondered if we had leather-soap handy to clean them. I was needing diluted aquavit for cleaning my hands, and thought to mix up some 'hand-cleaner' using it. Annistæ could probably supply a 'few drops' of her cleaner needed to make a small jug of this stuff, and we had plenty of aquavit. Distilled water was no problem either – our engine was making plenty of that, given it was now running a roomful of electrolysis pots and some other things.

“That part is very easy,” said Toréo. “There is this long shelf in you pot-room, where you have your metal-refining equipment, and there are devices that are most-suitable for charging up such things.”

“Yes, but I have trouble reaching up to that shelf without a ladder, and I'm not terribly sure how to hook them up,” said Deborah.

I soon found that I was 'elected' to charge up the battery equipment, and after hooking up several lanterns and 'torches' of one kind or another – we had four of those 'battery torches' now, all of them having a full range of filters, and I resolved to bring at least two of them with us – I came out to see a number of people working on that washing machine, with that one woman 'supervising' the cleaning aspect, this in her patched and worn clothing that concealed nearly all of her save her hands and feet. Her 'burn-clothing', I now realized, was a pastiche of mottled gray, brown, and badly worn and faded green, with dirty smudges here and there – fit for camouflage while on the run from witches, but horrible-feeling to wear. I could tell this lady wished a bath in the worst way possible, but she would need her clothing run while she was bathing so as to have something to wear after – and finding 'used' clothing for her would be difficult, as she was Sarah's height and of similar build – and more, she probably resembled 'Tinker-Bell' to a certain degree, as she was born with substantial markings and had gotten a fair number more when she'd been forced to leave her realm of safety.

The strange thing, at least to me, was seeing the used 'cleaning solvent' being filtered through multiple layers of rags and then poured straight into the lanterns we had recovered, then seeing those lanterns so readily lit.

“Those things are a lot brighter than I thought they'd be, and they can actually use, uh, 'crude' fuel,” I murmured upon seeing one of these things 'burn'. It looked like a candle the size of an oil drum, with a wick as large as my head for light. “Does torment-grease hurt their performance?”

“No, because one, there isn't that much of that stuff in that fuel,” said the soft voice, “and secondly, torment-grease, at least in certain forms, makes a very fair fuel if you burn it properly – as they often do overseas for cooking their meals. Hence that farolcumbusteblé will work well for cleaning greasy equipment, and then in these lanterns, it will give an uncommonly bright light for that type of lantern.”

“Well, I can tell you the whole story about that lead now that it and those getting it are all in,” said Lukas as he cleaned a machine part using a pan of 'lantern fuel' and a stiff and bristly paintbrush. “That man over there was riding drag, and he was saying that the witches just seemed to keep coming out of nowhere, but it seems he and those guards who were with him have learned how to deal with those stinkers.”

“Coaches, right?” I asked.

“Them too,” said Lukas. “Now there's this special ammunition that burns like fire, and it's bright red when it comes out of your weapon, and if you put two or three of those in a coach somewhere near the floor 'o that thing, it will go up within a minute at the most, or so he tells me.”

“That is true,” said Matthias. “Now, we will need to have some rooms for lead. I am not sure you wish to have it in this room here for storage, but you will wish it to be nearby, and I would trap it.”

“Oh, good,” I said, knowing that it wasn't just myself and Esther who thought about such matters. “Could someone fetch me a smallish bag of some red shot and about half a brick of that no-odor gray plastic explosive, some rags, a small number of those electric caps, and a few other things?”

“You got a good one planned for them witches?” asked Lukas. “Now this thing is going to be cooking inside of a turn of a glass, and it can do a lot of clothing, and it gets that stuff clean. I've seen this type work, and those were bad copies o' this machine, which is a real clothes-washer.”

“Uh, that isn't a small machine, is it?” I asked.

“Non,” said Annistæ. “That size can handle the clothing of a smaller settlement, as you can wash several days worth of clothing at once, and that is when it has the dirt that comes from fighting Cabroni upon it.”

“Uh, our stuff...” I spluttered.

“We'll have it going, and we been doing that what she said, all right,” said Lukas – meaning 'we've been fighting witches plenty'. “I think you want to make up them traps, and once that young lady there gets done with making her last batch of ink, I think she'd be a good choice to help you get them ready for setting in and around them lead-rooms.”

“Do you have any idea how long it will take to get that lead up to the fourth floor landing?” I asked.

“When I checked ten minutes ago, that long stack in front of Hendrik's office was almost gone, and the stuff was piling up on the second floor landing,” said Matthias. “They are going as fast as they can, as once it's up on the fourth floor landing, then they can go and eat – and those people are hungry.”

“Hence a large number of pies are becoming ready, especially a number of pepper pies,” I said.

“Yes, I know,” said Karl, as he put aside an oily rag and dampened another with 'lantern fuel'. “Now this thing is trouble, as it has a lot of this bad grease, and I think she needs to boil that stuff out of this oil so as to leave the grease behind, then mix it with beeswax.”

“Non, it burns fine in these lanterns here, and they will work well for those doing cleaning in this place,” said Toréo. “Now, are there machines in this poeblávo, as this person who is watching this and making certain it is done right knows their use, and that much more than I do.”

“I'm not sure,” I said. “I'm supposed to make up these, uh, bombs...”

“You will need those things you asked for first,” said Toréo. “Now, you spoke of 'red' shot. Is this shot 'red' as to its color, or does that color have a different meaning? Its size, perhaps?”

“That color indicates the size,” I murmured. “Red shot is three millimeters in diameter and plated with nickel, and then there are three other colors, with the sizes going up from three, four, five, and on to six millimeters – and the way this particular shot is, it acts like it's significantly bigger than it actually is, so if I use a thumb-thick charge of explosive with that shot kneaded into its surface, and I hang such a rag-wrapped assembly from the ceiling of a lead-room, then it should cause any Cabroni that try for that lead a great deal of trouble, and if we are in the house proper, we will know about it and come for them 'full-loaded and red-faced', with loaded weapons ready so as give them the hell they so much desire.”

Toréo looked at me in puzzlement, much as if he were thinking especially hard, then said, “I am not sure what shot is in those tinned brass shells I have seen, but I can say this: it does not seem to matter what they have in them with most Cabroni, as I saw this one man who has a double-barreled weapon use it a great deal, and he said that when they were coming for him, he didn't concern himself with what was in his shells, and he was dropping those smelly Cabroni at thirty metrâè or more, and that regularly.”

“Georg?” I asked. “Him?”

“He's speaking with Hendrik,” said Sarah. “I just got my bath, and once Esther is done, then you're next in line for the tub – and my clothing is dirty enough that I hope that machine works, and that bathwater is fit for the equipment that makes lantern fuel.”

“It will,” said the 'girl'. I had to revise her age. Deborah was, like Sarah, older than she looked – Sarah looked perhaps twenty, but she was at least twenty-five and possibly closer to thirty, while Deborah looked five years younger than she was – and Deborah was about two years younger than Sarah. This 'girl' sounded younger than Deborah did – almost if she was indeed a 'girl'.

“Is that normal here?” I asked silently.

“For marked people, yes,” said the soft voice. “Before the witches tried to turn the place into hell, the norm here for most people was to live well into three digits as to their age, and remain more or less active and functional until death – with that being carried somewhat further with many of those marked.” Pause, then, “you might be surprised as to how old Rachel was when she died, and the same for Charles.”

“How old?” I asked.

“Two hundred and twelve years for Rachel, and not much less for Charles – who didn't quite crack two hundred years, even if he came very close before he became sick,” said the soft voice. “Granted, she got the best care that could be had in Vrijlaand during the whole of her life, unlike Charles, but I can say this: once the Curse is fully broken, three-digit lifespans will once more become the rule rather than the exception.”

As I bathed, however, I noted that the water once more became a nasty and unpleasant-looking gray color as I scrubbed first with field soap and then the medical stuff, and I learned that I had dumped more shot. I scooped the stuff up and found the 'shot-bag', and murmured softly as I came out of the bathing portion of 'the living room', “this bag here has nearly enough shot to do the job for those, uh, 'warning devices', actually. Now can someone get me the other supplies I need?”

I had those not half an hour later, and as I made up five thoroughly 'unpleasant' bombæ, I found that not merely was Deborah mingling ink with Sarah's supervision.

She was helping me make up these 'thumb-thick and hand-long corn seeds', though once they were done, they were no longer compared to 'overly-long corn-seeds'.

The usual comment when when a person saw one of these inch-and-a-half-thick shot-loaded, rag-wrapped, and string-tied bombs with their wires coming out of one end was 'that looks like a weed-bundle', and I wondered for a moment: would these bombs prove to be deadly enough with their 'used' shot – I'd used a fair amount of the red stuff from a bag in putting up the eight ounces or so of shot each bomb received, but apparently I wasn't the only person shedding lead. A lot of that mingled shot went into these bombs, and when I went down the hall from 'our' entrance and across to ind a suite of small connected rooms just off of a wider-than-usual passage, I came back to show Esther and Annistæ the places I had found. I wondered if they were 'suitable' for temporary lead-storage.

, these will work well,” said Annistæ. “Now, those things with the wires that look like something a bad Cabroné would suck on – we will need to use them for trapping, no?”

I nodded, then suggested that each such charge be hung in the air from the ceiling, with a string holding the device and the wires twined about the string. I drew a simple diagram of how to connect them with multiple switches in parallel and a pot-battery, with the battery hidden in the lead and a small charge trapping it; then when I spoke about a diaper clip with two small pieces of silver, wires soldered to each, and then a small sheet of slick plastic separating the contacts, Annistæ understood exactly what I was talking about.

The only thing stranger was finding a number of such 'modified diaper clips' in a cloth bag tagged and tied in one of the bins that had come here, complete with the slick plastic separator that went between the silvered contacts. I tried pulling the plastic portion out and the pressure needed was in the 'few ounces' range. I drew a diagram, showing how to rig these things once the lead was stacked, and then, I did a drawing of the needed type of bomb in case more needed to be put up due to witch-trouble.

None of these rooms intended for storage of lead was larger than about twelve feet for its widest dimension. A bomb hanging from the center of the ceiling would detonate within six feet of a thug inside such a room, and I had a really strong impression about that particular size of shot.

This device, while it would not be in the same class as a 'metal pear', would most likely kill or severely injure any intruder who entered the room, and more, that nickeled shot was both hard and 'dense' – as in the red shot worked like the smaller sizes of buckshot where I came from, and all such shot, no matter its size, needed to be reckoned as stiff shot.

'Señor Rat' would not ignore a load of the green stuff, as that was almost like dumping a roer's load of loopers into him, and that green stuff would go end-to-end on a three-foot example and 'do execution' while traversing the length of said rodent's body. More importantly, using a load of the varied sizes of shot to make up my bombs had me thinking along similar lines.

I had effectively made a most-unpleasant grenade, and I knew that in the future, we would most likely be putting up our own training aides, complete with four to five large spoonfuls of such shot per device, or failing that, strips of chisel-notched music wire applied to their outsides with some very sticky tape.

Such wire was worse than the smaller nails Sarah had used in that charge of explosive we'd used in that thread-seller's shop, as it fragmented when the explosive detonated and then cut anything close-by to shreds as it whirled through the air.

It did not have heads like nails did, which made them act like flechettes and rip through everything that wasn't solid as a foot of well-laid stone

After finishing the bombs, though, I found that that one woman was supervising the 'activation' of that washing machine, and while it needed to stay under a fume-hood – it smoked more than a little at first when it was 'running its dirt out', as Toréo put it – but once that water batch of dirty water had gone into the 'alcohol' plant and clean water went into the 'tub', then we started running clothing.

Someone – Georg, most likely – was using a watch to time it, and I was more than a little surprised to see the remaining drawers that I had left to others now being 'gone through'; apparently there were to be no drawers left uncleaned, and the same for the cupboards. I had been mostly concerned with important matters that might need me, and now – we were finding a lot of sundry items, most of them altogether useful

There were a lot of greasy things that needed cleaning with that 'fat-based cleaning solvent' that made corn-fattened rats into something useful, and someone – or perhaps several such people – was or were continuing to load rats into the 'grinder' on a regular basis to make that stuff. One of the barrels, I noted, was gone, most likely so as to be cleaned of 'rat-residue' and made ready for further instances of 'the rat patrol' and its interminable gunfire. It made me wish for some odd carbines that fired the loads to 'eight-and-a-half revolvers', though those did sound likely for 'perforating the rodentia'.

I wasted no time: I used a lump of deep green chalk to carefully write that saying on one of the walls. No one seemed to notice, but I suspected as I returned to my business that it would get its share of notice in the days to come – and I kept my grass-green quarter-sawn stick of chalk in a small bag in my pocket.

“Now this I can do,” said Hans, as he cleaned several greasy tools – they looked like Veldter's lantern-tools, copied carefully with good materials and carefully machined; there was nothing makeshift about them – with a pan of cleaning solvent and a brush. “I need to get healed up before I can do what I usually do, and I have this headache that is worse than that from bad dynamite, but I can do this now.”

“You're a lot more careful than you used to be,” said Deborah. “Now my batches ink must mingle under a slow heating lamp for a time, and stirred occasionally with this glass rod here, and then we will have a lot of pens to either clean out or load up with ink, and I hope I can have one of them for my satchel.” Pause, then, “I already got a small lump of sawn chalk, as someone is sawing up what Esther brought from home.

“You got one of those things for a satchel that are done for hiding in woodlots,” said Hans. “Now I would like something like that, save one as large as what Dennis has, as I will need to carry a lot with me when I am out doing my business.”

“Your business?” I asked. “Oh, deliveries of chemicals, securing raw materials, perhaps crossing over to the east side of the Main to get oats for, uh, horse-grain and other things, like this strange beer and this other fermentation process we'll wish to run once we have ways of doing it.”

“Yes, and I will need to use the good oats for that, and we can use the bad oats for this other stuff that I think needs to be done here.”

“Why is that, Hans?” asked Deborah.

“Because this place is a lot bigger than my basement, and I will be spending much of every day for at least a week as those things are now going through this stuff at home, and then I think there is something already set up here for making that stuff, and then there is this one chemical that is really bad for soot, and that wants chemistry clothing, in case you get sooted up when you drop some to the floor, and it is as slippery as that special oil for hanging onto.” Pause, then, “I'd probably drop some of that stuff at home, and then we would have more soot in the house than if a big batch of that wood-treatment went up and I was using an open witch-pot with a lot of that stuff on its inside that causes trouble.”

“A small spoonful would paint the entire interior of where we live a nightmare shade of black fading to gray, Hans,” I said. “No, acetone here is not the same stuff as it was where I came from – it's worse than lacquer thinner, and not a little worse.”

“Be glad you do not have that chemical here,” said the soft voice regarding acetone. I knew something about 'lacquer thinner'. “It would do everything this planet's material of that name does and be as poisonous as one of those 'fumigators' you tossed down that one hole.”

“Ah, so you have done fumigation,” said Hans. “That is a tricky business. Now, did you use bad musket powder with a lot of extra sulfur in it, or did you use something a lot worse?”

“A lot worse,” I muttered. “Sarah said it got bigger the instant it left my hand, and by the time it landed down in that place, it was the size of a liquid-filled fire-extinguisher, the kind Annistæ wants in here for dealing with fires – and if I did not know better, she wants several of them.”

, one wishes that type,” said Annistæ. “That is another reason why you want chemistry equipment that provides breath, as that type of fire-killer has this gas in the form of a liquid that makes fires quit fast and it smothers people if used much, and that type of fire-killer will put out nearly any fire if used in sufficient measure.”

“Carbon dioxide?” I asked. That one seemed obvious – as it did work well on fires, and it could easily 'smother people'.

“That's used as a carrier for the effective stuff,” said the soft voice. “That type of 'fire-killer' would not merely 'freeze' the fire and get the oxygen away from it, but the chemicals added to the CO2 would deal with everything one might encounter in a chemistry lab. There are several formulations used overseas, and most of them are tailored to the class of reaction in process.”

“Is there a 'generic' type?” I asked.

“That is the type Annistæ is referring to, and while those are very effective in her experience, for many reactions, a tailored mix in that carbon-dioxide carrier is much more effective,” said the soft voice. “The generic type is used for 'elective' chemistry, where the reactions are fairly 'tame', but if you go to a chemistry lab in a medical establishment, you will see 'color-coded' fire extinguishers of several sizes, and one of the 'standard' rules in those places is 'one's personal fire extinguisher is held by a strap on one's arm or chest, such that it is ready to hand at all times', and that's for the smaller ones used to buy time to get the big ones into action.”

“Oh my,” I said. “Chemistry sounds like it's almost as hazardous as, uh... Do they have anything that bad where I came from?”

“Yes, the worst kind of Ebola when it breaks out, that Russian 'newcomer' series of nerve gases, with Hydrofluoric Acid, Unsymmetrical Di-Methyl Hydrazine, Methyl Nitrate, commonplace nerve gases, and NI3 all tied for a close third,” said the soft voice. “Those are tame compared to some of the chemicals made in medical establishments overseas, and hence 'space suits' and 'tailored fire extinguishers' and 'remote reaction equipment' for quantity production is the norm.”

“N-nitrogen triiodide?” I gasped. “That stuff is nasty when it's dry – it goes off if you look at it wrong.”

“You've made blasting gelatin, remember?” said the soft voice pointedly. “That's tame compared to much of what is done overseas – and no, they would not do that stuff without proper equipment and a full chemical suite – one better than what Annistæ is describing, and a lot better than what you've worn recently.”

“N-no headache?” I asked.

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “'Chemical clothing', especially the medical-grade material, prevents 'powder headaches' – and the good medical clothing works as well or better for that business, as it was developed to stop some nasty bugs and nastier-yet chemical agents in addition to helping the person wear it do 'as well as possible' while either under fire or 'overwhelmed with casualties'.”

“Then I want to get into some of that clothing regularly, as I will be setting a lot of bombs when those witches come up here,” said Hans, “and this headache is awful.” Pause, then, “ah, this one here is coming good.”

“Yes, and I can see a real difference in what you are doing already, Hans,” said Anna appreciatively. “I never thought I would thank God you'd gotten your head cracked by a bullet from a gun as bad as a roer, and lost the tip of a finger to witches, but I do, because it really shows in what you are doing.”

“Yes, and I want one of those computer things, too,” said Hans. “My handwriting is terrible now, so I need to use a set of stamps and a lettering thing, and then those computer things just need you fingering them like a...”

Faintly, I heard a strange noise, almost as if someone were banging on a piano so as to 'test' its state of tune, then a blindingly-fast spine-chilling run up and then down the keyboard segued into something fast, complicated, and intricate, almost as if whoever was playing had three brains and six hands – and a taste for strange music. I could see this person playing 'heavy metal' or almost anything except that vile stuff called 'country music' – a species of music that was better suited to 'Songs of the Bad Life'. I was then startled by Anna's outburst.

“Someone is playing a clavier, and they belong in the orchestra,” she spat. “I had heard there was one in the house, and now someone has found it.”

“Does anyone know where Gabriel is?” I asked. “Did someone send him on an exploring mission nearby – perhaps to locate possible sources of trouble and hidden pathways, with a ledger in hand and a spool of thread in his pocket?”

“Yes, I did,” said Sarah. “He was to leave a string from the doorway, and I gave him a full spool, and now I know what happened.”

“What is that?” asked Karl. He was cleaning parts with 'cleaning solvent', and I could see a larger 'escape proof' container in front of him, this slightly greasy with used cleaning solvent. The fresh stuff was oily enough, and once 'loaded up' with torment grease, it might well be something workable for quieting noisy doors when 'taking' places overseas.

“He found a clavier, and he is playing it,” spat Sarah. “We will need three people to pry him off of that thing!”

When I heard that, I wasted no time, gathering up my rifle and a 'bandoleer' of magazines and walking toward the door, and to my utter surprise, I not only saw the bright green string he'd left along with a roer's ball, but I could see his footprints as clearly as anything, and I knew precisely where he'd gone. Sarah was with me, as was Esther, and when the piano-playing stopped and a single discordant note rang out and then came 'into tune', I murmured, “I think he stumbled onto that thing while he was doing his assigned job, and thought a bit of playing would 'wake him up'.”

“Then what was that noise?” spat Sarah.

“Don't be angry, dear, he did just what you told him to do, as I can tell he was looking as much and as hard as he knew to do, and he's getting better at that business in a hurry, almost as if he's marked.”

“He received that bad cut on his leg from a poisoned witch-jug,” said Esther, “and his back was plowed well by whips, so he might well be marked to a small degree, if I think about it...”

Again, another discordant note, this one higher pitched. It was being tuned 'down'. I knew exactly what he was doing – he was tuning that piano, and this 'ancient' thing was both in fairly 'good' condition and well-suited to his playing. I then spoke of the matter.

“He's tuning it, dear,” I said. “Does he have a good ear for pitch?”

“I'm not sure,” said Sarah. “He was playing quite well, as far as I could tell, but why he's doing that instead of looking for trouble is making me irritated.”

“Don't be,” I said. “He's made some fairly good notes about a number of trouble spots, so I guess we can tolerate a bit of clavier-tuning – even if...”

Another run up the keyboard, and this time, it sounded right.

“He nailed that thing,” I spat. “He's got perfect pitch, or very near it!”

“How could you tell?” asked Esther, as faintly, I could hear someone fluffing out a large cloth and then settling the thing over a rectangular eight-legged 'box' with what looked like a folding arrangement of reinforced wooden 'boards for a top that, when erected, acted like an exponential horn. He'd not opened that up, thankfully, as then he'd have been several times louder.

“He got it right,” I said. “Oh, he's off his 'break', and should show about... Oh, about now.”

Gabriel showed not a second later, this with a headlamp glowing and a ledger in hand, and he was writing busily. Sarah called out to him.

“I found that thing,” he said, “and I seem to have gotten better about getting them in tune.”

“I know,” spat Sarah. “Now have you been doing your ledger-work?”

“Y-yes, I think so,” said Gabriel. “There are several passages I found that have had witches in them recently, there are a lot of bagged-up decent wax candles that smell as if they're older than I am, and then I found this one location with a number of blue-and-white jugs that contain liquid cooking fuel – though that is nowhere near as old as the candles. Those candles might wish redoing so as to get them to burn brighter, even if they are decent wax. They did not smell of sulfur in the slightest.”

“Good,” I said. “Now, you found your concentration going, so as you went into that room you tripped and fell sprawling across this strange dark bench. You saw this cloth-covered thing that was noteworthy enough to warrant investigation, and it proved to be an eighty-eight key clavier – not a grand one used for orchestra, but one that is very suitable for practicing upon. Correct?”

“Yes, and that room has more than just a clavier in it,” he said shakily. “It has a secret passage, and I could smell bad sweat in that place, or something, so I did not go into it, even if I did investigate that clavier.”

“Good, you're learning a measure of caution,” I said, as I waved my hand so as to look at his ledger. He had been quite busy, and with each successive page of his writing, he had improved, both as to his power of observation and his descriptive capacity.

“Not bad,” I said. “So, you know where you can 'straighten your head out' when you need to. Best keep that location in mind, even if it's a bit of a climb...” I paused, then laughed.

“What is so funny?” asked Sarah. Esther was pointing out some matters to Gabriel, such as small markings on the walls, and he was obviously paying close attention to what Esther was showing him. He had needed that 'piano-time', and I wondered if Anna needed routine instances of 'violin-time' so as to help her concentration.

“I know where that secret passage goes, and I suspect those masons will, uh, learn about it when they make that close-closeted scribe-room they're running the passage for right now,” I said. “It dead-ends currently, and the reason it smelled like bad sweat and a bit of forty-chain was our imported team of witches were up here recently, and they went in that place and spent perhaps four hours getting stuck, cussing at and thumping each other with short lead-loaded clubs, and twice, taking more of all three of those vials of pills they had been given so as to 'follow orders because they are orders'. Those pills made them a complete pack of idiots, however, and their candles were waving around like snakes while the walls and everything went crazy and they b-became a lot 'harder' because they were becoming a lot more inhabited with each such dose!”

“You mean we will have an unobservable passage up here from Hendrik's office?” said Esther. She was looking at Gabriel's drawings of 'trouble-spots' – and those too showed steady improvement over time, and rapid improvement, also. For someone utterly unused to his assignment, Gabriel had done surprisingly well, which gave me no small degree of hope – until I saw him withdraw and wipe his sword with an oil-rag removed from a 'shoe-polish tin', then check the chamber of his machine pistol – and then look at his string, this in another pocket. His knife – that was worn in his clothing, but a slit allowed easy access to it, and I guessed the same applied to his 'sword'.

“Dry chamber?” I asked, regarding the machine pistol. His shotgun was slung to the rear, and he was 'wearing' a belt of shells – this with at least six shells with that infernal 'S' on them, in case he ran into a large rat or a stiff thug.

“Yes, it is,” he said. “I hope you can fetch a cart, as I had to slice on several rats, and this sword works very well for that business, even if it got messy on me in a hurry once or twice.”

“You sliced on some rats?” I gasped.

“Yes, in this room I marked in this ledger as being a 'rat-room',” he said. “It had a lot of runes formed into what looked like curses on its walls, a number of old-looking wooden-barred pens that had been chewed on a great deal and smelled like rats, and as I was leaving it a large white rat came for me, and I just grabbed that sword and swung on that thing like you showed me to do. and then it had some helpers, so I had to either thump them with it or slice them, and that as I was running for my life!”

“Yes?” I asked.

“I got out of there in a great hurry, and when I cleaned my sword, I saw a good deal of blood, so at least some of those rats are not doing well.”

“Gabriel, you cut a rat in half,” spat Sarah. “You were charged by a white rat? How big was this rat?”

“It was quite large, and it surprised me entirely, as I was describing what I saw as per my instructions, and I was doing the best I could,” he said, “and then its back half... No, I didn't stay around to learn more of that thing,” he said. “The smaller rats, those I was able to slice readily, but that big one was like a bad nightmare, and I wanted no part of that thing.”

“Do you recall just where this fifty-pound rat is?” I asked.

Gabriel nodded nervously.

“Then perhaps we need to retrieve it,” I said. “Seems that reactor setup in that lab can deal with rats, and it's making a lot of lantern fuel using rats as a raw material.”

“It is?” asked Gabriel. “I think I want one of those vials that do not leak full of it for the trip, as that stuff will do something we will wish, and I know at least one other person thinks likewise, if I go by what I saw as I left to do what Sarah told me to do.”

“Uh, it does make passable cleaning solvent, even if it is a bit too oily-feeling for my liking without chemically-resistant gloves for my hands,” I said. “Oh, it...” I looked at Gabriel in something closer to horror, then I screeched, “that stuff is can be made into this really weird synthetic lubricant and cleaner when it's got torment-grease in it!”

“It is a weird synthetic lubricant and cleaner as it is when it's been used to clean that torment-grease off, especially after it has set a while and its portions combine in an appropriate way, and the metal of those escape-proof bottles causes that to happen a lot faster, especially if one puts a tiny piece of glass-blower's wire inside them,” said Gabriel. “Now how did I say that without my tongue being knotted?” Pause, then, “I had the impression that we might well use that material in lieu of your oil for less-critical work overseas, but I think I wish a rag with some of that on it for gun-cleaning.”

“One way to find out,” I said. “We'll wish to try it. Now, we have rats to collect up, and then we need to get to packing – as this has been a very long and tiring day.” I punctuated this with a yawn.

“I know,” said Gabriel. “Playing that thing worked better than anything to get me to be attentive again, so I thought a few minutes would not hurt overly much if it helped the rest of my notes.”

“It seems to have done so,” said Esther. “Now, do you know the signs witches leave – those which are not in their languages, nor what are called secret markings, nor runes, or other things that are commonplace?”

Gabriel shook his head.

“They leave signs, often very small ones, and they're usually cut with their knives,” said Esther. “In a place like this, they might well use a piece of chalk cut to a point with a knife, and if you know where to look, like doorways...”

“Right there,” I said, pointing with my finger. “About shoulder height, thin mark about two lines wide and half an inch long, one that just looks like the symbol for subtraction, and done with red chalk?”

“That is a very common type of witch-marking, Gabriel,” said Esther. “Now those smelly blue-suited thugs may and may not do such marks, nor may they need to, but they need careful observation indeed if you wish to live while they are handy, and you need to have quick reactions...”

“Let's go collect up those rats,” I said. “Gabriel sliced on big Momma, and that rat was about to dump another load of ratlets, so he really did us a service with his, uh, 'sword'.” I then turned to Gabriel, and said calmly, “well-done. You learned a lot, and you really helped us out.”

Sarah looked at me, then asked, “what kind of rat did he slice on?”

“The chief source of our white-rat problems, or at least the current chief source,” I said, “and anyone who can deal with a charging white rat that's in that bad of a mood, especially one that large...”

“It was large,” said Gabriel. “It frightened me enough that I just swung on it and ran, and I cut up and smacked the others as they tried for me while I was running out of the room!”

“Did that large rat follow you?” asked Esther calmly.

“Not that I can tell,” said Gabriel. “Then again, I was not looking for it, as I was quite busy with its helpers, and I was hanging onto my ledger and other things as well.”

“Then that rat is either very badly injured or it is dead,” said Esther, “and if that was a white rat and was about to drop ratlets, it would have to be hurt badly indeed to not come after you.”

“As in 'you cut the thing in two pieces while it was airborne and clawing its way toward your face'?” I said. “That sound about right?”

Gabriel began shaking, then with no warning at all, he simply dropped in his tracks to the floor. I brought out my vial of tincture, took a dose for my knees, then dosed Gabriel with a full tube of the stuff before asking him to wake up. He instinctively reached in his cloth 'satchel' for one of those smaller plastic 'jugs' and began drinking as if parched.

“I am sorry, Gabriel,” said Sarah. “I... When did you play that clavier – before or after you sliced on that rat?”

“A-after,” said Gabriel. “I'd made what notes I could, but I've never been charged by a white rat that big before, and I had to c-clean...”

“Too much rat,” I muttered. “Any rat that big is not a joke, that goes double for white ones full of ratlets – and that one dumped a new load of those every six to eight weeks.”

“I am not sure if that is as bad as too much swine, but...” Here, Sarah paused, and looked intently into Gabriel's face.

“Too much rat,” I muttered, upon seeing the beginnings of a two-mile stare. 'Seeing the Hare' in Hendrik's Hallway was a primer for dealing with a large and irritated white rat. “Gabriel, that rat was almost as much fun as dealing with that cussed smelly lizard at the Abbey. Now do you think you can handle thugs after dealing with Big Momma?”

“I h-hope so,” he said. “Why?”

“'Cause you got yourself a fifty-pound white rat, one three feet and more in the body, it came from nowhere, it surprised you completely, it was irritated greatly, and you sliced it in half,” I spat. “Now I really doubt there are that many thugs that are that quick, that mean, or that hard.” Pause, then, “maybe Joost might be more trouble, and maybe not. I'm not sure about that stinker, but I am sure about his twin brother, and that stinker was about as bad as they come – and white rats of any size are not a joke, and that's when they're not filled with ratlets.”

I and Sarah 'stood guard', with Gabriel's ledger present, while the other two went back to secure a cart and one of the 'rat-barrels'. I was making comments about what was present in the area, and Sarah was adding her notes to Gabriel's ledger. He'd left plenty of space for additions and corrections, thankfully, but as I commented to Sarah about this one region he'd gone through, I said, “he's new to this business, so of course he missed things, he's tired, but he still tried his best.”

“Yes, and you make him look worthless, as you're standing here and telling me things I'd miss, most likely.” Pause, this to look, then a 'light signal', three short flashes and a long one from some distance away.

“'V',” I said. “They just emerged, and Esther used that lantern to signal with, or rather this one lantern, a tent lantern with a cloth in front of it, and they're carrying another one in one of those large buckets – a fairly bright one, also.”

“It is not one burning aquavit,” said Sarah. I could tell that, also.

“No, of course not,” I said, between yawns. “It's one of these lanterns we found back in that room there, and it's probably burning 'used cleaning solvent' with a fair amount of torment-grease in it.” Pause, then, “now that's something Gabriel and Karl will wish to bring, as while it doesn't jump into cracks like that one oil does, it is a decent lubricant, and it does have cleaning properties – specially if it sits for days with a bit of glassblower's wire in the container and gets shaken some,” Pause, then, “in a pinch, douse your weapon's breach with that stuff once it's 'cooked' for a few hours, and it will free it up enough for you to put some more rounds downrange.”

“It will do what?” asked Sarah. “I didn't get a chance to write that, as I was cleaning up this drawing here.”

“That mix of lantern fuel-cum-cleaning solvent and torment-grease will unstick a stuck weapon quickly, and it especially works on those stinking riot-guns those blue-suited thugs like to shoot at the citizens, as they stick constantly and dumping that stuff in the mechanism will keep them running!”

“That stuff is not that blue oil,” said Sarah. “Now you are saying...”

“That blue oil needs to be carefully husbanded,” I said, “but we'll take enough to get it duplicated and possibly improved.” Pause, then, “that may be 'really good' lantern fuel, but it is a decent cleaning solvent, and it really... Oh, now I know why! That blue oil will not work on the propellant they use in those guns, it puts bad fouling in their mechanisms, and those blue-suited thugs do such a poor job of cleaning their weapons that they make the usual job done by a black-dressed coach-riding witch drinking drain opener made by the Veldters look good!”

“Those people seldom clean their weapons,” said Esther, “and I heard part of what you said. This stuff in this lantern here is becoming very common indeed, as we already have every one of these lanterns Toréo has brought out topping full, and this lantern is decent for light, even when turned down.”

“Looks like a really bright tallow candle, one about as tall as I am with a wick the size of my fist,” I spat, as my eyes crunched down into slits and I turned away to put down my 'dark' goggles. “Lantern fuel? Works almost as good as boiled distillate for cleaning...”

“No, it's actually closer to smelly distillate used to clean wood-saws that if you speak of cleaning, only it's much less dangerous,” said Esther. “For cleaning, I'd prefer it to nearly anything, as it barely has any odor, and all you need is some gloves if you've got sensitive skin.”

“And it does something strange to weapons, especially if it has a fair amount of torment grease, which is why I took the time to fill this one bottle with it,” said Gabriel, as he produced a large titanium leakproof container. It was nearly the size of a smaller canteen. “Now, there are these cannons over there, cannons that are like market-hunting guns for their bores, and they have those present in some numbers for 'disturbances'.”

“And they stick a lot, and those thugs do a poor job of cleaning...” I muttered. Gabriel had been 'getting the message' from someone, and I suspected Karl had also. I wondered if a bit of that drawn-out wire had gone in his 'canteen'. I hoped it had.

“I think they think they're cleaning those things, but about all they do is clean the outside passably so it looks good to their drunken overseers and just move the soot around on the inside, and that powder they use makes a great deal of especially bad soot,” said Gabriel. “I do know that – it makes a lot of soot, as bad as bad fifth kingdom musket powder, and this soot acts more than a little like road-tar.”

“And that stuff will, uh, unstick the gun if we can shoot the thugs off of it, and dousing the mechanism will permit it to fire a certain number of rounds.” Pause, then, “those two containers will wish some spare lantern coils, or a bit of glassblower's wire drawn thinly, as that will help a lot.”

“Thank you,” said Gabriel. He had not known about the wire, or so I guessed “I knew it was important, as they will trot those things out before that mess overseas finishes, and we will take at least one such gun, and it will try to stick – either it will stick on them when they attempt to shoot it at us, or it will stick on us, and if we put this stuff to the inside of the gun, it will allow it fire at least a few times.”

“Possibly more like several magazines worth of shells,” I said. “Now, let's fetch what's left of Big Momma, and those other rats so we don't get a stink going up here, and then we can get back to work.”

'Big Momma' wasn't more than four doors down the hall from where we currently were on the right side, and I came in first, my rifle at the ready. It proved wise, as while Gabriel had nearly cut the rat in half – he'd sliced it diagonally, with the cut starting near the animal's jugular vein and finishing up somewhere well past its sternum, and he'd cut its chest cavity open and partly disemboweled it – there were more white rats present, these dining on the late unlamented 'Queen' and her closest subjects.

I shot them all so rapidly that they had no chance in the world, and I learned a new secret regarding 'high-energy hollow points': they dropped rats colder than a dead hammer if they were hit solidly, even these white things eighteen inches and more long in the body.

“And Big Momma is indeed big, and she was about to dump a load of ratlets,” I spat. “So now we have one dissected fifty pound rat, and four cut-up twenty-pounders, and about eight blown-up ten-pounders, and all of them entirely-white rats. How many more of these things are there?”

“They'll be quite a bit scarcer now, as firstly, Big Momma is dead, and then those other 'entire-white' rats you just shot were about ready to begin breeding and the others Gabriel sliced on were 'getting the urge', so figure a month or so where white and part-white rats are going to be a bit less common on the premises.”

“The witches will bring more of them,” Sarah muttered, as she put on her chemical-resistant gloves, as did Esther and Gabriel. I was to 'provide security', which proved needed as the stink of death drew more white rats, and I kept shooting them whenever and wherever they showed. The noise of my rifle was making my ears ring, and I was glad for dark goggles, as they preserved my low-light vision in spite of the huge muzzle flashes

“What is this, a rat-mine for these things?” I spat, as the other three dumped rats and pieces of rats in the barrel.

“More or less,” said the soft voice. “These are from that one room Gabriel found a bit further in, and it was the chief 'rat-room' on this floor.”

“So that room needs to be cleared,” I spat, as I removed a training aide from my vest. I then pulled the pin and flung the thing hard down the hall, where it vanished. I dove for the messy and blood-slicked floor, and the roar that resulted caused an echoing screech chorus.

“I think you got onto a lot of white rats with that thing,” said Esther. “Now where is that place?”

I got to my feet, changing magazines, then led off down the hall I'd tossed that training aide with Esther hot for my second and the other two behind us. I could hear Esther chamber a round with a faint clacking noise, then suddenly fire twice, the huge white flashes lighting up the hallway behind me as the death-screech of a white rat pounded on my ears nearly as badly as noise of my boots. I had no lighting for my eyes, but here, I did not need it.

I was a better predator than any rat ever born. After all, I'd gone after Iggy, and he made 'Big Momma of Geeststaat' look like a sick joke. I snapped off a round, this pivoting in mid-stride, firing by instinct as I kept my head toward the oncoming enemy, then as I came unto the threshold of the rat-room, rifle in hand – I had fired it like a handgun using the pistol-grip to hang onto it, and the echoing screeching that resulted told me 'Señor Rat' was not doing well – I knew I had found the room Gabriel described, and while the rune-curses were painted in dried blood, and there were a lot of them, the 'stupid' aspect of these things made me wonder as to just how much these people knew about runes and curses.

“Almost like a nine-year-old witch trying out her crayons up at Norden,” I muttered. “Here lies Death? Duh, that's a curse?”

Something not of this world seemed to bloom in my mind; I then laughed like a maniac, and pointed the index finger of my right hand at that particular curse, and bluish haze obscured the wall. I knew just what to do to this prime bit of rubbish, as in 'to come here will mean your death if you are a witch'! The result, however, was not what I expected.

The wall itself burned, then erupted in bluish-white fire, and the four runes that had been present before, then the color of long-dried bloodstains, now acquired a tone of virulent blue-white. To the former four was added a fifth, this at the end, and I knew its meaning.

The witches, those who thought themselves to be first, were in truth last: and by preceding their symbol with a curse, their own curse was put back upon them.

And that new curse, this burning like fire and shedding sparks and heat like lightning made tangible and real, bloomed such that it covered that whole wall. All other curses, stupid or otherwise, were devoured, swallowed up, and their mass and power added to this new one; and the same thing happened to any and all statements in both underworld German and the common language, for all writ in here were by witches, and they were not to be.

These were the drunken scrawlings of a vast and assorted herd of witches, and as this blazing fire took over the whole of the walls and ceiling and floor of this room, I felt reminded of what God had done to his enemies. That latter portion of the section in the book named 'Second Law', where the law was given anew to a group of new soldiers, these raised up in a wilderness where the old way of life of their forebears was razed to perish with its practitioners.

God didn't do mercy when it came to his enemies. He entreated for a season, or so it seemed; yet when his mind was set, he set his face like flint, his heart like stone, and his fist grabbed his war-club and he crushed his enemies with a methodical and cruel glee, one seemingly that of a sociopath.

Yet I knew the difference. This was a person who deserved such attention, because of who he was; and woe to the fool who ignored him. It made for a comment, even as the room bloomed with billows of bluish haze and lightning seemed to shoot past me up the hallway.

“This rubbish that has been eaten dated from the time of those smelly witches named Generals, and it has been here longer than I have, correct?” My voice came out as a virulent spitting, and it continued with “now what did I just do, beyond erase a lot of rubbish and consume everything the witches did in here?”

“I th-think you dumped a curse on those witches,” said Esther, a note of terror in her voice. “That curse had four runes, and now it has five, and...”

The room shimmered with lightning, now daring anyone who might come in wearing pointed boots. The place was just short of one where you prayed long and hard before coming in on your hands and knees, naked in soul, with bared feet and a barer-yet heart, one which needed to be right before God to not be destroyed without mercy as an enemy of God.

God showed no mercy to such, and he consigned them to hell as his sovereign right. After all, there was such a thing as justice, and you did not spit in the eye of the one who made you and gave you life! This gave me new words, and I said them in obedience to the one giving them me:

“I shall be death, and terror to witches, and my shadowed form shall hunt you

fools down without cease.” This was murmured, a voice soft yet ringing with

raw power, “and all that you do I shall know, this when I am of a mind to learn it -

and then, I shall show myself with no warning whatsoever...

A pause for effect. One had to put the screws to the enemy when and where it

was possible. My voice raised in volume, such that it eclipsed the now raving

roar of the lightning. It needed to, for this last part was the capstone of the

edict given me to issue: “I shall set you alight, this as if you fools were candle, and

I a volcano in eruption!”

The room had formerly been lit up with lightnings, but now, it was a solid blue realm, this composed of nothing but energy, bluish white, something not of this earth, for it shot thigh-thick bolts of lightning up over our heads as if to warn us off. Even I was not immune: this was something so violent and savage that no witch could endure, nor even one known by witches as 'the monster' would be wise to remain longer. I began backing out, then some ten steps later, I turned my back as a hair-raising shriek rattled the walls and shook the house to its foundations...

I heard faint screeching: this not of pain, but a scream of absolute unrelenting terror, as something not of this world had taken up residence, something that devoured evil as if it were its choicest food, and as I began running back behind the others, now guarding their tail, I left the rats that had died to bury themselves, for I could feel the hunger of this thing, and...

That hunger was growing, growing fast, and becoming insatiable: it was, indeed, 'a whole world hotter' than anything raised by a witch since the time of the drowning, and it competed with the full-manifested power of a most-evil Källendäré.

“What did I do, make that thing a preflood curse?” I thought, as I now ran hard to keep up with the others. They seemed to have vanished, only I soon learned why – Big Momma's bad-to-the-tail twin was about to show, and when the rat sprung waist-high from the side, I turned in mid-stride...

My rifle's barrel found its mouth...

And a burst of 'broom-fire' turned the entire rat into a crimson haze, this in what seemed the blink of an eye as golden-colored objects sprayed wildly from the rifle's ejection port to the tune of terrible screams.

With 'Señor Rat' dealt with, however, we still had to deal with his swift-coming progeny, and the blood-slicked muzzle of my hot gun turned to find a swarm of white rats.

I changed magazines, this so rapidly my hands seemed blurred as everything came to a near-complete stop, then as my rifle found my shoulder – I'd 'sprayed' Big Momma's Husband from somewhere near my hip, as there wasn't time to get the buttstock up to my shoulder and the rat was coming from an angle as I entered a larger room – the scope 'lit them up' red-hazed and distinct.

My rifle was hungry for blood, as these rats were not only imported, but they had been cursed, and since I had done what I had done, now every such accursed rat was coming at a run, much as if it called them to burn.

Why?” This question rang like a long-tolling bell as I kept shooting rat after rat after rat, my shots rapid yet inerant. The answer, of course, I was providing, and would provide, and carry to its ultimate conclusion. I laughed, and continued firing, changing magazines one after another, a smooth rhythm continuing as I fired, paused, changed, hit the bolt release, then resumed the spitting thunder that lit up the room as brightly as if this were my lightning made real and tangible.

“To be slaughtered, you damned rats,” I shouted, as the flashing of my rifle's muzzle was a steady and barely flickering blue-white billow of long scorching flame that either struck these slow-moving creatures with mile-per-second bullets... Or, in some cases, when they had decided to come for me, they were torn apart first by the bullet as it hit them in mid air, then the brilliant lightning of the muzzle flash blew them apart and incinerated them, leaving their charred pieces to mound themselves somewhere near my feet.

Suddenly, however, this was 'over', and a raving gun-toting swarm of people poured into the room, all of them smelling strongly of 'powder and lead. Esther was the speaker of this phrase, and it fit us all.

“Worst scent in the whole world,” she spat. “Now I want that stuff that smells good, as I need it, and I know why Annistæ wishes scent when she fights those Särpientæ do Mallé called Cabroni!”

“You seem to be learning her language,” I said calmly. “Now where is that Komaet? I want to get into it, and spew until my teeth turn green, as I must have shot enough ammunition to fight a stinking war.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sepp deadpan. “I didn't bother with much beyond what looked likely, as once I heard you shooting like that I knew it was trouble, so I grabbed that one weapon you showed in that class, and now I know something about trouble, all right.”

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans. “I think that stiff shot is a bit much for rats unless they are really big ones, as it turns them into something fit for that stuff that I want two jugs of instead of boiled distillate, as it is not inclined toward fire and boiled distillate is.”

“Just less so than what is commonly called 'well-dried distillate',” I said. “Ooh, this is awful. I could do with some, uh...”

I did manage a dose from my small cloth satchel, followed by one of those 'cup-sized' plastic containers of beer, but then someone handed me a damp cloth and a Kuchen coated thickly with cherry jam. I ate the thing hungrily, then the pain in my shoulder became so ferocious that I gasped and nearly went to my knees from the pain alone. Anna then 'dosed' again me with stunning swiftness, and as the pain faded quickly from that location, I noticed my knees were hurting less.

They had been each been hurting like the left one had that one time I had lain in bed while at school, and moving the thing through ten degrees of arc had been so painful that I had screamed. In my case, screaming due to pain meant one thing: “forget entirely about that one to ten scale, sir – this pain is so bad it goes well beyond TEN. Please, could I have Something for it???”

And a dose of Diazepam beforehand, so I do not have the horrors, if you could. I'm not sure those would be better than screaming, as they can make me scream also. That last dose of morphine, this injected into an IV catheter, told me any dose of that drug given thusly was so diabolically unpleasant that...

Forget that infernal Morphine, drat it! Everything! Yes, Everything about me was going so strange from those two doses that I felt as if in a Blender, and I was having something too much like the horrors for me to like it – only these were the strangest species of them I had ever endured, for this was absolutely real, and there were no strange birds of sable hue, no undead persons in grave clothes dropping teeth steadily, and no irate noblemen with trowels who spoke of a vile-tasting wine that wasn't even fit for flavoring tough old marmots in Soup!

To wit: to my right, there was someone dressed in a manner fit to impersonate the Ether Bunny – no fluffy cotton-wad tail, no soft and floppy pink-lined ears, no whiskers – but otherwise, their costume was dead accurate, even to the light blue pocketed vest that went from chest to groin with the chemical formula of ether – that CH5-OH-CH5 blazing like lighting across it – seemed to be waving me on, and I was floating along like a balloon. For some reason, though, I was floating upon my back, and covered with a soft, fluffy, and warm blanket, and what I lay upon felt like a thick, fleecy cloud of some kind. It was very pleasant, even if the surroundings were peculiar enough to make me wonder if I was sane.

Sane or not, I was glad that I had a soft and full-coverage set of DARK goggles, as where this person was leading me – this being was female, it was a person, and was holding my hand while my left hand was being placed on a very large and very soft object that seemed to be glued to my face – was a nightmare, but this person holding my hand had promised to keep me safe. It made for a question.

“Are you a divine messenger?”

“No,” she said, her voice the very definition of calm, even if it was a trifle tinny. “I am an attendant, and this is part of what I do – when I'm not teaching others how to do what I am doing. This job is important enough that I'm going to be leading a team who will be working on you, and you need more than we can do right now.”

“What do I need, then?” I asked. I wondered how I could speak – it was normally impossible to do so while in my current state – and more, I wondered how it was now so easy to breathe.

“You need full alteration, and nothing less, and a level of that treatment that is well beyond anything we have documentation on,” she said calmly, as we entered a large room, one with a ceiling lit with the brightest hot-white lightning I had ever seen, and then I needed to hold her hand, at least until she pressed something laying next to me.

I felt much calmer in seconds.

“I just adjusted a few things, as your 'fear' readings went off-scale,” she said. “The program needs to be rewritten, as these poor dumb things we have are so difficult to use we have to work long hours to help what we have, and doing better is not easy.”

I lifted my left hand, reaching toward this oddly warm and 'fuzzy' device she had touched, then she 'squeaked', this again sounding a trifle tinny. She then said, “now what did you do? This is a lot better now!”

Again, her voice was the very picture of calm, and as I looked at her 'fluffy' arms, I just now noticed that somehow we had gone through a really weird place so as to enter this weirder-yet one. I looked at her arms and saw rows of IV catheters looking utterly unlike any of those horrible things I had endured so many times in the past.

“You'll be asleep shortly,” she said, as somehow I floated from the cloud I was on to another one, this one fluffier yet... and then I was surrounded by 'Ether Bunnies', though all of these soft-voiced people...

“Anna?” I asked. One of them reminded me a lot of her, so much so that I thought this woman to be her – or perhaps her identical twin, a closer match than Joost and his twin brother.

“My name is Eva,” she said. “I've got a year to go on my schooling and practicum, but I've done a lot of work on people hurt by drips.” Brief pause, then, “I am increasing your sedation level, as I can tell you are very frightened. This will not hurt. I swear it will be so, and I can speak of it, as I've been where you are as part of my practicum, so I can tell people what this is like because I've had it done to me. Yes, you are becoming sleepier, yes, it is night time, you wish to sleep...”

Somehow, I yawned, though how I could do this noise was a mystery. I did want to sleep. I was so tired, so very tired, I closed my eyes, it was my bed at home, and...”

“Now I know how tired you are,” said Anna emphatically, “and I know you need a nap after shooting three barrels of rats and putting empty brass things all over, but who is this woman named Eva and what is an attendant?”

“W-way beyond a normal doctor,” I muttered. “That was so strange I have no words for it. I was talking with the Ether Bunny, and this person... Was it a person? They looked really s-strange, almost like Annistæ when she was wearing her really dark goggles and her hood turned up, only f-fluffy and... One of them sounded a lot like her, in fact, and she was thought quite the capable one.”

“Did she have my name?” asked Graćiella.

“N-no, it was I-Ionaæ,” I said. “She was short, very thin, had very small hands, just like a good doctor needs to have...”

“Yes, where you come from, where surgery is yet in the dark ages compared to what you were being shown,” said the soft voice. “It helps to be uncommonly dexterous there, though their work is done more with special instruments rather than actually reaching inside someone.”

“D-don't they have to do that occasionally?” I asked.

“Yes, and they're trained to do 'emergency' work, all of those people – and those students were all like that one woman doctor you knew, if not more so, and the person walking you in was a senior instructor, one who runs a medical school.”

“M-medical school?” asked Anna. “Is it like Sarah has spoken of the west school being?”

“No, it is not, at least not currently,” said the soft voice. “It will be for you – as you'll get the full course while in the black sack.”

“F-full course?” asked Anna. I could hear no small amount of fear in her voice.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. I then noticed a strange 'mark' on my arm. “What caused that?”

“You needed some time in a Téatré,” said Graćiella, “but there is no such thing here, so while that one new woman held your hand, I gave you medicine, and this is that kind that came earlier for those two.”

“You what?” I gasped.

“I never thought I would see my dream happen,” said Anna, “but she was doing it, and I need to set under her until I can get my rump in that black hole and get the full six years!”

“Works a bit faster in there,” I asked. “Now what, exactly, did you do?”

“You had fainted and looked to be badly hurt,” she said, “and there was a special medicine that has calming properties. I drew that up first in a jeringæá, then some for starvation, and then a small amount of this weaker medicine for pain, as she” – here, Graćiella indicated Anna – “said you were likely to be very sensitive to it, and she spoke truly, as you were speaking of these big black birds and this bad wine Cabroni like to drink for some minutes.”

“The horrors,” I murmured. “What was I given?”

“What that one anesthesiologist should have done, which was put ten milligrams of that one drug in your IV first and then put in the morphine after he'd given the Diazepam a minute to commence working. You were given a bit more than two milligrams of an equivalent drug, however – and you were in sufficient pain to need that much.”

“How much?” I asked. I was glad I had dark goggles on, and now I noticed I had earplugs in each ear – though everyones' speech was still quite loud and the lighting coming from every source thereof seemed...

“Why is the place lit up with lightning?” I asked, as a raging tree-thick lightning bolt shot across the hall some distance to our front and seemed to 'fry' the very air. “What happened?”

“I would like very much to know that, as someone wrote in these letters, once I have only seen a few times, these words that kill witches dead,” said Graćiella. “They are not 'bad-letters', but those writ in the first part of the book, and that place we were in – it is as now as clean as a place to do kiregéo, and I checked you carefully once you looked better.”

“I w-what?” I gasped.

“I think you need to get full-loaded and red-faced, and that while you fetch another bath and your clothing goes in that washing machine,” said Deborah. “I'll spoon-feed you if I must, as I know what you did, and that place is now a deathtrap for any witch ever born – even those witches that named that one 'bhoy', they would go up in smoke if they went inside that place!”

“What did I do, then?” I asked.

“Something similar to what 'bhoy' did after he'd survived fifteen years of those witches spoken of chasing him with the goal of achieving his demise upon their altars,” said the soft voice. “You'll be able to do everything he did before the Curse is entirely broken.”

“Everything he d-did?” I gasped, as we funneled into single file so as to go back into the laboratory. There were a lot of people present, all of them moving rapidly, and both carts were much in use, as well as a hoard of wheelbarrows – these strangely quiet, well-made, darkly 'varnished', and strangely-textured.

“Ai, I will need to put new tires on those things,” said Annistæ. “They are becoming cracked and are badly worn.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“Wheelbarrows, though they're the strangest things I ever saw for looks,” muttered Lukas. “Now you cleaned out what some have been calling a rat-mine, only if that was a rat-mine, it had to be the mother-rat-lode of those things, and all of them things were white rats for shape if not color.”

“I bl-blew one to bits,” I muttered. “F-four f-feet l-long in the body, and it was the c-consort of Big Momma.”

“I saw that and I still don't believe it,” said Sarah, “even if you put more cartridges on me than I knew how to endure. If Georg thinks himself to be stiff enough to put the muzzle of a gun to an Iron Pig, well I know another person stiff enough to do that, as that big rat ate your lead coming from the mouth of your rifle, and it went to pieces!”

“Remember, dear,” said the soft voice. “Recall just how he dealt with Iggy? Pithed him with a sword after putting a grenade down his throat?” Pause, then, “bhoy at his strongest, when he saved that one single family from the drowning, would not have stopped that lizard.” Another pause, then, “he did.”

“And when they read my mind, they are going to faint in droves – or will they?” I asked.

“Some incidents will have them needing to be dosed, yes,” said the soft voice. “That one... Hard to say right now. Some of what those people endure over there is not a whole lot better than standing up to a huge cursed reptile.”

“What?” I asked.

“An advanced society can have advanced hazards, as you will learn in short order,” said the soft voice. “It's kind of hard to get burnt to a crisp by electrical fires when the sole source of high-voltage high-amperage electricity is lightning.”

“Duh, near three hundred volts of direct current running to the final amplifier of a transmitter,” I spat. “Get tossed as if you were dealing with a fetish when 'Bee-Plus' decides it wishes to bite you.”

“Ai, I have had that happen, and yes, it does bite,” said Annistæ, as we came into the room. For some odd reason, I was still not entirely here, even after I had eaten two entire inch-thick pieces of bread smeared with cherry jam.

I needed someone helping me eat, as my fingers had become like huge balloons, my hands were clumsy beyond comprehension, and I was 'nodding off' due to sheer fatigue, much as had happened long ago when I sat for what seemed long tired years at a keyboard pounding out copy with my ever-clumsy fingers. I only truly woke up when I was in a tub being tickled by a thick and pleasant-smelling mound of bubble-bath.

“Oh, this is better,” I said. “Where was I?”

“Off doing a very credible imitation of that preflood individual the witches named 'bhoy',” said the soft voice. “You needed lengthy rubbing with Komaet, as your shoulder was black and blue from shooting 'an entire ammunition can' of 'high-energy hollow points' at all of the rats on the fourth floor, and you used every magazine you had in that 'bandoleer' and got a lot of free rounds to boot.”

“I killed that many rats?” I gasped.

“You all-but cleaned those things out, and this was the floor for rats,” said the soft voice. “That wasn't all, either.”

“What else did I do?”

“Put it this way,” said the soft voice. “Those rooms – and indeed, this entire portion of the house proper – is now an absolute 'deathtrap' for anyone who thinks like a witch, much less witches themselves. Only one thing ever made where you came from is worse as far as witches or those who think like them.”

“What would that be?” I asked.

“The tabernacle,” said the soft voice. “As in this area might permit the wearing of shoes upon one's feet, but otherwise – if you're a witch, or you want to be a witch, this place will devour you.”