Investing the Abbey: Now we have rockets


Rat number two, once it had been 'admired' briefly as it lay bleeding, needed another four men to drag it to the steps, where the first group helped get it out of the place; and then, it was the turn of the monstrous animal Sarah had shot repeatedly. Her hands were not sore now, even if my arms felt sore enough for me to rub them carefully; and when I noted the still-cocked weapons Katje had laid on the floor with a rag beneath them, I showed Sarah how to make them safe: remove the magazine, work the slide – I caught the ejected round both times, which surprised me more than a little – and then check the chamber while holding the slide open against the surprisingly strong recoil spring. Only then did I 'dry-fire' the weapon, and after topping up its magazine, I reinserted it into the butt of the pistol.

“That is a lot of trouble,” said Sarah, once I had done the same with her second one. “Why did you do that?”

“You do not want an accidental discharge with these things, do you?” I asked. “We don't want to waste this ammunition, nor do we wish people hurt – and these things are only truly safe when they have empty chambers under their, uh, hammers, just like a 'rotating pistol'.”

“Oh,” said Sarah – who then touched the muzzle and noted a slight dusting of 'soot'. “They will need cleaning, also, as they...” Sarah began to rub the 'soot' between thumb and forefinger before wiping it off on a rag, then she said, “no, not too much niter in that stuff. They must have used too much charcoal.”

“They normally leave some soot there, dear,” I murmured. “Now I hope they don't have corrosive primers, as that means a good cleaning is needed as soon as we can get them home, just as if they used bad fifth kingdom thimbles with three times the chlorate of potash they should have.”

“I know about those,” said Sarah. “I have seen what happens then, and it's bad enough up here.”

While the men who had come to help us 'gathered themselves' anew for a brief spate of talk, I wondered for a moment as to how to remove the monstrous rat that was clogging the doorway, at least until they left and then came back with more ropes and pulleys. Using the nearest column, they rigged up a block and tackle, and with three people hauling on the rope, the rat slowly began to move its monstrous bulk out of the doorway. As it came out slowly amid soft shuffling dragging sounds, several more smaller rats shot out from behind it as if it had been hiding them, and while no one in the 'Upper Alley' bothered to shoot at them, the same could not be said of those laboring outside.

“Shooting every rat they see, no doubt,” I thought as the gunshots died out slowly. “They don't much care for rats, do they?”

“That's because there's no 'witches' currently on site and the fourth kingdom's people are now actually 'running' things,” said the soft voice, “and not merely do rats carry far more sicknesses down there than they do in the first kingdom, there's also a common belief in that kingdom – one that's known of in much of the third kingdom as well and some few parts of the fifth – that associates rats with witches, much as pigs are associated with witches up here.”

“Well, they do raise some rats, don't they?” I thought.

The sense I had was 'some' needed to be replaced with 'a great many', as 'some' was a quantity more appropriate to the regions north of the first kingdom's southern border; and rats figured commonly in slave-rations, both as consumers and as portions of such rations – especially as the larger black books spoke at length on the feeding and general care of slaves.

“The cheapest possible food,” I thought. “That, and the witches want them to be as close to fully-owned as is possible so as to 'grow their own power' thereby, so they feed them food that's forbidden by the book when and where possible – and to hell, literally and figuratively, with those slaves who die on account of such Brimstone-authored stupidity.”

Now, as in the past, the ways of such people, witches or otherwise, made no real sense to me: if they wanted work out of slaves, it made sense to treat them such that they performed well and had incentives to do their best, for even I knew that over-liberal use of the stick and not bothering with the carrots made for a slave that wasn't interested in much beyond staying out of trouble: for that meant surviving longer, and doing entirely as the slave-master wished meant – at best – no rewards save higher quotas and an earlier-than-otherwise death.

Doing more than expected also sometimes meant a much sooner death, as some slavemasters didn't like 'uppity' slaves showing what might be initiative. That needed to be stopped as soon as possible.

The rat was soon out of the doorway, which meant re-rigging the block and tackle, as the animal was far too heavy to remove by the previous means used. I wondered for a moment how they would it get up the stairs, even as it slowly inched its blood-dripping way across the floor. The bullets – all had either struck the animal in its bullet-shaped head or the stubby neck as it merged into the body – showed no exit holes, or so I thought until I saw the blood-spattered holes made in the far wall of the room it had tried to come out of. I counted four of them there, and as the team from outside slowly grew in numbers – they now had two sets of block-and-tackles, with one group changing the position of one such arrangement while two or three men inched the rat along with the other – I had to hold our group back.

I suspected those three huge rats were somehow 'cursed' beyond what we had been told about, even if they weren't imported and they were too large to get into and out of the attic.

“They got their start in there,” said the soft voice. “The attic has had sizable colonies of rats in it more or less continuously since the waning days of the war's hot period, and they've had but little interbreeding with the more-common rats found in the rest of the building.”

“They're prewar rats?” I thought. I kept my mouth shut on that matter.

“To a great degree, yes,” said the soft voice. “The chief difference is that the Curse killed off both their ability to be disease-vectors of those diseases common to this area prior to the war and their ability to become truly 'huge'.”

“That last rat had to weigh four hundred pounds, though,” I thought.

“A bit more than two-thirds of that figure, actually,” said the soft voice. “The first two rats were of a size that's not particularly rare in the fourth kingdom, while that big one is thought to be a rat 'exported' from out of an old tale – and hence it isn't being handled any more than absolutely necessary, and those men plan on 'disinfecting themselves' as soon as possible after it's outside and burning.”

“How will they burn it?” asked Sarah.

“Distillate, dear,” I said. “They might currently lack for firewood in this area, but if they think that thing to be a prime vector of deadly diseases, they'll think the cost of three jugs of distillate cheap if it means their safety from what it might carry.”

As soon as I had said this, however, I knew had underestimated – drastically – the feelings of these men toward rats of that size, and their thinking it to be a prewar 'plague-rat' bordered on a surety only exceeded by Hans when he was in the grip of fetish-nourished oblivion.

“Remember, rats carry a lot of diseases down there,” said the soft voice, “and the Annals of the fourth kingdom have data – granted, it's somewhat fragmented regarding that time, and thought to be somewhat less than totally reliable – speaking of the time between the war and the Curse. During that time, witch-bred 'plague-rats' were not merely fairly common in that area, but also deadly carriers of disease – and more than once, that entire region was grossly depopulated by such animals showing and then spreading their diseases, at least until the Curse changed their genetic structure.”

When the rat reached the bottom of the stairs leading up and out of the Upper Alley, however, I found that it had boards waiting for it, as well as a chain of seemingly uncommon size; and once the ropes and pulleys were outside, the rat had a forged hook and chain passed around its upper body using sticks to first lever it up and then other sticks to push and then pull the chain around the thing. Once the chain was hooked securely to a link, however, but seconds later the rat began to slide up the incline made by the boards at a surprising rate, until it was gone from the premises; and then not a minute later, the ropes, our helpers, the boards – they also were gone. I was about to go closer to the room's doorway when I was startled by a faint 'Whoomph', followed by the unmistakable and nausea-inducing reek of distillate. Sarah went to the steps, climbed two of them, then ran back to my side.

“I hope that thing burns quickly,” she said, “as they took it no further than they thought they had to from the doorway before dousing it with distillate and then setting it alight.”

“Are they burning it right outside?” I asked.

“No, but they doused it while the bulls were still pulling it, and they're still dragging it out into the middle of that big field to the east and north,” said Sarah. “They've yet to get into that part with the trenches to get rid of what's left of those thrice-accursed turnip-patches.”

“How big were those things?” I asked. I meant the 'turnip-patches'.

“The entire area that is now cleared of brambles was once planted with true-turnips,” said the soft voice. “They'll have the rest of the remains of the 'turnip-patch' containment-walls cleared before you-all sail, as the foundation trench for the outer wall will finish within another two days and every person in the camp who can dig is either using a spade right now or is resting from a stint of digging.”

I led the way back into the room, but at the threshold, I gagged, then began sneezing upon smelling the potent 'odor-of-rat' the animals had left as their remainders; and I trod warily so as to avoid their droppings. The larger animals had unloaded several brick-sized articles while moving from their doorway of initial exit to the one we first came in, and when I looked at the contents of that room, I was not surprised to find another long and somewhat narrow room 'filled' with spades, though these had been mounded and scattered by the rats coming out of three now-obvious 'secret passages'. It was equally obvious to me that we would need to remove the spades, but as I looked closely at one, I saw that while it was yet-coated with sticky and malodorous grease, it showed a place on its blade where runes had once been welded, but were now gone without trace beyond their barely-visible outlines.

“It got rid of those things here, too,” I muttered. “Now we have even more spades.” A pause, then a question: “how big was that added section planned on being?”

“Large enough that I'm thoroughly glad we found more of these things,” said Sarah. “I hope we can get help with their entire removal, as this is a mess.” Sarah then turned as if to ask a question, but I noticed Karl and Gabriel had left.

“They're going to get help with these things,” said Katje. “They might as well remove as many of them as possible.”

“And we had best remove them from this room,” I murmured. “There might be a trap in here beyond that crop of rats.”

“Now how is it you are speaking like people usually do?” asked Sepp. “Did Tam teach you?”

“N-no,” I muttered. “I think I'm finally picking up the local speech here to some degree.”

I was at the forefront of spade-removal, and by the time Karl and Gabriel returned, I'd handled over fifty spades and someone else at the end of the spade-handling 'line' was stacking them just outside the door to the long room. I was glad of their relative lightness, as this room easily had many hundreds of spades needing removal; and I wanted to ask just how many 'fake' Night-Tools had been purchased until I realized that these things might well be multiplying themselves numerically to meet a considerable and growing on-site need. My question escaped my lips anyway.

“How many spades did they get?” I asked.

“How much time are you likely to have to make large numbers of such tools?” asked the soft voice. “You've got enough work for you and several more of you at this time, and that still-growing workload will not permit you to make the numbers of spades this location needs – and more, needs quickly.”

“Quickly?” I thought. “Numbers?”

Many hundreds within a very few weeks, and hundreds needed today,” said the soft voice. “Those plans show a large addition, with a multiple-level basement and a sizable foundation, one that spreads out some eight to ten yards to each side of where the walls will go up, as is appropriate for tall buildings. Then, there's no earthmoving equipment currently on site, and finally, that digging must be done quickly – and that means a lot of people digging, around-the-clock labor when and where it's at all possible, and all three of those shifts that are currently planned doing their utmost in terms of thinking and labor.”

“At least the ground is soft, for the most part,” I thought.

“Save where there are rocks,” said the soft voice, “which is one of the reasons why that cold-room of Hans' has so much dynamite in it, and why more of that stuff has been coming up with each donkey-train coming into this area.”

“And, uh, 'shells', also,” I said.

“Those shells that fell on the Abbey's grounds detonated without fail due to the presence of that deep-hole,” said the soft voice, “which is another major reason why people have been willing to endure extensive crop depredations in this area.”

“So that's why this area has not had shells explode while plowing,” said Sarah – whose voice then jumped nearly an octave to a tinny squeak. “They all exploded when they fell?”

“Yes, which is why the farmers still plow up a lot of scrap metal every year, and every barn in the area has a not-so-small mound of the stuff waiting for transport to the shop for 'destruction', as it is rapidly becoming known to be 'accursed witch-junk' that needs melting so as to remove its 'vast and great evil'.”

I could almost hear giggling in my mind at such speech, as the 'evil' in such junk was now mostly what it tended to do to poorly-constructed plows when it 'turned up' with every spring plowing. Those three plows, once done and in use, were going to bury the shop thrice-over with work – and that with Georg 'naming his price as high as he wished'. Somehow, I knew, he wasn't going to do that, even if he was going to charge what he thought to be a 'decent' price for them. They weren't going to be easy to make, even given the presence of some fairly capable 'heavy industrial equipment' at the Abbey. That shortcut would save no small amount of time, I suspected.

“Oh,” I squeaked, as I handed out another shovel. My hands were learning their rhythm, even if the shovels weren't growing fewer in number at all quickly. This room had a lot of these nasty-feeling grease-coated spades, and I was glad for the gloves someone had left for me and those of the others who were unusually bothered by this particular species of grease. That number was slowly growing, I suspected.

I had an idea for bomb-iron clearing some time later, however, as I was now inside the room itself and handing out spades as fast as I could grab them and pass them back. “What about a large and powerful magnet for the fields...”

“The smaller shell-splinters have dissolved completely into rust,” said the soft voice, “and the larger ones that remain are so rusty that few scrap-merchants wish to bother with them.” A pause, then, “that subscription is a godsend as far as most farmers are concerned, as it means they can now get rid of their current stocks of going-to-rust scrap metal and older spam-plate, and not suffer undue losses by doing so.”

“But how..?” I asked.

“Georg is authorized to present a modest amount of money to cover the expenses of farmers transporting the stuff, if they have need of such money,” said the soft voice. I suspected most farmers could easily 'find' a need, if one wasn't already roosting in their minds both night and day. “Between the possibility of payment, talk of that 'hungry furnace' recently starting to run and more talk about the coming 'war' with Norden, and then the Abbey's ongoing 'renovation', that 'trickle' of scrap metal that has been showing thus far will soon become a 'flood' – and Frankie will be running as often as he can be suitably 'fed' with charcoal, flux, and southern black-cast.”

“Getting enough charcoal to keep Frankie howling on a frequent schedule might be trouble until I can get one of those coal-cookers built,” I thought. “Getting decent plate up here able to stand such use, as well as learning how to rivet cast-iron parts to such plate... Uh, that's going to be tricky... And then learning the tricks of that cooker is going to take time, as we're going to need good coke for Frankie. Bad coke makes for bad metal, and that southern black-cast is plenty bad enough for me as it is!”

And yet, more ideas, these of astonishing precision, came to me.

“Cast-iron doors, and cast-iron door-frames, using this stuff they have across the sea for gaskets...” I knew that this 'stuff' existed – in multiple forms, no less – but I was not sure about much else beyond I hoped I could hold the needed details in my mind long enough to write them down.

That is the one thing missing from what you were thinking about,” said the soft voice. “That gasket material is exactly what is needed. Otherwise, dimension those cookers as being tall and wide enough for you to walk in, just wide enough at the bottom for a person to readily work with a shovel with a greater width at the top for one's shoulders and head, and a reasonable length – that dimension isn't critical for functioning, unlike the other two – surround the thing with a suitable firebrick-lined furnace, then make a good coal-grinder and those settling pots and condenser-tubes that occurred to you earlier.” Brief pause. “Then you can make good coke in quantity.”

“And I suspect that settlement of people from the Valley won't mind having one of those things either,” I thought. “They'd like a ready source of real money, and those people are careful enough to run such a thing well – and they can really use a hot-burning fuel that doesn't stink and costs little.”

“They'll sell most of that material,” said the soft voice. “Recall their kilns? They'll want several such cookers for each kiln of the several kilns they have planned, as they can readily use the kiln's waste heat as a heat-source, and their output of coke will be enough to keep the town and the house proper – and those who will have call for it in the immediate surrounding area – in 'smokeless fuel'. The distilled chemicals will provide a much-needed added income, which they will put to good use in helping their countrymen escape the Valley and its coming troubles, and the end-gases will work well for helping to heat their kilns.”

“And that coke will be useful for, uh, synthesis,” I thought. Such a distraction was not merely useful, but necessary for the otherwise potentially deadly yet otherwise brainlessly-dull work of removing a massive and jumbled mound of shovels. The only consolation I could gather from this mess was any 'obvious' traps would have been set off by the charge of the rodent-swarm, and only where the spades were still neat and tidy would I need especial care.

“That comes later, but yes, you're right,” said the soft voice. “It's possible to get a lot more energy out of that material that way, especially given what is available for equipment across the sea.”

“Presuming such fuel is or will be needed,” I thought.

“It will be very much needed, and that in substantial quantity, at least for a time,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, you're right again – it won't be used much in that fashion by the time the Curse breaks entirely.”

As I advanced foot by foot into the room in question, I noted that not merely had the 'secret passages' been once blocked off by crude stone-and-mortar work – bad mortar, if I went by its current powdery nature – but also the room itself was significantly deeper than the first one. When I took a brief breather, though, I noted that our group of seven wasn't the only one in the 'long' room; that one man, and several others that looked to know him especially well, were passing spades out of the first room we had investigated.

I suspected he knew something about the coming need for spades, and their existing jugs of distillate were such that they would not merely use it all up long before they had cleaned the spades we would find today, but that number would be such that those cleaning such spades would potentially need weeks to clean them all. Finally, the spades would need to be 'ready to use' as the workers began pouring in – and their arrival would commence prior to our sailing, as not all of these people were coming from the fourth kingdom, and not all of them were coming in 'mile-long columns' overland and in flotillas of ships by sea.

Some of them were hiding in the house proper in the ruined homes near the hall, and others in the vacant houses most towns now had in the central part of the first kingdom. These individuals had learned stealth and care in escaping a land far harsher and a people far harder than anywhere found to the west of the Red Mountains. They were accustomed to working all hours of the day; they were accustomed to truly hard labor; and those of them who were less capable had died while escaping from first the Valley and then the many thick-marshaled ranks of fully-owned witch-slaves – this because of their betters' desire to 'have the world, and it entire, and that to ourselves alone'.

The fact that the escapees were, almost to a man, not interested in witchdom and its nonsense mattered but little to the witches. The witches still thought their presence to be trouble.

What did matter to the witches was 'it must be our way, or it must not be' – and the Valley's people did not figure into those long-pondered plans espoused by the witches of the five kingdoms, plans that originally were put down in drug-addled and fragmentary form during the waning years of that long-ago war.

The witches, however, had not known of the manifold effects of having a window remain open 'to the heart of the earth'; and with that deep-hole gone, the resulting discomfiture among the witches had an effect similar to the last and worst of the plagues unleashed upon Pharaoh and his people: those laborers, waiting and ready, had now burst through the witch-cordon by any and all possible routes; and they, unlike those escaping Egypt, were not looking backward.

They were heading forward, and north, and that as fast as they could manage: every ship not 'spoken for' was being loaded up for a trip 'up the back side' to the 'northeast region', while dozens of convoys of wagons and buggies were forming up by the hour. These last, while they started in groups of two and three as a rule when they fared forth in the slow-dimming twilight of their departures, rapidly grew to such massive size that only truly well-prepared witches...

These marshaled in their black-faced masses...

Could even hope to cause such huge groups trouble beyond the most trivial. While the witches normally could call up such groups, and form them as they had for our trip north from the fifth kingdom, the deep-hole's utter destruction now made such efforts nearly impossible.

Or so I thought, until I heard otherwise from a source that told no lies.

“You forgot the effects upon those leaders that have just learned of those dementia-inducing foods,” said the soft voice. “One of the effects of that dementia – an early effect, one that shows within hours after ingesting a single meal of such food – is a sudden and intense desire for much greater amounts of strong drink in those accustomed to it.”

“And for those 'sober' witches?” I asked.

“They are no longer close to sober as we speak, but have developed an all-consuming thirst for wine and Geneva that will rapidly progress toward heavy consumption of strong drink,” said the soft voice, “and until they acquire a level of tolerance to such drink, they will be thoroughly trashed.” A pause, then, “figure perhaps a week to ten days of drastically lessened efficiency for nearly all of the more-worrisome witches outside of the first kingdom.”

“And a massive emigration northward during that time,” I muttered.

“Those that have yet to find buyers will be able to sell out quickly and move, yes,” said the soft voice. “Most of those people have either been ready to go, or can become the rest of the way 'ready' very quickly, and witchdom as it is now will not recover its wits 'entirely' for several weeks – which will get almost all of the people up here that need to come up now.”

“And the remainder after that huge mob swarms northward by land will be coming by sea and then overland through a sparsely-populated region,” I thought. “That back route is going to be very busy from now on, as there's a well-defined trail now, and those first people shooting their way in...”

“Put a sizable dent in the population of the witches within ready range of that trail, and gave much of the remaining witches a substantial measure of caution,” said the soft voice. “Each further group, however, is now 'primed for action', and will be ready for trouble – and that in multiple senses.”

The shovels continued their 'growing', until suddenly I came to a region just past the third region of tumbled-down powder-strewn rocks – the rocks were rapidly following the mortar's dissolution, and their gray-toned dust seemed to gather by the minute – and into a realm where I could see something like a definite order in the remaining spades. I began watching myself more closely, now cognizant of my growing fatigue, and when I began handing back shovels untouched by charging rodents, I began looking down at the floor for trip-lines.

I handed back perhaps thirty such 'ordered' spades before I saw a telltale reddish glow upon the floor, and my heart froze as I halted abruptly in mid-swing. I slowly backed away, the spade still in my trembling hands, and when asked why, my mouth mumbled something about a possible trap – then, somewhat clearer, “everyone, back out of the room slowly. I'm not sure what this is, but it's glowing a hazy red...”

The shovel dropped from my hand to hit the dust-strewn floor with a muffled clatter as I came to the cleared portion of the room, and my hand reached down to find my possible bag. It was not there, and I felt as if I might panic – until soft fingers pressed an ice-chilled vial into mine, and as I began fumbling with the cork, my finger went through it...

There was a hole in the vial, one in its side. This hole was a mouth; and the teeth of that mouth were gripping me, this so much that it was all I could do to bring the vial's other mouth to my gasping throat and swallow the yellow-red flaming lava as the volcano I was now inside began to strobe with leaping waves of crazy brilliant neon colors, these red and yellow and blue and green.

Every spade surrounding me now jumped as if alive; and then, this lively army became blue-colored thugs: their clothing, their shoes, their thin cloth gloves, even their faces – all of them were utterly and entirely a darksome and preternaturally glossy blue that rippled and wavered in an unseen breeze. The term 'Blue Meanies' intruded into my convulsing mind, and as I began backing up once more, the hard-edged and spiky-looking walls all began burning with a 'hard-looking' reddish-orange neon glow that pounded and pulsed into my mind with such violence that I turned and ran, the bottle still clamped firmly upon my finger, the yawning mouth of the huge creature I was inside now spitting me out, and only when I collided with its huge blue-gloved fingers and broke my fragile eggshell skull against the clutching fist of the blue-painted beast did I come to myself.

“What am I doing on the floor?” I asked softly, as I turned my face from where it was so as to speak. “Where am I?”

“I could not smell a stinker in there, so I doubt you are stunk up, even if you were talking like you were,” said Sarah. “You were starting to shake and sweat, and I knew what that meant, so I got you some honey from your bag.”

“It b-bit my finger,” I gasped, as I looked down to see a hand that was absolutely normal, “and the place was going all these colors, and every edge I saw in there got really sharp and painful and spiky, and there...” I turned to Sarah as I got to my knees, and said, “that place was full of blue-dressed thugs, and all of them were yelling this strange stuff, only I cannot recall what it meant or what they were shouting.”

Sarah smelled my arm, then said, “I still cannot smell any scent from a stinker upon you, but you sound like you got sprayed by one.” Sarah then smelled my arm again, then looked at the door, and muttered, “and I think that to be a clue about those thugs, as I just smelled them on you, or something that is very like how they smell.”

“Those people that sounded drunk had this strange smell to them,” said Sepp as he came closer to where I now sat on the floor, “and for a moment, I wondered if they were stinkers, as I was seeing blue on them for an instant now and then.”

“B-blue?” I gasped. “Every spade yet in that place turned into a blue-dressed thug, and all of them were coming for me with clubs in their hands!”

“Drink some beer,” said Sarah. “We're all about due for some, as you were handing out those things like you were after something important.”

“They are important,” said Katje, “as that one man spoke at that entrance out there with someone who looked like they'd just ridden all night, and they were talking about an even bigger group passing the nearest ford of the Main just before dawn.”

“N-no witches?” I asked as I moved to a sitting position.

“He said the witches looked to have gotten enough lead in them that they have crawled into jugs of strong drink,” said Katje, “and there was a buggy gone to fetch both Hans and Anna so as to look those people over.” A pause, then, “I hope they come quickly, as there's no time to waste.”

“That would take far too long,” said Sarah. “They'd not get here until tomorrow at the very earliest, as they'd need to pack that buggy full, and neither of them are worth much for packing.”

“Hence get together a buggy-train... No, they aren't equipped to treat vast numbers of people in the parlor,” I muttered. “Ten people would strain that place.”

“Yes, if they all went inside it at once,” said Sarah. “Anna can only see one person at a time, there are but two tubs fit for people, and...”

“The most important portion,” I murmured, “is that Anna's set up to do almost all of what needs to be done there and nowhere else, which is why they'd normally need to go fetch someone who's injured and bring them there so they can work on them, and with that new equipment, it would not be 'tomorrow' – it would be sometime after we sailed, as Hans has really gotten his part of that mess apart and is going through all of it right now.”

Mess is right,” said the soft voice, “and he's found more medicines downstairs than he believed possible, which is why you're nothing short of correct regarding how long it would take them to come here were they to do so with the goal of treating people.” A pause, then, “the only workable solution at this time would be to take two and three people at a time into Roos, and then bring them back once Anna is done with them, as none of these people have 'much' lead, and they're just starting it now.”

“They have their bathing started now?” I asked. “They didn't get baths before they went to bed?”

“Getting into wine like they did will do that,” said Katje. “Now what did you find in there while speaking of a trap?”

I shook my head, then said, “there was this reddish haze running in a line...”

“That sounds like a trip-line, all right,” said Sarah as I got to my shaky feet. “You do not need a scrambled head if you are going to deal with traps like this place has had, and the same for the rest of us.”

While Sarah was right, and we all were more than merely thirsty – it felt like lunch-time, even if the sun said 'at least an hour before the morning guzzle' if I went by where it was in the sky once I had staggered outside – I began to recognize what had actually happened.

I had had a severe hypoglycemia attack, and only Sarah's quick thinking had averted the worst of it; yet still, what I had seen was an important clue. Accordingly, I ate, visited the privy twice – I still had the runs, and the smell coming from the new-dug hole after I used it was bad enough that it needed prompt shoveling with dirt right away once I had tossed the privy rag in the hole after the mess I had made, and that both times.

“I'm surprised that thing wasn't on fire after I used it,” I thought after the second instance, after I began spading the earth from the sizable mound that had been dug with an obvious 'privy-shovel'. I was more than a little stunned to see the stylized 'P' someone had carved into a place on the handle with what might have been a narrow species of gouge.

“Straight out of the book,” I muttered, upon seeing the obvious red-painted marking. The ones on the two larger buggies were marked similarly, and Lukas had spoken of such markings being the usual on the trip home during one of our huddled and hidden campings somewhere to the north of the fourth kingdom's market. “Now I hope I can last the rest of today.”

I was not looking forward to returning to that room, and when I came to the doorway of that long room which fronted upon it, I smelled an odor, this faint and yet intensely acrid, an odor redolent of sour sweat and hard labor, with a bitingly acidic taste upon the tongue that reminded me so strongly of witches and datramonium that I spat, “stink, go find one of those groups of smelly wretches in the hot part of the second kingdom house and stink them up good and proper!”

I had managed perhaps half a step backward when a dull rumbling boom tossed me out of the hole and onto my posterior to then fall backwards among the others, and as I lay flat upon my back, I seemed to see a thick reddish vapor, this ethereal and yet noxious to the nose and mind, blast out of the room like a raging flood and then rocket off southbound with the whistling speed of a cranked-up freight train. Its speed was building, for unlike a song of vague recollection, this 'train' and its drug-addled driver did not top out at 'a hundred and two'. I had no idea as to its ultimate speed, but it was well above what that particular song had mentioned; and somehow, I made a peculiar connection as I turned over and began crawling. I then spoke of it.

“Those rats dumping those shovels somehow crushed a still-full drug vial, and...”

“Not quite, even if one of them did crush a mostly-full drug vial,” said the soft voice. “There were four larger rats, and one of them found that long-abandoned vial and attempted to eat it.”

“And?” I asked. The obvious result was that the vial had dumped its contents into the rat's mouth, and the rat attempted to spit out the broken glass and much of the volatile drug.

“It 'imploded',” said the soft voice, “as the contents of that vial was one of the most-sought-after drugs of witchdom prior to the war, and that drug was both a deadly poison to rats and seriously cursed.”

“How could a rat implode?” I asked. I was thinking the rat had vanished like that curse-built portal used by Iggy for seeking his prey.

“That's quite close to what actually happened,” said the soft voice, “and that chemical's fumes didn't just get into any witch-house in the second kingdom's hot zone.”

“Where did it go?” asked Sarah.

“That of the second kingdom house's ranking arch-witch,” said the soft voice, “and that man had yet to taste that dementia-inducing food due to his 'all-consuming desire to see hell arise'.” A pause, then, “he now has had his wish, and he is seeing that place.”

“S-seeing?” I asked.

“He wasn't nearly close to being strong enough to endure that drug,” said the soft voice, “so when you dosed him with it, he – and those with then him in that room – went into convulsions instantly, and as that drug's fumes spread throughout his abode – it tends to migrate, and that with surprising rapidity – its 'fire' will spread also throughout that house.”

Fire, eh?” I asked. I was still crawling, now perhaps fifty feet from the transom and dodging columns as I went. My distance perception had gone strange on me. “Maybe that fire needs to get into that wretch's supplies of distillate and dynamite, so he and his can get all black-faced with soot.”

A faint rumble shook the earth, one that seemed to shake the entire Abbey for nearly ten seconds, and as I got to my feet slowly with Sarah's help, I gasped, “what was that?”

“That witch's house was sited on the uppermost levels of one of those large shipping points on the secret way,” said the soft voice, “and the amount of dynamite and distillate he had below his 'home' was of such quantity that he figured to double his already substantial net worth within the next three weeks by selling those supplies to the migrating witches coming from the south and headed here.”

“Good, then,” said Sarah, as we came to the bottom of the transom. “They will not have any from him, then.”

“Or from most of his associates within some ten miles of 'ground-zero', as he handled much of the second kingdom house's dynamite, and a good portion of its distillate – and those associates bought it from him on a 'drop-ship' basis, as is common for many fetishes in that area.”

“Was this house by itself, or..?” I was just beginning to recover from the fumes of the drug, and though the blue-dressed thugs were 'gone' from the premises, the drug-conjured nightmare was still encroached upon the fringes of my mind. The sunshine outside helped but slightly to dispel it.

“It had its own sizable 'fenced' yard,” said the soft voice, “and while its grounds were quite extensive in size, that house – and the whole of its yard – is now a huge and fire-vomiting hole in the ground.” A brief pause, then, “between the thick soot-filled toxic smoke and the heat of those flames, you can figure that entire 'district' will lose nearly a fifth of its population within a few days.”

Hearing this, however, brought forth the recollection of witchdom's seeming 'indestructibility' at this current time, but I could tell that this particular instance of 'trouble' would both lengthen that window of opportunity for those desiring to work at the Abbey, and do other things inimical to witchdom's goals.

“No, more than that,” I thought as I tried to stand and found it difficult enough to wait a little longer. For some reason, I had become uncommonly stiff. “There's going to be a war for succession, and...”

“And that week to ten days of 'ready' migration is now twice that much time and more,” said the soft voice. “Any time you abruptly take out the capstone of a pyramidal management structure, especially one set up like witchdom currently is in the five kingdoms, the thing both falls apart temporarily and loses a lot of its momentum.” A pause, then, “that resiliency witchdom currently has is that of sheer numbers only, as while that witch was not even close to 'Cardosso level' for curse-power, he wasn't much less than Cardosso was for 'smarts' – and they won't see his like again.”

“Will a fifth of those witches die?” asked Katje. I had the impression that Katje was using the example of where she lived for a reference, where every house reeked of burning flesh until it was in fallen-to-the-ground ash-dusted ruins and no longer smoldering.

“No, but they will lose nearly all of their wealth and substance,” said the soft voice, “and when that kind of a witch becomes a pauper – even in relative terms – he and 'his' people tend to die in witch-holes with the label of 'Disgrace', and those closest to him and his who are not 'impoverished' tend to be the ones with the greatest desire to do sacrifice.”

“They don't yet realize they need to stick together especially close, do they?” I murmured. Massaging my legs while sitting on the grass outside helped get that damnable stiffness out of them, it seemed, and I was now rubbing my legs with long smooth strokes – when not guzzling beer. I was uncommonly thirsty.

“Not on this side of the Red Mountains they do,” said the soft voice. “The Valley's witches have been doing so for many years, as they're still something of a minority so far as numbers and power are concerned, and the same for most other locations that have witches, but in the five kingdoms – not now, and certainly not with their current loci of money, power, and numbers.”

“Most people in the five kingdoms are witches?” asked Sarah.

“More like 'most people act enough like fully-owned witch-slaves that witches and supplicants have a relatively free hand wherever they have anything close to real numbers or power beyond the trivial',” said Katje. “Those few witches that currently remain in the first kingdom...”

“No, not a few,” I said, as I once more tried standing and made my feet shakily. This drug was not one I wished to experience again. “If you go on the east side of the Main, there are still a fair number of small-timers, though they're widely scattered and mostly well-hid, and the same for the hinterlands of the west side of the Main in the first kingdom...”

Those people are getting routed out with some frequency now,” said the soft voice. “If a witch wishes to remain alive in the bulk of the first kingdom's territory, he has very few real choices any more, at least at this time: he can leave where he is for a safer location; he can live underground, and emerge for short periods late at night where the secret way comes to the surface unobtrusively; or he can live in the manner of a roving brigand and not sleep in the same location two nights in a row.”

“Roving brigand?” I asked. I was wanting a cane now, or perhaps my club in lieu of one. I was still quite stiff, and it hurt to move.

“That means staying in woodlots, riding a lot every day, and staying far away from most towns save when they're dead of an evening,” said Sarah, “and living rough all the time, like some few witches do in the outermost hinterlands on either side of the Main.” A pause, then, “if one is a witch, then it is not much of a life, with very poor prospects for getting money and power.” A brief pause, then, “it makes supping with Brimstone looks very attractive.”

“For most witches, yes,” said the soft voice. “There are some few witches that find that type of a life to have its own attractions, and they choose to live that way over all other possibilities that are open to them.” A pause, then, “Sam Brumm, while he did like to sleep in beds when and where he could, was otherwise that kind of a witch – and in his case, he had ample funds and a substantial measure of real power in much of the fifth kingdom.”

“I should have said, 'if they are not mining-town thugs',” said Sarah. “I heard about Brumm at school during the two terms before I made my long-trip, and I made a point from that time afterward to avoid those towns where he might show himself.”

“How did you learn more about him?” I asked. I was trying to walk off the stiffness, and it was but slowly leaving me. I wondered about prayer: was I supposed to let matters take their time in this instance, or did I need to get over this trouble now and 'get on with it'? Was it merely the effects of whatever 'chemical weapon' – that was about the best name for that stuff I could call it, if I referred to what it did to me – or was it a combination of still-healing injuries, too-real and growing fatigue, and the effects of a very nasty prewar witch-drug?

“Mostly by asking people in those towns just above the northern border of the fifth kingdom and some few places just south of it,” said Sarah. “It seemed he did his business on something of a schedule, such that every few nights, he was in a town where he had an interest in at least one salon, and he'd clean himself there and sleep in that place overnight. He'd stay longer if he'd suffered injuries or other things.” Sarah then looked at me, and said in a tone of what might have been 'fright' or 'awe', “you even look like you were sprayed by a stinker.”

“Nothing for it,” I muttered. “God, I do not need to be affected by that stuff. There is work yet to do today, and...”

The stiffness faded so abruptly that I ceased speaking on the instant, and I shouldered my 'cane' as if I had been 'healed' of something worse by far than Tam's injuries. My steps were in the direction of first the transom, and once inside the Upper Alley, of that outer doorway – the one leading to that long and narrow room; and as I walked past slow-rotting waist-high mounds of dust and rust, they seemed to wither yet-further in my wake.

“That stuff will need bagging so as to put it to Frankij,” said Sarah softly. “I hope they do that business soon.”

“Why?” I asked. “Did Georg put in another order for southern black-cast?”

“He did that the day after that furnace ran for the first time, and August spoke of him asking for a freight wagon entire two and three times a month,” said Sarah. “That dust there will take much of the blackness out of that stuff.”

“Best put it in smaller bags and toss them in while still bagged,” I muttered, “and use extra charcoal to deal with its oxidized state.” I then had a question.

“Did they use really bad metal in those things to start off with?”

“For the most part, yes,” said the soft voice, “but that's not all that went to dust and rust. Some of what went to powder as it lost the remainder of its cursed aspect had some unusual metals – ones that will make for strange iron and stranger-yet steel.”

“How will it be strange?” asked Sarah, as I paused to 'sniff' cautiously at the outer door to the long room.

“It has some useful properties,” said the soft voice. “In cast iron, it will increase its fluidity, reduce its tendency toward gassiness and the resulting voids, make it slightly easier to machine after stress-relieving the castings – and make it tougher and stronger after it has sat for a while.”

“Age-hardening,” I murmured. “Just the thing for machine parts.” I then asked, “do they have the same stuff, only not cursed, across the sea?”

“Yes, and it's in an easier-to-use form, also,” said the soft voice. “That which is on the floor, however, is material you can use now – and it will take some time to get access to those materials across the sea.”

Each cautious step into the room made for a growing sense of fear, at least until I came to the room we had last exited. The remaining spades were still present, these in 'uncountable numbers', and as I came closer to where I had seen the red line, I now saw a faint and thready glow. I knelt down but three feet from it and began to move my hand closer to what made for wondering, at least until my hand came within an inch of it.

“A 'greased' string,” I murmured as I felt first 'warmth' and then actually saw what I was feeling. “Don't tell me – this thing leads to a witch-grenade. Does it?”

“No, but that 'wire' does have a curse upon it, which is why it is glowing,” said the soft voice. “Back out of the room, go to the wall, and deal with it.”

I did as instructed, the others backing out behind me; then once I was close to the first-opened door so as to take cover, I murmured with my face to the wall, “go where you...” I stopped speaking, then shouted, “No! Go find a witch and tie that wretch's feet with a grandmother's knot!”

I could almost hear chortling – which made for Sarah looking at me briefly as I began moving toward the room once more. I had not heard any noise, but when I came to the room's doorway, I gasped involuntarily.

“That is a much bigger pile of spades,” said Sarah from behind me and to my left. “Now how would a witch do that?”

“That witch had hid his own spades in here,” said the soft voice, “and 'going on the offensive' with witches often has unexpected effects – like making that set-aside horde of spades readily visible.”

“And piling them up, also,” I murmured. “That aspect of orderliness with these things wasn't just being 'neat', was it? Excessively neat, in fact?”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “If ever you see someone who is neater than the occasion seems to mandate, and they aren't trying to compensate for an unacknowledged 'handicap' like you did, then you are seeing witch-thinking in the person engaged in such 'exceeding neatness'.” A pause, then, “if you see someone doing things like you did, however, you can be even more certain that person is – or was – surrounded by strong and unprincipled witches – and moreover, witches who possessed a substantial amount of real power and were most-inclined to use that power to further their own ends.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “I read something similar on every tapestry mentioning Berky, and while there were said to be several other camps, that was both the largest one for size and the worst by far.”

“Other camps?” I asked, as I continued into the room. It seemed to have grown longer, and while we needed to briefly investigate the side passages for their treasures, I knew the big prize was now buried by a head-tall mound of jumbled spades.

East-witch, Mouth-house, Chemical, and Ditch-digger,” said Sarah. I could clearly hear other names as she said them, names I blanked instantly, for their dread syllables would conjure spirits in droves today were I to think their names. “Those, and Berky, were the five major camps – and I am not sure if those were their actual names, or if they were what those who had escaped called them among themselves.”

“The precise names of all of those camps were spelled in runes,” said the soft voice – who then seemed to conjure the first name Sarah had spoken, this being spelled in a species of rune-curse upon a red-purple-striped version of that nasty Kultur-Vulture – “but even so, those names were denatured versions of what the witches 'received' – and many witches, including most of those stationed in the camps as guards, could not say those. Hence the most-common names among both witches and inmates were what you saw written, as the 'correct' forms needed strong witches to survive writing or speaking them in the 'correct' fashion.”

As I began to hand out the spades one at a time, I noted the gloves I had been lent were becoming steadily 'slimier' with grease, and during a break taken outside the room, I noted that there were more people removing spades from the first room we had 'opened'. None of those tools we had been stacking against the far wall of the long-room were remaining, and as the 'man-chain' continued passing spades out of the long-room and most likely, out of the Abbey itself, I asked, “are those doing passably?”

“Aye,” said one of the men. His voice named him as being from the fourth kingdom. “Camp's almost decent now, and the clothes is drying in those trees off o' ropes, so we'll have clean ones shortly.” He then scratched, and muttered, “and I hope I can get shut of this lead shortly, as it is giving me the itch.”

“The itch?” I asked.

“Aye, and it's said witches itch worse yet if you put lead to them,” said the man.

“T'ain't nothin' compared to what someone put to those witches what turned up this morning,” said another man. He was hidden in the room, and was passing out spades. “I'm glad I just have some shot, as those people were raw for scratching and inked solid black from head to foot where they didn't show blood.”

“N-no more of those worthless laborers that needed whips to get them to sweat?” I asked. I wondered then as to my words more than a little.

“That too, when you could find those stinkers,” said the first man. “I know those people weren't marked, so they had to be witches, and bad ones, to hide that good.”

“Or they have had much practice in hiding,” said Sarah, “much as I have had, or my cousin did.”

While I needed to first handle the spades in the room itself – that was my job, so as to find traps and fetishes – I soon found that the others were rotating their positions as needed to avoid undue fatigue, if I guessed right. The next instance of rest – I needed a breather after another fifty or so spades, as these things were not getting lighter and my arms did not need to feel as if they were falling off, not when fetishes or traps might show suddenly – showed the 'man-chain' passing spades running all the way out of the narrow room and only finishing up at the outside of the transom. The reek of distillate was potent in the air, though the sweat-and-beer odor of 'labor' was nearly as potent.

“Everyone outside must be digging like a maniac,” I muttered, as I went back inside the long room.

“You underestimated their labors,” said the soft voice. “With decent spades now present in growing numbers, everyone who is able to dig is doing so – and that includes most of the new arrivals, now that their camp is in some semblance of order and 'the wine has been burnt out of them'.”

My next stint in the room we were clearing, however, had the spade-mound begin to perceptibly shrink, and with each such further period of labor, it shrank yet more. I was now passing spades back such that I was all-but throwing them, this with both arms alternatingly, for I could feel the prizes ahead; and when the shape of another 'hidey-hole', this one larger than the last one for height and width, began to show itself through the fast-diminishing mound of spades, I wondered why the witches hadn't taken the weapons that had been hidden inside it.

“Because those hiding them were marked,” said the soft voice, “and one of the things they spoke was 'only let another person – one who is marked as we are, one who has endured witches as we have – see what we have hidden'. Unlike the witches' cheap imitation, it stood up to every curse uttered by the witches when they looked for what had been cached.” A pause, then, “that was for the stronger witches on site at the time, by the way. Those handling these spades had no idea there was anything in here but the obvious and the familiar, and that was when they were 'straight' – which was seldom indeed by that time.” Another pause, then, “they didn't have the tolerance to drink and drugs the stronger witches did, and the drink-and-drug-hoards of the dead witches had passed, for the most parts, into their hands.”

The spades now began to move of their own accord, backing up to form closed ranks as I picked them up and 'tossed' them; then as I came closer to what I could now feel as 'I need to see this' in the gloom, the spades closed ranks yet further into a tight-massed semi-interlocking mess, and those closest to the wall began to actually climb its rough-edged stones, much as if they were being slowly but surely pulled up the wall by invisible strings.

As I came to the last of these spades – those climbing the wall – I knew that this was indeed the last of the many accursed tricks the witches who had loaded this room were to play upon me, and I began to rip the spades off of the wall by main force. They adhered themselves to the walls as if with a weak species of glue, at least initially, though they came readily enough once I'd yanked hard enough to 'teach' them I wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer. With the last spades removed from the wall, I found what they'd been hiding from me.

It was another of those accursed 'Calender's, its unnaturally glossy paper-cum-celluloid red-tinged and red-outlined in the gloom, much as if it had a few half-hearted neon bulbs running behind it.

This one was arrayed similarly to the first one I had seen, save with a different color scheme and figures in each grid-parcel; and as I saw the strange colored 'overlays' begin to show, I began to put my fingers upon them and silently ask for information regarding their meanings.

“It's much as the other one was, save representing a different 'month',” said the soft voice. “The witches of before that war named their months as per those of the witches that lived before the flood, and the months then were of arbitrary and curse-defined lengths, with each color on their month-maps representing both climactic conditions and what was present for food in an otherwise drought-stricken land.”

A pause, then, “at least, that was the rule for a 'calender' done in that pattern you're seeing now. There were other patterns that spoke of dire flooding, constant snow when it did not alternate with viciously spiky and sizable hail, cyclone-force dust-filled windstorms, and much else of an unpleasant nature, all of it done with the goal of maintaining and increasing the overall control of the witches.”

“Drought-stricken?” I asked, as the 'Calender' went up in smoke. The smoke, as was common with the fetishes and like things in this room, was composed of thready soot amid choking black clouds, and I asked that to find a witch, then ink-darken his skin...

“And let a dozen Shoeten find that wretch and nip at his heels until he shows himself to be indeed 'full-loaded and black-faced',” I spat.

The soot 'vanished' with a faint thumping noise, and only the faintly acrid odor of the 'Calender's' dissolution remained behind. That also vanished, though it took a few seconds longer than the sooty cloud. I then heard more of use.

“The witches that 'ran' the planet during that time desired that nothing save those like them in all possible ways could exist,” said the soft voice, “and hence they 'worked the weather' such that the climate of the various regions 'under their feet' was such that it suited their purposes.”

With the 'Calender' gone, the hold left upon the remaining spades was completely gone also. They fell with a resounding clash and clatter to form a mound upon the floor; I passed them out as I had previously. I followed the last of the spades out, along with the others, for I needed a breather outside, as well as food and beer – and I was far from the only one needing rest and food.

Yet once seated and outside, I knew beyond all doubt that dragging out those rocket-launchers and their rockets was going to be an interesting exercise, as the launchers themselves were in substantially-made 'travel-cases', and the rocket rounds themselves were in similarly hefty cases also...

Why is it I am thinking that I'm going to find one of those smelly greasy Russian things and I know it isn't one of those, but something utterly and totally alien?” My question, silent, unspoken, seemed to be directed at myself.

“Because they load similarly to what you were thinking of,” said the soft voice. “They're so simple to use that instructions are almost unnecessary, and you know enough from reading about what inspired their designers to use one without any practice – and anyone who is somewhat familiar with the cannons used in the first kingdom will be able to hit coaches with them readily.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, around mouthfuls of bread. My hunger was beyond ravenous and into an previously unknown realm, and I began feeling with my free hand for the shot-bumps of emerging lead. I felt for greasy skin, and was rewarded with a hand that felt little 'grease' – and a shriveled-feeling skin slick with sweat that lay drumhead-taut over too many bony places. I'd been working much harder than I realized, and between rapid recovery from injuries and prolonged 'hard labor', my beyond-ravenous appetite wasn't much of a surprise.

“First, while these rockets don't have 'thermal recognition seeker heads', that does not mean they do not have guidance systems, and they will hit what you aim at if you're within range.”

“How?” I asked.

“The sight computes the range and heading of the target,” said the soft voice, “and then when you squeeze the trigger lever, it works a small generator that operates the sighting circuitry and 'adjusts' the rocket before actually igniting the ejection charge – and unlike those you were thinking about, the backblast of these is not lethal.” A pause, then, “it may blanket a substantial area behind you with what looks like multi-colored confetti, but it is not lethal.” Another pause, then, “and then, that rocket will hit the target if it's within a mile of the launcher and the target remains visible.”

“What?” I gasped. “That sounds like an active homing missile!”

“It is,” said the soft voice. “You do have to aim it carefully, though, and you need to be able to see the target in the aiming device – which means dawn to dusk line-of-sight operation only, at least with the rockets that are present here at this time.” A brief pause, then, “those with 'thermal recognition seeker heads', however, if properly programmed, only need to be 'pointed in the general direction' before you 'squeeze them off' – and those things ignore darkness, fog, rain, smoke generators, bright hot flares, electronic countermeasures, thermal camouflage, and almost everything else a witch could dream up then or now.”

Sarah came to me and asked, “you'd best keep my cousin clear of those things, then.”

“Why?” I asked.

“She likes rockets,” said Sarah. “She's wanted to shoot those things at coaches for ever so long.” Sarah paused, then asked, “what did he mean by squeezing? Is this like squeezing coons to get vegetable fiber?”

“I think it's like, uh, when you press the trigger on a pistol, only it's a much longer squeeze and requires a good deal more force.”

“Yes, when you squeeze that 'trigger' the first time after it's put together or sat for a while,” said the soft voice. “The first squeeze essentially 'cocks' the weapon, and that's when that small generator inside it is both charging up the sight's circuitry and that of the rocket. The second squeeze, however, while of similar length of stroke, is a good deal easier on the hand – and that one actually fires the rocket, once you've aimed it and the sighting equipment has put a red line around your target to indicate 'it has the picture'.” A pause, then, “The sight remains 'live' for about half an hour after a 'hard' squeeze, which means you can fire more rockets during that time with relatively 'easy' squeezes – and each further such squeeze keeps it 'alive' a while longer.”

Sarah looked at me with another of those odd looks, then shook her head. “No tapestry I've seen ever spoke of anything like that.”

“Mostly because none of those tapestry-writers ever saw one of the rockets or the launchers,” said the soft voice, “even if many tapestry-writers got 'converted' by the effects of such weapons.”

“Converted?” I asked.

“The Abbey didn't have a monopoly on witches and supplicants who gave up on the matter,” said the soft voice. “There were many others, including a fair number of press-ganged 'common' soldiers sent out into the field during the very first part of the war – which was before the Mistress of the North was able to deal with them.”

“Deal with them?” I asked. “As in 'these people need proper training, so I'm going to pull them out of wherever they are now and replace them with my people'?”

“By and large, yes,” said the soft voice. “She went after as many of those soldiers as she could find the time for, but there were some that were simply too far afield for her to readily reach; some had deserted at the first opportunity that presented itself; some few were captured alive by one of the several enemy nations; and finally, some were wounded and hid themselves from their superiors so they would not be sacrificed.”

Hearing the nature of these rockets made me wish to 'go after them', but my stomach's noises, as well as my need to use the privy repeatedly, spoke of a matter than would not be denied. Only once I had gotten my fill – and again, I had the runs, with a 'hot' smell both times I went to the hole and what might have been traces of an oil slick the second time I used the newly-spaded privy – could I return to that one room.

The first room was still having spades removed from it, however, and as I went with a fresh-loaded lantern into the second room, I wondered briefly if the other three rooms had spades in them also.

“Duh, of course they do,” I thought. “That one witch saw a chance to really make a killing, and of course he went in for the kill.”

“He did exactly that, and every spade taken out of those rooms will be needed here,” said the soft voice. “Remember, the numbers in the camp will increase drastically within the next two weeks, and that added foundation is much bigger than you might believe possible given what's available for people and equipment – which means a lot of shovels, several people using each example, and that use as close to around-the-clock as can be managed.”

“And wheelbarrows,” I muttered, as I paused at the first of the side-passages. Its stone and mortar were now a commingled mound of rock-dappled dust, and I peered within that narrow rough-edged rectangle to see a passage of sufficient narrowness that I knew it would not be wise to assay its exploration today – and when exploration was attempted, it would wish good weapons, good lighting, and a long string, one similar to what Karl had for strength and several times its current length, so as to find one's way back readily.

“That's one reason why that room you-all call 'The Upper Alley' will have its share of carpenters in it within a week of your sailing,” said the soft voice. “There are perhaps ten usable wheelbarrows on-site right now, and there needs to be a great many more – which is why more of them are coming up here compared to beforehand.”

More of them?” I asked. Side passage number two, this one again on the right, was coming up ahead. My steps were slow, as I wondered if anyone had hidden things of importance in these 'secret passages' that we could readily get to, and I was trying to 'feel' them and their nearby contents.

“The king of the fourth kingdom had a dream not three days after you-all left for points south on your trip, and he acted upon it with his usual dispatch,” said the soft voice. “Hence, he not only put in 'an ongoing order' for the wooden portions of wheelbarrows with several firms, all of which he's previously done business with, but also he had the needed metal portions contracted out, again using multiple sources that he could trust. That means a lot of knocked-down wheelbarrows are coming up with those traveling here by sea.”

“There's no seasoned wood fit for those things around here, though,” I muttered. Passage number two was 'dry', at least when it came to things easily gotten with minimal time and effort. It did have things we might wish, but those were far enough inside that particular group of passages this one led to that such exploration awaited another time. That armory was calling me, and the hole at the rear was doing likewise, as that was the main cache in here.

“There is too,” squawked Sarah. She sounded as if she was directly behind me. “Granted, it is dear, but if I speak to Maria, it will be coming up here quickly enough.”

“Best wait until the carpenters are set up, dear,” I said. Here came passage-to-the-side number three, and the remaining acrid odor – very faint, so much so that I wondered if I was smelling it with my nose – said that the vanished rat had found the vial within twenty feet of this juncture and had 'munched' it just before we opened the door.

“I think not,” said Sarah. “First, those having that wood will need to dig it out of their lumber-sheds and check it for size and the other usual things, then they will need to get it here – and none of these people I am thinking of have sleeved wheels, which means a slow trip with many stops and multiple wheel-pullings, and the ones driving with that wood will take two days at the least if coming from the house, or perhaps three days should their buggies or wagons not be in good repair.” Sarah seemed to be planning matters as she was speaking. “Then, there is the time that will be needed to select that wood once it comes here, as wood for wheelbarrows cannot be just any size or length, and it needs longer-than-usual seasoning, also. Then, there are the metal parts those things need...”

Those are small enough that every coming wheelbarrow-kit has at least two complete sets of spares for its metallic portions,” said the soft voice, “and in some cases, entire boxes of grease-coated ready-to-fit metal pieces are coming also, as the first kingdom is known for its stands of suitable trees as well as its near-complete lack of capable metalworkers.” A pause, then, “the chief matter, then, is you-all need to get out what spades you can today while getting at what's hidden by those things in these five rooms, and then hie yourselves off to that armory so as to look at the real prizes – and finally, check that one location with the generator and dedicate the place properly.”

“I think these to be appetite-starters, then,” said Sarah. “Now I see that hole, and I could almost walk in it upright, it's so large.”

Sarah was right, even if I had to go to my knees and crawl inside the hole some three or four feet before I encountered anything more than a faint dusting of dirt. The first thing otherwise that I found was a hefty dark green 'box' like those ammunition containers we had found, but when I touched it, I gasped at the chill sensation that lay upon my fingers, for I instinctively knew what the box contained.

“These are, uh, grenades!” I squeaked, as I carefully felt it for 'traps'. “There's an entire box of grenades here!”

“That's the appetizer,” said the soft voice. “There are a lot of such boxes on the premises, and two more such boxes in this cache among the other surprises in here.”

I slowly passed back the box, then began feeling what was ahead of me. Some uncommonly-thorough wretch had all but wedged several long 'packing cases' in the opening, and only by carefully dragging the top one off of the stack and then backing up slow and aching with the hefty thing in my hands could I remove it. I took it out and laid it aside, saying as I did, “I think that is one of the launchers. The rockets will be in big metal boxes like those pistols came in, save of a different shape.”

There were no less than four of the 'big' packing cases, and as I retrieved the last of them, I found by touch something – or rather, several somethings once I had come back inside to look closer, these being thick bundles wrapped thickly in rags and tied with age – and grease – darkened string. As I began passing these bundles back by reversing and then handing them off to whoever was closest, I heard muffled comments about 'through wretches' and 'whoever did these must have had lessons from someone in the fourth kingdom for greasing up guns, as they do those up this way'.

“Yes, if they've gotten inside the Heinrich works and seen those people put things in their grease,” said Sarah. Her voice was a little clearer. “This is exactly how they do up their larger tools and machinery when they plan to store them for longer than a ten-day's time.”

“Could someone, uh, start unwrapping that first one of those things I brought out?” I asked. The hidey-hole was muffling my voice, and I had found a stack of longish 'ammo cans', these nearly two feet in length, not much less in width, and nearly six inches tall. I could faintly read the faded stencils on them in the gloom, for I had taken no lantern down inside so as to avoid the danger of its faint unguarded flame.

“What I would not do for a feeble-rayed headlamp now, even those things with those dim light-things,” I thought, as I carefully felt around the first of the boxes. There were easily a dozen of them, and several more of those greasy-feeling rag-swaddled-and-string-tied articles.

“While none of those devices currently exist where you are going, nearly all of the parts needed to make them are readily available,” said the soft voice, “and if you got in touch with the right people, you could have the parts they don't currently have on hand made easily within a very short time.”

I had passed back four of the large 'ammo cans' when I heard what sounded like a squeal of 'delight', and I backed out the rest of the way in a hurry. Sarah was not present in the room, even if Katje was, and the 'squeals of delight' – it was Sarah, and she sounded like she'd found her very fondest wish – were coming from outside the long room. I asked mildly, “what was it she found?”

Karl came back into the room I was currently in – I was sucking down some beer; someone had left a jug and cup for me for when I needed a break, and I was glad for the relief – and said, “I have not seen anything like this ever, even if I think she has heard of these things before.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“It looks a little like a short musket for shape,” said Karl, “though its metal is strange, and it has no wood to it that I can tell, and I think it takes something like that one you found yesterday.”

“It does,” said Sarah as she came back into the room, “and it's one of those things I dreamed about. It will need cleaning before it is used, as the person who greased that one up could have taught those at the Heinrich works how to be thorough for greasing, and that grease they used is the nastiest-feeling stuff I have ever touched.”

“T-torment grease?” I asked mildly.

“It is that,” said Sarah. “I'm glad Hans has as much distillate as he has, as that one will want it.” A brief pause, then, “I hope there are some of those that are not greased up, as we don't have time to spend hours trying to clean these things up before we sail.”

“There are,” said the soft voice. “Remember, the ones you find in this cache were stolen from that armory, and they planned on taking them into regions even more inclined to rust weapons than the fourth kingdom is currently when at its worst – which is why they had done them up that way.” A brief pause, then, “it wasn't easy for them to grease them up, either.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl.

“They did not like that grease on their skin,” said the soft voice – who implied that while Karl tolerated the matter 'well enough' now, there would come a time in the future where he would find the sensation of such grease on his hands tormenting indeed.

“Yes, later,” said the soft voice. “He'll count the cost cheap, even if it changes him permanently in many ways.”

“What is this?” asked Karl. “What will happen to me?”

“I think you don't have a choice in the matter,” said Katje in a tone best described as 'dessicated'. My throat had been that way upon getting to my 'reserved' beer jug, and only with my third cup of beer was it becoming close to merely 'thirsty'. I'd been so intent upon my work I had not noticed my growing thirst. “It will happen, and that because it is needed for you to become a very different person, and that by someone greater than you – or any of us, for that matter.”

“One hated by the witches, and that with the label of Disgrace,” I muttered – and my voice, upon realizing my words, became a screech before I fully realized what I had actually said. “What did I say?”

“The truth,” said Sarah. “Don't think to escape it, Karl. You're going to get yourself some markings some time in the future, even as I will – and then you will learn what it means to have the witches after you.”

“They already are, though not to the degree they've been after you,” said the soft voice, “and by the time that happens, witches won't be all that common on the outside in the general region of the Abbey, and there won't be any present to cause trouble where you-all will be laboring.”

“How is that?” asked Karl.

I wished I could answer him, but not merely did I not currently know beyond 'it will be really strange then, and all of us will have our own troubles' and 'I need to clear out this hiding place, as we got more spades to get out of the way so's we can clear out the other surprises in this area, and that before hunting down that armory'.

“There will be other things then,” said a faint and muffled voice somewhere to my rear as I reached for another nasty-feeling bundle of rags that made me wish I was handling one of those 'greasy Russian things' for the sensation of touching it. It made for a faint and muttered oath on my part and screeching coming from my rear.

“What happened now?” I murmured, as I felt a sudden and growing warmth building fast in the bundle I had just picked up. It was all but dripping grease now, and the smell of 'warm grease' was growing so infernally fast that I moved to the rear with all the speed I could muster. I then stood up and walked out of the room so as to escape the fumes of 'grease', and to my astonishment Sarah was quickly wiping down the weapon she had first uncovered with rag after rag to leave a fast-growing mound of greased-up rags near her left foot.

“It will still need cleaning inside, dear,” I said.

“Less than you might think,” said the soft voice. “Your asking that grease to find that 'sacred underclothing' of witches having such things has not only greased up a lot of preparing-to-migrate witches, but has also softened that grease which remains here on tools and weapons to a marked degree.”

“Meaning clean them out with 'well-dried' distillate?” I asked, as I grabbed one of Sarah's unused rags and began to clean my hands of the sticky-as-glue grease.

“They would need somewhat more care than that,” said the soft voice. “Given they have no wood, they'd just need dipping for a few minutes while assembled in a shallow distillate bath, a short time to drain, then field-stripping followed by careful wiping with clean rags, and finally wiping the clean parts off with an oily rag prior to reassembly.”

“What is this about underclothing?” asked Katje.

“Witches, at least those fond of black-cloth, have underclothing made of that material also,” said Gabriel, “and it is thought by them to have special capacity. While it does not have that...”

“It did on you,” spat Sepp as an interruption. “You were being ridden like a smelly mule by that stuff, and only once we'd gotten it off of you were you less of a mule and more of a man.” A sniff, then, “and that stuff there we will want for the sea.”

“This grease?” asked Sarah.

“Those rags you are greasing up,” said Sepp. “We'll want to each carry a pair of those things in a bandage tin or something like one, and wipe down our metal things with them so they do not rust.”

“And so they show up less where you are going,” said the soft voice. “That particular grease came out of a sizable container in that armory, and while that container saw its share of pilfering, it's currently over half-full.”

“And distillate?” I asked, as I prepared to remove the remaining 'prizes'.

“Keep that distillate you use to clean those weapons separate,” said the soft voice, “and distill off the more-volatile elements, and you'll have a material that lowers the efficacy of those thermal devices those blue-dressed thugs use to spy on people.”

“Grease on us?” I gasped.

“On your metal things,” said the soft voice. “Sarah's clothing will do well for you.”

“How?” I asked. “Does it conduct heat or something?”

“It's one of the 'stealth' materials they were developing,” said the soft voice, “and that drum got out by mistake, as it was not merely 'just out of the laboratory', but also something of a 'secret' at that time.” A brief pause, then, “it did not help the witches when they tried to duplicate it, as it's really resistant to cursing, more so than much of what that country did.” Another pause, then, “given that its original developers were from Vrijlaand, that should not surprise you much.”

“How did they have it?” asked Sarah.

“They paid Vrijlaand some substantial license fees, then once they got the formula – an older one; Vrijlaand had developed significantly better ones by that time – they began to work on it in their laboratories. While they did eventually improve it to no small degree, the contents of that drum was still more or less done as per Vrijlaand's formula and methods.”

“And their equipment cannot see through it,” I muttered.

“It can, but not terribly well,” said the soft voice. “Were you to use the improved versions developed during the war or what's been developed since that time, their sensors would ignore it entirely, as they're currently tuned for that stuff and not what's in that drum – and most importantly, the records for that batch are not ones their 'owned' technicians can get access to readily.”

“Uh, closer to 'your security clearance is about four levels too low...'” I mumbled this as I began to lay rags on the floor of the hidey-hole. We would 'drown' the rags in distillate afterward if we had time before sailing, as this particular grease would have its uses in the future beyond what we did with it while overseas. For some reason, I suspected that not only was its formula not a dead end as was thought at the time by those 'disposing of it', but it could be readily improved to a substantial degree – and such a means of concealment would help us greatly in the future.

“Correct,” said the soft voice, “even if that isn't the only reason why that grease will be of such help to you now.” A pause, then, “It's not merely the level of security clearance, but also its type – and you need the right type of clearance to get access to that level of information, as well as the needed level.”

“Because of where it's located, right?” I asked.

I received no answer, but the thoughts that then rushed into my mind were of such outlandish and 'weird' nature – something about a 'last redoubt' that had to have used Hitler's 'Wolf's Lair' for a starting point as the then-current leadership clique 'dove into the depths of insanity' – that I blinked them off. They weren't important now, as I had to clean out a now-thoroughly-greasy hidey-hole, and then deal with three more such caches after I finished the current one.

“No, that information is not important now beyond what you were told,” said the soft voice. “It will become extremely important in the future, and by the time you need to deal with that location, you'll know a lot more about both the location itself and what to look for once you're there – and more importantly, those across the sea will learn about it as well, as currently the vast majority of those thugs and all of the common people are completely ignorant of its existence.” A pause, then, “while wolves do 'den up' in bad weather, they do not think of their shelters as 'lairs' – especially that type of lair.”

“I know about that,” said Sarah, as I crawled back into the malodorous hole. “I've stayed in wolf-shelters more than once when the weather was nasty and I was far from a friendly barn or house.”

“When was this?” asked Katje. I was getting another 'greasy mess' out. “This last winter?”

“Yes, once especially,” said Sarah. “The wolves found me walking in the snow, and I was so cold I... One of them had to help me get to that place, I was so cold, and once that family had gotten me inside it, two of them laid next to me after piling a lot of rags on top of me.”

I had the 'mess' in my hands now, and as I laid it on the floor besides the entrance to the hole, I asked, “those shelters are above ground, or what?”

“The ones I have been in, yes,” said Sarah. “This one had been improved some, I think, as it was easily large enough for their whole family, and they had a lot of rags in there.” A pause, then, “though how they got those three jugs in there was something of a mystery, at least until I tasted what was in one of them.”

“What was it?” asked Katje.

Beer,” squeaked Sarah.

“They brought it in there, then,” said Katje. “I have seen infants that were rescued by wolves, and now I know how they can keep them alive.”

“No, not infants,” said the soft voice. “Marked people, especially children, tend to attract wolves, and a fair number of them are hidden in such shelters now so as to rest while they are traveling to safety.” A pause, then, “that black book has its share of curses regarding wolves because of their tendency to see those marked as 'relatives', and Norden's people have their wolf-curses also.” Another brief pause, then, “that book, however, goes further yet regarding curses for those the witches of that time named 'monsters'.”

I came to the true end of the 'greasy messes', then at the very end, I noted more of the large boxes that contained 'rocket rounds'. As I pulled out the third one to the last of these weighty containers, I noted another smaller container to their rear and side, and when I removed that, the last thing remained: another of those brass cooking stoves, only this one was coated in what looked like thoroughly greasy paper. A touch, and I knew I was being generous about it being 'thoroughly greasy'. The thing was slimy with grease.

“This thing here as as greasy as anything,” I spluttered, as I backed my way out of that particular hole for the last time.

“It may be greasy, but if they used the same grease, that means it just needs a decent cleaning to use it,” said Sarah. “I have a jug of distillate inside, and Maarten has been painting that one musket with it.”

“It must be oozing grease a great deal,” I murmured. “Now one brief interlude, while I look at these rockets, and then we must resume examining what's behind those doors.”

There was no argument from anyone, as Maarten wasn't the only one turning 'clean' rags into smelly grease-sopping 'messes'; every man other than myself was engaged in making messy piles of greasy rags from neater mounds of clean rags, and the odor of distillate – this stink was strongest close to the transom, near where the 'man-chain' had been passing out spades – was such that I wondered just how much of it was being used nearby. I did not wish to be blown up.

“Th-that tub!” I squeaked upon seeing an obvious copper 'washing-tub' in use but a short distance away. “That thing...”

“That has a jug of the boiled stuff in it,” said Karl. “I heard about this grease, and I want some of it for my sword and knife, so those thugs do not know of them.”

Those will really confuse their sensors,” said the soft voice. “They're really not tuned for such weapons, and more, they have no files on them, nor for your slingshot, nor for laminated wooden clubs, nor what Sarah has planned for her use – and those last will become very popular over there, even if they are hard to master and dangerous to use if one is not well-experienced in using them.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“A flail,” said Sarah. “I doubt myself to be truly expert in their use, as I'm not quite good enough to teach all the tricks one might do with one, but I am good with them.” A pause, then, “My cousin did not have the time when she was in Boermaas to learn their use, as they require a lot of practice done slowly before one can use them properly.”

“Flail?” I asked. “Two sticks tied together at the ends?”

“Not just any sticks,” said Sarah. “I asked for ones laminated like your clubs and turned smoothly, and then scraped after they had their holes bored – and then the rope was tricky. I had to ask Tam for some of the right kind, and when I told him what I planned to do with it, he nearly turned colors.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I began to arrange one of the packing cases for 'remote opening' using my 'rope' and the shaft of that one spear. I thought doing so was a matter of 'better safe than sorry'.

“Because while he might not know how to use them, I suspect strongly that he has seen what they can do,” said Sarah. “I have not just seen what they do, but I killed over a dozen witches while traipsing and during terms at the west school, and more of them since leaving that place while using flails.”

“Killed?” I gasped. I was about to open the first packing case.

“Your club may be quicker, but it is also a good deal larger,” said Sarah. “I can hide a flail in my things, and bring it into action quickly – and I've broken swords with flails before, and once I broke a pistol and sent its pieces flying out of the witch's hand.”

The silence was deafening; Sarah's speech had done something that I wasn't certain of, even if I was getting a strong impression regarding just what she was talking about: they were deadly, if used by an expert. I now was about to open a packing case, and the soft 'whump' that occurred when I popped the last latch made for wondering, at least until I came and opened the thing entirely and gasped.

“They do come apart,” I gasped again upon seeing the pieces of the launcher laying in their cloth-covered padded case, “and that thing looks like, uh, a...”

“That looks strange,” said Katje. “I've only seen rotten cannons twice, and both times, they were wrecked – and that thing reminds me of one to a small degree.”

I took out the first piece, that being the 'front' portion, and looked at its front portion. That was a tube some two inches across for the bore, with a 'sculpted' 'plastic' gripping place ahead of the trigger guard, and behind that, there was another 'ergonomic' pistol grip with a 'long' straight trigger.

“An interrupted screw,” I muttered as I looked at the tube's other end, “and the latch is on the bottom of this thing here. Now there's the rear part, the one with the rocket nozzle. I bet they go together like this...”

They did. The simple, quick, insert-twist-lock motion was all-but instinctual, and when I saw the odd-looking rectangular device that attached to the forearm portion – this to be fitted on either the right or left side ahead of the pistol grip – I marveled, at least until I saw that it had a pair of sliding covers that I removed to find an array of bright and shiny gold plunger contacts on each side. I slid the thing on – and it too locked in place. The covers, I wondered about, until I slid one of them onto the left side fitting of the box and the other onto the 'bare' contacts on the other side of the launcher.

They fitted far too well to be a coincidence.

“You must have used one of those before,” intoned Gabriel. “There is no manual that I see.”

“There is too,” spat Sarah. “It looks to be a thin one, and its front-picture shows someone about to shoot at a smaller mobile fortress from behind a bush.”

“Just like with one of those smelly greasy Russian things,” I thought.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those needed a manual, and some training, even by the standards of that place's military.” A pause. “These usually had about twenty minutes of one-on-one instruction, two further days of simulator training, the firing of a few rockets at target ranges – that portion was changed during the early days of the war, as there were lots of relatively 'easy' targets that responded well to such rockets – and then a person was judged ready to use one on the battlefield.” A pause, then, “that was before the war and during its first few weeks. Once into fully into the conflict, though, they were successfully able to dispense with about eighty percent of that training with no loss of effectiveness and only a slight increase in casualties – and every group of soldiers needing more than one hand to count their number had a rocket-shooter, and every other soldier in such a group carried at least one dismantled rocket round with him.”

“Those are in here,” said Sarah as she looked at the 'manual'. “It speaks of rockets, and I wonder what they look like.”

While the launcher was strange, the rockets proved stranger yet, as they too were in three portions. The first part was an elongated metal 'football', this nearly a foot long and almost three inches in diameter at its widest. It had several warning labels, including the almost-standard red-lettered one speaking of the device's capacity for death and destruction if not handled with due caution. The others, though, were interesting: “Remove nose-cap before firing” being imprinted inside a red arrow showing in three places circumferentially near the 'pointed' end, these arrows pointing to a black plastic cap that screwed onto an odd-looking assembly in the 'front', and “use care when assembling propellant assemblies onto warhead,” this being at the other end of the 'football'.

“That one seems obvious, which means there has to be a trick to it somehow,” I thought, as I began to 'screw together' a rocket round.

It went together so readily I was stunned until I recalled what had been said about those starting military training in the time and place where these things supposedly came from. I then received confirmation as to just how these weapons functioned from a surprising source.

“That there looks likely,” said Sepp. “First you take off that cap there, just like a tipped shell, and you stuff it in that gun there just like it's a round shot, least until it stops.” A pause, then, “you aim it at the coach, squeeze that lever there hard, wait for about a slow count of ten while you keep that coach centered in that window there” – Sepp was pointing at what he was speaking of as he talked – “the red lines start moving in that window and circle that stinky thing, then when they put an 'x' on it so it's centered, you squeeze that trigger again.”

“And the rocket launches,” I muttered. “Sprays confetti out the back?”

“That stuff can be trouble,” said Sepp, “as while it will not kill you, it will toss you good if you're at all close to that gun's back, and it's like being too close to a corncob shot out of a gun when the wretch loading it doesn't use a shelled corncob, but one with the grains still on it.”

“What happens then?”

“You are sore,” said Karl, “and that I know about, as I was nearly centered by a corncob shot from a gun once, and those things are like swine-shells then, only they do not turn you into chopped meat.” Karl paused, then said, “they do make you sore if they hit close, and I wanted Geneva then.”

“For rubbing..?”

“I learned about its taste then, also,” said Karl. “I thought a swallow or two would help with the soreness, as corn-grains have sharp points and they hurt a lot when a gun shoots a big cob at you.” Karl paused again, “and I was not only sore for a day, but I was in the privy for a day too from that stuff.” Karl shook his head, then muttered, “I do not want that stuff again for drink unless I am sick enough to need it.”