Nightmare convoy – or is it only a night-time sojourn into hell?


The silvery third-kingdom lantern, turned down, had provided our light while Maarten had spoken the blessing over the Abbey, tearing it away from its former dedication to Brimstone; and now, we would return to our labors. Our small column – nearly a dozen, actually – came into that huge room we knew as 'The Upper Alley', and Sarah pulled upon my 'suite' near where my shirt would normally be, this while we still were in the relative darkness behind a thick column at the rear of the room.

“You two will need to cloak up,” said Willem. “I can feel some witches about, and not all of 'em is trying to leave. Some o' those fools are trying to sneak into the camp so as to cause trouble.”

“Do you mean those from the Valley?” asked Sarah, as I was helped into my cloak and its hood put up once the front was buttoned securely. I now merely looked 'somewhat strange', or so I gathered.

“Not them,” said Willem. His laconic words – he wasted nothing, especially speech, which made me wonder about him – were for others; and I soon found out who they were. “Strangest witches I ever did see, even if I've seen 'em before. They bathe regular, cause I've watched 'em do it, and they come clean enough, but they still smell like they ain't bathed in a dog's age.”

“Those are witches, then,” said Gustav. “Witches smell, baths or no baths, and they cannot wash the stink of hell out of their hides or their clothing.”

“They try, though,” said Willem. “Every time I smell someone who smells like they've bathed in aquavit recent, I shoot them on the spot when I'm down south, as every single time I've done that, I've cut their clothing off and found ink-markings that speak of who owns 'em.”

“Tricky plain-dressed stinkers,” I muttered. “They're all over down there, and they need loads of stiff shot so they go down and stay down.”

“Now that's the truth, and that's what I use when I can't get hard musket balls for what I shoot,” said Willem. “Now, if you're ever in the mind for another rifle like those you shoot, I'd like one, but somehow I doubt you're going to be shooting it that much any more, 'cept if you're after elk when they're in the mood. That sound about right?”

I had no words for the man, save a handful – and those were “did you see certain bags, these marked with pink chalk..?”

“We kept those separate,” said Sepp, “and he found the ones we missed. All of those are separate, and if they are not in Sarah's buggy already, then they will go there.” A pause, then, “now, how will we bag up those things you hid?”

“That's easy,” said Willem. “Two or three that he trusts most, some o' those green bags, and the rest of us get to work loading up what we have ready in those buggies and wagons what are waiting for 'em.” A pause, then, “I know there's more people coming, and I put sentries out on the road so's to guide them in.”

“Armed sentries, I trust?” I asked.

“With rifles, and them having 'em knowing how to shoot,” said Willem. “Those might not be done much down in the fourth kingdom, save by a few places, but there are people who both have them and can hold steady enough to make shots past a hundred paces easy if they can see what they're shooting at.”

“And no witch can eat their lead and stand more than a second or two,” said Gustav.

“'Specially if you center their chest,” said Willem. “You like to do that, as every one of the seven you shot that I've gotten a close look at since we set sail had a hole right there.” Pause, then as Katje finished putting on her cloak – she was not doing well; she was now obviously sick – “only one place better, and that's their heads.”

“He likes to dot their eyes or clean their ears, and I have heard of him putting soot on them that way,” said Karl. “That is for pistols. For other things, it does not matter much, as if he hits them with what he shoots, they do not live long, even if they're hiding themselves behind sheet iron.”

“The third eyehole, Karl,” said Sepp. “I wish I could shoot that good.”

“We'll have our chance tonight,” I said grimly. “Now for it, and to do our utmost. We'll need to shoot our way into Roos, most likely.”

“Now that is the truth,” said Willem, with the sparse speech that marked him. “I hope you're doing most o' that shootin', 'cause any witches we see tonight are going to be good at hiding and they're not going to be running those lanterns they like.” A glance upward, then, “not much of a moon, at least yet.”

“They'll draw their coach-blinds, sir,” said Sarah. “They do that as a rule, but I think these people will do as their master wishes just the same.” A pause, then, “they do not know he wishes fresh meat, and them to provide it.”

“Amen,” said Maarten. “Now let us labor as we can, and work as we ought.”

Maarten's enigmatic-sounding speech soon grew meaning, as I found myself the 'load-master' regarding speech as to what was to go where, for while the others, even Katje, could carry a great deal – Katje was simply slower, and carried smaller bags than was the rule – I had to give much of my attention to supervision. I made certain that each buggy, when crewed by a member of our party, had a bag with one of those gray-black rifles in it; and while the others were 'away' gathering and moving bags, I systematically wiped each weapon's internal portions with a rag damp with that bluish oil, and slipped in a magazine of 'thirty' rounds. To this, next to the rifle, I put one of the worked-over Tosser pistols, this well-oiled with an awl dipped in motor-oil; and when Sepp suddenly came upon me slipping a loaded magazine in his pistol – the bag was marked with his name using white chalk, so it was going in one of the buggies he would drive back to the house proper – he smiled.

“Good that you're making sure,” he whispered. “I'd hate to come upon witches and not be able to send them where they belong.”

I looked up, then noted the partly cloud-hidden moon. It was still hidden by the Abbey's tall bulk, but I could tell it had risen in the west. “Not much chance for shooting, least until I start things.”

“I know,” he said. “You've started plenty of witches today, and I can shoot with my ears as well as my eyes. Done it lots of time with deer, and I took home my share of dead ones.”

About midway through our loading, I paused in my 'supervision' to bag up those things specially that I had hidden under my ground-sheet earlier, and as I put the full-loaded machine gun and its things into a bag, Sarah came up to help me. She had news, also.

“Paul and Willem just pulled in,” she said, “and it's nearly full-dark, as the sun has completely hidden itself, and the moon is most-hidden yet.”

“Will they slow us up?” I asked. I put another 'pouch' of belted rounds in the 'gun' bag. There was an entirely separate bag for the gun itself, which I wanted handy in Sarah's buggy. I somehow knew I would need it.

“I doubt it,” said Sarah. “I can tell Willem's put in some work on his wagon, as his wheels are quiet for a change, and Paul's just put something like grease to his instead of tallow.”

“And two extra horses for each team,” I said. “They borrowed them, didn't they?”

“I think they did – at least Paul did,” said Sarah. “Willem always has had more than two horses, as he's got enough plots to need to hire someone to help with plowing while he's doing his bit behind one of those things, and then there's his bulls.” A pause, then, “he's got three yoke of bulls, and a big pasture for the gun-horses, too, and then some bigger-yet fields for the hay he cuts.”

“Gun-horses?” I asked.

“They're used for towing guns, and are accustomed to the noise of guns, also,” said Sarah. “Here, put that bag in there, as you'll wish more than the one belt I saw you put inside that one.” A pause, then, “here, this is for that front part there. You want this brass piece here in it, as it has the smallest hole of the five.”

“But won't it run, then?”

“It would have trouble running with Karl, most likely, but I do not wish you to need much rubbing with Komaet, certainly not tonight,” said Sarah. “We've much to do yet, and that before we sleep, and then an early start tomorrow, one while it is still dark in the west.” A pause, then, “and I can tell my feet will wish rubbing tonight.”

I was hoping she'd say something like that, as I wanted to rub them and play with her hair.

And an audience with Hendrik,” said the soft voice. “He'll want to at least see you use a few of those weapons.”

“That will take hours, won't it?”

“An audience of himself, Maria, and perhaps three people past those currently wearing greens?” asked the soft voice. “Pretty much all you'll need to do is fire an example of each weapon once, give some pointers to those who might need to use them while you're gone on the trip – at least right then – and then you'll be able to go once you answer what questions those present might have.” A pause, then, “they won't have many, at least right then they won't.” The implications were too obvious for me: there would be plenty of questions later – but later, I would have time for such 'show and tell'.

“We shall have helpers, also,” said Sarah. “Hans and Anna will go with us, at least to the house, as they need to help with the wedding arrangements, and then...”

“Andreas, also,” I murmured softly. “We'll need to see him, and not just for what goes on your first finger of your right hand. There's more, and not merely a necklace.” A pause, then, “I'm not sure what that extra might be, either – he might have your pack there, as he's had to make some parts for it – something about good buckles – and it might still be getting put together where they do leather.”

His visit will take perhaps half a turn of a glass,” said the soft voice, “and the demonstration at the house's 'gunnery-range' perhaps a full glass – and then up through town to that one shop where Sarah needs some supplies, a turn south onto a disused road that runs south-southeast to reach that town where her cousin lives, a quick five to ten minutes there to water your horses and give her her bag with the needed instructions and to pick up that one woman, then it's off to Ploetzee – and how long you spend there depends on how much you need to do while you're there, as speech with Rachel won't take very long.” A pause, then, “figure a very long day tomorrow, and not much less of one the day after.”

“That sounds like we will be most-sore, and that everywhere,” said Sarah.

“That second day you'll be teaching a handful of guards and some few other people how to handle and clean new weapons,” said the soft voice. “None of these people will be dullards, by the way. The rest of that day, though – you'll be resting up for the day after.”

“When we are not checking our supplies, and possibly packing them,” said Sarah as a rejoinder. “There.” She stood, as did I, and we carried out our bags to 'our' buggy.

There were three turned-down third-kingdom lanterns present outdoors on tall metal stands, and lined tongue-to-'tail-piece' in a row, Sarah's buggy in the lead, were a line of no less than eight buggies and wagons. One of them was the other one from where we lived, even if Hans himself was not present where I could see him. I soon learned why: he was speaking with Willem and Paul, who had just arrived with their vehicles and teams, and they were near or at the end of the line, if I went by the sound of Hans' speech.

“My, Paul has a bigger buggy than I thought he might have,” I said, as Sarah led me back down the now-truly disintegrating steps with the words, “there's no time for us to gossip, even if Hans needs to speak with those two men about why they were called some hours ago and how important their coming is.”

Those words seemed to get us all to 'put our backs into it', as Karl's muttered speech put it, and we were destroying those steps in a hurry with our rapid travel up and down them. The scrabble of 'full-hobnail' sets of boots seemed to be the gnawing noises of a thousand irritated mother rats as we dodged each other while carrying full loads of bags; and now, I found the one chief trouble with what I was wearing – and more, what I was breathing.

“One dare not run far nor fast in these things, and forget about working hard in them,” I gasped. “They don't flow enough air!”

“Yes, for you they don't,” said the soft voice. “Be glad this portion of the night is nearly done.” A brief pause, then, “I would resume your job as load-master, as your labor is needed there.”

I needed no further urging upon hearing that; I went outside, and as the others continued to pour up and out with their bundles and bags and then back into the further darkness of the Abbey, I found that both I and Sarah needed to act as 'load-masters' – or, as my private joke, one which I told no one thenload-monsters.

“No, you wretch,” spat Sarah – who seemed to 'get' the unspoken joke a bit too well, if I went by her irritation. “You do not put that bag on the end of your buggy. You don't wish to be scattered to the thirteen corners of Hell, do you?”

“Why, what is in it?” asked Paul innocently. “Mining dynamite?”

“I'd do as she said,” growled Willem – the fourth kingdom version, though I could tell the local man of that name was inclined toward similar speech. “Now how is it you're supposed to be a bomber and you don't take care o' such things right?”

“That is because he has his wife for such things,” said Hans with a knowing voice I had but heard him use perhaps once before, “and she is not here to keep him out of trouble that way.” Hans asked, this slyly, “she has been working too much, has she?”

“No, not that,” said Paul. “Three children, and all of them about halfway between diapers and school, so they need a lot of watching this time of the night.”

“That is when they are sick or something,” said Hans. “Usually that age of child is in bed by now.”

Usually, he says,” I thought. “Given just who their mother is, and how I'd bet a tall stack of gold monsters she's marked? They're real handfuls about this age if they're that way, and it's a pure marvel she can get them to sleep when they've a mind to go 'fetch' something!” I then was in a true quandary, and Sarah came up beside me.

“You're right, they do need watching between the hours of sundown and bedtime, because I've helped her more than once with them,” said Sarah. “I was said to be likewise, and I know that age among my relatives was said to be the most laborious of all in raising children.” A pause, then, “I saw enough of them when they were of that age, so I doubt much that I heard lies.”

“And ours...” I gasped, as I pointed to the best place for a bag. “What will ours be like?”

You'll have help, and lots of it,” said the soft voice – who implied that not merely would this help be numerous, but also well-trained, at least as much as Anna was likely to be by that time. “Those children will need watching, as they will be very strange children – children of a type not seen in hundreds of years.”

“Oh, my,” gasped Sarah. “They will be marked, and...”

“Perfect little monsters, in fact,” I thought. “Get into everything, just like I used to do when I was small...”

Sarah looked at me in what was the very picture of horror. If ever I had seen her frightened, genuinely so, I was seeing it now; and she said, this in a faint voice, “so I was told.”

“Told?” I asked. I wanted to ask by whom and regarding what, even as I looked up and noted that the buggy in front of where I was standing needed help with its loading. It looked 'lopsided', and more, the bags needed actual 'sorting', as they would take a lot less time to bring indoors if done that way, unlike their current state.

“Who taught you to load vehicles?” shouted Sarah. “You are no freighter!”

“Neither are you, dear,” said Willem. “Now I will allow he don't know much about this business, as I don't know him from Ephraim or Isaak, and I did some freighting, but not as much as some I know.” Pause, this to think for a second. “Here – your buggy does not have good wheels, and the way you have it loaded, you will slow us down and have a breakdown before we get halfway there.”

“Oh, and you'll wish...”

I stopped my speech abruptly as my feet left the ground in a sudden spring. This happened so fast that only when I was 'flying' across the bed of the buggy trying to 'swap ends' in mid-air did I had a clue as to what I was trying to do, and with my cloak flying like the ragged tail of a strange bird, the man I was 'aiming myself at' looked on in shock for an instant before he turned to run – and Willem looked on in in dumbfounded horror at seeing something he could not believe to be possible, even given his knowledge of tapestries and old tales.

No matter: I aimed a kick at the fleeing man's head, and the jolt I felt in my leg told me I'd connected as I fell down onto the ground. My pistol had somehow gotten into my hand – my revolver, to be precise – and I was drawing back the hammer when my elbow touched the ground. I fired then, aiming the weapon by instinct alone.

The man I had kicked had first stumbled, but instead of rising, he dropped face-down to lie still, much as if he were carved of cold dead rock; and I was gently helped up by Paul. Willem – 'Big Willem', not the gunner – went over to the dead man, and muttered, “you cleaned his ears, all right, as he's got brains leaking out of his eyeholes and the off-side earhole as well, and blood is coming out of his nose and mouth.” A faint clipping noise as he drew something, then the flash of a knife, one almost identical to that of Lukas as to shape and 'shine'; then a faint tearing noise as he sliced off pieces of the man's clothing. He seemed to know where the best places were if one wished to look for the ink-markings he had mentioned marked these 'strange' witches as being what they indeed were.

“I was right, it is one o' those strange witches,” he said. “Now how is it you smelled him, when I didn't, and..?”

Willem stopped, then said quieter, “best drag this one off for the manure-pile, and bury him and his clothing, though I'd bury his clothes separate so he goes rotten quicker.” Pause. “You were right about us needing to shoot our way in, 'cause you just shot the first witch o' the night.”

“Then I think it good to show us how to shoot these new guns,” said Hans, “as if they have more than we do, then we will be busier than we want if we must shoot muskets – and those things like I saw used this morning kill like artillery, and at a good range for a tight gun.”

“You saw this?” said Paul. “Where?”

“The back of where I live,” said Hans. “Three times, I saw this: two with him, and he got two witches with two shots, and once with her, and she got a pig with one.” A pause, then, “that swine was dead when I next saw it, as I went out after it after they left to come here, so as to make certain it was dead, and those witches were both gone rotten and going to dust when I saw what was left of them.”

“What did you do with that pig?” asked Sarah.

“I got a rope with a strangle-knot in it so as to put it around the head of that swine, and put the other end of that rope to a horse so as to drag that pig to the nearest manure pile,” said Hans, “and Silas and I spaded it under good. He's got good manure now, as putting pigs in with the dung make that stuff smoke like it is on fire.”

“That would be as good as race-horse dung,” said Willem the cannon-master. “Now, you'd best show us how to use these things now, and then do so again just before we leave so we'll get it right. I brought both of my muskets, and plenty of powder and ball, but if these things work better on witches, then I'll try one of them instead.” He looked up, saw the darkness seeming to drop itself around us, and mumbled, “and I hope I can see enough to use one.”

Hans seemed to not hear his speech; instead, he had a warning for Willem.

“Yes, and they make as much noise as one of those guns you shoot, too,” said Hans. “Now, I did some looking, and there are more than just those things, but I did not touch those things I did not see used before, as I do not know their use.”

“What?” I thought. I had just heard more proof that Hans had indeed begun to really change.

I spent the next few minutes showing the assembled 'drivers' – I had help from Sarah, thankfully – the ways of the 'Type Eleven-Sixteen Rifle'. I concluded saying that I had had a fair amount of experience with a similar weapon, but I also said, “most of these have three positions on their selector switches, but that third one can be scary if you're not ready for what happens when you pull the trigger – and you'll want that place for when you're scared you're going to get swarmed with witches, and they're close enough to put soot on them were you using powder and ball. Otherwise, leave that place be.”

“Why is that?” asked fourth-kingdom Willem.

“Because of the noise they make then,” said Karl. “I nearly soiled my underclothing when he did that this morning, and only what he was doing with this broom downstairs was worse – and that put me in the privy.”

“Where is this broom?” asked Hans.

“In the lead buggy, which is where it belongs,” said Sepp. “I heard something about it having a bottomless magazine, but I've seen what that thing does, and it makes piles of brass bird-whistles when he's using it.”

“Yes, and why is that?” asked Hans. He seemed to want a 'demonstration'.

“No time for it now,” said Sarah tersely. What she then said, though, capped her first statement and raised the matter much higher. “You'll get your fill of gunfire tonight, and probably fill your underclothing, too. I nearly did that myself several times when he was lighting up that wolfram down there – it looked like lightning then, and it filled the place with smoke, but the noise! That noise!”

“I think I know, then,” said Hans. “It was like that signal he did not long ago, so those people know it is time for them to come, and not just them from the Valley, either.”

I wanted to ask about that matter, but within moments, that one buggy's load was shifted back onto the ground, and while I watched for the most part, someone came up with a farmer's lifter and the buggy was 'serviced', with Willem the cannon-master putting his barrels under the buggy's frame. As I began 'greasing' one of the wheels, Willem the cannon-master growled – an utterly new thing for him – “that witch stole this buggy, because I know who owns it!”

“Good, then,” said Sarah. “We can bring it back to them tomorrow, as we must go to where you live so as to store ours while we are gone on the trip.”

“H-how?” I asked, looking at the well-worn hub and its even-more-worn axle. “It's...” I silently prayed, and suddenly the wheel began to all-but jump up and down in my hands as a hazy bluish corona surrounded the hub and radiated out along the spokes and then crackled forth as if miniature bolts of lightning were shooting off of the rim. I was about to paint another 'dose' of the fourth kingdom grease in the worn-looking wooden hole I somehow still saw to be present when Paul spat, “I'll have to talk to him 'bout looking after postal buggy wheels, as this thing ain't the usual no more, leastways not on this axle here. It's got a cone in it, and a decent one by the looks of what I see.”

What?” I gasped.

“Look at that wheel you have there,” said a female voice to my right. I turned to see Katje with a short-bristled paintbrush, which she was using as a pointer. “At least I can put some grease in these things, only that type wants oil, not grease.”

“No, not common grease,” said Sepp. “Now if we had red-paste...”

I took the brush from Katje, and painted the now-obvious bronze 'cup', then slipped the wheel back onto the 'cone', slowly twisting it as I did so. I might have managed three 'spokes' when someone – Sarah – put on the thick metal washer and then the nut, then began to gently twist the nut 'tighter'.

“Tell me when it gets starts to get harder to turn,” she said. “If that is a new cone, we'll want it a little tight at first, as it will wear in some during the first few miles, and by then, it will wish oil.” A pause, then, “I hope Hans brought more oil than what we ourselves did, as new cups and cones wish plenty of oil, and those looked to be new ones.”

“Lapped, also,” said Willem from the fourth kingdom. “I can bring this one back tonight, and park it where it'll be safe here so's you two can pick it up and take it back to who owns it.” He then looked at me, and said, “I suspect you'll manage a team passably, given who you're being married to shortly.”

“T-team?” I asked.

“It is not hard,” said Sarah. “You might not need to do so the way most do, in fact.”

And suddenly, it dawned on me. I didn't need reins with Jaak; I had never used them. Perhaps...

“No perhaps about it,” said the soft voice. “Horse-language, like dog-language and wolf-language, is entirely pictorial – which means if you feed those horses the grain they need, and then water them so they get to 'know' you, you can just 'tell' them to follow Sarah and try to keep up with her.” A pause, then, “they'll do it, too, as those are not normal sleeves.”

“They looked normal enough to me,” said Sarah. “Is it the bad light?”

“Have him turn each wheel twice through entirely before you set it down, so as to bed those bearings properly,” said the soft voice.

The tone I heard was not a request, but a command; and enough of the others, Willem from the fourth kingdom being one of the most 'inclined' thusly, made sure I had plenty of 'room' to do that which I alone was able to do. I rotated the wheels twice and more, this while feeling them for 'tight' and 'loose', then at that level that felt right, I put the pin in the notched nut and tapped in the small metal 'covers' that had somehow showed up along with the nuts, washers, and loop-ended 'pins'. As the buggy was lifted off of the powder barrels Willem the cannon-master commonly carried on his wagon, I gave one of the wheels a spin.

The thing seemed to run on forever, much as if it were mounted on unusually good ball-bearings; and the complete silence of its near-effortless turning was only stopped when that end of the buggy was lowered to the ground. I then pushed it forward a foot or so.

It needed but slightly more effort than that accursed coach of Cardosso.

“That's a good buggy,” said Hans. “Now, did that thing get the usual for sleeves, or something like Sarah's?”

“I'm not sure, and I'm not inclined to learn much about it tonight,” said Willem from the fourth kingdom. “We got things to do, and then a hot road ahead of us, and we'd best do those things before they become too much for us.”

We needed no further urging, and the remaining loads came up in a hurry. Sarah and I were the load-masters, which mean much labor for us; I once had to shift a great deal in one buggy, as it had been badly done in the first place; then on Willem's wagon, the bags needed to be stacked with especial care so as to 'stay put'. It needed both Sarah and I working to stack them correctly, and all the while, more bags were added to that load, these having contents I could tell mostly by feel. I knew that almost all of this stuff would need offloading at our home: in fact, other than Karl's and Sepp's 'personal' bags, the small amount of remaining food of a non-perishable nature, a few beer-jugs, and little else – the sole cargo, once they'd offloaded the bags that kept Gabriel's quiescent body hidden from the witches who could control him like a puppet, would be his body alone beyond those things previously mentioned; and both of them would run the back roads heading toward the house proper, guns at the ready, inclined to shoot anything that moved and not bother to ask questions.

More and more came outside, so much more that I wondered if it would all fit in what we had for transporting it; then as the last loads came out, I needed to stay clear, as did Sarah, for now came the matter of roping things down. Hans was in much the same way as the two of us, as he knew he was no freighter; and while those best skilled at such matters did the work, the rest of us fetched the horses that would pull these heavy loads the twelve miles to Roos, and in many cases, further yet before this too-long night ended.

I was mostly in charge of the grain to be put to the multitude of animals, and I laid pans of the stuff in front of each hitched horse, periodically circling back to refill the smallish plates provided with the sweet-smelling slightly sticky grain that smelled more than a little of spent corn-mash and sugar-tree sap. I wanted our horses 'stuffed' with grain, just as Sarah had once-more stuffed our faithful 'meena bird'; and I wondered just how hard it would be to get one or two of those birds for where we lived.

Anna could keep her hair hidden under a fifth kingdom mining-hat for all I cared; I did not wish to endure vast swarms of nasty little red bugs seeking to drain me of blood, and the presence of several fluorescent-yellow birds, even if they chirped incessantly all hours of the day and most of the night, and then made noises that Clara Rockmore might envy when they weren't chirping – that was a small price to pay to not have to endure this location's version of 'nasty mosquito'.

“Mount!” yelled someone. “Inspan and Trek!”

“Not yet, Karl,” said Sarah. “He's still putting grain to the horses, and they've got three more buggies to cover up and rope down.”

“Please, don't blow one of those h-horns,” I muttered, as I added more grain to the tin plates I had laid down earlier. Several horses looked to be stuffed due to untouched grain-doses, and whenever I passed one Willem or the other, I got the same message: 'I knew what I was doing', as this would be a long pull, a hard pull, and we'd wish horses that would readily do their best.

“Least I got that right,” I thought. “Now who has a rocket launcher handy?”

“You do,” said the soft voice. “You were not the only person to hear about how you can hit coaches and things like them at night – and more than a few of those coaches will be running light-giving firebombs, though some of these witches have been hearing about boiled distillate and how it's 'safer'.”

“And buying what they can from us, no doubt,” I said.

“No, not really,” said the soft voice. “Recall how 'smelly' heavy distillate receives a lot of attention down in the fourth kingdom's central area? They got their stuff from down there, as you're not up to making the stuff by the jugful yet and Hans tends to only sell it to people he actually knows.”

“Hans manages...”

“On a good day, he might manage a quart,” said the soft voice. “Most days he does less than half that, but he does it almost every day he has the chance, so he fills a common-sized jug within anywhere between eight to fifteen days.” A pause, then, “he'll be most-glad to have a dedicated distillate still, which I would plan on making within a month of your return – as the demand for both boiled distillate and 'motor oil' will really 'take off' then.”

“Meaning said still needs to run at least two jugfuls at a time, needs some catalytic stuff up top, and then a short fractionating column over the wire coils, with several sets of finned bronze settling tanks as well,” I murmured. “Probably going to be trouble to make it so it doesn't try to explode.”

“Good practice, though,” said the soft voice, “and you will have ample help in getting it done, also.” Another pause, then, “I would also invest time in getting that large soap kettle going quickly, as well as making a movable head-tall drying rack, as you-all will be selling a lot of that soap in very short order.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. Ours was the only buggy yet needing a tarp and a rope, and I had a suspicion that our rope would be a perfunctory one, one easily slipped back in the corners so that I or Sarah could readily get our hands on those things we would need. As the two 'teamsters' in the party – Willem from the fourth kingdom was one, and another man, someone who was a teamster for nearly as long as Gilbertus and hence was the 'roper' – did our buggy, Willem tucked-in the remnants of the spool of rope under the flap after checking it for easy access. He smiled at me, then said, “good hunting, and a safe trip.”

I looked at Sarah, and asked, “is it time?”

“I think so,” she said, as she gently twitched the reins.

I had my usual things with me, with two loaded Tosser pistols and a hand-howitzer in the same condition hiding in my possible bag; and one of those 'scoped' flat-top rifles with a full magazine in the well and three more magazines in my 'vest' pockets. I had a trio of 'metal pears' in some of the other pockets, in addition to the first one I had 'coddled' with cloth; two more pistol mags for each of the three pistols I carried; and slung under my cloak, a machine pistol, its magazine full and its chamber empty, with several added magazines for that weapon in those longer pockets. I suspected Sarah might think me a mounted brigand if she knew just how much firepower I carried, and I hoped fervently that we would not need to do much shooting.

As we came around the southeast corner of the Abbey, someone blew a deep-pitched horn of warbling note and horrible tone; then shouts, these coming from our left and to our rear, yelled: “Trek! Trek! Inspan and Trek! South-Ho!”

“South-Ho, he says,” I muttered. “About all I'm hoping for is an easy two hours or so of driving with no witches showing their smelly selves, and then all of us getting ourselves to our homes in one piece with no breakdowns.” I then had a question.

“Those calls?” I asked.

“I suspect there will be another group, if not two or more, coming across that ford on the Main sometime tomorrow,” said Sarah as we proceeded along what was turning into a beaten-into-the-ground trail through the short-cropped grass, “and the usual with such large groups as will be coming is someone blows a loading horn when they start out of a morning, then everyone not actually driving yells such nonsense.” A pause, then, “while I was in school, had we been doing that stuff, it would have gotten us ridiculed had we done it near the school and killed in a great many places that were further away.”

“And I do believe it will be a hot night,” I murmured, unslinging my rifle, then arranging the sling so as to support it, muzzle pointing out and to my right slightly. “I can feel some witches in the area, but I won't see them until...”

Faintly, I could hear soft 'whispered' curses, then the grating rumble of a vast multitude of rattling unlubricated wheels. I looked at Sarah, yanked the charging handle, then urged Jaak to a faster walk. The brazenness of these people was so far beyond my capacity for belief that when I saw the dark shape of the very first coach, I fired once, aiming for a point down low, just aft of the doorframe and just below the lowest hinge that I could see, this some eight inches up from the lowest portion of the frame.

The bang of my rifle was substantial, and the muzzle flash worse in the 'grotto', but I turned my head just in time as Jaak wheeled, for the coach erupted into a billowing ball of magnesium-bright yellow flames and its animals bolted. I leaped off of Jaak, now running closer to the entrance to find 'cover' behind a sizable tree at a slight bend in the entrance road. When I saw the next coach in line, I was in a kneeling position behind and slightly to the left of the tree I had picked; I saw the coachman, this clearly in the 'scope', with the top of the 'aiming post' rock-steady and seated just below his nose. I fired once.

The man was all-but blown out of his seat as his head vanished in a red-tinged cloud, then the headless corpse collapsed bonelessly from its seat to then fall over the 'off' side of the huge vehicle. The horses, no longer held back in their terror, bolted; and as the rear wheels of the thing passed me, I held up, aiming for the center of the coach's 'boot', and fired.

The white-hot eruption of fire was so bad it tossed me to the ground some six feet downrange to land in a tangled sprawl, and as the rumbling 'boom' seemed to then pick me up and put me back upon my feet some distance further to the rear, I did not hesitate to act.

I had gotten two coaches of a very long line, and there were more of them coming.

I returned to my tree, now warier than before; then I advanced further, this while keeping to the shadow of the trees on my right to stop but perhaps fifty feet from the edge of the road.

That business of killing Iggy had changed something in me, and the idea of retreating from what might be certain death was no longer part of my makeup. If it was my time to die, I would die – but it was not that time, and hence, I would not be allowed to fail, just like I had been told.

I knelt down behind an unusually thick fallen tree with rocks mounded to its front and a modest hollow to its rear, then when I saw the coachman of the next coach in the line whipping his charges, I put the next round in his head. The corpse suddenly leaped convulsively onto the backs of his last two animals, and with such nerveless urging amid fountaining blood and gore from a headless man, these horses truly bolted. I could see red-yellow flames to my right, these bright and foul-smelling; and as that coach passed at a gallop, the next one was hot on its heels. I again shot the coachman in the head, but here, I recovered from the abrupt and stabbing recoil fast enough to put two added rounds into the main body of this extra-length 'living-room' coach. The first shot caused an eruption of screaming, but the second shot brought an eruption of near-colorless flames, flames billowing thickly out of windows that now glared brightly to show a group of thrashing and fighting witches inside.

There was no time for admiration, for another coach was coming, and this time I hit one of the horses in the body. The coachman thrashed his whip, hit the wrong animal – and his vehicle broke up, if I went by the crashing and tearing sound it made just after it passed my 'opening'. I could hear him swearing in Underworld German, and I tracked him mostly by 'feel', at least until I saw a body and a clear shot to it through a gap in the trees about twenty degrees to my right. I pulled the trigger then, and was rewarded with a muffled 'boom' that caused a huge red-tinged yellow fireball to erupt. I then turned to face the opening to my front and left once more.

The next vehicle, however, was not a coach; and while it looked like a postal buggy, I knew it wasn't one of those – at least, it wasn't one now. I aimed low in the box, somewhere close to amidships, and fired – and the explosion was of such magnitude that I knew I'd hit the dynamite, especially as the massive yellow-white fireball briefly lit the trees on fire in front of the 'grotto' where I was hiding. Faintly, I listened for more coaches, and when I stood up, shaking, a feeling of sweat seeming to soak my clothing in the wearable sauna I now found myself, I found Jaak had waited for me some twenty paces to my rear, where he was standing besides Sarah's team with his seat-blanket in his mouth.

“Is that all of them?” asked Sarah. I could no longer hear flames nearby – I could hear them some distance away – nor could I hear more oncoming coaches.

“I think so,” I said. I was more than a little unsure just the same. “I hope we don't run into more of them, leastways none that close.”

“They had little dynamite,” said Sarah. “I think they were nearly out of that stuff.”

A sudden 'booming' noise – a large amount of distillate, perhaps – followed by three sizable blasts some distance to the north, was then followed by yet another thunderclap and lighting-flash amid tall and billowing red flames, this some further distance away, ranging somewhere to the south and west.

“What happened there?” This question of mine was silent.

“That coach-group was in two portions,” said the soft voice, “and when the 'big boys' saw the others going up in flames one after another so quickly, they took their preplanned detour and the lead coach flipped when the driver forgot about the tight turn leading off of the main road. That coach rolled twice, the flames from their lanterns got into the distillate they were carrying when the jugs started breaking, that fire got into their dynamite as the first of the other coaches coming hard behind them tried to stop and failed to do so – and then they all went up, one after another, when that first coach's dynamite exploded – and those people were carrying the bulk of that stuff, unlike that one group that just passed and is now more or less 'gone'.”

“One group of witches done, then,” said Sarah as I remounted Jaak. “Let us be off.”

Sarah was right, at least about one group of witches being no longer in a position to cause trouble; and I did as she said, moving at a rapid walk out into the deeply-clouded night of a mostly-hidden moon once actually onto the road. I could see and smell the fire but a few hundred yards to the west and south from where we emerged, as well as feel one directly behind us to the north, and I hastened on, at least until we were well clear of the entrance. There, I thought to wait, watching and waiting until the other buggies and the wagon had cleared the exit and were out and onto the road; and I soon found it needful to move further ahead and to the right, as those driving wasted no time whatsoever getting out of the passage and onto the road headed south once we had 'cleared' it and had made it 'secure'.

And as Jaak and I resumed our southbound walk, this rapid yet smooth, I noted a definite sense of 'watchful waiting', this to all points of the compass. If anything, I had underestimated the number and deprecated the attitudes of people wanting to cause trouble for witches, as not a single minute went by that I didn't hear the boom of a musket, a ragged volley of the same, or now and then, the booming of artillery followed by the whine of shells followed by louder-yet bangs and booms.

These last usually triggered huge eruptions of fire and brilliant white blasts, so much so that I gasped, “how many of those stinkers were hiding?”

“More than you might think,” said the soft voice, “which means but one thing: any witch, real or merely inclined thereto, who remains behind after tonight is done is either stupidly overconfident or is truly good at hiding who and what they are.”

“Truly good?” I asked. I had thought these people fit that bill.

Many of them did,” said the soft voice. “Many of them were living as scavengers, and the real scavengers were killing them when and where they were found out. Some were running drink-houses, and those people were being found out – and in many cases, burned out or shot down by mobs. Often the first of those acts was followed the second.” Pause. “Both of the remaining witch-run Public Houses in the kingdom house are now flaming ruins as we speak.”

“Good,” spat Sarah. I was surprised to hear of there being two Public Houses run by witches in the kingdom house. I had not thought of the likelihood of 'hostile takeovers', these occurring more or less 'quietly'. I needed to give such matters further thought, as the coming witches would do that routinely. Sarah, however, seemed merely satisfied, if I went by what she said next. “Those stinky places are gone.”

“Because their foundations are still mostly intact, however, the upper mostly-wooden portions will go up fairly quickly once those new witches show themselves,” said the soft voice.

And as if to answer all of what we had just been told, I heard the dire tone of a horn, this loud, piercing, and most of all, pure, carry for what seemed miles in the darkness.

“That is what a witch-horn should sound like,” said Sarah. “That one is very close to what I recall frightening me and my cousin as children, save I think it both older and a bit longer from mouthpiece to muzzle.”

“And..?”

We had our answer not two seconds later: a thundering roar, this louder by far than any common cannon, blasted forth with a ripping and tearing noise that was followed seconds later by a host of dire and deathly screams.

“That was a siege-gun, and I bet it was packed with larger musket balls cast of printer's lead,” said Sarah. “You can take out dozens of witches at once with one of those things, and even a common three-incher can drop two tens if the range is right and they're tight-packed, like witches sometimes travel when they're in a town.”

I glanced over my shoulder, looking to all points of the compass as I did so, and noted that save for a bare handful of small and dim-seeming lanterns, our 'convoy' was blacked out. I wondered if running any lights tonight was a wise idea, until I recalled the following: firstly the witches were running in a state of terror. They would stay clear of lights unless they really wanted to meet Brimstone – as dinner, no less. Secondly, the Abbey had been having stone deliveries pretty much from just-before-dawn to a few hours after sundown, and our party, while fast-moving compared to most stone-wagons, could pass for an unladen one headed home. Finally, there was the sheer size of our party, such that only a large party of witches would think to engage us with gunfire.

At least, those were the advances of logical thinking: and witches, I knew, didn't do logic. For all I knew, they'd try for us the instant they saw us, and when I saw what looked like movement out of the corner of my eye perhaps two hundred yards away, I instinctively knew the source wasn't a marmot. I turned Jaak and snap-shot at the source of the movement, and the dire scream of agony that resulted spoke of one thing.

I thought to be certain, though, and spoke softly: “sup with Brimstone, witch!”

The brilliant white flash and thundering roar that suddenly erupted shot bodies and pieces of bodies so high up in the air that I thought we might be pelted with their remains, but as the thuds and thumps of body parts mingled with perhaps rocks and other things began to strike within fifty feet of us, Sarah said, “those were witches, all right, and they were carting out dynamite.”

“Where have they been getting that stuff?” I squeaked.

“Mostly by means of the secret way, though at a vast cost,” said the soft voice, “and otherwise, it has been hidden in legitimate-looking packages marked as being from the third or fourth kingdom, and in some cases, the second.”

“Bring the stuff up into the second kingdom port or one of those inlets south of there by ship, offload it and get the shippers paid, then they take it overland on the Low-Way and get it origin-stamped as being from the second kingdom port,” I said. “Looks legitimate enough to the casual observer, and if they use the weaker grades of mining dynamite and pack the bagged-up stuff in some dirt inside of packing boxes, then it keeps down the stink so no one who's not knowledgeable is the wiser.”

“So that is how they do it,” said Sarah in tones of wonder. She then looked to her right, dropped her reins, shouldered her rifle – she'd picked that one that I'd adjusted for her – and fired. The scream that resulted was only exceeded by the fast-blooming eruption of fire that ended in a massive explosion.

“Another evening, another coach,” I said. The fire was, thankfully, some distance away on a 'feeder' road, one of the many in this particular area. “Those witches coming up here are going to be really surprised, as while they can find supplicants, they're practically going to need to get them interested with stiff-loaded fowling pieces any more. Money alone isn't going to cut it, as having a lot of money is no good to you if you're rotting in a compost heap, and the same else for a lot of what once made being a witch attractive.”

“You left out one thing,” said the soft voice. “What you spoke of will take care of many of the fence-sitters, at least for the time being – but the lack of such things will not faze those who want to be witches for other reasons, and there still are such people in the first kingdom.”

“I think many of them are trying to get out of this area,” said Sarah dryly. Her rifle lay between her knees and pointed over to her right, this for ready use. Suddenly, her arm rose to point. “There, over there. L-long shot. I see what looks like a distillate-fueled lantern.”

I aimed at this pulsating light source, touching the top of the 'telescopic' sight as I did so, and when I looked, I not only clearly saw the window of the coach, but I saw concentric glowing ovoids that seemed to guide me into the target's very center. I aimed at the light source itself, and fired.

The bang of my rifle began to die away before I saw an eruption of fire, which suddenly went from red and flickering to a brilliant white flash – a flash that then spread for nearly twenty degrees of arc in both directions as coach after coach detonated in a fiery series of secondary explosions. The noise they made was deafening, to say the least.

“That was a lot of witches,” said Sarah as the roar died out. “How many was that?”

“They'd been traveling north and somewhat west, this mostly-hid, and that for the last four days,” said the soft voice. “They were stopping when and where they could during the day, usually in woodlots. There's but one trouble, as far as they were concerned: this region is a choke-point, and they” – I understood this to mean those who were witches, supplicants, and those of similar mind trying to leave for the north and perhaps west once they got out of this area – “all have to come within rifle shot of this road for much of the distance between the Abbey and Roos.”

“Unless, of course, they take the secret way,” I murmured.

Those people are nearly all dead,” said the soft voice, “and those yet alive that currently know about it are currently finding out about vast swarms of irate hornets and wasps.” Pause, then, “these people you've been seeing tonight are nearly all 'small-timers', as about all they have left of their former lives are their coaches, their witch-clothing, small amounts of 'supplies', and small teams of 'common' horses – and they know that crossing over to the east side at the Main-ford to the south is an absolute deathtrap any more.”

“Deathtrap?” I asked. “How?”

“Dug-in fourth kingdom people are waiting on both sides of that ford in some strength now, and when a fresh group comes through, those that have been guarding the ford exchange places with a new batch – so that ford is no longer contested by witches at this time. More, it's also been rigged with numbers of bombs on both sides, so if someone goes off of the road, they'll get blown up in a big hurry.”

For what seemed the next hour, about every three to five minutes, I or Sarah – or, occasionally, one of the other members of the party – would fire two or three rounds at lights. With but one exception, the result was either the scream of a dying witch, a billow of fast-spreading reddish-yellow fire that silhouetted struggling figures as they burned, or an explosion – with the explosions often followed by secondaries as coach after dynamite-laden coach detonated in sympathy to those near it.

That one exception to this general trend, however, proved to be something that I had wondered about; and as we resumed travel southward after a halt of roughly a minute, there were rumors coming up the 'wagon-train' at a steady rate from behind us.

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “You do not want to shoot a marmot in the body with these rifles, as then they are only fit for one's manure-pile.”

“Perhaps a head-shot, then,” I said. “Besides, Anna has arranged for both a pie – a sizable pie – and two crocks of new herring, and I can eat some of the latter and not have trouble.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “Marmot makes me ill more often than not any more, unless the animal has been specially fed for a time before it goes into a pot.”

“Specially fed?” I asked.

“Yes, with coarse-ground grains and chopped hay for a fortnight,” said Sarah. “There is something about common cabbage that causes eating those things to gripe me any more, and I suspect you are much the same.” A pause, then a look around. “We're doing better than I thought we would, as we're close to half the distance to home.

“And we are not done with the witches,” I said, as I rode over to Sarah's side and put aside my rifle on the seat next to her, which she grabbed by its barrel. Dismounting, I continued walking at the current 'speed' of the column, and reached in under the bed-cloth to retrieve the machine gun. I could see the entire road some distance ahead and to the west, numbers of coaches coming hard, two abreast, the biggest column yet on the one 'wide' road other than this one in the area – and this column had the big boys, those who still had plenty of money, powder, lead, and strong drink – and more than one of these coaches had plate installed in it so as to stand up to a leaden hail of musketry.

And as I took off the gun's safety and went to a kneeling position at the west margin of the road we were on, I had two questions:

“Would this gun actually fire?”

And the second one – that question was so strange that I dismissed it out of hand. I was no musician, even if, for some reason, I could clearly hear the stuttering 'bursts' of that one song, faintly, somewhere out there on the edges of time. While tracking the first animals of the leading coach, I aimed up slightly, as I needed range; and began to gently press the trigger.

The sudden roar was such that I instinctively turned loose of the trigger, and nearly dropped the gun in terror. This thing was not the broom of my most-recent recollection; it was worse, and not a little worse.

And yet, for some reason, the song in my head became louder, and as the echoes of the gun's burst died away in my mind, I found Sarah at my side. She was putting something in both of her ears, and a loose cloth bag lay in front of her. She pointed.

“There,” she said, pointing to the place I had fired at, nearly half a mile away. At least, it looked to be that distance in the darkness. “You got something on that column, as they've stopped. I think you got one of their animals.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “He killed every mule of the six 'full-odor' animals towing that coach, and now they're stopped on that road, as backing with mules is an art these people haven't even begun to master.”

“No braying?” I asked.

As if to answer my question, I heard the hoarse 'roar' of a mule, and as if by instinct, I moved the front sight slightly to the left, aimed down slightly – the gun had raised itself 'up' in its last burst, and I now knew 'how' to fire this weapon.

One 'tapped' the trigger, just a gentle touch, one as brief as the plucking of a guitar string.

I 'tapped' the trigger.

The roar and flash were of such intensity that it put Sarah sprawling on the ground and nearly had me on my back, as the gun ripped off such a frantic burst that I could not hear the individual shots. The first time had been an appetizer for this instance.

“That orifice?” I asked shakily. “Was it indeed the smallest?”

“Yes, and it's now a bit large,” said the soft voice. “Ask that it become...” A brief pause, then, “suitable for your use.”

I did so, this softly, and as fires erupted somewhere out on the 'prairie' to the west, I asked, “how far away are those people?”

“Far enough that you're having to aim up some to 'get onto them',” said the soft voice. “You've started fires in three coaches with that last burst, and killed another eight mules.”

“Good God!” I gasped. “How many..?”

“Twelve that I have found so far,” said Sarah. She was looking on the ground for the empty casings, this more by feel than all else. “I hope I put in the right insert, as that thing is putting the fear into me.”

“Do not worry, nor be afraid,” said the soft voice. “He did as instructed, and now, he can play the one tune the witches do not wish to hear.”

“Tune?” asked Sarah. “How..?”

I tried another burst, this time aiming for between the first two instances I had fired at, and the stuttering roar of the gun was now a familiar sound. I let up after perhaps half a second, then aimed over slightly as more fires erupted. Faint on the wind, this so faint I wondered if I could hear it conventionally, were the brays of a host of mules. These people were indeed the big-timers of the realm: they had bought or stole every mule, full-odor or otherwise, within a considerable distance – and I suspected killing the animals was fully as important as killing the witches. Mules would be in great demand, and with a scarce supply, that oncoming witch-swarm would have trouble finding 'suitable' animals.

“Now, for the song.”

The gun stuttered again, but this time, my finger had found the needed rhythm. I found that at least with this gun, I could give homage to the man, as they called him overseas. His music was very popular over there, for some arcane reason.

Again, the same song: this time the gun was scenting more distillate. I wanted to be like the tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night, and these people needed to hear this music.

“You're doing seven of these things each time,” said Sarah through my ringing ears, “and it sounds just like my dream.”

“And now, for the ending,” I said softly. “Not 'no more bullets', but 'no more, you witches'.”

I fired a shorter burst, this perhaps of five rounds – and as I waited for the noise of the gun to die away, I saw first one lightning-like flash, then a much bigger one, one that erupted to the left and right of the first such flash – and then the whole horizon seemed to erupt in a string of huge white-laced-with-red blasts that roared and thundered in my mind and my heart for a slow count of ten.

As the echoes died away, I put the gun on safe, and felt the belt bag. To my surprise, I found that it still had much of the belt remaining, and the dangling strip coming out the other side of the receiver was perhaps a bit longer than my forearm and outstretched hand.

“That, by the way, is about as many rounds as you'll fire in most of your engagements,” said the soft voice, “and you'll want to make the other three 'spools' of the full set before you go, if time permits.”

“Should be a lot easier with decent lathe-bits and some of those smaller 'reamers',” I murmured, as I carefully ran a swab dipped in aquavit through the gun's barrel, then another such swab, this lightly dampened with gun-oil. “Too dark to clean the action, but I'll do that when we get home.”

The tall-burning fires on the right seemed a harbinger for the whole of witchdom in the central part of the first kingdom, for now, we were seeing individuals and small groups running cross the fields as if terror-stricken by the sudden light in the middle of the former darkness. I shot four and Sarah three within the next three minutes; while to our rear, the snapping higher-pitched cracks of 'modern' gunfire were mingled with the booms of muskets. One musket, in particular, roared again and again – and each time it thundered forth, there were scream-choruses in way of reply.

“What is happening back there?” I asked, after the huge 'cannon' fired once more.

“I think that to be Willem the larger,” said Sarah, “and if he is using his roer, then I think he sees witches close enough to...”

A sudden flurry of pistol shots, these coming closer by the second amid the faint sounds of running feet. I reached into my possible bag, closing on an unfamiliar grip of a weapon; and as if my hands knew their business apart from my desire, I dismounted and knelt down as Jaak continued on. This would be but a minute, and as the figures crossed the road, I waited until they were well clear of the column.

Both hands, align the sights, safety off. I'd racked the slide as I'd slid off of Jaak. Aim, squeeze...

The pistol bucked hard, harder than anything I had ever fired, but the thug I had aimed at took a tumble. The clank as I hit him spoke of him wearing plate. Another thug, this one further off. The steady popping of pistols needed an answer, and someone fired a rifle.

Not at my thug, though; he was mine. Squeeze...

Again the sudden roar and blossom of flame – and the thug screamed for what seemed an age as he was turned around in his tracks and then slammed into the ground by the massive high-velocity slug.

Two more thugs showed, these separated by perhaps four feet from each other, both moving fast and dressed for blending into the darkness. I aimed at the first one, this time an instinctive act, and as I brought the weapon down out of recoil, the other man had turned and was running down the range of the column toward its rear and away from his downed companion.

No time left for him. I fired.

He stumbled, fell, and slid nearly to the hoof of one of the horses. The animal was obviously irritated, for it kicked this man in the head as it moved ahead. I stood, ran back, my hands putting the pistol on safe as I did, and with a sudden leap, I launched up from the ground and somehow landed where I was supposed to land on Jaak's back.

“Why am I facing forward, and not backwards like some kind of a circus performer?” I thought, as I put away the sizable weapon. Only then did I realize what I had used.

“Well, that makes two of us, then,” said Sarah. “I know I can fire mine should I need to, and I just saw you fire yours.” A pause, then, “that was one of those pistols that thinks itself a smaller version of one of Willem's guns.”

I then looked at my right hand, and whimpered as I wrung it, “it's gone completely numb. I just hope...”

Another movement, this to our front and right, up close, and my rifle was in my hands, coming up, my shoulder finding the buttstock, my eyes the scope, and without thinking, I fired once, then twice more – and the resulting eruption of fire upon the third shot spoke of someone carrying distillate not fifty yards from the road. The stench and heat of the burning puddle of liquid was troubling, so much so that again I was wearing a sauna – and about to gag from the stench.

“That one was too close for me to like it,” said Sarah. “How did you do that with a numb hand?”

Hands, dear,” said the soft voice. “He might not have received much training, but that does not mean he didn't receive any – and he did, at least before survival became warfare itself, practice regularly with such weapons, including a pistol similar as to overall shape compared to the one he just fired.” A pause, then, “and while no blue-dressed thugs wear plate,” said the soft voice, “those four witches you shot had looted pieces of spam-armor under their 'night-clothes', hence it took a pistol like you used to stop them quickly.”

“The rifles..?”

“No one else saw them clearly, which was one of the reasons Willem was using his roer and not the other weapon,” said the soft voice. “It was not greater familiarity, as he's dropped three witches with that rifle thus far and finds it much to his liking.”

“Couldn't see them good and they're running for their lives, so he gets out the four-bore and hoses them down with a handful of stiff shot atop a handful of powder,” I muttered.

“What did you call that thing?” asked Sarah. “I have heard roers called a great many names, but not that one.”

“You will hear them called that overseas,” said the soft voice. “It speaks of the nominal size of the lead ball, that being 'four' ounces, that one fires from a roer.”

“He can have that thing,” I muttered, trying to get some feeling into my hands by slowly rubbing them, one after another. “Ooh, this smarts. Dratted things want padded gloves, they're so bad.”

“I think I might be able to manage that, once I figure such gloves out for my hands,” said Sarah. “I hope we are not called upon to demonstrate those things tomorrow, as I do not want my hands to feel like that.”

“How bad are those others?” I asked. I meant the 'Tossers'.

“Try one next time you see a witch,” said the soft voice. “Note that you'll need to aim up slightly if he's any real distance.”

I felt around in my possible bag, now finding one of those pistols, and in doing so, I realized I had been reaching for one all along. I drew the weapon out, and oddly enough, I knew it had been one of those which had been worked on. I prayed, this silently, that the weapon would not malfunction; and the thing shook for a quick count of three.

“Did I oil it?” I thought. I could not recall if I did, as I had been so intent upon dosing those of the others in case they needed them. There was no time for oiling the weapon now; I would need to use it in short order.

“Show them the parts to that one when you get over there,” said the soft voice. “It might not have all of its problems fixed, but it's a decent pistol now.” A pause, then, “you did oil it, by the way – with that blue stuff, no less.”

“Decent?” I thought, as I watched to both left and right for witches. I could feel some of them in the area, though these people looked like scavengers and had avoided 'death by scavenger' by essentially blending in perfectly. That meant they really needed to be sent where they belonged, as that capable of a witch would be especially dangerous to us all – and not merely because he could hide well. He'd pass that particular skill set along to any other witch he came in contact with, and a lot of witches were coming this way.

And as if by reflex, I racked the slide and thumbed off the safety. I could feel one of those people, this just thirty feet off of the road, hiding in a long and somewhat narrow copse on a stretch of land between two long 'strips' of 'cabbages'. These things weren't basketball sized, at least not yet; they were neat little things, all in long somewhat straggly rows vanishing into the darkness for distance, varying between tennis and softball sized. I suspected those that were thinned-out at this stage made a decent 'soup' of sorts, though flavoring such 'cabbage-soup' wanted something other than a tough and stringy old marmot.

“Perhaps a fresh example of marmot?” I thought, as I still scanned the area for this witch. This character was doing a good job of hiding, much as if he had spent days altering his 'night-clothing' by sewing a lot of scraps of faded green cloth to it so as to both add warmth and convert it into something that worked passably as daytime camouflage as well as it did at night.

I saw faint movement; I aimed at the spot – he was moving away, now closer to seventy feet in distance – I was slowly tensioning the trigger; and suddenly, without warning, the pistol bucked in my hand and the copse erupted in a screaming blaze of fire – a fire that at once consumed the entire copse in red, yellow, and faintly green-tinged flames; and as if foreordained, not seconds later, the whole flaming mass was blotted out by a massive eruption of fire and sooty smoke that shot rocks over our heads to then land and patter about us on the road and the fields to the east.

“What did you do?” yelled Sarah – who then yelped in pain. “Ow! That rock hurt!”

More of such yells came from the column, while I, oddly enough, remained untouched by rocks. Instead, I was marveling at both the recoil of what I had just fired – it was not a pistol that was enjoyable to fire; it too was a hand-howitzer, even if it did not make the hand go numb upon the instant – and also, the long, deep, wide, and meandering trench that had suddenly shown where the unplowed portion of land had once been.

I was glad my 'night-distance' was closer to seventy yards rather than 'seventy feet' under this darkened sky, as otherwise we would have been scattered by the explosion. More importantly, I was very glad none of our explosives had detonated in sympathy to what had just gone off.

“What was that place – an old shell-dump?”

“Yes, it was,” said the soft voice, “and these fields have been in use so long that no one knew why that section was not to be plowed, even if they did know it wasn't a good idea to go into it or even close to that copse.” A pause, then, “that meant, of course, that it had gathered a number of witches, and that one man you felt was the 'guide' for that sizable party that had been laying up there since just before dawn.”

“And now they are gone,” I muttered. “The shells?”

“Those are also gone,” said the soft voice, “and those fields will now yield as they should without a repository of accursed ammunition handy to poison their soil.”

“Were those things leaking?” I asked. I'd heard of that happening with old munitions as they rusted in the soil of places far away from where I had once lived.

“No, because they were cursed,” said the soft voice. “Those shells were more or less as deadly as the very day they were fired, and those gathering them up long ago were marked. They put rocks up over the buried shells as a marker, as while they could gather those shells they could readily dig out, they could not safely dispose of them; and in that way, those two fields – and quite a few others in this area as well – went through a number of owners over a course of several hundred years.”

I then saw over a dozen obvious craters in the field we were passing on the right, and I asked, “what happened over there?”

“The cursed shells they didn't find detonated in sympathy to the main cache,” said the soft voice. “There are a lot of such shell-craters within roughly a half-mile radius of where you now are, and because of the undiscovered shells' yet-deeply-buried nature, there were but few splinters that came out of the ground, and they didn't travel far.”

“No shell-holes in the road, I hope?” asked Sarah. “Are there?”

“None that are large enough to be too concerned about,” said the soft voice. “You'll see them in good time, and Willem the cannon-master can drive around them without accident if he's careful.”

“And if he's not?” I asked.

“He'll have the other Willem talking him through that stretch,” said the soft voice. “However, you can expect some busy carpenters repairing wheels in the near future, as those craters will not get filled quickly.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I saw the first one. “No, don't tell me – first, there's a lot of them, and then...”

“That one is bigger than a distance-shell fired from a siege gun,” spat Sarah, as she drove to the right of the still-smoking hole. “It takes up nearly half of the road!”

“That isn't the biggest one, either,” said the soft voice. “The big one is about seven hundred yards further south, and while the two of you will have little trouble, the larger buggies and Willem's wagon will need to go into the roadside ditch to avoid breaking one or more wheels.”

“We left some shell-holes behind us, didn't we?” I asked. I meant 'in the road itself'.

“You did, and many of them,” said the soft voice. “Even if every farmer that learns of them in the next few days puts in what time he can, uses all of his new-sprouted rocks, and then dumps what clay he has stored on top of those rocks, those holes are not going to get filled in a hurry.”

“I think so,” said Sarah – who then turned and whistled so as to signal the column to 'be alert'. The piercing shriek sent chills down my spine, while about forty feet from the road to my left, I saw movement that had my hand respond instantly with my pistol, instinctively 'pointing' and then firing. The scream that resulted, as well as the sudden backflip of the runner, spoke of not merely 'real' capacity in what I had shot the witch with, but also a flat trajectory and non-trivial range. As if to answer that scream, I heard a short burst come from an automatic weapon somewhere to the rear, then a chorus of screams that just as quickly fell silent.

“What was that?” I gasped.

“Maarten just found out what machine pistols are good for,” said the soft voice. “He was being 'charged' by a trio of witches at some twenty feet when he saw them, and since he did not have a roer loaded with stiff shot handy, he used one of those instead.”

“He didn't empty the whole magazine, did he?” I asked. The burst, while 'short' – perhaps half a second – was that of a rapid-firing weapon, one nearly as fast as one I had once briefly held years ago.

“No, he did not – even if Katje is glad she's wearing what she is, because she was wearing empty shell-casings from that weapon for a second or so,” said the soft voice. “He's altogether amazed at what happened, actually, so much so that she's having to drive for him right now.”

“Put the fear into him, didn't it?” I asked. This was audible, surprisingly – and Sarah replied for me.

“I think so!” she blurted. “I hope I do not have to clean myself in the privy when we get home, as what you started earlier tonight with that one gun, he just might have finished with his!”

“There will be a line for that room just the same,” said the soft voice.

“Good,” I muttered.

“How can that be good?” asked Sarah plaintively. “This night is one made for many nightmares, and I think I will want to make up that stuff for dosing Gabriel so as to try it myself!”

“No, dear,” I said softly. “I did not mean 'it is good we will have a crowded privy'.” A pause, then, “I meant 'I'm glad we're close enough to home for the witches to avoid coming close to us now'.”

“I would not be too sure about that,” said the soft voice. “There's been a hot time where you live, and Anna's scrubbing soot off of her face and out of her hair right now in the tub – when she is not doing other things entirely.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Don't tell me – she had to shoot a witch or three.”

“Closer to ten so far, though she isn't sure just how many witches she actually 'got' or merely 'scared off',” said the soft voice. “She did burn enough powder that she had to get into some that originally came out of that one keg, and hence she is spewing into a bucket when she isn't rubbing herself with 'Komaet' or trying to get the soot off of her face and out of her hair.”

“That o-one keg?” I asked.

“The one you get your powder out of,” said the soft voice, “and she put pounds of lead downrange from muskets, revolvers, and the fowling piece.” A pause, then, “she used up all of the stiff shot that was bagged for that gun, in fact.”

“M-muskets?” I asked. I didn't need to guess about the shot; that particular shot-bag had perhaps enough to load the fowling piece at home about ten times, assuming full loads in both barrels. The bag that had shot suited for 'game' had more, but not much more. I was glad we would be able to rectify that issue so easily, in fact.

“A pair of 'newer' guards dropped off three 'short muskets' that had been assembled by that one shop in Ploetzee,” said the soft voice, “and while they were being assembled, the two of them found sufficient money inside the still-crumbling walls of the former Swartsburg to have them 'done up right'. Hence they dropped them by where you lived, as Georg was a bit too busy breaking his latest club in a town some few miles to the south and west of here to speak to that pair of guards then.”

“Did he find swine?” asked Sarah.

“One pig and a lot of witches,” said the soft voice. “It seems a certain potter somewhere to the south of here had one of his blowing engines go missing recently, and the 'chief' witch got it running to serve as a diversion while he and his compatriots cleared out of the area in their coaches and buggies.” A pause, then, “you can guess what happened when Georg heard that noise start up.”

“What?” I asked. “He thought I was riveting again?”

“More than that,” said Sarah. “He knows a good deal more about those things since I told him how they were some weeks ago, and when he heard that noise, he probably thought he was smelling pigs.”

“Very close in some ways, but not entirely,” said the soft voice. “Georg has his own package of nightmares about those engines, and what you told him just added to his feelings about them. He'd just gotten a new stock of clubs from the house proper, and he had one with him – and by the time he'd been taken to Anna with the remnants of his smashed club, she was about to become a very busy woman.”

“Remnants?” I asked. I could 'feel' another witch, this one over to Sarah's right – and as she dodged another shell-hole, I went into the ditch and fired my rifle once at the movement my nearby presence caused. The resulting screaming and thrashing had me wishing to toss something at the caterwauling witch, but as Sarah got clear of the noise and I held up my hand to stop the next buggy, I softly whispered, “sup with Brimstone, witch!”

The eruption of white-hot fire was so rapid and intense that I involuntarily closed my eyes and turned away, then as Jaak took off after Sarah – she was having a most-busy time, as having a witch go up like a 'firebomb' was an unnerving experience to say the least, and the horses did not like such fiery endings at all – I snap-shot at more instances of movement, two shots for the first instance seconds later while dodging a second shell-hole; then three rounds, these further to my left and some distance further away than the first instance of movement I had seen while dodging another such sizable hole but a few yards down the road.

In both instances of my shooting, I had heard brief choruses of screams. I'd 'gotten' more than one witch each time – though just how many 'more than one' was... That was a mystery I could forget about. It sufficed that these individuals were not going to try for us or warn those who were coming.

“The big shell-hole is up ahead,” said Sarah. “I can manage that hole, but that witch going up like that was scary. What was he carrying, a small jug filled with light distillate?”

“No jug, dear,” said the soft voice. “That was a witch, and he was not carrying anything beyond a small purse with some money, a knife, and half a stolen loaf of bread in a bag for his journey.”

“Flammable bread?” I thought. I really wondered just what had happened, as this wasn't like that time in the fifth kingdom; it was yet more abrupt and far more 'flash-powder-y' than that instance. Sarah's speaking of a jug of light distillate had sounded plausible indeed until we'd been told otherwise.

Sarah looked at me, slowing her horses as she did, then shook her head in silence. “No, not bread. Not like that.” Pause. “That was just like out of an old tale, only witches didn't go up like witch-jugs then.”

“That has happened before,” said the soft voice's emphatic tones, “and it will happen again – and with greater frequency than in the past, I might add.”

I then had a question about Georg and his club as I led Jaak around the big crater: “splintered?”

“He might have encountered one pig, but he went through that entire column of witches, and between his smashing them up and the townspeople shooting those few witches he didn't kill outright, he nearly wiped those people out.” A pause, then, “of course, it cost him plenty.”

“Plenty?” I asked.

“Georg used up a non-trivial amount of Komaet for rubbing, and Anna had to bandage a number of knife cuts and remove a measuring cup of shot from his hide – and she sent that shot back at the witches when she ran out of the bagged-up shot present for that gun – both that labeled 'stiff' and that for game.”

“Do we have any shot left?” asked Sarah. “If we do not, then we will be in trouble.”

“Yes, what Hans has packed up for sale down in the basement, what you have hidden in your corner...”

“That stuff needs cleaning up so it can be cast,” said Sarah. “There might be some few pounds there, but it's all bad, and it wants hardening metals along with some tin.”

And that small sack of stiff shot Dennis has hidden in his workbench,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though – she was firing that gun, and those muskets, and all of the three 'completed' pistols that were present at the house.”

“Was Georg too, uh, hurt..?”

“He might not have been shooting those weapons, but he was loading them,” said the soft voice, “and Anna was glad for his speed in that regard, as he was handing her loaded weapons nearly as fast as she could empty them.”

“He can load..?” I had no idea Georg could do what I had just been told, as he was one of the few people I had encountered that did not have at least a musket – and had I been able to provide him with a pistol that would work consistently in his hands, I would have done so by this time.

“Georg, I think, was once a cannon-master, and not a common gunner,” said Sarah, “and I have yet to know one of those people who cannot load guns of all kinds quickly, even if Georg seems fit for a joke when it comes to those things not firing for him.”

“But if he was loading them for Anna, though..?” I was more than a little confused.

“She is more confused than you are, as every shot he loaded fired normally for her, but his luck regarding shoulder-fired weapons has not changed in that aspect,” said the soft voice. “He once tried to fire on a witch coming in the back door with one of those muskets, and had to toss one of your hammers instead when it did not fire for him.”

“Ooh,” said Sarah. “I hope he did something to that witch.”

“Yes, he did,” said the soft voice. “Anna had him clean up that hammer, then check it for damage – and then she asked him to help clean up the mess he made in her kitchen once matters had come to a temporary halt.”

“Mess?” I asked. “M-mess?”

“Georg did not toss one of your good hammers,” said the soft voice. “He found one of those you don't use much, and tossed one of those.

“Those are a bit large to use at home, and I have better ones at the shop anyway,” I said. “Now, does that witch have a headache, or what?”

“I think that witch does not have a head,” said Sarah. “I have seen what larger hammers do to heads when they are tossed as weapons, and it is not pretty.”

“Neither is that shell-hole,” I muttered, as Jaak moved to the very margin of the road ahead of Sarah. The road was littered with rocks and what might have been shell-splinters, testimony of an uncommonly large shell. I wondered: was this shell as large as the one which had butchered Anna's relatives and nearly made her a statistic?

Or was it larger yet, one of those Sarah had once implied had been fired out a species of gun found on certain 'mobile fortresses', one larger than a manhole cover for its diameter?

“Neither,” said the soft voice. “The one that killed Anna's relatives was about twice the diameter, over three times as long, and nearly fifteen times as heavy as the one that went off in the road here.”

“In the road?” I asked.

“It was buried nearly twenty feet deep, as it was fired during spring thaw,” said the soft voice, “and as 'luck' would have it, this road was 'finalized' right over it over three hundred years ago.”

“Finalized...”

“It was most likely a well-used trail before that,” said Sarah. “Other than some strange lengths of stone showing in most of the kingdoms and the High Way itself, nearly every road in the five kingdoms was once a trail, then became wider and more permanent with the years – and the more use such roads received, the better they became, as a rule.” A pause, then, “there's one location that breaks that rule consistently, and that place should be the very best at following it.”

“Where is that?” I asked. “Parts of the fourth kingdom?”

“Yes, especially around that market,” said Sarah. “I've never seen worse roads than some of the ones down there, and that every month of the year, not just during the damp seasons.”

“At least this shell-hole looks to be the last worrisome one,” I muttered. “Now where are we – oh, about three more miles.” I looked around, seemed to see something 'strange' – and shot at a copse, again in an unplowed region.

The copse exploded so hard I was trying to dodge rocks, and Sarah yelled as more rocks pelted her and the horses. She then began shooting, this while the horses went on without her guiding them. They knew where home was.

She wasn't the only one shooting; my shooting that copse had flushed so many witches in the fields to my front and right that I actually emptied my magazine. I removed it, mechanical, just as if I were shooting the 'ten rounds in one minute' once more at the range, then inserted a fresh one. Over the top, right hand hits the bolt release, then as the bolt goes home on a fresh round, the right hand once more finds the pistol grip and my index finger once more finds the trigger. The ovoid rings in the gunsight light up another witch, center him with the post as the ovoid rings 'light him up', squeeze...

Bang. He drops. Another. Put the post on the top of his chest, 'cause he's a far shot. Should 'pop his coke-bottle' nicely.

Bang. He drops. On to the next one, another stinking witch running like he's on fire. He's actually showing faintly red-hazed in the gunsight. “Center,” I think, “the top of the post lines up with the center of his chest, squeeze...” He drops.

I wasn't certain just how many witches I had shot, but I burned through that magazine in what seemed half a minute, and I was well into a third one before I noticed the complete absence of movement to all sides, save to our rear.

I then noticed the pain. I was sore.

“No, this is not one of those shoulder-bruising things I fired at that one match,” I muttered. “Just the same, you put any real number of rounds downrange and you will notice it.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “I emptied this one, and one witch was close enough once I had done so that I shot him with one of those smaller pistols.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“They do work, but they make your hands sore if you just use one hand to hold it,” said Sarah. “I'm glad that wretch only needed one dose of lead to go down.”

“Where did you hit him?” I asked.

“I think I hit him in the chest,” she said. “If he was much closer, I could have dotted his eye, but I wasn't about to chance that kind of a shot with a pistol I'd not practiced with.”

“And... Don't tell me... That stinker had a full-loaded fowling piece and was about to use it on you.” I came closer to the buggy, then got on its left side. I leaped off of Jaak, walking quickly, then reached into the covers on the left side near the front. I wanted that one shotgun, the one with the shortened barrels. Sarah would need it and its quicker-than-usual reloading if she was going to be repelling 'boarders' again.

Instead, I found and then removed the rocket launcher.

“No, not this thing,” I muttered. “Where is that, uh, fowling piece?”

“Leave that thing out on the tarp, and go to the rear to fetch it for her,” said the soft voice. “You may have packed this thing, and that in decent order for unloading, but...”

“I think you'll wish that rocket just the same,” said Sarah softly. “I can hear coaches, and there are a lot of them.”

I nearly spat an oath upon hearing that, and I nearly ran back without the shotgun I was after. I tossed the weapon at Sarah, followed by a bag of shells, then reached inside the front cover after moving the launcher out of the way. My hands found the cold hard metal of a rocket's warhead, then one piece at a time, the two portions of the 'rocket' part. I assembled them quickly, then inserted the assembled rocket into the launcher and removed the small nose-cap.

The small 'guidance-wings' obediently folded out as I slipped the black plastic cover off, then handed the cover to Sarah. I then noticed she was staring at what I had handed her.

“This is a measure for a fowling piece, or I'm a grain-glutted quoll!” she spat. For an instant, she seemed to get a faint echo, this of the noisy birds she had spoken of. “This is the exact size, and...”

“What they used long ago for a model, anyway,” said the soft voice. “The ones like what you're holding are quite hard to find any more, at least if you're not high up enough in witchdom's ranks to get invited to 'invitation-only' estate sales where wealthy witches have accumulated by chance and subterfuge some numbers of those old battlefield finds.”

“A witch would wish this thing?” squeaked Sarah, as I began to 'stick the juice' to my rocket launcher. I had the thing pointed skyward, as that was the correct thing to do when 'heating them up' with a first squeeze.

Sometimes, the rocket might be a bit 'antsy' and light off without being told what to do, and pointing the thing straight up when using a 'fresh' never-fired launcher was a very wise idea. The rocket would then detonate as an airburst once its' 'end-of-run timer' came to zero.

I then was told otherwise.

“Those rockets do not have such things, and their makers never added them,” said the soft voice. “The guidance system will cause it to fly off to land somewhere well-clear of the firer, though, as its 'hard' programing when in that position is 'fly straight up for half a second, then tilt over at a forty-five degree angle until the motor burns out'. The guidance vanes then lock into their last position, as the rocket is usually quite some distance away by then, and it's altogether unlikely to land on its firer.”

“Position?” I asked. I meant the rocket 'knowing' when it was pointed 'up' like I had done.

“It has a 'crude' form of inertial guidance,” said the soft voice, “and hence it can tell when it's pointed 'up',” said the soft voice. “That, by the way, was not in the manuals you found – at least when they came with these rockets.” A pause, then, “it is now.”

“And now to find those, uh...” I brought the launcher down, then began looking at the slowly brightening 'gunsight' – which suddenly went hard, clear, and sharp as it 'woke up' completely.

It showed the slow-moving column, this in glaring and glossy color, an image so bright and startlingly clear that I now knew I was not using anything that could have been made during the when and where of my origin.

No, this device had fallen into my lap out of a science fiction novel, and holding such an obvious 'alien artifact' was a matter that momentarily stunned me, even as the image in the 'display' became steadily clearer and brighter, with more details and shades of color steadily 'coming forth'. It still had that 'glossy' sheen to it, almost as if I were looking at a photograph, one taken by a very expensive digital camera and processed through an image-doctoring program like some I had used in the past for 'illustrations' in my work.

Using such an obvious 'alien artifact' made for an outburst on my part; and this outburst was but accentuated by what I was now seeing – for more detail had been added, and more, the degree of magnification had drastically increased. Before, I could see a very long column; now, individual coaches and their teams could be readily viewed – and in most cases, faint reddish outlines were showing about both vehicles and animals, with occasional groups of four 'angles' showing my impact point. The outburst came as the magnification came up further to show a single coach filling the 'screen' of the thing, and I began 'panning' the column:

“Oh, my God. That's a s-stinking advance column of those s-s-second kingdom s-stinkers, isn't it?”

“Close, but still no Geneva for you,” said the soft voice. “Those witches are the last of the true 'big timers' in the first kingdom, and they've 'dug up' all of their 'treasure' and are 'lighting out for the territories'.” A pause, then, “trouble for them is that there aren't any such places left.

“The north-tip,” I muttered. “They thought they'd buy their way into one of those places up there, and now all of them are, uh, gone.”

“They are that,” said Sarah. “How are you going to get onto those stinkers? I can smell their drink, which means they've a lot of it, and every stinky witch of them are as drunk as stinkers.”

“Not...”

I paused, for now my missile had 'woken up', and I was not merely seeing red-outlined coaches and mules, these as bright and 'colored' as if it were broad daylight on a sunny day, but now, brilliant orange letters formed headings along the bottom of the picture. Below these headings, also in brilliant orange-red, streams of text flowed like a swift stream as I continued panning the column. This mobile text moved at such a frantic rate that I wondered as to what it meant:

Was the missile still waking up? Or was something else happening?

I stopped panning for a second, now holding steady, and the mobile text ceased moving, 'locking' into position. Faint orange-red 'angles' seemed to be slowly hovering in a very small circle. I knew what those most likely meant, based on descriptions I had been given.

“Targeting information,” I murmured, as I once more resumed my scanning of the column and the range and heading resumed 'moving'. I was trying to find the coach with the most dynamite, as these people had not merely sufficient money and 'pull' to buy 'Genuine Plugged Mules' and hide them successfully for some months, but also enough coin to buy large quantities of relatively fresh 'drippy' mining dynamite – and each of these stinking vehicles, most of them the longer species – had at least one such full box in either the main compartment, under the driver's seat, or in the large and capacious boot of the vehicle.

In most cases, each of those locations had at least one box of that species of explosive, and these witches counted far more on curses than 'common sense' when it came to where they put their caps.

I seemed to be getting closer to 'the headache box', then as I stopped moving on seeing one particular coach, the red angles 'centered' it, such that it was 'caught'; and then they flashed and went solid red in the blink of an eye. I carefully knelt down in the crouch one wished to be in when firing one of these rockets...

This done while still tracking that one coach as it moved slowly behind its team of eight now-tired mules.

Even with a rocket that made one of those smelly Russian things seem completely worthless, taking chances that were not needed was never a good idea – and kneeling gave one a steadier hold, just like with a rifle.

Time for your dose, witches.

A slow squeeze. I could feel the geared-up magneto giving that rocket just the boost it needed. Everything was 'locked' into position now: I had 'full lock', the precise situation one wished when dealing with a tricky and refractory target like a four-tracking armored-battle-car the size of an average parking lot, with the whole of that heavily armored vehicle bristling with armament crewed by itching-to-kill witches.

About two thirds of the way through the stroke of the lever, I heard – and felt – a sudden 'pop', and I blinked hard at the jolting sensation that pushed at my shoulder. When I opened my eyes once more, far in the distance a faint red light was shooting away at such a mind-boggling rate that I gasped involuntarily – and that not merely at the speed of its travel, but also at the complete and total lack of smoke.

“What did I do?” I squeaked. That red dot was still going like a hot-loaded tracer round, and it was hot for that coach I'd aimed at. It seemed to be following – as Sepp had spoken of these rockets and what they tended to do – as if it were tied to the coach in question by a thin yet unbreakable string.

As if to answer, I heard a faint crack; then suddenly, roughly a second later, from horizon to horizon, the entire region to the west went absolutely white with an explosion so vast that I put the rocket launcher down beside me and cowered in the dirt among the short green sprouts of the 'carrots'. This blast was going to throw enough high-velocity dirt and rubbish in the air that I wanted to be down.

“Down!” screamed Sarah. She knew what seeing that big of a blast meant. “That explosion...”

She was drowned out by a roar of such magnitude that it seemed to pick me up and set me on my rear, then turn me around and spin me like a top. The thunder echoed for a slow count of three, then went silent, much as if I had been in the risen-from-the-grave Swartsburg for a third time when the place went to hell.

I looked up and saw what had actually happened, just as the 'smoke' suddenly cleared. I saw a long line of tall blazing fires, these so far distant that I wondered as to how far away of a shot I had actually made.

“A bit more than a mile, actually,” said the soft voice, “and that particular rocket performed a little better than that version usually did.”

“They don't go supersonic?” I asked.

“Oh, they do,” said the soft voice. “Normal range on those rockets, at least while under power, is about a mile – though at burn-out, they're flying fast enough that they take nearly two miles to require 'trickery' to hit what you're aiming at.” Brief pause. “That one... It was going at just under twice the speed of sound here when it hit the coach with the largest supply of 'about to turn brown' mining dynamite in that whole column – and not only was all of that stuff 'drippy', it was mostly that particular stuff that gives Hans nightmares.”

“And that wasn't a blasting cap, either,” I muttered. “Overdrove the stuff so stinking hard that...”

“That was what caused the 'huge' explosion, as that big of a blast 'drove' all of the distillate they were carrying, also,” said the soft voice. “Then, there were a few 'big ones' sitting under that stretch of road, and the combined blast of dynamite and distillate set them off, also.”

“Big ones?” I asked.

“The craters from those are going to be local landmarks for quite some time,” said the soft voice – which suddenly took on a harder tone. “That noise and flash – and now, those tall-burning flames you see – might not have caused 'the sun to rise at midnight', but it did wake everyone up in the area who had ears to hear it.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah with a distinctly 'dry' tone. “Listen to all the shooting.”

From every corner of the compass, those who had previously been merely 'watchful and waiting' now knew that trouble indeed 'roosted' on their doorsteps; and now, if a weapon was loaded, the user was seeking a target to unload it upon.

And in many cases, such targets just needed opening the door to find them. This meant for a steady mutter of gunfire, save from one direction. I could hear it coming from everywhere else.

“South,” I muttered. “The nearest place...”

A bang came from that direction as I was about to say 'is home', then suddenly, five sharp and sudden cracks. They were from directly south, not two miles away – or so I guessed as to the distance.

“That's a rotating pistol,” said Sarah. “I suspect Anna found someone who needed shooting.”

“Three more witches, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Her total is now into two digits that she's certain of, as she can count that many bodies laying outside the front of the house.” A pause, then, “and now, she has more soot to scrub off of herself, as she was shooting with no clothing on save her bedclothes when she emptied that weapon.”

“What?” gasped Sarah. “How..?”

“She was shooting that weapon inside the house,” said the soft voice. “Granted, the witches were out in the yard, but she heard them coming, opened the door, and 'opened up on them'.”

“That is a new one for me,” said Sarah. “I've never heard it before. Where did it come from – that war long ago?”

“It did, among many other sayings both original and intercepted,” said the soft voice. “You'll hear a lot of strange talk within a matter of a few days, and you'll not come to the end of such talk for quite some time.”

“And at least this nightmare seems to be finally coming to its end,” I murmured.

“I do not think so,” said Sarah. “It will end when it ends, and it will not end until we see its ending.” A pause, then, “though I must say, I was never so glad to see the lights of home as tonight, even if I will wish to clean myself in the privy.”

As Sarah said this, I scanned the area to our front. Amid the steady mutterings of gunfire – no artillery now; those guns were being cleaned and loaded for action, but the gunners would be drawing their loads tomorrow, or so I suspected – I could see one path that had been, for the moment cleared.

Our road, what remained of it, had no witches currently within rifle-shot, thankfully; and as those lights Sarah spoke of drew closer, I knew, through my strange and warped vision, that I'd done my share thus far.

I was not inclined to rejoice, even if I did not mourn for those I had killed tonight.

Tonight – that was but the appetizer, and the witches that survived tonight would speak of me with dread whispers, as only one being, in their stupid and foolish thinking, could find and kill them so readily.

At least I knew it wasn't me.