Into the maze of darkness.


Sarah's notes, when she read them to me as I went into what once had been a maze and was now a collection of tall stacks of boxed materials that I seemed to implicitly know where much of what we needed could be found, this while blindfolded, made less and less sense as I heard her read it. I was homing in upon first those boxes of 'Tosser' pistols the witches had been rifling, and when I came to the first of those dust-mounds I had pointed out, I consulted the marks I had made on the map.

“How..?” screeched Sarah. “I was holding this thing back-to-front if those are here!”

“I thought so,” said Katje. “This place is not done with its cursing yet.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “It's big, it's dark, it has no real landmarks, it's spooky enough to be worse than a huge privy might be to a frightened toddler...”

“What is this?” asked Sarah. “That term is only found in a Gustaaf, and that book does not know what that word means.”

“I think he means waddler,” said Katje. “That would be a child that's just learned the proper things to put in privies, and is able to use what's found inside a privy with no help beyond perhaps a short-stool to climb up and a board to set on so as to not fall in the stool.”

Waddler?” I asked.

“They still have accidents sometimes when they're that young,” said Katje, “which is why they wear diapers double-folded inside their underclothing, one pair to the front and another to the rear.”

“Hence they waddle..?”

“If a child has its second birthday and it's still having trouble using the privy,” said Sarah, “it is either a witch's baby, or it is slow enough to make me worry about witches trying to attach brass cones for the head when he or she first goes to school.”

“You mean the very first day such a child goes to school, Sarah,” said Katje. “Most parents keep such children hidden indoors until they can flee the area with their child.”

“If they do not kill their own 'accidentally',” I said.

“That happens more in the second kingdom than here, though the ones that do it up this way are very tricky,” said Sarah.

“Most of those witches died in the last twenty-four hours,” said the soft voice. “The rest of them have died since that trip ended.”

What?” I asked.

“One of the signs of a family's leanings is the state of its children,” said the soft voice. “If a family looks with longing toward the outward trappings of witchdom, it is more likely to have such children – and if that family actually is that of a witch, much like many families in the second kingdom house, the children tend, with few exceptions, to be either most-precocious witches or feeble-minded.”

“If they live long enough to emerge,” said Sarah. “Many of them do not, and that is for those born on the continent. Those at Norden are so strange that I wonder about them.”

“Don't,” said the soft voice. “Those people became as pre-flood witches that way, at least for their anatomy, and the reason that whole mess was tossed up there was the witches that then owned this area wanted to keep it under their control.”

“And cause trouble for one of their enemies, also,” I said, as I avoided the second large conjoined dust-mound and found a hidden cache of 'Tosser' pistols laying next to it. “This container has a decent percentage of 'good' ones in it...”

“You mean nearly all of the remaining good ones that aren't scattered among those dust-mounds on the floor,” said the soft voice. “Nearly every other pistol you're likely to find in here of that type is a true 'Tosser', save for a small number of widely-scattered weapons.”

“And these?” I asked, as I put it on the nearest cart. The vehicles were just barely narrow enough to fit in the aisles, assuming the person towing them was especially careful. It made me wish to hunt up those smaller carts, in fact, as those could most likely go around the myriad corners in this mess.

“About a third of those in that box are 'Tossers', which means you've got another fifteen 'good' ones,” said the soft voice. “You might not have enough 'good' ones to hand them out profligately at this time, but you can have sufficient good ones to arm most of the trustworthy people at the house proper and those you personally know.”

“And the other 'Tossers' will need dismantling, heat-treating, some degree of parts-replacement, possible minor reworking, blacking, cleaning, and then reassembly,” I murmured. “How many of those?”

“Twelve for every 'good' one, and that's not counting the rusted ones, the other witch-cached ones down here, or those weapons coated with preservative-wax,” said the soft voice. “The rust on those corroded pistols is mostly cosmetic, by the way – they'll work 'well enough' once they've been gone through, and there's a good chance you can find a lot of 'new' parts overseas to replace the rust-damaged ones.”

“And complete pistols,” I murmured. I recalled them being spoken of as 'very common'.

“Not unless you both know where to look and manage to find the needed time so as to actually look for them,” said the soft voice. “Those – as well as most weapons over there – are not merely 'all locked up', but are generally well-hidden, at least at this time.”

I dodged two more instances of dust-mounds, then found the 'rifled' mounds of 'Pistols'. While there were no outward signs of pilfering here – I had seen ample signs of pilfering elsewhere – I knew that was but the seeming; and upon opening the first of the hefty 'cans', I found it filled with what looked like scrap metal – scrap metal that went to rust and dust nearly instantly upon my opening the box.

“They cleaned that one out and weighted it with scrap from the machine shop here,” said the soft voice. “Lay that one aside for 'cleanup', and get the one beneath it. You'll then see what I meant by those witches going through those things.”

I did so, and to my astonishment, I saw two interleaved plastic-wrapped rows of pistols with two gaps, one in each side. The whole, for an instant, had a modest covering of faint reddish-hazed fingerprints that vanished over the course of seconds.

“How..?”

“Much the same as you did, save they did not use a less-good file,” said the soft voice. “They had a non-contact means of determining hardness, and they used that instead.”

“Probably worked by curses,” I muttered, as I put the box back. “Now off to find something else we need.”

“Not yet,” said the soft voice. “Go to the next stack laying to the north, and look on its north side for the boxes of cleaning kits. You'll find some of the manuals to these weapons there also.”

Finding a way to the aforementioned stack without walking through one or more wide-spreading mounds of dust needed care on my part, careful navigation in a circuitous path, and leaving the carts where they were 'in line', as well as everyone following in my wake with me holding a string in one hand and a lantern in the other, as this particular area seemed to have 'darkness poured out upon it like accursed witch-ink', as Sarah had said.

“Was this why you had so much trouble?” I asked. “Areas like this one, which have... No, best not ask that fetish to go to hell. Not now, and certainly not in here.”

“There are no fetishes left in here,” said the soft voice, “other than those few you have already found.” A pause, then, “that 'darkness' is due to the presence of enough opened boxes that the lanterns have trouble producing as much light as a bad tallow candle – that, and the cold in this room is reducing the candles' outgassing, which accounts for the balance of their dimmer aspect.”

“Opened boxes?” I asked. It was dark enough for me to wish to tread slowly, with my lantern held close to my chest and my eyes 'peeled' for dust mounds. I did not want to touch them, as I could tell some of that cursed tungsten was hiding around here, both in bagged form and scattered here and there.

“The preservative packets in the bins prevent oxidation, among other chemical reactions,” said the soft form. “Fire is one form of oxidation they retard markedly, and hence this and other regions are 'dark'.”

“Hence we need all of these lanterns we can get...” I stopped speaking, then with a trace of a smirk, “put a few drops of boiled distillate in a batch of candle-wax when compounding it.”

“Yes, if you burn such candles in cold environments only,” said the soft voice. “They'll start fires otherwise – and when I say cold, I do not mean 'normal' cold. I mean 'freezing' cold, like in this room, or colder yet.”

“It is that in that place,” said Sepp. “I did understand that much.”

“It might be that cold for the first few hours after you-all get there,” said the soft voice, “and the same for the level of darkness you saw. It will become noticeably warmer and brighter shortly thereafter, at least in most places.”

“Why only a few hours?” asked Sepp. “Is there a lot of well-hid firewood to put to the stoves there?”

“That is exactly what I meant when I said you alone really understand,” said Katje, “and I think you sell yourself quite short in thinking you don't understand what that place is like.” A pause, then, “and being told this place around here is dark has me thinking the speaker to be speaking well of a bad situation, as this lantern might be giving as much light as a soggy tallow candle.”

“Those things actually exist?” I asked, as I barely missed the edges of a dust-mound. I stopped, turned, and noted a telltale pair of small cloth sacks beyond it. “Watch this dust-mound. That wretch was carrying that cursed shot in two bad bags, and he had at least one machine-pistol on a strap. We'll need to collect the weapons up after we get to where we're heading.”

“Yes, if their tallow is especially bad and they put a lot of salt to it to hide its odor, they can become 'dampened' to the point of dissolving and then putting one's candle-holder to 'rust',” said Katje. “That was all town had to sell until that place finally burned, and those things did well to burn in our house.”

“She was trying to render her own tallow, it was so bad for candles, at least until she became too ill to do much,” said Maarten. “At least now we get some wax candles for studying.”

“You will wish to keep those hid most-carefully in your basement,” said Sarah – who then jumped as she nearly stepped in that dust-mound I had barely missed. She was back in the column so as to keep 'the clumsy twins' out of trouble, those being Karl and Maarten. “There will be more witch-sentinels watching where you live within a very few weeks at the most. Count on it.” A pause, then in quieter voice, “was that a clue?”

“It was,” said Katje, “and I will make certain those people see what they expect to see above-ground – at least during the daytime. We'll begin moving our things out late at night once there are places to put them in the Abbey.”

“Best have someone 'experienced' come pick them up for you,” I murmured. “If I knew how to drive a team...”

My voice suddenly trailed off. I wasn't planning on learning how to drive one today, but I did suspect I needed to know how in the future. I just might have to drive one before long, and that when no one else could be spared to do so – chiefly as everyone else would either be fighting, or they'd be incapacitated – or for that matter – like in this instance – they'd be seriously disinclined to travel at night.

“You don't, but I do,” said Sarah, “and I can borrow the other buggy at home if at need.”

“No, not that one dear,” I said slyly. “Georg's. Use his, as the witches won't recognize it, it's so new – and then, it's built to cope with serious loads, unlike either of what we have ready access to.”

“Given that it will finish 'any day now' and the witches are currently scarce in the area, that's exactly right,” said the soft voice, “and I would also use Georg's team, as those animals are not ones the watching witches will be expecting to see there.” A pause, then, “they know every animal you-all have by sight, and while news of Sarah's buggy is scarce enough right now due to its newness and the lack of living witches that have seen it, it isn't able to hold many of the things Maarten and Katje need to transport.”

“How will that thing finish 'any day now'?” I asked. I needed to make a 'hard left', then go four over and then 'back in several rows. The 'region of darkness' was a study in trouble, and it made me wish for a bright flashlight. I recalled at least one place where some might be hiding, as I had marked its location on the list.

“I think Andreas might know something,” said Sarah. “He was talking of you having your hands over-full right now, and...”

“And the witches will be watching the shop especially closely, hence the parts and everything to that thing are being done in Ploetzee,” I muttered. “Do they have the tools..?”

“They do,” said the soft voice. “It might not be the marshes, but there are capable people there to spare over those working on guns – and yes, the finished forgings went there instead of the shop, as have the mostly-finished wooden parts.” A pause, then, “your instructions regarding finishing that vehicle's parts will be followed closely by those working on them, by the way.”

“I know about that part, as I took copies of what was in your ledger to Andreas myself,” said Sarah. “I think I know how they got in your ledger, also.”

“M-more sleep-writing?” I asked.

“No, that was not this, as they were inked, all thirty pages of writing and drawings,” said Sarah, “and I have never seen you use a quill yet.”

“Mostly because he'll use what they have overseas should they become readily available,” said Katje. “You'll toss your quills then, also.”

“I am glad for this string,” said Sarah. “Karl, watch that dust-mound. We can pick up that rifle later.”

Rifle?” I asked. “Since when..?”

“It seems I had gotten in the habit of calling all such weapons muskets, even if Gustav taught me the difference between the two while I was at the west school,” said Sarah. “Seeing him up here caused me to remember, that and hearing that word used while I was in the privy outside.”

“And we'll want the manual for those things soon enough,” I said, as I made the 'hard left' turn. I had to step over the dust of a witch, and as I did, I saw another bag of that cursed tungsten shot, this one small, of leather, and seemingly part-rotten.

“Is it?” I thought. I meant its part-rotten aspect.

“No, even if that true-mule leather sack is greasy enough for you to want tongs to handle it,” said the soft voice. “I'd use one of the smaller 'sample pouches' you'll find later, as those are as good as anything you're likely to find on short notice, and they're waterproof, also.”

“Waterproof?” I asked. “Sample-pouches? What for?”

“Recall your mentioning a chemical-resisting 'suit'?” asked the soft voice. “There are some of those down here, next to one of the places you marked as having items of interest – and those pouches are part of the 'equipment' that goes with them. You'll want several of those pouches, in fact, as not merely are they tough enough to stand up to that jagged wolfram 'shot' without damage, they also have heat-insulating properties and will not burn, nor will they be damaged by chemicals, and they can be made entirely leakproof, just like those escape-proof containers previously spoken of – which are in another area entirely down here.” A pause, then, “that location has some different escape-proof containers, ones which you will wish to carry some examples of with you on the trip, at least two for each person and three or four spares over that at a minimum.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“They're unused, they're unbreakable, they're passable for insulation, and you know about how hot and dirty you can get while in the middle of fighting,” said the soft voice. “You might have your beer in jugs, but you'll want to use those for carrying it when you're actually 'dealing with' thugs.”

“Canteens, then,” I thought.

“You do not want to use those you'll find down here for drinkables,” said the soft voice. “Save those things for cooking fuel storage.”

I was slow-stepping past the darkest portion yet, my lantern now held down near my waist, sill wishing I had a flashlight – even a small one like those I had once worn on a string – when suddenly I nearly tripped over my own two feet while missing a dust-mound and the opened box next to it. That jolt got 'telegraphed' back along my string, and there were voices – echoing, ringing, and possibly terror-stricken – that came from behind me. I stopped, turned to my right, and then looked down in that box.

“What?” I asked, as I reached down to find what looked like a manual of some kind. What I wanted was lying underneath it, as while the witch could trade the manual in question for things he wished or needed, he could use his other prize himself due to the prevailing nature of witch-territory at the time of his demise.

Witches loved darkness then, and most of the place was as dark as an unlit coal mine where I came from; and while 'flambeaux' fueled with rendered human and 'animal-mingled' tallow were both coveted fetishes and very uncommon, small brass and copper candle-lanterns were both commonplace and jealously guarded by their owners as long as they remained alive.

There was something about that matter that made for wondering: if the place had effectual lighting and generators then, why did it remain so infernally dark? Especially when the worker's territory was, relatively speaking, very well-lit indeed, both with lights and lanterns of one kind or another.

Two more head-tall 'blocks' lay ahead, each of them needing care in stepping around due to the witch-mounds and dropped equipment. While that one box had something in it of great use, the witches had only gotten into a few of the many boxes of such things, as to be seen using an 'electric torch' in witch-territory usually meant a 'challenge to the death and beyond' happening there on the spot, with every witch within earshot rushing to join in killing the 'disgrace' who had so profaned the sanctity of witchdom.

“And I could use one of those 'electric torches' about now, as this candle is barely burning,” I muttered.

“Having one won't do you any good, on account of its battery not being charged up,” said the soft voice, “and then overseas, and indeed everywhere save in certain select locations right now, it would be most unwise to use one – as not even those of the fourth kingdom know of electric lighting, and there are many sensors overseas that are especially reactive to that type of light.”

“More than one sensor network, then,” I thought, as I dodged another dust-mound. The rifle that witch was carrying had been flung several feet, as he'd been running when he fell.

“Closer to 'the main network' with the bulk of the recent-vintage sensors feeding encrypted data into it, a dedicated sensor network that is currently viewed only by certain individuals that are not in contact with those you will be encountering save by time-consuming special messenger travel, and then several other dedicated networks with sensors feeding into them that are so old that only a few people over those individuals even bother with them.” A pause, then, “however, if you can get 'in', you can 'mess up' all of them in one way or another.”

“Which means I need to, if possible,” I thought. I then remembered how it would be possible to 'repair' the damage quite readily, if there was but one or two people present who knew how. I had had to do that at home more than once, hence I kept backup disks handy – disks that I bagged with static-dissipative bags and then sealed tightly with aluminum foil, and that in addition to hard-copy versions of the critical system files.

It was a lot faster to just swap in a ready-to-go new disk in the main computer than to try to repair serious damage to its file system, and I'd had that precise thing happen more than once in the year prior to my leaving. The 'daily' updates happened automatically using a C++ program I'd written during one of my first periods of 'idleness', and those were burned onto a special one-time 'memory device' that I removed from its drive and labeled with a felt-tipped pen when I 'started' in the 'morning' – and then I hid that disk in an army ammo-can in Mrs. Ulyanov's office. I had them all in chronological order, all the hundreds of them that had accumulated; and when a firm 'tossed' me, I took the just-finished can out, sealed it with duct-tape, and put it in the quiet room's closet. I kept an eye out for suitable cans between jobs, picked a handful of the freshest ones I could find during the first month of traveling to medical appointments and fetching consumable supplies, then 'cleaned and painted' the best of the eight to ten cans I'd buy during those outings. That can then went in the hole when I was finally rehired.

I wasn't certain if Mrs. Ulyanov knew about that hole in the floor or not. I'd put in a solid two weeks of hard labor getting that hiding place right.

“There aren't many people able to do such repairs, and they're in a special enclave where they're more or less closeted,” said the soft voice.

“That's easily done remotely, though,” I thought.

“They don't know the passwords to get access to the 'outside world', much less those other computer networks,” said the soft voice, “and getting trusted messengers to those who 'possess' those passwords...”

A long and pregnant-with-possibilities pause came. Words came seconds later, while time seemed to have stopped with my foot raised and 'halted', much as if I had come to an endless loop in a computer program that executed the 'no-op' instruction and then returned to the address before it.

“That's not going to be easy, as those people are closeted even closer in a different area geographically; more, unlike those who know how to do the work, those latter people, to a man, are serious witches – and hence they are going to want that responsibility entirely unto themselves.” Another pause, then, “and those people will cause more damage to the equipment and files in their drug-addled 'ardor'. They will not do anything in the way of repairs.”

What?” I spluttered. But one stack more, then another left turn. I'd thought there were only two such stacks in the darkness. There were actually three.

“You're very unlikely to find them, much less encounter mention of them at this time,” said the soft voice. “Those who are spoken of as being 'black-dressed thugs' would be considered half-hearted supplicants over here, even if they are thought to be evil enough by the 'commons' of that place.” A pause, then, “the people you'll have to watch for especially will be especially obvious – and not all of those people wear blue clothing at this time.”

Three steps, each cautious, slow, waiting for trouble, then dodge another dust-mound. A glance further on, this to my right to see a flung-to-the-side machine-pistol as I actually made the turn to the left, then resuming the cautious slow steps of before. The darkness was but little less here, and the smell – faint, musty, chemical-laden – spoke of many preservative packets slowly outgassing and 'stealing' oxygen. I wondered if I would smother, in fact.

“They won't do that,” said the soft voice. “That stuff is not 'biologically' active, and while it isn't good to eat – poisonous if eaten, in fact – you'd have to eat a large handful for it to kill you.”

“A h-handful?” I gasped.

“Of a material that tastes worse than bad soap,” said the soft voice, “and that taste would not just have you spitting it out. You'd be spewing from both ends long enough to cause real trouble.”

“B-bad soap?” I asked. I only now realized that this was much of the way I was getting 'educated' about matters I needed to know now or would need to know in the future, hence such conversations were 'essential' if otherwise distracting. The chief dangers present here – witch-mounds and accursed tungsten shot, both of which were readily avoided given a certain level of watchfulness – allowed 'some' degree of distraction, unlike those traps encountered earlier today.

“If you have not tasted it, you have not missed much,” said Katje. “If it smells as bad as what they made in town for soap before the place burned, it must taste terrible – as decent soap tastes bad enough for me to remember it well from when I tasted it as a baby.”

I looked to each side, then tried to count how many stacks we needed to pass until we actually got to where we needed to go. I then had trouble remembering what it was we needed to find, due to the distraction.

And, as I learned, plummeting blood sugar. Sucking on a vial of honey helped to no small degree, even to the point of suddenly recalling I needed at least one manual and some cleaning kits.

“No, best get two manuals,” I thought. “Cleaning kits – not sure, beyond we want at least two of them for the group who's going, and one for each group of people who's staying.”

“Try more like 'as many as you and one other person can readily carry, as there's one for each pistol present in here,” said the soft voice, “and while most people won't know enough to clean those weapons properly without lengthy sessions of teaching, they can swab out the bores with 'motor oil' and then wipe them off externally with rags moistened with the same.”

“Won't help them much if they have to use these pistols a lot,” I thought.

“Most people won't,” said the soft voice. “Those that are likely to need to use them much will not usually not need 'lengthy' teaching – and then, also recall that these rounds aren't loaded with black powder.” A pause, then, “if you clean the pistols internally with distillate and then lubricate them with that blue oil or things like it, they'll fire several magazine's worth of rounds between cleanings – which is easily a year's shooting for most people other than those wearing greens or those living with you.”

“And the exceptions will either be few or pick up matters quickly,” I thought. “Karl?”

“He won't use his much,” said the soft voice. “You – maybe, and maybe not, least for this trip.” The unspoken remainder, I already knew about by direct experience. I would use them a fair amount, assuming I could manage them. “Gabriel – give him something a little less trouble-prone, as he will need to do his share of the shooting and a club won't be enough for him to do his part.” The unspoken portion that followed I understood to mean 'Sepp and Sarah will learn to clean theirs passably without you spending hours teaching them'.”

“Best give him a machine-pistol,” said Sarah from somewhere behind me. “If he needs to shoot, he's less likely to go wrong with one of those over a pistol or something like you used to wake up those wine-merchants this morning – that, or a fowling piece. I know he can manage one of those if someone watches him closely enough.”

“One of those we found?” I asked. I could feel the manuals ahead, but two or three more stacks 'in' and one to my right.

“I want one of those things,” said Sepp. “He can have the other, if Karl will turn loose of it.”

“No, Karl, not a fowling piece,” I deadpanned. “If we're taking a machine gun, you're on it.”

From somewhere close by, I could hear a maniacal laugh, one that seemed to ring with riotous 'mirth'. If ever someone was made to fire machine guns, it would have to be Karl. I then wondered just how I could hear such ghostly laughter.

I could put such matters on hold now, unlike the minutes... Minutes? Or was it hours? I wasn't certain just how long I'd been holding this 'string' with one hand and my lantern down at waist level just in front of me, my eyes 'glued' to the floor watching in the faint halo of lantern-light, and as I passed the second of the three stacks, I could feel what we were after clearer.

I also knew why we wanted as many cleaning kits as we could readily carry. While I might not be able to teach every person with a pistol how to clean it properly without several lengthy teaching sessions, those receiving such weapons could do what they understood to do and acquire some familiarity with a piece of equipment that had 'dropped straight out of an old tale and into their lap'. That smattering of familiarity would help more than a little when it came time to actually teach them about weapons-cleaning and other matters relating to a society that would swiftly move itself many hundreds of years into the future.

“And more, a society that shows that its people can be trusted by arming them to the teeth and beyond,” I thought. “The place is going to be like an armed camp, almost – none of these stupid disarmed utopias I've read about that would be easy meat for the witches or whoever else tries to cause trouble.”

And as if to answer, I knew that was wrong. I hadn't gone nearly far enough in my thinking, as for a time at least, the place would need to be heavily armed against outside attack – and once its reputation was made, it would need to be maintained in that heavily-armed state until the end of time.

Calling that planet an 'ultra-militarized zone' was nothing more than the cold hard truth.

For an instant, the darkness faded to be replaced by another darkness, one where I saw children – children younger than I had been when I had first held a rifle; these examples might have been four or five years old – being coached extensively on how to recognize, maintain, and fire weapons. It wasn't just reading, writing, and arithmetic for these 'infants' – everything they were taught was heavily laden with 'how to make war and destroy your enemies utterly, for they are numerous and desiring your deaths every second they live'. These people would be free, and they'd kill without a shred of hesitation to stay free – yea, destroy entire planets even, and not think a second time on the matter; as they knew the nature of their enemies, and they knew beyond doubting that they would receive no mercy from them.

“Hence kill them all, and show no mercy save to those who earn the right to receive it,” I thought. It did make a certain sense. There was, after all, 'a time to kill' as well as 'a time to heal' – and that was straight from a portion of the book, a 'sub-book' with a name that didn't translate at all well into the language I heard and spoke. Maarten commonly called it 'that small-book without a name which we can speak', and everyone hearing him knew exactly what he meant.

Everyone I personally knew did also. I had met a few children, even if most of them were old enough to finish the lower six terms and were either working in the fields or were apprentices to tradesmen – and all of them knew what that phrase meant as applied to the book.

“And, here, we turn,” I thought, as I saw the block. I took three long steps, my lantern went from 'barely lit' to 'near-full brightness' as I walked those three steps – and as I dropped the string, I reached for the first 'satchel' laying atop this still-neat head-high stack, and to my surprise, I felt 'inside' it as I reached for something to pull the slick fabric pouch off of the 'mound'. While small as such pouches went, I could tell this one wasn't a commonplace cleaning kit, at least if I went by those I knew of where I came from.

“Did they put a lot of manuals in these things?”

“That one you touched is an armorer's satchel,” said the soft voice, “and hence it not merely has the usual things found in a cleaning kit for 'Tosser' pistols, but also full gages and the special tools needed to do 'depot-level' repairs.” A pause, then, “and those people heading south with Rachel were glad for the example they had taken, even if they had to make some of its tools from pictures.”

“Does this one...”

“It has everything,” said the soft voice. “Now get it down, and start passing those smaller pouches you find under it back to those gathering up the string at your back.”

I did as instructed, and as I grabbed pouch after pouch, these of a fabric I recognized as that 'thicker' tight-woven stuff Sarah had wondered about, I didn't bother counting. Only when I'd passed back 'quite a few', including another armorer's kit, did I stop.

I wanted a spare kit of that type to take home, as I was taking that first armorer's kit with me on the trip if at all possible.

“And now we can...”

“No, backtrack the way you came, and pick up those things the witches dropped,” said the soft voice. “That string you just dropped will help lead you back to the carts, as Karl tied his string to one of them and he was paying it out the whole time you were going through this 'maze'.”

“Thank God,” I spluttered. My estimation of Karl grew again, as I had not thought to do so.

“He is learning, which is one reason why he's planning on taking more than what you have spoken of thus far,” said the soft voice. “He'll not be the only person on that gun, by the way.”

“Uh, who?” I asked.

“You'll get your share, I suspect,” said Sarah. “I doubt he'll wish to shoot it all by himself once he tries it, as I think he'll soil his underclothing when he first hears it fire.” Then, in lower voice, “when you woke up that camp this morning, I almost did that very thing myself.”

“Good that you did not, Sarah,” said Katje, as the 'mob' began to give me passage. “Maarten, here, hang onto some of these pouches. There's a lot of things he's going to need to pick up on the way back to those carts.”

Katje wasn't exaggerating, as when I came to the first dust-mound, that being the one of the witch trying to make off with the box, I reached first toward the hidden edge of the dust-mound, and saw the dust flee from my hand to show a faintly mottled-looking 'Tosser' pistol. I picked it up, and instantly knew this was one of those which that one witch had spent hours of his valuable time 'improving'.

“Not merely 'improving',” said the soft voice. “It was one of his personal weapons, and that box that witch was trying to run off with when that gas projector went off was one of that witch's cached supply-boxes.”

“You mean?” I asked, as I now reached for the dusty-seeming manual that I had seen while on the way 'in'. My lantern was dim once more, and as the dust fled from the surface of the manual, I saw that it was one for 'Tosser' pistols. I flicked my hand across its cover, and as the pages turned one and two a second, I saw numerous markings in their margins – until the common-looking paper was suddenly replaced with a number of slick-looking shiny 'plastic' pages, these covered on both sides with handwritten notes – notes sprinkled with dozens of odd symbols that took me looking closely at them with the manual inches from my face while Sarah and Katje each held two lanterns above my head, one in each of their hands.

“That's witch-scribbling,” said Sarah, “only it's a kind I might have read about once.”

“Not normal witch-scribbling, even if I can understand about two-thirds of this other stuff,” I murmured. “So that is where that weird way of writing came from – those witches then wrote that way, only this stuff has all of these strange terms in it...”

I put my finger on one of the odd words, this being written with no consonants and being 'impossible' to pronounce, and suddenly the entire page changed to allow no less then three added lines, these written in 'plain text', unlike the rest of the notes.

“It t-translated,” I squeaked.

“Not just that word,” said the soft voice. “Each of those strange terms is now 'numbered', much as you used to do with footnotes in your working copies of what you worked on where you came from, and now there are pages at the end of that witch's notes that explain exactly what they all mean, just like what happened there.” A pause, then, “while your take is correct on where 'Ye Written Format' comes from, if you read that version, you'll get both an entirely different meaning from what it means today and an entirely different understanding of it.”

“Why, it-it actually means something more than 'I think like a witch' in this case?”

“Yes, it does,” said the soft voice. “In this instance, it's actually much like a foreign language – a very terse species, one which will remind you of a certain 'language description' that was notorious that way – as in 'impenetrably dense' and 'they did not waste ink'.”

Terse to the point of omission,” I spluttered, as I recalled the precise book in question. I'd retained my copy from school, more out of interest than real usefulness to my own programming efforts. It had been a required text in a number of classes I had taken. “That book needed twice its pages, as they left a lot of things out!” I then had a question regarding the strange words.

“Witch-language?” I asked. “As in that one picture?”

“Got it in one,” said the soft voice. “Underworld German was but one such language used then, and while it was – and is – used commonly here, that other language was then what 'real' witches, including most witch-soldiers, spoke as a 'common language', even if they also knew a variant of the one used among the 'commons' for addressing them – and hence, that expert witch used many terms from that language so as to both 'retain his secrets' and further 'compact' his notes – which is why his six handwritten pages grew to twenty when they were 'translated'.” A brief pause, then, “you'll still need to do some careful reading and note-taking when you read that manual, as his marginal notes spell out in great detail the weaknesses and strengths of those pistols in particular and all of the others found in here in some significant depth.”

“Weaknesses?” I asked, as I put the manual in my now-overburdened possible bag and reached once more for the things the box still hid.

“Those pistols that put people in the privy do have some weaknesses,” said the soft voice. “They're a bit difficult to clean if you aren't familiar with them, much like what you once had was.”

“Stinking recoil-spring plug thwacked me in the head, and then I had to hunt for it after bandaging my head,” I muttered. “Almost as dangerous to clean as it was painful to shoot.”

“These aren't quite that bad,” said the soft voice, “even if they gave witches absolute fits to clean.” A pause, then, “those witches that could get them, though – they prized them highly, and did whatever they possibly could to keep them fed and functioning.”

“Uh, why,” I asked. “Stopping power?”

“That especially,” said the soft voice. “Had Sarah shot that one witch with one of those pistols rather than that roer, that witch would have dropped right there – as not only do those bullets have substantial size and heft, they also have substantial velocity – and that came in handy for that expert witch, as some of his enemies wore a species of 'body armor' as well as knew those 'hardening' curses especially well.”

“If he used one of those, then..?”

“Not one,” said the soft voice. “Recall how Hieronymus carried four pistols?” A brief pause, then, “he's now where he belongs, by the way.”

“Good,” spat Sarah. “Did that one stinker of a witch carry as many pistols as Hieronymus?”

“More, actually,” said the soft voice. “He carried at least four pistols on his person as well as a machine pistol, and usually several loaded magazines for each weapon he carried.” A pause, then, “you'll find some of the equipment down here that he used to carry his gear, and I'd advise you at least trying them, as they work well when you must carry a lot and then move quickly through messy regions.”

“M-messy?” I asked.

“Like the Swartsburg was when you were moving toward that drink-house,” said the soft voice, “and then while it was blowing up around you, and then when you were hiding among those drunken black cattle while escaping that place.”

“M-Miura thought I was just another crazy person then,” I spluttered. “It was like he recognized me.”

“First, no black clothing, and then you smelled like 'wreckage',” said the soft voice. “Hence, you weren't 'interesting', and then, finally, you were being protected to no small degree.” A pause, then, “besides, Miura was so interested in getting into more drink and causing trouble for his enemies that he wasn't about to waste time on someone like you.”

As I waved my hand over the dust in the box to find nothing of use seemingly remaining, I had a question, this being: “that stuff was meant to be written in runes?”

“Yes, and the reason it was written that way was that that witch didn't want to constantly chant as loud as he could while searching in his notes,” said the soft voice. “He might have been a strong witch, but he wasn't strong enough to try to think straight – while trashed, no less – and deal with vast swarms of malevolent spirits that wished to carry him 'straight away to the dinner plate of Brimstone'.”

I then looked closer inside the box, and shook my head. Here, I found what the dust had actually been hiding, that being the 'torch' I had sensed; and as the dust continued to vanish, I found the device to have two portions, these being connected by a strange silvery cord of 'woven silver'.

“That's one of those...” blurted Sarah.

“You've heard of these before?” I asked, as I found the 'carrying straps' to the green-painted metallic 'battery case'. I saw where the cord entered into it, as well as a rubber-padded clip, and a gentle tap with my finger caused the slim green-painted 'flashlight' to slither, at first slow and haltingly, then increasingly rapidly until it nearly banged into the casing.

As I snapped it into the clip, I noted that it had two rings, this as much by feel as by all else, and the raised letters on the one nearest the 'bell' of the flashlight portion was the one which focused the beam. The second one, however, was for 'power', and it didn't just turn the thing on or off.

It actually varied the power, and when I turned it, I noted several definite detents as well as a 'rubber-gasketed' feeling.

“Probably waterproof,” I thought, as I then saw the latches on top of the box. With the flashlight portion in its clip, I unlatched the pair of latches holding the 'top' on, and noted inside an obvious 'battery', as well as the following:

Several small clip-on 'filters' of one kind or another.

A small plastic vial, this labeled as being 'electrolyte, for dry-charged battery. Add before first charging cycle'.

An obvious port for the electrolyte, and another two gold-toned screws, one screw showing a red dot and the other with a black one. These 'dots' were in the shape of a '+' and a '-' respectively.

And finally, what looked like a small folding knife. Removing this tool showed it to be more than just a knife; it was a folding multi-tool of some kind, much like some I yet vaguely recalled. I thought to look on the side, and stamped between the twinned lines of a pair of obvious scales, I saw the following:

< Type 31 Tool-Kit, Revision 'S', Intercepted >


Intercepted?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“You'll learn what that word means soon enough,” said the soft voice. “Think. You've seen things like that light before, and you've heard of people copying such devices where you came from.”

“They did that here?” I gasped.

There was no answer to this question, or any others I might well have regarding the meaning of that last word, even as we recovered another of those modified Tosser pistols belonging to that one expert witch, the rifle that had been tossed, and then, finally, two machine pistols and surprisingly, one of those 'common' grenades, this buried in the dust of the witch I'd waved away after removing the second of the two 'full-loaded' machine pistols.

“How I wish for another of those bags,” said Sarah, as she piled the two machine pistols onto a cart after I'd cleared them and replaced the ejected rounds in their magazines. “Are there such things here beyond those spoken of?”

“There are,” said Katje. “He marked them down, remember – 'waterproof, dark green, carrying strap, flotation device..?” Katje's voice rose with the last two words, then squeaked, “what did I say?”

“There were a lot of rivers, canals, and other watercourses in this area once,” said the soft voice, “and in order for the soldiers to cross them readily with their gear, they'd rope two of those bags filled with their equipment side by side and use an 'entrenching shovel' to paddle across the smaller examples when tactics dictated they do so.”

“Usually at night,” I murmured as I led off in search of the bags spoken of, “and then, in small groups, as the witches had ways of finding the larger groups readily.”

“Yes, if they were looking for them,” said the soft voice. “It took the Mistress of the North nearly a year to get witch-sentinels that were consistently alert enough to watch their sectors with 'adequate' care.” The quotes I heard around the word 'adequate' spoke of the watchers in question doing a less than passable job at least some of the time, even if it was a huge improvement over what they had previously managed.

“Cut off their drink and drugs?” I asked. I could feel the bags ahead, and having a lantern that worked decently now helped more than a little. I hoped that whoever had the list was making appropriate marks on it, at least until I recalled Sarah's speech when I found the pistols. I then realized I needed to do such marking, and stopped, then turned around to find the list. I suspected Sarah had it.

“No, just dedicate certain of her people to that task after doing some surgery on them and their equipment,” said the soft voice. “She could then 'zap' them whenever she had a mind to, and that ensured all of her sentinels remained adequately alert for the duration of duty.” A pause, then, “that, and she also made absolutely certain no such person stayed 'glued' to his post longer than four hours at a time.”

“What?” I gasped as I found the list. Sarah was trying to mark our path, but I could tell she was totally lost in this 'mess'. I found our position and pointed to it, then indicated our 'most-likely' path on the way to the bags I was now after. “I thought...”

“What she wanted and what she could realistically get once the war got going in earnest proved to be two utterly different things,” said the soft voice, “and the reason it took her almost an entire year was it took her nearly that long to learn that not everyone under her was strong enough to read 'her inclination of the moment' perfectly. Hence, she did what she did so as to win – and where chants, curses, 'marks of power', and other things failed, 'common sense' – as well as the aforementioned 'surgery' – was what it took to get surly and unruly witch-soldiers to actually be 'soldiers'.”

“Zap?” I asked, as I led off once again. I could feel the bags, these in 'pouches' some ten to twenty 'stacks' distant.

“Anything from a very painful yet brief jolting whole-body 'burning' to an agonizing yet prolonged death,” said the soft voice, “and that 'surgery' included installation of a telemetry transmitter that allowed her to know precisely what that person was doing at any given time – and more, it gave her easy access to what that individual was actually thinking in real time.”

“Easy access?” I asked. I made a slight course correction: about another four stacks, then a right turn, three stacks, then a left turn to line up on them. We'd most likely need to leave the carts again, and I hoped I could remember to use my string this time.

“Without significant effort on her part, also” said the soft voice. “She needed but to look at her 'military computer', and she could then learn in seconds what any of those 'doctored' witches were doing and thinking. Once she learned that, she could 'control' them individually, much as if they were puppets.” A pause, then, “doing so to that sizable group of especially recalcitrant witch-soldiers finally got the rest of her forces under 'proper' control – and then they started taking and keeping territory rather than just fighting and dying while trying to do those things.”

“They still died, though,” said Sarah. I turned as I came to the stopping point, then with a wave of my arm as I indicated which way to go, I dropped my string and headed over in the direction of the bags.

“True, they did, and in large numbers,” said the soft voice. “The other side started taking heavy casualties also, and that had a near-immediate effect upon those people.”

“They didn't have heavy casualties before?” I asked. I could feel someone tugging on my string, much as if they were tying it to something solid. I hoped it was being tied to a cart, in fact.

“Only among green troops that were badly led,” said the soft voice. “If the troops were trained reasonably well before going to the front and mingled with people who'd been at the front for longer than a few weeks, it was generally 'easy' fighting, save where the enemy achieved near-complete surprise and overwhelmed a much-smaller group with human-wave attacks.” A pause, then, “once those few hundred 'troublesome' witch-soldiers were no longer able to cause trouble, though – it was no longer nearly as easy to do 'well' against them, and only those marked or those soldiers who had learned from being around them for a while still did genuinely well.”

“Which meant..?” Steps were coming after me now, these quick, quiet and two in number. I hoped two would be enough to get the bags we wanted, as we wanted at least twenty of these things.

“Those people were fairly common by that time, however,” said the soft voice, “and then training 'at home' became much tougher, as well as far more realistic, unlike prior to the war.” A pause, then, “they actually started having significant numbers of serious injuries and deaths in training then, as 'safety first' was surpassed by 'we need to win this war in order to survive as a people, and the enemy is no longer a pack of idiots'.”

I dodged another dust-mound, then turned, all the while paying out my string. Someone to my rear yelled for me to stop, then as I began to lay down my string-stick, I heard Sepp say, “that's another of those poke-knives, Sarah. I could use one of 'em.”

“Here, take it, then,” she said. “We'd best get after that string before we lose him, as I can tell he's after something important.”

“You want to 'get some', don't you?” asked Sepp. I could tell he was 'grinning'.

“There are no blue-dressed thugs in here,” she spat. “Who'd you hear that from? Lukas?”

“Him and Gilbertus,” said Sepp. “Now he's got that string and moving again, as I can feel him walking.” A pause, then, “where'd you hear it?”

“It seems common among those who wear greens in this kingdom,” said Sarah, “but I've read it on a number of tapestries as well, and there it speaks of dealing with witches.” A pause, then, “the first person I heard say it, though, was Willem, and he told me the best gunners up here speak that way about blasting swine.”

“I hope he gets more of those things,” said Sepp. “If those smaller guns weren't so hard to shift...”

“They come to pieces, so we should be able to get them up the stairs,” said Sarah, “assuming we do not fall down them while doing so from becoming too dizzy.”

I homed in upon the bags relentlessly, and as I 'saw' them in their pouches, to my right showed a head-tall stack of whitish 'bricks'. Their complete lack of odor spoke of especially careful packaging, and when I paused to look, I took up one of the 'bricks' and shined my lantern's light upon its label.

“Cooking fuel?” I murmured. “Type 1634BD-333FED?”

“That's the military grade material, which you will wish to take some of,” said the soft voice. “The cones are in boxes on the other side of that stack.”

Steps coming from behind, however, took me off of the matter of a hot-burning smokeless fuel that packed thrice the wallop of light distillate when properly encouraged, and I took the remaining few steps toward the bag-stack. Here, I found the bags in dark green labeled pouches, their labels black-outlined with faintly red-striped letters. The whole was easy to read and yet unobtrusive in the extreme, almost as if someone truly realized the value of camouflage; and when I looked closer at the pouches themselves, I noted a further matter:

The pouches were done in a black-and-multi-toned-green-yellow-brown species of camouflage themselves, and the darkness seemed to but accentuate the nature of this strange and oddly-striped and streaked mottled green 'mess'. It didn't look like anything I had ever seen before, and as I recalled the nature of the forests hereabouts, I could see easily how it might work.

“At least, it would work once you got inside the thicker woodlots, or if you were traveling mostly after dark and didn't want to show up in, uh, infrared.”

“Given that particular technology was something that this area's military had a substantial edge in without their curses, it isn't surprising that you would notice that aspect,” said the soft voice.

“And if those watch-witches were strong enough, it showed up glaringly,” I thought. This nearly came out as speech, even if my hands ignored my mind's thinking and began passing back pouch after pouch to those behind me. I could hear clearly the pouches moving steadily backwards, even as I touched someone's hands accidentally and knew exactly who it was by simple touch.

“Sarah,” I thought. “How her hands are still so soft is a mystery, given all she's done.” A brief pause, then, “are there things here that, uh, soften skin?”

“Not here,” said the soft voice. “Across the sea, though – they do have such things, and they will be very popular here once women learn of them.” I understood that to be 'not merely the women here'.

“Is she inclined that way?” I thought.

“More than most,” said the soft voice. “You might be surprised as to why, though.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“She's noticed how sensitive your touch is,” said the soft voice, “and she does know your preferences regarding clothing – so she's put those two things together and figures you might wish to rub her more often.”

“I'd do it a lot more now if I had the opportunity,” I muttered.

“What is this?” asked Karl.

“That is not your trouble,” said Katje. “You'll learn enough of it soon enough.”

What?” I gasped.

“I think she speaks of how you feel about my hair,” said Sarah quietly. “It isn't just my hair, is it?”

“More than you think, dear,” said Katje. “You think you know how good certain kinds of cloth feels to him. They don't have that type of cloth here, not now – and I doubt they had it here in the past.”

“I hope it can be found soon enough,” I whispered. “How many of those bags did I hand back?”

“Eighteen so far,” said Sarah. “Given that we most likely can use three of these things for each one we can take with us on the trip, I would pass back more of them.” A pause, then, “what kind of cloth do you speak of?”

“It has a very, uh, strange feel to it,” I said. “That stuff you wore called mule-skin doesn't come close to how good that stuff feels.”

“It must be very special,” said Sarah. “Is it hard to get?”

“Here, I doubt it can be had,” I said. “I suspect they can make it, or things like it, across the sea.”

“Then I will ask for some,” said Sarah emphatically.

“You'd better ask for much more than just that cloth, Sarah,” said Katje. “You'll need a lot of special tools to work it.”

“This isn't like witch-cloth?” said Sarah with alarm.

“No witch would touch this stuff,” I said. “I wonder how they'd act if they, uh, had some bright blue cloth like what I remember seeing and touching years ago?”

I could feel questioning – and I thought to answer it.

“Oh, those female witches could use some clothing made of that cloth,” I spluttered. “I hope they get some – oh, in some really bright colors, ones that glow in the dark.”

The giggling I could feel – and hear – was something that I marveled at, so much so that I asked, “what will that do?”

“Sow a degree of marital discord among those people that you'd have trouble believing if you saw it first-hand,” said the soft voice, “and now, those female witches who are wearing it are thrashing as if they were dosed with a potent convulsion-inducing poison.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Only fiberglass 'dust' feels worse than that cloth if you're a witch,” said the soft voice, “and the nature of that cloth, especially as it is currently able to be done here, makes it nearly impossible to remove while the person is alive.”

What?” I gasped. “Did that stuff show up with no zippers?”

“It did,” said the soft voice, “and you need such devices to get in and out of such clothing – especially if it's done here.”

“It's different,” I muttered. “Stuff is even stretchier than it was where I came from.”

“To no small degree,” said the soft voice. “While it's not currently available to the 'commons' across the sea, if you look for it, some of it can be found.” A pause, then, “granted, the currently available stock is quite old, but given a sample, it can easily both be duplicated and substantially improved.”

“I will wish some,” said Sarah. “It sounds...” A pause, then, “would they notice this type of cloth these pouches have?”

“Yes, which is why you'll wish to put those pouches in those cloth satchels you have from the kingdom house if you take that material there,” said the soft voice. “What's inside them, however, is sufficiently common in that place that most of those monitoring the activities of the populace won't think much of it if they see it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “People dress in that stuff?”

“Like that, no,” said the soft voice. “What's commonly worn for work-clothing there is of the exact same fiber, so those bags will register as 'work-clothing'.”

“This stuff would be bad to work in,” said Karl from somewhere behind me. “It is heavy, and it is really slippery.”

“I hope...”

“It may be the same fiber, but work-clothing there isn't nearly that heavy, nor is it nearly that densely woven,” said the soft voice, “and it isn't coated, either. It's actually similar to some clothing you wore where you came from, at least as to feel.”

“I think I know what kind, then,” I spat. “Dress-clothing.”

“Not quite, at least for its appearance,” said the soft voice, “and this stuff is both more durable and far easier to clean.” A pause, then, “it has to be, given the near-total lack of effective cleaning equipment that's available to the 'commons' there.”

“Effective cleaning equipment..?” I asked.

“Most of them would love to have something that works as well as common 'long-bar' soap and a tub similar to what you bathe in,” said the soft voice. “They have to make do with clothes-washing as you've done in the past before you came here – and not where you lived last, either.”

“When, then?” I asked. I'd had a second-hand washer and drier where I lived, and Mrs Ulyanov did both her family's clothing and mine in those machines. She'd told me what kind of machines to get, in fact – and I'd paid plenty for those ex-laundromat machines, as well as more yet to get them properly installed in the house's basement. I did nearly all of the work involved, as Mrs. Ulyanov was muttering in Russian about some of the tradesmen I'd been forced to hire due to the building codes demanding certain things be done by 'licensed' persons. I had no such license; hence, I needed to pay their fees – and then go back and redo the work to suit her and her husband once the work had been signed off and I'd paid the fees for the 'license'. They'd both told me about how common electrical fires were where they came from, and how badly such work was usually done there – and the work done by the people I'd hired was worse yet.

I was glad I had most of the machine-tools out in the shed, even if all of my electronic equipment was in the basement, this usually under plastic sheeting save when I had the time to use it between jobs.

“During some instances during that intermission you had in your last stint at school,” said the soft voice. “Recall how you had to tread the dirt out of your clothing on occasion after boiling the water with that small camp-stove you'd bought? Now imagine using a very cheap species of what you used to bathe with then – one cheaper-made than even the worst kind you ever bought, and then water that is both 'rationed' and somewhat on the cool side.”

“I would not be able to get my clothing clean then,” I spluttered.

“About another ten of those packages,” said Sarah. “I've counted sixty so far, and that pile looks to be but barely touched.” A pause, then, “that sounds like clothes-washing in Eisernije, at least those instances of it I saw done.”

“What do they use, other than bad soap?” I asked.

“They boil their laundry with that soap, and then rinse it in more boiling water,” said Sarah, “and they do so every time they wear it, almost – as not merely is Eisernije a most-dirty place to work and live, but that clothing seems to both attract and keep dirt worse than anything I've ever seen that wasn't in a rag-merchant's bags.”

“Given that it's worn-out when they usually find it, that should not surprise you,” said the soft voice. “What you don't know is its source.”

“Slave-run clothing mills,” I spat, “and that cloth isn't linen, nor wool, but this other plant that's both really common down there, and...” I paused, then asked, “is that true?”

“All save what you were thinking and didn't say,” said the soft voice. “It isn't cheap or easy to make cloth of that stuff, at least from the standpoint of those working to make it.” A pause, then, “the only thing that makes it a commonplace material for cheaper clothing in the fifth kingdom is the sky-high price of 'imported' cloth and the 'cheap' prices of slave-labor – especially that type of slave-labor.”

“Deep-slaves,” I muttered. “The very lowest of the low, those who are about used-up and ready to be fed to... What?”

“Precisely what is done with many dead slaves,” said the soft voice. “They are fed to swine – and often, they're fed to those animals while still alive.”

“But common pigs don't like to eat meat,” said Sarah.

“That is generally true up here,” said the soft voice, “and usually true in the fifth kingdom, least-ways if the pigs in question are 'entire-domestic' swine.” A pause, then, “not all pigs in the fifth kingdom are 'entirely-domestic'. Some have had less-than-distant ancestors from Norden, and those animals, if they can be kept properly, have appetites similar to Desmonds.”

“Grow like Desmonds, also,” I muttered. “That's probably why those things are kept.”

“Exactly, and their flesh is passed off to unsuspecting just-starting witches as 'cheap' meals,” said the soft voice. “But one trouble with those pigs.”

“What would that be?” asked Maarten, as I handed back the last of the bags.

“No witch currently alive can eat those things more than a few times and expect to not die in a great hurry,” said the soft voice. “One meal, perhaps two – but a brief period of wasting that soon fades into their former state of 'health', such as it is – then dying perhaps ten to twenty years earlier than otherwise. Five such meals from such animals, though... That means certain death within weeks after the last instance of such consumption.”

As I handed back the very last bag – I'd gotten it as a 'spare', for some reason – I asked, “now where?” A pause, then, “oh, that cooking fuel and some of those, uh, cones.”

Those proved easily picked up and carried, and as the others worked at getting 'two each and three more of those bricks', as Sarah spoke of the matter, I went after the cones. I was more than a little surprised to see several 'ammo cans', and when I opened one, my lantern abruptly went a good deal dimmer. I pulled out two of the cloth 'sacks' and closed the 'can' with a thump, then as my lantern resumed its former brightness over a period of some few seconds, I read one of the tags.

“Thirty cones?” I asked. “I hope that's enough.”

I had the intimation it wasn't, and I put my lantern some few feet away on the floor, then got two more bags, then a third one. I then knew I'd gotten enough cones.

“And I know what next to get,” I thought, as I found the string left for me and headed back toward the fleeting echoes of the others as they moved slow and laboriously toward the carts. “Plastic explosive, unless that stuff is way out of our way.” I did not speak of it being possibly hard to get to from where we were, especially given where Katje had seen the stuff.

“I'd get that stuff next,” said Sarah from somewhere ahead of me, “as this order may have us traveling more now, but we will be moving things about less later – that, and it will organize matters much better in general.”

“How did she hear me?” I thought, as I moved faster and caught up with the others as they began to actually 'stack' the satchels on two of the carts. “Explosives?” I asked – and this time, I spoke audibly.

“We'd best get those next,” said Katje. “Both kinds. I know where the gray stuff is, as I'd recognize that stink if I'm twenty paces from a brick of it.” A sniff, then, “it's further away than that, though.”

I had to lead the carts all the way through to the 'front' to then emerge near the chained-together poles leading to the drink-house, and as we came into the aisle – I'd found another dropped machine pistol, two rifles, another 'usable' Tosser pistol that some witch had laid aside so as to run easier, and located several more dust-mounds – I said, “one other matter.”

“What is that?” asked Karl. “I hope you are keeping track of where everything is in here, as this place is bad for getting people lost.”

I had taken the map in hand, and as I walked ahead, I found convenient stretches of flat wall and marked up what I had seen, this on the map, regarding dust-mounds and accursed tungsten. That stuff was scattered all over to such an infernal extent that one needed to know where to step in the 'maze' so as to avoid it, and the sooner that particular species of toxic material could be 'removed' from the premises, the better. In the meantime, a broom of sorts sounded most-wise so as to clear a path to where we wished to go – and otherwise, I had a question about the tungsten itself.

“So how do I get a sample?” I thought.

“There are gloves for that, along with those sample bags,” said the soft voice. “Put a pair on, get a sample bag, and gently put one of those cloth sacks you saw into it – then close the sample bag up with the tie.” A pause, then, “it can be handled then without worry.”

As we passed closer to where I recalled smelling that grayish explosive, I recalled there being several stacks of it. I wondered if the 'off-white' material was by it.

“Duh, of course it is,” I muttered. “Probably right next to it, in fact.”

“It is,” said the soft voice, “even if there is much more of the gray material. I'd get as much of both types as you and the others can reasonably carry in two trips between those stacks and the carts.”

A minute's walk closer, this along the aisle, and Katje spoke of smelling what we were after. I could smell it also, and as we came closer still, I turned to my left and pointed at a 'mound'.

“There..?” I said, my voice indicating a question.

“That smells a bit like cooking fuel,” said Sarah, “or so I recall it smelling from my times using it in the past.” She ceased towing her cart, folded the tongue back into the 'up' position, then cautiously came closer to where I was carefully removing a 'brick'. This material was not merely plastic-wrapped, but as I touched it, I noted – by feel – that it was actually inside a thin cloth 'pouch' – a pouch, that when I handed it to Sarah, I noted, had a 'carrying strap'. The lantern's light showed its coloration to be that strangely mottled green-yellow-brown, each blotch edged by a thin black line.

I knew we could use such pouches here, if not overseas. They looked about right for 'women's purses' and perhaps smaller versions of possible bags – and the color scheme was just about right for traipsing around in the area's forests.

“This is cooking fuel, all right,” said Sarah – who then opened the flap of the pouch and touched the plastic in some strange way. “The usual stuff sold in that fourth kingdom market smells like this when it is old and stale.”

“Then what was that material we found earlier?” asked Katje.

“That was also cooking fuel, though I think it was packaged differently,” said Sarah – who then showed me the place where her package had become unwrapped slightly. In the light of my now-bright-burning lantern, I noted not merely the former off-white color, but also a distinct yellowish tint I had not seen before.

“This stuff smells weird, and uh, really flammable,” I muttered as I knelt down to smell what Sarah was holding. “It smells, like, uh, Torga, only not quite as volatile.” I then had a question for Sepp.

“I hope you did not plan on bringing any of that smelly root on the trip,” I murmured.

“I have some in my cooking things,” said Sepp, “but it is in a vial I got from Andreas, with a wax cork.” A pause, then, “why, are you afraid it will soot you up again should I use it?”

“I would be most careful with that stuff if you cook with it around him,” muttered Sarah darkly, “as Anna told me at some length just what happened to him when he was coming close to some of it with a candle in his hand.” A pause, then, “and we would not wish something like that to happen if those blue-dressed thugs or those stinkers who are thugs and look like commons over there are anywhere nearby.”

I carefully sealed up the plastic wrapping until we were ready to actually try using it, saying as I did, “I think I know why this stuff is done up this way. This is for field cooking, and that other stuff is intended for making holes in armored battle cars, so it gets packed differently.” I then thought to actually look at a package of the cones themselves, and upon finding one of the sacks, I noted someone had untied one of them enough for me to readily open the sack. I removed an odd-looking blunt-tipped cone, this looking as if first tinned so that it could be readily formed, then afterward – with mostly worn-off tin-plating – the cone looked to have seen lengthy annealing in the middle of a coke or a 'colder' charcoal fire. The sense was that this had been added to by a modest level of tarnish, this applied by sheer age; and then I felt the thin greasy coating of preservatives on the outside, and what might have been a species of greasier-yet 'felt' impregnated with preservative grease on the inside of the cone.

“And no manual for these things,” I muttered.

“There is one, but it's not in that pile,” said the soft voice. “Recall that alcove Katje mentioned? There's a copy of every manual in there in a sizable bookcase, even if some of the ones out here are either entirely handwritten or heavily annotated by witches and then slipped in among the materials, and you need to get those if they show.” A pause, then, “between what you've read about what those cones are used for, and what you have been and will be informed, you know enough to use these things.”

“Duh, fill the inside with that particular cooking fuel, and surround the outside with either the gray or the white 'dough', then use some of that det-cord to daisy-chain the charges together,” I murmured. “Splice a cap to the end of that 'rope', one with a fuse, light it, then run for cover before the mess goes off.”

“Pretty much, though I'd bring some small dowels with you so as to give two fingers' width standoff for the thicker walls you might encounter,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though – eight inch third-rate concrete reinforced with thin wires isn't the side or back end of a four-tracking 'armored battle car', so it's not usually near as critical.”

“Get a tamper, though, and then we can blow holes easy,” I muttered. Sticks would be optional then, unless these people liked to live behind inches of armor plate hidden by that third-rate concrete.

“Keep that thought in mind,” said the soft voice. “There are lots of blue-suited examples you're likely to find in the area when you need to punch holes in walls.”

Two more such packages, these taken by Sepp and Karl, and we resumed our travel toward the 'smelly explosive', as Katje now named it. I had a hunch Sepp was going to test the material we'd just gotten, as well as get hints from Lukas and Gilbertus about how to use it; and as the telltale reek of that gray explosive came steadily closer, I could hear dire mutterings, these about Kuchen dough gone bad and that worse-yet stuff that was 'solid white-thread'.

“Best get some of each, if we go by what we were told,” I murmured. “Now I hope it's bagged up nice like that last cooking fuel was, and...

I had come upon the first of the several pallets, and with my lamp held close to my chest, I noted that what I was seeing was a pallet of the white material, this in plastic bags. Picking up one of the bags showed one of those stereotypical labels, this being the following:







“What does 'Milno' mean?” I murmured, upon seeing an obvious tracking number – which I had seen before in this room – and the prefix in front of it, which was something I had not.

“They were just phasing that nomenclature in when these supplies were originally shipped,” said the soft voice. “There are over forty such suffixes in use now, that one being 'shorthand' for 'Military Number'.” Brief pause. “The other ones all end in 'NO' just like that one, and the first three letters will be, with few exceptions, the first three letters of the standardized department involved with it, such as 'Medno, for 'Medical Number', and 'Engno', for 'Engineering Number.”

Another pause, then, “that doubled-six hexadecimal numbering system was then but slightly newer, which is why you'll see things in here with either single-six or single-four numbers also, depending on when they were either designed or actually put in service.”

“Those sound like clues,” said Sarah, as I then looked at the whitish bricks, then at those oblongs on the mound next to this one, which were a grainy-looking – and malodorous – gray color. To my utter astonishment, they had the exact same labels.

“H-how..?”

“That was how they got that white stuff out of the pilot plant,” said the soft voice. “It was binned and labeled as if it were the then-common gray material, and that particular bag you found had the bin-label affixed to it.” A pause, then, “there are exactly two other bags in that entire 'mound' which have labels, as that bin was one of a number of such bins and hence only needed labels on its top and ends, rather than every side save the bottom, as was stipulated in the regulations present then.”

“Best get plenty of both types,” I muttered. “I want to leave some for Hans so he can experiment with it while we're gone.”

“He might manage it now,” said Sarah, as she took the bricks of the white stuff I passed her. “How much do we need?”

“F-fifteen bricks of each,” I spluttered, “and perhaps a few more for the trip. If Hans wants more than one brick of each, then...”

“He will, if he likes it,” said Sarah. “I'd get twenty bricks of the white and twenty-five of the gray, as I can think of at least one or two reasons why we may wish it during the trip.”

“F-fishing?” I asked.

Sarah looked at me in complete bewilderment, then said, “that stuff? The way it smells? No trout would think to taste it if you put it on a hook!”

“That's more of what I meant by you alone understanding what was needed,” said Katje – who then did a double-take and asked, “how would you use that stuff for fishing?”

“Uh, set it off underwater?” I asked. “It supposedly brings up fish then – or does it?”

“Hans has done that once,” said Sarah wryly. “He told me how it ruins the taste of anything that's otherwise fit to eat, even if the fish are large trouts.” A pause, then, “I meant for causing trouble for plain-dressed witches, actually, as I've heard enough talk in and around that third kingdom port to know a lot of those people visit that place and its many drink-houses.”

“He had to blow some of those things up leaving that place on the road south,” said Karl conspiratorially. “Those stinkers had rotten cannons and bombs for us, and I knew they wanted us dead.”

“Much of what I heard about that place was before the trip, Karl,” said Sarah dryly. “What I've heard since but adds to it.” A pause, then, “that gray stuff is all labeled, at least what of it I can see, and it has pouches for it, also.”

“Pouches?” I asked.

Sarah then showed me one, and other than the label on the inside flap, it was a near-duplicate of the ones I had seen previously used for holding cooking fuel. A look inside showed two bricks of the stuff, both plastic-wrapped and clearly labeled, this with that one label that I had seen before, and gathering three of these hefty pouches, I took them to the buggies.

It took perhaps another three minutes to gather what seemed a mound of both colors of 'moldy Kuchen dough', and as Katje wandered over to the wall to pick up something we'd left there earlier, I thought, “perhaps a circuit, then drop off what we have gathered near that door so as to get more supplies?”

“The way these things are for turning?” said Sarah. “I think so!”

“Then perhaps I'd best find those smaller ones,” I said. “Those seemed a bit easier to maneuver, even if the tires are rotten. The smaller size – I guess we live with it, as we'll still get our work done quicker here.”

As we moved off, this slowly and carefully in single file, I stayed close to both the front and the wall so as to both pick up our finds and warn of 'accursed Wulfraeme shot'. That stuff was lying strewn about in random sprays, these from ruptured sacks, or often the sacks themselves lay in our path, and I had to nudge those out of the way with my boots. I wondered how we had not found them in our earlier trip about the circumference, at least until I understood that because this stuff was indeed 'accursed', it was now showing up due to our traveling counterclockwise.

“More like 'you weren't looking for shot so much as the remains of witches,” said the soft voice, “and if you could see your path, you'd be surprised how you managed to avoid the bulk of what you're now seeing, in most cases for the first time.”

“There's so much of that stuff here that I hope those people can gather it up when they come, and quickly,” I muttered. “They want it? They can have the miserable stuff!”

“I'd reserve some for yourself once you get back, actually,” said the soft voice. “Add some of those pellets to your batches of crucible steel, and you'll be really surprised at what you end up with.”

“What?” I asked.

While there was no answer, I did remember something: the first true 'high-speed steel' I'd heard of used significant proportions of tungsten in its makeup, and this material was mostly tungsten.

“And cobalt, along with some strange trace elements along with a few percent of iron,” I thought. “I wonder if that stuff will turn into 'Bad Cobalt' tool steel?”

As if to supply a rejoinder, I saw the train tracks where they came out into the main aisle. I'd have to go around them, and I could tell there was a lot of bagged tungsten laying in the general area.

“Bad cobalt indeed,” I muttered. “I'll need to try that once I get home from the trip.”

And to that, I had an answer, it being a single word that seemed to float upon the windless air of an ice-chilled realm.

“Indeed,” said my thoughts. Indeed.