The maze, while less dark, is still very much a mystery.


In traveling clockwise around first the remainder of the north wall and then the west wall of this huge room and picking up that which we had earlier put against the walls, we not only put piles of 'loot' on all of the carts being towed, but I learned another matter, even as I now needed to clear a path through the jagged-edged tungsten shot that had been scattered all over the floor. I was really wanting a broom of some kind in places where the shot impeded our travel, and more than once, I halted the column to look – fruitlessly – for just such an implement. Only when we were past the last of the guns and coming upon the first of the long rows of bolted-together cabinets, these mostly closed and locked, did I think to look once more.

I used the key on the first example, and found something that 'amazed me.

“Ammunition cans?” I asked. “Why is this thing full of these cans?”

“Read the label on one, and you'll learn why,” said the insistent soft voice.

“Field soap?” I murmured, upon seeing not merely a double-six hexadecimal number without a -NO label, but an 'obvious' label speaking of the contents and how it was not edible.

“We will wish it, most likely,” said Sarah as she came along side of me to look at what the cabinet was filled with. “Why is it packed in boxes like that?”

“I have no idea, other than possibly this stuff is like Fell's soap in some way and has a 'shelf life' unless it's protected from the elements,” I muttered.

“While it is not like Fell's soap for either cleaning mining dirt or burning one's skin,” said the soft voice, “it does clean well under adverse conditions, and yes, it does have a 'shelf life' – which is why it was packed in those cans with the appropriate preservative packets.”

“Why in here, though?” I asked. “Didn't those stinkers not like to bathe?”

Sarah looked at me, then with the briefest of nods, she said, “I suspect so, if what we've heard in the last two days is any indication of what they were like. I know the current ones dislike bathing, unless they're the trickiest type of plain-dressed witches.”

“Those people avoided bathing when and where possible,” said the soft voice. “Turning witch in this day causes people – without exceptions – to hate bathing and cleanliness; and that on top of how soap and water feel upon their skin.”

“Writ large in the black book, so it had to be an established prewar practice,” I muttered. “Still, why did these people bother getting soap?”

“Because there were some witches who had to be presentable to non-witches some of the time, much like those Sarah spoke of as being especially tricky,” said the soft voice, “and while she concealed the matter greatly from others, the Mistress of the North was not overly fond of dirt or bad smells, much as were many witches in the district where she was born and raised.”

What?” I gasped.

“High-ranking witches then, while they tended to smell quite badly much of the time, did need to have concourse with non-witches upon occasion – and hence they needed to then conceal something that most of them relished.” A pause, then, “not all of them did, however – and the Mistress of the North was one such witch.”

“Hence she paid plenty for this stuff,” I muttered, “and then locked it up so as to keep those stinkers who were guarding it from, uh, disposing of it.”

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “That one expert witch was also from her district – grew up in the same area, even – and he didn't much care for dirt remaining on his clothing or body either.”

“Remaining?” I asked. “The home of the real witches? That place?”

“That would be an unspeakable district,” said Sarah. “It was spelled much the same as Berky, at least for its first portion, and sounded vaguely like the name of that death-camp, but it was not named that way – and while every other district smelled bad and worse yet, that one, at least, was quite deceptive for its odors.”

“Odors?” I asked. “What did that place smell like?”

“I'm not sure,” said Sarah, “even if that tapestry I bathed for said that place smelled differently than the rest of that huge city, and while many witches from there were very cruel, they commonly hid that aspect better than the common for that smelly place.”

“They hid much more than what that tapestry said,” said the soft voice, “and calling those people 'snobbish' and 'tricky' is an understatement of the greatest magnitude imaginable.” A pause, then, “and most of the people who ran this area, that one witch so enamored of killing and criminal behavior being the best known exception, came from that district or those close by it.”

“Where did that one stinker come from, if he did not come from there?” asked Karl.

“There were no districts when he was born,” said the soft voice, “and he seldom slept in the same 'safe-house' two nights in a row. Then, he moved about a lot on the secret way, and to no small degree, he considered that particular road-system his personal property.” A pause, then, “given that he mostly planned its layout and entirely financed it out of his own pocket – at least at first – his thinking that way isn't too surprising.”

“So we need, uh, two or three of these things,” I muttered. “I wonder why, though?”

“Open one and find out,” said the soft voice. “You'll be quite surprised at what that stuff is capable of.”

Once we'd gotten three of the hefty cans back on the carts – I could smell beer, and I knew I needed some of it inside of me – I unlatched one box. The odd 'waxy' odor that presented itself made me wonder if this soap was flammable, but upon finding a plastic-laminated sheet of paper atop a vast number of long and thin sectioned bars, each such bar having eight individually numbered sections small enough to readily palm, I removed the paper – which uncovered a sizable preservative packet nestled among the foot-long bars of soap – and reclosed the container.

“Now, it says here...” I paused, my eyes absolutely flying down the paper as Katje and Sarah both held lanterns such that I could see clearly. I could hear Karl and Sepp fetching things from somewhere nearby, this being ahead and to our right and left – and soft words spoke of one or the other finding 'a box mostly filled with poke-knives'.

“I thought that box would be full of sawdust,” I muttered.

“It is,” said the soft voice. “While the witches stole most of those things, most of the knives they stole are cached in various places in this room – and Karl dodged a witch's dust and tripped over what the witch was carrying, which was an entire box of those knives.”

“B-box?” I asked.

“That 'stack' was the most heavily looted one of all,” said the soft voice, “and the loading pallet has but one box left on it.” A pause, then, “most of those cached knives are sufficiently well hid that you don't have time to 'hunt' for them today, even if they will turn up in the process of taking a complete inventory in the coming months.”

“And what the two of them are bringing back here?” I asked. My voice was barely audible.

“He and Karl are taking turns with that thing, as that particular witch packed it full of knives,” said the soft voice. “He emptied three boxes into one with but one box's preservative packets, and hence those knives are packed so close together between layers of cloth that that box weighs nearly a hundred pounds.”

“But one box's preservative packets?” I asked.

“They most likely weren't needed down here, if I go by what rusted things we have found,” said Sarah. “Now if we have that many knives, I think we can finish those others at our leisure.”

“I think I need to finish those things anyway, dear,” I murmured. “There's something about those knives – something that I don't understand all that well right now – that makes me think we're going to want those things for that trip.” The briefest of pauses. “There's... I think they're going to show themselves to work especially well, and we'll have some kind of trouble with those others.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “You will want to get those into a usable condition before you go, as when you try those knives over what you've found here, you will see a clear difference in performance.”

“Clear difference?” I asked. “They're sharp enough for doing surgery? Coping with a lot of hard use? Can't hardly break them, in fact – no matter what you do?”

“Why do you think they'll be so coveted overseas and hereabouts?” said the soft voice pointedly. “Those you've found in here are 'decent', while yours, to put it mildly, are much better – even if they are harder to make in real numbers at this time.”

“Would the equipment here help?” I asked, as I finished reading the sheet – and then, and only then, did it dawn upon me as to what I had just read. “What?” I gasped. “Cleans with minimal liquid?”

“You've heard of 'spit-baths',” said the soft voice. “That technique actually works with that soap. Then, it's germicidal, more so than anything currently found on the continent – so it actually kills bacteria found in polluted water and the bacteria in minor wounds.” Pause. “If you get hurt over there, I'd rub a small section of that soap on the wound.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It might sting slightly in an open wound, but this stuff is sufficiently potent that it will actually cauterize bleeding wounds, draw out shot and bullet fragments as if it were a magnet and the fragments were iron filings, kill any bacteria in and around wounds, and then permit real cleaning of bodies and clothing with water that's worse for stink and bacteria than that sewage-pool in back of the house proper.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “This... We'd best carry some of this stuff, and a bar at the least for each one of us!”

“Put it in some of those sample pouches when you get to them,” said the soft voice, “and get a full pouch for each of those going, as well as three spare pouches full of those segments,” said the soft voice. “You'll find that 'effective' soap will draw 'helpers' like a magnet, and you will get a lot of useful information by giving those people a chance to bathe themselves with that stuff.”

“That...” I gasped.

“I think I can answer why they needed such soap then,” said Katje. “Most of the water available in this area was like what's commonly found in a fifth kingdom house 'dyke', and while I have not seen those things, I suspect more than a little that you have.”

“Dyke?” I asked.

“They smell horrible, and look worse yet,” said Sarah. “This area used to have huge ones running everywhere, and the entire region, save for that one unspeakable district, smelled like the inside of that Kossum's place did, if not worse yet.”

“Exactly,” said Katje. “Now did you see those smelly things in the fifth kingdom house, or did you?”

“I think he did, as I saw my share,” said Sepp. “The really bad parts of the fifth kingdom house had them running where they would normally have places to walk between shops, and every one of those stinky things was filled with dung and rotten meat and covered with flies, and then worse things yet in some of them.”

“Open s-sewers?” I gasped. “That's what they're called? They call those things dykes?”

“Yes, and that is a very old word, as I've read it upon a number of tapestries,” said Sarah. “More, that word actually has an entry in the Gustaaf that's worth bothering with, as there it shows a decent picture of what a dyke is, and then there's a clear description of what they were like when this place was an above-ground witch-hole. And...”

“And how they are now, also,” said Katje.

As was commonplace here – I had just realized this now – people tended to interrupt each other often, with no apparent offense taken. That tendency had helped keep me out of trouble, even if I did put a close watch on my tendencies that way when I could.

Fatigue and other matters made it harder to put up a 'decent' front. Katje then resumed speaking, or rather, my hearing came back up. I'd blanked out briefly, or so it seemed.

“Did the Swartsburg have them?” she asked.

“Y-yes,” I gasped, “and the fifth kingdom house, and...”

“And certain portions of the second kingdom house, though they are a recent addition in that place,” said Sarah. “If you see a dyke, no matter where you might see it, then you can rest assured that you are in the presence of witches who think they own that which they set upon, and that in its entirety.”

“And the third ditch?” I asked.

“Once was a dyke, I suspect, though those things tended to be much smaller than that thing then,” said Sarah. “It might have just been a commonplace watercourse, but if it was here when it was a witch-hole, it was as bad for sickness as the Graaepensaan Rift is today – and that no matter what it was used as or what traveled in it.”

“Hence that soap's development,” said the soft voice. “If you get bit by a swarm of bugging flies and rub yourself with a piece of that stuff right away, then you'll most likely not get sick at all.”

“B-bugging flies?” I asked. I might have heard the term many times, and used it in ignorance a few times myself, but I just now realized I had no clear idea of just what they were beyond being insects that weren't pleasant to have around. Hence, my question: “just what are those things?”

“Those red flying insects,” said Sarah. “They screech in your ears of a night, and the fourth kingdom has bad trouble with them all the time, and that both day and night.” A pause, then, “I hope they are not common in that place across the sea.”

“It's currently too cold for them in most places, dear,” said the soft voice, “even if those insects found there of that type are neither rare nor are they chary about 'swarming' those people they might encounter.” A pause, then, “I'd take several vials of that medicine, in fact, and I'd take it on a preventative basis for the entire duration of the trip.”

“A pinch four times a day in beer?” I asked.

“That will keep you from becoming ill should you be swarmed by those and some other insects of a similar biting nature that you might encounter,” said the soft voice – “and where those thugs are common, you can expect to find those insects in some numbers – as their quarters are substantially warmer than is the rule there.”

“I think we will wish some of that soap also,” said Katje. “If we have witch-watchers, then they might well try to make our water unfit for use. I remember from reading Rachel's diary that they stole most of a box of this stuff for their trip, as she wrote about water fit to bathe with being scarce indeed.”

“Which is another reason they went to the coast and followed it south most of the way...” I mumbled, as I went after another box. I still wanted a broom so as to sweep that stinking 'Wulfraeme' shot out of the way of the five carts we were towing, and after plopping the last box of soap down for Katje, who then marked it with pink chalk, I went down three cabinets and stuffed the key into the lock.

I was not prepared for what happened then, as the doors crumbled into dust instantly to show what looked like a species of ancient 'riding broom' amid mounds of dust, rust, and faintly noxious smells – and calling that broom 'a bad fetish', at least in my estimation, was speaking well of a bad situation.

“They did not ride brooms in here, even if those fetish-grade tools that were once there were guarded by an on-site-made curse-lock,” said the soft voice. “The tender was taught the needed chants to open it by that one expert witch, and hence he had control of not merely keeping the place 'secure', but also keeping it 'tidy' – and he customarily assigned one third of his charges to 'cleaning', 'ordering' and 'maintaining' the place.”

“But will it work?” I asked. My meaning, to me at least, was obvious.

There was no answer, and with a silent prayer, I touched the rough 'gnarled-looking' handle of the ancient-looking 'riding broom'. To my complete and utter surprise, not merely did the thing not turn to dust to join the late unlamented fetish-wrought 'tools' that had mounded their dust and rust in the cabinet, but the ragged-looking bundle of 'weeds' on the end of the thing seemed to change shape, color, and...

“That thing is leaving dust on the floor,” said Karl as I gingerly removed the still-changing broom from the cabinet. “Now that is a bad broom, as I have seen those like that, and they are trouble.”

“I think that dust is its 'badness' leaving,” said Sarah archly. “Now move it side to side, and watch what it does to make sure it's decent enough to use.”

I did so – and the shape of the thing changed so suddenly I nearly dropped it on the floor. No longer was the handle of 'gnarled' wood, but of a smooth 'plastic-feeling' red-striped brown laminated material of immense strength; the ragged 'brush' was now closer in shape to some brooms I had used long in the past; while the fibers, these once coarse and ragged, were now precisely tapered things of brown-streaked tan color that resembled those of an expensive paintbrush for consistency and 'feel'.

Save where they were a good deal stiffer. Only at the very end of the broom were they as flexible as an expensive paintbrush now.

I swept it back and forth to clear a path through the shot, and was completely surprised to hear faint hissing noises followed by the rattles of ricochets as shot hit the walls and cabinets to bounce off with faint pinging noises, and with each sweep, I seemed to see shot flying crazily for nearly fifty feet when I swished the broom from right to left and then the other way. The carts were easily following me now, and soft speech to my rear spoke of them 'behaving' better as well.

“Watch to each side,” I said, as I continued working the broom. “If you see something, say so and I'll stop...”

“You'd best get into some beer,” said Sarah. “I can almost see heat waves coming off of you right now, and the last time I saw those you were about fit to be tubed and then filled with beer like a jug.”

I came back, this slow and careful in spite of my new-cleared path, and found not merely my possible bag on the front of the first cart, but beside it, a cold-feeling jug and my cup. This last was laying down over the top of the jug, and when I sat on the cart, it seemed a general 'break' signal. I heard the other jugs we had taken being uncorked, then as I began drinking down the beer, I smelled a yellow-fruit – and was handed a sizable slice of one by Sarah.

“Put this thing in that cup there when you next put beer to it,” she said. “I'd say you need at least three more cups of beer before I'm less worried about you.”

“More than that, dear,” said the soft voice. “Now is the time you might want to share that goat-sausage you packed with him.”

“What?” I asked.

“This is one of those that just came here that I bagged up just in case last night,” said Sarah, “and I think we can boil it using that stove Sepp found.”

“He found a stove?” I asked. “Where?”

“Near one of those dead witches,” said Sepp. “It had a cap on it, and when I undid that cap, I smelled cooking fuel, so I think that witch was going to take it up to where he lived to cook with.”

“Exactly correct,” said the soft voice, “and while the stoves you have found so far are quite usable, the ones that are packed down here are significantly better.”

“Then where did they get those things we found earlier?” asked Sarah.

“That one witch sold them to the witches here,” said the soft voice, “and he stole them from another country that bought some of these stoves many years prior to the war and then copied them for use by their military forces. They're decent copies, but the originals have some features that make them a bit easier to use and a good deal more tolerant of harsh conditions – which is why Sepp's stove didn't need him doing anything beyond unscrewing the burner cap and then lighting it.”

“And then he was able to turn it down with the knob on its side and put the flame out by putting the cap back on,” I muttered. “We need to take some of those rather than those like them we first found.”

“I'll take another of those we found earlier, then,” said Katje. “I think we could use two of them for our cooking, a large and a small.”

“Correct, as your wood-stove is no longer functioning well enough to use safely,” said the soft voice.

“What?” I gasped.

“Their house has been getting 'worse' by the hour since that deep-hole went where it belongs,” said the soft voice, “and the only portion that is still truly 'habitable' at this time is the basement.”

“Meaning you'll need some help keeping it 'looking decent' so as to fool those watch-witches,” I muttered. “Probably want at least two helpers from the Valley, as those people know about buildings, and they know how to be both sneaky and careful.”

“If we must live in our basement, then how will those people live?” asked Katje.

“Put sheets up, like we did in our basement last night,” said Sarah. “Yours has little in it compared to where we slept, and it's nearly as big as the one at home, so if you move enough stuff in there to be comfortable, then you and several others can manage well enough for the month or so you'll be able to live there.”

When I resumed with my sweeping, however, it was with much more than renewed energy. I could plainly feel much more in the area as I 'cleared the path', and Sarah ended up walking close by me in my wake with the map in one hand and a buggy-handle in the other. Not ten strokes of the broom went by that I didn't 'locate' something, and when I wrote down on the map's margins 'these pallets have the machine guns' with an arrow pointing to the location in question beneath my scribbling, Sarah squinted at my writing, then said quietly, “we'd best not let Karl know that until we've gathered up all of the stuff we've put to the walls and found those smaller carts. Are they where they're supposed to be?”

“N-not really, at least for some of them,” I said. “There's one here, another here – they've been, uh, looted by the witches...”

“And by the workers,” said the soft voice. “There still are an easy dozen or more knocked-down carts of that size just the same, and you will want to assemble those, as well as collect up those you're sensing. More, unlike those larger ones, these can just be periodically dosed with 'motor oil', as they've got felt 'oil seals' that will work like the oil reservoirs on the buggy at home.”

“Hence just dose them good once they're together,” I muttered. “Are these things hard to put together?”

“No, because they were intended to both be quickly put together – without tools, no less – and then quickly dismantled for ready portaging, and then the soldiers out in the field, at least in many of the less-devastated areas, actually used them to carry their supplies on.”

“No noisy gun-tractors,” I muttered.

“Actually, they usually used animals that resembled modern-day 'marmots',” said the soft voice. “They didn't have nearly the carrying or pulling capacity of horses, but a pair could tow one of these carts easily, and more, do so quietly.”

“Marmots are not quiet,” said Karl. “I have seen and heard what they do when they are shot, and I have wanted to go to Houtlaan with a fowling piece and settle those things they have running lathes there.”

“These animals were much quieter, due to selective breeding for 'quiet' and 'docility', unlike wild marmots today – which, if hand-fed from a small size, make 'decent' pets,” said the soft voice.

“I know about that,” said Sarah. “More than one of my relatives kept trained marmots for finding potatoes when the usual signs weren't present during harvest, and those things only screeched when they were sick or hurt.”

“Which was how these were,” said the soft voice. “More, their screeching was lower-pitched and far quieter, so much so that one had to be tending the animals regularly and be very familiar with them to know when they were sick or injured.” A pause, then, “that was lived with readily, due to these animals being quieter for moving than any other draft animal that was commonly available to those people.”

“Not much food needed, either,” I murmured. “Pelleted hay, some grain when there isn't forage-food, and some boiled water, and they'd go all day at a steady walking pace.”

“And they'd do it quietly,” said the soft voice. “They tended to react to danger like marmots do today, and more, these animals had noses nearly as good as pure-bred scent-hounds – so they'd 'alert' when they smelled witches or other smells that indicated danger.”

“That was how those marmots found the potatoes, all right,” said Sarah. “They could smell potatoes at twenty paces for distance and two feet under the ground.”

“Those were worthless that way compared to these animals,” said the soft voice. “Be glad that those medical people overseas have preserved the genetic information on those.”

“H-how... What will they do?”

“In due time, they'll harvest fertilized ova from 'domestic' marmots and recreate those particular animals over the course of several generations,” said the soft voice, “as those currently over them confiscated all of the pets there when they took over just prior to the start of that war.” A pause, then, “those animals aren't currently very useful to the leadership, unlike some other animals from prior to the war that they've kept alive.”

“Artificial wombs?” I asked. Those were 'science fiction' where I came from, or so I suspected – as the last such novel I had read was over a month prior to being hired for my last job where I came from.

“No, just reinsert the ova into the animal's womb,” said the soft voice. “They have to catch it just after fertilization, and because they have to do the work while it's still but a single cell and not fully implanted, they can only do so much to each generation – hence it will take several generations to breed the line back to how it once was.”

“That's a few years,” said Sarah.

“Think closer to 'a few months',” said the soft voice. “Marmots breed every year in this area due to the colder seasons of the year and 'scarce' food. Were it warmer and moister, such that they weren't so dependent upon the area's crops and warmer weather, they'd breed like rats or mice, almost.”

“Just take them a bit longer, that's all,” I said. “You'd get a new generation in four to six months given the right conditions.” I then had a question:

“A few months?” I asked.

“How that will happen will become much more obvious to you within a month after you come back from that trip,” said the soft voice. “Suffice it to say that there are ways of slowing time down enough to give you a month's apparent time, if not more, to each day in real time – and in order to meet the coming challenges and successfully deal with them, you need that time.”

“And we need those other carts, or we will shortly,” said Katje from somewhere behind me as I continued sweeping. “I think we might leave these larger ones near the doorway when we get there, then go get those others by coming back the way we came and then go on the other side in the direction of the clock.”

“Not the other way, right?” I asked. “That way is preferable to witches...”

“That stairway makes me dizzy to think of it,” muttered Katje, “and going around in that direction makes me feel dizzy, stairs or no stairs.”

“Is that a common trouble?” I asked, as I moved aside a going-to-pieces leather pouch filled with 'accursed tungsten shot'. I could smell the rapid-progressing rottenness of the leather, and as my broom 'finished' with it, the seams split apart, spraying first a cloud of whitish 'dust' and then the grayish-black blue-tinted 'shot' in a thick tide-like billow to slowly scatter itself as the disintegrating shot-pouch came completely apart to then turn to slow-spreading dust and stink.

“That is that bad shot,” said Karl. “I hope you can find those things to handle it, as you will want it for your tools.”

“I will what?” I gasped.

“Put that stuff in your file-bars,” said Karl. “There is a way to do things to that stuff in some places across the sea, so that when you cook your files they will get too hard to cut no matter what chisel you use.”

What?” I squeaked.

“If you speak to the right people,” said the soft voice, “you can get a special mixture that will do exactly what he said.” A pause, then, “the trouble is, they're not currently able to do it with what they have access to.”

“Meaning I'll need to treat them as I was told,” I said. “That will most likely work well enough...” I then had a question: “access to?”

“They'll get access to it quick enough,” said the soft voice, “and then they'll find the missing parts needed to assemble those furnaces needed to refine and process that material.” A pause, then, “they'll send at least one over here before a month is out, most likely.”

“One f-furnace?” I asked.

“It won't just clean up that shot and make slag, either,” said the soft voice. “It will also process that gray-metal alloy in modest amounts – and that, you will need to hide carefully, leastways at first.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Its appearance?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “It does not look like gray-metal, not when it's alloyed like you were told and then cleaned up.” A pause, then, “people will want things made of it, once the word gets out – and I doubt much you wish to be doing nothing but pouring and then processing castings.”

“You'll be doing ingots of that stuff some of the time,” said Sarah. “I think Andreas told some people in Ploetzee about that stuff, and I know there's at least one small foundry there.”

“S-small?” I asked, as I continued sweeping the way. “Oh, over there. There's something in that cabinet.”

I swept my way to the cabinet, laid the broom on the one next to it, then put the key into its lock. The key seemed to sweep aside all opposition – this lock was a commonplace one for the area, one put in as a replacement when the original one was damaged by a ham-fisted witch who substituted brute force and rune-curses in lieu of the correct key – and when the lock went to pieces to fall in rust and dust to the floor when I removed my key, I thought, “stinking thing must've been cursed.”

“It was, chiefly by poor materials and worse manufacturing,” said the soft voice. “You'll wish to take all of the contents of that cabinet.”

When I opened the doors, however, I was astonished to find 'plastic-wrapped' rifles like the one I had found. These had 'tape' seals on their thick yet flexible 'fiber-reinforced' plastic', and when I pulled on one, the tape 'unzipped' with such astonishing ease that I found myself seconds later holding a 'brand-new' rifle identical to the one I had found the day before.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if that one's seen little use – little more than function-testing, actually – and was cleaned carefully and then 'greased' by that expert witch before he put it in a 'quick-seal' pouch.” A pause, then, “and you'll want that pouch, also, as those are still good.”

“Put the weapons in these things for transporting?” I asked.

“That will keep them clean and dry, as well as ready to use,” said the soft voice. “Just oil them with that Veldter's gun lubricant before you go, and you can 'lock and load' right away if you need to.”

“What?” asked Sarah. “That was on that tapestry I bathed for!”

“You'll hear versions of that saying across the sea, also,” said the soft voice. “Variations on that phrase were most-common battlefield expressions among those on the front lines, even if what you just heard is not an expression native to either where they lived or where they were fighting.”

“An i-intercept?” I gasped.

“You are learning,” said the soft voice. “What you don't know is just how much they got that way, and while you've heard that expression before where you came from, they did not get it from that location.”

“Where, then?” asked Sarah.

“From somewhere else that's a lot closer to this planet,” said the soft voice, “and they got it from where he came from.”

“N-no,” I said haltingly. “They didn't say it quite that way.” I paused, as the others came up the path I had cleared and I began handing back rifles. I was feeling these for their weight, as I really wished to have one of those 'heavier' two-position-selector weapons.

It wasn't a matter of inflicting 'absolute havoc', either. I'd been doing that for some months already with the weapons I had access to before coming down to this icy room.

“No,” I thought. “I want something familiar, and those three-position ones are not like what I shot before.”

“Those are elsewhere,” said the soft voice. “They are where they're supposed to be, as the witches didn't want them and most of the workers felt likewise.” A pause, then, “and when the theft-leaders were down here, they usually had too many other matters to concern themselves with to go looking for those weapons – which is why you only found one of them upstairs and several of the others.”

“They didn't know about them, save by rumors they might have heard about on their radios,” I muttered.

“Not even that much,” said the soft voice. “Those were treated as 'secret weapons' by that nation's military, and getting some of those was a substantial 'coup' on the part of that one witch.” A pause, then, “and you are right about what they said, even if their sayings were 'corrupted' by the people who eventually got the information to the writers of that one tapestry.”

“Then what did they say?” asked Sarah. I'd handed her two rifles so far, and the line was moving nearly as fast as the full-loaded cabinet was emptying. I knew enough about our absence that everyone who was but somewhat inclined among those I knew would want one of these weapons and at least three loaded magazines on hand – with a bag of loaded rounds on top of that for those people who tended toward much 'business'.

“Yes, if that person lives with you or wears greens,” said the soft voice as an answer to my thinking. Sarah would get her answer within days, and I'd learn if I was right or not. “Otherwise, they might fire one magazine's worth of rounds while you're gone.”

“Even when those witches start coming in big long black swarms?” I asked. I still was curious as to how the usual battlefield sayings that had been 'influenced' by the screamed commands of 'lock and load' they'd somehow learned.

“Even then,” said the soft voice. “When you have a rifle that can drill through plate like those do at common 'musket ranges', it truly will be 'a few for the mules, and a few for the coach, and that one is done' – and if you shoot the first coach in a line of them, the remaining witches won't just leave their 'leaders' behind – at least they'll not do so right away.”

“What will they do?” asked Karl.

“Wait for orders, mostly,” said the soft voice. “Some witches might well dismount and attempt to render aid to their leaders, which will make them easy targets for other far-more-common weapons.” A pause, then, “and that assumes one of those bullets fired into the coach doesn't get into some distillate or explosives.”

“Which is actually fairly likely,” I muttered. “Those things will have enough ammunition in them that bullets are really likely to get into their powder.” A pause, then, “now, if one shoots a tracer round, though...”

“There is some of that ammunition present in that caliber,” said the soft voice. “The usual was to carry some in a small bag or a tin and put a pair of such rounds in first when loading one's magazines, as well as carry a dedicated magazine filled with such ammunition for 'starting fires' and marking targets for rocket-shooters.”

“Then you will start a very nice fire in that coach,” I said softly, as I handed back the last of the rifles. “A fire does not stay small if you hit the usual contents of a coach, and...”

“You had best run if you do that, then,” said Sepp, “as those things will explode, one right after another, and they'll do it before you can count to ten slowly.”

“Or, one can merely pot the coachman of that lead coach,” I murmured, as I closed the now-empty cabinet's doors. “Then, the mules get 'loose', and away goes the whole stinky column so as to remain together...”

“You'd best get that one out,” said the soft voice, “as that tactic is something that no one has thought of yet, and while the driving witches of this batch will commonly be 'hard-witches' of some quality, those rifles will get to them.”

“Dump them right onto the ground if hit solid, in fact,” I murmured. “They turn loose of the reins then, the sudden noise of the rifle makes the mules bolt, especially if the shooter puts one or two more in the mules to urge them on – and since it's the first coach of that 'line', the others must follow suit. That usually means a coach-wreck or two in short order, followed by fires and explosions.”

“I'm glad I have this ledger,” said Sarah as I resumed sweeping and the others began following me, “as I'm writing down what you say regarding shooting at coaches.”

“Then there's how they lay those things out inside for traveling,” I murmured. “Everything has to be just a certain way, with the witches sitting facing one another, guns by their knees, bottles and jugs of strong drink everywhere – especially in this mess of witches everyone watching each other for trouble when they're not looking out those windows those things have...”

“You're right, that's just what those stinkers do!” squeaked Sarah. “Every coach I've ever looked in was laid out a certain way, and they put the drink-jugs on the floor and in the boot.” A pause, then, “it makes it easier to put things in their drink.”

“Or slip stunned rats wrapped up in old rags among, their, uh, victuals?” I asked. “They don't much care for potato-country rats in those bags, do they?”

I could hear more than one source of barely-suppressed laughter, and while I knew one such person was Sarah, I could tell somehow that she wasn't the only person who'd 'put the rats to those stinkers'.

“Now who else put rats to witches recently?” I asked softly, as I turned back to where Sarah was. I'd found out where some of the tracer ammunition was, this for the machine guns. There was an entire stack of that boxed-up stuff about twelve rows in and two ahead of where we currently were, that being about midway in the long row of cabinets on the south wall of this huge room. Far ahead I could see what might be gathered-together drums of some kind, and I wondered which particular drum had that preservative grease.

“Duh, that big one of course,” I thought. “That's got to be it, as it's all by itself and it's on a cart. I then had a question.

“Those other barrels we saw down here and, uh, on shipping pallets here and there?”

“Have a species of distillate fuel in them,” said the soft voice, “at least most of them do. The witches looted that stuff more than a little for their 'fuel-lamps', at least until they learned it wasn't clean enough or 'light' enough to work in those things properly.”

“Then why do they have it here?” asked Sarah.

“To run the main generator upstairs, as well as some other equipment that took it that's long gone,” said the soft voice. “The two auxiliary generators in witch-territory were removed long ago by Cardosso's people, but they recognized the warning-curses guarding the main one's area and kept well clear of it.”

“And what did they do with those things?” asked Sarah.

“Attempted to run them, once they got them down south in their chief city,” said the soft voice, “and because of both the wrong fuel and the wrong chants, they destroyed both those witches who were present and the buildings that were built around them.”

“Wrong fuel?” I asked.

“Those took distillate,” said the soft voice, “but what Cardosso's people had – it was about as thick as 'motor oil' and very dirty – and what those engines needed were two very different things.” A pause, then, “be glad that engine in the machine shop isn't cursed that way, as then you'd need to know the correct chants to start it, and then know the 'running' chants as well to run the thing without getting killed.”

“And the one in the machine shop looks cursed but isn't cursed the way other things have been in here – or is it?”

“It does not need chanting to start or run, contrary to what most of the witches here were told by those setting it up,” said the soft voice. “With that type of engine, especially one that large, one had the choice of either a cursed – and vindictively dangerous – engine that needed constant chanting while starting and running, and that by a group of strong witches from beginning to end, or an engine that merely needed care, good maintenance, proper fuel, and the appropriate knowledge – and that one expert witch more or less specified that particular make and model of engine and generator setup, as he had enough trouble making parts without having to chant at a cursed engine and cursed electrical machinery.”

“He had to chant at enough things as it was,” I muttered.

“All too true, and he knew that, hence where he had a choice he tried to use non-cursed equipment,” said the soft voice. “However, I would still be most careful when starting that thing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “It runs on distillate...”

“That's one reason,” said the soft voice. “You'll discern the other reasons when you try starting it.”

“Will it, uh, try to explode?” I thought.

As I thought this, however, I knew the answer, that being the recollection of how the cursed machine guns of this area behaved in the hands of marked people long ago: they not only gave no trouble whatsoever, but they ran like hyperactive well-oiled sewing machines that spat bullets in straight or curving paths as needed to drill witches like so many dangling tin plates.

And how such weapons commonly either did not work at all or exploded like bombs around those who weren't marked: those who weren't strong enough witches – and sufficiently initiated witches – to know the right chants and curses and when to speak them while around such weapons.

Those weapons were all-too-treacherous that way, as they didn't care who got too close to them. They were as indiscriminate as Desmonds regarding their appetites for the raw flesh and steaming blood of sacrifices, and they considered anyone who didn't ride herd over them forcefully as 'dinner'.

I resumed my sweeping, this time managing perhaps twenty feet before once more turning to Sarah. I'd found at least one pallet of knocked-down carts, and as I indicated which one it was, I also indicated where I thought the rifles and machine-pistols were, these still in their packages.

“And here, I think, is the other tracer ammunition,” I murmured. “They gathered all of the rest of it and put it on these two shipping, uh, things.”

“You called those pallets,” said Sarah. “I'm not sure that word is in the Gustaaf.”

“Mostly because it isn't,” said the soft voice. “It is in that book's overseas equivalent, though, and like nearly every word in that massive document, it has not merely a good description, but also some sample pictures.”

More sweeping, this with minute-by-minute interruptions to write down where things were when and as I 'found' them, until I came to the last of the locked cabinets and saw the first group of barrels. The letters on these were not like those I had seen earlier, but ones that looked closer to runes; and upon finding a 'bung', I used a combination of tools to unscrew the surprisingly small closure. The reek that instantly assaulted my nose spoke of the contents being distillate fit for Houtlaan, only unlike the usual stench, this stuff had its own vomit-inducing character.

“That's prewar distillate,” spat Sarah. “They drilled holes for that stuff so as to get it deep underground.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “It may have been made underground, but they did not drill deep holes to get it.”

“How did they get it, then?” asked Sarah.

“Much the same way distillate is gotten out of those tar-pits in the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “save those bacteria there are both mutated and far less efficient at converting 'wastes' into 'tar'.”

Bacteria?” I asked. “Tar?”

“They've been trying to get a sample of that bug-collection overseas for ever so long,” said the soft voice, “and hence, distillate – in special containers – is a common material on the one boat that has congress with those people.”

“Special containers?” I asked. “Not jugs, but...”

Their containers, which are both airtight and spark-proof,” said the soft voice, “and they usually want smelly 'heavy' distillate as well as 'tool-cleaner'. Road-tar, less often – though they wish that when and if they can get it, also.” A pause, then, “the commonest means of getting distillate in this area was to use sizable concrete tanks deep underground that received carefully processed sewage and other biological waste, and then remove the black tarry material intermittently. After appropriate processing, during which the unreacted raw materials were added to the incoming feedstock, the result was a dark tarry liquid that resembled what was once in that bottle that now has that gun lubricant.”

“Probably distilled it carefully,” I murmured.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “They processed that stuff carefully to make the various grades of industrial and motor fuel, and those smaller generator engines were notoriously picky about both the 'ignition numbers' and the viscosity of their fuel – and they needed that special plant oil, also, as they were predominately air-cooled, unbelievably noisy, and very hot-running.”

“Ignition numbers?” I asked. “C-cetane?”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “There are three separate numbers that describe distillate's tendency to ignite when used in engines here, not the one number you were thinking of – and that chemical you spoke of is unknown here.” A pause, then, “be glad it isn't known of here, as it would be as poisonous as some nerve agents where you came from and more sensitive to impact than that blasting oil you made.”

“And that big engine upstairs?” I asked.

“Isn't at all picky about such fuel,” said the soft voice. “It would actually run on suitably 'cleaned' heavy distillate from the fifth kingdom, though it would be somewhat harder to start and give less power than with the correct stuff.”

“Hopefully we won't need to run it much,” said Sarah – who then hitched and nearly screamed, “an evil engine? How..?”

“You will need to run it some, hence it needs testing today,” said the soft voice, “and when those coming in tonight hear that thing run – its noise will carry for ten miles easily, as its normal running speed will cause its exhaust stack or 'chimney' to resonate like an organ pipe and the diffuser at the top will act like an exponential horn for both the noise and the exhaust – it will tell them 'it is time'.” A pause, then, “they'll know it's time then, because I gave enough of those people dreams about what they needed to do in the last few weeks, as well as what the signals would be – and all of them are either ready or getting ready, as some of the last signals have already become apparent in the last two days.”

“G-getting ready?” I asked, as I swept another cloth bag of Wulfraeme out of the way. This one stayed together, which told me it was indeed likely for pickup – unless I found another such sack closer to where the sample pouches and gloves were. I didn't know where they were other than 'nowhere close to where I've gone thus far'.

“The closest of the Valley's immigrants sent messengers out in all directions after dark once they started laboring after sundown last night,” said the soft voice, “and the way those people plan on coming in, each group that's currently 'in hiding' save two people will head toward here at their best speed, the closest arriving first, while those two messengers will each go to the towns they know of nearby that are further away so as to let those people know – and when it comes time to leave, they'll be the guides of the groups they contact.”

“They'll leapfrog in, then,” I murmured. “Most of them are on foot and are carrying decent loads, so ten to twelve miles is a far trudge for those people if they do it under cover of darkness in this area.”

“Exactly, though some of them have been moving steadily closer as conditions permit since witches have become scarce in the region,” said the soft voice. “Figure 'over five hundred' of those people will move on-site tonight and early tomorrow morning with those of their belongings they need and can readily transport, and more yet each further night for the next three nights after that. They'll come slower after those first few days, as then they're coming from further away and bringing more in as well.”

“That will nearly double the camp's current size, then,” said Sarah.

“It will not,” said Katje solemnly as she moved off to fetch something between two sets of barrels. “Those who come in tonight will double its current numbers, and each further wave of those three after it will double it again, as there are many of those people hiding in abandoned homes within forty miles of here – and some who are not hiding who have access to transport such that they can pick up those supplies those coming here on foot are forced to leave behind them.”

What Katje was after lay near the base of some shelving units, and on a whim, I took my broom to then lay it against the nearest set of shelves and reached into one of the bins on the shelf nearest my chest to then pull out a 'Tosser' pistol. Bringing it back to Sarah and into the light of the lantern on her cart showed it to be not merely a 'user' grade weapon, but most likely the personal property of that one 'expert' witch. I could see several telltale details about this weapon which suggested that to be likely.

“Thing's loaded,” I muttered, as I removed a full magazine and then ejected the chambered round to catch it in midair. “He probably had these things hidden strategically all over in here just in case.”

“Where they weren't found and taken, you mean,” said the soft voice. “That one is where he actually left it, so it's ready for use as it is.”

“And his, uh, spare magazines,” I muttered. “That stinker had about five of them in this bag close to that pistol, and how I missed it is a mystery.”

It was much less of a mystery when I not merely found the bag in question, but also another sturdy cloth bag containing four 'common' grenades and a third much-smaller bag with three ancient-looking 'fuse' caps, each of them 'swaddled' in string-tied rags. The resemblance of these thin copper-tubed things to what was currently made was not a joking matter, so much so that I spat, “every cap we use today is made fit for a witch!”

“Yes, if it's made in a witch-run manufactory,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, that shape does work well for inserting into the commonly-used types of dynamite on the continent, and those there, unlike those made in places like Badwater and the fifth kingdom house, do not use liquid death – hence they're still good.”

“Probably cursed, too,” I muttered.

“Those were among the least-cursed fuse-caps on the premises,” said the soft voice. “Recall how that one witch used non-cursed things when and if he had any choice in the matter?”

I nodded mentally.

“He knew the cap-curses by heart, so he bought those caps in the green area and then chanted the needed curses after placing his bombs or whatever, so as to minimize danger to himself,” said the soft voice. “Buying more-or-less non-cursed caps meant that they'd work more consistently, also, as they didn't need curses to explode properly, unlike those commonly made around here.”

“How can they be more-or-less not cursed?” asked Sarah. “Either something is cursed, or it is not.”

“Uh, I think what was meant was either portions of those things might have been cursed, or they were cursed weakly, or the curses were strictly notional, like those runes we found on those, uh, lifts.”

“Mostly the last, actually,” said the soft voice. “Remember, those out in the green areas, with few exceptions, were either very 'low-ranking' witches, or in most cases, they weren't witches at all – and since those people making those caps used pictures of 'cursed' caps to go by, they thought 'we have to put runes on these packages, or these witches won't buy them'. Hence they put some 'runes' on the package, and 'got lucky' – even if that one expert witch had all he could not do to not laugh at what those rune-strings actually meant.”

“What did they mean?” asked Katje.

“The closest 'translation' in today's terms would be 'have a safe Harvest Day' or 'Use plenty of fuse on these things',” said the soft voice.

“That does not sound like much of a curse,” I said, as I finished searching and returned to my broom. “Sounds more like good advice.”

“It worked well with less-knowledgeable witches,” said the soft voice. “They paid plenty for them, because they were getting 'real' caps and not 'those awful things that are sold as caps in the green area'.” A pause, then, “the fact that they worked like 'real caps' just reinforced their ignorance.”

A third group of barrels, these also marked as the others had been. I tested one and noted again that indescribably foul distillate-like stench, and I was glad I replaced the bung as quickly as I did, for the stench seemed to follow me back to where I had laid my broom. Another ten sweeps, three more groups of cabinets, another consult with Sarah regarding where something actually was – and we came to an abrupt right-breaking corner. Just beyond it lay another two barrels, and when I wrenched off the bung, instead of smelling ' bad distillate', I smelled something faintly 'aromatic' and 'fruity', such that I felt reminded of some of the stranger lubricants where I came from mingled with 'banana' and 'raspberry'.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Restricted-grade engine lubricant imported by some very devious means from Vrijlaand,” said the soft voice. “Each one of those 'drums' is good for an oil change in that engine upstairs, so I'd keep them handy.”

“Biggest oil can I ever saw,” I muttered. “How often does one need to change oil in that thing?”

“They stocked up for quite a while,” said the soft voice. “Normally, that type of engine was run on a given batch of their 'synthetic' oil until the material was significantly affected by the heat and combustion products the centrifuges and other filters weren't able to remove – and one swapped out the entire 'tank' when one changed oil, as the particulates the filters missed settled out when the engine was not running.”

“Tank?” I asked.

“That 'bung' has a special 'fitting' that goes inside it, with the oil from the engine's outlet near the top and the screened oil-inlet near the bottom of the container,” said the soft voice. “The usual, at least with other engines like that, was to remove both the trio of filters and the oil drum – or drums, for larger-yet powerplants – at the same time, and take the whole 'kit' to a renewing plant in the area for 'rebuilding' while a new 'lube-kit' was put in.”

“Rebuilding?” I asked.

“They'd 'take the oil 'apart' and then 'put it back together' again,” said the soft voice. “Given that lubricant there is Vrijlaand's 'export-grade' lubricant, it did not come apart like the domestically-produced bad copy, so it was mostly a matter of 'replace it when it seems wise, and then sell the used material to the highest bidder' – and there were a lot of bidders for that type of used oil in this area, due to its extreme scarcity.” A pause, then, “once such bidders vanished and the supply was cut off, though – they started processing it on-site, which means the used oil from that generator went in other much smaller containers after a very careful cleaning process.”

“Other containers?” I asked.

“What do you think those high-ranking witches in here oiled their guns with?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “That stuff might not have had the cachet or color or stink of KÄSTRÜL-R42, but it worked fully as well for lubrication without needing daily cleaning to keep their guns from 'freezing up' with congealed oil-varnish.” A pause, then “only its extreme scarcity compared to that plant-based oil kept it from being used more often on and off this area's battlefields.”

“This stuff is...”

Most of that lubricant in this area was – and is – inside the Abbey,” said the soft voice. “Only a few other locations, none of them located above ground in this area, had supplies of it – and they ran 'mission-critical' military-specification power generation equipment, much like what's currently in here for power generation.”

“Why didn't Rachel steal some?” asked Sarah, as I replaced the bung and resumed sweeping a path. That one large barrel was next for checking, and I truly hoped it had that preservative grease in it.

“Because it was kept under not merely lock and key – a grade-A curse-lock, as well as a conventional lock – but also, its processing and packaging equipment was hidden deep in the 'bowels' of that machine shop – and during the time before the Mistress of the North rigged the place, there were numbers of heavily-armed witches in there nearly every hour of the day and night.”

“Hence getting in there and spending hours hunting for the stuff wasn't a good idea,” I thought.

“More than that, even, as that expert witch rigged that particular area to keep lesser witches out of it,” said the soft voice. “When Rachel learned of the security measures involved, she did everything she could to get the stuff where it was kept elsewhere, but this part of this storage facility received the closest guarding of all – hence she would have had trouble getting near these drums, much less siphoning any out.”

“Guarded the lube and distillate so much that the rest of the place wasn't guarded very well at all,” I murmured. But ten more sweeps, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, and I would be at my goal – and to the right, I could see just ahead piles of 'loot' we'd found. It seemed wise to clear the area of Wulfraeme before parking these carts, as there was not merely a lot of that shot lying here and there in fan-shaped windrows, but there was also a lot of 'loot' near and abutting the walls – and as I found piece after piece of laid-aside 'loot', I had to first sweep a path to it, then move it away into the cleared path for the others; then, finally sweep the shot up against the wall itself in a narrow windrow nearly four inches wide and almost an inch high in most places.

Those areas otherwise had more.

“There's enough of this stuff,” I muttered. “Now does that one place have small metal scoops?”

“It does,” said the soft voice. “There aren't that many of them, so you'll need to be careful to not lose any.”

“Did the witches..?” I wondered then 'just what would a witch do with such things'?

“No, as they had no use for them and there weren't that many to start with, even where they were made,” said the soft voice. “Such equipment wasn't commonplace then, unlike the time just prior to the war when the latest versions were being made in quantity.”

“Then what we received was..?” I wondered just what it was, in fact.

“The 'usual' for toxic chemical cleanup there before the war,” said the soft voice. “The battlefield suites developed from this type were harder to damage, but they were a lot less capable otherwise and much less comfortable to wear. That's the case even for short periods, by the way – as these suits were intended for wearing for hours at a time.”

As I continued clearing the shot and then moving our 'loot' away from the walls, I could tell I was getting closer to my prize – until I found a sudden stretch of 'blank' wall and swept a path to within eight feet of the squat drum. Here, I could now see marks from shot bouncing off of it, and I thought to ask as to how that shot had been so scattered around.

“That one witch set up small curse-mines around areas he wished to keep 'unauthorized' persons out of, and then he hung a large number of them from thin cords about eight feet above the tops of the stacks.”

“Wasn't that dangerous?” asked Sarah. I could tell she meant 'fires or explosions as a result of such mines'.

“Yes, for many of the witches attempting to loot the place,” said the soft voice. “He'd used poison-coated pellets for those bombs as well as the 'worst' specimens of Wulfraeme he could find, so they didn't need much punch at all to drop thieves quickly.” A pause, then, “nearly as many witches died in here as they did on both of those altars you-all saw combined, and the same for those 'enthusiastic' supplicants they 'raised up' or those less-so supplicants they led in on 'leashes' as bearers.”

“Led in?” I asked.

“After slave-branding on the forehead and then dosing with torture drugs,” said the soft voice. “That one man was on a leash, but it rotted completely when that deep-hole went.” A pause, then, “and I'd use one of those 'canteens' for that grease, as well as a fuel-funnel.”

“Canteens?” I asked innocently – until I recalled the three brass items we'd found. They were full of liquid cooking fuel.

“Those were prewar fuel containers,” said the soft voice. “They were originally civilian issue in that place, but they worked 'well enough' for the soldiers until the war actually started and the enemy 'found' them readily. They used other containers after that began happening, and you have some of those here.”

“The sensors...”

“Will not recognize those brass containers, as they have not been made since several years prior to the war,” said the soft voice. “They will, however, register as 'unknowns', and if you get an attentive monitor, you'll most likely have blue-suited thugs showing soon in the area after such a 'detection'.”

I knew then that it was 'vital' to take down the networks, as while 'attentive' monitors were quite rare, they did exist – and it would be just our luck to have one of those stinkers on duty when we showed. After all, we would be expected, both as to the number and type of people coming, and I somehow suspected we had been spied upon in some fashion – which made such a person being on duty when we actually arrived all-too-probable, if one was available.

Why I suspected that was a mystery. I still suspected it just the same, and I knew – from decades of experience, no less – that such suspicions were very unwise to discount, or worse yet, ignore. More importantly yet, given the inability to prove otherwise, to proceed as if both spying had been done and we would be spied upon by the best these people had seemed very wise indeed, which meant closeting those of the group most likely to cause trouble until we sailed so as to foil further attempts at spying. The monitors – I'd been given an answer regarding them – while this one attentive monitor was likely to be beyond our reach. My thoughts were then brought back to the immediate matter, that being the type of watchers we could expect.

“Those people usually get promoted very quickly,” said the soft voice, “so the odds of having such a person present at a monitoring station are fairly remote.” A pause, then, “I would still bring down all of those networks as hard and as fast as you can just the same.”

“And then, uh, bust what sensors we can,” I thought. “and if we happen to actually find a monitoring station, then kill them all so as to hopefully kill that one attentive monitor.”

While there was no answer to that matter, I continued sweeping my way to the drum, then swept it clear of shot all around. I then laid my broom against the wall, moved the drum out on its wheeled casters, and swept the shot clear of the region it had masked by its presence as well as behind it.

“Now for a canteen or two and a fuel-funnel,” I murmured. “Do I need to clear away more shot?”

“I'd clear away as much shot as you can before you go after those things,” said Katje, “as I don't trust myself to not trip and fall with it being so dark.”

“Why..?”

“She's been very careful in following you or Sarah,” said the soft voice, “and her concern, especially given the state of her shoes, is justified.”

“Treacherous f-footing?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “My shoes were bad enough that way when I was fighting those witches and lost them there, and hers and Maarten's both look to be worse yet for trouble.”

“Mostly because they are, dear,” said the soft voice, as I resumed my broom's work.

However, I knew another reason for needing to sweep the area: this portion of the huge room had the most 'loot', and as I cleared areas, I soon found that not merely was Sarah directing how the carts were to be parked, but Katje was picking up the 'loot' once I'd cleared a path to it.

With all four carts parked and the entrance in sight to my front, the area opened up and i needed to clear a wider swath. Here, and in the areas to the other side of the entrance, there was the most 'loot' of all. That meant sweeping wide swaths, then sweeping paths to each stack of 'loot'. There were a great many such stacks, especially as the wall slanted to the left to almost join the right side of the very last stack of supplies. The shot was especially bad there, so much so that I marveled at the strange footprints that had been left in it, these large and showing 'scratch marks' to several inches in each direction.

They looked large enough for a true monster, one perhaps tall enough to brush the ceiling, and thinking that had an effect upon the 'cursed tungsten shot' that was difficult to believe: with faint and ethereal shrieking noises, merely moving my broom in its direction caused the stuff to flee away and then 'line itself up neatly' in orderly-looking windrows against the wall. I took my broom, much as if it were a rifle, and 'shot' one of these windrows that had just formed...

At first glance, nothing had happened, but as I put the broom down, a faint bluish haze seemed to be gathering about that windrow itself, and as I slowly drew closer, I could see faint reddish sparks being 'swallowed up' by that bluish glow. It became steadily more intense, so much so that a minute later I took up the broom once more – and began to 'shoot' more of those windrows, each one while thinking 'Pow, you're dead' – and the windrows not merely fled away, but formed oblong formations that became hazed thickly with a blazing blue 'fire' that made the cursed aspect 'run away'.

Katje's shriek interrupted my revery, even after I had moved and then 'shot' more tungsten mounds. I came to her side, this over a floor now so cleared of the shot that it seemed to have been not merely scoured, but sealed with a species of special sealant.

“Th-this stuff isn't pellets any more,” she squeaked while pointing at one of those former windrows. “It's a black-crusted ragged looking bar, and I think it is h-hot.”

“You can also pick that one up when it cools off,” said the soft voice, “as what he did 'converted' that stuff into something that can be handled with common gloves now. It's no longer nearly as dangerous to touch.”

“A lot less volume, also, even if I don't plan on 'shooting' any more of that stuff,” I said tiredly. “It takes a lot out of me to do that, and...”

A cup of beer, this reeking of lemon-fruit, was pressed upon me, while the broom was taken away from my limp hand and I was led to a cart. There, I sat in some kind of daze, and I mumbled something, something about accursed tungsten being a traitor...

Needing to be lined up against a handy wall and shot, this summarily, without the merest shred of a trial. It needed no such foolish niceties; it had chosen its way, that knowingly and with the darkest malice, with hatred toward all save those who had bought it and spoke its 'living' curses...

And in my shooting it such that it died, its cursed aspect fled headlong, along with many of its impurities, and the resulting metal was actually now a crude species of tungsten in ingot form.

“You understated the case,” said the soft voice. “Not merely a fifty percent decrease in volume, but a ten percent or more reduction in weight – and that metal... You show that stuff to the people over there, more or less any of them you encounter, and you'll find yourself an audience in a hurry.”

“And still bag it up?” I asked, as I drained my second cup of beer and my mind began to return to me. Cold environments needed much more food than usually, which meant not merely ready-to-eat foods of 'sweet' taste and decent caloric quality, but frequent meals as well, especially for those working hard.

“Kuchen, and a lot of them, especially the drowned ones,” I muttered.

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “I'm glad I spoke about those to the bakers at the house proper about making bags of those things.” A pause, then, “and while those bars like that are easier to handle, they still want gloves, and I'd bag up some of the shot anyway so as to tell them what is so common here and elsewhere.”

With a third glass of beer, however, I went back to 'shooting' shot, as this way was vastly quicker than merely sweeping it aside. I swept my broom like a machine gun, this while thinking about that one song with its percussive bursts that I now wondered if they were made by a drum and not some other instrument, and with each such rhythmic burst, the shot fled 'screaming' to the walls to then mound itself into bar-shapes as I walked on, the faint tinkle of brass shells in my wake as a reminder of what I was doing.

I came to a wide area, and with my back to the walls of supplies, I raked the shot sprays with long ragged 'bursts'. These were not like those of the song, but of a different quality – more percussive, far more violent, and of a totally different tempo – such that before, I could hear individual 'rounds' firing.

No more. Each such burst was such that I could barely discern individual shots, and the broom was decidedly hard to control as I swung the hot smoking muzzle of my 'fire-breather' from left to right.

This had an effect upon the tungsten that was difficult to manage: it screamed audibly, then flew to the walls to then fall and 'melt' into lumps that glowed both a sparkling lightning-like blue and a bright fiery red. I could smell smoke, this of powder and that of burn-piles, and as I continued 'shooting' tungsten, I sprayed witch-dust into the air more than once with one of these brief bursts that seemed to spray thirty or more 'guided' rounds that 'killed' the cursed tungsten to leave it dying in wide swaths.

I could feel more of it sneaking up on me from behind, and I turned as I passed between two bins and pivoted, then went to bended knee and fired, this from the shoulder. The bursts – two in number – were long roaring things that seemed to rattle both my brain and my body, and the screams that resulted were only exceeded by something falling from one of the pallets into the path of my ghostly every-four-round 'dim' tracers.

I then 'woke up', and asked, “did I shoot one of those sample bags?”

“No, even if you did find one of the three pallets that you want to get to soonest,” said the soft voice. “The carts are close by, that chemical warfare gear is but a pallet or two over and a few down on its several pallets, and you're really clearing the place up by what you're doing.”

“What?” I asked. My ears were ringing bad.

“They won't need full suites to clean up that stuff down here,” said the soft voice. “Not if you keep killing it like that.”

“What will they need, then?” I asked. “Just common, uh, gloves?”

“They'll bring their own,” said the soft voice, “but yes, you're right. Each such 'bar' is now a lot easier to process, as many of its worst and most toxic impurities were converted from soluble salt form into carbonates and oxides, which means they'll readily 'float to the top' when the stuff is melted.” A pause, then, “that isn't all, by the way.”

“What?” I asked, as I got up from my crouch. I needed more beer, this post-haste, and as I walked back to where the others were now picking up 'loot' like they owned it in reality, I found my jug and cup. An entire yellow-fruit was laying by it, and as I drank cup after cup, I noted how sweaty and 'sore' I was. I then was visited by Karl – who had something interesting in one of those pressed-wood-pulp 'baskets'.

“These things are hot,” said Karl as he showed me a still-smoking pile of empty shell-casings, “and they are all over the floor wherever you went with that broom.” He then asked a question: “now how is it you take that broom and mount it like a roer, and then you get rid of that nasty wolfram stuff and put it into bars that just need leather gloves to pick up and not tongs that need time in a forge afterward, and leave piles of these things here everywhere you go?”

“P-piles?” I asked.

“Yes, and some of them are big ones, too,” said Karl. “One pile I saw is easily a foot across and nearly that high, and that is for the piled part. There are a lot of those things scattered all over near it, too.”

“I-I'm not sure,” I said.

“I have something of an idea, then,” said Sarah. “Is your shoulder sore?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “Not as bad as if I shot a pig-load, but I'll need rubbing there with Geneva tonight – the bad Geneva, not the usual stuff.” A pause, then, “and we'll want to take more of that stuff on the trip than we've planned, also.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. “Will we all become sore and bruised?”

“Not merely that,” I said. “I think that stuff drives off bugging flies, too, and that bad stuff could be called an insect repellent as well as a good liniment.”

While no answer came, I did had a 'full-loaded' broom, and I resumed sweeping, at least for the most part. Such moving seemed to make the soreness less, and when I saw a particularly large accumulation of that accursed tungsten shot, I 'shouldered arms' and resumed 'firing' bursts of raking fire until my shoulder said 'enough'.

“For a minute, anyway,” as I turned, went to my knee, and fired another 'furious' burst. This one was long enough that I had to struggle to hold the 'gun' down as the muzzle tried to climb and twist to the right, and as the bullets 'flew like rain' – a hard rain, one both of icy 'buckshot-sized' hail and furious for intensity – I could feel growing warmth encroaching upon my legs and groin. I kept at it though, now ignoring the pain and the smoky fire that seemed all about me, and when the enemy was dead, I fell backwards upon my posterior...

And someone dragged me backwards away from a smoldering knee-high mound of brass cartridge cases that nearly blocked the aisle!

“I have no idea how you did that,” muttered Katje, who was helping with the dragging of my now pain-wracked body, “but you got a lot of that bad shot with that thing.” A pause, then, “and there are enough of these other things on the floor that make me wonder if you exchanged one trouble for another.”

“Just keep your feet clear of 'em and kick them aside if they're too close,” said Sepp. “Those things are fit for bird-whistles, and they'll cool off quick enough 'cause they're brass.”

“I think we wish to save them for loading,” said Sarah. “Those witches will wish many of these, and...” Sarah paused, as now she saw the smoking mound of shell-cases. “What did you do?”

“He turned a lot of that bad wolfram shot into things we can pick up with gloves,” said Katje. “Now he needs time setting on a cart, and I hope that goat-sausage is cooked enough. Sepp just started it not ten minutes ago in his small pot.”

“Longer than that,” he said, “and I got it covered with this small copper plate I found on the floor here, so...”

“I hope not!” shrieked Sarah. “It probably was poisoned by a witch.”

“I know that, so I wiped it down good with aquavit, then set it alight to kill any little creatures on it,” said Sepp. “Lukas told me that worked almost as well as boiling something for a turn of a twice-tall glass, especially if there was cold water nearby.” Sepp paused, then said, “I used beer, as we don't have water, but we do have beer.”

“Not if you keep doing that,” said Katje. “We'd best go get those small carts, put them together, and then go fetch some more beer and bread.” Then, under her breath, “I hope those little creatures don't much care for aquavit and then fire.”

“They don't, and that 'trick' came from a tapestry Lukas read,” said the soft voice. “While it might not kill everything found during the time of that war long ago, it did kill much of it then – and now... Well, suffice it to say that method kills just about every common pathogen you might find in the first kingdom these days, especially if you use plenty of strong aquavit and then quench the plate suddenly in beer.”

“That's just what I did,” said Sepp. “I carried that stuff specially, in fact, just like those two men do now that there's one of those tall stills in the kitchen of the house proper.”

“T-tall stills?” I asked. I was not doing well. “W-when?”

“I think this was the one made just before that one old-style still went to the potato country,” said Sepp. “Given Hendrik's inclined toward getting more heating lamps and he's plotting to bring up some of those silvery lanterns from the fourth kingdom, he's gotten one of those stills for the kitchen.”

“Now how will he do that?” asked Karl. “There's more of those brass things, only these are cool enough to pick up, or they will be soon.”

“Donkey train, same as most important stuff nowadays,” said Sepp. “He's been wanting at least one for his office, on account of their better light, and then I know about this one place in his rooms where he keeps some things hid, so he can hide a couple more in there, then Andreas told me about this one room in the house where no one's been in ages, and he can hide more of them there, too.”

I looked at Sarah, who was slowly bringing a mess-kit bowl-plate toward me, and when I had the thing on the plate underneath it, she whispered, “how did he find out about that room?”

“I doubt he knows what's currently inside it,” I said, “even if there is enough room to put some of those lanterns in there.” I then had a question.

“Where are we going to put all of this stuff?”

“I told him the best place I know of,” said Katje, “though you'll want to trap that witch-way first with several mines. That one room in the deepest basements, that and those rooms next to it which were once piled with fetishes and are now full of dirt, dust, rust, and corroded metals.”

“And bagged money, dear,” said the soft voice. “There's enough money laying about in those locked rooms to run the house proper at its current level of expenditure for nearly ten years.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “All of it witch-money, too.”

“Find that stuff and you'll see what is meant about the work of witch-jewelers,” said the soft voice. “Now first food, then rubbing, then those carts, and then more work with your broom – and don't be shy about asking your Geneva to become more efficient as liniment – as you need rubbing with it now, and you'll need more rubbing with it later.”

“I... Urgh,” spluttered Sarah. “I hope I can keep enough food down.”

“You're not the only one,” said Katje. “Komaet may work well on bruises, but it does much more than make for a green face.” A pause, then, “it will make us give that privy much business, so much so that we'd best take turns rubbing him.”