Loading up, continued.

Once the gloves were in place – they had surprisingly intricate labyrinth-type seals hidden under the places where they laced onto the arms of the suit – Sarah put my 'faceplate' in, and Katje put on my boots. I was feeling 'warmer' and 'healthier' by the minute, and within a few minutes, I asked, my voice now surprisingly tinny and quiet-sounding, “how do I eat in this?”

“It says here that you'll need to partly disrobe to do so,” said Katje, “unless... No, there's a drinking port in that mask, supposedly. All you would need to do... Is that hooked up, Sarah?”

“It is,” she said, holding up a small dark green tube coming from below my faceplate, “and this is the other end. I just need to clamp it with this strange metal diaper clip. There.”

“That isn't the right thing,” said Katje. “That's to hold that thing out of the way. The valve is right below that part.” Here, Katje pointed to an area on my 'face', and then put my hand on it. “It says 'closed' now. You turn it like a clock-hand to open it after you put the slow end of that tube she had in a cup of beer, which I think you should do now.”

Katje left me with Sarah, who was still 'looking me over', or so I thought until she spoke. “You're a lot harder to see in that thing.”

“Should I wear a string so I don't get lost?” I said.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “I'm afraid I'd lose track of you otherwise.”

“Perhaps we need to get some of that rope from Katje,” I said softly. I was finding it easier to speak now, for some reason. My chest no longer felt 'tight', and I could breathe much easier. I seemed to have slept for a week, I felt so much better – and when Katje returned with my cup and a jug, I began to drink, this slowly with the small and limp-seeming 'straw' that extended from part of the mask and into my mouth.

“Get two more cups down,” said Katje, “and then we can get those containers spoken of for holding beer. I think we want several of them ourselves, as Maarten has dropped more than one beer-jug in recent memory, and I recall one time the day before last church-day where I nearly dropped one myself.”

With less effort expended in breathing, I found that I could not merely sit on a just-assembled cart and sip beer steadily, but also give directions much more readily. I was noticing a slight but definite sleepiness, so much so that I initially panicked until I was told by Sarah that I looked to have finally relaxed for the first time in many days. She went behind me, did something to my 'rear' as I sat sipping from my cup, then said, “now as soon as you finish that cup of beer, you can take your broom and the other things you need, and get some of that cursed shot to show those people across the sea.”

“Broom?” I asked. For a moment, I wondered why I needed to take it.

“You can deal with the rest of it the way you've been doing,” said Sarah. “Katje told me how those things seem to have padded shoulders, so I think you won't get as hurt.”

Sarah proved to be absolutely correct, for with a surety now strange beyond all knowing, I homed in relentlessly on my goals of first collecting a sample of tungsten and then 'killing' the rest of the nasty stuff. Faintly – and somewhat tinnily – I could hear screams and thunderous roaring noises as I 'shouldered arms' again and again, and when I had 'cornered' my prize – that one sizable sack of true-mule skin filled to bursting with 'first quality Wulfræmë' – I found that it had been joined by several like it. I motioned one of the obscenely-bulging sacks into a sample bag, and while it went inside readily enough, I could tell that skin of a long-dead true-mule wanted no part of someone like me.

“Fine,” I thought upon learning such temerity. “Go clog the throat of a witch then – only leave that stinking wolfram in this sample pouch when you go.”

The pouch in question suddenly lost a good deal of 'apparent' mass, and I looked inside it. To my eyes, the blackish-blue grains of irregular-looking 'shot' somehow seemed 'cleaner' than before, and as I bagged up the remaining true-mule-skin pouches and their 'smelly' contents, I asked each time that the mule-skin pouches clog the throats or sinuses of witches.

The last such sack, however, I had a special mission for: “go find the current ranking witch in the second kingdom house, one of those big stinkers, and clog his windpipe good and proper.”

The flash and thump that resulted as the bag shot into what I was holding was of such an astonishing nature that I asked softly, “what did I do?”

Another decapitation strike,” said the soft voice. “Those now-insane 'sober' witches who had done the bulk of the planning had foreseen a certain number of contingencies, but they didn't plan on those designated alternate 'leaders' either abruptly going out of their minds or dying with a similar level of suddenness – which means that whole northbound mess just got messed up a lot more.”

“Not just those people choking or developing sudden 'sinus infections'?” I asked.

“They were in councils, every man of them – and when that happened suddenly, in every case, those entire households rapidly became blazing gunfire-laced realms of insanity and death – with stray bullets and shot-swarms usually setting all of those sizable abodes on fire within a matter of seconds once the shooting became a widespread matter.” A pause, then, “there are at least half a dozen whole towns in the second kingdom's hot zones that are now on fire.”

“They must truly be hot enough now to suit those stinky witches,” I muttered. “Hot zones, eh? Well, then, those witch-fires need lots of finely-atomized Benzina, so they can smell as if Iggy decided to show himself there and then light up their lives.

The sudden explosive thunder of roaring flames peaked abruptly to then vanish in a series of earth-shaking thuds – the last of which nearly tossed me onto my rear – and I looked around. Lights, these seemingly distant, moved in purposeful fashion, while my own lantern lay beside me on the floor. I'd filled five sample pouches full of tungsten shot, and each weighty pouch now made for alarm at its surprising heft.

“I might manage carrying all of these things easily enough now,” I thought as I stood with the tied pouches in my hands, “but carrying all five of these things is going to be a bit much for that trip.”

“Keep four of them at home, and take one such pouch filled with shot and put two of those 'ingots' in another,” said the soft voice. “You'll be running that stuff within a month of your return, remember?”

“And at the Abbey?” I thought. I knew they'd need to 'pick up' the stuff before they did much else here.

“They'll be running some also, which will bring a lot of help in something of a great hurry,” said the soft voice. “They've been after that material for so long that finding readily-accessible supplies of it will generate something roughly comparable to a gold rush where you came from.”

I now went on the hunt after a cart, and once I'd gotten my samples back to where the others were gathering up things near where I'd been put into the suit – or rather, suite – I went out after more tungsten, this time with the goal of 'extirpating' it.

I seemed to know exactly where the surviving material was hiding itself now, and with a steady walking pace, I 'fired' at each windrow of accursed wolfram I found as I 'chased it down'. I kept my 'bursts' short, but the tinny rattle of empty shell casings forming wide-spreading mounds to my rear was a near-steady tinkling refrain – and when I cornered the last of the loose material, this near those huge 'containers' where I suspected suite testing was done with 'stink bombs', I 'lit it up' with a raking burst that coalesced the stuff into three substantial-looking foot-long ragged-edged bars glowing with 'heat'.

“Is that it?” I thought, as I rubbed my now-sore shoulder. “These things may be padded fairly well, but shooting a broom at cursed tungsten is enough to make me sore just the same.”

“Sarah knows that, which is why she's planning on sewing butt-pads for weapons if she has time,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though – you dealt with almost all of that nasty material in this area, and what's left in shot form down here is out of the way enough that it's 'safe' for the immediate future.”

“Uh, where is it?” I asked.

“That one alcove you haven't gone in yet has several crates filled with true-mule-skin sacks of that material,” said the soft voice, “but because they're in plastic-lined crates, the crates themselves can be handled safely with gloves and disposable face-masks. Then, there's all of that shot on the floors of the Abbey, and finally, there's some few sizable caches containing that stuff on the lower floors that those centuries of looters missed.”

“They did?” I asked. “How?”

“They were 'trashed' witches,” said the soft voice, “and their drink and drugs were a bit much for them then, so they weren't careful enough to see the signs of those pre-war witch-caches – and they weren't strong enough to chant the needed curses to make those caches show themselves plainly.” A pause, then, “those caches and their contents will turn up in the months to come, as there will be people who know about hiding things coming here.”

“And now, these 'chambers' or whatever they are,” I thought. “I wonder what is in them?”

Opening the first one showed it to be filled with wide dark-green 'ammunition cans', and opening one of the cans showed not merely a trio of small preservative packets, but also a three-page folded document. Scanning it indicated I had found something of great potential use, even if it left me with questions, those being the following:

“How bad does this stuff stink?” and “what does it smell like?”

“Bad enough that you'll not wish to be anywhere close by if you toss one,” said the soft voice, “as it makes 'Komaet' seem tame for nausea and vomiting, and more, it ignores anything less than what you are wearing regarding its penetrating power.”

“Best take a few of them, then,” I thought, thinking as I selected several of these near-spherical 'bombs', “better to have them handy, even if chances to use them will most likely be few and far between, then not have them present at all and then need them.”

That thought was instantly replaced, however, by the thoughts of entering the third kingdom port. There were three well-known drink-houses, and if we arrived during their 'lively' times, we might wish...

No, wish was not the word. If these places were open, they'd need to settle themselves down very quickly indeed, and a stink-bomb or three in each drink-house sounded like a capital idea.

“Yes, if you plan on leaving the port right away and going at least a mile into the prevailing winds for the better portion of a month,” said the soft voice. “Those things might have been called riot-control munitions during that time, but they're closer to short-term 'area-denial agents' – with that 'term' measured in a handful of weeks.”

“Did they use them during that war?”

“Yes, and in some numbers – and they were highly esteemed by the soldiers of that country, even if they forced them to wear suits like you're wearing when they were used,” said the soft voice. “They make sober people deathly ill for extended periods of time, but the effects upon 'trashed witches' have to be seen to be believed.”

“What were those?” I asked.

“Only what's in those other lockers like it were worse for trouble, and them, not by much,” said the soft voice. “The witches could chant their way to safety with most gases, provided they were strong enough examples – but what you've got there in those 'globes' ignored chanted curses and their chemical warfare clothing – and the mental effects, especially upon witch-soldiers, amounted to instant and permanent insanity.”

“Which meant trouble for both the stricken witches and those who happened to be near them,” I muttered. “What's in those other lockers?”

“Recall that gas that got loose when you first came in here?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “One of those lockers has gas-bombs filled with a non-cursed version of that stuff, and the other one has bombs filled with the worst gas that place ever made – and it handily beats what that projector had for both lethality and persistence.”

“Will we use those gases?” I asked.

“Yes, but not in here,” said the soft voice. “I'd take a few 'stinkers' with you, but remember what's likely to happen if you use one.”

As I bagged up five of the 'stink bombs', I asked, “what would that be?” I then realized one possibility: fumigation of pirates while sailing past them at speed.

“That will get to those people,” said the soft voice. “There are better things for pirate-ships, though.”

“L-like what?” I asked.

“I'd get back to where everyone else is first,” said the soft voice. “They have questions about what they've found, and you need to hear the answers they get – and that's on top of giving some of them.”

I moved back to the east and south, this time with trepidation, and when I came upon Sarah, she was indicating just how many of the white plastic jugs were needed.

“At least three per person who's going, and then a ten of spares for the group,” she said, “and that for the trip. We'll wish more of them for use at home.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“I wonder about these bags and things, how they react to light,” said Sarah. “They're strange enough that way to give me a headache now.”

“Semi-active camouflage,” I murmured. “It reacts to light, apparently.” A pause, then, “they went to fully active camouflage during the later years of that war, but those clothes” – here, I recalled the clothing that had been mentioned earlier – “required special capabilities as well as some, uh, biological 'reworking' in order to...” A pause, this one while thinking; then: “What?”

“I can answer part of that,” said Sarah with a trembling voice. She sounded distinctly alarmed. “The witches made war-machines of captured soldiers and other people, and they did so as to torture them as much as possible.” A pause, then, “that tale known as 'The Black Fiend' speaks of what they did to one person, and some other tales as well...”

“Yes?” I asked. There was more. I could feel it.

“What I told you is what most people who have gone to the west school could tell you,” said Sarah. “This last portion was on that tapestry I had to bathe for, and it spoke of what the Mistress of the North tried to do her-own-self.”

“What was that?” asked Karl – who then looked at me and asked, “you did not get burned, so why are you done up like that?”

“He might not have been burned, but if you were that sick, I suspect you'd wish you had been tending a clogged fetish-still running doubled mash over a too-hot wood fire instead,” said Katje. “As for what that witch did – I am not sure. I think she tried to conjure Sieve.”

“Y-you're right,” squeaked Sarah. “I knew she tried something like that, but I was never certain just what was meant by that portion.”

“Not many words, just pictures in that part?” I asked softly.

“They were smudged a lot, also,” said Sarah. “I drew what I could for copies, and no one could give me an explanation that made sense until just now.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “While that woman did attempt to conjure Sieve – repeatedly, no less – she was missing some key portions, and hence she had 'fizzles' rather than planet-wrecking giant creatures.” A pause, then “on the other hand, that particular technology used by the makers of this equipment was licensed from Vrijlaand originally, and its sole intended use when it was licensed was to help sick and injured people live better lives.” A pause, then, “it was not intended to produce 'more effectual' soldiers, even if those thusly helped often became much more capable in general.”

A pause, this one pregnant beyond all possibility.

“At least, that was the case until some few years after the takeover, when war began to look likely,” said the soft voice. “Just the same, such equipment was still used extensively to help sick and injured people, and those experiments were done in great secrecy by certain most-secretive cliques of the leadership.”

“Those secrets got out eventually, didn't they?” I asked. My voice was a soft muttering, this between breathing deeply. The last, for some reason, made no sound at all, thankfully. I did not wish to sound like one particular black-dressed 'witch' of recollection – though just where this 'witch' came from and what he did was yet an entire mystery beyond my recalling his dread existence in certain movies, and the only part of his particular nature that I remembered clearly was his breathing noises.

“Not only did such 'secrets' eventually get out,” said the soft voice, “but the leadership over there found that medical equipment to be very useful for achieving its goals on both battlefield and the home front – and that apart from what they managed to get from other sources in the way of equipment and ideas, this area chief among them.” A pause, then, “and while some aspects of how that medical equipment was misused are more or less well-known over there at this time, those other matters regarding imported technology and 'unauthorized uses' are a deep and dark secret still.”

“Which we will learn in due time, no doubt,” I murmured. Again, my voice was very soft, with a thickened muffled sound, and when I felt my head, I noted soft rounded contours that seemed to cover my ears. I wondered for a moment if they had diaphragms that permitted such ready hearing, until I recalled just what had been put on my head – and a smallish rechargeable battery had been needed, also.

“Why...”

“Go look at what Karl is looking at, and you'll learn something you need to know,” said the soft voice. “He found something that's not supposed to be where he found it, but that witch thought he could trade it to someone upstairs in exchange for something he needed, and he was heading for the door when he and his fellow-witches were 'fumigated'.”

As I moved to where Karl was – he had three machine-pistols and a hand-howitzer pistol on his cart, as well as what looked like three square tins of ammunition and a large pile of assorted magazines that looked to need at least one bag the size of Sarah's satchel – I noted an unusual-looking stack, this one but chest-high and looking to have been heavily looted. I reached up and into its center to find a sizable camouflaged pouch, and as I continued moving in Karl's direction, broom in one hand and the pouch now in the other with my lantern in my 'pouch-hand', I wondered just what I had found – and more, what Karl had found. I laid my broom down against his cart when I came to find the 'ammunition can' open wide and Karl pointing at its label with a shaking finger – which then he moved from the can to the front of my broom.

“That thing is all sooty near the front,” he said, “and it feels hot there, too.”

“He left enough of those brass things on the floor, Karl,” said Sepp cryptically – which was a tone I wondered at, for he'd never used it before now. “Now what did you find in that can?”

“I-I am not sure,” said Karl in a frightened voice. “I opened it, and the first thing I see is this picture that is like nothing I ever saw in my life!”

“Picture?” I asked. “More than just a picture, correct? Some other things – things you've never seen or heard of?

“That too, and it is like nothing I ever saw or heard of, even in the tales my uncle told me when I was small.”

“Tales?” I asked. “As in those in the Grim Collection?”

“Y-yes,” said Karl. “He went to one of the higher schools after he did his traipsing, and then came back up here to run a store – leastways until the swine came and his gun got smashed by a pig a few years ago.”

“And some of your other family members...”

“They were killed by those people the same day,” said Karl – who then opened the container.

I looked at the plastic-laminated 'picture', then thought to look in the bag I had 'looted'. The first thing – a 'manual' as thick as two of my fingers – I took out of the bag showed a plastic-embossed picture on its front of what the plastic-laminated 'cardboard' picture was actually describing with pictures and words.

“I think I know what this is,” I said, my voice still sounding altogether tinny. “I hope it sounds better than I do.”

“What is it?” asked Karl – whose question was then echoed an instant later by Sepp.

“I think this is a field telephone,” I said, “and... Is this what I'm speaking with?”

“No, because that telephone is both more capable and far more robust,” said the soft voice. “You're using the earliest workable version of what's in that box, and the pile where you found that 'depot manual' has some of the rest of those phones.”

“Some?” I asked. “Were they looted?”

“A few off of that stack, yes,” said the soft voice. “The two stacks next to it saw no looting, as they were mislabeled as being something other than what they actually were – which was a deliberate stratagem used by the Mistress of the North to ensure she had enough of those devices remaining unto her for her use.”

“Why, did they work well for radio use?” I asked.

“Some few parts did,” said the soft voice. “The earpieces of certain versions are not merely especially sensitive, but have uncommonly high fidelity.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“Recall the headphones that you used when you went to sleep where you came from? How much they cost and how good they sounded?” asked the soft voice. “These sounded somewhat better – and were 'high impedance' units as well.”

“How high?” I asked. I was thinking in the region of three hundred to six hundred ohms. The headphones in question had a nominal impedance of 64 Ohms per side – and they were not cheap. I'd spent more on that pair than the combined cost of the three pairs previously bought – and none of those were 'cheap' either – though the last pair I'd bought made them sound 'cheap' and held up far better than any of the earlier ones.

“A bit higher than that, actually,” said the soft voice. “They're piezoelectric, so they not merely needed a transformer with some compensating networks built into it, but they're sensitive enough that millivolts into that transformer's input would give a clearly audible signal – and that transformer has a four point four kilohm input impedance.”

“Compensating networks?” I asked.

“To roll off the treble and give the bass a boost, as well as shape the passband for speech,” said the soft voice. “They also prevent burnout due to 'too much' signal, so the resulting 'earphone element' was highly prized by anyone who had a hidden radio.”

“Uh, that one we found?”

“Has a close copy of what's used,” said the soft voice. “It isn't quite as good for either sensitivity or fidelity, otherwise that radio could have performed significantly better.” A pause, then, “look closer at first that card, then at the phone itself, and finally at that manual.

The card was a good deal more than just a block diagram, for it went into substantial textual detail as to how the phone actually worked. With each piece of the 'puzzle, I handled the portions involved: the delicate-looking handset, this of forged titanium construction, 'armored', and fully waterproof, its dark mottled olive color a marvel for both smoothness and 'camouflage'; the 'armored' wire – it too 'looked' delicate...

“It may look delicate, but that equipment is as close to indestructible as anything in here,” said the soft voice. “It will survive anything short of a direct hit by a heavy caliber rifle or a 'close one' by artillery. More, that equipment has no 'electronic' devices used.”

“Then how does it, uh, amplify and f-filter the signal?” I asked.

“The earlier versions of that device did use electronics, with the first devices using vacuum tubes like those you saw in that one radio. Those were fragile, heavy, and needed regular repairs and maintenance to stay working, even if they were fairly secure and especially clear-sounding.” A pause, then, “they then tried using semiconductors, and that series of experiences led to what they finally used – which is the version you have here.”

“Semiconductors?” I asked innocently.

“Used a small fraction of the power of the vacuum tubes, but as you know, are electrically fragile in comparison,” said the soft voice. “Look in that manual, page thirty-eight-c, picture four – and you'll see one reason why they gave up on them in this application.”

I turned to the page in question, this showing on the first three pictures what looked like more or less common 'fires' and 'smoked' parts similar to some I had seen long years in the past, but the fourth picture – the one indicated – took up half the page. Karl came alongside of me as I looked close at the picture, this a scene of such havoc that I wondered what kind of a bomb or shell had caused it.

“That is worse than a squib,” said Karl. “Not even those damp ones can do that much.”

“One of Willem's tipped shells might do that much if he loads them hot,” said Sarah as she came to my other side. “Now what is this about an am-amp... I cannot say that word!”

“An amplifier board's output was overloaded with a direct, uh, short,” I muttered, “and it was 'fed' with a fresh battery.” Pause. “Three people died at the scene, and four others were severely injured.” Another pause, then, “that must have been some amplifier to do that much.” I then asked a question.

“How big was it, and what did it use for active devices?”

“Semiconductors as done prior to the war,” said the soft voice, “and the actual device was about the size of a thimble – and not an 'Anna' size thimble, but one fit for Sarah or her cousin's use.” A pause, then, “they're worse now.”

“Worse?” I asked, a tremble in my voice. “Worse? How?”

“Worse for sensitivity to abuse and worse for destruction when abused,” said the soft voice. “The chief differences are the levels of protection circuitry that are commonly included in the devices used, with little or no protection on most of such devices then and a great deal of protection currently used.” A pause, then, “still, though – a detonating chip-collection like one of those amplifiers is not a joke.”

“D-detonating c-chip collection?” I asked.

“Recall that small computer you used to call your 'reminder'?” asked the soft voice. “Were that device duplicated here at this time without the required protection circuitry and appropriate packaging, it would detonate if you spilled water on it – and its power would substantially exceed that of one of those mines that wrecked the laboratory where you fought Iggy.”

“I am glad you do not have one of those here,” said Sarah. “It sounds worse than a trap done up by Hans' grandfather using one of his special things.”

“In many ways, yes,” said the soft voice. “It would not be quite as sensitive to dropping as those were, however.”

“You could not touch those things after setting them,” said Sarah. “At least, that's what I was told – and you had to leave the area using soft steps and no shoes until you were at least twenty paces distant.”

Those sound like trouble,” I muttered. “Now how are these phones different?”

“First, all of the major metallic parts are of anodized or specially treated titanium,” said the soft voice, “with the result being equipment being able to endure abuse that destroyed every earlier iteration of this design, of which there were more than thirty over a period of nearly twenty years of intensive development.”

“What k-kind is th-this..?”

“It says it is type twelve-AB-seven,” said Sepp. “Now how can you use these and not get blown to rags and pie-filling?”

“I think...”

“That isn't possible with this type, unless a big one centers you and the phone,” said the soft voice. “While you would most likely be blown to rags by such a shell, there's a fairly high probability that the phone could be put back in working order – unless that 'big one' was truly 'a big one'.”

“One of those cussed things that killed Anna's relatives,” I muttered. “Probably left a huge hole in their field.”

“It took more than three years to sell that field after that accident, and then an entire summer by the new tenant to fill that hole,” said the soft voice, “and as that person was a fully-owned witch-slave, he planted turnips for two more years before the witch 'owning him' then took possession of the property and tried planting corn.”

“Yes?” I asked. “He tried corn. I take it he got something else?”

“He did,” said the soft voice. “A smaller version of that shell scattered him the very first day he tried plowing, and he and his slaves are now where they belong.”

And his slaves?” I asked. “What was he trying to do, plow that stinking field at night?”

“Ooh,” squeaked Sarah. “That was a bad witch, and I know who it was, because Paul told me about that happening years ago.”

“Yes?” I asked. “He would have become the next, uh, 'Power'?”

“He was the current Power then, and the 'current' sitting individual for the first kingdom's west side only joined him in Hell this morning.”

“What?” I squeaked. I could feel a trace of feedback occurring, and it made my voice yet higher-pitched with faint squealing overtones.

“That makes three of those people who have gone where they belong since yesterday evening,” said the soft voice, “as one of those individuals was traveling on the secret way near the southern border of this kingdom and encountered a wasp-swarm, the northernmost power got blown to atoms when the north-tip went up in smoke, and the third kingdom's person was scattered when he inspected that one limber.” A pause, then, “at least one more of those people is going to die before today ends, and that means a lot of trouble in witchdom – as in all cases save that of the one individual who ran into the wasps, these people had most of their retinues with them when they died.”

“Hence no clearly-defined path of succession,” I muttered. “Big long-fought wars take place to decide who gets the spot next, and...”

“There will be one of those for the man who was stung to death, also,” said the soft voice, “as he'd just murdered his way into his position not over two weeks ago, and hence he had no chance to get 'set up' with a retinue.” The unspoken portion was 'he'd killed them before he got the chief witch, and hence he'd need to recruit all of 'his' people' – which was not something a Power did overnight.

“That one will take weeks to settle,” said Katje, “as I think that man was running the second kingdom.”

“No, he was not,” said the soft voice. “That individual is actually 'hidden' in the middle of that one extremely poor region of the second kingdom – and he's currently dead-drunk and downing both more Geneva and a fresh serving of that brain-rotting food.” A pause, then, “this man 'owned' the area just south of the potato country to the west of the marshes, and he was heading north by the secret way on 'business' using one of the more-exclusive ways of witch-travel – which will not be replaced, by the way.”

“It won't?” I asked. “Why?”

“Because those are built and looked after in a place at the very eastern rim of the valley,” said the soft voice, “and those people aren't overly inclined to travel by that level of the secret way – as they think it to be filled with witches, and they want no part of them.”

“Then how...”

“Usually some of the Veldters transport those vehicles out to where the witches can pick them up and use them, and then transport them back when they no longer 'work right',” said the soft voice. “The Veldters have their own vehicles, which they use on their underground roads – some of which they've merely upgraded, and others which they've dug themselves over the years.” A pause, then, “and those vehicles the Veldters use need care, skill, and training to use safely, which is why 'wayfarers' come from one of a handful of towns in the center of the Valley, all of them belonging to the Snake Totem.”

“Snake?” said Karl. I could tell he was not thinking kindly of this information, as I suspected he 'knew' which snake was being spoken of.

“No Totem is named after those snakes,” said the soft voice. “Death Adders are generally shot on sight in the Valley.” A pause, then, “the snake spoken of is not merely very rare, but is thought to be very special, and only those people who see one may 'join' that Totem – which is why that Totem is both very small and very busy.”

“What snake would it be?” asked Sarah. “Is this a..?”

“It is, and were you to go there, they'd admit you,” said the soft voice. “You're probably the only living person outside of some people in the Valley to have actually seen a feathered serpent – and once they'd have looked you over, you'd have your pick of jobs there.”

“There's more, isn't there?” I asked. “Those people don't just run, uh, whatever those things are – they provide most of the...” My voice petered off, then I said, “I don't think you'd want to go there, dear.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. “What do they provide?”

“Medical people,” said the soft voice, “and as you know, the word for 'witch' is the same for 'doctor' in that language.”

I was glad I was close to Sarah, as she suddenly swayed as if to faint, and I caught her before she fell. I moved, clumsy-seeming yet surprisingly quickly, and found one of the respirators. With Katje's help, I put it on Sarah – who then woke up within what seemed seconds, only she seemed to be living a nightmare, for she clawed and fought us all as if we were a pack of witches and she the object of adoration about to be sacrificed. Finally, her eyes opened, and she said, her voice muffled yet still fearful, “th-this isn't a witch-hole?”

“Not any more,” said Sepp. “Those stinkers are where they belong, and they've all been there a good long time.”

“Then what is this..?” She indicated the respirator.

“He put it on you,” said Katje. “I think you should wear it for a short time, as you were getting pale yourself before you fainted.”

“I fainted?” asked Sarah. Again, her voice was altogether muffled.

“You did,” said Katje. “Why, what did you think was happening when you awoke?”

“It was this nightmare,” said Sarah – who now seemed to be breathing much easier. “I think I could use one of these things more often, actually.” A pause, then, “I've had it before, one where I was not only being called a witch, but someone had turned me into a witch against my will, and because this person...” She seemed confused, then rubbed her head. It wasn't easy with a mask on it. “Now I remember. I got two dreams confused. The person with the bacon was not a witch, but someone closer to a very strange preacher who wrote about witches, and in that place, he and many other people like him ate bacon and these strange eggs of a size fit for quolls.” Another pause, then, “it was this one stinky witch who turned me into one, and I wanted to bite her, she was so mean.”

“Did she wear black stuff?” asked Karl.

“No, she did not,” said Sarah. “This witch must have either lived at Norden or taught those people how to be witches, as she was as cold as ice and as mean as anything living or dead.”

“Why would someone like a preacher eat the flesh of swine?” asked Maarten.

“I am not sure,” said Sarah. “I think pigs there were not the animals they are here, as that bacon-stuff did not smell like swine-flesh at all.” A pause, then, “it made me deathly ill just the same, though, and I needed that beer he gave me.”

“Did this beer have a name?” I asked.

“No, but he had enough of it for a busy farmer with a large family,” said Sarah, “and he sucked on weeds, too – though he did something with mud, also, and he put both of those things in what he used to burn them.”

“Mud?” I asked. “Weeds? Beer?” I had a vague recollection of someone who might have fit the description, and what came to me was so outlandish that I thought it beyond comprehension. I blurted it out anyway.

“What did he call you?”

“It was not Sarah,” she said, “nor any other name I know of, but one so different I cannot recall it.”

“L-Lucy?” I asked. It was a very strange coincidence, especially in this language – as it came out 'Luytje' or 'Loo-it-yee'.

“You had my dream!” shrieked Sarah. “That was exactly what he called me, and I was married to some strange dark-haired person named Richard!”

“Not who I thought it was, then,” I thought, as I set Sarah on the cart and resumed looking at the field-telephone manual. Yet as I did so, I wondered again. Was it? Had Sarah gotten confused again, with her melding and mixing of various paths and currents in the land of dreams? If she had spoken of someone other than Richard...

“How did she say that name?” I thought. I'd never heard it spoken here, though if anyone would know of uncommon names, Sarah would be as likely as anyone.

“She got mixed up more than she thought she did,” said the soft voice, “as while she was called Lucy in that dream, she was not the woman you were thinking of, but the 'Lucy' she truly became there.” A pause, then, “recall how that particular girl – and later woman – actually was in that series of stories?”

“Series?” I asked. Again, this was silent, even as my eyes shot over the manual's pages and I turned them quickly, much as if the individual pages were in the grip of a hurricane. My reading speed while able to breathe properly was stunning – stunning to me; and I suspected, the others.

“Yes, a series of seven books,” said the soft voice. “Sarah, to put it mildly, showed up in his dreams – and since her name was 'taken' – its meaning was a bit obvious for one who eventually became a queen – he thought her name to be Lucy, and called her such while feeding her breakfast.”

My page-turning antics showed the following to my mind. It had heard but a portion beforehand:

The precise nature of the handset, this being of forged and anodized titanium. While the word used for 'anodized' was clear enough to me, I suspected this process wasn't 'anodizing' as I understood and had practiced it with small pieces of aluminum, but a far more complex process that gave a thicker, tougher, and more variable finish.

More important, the green color wasn't a matter of dye, but of PH, time, electrical current density, and a good deal else the manual didn't go into – even if it did go into sufficient detail that I could potentially duplicate the process given the need, the time, and the equipment to do so.

Most importantly, the handset's parts were all of titanium, save for those portions that needed to be otherwise; this included the 'spit and dust' screens, these of titanium – and serving to permit the clear passage of sound while excluding water, dirt, and nearly everything else.

The armored wire used to connect the handset to the 'phone' itself. This, again, was of titanium with the aforementioned surface treatment, and while it looked delicate, it was not merely tough...

“Tough?” I thought. “Able to withstand a direct hit by a rifle bullet without anything beyond a mark upon the coating? That isn't tough, that's bordering on indestructible!” Then, a question:

“How big of a 'big one'?”

“That depends on who loaded it,” said the soft voice. “Suffice it to say that they tested these phones thoroughly and found them extremely difficult to damage – and not only difficult to damage, but easy to put back in commission, given spare parts and someone able to read instructions.”

“Do we have..?” I thought.

“You do, even if the witches hid most of them,” said the soft voice. “You'll find them readily.”

I laid down the manual, took up the 'map', and 'leaped' into the maze. I could hear speech behind me, then soft steps moving with surprising speed. Within seconds, I turned, map still in hand, and saw Sarah. She'd removed the equipment somehow, and held two lights, one in each hand, with one of those odd-colored camouflage 'satchels' on a shoulder strap.

“Katje's looking after that thing,” she said. “You forgot these?” The unspoken question: “what are you going after?”

I answered the last question first: “to find the spare parts the witches hid, dear – and I think you'd best think about resuming that equipment periodically, as I think you're affected...”

“Not as much as you are,” said Katje's voice. I had no idea how she'd managed to speak so clearly, until I saw the nature of my 'string' laying on the floor.

“That is not just a string,” I muttered. “It's a wire, isn't it?”

“It is,” said Katje in my 'ears'. “I think it to be the usual for those things, actually, as this book here... Ugh, it's giving me a headache to read it now, it's so bad for its words, and I have to pray more than I did to read Rachel's Hebrew.”

“I think it's in case the person wearing this thing encounters trouble or collapses in spite of the equipment,” I said. “That, and I think it gives some, uh, indication of just when the absorbent is going and the oxygen as well – or does it?”

“Thank you,” said Katje. “You gave me enough information to understand the rest of this page, almost, as that's exactly what these things here are telling me. You're good for quite a while longer on both of those, and I've got spare cylinders and the other things next to me here. Maarten found them.”

“What did she mean by 'bad for its words'?” asked Sarah as I led off once more, my 'leash' slowly paying out from the 'spool' she spoke of being present on my waist.

“Most likely...” Long pause, then, “how can you hear me so readily?”

“There is a small mesh-closed place on that spool holder on your back here, and your voice comes from there,” said Sarah. “It's quiet, and sounds like you're speaking through a bad witch-horn, one that's got a dented mouthpiece.”

“Speaking through a horn?” I asked.

“It's very difficult,” said Sarah, “but if you put a funnel into the mouthpiece, it's easier. Then you can tell how good the horn is.”

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“If your voice sounds clear and distinct, with its usual tone and range,” said Sarah, “then you do not want such a horn, as it will not carry well.” A pause, then, “what you want is a clear and distinct voice, but you want a very small range indeed – and when you talk in the right way, it should make your voice both shrill and very loud, so much so that it will cause bells in the ears.” Another pause, then, “a bad one will do none of those things.”

“They're awful-sounding,” I muttered. “Are good ones common?”

“No, they aren't,” said Sarah. “I've only heard three in my whole life, and two of those were within walking distance of my relatives in the potato country, while they had the third one.” A pause, then, “and when my cousin and I were small, we tried talking into that thing.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“It put both of us in the privy,” said Sarah, “and it nearly broke panes out of the window, it was so loud!”

“Resonance,” I murmured. “No dents, no dings, mirror-polished on the inside, the right thickness of the correct brass alloy, the correct dimensions, probably older than time...”

“No, it wasn't,” said the soft voice. “It was but a little older than Sarah was, even if everything else you were thinking of was true enough for you to get one to work if you had the time and inclination to make one.” A pause, then, “it came from the marshes – where some people make wind-instruments for musicians – and Sarah's relatives are the local 'agents' for some marsh-made products.”

“Which include musical instruments?” I asked.

“Those also,” said Sarah. “They are very secretive about such matters, as they must be, and they do not make money from that work, not a copper.”

“Do they get anything out of it?” I asked.

“Why do you think Sarah spoke of wondering if that area grew witches?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “They get twice the attention of their neighbors, even if the witches know little enough about what they do – in general, not just traffic with the marshes for some marsh-made products.” A pause, then, “what they've gotten out of the deal over the years, though, isn't trivial.”

“What?” I asked. “Knowledge?”

“That especially,” said the soft voice, “which is one of the chief reasons why Sarah's cousin could afford to go to Boermaas for six years.”

“Don't tell me,” I muttered. “It costs more to go there than the west school, and that twice over.”

“More than that,” said the soft voice, “and that's even if you only go six years and bring all your supplies from home.”

“I know about that part,” said Sarah. “The west school's fees and costs may be higher than anywhere short of that place, but Boermaas makes them look to be as nothing.” A pause, then, “they've gone up much since she finished there.”

“Especially now,” said the soft voice. “When Maarten and Katje went there, Boermaas was tied with Muenster for being the least costly, but now it's in a class by itself that way – and Sarah is right about the west school's fees being higher than anywhere else short of Boermaas.” A pause, then, “had her cousin been able to go to the west school, her fees overall would have been a bit less than half of what she eventually paid.”

“What?” screeched Sarah. “I knew it was more, but I had no idea...”

“Let's see... No time off, so whoever gets her and takes her home to be looked over for sicknesses and the other things commonplace at Boermaas has to use bronze-shod horses and change the teams whenever he – no, she – can, then they've got to put uncorking medicine... Not common uncorking medicine, but this special stuff you can get only in some places in that market town...”

“Which is not common uncorking medicine,” said Sarah. “It's three-x grade, though I wonder about it being what they said it was.”

“Mostly as it's not common uncorking medicine, but uncorking medicine that's been changed chemically by some relatively advanced processes and then dosed with some ingredients from across the sea,” I said. A pause, then, “it's not as good as 'motor oil', but until that became available, it was the best 'commonly available' lubricant, and the Heinrich works used it extensively.” I then had a question:

“Was that the stuff that they ran in that seamless tubing machine?”

“Yes, and trying to improve it further gave those people fits,” said the soft voice. “They were about to try using specially cut sticks and chant verses from the book at what they were making, it was so bad.”

“Didn't have a clue as to what they were doing,” I muttered – and then regretted saying so a second later when I heard the truth.

“One of these people was Ivo,” said the soft voice, “and there's but few people currently living in the five kingdoms who know as much about chemistry.”

“Outside of the marshes or the valley,” said Sarah. “Those people know enough to make us all fit to wear brass cones.”

“You left out a number of locations, dear,” said the soft voice, “but they're not part of the five kingdoms, any more than those places you mentioned.” A pause, then, “they'd be destroyed without mercy if they were known of, which is why they hide themselves so well – and they all use layered intermediaries when they must correspond with those not as they are.”

“And none of them are willing... Duh, why did that person from the Valley seek out your cousin, dear? Because 'she'd understand' – and no one else in that entire town would?”

“Try 'no one else within the distance that woman was able to travel before sunup,” said the soft voice. “The people Sarah's cousin live with tolerate her because she looks 'more or less' normal and is very good at what she does, so much so that she is carrying their entire household, and they know the state of their money-pouches well enough to not toss out the person whose labor permits them to live as they do – as they're about 'average' for ability as jewelers, they're currently childless, and they're a good deal worse than the common in most of the other areas of life – so that means their living costs are very high compared to their neighbors.”

“About as good as I am when it comes to cleaning, probably,” I muttered, “and I suspect I can cook better.”

“You gave them credit they didn't deserve, and downgraded your own cooking and cleaning abilities,” said the soft voice. “You've seen people clean worse than you where you came from. Granted, not many, but you have seen people do worse for results.”

“As have I,” said Sarah. “You're merely slower than the common as to cleaning, and I suspect most people could eat your cooking were they willing to wait for you to cook it.”

“Uh, no, dear,” I said. “I've n-never done walls before, especially sooty ones, and...”

“I can answer that one,” said Sarah. “Anna told me about where you sleep, and she knows how much you do, which is why she cleans it when she can.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “She's seen him clean that room, and while he's decent for getting matters passable or even a bit better than passable, she also knows few people who put so much effort into 'cleaning', so much so that she has thought – repeatedly – in the past, 'if he was any good at cleaning, he'd have the whole house as clean as lightning faster than I can blink'.” A pause, then, “she's learning the true depths of her misunderstanding as we speak.”

We had been walking this whole time of speech, this in a seemingly haphazard fashion, until with a sudden surety I reached into the hidden core of a hollowed-out 'stack' of ammunition cans and muttered, “dear, I didn't just find that box or bag of spare parts, but I think I f-found... Please, help me take down these cans here. This is one of the big witch-caches in this place, and it goes down to the bottom of this stack or pallet, it's so big.”

One of two such caches,” said the soft voice. “The other is that expert witch's, which you have already been to, and the others are quite small in comparison to either of these.”

“And those who did this one...” I then had a question, even as I hefted the first can and then looked at its 'label'. It was 'tracer ammunition', this for the rifles. “Why would those people put their stuff together?”

“They thought that they'd be able to hide it better from those guarding it,” said the soft voice. “They thought to chant the hiding curses as a group, and it took you to find it.”

“You walked right to it,” said Sarah. “Now is this...” She looked closer, then plopped the box on the floor. To her credit, Sarah did not open it, but turned to me as I did the same thing with my second box.

“It's probably trapped,” she said, as she reached for another. It wasn't an easy reach for her, so much so that I grabbed it and handed it to her “If witches made a cache...”

“I did think about that,” I said as I got my next box – “though if I were a witch, I'd rig all of the top boxes, both their contents and the boxes themselves for movement, and then some of the other boxes as well so as to catch any 'smart' thieves.” I then asked, “they did that, didn't they?”

“No, because they figured no one would find the place,” said the soft voice. “Remember, there were over a dozen witches chanting those curses on something approximating a schedule, and by the time they'd grouped themselves together for mutual benefit, that one expert witch had only a month or so to live in apparent time – and things were busy enough for him by then that he didn't come down here unless he had pressing business.”

“And that gas got all of them, didn't it?” I asked.

“All save one,” said the soft voice. “A worker's bullet got him two days after the gas projector killed the others.”

“Got him?” I asked.

“In the leg,” said the soft voice. “That man was practicing with his weapon, and wondered what would happen if he shot a witch in the thigh.”

“Femoral artery,” I muttered. “That wretch bled out in...”

“He missed that area,” said the soft voice, “even if the witch died within seconds just the same.”

What?” I squeaked. “S-seconds?”

“Exactly what I said,” said the soft voice. “He might have missed the femoral artery, but he did hit the femur – which shattered the entire bone into sharp fragments and tore up every blood vessel from trunk to knee – including that artery you spoke of.” A pause, then, “he was roughly fifty paces off and 'ambushed' that witch from cover, and the witch dropped 'like a hot brick'.”

“That is a decent distance for most muskets,” said Sarah. “You need to start aiming 'up' some about that far away, unless you either 'close-gage your balls' or 'use patches of shaved leather'.”

“Close-gage?” I asked. “Did you know...”

“This was what I'd been taught at the west school,” said Sarah dryly, “in one of their classes.” A pause, then, “that lecturer probably hadn't burnt a pound of powder in his life, and he left between two days not three months after I heard that rubbish.” A pause, then, “I learned more about guns from Gustav the first time I saw him with that ruined fowling piece.”

“Rubbish?” I asked. “If you mean 'your ball fits close enough inside your carefully-honed barrel to need a thorough cleaning between each shot', or 'you need to have the right thickness of leather if you're going to take up the windage', then...” I ceased speaking, then spat, “you were being generous with that wretch, dear, even if he did burn more than a pound of powder in his life.” A briefer pause, then, “stinking witch! I hope he's where he belongs.”

“He is,” said the soft voice. “Recall that one underground location in the fourth kingdom?”

I nodded, this mentally.

“One of those creatures bit him – and between being 'aged' for a witch, the illnesses he already had, and the bite of that creature, he died in short order.” A pause, then, “their bites might not be those of Death Adders, but those prewar bacteria they harbor are no joke if you're a witch.”

“Uh, what if we..?”

“Firstly, you'll most likely be protected when you next see those things,” said the soft voice, “so they won't be able to bite you. Then, think. Those people across the sea have medicines well beyond anything you've ever heard of in truth or fiction.” Brief pause, then, “don't you think they'll have something for those who do get bit or otherwise infected?”

“They'd almost have to, as otherwise there would be no people left over there,” said Sarah. “About one tapestry in ten speaks of those small creatures the witches made here, and how those creatures killed people with their plagues long after the witches themselves were gone.”

“Biological warfare,” I muttered as I bent to the floor with a can. We were making headway, though it seemed uncommonly slow for progress. Our stack of cans on the floor between us was sizable and growing larger fast, so it spoke loudly of our efforts. “You would need this kind of clothing...”

“It did work well for that, also,” said the soft voice. “Anything able to stop the chemicals that clothing is designed to endure will stop anything of a contagious nature as well.” A brief pause, then, “it wasn't just biological weapons causing trouble in this area, but also the many naturally-occurring 'plagues' as well – and they had to develop entire classes of new drugs just to treat those.”

“Those dykes caused much sickness,” said Sarah. “I read about those, though some of the things that lived in the common watercourses then were trouble also.”

“Fenny-snakes,” I muttered, as I took down another can.

“What are those?” asked Sarah. “That word means they liked water – I think.”

“A fen is a marshy region,” I said, “and so I think you're right.”

“Large, black, and worse than an irritated Death Adder for both quickness and killing,” said Sarah as she moved another ammunition can. “They were everywhere up here during that war, and if there was water in any amount at all in an area, they were most common.”

“Save where there were witches in quantity,” said the soft voice. “They figured largely in many curses, and 'fillet of fenny-snake' was highly prized in this area – hence many witches were on the hunt for them, and they kept their guns warm as a rule.” A pause, then, “the green areas, though – they were common indeed, and once most of the witches hunting them had been killed off in the central regions, they rapidly reclaimed those watercourses they had once been commonplace in.”

“They didn't call them that,” I muttered – though then the thought recurred to me. I shook it off.

“No, the witches didn't,” said the soft voice, “but if you mention those things where you are going, they will know exactly what you are speaking of – as those people did.

“Why would they call them that?” asked Sarah. “They didn't know about them?”

“Until they came here, no,” said the soft voice. “They may have had snakes in profusion on that island then, but nearly all of them were like grass-snakes for size and diet, and none of them were poisonous.”

“Hence a fair number of those people died of snakebite,” I muttered, as I removed another ammunition can. I could now look inside the 'cache', and saw a mound of bags and boxes, the bags camouflaged in the 'usual' pattern and lumpy with 'loot'. Some I could see were the size of what Sarah was using, while others were larger, and I had a distinct impression: not only was all of this stuff important to our immediate efforts, but the witches had nicely bagged it up for us.

“All we got to do is then check it over carefully,” I murmured. “They didn't trap their stuff, did they?”

“No, and you underestimated just how much of use you'll find in there, as well as some 'finds' that you'll wish to document while 'removing' them from those bags.”

“Fetishes?” I asked.

“Those mostly went to rust and dust, and those that are still 'intact' lost their cursed aspect,” said the soft voice. “That rust and dust takes up volume and adds weight – and you will want to concern yourself with ounces for this trip.”

“And take more bags,” said Sarah. “We'll want those...”

“They have plenty of bags like those you were thinking of, only of more-recent manufacture,” said the soft voice. “They're actually better than what you've found in here for sealing and other matters.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“A lot of small improvements over a very long time, I guess,” I murmured. “They had this big war-mobilized populace, and when there was no more 'war', they had to keep the survivors busy somehow...”

“True, only more than even you realized,” said the soft voice, “and there has been a lot of classified research done since that war officially 'ended' over there.”

“How did they keep their people...”

I instinctively knew to not go any further with that one, as when I turned around, Sarah had gone. By the noise of her fast-retreating steps, she was off to fetch a cart, and by the time I'd cleared enough ammunition boxes to readily touch the upper bags in the 'witch-pile' – I almost wanted to call it a witch-pie', as in that one novel that had provided the idea for the hair-ball had spoken of such a thing – I could hear the faint noises of at least two carts coming back for the 'loot'.

“Loot is right,” I muttered. “Probably got half the remaining daggers in here, all of the spare parts to those phones...”

“All the parts good for trading among other witches, yes,” said the soft voice. “More, there's a map present that indicates where a number of smaller witch-caches are, as well as the notes made by the witches in here as to where the things of greatest interest to them were actually placed.”

“More deliberate mislabeling?” I asked.

“More like 'they found every mislabeled pallet',” said the soft voice. “Then, that stuff's all written in 'witch-language', and you'll get the 'translation' for it – and finally, you'll get some indications as to just what the witches cached in 'witch-country' while they were still numerous in the place.”

“Those caches no one found...”

“Those also,” said the soft voice. “One of those people put his map in there by mistake, and as it was one he commonly used, it has doesn't have much hidden on it – and you'll get the translation for the map's hidden portions also.” Brief pause, then, “those coming from the Valley will want copies of the maps you find fairly soon, as they're familiar with construction like this building used – and to a lesser degree, that which is planned for the addition.”

“Are they the ones who know about hiding?” I asked.

“They do, but I was not speaking of them,” said the soft voice. “You'll get some ideas as to whom I meant in short order, and it will be quite obvious as to who I meant in a few months.” A pause, then, “you may wish to document the contents of and then rig those caches afterward, and then those maps will keep those of the Valley clear of such trouble as you've cooked up for those people I spoke of.”

“Are they vulnerable to fetishes?” I meant those of the Valley.

“Yes, but not nearly to the degree people from around here are, mostly due to their beliefs being much different.” A pause, then, “they don't much care for witch-junk, they know what runes are, and their tendencies are to deal with such stuff summarily once they learn from it what they can.”

“As in, uh, melt it down or put it in manure-piles?” I asked.

“That is very common in the northern settlements, as they're short of manure as well as metal,” said the soft voice, “and more than a few witch-corpses have gone into the valley recently with the goals of such interment.”

And when I next turned with a box of ammunition, I could see the first cart coming. I had misjudged their number, for there were three of them, each drawn by a lantern-holding individual – and all three of them had found dropped weapons or magazines and put them on the carts, if I went by their somewhat irregular progress.

“Did you find those..?”

“Yes, we did,” said Sarah as she came up with the first of the three carts. “We've gotten enough of them to almost not need to look much further, save to learn where the main stores of them are and find any papers left in those places by witches.”

“And to get one or two of those special rifles,” I murmured. “Besides, I'm glad you brought three carts, as this is a big cache, and...”

Sarah put two of the ammunition cans on the cart, then nodded before speaking. “If this stuff here starts fires, then I think we may wish some for the trip, as I doubt those thugs will enjoy being set alight by such bullets, and I suspect that to be true for the ones around here who will show in coaches within a week or so.” Katje then arrived, with Karl just behind her. Both had found more weapons and magazines, and I was suspecting Sarah was indeed correct regarding our current need of weapons.

“A week?” I asked. We'd be gone by then, or so I suspected. Then again, however, there would be coaches we would see during our trip – and they'd get some gunfire at the least if we were able to shoot.

“They are on the way here,” said Sarah with finality, “and I'm far from the only person to know that now. Katje says that they've planned things well enough that even tossing what you did at them is only going to reduce their numbers and make them come up here slower.”

“And fewer witches coming at the same time,” said Katje, as she took one of the boxes of tracer rounds and walked to where her cart was. We'd need to do a lot of carrying, or form a line and pass what I removed. “If we must practice, and that at night, then these will work well to tell us about our shooting, and I recall what was usually done with those boxes that hold such things for weapons.” A pause, then, much as if she was quoting, “two in the bottom of each box, so as to warn of the thing becoming empty, and then a box dedicated toward starting fires and marking the targets for rocket-shooters – and there are both more rockets and those things that launch them here, so we will wish one for where we live should any coaches come early.”

Karl had the third cart, however, and he was silent, even as he put a fourth ammunition box on his cart. He then began moving those cans Sarah and I had stacked so they were out of the way.

As the three of us began helping him, he said, “this is so we can bring these things right up and you can unload it easier in that clothing, as I remember Anna telling me about how burn-clothing is for moving.”

While what I was wearing was not nearly as constricting as what Sarah had been swaddled in recently, he did have a point; and with four people laboring, we moved the ammunition boxes such that I quickly had a clear path into the cache. There, the carts could line up at the pallet's very edges, and I began passing back bags, satchels, and in some cases wooden boxes with dovetailed joints to eager reaching hands. The varnish on these wooden boxes spoke loudly of what they might be, and when a break was needed, Katje muttered, “that's six entire boxes of those electric caps so far. I wonder how many more of them there are?”

“We were told there were sufficient of them to last until we could make our own,” said Sarah, “which means that either we will use a great many of them, or they are not easy to make.” A pause, then, “those overseas cannot make more?”

“They have most of what's needed to do so, but the old machines that made those devices you have were 'scrapped' soon after the war, and they don't have any readily-accessible plans for their reconstruction – especially as those machines needed marked people to operate them safely and produce caps that worked consistently.”

“Was this to make their mixtures behave?” asked Sarah.

“Partly that, and mostly because those half-developed machines worked poorly enough that constant attention and a lot of hand-work was needed to make these caps come out consistently.” A pause, then, “hence you'll need to look at what they do have for equipment and plans, and most likely design an automated machine to load caps.”

“I did not see a powder mill in those plans Hendrik has,” said Sarah. “Is one included in the full set?”

“Yes, and that location will need to be entirely automated,” said the soft voice. “They may have most of the equipment designs available, or they will shortly once the fruits of those years of secret research become accessible, but those 'improved' propellants that will become known of soon, as well as the improvements that will be developed here, will demand cold temperatures and a lot of specialized equipment – some of which will need building on site, and much of the rest brought in piecemeal and then assembled or modified here.”

With the first cart becoming full, it was towed off by Katje and her cart replaced it. Sarah remained handy, as did Karl; and while Sarah was 'looking' at the bags and other things I handed her, Karl was replacing some of the boxes on the other side of the stack so as to make less trouble for further exploration. The fact that he had figured that out without me speaking a word on the matter was especially heartening, even when Sarah told me she'd given him 'something of an idea' as to what might prove wise.

“That, and Katje knows enough to tell those others to not open those bags and things we've got coming from this cache,” said Sarah. “I suspect you'll need to check them over at the least, and then we'll be able to repack them for easier carrying and further use.”

“What?” I gasped. “That is a good idea, by the way.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “Katje gave me most of it, and I figured out the rest.”

“Check over?” I asked. “As in 'get rid of the dirt and rust, and look those things over that look like fetishes'?”

“That especially,” said Sarah. “So far, I might know a fifth of what I see from having read of it on a tapestry or in an old tale, and now I know both things told much less than everything that happened here.” A pause, then, “and I wonder about those people across the sea. Will they be the same?”

“Now?” I asked. “Perhaps at first, even if they have their own 'old tales' there – but later, I really wonder. They probably do know more about that time than we do.”

As I said this, however, I knew that while the full story was present, not all of it was accessible via those things we could 'loot'. Some was hidden, and...

“Some of that stuff is in that one place,” I muttered. “It isn't connected to the outside at all, so only messengers go in and out with information.”

“Those who receive that information tend to be somewhat careless in where they put it,” said the soft voice, “and were you to assay reading their documentation by the ways you're familiar with, you're right – it isn't accessible by those means.” A pause, then, “those gateways may be shut hard currently, but they're not going to be shut hard for much longer.”

“What, no, uh... Don't they just use couriers for carrying information?”

“They do, or so they think,” said the soft voice. “There are some very old – so old they're more or less undocumented – data paths into their 'main stores'; and then, there's what the interface people have copied 'for ready reference' on their computers.

“Some of that stuff's got to be off-line, though,” I said.

“True, there is that,” said the soft voice. “The chief reason it's off-line is there are no strong-enough witches currently present so as to 'read' it, even if it is in one of the witch-territories over there.”

That comment put a stop to such thinking, and then I knew one reason as to why: I'd found something so strange that I wondered utterly as to what it might be. It looked like a strange spike of some kind, and when I passed it to Sarah, she began muttering worse than I'd ever heard her do so.

“What, dear?” I asked.

“This is a fence-spike,” said Sarah, “and those places with the carriages have them topping their iron stretches of fence.”

“Fence-spike?” I asked. “Did these people make those?”

“No, even if there are things those spikes will fit in here,” said the soft voice. “That one witch made a lot of copies of those helmets when he got this shipment in, and then he also had those spikes made to fit in place of the drill transmitters that normally went in their sockets.” There was a question in my mind – why did that one foul-smelling witch make a lot of copies of less-than-good pieces when they weren't up to the rigors of combat – but now was not the time for asking it.

“Drill transmitters?” I asked.

“They were for training purposes, and were attached to training helmets made of sheet metal,” said the soft voice. “The real helmets did a much better job of protecting their people.” A pause, then, “not only are there a fairly large number of those drill-helmets in here, but also some of the real ones – and you'll want to take home a few examples of each.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I had the impression such things weren't going to help us much in our battles.

“Firstly, you will get ideas, as you'll see how their camouflage evolved from a simple type that you could readily duplicate with little more than paintbrushes and those dyes Hans has, to something that needs equipment well beyond anything either you or the 'commons' overseas currently have access to,” said the soft voice. “There are also some drill-transmitters present, along with some detectors, and you might want to use those for teaching people how to hide and spot movement.”

“And hence we need some means of... Do those helmets provide part of the, uh, ground-plane?”

“Yes, and those transmitters won't work properly without them,” said the soft voice. “They aren't quite as worthless as you might think, either, as while they won't stop most of the weapons in here, they will stop shot, most shell-fragments, and common-sized musket balls.”

“Then we can use those,” said Sarah, “as digging shot out of one's head is very difficult at best, and it does not come out of that place on its own readily, and musket balls, even if they're the smaller ones common up here...”

“That isn't just due to scarce lead, is it?” I asked. “The witches don't want effective weapons...”

“Yes, now that's the case,” said Sarah, “or so I and a number of others suspect it to be.” A pause, then, “I've read in the Annals here about how hard lead was to get up here up until the last fifty years, and its current scarcity would be thought to be great abundance up to about thirty years ago in many places – which is one reason among a number of them as to why the house proper has so many bows.”

“Those things work, if they are decent,” said Karl. “That is not so for many flint-muskets.”

“And war-arrows ignored the tin those northern people wore until quite recently,” said Sarah. “It has stood up well to muskets since the earliest days of those Annals, and I suspect it has done that passably since those people began wearing it.”

“It was quite scarce until just after those particular documents were started, also,” said the soft voice, “as Norden's people had trouble processing their ores into something that actually 'worked' until that point – and what little iron they made then went first for fetishes, and the rest went for tools – and one of the chief reasons they went after towns before that time was to get tools as well as food, as they had trouble producing both things then.”

“Even the 'cheap junk' from around here was better than what they could produce then,” I muttered, upon recalling what I had heard about Norden's metalworking capabilities growing since Thinkers became 'common' enough to actually make a difference.

“Was it really hard to get lead up into this way fifty years ago?” I wondered if Sarah's sources were accurate, as I knew about at least one king in the first kingdom who tried to become a witch in 'recent' years, and I doubted much he was the sole instance during the period of the Annals Sarah spoke of.

“Yes, as there were no freighters based in the first kingdom then, and hence many imported goods cost far more than they do now, as the witches had an effectual monopoly on them – and that included lead, which is mined and smelted down in the fifth kingdom, for the most part.”

“Hence they charged as much as they thought they could get,” I muttered. “Iron was imported also, and... Did people even make trips to parts south?”

“Yes, people like Hans' grandparents and Albrecht's father and relatives, and they did a lot of business then.” Pause, then, “in many cases, they didn't have to go all the way down into the fourth kingdom to get some supplies, but merely south far enough to where it did not snow much or often.”

“Like lead,” said Sarah. “I've heard of people washing dirt for the stuff up here, and that is mentioned in the Annals, and the same for lead-puddling.” A pause, then, “and I've done some of that business myself in recent days so as to keep Hans in lead.”

“That is for doing up bad shot so it is fit for round-bullets,” said Karl, as I began to fill his cart. Sepp had come and retrieved the cart Katje had brought, and I could hear 'work' going on somewhere behind me as the carts were being unloaded and their goods being 'piled' in a semi-sorted fashion. More, I suspected Katje was looking over some of the nearby pallets to see what was in them.

“No, not that,” said the soft voice. “She is bagging up the supplies you've retrieved thus far, and Maarten is moving them closer to the doorway for carrying.”

“Closer?” I asked. I could see what looked to be the bottom of the cache, and the nature of the pallet itself was becoming plain – as not merely was it not metal, but it wasn't wood either. I wondered what it was, in fact.

“Second-grade fiberglass and one of the cheaper forms of hot-cured binders,” said the soft voice. “There was already something of a wood-shortage when these were made, and they were gearing up to make vast numbers of 'cheap' containers, hence they were improving their processes while giving them a real testing.”

“Cheaper form?” I asked. “Second-grade?”

“They were still getting the 'bugs' out of their processes,” said the soft voice. “Fiberglass is a very commonplace material over there now, and the 'families' that have furniture made of it consider themselves most-fortunate.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because furniture of any kind is very scarce among the commons there,” said the soft voice, “and that's so even if they've become experts at 'making do', scavenging, trading among themselves, and sophisticated methods of systematic theft.”

“Thieves?” squeaked Sarah.

“They need to be,” said the soft voice. “Were they to follow every edict issued by those over them, and that as those blue-suited thugs speak of, then none of them would be currently alive.” A pause, then, “it isn't like here in a lot of ways – their fields are under lock and key, with every portion gleaned to the fullest – and hunting, save for vermin during those brief periods they do not have to give account for, does not happen.” Another pause, then, “given those circumstances, what would you do?”

Sarah had no answer, and I could not think of one beyond the obvious one that occurred to me. Karl, however, spoke for the two of us.

“I think I would dig for roots like a rodent, and get cabbages like a marmot, and both of those things at night,” he said, “and then, I would get eggs during the day, as I helped Sepp with his nets some when he was stringing those things.”