Ride like the wind...

Awakening was slow, painful, and I stifled a groan upon moving my legs, but the hustle and bustle below me spoke of me being the last to waken. I was soon apprised of my misjudgment when I actually came down the stairs.

There, eight knives, these all a 'shiny' black save for the soft satin-finished bronze color of their handguards and the dark and glossy brown-black stripes of their wooden portions, lay before me; and before I did ought else, even as Anna took up the rest of the table and began packing a pair of wicker baskets, I honed each one unto a state of 'shaving' sharpness. I then had a complete quandary: no sheaths.

“I thought of that,” said Hans, “and I had the people at the house make some like their usual, only thinner, and with a riveted loop on their back, so they slide on a belt easy.”

“You what?” I asked, as Hans produced a sizable – and new-looking – cloth bag and untied its strings. “Did you leave these the usual color, or...”

“You'll need to hide these things carefully,” said Hans conspiratorially. “He may have started with the darkest brown for color he could find, but once he put the wax and stuff to it, it turned the leather so that it is almost black.” Hans then took one out, and Sarah spat, “perfect. They'll work well for our business, and they look to have the right shape. Now, do those knives fit?”

Hans slipped one of the just-honed knives in, and the thing fit in the scabbard like a hand in a glove. It made for a too-obvious comment: “none of those catch straps needed for these things, as I think that new man had a hand in making them.”

“More like all of him, as talk has he came north not just to help up here,” said Anna as she sheathed one of the knives and put it 'somewhere' in her clothing. Where – that was a good question beyond 'she can get to it in a hurry and it isn't obvious she's carrying it'. “I have heard rumors of both him being marked and the witches being after him.”

“No, no Weidmansheil, but still, it wasn't a joke,” I said. “They had the dogs after him – bad dogs for following his scent, but they used enough of them – and then he had to move at night the whole time until he got into a 'caravan' of sorts headed north where he could hide among their supplies for a ways until he could rest up some.” A pause, then, “the only safe place where he can work is the house proper at this time, as the witches, what of them that can do so now, still watch Ploetzee.”

“They don't do much leather there,” said Hans. “Not if what I hear is right.”

“You have not been there,” said Sarah. “They do do leather, but mostly for those who live there, as that is not a small town.” A pause, then, “only the house here is much bigger, on account of how those people live and how that place is laid out.” A pause, then, “I must see to our horses, as I plan to dose them with mash before we-all leave.”

Sarah left out the back door swift as a wraith, and I then could hear her clearly mixing up a strange concoction involving rolled corn, rolled oats, and then rolled barley, and the whole being turned into a sticky 'mash' with partly-dehydrated sugar-tree sap – this made by cooking in a pot for some nights atop a turned-down stove. There would be some of this stuff left over, as this was not a small batch she was making up, and secondly, it went 'further' than the usual species of horse-grain. It was the thing for long days and hard traveling, and I wished I had known of its mixing during the trip south and back.

“Cheaper, too, especially in this area with all the corn and barley being grown in the area,” I thought. “Now where do they grow oats?”

“The east side of the Main, where it's cheaper than either of the other grains, even if you make allowances for shipping,” said the soft voice. “Most sellers of horse-grain sell the cheapest materials they can get their hands on, which usually means witch-grown and slave-farmed grains – and while they do provide some help, what Sarah's doing out in the horse-barn is what has kept her alive over a decade of needing to hustle.”

“Then how..?”

“She has her contacts regarding the best suppliers of grain, and early last year gave Willem the recipe she learned about during her first year's traipsing – and with Esther's assistance, he 'grinds' the stuff and then mixes the appropriate amounts of each type of grain for 'best performance',” said the soft voice. “Given who he is, and how he needs the utmost from his horses when the swine show, his 'experiments' that way are thought 'entirely justified' by the community.”

“And a keg got dropped off last time they came through with chopped hay,” I thought. “Neat trick – dump it off at Georg's, Sarah goes and fetches it along the back way using this odd tool like a wheelbarrow that comes apart so she can hide it easy, puts the tool and the keg in Jaak's stall, and then...” I then had a question: “why that location?”

“Because Hans and Anna stay out of that stall save when need compels them,” said the soft voice. “They know Jaak well enough to not tamper with anything he doesn't want looked at too closely – which is normal behavior for 'a big black one' of that breed.” A pause, then, “he trusts Sarah and most other marked or 'near-marked' people – but those otherwise need to earn his trust, and it isn't easy at all to do that.” Pause. “Only your trust is harder to earn regarding people you don't know genuinely well.”

“I know,” I said morosely. I tended to not trust anyone, or at least I had not trusted anyone entirely before coming here. I had learned a certain level of trust regarding many people around here early on, but the old sense of utter and complete distrust of everyone seemed to be coming back harder than ever.

“As it needs to, given what you must do,” said the soft voice. “Recall what you said about how few people who you could trust partially where you came from, and how you could only trust one person completely?”

“I know,” I murmured. “There were about five people I could trust somewhat...”

“More than that here as to number, thankfully, and to a greater extent as well,” said the soft voice. “There are a lot of people you can trust to a fairly good degree here – but full trust is best reserved for someone who has never let you down – and people do that, even those with the very best intentions and ample resources.”

“Hence we must make haste, and not follow the common tracks, either on roads or through fields,” I murmured. I was all for following a near-straight line to the house, as I knew where the ground was firm enough to support both buggies, and the added time saved thereby would only accrue to our benefit.

Accordingly, time did not tarry for us, for Sarah and I needed to put 'enough weapons to fight a war' in her buggy, while I put on the vest I had found the day before. Most of the vest's pockets received either bombs of one kind or another – I included two 'stinkers', in case I found a witch-run location that needed trouble that was well clear of those inclined otherwise – or magazines for the weapons I was carrying; and also, I loaded up a rocket launcher and a vest of rockets, as well as the machine gun currently carrying the smallest orifice of all those 'spools' we currently had.

I'd packed a 'Karl-sized' orifice in my vest along with the plug holding it, just in case those at the house – and perhaps elsewhere – needed to see fire descend and hell arise in the vicinity.

With their larger buggy, however, Hans and Anna had but a somewhat heavier load beyond carrying two people; and when I led off on Jaak, loaded up with weapons like some brigand out of an old tale I'd never had time to read but had heard rumors of from Lukas, I got off of the road out of town as soon as I thought it practical with Sarah seconding my actions by following close behind.

The other two were strangely silent, though I could hear Anna faintly whispering with some frequency. I then realized that she was doing the driving, and she was trying to teach Hans how to drive at night 'off-road' with no light beyond that of a fading and fog-shrouded moon in a darkness otherwise total and 'neverending'.

“Just follow Sarah's tracks,” she whispered. I was amazed at the phenomenal acuteness of my hearing, and more, at my complete surety as to the route to take, even if I did check the 'music box' at frequent intervals and kept in the shadow of woodlots as much as I could without deviating much from my 'preplotted trajectory' – and I gave Waldhuis a wide berth just the same, as I knew that place had at least three mortar shells with its' name writ upon each of them for this evening, and I didn't wish those living there to be the wiser until the sudden explosions actually started the raging fires that would all-but engulf the place.

“Enough witches still moving, even if most of these people...” I had been distracted. No longer.

Without a second's hesitation, not even time to think, I leaned far out of my seat – to the point where I was hanging off Jaak, my body stretched to its utmost and nearly parallel to the ground – unsheathed my sword while doing so, sliced on something I felt hiding in the mist, then somehow returned to my seat, this all performed in one swift and 'flowing' motion. A wipe with an oily rag, and my sword went back in its sheath, the motion smooth, noiseless, and quick. The whole event, from the beginnings of thought to the end of the event, might have taken but a second or so. Oiling and sheathing my sword had taken longer, in fact.

“Now do you know why he's doing this?” whispered Anna. She was doing it right: exhaling, then whispering in Hans' ear. “He just sliced on a witch, and that thing is deader than a corpse-box.”

“He ought to be, given that I removed his head,” I thought with a smirk. “He may have been about as hard as witches currently come in this area, but there's no witch born who can live without his head and his body being attached one to the other, as the saying goes hereabouts.” I then had a question.

“No witch born?”

“Many witches, especially these days, are born into witchdom's world, and if they should grow up in suitable households, they become quite capable at most-precocious ages.” A pause, then, “that man was a spy from that southern invasion, and your killing him just caused them all a lot of trouble.”

“Don't tell me – he was one of their better people,” I thought.

“More than merely 'better',” said the soft voice. “He could have taught those last individuals you killed last night how to both stay hid and cause trouble, and because of his 'skill' and abundant 'cunning', he was tasked with leading most of the other spies currently headed up this way, collecting their data, and then personally taking his reports south via the secret way.” Pause, then, “he had both the coin to operate his sizable spy-ring lavishly and the keys needed to transport his documents quickly without intermediaries – and then, he was a good deal harder than that witch Sarah shot with a roer, which meant decapitation with your sword was the only quiet way of killing him swiftly.”

“Then I hope all of his coin rusts and every single one of his keys rot into dust,” I muttered.

A sudden soft wind seemed to bloom at my back, and the darkness went a hell's-fire red behind us for a count of not less than five. The ash-dusted heat-bloom told me of the destruction of a pile of strong fetishes, not a few of which were old before the birth of Cardosso.

“Those would have been the keys,” said the soft voice, “which meant he needed to be a fairly strong witch by today's standards, and then the money – witch-money, all of it lard-greased and recently polished by witch-jewelers – was melted into black-tarnished blobs.”

“Good,” I thought. “No taint left to that stuff beyond that of its many impurities and its mingled dirt.”

“It will be safe enough for scavengers to handle when they find that man's ashes and those of his mule intermingled,” said the soft voice.

“Mule?” I gasped silently. “How did I not smell that thing...”

“Because his mule was firstly a genuinely deodorized mule,” said the soft voice, “and secondly, he had stolen it from that castle in the third kingdom – which is where most of the truly deodorized mules are actually kept these days.” A pause, then, “he rededicated that animal to Brimstone by cutting and then inking a number of rune-curses into its hide before heading north from his hiding spot in the southwest reaches of the Waste, which is why it went up in smoke like he did when you spoke to his supplies.”

“Another witch done with his trouble,” I thought, as I again reached far out of the saddle, this time to the left, then with a sudden move, this too rapid to follow with vision or with mind, I drew sword, flipped off of Jaak, leaped and then lunged like a fencer – and the sudden shudder I felt as my sword abruptly grew a dead weight that slowly slid off of it told me of another 'dead' witch. Again, I wiped clean my sword, and with a sudden run and a leap, I caught up with where Jaak had been heading to land horseback once more.

“Two, isn't it?” whispered Sarah as I passed her at a rapid walk.

“I think so, though that wasn't a commonplace witch, even for those people coming up here,” I whispered. “He almost felt like someone about two notches below one of those Powers.”

“He wasn't,” said the soft voice. “He was one small notch below that new-minted official, and now his group's overall efficacy will be drastically reduced for another three weeks and reduced to a lesser degree for a much longer period, because the first person a new Power recruits is his most-important underling – and that man was especially valuable, as he was truly sober, industrious to a fault, was committed to the cause without a shred of reservation, and did not bother with unclean meals of any sort – which meant he blended in especially well when he needed to 'go slumming'.”

“Meaning he would have retained his considerable intelligence far longer...” A pause, then, “he didn't take those drugs, did he?”

“Not those, either,” said the soft voice, “and while you had already dealt with Jodocus, you just dealt with the man who would have, in due time, taken his place in the continental power structure of witchdom – had he not been killed just now.”

“Jodocus' equal?” I thought.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “At least, not his equal in curse-power. Otherwise, however – in time, he would have become nearly as dangerous to the cause, and more, far harder to actually stop.” A pause, then, “which means, at least in ways that matter to you personally, that that man you just spitted in the throat was the single most dangerous witch on the continent.”

Leading off once more, I could feel the sun starting to come up, even though a glance over my right shoulder still showed a velvety black toward the west amid the thick and swirling mists and fogs. Moreover, to the front I could feel witches here and there, with most of these people seeking to 'get out of the area' – and some, like the two I had just killed – working at getting into the area.

I had to stop those people, which meant staying off the roads and anything remotely close to them. Grass, long, tufted, damp with dew, was a great silencer of travel, as were sleeved wheels fresh-dosed with oil; and when I leaped off of Jaak like an acrobat once more and ran like a 'missile' through the darkness and fog to suddenly surprise a trio of witches wearing the witch-equivalent of 'gamekeeper's dress', I didn't waste a second's time with them.

I removed their heads, this with a single 'messy-seeming' maneuver that had my sword-arm doing things it seemed normally incapable of doing in a blurring mote of time, and I caught up to the group but seconds later, wiping my sword as I ran, then leaping once I'd actually 'locked onto' Jaak.

“How many now?” asked Sarah.

As if to answer Sarah's question, I heard a feeble-sounding gunshot, then two more, then over the course of nearly a minute, two and three such muted shots per second that finally faded out with a single demure-sounding pop – as if the witch thus sacrificing himself to Brimstone had put the pistol into his mouth before trying to pull the trigger twice on his 'court-jester' revolver.

Knowing that made me want to get my hands on one of those stinky pieces of rubbish, as unlike every other revolver I'd actually seen here, those things didn't need to be cocked prior to firing. Therefore, 'court-jester revolvers' were perfect assassination weapons for the up-and-coming witch, who commonly inserted the weapon's barrel into his target's ear before firing. That muffled the noise and ensured demise of one's target, especially when using an inaccurate weapon of limited power.

The brass cube wasn't used for aiming; it merely stopped the barrel from going in too far, and provided the right fetishistic look to a weapon that was otherwise entirely a fetish in every way.

“How many of those stinkers were there?” I thought.

“First, you got the leader, and they were following in his footsteps,” said the soft voice. “Then, you got his trackers, those tasked with following behind him, locating his trail, and controlling the main spy-party – and when that main spy-party found their headless bodies, they knew of but one thing to do, and they did – unthinkingly – what Brimstone demands of those who have pledged themselves and failed to deliver upon their pledges.”

“They shot themselves?” I thought. The thing sounded too hard to believe.

“Precisely, which is why not merely will the scavengers find their melted silver and gold especially helpful,” said the soft voice, “but now many of those witches coming after them with the goal of conquest are not going to have the intelligence they're supposed to have.”

“How many of them were there?” I thought.

“Enough that witchdom is going to find itself more or less blind initially in the first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “The coming witches will eventually learn what they think they need to know, but no longer is learning that information going to be 'quick, cheap, and easy' – and it's not going to be nearly as detailed, which will mean a lot more casualties on their side.”

A glance to the side, first the right and then the left, had me recognize the woodlots to each side of where we were. While this was not my 'usual' route when speed was of the utmost essence, it was familiar-enough territory that I knew where I was within perhaps a mile, and more, I could clearly feel not merely the ground ahead, but also the presence of witch-parties. Nearly all of these people, unlike those I had felt before, were advance guards from the south, all of them 'full-loaded and black faced', with pre-plotted courses, detailed itineraries, and safe-houses 'arranged' and bought long in advance.

“So they think,” I thought with a smirk. “They try going into about half of those towns when they can be seen...”

“Which is why most of them are either planning on hiding up in woodlots later this morning – especially in witch-occupied woodlots – or they will go deeper into such wooded places and continue their travel as they can until well after sundown,” said the soft voice.

I was glad once more for the long and green lushness of the grass, as it made for near-complete silence in our case. I was having trouble hearing the usual noises of buggies and harness, and I wondered if Sarah had done something to preclude such noises.

“More even than you might think,” said the soft voice. “The larger buggy's sleeves were dosed with red-paste while you two were dealing with the Abbey, the horses all have rags tied around their hooves, and then the harness fittings are rag-wrapped also. Then, there's your route.”

“It's intended for silent travel?” I asked silently.

“Not merely silence in movement and shadow for hiding, but also for intercepting witch-parties,” said the soft voice.

“Hence no towns for us until well-after daybreak, and we'll get to the house proper before it gets close to dawn,” I thought. “There's a river somewhere near here, one where we can get some water in the horses and some food in us.”

And in thinking this, I knew not merely just where this river was – about half a mile to the south and perhaps a hundred yards east of our current position – but also, how it skirted the edge of a particularly large woodlot. More importantly, this was one of those 'especially well-hid' witch-occupied woodlots, one where the witches had actually been working on a well-equipped safehouse for many years – and its entrance was so well-hid that its door would need my locating it by feel.

“Meaning a local guide for those stinkers,” I thought. “That, or if the witch keeping the place came from points south, he came up here years ago so as to get himself in place without arousing undue suspicion.” I then felt my vest, and noted the presence of a number of grenades, as well as two of those odd-colored 'firebombs'. I smiled, as while the others were watering and 'graining' the horses, I could 'deal with' this particular safehouse and its current occupants.

“Almost want to use one of those strange-colored bombs in that place,” I thought. “It's big enough to hold nearly a hundred people with plenty of room to spare, it's very well-hid, and it's got some supplies, too – and it's deep enough underground that I'm going to...”

And suddenly, I knew. I'd just need to find the door, open it partly, ask 'Mr Grenade' to find the supplies of distillate, close the door, and run. There would be little noise, little smoke – and a lot of dead witches. Granted, most of them would be smothered witches, but how they died didn't matter, not when denying the oncoming swarms of witches the intelligence they needed was the chief issue.

“I'd not remain in that area just the same,” said the soft voice. “That place has a lot more supplies in it than you or the witches inside think it has, and more, it's very old.”

“Cursed munitions, then,” I thought. “Just the thing, then – not just kill the occupants, but destroy the safehouse.”

In saying that, I knew I'd underestimated just how crucial this location and those like it – they were fairly commonplace in this area – would be in the soon-coming witch-campaign. Once the witches found 'taking' the first kingdom to be a vastly more hazardous undertaking than they currently thought it would be, they'd head to these places so as to regroup and rethink their plans; and if many of these refuges were gone, then hunting them down and slaughtering them all would just be that much 'easier'.

“Not just any safehouse, either,” said the soft voice. “Think 'well-stocked sizable leader-bunker' and you'll get a lot closer to what it actually was when it was originally made – and on top of that, it's seen several rounds of extensions and improvements in the last hundred and fifty years.”

“How big is it, then?” I thought.

“Big enough that just tossing a grenade – even a 'firebomb' that gets into their supplies of distillate – isn't going to do much,” said the soft voice. “The fire may smother them, but when you see 'the sun rise at midnight' behind you, you'll know just what you've dealt with, and also have a better idea just how big an impact it will have on those northbound witches.”

Sarah drew up beside me, her silence such that only when I actually 'felt' her presence did I notice where she was, and whispered, “I heard some of that. There is a small stream near here that I've used a number of times for watering, but I think we want to water the horses and head out south before you try finding that place.”

“Won't take me that long?” I asked, my voice also a whisper.

“I think not!” whispered Sarah. “I've suspected this woodlot to have witches in it for well over a year, and I could probably find the signs of where the door is inside of an hour's time. You – you'd probably need three minutes!”

“No dear,” said the soft voice. “It would not take him three minutes.” A pause, then, “your caution is most wise, however – as it might take him one minute to find that door, if that.”

“That fast?” I thought – and then squelched my thinking, as we were not merely 'close' to the place in question, but I could hear the stream – I could find it blindfolded by its noise alone – but I could also hear the witches, who were 'crawling themselves into jugs of high-test' before retiring after a long night's 'forced' march. The figure of 'a hundred or more' sounded distinctly low, if I went by the noise these stinkers were making – and not all of them were imports, either. Some were domestic examples – unusually capable ones at that.

“And hence they're not going to hide very well, not if they're drunk and getting drunker,” I thought. “Now I wonder if this place has a smoke-pipe, as this place used to...”

“Not 'used to',” said the soft voice. “Those 'expansions and improvements' didn't just renovate the entire place, but they also extended it into something of a warehouse for 'witch-supplies', and then, they connected it to the nearest branch of the secret way, which is how many of the more-moneyed 'big timers' plan on arriving at this time.”

“And their coaches...”

I only then realized just how big this place actually was. It might not have been quite as large as that one location where we had needed a bunker to survive its destruction, but it was not particularly small; and unlike that location, or many others, this one was genuinely well-hidden, with many long branching tunnels and a coach-passable entrance a substantial distance away from the 'main' entrance.

“Which is why Sarah said she'd find the door in less than an hour, and most people would have no clue it was there,” I thought. “Now there's the stream, right over there, and we'd best put some of that mash to those animals, as we're going to need to hustle...”

“I would let the others go on ahead of you at least three to five minutes before you go after this place,” said the soft voice. “You can find them a lot easier at Jaak's best speed than all of you trying to outrun a huge bunker-complex when it suddenly becomes a smoking hole in the ground.”

“Do they have a powder mill in there, or something?” I thought. “Or just a few train-cars full of old-and-about-to-turn munitions?”

“The part they don't know about has the old munitions,” said the soft voice. “The part they do know about has, among other a number of other things, a 'first class' powder mill of some size, one where 'Number one first-quality witch-grade' powder is made.

“W-witch-grade powder?” I thought. I'd never heard of the stuff.

“Only one place in the first kingdom makes a better grade of powder, and it does a small fraction of the amount made at this site,” said the soft voice. “This is a key location in the witches' conquest of the first kingdom, so by blowing it up, they're forced to use 'commonplace' powder, 'bad shot', and 'worse' thimbles – and more, they will either need to bring those supplies from points far to the south...”

Long supply lines,” I thought.

“Or buy them in small lots through layered intermediaries,” said the soft voice. The third choice – kick down shop-doors and engage in armed robbery – didn't need mentioning. Even with their huge numbers and long convoys of iron-lined coaches, that choice was a non-starter, as the witches would take a lot of casualties in the process and more casualties yet when the irate mobs got onto them – as not even a smelly mule could take pounds of lead and keep going for very long, and the absence of functioning mules meant a 'mobility kill' for a plate-weighted coach. That 'mobility kill' would then be followed by the local equivalent of 'Molotov Cocktails' once the witches had used up most of their powder and lead – and no coach could stand up to blazing distillate-fueled fires for any length of time exceeding a handful of seconds. That segued to argument number two regarding resupply of munitions: local acquisition through layers of intermediaries.

“Not much better than importing their own supplies from points south,” I thought.

Worse, you mean,” said the soft voice. “If you want to get your supplies that way, you've got to do a lot of traveling if you need any real amounts of powder and lead, which is why those niter-thieves sold most of their stuff to this location because it paid best.”

“And their current stocks?” I thought. I meant the supplies on hand.

“Are a long way from running short,” said the soft voice. “More, because of its proximity to an undamaged portion of the secret way, this location has become the latest chief pathway for dynamite importation from points south.”

“And when it goes?” I thought. I now knew why the 'sun would rise at midnight', but the question regarding 'cutting the witches' supply-line' was burning a hole in my mind.

“They'll still be able to get dynamite up here, but it will take them days longer and be significantly harder, with a lot more work in general for all save the smallest quantities,” said the soft voice. “Losing that powder mill, though – they won't get over that, and having to husband their supplies of inferior powder and lead means they're not going to cause nearly as much trouble with their coach-convoys as they would otherwise.”

“Oh, and hardened lead?” I asked.

“Why do you think lead has been so scarce in the first kingdom for so long?” asked the soft voice. “It's going to rain lead ingots – large lead ingots – which is why you want the others well clear when you ask 'Mr. Grenade' to get into the distillate and then ask 'Mr. Firebomb' to get into those old munitions.”

And with that, I slowed and then stopped, slipping off of Jaak and fluffing out his blanket. I could feel the stream, walking now with astonishing silence, until the ooze of its bank had me moving some distance along it until I felt firm ground. I could hear – or rather, feel – soft steps behind me, then as I tested the water for 'coldness', I heard Sarah whispering to Anna.

“One at a time, as there isn't much room, and I want to dose the ones that have drunk once they finish,” she whispered. Anna seemed to nod, then asked, “I'm glad I can tell where the house is, roughly. You have your compass, don't you?”

“I do,” whispered Sarah. “Just stay in my tracks, and when you hear galloping behind you, move to the sides and try your hardest to keep up.”

Hans was about to ask a question when Anna whispered into his ear. Again, she did it right, and he seemed to grin – as he'd been having real trouble getting lead recently, so much so that the supply in the first kingdom had all but dried up, and now...

“He'll have trouble dealing with all the lead that's suddenly going to start showing,” I thought with a smirk. “He'll have so much stinking lead he'll have trouble finding places to put it!”

“At first, yes,” said the soft voice. “The witches will try to purchase what of it they can, but by the time they learn of where it's all gotten to and how little of it remains for them to purchase, those machines will be running at the Abbey.”

“How little?” I thought, as I began feeling the horses' hooves. So far, I'd not found any stones at all, thankfully.

“Hans isn't the only person who's been on the hunt for lead,” said the soft voice. “Tam's been wanting to get his own stack of it for the Mercantile, and then three stacks for the house proper, and then nearly every person living in the central part of the first kingdom wants a year's supply of bullet-lead, as a lot of them have been having dreams of witches, swine, and 'strange-looking blue-suited thugs' that act like prewar witches.”

“Year's supply?” I thought.

“At least one large brick per shooter,” said the soft voice. “It may be cheap enough when it first starts showing in the area's second-hand stores, but the supply is going to dry up in a big hurry as far as those imported witches are concerned – as those selling will only sell 'weight' to those they know personally or by reputation, and they're going to be altogether suspicious of anyone else.”

“As in shoot them and forget the questions, and then hang that witch out to dry the old way,” I thought, as Jaak moved out of the way to let the first of Sarah's horses to drink. Sarah began to 'put the mash to him' using one of those 'old-looking' dishes I had made for the trip south, and I wondered as to how they'd acquired such a patina so quickly.

“Things look about due for buffing and retinning,” I thought. “Have they been getting a lot of use?”

“Yes, and more than you could believe possible,” said the soft voice. “At least one of them is down in the laboratory all the time now, and the other gets regular use in the horse-barn now that Sarah knows they work better than anything she's ever used for horse-grain.”

“Which we will do up ourselves from now on,” I thought, at seeing Jaak 'devour' the stuff Sarah had doled out from her 'bucket'. “Oddest bucket I ever saw – shaved wood, looks older than time, four copper bands, and a nicely-fitted copper-banded wooden lid.”

“It was made earlier this year as part of a batch done at the house proper,” said the soft voice, “and the reason it looks 'older than time' is that Sarah dyed its wood carefully and then waxed it inside and out so it would not show itself to onlooking witches.”

“When..?”

“About two weeks after you returned from the trip,” said the soft voice. “She got the bucket then. She's been working on it as she's been able to since then, and just cooked the last dose of wax into it but a few days ago.”

“Does she plan on taking it on the trip?” I thought, as Jaak finished his mash and moved away so another horse could take his place. I began to look into the woodlot, and to my complete astonishment, I knew exactly where the place was.

It had not taken me a minute to find the place; it had taken me perhaps two seconds.

“It might take me a minute to uncover the hole,” I thought. I hoped I wasn't becoming overconfident.

“No, getting to the place and then dealing with it will give the others sufficient head-start, once they've been heading south for a few minutes at their best speed,” said the soft voice, “and you'll want to use the pendant so as to avoid being blown up, as you won't just get the one place.”

“What?” I asked.

“They have almost as much light distillate down there as that one Swartsburg brothel had,” said the soft voice, “and given the fact that much of the secret way in this area has enough distillate fumes to propagate the blast from the one location...”

I made the connection instantly: most of the area's underground railroad would be wrecked.

“That also,” said the soft voice. “While most of the other safehouses aren't as large or as well-stocked, they also have supplies of distillate and dynamite, and the blast propagating down all of those interconnecting tunnels will blow them up also.”

“And..?” I asked silently.

“The first kingdom's central portion loses all of its good safehouses,” said the soft voice, “which means witchdom has 'nowhere to run, and no place to hide' – at least, nowhere they can get to readily.”

“Which means they lose their best hiding spots, at least for numbers,” I thought, as the second animal of Sarah's team finished drinking. Both of the grain pans were now in use, with one having a fresh load being put on it and the second one being 'licked clean' by the first horse of Sarah's team.

“Over here,” she whispered softly. “Anna, your team. One at a time.”

While I had been 'providing security', I had also localized not merely the precise location of the 'door' I wanted to 'kick', but also, I had a fairly good idea of how to get there. I'd need to lead Jaak through the trees, as this one would need my hurrying to get clear of a central 'repository' that was nearly half the size of a large woodlot, then careful guidance so as to avoid the trenches dug when the tunnels connecting this miles-wide complex 'detonated' in sympathy to the main blast.

“Probably have to leap some of those trenches,” I thought.

“No probably,” said the soft voice. “You'll see them in good time, as the flames will both announce their locations and burn off the bulk of the fog, and if you give the others ample time, then they'll miss the dangerous parts.”

“I heard that,” whispered Anna. I turned to see her standing next to me, and that was a revelation that nearly made me faint.

“My cousin took longer to do that,” said Sarah quietly – this in my other ear. “I think her becoming so this quickly means she has much important work to do, and that soon.”

“Especially when we leave, Sarah,” whispered Anna. “I'll have to hie the horses, and you'd best do likewise, and we'll both run front to back with weapons at the ready while staying on course for the house proper.”

“Hie?” I asked silently in hopes of getting an answer from Anna before she 'left' my vicinity, as the last horse looked to be almost done drinking. Sarah was filling the second pan with mash, and Hans sounded like he was harnessing up a horse or two. I then heard Sarah softly correct him.

“No, not that way,” she whispered. “We need quiet yet. It will not be quiet long, and that noise will start its share of witches, and we can forget about being quiet afterward, but until then...”

Hans whispered something unintelligible, and Sarah seemed to agree: “if you do that, you need to speak into the person's ear, much as if you wish to talk like a tickler.”

“Talk like a tickler?” I thought. “Those talk?” I still wondered what 'hie' meant in the context Anna had used it.

“Yes, they do,” said the soft voice. “Granted, they tend to giggle so much it's very hard to understand them, but they do talk – and more, they're all too capable in other capacities.” A pause, then, “the pure strain, those kept over where you are going, are significantly more intelligent than the ones that can currently be found here, and those... You'd not believe your ears until you saw one of them work.”

“What do they do?” I asked. I'd heard of a handful of activities 'ferrets' did where I came from.

“Run wiring in aircraft, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “and yes, they do read the instructions and schematics, which are a good deal more detailed than those you recall from years ago.” Pause, then, “not only are they a good deal faster than people about running such wiring, especially in confined spaces, but they don't make errors.”

“What?” I squeaked. I then only noticed that Sarah had collected up the grain pans and the others were ready to leave. I could tell Sarah was whispering to the others as to just what needed to happen, until suddenly I heard a hissing rush of wheels – as if both buggies were heading south at their best possible speed, which meant a full-on trot at the very least – with Sarah leading the way, her compass in her hands and a silent prayer upon her lips. I could likely guess what the subject might be – and I now knew what Anna had meant by 'hie'.

“Precisely,” said the soft voice – meaning what Anna had said. I could tell the horses were still loosening up, however; they weren't quite up to their 'maximum' pace yet. “Give them a minute or two to get clear, then go find that door.” Pause, then, “ticklers, to put it mildly, tend to be as focused upon their tasks as you tend to be, and more, they also tend to be quite 'sticky' about matters in general – again, much like you are.”

“Sticky?” I thought. “As in 'it has to be right, or someone's going to get hurt'?”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Had that country's space program continued as it was prior to the current leadership's takeover, they would have been considered 'space-crew', with one 'tickler' for each man or woman.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Are they well-suited for such...”

I ceased speaking, and suddenly knew. Ticklers didn't have trouble with 'toppling gyros', nor did they become nauseated in space, nor did they develop vertigo. They knew instinctively which way was 'up', and remained oriented no matter what the spacecraft or whatever was actually doing. Finally, they did not panic in dangerous situations – unlike a lot of people here – and that was critical in space.

“Which is why all critical space crew-persons were to be 'strongly marked',” said the soft voice, “as such people are that way also.” A pause, then, “while people hereabouts are not inclined to panic when facing domestic witches, it's mostly because they've been dealing with them for many generations.” Another pause, during which I moved into the woodlot, Jaak following in my rapid yet noiseless footsteps, then “unfamiliar situations, though – those tend to cause a degree of panic that you would have had trouble believing was possible before you came here, and that tendency toward panic was worse yet where you are going – at least, it was prior to that war.”

“Only one thing worse, though,” I thought, as my feet found the start of the quietest path to where the door was. My initial path had been quiet enough for me, but not Jaak. His size most likely had much to do with it. My 'death-awl' was in my hand, as this place had at least one sentry on watch, and that witch would need to be killed quietly before I attempted the door – practice or no practice, I did not wish to take any chances on witch-trouble going in or out.

“He's drunk as a stinker, and the big guard is at the 'coach' entrance anyway,” said the soft voice. “Poke him if you feel inclined, but one way or another, he's not going to wake up in this world again.”

I needed the practice, I now realized; and I moved slower, my steps now so quiet that I had trouble hearing them when I worked at it. Jaak, I realized, was deliberately shortening his normal pace so as to step in my tracks, as he could feel 'many evil people' in the area, and his attitude toward their immanent demise was, if anything, one of 'glee' – or perhaps, 'good riddance'. I could not tell which, and I was not that concerned about the matter – or for that matter, I was not concerned about much at all beyond 'how do I get to the door and then blow the place up'.

This was my job; it needed to be done; I was the only one who could do it; and therefore, I was here. I set my face like flint, and my heart as stone; and when I came upon the first guard-witch, I did not hesitate – even if he was well-beyond trashed, if I went by the stomach-turning stink of strong drink he emitted and the toppled-over uncorked jug laying beside him as he leaned unconscious against the trunk of a tree.

I knelt down besides the foul-smelling wretch, grabbed the top of his head with my left hand, and with a swift motion, rammed the awl into his ear-canal, then yanked the awl out and flicked away the blood. The witch had not moved, even though I knew he was dead by the silence he now 'made'.

Before, he'd been snoring like a sawmill, and I turned loose of his head, letting him once more lean against the tree where he'd been 'unconscious'.

The next witch, this man but ten paces further on the 'trail' I was now moving along, I did the same thing: swift, silent, no noise, a slight shudder indicating death, a flick of my awl as I removed it, and then resume my silent steps, moving on steadily toward the doorway.

This doorway was located deep inside this woodlot, and now, I knew why I needed to kill every sentry I found in the process of finding it. Once I'd opened the door and 'dosed' the place, the uproar that resulted would awaken these people if they were still alive, and I would need to ride at Jaak's best speed while grabbing for the pendant – and I did not want to be dodging clumsy just-waking drunken witches while cracking the sound barrier in the middle of a forest.

“No, best not do that,” I thought. “Best grab the thing as I clear these trees, and otherwise...”

The sense I had was 'it's going to be amply hairy with him running at speed in the darkness' without trying to 'breach the sound-wall' – as only a few times in my life had I gone faster while astride something prior to now. Jaak, when urged to his utmost, did indeed 'leave everything else behind' – including bronze-shod full racing mares when such animals were 'given their heads'.

I wondered if he could have left my last bike behind when it was urged to its utmost. I'd burned a piston then, as the engine had acquired a 'leak' and I had not realized it had done so until the engine quit running and I had pushed it the remaining few hundred yards home to partly dismantle it later that evening.

No earthly horse could have gone that fast, as I had been passing people on the freeway then – then being a time and place where 'seventy miles an hour' was considered 'prudent' on such a road, and the tachometer was at the redline.

“What?” I thought, as I found sentry number three and 'pithed' him like a drunken frog. I was quickly becoming good at this business, so much so that I barely needed to pause at all when killing these people, and 'number four' died in what seemed an instant in time, with but a short pause in my steps as I killed him in dead-silence.

“Number five is going to be practically on top of the door itself, so I need to peg him out and then move his corpse aside so as to, uh, remove the rug... Rug?” My thinking was of such an outlandish nature that only when I came upon this fallen-on-his-back thug and spiked him in the forehead between the eyes, then with a vicious jerk removed the awl did I realize where the door was. I pulled the 'dead' thug off to the side, then looked at him again. I had a distinct and unpleasant feeling, and wasn't going to take a chance on him not being 'completely dead'.

I then 'cleaned his ears' – both of them, one after the other – to make certain he was dead. I did not want him waking up so as to warn the other witches in the area, much less those underground; and in moving his body clear of the door, I saw the 'warning lever' with its tarred rope running into an obvious section of copper tubing. I then cleaned my awl by probing in the thick carpet of leaves, and the third slow soft poke hit wood. A quick wipe with an oil-rag, then the now-proven 'death-awl' went back in its sheath in my possible bag.

“I'd best hurry, as they're still swilling down that high-test and the shattered jugs of that stuff will help the fire where they all are drinking,” I thought, as I cleared away the leaves with my hands. Jaak was standing nearby, his blanket in place; he was looking at the dead witch with what only could be thought of as a look of distinct and profound satisfaction. I then understood why.

“That stinky wretch caused him trouble,” I thought, as I cleared away more of the door. The leaves were soft, fluffy, and well-raked, but when I found the rug – tar-dipped, heavy, and with a tarry leather strap – I ripped it up bodily, sending leaves flying in a thick cloud to cover both warning lever and the corpse of the dead witch, and threw it out of the way. I found the door-handle, levered it up prior to actually opening the door, noting as I did so the years of grime and grease 'ground into' the pores of its use-polished cast iron handle, and removed first a 'metal pear', then a 'firebomb' from my vest, laying them at my knees, ready to toss them in one at a time. Only then did I actually lift up the door.

To my complete astonishment, both bombs shot into the door-crack as soon as it was opened enough to give them clear passage, and I set the door down with a muffled thump and sprang for the back of Jaak. I hunkered down just in time, as he 'blasted' into a dead gallop, following the route through the trees that I had traveled while killing the witch-sentries. He was easily going faster than I could manage through such a woods environment on a well-equipped motocross bike – and he was accelerating hard.

“Holy Toledo,” I muttered, as the trees whipped by in blurry nightmarish streaks. “He's pulling like that one bike did when it hit, and I have no idea...”

My thoughts stopped as I reached for the pendant, then as I saw clear 'area' ahead, my hand closed upon it, the cloud came down, and the clock nestled in my ear, its thunderous clangor now such that when I guided Jaak through the turn at 'maelstrom' speeds and then accelerated like a missile as he 'opened it up', I wondered just what I would need to...

Sudden light blasts the night away, and a flaming trench appears to the front with slow-motion suddenness, rocks and dirt flying up red-lit amid fire and gouting smoke.

Airborne. We're flying over it as it tries to embrace us, and leave it behind while it is still below us. There is no time to think, and this is too strange to be real.

Clang. Another tick of the clock. Jaak is still 'pulling like a hammer-down train', and I can see that blue-white line ahead blazing with lightning, and we are lightning as we follow its weaving path between yellow-tinged volcanic eruptions and night-blooming red-dwarf suns. Another fireball, this white-red-yellow-purple, blooms to the right and then the left, then the area to the rear goes solid bright and brilliant white, brighter than the sun at noon, a huge bloom of fire that blasts the remaining darkness of predawn into nothingness and replaces it with something that makes me think of the last seconds of the Swartsburg's second coming.

Clang. Another erupting trench overflown, another clock tick, we're still flying. Thunderous roaring noises, earsplitting screams to all sides, I'm riding a J79 turbojet engine running full military power with full reheat, and nothing is going to outrun me unless it's got a hot-running bender coil and is accelerating into a strange dark place where the known laws of physics don't apply – and what laws that do exist there are altogether negotiable.

I have no time to wonder just what a bender coil is, as ahead I can see two buggies, both of them coming up faster than I can think. I'm still flying, this now so diabolically fast that calling my speed 'supersonic' is a bad joke, and I put away the pendant just in time for the cloud to lift...

And Jaak leaps over Sarah's buggy and team as if they're standing still, then showers them with a huge cloud of dirt and sod when he touches down. I come out of the 'racing crouch', then let him gradually slow down from whatever speed he'd managed – that being faster than anything I'd ever ridden on, or so it seemed – and he'd 'accelerated' like a fabled beast of a bike I'd heard about but never actually ridden.

No time left for me, though: a roaring wind so loud and violent it nearly blasts me off of Jaak's back washes over us, and now everyone within a hundred miles knows something bad just happened. The area to the rear is still burning mountain-hot and flaming red like hell, various colors of fires gouting a mile or more into the sky, and without thinking, I draw that one improved 'Tosser' pistol, think 'chamber a round', the slide works full-stroke 'automatically' – and fire the pistol twice at a pair of just-flushed witches some distance away on my right, then as I feel another witch to my left, I turn, line him up 'slow' – it felt slow, but the actual time it took to first locate him and then aim for his slow-turning head was closer to 'instantly' – and then drilled four witches, each shot fired one after another, each witch receiving a black-edged hole where the top of his nose ended as his head showed and the sights lined up, and the four shots so rapid that they blurred into a long-winded roaring noise as the pistol jackhammered my hand.

“Crossed their 'T's',” I thought as the witches slowly fell, each one dead as a stone and ready for Brimstone's dinner plate. “Each shot a third eye, and they're done in this world – and ready for the next one.” A pause, then, “and they ain't gonna be late, either.”

I thumbed the safety up and 'on' the pistol, then as Jaak finally slowed to first a trot and then a walk, I wondered – this in pictures, in hopes of an answer – why he'd run like that, and more, just how fast could he run.

“You now have an idea as to why those smelly wretches you just sent where they belonged thought him a capital racer,” said the soft voice. “They would not let him in the Kentucky Derby or any other race where you came from, as he'd break the track record by a huge margin were he allowed to compete.”

“Uh, how fast was he going?” I asked, this audibly.

As if to answer me in a more concrete fashion, Sarah came up, her team 'blowing' and 'frothing', and she said, her voice high-pitched and shrieking hysterically, “I never saw anything move so fast in my life! I heard a noise like thunder coming from behind, and I tried to turn out of the way, and then he flies over me like I'm not moving at all!”

“Noise?” I asked, as I made the pistol 'safe' – remove the magazine, rack the slide and catch the chambered round as it flies out the ejection port, top up the magazine, first with the caught cartridge and the rest from the small leather pouch of loose rounds I had secreted in the vest, then reinsert the magazine. I then carefully lowered the hammer with my thumb after pulling the trigger, and replaced the pistol in my bag, its grip protruding for quick grasping should I need to use it again.

“Yes, noise,” said Sarah – who then shouldered her rifle and began shooting at some shadowy movement across the meadow to our right. I leaped off of Jaak, dropped my possible bag, unslung my rifle, and from a kneeling position, began firing at the swarm of witches that had just burst out of the trees.

These stinkers didn't merely smell; most of them were on fire, and as the two of us shot them down, I found that I ran my first magazine dry in what seemed like two seconds, then put in a second one and resumed shooting with but an instant's pause. The witches seemed to be moving so slowly that I was consistently blowing their heads off with each shot, and when they finally disappeared into the grass – I had shot the last clump of three, firing as fast as the scope 'lit them up' – I stood up, shaking, wobbling slightly – and more than a little sore.

“Here, drink this,” said Anna, as she took my rifle. “This thing is as heavy as your usual one. Now are you sore?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “I... What h-happened?”

“You were firing that thing so rapidly it looked like a stream of lightning was striking those stinkers,” said Anna, “and I was driving as fast as our horses could manage while sticking to Sarah's trail, and she tried to leave us both behind and nearly managed it entire.”

“Yes, and he has a lot of those brass things here, and two of those boxes, and he emptied them both before I could count to five,” said Hans – who then saw that I had put a third magazine in the rifle. “Now I think I need to learn to count faster, but Sarah was shooting those things too, and I could not count either of their shots, they were shooting so rapidly.”

“I know,” Sarah said, her voice tinged with pain, “and I got well into my second box before I was done, and I feel almost as bad right now as if I'd just shot that roer all over again.”

“Did you adjust that one to fit you, or is that one yours?” I asked, as I drained my second cup of beer. I could tell Anna had put honey in this stuff; that, and it was the remainders of what had shown last night. Some of that beer had gone in the cold-room, along with the whole of that one jug and several sample containers, and I hoped Hans wasn't going to 'spit bricks' when I mentioned adding some carefully ground oats to some of this particular beer mash.

“No, not oatmeal stout,” I thought, at the recollection suddenly bloomed. I did not want stout; that Guinness stuff was as black as a nightmare and tasted horrible. I'd gotten a dose of that one vial's contents, and my shoulder's pain was growing less by the second. “That stuff...” I was speaking of the tincture. I was glad it had pain-relieving properties, as I suspected I was going to be very bruised – not 'pig-load' bruised, but quite sore nonetheless.

“Adding small amounts of oats will improve that beer,” said the soft voice. “They need to be whole-grains, carefully selected” – this statement had some peculiar implications; did we need to check each such kernel under a magnifier, or did we merely need to exercise unusual care in selecting the bulk grain – “ground using your grinder, and then boiled for a time before being added to the grist prior to 'mashing-in'.”

“What will that do?” asked Anna. Sarah had gotten her dose and was washing it down with beer.

“Add an ingredient that will drastically increase that beer's effectual nature,” said the soft voice. “It will be a very potent brew then, so much so that you'll need to treat it like cough medicine, as it will have side effects if consumed to excess.”

“Potent?” I asked. “How?”

“Recall that one particular antibiotic you were commonly given for sinus infections, and how there was a much stronger version of it, one which you received once in a while when those infections were especially troublesome? Its name, which implied it was an augmented version of the original antibiotic? How it could cause diarrhea at times, unlike the commonplace version of that drug?”

I nodded, now not hurting much at all. Hans was gathering my spent ammunition, and I began reloading my magazines with loose rounds. I'd clean my rifle once I'd arrived at the house proper.

“That beer currently has some antibiotic properties,” said the soft voice. “Adding oats – fresh oats, carefully picked – will have a similar effect upon its capacity, such that 'one small cup', and your gastrointestinal troubles will be over in short order – much as if that particular 'augmented' drug was currently available here and used similarly.” A longer pause, then “one dose would do the job.”

“Cholera?” I thought, meaning that ailment 'here'. I could think of no better name.

“The 'oat' version of that beer will stop that trouble cold,” said the soft voice. “They will want the recipe overseas, as they've been looking for an effective remedy for troubles they have, and 'cholera', while they know of that name by a later intercept, is no word for some of the gastrointestinal problems they deal with.”

“Stinking functionaries are poisoning the food,” I spluttered, as I finished 'filling' one magazine and started on the other empty one. Both Hans and Anna were now bagging up empty rounds, these picked up with small wooden tongs and placed in sample pouches they had taken for such purposes. I hoped I would not need to shoot much once at the house proper – and forget demonstrating the machine gun, save if I could convince Karl to give it a try.

“In some cases, yes,” said the soft voice. “The chief trouble is those staffing the food preparation areas are all heavily-drugged functionaries wearing 'cook's clothing' – and they're so drugged they toss anything that looks to work in the kettles to make up whatever is on the quota-list – as in 'the quota must be filled, and if it is not filled, then we die' – and some of them do die that way, hence the quotas are filled, even if the results are worthless for their intended purpose.” A pause, then, “basically, a good portion of their 'issued food' is not healthy to eat, and some of it is effectively 'poison'.”

“They probably put swine-fat in that stuff, like witches often do with their victuals,” said Sarah. “Much of what Kossum's puts in their tins is packed that way, so their tins are greasy and...”

“And the stuff takes longer to go completely rotten if their awful soldering work doesn't hold,” I muttered as I slipped a full-loaded magazine in my rifle with a softly muted click and began to top up the one I'd removed. I did not chamber a round; I didn't want an accident with this weapon. “It's part-rotten when it goes in those stinking tins, but those buying that stinky stuff...”

I almost spat an oath, then noted the dark blue in the sky to the west. I pointed at the western horizon, then shouldered my rifle by its sling as I picked up my possible bag and slung it for carry. My thoughts were not good for either witches or 'drug-dumbed functionaries' – they acted much the same, and people who deserved better died in droves on account of their evil.

“So that is why they do that,” said Sarah. “I wish I could have had you for a lecturer, as you've told me more since I met you about much of what I saw than any three such people at the west school.”

“Perhaps we are supposed to be together, then,” I said softly. “Now we must go. Let the witches remain where they lie, as the dead can bury their own. Besides, they'll go rotten quick enough.” I then recalled something.

“That rifle is the one adjusted for your use?” I asked.

Sarah nodded, this with an expression of utter sobriety, then softly as she took her seat in the buggy, “I do not think I need a third position on its' switch, as I can fire it fast enough to suit me without such a thing.”

“And me?” I asked, as I leaped aboard Jaak.

“You do not need one of those either,” said Anna – who then shouldered a rifle and shot a witch as he emerged from the trees. She waited – I was not sure if there were more witches, and she seemed of like mind, for she kept her rifle shouldered and aimed at the same spot where the witch now lay smoldering – then said as she unshouldered her weapon and laid it facing up and in her lap, “Hans, the buggy. We must go now.”

Hans responded with alacrity – he leaped into the buggy – and we moved out. I looked once more to the west, and again, it was no longer 'black', but a very dark blue. Dawn would be in a certain amount of time, and I hoped we'd get to the house proper before sunrise. Only then did I notice where we were.

“About two miles from the rise,” I thought. “How many...”

“You covered nearly a third of the distance in the process of getting clear of all those exploding places – and the witches had been most careless lately with their distillate shipments, which is why the blast was so widespread.” Pause, then, “that powder mill is gone, and several caches of 'big ones' and other assorted caches of cursed munitions are also gone.”

“How many..?” I thought.

“Several,” said the soft voice. “More than five sizable caches went up in sympathy, and...”

Another rumbling roar thundered somewhere to our rear, then a second blast went up to our rear and left. Both left huge red-flaming clouds of billowing fire in their wake, clouds that slowly faded over the course of perhaps ten seconds.

“Two more 'hidden' caches detonated,” said the soft voice. “The reason I'm not being precise is that while such hidden caches tend to be fairly commonplace on the secret way, not all of such munitions are cursed – and the non-cursed ones tend to be relatively 'inert' after a thousand years.”

“Meaning they may just help such underground places become better bake-ovens,” I thought.

A faint shaking rumbled the ground, and I looked about in horror. On the 'wind', I could hear screaming, this faint, high-pitched, ethereal; and in hearing such screams, I knew another matter.

I'd all-but wiped out every still-living witch in the area that was truly worrisome, as those people had gone to ground earlier – before we had left the house at the very latest – and were now being 'roasted' in their tombs.

“That situation went a good deal further than the immediate area, by the way,” said the soft voice. “More than a few 'big spenders' coming up on the secret way are now smoking charcoal, and the smoke of their burning is spreading rapidly.”

“Hence making the secret way a worse deathtrap than it already is,” I thought. “If the air's breathable, you'll encounter irate wasps and hornets. If you don't run into the irritated bugs, you will choke to death on smoke and fumes in short order – oh, and then the places that have hidden caches of munitions may well go boom when you tread in them, as something in this area went up and it was keeping those things 'good'.”

“While that is true, there are still a lot of well-hid underground 'shrines' in the area, which will eventually need to be dealt with,” said the soft voice, “and while many of the underground places and pathways in the first kingdom are now quite hazardous, they will not remain so indefinitely.”

For some reason, however, I could feel something in the region, and I 'led' Jaak over to something glowing a hazy red. I could feel this thing, a device seemingly 'older than time' and yet newly made, and when I found the 'golden' glimmering 'object', its shadow a red-hazed one that shimmered faintly due to its mirror-polish, I murmured, this soft as a breath of wind, “Sarah, please, come here. This is important.”

Jaak came to a stop beside the thing some few feet from where it lay, and Sarah drew up. She instantly spat an oath, one suitable for an 'old hare' – or Lukas when he was especially irritated.

“I've only seen those things twice before,” she spat. “It's a witch-compass, only that one's like one off of a tapestry, not the usual type.”

“It's not a thousand years old,” I muttered. “That thing was made in the last two years, somewhere down in the central part of the fourth kingdom, and it was not made by Matthyssoon's, either.” A pause, then, “it was made by the Groesenwerk – wherever that actually is.”

That place?” gasped Sarah. “But it's as well-known and as large as Machalaat Brothers, and has the same reputation!”

“Then we must send word south as soon as possible, and Hendrik must know of this, also,” said Anna. “Now what is that thing? It's not fit for anyone save a witch, as it's glowing red like it's on fire.” Anna thought for a moment, then said, “I can speak to Hendrik about that Groesenwerk place, as I've been inside it, and it's like what she said for size and much else.”

“Did it feel like a witch-run and witch-owned place?” I asked.

“Then, no,” said Anna. “I doubt I could have told otherwise then, as it smelled like the usual for such places, and I saw people dressed for work, and that only.”

“Stinking thing's greased well with lard,” I spat, as the 'golden' cover became hazy and showed a needle with but four points, these marked by red drops of dried blood. North was 'where the needle pointed' on these things, and one had to remember the relationship between north, south, east, and west – and woe befall the fool who forgot those meanings and the associated chants and curses as specified in the larger black books – which one needed to know so as to actually use one of these horrors.

Seeing such an obvious fetish made for a comment bound thickly with irritation, which was evident in what I next said. “Become something fit for setting fire to witches, you red-hazed stinker, and go roost where you can cause trouble for the nearest still-living Power – like in that wretch's pistol-pocket!”

The compass vanished with a faint thump, and I muttered, “Groesenwerk... In the twelfth district, down in that market town near the east boundary, perhaps half a mile from the waterfront, right next to this tall palisade, its back reach to the wall and a big yard in front for customers. Long stone building, two stories, a feeling of soot in the air around it, noisy outside and worse-yet inside, bad machines painted pretty, a lot more done by hand than is good, and the place has no one in it but serious witches, so they make nothing but fetishes and sell only to witches.”

“Then we have trouble,” said Hans as Anna drove on into the night. We traveled line-abreast, at least for a little while, as I could now see the rise ahead by some odd means. “Grandfather sent his work to that place, as he'd heard how it was good, and so they know about those things.”

“They do..?” Sarah sounded terrified.

“They know about how he wrote of them,” said Hans, “and those things he got back were so bad when he got them that he had to take them to bits entire, work on them with his tools a lot, cook them...” Hans looked at me. How I could tell this in the gloom surrounding us was a mystery, as I was looking ahead, watching for trouble and migrating witches. I could feel some in the area; they'd been woken up by the fireworks we'd just lit off.

“You cook them better than he did, now that I think about it, as he did not put clay to his cans like you do,” said Hans. “Still, his files would not touch them after, and before, they might have been as hard as a decent wrench where he'd written of them needing to be hard as a file.”

“What he wrote of and what he received were two different things,” I muttered. “If they...” I then paused, and asked, “did he send drawings, or just wrote of how he wanted them, or..?”

“Both of those things, and double the usual post fees for the roll,” said Hans. “He needed twelve large sheets of paper for his drawings and three more for his writing, and grandmother needed to do his writing, as his writing was bad, even if he could have taught drawing to most people who think to draw.”

“He could write poorly, or..?” I asked.

“I could read his writing,” said Sarah. “It was decent for spelling, and good for expression, but it was nearly as bad as my first writings for reading, and I doubt he could have made it better.” Pause, then, “he was like Esther is that way, if I go by what Hans has showed me of his writing.”

“And grandmother could make his letters neat, as she'd gone to the higher schools same as Katje did,” said Hans. “She was a preacher's helper, and that man was killed by witches about the time I was born.”

“Meaning he wasn't a witch, or..?”

“They tried making him into one of those things,” said Hans, this as if repeating something he'd heard many times, “and he told them they needed to sup with Brimstone, so they burnt him out with distillate two nights later and shot them all down when they came out on fire, him and his whole family, from the grandmother to his latest pair of babies, and grandmother said he made Maarten look bad for preaching.”

“Most likely as he went to the west school, and not Boermaas, then,” I said. I wondered how I knew, beyond 'Boermaas might not have been able to teach anyone then', as its site had just been 'found' and the witches were still raising the huge amounts of bribe-money so as to get the place started. Powers demanded such fees of their fellows whenever those below them sought to begin 'new' enterprises – even when those very same Powers issued the orders to 'cause it to happen'. They wanted their money regardless; those under them delivered it up 'by the correct fashion in the specified bags' if they wished to live. I had more to ask Hans, however. “Did she go to Boermaas?”

“No, she went where Sarah went, and while she did not get the ribbon, she was chasing close after the person who did,” said Hans. “Hendrik had it, I think, though she started a bit earlier than he did.”

“They still know of those things, Hans,” said Sarah – who then drew a pistol and shot 'something' or someone. The howl that erupted made the hair on my head raise up slightly, and I removed the magazine from my rifle as I unslung it, inserted a different one, chambered a round, and fired twice at the noise.

The scream that erupted was only eclipsed by the red-tinged eruption of fiery soot amid another mournful howling noise – a noise that I recognized instantly, one I had heard before since coming here.

I still did not like Doberman Pinschers; and hearing that too-distinctive howl reminded me of that one particularly frightful brute that wanted my throat while I was not in its territory. I was on the sidewalk walking from my home to another location down the street, this as an adolescent boy. I could not recall the errand, but I did recall that dog, and its rabid-seeming way as it tried to leap the tall spike-topped iron fence 'put the fear in me' as bad as anything I'd ever endured.

“That was not Old Shuck, but one of his kind,” I spat. “Now since when..?”

“That was why you needed that special ammunition,” said Sarah. “I saw you change boxes, and I think those were open-mouthed bullets.”

“Open-mouthed?” I gasped. “What?” I wanted to ask how Sarah knew of such 'bullets', and more, it made for a resolution to make both a drawing labeled with the correct nomenclature for ammunition, but also the notion that people speak of such things properly.

“What were commonly used in that war when 'maximal accuracy' was wanted,” said the soft voice. “Yes, they loaded 'target-grade' gaged hollow-points, with gaged powder loaded by hand rather than on their loading machines, and the brass from those rounds is 'selected'.” A pause, then, “be glad there's plenty of 'recent-vintage' ready-to-use selected cases overseas.”

“Plenty?” I asked.

“It's had a long time to accumulate, as that ammunition isn't recycled the way the usual stuff is,” said the soft voice – and more, only certain people are permitted to process that brass from start to finish, as it's deemed a critical resource.”

“Certain people?” I asked. “Slaves?”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those in leadership overseas wish to have their desires fulfilled to the full, and hence are 'generous' with those they deem necessary toward achieving those goals.” A pause, then, “that means those people eat about as well as anyone who isn't someone they own.”

“R-rotten food..?” I asked.

“Their food tends to be 'selected', and more, they tend to get more of it, relatively speaking,” said the soft voice. “In some cases, such people have chances to get good food often enough to actually do 'passably'.”

Own?” I asked. “Ownership... As in property?” I almost said 'slaves' once more, as this time it seemed to fit.

“Functionaries are 'owned', and hence are fed and housed better than those spoken of as 'commons' as a rule,” said the soft voice. “Recall how 'full employees' were where you last worked where you came from? How that firm seemed to own them like property – and how they seemed to 'care' for them, provided they did what was expected?”

I nodded, this in silence. I'd noticed a definite aura of 'blessing' about many of those who were 'full employees' in that place, almost as if they could not do wrong – and those over them, those Mafiaesque individuals that constantly erupted in gouts of profanity – those people lived like veritable kings.

“Ah, so that is why those blue-clothed people are that way,” said Hans. “Now, as for grandfather, he had to do those things up proper, as if they were done the way the drawings and writing spoke of and then used, those witches would blow themselves up good.”

“He did that deliberately, then,” said Sarah. “How much work did he do?”

“A lot,” said Hans. “He might not have had as many tools as Dennis does, but he had a lot more than most smith's shops, and he bought more tools with some frequency, as he needed a lot of tools.” Pause, then, “that is how I learned about Albrecht, is seeing him and his father dealing with my grandfather down at the Public House when I was a boy, and then more-often later, when he was showing me how to do things.”

“Those things were bad enough the way he did them,” whispered Anna. I wondered why she was whispering, then I suddenly knew – and rolled off of Jaak, such that I landed between him and the wheels of Sarah's buggy, ran around its rear, then knelt down and fired twice without 'aiming', mostly because there wasn't 'time'. The blood-curdling scream that occurred upon my second shot was of such a nature that I marveled, at least until the first of the witches boiled out of the trees not a hundred yards to the west.

I hit the first witch – I aimed this time, 'crossing his 'T' and seeing his head disintegrate in the edge of the scope as I moved toward my next target – then the second witch likewise, again seeing the red mist of an obliterated head; then when no more came out, I heard what sounded like a faint and eerie humming noise; then, as if preplanned, a rapid-fire chorus of popping noises began, this continuing for nearly a minute until it finally petered out into individual pops and then 'silence'. As I ran back toward Jaak, making my rifle safe as I ran, I wondered just what I had done beyond the obvious matters of shooting two 'full-loaded and black-faced' witches.

“The man who screamed was hit in the 'gut' by your second round, and he went to dust within a second after you shot him,” said the soft voice. “That was why he screamed, in fact – he was going to dust, and he felt it happening.”

What?” I thought.

“An incidental effect of using 'hollow points' on witches,” said the soft voice. “Anything that causes that kind of 'shock' tends to cause rapid dissolution, and especially at those ranges.” A pause, then, “witch-soldiers tended to go up like light-giving firebombs when shot with them, in fact – and 'rapid dissolution' is an understatement if one speaks of black dogs.”

A last quiet-sounding pop, then I thought, “that contingent of witches is, uh, dead?”

“They are now,” said the soft voice. “Most of them were imports, with the two that showed themselves openly being among the handful of remaining 'serious' domestic witches in this portion of the first kingdom.” A pause, then, “there's another group, a smaller one, and with them, I'd not use your rifle, as there's something important you need to see among them.”

“I shouldn't?” I asked. “Uh, why?”

“Because you'll see something both very important and quite unusual, and you need to be close enough to see just what kind of enemy you're going to be facing when you come back here after the trip,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, this group has a satchel of papers they are carrying from its most-recent hiding place in the kingdom house to a location 'far to the north', and those papers are rigged for 'destruction' – hence, you'll need to not alert the witches 'holding' them by gunfire.”

“What are these papers..?”

I was about to continue with my questioning when I suddenly rolled off of Jaak, then ran around the back of Sarah's buggy, there pausing to dump my possible bag and pack, along with my rifle. These people had been following the trail of the fore-group that had just been killed, those witches being used as 'bait' or something similar...

No, not quite,” I thought, as I shot into the trees, thankful for being so unburdened. I was reaching for the hilt of my sword, and then the stench hit me like a blow to the nose: dead-drunk witches, collapsed amid their stench and a great many other foul matters, these people lying up in a depression, with watchers set, every stinking witch 'full-loaded and black-faced' – and more, until last night, these people had hidden themselves especially well in portions of the kingdom house. While there were witches yet remaining in that area, most of those people thought better of not attempting to escape on foot, and would assay 'leaving in style' in their currently well-hid coaches; those people had pounds of powder and lead in their vehicles, sizable well-rested teams of 'unhousebroken' grain-stuffed horses, and a measure of iron-plated protection installed in their coaches as well.

“Uh, that's the usual, isn't it?” I thought, as I slowed to a near-silent trot as I headed south-southwest while weaving through the trees. I now had something of an idea as to what I needed to do: find this gully or whatever it was, then systematically work my way through it with my sword out and slicing witches as I went. Silence, of course, was a requisite – and I needed to slice these people good enough that they died silently.

A silenced pistol would be too slow. Two witches, perhaps. Not so for thirty. That many meant using a sword, and I had one of those.

“At a near-run,” I thought, as I again caught a whiff of these stinkers. “These people stink.”

“They may be drunk, but they're nowhere near drunk enough to not wake up if you shoot them,” said the soft voice. “The papers are partly hidden, and more, they're near the very end of the 'column', so if you start at the nearest end and slice on each witch as you come upon him, you can kill them all without a single example awakening enough to do his 'duty'.”

“And then I'll need to, uh, disarm the rigging device,” I thought, as I slowed somewhat. The depression was just ahead, and once I entered it...

“I'll need to slice on these people at a run,” I thought, “and this isn't a gully, it's a...”

As if I could not believe what was happening, I came upon the first of the drunken witches but ten feet away, and I sprang forward, drawing my sword. As I leaped over the man, I nearly decapitated him, then as the ground gently folded itself 'below' into a shallow and winding gully, I began running. The witches lay against each side of this thing, its deepest portion forming a sort of trail, and as I ran, I needed to swing to both right and left, the tip of my sword slicing each throat deeply such that blood sprayed behind me in a red mist. My feet had minds of their own, so much so that when I came to the fifth witch, I did not notice he was still awake until I had actually cut off his head and his fountaining blood flung his head onto his right shoulder.

“You're not 'cutting throats',” said the soft voice, as I ran faster yet. “The reason their heads are seeming to be but partly decapitated is that in most cases, you're moving fast enough that you don't get to see their heads actually fall off.”

“That was the first one I saw!” I thought, as I swung first left, then right, then left twice in a rapid blurry movement that had me then swing to the right again. This was apart from the tricky footwork needed to 'line up' on these people so as to remove their heads, and as I continued my fast-moving winding way, I wondered as to why I was 'dancing' over the ground. I looked down for an instant's time, and only then did I see the thin tar-saturated rope.

There was no time to think upon the reasoning for such a rope, as I needed to slice another witch, and as I continued along the 'gully' – it was now chest-deep and perhaps eight to ten feet wide at its top, such that it hid the witches well as they leaned against its steeply sloping walls – I had to not merely jump over the rope, but also 'bounce off of the walls' so as to kill the witches silently and 'instantly'.

It was not enough to merely slice their throats, I now knew. That rope was attached to that rigging device, and these people I was now killing were 'lesser' witches, rather than the 'big boys' – who had been those in the earlier group.

“No, not true,” said the soft voice as I swung to the left and then the right, bouncing off of a near-vertical head-high wall in the process of 'lining up' so as to decapitate a third witch leaning against the left wall. “These people stopped earlier, and were so well-hidden that that group of second-kingdom witches walked right by them.” A pause, then as I sliced on another trio of witches, “that doesn't mean they aren't important, by the way.”

“Uh why?” I asked, as I swung on four witches in as many steps.

“They were ordered by the reigning Power some distance to the south to go 'to the farthest North' and deliver up his papers,” said the soft voice. “He wished those papers to be safe until he was 'established', as he'd just learned of the influx of witches from points further south and thought they might well take over his territory – and those papers are very important.”

“Very..?” I thought in an instant's time – an apparent instant's time. I was moving so rapidly that 'an instant' was probably a period of time more-normally used to measure the propagation delay of digital logic devices. Which kind, I wasn't sure. I was sure I'd used some of these devices at one time or another before coming here.

Another pause in my too-rapid-to-think footwork, this to slice another witch. I was moving at or near a dead run now, no more time for conscious thought, no time for anything other than killing witches when and as I found them, all the while continually dodging that rope; these people were not merely the last of the group, but the lightest sleepers by far – and that by deliberate intent. That one Power had sensed he was in big trouble, and by getting his papers north, he thought he could 'bargain' with the newcomers, as there was some truly incriminating evidence in this huge bundle of old sheets.

Another witch, then two more, and suddenly a hard turn, this at nearly an instant's time. The 'trench' – it was now obvious to me as to what I was in – was obviously wavering to 'confine the damage' of plunging shells to a short length, much like I had read of them doing years prior to coming here; more, it made it harder to run down the length of the trench rapidly.

“The witches eventually learned that,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise...”

Another abrupt turn, then the trench was straight, witches to each side, alternating slices, these so rapid that when the trench 'vanished' and ended in what looked like a huge 'bomb-sump' with no more witches in sight, I gasped, “where did they all go?”

“To sup with Brimstone,” said the soft voice. “The witches occupying this particular old battlefield trench didn't read the contents of what's in that one bookshelf, as then they wouldn't have spread themselves out in 'order of echelon', as was the usual for witches during the hot part of the war.”

“Order of echelon?” I asked. “As in 'the last shall be first, and the first... Last?”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “The big boys were typically at the very end of such columns, their thinking being to have those most-expendable be the bait for any attacks encountered as they moved in-column along their line of march and a few trusted higher-ranking witches for tail-guards – if they thought to use such people.” A pause, then, “turn around, clean your sword, and start looking for that satchel with the papers.” Another pause, then, “put the trap that is inside that satchel under one of the witches a bit to his side, as this particular trench is well-known by many witches, and they will use it again.”

“Might as well map its location...” I muttered, this while standing in shocked and total disbelief at what I had just done. I'd 'cleared' a winding trench singlehandedly, this with a sword while dodging a carefully-laid trip-rope and many still-awake and heavily-armed witches – and I'd killed every witch in it, this before any of them could act – and not missing once while at a run over unfamiliar ground. This showed in my thinking, which was now chaotic, jumbled, and 'messy': “rig this thing good with some nasty mines, like some of those cursed things...” I then had it: clean the sword first, sheathe it, then do something else. I needed to think about what I was doing, and my brain was perilously close to 'OVERLOAD' level at the present time.

“One thing at a time,” I thought, as I came to a stop but feet from the headless and blood-sopping corpse of a witch. “I cannot wipe this thing and walk at the same time, not unless I want to cut myself or do a bad job of wiping it – or more likely, first the one thing and then the other.”

“Not when you're preoccupied, you can't,” said the soft voice. “You are preoccupied, by the way – and I would wait until you are back with the others with that satchel to 'complete' what has occurred to you.”

“Oh,” I murmured, as I carefully wiped the sword down. I was being most-careful with this business, as my hands were only now acting as if they had but one thumb and not four thumbs and a supernumerary digit protruding from the back of my hand.

They had been doing so during my period of 'shock', and I suspected I had been protected then from 'screwing up' while in a 'head-up-backside' state. This made for a potent distraction, even as I continued to concentrate on wiping down my sword.

“Going to need several greasy rags like this one for wiping things down when we're about ready to get in the ocean,” I thought. “Two tins of that grease, also.”

I continued wiping down the sword, and with each stroke, a layer of blood seemed to come off of the still blood-caked blade. There was a lot of blood on it still; blood was still dripping from the tip onto the ground, in fact, slow-running drops that made a small yet growing pool. That made for a peculiar request, even as I still worked hard at cleaning up a blood-caked blade.

“Could I have this scabbard 'treated' overseas?”

“Yes, and I would do just that,” said the soft voice. “You'll wish that more than a little, even if 'treated' swords aren't going to be wanted much at all before the curse breaks entirely.”

“Too many people associate good swords with witches,” I muttered, as I 'scrubbed off' another 'layer' of blood. “Like these stinkers once did, most people treat everything with a good edge as if it had 'magical' powers or something.”

Pause. An instant's time. I had to watch what I was doing right now.

I could see metal now in places, though the caked blood was still much in evidence. I had no idea how this had occurred, and less yet how I'd managed to first make what I was using, then actually become as 'good' with it as I was. I'd just done something that bordered on 'magical'. That made for a further thought-train, one that I gave words to with care as I continued to rub the blood off of my sword.

“There wasn't any magic with this thing – at least, not that type, even if I have no clue how that stuff works and never really did, save what I've read about and actually saw happen.”

Roughly a minute later, I finally finished cleaning my sword; and with it in my right hand and the rag I'd used in my left, I then looked at the oil-rag. The thing was stained badly with blood, even if my sword wasn't going to 'catch some rust' due to the corrosive blood of witches remaining upon it. That made for a fitting remark.

That stuff” – meaning the blood – “needs to turn into this really nasty, uh, poison, and...”

“And what?” asked the soft voice pointedly.

“Oh, dose this one particular Power's supply of drink with it,” I murmured. I could just hear the giggling. “Sort of like, uh, 'tincture of dead witch', just like the Indians used to do for poisoning their blowgun darts.” I then spat, “what?”

“It worked quite well, actually, even if it caused the witches to slowly rot over a period of days rather than quickly die of paralysis,” said the soft voice, as the blood faded from the rag before my shock-staring eyes. The rag then acquired an odd 'stitched' binding about its edges, much as if it were one of the many shop-towels I had once had where I came from; and finally the rag itself became noticeably 'thicker' and softer, with a fuzzy nap. “Now it's a good oil rag, and that 'controlling' power down in that part of the fourth kingdom is in for a very nasty surprise.”

“About clean his whole household out inside of a week,” I spat as I sheathed my sword carefully, “and kill off a mess of his guests that have come up from the fifth kingdom.”

A pause. I had more to say about this particular 'poison', especially after hearing where this stinker had hidden himself, and by extension, how much trouble he had caused and was currently causing. He owned that one instrument-making house, in fact, and many of those currently working there were his people.

It hadn't always been that way, which was why Hans' grandfather had heard 'good' things about it. The witches hadn't been running the place then, even if most of those working there at that time were 'fully-owned witch-slaves' and the place made 'fetishes' exclusively.

That part had not changed in a very long time, and change needed to happen.

“Stuff needs to be straight out of 'Toxic Lady' – it doesn't stay put, it kills slowly but surely, it proliferates like it's insane, it loves to get into High Meats – best culture media to be had for it, in fact – and then, it's contagious by multiple means, so the contaminated things keep killing witches until they're burnt to ashes – and that contamination spreads, 'cause it's 'a sick little proliferator' – and that means it's utterly unpredictable in how it behaves beyond its tendency to ignore all attempts to stop its spreading.”

“Now you've done it,” said the soft voice. “That will clean out that entire area, and keep a large part of the fourth kingdom's 'strongest' witches 'down'.”

What the word 'down' meant in this context made for mystery, but I suspected 'down' implied the witches would not do nearly as well as they were doing now in regards to running things in the fourth kingdom. I began retracing the blood-soaked 'trail' I had left, my tracks showing in the gloom by some strange means that caused them to faintly glow with an ethereal bluish-white fire amid the slow-spreading regions of bloody ground now covering the floor of the trench.

“That, and they're huge, and they look like I scattered dirt like crazy,” I thought, as I came upon the last witch I had sliced. I continued, seeing the rope around the ankle of his black leather 'torment-boot', seeing his head lying a foot away from his body, smelling the strong-and-growing-stronger coppery reek of blood, and then...

“No satchel yet,” I thought, as I left the 'tail guard' behind. “There's going to be two or three more of these stinkers, each man of which I need to look at as I go, as that head witch of this column was a tricky wretch and he may well have used more than one 'trap' so as to make sure his tail didn't get rolled up on him.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “He did learn that much from his years of reading that large black book.”

That thing remained behind,” I thought. “He was in that Power's household... No, all of these people were, or were in close proximity to that location...”

I had come upon the next witch. Again, a rope around the ankle of his boot – his left boot, I now noticed, and I turned around to see behind me not merely the vanishing of my tracks, but also, the left boot of the other witch.

Witchdom was most-serious about following orders, and that was strictly because they were orders. No sense of any kind mattered a whit to them: if a command came from above in the power structure, it was to be obeyed without a single question, obeyed upon the instant, and obeyed as if it came from God himself.

“That only makes sense when you expect those under you to not think at all,” I thought. “If all you have are idiots, though...”

That speech from the Rooster Totem: “those who turn witch lose their minds,” rang like a deep bronze-tolling bell in my head. Suddenly, it did make sense, albeit in a very twisted fashion. Witchdom presumed all sense and knowledge was present in the leader's person, and those below him – or in the past, her – were to blindly follow those orders given, and with this the sole thought ever-present within their minds: 'how must I do what I am commanded to do?'.

“Then those at the pinnacle of the command structure need to spell out every little thing down to the very smallest detail, just as if they're commanding idiots who only know 'duh, I need to do what I'm told, duh, duh...”

Again, the sense of absolute surety reigned, and I returned to walking forward once again. My tracks that lay behind me had vanished before my eyes, and the sense of knowing just where that satchel lay became much stronger. It was but ten to twelve feet ahead in the gully, beside and slightly underneath the witch in question, and that stinker, while not rotting yet, would not wait at all regarding his decomposition once I'd found the satchel and placed the bomb next to his body just under the ground.

“Digging that hole might be trouble, though,” I thought, as I came upon the third tail-guard. Witch number four would be 'the illustrious leader', and the two ropes, head and tail – said designated leader was to be a paranoid wretch, and paranoia in action demanded ropes going to everyone in the column – would go into the satchel.

This satchel, or 'book-case', would be large and of leather, as was appropriate for toting a weighty document; and more, this book or ledger or note-collection was leather-bound, as was appropriate for a tome.

With complete surety, I then knew: only witches could own 'tomes', as any book possessing size, weight, and 'color' was the property of a witch – which was what made it a tome.

“Which means the only book non-witches are to own...”

My thinking was replaced with the staring-in-the-face truth: “the witches desire ignorant – if not genuinely stupid – people under them, and the only knowledge most people are to have in full measure is to know their place in the witch-authored, witch-owned and witch-controlled power structure – and then keep doing exactly as they are told, no more, and no less, until the very moment they are crushed to death under witchdom's multitude of curses that are reserved especially for failures.”

“Hence no books whatsoever,” I thought. “All literature is banned: nothing of fiction, books in general are rare enough in this area...” I paused in my thinking, then a question: “the book itself?”

“Tends to be both very costly and very hard to get without multiple inducements and a trip per each of those inducements prior to picking up the book in question,” said the soft voice. “Albrecht's brought up his share over the years, and the place currently printing them in the fourth kingdom is not one he enjoys dealing with, as those printers act far too much like witches for him to like it.”

“Are they witches?” I asked.

“Some are at this time, but all of the rest are – and have been for many years – 'fully-owned witch-slaves', this due to where they went to school,” said the soft voice. “The written rule in the fourth kingdom is 'printers must be graduates in good standing from a higher school', and certain schools are most-preferred – which is an unwritten rule.” A pause, then, “all of the current people in that printing establishment went to what is commonly thought to be the school for printers, and several of them were Gabriel's classmates – and two of those people are both most-serious witches and 'in charge' due to their years-ranking at that school.”

“Hence they either are bones-holding witches – they think themselves to be witches indeed, much as if they were those witches running things up here before the war – or they are longing with great earnestness to make their bones, on account of just how those who have such bones are rewarded by and for their labors,” I thought, as I walked slowly. I was looking for something more than merely the corpse of the next witch, even if I could clearly smell him. He wasn't more than eight feet distant, if that, and he'd been decapitated just as he'd woken up and was about to pull the third string on that bomb's detonator.

“This thing isn't a charge of dynamite, is it?”

“It is, though the container is keeping the headache down quite well,” said the soft voice. “It isn't quite as strong as one of those 'pills', even if it looks exactly like one of those bombs.”

“Painted blood-red, so it's cursed, and then it is cursed – with rune-curses, no less – and... Oh, my...”

I was almost laughing at the thought: the bomb was cursed. I knew what that meant, and I knew just what I was to do with it once it was buried – ask for a sensitive 'curse-detonator', one worthy of the Indians themselves, and then ask the bomb itself to be filled with their material – which, while not cursed, made that purple-bang thrice-cursed stuff so loved by witches look weak and cool-burning.

“No, not the equivalent of a curse-detonator, but a tied-together group of detonators which are both especially sensitive to the presence of witches and act by spiritual means,” I thought. “So that's why I need to ask when I've found that tome and planted that bomb where it will rake the place with bad splinters and then get back to where the others are...”

And only then did I realize what indeed would happen: that material burned so infernally hot that it would incinerate any witch within a considerable range, and the melted globs of white-hot iron...

“Just like out of that tale called 'The Sand-Man',” I thought. “The furnace exploded, it had a lot of molten iron accumulated, and it sprayed that stuff for hundreds of yards...” I then had a question. I'd not been walking while thinking, thankfully; this device was not only cursed notionally, but also cursed with a 'witch-grade' friction igniter connected to its blasting cap. I'd dealt with those before. Yet still, my question would not wait, unlike the dead witches.

“Is that what happens?”

“Whole districts in the fifth kingdom house have been razed by furnace explosions,” said the soft voice. “Granted, while Frankie isn't nearly as big as the one spoken of in that tale once was, he operates at both higher temperatures and pressures – so if he was to explode, he would destroy most of the town in the initial blast and then the sprays of molten iron and white-hot scrap metal would set the whole area alight.” Pause, then, “the entire town would be smoke, dust, ashes, and bones within less than a minute after the explosion.”

“And hence one of those bombs filled with the stuff of the Indians would..?”

“Cut down most of this woodlot and set the entirety of it on fire instantly,” said the soft voice. “White-hot iron, while it isn't quite as good at cutting through things as is superheated molten copper, is still fairly good at that business, and wood isn't nearly as good as stopping either metal as is 'grade-A' armor plate.” A pause, then, “wood is far more flammable, especially when it has been reduced to kindling – and that kind of a bomb would produce a lot of kindling.”

I then looked down, and there in front of me I saw the witch. I had somehow walked up upon his corpse without detonating his bomb; and by his side and slightly underneath his rear lay a massive leather satchel. I knelt down beside it, saw the three lines leading out of it, and carefully felt on the outside of the thick leather of the satchel. The workmanship, leather, and fittings practically screamed 'money'.

“Not lard-slimed, so it must be stolen,” I thought, as my hands moved over it, a multitude of delicate touches with sensitive fingers feeling for clues. “There's the bomb. Now where is his line...” A glance away from the satchel, toward the hands of the witch. Both were tight-clenched, one about the butt of a partly-cocked and full-loaded revolver, and the other...

I'd found the thing the witch was to use as his personal bomb-trigger, and saying the witch was about to pull it when he had been killed was no exaggeration, for his stiffening and grimy fingers clutched the thing tight and I had to pry the skull-shaped 'trigger-piece' from his hand while keeping the taut rope 'slack'. That carved bone piece glowed redly like an ancient fetish, and I wondered if I could...

“Hah!” I thought. “Leave that thing out with this nasty tar-stiffened rope buried good underneath it as bait. That will fetch those stinkers.”

I had first removed the bomb-trigger from one-death-stiffened hand. Now, I removed the revolver from the other hand as it grew stiffer yet, much as if this pistol had been purchased with the goal of bequeathing it to me as a 'gift'; and after carefully prying off a thimble with my thumbnail, I lowered the hammer onto that chamber. I put both revolver and 'bomb-lanyard-piece' aside on the ground next to the satchel, and as I did, I smelled an odor best described as 'accelerated putrefaction'. I nearly spewed, but I somehow held my gorge in check as I watched what happened next.

The black-grease-smeared skin of the witch's face suddenly went from loose and saggy to as taut as a drum, then simultaneously, both the blackened datramonium film and the witch's skin vanished – they formed a faint yet greasy smoke that slowly wafted upwards – to show the rotten meat of his head that lay underneath that grease-coated skin. It was gray, corded, all-too-familiar-looking, and all but crawling with slime, yet that stuff only remained for a second as it went to a grainy dust to leave bare bones picked clean.

Those bare bones of the skull, however, oozed a reddish-gray mush from first the ears and then the nose; then as the eyes ruptured, those holes oozed slime as well. As I watched transfixed, however, the skull suddenly cracked; the cracks multiplied exponentially; they did so again, with the sutures normal to a skull growing 'apart' before my eyes – and then suddenly, the whole assembly, one that had beforehand retained the form of a skull, then changed into a malodorous dust that held position in space for an eyeblink of time to then fall to the ground to form a shallow yet wide-spreading heap of grainy sand. A faint odor of decomposition subsumed the air, and the layers of costly clothing the witch had worn now followed the form of the ground, save for a number of 'lumps' here and there.

Most of these lumps were round, though one was far too familiar to be anything but what I suspected it to be, and I reached carefully into that pocket to remove a new – as in this weapon had perhaps been test-fired a mere handful of times – court-jester revolver. The shine of the piece screamed fetish loudly in my ears – it was almost audible, in fact – but I had an answer for that.

“Do not go to hell,” I thought. “Any spirits attached to this thing need to find others like it, but this one I need to look at where I live with a ledger in front of me, or something similar, as these things and their lockwork need documenting.”

All four of the chambers were 'full-loaded', and as I did not trust this weapon at all, I removed all four thimbles before slipping it in my pocket. Another touch, this of one of the larger rounded lumps, told me more about both the now-rotten witch and just what he had thought truly important.

“Clothes-bugs, also,” I thought, as I wrung my hand and saw a number of tiny blue flashes erupt as small particles flew away to trail reddish flames for several feet before they flashed into elongated puffs of black smoke. “I do not need such bugs. Go away and die elsewhere.” I then had words for the money-bags, as I touched another bag, this with a fingertip which received lightning-like eruptions of bluish-white fire as the vast multitude of clothes-bugs ignored my words and tried to climb onto their new and 'stronger' host to then 'explode'.

The bluish-white fire then suddenly shot out from my finger, much as if it were a sheet of lightning that encompassed the clothing of the witch and the ground for nearly two feet behind it, and a forest of red-flaming dots shot up into the air like popcorn to then crackle like fireworks.

I could resume my business now. The other clothes-bugs knew what had happened to their compatriots; I was poison to their beaks and death to their touch, and as far as power, I was the spirit.

“Clothes-bugs are cursed, then,” I muttered. “Witch-bred, long ago, vectors for bioweapons of all kinds, just like certain infrared-sensitive chemical-warfare missiles.” A pause, then, “I hope they go when the Curse breaks.”

Assurance reigned in my mind; what bugs of a sort like them that remained would be in the 'nuisance' class compared to these semi-denatured 'weapons' bred by the witches of long ago. I then recalled what I needed to use the money for.

“Money,” I muttered, as if spitting a particularly nasty oath. “Each of these stinking lard-slimed things is big enough to stuff one of Willem's guns, and almost as hefty as a common-sized round-shot – and each one needs to become the hiding place for a sensitive detonator, one hidden in this clothing and those like it.”

To my astonishment, the clothing under my finger – it was still atop the bag of money – suddenly tore to show the stuffed-to-the-seams pouch of money, a pouch stuffed so tight that it did not make noise nor dint as I pressed upon it, and directly under my finger, the greasy gray-brown leather went to dust.

The dust did not remain under my finger, however: the whole of the pouch, from its thongs to its stitching, suddenly turned to dust, and the spherical shape of its contents remained for an instant until it collapsed into a mounded pile nearly ten inches across, a sea of shining gold and gleaming silver spread across the darkened black-cloth outline of the gone-to-dust witch, and here, for the first time, I saw clearly the nature of witch-money.

Each of these mirror-gleaming pieces had a reddish halo surrounding its rough-edged misshaped disk, and a foul reek, one I instantly recognized as that of witch-grade red-tallow; and over that odor and the reddish gleam, I could see and smell and feel the following:

The darkness of a dim-lit cave, one crowded to capacity with people, aisles left for none save the marching black-hole overseers, all of them 'full-loaded and black-faced', as was appropriate for the owners of slaves.

The crack of whips, for these overseers were well-equipped individuals, and they used their long snaking whips whenever they felt inclined and shot their slaves whenever an object lesson looked to be needed – or whenever they happened to have ample slaves and a sadistic streak that would not be denied.

Slaves, after all, needed to be 'kept in line', with 'their heads down and elbows flailing', for each such mule must polish his or her allotment of three coins per diem.

I was drawn back from that smelly location where I felt as if suffocation was immanent, and knew yet more.

'Per diem' wasn't a commonplace workday. It wasn't even my usual sixteen to eighteen hours a day of hard labor, here or where I came from. Then, I knew more still.

“Witchdom has no such notions,” I thought. “Witches never sleep, for their master in hell neither sleeps nor rests, and those they own, at least as long as they remain alive and useful, labor as if they were indeed immured within the very bowels of Hell itself.”

I then jerked 'awake', and thought, “what was I thinking..?”

No matter: I needed to 'get' the message that lay spread out before me, its reddish glare now gone. It had been hiding things from me, things that the others would not believe unless I could speak to them properly – as not even Sarah had any real notion of what witch-money really was; and what I was learning here and now was a completely crucial matter, both now and in the months to come.

“No distractions, also,” said the soft voice.

Such slave-labor, with its masters 'walking tall' – they were the Giants of their lands – and keeping their slaves at their labors in such a manner, meant a high 'turnover' and vast numbers of corpses, most of those dying succumbing to the combination of poor food and vast amounts of overwork – and every single one of those slaves died for the pleasure of his or her masters, those being 'they who hold the planet like a treasure'.

That treasure lay unmasked before me, now hiding from me nothing whatsoever. It too had had its layers of deception, just like that one panel with its lying gages that had but one useful gage. I looked at the palm of my right hand, this briefly after wiping it on my trousers, and again, faintly, I saw the lightning-blazing letters spelling out 'You got a Mojo Hand'.

“Made that leather go up in smoke fast enough,” I thought. “Clothes-bugs don't much care for it either.” Then a question: “just how do those thugs think to make a setup like that work? It makes no sense whatsoever from a production standpoint, and it sounds like a recipe for losing money in a hurry.” I then received the answer I needed.

“Why do you think there is such a massive underground market in slaves in all five kingdoms?” asked the soft voice. “Slaves may be expensive in the fifth kingdom house and some parts of the second, but outside of those areas, if one does not speak of those individuals which are genuinely skilled, they aren't expensive at all.”

“And hence...”

Again, these gleaming coins caught my eye, to shed another layer of deception – or, perhaps I was merely seeing them differently so I might learn something important. Here, I saw their 'shine' once more, this potent and seemingly 'miles deep', a shine so glossy and bloody that the scant details that remained upon such coins...

“Slugs,” I spat, as I shook my head so as to clear it of a species of potent hypnosis. That shine, however, remained this time, only its bloodiness was even greater. I knew then a final detail about this species of red-hazed shine – a shine that paid homage to a concept I could not understand.

“A paean to greed,” I spat. “These stinkers need to go into a bag, one of thick leather, leather that's coated inside and outside with lard, with stinky lard impregnating that leather, each coin greased well with such nauseating stuff, and then in the center of that mass needs to reside a detonating device...”

A pause, this to lick my lips. I could see the leather in question starting to show, and I was becoming altogether queasy. This stuff wasn't normal 'lard'; this stuff was closer to prewar lard, and hence this 'device' would draw witches unto itself like iron filings surrounding a powerful magnet.

“Sensitive,” I thought. “Like a proximity fuse, one that reacts to 'odor of witch'...”

Suddenly, I knew. There were such things across the sea, these devices tied into the networks; and the graphical output of such matters on certain video monitors could be called 'Smell-o-Vision'.

Yet another reason to 'take the system down' – the system here, currently, and the system overseas in a matter of days. Yet here, I had my duty still.

“Really sensitive, and really selective, such that it ignores those who aren't witches, and both attracts and detects those who are witches,” I thought. “Let those stinkers get in range, and then go off.” I then had some words:

“That tarred rope,” I muttered. “Stuff needs to become det-cord, so all those bombs that will line this trench will detonate simultaneously.” I then reached once more toward the satchel, this while thinking, “now to remove this bomb and bury it under the edges of this stinking clothing here.” A pause, then, “those coming witches do know some tricks about traps and bombs, unlike most of the 'natives' in the first kingdom.”

I lifted up the flap of the satchel, this with care, feeling as I did for other tripwires rigged to this particular bomb, and as I followed the three ropes down, I found that the two I had seen first were tied carefully to the main rope, then glued together and lashed down with string. I followed that one tarry rope to what felt like the strangest device I'd ever encountered, then as I found the tar-coated aspect of an obvious 'pill', I began to feel the red yarn wrapping it.

Such shells were treated as fetishes by nearly everyone who fired them, witches and non-witches alike; hence the tendencies to wrap them in yarn of specific colors and then paint them appropriately. Even the 'fuzes' were treated as fetishes by most gunners, with muttered chants spoken as they 'cut' the fuses or installed those fuzes intended for impact detonation.

I shook that off upon the instant, even if it was important, and felt the ropes of the bombs. None of them two 'out-branching' ropes were slack to any degree, which made me suspect a definite and long-winded order on the part of a higher-up witch, perhaps that one Power himself.

He would die soon enough, I noted with satisfaction; that would mean another minor war for succession, more gunfire in his 'territory', more destruction – and more dead witches.

“And fewer places for them to hide, also,” said the soft voice.

My fingers worked upon the knot, this while holding the one rope with due care, and as first one knot came undone, then another, I felt upon the back of my hand a sizable piece of leather, one of such slimy sensation and horrible feel that I nearly jerked my hand back in horror. Only a recollection, one that seemed ages ago, seemed adequate to describe what I had just felt.

“That thing – that huge book, or whatever it is – feels as if it were bound of the same material as those red books of Cardosso.” A muttered pause, then,”is that true-mule skin I felt then?”

“No, but that leather binding is well-greased with lard,” said the soft voice. “They'll need to be handled carefully, as all of that book's paper is witch-paper, and not the 'common' stuff you've seen before, but real witch-paper, the stuff that costs several guilders per sheet.”

I slowly withdrew my hand, muttering as I did, “that stuff must look awful.” I then had words for the bomb itself, as this one needed me seeing it before I did anything else. “Now, you smelly wretch of a bomb, untie that other line, the one on the bottom that I cannot reach by the usual means, and come out where I can look at you.”

The satchel twitched, then shuddered, much as if there was a trio of hyperactive gophers inside of it, then slowly, a shape began moving. The flap came up, and slowly, the bomb itself – painted a brilliant eye-burning red, wrapped with red yarn carefully knotted and glued, hazed with reddish 'power', and showing a fuze in each end – emerged. It did so slowly, no lines attached, moving at perhaps an inch per second, such that I could see the cleverness of the enemy in full detail – and as it came clear of the satchel, I now saw the fuzes.

“Double-rigged,” I muttered, as the 'too-sensitive' device landed softly upon the ground. “There are tricky witches – either that, or those black books speak of doing things that way.”

I then touched the bomb, this with the very tip of my index finger, and with a flash of lightning that almost blinded me, the red haze vanished and was replaced with a faint, ethereal, and electric blue 'lining' – a lining that shot short lightning bolts from its 'core' now and then. I removed my finger, and for perhaps the time of an eyeblink, I saw what looked like an electric arc come from my finger to the bomb.

It was mine now, and I had a duty to perform with it and those it would foster. Yet still, I had learned something of great value, something important regarding the days to come.

“They did not stuff this thing with farmer's dynamite,” I muttered, “but the drippy stuff, and, uh... They added a bit of salaterus so as to help it 'keep' a bit better.” I then had a question:

When did they do this thing up?” I asked, this in a whisper.

“The day before they left for the north, that being three days ago,” said the soft voice. “You now have an idea just how far they came, and how fast.”

“Forced marches, this at the best speed possible,” I said. “What, perhaps twenty or thirty miles a day?”

“On their better days, yes,” said the soft voice. “They might not come close to your speed, but they did proceed at a 'double-time' pace when and where it was possible.”

“The salaterus?” I asked.

“That man who went to dust in front of you once managed a fifth kingdom powder mill,” said the soft voice, “and he knew the tricks of dynamite.” A pause, then, “using salaterus helps more than a little with that type of dynamite, and hence it goes in 'witch-grade' dynamite.”

What?” I asked.

“You must present your bones to 'receive' such dynamite,” said the soft voice, “which is why non-witches receive inferior explosives.” A pause, then, “between customarily adding salaterus, better raw materials, more-careful processing, smaller batches, and a number of other crucial differences, witch-grade dynamite tends to keep significantly better than those explosives sold to those not having a 'name to conjure with'.”

I understood this last to mean one's cult-name, that name witches received when they had made their bones and had the blood-mark of Cain upon them. It made me wonder more than a little, as I'd had thoughts about that particular wretch for quite some time – both here and where I came from.

He was the very first witch, and was owned in his entirety by the devil himself. I then came back to the thing before me, and the knowledge that I would need in the weeks ahead.

“They chant constantly in witch-run powder mills, don't they?”

I had asked my question 'snidely'. The answer I received was stunning.

“They think their chants to be the sole cause of their explosives being superior to those of non-witches, and that in all possible ways,” said the soft voice. There was a brief pause, then more, with me asking a question in a peculiar fashion, much as if I had a profound suspicion and wished to know if I was correct – and more, just how much I had guessed correctly, and most importantly, where I had missed something important.

“The real reasons are spelled out in some detail in that black book.” I paused, then continued, this unspoken yet thought loudly: “each portion of the processing of that stuff has its own chant, one that is spelled out in some considerable detail...”

I then suddenly realized what the difference actually was: witch-grade dynamite was a distinctly different material from the usual stuff, and only what we'd done was clearly superior. It made me wonder just why that process was written down in the larger black books. I received an answer that startled me.

“The name 'dynamite' came from a stolen intercept – an early intercept, one of the first ones actually made that could be deciphered – and was used to describe a most-common material used by witches for 'hunting' before the war,” said the soft voice. “That particular 'recipe' came from a time when being a witch was not 'the desired thing', and hence those 'serious' witches who wished to run things in truth needed to make most of their own supplies.”

“Ice..?”

“Is not used in their process, as the curses are thought to take its place,” said the soft voice. “They once did exactly that.” A pause, then, “you were the first person to use ice in nearly eleven hundred years.”

“And now, I need to dig a hole,” I muttered. I thought to look among the clothing of the witch, but with the bomb before me and 'safe', I thought to 'feel' in that large and costly leather satchel.

“Nasty stuff,” I thought, as I reached into the pouch. Something then touched my hand, and I opened it up to receive something.

“I was expecting something like that thing of Brumm's,” I thought. “This feels very much otherwise.”

It also worked 'very much otherwise', as while it was large, it was also a most-capable tool. I had a hole next to the clothing of the witch in what seemed less than a minute. It needed moving the satchel, this by its thick 'braided' leather strap.

Using the knife showed its 'quality'; it worked well in the soft earth of the trench, and in using it – I had to use dirt to wipe off my hands more than a little – I noted that the blade was becoming more and more 'shiny'. It had me muttering again.

“Stinking fetish,” I spat. I might not come close to Anna for vituperative mutterings, but I was learning about why some people thought she'd given me lessons in her tendencies that way as well as the practice of medicine. “If this thing has runes on it, it needs to go spike a witch in the gut when I'm done using it.”

“Not that one,” said the soft voice. “You will wish to keep that knife.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I laid it aside. I'd dug the hole, and now 'Mr. Bomb' needed to be interred.

“Firstly, because it's new, and then just who made it,” said the soft voice. “Machalaat Brothers might have their share of fetishistic practices, but some of their tools have nothing of the fetish about them, and what you have there is not merely a costly item, but also highly prized by those who know about knives.”

“Sarah's cousin,” I thought. “She'd...”

“She's been wanting one of those for ages,” said the soft voice. “She'll get hers soon enough.” A pause, then, “You might not have much use for such a knife, but you know of numbers of people who can use such knives – beyond Sarah's cousin.” Another pause, then, “now, just bury 'Mr. Bomb' so he's properly covered, pick up the satchel, and then hurry back along your line of travel to where the others are waiting for you, and then ask the device to become as you have been instructed.”

I gingerly put the bomb in the hole, using my hands to first fill the hole and then smooth the surface. I picked up the knife in my right hand, then the satchel with my left; I then 'moved out', following my still-glowing trail back through the winding trench dug long ago during that years-long conflict.

While I made 'good' progress – a fairly rapid walk, even for me – the heft of the satchel was astonishing. It made for a comment as I 'eased' into a trot.

“What is this thing filled with?” I asked. “Bricks?”

While I received no answer regarding what I was carrying, I was seeing ample answers to each side as I trotted. I was glad I'd dumped my usual load, as this thing weighed more than my possible bag.

To my right and left, witches were going rotten: they were 'smoking' and fuming, with bones showing here and there through their moldering flesh; and when I glanced beneath my feet, I saw a change in that infernal trip-rope.

No longer was it tarred, nor was it a rope of twisted strands of 'rope-weed' or whatever witches used for their ropes: it was smooth, having a soft braided surface, and roughly three-sixteenths of an inch thick.

I was also noticing a slow-growing migraine, and this 'rope' was the cause of it.

“Is that..?”

Another matter: a small 'doorknob' showed, this hazed with blue, and showing at the border of the clothing of a fast-rotting witch. The line went to it, then went on, weaving its way across the trench in a near net-like fashion. I'd heard of this being done with det-cord, though I'd never seen the material before coming here.

“No, but I read about it, and I've seen pictures of it, and... Ooh, this headache is awful. What is causing it?”

Pentaerythritol Hexanitrate,” said the soft voice. “At least, that's what those across the sea call what's in what's under your feet.” A pause, then, “it might not be quite as bad for headaches as blasting gelatin, but it's nearly its twin for power.”

I then saw the stuff go to another 'doorknob', and both the 'fuze' and the cord were becoming outlined with a faint bluish glowing. I then understood one particular matter: this entire area would become a most-nasty deathtrap so far as witches were concerned.

“Definitely,” I thought, as I continued trotting. The trench was longer than I had thought it might be, with the witches spread perhaps eight to ten feet apart on alternating sides. It had seemed much closer together when I had been decapitating them.

“More than one such bomb, then,” I thought. “Perhaps one every few feet in this trench...”

I then noted my trail, and saw where I'd turned, it being some distance ahead. I did not look back.

“Perhaps one of those bombs every few feet in that trench, so that the winding does the occupants no good whatsoever,” I thought. “They'll eat the splinters then.” A pause, then, “each of those bombs needs to have a hard brittle casing, and then this really unpleasant explosive that they never quite managed to get out of the laboratory down in Vrijlaand.” I then asked, “that will raze this woodlot, won't it?”

While I received no specific answer, I did have a profound impression as I continued along my winding path through the trees in the slowly lightening gloom: the entire woodlot would be turned into kindling in an instant's time, the kindling would then burn explosively, and the flame-seared ground would be effectively sterilized for a period of...

“Years,” I thought. “Burnt black, bare, and...” A pause, then, “it would cave in that portion of the secret way that runs under here, wouldn't it?”

I then saw that I was out of the trench itself. I stopped, this to turn and collect my wits prior to 'escaping', and but ten or so feet to my current front, I looked upon the first witch I had killed.

He'd already gone completely to powder and dust, while his clothing... It remained intact. By some means beyond my understanding, I could see – clearly – vast herds of clothes-bugs, long snaking lines coming from every item of the costly layered clothing worn by the gone-to-dust witch.

The bugs had lost their host, and now, they were looking for a new one. I then looked once more at the clothing itself.

The clothing lay flat, more or less following the curving lines of the entrance to the trench, but atop several of the articles of dress, I saw not just one leather pouch:

I saw several pouches, each one bulging like a round-shot, dark brown and slimy with 'grease'; and hidden within each such pouch, I saw the sensitive device, that thing which 'smelled' witches.

Yet there was more to these doorknobs than just sensitive 'smellers'. I looked in vain for that braided cord, and now did not see it; my headache was muted, dulled, mostly gone. I then saw the interior of that 'doorknob' that was nearest me.

“O-oh, my,” I gasped, as I backed away, slowly, cautious steps. “P-proximity fused. Best get well clear before I speak or think any more on this mess.”

I turned and 'moved out', this with soft footfalls. I sought to actually walk upon my tracks, but as I gained distance away from the 'trap', I knew more.

“They'll have sensitive trembler switches, ones tuned to the true-step,” I thought, as I slowly sped up again.

“No, needs to be trickier yet,” I thought. “Those things need to agree with one another regarding the nature and number of witches.” The satchel was weighing upon me, and I stopped to shift hands, the knife going point-down in the dirt during the switch. The gloom was lessened enough now that when the flap of the satchel flopped open when I 'dropped it', I saw the contents.

“Not merely that tome, but several big sacks of money,” I squeaked, as I first picked up the knife and then resumed my slower-than-I-liked travel. I wanted to get well-clear of the trap I'd laid, as its 'trickiness' and 'touchiness' were growing in a steady yet stealthy fashion. “I'll put this heavy brute in Sarah's buggy, and get my things – and...”

“Those are special witch-grade coins, ones like you saw,” said the soft voice. “Andreas will have his work cut out for him cleaning those up.”

“At least he can clean them up,” I spluttered. “That one woman will help him, won't she?”

While I received no answer to that question, my thoughts upon the matter as I moved as fast as my now-aching legs would carry me through the woodlot were peculiar – and most-important, also, as there were lots of such coins hidden in and around the house proper.

“First, a gas-heated reverberatory furnace, this with a suitable cover flux and ample, uh, lead,” I thought. “That will help the base metals escape from the melt. Then, he can run the electrolysis process.”

“He'll wish to save the slag that comes off of such melts,” said the soft voice. “That chemist knows about that type of furnace, and she will be able to help a great deal.”

“The slags?” I asked.

“Will have ample 'base metals' in them,” said the soft voice. “Those across the sea can process those refining 'wastes' – and they've been wanting them for a very long time.”

But a minute later, I came out of the forest and into the dark blue of the time just prior to dawn. The others were waiting for me, but not where they'd been: they'd moved a good deal closer, and all three people had rifles in hand, waiting nervously for me to return. I came to the rear of Sarah's buggy – she was beside it, using it for both cover and a rifle-rest, and as I plumped down the satchel, she asked, “now what is that thing?”

The faint clinking noise that resulted seemed to supply her an answer, and as I resumed my usual things, Sarah posed the question.

“If that was money I heard, then I think we all need to see it,” she said. “I have wondered about the special money of witches for years.”

“I have also,” said Anna, “though if it is that kind of money, it will need to be processed carefully.” A pause, then, “until you have facilities for melting it in quantity, I'd let Andreas handle it.”

“He cannot melt weight,” said Sarah. In speaking of weight, Sarah was speaking of units well beyond the commonplace 'pounds' and 'ounces' that jewelers processed. “He does, however, have a sizable furnace, one larger than is usual for jewelers.”

“Twenty pounds, unless I'm wrong,” I said softly. “That chemist can help him build a new one, one that not only works better, but handles a good deal more. A pause, then, “he'll be able to handle 'weight' then.” This was followed by a question, even as I finally slipped that one knife in my possible bag.

Huge stinking knife,” I thought. “I'd best look it over carefully in better light.”

“How will it be better?” asked Sarah. “He runs gas now.”

“He will need to run coal as often as he can, Sarah,” said Anna. She looked at me, then asked, “could I see what that stuff looks like?”

I made to ask, but as if 'mesmerized', I pointed at the satchel. A faint bluish glow seemed to surround it – faint to the eyes, but in other ways, not faint in the slightest – and slowly, one of the hugely bulging pouches of money came 'slithering' out.

“Gah, that thing stinks,” I spat, as the pouch suddenly 'slammed' down to smash itself upon the floor of the buggy, this with a heavy thudding 'clink'. Before my eyes, even as my finger continued to point at the bag, the leather – old, lard-tanned, of shaved elk-hide – suddenly 'came apart at the seams' and went to dust, spilling the coins out upon the floor of the buggy.

“No, no curses,” I muttered, all the while still pointing at the slow-spreading mound of gold and silver 'shining'. I felt reminded of a movie I had never seen by this eerie sense of what was happening, and the sense of 'static' I was feeling was making my hair stand on end.

The hush of breathing seemed to ensconce the sight before me with solitude, until Anna spoke, this as a whisper.

“Sarah, why is he pointing his finger that way?”

“I think I should be careful,” said Sarah. “That is straight out of an old tale, and...”

“What, dear?” I said. “This is really strange right now. I feel as if I'm about to be struck by lightning.”

“That is out of an old tale,” said Sarah. “I would be most careful with that finger, and we need to speak to Rachel of it, as I have heard of those.”

“What were they called?” I asked.

“M-magic f-fingers,” squeaked Anna. “I can almost see something coming off of your finger right now, and it's really bright.”

“Like lightning,” said Sarah. “That is what those were like, and the witches feared those marked who were given such things.”

“R-Rachel?” I asked.

“Did not have one, nor did Charles,” said Sarah. “Supposedly, there was someone having a name like yours who had one who was with Charles, but I've wondered as to that tale and what little there was writ upon the tapestries.”

“Those people were not given to a pendant, Sarah,” said Anna. “That...”

Anna stopped speaking, then went closer to the money. “Now I know what's happening. That stuff is cursed, and...” She looked at me, then said, “Hans does not like money any more, and that stuff is trying to take him over, and what you're doing is s-stopping it.”

“I'm not sure what I'm doing,” I murmured. “One at a time, look at that stuff good, as we have a lot more to speak to Hendrik about now, and that stuff right there is part of it.”

I drew closer, this while still pointing at the mound, and in the slow-gathering light that seemed to hover about the mound of coins, their mirror-finish seemed to show more and more. Nowhere upon any of these hideous – how I knew that, I did not understand, but that word was the one to use – slugs could I discern anything resembling a design, and as I looked, my finger still pointing at the mound, I understood yet further the nature of 'witch-coins':

All that mattered to witches regarding money was the weight of a given 'piece', that and its shine; for all money was to be in the hands of witches.

“Because it's to be used and regarded as a powerful fetish,” I thought, “and because it is a fetish, it needs to have a shiny outward appearance – because that was what made it a fetish. I then recalled something – a matter spoken of at length, its timeframe seeming to be eons.

“The mirror in the hand presents blindness to the enemy,” I thought, “and courage to its user.” A pause, then I spat, “back into that bag, you horrible mess!”

Only then did I hear breathing, and I turned to my left to see Sarah. She seemed terror-stricken, petrified, her face a sickly gray – and behind me, I heard the faint voice of Hans.

“That stuff is bad,” he said, his voice shaking. “I could see it burning like that bad place where I was eating grass, and I want no part of that place or anything that was made there.”

“I...” Sarah looked at me, then squeaked, “what else is in that satchel?”

“Perhaps you can look?” I asked, as I slung my rifle by its strap and looked around for Jaak.

Sarah resumed her seat, and as she did, I moved the satchel closer for her. She touched its leather, then gasped, “I have seen satchels like this in the fourth kingdom, and they cost enough to buy a buggy and team!”

“Yes, and now you know who buys them,” said Hans, who took his seat. Anna took up her reins again, and as I led off, I thought to ask as to what was in the satchel's papers. Anna, however, beat me as to speech.

“How much are they?” she asked. “Are you sure that's how much they are?”

I responded, this somewhat casually, “the usual buyer of those satchels is the same kind of witch who buys those, uh, 'boxed sets' of books.” A pause, then, “am I right?”

Sarah looked at me in terror, then said, “they cost more than I thought they did, if they cost that much.”

“Twice as much, then,” I said. “Now, let's see... Those papers in that thing are really, uh, icky for feeling...”

“That means that witches have handled them a great deal,” said Anna. “That is a book for witches, and writ by them, unless I miss my guess.”

“I was told that much,” I said. “They're mostly letters...” A pause, then, “oh, my. Some of those letters are nearly three hundred years old!”

“Closer to four hundred for the oldest examples,” said the soft voice. “Keep going.” A pause, then, “that was one of the chief reasons why real witch-paper was used, as it tends to endure better than commonplace paper.”

“What is in these letters?” asked Sarah. She sounded distinctly fearful, almost as if that horror of gold and silver was still setting her mind alight. I thought to 'picture' it melting in a furnace, with its taint being driven off by a hot and purifying fire.

Sarah nearly leaped out of her seat, then she screeched, “what happened to me?”

“That money needs careful handling, Sarah,” said Anna. “I could see it burning red. Didn't you?”

“I could only see its shine,” said Sarah. “I could see nothing more, and it seemed to grab me and pull me toward it as if it were Brimstone himself.”

I pulled up along side Sarah, scanning to the front. Our path was a clear one, one wide enough that 'line abreast' seemed a good choice here, as we were either upon the rise itself or too close to readily discern it. Sarah glanced at me, then asked again, “what is in those letters?”

Clearly, I could hear fear, and now I understood what had frightened Sarah: it was not so much seeing 'real' witch-money for the first time, but rather what that kind of money – and by extension, what that kind of 'real-world power' – was capable of.

“Bad nightmares,” I murmured. “Were you remembering when you were being chased out of the second kingdom, dear?”

“Y-yes,” said Sarah. She was all but sobbing. “That kind of money is only found among certain witches, and those were the people who were after me.”

“And hence they are mentioned at length in those letters,” I said. “I wonder what is in them myself, as Hendrik needs to know about their contents.”

“That 'journal' contains a lengthy 'series' of correspondences, with the earliest ones being several hundred years old and the newest ones less than ten days since their inclusion,” said the soft voice. “Most of those writing were either the personal secretaries of Powers, or those that are the continent's equivalent of Norden's Thinkers.”

“Serious stuff, then,” I said. This was something close to a laugh, even if the information itself was nothing to laugh about.

“Especially given what those papers deal with,” said the soft voice. “They spell out in some considerable detail just what witches have been doing in regards to the 'reconquest' of all five kingdoms – and not merely what their plans are, but in many cases, what things they have actually done to bring those desires to pass.”

“What would those be?” asked Anna.

“Rigged elections, for one,” I murmured.

“In all five kingdoms, no less,” said the soft voice. “There's a lot more.”

“Then, there is conclusive evidence for this kingdom being the first among witchdom's realms a few hundred years ago, as then the witches owned it,” I said. “Back then, it and the second kingdom together were regarded as but a single district under one Power, not several districts per kingdom as it is currently.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah. “How could two whole kingdoms be but a single district?”

“It was, dear,” I said. “There was one Power running the whole of that district, and that man was the chief and greatest Power of a coven of thirteen lesser Powers.” A pause, then, “and I strongly suspect Hendrik is not going to enjoy what is in that huge collection of missives.”

“Why would he feel so?” asked Anna. “I think it gives us much hope, now that we have proof of the designs of witchdom over the five kingdoms.” Then, softer, “what will he dislike about it?”

“Firstly, it speaks of the design and construction of both the first and second kingdom houses – both the kingdom houses and the house-propers, and regarding the latter, it does not call them houses, but another term entirely.” I paused here, this to look ahead. I could feel more witches to the north, and some few more a bit to the west.

“What does it call them?” asked Anna. Her voice, while not pleading, was insistent. This was news she instinctively recognized as critical, which was something she could not have done days ago. She'd had all of her toes then, also.

“Castles,” I spat. “It gets really unpleasant then.”

“How is that?” asked Hans. He sounded curious.

“Because most of those stinky letters not only smell badly,” I said, “but they're more Underworld German than all else, and they've got wagon-loads of secret-markings all over them that are mostly well-disguised rune-curses.”

“He cannot read that stuff, as he is no witch,” said Hans.

“I cannot read it either,” said Sarah. “I have tried to read it a number of times in the past, but it makes no sense to me, even if I can understand some of the words.”

“H-how..?”

“T-that was how I learned about some of those lecturers at the west school,” said Sarah. “I got into their rooms and I found some letters writ in that stuff, and there are a few dusty books that speak of that stuff and what it means in the lower parts of the fourth kingdom house proper.”

“A f-few dusty books?”

“Very old books,” said the soft voice. “They were not much good for supplying anything resembling an understanding of what she encountered while 'spying' on those men, even if Sarah did learn what that language looks like and learned enough of it to tell something about those writing it.”

“Enough to know they either were witches, or wished to become witches,” said Sarah. “Now someone needs to understand that stuff enough to tell Hendrik, as I know he wants nothing to do with witches.”

“Oh, we can, dear,” I said. “First, recall what kind of word-books we received yesterday, and then what we put in that one room – the one with the special door?”

There was a pause. Again, static seemed to be gathering above my head, much as if I were to be struck by lightning. Then, and only then, the shocking thing 'came'.

“You might not have the time to translate that material conventionally, but you can read those letters and tell him what they mean,” said the soft voice. “You already know the most-important portions, so if you speak of those, then he's got a number of very important people 'over the back of a smelly mule'.”

“Ah, that is good,” said Hans. “They will not be able to fight him then.”

“How would you know?” said Sarah. “Do you know what that means?”

“I am not sure what it means,” said Anna, “but I honestly think Hans is right.”

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “Not only will they not be able to oppose him, but they will not be able to oppose what needs to happen.” A pause, then, “by the way, those letters are not written in the common species of Underworld German as spoken by witches today.”

“An older type?” I asked. “One that requires, uh, special knowledge so as to read and write it?” I asked. “Almost closer to what that one expert witch wrote?”

“Closer than you might think for the older missives, which is why you not only have those three red books, but also the information you received yesterday,” said the soft voice. “Those writing were all intimately familiar with those three red books writ by Cardosso, and hence those books will come in handy as well as what came yesterday when you need to go over that letter-collection with Hendrik in the future.”

“So that is why we have those stinky things,” spat Sarah. “That would explain the weight of this satchel here, as it is nearly as heavy as all of what you dropped to go into that woodlot.”

“Ooh!” I squeaked. “I forgot!”

“Yes, that is common for you, as you have enough on your mind for Hendrik and two more like him, and that is not including what that pendant wants,” said Hans. “Now what is it?”

“I need to speak to that mess I left in that, uh, trench,” I squeaked. I then realized that not only was it a good idea to speak from this distance, but also, I had needed time for the whole to 'congeal' within my mind. “There needs to be an even dozen bombs, each one buried in a strategic location in or near that trench.” A pause, then, “each such bomb needs to be twice the size of a swine-shell in all of its dimensions, and made of hard cast steel with internal scorings so as to fragment especially well.”

“Yes, that sounds good,” said Hans. “I hope you can remember what you are saying, as I want to hear it again when I can write it down.”

“There's more,” I said. “Each of those bombs needs to be filled with the special Vrijlaand explosive, the one they labeled with the symbol of the yellow carrot...”

“Those symbols are called particles,” said Sarah, “and I have wondered what that one meant, as it's not documented anywhere I've been able to get to. Go on.”

“That meant 'we must keep this matter secret at all costs, and let no one know of it save those who must know of it',” I said. “Each of those bombs is to have an anti-tampering device, and they are all to be connected together with det-cord, so they all go off simultaneously.”

“Yes, there is some strange rope in one of those green bags in the back of the buggy here,” said Hans. “I am not sure what it is good for, but it is not common rope, as rope does not give bad headaches, and this stuff does.”

Pentaerythritol Hexanitrate,” I murmured. “Almost as strong as blasting gelatin, and it 'cuts' nearly as well, too.” A pause, then, “it's harder to make than that gelatin, even if it is easier to make it so that it keeps well.”

I needed to pause here, this to think. What I was going to speak of now needed this distance, which is why I was reminded of it after we'd given the place some minutes and nearly a mile's distance.

“Each piece of witch-clothing, each pouch of money, each trinket, each item of desire and use to witches,” I said. I had to pause, this once more to think. For some reason, though, I needed to think of beer.

“Beer?” I asked. Everything about me was starting to sound and look 'furry', and I could hear a 'furry' voice speaking of axes and machine guns, complete with the usual stuttering bursts of 'gunfire' that accompanied that particular song. I knew I'd wish one of the 'smaller' axes for taking on our trip across the sea, one of those I had first made. It usually went in my possible bag, and a touch of the bag showed it was 'in place'.

I was then handed a cup, this strangely chilled, and I drained it in a hurry. My mind returned to me so suddenly that I nearly screamed.

“Two more,” said Sarah. She'd stopped, as had Jaak, while Anna was helping her with the beer – mostly putting some honey in it, as well as part of a yellow-fruit. Hans, for some reason, was looking in the back of the buggy the two of them were driving in, and as I drained two more cups of beer and got a 'dose' of that tincture Sarah had most-recently made, I smelled a familiar odor, that being 'motor oil'.

Hans was 'topping up' the oil reservoirs, and I was more than a little surprised that he was 'using the available time' so wisely. It was not like his former way in the slightest.

“We will have more traveling to do today,” he said, “and I want to keep this buggy going good, so it is mash for the horses and oil for the cups here, and that every when and where we can do those things.”

Once we resumed, however, I spoke once more of the things desired of witches, and how every such article in that trench needed to be 'connected' within a web of detonators and detectors, such that when they all 'agreed' upon the presence of a goodly number of 'troublesome' witches, they would detonate – and more, that these detonators needed to function by spiritual means, so they'd not be fooled.

“More so than all else, as these people might figure out how to fool the kind of detector they have overseas,” I said.

“Yes, right now they could,” said the soft voice. “They won't be able to do that much longer, though.”

“Uh, how?” I asked. “Those m-medical people?”

“Have been working on such equipment for a long time,” said the soft voice. “Figure what would normally take decades over there happening in weeks once they get 'turned loose' – and that's for their information.” A pause, then, “what they receive, though – that will turn those people's heads around and flip them, and that three times in a row.”

I could hear a distinct 'you need to finish what you started' regarding the trap I had laid for the witches. This would be a big crowd, most of them well-moneyed and imported from points to the south, and they would know of this place as a good place to 'meet' and decide important matters.

“This needs to happen,” I said quietly, “so that each of those witches will be sent promptly to the dinner plate of Brimstone, all sliced, diced, spiced, and cooked to a turn.”

“That sounds more as if they will be dust in a third-kingdom windstorm amid a fire fit for those three young men who were tossed in that oven by that one king,” said Anna. “Will there be anything left of that woodlot, or will it be standing charcoal amid ashes and dust, like what nearly happened to you once?”

“Burnt to black glass, dear,” I said. “Those bombs will explode so hot that the ground itself will be burnt as if it were pottery, only higher yet such that it actually melts.”

“I would watch that, as that is spoken of in a number of old tales,” said Sarah. “Now this thing here is heavy, and I am glad we are close to the house, even if it is later than I thought we would come here.”

“No, Sarah,” said Anna. “This is actually about right for our arrival, as they're all woke up there about now with all those explosions.” A pause, then Anna turned to me and asked, “what did you do in that woodlot?”

I knew I had to speak quickly, as we were within a mile of the house proper, and I could again feel witches to our front and to our right. I needed to get closer to Sarah, and Jaak moved to her side. I reached down and gently rubbed her neck for a bit, saying as I did so, “I had to kill a bunch of witches in that woodlot to get that satchel, and that was the first time I saw what witch-money looked like.” A pause, then, “it was polished like a mirror, glowing red like a bad fetish, but it was awful – lumpy, crude, no designs – so badly done that for all I could tell, it might as well be badly cast slugs polished into nothingness, if you speak of things that look like coins.”

“Then it is not that witch-money spoken of in tapestries,” said Sarah. “While that stuff was said to be like a mirror for its shine, and it did glow red as if it were bathed in blood...”

“This stuff did look as if covered with blood, dear,” I said softly. I was still rubbing Sarah's neck, as she had a 'knot' there, and felt fearful and tense about something. I wasn't sure what it was, but I suspected it might have to do with witches in one way or another.

“The old witch-money had designs,” said Sarah, “and more, they were clear, sharp, and...”

“And what?” asked Anna. “They showed i-idols?”

“I never could figure that out,” said Sarah, “but that sounds as likely as anything, as the pictures I saw were bad ones, and...”

“No, you do not want to draw idols,” I said. “With some of those things, merely drawing the pictures would bring the spirits associated with the idol in question, and if you were not a strong-enough witch, you'd be devoured on the spot.”

“Especially given that those who spoke of such coins knew about that portion, and hence were deliberately vague,” said the soft voice. “Those writing on the tapestries were using their notes, and hence there were two layers of obfuscation – and both of those layers of 'deliberate confusion' were done as per orders.” A pause, then, “the witch-money you saw in that trench, unlike what you have in that satchel, is very old money, and its designs had been mostly polished off.”

“Old?” I asked. “Really old, and, uh, cursed?”

“Tam was correct about some money being cursed,” said the soft voice, “even if his estimates are a bit off as to how commonplace such money is.” A pause, then, “some of the money in general circulation, much it north of the third kingdom's northern border and the balance confined mostly to the fifth kingdom house, is indeed cursed.”

“I thought so,” said Anna. “We will need to remake all of our money.” A pause, then, “what else must we know?”

“The metal used in witch-coins is not merely fire-refined by witches,” said the soft voice, “but it is also cast by witches and then polished by witches – and witch-money, even that prior to the drowning, has always been cast, as if such casting is done by a strong-enough witch, it gives a clear and sharp design.”

“It was far better than most jewelers currently manage,” I muttered. “The sign of a truly powerful witch-coin was its clear and sharp markings, these manifested by both a high polish and deep relief – which was why they were cast.” A pause, then gasped: “so that is why we need dies made overseas, and a battery of steam-hammers banging out coins from strips of coin-metal!”

“What would that do?” asked Sarah. “Do I wish to know?”

“You, me, Hans, Hendrik, and a great many others need to know,” said Anna, “and that process will make proper money, not witch-money as is commonly done today by nearly all jewelers who make coins, witches or otherwise.” Anna then squawked, and said in a tiny voice, “what did I say?”

“The truth, I think,” said Hans. “Besides, these hammer things sound like they might be faster than the usual way of doing coins.”

Much faster,” I said. “They'll pound them out faster than you can count, and casting coins takes an average of a full day's labor for each coin.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “I have spoken to those jewelers you did those tools for, and they told me that is the usual for coins, which is why they seldom do those things.”

“Uh, which means many of our currently-made coins are done by witches?” I asked.

“Try more like 'the witches are trying to redo all of the money in the five kingdoms, and have been working at doing that for years'.”

All of the money?” I said nervously.

“The plan – it's written about in those letters at some length over a period of years – was to establish large slave-populated 'coin-foundries' while figuring out the designs the witches wished, and what has been done so far amounts to practice in both areas,” said the soft voice. “There were witches working on the designs.”

“Were?” asked Sarah.

“They were hard at work on them until they got into those brain-rotting foods,” said the soft voice. “Those designs may be continuing at some level, but they'll take a lot longer to come to fruition.”

“Long enough that we can figure the 'usual' means will continue for the time left to witchdom,” I said. “That about right?”

While there was no answer to my question, Anna had a comment about how we were riding: “we had best ride this way until we can see the kingdom house proper, if we can.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I was genuinely curious.

“First, it gives us more eyes to our front, so as to see trouble ahead,” said Anna. “It is still dark enough that I'm glad you're where you are, even if I can see better in the dark than I could two days ago, and not a little better.” A pause, then, “if the witches show to our rear, then we can turn about and give them fire from our rifles more readily, so the only reason to resume a column is if our way is too narrow or we find ourselves becoming bogged.”

“Uh, not likely here?” I asked.

“No, not in this area,” said Anna. “I cannot understand how, but I can tell the ground is dry enough to let this buggy move readily, and had I tried it before, I doubt I could have managed the trip without you right by my side to guide me.”

“She would have done well to bog the buggy a handful of times beforehand without such guidance,” said the soft voice. “This area, because it is past the rise, is drier – drier than the part you went in earlier this morning, and not a little drier.”

As if to buttress the wisdom of riding 'line abreast', I pointed to the trees to our right. Hans saw my arm pointing, aimed his rifle – and not two seconds later, a pair of witches ran out of the trees, 'full-loaded and black-faced'. He shot both down before they'd managed to raise their weapons, and both dropped to the ground with hideous screams.

I found myself busy in that way, for with each minute, I could not merely feel more witches to our front, but I found myself either shooting them or pointing them out to the others. I was glad I'd been dosed, but I still resolved to shoot as little as possible.

I'd be doing my share of shooting just the same over the course of the day, and I did not wish to need Komaet for my shoulder and hands. I'd need rubbing with something just the same when and where the chance presented itself.

After another few minutes – I had shot three witches, Sarah two, Hans four more, and Anna three – I finally saw the 'edges' of the house proper against the steadily lightening sky. I was wondering why we'd seen as many witches as we had recently, and as we came closer, I suspected the following:

The 'watch' was posted to all four corners of the house, with the hidden watchtowers manned. I was then told of my error.

“There are no hidden watchtowers,” said the soft voice. “There are people in the west-facing rooms on the upper floors of the house proper, and they're on watch as well as those at the gate.” A pause, then, “listen.”

A gunshot banged out from the house proper, then another but a second later; and that second shot was followed quickly by a quickly-dying dire scream.

“That was Lukas,” said Sarah. “I recognized the sound of his weapon.” A pause, then, “you cut grooves in his, didn't you?”

“I did, dear,” I said. “That means he can... What was he trying to use to spot those witches?”

“A just-arrived telescope,” said the soft voice. “It was intended to be used by those going across the sea in two days, but Hendrik has been wondering why you-all did not receive it along with the other things – and Lukas is going to give him an earful about fetishes and other matters related to 'that stinky place' – which he won't need to hear after you speak regarding those papers.” A pause, then, “I would worry a good deal less about that demonstration now, as your earlier escapades woke up everyone in the kingdom house.”

“Everyone?” I asked. I suspected Gabriel had gotten into some wine to 'dull the pain' of his ripped-up back, and had therefore slipped into something resembling a coma.

“You will not see Gabriel anywhere close to that demonstration, as he's afraid he'll be used as a target,” said the soft voice. “He knows that every one of you want nothing more than to kill him, and he also knows Hendrik's mind on the matter.”

Another gunshot banged out from the upper floors of the house, only this time, there was some return fire from somewhere far distant. I could hear the smacking sounds of sizable lead balls as whoever was shooting at the house missed the narrow 'upper windows' and hit the thick stone walls instead.

“Hendrik wishes he'd used stiff shot, rather than that which he had on hand,” said the soft voice.

“Did Hendrik try for that wretch?” asked Hans pointedly. I knew Hans would think the matter good, even if Gabriel would be 'too injured' to appear down south. He was needed, mostly to be present during certain periods of our journey, as our descriptions had gone south weeks prior along with the other 'paperwork'.

We had been told that much.

What I then heard, however, made me wonder more than a little – mostly as to whether Gabriel would live long enough to 'ship out' with the rest of us.

“He did,” said the soft voice. A brief pause, then, “Gabriel is very lucky he only received a few pellet strikes in his backside...”

I could hear Hans laughing at the matter. Gabriel most likely would not be able to sit down for a while, at least until he shed his shot in the tub.

“Yes, and why is that?” asked Hans. “Hendrik might not be the best shot, but he is decent for shooting, and he has a Heinrich gun, so he should have dropped that wretch if he was close enough.”

“Gabriel was running as rapidly as he could,” said the soft voice, “and it was dark, as it was during the sixth posting, and the two men on guard were too astonished to shoot at him when he ran past Hendrik's door while covered with horse-manure from head to toe.” A pause, then, “that stink woke Hendrik up, however, and he fired just as Gabriel was turning the corner on the way to his office, or so he thought when he spoke to Maria about 'the stink of an obvious witch'.”

“Then he is a dead man,” said Hans with satisfaction, “as he is dung-poisoned.” A pause, then, “I hope I get to see his burn-pile.”

“You will see him burn, but not today,” said Sarah. “I do know this – he will burn, though as to whether he merely burns here or both here and where you two ate grass in the last few days is a very good question – as to turn witch from that kind of a position is the worst species of treason, and one tale speaks...”

Here, Sarah paused to point out obvious movement, and Hans began shooting. It took him three shots to hit the fast-moving witch, but the resulting screams spoke of the one running witch being seen and multiple people being hit. I found their screaming annoying, as we'd been bothered enough by such people while coming here, and I was heartily sick of dealing with them – which informed what I said next.

“Sup with Brimstone, witches,” I muttered. “Go where you belong, and quit bothering us.”

We were now within sight of the guard post, with the gate perhaps four hundred yards distant. To my utter astonishment, the forest that lay to the front of the house now positively 'boiled' with smoke-trailing witches as they 'charged' the house in a massive 'human wave attack'.

“A stinking mass of witches,” I thought. “It makes sense now, at least that portion.”

The witches were burning as they ran, but they seemed to ignore that aspect of their dissolution; they fired their weapons at the house, and now, these flaming horrors ran out across the access road and then into the field in front of the house. They had now compacted into a solid mass, still smoking, still flaming, still shooting – and from no less than three upper windows in the house proper, I saw flames erupt as shooters fired down into the charging mob.

I heard a distinctive crack, this the sound of a hard-hitting and accurate weapon, then the deeper-pitched booms of muskets following, much as if there were multiple shooters for each position and they were taking turns as people had done while 'taking' the Hall.

The booms of muskets continued, these perhaps two or three a second, and that spoke of not merely multiple shooters per position, but more than one weapon per shooter.

This had but little effect upon the charging mass of witches, for their burning became hotter, higher, and smokier, and in rapidly-increasing numbers, they fell as the seconds ticked off, all of them now billowing clouds of putrid-smelling black smoke. It made for a thought on my part – and then speech.

“Now get that stink up your nose, you stinky witches,” I spat. “That is your end, fools – you're on fire here, and you'll be on fire when you land on that Lizard's plate when he's up to more meals.”

“That won't be for a few days yet in apparent time,” said the soft voice. “He'll be ready for them when they arrive nonetheless.”

“How is that?” asked Hans. He'd heard a concept so utterly new that he could not understand it. Anna answered him.

“He took sword to that thing two days ago,” said Anna, “and time there isn't like it is here – something about this strange axis that speaks of time, and another three of those things that point in different directions, and the whole arranged so strangely that if I didn't know better I would swear it came out of a large black book.”

I knew we would see an answer to that matter soon, but now, we were within sight of the gate, and as the witches burned in the field to the right, we had to avoid their flaming corpses now, for they had not merely charged the house in their last stand; they had spread themselves apart widely when they knew of their doom, so as to cause the most trouble possible, and some had fallen in the access road leading to the main gate.

“And thus endeth another huge pack of dangerous-species domestic witches,” I muttered. “Now did that one Power die in that batch, or did he die earlier, or is that stinker going to die before we leave?”

There was no answer, even if I knew that he would die, and that soon.