That one special alcove


Our trip back to where the others had remained at their labors was sufficiently slow that I wondered if we would ever get there, for Sarah became lost more than once and I needed to guide her nearly the whole distance. In the process, however, I made further notes as to matters pertinent to our future upon the three pages of the map; and now and then, when it was possible to merely follow behind Sarah – not often; she was too heavily 'burdened' to use a compass, and we were far enough from the lights for my eyes to be the only ones to see them – I looked at the single larger 'cannon' round I had retained. It made me wonder about that short piece of belted ammunition that had turned up weeks ago, and more...

Could that timeframe be spoken of in weeks, when the number of days in a week currently exceeded seven?

“No, dear,” I said. “Bear to your right, such that you go straight to the aisle where we got all of those rifles and I got my broom, and then we'll go around the clock that way so as to not miss the others.”

“But aren't you making notes?” she asked.

“He is, and that for places he's going near to as well as those locations he can actually see,” said Katje, as she picked up a machine pistol. There were yet more of such weapons on the floor, but now was not the time to hunt them up. We easily had thirty or more of those particular weapons as it was. “I think we need to hurry, as that hour's time is partly gone and we want the rest of it to look in that place.”

“No, you-all need to start taking down carts to take upstairs while he and Sarah look in that place,” said the soft voice. “He can keep her safe in there, but asking him to keep all of you safe in that place is a bit much, especially given what else needs to happen before you leave today.” A pause, then, “between you and Sepp, you can keep Karl and Maarten from tripping over their own feet and dropping things that don't want dropping.”

“Form a chain going up that messy staircase, at least as far as reaching permits, then go up the stairs some and do it again until that batch is up at the top,” I murmured. “Otherwise, I think that wise, as I'll need to watch myself in that place, and I need someone who's set traps before so it's less work to...”

I was not prepared for what Katje said; it was the closest thing to 'Duh' as I'd ever heard someone say other than myself, and I wondered if that term was said overseas. I somehow doubted it, even if I did not doubt Katje's attitude.

“I did not think of that,” said Katje. “You're right, none of us have any real experience with traps except you two, and you more than she, if talk be right.”

“Tricky traps, especially,” said the soft voice. “Think, though – who among you have gone to the higher schools, or places like them – and when you went to Boermaas, it didn't really count as a higher school, as you didn't learn that much in that place. No other school would have those lecturers.”

“Sarah and...” This time, Katje did manage 'Duh', only it sounded more like 'Dooo'! “He's gone to more school than she has.”

“Yes, and in a much harder species of school, also,” said the soft voice. “Schooling, at least as was practiced in that place, was not nearly as cooperative a venture as it is at the west school, and certainly not as it is done overseas.” A pause, then, “that was for the usual students, where they had to do matters with little help as a rule.”

Another pause, then, “he not only did not have such help unless he purchased it at high rates, but he often had active opposition, and that from other students, some lecturers, and then his parents – and them in particular.”

While I and Sarah moved past the long rows of bags, these laid in some semblance of order, I wondered what lay in store for us. Sarah was carrying a pair of tent-lanterns with fully-charged batteries, while I had the battery-torch, this set for a medium level of brightness in my right hand, and behind me, towed by my left hand, lay the single cart that was yet unburdened. I could hear Katje speaking of unloading the others and then dismantling several of them, and as I heard her speak again of the matter, the last of the pallets hemming us in to the left gave way to the small open area that told of the door to the entrance being just ahead. It showed on our right but a half-dozen steps later, then as we continued walking, our slow steps showed more pallets, these coming steadily closer, until we passed the last of them on the left, and were once more out into an aisle. Ahead lay a wide gulf, this bulwarked with an inky blackness, and as I bore to the right, I wondered where the wall actually was.

Was this location playing its final tricks with distance? I truly wondered, at least until I shined my 'torch' at what looked like a blank wall and went closer. Each step, slow, cautiously, sweeping the torch's light side to side so as to spot traps, spoke louder and louder of 'a hidden cabinet', and when a 'crack' in the stone showed, I softly whispered the words, “no hiding.”

Nothing happened, or so I thought until I came within a step of the wall, where I found a small round hole. Out came the key; I inserted it into the hole – and as if in a dream, the entire facade of stone-dust applied to a tar-coated cabinet-front sheeted down to leave Sarah coughing and sneezing.

I wasn't affected, due to still wearing the suit and its breathing apparatus. It made me wonder if I should bring it home, in fact.

“Ledgers,” she spat. “That wretch hid those things.”

“Yes, and what are these ledgers?” I asked, as I took one down. “No title, so...” I opened it to find a huge 'blood-inked' set of runes, which made me drop the thing to the floor and back away while saying loudly, “no hiding.”

The ledger erupted, and in the blizzard of dust spewing out of both the 'cabinet' and out of the ledger itself, I saw that book enlarge nearly two inches for thickness and nearly three inches for length and width. Thuds, these of now-weighty books hitting the floor, told me of the same thing happening to much of what was in the cabinet.

“That stinker wrote that one, all right,” said Sarah. “It is now the size of one of my larger texts!”

“Wrote it entirely, or wrote a fair amount in it?” I asked. “Remember, that wretch liked to write in this strange language that says a lot in a very few words, and that when he was not using these odd symbols that look too much like runes for me to like them.” A pause, then, “those were even more-compact for expression.”

“With him, who knows?” said Sarah. “If it is as we were told, then him writing much in the margins of these things at all would add a great deal.”

“Especially given how small his figures and letters commonly were,” said the soft voice. “Now, pick that book up, as it deals with the common species of black rifle, and look carefully in that jam-packed set of shelves inlet into the wall for some other useful books you'll wish in the days ahead.”

“They have titles, now,” said Sarah. “Before they had nothing showing.”

“Exactly, and that should tell you both something,” said the soft voice. “That's the main manual repository, and you didn't just get his notes on those weapons.”

“What did we get, then?” asked Sarah.

“What some of his 'friends' and 'cronies' wrote about them, also,” said the soft voice. “It will give both of you a great many ideas and give a still-better picture of what this place was like prior to that war – as some of those 'ledgers' were his 'notes' and other things he wrote about in the course of his studies.”

“Meaning almost everything he knew about or saw happen, as if you were a witch then, you needed to keep track of everything that happened, and that down to the very smallest detail,” I murmured.

For a second, there was nothing; then, “exactly right.”

“H-how..?”

“Your own life taught you just how important such matters were in regards to being successful in that hellhole where you lived,” said the soft voice, “and in coming here, much of what you needed to actually do became both far easier to recall as well as many of the matters which obscured things vanished – hence you recalled what was important in that above-ground witch-hole, and what you learned there applied more or less the same in this elsewhere.”

“Did the book come from that place?” asked Sarah.

“It did, and for a very good reason,” said the soft voice. “While this planet was worse before it was drowned, that place has remained evil, more or less from its inception unto the present day – and the nature of that kind of evil is such that if you know about how evil works in one location, you know how it works everywhere else – as evil is rarely original in its outworking, and it always has the same goals.”

“Hence we could learn from what happened there,” said Sarah.

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn just how much more in the months to come.”

“So that's why He got sent there instead of somewhere else,” I muttered. “Might as well get himself ready to raise Cain in Hell by living in the next worse place for three and thirty years, and if one speaks of doctors being needed for the sick – that place had a lot of people that way then, and it has a lot more than that number now.”

Sarah looked at me, then pointed at a ledger. “That one. It's the one for those Tossers, and I can tell there's a lot in it.”

I took that one, and several others that Sarah pointed out for me, then put the now thick-and-wobbly stack of books on the cart and moved on, hugging the right wall as best we could. It wasn't easy, as this realm of darkness seemed to have walls that were difficult to locate no matter what I did.

As we moved into the place, though, I shined my 'torch' about; and here, all that had once been hidden was hidden no longer. Numbers of workbenches, these covered with shiny cloth obviously 'looted' from the stores out on the floor, blocked the place's walls to the height of my shoulders, and carefully removing one of these cloths showed not merely a workbench, but also what looked remarkably like a progressive reloading press I had once owned. Looking closer at this device showed it to not merely be altogether a sizable device – the ram was nearly two inches thick, shiny with torment-grease, and seemingly mirror-polished with a speckled finish – but also a very complicated contraption, with a great many 'micrometer-dials' for adjustment and numbers of carefully-machined levers, these connected by ball-end joints and other 'precision' devices to ensure and maintain a high level of precision movement over a long and arduous life. I thought to move it, then thought quicker, “no, best not. I bet this thing needs careful cleaning and lubricating, and...”

I had noticed something to be obviously 'missing', this showing by the presence of a trio of raised bars and bolt holes. I then 'saw' what went there, and gasped.

“Was this thing automated?” I asked.

“It needed an operator pulling on the lever, so in that aspect, no, it wasn't,” said the soft voice. “It was, however, automated enough so that setting it up was mostly a matter of adjusting a number of thumbwheel switches on the controller boxes to produce a given recipe, which made it much easier to set up than it was without them.”

“That's nine-tenths of the work with these,” I muttered. “Setting them up takes a long time.”

“Especially with this type,” said the soft voice. “There's a reason the die-sets for these machines have more than three or four dies, and why the press has ten stations, and that's because once it is set up, even a half-asleep and entirely-trashed witch can produce target-quality ammunition if he can stay awake enough to pull that lever through the entirety of its stroke every time.”

“If he runs out of primers, or powder...”

“It had a little bell that rang when any supplies ran low,” said the soft voice, “and the press refused to move when it ran out of anything.”

“Mine wouldn't do that,” I muttered.

“This one is harder to set up, also,” said the soft voice. “Just the same, once the right people look at these things, you can bet they will fit the needed hardware to them to make them easier to use.”

Below the benchtop – this of a glossy gray-painted species of metal; this workbench was solid, and using thumb and forefinger had me guess the thickness of its top to be an easy quarter inch, if not more – lay three drawers, and when I opened the first drawer on the left, I found not merely the manuals for the reloading machine – its user's manual, its troubleshooting manual, its maintenance manual, and its repair manual – but also, a slim 'booklet' that gave a sizable number of recipes for ammunition, both in terms of 'settings' that presumed the needed automation, but also the weights of the materials doled out so as to 'check' those settings.

It seemed that if a trashed witch could 'mess something up', he'd do so sooner rather than later, and this booklet – it was not the only information; there was more – seemed to confirm the matter. This notion had me shaking my head, and Sarah looking at me until I spoke about drink, drugs, and witches; and the confluence of all of those things being nothing but trouble. She then understood my attitude.

“That is what we need, then,” said Sarah as she pointed to the manuals. I wondered if she'd seen a device such as what we were now looking at – at least, until her next question. “Now, is there a lead-pot here?”

“I'm not sure, dear... No, I am. There is, and this thing isn't a commonplace one, but a sizable example.”

“It ought to be, given that expert witch cut his own armory moulds for stiff shot and cast his own 'shot' of that size.” A pause, then, “his shot was not merely harder than anything of a common nature, but also round, so his weapons put down his assailants 'with authority'.”

“That other shot?” I asked.

“Is smaller than what his armory mould turned out,” said the soft voice. “It is still most-effectual on thugs at the usual ranges encountered in this area.” Sarah looked at me and mouthed the words 'one needs to put soot on them if one uses common shot'.

“Want the big stuff at home for the bad ones, though,” I murmured.

“True, and you'll want his tooling and cutters for making more of those moulds,” said the soft voice. “His mould may have gone to rust and dust, but his tooling is still in good shape, as he ordered it from overseas and it was not cursed save by him handling it.”

“Ordered it from overseas?” I asked.

“He traveled out of the country on 'military business' a number of times, and retrieved a fair number of things that way,” said the soft voice, “and Imhotep didn't dare touch that kind of business, as he would have had every powerful witch in the head-chamber desiring to sacrifice him once they learned of his treason, and more, all of his considerable assets would have been confiscated by the state for its use.”

“No, didn't want that,” I murmured. “That was a no-no.”

“Especially with that witch,” said Sarah. “I may not have known his name until the last day or so, but I read enough about that stinker to know him to be a miser for thinking when it came to his money.”

“Most witches are,” I muttered. “Money speaks loudly of one's prowess as a witch, as in 'powerful witches are especially wealthy, and the more money, the stronger the witch'.”

“That is still true today, by the way, even if 'power' today and 'power' when that black book was being written are two very different things,” said the soft voice. A pause, then, “that lead pot is some few benches away, if you circle counterclockwise.”

In the process of getting to this lead-pot, however, I and Sarah uncovered several more reloading presses, each with its usual batch of manuals in the left drawer, the device's special tools in the central drawer, and in the right drawer... That drawer was usually empty.

It was empty until the fifth such drawer that I opened, anyway. Within that drawer, however, I found a number of gray 'metal' cases, and as I began bringing them out onto the open space of the nearest benchtop, I thought to ask what had happened with the others.

“They were 'looted' by that expert witch for his own use, as he could never have enough precision measuring tools to suit him, and this area needed but two sets to set up these presses,” said the soft voice. “Given that most of the witches on-site didn't have the needed skill to set them up, and he was one of the few that did, it's somewhat understandable.”

“P-precision m-measuring equipment?” I asked. “As in a scale..?”

“That would be the largest such box,” said the soft voice. “It may be an analog scale, but it's sensitive enough that it needs both careful handling and a delicate touch.”

“Is it as good as what we have at home?” asked Sarah.

“No,” said the soft voice. “It makes that second-rate piece of 'trash' Hans damaged by his misuse look to be worthless.”

“W-worthless?” asked Sarah. Supposedly the scale was an older one from the Heinrich works. “M-misuse?”

“You had to tell him how to use it, as he'd never used one like that before – or did you?” I asked.

“He didn't know much,” said Sarah. “I think he might have been familiar with the type a grocer might use in the fourth kingdom, but he'd not be let anywhere near either of the two close-balances they have at the west school, at least not until very recently.”

“As in his eating grass in hell?” I asked.

“That was one of the reasons he spent as long as he did there,” said the soft voice, “and now that he's found the calibration weights, he realizes that he's wrecked that scale by his carelessness.” A pause, then, “do not let him ruin this one, as it takes a most-delicate touch to avoid errors or damage.”

“Those witches...”

“Only two or three witches in this entire establishment had the needed care and skill to use it,” said the soft voice. “You've used ones like it before, so you should manage this one.”

“Is it, uh, like one of those I used in my first chemistry class?” I asked. “Adjusts with a knob, and not those... Duh! I can fix that thing of Hans' easily!”

“Yes, you could,” said the soft voice. “It might well take you much of two days, with some of that time spent here and the rest at home, but you could fix his scale and make it genuinely accurate.” A pause, then, “he'd really need to be careful with it then, though.”

“Why?” asked Sarah, as I continued to bring out the gray metal boxes. These, while not nearly as large or as hefty as the ammunition boxes we had found, had their own aura of 'great sturdiness' about them, for their corners showed signs of obvious machining – they were sharp enough to mandate care in handling, which told me these were indeed precise tools – and their 'latches' showed faint machining markings still, which said 'precision' also.

“Mostly as that scale would then be truly worthy of its supposed 'three-X' status,” said the soft voice, “as it would indeed be that good.” A pause, then, “the Heinrich works' current scales would be close to how it would be if you worked on his scale, and it would be a non-trivial improvement over its capacity when it first left that place when they were just starting out.” Another pause, then, “scales of that size and construction were lucky to read within an ounce during that time frame, so ones as 'good' as that one once was received three-'X' status readily.”

“No stamped anything on these boxes,” I murmured.

“Such machines weren't that common then,” said the soft voice, “and machining centers – especially the smaller variety – were, hence the construction of these devices.” A pause, then, “those punch-presses they did have then were most-busy, which is why so much of what you've found so far has been 'machined' rather than 'stamped'.”

“Still a lot of machining centers over there?” I asked.

“Yes, and they've been heavily upgraded multiple times,” said the soft voice. “More, some of the later versions are such that raw materials, such as annealed bar, go in one end – and finished devices, wrenches, for instance, come out of the other.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Exactly what I said,” said the soft voice. “Those 'lines' are fairly common over there, especially in certain areas, and they routinely hold close tolerances, even with what they currently have for cutting tools.”

“What they currently have?” I asked. I wondered what would happen, given the 'right' tools – like some of that evil 'Bad Cobalt' steel, or something still-better.

“The insert situation has been 'troublesome' for a very long time, and 'high-speed-steel' is rarer yet – which is one reason they'll come 'running' when you show them that wolfram.”

“But don't they have the, uh, materials to make...” I was thinking of the 'M' series of high-speed steels, those which used molybdenum as their principle means of achieving red-hardness rather than tungsten. The best stuff, however, still used tungsten, and I'd had a few of those hard-to-grind and somewhat brittle tool bits for the 'nasty' jobs. There were things worse than mere titanium and Inconel.

“They never managed to make those 'm-series' formulations you knew of hold up to real use,” said the soft voice, “and hence all of such steels here have been the type that were thought 'old-fashioned' where you came from. But one trouble.” Pause. “The 'cheap stuff' here would have exceeded 'the very best to be had' where you came from, and what you'll be turning out fairly soon will be no exception to that rule.”

“B-bad cobalt steel?” I asked. “A cupful of those pellets per crucible? Perhaps more yet?”

“You will not have 'Bad Cobalt' steel then,” said the soft voice. “Not if you add that much of that shot.” A pause, then, “you'll have something utterly unlike any mere 'high-speed' tool-steel you've ever seen or heard of.”

“Will people wish it?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, if he makes their cutters for them,” said the soft voice. “That stuff will need special tools to form it, as it will be sufficiently hard to need the equivalent of diamond-loaded grinding wheels to do anything to it once it's gone through the full heat-treat cycle – and it will not be brittle, either.”

“Probably will need forging dies to...” I had just emptied the drawer, which was surprisingly deep and wide, far more so than I had thought possible, and I thought to now open – with due care – that largest-of-all box. This one had four latches, one on each side, and slipping them aside made for bated breath as the upper portion suddenly 'popped up'. I then removed it, this with care more appropriate to a bomb with a hair trigger. This is what I found:

“What is that thing?” asked Sarah. The bottom half of the container remained attached to the device for 'padding' its 'delicate' bottom, much as if it were a most-sickly infant. “I've not seen one like it, not even on that tapestry I had to bathe for.”

“Mostly because they didn't show you what was in their back rooms,” said the soft voice. “They had two of those like that one there, only those had seen a lot of use and were well-worn, unlike that near-new example there.”

“How accurate is that thing?” I asked.

“Accurate to within a small fraction of a microgram,” said the soft voice. “That dial on the right is your 'fine-tune' knob, while that on the right side is the tare adjustment.” A pause, then, “look in the upper part you removed, and you'll find a set of three weighing dishes.”

I removed these, nestled securely one inside another in a soft green fabric pouch, and upon removing them from that pouch, Sarah gasped. “That thing's from Vrijlaand!”

“That expert witch managed a real coup getting two of those in here,” said the soft voice. “That one stinker would have never managed such a deal, as he was known for repaying good work with loads of stiff shot from his shotgun.”

“And that one witch dealt in g-good faith?” I gasped.

“He was known for doing so, in fact,” said the soft voice. “While most witches were expert liars and utterly untrustworthy unless compelled by force to act otherwise, some were not inclined to lie overmuch, and he – and the Mistress of the North – were commonly thought to be unusually truthful when one compared them to their fellows.” A pause, then, “there were some witches that were even more that way, however, and you've encountered one of them.”

“Who?” asked Sarah.

“You've not encountered her,” said the soft voice. “He has.”

“I-I... That dark-haired witch?” I gasped, as I tried to carefully put the lid back on the scale. One wanted 'hair-trigger' care with this thing, as it was as touchy a piece of gear as I'd ever encountered – and that included some power supplies that had to be 'right' and the tools needed for ready adjustment were utterly lacking. Hence, one needed uncommon patience and the touch of a brain-surgeon to get them 'close enough' to pass the rigorous inspection put to them.

“Yes, her,” said the soft voice. “Compared to most of the witches of her time and place, she was altogether 'different' – and hence, she had to defend her life multiple times from people like Imhotep.”

“That stinky wretch...” I muttered.

“He learned to leave her alone after she shot him,” said the soft voice. “Those bullets might not have killed him, but he never walked right again.”

“I think I know what she did, then,” said Sarah. “She drilled his kneecap.”

“She centered both of his knees,” said the soft voice, “and that with a hot-loaded hand-howitzer at close range.”

“How did she hang onto that thing?” I gasped.

Barely,” said the soft voice, “and she needed to wear plaster up to the elbows for some weeks afterward, but she called that price a cheap one so as to stay alive.” A pause, then, “her hands and wrists healed properly, unlike his knees.”

“How did he manage to walk again?” asked Sarah. “Did he know those hardening curses?”

“He was one of the first witches to know them, and he was the first to truly be 'strong' in them,” said the soft voice. “He still needed knee-braces and a cane to walk unaided from that time until the day he 'died', and he used a wheeled chair when and where he was able to do so.”

“A wh-wheelchair?” I asked.

“He was a good deal worse than Tam was when you first saw him,” said the soft voice. “He could walk with knee-braces and a cane, but he had trouble managing much more than perhaps the length of Roos before he was exhausted with the effort of chanting to make his destroyed knees behave themselves and bear his weight.”

“I doubt she got in trouble over that,” I muttered, as I thought to look further at the things I had brought out. For some reason, I felt drawn to two smaller cases, and when I unlatched the smaller of the two, I had the strangest feeling, one that made me wonder until I opened the case and drew back the cover-cloth with its sewn-in desiccant pouches.

I instantly recognized what I was seeing, and as I held it, I marveled at its new-seeming glossy nature. The polished black, mirror-finished steel, and soft-brushed silver of its frame was set off by its silky feel and aura of 'extreme precision', much like mine had where I came from, and when I turned it over – it was a micrometer, 0 to 1 size – I instantly saw a word that had me shaking.

“Why does this thing say?” I asked. It was in the precise place that set of four I had where I came from had showed that name, and this one was lettered in the exact same type of lettering as that maker had used. The resemblance was far beyond uncanny.

“Look at it closer,” said the soft voice. “Especially where it shows it's actually 'made'.”

I looked closer, and where I had expected to see 'The L. S. Starrett Co. Athol, Mass U. S. A.', I saw instead the following, printed in brilliant red, much as if the letters themselves were on fire:


'State Manufacturing Plant # 37, Design 41, Revision C, intercepted.'


“Now look down inside the case itself,” said the soft voice.

I did so, and amid the hard metallic gridwork, the soft gray cloth-faced padding, the slots for both the calibrating standard and the adjusting wrench, were the following flame-red letters spelling out words to conjure with:


'Aerospace Precision Level C, type 41 measuring device, Old Style Units.'


Old style units?” I asked. “This looks too much like the one I had to be a coincidence.”

“Mostly because it isn't a coincidence,” said the soft voice. “That's an example of a device more or less made as per what they 'grabbed' some eight to ten years prior to the war, and they counted themselves lucky to be able to get such detailed information on those and things like them.” A pause, then, “now, put that one away and put it in your bag there, along with what's in that longer small case. You can guess what that is, by the way – you had two of them where you came from, and used both of them regularly when you weren't employed otherwise.”

“D-dial C-calipers?” I asked.

“Yes, and both of those tools here having the same name as what you just put away,” said the soft voice. “They could pronounce that name if they worked at it, unlike some of those other names you might recall.”

“Mit-too...” I was finding myself unable to recall the precise Japanese name of the company that made both of my dial calipers. They were thought to be quite good by most who used them. I thought them 'decent' at the least, both for enduring and precision.

“If they grabbed words in that language, or ones of a similar nature, they could not pronounce them,” said the soft voice, “and that was so even if they attempted to program computers to speak them.” Pause, then, “you can guess what happened then.”

“Did they burst?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, at least until they implemented enough protection circuitry and altered the programming so as to prevent detonation,” said the soft voice. “Even if you try to get a computer to speak that language today, or any language of a similar nature, it will have major trouble trying to say anything – and it's equally likely, at least with current computers, that forcing such words will demand a 'hot restart'.”

“Hot restart?” I asked. For some reason, I had a picture of someone using a fire extinguisher on a computer as someone else cycled the power supplies in the correct order – almost as if they were 'rebooting' a nuclear weapon so it could be disarmed.

“That is not far removed from what used to happen when researchers would try to analyze words in languages from that part of that planet and those like them spoken on other worlds,” said the soft voice. “They and their machines could manage the language you grew up speaking passably; languages related to it fairly well for the most part – and those languages that sound closest to this one the best of all.”

“Hence Underworld German...”

“Is very common on computers that are being or have been used by witches,” said the soft voice. “I would keep that fact in mind when you go overseas.”

“Runes..?”

“Are handled graphically, if they are present,” said the soft voice. “The computers available to those labeled 'commons' cannot display or cope with those, due to their lacking the needed programming and the appropriate hardware – which is another clue, as any computer able to display them is either a cursed machine or is intended for witch-use only.”

“Cope with?” I asked, as I began to put away those items I was not to take with me.

“They might not explode or burst into flames, but they do lock-up more often than not,” said the soft voice. “That means a hot-restart, or as the term you recalled with the machines you used, a reboot.”

“Best to not to use that term,” said Sarah with a smirk, “as someone will put a boot to such a machine, much like workmen in the fifth kingdom house tend to hammer on those parts which do not fit as they should.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “More than one larger computer shows the print of functionary footwear upon its case from that term being overheard.” A pause, then, “the computer commonly ignores such abuse, due to its protection hardware and circuitry.”

“And in the past?” I asked. I was being most-careful with the scale, yet hurrying as I was able. There were but a few things left to put away, now that the scale was in its proper stowing location in the drawer, if I went by the faint darker outlines present in the light gray paint of the drawer's interior.

“Why do you think they use such language regarding computers?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “The term hot-restart came from prior to the war, when it was usually necessary to douse misbehaving computers with carbon-dioxide from one or more large fire extinguishers to prevent catastrophic misbehavior before attempting a restart from the usual reentrant points.”

“Fires?” I asked. The other tools were now going inside quickly, as the 'important ones' as to delicacy were already inside. Each of these boxes went in its designated location, for that drawer was a full-packed one when it had all it was supposed to have inside. That one witch had routinely inspected them after his 'chattels' had been busy loading his ammunition.

He might have been dead nearly a thousand years, but in this region, I could see his logic readily.

“Those, 'smoke signals', 'catastrophic self-dismantling' and 'processor-detonation',” said the soft voice. “After nearly a thousand years of hard labor, computer panics are now very rare.”

“Don't you mean 'Kernel Panic'?” I asked. I had had that happen exactly once on my home systems and those like them I had used at school. The equivalent reaction – a deep blue screen, this filled with data addresses and their memory contents – on the more-common school computers, however, was not at all rare if one worked them hard.

“If that happens when using a computer, the usual signal for a 'kernel panic' is an audio alarm that is a recording of a woman screaming,” said the soft voice, “and the result is called a computer panic – as in everyone within earshot drops what they are doing and runs for shelter in case the machine detonates.” A pause, then, “until the 'trap' routines became part of the machine-software, there were a lot of programming misdeeds that were summarily punished by computers exploding – violently, as a rule – without any warning whatsoever.”

“I do not think we wish such things, then,” said Sarah.

“They seldom do such things now,” said the soft voice. “They've built in a lot of protection circuitry and many other things since that time to prevent computers from killing those that try to use them – so they're safe enough now.”

“And in the past, they and their tendencies toward misbehaving were simply lived with,” I murmured as I put away the last items. These were special dial-type 'gages' to check primer seating, or so I guessed based on a brief inspection, which revealed what looked like a strange species of dial indicator – one with odd markings that went half-way around a face nearly three inches across. “As in 'there's a war on, and you never know when a big one is going to land on your head – so you might as well get on with the program and do something useful'. That sound about right?”

“Exactly, even down to the words most-commonly used,” said the soft voice. “Once the Mistress of the North's plans became known to any real degree, it meant 'desperation measures for real' – and dealing with computers that could kill their users with no warning whatsoever was one of those 'desperation measures' they lived with then.”

“And now, we need to find that lead-pot,” I murmured, as I closed the drawer. “Do you have any idea where it is?”

Sarah looked directly behind her, and there we saw the true 'black hole' of this place. So far, we could see the 'outer lands' of the main room from where we stood; but while in the 'black hole', one needed to take one's own light with one. While we had such light, this realm seemed a magnet to visitors such as we and a swallower of light, for even with two tent-lanterns turned up all the way and my electric torch turned up and focused carefully, it still seemed a realm piled high with darkness. I then shined my 'torch' upward, and saw the ceiling, this some eight feet away from my head – and lined up in three rows , their ends nearly touching and but an arms-span separating the rows, I saw those fat thermos-bottle bulbs, each in its pristine-looking white-painted reflector.

“End-to-end?” I murmured. “They must have needed a lot of light in here.”

“They did, which is why it's both so dark in here and also why it's so dark in general,” said the soft voice. “More, that time had uncommon darkness, even for in here, hence the numbers of those lights in areas where one needed to see clearly enough to be careful – and this was, and is, such a realm.”

“Is it trapped?” asked Sarah.

“Not any more,” said the soft voice. “Look to your right and left now.”

I did so, and as Sarah looked left, I looked right. The walls seemed to be closing in, almost as if we were in the fist of a great monster; and when I looked at one of the strange 'plastic' – opaque; it wasn't ceramic or glass; it was most definitely not metal; therefore, if these bottles were made of something even vaguely familiar, plastic was the most likely material that came to the forefront of my mind.

“Besides, that looks like a gallon jug of milk, and I've heard of small-arms propellant being sold in that type of jug.”

“Unlike those containers, these have a melting point closer to that of some metals,” said the soft voice, “and more, they are impermeable to light, gases, and heat – hence all of what you see is still more or less fresh.”

“Save where it looks cloudy,” muttered Sarah. “Or is that cloudiness the jug's trouble?”

“The material these jugs are made of is an earlier version of that ceramic armor material, and the whole container is lined with an impermeable heat-resistant plastic, which accounts for why you cannot see the dark gray-yellow grains of propellant.”

“Meaning these jugs are more or less unbreakable, and that propellant is still good,” I said, as I noted printed numbers on the jugs. A closer look showed that this number was a six-digit example, and in all cases that I could see, the dread letters 'MILNO' preceded the number, and the whole listing was ended with a '#' mark.

“And I doubt that to be a symbol used by these people to signify witchcraft,” I murmured. “I'm not sure what they meant by that symbol, but I know it isn't a 'secret marking' in this instance.”

“Were it found elsewhere, I would name it a disguised curse or mingled runes,” said Sarah. “I know someone told me about a lot of those things being hidden runes, and that was while I was at the west school still.” A pause, then, “I've heard more about them being that way since.”

More steps, and into the lair of the beast. To our left lay boxes, these white-painted metal or another species of unusually-small fiberglass bin. I took the three steps to them, Sarah at my side, and looked closer at them. I could not 'feel' anything, this good or evil, about them; but there was a distinct scent, one that I recognized as copper, and another odor, this one fainter, that I knew to be that of lead; and then finally, an odd vinegar-type odor, this mingled with fainter odors of distillate and perhaps a yet-stranger one, an odor that was of a chemical used... It took but a second to hazard a likely guess.

“Lubricant,” I muttered. “What could they be?”

“I am not sure,” said Sarah. “Those boxes are small ones, but they are heavy enough to be filled with musket-balls or glass-blower's metal.”

I reached for one, and when I touched it, I carefully felt around it with my fingers. No strings nor wires; I grasped it, moved a little, then nearly followed it to the floor when I got it off of the chest-high shelf, and set it down on another 'bench' across the three long strides of this 'cave'. A glance up again saw the three back-to-front lines of bulbs, each in its own shiny white reflector. I then saw what I had parked the box on.

“This is the lead-pot!” I screeched, “and, and it's an electric one!”

“Yes, and you'll need to run that generator upstairs to use it if you want to use it quickly,” said the soft voice.

“Today?” I gasped.

“No, not today,” said the soft voice. “It will take those people a certain amount of time to come here in numbers enough to put in alternate sources of power of sufficient strength to permit running that furnace, or for that matter, running that metalworking area upstairs – which means you will need to run that generator a number of times before they manage to redo those power sources.”

“Almost want to move the lead-pot upstairs, then,” I muttered. “Besides, what is a lead pot doing around all of this small-arms propellant?”

“The witches thought they could both chant enough to not set themselves alight while casting bullets and not blow themselves up while loading ammunition,” said the soft voice. “They never did manage to cast bullets, even if they kept the explosions to a minimum by ensuring the presses were set up by those who knew what they were doing and letting them dictate the rules in this area.” A pause, then, “besides, that expert witch had his own lead-pot, and he used that instead of the one here.”

“He probably knew you don't...”

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice, “which is why he dictated 'the rules to live by' to the arch-witch running the place and had him print them out and make anyone who wished to come down here sign those proclamations in their own blood.”

“As in 'if you don't live by them, you'll blow yourself up'?” I asked.

“He kept that portion to himself, as these were witches, and 'common sense' did not work on them,” said the soft voice. “He meant – and enforced – these rules, and he shot more than one witch who looked likely to break them.” A pause, then, “as in 'if you wish to remain alive and not die on my private altar as the object of adoration with my knife cutting your throat, you will do as I say'.”

“How could he cut their throats when he shot them?” asked Sarah.

“Most likely just, uh, 'stopped' them,” I said, “and then he dragged them screaming up the stairs and down the hallways, all the while leaving a trail of blood, until he came to his rooms – which is where he did his business.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Remember, these people weren't 'good enough' to be witch-soldiers, even if they had similar attitudes and appetites.”

“Was he?” asked Sarah.

“No, because he did not have sufficient funds,” said the soft voice, “and for someone like him to not have the needed wealth meant being altogether too close to being called a Disgrace.” A pause, then, “some very powerful people kept him alive, at least until they decided to give him up to the Mistress of the North.”

“They knew..?”

“Of just what she planned to do?” asked the soft voice. “No, but they did know she needed to kill him and a large number of other witches, and they did know the country was going to go to war very soon, and hence they checked to ensure that preparations were in full-readiness before they left her to her inclination – which happened to coincide with both theirs and that of the country as a whole.”

I opened the white box, and was stunned: here was a small card, and beneath it, row upon neat-packed row, lay ready-to-load bullets. If I went by the diameter of these nearly inch-and-a-half-long things, they went to the rifles; and when I checked the card, I noted their dimensions in millimeters.

“5.77 millimeter nominal diameter,” I murmured, recalling just how close in diameter to the figure I recalled. “That isn't a coincidence, is it?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “It's as close as they could get to what they had learned, given the needs they had for 'battle-rifle' range and killing power in a package that was 'readily managed' compared to their earlier weapons of that description.”

“Earlier..?”

“They were closer to that one that was pounding your shoulder into 'mush' at that one match,” said the soft voice. “More, that particular design wasn't nearly as 'dirt-tolerant' as what you've found in here, which is another reason why they were retired from the front-lines and sent back to the home front where they could readily be kept spotlessly clean, well-maintained, and suitably lubricated.”

“And now, separated by...” I'd found what looked like a blank portion of wall to my left, this between a pair of cabinets lined with containers of bullets; and upon my going closer, I could see clearly the green-painted outlines of an 'obvious' door. Out came the evidence-key, and upon finding a round keyhole, I did not hesitate: in went the key, the lock clicked – it wasn't cursed, unlike what I had suspected – and the door opened upon my pulling on the handle, this slow, grating, and with much groaning.

“Those hinges need oil,” said Sarah as she reached into her satchel. “I think I shall put some of that oil in one of those strange bottles that prevent escape, as there will be many such noisy hinges across the sea.”

“If you find a noisy hinge, then you may be certain that there are higher-level functionaries in the area,” said the soft voice, “and I do not mean those that wear blue clothing, or those that once wore it, but a good deal higher-up than any of those people.”

“And hence dosing such hinges will make it easier to achieve surprise,” I murmured. “One wants to surprise them.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. I could hear genuine curiosity.

“Because they're going to have information,” I said, “and I – no, we – will have questions for them to answer.” A pause, then, “failing such answers, then getting surprise will make it easier to kill them – and we will need to do that in any case, as without them alive and issuing orders, the thugs that remain will sit around and do nothing.” I paused again, then said, “and that's something that I need to ask Rachel so as to be certain of the truth.”

“Of what?” asked Sarah. “What to do with those overseers?”

“Them also,” I said. “I have no idea how many layers of 'oversight' there are in that place, but it's not enough to just kill off every blue-suited thug you see.” A pause, then, “you have to take out their leaders, also – at least, enough of those readily-accessible leaders that the true 'upper-crust' has no way of readily enforcing its will.” Another pause, then as I looked to see what looked like a strange 'armored cupboard' filled with white-painted wooden 'boxes', I asked, “what are these things?”

“Primers,” said the soft voice. “That vault was done to the designs used by this country for its rifle and pistol primers, which were a lot more hazardous to use than these.”

“These things..?”

“Are a bit hotter and somewhat more sensitive than those you once used,” said the soft voice, “which is why they're in safety packing – and no, that material you see is not wood, but that wood substitute using a whitish-gray 'primer-binder' to indicate what they are.” Pause. “More, I would leave them in those packages in this vault until you are actually ready to load them into the reloading machines.”

“The sizes?” I asked.

Size,” said the soft voice. “There may be multiple strengths of primer, but all weapons primers you'll find in that vault, at least for small arms, are of one size.” Pause. “Across the sea, small-arms primers have always been but the one size, which is roughly midway between the two you once used.”

“Strengths?” I asked. I'd heard about that concept regarding primers before, as I recalled there being 'regular' primers, and 'Magnum' primers – though for some odd reason, I wanted to add a 'b' sound to the end of 'Magnum' to give Magnumb.

“Proportionate to the weapon and cartridge,” said the soft voice. “Pistol primers have thinner metal 'cups', and those for smaller pistols have a smaller 'dose' of priming composition compared to the 'rifle-sized dose' used in those for the larger pistol rounds – while the rifle examples have a thicker cup to withstand higher pressures, as well as a hotter mix for the larger cartridges.” A pause, then, “they're quite hard to tell apart from the metal side, even if the composition cover-paper is dyed to color-code them to prevent mixing them up – and that was another matter that automation aspect for those presses addressed, as they checked for the possible 'color-codes' in primers and stopped the press if a wrong primer was about to be loaded.”

I carefully closed the door to the primer vault after first trying to 'plumb its depth' with my arm. It wasn't quite wide enough me to go inside of it, even if its depth was such that I could not feel its back wall; and when Sarah pointed out the 'hoe' hanging on the back side of the vault's door, I wondered why it was present. Sarah, however, had a most-ready answer.

“To move those boxes in there, most likely,” said Sarah. “It looks like something one might use in a larger fourth-kingdom bakery to mix bread, and they use them up here for moving loaves around, at least in the busier Public Houses.” A pause, then, “I've seen August use a baker's hoe, in fact, and he's planning on having his oven redone soon.”

“And your cousin..?” I wondered why I asked, other than I might be seeing this woman in the very near future.

“Once thought such a hoe to be for weeding potatoes,” said Sarah, “and her aunt told her otherwise, as that family bakes a lot of bread.”

“Enough for...” I paused, then, “they have a small town, almost – about eight, maybe nine families, this tall stockade surrounding the central 'square' where people actually live, two three-inch guns...”

“They had two guns when I left for the higher schools,” said Sarah. “Knowing them, they've gotten at least one more since then, and I suspect they know someone who casts tubes.”

“What?” I asked.

“I think this to be a most-uncommon foundry,” said Sarah, “and I doubt them to do much of such casting, hence they could not keep the first kingdom in guns.” A pause, then, “getting replacement tubes needed speaking to those people in the fall so one could get them early next spring, and one had to provide them with the bronze one wished – and that in unalloyed form, as they did that portion.”

“The marshes,” I muttered, “and the reason why they wanted raw copper and tin and...”

“They turn out some very unusual guns,” said Sarah. “Those things are not the commonplace for cannon, as they are tight enough to want greased leather patches shaved to an even thickness, and then they do not get tears in them easily.” Sarah paused, this to look around. “They stay tight for a lot longer than the few years Willem might get out of his, even when loaded hotter than is common for the first kingdom, and I think some of them might have cut grooves.”

“Honed bores, also,” I murmured. “That one place that no longer casts them... They didn't bore the guns there, did they?”

“No, as either Machalaat or one of two other firms did so,” said the soft voice. “Machalaat might be able to bore more tubes by this fall, but by then, they won't be needed up here.”

“Why now?” asked Sarah. “Those three witches...”

“They had something to do with that foundry's being 'bought out', but that one Power had much more – which is why getting that one foundry back in action won't be that hard, now that that man and his sizable retinue are dead.”

“Get the king onto them,” I said. “Gather up those people...”

“He will,” said the soft voice. “Give him perhaps a week, and some crown 'reckoners' will be looking at the place with the goal of both its refurbishment and its reopening.” A pause, then, “the first kingdom isn't the only place that loads its guns hot.”

“They tend to not do that in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah, “but if Willem had a hand in siting those guns, he probably told them to stuff those guns like his namesake up here tends to.”

We passed more cabinets, these lined with bullets and jugs of powder, then the very end, a blank wall showed. I looked, first to the right, then the left, and saw two cabinets, these uncommonly sturdy-looking, studded with hundreds of rivets – granted, smaller than fifteen-line, if I went by their heads, but these people made up for their smaller size by sheer numbers – and locked, again with round-keyhole locks to the right of their paired central doorhandles. I put the key in the one on the right, a faint click sounded – and of themselves, both handles lifted up to a right angle to their former facing-downward positions. I 'looked', and saw no traps; then, I opened the right door of the pair.

The left followed it open – the doors seemed linked together somehow – and Sarah gasped; she then squeaked, “what are those things?”

“Ray-guns, dear,” I murmured. “Or, at least we were told these things could act like them.” I reached toward one of the 'huge' weapons, then as I grasped its cold-feeling 'laminated' stock and 'huge' barrel, I felt reminded of a certain weapon, one of such intense and ferocious recoil....

“While these do kick – much like what you usually shoot does – they're better suited to firing from a rest,” said the soft voice. “More, unlike what you usually shoot, these have the fully-realized optical sighting equipment from that one designer, and finally, their stocks adjust for a given shooter's physique – which you''ll want to do with some care before firing one of them.”

I took one out, and wilted under its weight. It had to weigh at least thirty pounds, and when I looked over the breech area, I was astonished to see a bolt handle. I lifted that up out of its notch at the rear of the 'enormous' receiver, then of its own weight, the bolt slowly slid back, this slow as chilled molasses and as noiselessly as the grave; and when the multi-lug bolt-head showed itself, its 'massive' size made me gasp.

It was easily an inch and a quarter across, with that speckled finish that indicated both careful honing and the equivalent of a 'hard-chrome' finish.

“What kind of ammunition did these things take?” I squeaked.

“Look in the upper of the two lower drawers,” said the soft voice, “and there you'll find the armorer's manuals, the cleaning equipment, and some of the ammunition needed for those.”

I put the 'huge' rifle back, noting as I did so the barrel near the breech. This was easily half again as thick as that of my rifle, and when I stood back for an instant, I muttered, “it's nearly as big as what I shoot, too.”

“It looks to weigh more,” said Sarah. “Does it?”

“Y-yes,” I whispered. “It feels like it weighs nearly twice as much, and I'll bet it needs every ounce of that weight.”

“It does,” said the soft voice. “You'll know why when you see the ammunition.”

The drawer held all that it was stated as having, with the cleaning kits in long fabric 'tool rolls', and the 'manual-set' – both user's and 'armory' manuals – in a smaller camouflaged satchel. The cleaning kits fit inside these, and when I laid one out on the floor, the number – and nature – of the tools themselves were astonishing, as all of these had a distinct aspect of not merely careful hand-finishing, but also a soft and lustrous muted gray-black mottled finish.

“Did they..?”

“Yes, and using a form of that material you've heard of today,” said the soft voice. “That gave a tool that was at once 'easy' to forge and then machine, while simultaneously becoming very strong, very hard, unbreakable even given severe abuse, and then somewhat corrosion-resistant in the bargain – and that while making them in truly large quantities.”

“They cooked them?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, using a special mixture that added much more than just 'surface carbon',” said the soft voice. “More, that particular mixture penetrates much faster and far deeper than what happens when you use a cooking can and fine-ground charcoal mixed with a small amount of Anna's over-aged rye flour and then dosed with 'used' motor-oil' before putting it in a coal-loaded crucible furnace overnight.”

“Why do you do that?” asked Sarah.

“It increases the rate and depth of carbon impregnation,” said the soft voice, “and more, it isn't nearly as tricky to avoid trouble when you've got people playing games with some of your batch work.”

“Luting those cans is just to make sure no one attempts to open them,” I muttered. “I recall seeing signs of tampering once or twice with those things some months ago, so I started coating them with clay to keep people out of them when I left them in the forges to cook – that, and to keep the carbon in the metal and not let it escape into the fire.”

“I knew you did that with those sword-boxes, but I had no idea you did that with those other things,” said Sarah, “and I really wondered about you getting Anna's older flour that she was going to put out on the manure pile.”

“For the charcoal, dear,” I said. “That and a bit of sawdust, also.”

“I know what that will do,” said Sarah with a smirk. “It will put soot on them should they open such a can, as that stuff will catch fire the instant air hits it.” A pause, then, “what is in those wooden boxes there?”

I picked up one of the hefty things, then carefully carried it to the nearest flat surface above the floor. There, I shined my 'torch' upon it, and noted careful execution, a prominent grain brought out by something similar in appearance to 'hand-rubbed drying oil', finger-jointed corners, and brass latches and hinges. These latter were still bright, though how they could have remained bright was a minor miracle given the time since their being made. I felt the box, then popped open both latches.

The lid lifted up, very slightly, almost like the mouth of a snake ready to strike.

Instead of terror, I felt a thrill of excitement; and when I lifted up the lid, the first thing I saw was the plastic-laminated card. The top was blank, save for the title:


“Ammunition for Type 31 long-range rifle”


and, on the other side of this card, I saw the following:


5.94 g #4623 propellant, 9.52 g. bullet, nominal case and primer.”

I put aside the card, then saw the soft fuzzy white fabric. I carefully felt what it hid, and knew this to be the ammunition spoken of. With trepidation, I lifted the fabric; and there, lined up in a row, lay ten cartridges, each one nearly four inches in overall length, with over an inch of that being the projectile. I picked one up, and admired the long, graceful bullet, this of a faintly shiny 'copper' color faintly tinged with streaky traces of tin, and then, at its very tip, a blue plastic 'spike'.

“What gives with that blue thing on the end?” asked Sarah. “Is that a strange species of writing instrument?”

“N-no,” I said. “That's the bullet, and I've heard of bullets like this.”

“What did they do?” asked Sarah.

“They were used for hunting,” I said, “and they tended, to, uh, make big holes in animals.”

“These do a bit more than 'make big holes',” said the soft voice. “Recall how I said you might think you were shooting a ray-gun with these?”

I nodded.

“That may not be one of those fabled large-caliber weapons that one man told you about using overseas, where he'd fire it and then pick up his binoculars to see the impact of the bullet,” said the soft voice, “but in terms of its range and what it does to its targets, it's fully as deadly as what he was using.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “Probably kicks like one of those, uh, things.” I'd heard of rifles firing 'huge' cartridges, these used for 'long-range sniping' – and their ability to kill at unbelievable ranges bordered that of 'fables' – even if I knew the man who had told me was not known for lying, and he had fought in two major wars in a somewhat 'unconventional' capacity, based on I had heard of his 'war-stories'.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That bullet design is loosely based on an intercept, and it would not be permitted where you came from – at least, it would not be permitted in warfare.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. “Doesn't it work?”

“It does, and it works very well indeed,” said the soft voice. “They had a lot of not-terribly-intelligent rules regarding warfare in that place, most of which were stated by well-meaning people who, with few exceptions, never really understood the true nature of war.”

“I'm not sure I understand it,” I muttered.

“Oh, you do,” said the soft voice. “You know the way the enemy is here, and how he was where you came from, and how your enemies in both places didn't listen to soft words – at least, they didn't listen when you spoke them.” Pause, then, “in reality, there is only one rule in war, and you know what that rule is.”

“Woe to the vanquished,” I muttered. “That's all I ever got in that place, at least from most people, and I suspect witches think and do the precise same thing here.”

“Got it in one,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, the enemy – in both places – responds especially to pain, death, and suffering, and doesn't listen to anything else from those they regard as prey; and the only thing that matters when you are fighting such beings is 'how you can destroy them utterly', leaving no survivors.”

“That's off of a tapestry,” said Sarah. “The witches killed much, but Charles tried to kill everything he possibly could, at least if he thought them witches or the chattels of witches.”

“Not 'as many as possible', dear,” I said quietly. “This time, it's got to be all of them – and hence this kind of weapon – or for that matter, any and all weapons we can get our hands on – are mandated so as to achieve that particular commanded goal.” A pause, then as I turned the base of the cartridge up to note first its obvious thickly rimmed nature, then the surprisingly small-looking hemispherical primer, I murmured, “we've got to take at least one of these rifles on the trip, though how we're going to carry something this large is a mystery.”

“The boxes, easily,” said Sarah. “We can put those in a smaller satchel, but for a rifle that's that large, I think you are right.”

“Is there a c-case for one of these?” I asked.

“Second drawer, the one at the very bottom,” said the soft voice. “Six well-padded and waterproof cases, one for each weapon and its cleaning supplies.”

“Are there only six of these, or..?”

“The cabinet across the room from this one has six more, for a total of twelve, and then the ammunition is far more plentiful than you might think.”

“Uh, in here?” I asked.

“Yes, which is why they laid in so much powder,” said the soft voice. “Each of those jugs you've seen holds five kilograms, and there's twenty jugs of that propellant here – and there's a lot of such supplies in general, both in this room and out on the floor.”

“How much were they going to shoot these things?” I gasped. I meant more than the rifle I was now attempting to put in its case. The zipper was a trifle balky through non-use, and a small dab of deodorized tallow on the brass teeth helped immensely.

“The Mistress of the North intended this to be a 'redoubt' of sorts, which is why she stocked it as she did,” said the soft voice, “and then, the environment this location was to find itself in upon the war's commencement had been rumored to be more than a little 'troublesome'.” A pause, then, “those rumors were but the faint odor of that mule, and they encountered the mule itself – and more than a few witches died because of some of the things that showed during the worst portion of that time.” A pause, then, “you'll get a somewhat better idea of what they endured in the very near future.”

“Oh, no,” I murmured. “Is this a nightmare...”

“Similar concept, but otherwise, altogether different,” said the soft voice. “Manipulating time and space tends to do 'weird' things, as you are well aware of, but what happens when witches do that, and what happens to those who aren't witches, are two very different things.”

And still, for a second, a faint, ghostly, and 'furry-sounding' voice – a most-familiar voice, in fact – mouthed softly the two words: “Purple Haze...”

As Sarah and I continued packing up the supplies we needed to take one of these 'monster rifles' – the weapon itself, three boxes of ammunition, the manuals, tools, and cleaning equipment – I could tell something was again gnawing at her; and while I recalled something from earlier about a nightmarish time where she wished to scream until she bled, I wondered if it was the same or a different nightmare.

“Those words were in my nightmare,” said Sarah. “That music that started it spoke those two words, and did so many times, and I could not tell if it were...” Sarah looked around and saw the darkness that seemed to once more be descending as we left its densest realm for the outer sanctum, then continued, “it was like this, only darker, and more, it was filled with this strange-colored fog...”

“Not what witches say?” I asked. I knew they liked to speak of 'night and fog' being those times most propitious for hunting those innocent lives they wished to 'break' before sending their sacrifices to Brimstone's plate.

“N-no witch could endure anything like what I saw in my dream,” said Sarah with shuddering, “and I s-suspect they would wish to be gnawed by Brimstone instead of being in that kind of a place.”

“They were glad they got the mule and not the donkey,” said the soft voice, “as those whose writings they read regarding time and space manipulation were not witches – and those stinkers were really glad they didn't get 'a big black one'.”

“L-like Jaak,” I said. “As b-black as the black sack itself, where you don't need wings to fly.”

“Where did you see that?” shrieked Sarah. “That was on that tapestry I bathed for!”

“Uh, I once got into the cloud while alone and needing to hurry,” I said, “and he was at a full gallop, which he did without bidding when I 'tucked in'.” We were at the junction of clutching darkness and mere shadow, and I could see the others 'laboring' as if death itself were stalking them patient and relentless. Sarah coughed, then tried to spit.

“What happened then?” asked Sarah.

“We got home in a very great hurry,” I said softly, “so rapidly that there was this booming noise like thunder that followed us.” A pause, then, “I've heard that noise before, and it means...” I paused, this to try to think of how to speak of exceeding the speed of sound, and came up blank.

“They speak overseas of 'breaching the sound-wall',” said the soft voice, “and yes, they have much literature on that subject, including documents speaking of 'trips' to the very edges of 'where the sky ends'.”

“Above the sky?” gasped Sarah.

“Yes,” said Katje as we came up to where she was carrying the satchel one of the carts had came in. The cart was 'apart' for portaging. “Now we shall become most-dizzy, for we must take them and this stuff on up the stairs.” A pause, then, “and I think the two of us” – meaning herself and me – “should wear these suites until we are out of this room.”

“You might wish to remain in yours until you are ready to set on a cot with some cough medicine,” said the soft voice. “That's another reason for wishing to remain here until it is 'full-dark', as you do not wish to spread that sickness around right now.”

“Did I get it from being in here?” asked Katje in alarm.

“No, but you did get it from those witches who once 'took' your town,” said the soft voice. “Not only does the crae have a lengthy incubation period compared to many sicknesses on the continent, but what is not known is that its chief vectors are witches.”

“The witches give people the crae?” I asked. “How? Do they use it as a biological warfare agent?”

“Intentionally, no,” said the soft voice. “Recall how witches do not react to bugs like non-witches do?”

I nodded.

“That isn't the only thing they become 'immune' to,” said the soft voice. “The crae is but one illness nearly all witches 'carry' with relatively few symptoms.”

“Was that what... Does that stuff like datramonium fumes?” I was grasping at straws, and knew it, even if i clearly recalled Freek and his 'lung infection' that had him coughing green sputum.

“Yes, it does,” said the soft voice. “Datramonium feeds the crae and several other less-common illnesses, as it originally was a biological-warfare agent – a cursed biological warfare agent, one used against non-witches in that long-ago war.” A pause, then, “that cursing made it ignore witches, provided they were strong enough – and today's witches usually aren't that strong, so they all have it.”

“And strong drink...”

“Keeps them from dying from it, provided they consume it in quantity on a daily basis,” said the soft voice. “Because they're witches, though, that ailment likes them – as part of its cursing was for people to either 'become entire monsters, or entire true-witches', and that cursing means the crae regards most witches as 'fence-pole-sitters' who need to get serious.”

“Be either hot or cold,” I muttered. It was a short quote from the book.

“And I shall be glad to be shut of this cold, even if I should become hot while working,” said Sarah. “I think we had best get to it, as this cold-room is not getting warmer.”

Since I was 'the worst affected' by dizziness – Katje's observation, not mine; I might have felt dizzy on such staircases, but I tended to keep going regardless – I first stayed on the bottom to organize our materials better, then I was the last person in the chain handing up the bags and bundles. I could hear and feel people moving back and forth up their short range of steps as they each hustled up the half-circle or so they could manage without becoming unduly dizzy, or so I thought as I carried another bundle to Karl, who had the first 'circuit'. He grabbed it from my hands, leaped up the stairs, then came back down by the time I had returned with another larger satchel.

“Us moving like this is getting decent air down to where I can breathe,” he said while attempting to cough. “Still, I will be glad we can get out of this place and its cold and bad air.”

“Me too,” I said, with a shiver. That meant I needed to 'get into some beer' which I did intermittently as I handed up satchel after satchel.

The bags and bundles seemed endless, but as those bags within ready reach came to an end, I wondered: had we gotten some torment-grease from that one container, as well as some of that 'restricted' lubricant? I asked Karl, who did not know at first, but when I came back the second time after, he said, “Katje used two of those brass drink-containers, and had us fill one each.”

“G-good,” I murmured. “We're covered there.”

The next bag, however, needed me going further, and I spoke of needing to move the remaining mounds closer. That seemed a matter of a general exodus both downstairs and upstairs, and those who were at the upper reaches came down to help me. With the remaining bags now within easy reach of where I was standing, the bag-handlers resumed their places on the stairs, only instead of having Karl as the first person, that individual was Sepp. He looked a lot better for his time spent breathing 'air'.

“We got three of those carts back together,” he said, “and the stuff we bring up now should be going on them.”

“Use all of them...” I paused, then said, “no, just five at a time, as we need a sixth person to shed light on matters, and I hope that Gabriel's so worn out that he remains asleep during the trip...”

“He'll be trussed, most likely, just like he was when he was calling down the witches on us coming back from the fifth kingdom,” said Sepp. “I know that Katje at the least plans to speak with those working him, if they haven't done that business already.”

“And blindfolded, with a raw-leather gag and a cloth hood over his head, so he sees nothing until he's taken all the way back to the kingdom house – where Lukas can untie him and brandish his awl and tell him straight out he's got half a mind to clean both of Gabriel's ears with it, on account of his rank treason,” I muttered. “We have to take him on the trip, but I've got much of a mind to keep him on a rope leash for the duration”

“You won't need to,” said the soft voice. “Between what you did the night before last and what those people have been doing for the last several hours, he's now totally frightened out of his wits.”

“Not terrified enough, though,” I said. “That needs to happen, as while he might think he can fool me, and he underestimates Sarah... He does not underestimate Lukas or Gilbertus, and he knows both of those men will kill him and think nothing about it.”

“Oh, he's learned more about you, also,” said the soft voice. “Hans put some stripes on him himself, while spewing oaths at him as if he were whipping Cardosso himself.”

“What?” I asked.

“He heard about what Gabriel had done here,” said the soft voice, “and when he learned that, he found a stock-whip and laid on stripes two-handed until he was tired, and he swung that whip his hardest, no matter how Gabriel screamed or how the blood ran down his back. He called him a stinking witch, one who loved Brimstone, and Hans wanted to shoot him right then and there with his revolver after he was done ripping his back up with that whip.” Pause, then, “only Willem himself was able to calm him down enough to just put the lash to him, and when he looked at Hans, he knew – and smelled – the change wrought in him since he'd last seen him.”

“And Anna?” I asked.

“He'd best stay clear of her,” said the soft voice. “Hans has some patience remaining with people like Gabriel, even after he ate grass in hell. Anna never had much patience, especially with sluggards, and for the likes of him – now, she has none whatsoever.”

“She won't use a spoon,” I muttered. “She'll use a fowling piece loaded with stiff shot, and not give two coppers for the mess it makes in her kitchen. She'll name that mess a cheap one now.”

“Do not underestimate the change eating grass in hell did to her,” said the soft voice. “She may have been ignorant, and more than a little lazy in some aspects, but she was never hardened to change to the degree Hans was – and hence she needed less time and less grass, and that to go much further.” A pause, then, “she still has some distance to go, however, and that will happen before this harvest.”

“What?” I asked.

The sense I had was 'it is far better that you not know, as that will not make matters better, but make them worse', followed by 'it will make her a much better person, and that in all respects', and finally, I seemed to look at my hand, and saw it – and much of my arm, and indeed the entire left side of me – burnt to a crisp, and all about me, I smelled the reek of distillate.

“S-she gets burned,” I murmured.

“Be glad there will be good treatment then,” said the soft voice. “Those burns, especially when they cover half the body like that, are not easily survived in the five kingdoms – but she'll get a much better grade of treatment than you would think possible here.”

“And so she'll be m-marked then,” I murmured. “Most of that stuff will grow back, save for... Fingers? Toes?”

There was no answer, save the waiting aspect of Sepp, and as I put the last of the bags in his hands, I went to gather up all of my supplies, including the jug of beer. With that, I went into the vestibule, and began to slowly – and wearily – climb the stairs.