A fate worse than death...

As I finished my bath, I noted not merely a substantial degree of warmth present in the general area, but also, a great many hanging sheets, two of which surrounded me and the other two walls forming my cubicle being of well-laid masonry. The non-flickering light, I now noticed, was provided by one of those lanterns we had located earlier, and while the thing wasn't turned up terribly high – a faint odor, with light worthy of a small candelabra running good wax candles, or perhaps four or five good student's lanterns – it wasn't smoking at all.

“Is that one running 'used cleaning solvent'?”

“It is, which is why you're noticing that faint odor,” said the soft voice. “Now, once you are 'rinsed', you'll wish that tub there to drain into its drain, as that goes to a rather long and 'smelly' settling tank that has accumulated a lot of dead rats and other things over the last century and more, and that water is now dissolving their remains.”

“Uh, not just skeletons, correct?” I asked.

“When you 'changed' that curse like 'bhoy' did, it not merely became a 'preflood' example for power, it also was rewritten in my language, and then the 'stout' rats tried for you. Those otherwise – they came into that place that is now 'swimming with dirty water' and there they drowned – and that sump-pump is having no small trouble sucking them up so as to run them through the grinder and then 'cook' them prior to processing.”

“Trouble?” I asked.

“Rats larger than 'just-thrown' tend to need a bit of added force to run through that pump, and since their corpses are floating, that sump-pump is sucking up a lot of those things.”

“Shifts of guards in the room,” I murmured. “I'll need to check on packing periodically, but part of those up here can do, in addition to watching for trouble, is, uh, pack our gear under supervision. I'll just need to generate a list...”

“Let the rest of your gear get up here first, and get a nap while that is happening,” said the soft voice. “There are some bed-clothes just to your right. Change into those, pick up your weapons, and find a bed. There's going to be a certain level of 'hot-bunking' tonight, and the night is now 'indeed' night entirely.”

“About nine PM,” I murmured. “About another two hours...”

Hot-bunking had already started in earnest in this area, as I found no less than several collapsed people laying under covers thin due to the solid warmth of stoves, both of them heating large buckets of water. In my case, however, something very strange happened – I fell asleep before I found a bed, and when I awoke, it was at the prompting of Sarah's soft hand upon my shoulder. She was dressed in 'traveling clothing', this with a hood that hid much of her face. It looked good for 'hiding', surprisingly, as this clothing was of mottled tints of green and brown, and looked well-padded and very comfortable.

“I have your bed now,” she said between deep and lengthy yawns. “We'd best get used to sleeping turn-about, as this is going to be a night fit for a nightmare.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Two of those people bringing up those bricks of lead went up in smoke like bad witches,” said Sarah. “I am not sure those rooms need trapping, so now we have five wire-fitted exploding things that look like weed bundles, and nowhere to put them.”

“Did, the, uh dust-mounds get put to some good use?” I asked.

“Yes, they went into that one machine that grinds rats up and makes them into lantern fuel,” said Sarah. “It's already laid dung twice, and each time it dumped a big smelly bucket of that stuff that we had to hustle downstairs in a great hurry. Then, there is the lead, and that place needs no lighting.”

Too much electricity?” I asked. “Ever hear that one? I did while I was praying for those three Norden-weapons that were in that cussed fetish-cabinet Hendrik was using for a 'museum'.”

Sarah was indeed 'spooked', then in a small voice, she said, “y-yes, while I had hair over all of me and I prayed for this one old sword I'd found. It was something a good deal smaller and lighter than Norden's usual, such that it was a fit weapon for carry while in the wilderness, but I dare not let anyone see this thing, save perhaps you. I have it hid in my things right now.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because it was one of those swords those scout-groups use, and this one had runes marking it – and they did not go away, even if the sword became something like what Deborah has for shape and color,” said Sarah.

“Dear, how many runes were there on this thing?” I asked pointedly, as I began to get dressed on the other side of the curtain in an unoccupied area, this seemingly set aside for dressing. It had clothing racks, two small ones, and 'suites' of clothing on them, all of them embroidered with names. Someone had been busy, and my clothing had nothing of the sort – yet. Sarah might well put my name on a lab-coat, if I 'got onto' one of those.

“About thirty of them, which makes for a very nasty curse,” said Sarah. “There were some really strange signs on that thing, though, something about it eating a falling star and then something about it being an especially good grade of steel, though I'd best not speak what it wrote as I do not wish a knotted tongue.”

“High-alloy exotic steel?” I murmured softly. “A lot of symbols, most of which you did not recognize as they don't use them at the west school and some were numbers? Did this thing get 'snow' on it?”

“Y-yes, it did,” said Sarah. “It also had edges that were so sharp that I could cut down trees quickly to make shelters, as in I could cut down a sapling with a single blow if it wasn't more than the size of my wrist.”

“Dear,” I murmured, as I put my trousers on, these being my usual 'greens', “what you got was a smaller version of what I held the third ditch with, and that was not a commonplace Norden-sword, but the sword of a... A Thinker?”

“Precisely, and no ordinary one, but Norden's leading 'Stinker' for the upper third of the continent,” said the soft voice. “He was dressed like a tinned thug, Sarah arrowed him in the throat when she attacked their camp from ambush, and she found that sword while retrieving her arrows and finishing off the wounded.” Pause, then, “once she found that sword, killing the injured and wounded became a lot easier, especially when she went after other camps of those thugs – as she did not lose any arrows that time.”

“And it looked to be a good sword, because it was one of the best they do,” I murmured. “You sliced on a fair number of trees, it held up very well, and then that night you thought to rub on it while next to your small and down-in-a-hole cooking fire – correct?”

“Yes, and my hands and every rag I had then became positively filthy,” said Sarah. “Now I am entirely ready for bed, yawn. I can talk a few minutes more, but I think I need to tell you about what is happening outside.”

“They are, uh, finishing up the boat-trailer?” I asked. I thought she meant 'outside the building'.

“I think that thing is done, and has been done for a day or more,” said Sarah. “I meant in that large room.” Pause, then, “about five chemistry reactions are going, especially that dart-dip, that one woman is helping Graćiella look after Hans, Katje, and Mathias, shot keeps getting dumped in the tubs every time they're used no matter who uses them, and those bins that have shown are getting looked at, yawn.” Pause, then, “I think I should sleep, as my s-speech is beginning to make no sense to me, and that means I will fall asleep in a few minutes whether I wish to or not. Good night, least for an hour or two.”

I finished my dressing, and going out into the main area saw it ablaze with light, light-stands much in evidence with either alcohol-fueled lanterns running the first output of the alcohol-fuel reactions, a vast number of red-painted wick-lanterns, and a lot of very busy people. I went to where someone who looked like Deborah was running a reaction, this to make what might have been more of that infernal chemical weapon that started with the juice of Krokus, and when I looked closer at her, she said shyly, “now I am glad, as I am not a Kemikalé, and neither is that man who got his head cracked and his finger shortened to remind him to listen close to Déo, but I have heard you know of these matters to some degree.”

“Uh, some, yes,” I said. “I am not Annistæ, though.”

“Cé, you are not,” she said. “Are you of the Mule, the one which fights?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Oh, that lamp may wish to be turned down just a little bit. It's got that new alkoli-based lantern fuel in it, that stuff that's fresh from our reactor setup, and while that stuff does work well in those, it gives about a third more heat at a given setting, and that lamp was set for aquavit.”

“Grací,” she said. For some reason, I had the impression of a certain young lady I had once known, and her name was Eva. More, she was from Italy, and while her English was more than passable, she spoke at least three other languages – and she spoke them better than English. Her native tongue, of course, was Italian – and this word came out as if spoken by her. It made for a question.

“Do you have really curly hair, nice brown stuff grows that way, about shoulder-length, and...” I had lost words as to going further.

“Cé, I do, and I am of the Snake's Totem, and I was caught while doing my business by Cabroni,” she said. “I was working on a rapid rail-car, putting together one of the engines they use for those, when all of a sudden these smelly black people came and started shooting everyone, and I dove under my workbench and hid, as there were a lot of those evil-bad-pigs-that-wish-to-worship-that-bad-lizard,” she said. “No one of the Snake may worship anyone save Déo, and hence if one is brought in, one must first become right with him, and for me, that was hard.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I touched the top of the reflux column and found a rag, then dampened it with water and carefully wrapped it around the glass. It needed that help, as this Krokus juice varied a bit and the stuff needed blending. The trouble was, uncorking all of those vials and then doing so would have caused nausea, vomiting, prostration, and general effects more appropriate to a thoroughly unpleasant version of tear gas.

She looked at one of the thermometers – this reaction had two, each in its own special fitting and surrounded by a long green cork – then looked at some notes, and murmured appreciatively. “This is a touchy one, much like one of those carts that some of the Mule's men run. They need great care in their adjustment, and care with their testing, but I have only seen one thing that is faster, and I saw it coming into this building.”

“What was this?” I asked.

“A very large dark horse, one that I was told to not go near by the man bringing me in,” said the woman. “I was not planning on riding him, as I could tell he was too large for me, but I did wish to rub him some.”

“Jaak,” I said, thinking of what he looked like in a series of pictures. She then looked at me, and I was totally astonished to see 'black-hole' goggles. She then nodded.

“That is him,” she said. “I think there was more to it, though, as Toréo hurried me and that other man up here, and put the food to us right away, especially me, and I learned why then, as I found several of my teeth had gone loose.”

“More than that, dear,” I said. “You were about to have a severe hypoglycemia attack, and he could see, uh, heat-waves coming off of you, and his knees are in no shape to carry you up several flights of stairs at a dead run.” Pause, then, “now, are you drinking that, uh, iced beer regularly?”

“Yes, I am, that and these strange medicines,” she said. “I endured much coming here, as those Cabroni called out this word that made many bright colors flash before my eyes, and...”

“They called out a great-find-crush-kill on you, a real one spoken in either runes or the old version of Underworld German, and every stinking witch up to the task was put onto your trail so as to find and kill you!” I squeaked. “What was it you did?”

“I was born different, I think, that and I saw a feathered serpent as a child,” she said. “They were calling me this evil word, one which was horrible to hear, but we of the Snake are often so, and I am no different than is their usual.”

“What were they doing there, especially in that location?”

“Being impatient with their vehicles,” said the soft voice, “and while they misread just how marked she is, only one person in this building has more markings than she does, and that's you,” said the soft voice. “Given what she was doing, however, they should have let her strictly alone.”

“Uh, don't tell me,” I murmured. “They c-called you a Scheutzal.”

“Cé, that is their word,” she said. “I am no such thing, even if I am but one of three people in the entirety of El Vallyé who can work on that type of assembly, and I must travel a great deal so as to repair many things.” Pause, then, “I am said to have golden hands. Watch me.

I then saw the woman's hands, and here, I was amazed. Not merely did she have six unusually long and dexterous fingers, but her fine motor control was such that I could see her not merely adjusting the saws we had received earlier, but also running the lathe at home and perhaps even making Sextant parts. It made for a question.

“Did you run machines?”

“Yes, special ones, and many of them,” she said. “More, much of what I did was especially close, and that engine I was working on, no two of them are alike. They have two two-passaged mixers for fuel, sixteen ports for their inlets and exhaust, and when one of them is running right, it howls first, and then it spits fire from its exhaust and spins the wheels, such that it must be run carefully.”

“It comes on the, uh, cams,” I said. “Has to turn some serious revolutions before it begins to really go, but when it gets there, it really goes.” Pause, then, “spits fire?”

“Yes, from the piping that comes from the exhaust,” she said. “That required that I take many classes in Máthematikæ, as one must first figure the length and diameter of such piping and adjust it on test, but then one must also figure its ordering, and then with one of those engines, one must not run any restrictions, lest it run very badly and not make its full power.”

“B-badly?” I asked.

“If it is right, and your mixers are working well,” she said, “then you will get a dull red flame in the end of the exhaust until the engine wakes up.” This was a pause so as to drink. “Then, it will spit a bit of blue flame, but when it is running as it should, there will be a long cone of such flame, and then one must be careful and work the gearcase quickly, as it makes much power then.”

“And those need a lot of work,” I said.

“Cé, they do,” she said. I then noticed where I had put my hand, which had strayed upon what had originally been a crude half-done list occupying one page. It was now several pages, everything on each page was neatly inked, it was held together with what looked like a diaper clip made of either stainless steel or titanium, and the whole, upon examination, spoke of both precisely what was needed to do, but also, the order in which it needed to happen – and it was organized down to our numbered and 'coded' bag-tags. I lifted the paper-stack and undid the metal clip, which had a sliding lever that moved to the side. The whole was very neatly done, either of a trio of lost-wax castings, or, more likely, a close species of forging, one that forged parts to precise sizes and left 'excellent' surface finishes, ones that in most cases merely needed minor abrasive cleanup in certain 'rough' places prior to surface treatment to relieve stresses and give the needed 'tooth' for shot-peening. I wondered why I thought this way, and then, did not – as the woman gave me the needed answer within a second at the most.

“That is what their parts are made of, right there,” she said. “Titaniko is the best that I can say it, and not only must we have them pound the parts and machine them to size, but then we must fit them, so we tell them that we need the parts a certain size and we have two pairs of drawings – and our second set is different from those we send them.”

“Given you must fit those selectively, you most likely have to lap them to fit, then fit your own bearings because they do not do that type, and then you must carefully grind the crankshaft on these things each and every time, because you call out your heat-treat one way and you have to redo it and then hone each journal to its proper location and make it round!”

“More than that,” she said. “The usual with those is we give them drawings of a rough-cut part, and then we must finish it mostly, bake it in a special oven, and then finish them – and those must be done right for one of those engines to endure long enough to be useful to those running them.” Pause, then, “and then, there are fuel-saws.”

“You work on those?” I asked.

“Cé, that and assemble the special ones,” she said. “The commonplace ones, those just need the usual work, but if you wish a five and fifty to scream like an angry cat and not turn itself into scrap-metal the first time you use it, every piece of it must be right, and then every such saw needs its number and its workbook, as those need much work to not scatter themselves.”

“Uh, we have one of those here, that and an eighty-eight,” I said.

“I was told of them, but I have not had time to look much, as this work must be done by the first light of the sun, if not sooner,” she said. “Now, in a few minutes, this portion will be done, I will need to arouse Annistæ, and then that list you did will wish you checking matters between your times on a cot. There are five of you going on a long and dangerous trip tomorrow early, and you especially will be working hard that whole time, so you must not stint your sleep tonight.”

She was nothing short of absolutely right, and as I visited the various benches, I could tell that certain people were 'supervising matters', one being Toréo. I gave him the list and the tags, visited the privy, ate a Kuchen – and then fell asleep on my feet to wake up in a bed with Karl gently shaking me. He seemed to have spoken to Sarah regarding how I tended to 'startle' at times.

“Yes?” I asked sleepily.

“It is time for you to walk your rounds,” he said mysteriously, “and I need a nap bad, as I'm going to be busy tomorrow, and that for a day that is longer than any such day in all of my life.”

Sarah was up also, though she seemed in a sleepwalking daze, and as I 'made my rounds', I noted that not merely was the lead being stacked with a great deal of care in a number of rooms nearby, each with a wall lit with light-blazing Hebrew letters and populated with people so nervous they were speaking of supping with Brimstone if they had a wrong thought, much less acted wrongly. I thought to ask them if this was out of an old tale.”

“You bet it is,” he blurted. “One of them involving Charles and his people, as there were one or two that could do something like that, and another person went to ashes up here not an hour ago.”

“Ashes?” I asked.

“He held a wrong thought more than a second,” said the man. “This area gives you a bit of warning, like if you find something likely and think to remove it, but if you try to take it, or do less than your very best, or anything much at all, then you'll catch fire as if doused in distillate, and you'll burn to ashes in a slow count of ten while screaming as if a witch being burnt by Charles himself!”

“And rats have been scarce, correct?”

“Worrisome ones, yes,” said the man. “They've been all collected up and taken in that laboratory place. I've seen a few common ones, but they're not that common, as there were a lot of white ones, and they'll eat the usual kind if they cannot get food they like better.”

“Like better?” I asked.

“Fresh meat, mostly,” said the man. “I've known butchers, and there's one that told me white rats were nothing but trouble.”

“Uh, he did some walking around like this?” I asked.

“Yes, he did, as those bags started going in, and then this one woman with one of those strange-looking rifles shot her way in here through a big swarm of common rats on a lower floor and needed to come up here to bathe in Geneva, she was so sore.”

“Esther?” I asked.

“I think it might have been her,” said the man. “I'd not want to be a witch around her, as she might have missed two of those things out of the whole mess of them, and every decent barrel that can be spared right now is being filled with rats from that and some other instances of people shooting rats.”

“Hence there is another rat-room on the third floor, if not two of them, and...”

“And those can be dealt with when you return, as their worrisome denizens came up here when you did up this area,” said the soft voice. “Check a bit more, then hunt up a cot and sleep for a bit, again turn-about like you've been doing. You'll need to get all the rest you can tonight, even if it's a stretched night, as tomorrow will be a long, dangerous, and labor-filled day, and then you'll need to deal with matters in the third kingdom's port.”

“And then crash in a bed of sorts for a day and a half,” I murmured.

“Yes, once the worrisome things are dealt with down there,” said the soft voice. “You'll have some chance to sleep before Gabriel needs to set up matters regarding lodging and some of the expected paperwork, then you-all will need to prepare things as you can.”

With that, I went back to 'fortify myself' with beer, food, and a dose for my knees, then also bathe again. I used field-soap followed by medical soap, and this time, I left but a small amount of jagged and rusty metal fragments, a few pellets of assorted shot, and perhaps a few other things I did not need. My skin once more looked healthy, I felt 'well', and once I'd used the privy – I still stank that place up horribly, even if something was 'sucking' the air out of that place, such that the smell did not remain – I found a cot, lay down with a loaded pistol in my hand, my sword in its scabbard at my side, and a machine pistol on its strap laying on my chest on its strap, my sleep-goggles on my face, and earplugs in my ears. When dosed, the sleep-goggles merely made matters pleasant for my eyes, such that a lit room was pleasantly dim, much like a spring moon at night-time when going to sleep in my bed at home.

I once more was awoken, though in this instance, I found that the little brass cube was showing time to be '1:38 AM', with some interesting 'navigational data' present on the graphics screen. There were perhaps eight to ten people present in the still-blazing main room, and most of them were moving about doing business of one kind or another, with at least one chemical reaction going. The reek of aquavit was potent, the clothing hanging from 'lines' reminded me of a vast and great laundry, and the washing machine was billowing steam into a fume hood.

“That thing keeps this place aired out, yawn,” said Anna. “I'm about due for a spell on a cot after half a jug of beer.”

“Tinctures?” I asked.

“I did up a good amount of that special one, and Annistæ has an entire vial of the bull formula cooking in some glassware over there, and it's complicated enough that I and Hans need to set under her so's to learn how to do what she's doing when she has that kind there going.” Pause, then, “she's got three more runs of that Krokus juice, and then she'll have a poison fit to give nightmares to Madame Curoue, as all the vials of that stuff wish a time of mingling, or so I suspect.”

“Uh, that smelly witch never had anything like it?” I asked.

“She might, and she might not,” said Anna. “I tried that cane tube and a thrice-dipped dart on a larger rat that was causing trouble on the floor below us, and I can tell you one thing about that stuff.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“I've never seen a rat half again as long as my arm be set alight, but that stuff did that,” said Anna. “It stopped quicker than if I'd shot it with one of those hollow-point bullets from a rifle like I've used on witches, but when they were about to get it in a barrel with a pair of rat-tongs, it twitched twice and then caught fire as if it were a rag soaked in smelly distillate, and that straight from a Houtlaan sawyer's.”

“And those rats I shot?” I asked.

“Those are in barrels next to that room that uses rats, and I hope they can be run before they begin to stink,” said Anna. “Annistæ spoke of this thing like a large stand-chest called a cold-box, and she's thinking one of them coming here is a very good idea.”

“Not a common one, but one from a medical laboratory, one nearly large enough to walk into, and nice rounded corners, as those are the good ones, correct? For special cultures and chemicals?”

“I think so,” said Anna. “Now I think you'll wish to walk about some, and check that lead and see if they're done stacking it – they're doing that business right, as anyone who thinks to do otherwise catches fire as if they were out in the wilderness during that generation's wandering and thinking to turn witch...”

“Uh, those people had been trained to be fully-owned witch-slaves for ten generations, so that's all they knew,” I said. “Maybe a few managed to give it up, but they had to wander until all of those fools died out and rose up sons and daughters who knew nothing of witchcraft – and then they could go to the promised land.” Pause, then, “here, I'm not sure how all that will work out, only that it needs to.”

“I'm not either, but I know that Abbey place is going to have a lot to do with it, and Hendrik's learning to keep later hours in a hurry. He's already moving his day up two hours and more, and he'd do five if he could keep his eyes open without using tree-faller's wedges.”

I was yawning so much that Anna's advice about food, tinctures, and a cot sounded wise, and I found one quickly, after doing all the rest of what I needed to do. In this instance, I fell into a deep sleep, then when I was awoken by a touch upon my shoulder – closer to a gentle rubbing, which I enjoyed greatly – I could feel a change in the air not three seconds after fully waking up.

I needed to do my own special packing, that unique to myself, and then, along with the others, check what had been done and make any corrections needed. A check of the brass cube spoke of it being 'four AM', and that spoke of dawn being in perhaps two hours.

Five-to-nine was going to be short hours today, and that with a normal day, not a stretched one with much strangeness and a lot of shooting and blowing things up.

“And we shove off out the door of the place not five minutes after the sun comes up,” I murmured, as I found my possible bag and began to go through it with due, if not uncommon, care. I soon had 'help' from others.

“Where is everyone?” I asked.

“Some are down in the refectory getting food,” said Gabriel between long sessions of yawning. He had beer handy, and drank from his tinned cup regularly. I had seen a jug floating in a bucket filled with ice and water. “I've learned something of sleeping and guarding, and how one needs to sleep for a time and then patrol for a time, and I think I might manage matters while we are in the river, but once we are out upon the ocean, I will find myself frightened witless.”

“You will wish dosing then,” said Sarah from somewhere nearby. “Now I must check my satchels and my bags, and my clothing, and then once that is done and I get my last bath, then I must don my traveling clothing again once it is dry, as we will be traveling a good deal today.”

“Oh, and your protective vest, also,” I murmured. “Make sure you put what you need in it, and don't stint the bombs or ammunition.”

“Yes, that also,” said Sarah. “Now that list that showed helped a lot, but I can tell there was a lot of trouble, even with those people from the Valley doing their portions and those that have 'seen the hare' recently doing the rest, as there was a lot of stuff in those bins and those bringing them up were so frightened of coming into this place that they stacked them any old way and ran out as fast as they could, much as if they expected an irritated divine messenger to show momentarily.” Pause, then, “I'm not sure those lead-rooms need trapping, as any witch coming up here would be turned into a cinder. Four of those coming up here with lead caught fire and burned, and their ashes went in the rat-hopper, and its' dung-bucket has been going downstairs by the hour, it fills so rapidly with all those rats going in that thing.”

“Dung?” I gasped.

“It has little odor now, but if I ever saw something fit to be in a manure pile, that stuff is it, and the same for what comes out of the portion of that chemistry equipment that produces that alcohol fuel, and the tanks of fuel-gas are filling steadily with this thing that makes gas and compresses it. Then, there are a number of machines here in this one back room, most of them being very greasy, and I think they were greased with a mixture of fourth kingdom grease and torment-grease, if I go by how they felt to touch those things.”

“Greasy?” I asked.

“Yes, some that Andreas identified as being like some he's seen,” said Sarah. “Now I must pack my satchel and other things, and I think you want to...” Sarah looked at me in horror, then gasped, “Ugh! That accursed telescope that came recently! It is so bad it would give one a sick-headache to look into it, and we need it to be right, and...”

“Where is this smelly thing, dear?” I asked. “Don't tell me – Hendrik's office, and he's about angry enough to bite into thirty-line fifth kingdom hot-rivets and spit carpet tacks, as he's just woken up after a four hour nap and found the thing all boxed up and ribbon-tied, and it's setting on his falling-apart desk.”

“I think you are right, though I am not sure he can chew rivets, even those you use for copperware,” said Sarah. “Get some food first, as I can tell that portion is catching up with you.”

“It is?” I asked.

“You've dumped a lot of shot, and only the very last time you bathed did that actually cease happening,” she said. “People bathing up here have filled no less than eight large shot-pouches with mingled shot, which means that there are at least thirty loads fit for guard-muskets, and that presumes that silvery shot is not to be used – and most of that shot was that kind.” Pause, then, “I can think of a use for that silvery stuff, as Deborah did some drawings of how to make those exploding weed-bundles, and I think she made up some of them using that mingled silvery shot and that gray explosive that does not smell.”

“Uh, may wish to tin-plate that stuff,” I said. “Eighty-nine percent tin, the balance silver, and about two hours in a beaker with periodic stirring, with four cast rod-shaped anodes and a decent amount of current.” Pause, then, “it won't scar barrels then, not if we put a fair amount of that tin-silver alloy on it.”

“Good, I wrote that down,” said Sarah. “I'll show it to Annistæ when she wakes up from her nap. Now get down to the refectory, get into a decent meal – I'd try half of a pie if you can manage it – then over to Hendrik's office and deal with that smelly telescope. Lukas may have spoken of it, but he didn't see it until late last night, and now Hendrik knows about how bad it is.”

“Smelly?” I asked.

“It should smell a bit less, given that Hendrik found it slimy with lard and used three rags soaked with lantern fuel on it so as to make it fit to handle,” said Sarah. “It still stinks more than a little.” Pause, then I was handed a small cloth satchel. “Bagged Kuchen, two of them, two vials of honey, a smaller vial of that tincture you need for your knees, and then one of those knives and a bag of the slower pistol ammunition for those pistols we've been using a lot up here. It seems that woman that just arrived can put cold into those knives we have in such numbers, and while it is not your cold, they do work a good bit better as far as sharpness and retaining such an edge. Deborah is quite happy with the ones she did up.”

I took that as my 'sendoff', and headed quickly for the back stairs. The sense of quiet seemed ominous, at least until I got to the second floor. There, I could hear rodents.

Granted, not many rodents, but I could hear, feel, and smell them. It was the floor for rat-mines now, and one wished fowling pieces loaded with shot for these things.

“Red shot and an open choke, and a full belt of shells for them, with a few stiffer shells in case a big one turns up,” I murmured, as I came to the landing between the first and second floors. “I hope that place in General's Row gets rigged good.”

Instantly, I had a question put to me, chiefly as to what kind of rigging – and more, its arranging.

“Why, lots of dangling exploding weed-bundles, with some others rigged otherwise,” I murmured. “Proximity fuses, each one acting independently, and plenty of wasp-shot surrounding an inch-thick charge of rocked cyclohexanite done right – oh, with some added amine clusters tied into that spiral structure, so it has even more bang than it currently does, and a bit of added fuel with some flash-metal incorporated into the stuff when it's rocked. Stuff needs to be a bit unbalanced – a trifle excess fuel, actually. Then it gives maximum blast and brisance, and each such dangling weed-bundle – they need to look like weed-bundles fit for Sam Brumm, so these witches will take them down and assay smoking them – they all need to have eight ounces or a trifle more of the best grade of wasp-shot, that stuff that wasn't stinted and dropped those smelly wasps consistently if they were centered inside of thirty yards.”

“Now you have done it, as General's Row is an absolute deathtrap, at least for the first crop of Generals that get inside that place,” said the soft voice. “Enough of those 'exploding cigars' showed that many of those thugs are going to get not merely 'filled with shot', but actually scattered, as some of them like to suck on weed-bundles, and they will assay lighting these eight-inch-long 'packed tight' things.

Hearing that made for a joke. “We three kings of Orient are, sucking away on a loaded cigar... The cigar was loaded, and it exploded... Si-lent night...”

“Try more like 'noisy as all-get-out night' when those start to go off, as they aren't just hanging from the ceiling by 'strings'. They're also in lots of places that those 'General Thugs' will get into, and they will then 'get ripped' by 'exploding cigars'.

“Wonder if we can get Chucky to suck on a loaded cigar?” I thought. “He'd enjoy that business – get a real bang out of it, probably. Put a nice picture of 'Brave Ulysses' – I was thinking of Ulysses S. Grant when I thought that – on each such loaded cigar, so he knows it's a good one, then when it goes 'bang', it scatters him and nails every one of his friends within ten yards. Silent Night, Chucky.”

Such wishful thinking was not going to get to Chucky, as he was far too clever for such machinations, and I doubted he even knew what to do with such 'wheeling stogies' or whatever those people named 'cigars', so slipping him a loaded one wasn't going to be the easiest thing.

“Those currently found across the sea, no,” said the soft voice. “Those that come later – they do know about 'cigars' and commonly 'suck' on them, so 'Brave Ulysses' cigars will go over well with them until they learn about 'exploding cigars' and how every example will nail 'the three kings' and their retinues when they are burned.”

“So then put something like witch-tables in their cigars,” I murmured. “They get eight miles 'High', and they stumble around and use rigged 'strawberry alarm clocks' as weighing scales, and then find themselves 'eight miles high',” I murmured. “Now, do we have an extract of witch-tables? If we find any drink that our latest example of Chucky likes to get into, then we need to dose his drink with that stuff – that, or turn some hornets loose on him.”

“The hornets will be a bit difficult to procure and then secure, but the witch-tables will be easy to find on your trip to the cove,” said the soft voice. “Just use some wooden tongs to pick them when you 'find' them, and put them in a small sample bag. If you find any of that vile 'beer', or functionary rations that are readily tampered with, put a small piece of one of those things in them.” Pause, then, “those people will then be so trashed that one such individual among a large group of them will cause several entire nests of those smelly thugs to show themselves.”

Passing Hendrik's door, I could feel the tension and 'rage' boiling back inside there: Hendrik, Maria, and whoever else who happened to be back there were so irate that were the responsible parties handy, Hendrik – and Maria – would break out those weapons I had used at the third ditch and cut those people up with them, and follow that up with fowling pieces and shotguns.

No, not my shotgun. That thing was stuffed up with 'green' shot for rodents, though if Chucky showed, he might well catch a load or two to send him elsewhere. I was not picky about just where 'elsewhere' was, either – as in 'somewhere other than here so as to cause trouble'. That sufficed for me.

“They're probably dead or so messed up they're not going to be able to pull one off like that again,” I thought, as I left the trio of sleepy guards behind. These men had seen the hare but hours ago, and while they had bathed, and all of them were packing machine pistols in addition to all three guard-muskets and a pair of pistols each, each man had his cup, and they were all sharing the same jug of beer so as to try to stay awake and alert. This place now expected trouble to come down on its head with no warning, and bad trouble, also, and as I moved across the darkened hall – those witches had hid the candles that had showed, but I had a hunch they'd turn up soon enough.

Sooner than I thought, seemingly, for I was not the only person in a refectory that now operated as if it did not know if it were day or night. The place now had someone on duty every hour of the day, and while much of the food to be had was of the kind that required no preparation – as it was simmering on a stove or in a warming oven – there were a few people that wanted pie.

Whole pies, though in every such case, these people had had long, hard, and hazardous days, and that on short commons indeed; and the faint groans that I heard seeming to come from everywhere told of people that had had trouble working a true eight hour day having worked closer to twenty-three and a half hours – and that with few if any real breaks from such 'hard labor'. It had been a hard day's night, and every one of them had worked as if they were dogs.

“Going to start up again shortly,” I murmured, as I came into the refectory itself. A jug of beer was nestling in a sweaty pot of ice, while some odd-looking small boiled eggs lay in a basket – quoll eggs, if I went by their size. I got some of those – they were still in their shells, wonder of wonders, and they went in my 'satchel' and wondered, briefly, if there was a place I could toast a piece of bread.

I had a distinct hankering for 'boiled egg on toast' rather than a slice of 'pie' right then, as boiled-egg-on-toast was beginning to look likely for a Kommando ration. I had a hunch one of the things that would be taught our people would be 'how to forage quietly and find food to supplement what you have handy from home', though that situation would prevail for those groups sent out on reconnaissance, where the goal would be observation of an area without being detected and possibly setting traps – again, while not being detected.

That, at first, would be the usual, actually – though 'recon' in the first kingdom could all-too-quickly go from 'peacefully watching a section of the Main river from deep cover while munching Kuchen and stewing a tough old marmot, this done while studying on a computer and sending in reports every hour or two' to 'there's an entire stinking Northern armada from Norden coming upstream as if they're running motors in their ships! Break out the rocket launcher and the mortar, and pack up the camp-site! Send that coded message now!

“Figure that's why a trio of fully-refurbished flak guns are going in as quickly as possible so as to defend that landing those people set up,” said the soft voice. “They can bring those in quickly, as well as numbers of 'new' rocket launchers, but when those northern people start coming in real numbers, they're going to dig up the big stuff and set it up near the northern portion of their base for indirect fire, and later another such gun or two at the north-tip itself once they've run a decent 'road' of sorts for moving it and the needed supplies.”

“Big stuff?” I asked idly, as I went past the counter with a pocket full of eggs. I'd found the bread; now all I wanted was either a cook inclined toward toasting bread, or a medium-sized fryer on a hot stove so as to attempt it myself. One of those small folding stands I had recently made was going on the trip if I had to remove it by main force. I had put that upon the list in plain sight, and it was going to toast bread; as Karl, while he wasn't a jam-fiend yet, would most likely become close enough to one to wish to come to blows with me over the state of the jam-pot once we'd been gone a day or two from the mainland.

Hence I'd written a note about a 'house-sized jam-pot, this freshly cleaned, with a smaller item inside of it filled with jam, and three large tins of cheese spread'. We could refill the latter in the third kingdom port, most likely, but dried cherries were rare down that way, and costly when you could get them – or so Sarah had said.

The bread I wished to toast, however, did not have to be 'Deborah' toasted, but I did want my bread warmed, with a 'bit' of toasting of both sides, I did so wish a plate of such food; and I wanted a smidgen of Raw-Deal sauce to go with it, so as to spice up my 'two-egg plate'. I was homing in on a warm stove when my slow stealthy movement caused someone to abruptly show with a loaded 'double-eight' fowling piece in their hands, hammers half-cocked and the gun obviously full-loaded. They were most-ready for trouble in this part of the house, what with the presence of numbers of varicolored rats and occasional plain-dressed yet utterly serious witches in the last day or so.

“It's you,” she said with a sigh of relief. “This thing here is from Ploetzee, and I have a new home there,” she said. “It was so bad here yesterday – first with all those people turning witch, then a bad one showing out back, then five people going up in smoke somewhere on the third or fourth floor, and then this absolute pile of white rats showing and being shot up so bad it looked like someone used a twenty-barrel market-hunting gun on them, that I was glad to have borrowed this one from where I live.”

“Stiff shot?” I asked.

“That's short enough at home that this one has mingled shot in it, and shot they normally remelt,” she said. “It takes an ounce and a half per side when I shoot it, and for close work, half of the usual measure of powder from Ploetzee's own powder mill, much as if I were dealing with tree-rats and not thugs. Distances are close in the kitchen, so you need less punch on your shot, and then you do not wish to lay for a minute on the ground, and that being so if you should hit your target or miss it.”

This 'girl' was an older apprentice, or so I thought until I learned that she was not merely Deborah's age – twenty-three – but also, had had her papers a full two years. More, she'd been on a number of Kommando treks and had done as good as many of the men – and had been wounded a number of times in the process, meaning she was marked and 'hot' for combat. I wondered if she wished to become as the men and women of the Black Rooster: those people normally worked at trades, but nearly all of them were skilled and tenacious soldiers, real ones, ones good enough to be called 'Roosters' where I came from, if not better yet – as in the original Roosters from that second major conflict, those who had trained long and hard on a mountain in the region of my ancestors to jump out of perfectly good airplanes and then take large areas of ground and hold it for long periods. In fact, one of their war-cries was that spoken by my ancestors, and it meant 'we stand alone, together'.

Those of the Rooster here did just that, and their skill and bravery was the stuff of legend. I wanted one of those gunsight emblems myself for my shoulder, and I hoped to earn one one day. I then 'came back to the present', even though I knew I'd find that infernal picture overseas and put it on all of our computers. Our 'branch' of the tree, that for the central part of the first kingdom, would be: 'we stand alone, together'. I wasn't sure how to say that in the language of El Vallyé, but it needed saying, and that often.

“And hence you just needed to ask someone for his spare fowling piece,” I said. “That one need to be gone through?”

“It had that done earlier this year, when it was slower there than it is now,” she said. “Those people have enough new men and women that they're looking to expand their holdings a good bit, and they're wanting new equipment, especially this setup for cutting rifling that gains twist.”

“Give me a few weeks and they'll have that, as well as a partly-rebuilt shop,” I said. “They've got enough recovered musket parts...”

“I know about the recovered musket parts, which is why this gun is now that man's spare rather than his usual,” she said. “I saw some unusual single-barrel weapons used by guards that look fit to be made by the Heinrich works, but I did not see their name on it.” Pause, this while she checked a stove, then put in a small iron 'spoon' of burnt-coal in the firebox portion, this with a stealthy flick that scattered the stuff over the whole of the bed of coals. “This is our 'ready' stove, and it makes for a warm kitchen, but it's easy enough to keep it in readiness. What is it you're inclined to?”

“Uh, a piece of toasted bread?” I asked. “I found the eggs, I can find the Raw-Deal sauce if I have to, but this place is sufficiently unfamiliar that...”

“Your hair,” she said. “You've got enough trouble for ten kings and a hundred king's officers, so if I can cook, you need to set on a stool for a bit. There's one, right there, and I'll have you a stack of toasted bread shortly.”

She went to work with quiet efficiency, though as to why I wished a stack when I wanted to try some sliced boiled eggs upon toast soon came to me – even if this was but my second real instance of such a meal. It caused less griping than pie, I now realized.

“Duh, I get it,” I murmured. “The House Gossip-Line. I'm to go to Hendrik's shortly, I've got to straighten something out in addition to dealing with a nasty fetish-telescope to the point of rendering the same usable, and then the two of them and any guests handy in that place are going to be inclined toward food. Now, do I need a wheelbarrow to carry these supplies?”

“No, as I'll roust someone to carry those you cannot manage readily,” she said. “You have bad knees, if talk has it right, and while they will be fixed in short order, they are bad enough right now to need strong tinctures taken on a schedule.”

“You're right, they are, and I've had to alter my routine a lot recently on account of them,” I said. “That, and every time I've bathed since I got here, I've dumped shot and assorted rubbish. Only the last one was a normal bath.”

“You dumped shot?” she squeaked. “I may have gotten some once or twice, but this sounds like you got peppered solid. Did you?”

“Not sure, dear,” I said, as I sipped my beer and 'listened'. “Not many on duty right now, though give them an hour, and they'll be 'jumping' – that, and getting ready for something big. They had a very late night, almost all of them, and you and 'bout two others are up and doing right now.”

“Yes, and I could do with a good knife,” she said. “Now I might not be a butcher, but I do cut my share of meat here, and if the common size of knife were done fit for easy cleaning, then I'd put two gold pieces on the order as an inducement.”

“Speak to Georg, Hans, or Anna about that,” I murmured. “The money part, anyway. You can talk to me about how you want your knife done, as many people who cut meat wish them specially fitted to their hands and all, almost like those who want swords for real use.” Pause, then, “now, you actually wish two, a right and a left and otherwise a matched set, as you do some quite amazing things with them, and you feel they tend to go dull quickly because you do a very passable imitation of Sepp when he's doing his job.”

“Yes, or Lukas' niece,” she said. “I might not actually down cattle, but I do 'most all of the rest of the work butchers do, and I do it quickly,” she said. “Hence, I wish a pair of knives, as I use one in each hand, much like this one woman in Ploetzee does with chalk and a large slate when she wishes to show us matters that few can follow and fewer-yet can currently comprehend.”

“Rachel, and I've seen her do that,” I said. “You use both hands for cutting meat?”

“Yes, and I make good cuts, especially once the stuff has hung for two days in a cold-room, as then it's fit for cutting close,” she said. “I wish we had good cold-rooms, but they put ice in those things turn-about, so doing better up here isn't possible now.” Pause, then, “it will be possible quite soon, at least for the smaller things.”

“Need a walk-in freezer, dear, two knives – one fitted specially for each hand, and a pair of long daggers fit for poking thugs and a suppressed pistol hid in a 'hiding holster' you can wear without anyone being the wiser,” I said. “As for that freezer, it needs to be one that can flash-freeze any deer or elk brought in, as there's going to be a lot of venison coming in this summer. There's been talk of a plague of deer coming north by the day, and they'll actually be jumping the fence here and crashing the gate with some regularity.”

“Here is your bread,” she then said, handing me a tallish platter of nicely-toasted bread. “Agnes! Come, quickly if you can, and fetch one of those strange barrows, bad tire or no. We need one, and no mistake.”

Hearing a woman's name pronounced as 'Ahh-nyes' was enough to make my teeth wish to hide behind a still-heating stove, but when the woman in question showed, I recognized her immediately.

She was related to that one woman that had accompanied Lukas' niece, or so I thought until I learned that she was, indeed, finishing up her apprenticeship as a cook – and she had started late, due to an especially severe bout of the red fever when she was younger. I then had a question regarding her.

“Did you have ticklers in your bed?” I asked.

“Yes, and each one of those things had this strange desire to put spit in my mouth, and while one of them did that, the others would tell me I needed to swallow it so as to live and not die,” she said. “There might be only a handful of those things in Ploetzee, but they are kept there, and though it was close for me, and it took weeks to become well enough to not worry if I would live or not, I was glad for their company.”

“Uh, why, beyond their tendency to have wondrously soft fur?” I asked, as the supplies were gathered. There were a lot of them, as we were not just bringing food for several people currently eating in that place: we were 'stocking that place Maria calls a kitchen, but it's barely fit for but one person, not two or more', and it needed enlarging to the point where it could do the work demanded of it.

“It will not be that way much longer, not with those masons redoing things,” I murmured. “Not only are they not wasting a moment's time, but they're finding more wasted space than I could believe possible – and when those people find 'wasted' space, it tends to be made fit for using. Figure a small, rather snug kitchen that's done with efficient use in mind, and a stove... Oh, I have ideas for that stove, now that we have 'number one stove oil' soon coming in quantity on the premises.”

“Secret passages?” she asked, as she and the cook gathered the supplies we needed, these bagged and jugged. I would be moving the wheelbarrow, while the late-apprentice would be carrying a pair of jugs and a pocketed revolver, this the common-sized variety common and growing commoner in the house that took thimbles. A query about its loading spoke of strange bullets that looked like hard-cheeses and powder made specially in Ploetzee for such pistols, it being a fine-grained species close to what was used to fill shells. I did not speak of my powder, as I suspected it was a similar material, and I knew all too well its potency in both rifles and pistols.

Such loads tended to not be ignored by their recipients, and hence they were most-commonly used in that place, what with the tendency toward dealing with witches there and nearby. Balls were kept in case the usual 'slugs' ran out – and, sometimes, they did. But, another matter, one of grave importance, came to mind for the kitchen as it currently was: never do anything without a capable weapon ready to hand, as witches could and did show in the place without warning – and “the house has a boat-load of rats,” and “some o' those things is hard, 'cause they be white rats.”

“Boat-load? I asked, as I found the jug of Raw-Deal sauce then in use. It had sat for a while and had 'matured', meaning its fermented aspect was far enough along to do its hot-sauce imitation in a passable manner without an overwhelming aspect of 'Wasabi-type' horseradish. “Want a small container of this. It helps my digestion, and Maria likes a bit on her egg.”

“Hendrik does too,” said the cook. “Now, talk has it you are a jam-fiend, and more, that you need to be full-loaded and red-faced much of the time, what with all you do. We have jam-tins cooking steadily, and I think this one here might be ready for use.”

As if to remind us of trouble, I heard a faint rumbling roar, then another, then one after another, explosions ripped the remainder of the night apart.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Toréo, while he does not know about Finuegen, does know his tales, and they speak of those people who came with Rachel and what they did – and more than one of them knew about, and in one case, personally knew, that individual of that name – so he has heard many times the true story of 'Finnegan's Wake' in the full and undistorted version. Then, he's a large-group-leader of the Rooster Totem, or at least he was until he was hurt too badly to walk the field, so now he teaches tactics and weapons in the settlement where he lives and sits on their council of elders.” Pause, then, “that was one nasty trap he set for those witches in front of those trenches along the side of the road, and he trapped his trap, and set traps close by it to catch the tricky ones.”

“Nasty trap?” I asked.

“Recovered most of a box of fresh witch-grade dynamite, and double-trapped it, and that part of coaches coming up that road from the second kingdom house fell for his multiple traps big-time,” said the soft voice. “That road's altogether impassible now for a good long stretch, and getting levies of 'slaves' to repair it is going to cost those witches plenty.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Firstly, this part of the first kingdom is learning that the witches think they own it, and they're quickly shedding a certain portion of that rubbish,” said the soft voice. “It may take quite some time to get entirely shut of that portion of witch-thinking, but certain portions will go quickly, and one part is how most people in this area will respond to being summoned by the word 'bhoy' – they won't come like the witch-puppets of old, but stand fast and send as much hot lead at their 'rulers' as they possibly can.”

“Stand and deliver, and do so until either the witches are all dead, or they are all dead, and not give two cares which of those happens,” I muttered, as the two women finished loading the wheelbarrow. I was hoping we could get or make more of these, as they held more and weighed less than those things that looked to have come straight out of the sixteenth century metalworking world of 'De Re Metallica'.

“I think so,” said the person coming with me with the jugs. “Now this might be a strange barrow for looks, but it is not so for working, and I hope we can get more of them, as the usual ones must have been done fit for witches,” she said.

“Any news on that lead?” I asked.

“They got what of it they could, which was much of it,” she said, “and between the witches growing in numbers by the hour and those shooting becoming sore and getting sorer, they left the field, but some of those people stood their ground a lot longer than anyone in their right mind normally would, and we got most of that lead. Talk has it that the witches trying to fetch more of it will cost them a great deal.”

“It just might,” I said, as I picked up the handles of the lightly-laden wheelbarrow. The reason this narrow thing was used was the small carts were well-hid in their pouches upstairs, same as most of the rifles, and those that were not to be hid were scheduled for a last touchup of their greasing on the trip to the cove.

Fresh water just took longer to cause rust, which meant that the boats across the sea tended to have a schedule for maintenance. The trouble was there were definite procedures, these interpreted by functionaries...

“I think I'll like their name better,” I spat. “They had a much better name for those smelly wretches overseas, and it has to do with that thing that pumps them full of 'the stupid drug' and sometimes the 'dumber-yet drug' also.” I then had a question.

“Did many coaches explode?”

“Yes, and some will ride out today and see how many more witches have died from the traps set,” said the 'girl'. “I know some bricks were left behind, but 'most all of those were hiding traps of one kind or another, so I suspect there will be a lot more dead witches, and we'll be spending days gathering them up and trapping that area again, just not as many of us.”

“Gathering them up?” I asked.

“Yes, for the manure pile, as that's a fit place for those stinkers,” said the girl. “Then, there is their clothing, and often, their money. It all needs recoining, as in some way or another, it's either cursed or done so badly it's not much better than being cursed.” Pause, then, “and, with so much of it to do, the usual means will not get the job done in the time we have, so there was talk of another means.”

“Another means?” I asked.

“Ask me no more, as that's as much as I know,” she said. “It will not be casting, as that's slower than sugar-tree sap in a dead-winter, and we must do it all. I do know there is an answer, and that suffices for me.” Pause, then, “and with all the dead witches and burning coaches, that whole area now looks like one huge and smoky burn-pile, as bad if not worse than when the Swartsburg went to hell the second time.”

“I thought this place was out of coaches,” I whispered, as we crossed the hall directly so as to get back in the shadows. There were only a few candles going, but those would need husbanding, and within perhaps two weeks, the only time the place would be lit would be between the third and the ninth hour, save in General's Row.

There, the place would be sooted up with light-giving firebombs every hour of every day, and I suspected that they would have multiple door-guards with an iron-plated door.

“Fine,” I thought. “I'll just put a shaped charge on your door and blow the place up inside.”

“When your students don't sneak in at three AM and play tricks, that is,” said the soft voice. “That plague of rats is going to do some good, as Sarah's talk of dealing with the Rat-Man and his nonsense is spreading like tinder soaked in light distillate.”

Hearing about the coaches, however, made for further questioning in the shadows of a darkened realm, and I asked once more.

“The house itself was out of coaches,” she said, “but I think there were places they had them hidden, as these were drawn by smelly mules, and with the Swartsburg gone, they could not manage eight of those things running at a stinky trot down any street in town without gunfire. They could do those horses, as those just look to be uncommonly stuffed with grain, least until the Swartsburg went the second time. Then, if you wanted to move a coach, you did so late at night, or you kept off the good roads, or both.”

“And those running them?”

“They acted as if they were wearing brass cones, and while I knew witches were a pack of idiots, I did not learn why until someone shot one and got his pouch before his coach went up. There were these strange pills inside it.”

“Pills?” I asked.

“They went up to the fourth floor laboratory, as if anyone here could learn of them, those people could, either that, or they'll go 'cross the sea, and they'll know for certain,” she said. “I do know this – if a person takes those, once isn't enough. They want more, and that quickly, and more pills each time, and they want strong drink right away, even if they hated it before, and while witches get stupid in a hurry if they get interested in being witches, such people have nothing that way on people taking those pills and drinking strong drink.”

“Do you know why they were doing so?” I asked.

“Talk had it they were trying to prove themselves worthy by getting back all of that lead and money, and then making their bones by killing those who took it from them, as witches think they own everything there is and anyone who says or does otherwise is a thief of the worst sort.”

“So they were dumb as bricks and inhabited as a collection of bad fetishes,” I said. “They acted really nasty, and were so damnably single-minded about the matter that their tactics consisted of frontal assaults only, which made them easily killed unless they came in such numbers...”

“They were doing that near nightfall,” said the girl. “That's when people started to get hurt, is they came in such numbers that half a dozen people, even in deep trenches dug three in a row with connecting runs weren't enough, and they drove coaches right into the first row followed on by deep thick mobs of witches with so many guns it was if they could shoot all day and not reload once!”

What?” I gasped.

“You'll hear more about that shortly,” said the soft voice. “If you think those people helping with house-cleaning in Ploetzee were 'packing iron', the witches were packing pounds to their ounces, and that field is littered with guns three times worse than the second instance of the Swartsburg going to hell.”

“Quantity has a quality all its own,” I muttered. “Duh, do a miles-deep frontal assault and simply use up all the enemy's ammunition, or get lucky and hurt him somehow, or better yet, do both.”

As we turned the corner, here, I could feel the state of General's Row. Firstly, the place was an utter complete soot-caked mess, with half-burnt furniture ruined by still-hid powder flasks going off when the Teacher of Guards went up in flames inside of it and set a good portion of those nasty fetish-desks alight. The blasts – mostly muffled thumps – had created a mass of ragged-looking kindling and brief flares of high-test going up, but while the main room was paved with ashes and junk, the same could not be said of the rest of the place.

There, one could find odd-looking neatly tied 'Wheeling Stogies' that looked like well-made weed bundles, and enough of these witches would wish to suck on them to make the place sound a bit like the west school during 'powder-and-lead week'. I was so lost in thought on this matter when I heard a muttered imprecation, followed by a growled curse coming from someone who sounded too much like a bear to be anyone else but Georg himself, that I wondered if it were wise to tap right now.

The 'girl' with me did so anyway, saying she knew what was getting to them, that being a high-priced piece of rubbish that needed melting, followed by an expedition to its makers and then clearing the place out with bombs and gunfire.

“Fit for the stove, this paperwork is,” muttered Hendrik as Maria opened the door on tiptoe. “It's greasy paper, looks like it came out of that damned-to-hell collection of witch-letters that just came, and writ entirely in witch-writing sprinkled with runes and secret markings.” Wordlessly, Hendrik handed me the greasy thing, this affixed in some manner to a largish slate.

“So.” I said. “More tall mountains and b-bad c-cabbage... No, not quite. This thing is nothing of the sort.” I looked at Hendrik. “You most likely know you were sold, don't you?”

“I do, if he does not,” said Georg. “This is proof that that the Groesenwerk turns out nothing but worthless witch-gear, and if you doubted it before, I'd say you now have your answer, as that's full-on witch-writing.”

“Uh, Sir,” I said. “While that shiny brass fetish was made there, this here... No, this was written by those commissioning it to be made there, and more, it's the real deal, not the watered-down thing that spoke of cabbage and tall mountains that they got – along with enough money to make this thing while dropping 'most all else they were working on in order to get it done in 'record' time.”

“What?” squawked Hendrik. “You lost me – I've just done the latest night since my last year at the west school, my earliest morning since leaving that place, I barely know where the privy is for so much work, and now...”

“And now?” asked Rolf, as he suddenly 'showed'. “At least you have a decent guest suite, even if having masons drill, chisel, blast, sing, play the strangest music I've ever heard save for a single instance, and then dig like burrowing rodents does not make for a restful night. Don't those people sleep?”

“They do, but they tend to work turn-about, which is how they do in days what takes months in the fourth kingdom,” I said. “We were doing much the same upstairs in the last twelve hours or so.”

“Good that you brought food,” said Maria. “Now, I suspect you are hungry. Anything special?”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I've wondered what boiled quoll-egg on toast tastes like, as that last egg was that of a hen and finding those out in the field isn't easy, unlike those of quolls.” Pause, then, “I have some boiled quoll eggs here in the shell yet, and she has the toast, and...”

I handed the four eggs to Maria, and the two women 'vanished'. Rolf came about to me, then whispered in my ear, “I get that one at least twice a week. It's quite good, and very popular at the west school.” Pause, then, “talk has it the Abbey will become like that place. Will it?”

“Will it?” I asked. Ghostly, this in the background, I seemed to hear a familiar and somewhat furry voice, and it was singing of this:

The last lines of the song seemed to echo in my mind, these muted under the nightmare, as if that place's Plutonian shore had washed over them and buried them under the sands of an alien sea. I murmured them softly: “Oh, no!”

“I need no such reminders, not when I receive this piece of an accursed piece of witch-rubbish as a wrapper for this shiny brass thing sold as a telescope and fit for a headache should I dare myself to look in it,” spat Hendrik. “Now look at that thing, and...”

“A table, sir?” I asked. “Perhaps some tools? It will wish partial dismantling at the least.”

“It don't take none to take it apart, not unless you want to try to fix that pile of dung,” said Lukas. “Georg, he gone to get himself some beer, on account of him having about the latest night o' anyone – first getting lead in his buggy, then fetching up some in his hide and needing to wash it out several times in that laboratory upstairs where they got hot water a-plenty, then some strong Geneva for rubbing on account of him piling his buggy high with them things and needing to shoot his way in more than once...”

“The price upon his head has but grown, sir,” I said. “Not sure what it is now, but it is not trivial.” I then looked once more upon the slate, complete with its thin and rather small sheet of well-inked witch-paper.

“Now, no hiding, no rubbish, and most of all no tossing,” I spat. “Show everything, and show all of it, and most of all, again – no hiding.”

The slate disintegrated amid clouds of smoke and a blue-white flash like lightning, and what fluttered down from the ceiling amid the slow-settling soot-cloud was a thin ledger, this leather-bound and showing the dreaded block-letters R. C. S. surrounded by that oddly striped and mottled green color. Looking inside showed first a much-neater version, this without a trace of grease upon it of the original letter, this liberally sprinkled with footnotes: then, upon the pages following it, the precise translation, including the vast portions that were not spoken, but infered, much as if the recipients were adept mind-readers.

I knew how that worked. Witchdom had its secretive nature, or rather layers of secrecy, but the guiding hand, that which controlled each witch by a puppet, was twofold: first, he must know the nature of Brimstone as writ in that black book, and then, he must know the inclination of the moment of his superiors, and both of those things every instant that the two of them happened to be alert enough to think.

If one were an amply-inhabited witch, and familiar with the latter section of the larger black books, that portion named 'Das Heft Totennamen', then the latter aspect just required a certain level of care, observation, and not doing anything that might be construed as 'troublesome' with most witches.

There were exceptions; and among Powers, or those who thought themselves great – they could be most capricious, and 'off with his head' was a common refrain with those people. They also tended to shoot the bearers of bad tidings – and sacrifice as paeans to Brimstone bearers of good tidings. Hence, dealing with such persons was a hazardous business at best.

If one wanted to 'get up' in the witch-world, though, such hazards were among its many and varied costs, and that one was reckoned cheap. Now, with a document speaking of the 'damned brass thing' in the smallish coffin, we could read what we could...

No, I could read what I could, as what Georg could read in moments, and Hendrik perhaps twice that time, I could 'devour' with a rapidity that left heads wagging and Rolf shaking his head as if he needed to hear some 'heavy metal'-style violin playing. For an instant, I wondered how hard it was to 'rig' Anna's instrument, and then have her play something fit to get a rise out of witches. That kind of music did that, as the originator of such 'heavy' music was not Brimstone.

“Who in blazes had it played while he made all of the known worlds?” I spat. “Here we go. First, your document was intercepted practically the instant it left your desk courtesy of that witch-cum-clerk, the Generals got ahold of it, and since they knew what you needed – namely something that would simultaneously turn anyone who used the damned-to-hell thing into a curse-chanting witch while simultaneously all-but-bankrupting the kingdom... No, scratch that. They got the usual funds from the kingdom house proper, but put ten to your one, thinking as they did so, “this must be either for Hendrik's own use, or use by those of his people who will do important matters: and if we can cause them to see hell, and that only, then their sole choice will be to put it in a 'safe' place, which will give us power over them beyond what we have...”

“Now here is a piece of toast, that with eggs, and dashed with Raw-Deal sauce,” said the cook. “Maria and I have been hiding food under her bed, as what used to be her kitchen is now filled with masons working out how to make a real kitchen out of it, and there is this head-ducking passageway so infernally narrow that they look to run it off to a mine!”

“Rails?” I asked.

“Yes, those things, and a small cart, and it goes back and forth with this odd whirring noise,” said the cook. “I am not sure what it is, but it goes down an incline, and...”

“Oh, wonderful,” I said. “Your scribe-room is not going on the ground-floor, it's going into the foundation layer, that which is about six to seven feet thick in this area and laid with bad stone and worse mortar, and those people think to actually make a maze of such monk-cells in that place. Granted, small ones, ones that need one bowing one's head much of the time while moving about in that place, but those stinking General Thugs won't have a chance to listen in, 'cause there isn't a secret passage closer than thirty yards from anything in there!”

“That was implied more than a little by the plans,” said Hendrik dryly. “They'll need to reinforce that section with iron pieces, though how they have them when I thought it impossible to procure them is a dire mystery.”

“I don't,” said Georg. “Enough to do the Abbey, not a chance, not in the time we have remaining unto us. Enough to make you a secure place under those current places that used to be offices, easy, as they have smiths in that one settlement, and I suspect they can roll iron.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “It might not be what our shop can do, or shortly will be able to do,” I said, “but that stuff is not commonplace iron as found in a smith's shop. They run crucibles in small furnaces, using goats to drive their blowers using several on this really noisy treadmill, and while thirty such rods is a lot for that place, they take those rods while red-hot from the casting process, pound the slag off of them while still glowing from casting, and they then run them through this thing that could pass for a rolling mill of sorts. Lots of hot hard work for them, but it gives steel bar that's roughly square with rounded corners, it's reheated in a forge and straightened, and then either allowed to cool in ashes or reheated a second time and quenched, and that's what they're using for reinforcement – tempered medium-carbon rolled steel.”

“That is what the plans indicate, though the numbers in the listing mystify me,” said Hendrik – who had been writing. “Now, your egg. It grows cold, and you must eat, lest you faint like you did last night when it sounded like the end of the world upstairs and I was running for the fourth floor with all I had for weapons, and Georg was hot upon my heels!”

Dutifully, I ate, and after the third bite, there was no stopping me: I was beyond famished, and into a realm best described by dire hunger. Here, there was a region where one might well give thanks unto God for 'four slices of grilled hamster', and do so with gladness; while gopher stew, previously foul-smelling, unappetizing, and containing food guaranteed to produce hideous flatulence and lengthy stays in the privy, looked good.

Ration-ware overseas, this ancient and looted from various scrap-bins, was passed among the messes in thousands of places; and the two or three 'cooks' among such a 'mess' of twenty or more meeting in an old domicile 'after hours' when the functionaries slow and noiselessly patrolled their turf in a manner so predictable that it was possible to dodge them with care and practice – they had both charge of it and ensured its cleaning between uses. Their presence and doings were marginally tolerated as 'Leadership has its demands, and dead proles cannot meet them. Therefore, permit them their meals'. This was said with grumbling and heavy consumption of this horrible-smelling 'high-test' liquor that contained what might have been an agave worm, and was of a darksome blue color.

Just the color to hide a piece of a fine-minced 'true-blue' witch-table.

I was jolted back to the present by my own meal, and that egg had but awakened things. Now, it was the turn of beer and Kuchen, and after I'd gone halfway through one of the latter and three cups of cold beer did I feel 'right' again.

“Now let me see what is in that box, there,” I murmured, as I laid the booklet aside. It went into sufficient detail that incorporating it into a larger document, this done in that soon-to-be finished scribe-room – that place would be done in days, as those masons were both numerous and industrious to a fault, and their efficiency the stuff of legend – that, and they commonly worked as if they did not know day from night. It made for a desire to let them see that wondrous realm described by 'Purple Haze', as they would endure it well.

“Figure a good portion of those who are in the Abbey then will be such people,” I thought, as again, the ghostly words echoed within my mind, these put forth by a familiar and growing more-so 'furry' voice. I came back from that odd excursion to find an empty plate laid upon a table, an iced cup of beer and a sweating jug next to it, and in front of me, a small varnished coffin, this of a darksome hue and whitish wood but partly hidden by the tinting of the varnish.

Cheap whitish wood, but glued and laminated with 'the cheap stuff' to give the cheap pine box the illusion of quality. All in witchdom was illusion, and for us, that would not work now, and it had never worked in the past. This was not to show people that we were powerful; this was to show forth important matters, and possibly save our lives while engaged in warfare.

Obedient to my hand, the box moves forward. It has a lock, but I ignore the proffered key. I have no need of it. The lid's closure clicks, and with a wave of my hand, swaddled in scarlet rune-embroidered rags, the collapsed thing of polished brass comes to my hand. Index and thumb suffice, even though those making it sought to make it a weighty fetish, for heft, at least according to the tenets of that infernal black book, meant inhabitation by legions of spirits.

“You know what this means, sir,” I said, my voice cold and going colder as I laid the damned thing upon the table and with a sudden jerk of my hand pulled it totally to bits, showing lenses made of dull glass poorly polished, bad brass pieces of a high surface polish, bad leather wrappings secured with dull-with-tarnish brass wire, and the outer polish of the thing still hazed with death-reeking lard in spite of all that had done to clean it.

“It means that you are to take your guns, once things calm down to an adequate degree to permit discretion,” I said coldly, “you are to marshal them within discrete range of that place, and then you are to fire a sufficiency of shot and shell into that accursed building to turn it into blazing rubble!”

“Now that sounds good,” said Georg. “Follow up that witch-war with war upon those places which do witch-work.”

“Not merely artillery, sir,” I said. “I meant that as your shells reduce that building, that your rifle-shooters gun down all who are present, customers as well as workers, and do so that there will be no survivors,” I said, my voice colder yet as I wiped off one of the hideously crude pieces of glass. “Sir, from now on, this shall be your command: when we deal with witches, we shall fly a flag of solid red, and another of black, and a third of lightning striking like thunder, and then do precisely what those flags mean!”

“I do know what they mean, as you speak of the old times,” said Rolf. “Red means 'kill all that lives, and burn what remains', while black means 'leave nothing standing and level the place such that nothing lives', and that one of lightning striking... Oh, that one's bad.”

“Black volcanic glass shall become manifested there, when the other two are done to the satisfaction of the Almighty, sir,” I said. “Such realms will be under the judgment of God, for those there have cursed him to his face by their mere existence, and that every second they continue to live.” Pause, then, as I felt the first of the four lenses clearly, I murmured, “four lenses are for fools who by looking through them get headaches. We do not need these – send them in sharp-edged and fractured form into the guts of the witches who made them, this as a sign and a w-warning, and give us the number we need for a telescope of good light-gathering capacity, the ability to see well in dim light, good magnification of varied power, and a capacity for total precision in all that it does. Oh, add an accurate range-estimating...”

The lens in my hand vanished with a blue-white flash, as did the other three lopsided things that reminded me more of pretty-polished rocks, and in their place, mounted carefully in turned 'titanium' holders, lay a number of 'beautiful' coated optical pieces, each of them having a color-coded holder. Besides the soft cloth they were laying upon, the brass pieces looked horribly out of place, and I knew they had inadequate precision.

Besides, I needed the practice, and this was not just about fixing the enemy's curses.

It was about destroying that enemy, and Rolf would get a new title within a month of his return: 'Rolf, he of the bloody hands', and he would strike absolute terror over all within his domain, for his time here would make him see a witch wherever he did not see uncommon diligence and...

“You do have a sword, do you not? I murmured, as I ripped apart the remaining brass pieces with my bare hands, my fingers seeming to be hardened steel cutters as I tore the soft and weak metal like rotten leather. “Do you have it with you, even a so-called 'court sword'?'

“Yes, and it is an old one, one that has been a portion of the installment ceremony since but some years after the Curse striking,” he said. “Why, is it cursed?”

“Perhaps,” I said. “It has seen little use, Rolf the blood-handed, which is what I now name you, Rolf who bathes himself in the blood of his enemies, and fear and death follow in his wake.” I pointed at his hair, which suddenly went from blond tinted with gray to a solid blond worthy of a Viking and double its former length, and as something twitched at his side, he undid it and let it go.

“The scabbard, also,” I said, as I looked now at the accursed witch-paper left within the brass portions of the torn-apart telescope. I could now but partly see the thing we would need before my eyes, and calling this a spotting scope worthy of that one rifle was to speak ill of it.

“Electronic enhancement, such that it sees what we wish to see no matter who or what uses it,” I thought, “then the capacity to see in total darkness and fog, and finally, the capacity to visualize the entire electromagnetic spectrum, including that occupied by radio detection and ranging apparatus. We must know if we are being spied upon.” I then spoke, no longer merely thinking as to what we needed. I could see the pieces trying to come through, but matters needed dealing with first.

“Unbuckle your sword-belt,” I said, “and hand me the thing. It needs attention, more so than this accursed piece of rubbish that is at my front here, as you, 'Rolf the blood-handed', shall need fit things for your rule with an iron fist, a drawn sword, and rage burning ever within your breast until the enemies of God are destroyed utterly.”

Hendrik looked at me, and without words, seemed to ask me why.

“That is a slave-market down there where he was elected to rule, and while this current war will thin them out, they will not relinquish that market easily, due to one matter, and one matter only – and that requires a leader, one committed to the uttermost, one willing to bathe himself in blood to accomplish the will of God, and beat Jozua himself and those close to him regarding his specified orders!” Pause, then, “do any of you know why witches so desire slaves?”

“It is not cheap labor, as they get that readily by robbery,” said Rolf.

“I will tell you,” I said coldly. “The reason anyone wishes a slave is to have power over another being, to be a God to that being, and thereby inflict suffering and torment, as if that God were Brimstone, and this very life an outpost of hell! The chief attraction in slavery is its implicit suffering, and all slavers are sadistic spirit-ridden devil-spawned witches!” Pause, then, “have any of you lived as a slave?”

Nods side to side, the answer no.

“I have, and under a slavemaster so evil that that witch named Imhotep saw him and set his face like stone so as to become that witch – and that witch, and that witch alone – he alone rode a curse-conjured beast, one of but a few that have existed before the drowning here.”

“No, only one at a time of those creatures has ever existed, either in physical or spiritual form,” said the soft voice, its sound equally cold, “and that spirit then said what your stepfather knew, and knew better than any witch since his day, which was of the time prior to the drowning here:

True-mules for the fool-witches,” which is what he swore

when he received the sole animal of its kind since the

beginning here; and his further saying, this: “I ride

this animal, and it does what I command, which is

my way – and I ride alone, and over all.”

“My way,” I snarled, this at the recollection of my own time as a slave, an object, something to be disposed of at the whim of my master. “Always and daily, it was 'Is it My Way?' Did you read my mind to a total and complete perfection, that all that I see may be mine, and mine alone, and only Brimstone himself dares to consort with me as a coeval!”

I paused, then said, “that spirit was one of the worst in hell, sirs. Now, that sword, scabbard, and belt. I must clean them, treat them, and then that done, finish this telescope such that it works well.”

“The brass is going to dust as we speak, leaving little behind save greasy strips of paper,” said Hendrik.

“That is because it was made in a cursed foundry by curse-chanting witches, and that foundry itself but recently erected at the rapidly-expanding Groesenwerk. Those witches see a golden opportunity with this war, as they are laying low and watching the destruction mount by the hour as that market is ruined by gunfire and artillery and the bombs the witches toss, which kill many and injure far more.” Pause, then, “they think to rebuild the kingdom, and gather the whole of its wealth in the process of turning it into a greater witch-hole than it is currently!”


“Did you not speak of us needing to have the willingness to be impoverished, and if needed, fill our bellies with grass, much as did that oven-stoking king? That our well-deserved alternative is to provide Brimstone with meals in hell, as is his right and our duty if we fail?” I asked softly, as I drew out his sword. Long, straight-blade, double-edged, polished long, carefully tended...

And I took the thing and broke it over my knee, where it shattered like glass and went to dust and soot in the blink of an eye, and I screamed, “Cursed witch-made sword, one intended to make its bearer an arch-witch who thinks of nothing but murder and bloodshed! This man needs a weapon, one fit for killing, one that builds strength in his arm and divine rage in his mind, and gives a resolve of steel and a will beyond that of adamant! Curse all witches, give me a weapon fit to destroy them without mercy!”

The eruption that resulted put my body prostrate upon the floor, but when I shook my head and came to myself, I had several concerned people standing about me. Georg handed me a cup of beer, which I drank thirstily upon sitting up, but what I was now holding across my legs... It gave me the death-chills.

“Oh, my,” I said, seeing the wavy temper line showing like lightning against the midnight blue of the rest of the blade. “Thing has to be three feet long easily, and why am I feeling as if I have been tunneling in Norden's dead-wintry snow?”

“Grasp that blade by its handle, which is how you usually do them, and slip it into its new scabbard,” said the soft voice. “That scabbard is of riveted treated leather, as is his sword-belt, and then slip on the pair of fitted holsters and hand him the revolvers. He may find those a bit strange, and his ammunition belts stranger yet.”

“Ammunition belts?” I asked. I somehow had the impression that Rolf had not received 'revolvers', but rather 'revolver-cannons', weapons that fired heavy cartridges at an unreal rate, and he would slaughter witches in droves with them.

I was wrong. First, there was his sword belt. This was new, and had no adornment beyond the letters 'do the will of God, and that without cease or stint'. This was done such that he would see it daily in the process of putting it on upon arising.

The blade itself, blue-black save for the much lighter lightning-jagged temper-line upon its two edges, went into its scabbard. It remained there, courtesy of friction. Catch-straps were for fools: if one needed a sword, one wished the damned thing now...

And this sword – it was worthy of a name like... The name 'Stormbringer' came to mind, for some reason, even if Rolf didn't look at all like Joost's brother.

“N-no,” I gasped. “I know that thing's name, it's cursed, it's a solidified demon...”

“No, it is not,” said the soft voice, “even if it does have a mind of its own. Not since the days of bhoy have such things happened, and now, you have a sword like the one bhoy had, one that will not tolerate the touch of a witch, or even that person who should think like a witch – and but two weapons like it come close to that one for strength and power, and they're both in Hendrik's bedroom.”

“The sword and the ax, those he held the bridge with,” said Hendrik. “Now, put that on belt there on, and then these things here in these bags...”

“Webleys, sir,” I said. “Four-forty-two Webleys, and each to have its own cartridge belt holding sixty rounds per pistol, both to be worn whenever you're not in bed, and in your hands otherwise. Rolf, you'll look like a fifth kingdom brigand, and by the time you earn your name of 'Rolf the blood-handed', you'll kill like such a brigand, as you'll be sighting some of those guns, and I do not mean as you have in the past.” Pause, then, “I meant sighting them as a pointer, and you yourself will fit fuses to tipped shells, load those guns with weighed charges and saboted rounds, and then see that bastion of witchdom destroyed to its foundations, and then...”

“Then?” asked Rolf. He sounded confused. I wondered if he would find cannons a bit much, much as I had with that mortar that had delusions of grandeur and the capacity to back up those delusions with reality.

“That place has been purchasing dynamite and distillate against the end of the current war, and it hopes to become the leader among the fourth kingdom's witches that survive by being 'above suspicion'. By shelling it into ruins, and then see the dynamite and distillate stored below within its multiple-story basement destroy the very foundations of one of your kingdom's worst witch-holes, you will have put your stamp upon your regime, and then...

“One must demonstrate daily in word, thought, and in deed the absence of all evil, or one shall die,” said Rolf. “This sword may feel cold to the hand, but that will pass, as otherwise, I have not felt its like, nor heard of its like, and it shines like a bolt of lightning when I should touch it.”

“It is marked for you, and you alone,” I murmured. “Should you be able to pass it on, that weapon will change its name to fit its recipient.” Pause, then as I pointed at first one bag, then a second, and to my surprise, a third bag. Their strings untied themselves as I pointed at them, one after another, then Hendrik withdrew a revolver from the first such bag, this unlike anything I had ever seen.

While the weapon was obviously a four-forty-two Webley, the bluing was a deep and lustrous blue-black worthy of the best-grade guns of my world, the grips of well-figured blackwood, this coated clear with a light staining, and the screws in all three weapons lined up perfectly – as good or better than anything to come from the Heinrich works. Unlatching them showed their usual precise aspect, but dumping in the sizable lead-bulleted cartridges made for shudders, even if these were 'standard' velocity examples.

“Why is it you do so?” asked Rolf. “Are these like dragoons?”

“They can be, sir,” I said. “There are two bags, one marked 'standard', and the other 'high-velocity' – and the standard ammunition will drop 'most anyone on the spot if you hit them solid, even moderately hard witches. Should you fire the other type, then you will need...”

Hendrik reached into the third bag, and after withdrawing an obvious 'spare' pistol of the same type, he found two pairs of odd-looking dark brown leather gloves, these with the back of the hands cut strangely and the fingertips missing. He handed them wordlessly to Rolf, who slipped them on. They fit well, like gloves I had made for the business of coping with weapons that recoiled like hand-held artillery, but when he picked up that third pistol, he murmured something unintelligible.

“You may need to fire those a fair amount, which is why you have several hundred rounds of ammunition of each kind, a spare weapon, and two cleaning kits, with more ammunition to come in short order, so I suggest you save your empty shells for reuse, as that is readily done,” I said. “Those weapons are very easy to clean, easier to clean than any weapon I know of, and since they do not use common powder, about all you're going to get is a little soot if you shoot them a lot.” Pause, then, “the rule is, 'if you fire it, clean it' – and given how those will be instrumental in keeping you and yours alive, I recommend the following practice. I can say it because I do it myself: clean and check all your weapons before retiring, sleep with them in your hands, do the same regarding checking for cleanliness and functioning upon awakening, and expect to find bad trouble every day and all the time.”

“Yes, and I know what our first run of printing will be here, and I want one of those sheets for myself so as to remind me of what I must do,” said Hendrik. “Now that he's arrayed for for his job, you need...

“Beer, I'd say,” said Maria. “Here's more chopped egg upon toast, and I'll do what I can to keep your cup filled. What that must take out of you, I have no idea.”

“One of the chief reasons he needs a lot of help,” said the soft voice. “What is given him to do would turn bhoy and fifty others like him into smoking lumps of dust.”

“And that cursed brass is dust, now,” I said. “Brass, go flavor a jug of, uh, strong drink in the hand of a caravan leader, one trashed on those new drugs that have suddenly become a lot more commonplace. Let that brass become, uh, changed subtly, such that drinking such drink has little initial effect, but over the space of days, those consuming it become imbeciles in real life, while simultaneously appearing to be stronger and more-capable witches.”

“What will that do?” asked Hendrik, as the brass dust steadily vanished, leaving the lenses and witch-notes behind.

“Much the same as those costly yet brain-destroying foods do, save all it takes is one sip of that particularly flavorful drink, and instead of months before that level of idiocy happens, this is closer to a very few days, almost as if this stuff was a species of...”

The question was in my mind, and I recalled the horror and depression of the single dose of this one drug I had been given long years ago. It had made me feel horrible enough to wish to die, and stupid enough to want to try, and somehow, a form of that particular drug was being used as part of that drug cocktail now being doled out in quantity, what with the production lines coming up and producing lots of that particularly nasty drug and a number of others. I then knew what it was called, only instead of its chemical name – I knew that all too well; the recollection was coming back with explosive force – or its trade-name where I came from, it came out utterly different.

“As if it were indeed Damitol,” I spat. “Yes, Damitol. That is the drug this stuff needs to act like, and it needs to act like a catalyst in liquor, such that it changes that strong drink into an alcohol-based tincture of Damitol, such that each person drinking it becomes not merely intoxicated, but suicidal enough to want to die and stupid enough that they're going to try – and try hard indeed.”

“Non-witches might well become as you did, but witches merely become 'stupid' when taking that drug, which is why it's being given as part of their drug cocktail. Damitol has a narrow range of safety, as in 'a therapeutic dose' is close to a lethal dose of that drug, and hence giving them more of it, in combination with alcohol, will not merely make them into patent idiots within minutes of its consumption – but, a fair number of them will die in short order.”

“Good, then,” I spat. “Now for these curses put inside of this thing, those done with the goal of making its user an arch-witch of the worst stripe.” A wave of my hand had these circles of witch-paper unroll themselves, then the filmy tracings upon them show as blood-inked rune-curses that blazed with brilliant neon-colors.

I pointed my finger at them, each one at a time, telling the rest to remain until I was done with them, for I would now send them back to their issuers in vastly stronger and more virulent form.

“No more mister nice guy,” I muttered. It was not an easy thing to say, but what I was now going to say was worse. “You! You there. You collection of spirits. Each of you, grab a legion of spirits like you, take this piece of paper, this one of the four put inside that damned fetish, and find the person commissioning it, the person writing it, and the person or persons delivering it, and all that know them, and infest them such that they burn red like a road-flare and run screaming out into the nearest street to burn into mounds of cinders as a sign and a warning, and in this fashion:

This instrument was accursed, this to turn any fool using it into an arch-witch,” I said.

Well, if a witch issued you, then turn that smelly wretch into a fool nonpareil, one whose head

is like a mound of bricks cemented with mortar, his chest of brittle masonry, his legs stiff as

boards, and his mouth unable to speak a single word beyond call attention to himself and his

coterie, that they may be slaughtered without mercy. Now go, and do as per my command!”

The next such piece of paper – one for each lens of the old instrument, there being three now, for the first paper had gone with my commanding it – was similar in that it was writ upon witch-paper, but otherwise different, as in all of these curse-papers were part of a cohesive whole. This one influenced what was seen, such that all that showed through the lard-slimed eyepiece, if one were not a witch, was subtly – or often, not so subtly – the red-tinted vista that spoke of hellfire.

If one were a witch, however, the damned-to-hell thing was to show one what one wished to see, that being one's inclination of the moment; and more, it was to make this thought a reality.

At least, that was what the black book said, and I knew that bit of tripe was a complete lie. It made for a comment regarding fetish-telescopes: “no, henceforth, when such a device is used, let witches see hell, and that undiluted, complete with the huge ever-hungry lizard, his soot-rimed dinner plate, and his innumerable hands, with which he grasps and subdues his meals – and let them know that soon, this will not be a matter discerned by a far-seer – that spelling difference is deliberate; it is how it is spoken in the old form of Underworld German – but a brimming, cogent, and current reality. Oh, and if they work at it hard enough and chant loudly enough, they will see something worse yet, compared to Brimstone in the solid and real.”

“What would that be?” said Rolf. His voice had grown an edge, for me naming him “Rolf the blood-handed' was but beginning to have an effect upon him, and that to his very core. Given time and opportunity, he would become as 'hard' as Georg and Tam combined when it came to slaughter, and as 'nasty' as I was when I was 'out of my mind' – and the man would be a true leader, one capable of anything and everything that flesh and blood could pull off.

He'd do genocide upon witches, and his reach would extend everywhere his territory lay, even unto the disputed regions of his kingdom; and I resolved that the fourth kingdom should receive a number of those 'evil' artillery pieces so as to blow most of the fifth kingdom off of the map, or at least make contesting the fourth kingdom's southern borders a proposition no witch, sane, drugged, or otherwise, could countenance unless they really wanted to sup with Brimstone now.

I was then told what that something worse yet that some witches would see, Joost among them – namely, they would see me, and that with my rifle aimed for a dead center hit, right between their eyes.

“Yes, that especially, and send that one to Joost himself such that he sees it often,” I muttered. “Probably uncork him properly, flower-sap or no.”

“He is now filling his undergarments, as he while may be seeing you, he is not seeing you using your first rifle,” said the soft voice. “He's seeing you shooting him with that one rifle that weighs over thirty pounds and thinks itself to be a ray-gun for how flat it shoots – and no, what he has does not have that kind of reach, not if he expects to hit what he wishes to.”

“Can he hit anything at those ranges?” I asked.

“Yes, the ground as his bullets run out of energy,” said the soft voice. “He may have an unusual weapon, but your first rifle has a substantial edge in range and accuracy over it, and you're a better shot in the bargain.” Pause, then, “what you got from the Abbey, though – those may give up a little bit on the receiving end, but they shoot a lot further – and the effects inside of a mile have to be seen to be believed.”

“What – no head?”

“Try 'hit them center of mass and their entire upper body goes to pink mist and gore',” said the soft voice. “If they decide to hide behind a tree – well, unless it's an old blackwood, one three feet at the base, it will not help them much, as that rifle will burn a hole clean through it and then the bullet will open up and rip them in half.” Pause, then, “just you wait - wait until those new bows come up from the fourth kingdom, complete with those new arrows. You'll have time to ask Rolf about those before you leave.”

“Yes, I know,” he deadpanned. “That second portion of that thing's cursing is gone. There are two remaining.”

I picked up number three with wooden tongs, spread it out with another pair of such tongs, then I translated, reading as clearly as if it were my native tongue, the strobing fluorescent runes of a curse related to that too-familiar item used for hiding. Unlike that too-common curse, however, this thing was bright, loud, squirmy, and mean, and it spoke of either a fool-witch making a mistake, or something writ by the head of the Blomfels' combine, and that copied from their ancient witch-library, one where but a few witches dared enter.

“Whoever,” I spat. “Now, turn this one rune here backwards, remove this line here, and then put this one special marking here at the very end, saying the recipient is to go straight to hell, and then add this other rune here at the very front so that every demon in hell hears this summons as if it came straight from the mouth of Brimstone himself.” A pause, then, “now go, and get right inside that wretch's sacred undies, and then burrow into his guts and send him to hell!”

The third piece of paper vanished with a puff of smoke, and Rolf smiled at me as I looked up. “One less stinker to cause trouble. That was the leader of the fight down in the fourth kingdom, wasn't it?”

“Him especially, but since when 'El Supremo' suddenly goes up in smoke, who's to blame, if you're a pack of serious witches bent on taking a kingdom?” I asked.

“Why, his immediate coterie, and they go at each other with knives and other weapons, and the coordination of their attack goes where they do in a very great hurry,” said Rolf. “I have no idea what is happening to me, but it is almost as if I am one out of an old tale, and...” He looked at his midsection. “Well, well. I guess those assassination attempts didn't just ruin my digestion. They've made me a marked man, and you have turned me loose!

“And now, for the fourth piece of paper,” I said, taking the slightly-scorched tongs and reading the paper amid the nearly-vanished dust of the brass pieces. I could really see that strange telescope in my mind now; it was waiting upon the whole of these curses being dealt with to show, as when I disposed of this one, it would show, and more, we could have it duplicated overseas – and possibly, have it improved.

“Right away, no, even if precise duplicates of it will be merely a matter of time,” said the soft voice. “It becomes fully developed while the Abbey is inside 'the black sack' – and then, derivatives of that device will give clear vision while inside of 'the black sack' – as in you can see them, but they cannot see you.”

“Good,” I said. “Now this one does similarly, in that according to this curse, this thing is supposed to hide its users from their prey, while making their prey especially visible to those issuing these curses,” I spat. “Maybe if it were a prewar far-seer, but not as this thing was – it just looked good, and nothing more.” Pause, then, “now, I have a good one. Let our telescopes see them, and let their telescopes see hell, and that only, and then let every one of those stolen telescopes kill them where they stand by detonating like wasp-flown fragmentation bombs, and that when they may do the greatest execution!”

This fourth paper vanished in the blink of an eye with a flash of such brilliance that I flew halfway across the room, and when I shook my head, I spat, “damn all of those stinky fetishes to hell! That one was awful, and the worst of the lot.”

“I am not sure about that,” said Georg as he helped me to my feet. “You're going to need bathing in that really Bad Geneva if that keeps happening, but something showed, and it's glowing like it's made of lightning.”

“And setting atop this strange satchel for carrying it,” said Maria. “I am not sure if I dare touch it, as it is spitting smaller lightning bolts, and it is burning with fire.”

“Let him touch it first,” said Rolf. “Old tales? This is one of those, if not a worse thing yet, and I do not believe what he did with that last paper.”

“Killed a great many witches, most likely,” said Hendrik. “Talk has it they have some stolen telescopes at the second kingdom port. Will those be affected?”

“Go up worse than swine-shells should they use them to try to find us while at sea, and...” I was grasping at straws here, yet a second later, I could tell I was not 'grasping at straws' in the slightest.

Faintly, I could feel a muted rumble, as if an artillery round had struck home somewhere far in the distance. This was not a small device, but one fully as long as I was tall and nearly a foot and a half in diameter. More, it had delusions of grandeur regarding fragmentation and blast, for it made that cursed shell-filling used so lavishly long ago look weak and insensitive, and its casing, while thin, was of an especially high grade of steel, this pre-scored in a manner such that it cut like a razor as it whirled through the air at hypersonic speeds, so that when this thing detonated, it made a huge hole where it landed and cut down targets like scythes for hundreds of yards when it went up – and those white-hot shell-splinters caused lots of fires.

“No huge hole, but you can figure on some very busy witch-parties engaged in repairs when you go past that port,” said the soft voice, “and perhaps see another stolen telescope go up like a cursed artillery shell fired from a mobile fortress.”

“What did it do?” asked Maria, as I staggered to my feet. I needed to get 'full-loaded and red-faced', and now, hunger had found me. Between bites of jam-smeared toast, I spoke of the destruction wrought to the wharf, where three witch-carrying ships lay tied up. The blast of the device had vaporized the witch and those recording his observations, while somehow the 'five-line brass' that had once formed something vaguely like what we had received – that had mutated into razor-edged fragments of hardened steel, heat-treated stuff nearly as hard as that which made chisels able to cleanly cut files in two, and that stuff – it had traveled all over the town surrounding the port, where it sliced up the rigging of every ship in port, blasted jagged holes in the hulls of the nearest two close enough to their overloaded waterlines that they were taking on water, shattered shop-windows like mad, tore doors off of hinges and reduced said doors to high-velocity toothpicks followed by one or more white-hot fragments of metal to set such kindling alight...

Ah, fires. That blast had started a number of them, as all three witch-chartered ships had not only been carrying hundreds of well-off witches; they had had full deck-loads of various flavors of distillate, and more than a few of those white-hot fragments had, in the process of turning the rigging into stuff fit for a paper-mill, had broken jugs of the stuff.

And, being white hot, those fragments had set it alight as they continued on their blast-sent way across the inlet to tear through shops and drink-houses.

“That thing was awful,” I muttered. “Got fires starting all over that port, one witch-ship is fully involved and looks inclined to set the other two near it alight...”

“If they are carrying distillate aboard, it is customary to sail with it roped down near the foremast, said Rolf. “Few ships indeed carry that material below in quantities beyond the trivial, and that well-boiled, as no ship would make port if it did, no matter how much care was used.”

“Then every single one of those things is going to burn down to the waterline, as that one that is burning like a torch is now sending flaming jugs of distillate all over the place, and more than a few are landing on all the other ships in that harbor – and I don't mean just 'those chartered by witches'. I mean every ship larger than something suitable for a single fisherman is now catching flaming jugs of distillate, as when a pile of that stuff goes up, it sends flame-trailing firebombs for well over a hundred yards in all directions, and they burst when they hit anything stiffer than a gone-rotten privy-rag.”

“They use too many bricks and too much stone for that port to burn to the ground,” said Hendrik, “but that place is going to be very busy with its repairs for quite some time, and that presumes most of those living there survive.”

“They will not,” said Rolf. “It is as if I see a sea of fire, the very water of that accursed port being aflame, and hundreds of people, thinking to save themselves by swimming, now are learning two things: if you stay inside that port and its breakwater, you must remain submerged lest you be burnt to death, and therefore you drown in short order; and if you go outside of the sea of flames, then you encounter vast swarms of waiting and hungry fish, fish that will bite you to bits within seconds and then devour you just as quickly. They call those things killer-fish, and they're very common, so I suggest you sail as carefully as you may while out upon the ocean.”

“I suspected there were plenty of those,” I said. “Just didn't know their name for certain.”

“They scare many people colors, those being initially those seven tints one finds in a rainbow, and finishing up with the color of an old tin plate,” said Rolf. “I've seen them many times, and put plenty of powder and lead in them, and while they are not hard to kill if you put a sizable ball in them when they are close enough, the usual is that the dead one attracts a number of live ones, they devour the dead fish, and then they remain nearby for hours, hoping to get another meal of a similar sort.”

“Sounds like, uh, Goiter,” I said. “Nastiest fish I ever heard of, though I'm not sure of the name. Was that thing named Goiter, or was it called Yaws?”

“It sounds fitting, and you look closer to yourself now,” said Maria. “Now, look at what came.”

I came to the table, and no longer were those lenses present in visible format. Instead, there was something so strange that it looked to have dropped out of a science fiction novel. Its matte white outer casing, this smooth, flowing, and utterly unlike any telescope I had ever seen, had various black portions where its case was assembled and where its eyepiece and viewing port were present, but in regards to 'adjustment', I saw nothing of the sort.

At least, at first I saw nothing. I then saw to the left of the eyepiece a small blue-gray screen leap out like a bullet, this with brilliant orange letters spraying across from left to right and from top to bottom at whirlwind speeds.

“What gives with this thing?” I muttered.

“It's initializing,” said the soft voice. “You've got the four cards needed to make more of those devices, but that one there is... Just watch the screen, pick it up, and keep holding it. You should get the picture shortly – and yes, this one is waterproof, and more, it floats.

The screen was still going 'nuts', then suddenly, the orange letters went to a brilliant eye-incinerating green, halted, then in the corner a three digit number steadily climbed, while other green letters spoke of the percentage of 'acquisition'.

“More mind-reading hardware,” I muttered. “No, it does not look 'science-fiction-ee'. Instead, it looks boringly commonplace, but when you try to use it, it does things someone like me could not dream of in a million years.” Pause, then, “nice viewfinder.”

As if to tell me not to think such thoughts, the letters shifted off to the side, and as I began panning the thing around, I found that I had either 'a nice viewfinder', or a spectrum display, this changed by merely thinking which of the two I wished to see.

“It makes that brass cube look sick that way,” I muttered. “Now, RF display, please. Show us the range between, uh, ten and twenty million cycles per second.”

Instantly I had a spectrogram on that small screen, and across it writ in bold red-orange letters: “Level three acquisition achieved. Percentage rapidly climbing. User is strongly marked, with dominant genetic structure. Monster status is near-certain, and.... User has totally unique genetic code. He is the one, and is not of this world.”

“What?” I gasped.

“You tell me,” whispered Maria. “Hendrik, Rolf, come here. Look at this. You too, Georg. This thing is no old tale – it is so far beyond the lot of them that I can only speak of it dropping straight out of one place, and that place is not hell.”

“I can tell that much,” I said, as my 'acquisition level' climbed past sixty percent. It seemed to be accelerating, and I could tell that within perhaps a minute, I would get the picture – it showing in the eyepiece.

“No controls,” I murmured.

“Oh, it has them, but they just haven't come out yet,” said the soft voice. “They're rubber gasketed, in places where you expect to find them on a telescope, and there's a lot more than just 'power' and 'focus'. This one has 'emissions' and 'frequency', and while it cannot quite catch 'DC', it can visualize 'epsilon rays' – and you need that capacity for interstellar navigation.” Pause, then, “it can also 'see' a great deal that's normally impossible – and actually 'see', not 'infer'.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“Normally, you would have to locate things by feel in the void, which is that place commonly called 'the black sack' overseas. With that device, it's a whole lot easier. Just pick it up, give it a few seconds to come up completely, and start looking for what you're after from the flight deck.” Pause, then, “the upgraded versions will come up a lot faster and identify better what you are looking at, even if they're a good deal larger.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Free lunches are good advertising, sonny, but they don't happen very often,” said the soft voice. “Part of it is getting those things such that they're fully void-capable, and another portion is the increased sensitivity and far-more-rapid processing power, and then, you'll need the attachment points for the gimbaled mounting you'll need so as to reach up, bring it down, and then look at the rear screen – which will be quite a bit larger, for a bigger field of view and increased information.” Pause, then, “you just got level four acquisition. Give it about another four seconds, and the eyepiece should show what you're after.”

I watched the viewfinder, counting mentally the seconds, and after what seemed half a minute, the viewfinder showed the strobing orange letters spelling out 'level five acquisition'.

Seemingly instantly, a number of small knob-like protuberances came out of the telescope's top and side, its color-scheme went from a muted gloss white to a muted gray-green-brown with faint black stripes, and in the eyepiece, I could see – clearly – the letters on the far wall, these on Hendrik's ledgers.

The sole trouble was that they initially seemed three feet tall, and only by touching the tops and gently twirling my fingers around the bases of some of these 'protuberances' could I get them so they only filled the eyepiece. I backed up, this hefty thing in my hands, and took my eyes away from the eyepiece.

The weird thing was watching those places where I was holding the telescope match my skin-tone so precisely that I had trouble discerning by sight where my hands left off and the telescope began, and as I murmured appreciatively, I could hear pages turning behind me.

“You have a manual for that thing here, though it is like all of these manuals – writ such that it makes for desiring a wordbook worth the bother, not one of those thousand-guilder things known as a Gustaaf.”

“They probably print those in Boermaas,” I spat.

“Wrong,” said the soft voice. “They print those where Sarah went to bathe, and the reason they leave out so much is so strange that you'd have trouble believing it now.”

“What?” I asked. “Those, uh, stupidity curses? The witches have yet-effectual curses that allow much of the language to not only have their desired meanings alone, but only those marked and strong witches may speak and comprehend its entirety, at least in this language as spoken in the five kingdoms?”

“Exactly, and that got you noted as one or the other by the people of Roos before you'd been there long at all,” said the soft voice. “Since you did not act at all like a witch, they figured you were marked, and that meant the lesser witches learned in time that way, but the stronger witches knew you'd come within hours of your arrival via their familiar spirits.”

“And hence in order to protect our stupid people – including many of those going to the higher schools, the west school included – no, that place especially, as the others are currently reckoned as lost unto witchdom – no Gustaaf wordbook has any of those old terms properly defined; as to learn of them, like mathematics beyond the 'idiot' level, would cause nearly every person currently alive to turn witch in short order – unless the person in question is marked, and to learn more than a modest amount beyond the idiot level permitted by those curses, they'd need to be marked enough to be killed on sight.” The obvious portion, though, was a bit much: while marked people could readily learn such information, it was even more beyond witches than the common people, and more, that had been so for eons, in fact centuries before the drowning.

Witches, to put it mildly, did curses, and they thereby accomplished their will by those means – and those principally, if not exclusively at this time. Had they need of mathematics, science, precise and careful writing, or much of anything demanding intellectual attainment beyond 'hunting', 'dressing for success', 'enforcing total and complete conformance to a poorly-defined and altogether-nebulous ideal', and 'systematic manipulation of one another by all means possible so as to achieve the pinnacle of power' – they 'outsourced' all such labor, which meant there was a huge, lucrative, and viciously competitive market for slaves where witches of stature and funds were at all commonplace – which, outside of much of the first kingdom at this time, was everywhere else in the five kingdoms.

“Precisely, and those curses are a bit much for you to break right now,” said the soft voice. “However, you can get a certain number of people exposed to higher mathematics, and in the Abbey, you'll have a large number of people within short order to whom none of those restrictions will apply.” Pause, then, “you also can advance a great many other people to the maximum 'safe' levels that are currently all-but-ignorant regarding 'sums' and 'literacy', and with a good foundation, that building will go up a lot more rapidly when it is time to raise it.”

“But what of those overseas?” I asked, as I continued to familiarize myself with this 'scope'. The thing was a bit touchy, actually, but when I looked at the 'viewfinder', it was still very much in 'learning mode', and with further use, I...

Did this instrument give me the effect of having radar?

“Not much less for range and accuracy, and unlike radar, this unit does not emit a signal of consequence, hence you can see them, but they cannot see you until they're within 'eyeball' range,” said the soft voice. “Use fog and night, and you can get close enough to cause trouble easily – and that's for the people who have radar.”

“There are people who do?” I asked.

“Yes, those ships that pick up and transfer spies,” said the soft voice. “There are typically two to three of them out on runs, none of them terribly large as such ships go.”

“T-terribly large?” I asked.

“Recall that one steam-powered craft you once went on, where you were fascinated by its huge triple-expansion steam powerplant?” asked the soft voice. “The largest one currently operating is about a hundred feet shorter in length.”

“That thing was huge,” I muttered, now noticing that the scope seemed a lot more 'friendlier'. A glance at the viewfinder saw it fold out of the side of the scope, show that I had a 'solid' degree of level five acquisition, one that was nearing ninety-four percent, and as I turned away, the viewfinder hid itself once more.

“It wasn't all that fast, either,” said the soft voice. “Figure half to two thirds the displacement compared to that craft, a similar width, a bit slower if they don't want to announce their presence for a considerable distance, and about fifty percent faster if they're prepared for for huge gouting fires and smoke clouds that can be seen for miles, and then unlike that type of ship you went on, these do not run steam.”

“What do they run, fusion powerplants?”

“No, as they're commonly crewed by the secret military establishment, and those people tended to in the past – and commonly still do – treat an awful lot of what they have like fetishes – which means but one kind of engine, one specially cursed, specially loud, and especially tricky to run, especially when it's treated like a fetish.” Pause. “Oh, you just got one hundred percent acquisition on that scope, and it's really getting an eyeful right now.”

“It is?” I asked.

“Try looking at where the refectory is,” said the soft voice. “When I said 'it can see into the range of epsilon rays', that means it can see through walls if they aren't hundreds of yards thick, and then you can pick up movement, people, things happening, voices...”

“Oh, my God,” I gasped, as I began looking through the eyepiece and seeing things that were blowing my mind, even if they weren't entirely 'there'. “Will this get to those functionaries?”

“Yes, and quite well,” said the soft voice. “You can find them readily with that thing.”

“Wonderful,” I murmured, as I brought the scope down to rest my arms and heard it chirp three times, this soft, muted, like a Mine bird just learning how to communicate. “Probably needs charging specially.”

“That 'power conditioner' that works for that 'brass cube' will condition power well enough for that device, and since it's larger, it can go quite a bit longer between charging cycles – so charge it when and where you can when you hole up to rest once the 'brass cube' is happy, and that should do it until the Draekkstaame is down.” Pause, then, “now look again. It's learned a bit more. Practice as much as you can with it before you get to the ocean, so you can use it then to stay out of trouble.”

I brought the scope up and then looked at the far wall of the room through the eyepiece, and was totally astonished to see the main court area as if there were no wall present. More, I could see the structure present at any given distance as a wireframe construct, and using the buttons that had showed on top of the 'scope', I could bring any one of the dozen or so layers to the foreground in stunning detail and full color and put the others in the background. I continued panning, seeing movement in 'real time', though this movement seemed uncommonly slow, then as I came to the doorway of the refectory, I adjusted the 'zoom', tweaked the focus 'dial'...

“Well, the kitchen's getting its' bottom in gear,” I spluttered. “This thing can see through walls like they're not there, and I can tell if individual stoves have ashes that need shoveling out and fires laid, some coals that just need raking and kindling added, have just been stoked, or are warming up and being readied for service!”

“How many stoves are there?” asked Georg. “That thing is strange, as it has this small place here that's printing like a tiny book, only I've never seen orange, blue, green, and yellow print all on a gray page!”

“That's some data this thing is giving,” I murmured. “Old tale! This thing's an old tale to me! Oh, there's Lukas' niece, and... Poor thing, she needs about six hours more sleep, as she's wondering where she can get woodcutter's wedges for her eyes. Beer, dear – three, perhaps four cups, then a...”

A sudden 'bang' startled me, then some eerie-sounding banjo music started as a threesome of pick-swingers looked to try to keep up with a small and erratic jackhammer. They were really raising the dust, or so I guessed – and there was no guess about their noise. I wobbled over to the table, set the scope down – and as I watched, all of the knobs and buttons retracted, and then over the course of seconds, all sign of them vanished completely as the color of the thing went from its eerie camouflage coloration to a chalky white tone with a few black places.

“I saw that, and I have trouble believing it,” I muttered.

“Best bag it up, and put this document in its sleeve and close it,” said Maria. “It feels very strange, and this b-book is changing colors under my hand, and...”

I touched the document-sleeve itself, then it went from 'eerily-changing flesh-tones' to mottled green-brown-yellow-black stripes surrounding the squared-off period-delimited letters in red-orange: R. C. S. as the document-sleeve closed itself and became 'locked'. It would float now, and the water would not touch it.

“A secret of secrets,” I murmured softly. “They must have really been working on these things with that color scheme for a background.” It was now obvious: the colors used on these background markings spoke a lot about just how secret a matter was, both as to the colors themselves, and also, the pattern of those colors – much as if they could be scanned and the matter then electronically translated, that being an original scheme done by the real military establishment long ago. If I guessed right, this one was 'way above top secret' where I came from if I went by the color scheme, the colors used, and all else that I could see with my eyes. I then heard my suspicions confirmed by an unimpeachable source.

That design was not licensed from Vrijlaand, but is a native one commenced years prior to the war overseas, and the secret military establishment was never able to get ones that worked even close to that well.” Pause, then, “the medical people over there will love those things.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Why, they've wanted good stethoscopes for so long they've been tasting that flavor for generations,” said the soft voice, “and the code for that 'viewer', both software and hardware, will get them most of the way there – that, and the other code-libraries you have on your person in one form or another. Their own documented research will do the bulk of the rest – and what they find in the 'secret archives' before you leave will have the prototyping process commence for those and a host of other devices by the time you do leave for home on the first adequately refurbished boat.”

“But those...” I murmured. I knew what a stethoscope was; I had thought to make one for Anna, in fact, and with vacuum tubes, or in this language, 'valves', I could make a good one, one with filtering and high sensitivity, as well as panning capacity that would permit a significant level of diagnosis regarding heart trouble – especially 'injury-induced heart trouble'.

“All they have is a collection of voice intercepts regarding those, so they think what that one doctor named 'Bones' used for diagnosis on that series you saw as a young man was called a stethoscope,” said the soft voice. “What they have named that really needs work, especially that type which is readily carried – and they can and do carry those things quite a bit at times.”

“And now, you must go,” said Maria. There is much to do, and dawn happens in an hour or so.”

“No, one question, one that should not wait,” I said. “Rolf, you spoke of bows and arrows. What do you have planned?”

“It seems you may have an idea as to what came to some of my people,” he said. “Hendrik told me of what you did with one of our special ones and commonplace arrows.” Pause, then, “let us just say that we got all that you did and a good deal more, and these people, the kingdom's chief bowyers, are coming up here for the duration, and I am glad you have a fit place for them now.”

“What would that be, and why?” asked Hendrik. He then looked at Rolf in horror. “T-the fourth floor, n-near the laboratory, a place where no man dare walk with evil in his heart lest he die and be sent forthwith to hell?”

“The same, and they'll start north once your people arrive back in port, if not a trifle sooner,” said Rolf with a chuckle. “Seems if there is a full-loaded witch-war going on, then the witches are going to be a mite busy to be looking for five friars riding in two friar-wagons along the back roads to the east of the house proper until the border with the third kingdom is reached, then along the High-Way until they can check into one of the decent hostels there. There's more than just the one, you know.”

“Yes, I know, but that place is as near to a deathtrap as the S-Swartsburg...” gasped Hendrik.

“Which is now a smoking ruin,” said Rolf. “Hendrik, lad, when that crew goes through that place, it's going to make my home district look to be in fine order, and that it will not be, and I speak truth.”

“And hence from great disorder unto greater disorder, with the witches in both places either engaged in battles for supremacy among themselves or hiding themselves well indeed,” I said. “Good. They'll come up with us when we set our wagons northward, all of them, and... Oh, Georg?”

I instantly had his attention.

“Could you somehow arrange to have Sarah's buggy and team brought down, with the spare, uh, machine gun in it if it looks wise?” I asked, this to those who lived locally and afar off. “We're going to run as long, as hard, and as fast each day as our slowest vehicle allows us to, which means everything we have needs a large stout team, sleeved wheels, good drivers who want extra coin for long days, and trustworthy men and women – and I'd fetch independents if I could, Georg. You know who to speak to, you and Willem, because you both get around – and while you can trust Esther, I'd use due discretion about Paul, at least unless Esther can keep a watch upon him and his mouth.”

“Done,” said Georg. “You too, Rolf – you'll need to head out later, once the main body starts with their leaving...”

“No, earlier,” he said. “There was speech regarding a party, speech I heard last night as they set up their camps, but when you give your speech today, I think that party will be cut short to the time it takes to secure supplies to a return trip.”

“Yes, while I speak to a number of king's officers, this with a loaded weapon in my hands,” said Hendrik coldly, indicating a machine pistol, one he had on a strap about his neck. “I may have sent that one message out by messenger, but it is will not the only one going; I kept Sarah's copies, and I made more of them, two to to the third kingdom and three to the second, and those men will read them in person.” Pause, then, “you, I suspect, need no such message, as you heard it straight from the bearer of the last pendant, and you know him to be as serious as God Almighty, and fully prepared to do what he is told, as a man under strict military orders.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Now, a last cup of beer, and then the nearest privy, and then some stairs. I've packing to do, and then a nightmare to commence.”

The beer was quick, as was stowing my cup, as was the privy – I used the nearest example, that being the king's – but then the stairs were slower than I wished, as I had a decent load upon me. When I came up to 'that realm where only those marked dare', however, I could feel it...

No, not just on the fourth floor, and in that area. That realm was a deathtrap to anyone who harbored a trace of evil in their heart. Here, on the roundabout between second and third, I could feel the warning blaring in my heart, it similar to one I had read.

Abandon all hope, you who enter here,

For evil and lies will not save you

If you think yourself a witch.

With each further step, that warning grew stronger, until at the landing of the fourth floor, my knees were complaining loudly, and as the pain subsided from a dose and I readjusted the carrying strap of the scope, I could feel distinctly the presence of a minefield, that, barbed wire, and much more, so much so that whispered, this unbidden, a sudden poem returned, full-flown, upon my lips.

Erect your fences, barbéd wire,

Watchtowers with their guns,

Secret! Scream your loudest,

Information on the run.

Money! You must have it,

While you deny your help to others.

All the while erect your style,

As the debts upon you pile,

Erect the fencing walls of lies,

Lie within the crushing fist.

Pound and pound, ever tighter,

Train for the daily office fighter,

Forsake your wife to find the strife,

Hone the endless cutting knife,

Gather trinkets like a Croesus,

Black Project, no one can see us,

A thousand faces, Each one daily,

A mask that markets falsehood daily,

Never truth, and always lies,

Shelter within the crushing fist.

On the wires' other side,

March the inmates consigned by pride,

The loathed refuse of society,

Which you hate with secret glee,

For all they have is choice,

While you have all that lives,

That not you, it shall have no voice,

Party members know what gives,

Entrance to all known bliss –

It lies within the crushing fist!

And here, I came to the first degree of separation. It was as if I could feel those watchtowers tracking my every move amid the tangled and nailed-down concertina wire, this with nasty razor-edged barbed spikes an inch and a half long coated in a long-lasting poison that had been the ultimate death of Madame Curoue. She'd been working on this poison, but the curses needed were a bit beyond her, and while she chanted them at the top of her lungs the whole time, she was not the Mistress of the North, or a witch of similar power.

As I passed the watchtowers, however, I had a question: “what did that smelly witch study?”

“She had an advanced degree in chemistry, among other things,” said the soft voice, “and because she was a strong enough witch, she was able to retain almost all of her smarts and learning, unlike many other witches, Imhotep among them. He had to learn everything all over again, which meant that when he relearned it, he learned something utterly different than what he knew before making his bones.”

“He did?” I asked.

“It saved that one dark-haired witch, the Mistress of the North, and about twenty other witches several decades, unlike those like Imhotep, who all he initially had going for him was total and utter psychopathy – which he got the minute he decided to turn witch, courtesy of his chief familiar spirit.”

“And these others were not?”

“Not like he was,” said the soft voice. “Most of them, including those that had the same names as people you once knew, retained a fairly good degree of common sense, which meant Imhotep could control them oh-so-subtly, and only one witch competed with him that way then.” Pause, then, “they were all like that during the time of bhoy.”

“One witch?” I asked.

The witch that took over the country you're going to liberate in short order,” said the soft voice. “While she did have help, and capable help, there were but a few witches helping her that came close in either psychopathic thinking or curse-power, and you could number them on the fingers of one hand and have fingers left over, unlike this area.” Pause, then, “she more than made up for their lack, however, in other ways, as she had some people that were in many ways like you are.”

“What?” I gasped. Here was the second degree of separation, that where one went into the labyrinth. If one were a true-witch, even of the level of Cardosso, you were a dead man in this realm, as here, one encountered the Tigris, and that creature cared for nothing save the destruction of its prey. It was stealthy, it was cunning, and most importantly of all, the Tigris, especially if it were of the line of Smoke...

Smoke was no ordinary felinoid. Smoke was smarter than a lot of people, and more, he could speak better than most people, think better – and far faster than the vast majority then and now – and finally, he was good enough to run a military school.

One just like Infärnu, and all of those cats of his line had that way of thinking in their genetic makeup – and there, they competed with ticklers of the old line, those that they had overseas.

“A cat using a computer?” I murmured, as I walked the corridor, wary for trouble. I was coming up upon that place where one turned right so as to go through the doubled door to enter the laboratory, and I softly sang something unique to me, that being “Don't worry, Don't worry, Everything, it gonna be all right...”

“You'd best be careful where you sing that song overseas until you bring the Draekkstaame down hard,” said the soft voice. “It will get Chucky onto you quicker than anything.”

“Good,” I spat. “Let him come. I'm about out of patience with his rubbish, and he'll die in droves.”

“He'll do that anyway, but you'll take casualties you cannot afford,” said the soft voice. “Remember, you may need to kill every functionary of any and all classes you encounter, save for some administrative examples, but you cannot afford to get any one of the party seriously injured, especially when you are just starting out. Once you get the place such that the citizens have had two days of the system being down and are on the hunt for functionaries of all stripes, then... Then you can afford to get hurt, but by then, you won't need to, as they'll be killing every functionary or suspicious person they encounter.”

Suspicious person?” I asked.

“They've got long lists of such people, and they've been watching them for years,” said the soft voice. “They tend to get more and better rations, the easiest jobs, and they rat out everything and everyone so as to get that better treatment – and now, it's going to come back on them, just like it eventually did in some concentration camps where you came from.”

“Traitors,” I spat, as I came to the doubled doors, which then opened for me without my touching. That snarled word announced my presence better than anything I could have possibly said.

“Where are they?” asked Sarah sharply. “Do they have such overseas?”

“Yes, and in numbers,” I said. “We will need to be especially careful, watching... Hah!”

“How is it you laugh now?” asked Sarah. “You need to check our packing, as Annistæ is not going there, and you are, and we...”

“You have the list he gave you, Sarah,” said Anna. “I think you need to have the following, and that for the both of you, one at a time. First, baths, this with medical soap. Sarah, you must wear scent. It's very important, you must wear scent, and more, the right kind. I can tell that much. Then, both of you, into your traveling clothing.” Here, Anna paused, then said, “this list. Wipe it. There are enough of us, Toréo included, to ensure that all that is on it is packed, packed right, packed securely, and then taken downstairs. You'll but need to touch each bag to ensure it's filled right.”

Sarah went off toward the tubs, but Anna held me back. “Now that she's gotten her orders, these are yours. You don't need scent, as you give off your own, and that no matter what happens or anything.” Here, I placed my hand upon the list, and the thing went solid bluish-white, shooting sparks off of it in Anna's hands. She looked at it with fascination, and nodded. “You both need dosing once you are in the inner portion of your traveling clothing, and then you must put on your weapons. All of them, every one of them, both of your with your vests full-packed, and with your writing kits in your hands and that t-telescope in yours as well as a ledger in your possible bag.”

“Is this like that part in Ezekiel where there was a man with a writing kit, and he was to mark those not to be slain?”

“Closer than you might think,” said Anna. “She should be done momentarily. Now, once you are arrayed, less pack and possible bag, then you need to check our work as we finish these bags. There may be many of them, but this new list looks very likely indeed, and there are a lot of people...” Anna came to look up from the list, and to her astonishment, Hendrik, Maria, Georg, and Rolf showed, all of them seemingly ready for war to the knife and beyond. They were packing heavy iron, as the saying went.

“What may we do?” asked Maria.

“Help us get these bags ready,” said Katje. “I must have my bath before we descend to the ground floor, but as I must eat for three and then do my utmost to ensure they have their supplies to hand, and those they will need for the trip, then we...”

“Your time for the bath,” said Anna. “I can tell the rest what to do, as I think they know – and yes, I know about albino hares now, as that thing wrote itself on the wall here, along with several other songs of a sort I had no idea existed, even if I suspect I can can get my violin to agree with them.”

“You do not have it with you, do you?” asked a faint-sounding voice, one fatigued beyond measure.

“No, but I can figure these songs, and they'll drive off witches faster than a hornet-swarm the size of a real mountain,” spat Anna. “You, your bath.”

With Anna ordering me in that fashion, I wasted no time, and I soon learned that not merely were both stoves stoked 'as hot as they would go', but that there was a definite line for each of the two tubs. These were good tubs, however, and the water was plentiful, and I soon learned from a handful of others who were next in line for baths what the drill was: get two buckets, these large ones, then a third one from the distillery, this being hot water, and put that on the coal-stoked stove to replace the boiling one. Put the cold in first, then add the hot to taste, get one's clothing off, get in, get soaped and then lathered and rinsed well with one's bathing dipper, then redressed to the point of decency: then take one's dirty clothing to the steaming washing machine.

That contraption was now running 'full-out', and to say it worked well was an astonishing understatement. More, it was reserved for us five, and my clothing, as it was labeled, went in with Sarah's to be 'steam-thrashed'. Karl and Sepp were next for the tub, and as I began checking our bags – touch was not enough, Anna's newest list not withstanding; I needed to rearrange them, and I had Sarah and Annistæ, along with Toréo, helping me – the talk was, surprisingly, of stoves, and how there would be a need for a number of new ones in the house proper.

“It seems a good place to test them,” said Sarah, as she emptied out another bag and laid its contents upon a cloth-covered bench. “Do you have plans for them?”

“Yes, as they will probably be the first ones I make,” I said. “Most likely, I will make a batch of three to five, as I can think of several places that need these.”

“Yes, and where would that be?” asked Annistæ as I began repacking a bag with stunning rapidity. My hands knew their business, this precise, quick, and all-but enervating to watch. That dose was really working, and so was the beer.

“First, one for here, as you really need a cooking stove, not just something that can be jury-rigged into cooking simple meals and is best suited for heating bathwater and keeping the living quarters aired out and the place from freezing when it gets cold in here,” I said. “Then, another one for where the two of us live, as their stove is about due for a date with Frankie, and Anna is just now learning that she has real trouble cooking, and it will but get worse yet with time and more markings – and Hans can burn water as he is now.”

“You can say that again,” said Anna. “Thank God they're still baking Kuchen as if it were Festival Week, as I'm doing well any more to not burn water, and that with a heating lamp. These things they have here – I'll do up burnt meals for certain.”

“Yes, and I can think decent, but forget meals,” said Hans. “I might manage if I am cooking chemicals, but I must learn how to do that business right, for it is as if I know enough to get sooted up and scattered, and both of those things good, and no more.”

“True,” I said. “Remaining here might be a wise choice until your head is mostly healed, as Graćiella might wish to look at you closer, and the same for your finger, until gloves can be made for your hands. You'll wish several pairs, all tested for fit and function, with emphasis upon both matters.”

“Two days,” said Graćiella. “Now this one is strange. We have shelves here, and this strange tool, and I am not sure we wish it here, as its name causes me trouble.”

“Put it to the side, dear,” I said. “We'll most likely take it with us, as that way we can get more of them coming back with us using this long caravan of wagons...”

“I hope you spoke to someone about my buggy, then,” said Sarah. “We will wish it for the trip back, as that trip looks to be troublesome indeed with all we shall have, and...”

“He did, and at length,” said Georg. “These stoves sound useful. Go on about them.”

“Question, this not of stoves,” I said. “Those two, Johannes, Gelbhaar – oh, and the apprentices.”

“Down below you one floor,” said Hendrik. “Tam, Lukas, and Gilbertus fetched the lot last night, and they're staying here for the duration.”

“Good,” I said. “I hope they're in manacles, all of them, and every one of them being fed bread and water, and all of them guarded as close as can be managed.”

“I wrote that,” said Maria curtly. I suspected she had had a similar idea and had made the needed arrangements, while she also knew of what was truly important, and then spoke accordingly. “The stoves, please.”

“The third of this first batch will most likely be for Sarah and I, though what we will do with such a thing is yet a mystery. There, that bag's done. It can go to the door to make a stack, and we go by the main stairs for these as they'll be quicker.”

“Further distance,” said Lukas, who had just showed. “Now all of them people is locked up tight, and they can't go nowheres, and they're hid good, and they're just setting there like jugs o' beer.”

“You'll wish to take no chances with them,” said Rolf. “You'll wish leg-irons, those stapled to the wall for the lot of them, and then feed them poorly, so they know that they live by your desire, and that alone.”

The hardness of Rolf's voice was astonishing; he made Tam at his 'meanest' seem tame.

“Done, sir,” said Lukas. “Now, I was hearing about stoves, how they're going to be happening some.”

“Mostly experimentation, as we are still learning iron, and that will be a needed matter before he assays sextant parts,” said Georg. “Iron may be tricky, but it has nothing on this special metal that is out of an old tale, and Pieter needs a three-ringer, not a wall-hanger, and that means three separate units, each sealed up tight.”

“No, not like a fetish,” said Lukas. “Like a three-X navigating timer, and I wish my stove were near as tight.”

“Our stove, gentlemen, will most likely be for heating bathwater and keeping the place warm,” I said, “but all of these stoves will not be the sort that burns solid fuel. No, not a one. I've spoken about them – or, perhaps, made drawings of their parts.”

“What will they burn, then?” asked Hendrik.

“Alkoli, I think,” said Annistæ. “There are these smaller burners, and they are good for meals of the simpler kind, which are those which I do best. She over there does well with a pair of them.” Annistæ was pointing to Esther.

“Hence burners like some I have in mind, which will need machining, then an oven, finned sides with insulated guards so no more stove-burns, no more cleaning out ashes, and...”

“Say no more to me, if we can get this fuel you spoke of,” said Georg. “This sounds like a stove I can use, almost.”

“Me, too,” said Anna. “I've lost nearly all of my cooking skills, and if it was possible to burn water on what we have at home, then I'm likely to manage it now.”

“Do not speak of burning water,” spat Deborah. “I once did so.” Pause, then, “if I must use one of those we use for heating bathwater, then I'd best figure on this one recipe told me by that one man Gabriel, as it worked for him, and he can burn water if he's not careful, almost to the degree I can.”

“It is not a bad species of soup, even if it is a bit on the bland side for flavor,” said Gabriel. “Add some fine-chopped potatoes, a bit of pepper about an hour or so before you plan on eating it, and then it's as good a meal as one could want.”

“You did that?” I asked.

“No, but Lukas did on his trip back from the third kingdom, and he's got that recipe on his cards now,” said Gabriel. “It may be a simple meal, but it does taste decent, and I found I could prepare it easily and have it taste good enough to eat – and that the first time I tried it. More, it uses ingredients that keep well, and that makes it a useful recipe for trekking.”

As I started on loading up another bag, though, I could hold in the joke no longer, even if I was wearing a full suit of 'fine linen' over some new-washed exercise clothing, this linen unbleached, light tan, soft, warm, pleasant to wear, trousers, long shirt, wide belt with a number of pistol holsters on it and more to go once I had made them in the third kingdom, two knife sheaths and another planned for that huge knife that was gathering further uses by the day, a rifle slung over my shoulder, a small leather pouch on a strap, this filled with magazines of one kind or another, a full vest, and then, for once, a helmet, this with a strap to hold it in place.

A combat helmet, and I wondered if I had turned witch.

“They killed to get what you're wearing,” said the soft voice. “Now out with that joke, as it's needed right now. That's why you got it, in fact.”

“I'll have four slices of grilled hamster, please, and hold the bird-eggs,” I said with a trace of a laugh. “I really like the eggs that contain women's stockings, as the stockings feel really good when women are wearing them, and the eggs are useful things indeed, even if nothing about them is edible.”

“What?” squawked Sarah. “No stockings I know of come in eggs, even if I cannot wait to get my hands on some your knitting needles. I'm about ready to stick mine into the ears of a blue-suited functionary right now, they've become so dirty and contrary.”

“Time with some rouge-paste and a rag,” I said. “In my possible bag. Then, some of that grease, wipe them just before use, and they'll work well a lot longer.” Pause, then, “the rest of our clothing?”

“It hangs over one of the stoves,” said Annistæ, “though a bit off to the side, so they catch the heat but not the steam. They dry faster that way.”

“Need a proper drier in here,” I murmured. “Oh, hang them in the generator room?”

“Non, you do not do that,” said Angelíca. “That place needs a good fan in it, even if it is warm, as there is oil in the air there.”

“Yuck!” I spat. “Those things must be relatively oil tight. Now does anything in there need a drip-pan?”

“No, but part of the startup routine involves use of rags to deal with seepage, especially with that lubricant,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, that room does need a chimney for ventilation, though no fan will be needed as a rule.”

“Cé, and then there are some oil vapors,” said Angelíca. “I have yet to go into any room that has a jeniradoré in it that does not have those, though that one there has the least of any I have heard of.”

“Still enough to make for nasty clothing,” I said. “Hence near the stoves, regular turning, bagging the stuff up in the clothing bags, and then... Oh! A wipe of those green clubs we will take with aquavit!”

“I did that already, and spewed twice,” said Gabriel. “They smell, all right – smell like the strongest aquavit I've ever seen, and I've jugged up several smaller containers in addition to the larger ones that are marked that way.”

“Stove fuel?” I asked.

“Two medium sized plastic jugs,” he said, “as I suspect getting more in the third kingdom port is easy, and decent aquavit is easy to fetch if one goes one or two streets over on the south side of the wharf.”

“He's right about that,” said Sarah. “It might not be good as we have here, but it is good stuff, thrice distilled, and that carefully, as is wanted for shipboard meals.”

“They drink it?” I gasped.

“No!” said Sarah. She sounded exasperated. “They use it to prepare meals, and I think I want another dose of that strong tincture, then dark-goggles and earplugs.” Pause, then, “I am not looking forward to this morning in the slightest.”

Sarah got her dose, and I sent the fifth of our more-than-twenty bags to its resting place in line near the door. There would be an extra one, one with pillows, blankets, a strange scope, and our navigating gear in it, along with our spare ledgers, and marked as such. That one I had made up on the spur of the moment, and was thinking of it when Sarah spoke of our current brace of stoves.

“I have never seen such good stoves as those in there,” she said, “even if getting them to run meals is a bit much if one puts a good load of burnt-coal to them.”

“That is for sleeping and drying clothing, and keeping the cold out of this place during the winter,” said Annistæ. “Now our farolcumbusteblé setup, that which uses rats, is going to wish some coal soon, so we must find it, even if it is making close to a jug of lantern fuel an hour and every lantern we have is full and has its wick trimmed for use.”

“You got all of those lanterns?” I asked.

“Cé, as candles are scarce now, and while I suspect I know where many of them are hidden and can move them to safe places in here, the Cabroni will take everything that is like a candle that they can remove so as to make the whole of this place dark. Hence, for our cleaners, we have need lights they may use, and we will keep them in this one locked door out of the blue zone.”

Blue zone?” I asked. My hands were working as well as ever, and that with dark goggles and earplugs, on top of following Sarah's example regarding another dose. Time was slowed drastically, my hands were fast to the point of blurring, my focus was upon my job, and I was working like a stimulant-driven beaver. “As in the place is locked, one of you needs to unlock it, you issue the lanterns to each cleaning party, and you collect them up at the end of each working day. Correct?”

“Cé, as then the Cabroni will have a harder time stealing them, and those smelly thugs” – Annistæ pronounced this last word 'Skle-ager' – “are likely to become fit for the dung-hill, or if we get fat ones, then perhaps we can cut them up and make lantern fuel out of them.”

“Fat-based fuel, not likely, but alkoli-based, yes you can, fat, thin, or otherwise,” I spat. “Need to be stripped of their bad clothing, documented as to their markings and all, cut up into manageable pieces with a knife like Gabriel has, and then ground finely, just like that one grinder does for fat-based farolcumbusteblé that uses rats.”

“Can we use rats?” asked Annistæ.

“Yes, but their fat will cause the reactions to go strange,” I said. “Cabroni tend to not merely have much dirt, but little fat, so they are better for alkoli-based farolcumbusteblé – and they will do well for making that.” Pause, then a laugh. “There are going to be a lot of emaciated functionaries being used to make 'number one stove oil' overseas once they get shot or killed by other means, so I guess we can do the same. A grinder fit for our coming witches, please.”

The ground-shaking thud that came from the right was sudden as anything, but when Annistæ returned, she seemed much happier. “They will fit right in there, once we take their clothing off, as that is wished for paper. It seems it works well, as I have run some of it.”

“You already have paper?” I gasped.

“It takes some time to cook, but that screen on that thing showed me that their clothing will work well, even if it needs much cooking, and that nasty type that is stiff the most cooking of all,” she said. “It has already made eight sheets of paper since we first fed it, and another sheet comes out every few minutes, a bit damp and smelling of solvent a bit, but otherwise as good of paper as I have seen.”

Annistæ then went for her bath. It reminded me of another matter regarding bathing, and here was as good a time to speak of it as any. After all, we were headed for a strange place.

“Uh, that one shower we had in Ploetzee?” I asked. “You liked that, didn't you?”

“Yes, and it was not the first time I had had such a thing,” said Sarah. “The west school has several that are a bit like it, but they usually have long lines for them, and I could ill afford to stand in line for such an amount of time, nor did I wish to use one with a loaded fowling piece to hand, so I kept the gun nearby in my rooms and used my own tub and stove to bathe. I found that common soap was my usual, but sometimes, I could get this odd soap that made a great many bubbles, nearly as many as that silly medical soap does, and though it did not tickle like medical soap, it did get one clean, and the bubbles were very soothing.”

I paused, finished a bag, zipped it up, tied on its pre-writ label, then passed it aside and went to the next one, this a smooth yet blurred motion. Sarah had more to say, but I had something to say to her, first. It was very important, given what we were about to embark upon, that being 'holy matrimony', and that in the purest sense possible.

“Ever since learning of such matters,” I said softly, “I always have wondered what you would look like in such a tub, where all one could see is your face, and it surrounded entirely by white bubbles of soap.”

“Now that needed saying, Sarah,” said Katje, who was helping our final-packing greatly, the list in her hands and others fetching things as she clearly called them out. Seemingly losing two toes to a witch's gun had caused her to become 'pathologically organized', and such a person was a tremendous help right now.

“I hope I can get a rifle like Esther's,” said Katje. “I was using a regular one, and the only times I missed were when the witches were running and they were a far distance off, and that type works better for far shots and running thugs.”

“Figuring lead can be tricky, then,” I said. “Now, Sarah – those bubbles helped a lot, didn't they?”

“Yes, they kept the water warm much longer, and I felt better on account of it, and I hope someone packed up some move vials of that lantern fuel with the torment grease in it, as in one of my periods of sleep this night, I was shown how we would need it.”

“How, dear?” I asked.

“It works well as both a lubricant and a cleaner, and there is much over there that wishes a cleaner that lubricates to a degree,” said Sarah. “Then, they will wish samples, as there is this strange thing they do chemistry with that is so weird it gave me a headache to see it in use, and that in a dream. It puts the chemical in this cage, much as if it were a collection of balls and sticks, and then they use these odd wands to move things around, and then these huge noisy things that surround it show what happens in the cage and upon several screens like huge slates, and if they do it right, it can tell them how to change something or make it from scratch.”

“Twelve thick rods form it, the 'cage' is taller than I am and perhaps four feet wide, and the molecule looks really solid, correct?” I asked. “These wands have grippers, and you can add, subtract, or change drastically what is in there, and if you're especially good, you can make things from scratch using it.”

“Not merely at the symbolic level, either, as a good set-up in the better medical laboratories or a few of the chemistry schools can actually tell you what is needed to make that chemical, but also what it is likely to be useful for,” said the soft voice. “It takes a lot of computer horsepower to run one, which means usually a rather noisy cluster of mainframes for such a cage – and yes, it's called a cage.”

Cage?” I asked.

“A Mole-Cage, and the program itself is called mole,” said the soft voice. “You can guess why.”

“Avogadro's number,” I spat. “Six dot zero two three times ten to the twenty-third power makes one mole of a given substance.”

“That will tell them a lot, even if they know most of that information and some of the terms,” said the soft voice.”

I had finished another bag, and another was brought to me. As it was emptied, I noted a container, this medium-sized and leakproof, with the black-stamped tin label of 'lantern fuel with torment grease, for bad locks and worse hinges'.”

“Bad locks and worse hinges?” I asked.

“It might not be that oil you make,” said Sepp, “but it does make locks and hinges silent, and it does it fast, and it does it easy as anything – just brush it on old hinges, or poke the stuff in with an awl if you've got a bad lock, or put it on the key itself, and then it loosens right up and one of my keys that had trouble now opens balky locks right up, and that as easy as eating drowned Kuchen with cherries and honey!”

“And our washing machine,” I murmured. “Going to wish a copy made, or several, seeing as I am going to do a lot of iron founding.”

“Cé, and this is a good one, as I recognize the type,” said Angelíca. “It has a label, and I can read it, as those of the Snake are the best readers of languages in all of El Vallyé. They must be, as many of them are Brujé of one type or another.”

“You?” I asked.

“Cé, I am, and then, there was my other training, which those smelly Cabroni stopped.” She said this sadly.

“What was that to be?” asked Esther. “Least with this list I can get these bags a lot closer, and have those things they don't have handy for including.”

“What you call medicine, like her,” she said, pointing to Graćiella. “That is something many of the Snake do, but my hands are smaller and have more movement to them, and that is very important.”

One glance, and I nodded. My hands were doing the strangest things imaginable, as now they'd 'gotten into their legs', and I was passing a bag every minute or two down to be stacked, each with its numbered tag.

“It is rare to have one who looks so like one of the mule's men have hands like yours,” she said softly. “You must learn to do such work also, even if you will not do it much.”

“M-much?” I asked.

“She means 'you will not do it as your sole job, but one of a number, and more, it is important that you understand it especially well, given what one of your main jobs will be,” said Esther.

“What?” I asked, as my hands emptied a bag in what seemed seconds, cleaned it out with a rag soaked in diluted aquavit – still burned the nose some, but no spewing – devoured a kuchen, dabbed the inside of the bag with one of those scents that would cause trouble for their sniffers, then began repacking it. I could tell my work was happening with especial efficiency.

“Medical hardware,” said Esther. “You'll be working on that a lot, especially its programming, and in order to do that well, you need to do medicine like they do – and that means you'll need to take the full time while in the black hole, and become what they speak of in the Valley as 'en Brujé espekealé'.” said Esther. “They have few of those over there, but they tend to run medical schools.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped, as I nearly fainted. “I need a distraction. Could someone read the nameplate off of that washer, so we can get copies of their drawings?”

Within what seemed like half a minute, a deep, rumbling echo spoke, this saying, “this here is from the f-fourth kingdom, and while it is old, it is a good one. It says 'Naachaem Brothers, washer-makers, district seven, Secroes Laan, number thirty-one'.”

“So it's an older design,” I murmured. “Still looks new enough to fool me.”

“Mostly because it is a new washer, and it arrived just before the witches caused the people working here to need to leave for parts south,” said the soft voice. “More, that design hasn't changed significantly in over a hundred years, save for a large number of small detail improvements – and if you look in one of the bins, you'll find the parts and tools needed to update it to the latest specifications.”

“We looked in most of those things, but have not found them,” said 'someone'.

“Best let that one lady that's like Sarah for height and build do that, as she'll know what to do and how to do it, and...” Lukas was interrupted by a scream, this fully as deranged-sounding as anything Annistæ could manage, and as high-pitched as Deborah at her most irritated. There was one trouble.

This was not irritation. It was a sincere, heartfelt, and utterly real thanksgiving to God, and the woman making it was Angelíca.

The washer stopped, this for what seemed an hour, during which time I ran no less than a quarter of the bags we had been doing; but when the washer resumed, I heard a less than subtle difference, and to my right, I sensed an aspect of fright that made me look.

“Not as up to date as what Naachaem Brothers' does, is it?” I asked. “Four plastic sealing rings, a new piston, a lot of new hardware, some strange tools, including this one thing that maybe she understands passably and I've used a lot – something called a flex-hone, and you need a portable drill to run it?”

While there was no answer on the tools, at least right away, there was an answer regarding the washer's new parts and its smoother – and faster – running. It was just what was needed, as mumbled murmurs of delight seemed to crowd around the swishing noise of the thing. It was bedding in; it would smooth out quickly, and then it could run clothing faster than anything short of something out of a far-out science fiction novel.

“Getting really close to one of those already,” I mumbled. “Goes from fantasy, in that we're fighting cursed reptiles that spew flames from both ends, and now we're going to do some regime change, and blow the living daylights out of a port and God knows what else in the process of getting there!” I then had my answer to the washing machine parts.

“It is not their updated parts, which are not enough different to be worth the bother,” said the soft voice. “Those are the parts that those from across the sea will fit to the versions they find in their warehouses.”

“They have these?” I gasped, as I finished a bag with a wipe of 'scent number three', this applied to the inside with my finger. There, it would evaporate, and slowly leak out enough of that odor to cause nothing but errors to show at 'spy central' overseas. I'd dose each bag again while on the 'schooner' or whatever they actually used to get out to the meeting point.

“That type of washer may well be considered 'prole gear' over there,” said the soft voice, “and they are rather steamy to watch, but they do work well,” said the soft voice. “They were used commonly on the battlefield, and the latest versions, those they took back home, became somewhat upgraded and then put in 'laundries', one in each 'sector', which typically was a group of four to sixteen domiciles, depending upon their size, location, and the work of those who were slated to live there.” Pause, then, “however, if you get into places used by functionaries, especially those who are considered spies, what you find there for clothing may surprise you utterly.”

What?” I asked. “Don't tell me – those incinerate the clothing and make new stuff from scratch.”

“No, but if you use one of those washers, you – and the rest of the populace there – will desire to use them instead of what used to be used in 'prole-laundries'.” said the soft voice. “If you use one, you will be very surprised indeed.”

No documentation on them,” I murmured, as I started on another bag. We would have closer to thirty of these, but my loading them was making them manageable, and more, close to the same weight and 'feeling', which would help us a lot until the system was entirely down and such surveillance was not happening.

“They will find that quickly once you open the floodgates,” said the soft voice. “They'll wish a machine for an example, but given one of those, tooling up to make large numbers of duplicates will not take them terribly long.”

As I was about to finish a bag, however, Sepp nudged me, showing me this oddly form-fitted fiberglass case. He looked as if he was terrified, which meant the matter was serious; and his voice confirmed it when he spoke.

“I have this thing in here, one of two, and I'm scared to open it,” he said.

“Uh, why?” I asked, as my hands continued their magic upon our bags. “That isn't paint, Sepp – that's molded into that case, and it's both sealed against the elements and is nearly indestructible.”

“Because of what is in it,” said Sepp. “I had this dream, one that caused me to nearly soil my underclothing when I awoke in a chilled sweat, and in that dream, there was this thug, and that smelly wretch liked to shoot as if he had his own large powder mill, and a huge lead mine, and he used one of these, one with a name like the one printed upon this container.”

“He did?” I asked. “Why, what is printed on that, uh, bin?” I then asked, this quieter, “your dream frightened you that badly?”

“Y-yes,” said Sepp. For possibly the first time ever, Sepp was actually afraid. I looked at his hand, then his shoulder, and then, for some reason, his feet. I then had a partial answer: “you had to finish that smelly thug off with your knife, as he came out of nowhere, didn't you?” I asked. “He shot you up with his weapon – stitched you good, in fact – and you needed some serious emergency care and then a lengthy session in a theater, and in the process, you became m-marked.”

“Yes, and that was not the first time,” said Sepp. “I had spent time in one of those places twice before, one time because of this really bad rat that I thought was trouble until I ran into that thug.” Pause, then, “that rat didn't scare me half as much as that thug, as he was shooting at me as if it was you while you were using the broom, and this thing here has the same name as what he was using!”

“What is it, then?” I asked calmly, as I 'dosed' the inside of another bag with an 'odor' and then zipped and locked it, prior to passing it to Sarah, who then tagged it with a numbered tin tag, this at each end, and then Maarten took the bag over to set it in the row. I could tell he was glad none of these bags were overly heavy. Sepp then gave his answer, which rang in my head like a bell.

“A M-MAK-TEN,” he stammered. “It left no brass on the floor, but it sprayed so much hot lead when it worked that only having you using the broom on me could be worse.”

“It left no brass things on the ground?” I squeaked. “The broom leaves piles of them.”

“I know,” said Sepp. “It does use boxes to hold its ammunition, and they're long, somewhat curved, and go into its rear handle. There's a front one, and that thug hung onto it for dear life, but he didn't miss much.” Pause, then, “it stuck on him several times, but when it worked, it was awful – like being shot at by a fire breather with a pill that was twice too large.”

“Is that what is in this case?” I asked, my voice suddenly changing tone. “Somehow I doubt this is a weapon, even if I saw one of those things a long time ago. It was spoken of as being a 'disposable' weapon, and it looked very cheaply made. It wasn't something I wanted, even then.”

“His was not that, not even close,” said Sepp, “and he got me good that thing. Even wearing this special cloth barely slowed his bullets down, and I was bleeding like a pig that's been hit five times with a full-loaded ten-bore roer stuffed by someone from Ploetzee. They know their roers there, or so Lukas has told me.”

I ceased with my packing, then as Sepp laid down the box, I gave a deep breath, then undid the quintet of metal latches and opened the lid. What I then saw was so familiar I giggled, then asked, “did that stinky thug use something like this?”

“N-no,” said Sepp. “It was all black, his sticks, his sling, his ammunition container, and his weapon, and he carried at least twenty sticks in his pouch, as it was a big one, one nearly half the size of your possible bag.” Pause, then as Sepp looked closer, “that thing is blue, not black. What is it, some kind of a strange-shaped pistol?”

“No,” I said excitedly. “This is a portable battery-operated drill, and those things that look a bit like magazines are batteries. I had one just like this only...” Pause, then, “was that name one of the words that tied their tongues overseas into complete knots? Ones that needed surgical intervention, in fact?”

“It usually did – and when it did not, it caused convulsions severe enough to need several days of hospitalization,” said the soft voice. Pause, then, “that name is not a curse, as witches tended to explode whenever they tried saying the name of those intercept-based tools, hence the name of another intercept was used for those – and since that one has ten cells in its battery rather than eight like the drill you had, it's called a MAK-10.”

“'Mak', as in short for 'Makita'?” I asked.

“The fact that you could say that word so readily would supply sufficient proof to those overseas to know beyond all doubt that you're 'strongly marked',” said the soft voice. “They have records of about twenty people able to say certain words, and instances of people who can speak words from 'oriental' languages are so rare that they have to hunt for records on them.”

I slipped in one of the three batteries, locked it in place, asked that it be charged up, then squeezed the trigger.

The drill instantly screamed like a die-grinder with delusions of grandeur, and yet the torque reaction was so drastic it nearly leaped out of my hand while trying to take my arm off at the shoulder.

“MAK-TEN, indeed,” I spat. “Almost as bad as the pistol of that name for hand-jumping. Has more power than any drill I've ever used!”

“Good battery life, also,” said the soft voice. “Pack that one in your bags for the trip, while leaving the other here for Angelíca's use. They'll want those overseas, as they're currently very rare, badly made of inferior materials when they're found, and the documentation looks as if writ by someone who's been drinking 'prime' Veldter's drain opener for a year, and a jug per diem.”

“And the only people who currently have them are drugged-to-the-eyeballs functionaries,” I muttered.

“True, which is why it has three batteries,” said the soft voice. “There are a few 'liberated' ones in the shipyards, and they keep those hidden well from those blue-suited characters, as they're 'forbidden' to those named 'proles'.”

“I am glad we have two of them, then, and gladder yet this one is to remain here,” said Deborah – as she slipped one of the long stick-like batteries into the drill's handle. “Now, this thing shows a picture on its side, a moving one, and it is telling me how to use it, both in words and in pictures, and it says it shows presence, with an acquisition level of two. What does that mean?”

“A mind-reading drill,” I spluttered. “Dear, just keep holding that thing, and it will know what you want, least to some degree.” This I said as I resumed packing, now needing to find room for a most-irritable drill in our bags. Deborah then surprised me yet more.

“There is this strange switch in the pot-room, and I am afraid to touch it, and the fumes in there are bad now and getting worse quickly,” she said. “Do you know what it does?”

“Pardon me,” I said as I walked away from the bags. The others, I could tell, were 'helping' the bags along, such that it would but take perhaps another ten minutes to do the rest, then Sarah and I would need to don our garments in full, the rest of those up here would each grasp a bag, and down we would go, slow, stately...

That nightmare came off quickly as the two of us entered the pot-room – or as I thought of it for an instant, the Pot-world. Here, there were no strange-looking bad-smelling plants, though I knew those would happen later. Here, there were pots, all of them steadily bubbling away, and the miasmal stink of the place was something I was not prepared for. I then saw an array of large diameter silvery piping running above each row of pots, this hung down from the ceiling by silvery metal rods; and this tree-root like structure went into a pipe perhaps eighteen inches in diameter. I turned to see the black-surrounded dial, this fluted, black, a white line upon it, and nearly three inches in diameter.

“Looks like proper fetish-gear, all right,” I muttered. “Needs to be made of a nice color-coded plastic.”

“It is made of color-coded plastic, with black meaning 'use due care and caution',” said the soft voice. “Before you turn it, ask her what else she found today and yesterday, as this is quite important, and she and Annistæ, as well as those others that come to join them and have already come, will all be greatly busy.

“First, a small scale, this I found in a drawer in a wooden box, and covered with this wax that came off with that oil we have vials of,” said Deborah. “It is of two sides, one side indicating sixty-four lines to the inch, and the other, ten large lines per inch, and nine smaller lines to each of the ten larger ones. It seems older than time, and its markings are strange, as they are not letters, but figures. Sarah told me it was from Vrijlaand.”

“Probably is,” I said. “It sounds like a precision scale, and that type is used as a layout tool. What else?”

“There were other things marked similarly in that box,” said Deborah. “There was this thing that measured angles, a set of these angles that are varied and numbered, this other thing for making patterns if you wish them to draw easily from sand or investment, and then, in another box, this one larger, I found a number of these really strange small gouges, saws, files, knives, and other tools, all of them going into these odd handles that permitted one to tighten them down. That one new woman said they were very special and quite old, and were used for carving wax.”

“Then you did find some special tools, and I'll bet that zinc alloy will like lost-wax molds,” I murmured.

“Just burn out the wax thoroughly after saving what runs out from slow warming, let them cool partly, pour the mold, and then let it cool to room temperature. They'll come out needing little but final machining when they've fully work-hardened.” Pause, then, “those tools she found are not merely good for wax, but also precise patterns of wood, plastic, and other materials – and while you can make better, and will make better, these will give you ideas and buy you no small amount of much-needed time.”

Again, I saw that black-surrounded switch, and touched it. Touching it turned the power unit 'on' or off, while turning the dial...

That tended to remove the fumes, but also, it did something else, depending upon where one set it, as I soon learned.

The first intimation that all was not right in the pot room was that it was no longer merely a room, but a realm at once real and nightmarish – a realm that stretched to the outskirts of infinity. The pots, each in their rows, now had their thick miasmal fumes billowing skyward, only instead of white walls and a white ceiling, all about me was gray. I looked at my feet, and saw them to be upon the decaying wood of an ancient rowboat; and about this rowboat, dark water, this deep, mysterious, noisome, and dank, demanded labor. The tools: two paddles, these more rot than wood.

Paddling was my lot, and my destination across this... this lake...

No, too small to be a lake, and too large to be a pond, and too dark, noisome, dank...

Peat,” I thought. “I know what this is – a dank tarn, and ahead, lying yet hidden, is an island, one of horror...”

The boat suddenly bumped against the shore of this slow-sinking spot of land, and all upon it lacked life and sun. Trees, they high above me, yet retained their leaves by means unknown, for all upon this desolate rocky shore, save myself and two or perhaps three others, were dead; and ahead, lay my destination, this tall, gray-stoned, hanging lichens decorating the gray stone in the fungoid growth of decay, and...


And, amid one of the walls, I saw a crack, this starting below the line of the slow-sloping soil and going up to the very top of the high battlements, for this was a large house, one fit to house a family of size and wealth; and within, but two of that stock yet remained.

Yes, I knew them, knew them well; knew both their names. The man: Roderic. The woman: Madeline. The thing that bound them together: Laudanum, drop by drop, a slow and steady dribble down the corridors of life.

This vanished with a jolting abruptness; and then, it was replaced. No longer was I upon the dead and lichen-strewn shore of an island about to drown itself in waters of corruption: instead, underfoot was a course gravely material, this the long-decayed bones of the dead; while somehow, I had acquired a severe cough, one for which but one sovereign remedy existed: and the name of the man who had it, a mason, one hiding trowel and mortar in the vast catacombs below his wide-flung and drafty house...

“Gah! It stinks in here. I hate wine, and I would rather have consumption than Amontillado!”

“Is that you, Fortunato?” whispered a cultured voice. “Come, friend. Drink always desires more, and I have that especial type you enjoy most. An entire cask of it, all of it saved just for you...”

“You can go to hell with your damned wine, Montressor,” I spat. “I don't know you save by reading about you, I hate wine, and I would not be caught dead in a catacomb!”

“Precisely why you are here rather than elsewhere,” said the cultured voice. “I will have you dead, or know the reason why...”

His voice died out into an outlandish shriek, and over the course of perhaps a second, all of this utterly real hallucination – if hallucination it indeed was – vanished. The smell was much less, the fumes now clustered up near the top of the room, and I found myself alone in the room. I turned, mechanical, much as if a robot, a Karel Capek forced laborer, and came out into the room to find Deborah shaking like a leaf, while Annistæ was sitting on a stool and holding her front teeth, much as if she expected them to escape from her mouth; and from there, fall in a steady cascade to the floor.

“I but stood in the doorway, least until she ran out,” she said, her voice the very picture of terror, “and my clothing changed to grave-clothing. Then, I walked into the room, and as I walked, my teeth fell from my mouth steadily, and I heard, over and over again, my new name, one I was not born with, but one of a dead person, and I walked, dead, all over the face of that tiny world, always dropping teeth.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “You set that fan at certain settings – it's touchy, two divisions each side will dump you into that place – and you're in the POE-WORLD.” Pause, then, “You became Berenice, didn't you?”

“Cé, just like when I was once dosed with pain medicine without first receiving that for insanity,” she said. “It was so bad I can only call hell itself worse.” She then looked over my shoulder, and all but swarmed about me, screaming as if in delight.

It made me wonder about people from the Valley: was it just those of the Bull Totem that fired off whole machine-pistol magazines into the air when they got something wonderful? I turned, and then I nearly fell on the floor.

What Deborah had found was an obvious soldering iron, and in a cloth bag, this with several plugs dangling out of it, looked to be several more. She had a question, however,

“What are these things?” she asked. “They look a little bit like these things you heat in a forge for soldering.”

“Non, Deborah, they are not those, as only Cabroni use that type, and they wish to dine with that large lizard,” she said. “This type is used for assembling electrical equipment, and I know of its use.”

“As do I,” said Angelíca, “but if you wish to know who really knows their use, then ask him, as he used one when he was of an age where most children shoot small rifles at pests.”

I then saw the nature of the cloth bag, this thick, gray-tinted green, grommeted, with a drawstring and a braided string carrying handle. The bag looked makeshift to some degree, even if the contents looked older than time and yet pristine – as in 'these tools have never seen use'.

“You don't heat these in a fire, do you?” asked Deborah again. “They all have this long cord or rope coming out of the end, they feel very comfortable to hold, and this plug, like some others I've seen here, goes to the other end of that cord.

“You use those to work on radios and instruments,” I said knowingly, as I returned to my packing. Time was a-wasting, and a glance at the brass cube spoke of sunrise in perhaps forty minutes. “Those look to be good ones. See if you can find their holders and wiping pads, as they're all going to get used – oh, and we need to take one of each of those things I spoke of with us to have more of them made.” Pause, then, “try to find some solder rosin-core, good eutectic mixture, three percent silver and a trace of this one metal, and thirty-seven percent lead, and the balance tin – and five small cores for the flux.”

The 'Whoomph' nearly flung Deborah onto my back, and when she'd gotten back onto the floor from a benchtop seconds later, I heard a frightened gasp. “All of this shiny wire-like stuff, strange writing upon each spool, all of them big around enough to stuff a three inch gun, and nearly as hefty as a round-shot for such a gun, these holders for them, then these wire things with these big green things that remind me a little of bathers...”

“Aieeeh, that is what we need!” yelled Annistæ, who excitedly began jabbering about 'good valfuelæ' and 'meter-movements', as well as 'a twelve-valfuelæ radio and a horn for music'. “These are the best irons, those which cost more than a large book...”

“Book?” I murmured. “I heard those cost a lot, but soldering irons..?”

“They're more or less hand-made in the Valley,” said the soft voice, “and those like those there are worth their weight in gold, as they're sold through where she went to have her chemistry education – and they're hand-made there, also, even if they do an extraordinary job of matters and the resulting tools work very well.” Pause, then, “those that Deborah 'found' are not made in the Valley, but overseas, and getting them was not easy.”

“Cost their weight in gold?” I asked.

“By the time they got up here, not much less,” said the soft voice. “There were a lot of bribes involved in the form of a great many fees to various officials, complementary meals for a number of corrupt officials, drink of one kind or another for other corrupt officials, then the cost of transportation in a form closer to drug-smuggling in secret compartments along the Low Way, then up here off all major roads by donkey-train – and when you need to do all of that, it really increases the price.”

“Sounds like it,” I said. “The solder?”

“Is not a currently-stocked material, even if small amounts can be made rapidly where you are going and larger amounts made once lead, tin, and silver become common over there once more.” Pause, this as I finished a bag. But a few remained. “Speak to Sarah about her fears, as she's heard about things like this used by witches for torturing people.”

“It is not one of those things found in a blacksmith's shop, Sarah, as those are much larger, and I have used them a number of times,” said Deborah. “Those do not have tails. These do, and they feel different, also, almost like a wax-carving tool, not something big, horrible, and clumsy.”

“Besides, dear, how do you think I solder copperware?” I said. “I do not use one of those big awful things heated in a forge, whatever they actually are.”

Sarah looked at me, the light dawning in her eyes, then, “you tin your seams, put in the rivets, then heat the piece over a forge, and the tin sets the rivets.”

“Until I peen them, then I tin the whole thing inside and out, which means no leaks and a complete sealing,” I said. “I do not use one of those here, even if I think I know what they are – and no one could use one of those to assemble radio circuitry.”

“But I've seen things like that on tapestries used to torture people,” said Sarah. “They were really big...”

“Yes, maybe a three hundred watt one, not a thirty-two watt one for radio work,” I said.

“Besides, these look more suited for jewelery,” said Deborah. “How could they be used for torture?”

“Plug one up, let it get good and hot, then start drawing curses on the subjects body. They do get hot enough to leave third degree burns, but... Duh! No witch worth his or her fetishes would use one of these, they had to use those big things, as there's something about fire, chanting, and...”

A glance at a radio-type soldering iron, and I spat, “true-mules for the fool-witches, and that's like using a weak and sickly donkey, not a mule, much less a true-mule. You will not get a curse worthy of the name out of one of those unless you're a strong enough witch that you can mark someone like bhoy with your bare hands alone!” I was on a roll, as then I said, “now, drawing the hiding curse with one of these things would take hours, and no witch worth his fetishes would spend hours doing that job when they'd just get the right curse-brand, heat it red hot, and burn the thing in deep and wide in seconds.”

“True, that was the rule, even if a few witches were desperate enough to try, though if a witch used an electrically heated soldering iron, he or she used a much larger one, one like that huge thing you called Big Bertha and used every few years when you needed to solder something that needed a lot of heat – and you often used a torch then, anyway, so that soldering iron got little use.”

Anna came up as I came to the next to the last bag, and handed me my medical pouch. “Look inside there, and tell me if it's missing anything. I got a list of my own, and there are three Spraetzen...”

“N-no,” I screeched, as I backed away, tripped, then came to myself but seconds later on the floor. Anna was holding my hand, and said, “but they saved your life.”

“Yes, and he's deathly afraid of those,” said Sarah. “I suspect he was dosed with torture drugs of one kind or another, and...”

Anna looked at Sarah, then nodded. “I would ride money on it,” she said. She then looked at my stomach, and pointed. “There, there, there, and there. Those spots were damaged by torture drugs, and at least one of them was given by those. They'll need to try to fix those places, as that's a lot of why he's so ill.” Pause, then as I was helped to my feet, I knew.

Twas the last mile, this indeed, and as Sarah spoke of the tin we had found at the Abbey, my hands worked with frenzied abandon. “We will let them look at those things, and...”

“They looked just like what I was dosed with there,” I muttered. “They nearly made me kill myself with a pistol, dear, and then I was locked up as being insane.” Pause, then, “that was when I learned they were not given to help people, but to punish them for not knowing how to be perfect in all possible ways.”

I had the rapt attention of all, and as we finished up, I 'owned the floor'.

“They were used to punish people,” I said,”as many, perhaps most, believed they had so much control over their lives that they weren't far away from that state described in the larger black books as 'full and complete control from conception to decomposition', and 'I have the power here' was the rule for their lives – or so they thought. I could tell that was a complete and utter lie, and I marveled at how those people could have believed such complete rubbish.”

“I can,” said Sarah knowingly. “Deborah knows why too. That's the way witches are today, only those people sound like those writ about on tapestries, if not worse yet.” Pause, then, “I hope and pray those people overseas can undo the damage done to you by those witches.”

“They will do a great deal, but the means of repairing it ultimately may well surprise all of you,” said the soft voice. “Now, finish up those bags, and start taking them downstairs. It may take two trips, and in the meantime, as the house is mostly asleep, you can discuss final matters on the way to the main entranceway, where the buggies carrying those bags can be arranged prior to sunup.”

As I finished the last bag, I pointed to a handful of bins, these mostly untouched, and I murmured, “you need what is in those for lantern fuel as once the rats become scarcer, as while there are a lot of rats, rats do not make that kind of oil, and Hans needs that oil as much as you do.”

“Cé, what is this oil?” asked Annistæ. “Is it from oil-fish?”

I nodded, then the two of them began growing through the bins as I did a last-minute checking over and 'dosing' each bag again with those strange sensor-confusing scents. Another dose of that rose scent for Sarah's hair, which made her smell especially lovely, and that scent all but made the rounds.

It was very popular among the women here, save Katje, who wished another type, this an especially flowery-smelling variety.

Deborah then came up with this strangely-thin net-cloth, this between two long poles that folded outward and restrained by some thick twine at their long ends, and as Annistæ got her net unfolded and then secured, she said, “now these are for oil-fish, and I know how to catch many of them. We will bring them here, and cook them down for their oil, filter it, and then jug it for that man who had the cracked head so he can make his wood stuff, and use the rest for our oil.”

“Put some of that in the reactors,” I said. “Gives it greater hardness, penetrates deeper, and, oh!” I reached into my clothing. “Here is that hardening formula. I was told you could improve it.”
“I can do more than that,” said Annistæ as I handed her the bottle. How I had gotten it in my pocket was a mystery, but here it was. “I can make it much better, much more as to quantity, and much stronger, too, so much so that when you put this treatment on bad wood, cook it well, and such wood becomes close to blackwood for enduring.” Pause, then, “now what is this book here?”

“It is a map, one that shows every fish-pond with those bad-tasting fish with so much oil to them, and every such pond that has them within forty miles of here,” said Deborah. “We may need to run donkey trains to catch such fish, then special water-and-smell proof bags to carry the fish back here once the witches become commonplace again.”

“We can get those,” said Sarah. “Come, grasp a bag, or two of you to a bag if you must, and come, follow me.”