In the king's chambers, they gather... “This is no feast! This is trouble!”


“Did I know the war-cries of Veldters, I would scream them right now,” said Sarah, as she fetched the smallest jug I had ever seen – or so I thought until I noticed that it was one we had 'looted' from the Abbey, and was not of ceramic, but plastic. Its seeming 'handle' was a wide leather strap, and its cover, a carefully-sewn cloth portion, one made with blackened brass grommets laced with some of that thin 'rope' knotted at the free ends. The whole ensemble looked well made, well-thought-out, and very secure – both from a retention standpoint, and probable 'observation' aspect.

“Wh-when did you...”

“Anna made up some of that brass-blackening mix,” said Sarah. “She was busier than I thought last night, and when I needed something to deal with that book-induced headache, she had left me the pieces needed to cover this thing here.” Her further speech a mumble, “I had no idea she understood sewing that much, as this thing went together very quickly.”

“Clothing-cloth scraps?” I asked, as Sarah removed the cover – and then unscrewed the lid. “Oh, wonderful. It might not be Komaet, but it still smells awful enough to make me want to spew!”

I attempted to crawl to the edge of the stone walkway so as to vomit, but the soreness of my right shoulder prevented such movement. Acting like a member of the 'Rooster' Totem had its price.

“The largest of the clans was said to be that of the wolf,” I murmured. “She never told me what clan my great grandfather belonged to, nor which one of that nation she and her father were registered as.” A pause, then as the reek of Geneva filled the air and I accepted a rag dampened with the malodorous stuff, Sarah asked, “clan?”

“Like one of the Valley's Totems,” I said. “There were several of them, and that one I mentioned was said to be the largest of that group of people.” A pause, then, “and for the life of me, I cannot recall their name or names.”

“I think that Hendrik might well believe you now,” said Anna. “I'm glad I received instruction as to what to use and how to cut it, as you-all will need both that jug there and its covering.” A pause, then, “the flap, Sarah. It wants...” Another pause, then, “I could not find leather decent enough to do that part, and I doubt you would wish to try ruining rivets attaching it.”

I could rivet one on,” I said, as the reek of Geneva – Paul's stuff, by the odor – took over my mind and rapidly removed the soreness from my bruised shoulder. “Did Hans like the sight of the broom at work? He was interested enough when he heard of it last night.”

“I doubt he saw that much of it, as he was one of the first to fill his underclothing,” said Anna. “I am most surprised I did not fill mine, even if I was busy with this weapon enough to wonder about that setting that Sarah called 'frightening'.”

“Busy?” I asked.

“I dropped three witches as they ran through the trees, then shot two fool-hens when the witches started them, and finally I hit a rat solid at a good distance for one of the muskets at home.”

“That rat will not live long,” said Sarah. “If you hit it solid, it is likely to be dying.”

“Or it's dead,” I murmured, as I made one last wipe of my shoulder – and saw the rest of the bruise fade over the course of a few seconds. I moved my arm around, and found it barely hurt now. “Does Hendrik need another demonstration?”

“I think not!” said that one cook, the one with recently-missing toes. “Andreas will be down directly, as will this one man from the Valley, and we will each lead out two people so as to carry our buckets back to the house proper while we find those smoking-hot things.”

“Buckets?” I asked. “Oh, filled with water. Good idea.”

“It seems you left some kind of writing on the matter, as no one save Andreas could read it,” she said. “He might be half an hour or so out here, but I and the bricklayer might be out here until lunch.”

“A map, then,” I said, as I reached for my ledger only to find Sarah putting a sheet 'clamped' to a thin wooden holder along with a 'pencil' and 'eraser'. I took both, and even though burdened by weapons and 'gear', I blinked twice, looked out over the grounds – and began working.

This time, a hush gathered around me as my hands worked with sure skill and rapid strokes, and but what seemed a minute later, I had a drawing of such detail that I heard Sarah's shocked breath.

“That map we will want back when you-all are done with it,” she said, as I began to gently 'rub' the thing with my index finger. “What happens next is so strange I have no words for it beyond it being a most-needed gift from God.”

“Mostly because he said this would be very important, like, uh, right now,” I said, as I wiped the whole of the drawing a second and then a third time. I then looked at the drawing; I had been thinking of other matters before, chiefly the need to locate and specify each sack of coin or still-smoking ingot of crude gold or silver.

“What gives with this strange shading, and uh, these colors?” I asked. “Oh, here – it says right here on the side.”

“That tells me a lot more than I knew,” said Andreas, as he suddenly showed, revolver in hand. “I'd give plenty to have a proper holster for this thing, as those people upstairs don't do those all that well, even with that one new man guiding them.”

“Get him to cut me some suitable leather, and I'll try to rivet one up so he can finish sewing it,” I said. “Cut the stuff a good bit oversize, and I can trim it quickly and punch the rivet holes, then he can do what stitching it needs.”

“If you use as many rivets as you did for her scabbard,” said Andreas, “it might not need stitching.”

“Besides, we recently received many tools for such work,” said Sarah, “and I wonder what they are like to use. Perhaps we can give you a decent holster tomorrow morning, as I can stitch well with leather-awls.”

“I'd like that,” said Andreas. “I've already managed another powder flask.”

“You mean 'you'd like the drawings for something like I use',” I said. “I most likely can do those drawings before we leave the house today, and then you can make a measuring flask that dumps the same charge consistently with a flip of a lever.” A pause, then, “you'll wish some, uh, powder from this one keg I have...”

“I already have some of that man's powder,” said Andreas. “I live near him, in fact, and I'm glad for having my home there.”

“Oh, and perhaps some, uh, conical bullets for these pistols,” I said. “It might be a while for me to cut those moulds, but I have access to better equipment now as well as good cast iron.”

“Those would help,” said Andreas. “You got enough of those things in the house now that that one room on the second floor is going to want an armory mould for making them, what for the rats and other things showing.” He then took up the finished map, its surface gone glossy with a plastic-like finish, and he put his fingers to his mouth and whistled piercingly.

“You have nothing on him,” said Sarah. “He might sound awful if one is close, but you can hear his whistle nearly as far as a good witch-horn.”

“I have heard him whistle,” said Andreas dryly. “He put me on the floor more than once, and I suspect why.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“You whistle fit for calling cats, only you have a great many overtones, much like certain instruments that are blown,” he said, “and in your case, those 'overtones' aren't really overtones, but the most-powerful frequencies.” A pause, then, “most people cannot hear those sounds with their ears.”

“And you can?” I asked.

“Inside my head I can,” mumbled Andreas as he took up the 'finished map'. He touched it, and the map changed with such sudden abruptness that I gasped.

“You might not have those things from across the sea yet, but this does nearly as well,” he said. “I'm not reading out of an old tale now.” A pause, then, “this, no... I'm living in one, and I'd best not disappoint the one who sent me here!”

Andreas then seemed to vanish as if made of smoke, and I resumed my 'gear'. I then realized I needed to carry a hefty leather satchel that wanted Hendrik's eyes – this over and above my usual load.

That thing wishes a cart,” said Sarah. “I can go find one, if you get those things we need so as to speak to Hendrik, and...”

I then saw that Anna had 'vanished like smoke', and faint steps spoke of her running at a speed that made for marveling.

“She is becoming more and more like my cousin with each turn of the glass,” said Sarah solemnly. “I know enough that to wish for such things to happen to myself...”

You'll be unleashed soon enough,” I said quietly. “Did I ever have a, a leash?”

“Yours was removed on the way here,” said the soft voice, “and yes, she does get fully unleashed when it is time. She'll prove up to what is expected of her then also – as will many people who will need to first sail upon the seas of this planet, and then, 'sail' between the stars 'above the sky'.”

“That must happen to entirely break the Curse, which means the planet itself must be unleashed,” said Sarah. “But more for us to tell Hendrik, which means we must be about our business with a will.”

I wiped the tip of the broom of its thick coating of soot, then began helping Sarah undo the sheet covering the bed of the buggy. She'd roped it in place, this with some of that thin color-changing braided rope, and as I watched her wind it upon a carved wooden holder and then tuck it in her satchel, I heard faintly the hissing sounds of well-greased cart-wheels. I wondered for a moment if someone had taken one of the carts we had found at the Abbey, then did not.

“Two of those things?” I gasped as I turned to see those pulling them. “H-how did you..?”

“We took one each with us,” said Karl as he came with Anna in front of him, machine pistol at the ready. She seemed inclined to shoot at anything that moved; however, when I saw movement, I unslung my rifle, chambered a round, mounted it – and then shot at the fleeting glimpse of a witch as he ran through the trees. The white muzzle flame seemed to 'light up' the witch – who pitched forward in a tumbling sprawl to then 'vanish'.

The echoing roar seemed to bring everything to a complete stop, and through my ringing ears, I murmured, “I hope that's the last of those stinkers.”

“Not quite yet, at least for here, anyway,” said the soft voice. “He was heading for the rear gate, and now Andreas knows what kind of things he needs to put there.”

“A 'strawberry alarm clock', no doubt,” I smirked. “Did we bring one of those things?”

“You might not have packed one, but I know Sarah spoke of such a thing this morning while we were packing our supplies,” said Anna. “There will be roast fool-hen and flour-mush later, so if you have a chance, you may wish to try it.”

“It would take too long to cook,” said Sarah.

“I meant when you bring those women back,” said Anna. “It might be ready then, as those birds are already boiling in the pot and a lot of people have been wishing for that stuff, me being one of them.”

“Best keep it from Gabriel, then,” said Karl. “He will devour it if he smells it, and that entire.”

If he can eat a pound of hot lead first,” said Sepp. “I counted four loaded muskets in the part of the kitchen I saw when I dropped off those fresh-gutted birds, and I know there's more of those things being kept handy.”

“F-flint muskets, or...”

“Two of the four that I saw had thimble-locks,” said Sepp. “I could hear plenty of talk about those cooks wanting thimbles and locks to go with 'em, so you'll have plenty of house-business when we get back.”

“Almost want to make dies to pound out the needed parts,” I murmured. We would want a steam-hammer in a hurry at this rate, in addition to any other tools possible to make for use at the shop. Traveling twelve miles each way to use truly effective tools didn't sound like a good use of my time, not when I had so much to do in general.

“I doubt much you'll need to do that,” said Anna. “There are a great many gun parts still to be found in the walls of the Swartsburg, and not three days goes by without someone dropping some off at home these days – and the baskets and bags of those things are not growing lighter.”

“Hence, uh, mix and match?” I asked.

“We can ask when we get to Ploetzee,” said Sarah. I then saw where the sun actually was: it had finally risen enough that it was 'morning' – though it was early morning, not what most thought of as morning. That would not be for an hour's time yet if the day were an 'extended' one. Sarah brought my mind back to where it belonged, however. “We dare not waste time, not with all that we must do here before we leave. Karl, Sepp, the things we need to bring.” Then, to Anna, “did someone fetch those tables that fold? Were they put in the king's office, and then set up?”

“I spoke of them,” said Anna, “and not merely to Hendrik, but to several others, saying it was most-important that we have them double-quick for crown business.”

“Including inspecting Gabriel's, uh, 'special clothing',” I said. “I've no idea where that stuff is hid, but I think Hendrik or Maria has an idea.”

“If they don't, then I know just who to ask,” said Anna. “The tailor's shop here would have worked on those things enough to know where it is if it's not where it's supposed to be.”

“Which is where?” I asked, as I brought down a weighty bag and plumped it on a cart. But two more such bags, and this particular cart could go inside.

“I think Hendrik keeps that stuff in his closet, as he's not trusted Gabriel much since you-all returned from that trip, and I suspect he's been watching him for longer than that.”

“He has, dear,” I said. “He had a choice of either someone who was questionable in a number of ways and otherwise decent for work to fill that position, or of several others who were not questionable in the slightest – and I do not mean graduates from the west school, but bones-holding witches in truth, complete with black clothing and evil smells.”

“Someone who could pass for a General, then,” said Sarah. “I'm still glad that stinker is going to be spending most of today and much of tonight getting himself so he doesn't stink.”

“I will dose him with that green soap if he still smells by dinner time, and that with a pistol to his head and a rag in his mouth,” said Karl. “His dung-stink had us shooting our way into the place last night, and I went through a whole box of those bullets in less than a turn of a glass for all the witches that his stink was drawing onto us.”

“Didn't you douse him?” asked Anna.

“Sepp did that when and where we could, and he still stank like bad rotten meat that was ready for the manure pile,” said Karl. “Now this bag finishes the other cart, so it needs to go inside, and this one looks likely, and then we will need a second time to get all you have...”

“No, not all of it, Karl,” said Sarah. “We will need some of what we have for fetching those two women, then we will need to bring them back here quickly, and we will need weapons for both of them as well as ourselves so as to keep any witches we see off of us.”

“Yes, I know,” said Karl. “That is why I think you want that broom handy as well as a fire-breather, and then two each of those machine pistols beyond what the two of you have with you.”

“And ample ammunition for all of it, and, uh, a few gree-nades for any coaches we see,” I murmured. “Dear, we'd best stay out here, as it will take a while to bring the others...” Karl, Sepp, and Anna had vanished, though I could hear the last person spoken of urging the others on as if someone was about to die and Anna needed to hurry so as to save the person's life.

As if her life hung in the balance – almost as if the person's blood would be upon her hands if she failed.

“And as for mine, the whole of the planet and all that is on it,” I said sadly. I had no idea as to my tone, as I was still 'on guard', rifle near my shoulder, finger beside the trigger guard, too alive, much as if I were an animal – one of the wolf clan, in fact. I then had a question for Sarah.

“Have you ever heard of a clan or group named after an animal – on a tapestry or in an old tale?”

“Yes, among those named Indians here,” said Sarah. “I know you have been far too busy to read tales much, but only in the last two days did I truly learn just how filled with labor your life is.”

“You've but smelled that mule,” said the soft voice. “At least you've smelled it. Most others have no idea whatsoever that such a mule exists, and they need to learn of both that animal and the one bearing the last of the pendants – and what he said about the whole planet being his responsibility is nothing less than the dire truth.”

“I wondered about that,” I murmured. I could feel another witch, only this stinker was such that I needed to 'bend' the bullet's path like a snake weaving through the trees, then fly a slightly curving course between stable and manure pile, and then take a circling course so as to strike the last – was he indeed the last, or were there yet more of them on the property? – witch as he ran hotfoot for the rear gate with a small sack of coins in his grimy grease-smeared hands. The roar of my rifle then startled me – I had shouldered it without thinking, and my finger had found the trigger – and as I 'came to myself', I heard a faint yet high-pitched scream as the witch 'went to dust' upon being hit in the upper center of the back by a hollow-point. The bullet had disintegrated a fist-sized portion of his spine and shot bone fragments through his chest cavity like shell-splinters. He was dead before he knew he'd been hit.

“It did a lot more than that,” said the soft voice. “That kind of bullet, even when it does those kind of 'guided missile' gyrations, tends to destroy entire portions of people's bodies – and that witch went to dust faster than that other one you hit earlier.”

“Must have been quite a stinker, then,” I murmured, as I brought my rifle down from my shoulder. I could now no longer 'feel' witches in the area; I had located that one last witch by 'feel' more than sight, and I had 'aimed' by 'feel' also – and still, I had killed him as dead as a rusted witch-nail made of Dead-Iron.

“I hope I am not becoming a defining point for that word hubris,” I muttered, as I scanned the realm to my front. I was glad I had a solid stone wall to my back, and when I saw movement to my right, I turned...

My rifle found my shoulder, and automatic, quick as thought, I shot down three black-dressed witches covered in 'witch-grade gamekeeper's dress', their green and brown rags flying as their corpses 'flew' to the side and partly hid themselves under the edges of the hedge covering the thick stone wall forming the 'perimeter'. None of the three moved; they were done in this world, and en-route to the next one – and no, they would not be late. This made for a strange comment.

“Almost want a watchtower or three in this place if this dung is going to be a continuing issue,” I murmured. It made for a further comment, however, and the words escaped unbidden from my mouth, my voice but barely above a whisper. “Erect your fences, barbéd wire, watchtowers with their guns...

When did you see that tapestry?” Sarah asked pointedly. “How could you know what you just said?”

“Mostly because Vrijlaand had intercepted what he wrote,” said the soft voice, “and I just caused him to recall a portion of it.” Pause, then, “they have the whole 'poem' overseas, and have known of it for a very long time.”

“Uh, how?” I asked. “Don't tell me – it became an 'army chant' of some kind. Did it?”

“It did, and it motivated new recruits to not be slack in any way, as it described the enemy's thinking and behavior, and more, just what awaited them if they were 'lucky' enough to be caught by common soldiers rather than the Mistress of the North and her people.”

“They would be put in Berky or places like it,” said Sarah. “Did that piece speak of secrets, screaming, and 'inmates consigned by pride'?”

It d-did,” I said. “The loathed refuse of society, which you hate with secret glee... For all they have is choice, while you have all that lives...

“That is word-for-word what I recalled reading in that place I had to bathe for,” said Sarah. “Now why would they have your writings, and not those of others...”

“Where do you think they got the information found in that black book and much else the witches of before the war regarded so highly – and those witches of today wish to do likewise with?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “Where do you think the witches got the twenty-six names for the districts of Geeststaat?” A pause, then, “that was 'commonplace' for intercepts. His, though – they searched for what he wrote, and Vrijlaand at the least regarded it as a message from me.” Another pause, then, “they were right, as I made certain that stuff got through 'in the clear' as both a warning and a prophecy.”

“What was this?” asked Anna as she 'materialized' by my side. “It sounded as if you were speaking of that smoky place that had day and night rather than red night all the time.”

“I think he was, Anna,” said Sarah. “It seems I read some of his writings on the tapestries, and...” Sarah looked pointedly at me, almost as if suddenly years of study all coalesced into a train of consequences, one too big and too fast to ignore. “So that is why they speak of the return of the monster. They were speaking of you.”

“Me?” I gasped. This was too much to believe.

“You'd best believe it,” said Anna. “Sepp and Karl should be due directly, and then we can bring in the things...” Anna turned, then somehow she lined up on another witch and fired twice into the man's side, each bullet raising a small cloud of 'dust'. To my shock and horror, the witch burst into flames and fell, screaming and rolling about as if to try to set the house afire as he died.

“Sup with Brimstone, you noisy wretch,” I spat. “Let that lizard hear your screaming...”

The witch disintegrated in a noisy blast that left nothing beyond a thick and foul-smelling eruption of soot-mingled gray smoke and a scorched place on the grass making the path.

“Now if that does not put the fear in those stinkers, nothing will,” said Anna. “I think we'd best check those on guard at the front, as if those witches are getting in here, either those men are asleep or the witches have knifed them.” Anna then sniffed, and muttered, “stinky wretch. He was carrying distillate.” She turned to me as if to ask why, and I said, shrugging my shoulders, “most likely planning on setting something on fire back here.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Recall all of what went up on the way here? You just 'dried up' the supplies of 'witch-grade heavy distillate' in most of the first kingdom, and no serious witch worth his fetishes wants to run his light-giving firebombs on anything else.” A pause, then, “that grade of distillate now goes for twenty guilders a bottle, and that man had three such bottles on his person.”

“And I hit one,” said Anna.

“That, and you hit his matches with your second shot,” said the soft voice. “He was planning on using one of those bottles for a diversion if he had to.”

“What else did he have matches for?” I asked. “Campfires?”

“Not those,” said the soft voice. “While most witches don't know much about weed bundles as used in the Valley, he was one of the rare exceptions, and he had his 'stash' of Veldter weed in that hedge at the back of the shooting range – and he was really hankering for a 'taste'.”

“Good riddance to a bad witch, then,” said Anna – who then let out a screech. “He was sucking on weeds? Veldter weed?”

“Precisely, and doing that made him a much stronger witch,” said the soft voice. “He was able to sneak past the guards so easily because one of them was getting into some beer in the right guard hut and the other man needed to use the nearest privy.”

“Best post three guards on that thing until we leave on the trip if we can, then,” I said. “Now we'd best take in everything, as I do not like leaving any of this stuff out here when witches are showing so stinking often.”

“I think that to be most-wise,” said Anna. “If we have witches wishing Veldter weed in this area, then we cannot be too careful.” Anna then turned, and yelled, “Karl! Sepp! Those carts!”

Voices, seemingly from beyond the grave, suddenly 'came forth', and from our rear, I noted first one man showing, then another. Both had cart-handles in one hand, and beer-jugs in the other, and as they came closer at a rapid walk, Anna yelled, “beer? What took you so long? Beer? Now?”

“I think so,” said Sepp, as he drew closer. “You seem to forget yourself, about you telling me to fetch some out.”

“I did, come to think of it,” said Anna thoughtfully. “Do I need beer, or...” Anna looked at her hand, as did I; and to my utter astonishment, I could see heat-waves coming off of not merely her hand, but her entire body.

“Dear, I think it's not just Sarah and I that need that stuff,” I said. “You do too.”

“I do?” asked Anna in tones of wonder. She then gasped, “h-hurry, please. I th-think I might be about to have a f-fit!”

“Is this normal for m-marked people?” I wondered.

“It's not uncommon, but in her case, she's finally becoming aware of some matters that she's been dealing with for many years, and between such tendencies and recovering that quickly from severe injuries, she needs to have ample beer.”

“And keep some honey handy in a vial or two,” I murmured. I then noticed how 'dry' I was, as well as my hands beginning to twitch and some faint beginnings of tingling about my mouth. I moved my hand, and as if in a dream, suddenly I had a chilled icy cup redolent of beer in my hand. I drained the thing in a trice, and with explosive abruptness, the world came back to me as if I had been shot out of a black hole.

“All three of us were past due,” said Sarah, as she refilled her cup. “I'm glad you came back through that...”

Sarah set down her cup, then shouldered her rifle.

“What is it?” asked Sepp. “You smell a witch?”

“I'm not entirely sure,” said Sarah enigmatically. “Enough of them have been showing recently that those guards out front need to watch closer for stinky witches sneaking back here.”

“Them things over there?” asked Sepp, as I began working on my second cup. “I see a sooty place, then three dust mounds, and I heard someone scream like they had just caught an open-mouth bullet in the back.”

What?” I gasped, between swallows.

“I got some of those things in one of those boxes, and I tried some last night,” said Sepp. “If you want a witch to stop right then, no matter how hard that stinker is, use those things and he'll go nowhere 'cept straight down, and the same for pigs if they aren't too big.”

“I got onto a pig last night when that stinky thing showed, and it dropped when I shot it,” said Karl. “It had a witch behind it, so I got him too, and he caught fire and burned like a jug of distillate.”

“He was probably carrying distillate, Karl,” said Anna. “I shot one doing that not two minutes ago.” Anna then muttered, “twenty guilders a bottle? For that stuff? That's the price of king's-wine!”

“Sounds like I'd rather have distillate,” I muttered. “I do not like wine, at least for drinking. Stuff tastes horrible.”

“It is that, unless you have an old marmot you've been digging shot out of and all you have to go with it is turnips,” said Sepp. “I learned that from the cooks here, as they got some jugs from the fourth kingdom recent, and one of the older ones told me about the papers that came with it.”

“Papers?” asked Sarah. She was still aiming out back. I then knew, and said, “a bit to the right, dear. He'll show directly, and I think that's the last of the holdouts...”

Sarah fired once, then twice more, and the chorus of screams that resulted, followed by a thrashing worthy of the worst epileptic convulsion imaginable, spoke of more than one solidly-hit witch. The screaming continued, at least until someone near the horse-barn fired a 'cannon' and silenced all of the 'screamers'.

“One of those grooms got himself a roer,” said Karl, “and I think he must have heard of using loopers in those things, as those can get more than one witch if you are ten paces or more distant.”

A soft groan then ensued, which was just as quickly silenced abruptly.

“He had one witch left alive, and stilled that stinker with his knife,” said Sepp. “I hope I get that sword I've been paying on before we go, as this one somehow doesn't seem at all likely when I'm going to be surrounded by pickled blue-dressed thugs fit to wear brass cones.”

“Georg should get his buggy today,” said Sarah, “and if he does, then you may rely upon him harnessing each of those animals after putting mash to them, and then driving straight to this place at his best speed.”

“They'll travel with us on the way out of Ploetzee, you mean,” I said. “They're just finishing it up now.”

But as I began to empty Sarah's buggy, I had a distinct impression: Georg was not going to waste time getting those two most-needed weapons to either of the two men. He would send them by messenger, and they would get here today.

“That one girl,” I thought. “She's trustworthy, and has a good horse...”

“Not her, and certainly not with those,” said the soft voice. “Georg will attempt to bring them himself if he possibly can, or he'll have you bring them, as he's more than a little worried that anyone he sends with such weapons will either turn witch or be caught and killed by witches.”

“Yesterday scared him the color of an old tin plate,” I thought, as I grabbed the last remaining bag from Sarah's buggy and began to help her replace its cover 'for the most part'. We'd wish to return our things to the bed quickly, as we could ill afford to waste time regarding rescuing two women who would need rescuing – and that today.

“That is calling the pot dirty when it has an inch of lard-greased soot to its outside and the charred remains of a roast Shoet on its inside,” said the soft voice. “What that one man said about witches wishing to get your swords by any and all means possible is but the faint odor of that mule.”

“So that explains why you must be careful,” said Anna. “The witches want to...” Anna paused, looked around, then said, “there is yet more we must tell Hendrik, and Hans and I have not watched that shop closely enough.”

“While I was gone on the trip?” I asked, recalling some talk I had heard. “Something about making rivets and, uh, chanting with each blow as they tried to beat the swage to death?”

“I doubt those doing that were the shop's people,” said Anna. “They might speak verses from the book if they know any of them by heart, but I doubt either man knows curses out of that black book.” A pause, then, “I would still watch them closely, however, as if anyone who yet remains in town were inclined to turn witch if given sufficient inducement, I'd lay money on both of those men, and not a little money.” A pause, then, “good. Hans brought your club. Hendrik may wish more like that one.”

I was glad Anna did not see my face, as I could tell it was starting to turn a mottled green from an intense species of recollection-induced nausea. The mere mention of that instrument of death was causing a severe case of the shudders, and as I carried a bag behind Sarah, the walls to each side suddenly went gauzy so that they resembled the far-reaching darkness of last night, the candles went dark to be replaced by a brilliant moon mingled with bright stars, and the wind in my long-streaming gore-clotted hair as I ran spoke of a speed that only Jaak – and possibly an Iron Pig in full charge – could exceed. Witches to the left, and witches to the right, and my blood-trailing course went all over the town and through the fields as heads disintegrated in red-gouting explosions...

“I think you should have bagged that thing up and shown it to Hendrik in private, Anna,” said Sarah. “It was as if I were there and seeing all of that as it happened, and...” Here, Sarah was brushing what looked and smelled like the gore and brains of witches off of her arms, and she seemed inclined toward spewing. “That stuff is nasty.”

“What stuff would that be?” asked Karl.

“You d-did not see what I just s-saw, K-Karl,” said Sarah with a shudder. “That was no great-wolf! That was something that only w-witches speak of, and though it is an entire lie, I can see how they might well believe it!”

“What would that be?” asked Anna. “Do they think him to be Sieve?”

“Do not speak that name,” said Sepp ominously. “There might be but a few witches in that place across the sea, and they all could teach those here who think themselves experts at hiding as to how to hide themselves, but if you find one of those stinkers who's at all serious about Brimstone and doing what that smelly lizard wants, they speak of that thing you named as if it were as real as winter snow.”

“They would be like the witches spoken of in old tales, then,” said Anna. Her knowing tone spoke volumes. “Now how is it I know so much more about those tales, especially as I had trouble understanding half of what I read and it near-always gave me a headache to read them?”

“Your toe,” said Sarah. “You are changing, and that because you must.”

More to tell Hendrik,” I said, as we entered the main 'hall' or whatever this long and dimly lit room was called. I looked far into the misty-seeming distance to see the 'main staircase', and to my left, the reek of dung commingled with rotten eggs spoke of Gabriel still working his 'best' to get first the room cleaned up – some eggs had missed him, but they had hit the room's floor and most of the far wall, where they had 'splatted'. The resulting messes were both huge and sticky, and one needed plenty of lye and a bristle brush to remove both the remains of those evil-smelling eggs and their stench.

“Lye on him, too,” I thought. “Almost need to scrub himself with hot water and laundry soap for hours to get that mess and stench down to a tolerable level – then if he still stinks, I'll use him like an outboard motor while we're in the river. Keep the stench down that way, so we don't get witch-trouble from his stink.”

Sarah looked at me in wonder, then said, “that might be what is needed, if he should still smell bad enough to draw witches onto us.”

“Oh, I made certain that lye I left by his door was mixed good and strong,” said Sepp, “and I put three entire bars of Tam's first batch of laundry soap next to the bucket in a bag.”

“Good,” said Anna. “It may chew his skin like a bucket of witch-bred biters, but it should also make his stink bearable if he works hard enough at cleaning himself.”

We had just crossed the main 'hall', and as we entered into that much narrower region that led to Hendrik's office, I noted with some satisfaction that someone had been busy in General's Row – mostly traps of an exploding nature, but I suspected that there was also ample doctored drink handy. For a moment, I wished I could have given the person responsible a large container of well-pulverized dried witch-tables – hopefully some of the strong ones, not the usual variety.

“They put some of those in the wine-bottles they found in there and re-sealed their corks,” said the soft voice. “Andreas got the idea from Sarah when she spoke of what she and her cousin did.”

“Oh, my,” I thought. I nearly giggled, in fact: any Generals that showed were going to have a hot time in the house proper with that woman handy, and having a well-seasoned member of the Rooster Totem present wasn't going to help their cause much either.

“They'll no doubt wish a box or three of gree-nades and some of those sensitive trap-fuses,” I thought with a smirk. “That, and this place is made for machine-pistols.”

“You'll be able to teach her some tricks with those when you get back,” said the soft voice. “Still, though – those Generals that come will not like having either of those women in the house.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah, as she tapped on Hendrik's door. “She'll wish guard training, and no mistake.”

The door opened to show Lukas, and the five of us trouped in. Someone had obviously been busy, as there were a number of new-looking tables of surprisingly lightweight construction, but a touch of my hand atop one of them showed not merely uncommon solidity, but then my eyes also saw several places where metal reinforcement showed clearly as pieces of brass attached with even-looking 'cooked' screws. Their mottled dark color spoke volumes, and I wondered just how he'd done them – from machining to heat-treatment.

“Those were done here,” said Lukas, “and Andreas did the metal parts in his rooms.”

“They were done before you showed,” said Hendrik, “and I think the only reason they're still good is that they spent enough time putting drying oil to them when they were made two years ago.”

“They cooked the glue, also,” I said. “That glue was a bit better than the usual for around here, wasn't it?”

“I suspect it was like what we brought back from the trip,” said Hendrik. “Their remaining stocks of old glue are now where they belong in the manure-pile, and no other type of common glue is to be used.” The unspoken portion I could readily guess, given the sheer number of wooden articles that were showing themselves 'fit for the stove'. Knowing that made for a desire to draw up a 'grinder' for wood-products – and perchance, something that could chop hay for Willem. I was then brought back to the present by a pressing matter.

“And, uh, wood-treatment?” I asked.

“We will be making it as we can,” said Hans, “so I hope you get the chance to make those things needed to make a lot of it.” Pause, then, “until then, though – it is spend two days cleaning for each day of running that stuff, and...”

“You'll still need to spend time cleaning those new ones, Hans,” said Anna. “Won't he?”

“He will,” I said. “How much time he needs to spend is a good question, but...” I paused, then made a choking noise. “Solvent, and they'll want that stuff!”

“Yes, so what is this?” asked Hans.

“We'll be able to put this liquid in this thing, run it for an hour or so, drain it, flush it out with air and into this, uh, filter, and then it will be as clean as if I took it apart and spent hours cleaning it.” This matter was an utter revelation, so much so that I knew I needed to ask those across the sea who did chemistry about this process and how to make 'efficient' ten-liter reaction vessels. “Enough to fill three jugs at a time, and the best yet.”

That is what is needed,” said Hendrik. “Now this stuff, I can look at while you speak of what needs saying, and afterward, if I have questions, I can ask them.”

I wondered as to the wisdom of assaying two matters at once, until Hendrik showed me the 'main' book for the rifles. He then said, “I might understand one word in three in this book, and the Gustaaf is worthless for most of them.” A pause, then, “do you understand what it means?”

“He might, but I do not,” said Sarah. “It gave me a head-masher headache last night when I tried reading it, and I imagine most of the others...” A pause, then, “is that why you were told to have a ledger and beer handy when you were reading these things during the dead sixth here?”

“I suspect so, if you could not understand them,” said Hendrik. “That was why I spoke as I did, as everything I've seen so far here is beyond me – and I've read my share of tales and seen my share of tapestries, and only she has a better understanding of them.”

Hendrik had meant Sarah when he had said 'she'. He then said more.

“Hans tells me you not only used something in town like what you used today, but you also used a club,” he said. “Clubs are spoken of in old tales and on tapestries, but how he spoke of that thing, and then how he spoke of you – that changes everything entirely.”

“Then what is in this here will change it yet more,” said Anna. “Hans, help me. This leather thing here weighs enough to make me wonder if it is filled with gold coins.”

“It has some, dear,” I said. “Remember the bag that showed itself? How it caused Sarah to have nightmares in the daytime to see it?” I then mumbled something about what I had seen in the darkness of the forest as well as something about 'the mojo hand'. I then did not mumble.

“I saw that on those gloves while running that nasty-sounding engine, too,” I said.

What was this you saw?” asked Hendrik pointedly. He was looking at the weapons laid out, fingering the warhead of a rocket, then its booster and 'kick-out' sections.

“Something about having a Mojo Hand,” I said. “Until we can get replacement power sources that do not induce insanity, that noisy thing will need running so as to make things we need, and I hope we can get a replacement or replacements for it soon –as saying it causes insanity when it runs is naming it wonderful – and it is not wonderful.”

“You'll need to be present when it is in use, then,” said Anna. “Hendrik, be careful with what is in that leather document-case. It has not only a large collection of letters from and to witches, but also a great deal of special witch-money.”

“Which will need melting that it may be coined anew,” said Hendrik. “Tam told me some of our money is cursed...”

“Some of it is cursed explicitly, like what I needed to deal with earlier today,” I said, “but most of our currently-used money is cursed because it has been handled by witches at one point or another. Hence it all needs to be remade, and the usual means of making coins is not up to the task.” A pause, then as I walked to where the satchel 'lay', I said softly – as to tone; otherwise, my voice was sharp as the crack of a whip, as was needed when 'commanding' cursed things – “three coins, one of each of the sizes so prized by witches... Out with you now, and show yourselves as you truly are, with no hiding whatsoever!”

My voice had risen in volume with each word, such that the last words were quite loud, and the 'coins' responded with alacrity to both my 'commands' and my pointed finger. They seemed altogether 'afraid' of what I was 'holding' on them, much as if they were hostages of something completely not of this world. I then softly said, “those of you who did not see the stuff outside clearly, come and look at these things now. I can explain them passably, just like I'll need to explain what's in that huge collection of witch-writ letters I found on the person of a high-ranking witch.”

“What did you do to that stinker?” whispered Lukas as he came to my side. A hushed intake of breath, then, “that stuff is cursed, all right. I can see the metal, and it's bad stuff full of rubbish and lead and things, then there's no designs 'cause witch-jewelers been polishing it regular for long years with their stinking lard-rouge, and then only witches can get that stuff, so a strong one's got to put curses on it so no one else can touch it without becoming a witch in truth!”

Very good,” I said. “You saw most if not all of what that stuff is about. Now how many of our coins were done by and for witches? Do we know? Do we dare take unnecessary chances when doing so will put the foundations of the entire planet in doubt?”

“No,” said Hendrik shakily. “They'll not wish to bother themselves to the south, but up here...”

“No, I do not think that will be so, not after what is in that huge ledger gets to them,” said Sarah. “You have the documents of Powers in that thing, and those that are the Thinkers of witchdom, and those who wrote for them, and there is much in there that is not known among anyone else.” A pause, then, “and when we speak of what we have seen this morning, that will but give you proofs able to endure any advocate that lives, even that one which is above us who sees all and judges everything!” A pause, then, “that there is blood-money, money baptized in the blood of sacrifices when it was cursed.”

“B-blood money?” gasped Hendrik. “It was in with t-those papers?”

“It is, sir,” said Sarah. “That should tell you just who wrote those papers.” A pause, then, “we were told they were writen mostly in that witch-language some call 'Underworld German', with a great-many secret markings that are disguised rune-curses in truth.”

“Then none of us can read it,” said Hendrik. “It does us little good to have words we cannot read...”

“No, actually he” – here, Sarah looked at me – “can read it, and that well enough to tell you what is meant by each such letter.” A pause, then, “I can understand some of the words, but not many.” Another pause, then, “I had a hand in making many of those lecturers leave between two days while I was at the west school.”

“Aye, that is blood-money, all right,” said Matthys. “That stinker Joost has his share 'o that stuff, and he spends it when he buys what he needs.”

“He does not go to commonplace stores to buy things, correct?” I asked. “He turns up missing for a time then, doesn't he?”

“That is probably because he is consorting with witches in one of their hidden places,” said Sarah. “There are many such places in the first kingdom, and I saw several of them explode today.”

“And the three of us nearly got turned to dust when one of those places went up,” said Gilbertus shakily. “All these big smoking and flaming holes as far as an eye can see, witches and dead swine everywhere, a whole big woodlot turned to ash...”

This made for a pause, and I took advantage of it without an instant's hesitation. A ruthlessness I had long suppressed was but starting to reemerge, and in the days ahead, it would grow, and that steadily – and that because the situations that would be put upon me would demand its expression.

“An explanation regarding witch-money, at least regarding how the witches of today regard it,” I murmured. “If you are a witch, the chief matters regarding money is that it have weight appropriate to its 'designated' value – that varies some among witches, just like it did before that long-ago war – that it have the right color – not just that of the metal, but the right color or colors of cursedness – and most importantly, that it shine like a mirror...” I then spat, “the mirror in the hand presents blindness to the enemy, and courage to its user... Gah! That sounds like a bad curse!”

While there was no answer then, I knew I would get one shortly. More, this answer would but confirm and add to my suspicions regarding what I had just said. I then had another matter to speak of.

“Using wooden tongs, compare those witch-coins there with the drawings we have of those that showed outside,” I said. “Notice the similarities and differences – and then, we can get to those leather-bound letters.” A pause, then, “since witches don't listen to words coming from 'Undermen', they'll need to hear the death-song of fire and hot lead so as to scream their hell-bound way straight into the jaws of Brimstone.” Another pause, then, “do we have some of those tongs I spoke of in here?”

“Yes, two pairs,” said Maria as she suddenly showed. “Andreas told me you might be able to translate those letters, but I wonder if you will have the time?”

“He don't need to translate 'em word for word if he can make out what those stinkers was saying,” said Lukas. “Sarah said he could do that, and if that pile of letters is as thick as that satchel there says it is, he don't need to spend much time doin' that to put every stinking king what wants to be a witch in a cage made of forged iron bound up solid with hot-rivets.”

Dead-Iron,” I said. “You know of those terms? Live-Iron, and Dead-Iron?”

“They're commonplace at the higher-schools, even at the west school,” said Hendrik, “but no lecturer I heard or have heard of knew their meaning.” A pause, then, “do you?”

“Live-Iron is more curses than metal,” I spat, “and it only has its own goals in mind, which amount to causing death – and it isn't at all picky as to just who it kills.” A pause, then, “hence, it is so accursed that it needs a strong witch, one stronger than Cardosso, to use it as a weapon – and if you see an old sword, you can stack coin on it being 'Live-Iron'.” A pause, then, “Dead-Iron is the common stuff worked by people like me, and as far as witches is concerned, it too has its uses, that being making live people into 'the food of Brimstone' – and that not by its shape or edge, but because 'it be truly Dead' – which is a line out of that black book, or so I was, uh, informed.”

“But one difference,” said the soft voice. “Ever wonder why witches kill to get blades you make?”

“N-no,” I gasped.

“They think them to be Live-Iron,” said the soft voice. “They've thought that a long time, ever since you first used your first sword, and that 'news' has only spread wider ever since that day.” A pause, then, “and they do not think them normal 'Live-Iron' either, but a type that was utterly destroyed during the drowning here.”

“What?” I gasped. “They think them to be preflood fetishes?”

“Closer than you might think, if you were able to look among those witches who are like the writers of those documents,” said the soft voice. “What you heard from Matthys is but the faint odor of that particular mule – and while Georg has turned down all monetary offers from witches, even ones that would make him a miser ten times over for a single blade, he has yet to face the other side of witch-bribes.”

“I know about those,” said Sarah. “A fowling piece loaded with stiff loads and stiff shot in one hand, and a bulging sack of gold coins in the other.” A pause, then, “good, here is a pair of tongs, and here are my drawings. Lukas, Anna, look over my shoulders, and all of you pray I am not ridden like a smelly mule.”

“There is a definite similarity,” I spat, this from the other side of the table as Sarah handled the smallest of the three most-common coins with the tongs so as to put it close to the drawing of that size of coin. She seemed more than a little afraid of the ruddy silver piece, and I wondered if she could see its reddish flames now. “The ones on the paper here have clear and sharp markings, for the most part, while the witches have polished these here a lot over the years and they used worn molds for their waxes.” A pause, then, “witches have always cast their 'slugs', which means casting coins is a witch-inculcated practice – slow, laborious, tedious, and likely to give nothing but scrap unless everything from beginning to end is done exactly right.”

“How did you know that?” asked Sarah. “Have you done such casting?”

“Yes, some, years before I came here,” I said. “I could not get those stinking castings to come out right, no matter what I did or how carefully I did it.” A pause, then, “parts of most of those castings would come out reasonably well, but every single one of those things I did was a waster.”

“That sounds familiar,” said Lukas. “Most jewelers don't let on much about their scrap pieces, but I know that most of 'em, unless they've been doin' it a long time or are marked, scrap plenty.”

“Or the witches put...” I then nearly screeched. “That's why those stinking things have all of those impurities! They let the witches turn out coins in spite of their 'sloppy' handling!”

“That's not all they do,” said the soft voice. “They also live with one coin in three not passing 'inspection' and needing remelting, and that's so even when they're willing to pass anything that looks 'passable'.” A pause, then, “since non-witch jewelers can't live with any such errors, they have to do everything especially well in order to get some coins that will 'pass muster' among the 'commons'.”

“How many do they scrap, then?” I asked.

“That depends upon the jeweler's shop,” said Sarah. “I doubt Andreas scraps many coins, but he rarely runs those things, while some jewelers down in the fourth kingdom do very well to turn out a dozen coins a week should they run five trees of seven coins each in as many days.”

“Meaning about one coin in three,” I said.

“No, not that,” said Sarah. “I meant they run five trees of seven coins each, and that many trees for each of their five days of work, and they work long and hard to get twelve coins – on a good week, that is.”

“On a bad week they don't finish any coins,” said Lukas. “Those are the bigger shops, and...”

“Bad metal to start with, oxidizing melts, bad wax, rushed work, bad investment, inadequate burnout, too-cold molds, and then no cover flux for their bad crucibles which have poor-fitting lids and no luting – oh, and pouring at too low of a temperature, also.” I then said, “I hope someone wrote all of that down, as until we have a proper means of making coins...”

“What would that be?” asked Hendrik. “The reason coins are cast is because jewelers have the equipment needed, not because it is the best way to make them.”

“He spoke of a better way,” said Sarah, “but it may take some time to get the equipment made and working.”

“And until then?” asked Hendrik?”

“There is much to do before we can make what that equipment will need to make those coins,” said Anna. “That process I spoke of will wish good coin-metal, precisely rolled and otherwise first purified and then properly alloyed, which means first a good job of fire-refining, and then electrolysis before remelting with a small amount of copper.”

“Two to five percent copper, and perhaps a trace of tin,” I said. “The tin causes the stuff to be softer until it's actually struck, and then over a week or so, the metal becomes a lot harder, so it wears well – and these coins will come out as shiny as if they were polished at a soft-cloth buffing wheel loaded carefully with fine green rouge.”

“Quickly, also,” said Sarah. “This equipment will produce more coins in a minute's time than Andreas could do in a week were he to do nothing else, and that working many more hours than his usual.”

Hendrik was stunned by this pronouncement, so much so that he shook his head. He then looked at me, and said, “it would need you doing the planning and everything else of importance, just like everything else I can think of that needs to be done beyond the common, as this is so far beyond me I cannot fathom most of it – and the rest, I wonder about.”

“Wonder about?” I asked.

“I have seen fire-refiners at work,” said Hendrik, “and most of those I saw chanted as if they were witches.”

“Many of them are witches, sir,” said Sarah. “Not only is their metal cursed because of their working it, but it comes out worse than it goes in.”

“Hence a special furnace is needed so as to process 'weight',” I said, “and while I have some ideas regarding this furnace, it will need...”

“Draw it up and provide me with a list,” said Hendrik. “I've heard of some people who know furnaces, and no one comes close to their work that way in the five kingdoms, save perhaps a few in the fourth kingdom's central parts.”

“I told you those people were good,” said Tam. “Now we know we got to redo all of our money, 'cause the witches think they can own us like slaves if we handle their stuff.” A pause, then, “let's see just why they think that's so.”

Hendrik looked in the leather satchel, and then backed away as if it contained an especially treacherous poisonous snake. I came to the bag, told the coins that remained outside to 'get back inside, and then all of you stay clear of my hands' – and with a lurching 'heft', much as if I were lifting a Dietrich-102 anvil, I brought out the tome. The brutal weight of the thing attempted to get away from me as I all-but-dropped it onto the nearest table, and the snapping noise that ensued told me plenty.

“More work for the boatwright's shop,” said Lukas. “That table nearly broke, and I'll stack coin on it being part-rotten.”

“That is a heavy book,” said Anna, “and these tables are not meant to support such weight.”

“That and they're showing their rottenness,” I said softly. “Speaking of rottenness, I think I – or, perhaps we – need to speak of what happened this morning on the way here, as it all fits together like the pieces of a large and complex puzzle.”

“Yes, and we shot lots of witches,” said Hans. “Now what about that first one that Anna spoke of you getting?”

“That man was sent by a high-ranking individual or group of individuals to the south, with the goal of gathering intelligence for the coming witch-invasion.” I then noticed I'd opened the 'tome' and found a 'new-looking' letter, this in blue-black thick ink – lumpy, thick enough that it 'stood up' from the writing surface – writ upon paper that resembled the skin of a just-killed corpse for color and cold-unto-death sensation. I felt reminded of that one witch, the one pinned to that black sandstone block with his witch-dagger made of Live-Iron. “Here, it actually speaks of funding his work... Thirty-four thousand guilders!”

This last came out as a screech.

“That would be sufficient to run the house proper here for several years,” said Hendrik. “Now what else?”

“He was selected... Ooh, this is bad. They used this special ceremony out of a large black book, where the thirteen candidates all did their business in this witch-hole somewhere down in the center of the second kingdom, and he was the only one of those people who survived that lengthy ordeal – which spoke of his 'superior cunning, his great skill, and his vast power in the realms of Brimstone'.” A pause, then, “that meant he could have taught those witches up here who were good at hiding – genuinely good at it, many of which died last, uh, night. The same situation would be the case for causing trouble, and he could have taught them how to do both of those activities easily.

“Then it is good that he is dead,” said Hendrik. “There is more, isn't there?”

“He was tasked explicitly by 'the council of elders'...” I then spat, “council? There's but one stinking elder, and he might listen to those other witches when and if he's inclined, but that one man...”

“Is now, along with the rest of those people spoken of, consuming nothing but those brain-rotting foods,” said the soft voice. “More, he no longer consumes 'oceans of wine'.”

“What does he drink, then?” asked Tam with vehemence.

“Veldter's drain-opener,” I said with a smirk, “or forty-chain, and a jugful a day at the least.” A pause, then, “he's raving out-of-his-stinking-mind drunk, and no one – and I mean no one – thinks his mental capacity to be diminished in the slightest, as that black book speaks of how intoxicated the witches of that day were and how capable they were while immured in that state.”

“They think him a stronger witch, and dare not oppose him,” said Sarah solemnly. She then looked at what I was 'reading', and muttered, “he was not exaggerating at all. You can read this witch-scribbling, and no mistake.”

“Not like I could, uh, read the Veldter's language, dear,” I said. “Much of this I'm discerning on the intentional level – or so it feels like.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “You might not be able to read it well as of yet, but you can read it with a high level of comprehension.”

“Ugh,” I muttered. “Underworld German.” I paused, then said, “oh, here – he was to lead the bulk of the spies coming from the south 'by example by and fiat' – which is what this really strange-looking mark here actually means.”

“That is a secret marking,” said Hendrik, as I put my finger on the mark itself. It then rearranged its tangled mess of lines and angles to show what it in truth was, and I spoke of it then.

“Arranged cunningly so as to be a grouping of runes that function both as a curse and as a 'command-phrase',” I said. “The two meanings conjoined actually 'minted' that witch.” A pause, then, “he was to collect all of the spy-groups' information using the Secret Way as it was both far more secure and faster than anything to be had upon the surface, especially given what he had access to for traveling.”

For some odd reason, I had put strong emphasis on the words 'secret' and 'way', such that had our speech been transcribed, the adjective 'Secret' and the noun 'Way' would have needed capitalization.

“Is this a copy of something mentioned in an old tale?” asked Hendrik. “I could never get anything worthwhile out of a tapestry about what was called 'the Secret Way'.”

“It is likely to be that,” said Sarah, “as the Abbey has an old car that ran such those rails, much like a mining car runs upon the rails of a prosperous mine, and there is a stack of such rails beside it.” Pause, then, “we were told what we found was one type of their vehicles...”

“That was that type, of which they have many copies, with more being made in the fifth kingdom on a regular basis in several witch-run firms,” I said. “There are several types of such vehicles, some of which run at the speed of a postal buggy with a light load and a fresh team, and some which are a good deal faster – and he had access to one of the latter, which meant that not only could he collect his reports quickly, but then he could take his full-written compilation of those reports to his masters to the south in a matter of hours.”

“Which means what?” asked Hendrik.

“Were he still alive,” I said, “he and his immediate crew, then he'd be able to get information on what happened up here – most everywhere in the first kingdom, in fact – by sundown of a given day and deliver it to his leaders in the south by the time the second kingdom house's drudges started their labors the day after.”

“That...”

“Would have given them a huge advantage over us, due to a reliable source of timely and accurate information,” I said, as I began flipping pages to access a slightly earlier entry. “Oh, here, it speaks as to his keys and their age – or rather, their supposed age...”

Supposed age?” asked Hendrik. “How old were they?”

“They were quite old before Cardosso was born,” I said, “which the writer here didn't know. He did know they were old keys, and he did know they were copies – good copies, because all of them actually worked.” A pause. “They may have been 'first' copies – copies done by fairly strong witches, witches who had access to the original keys in some fashion – but they were copies, not the originals; then Cardosso put added curses on those he had, so many of these keys needed a strong witch to be used.”

“And the Secret Way itself?” asked Hendrik. He then came to look at what I was reading.

“I have seen witch-writing before, but that is not how they write it today,” he said. “It tends to go on a great deal while saying nothing, and yet you read this...”

“What you see there is like the witch-writing of old,” said Sarah. “We received a word-book that speaks of what such language means, but I am not sure he needs it to tell you what these stinkers meant.”

“Underground roads, using rails similar to what are found in mines, save wider between the rails and with greater load-bearing capacity for the whole,” I said, regarding 'The Secret Way'. “There are a lot of those roads, they go all over the place in most of the first kingdom and the upper half of the second, and the witches have many vehicles – several types of such vehicles, the slowest of which are significantly faster than the post – to travel upon them.” I then had a question for Hendrik.

“How well did you understand those tapestries that you saw?”

“Poorly enough that I spent hours trying to learn what I could of the smallest of them, and days for most,” he said, “and while I was told I did an excellent job, I knew I had done badly.” A pause, then, “and if I had as much trouble understanding them as I did, then I know why those bagged sets of commentaries are so popular.”

“Well-organized, stated in common-seeming language, margins full of secret markings and strange-looking code-words, and between each 'chapter', there's an added two to five page 'commentary' that's worse than this stuff for understanding... Am I right?”

“That is exactly what I found when I looked at those smelly piles of witch-spewed lies,” said Sarah. “The only part I could not understand were those marginal notes and the comments at the end of each portion.”

“Because, dear,” I said, “those parts were done for bones-holding witches, and had you been a bones-holding witch, both the secret markings and those portions at the rear of each chapter would have 'translated' themselves so you would understand them to a perfection – which means those who only read the regular portions become fully-owned witch-slaves, and if – or rather, when – those fools make their bones, the regular parts become blank and the remaining portions 'decompress' to fill the entirety of those books with the full meanings of all of those tapestries as defined by Brimstone – and hence, when that happens, one goes to one's coven-leader and gets an upgraded black book, depending on just how one's personal witch-screed happens to show forth in one's bought-and-paid-for set.” A pause, then, “and that's for the bagged sets, which sell surprisingly well in every higher school save the west school – and especially at Boermaas, where they're now a required purchase, they or a boxed set.”

“The other type you spoke of cost much more and smell terribly,” said Hendrik – who spoke as if he'd seen them 'close enough to catch their stink', as the saying went.

“Those things are for witches,” said Sarah. “I'd stack coin against them being full of witch-scribbling of one kind or another.”

“They look superficially similar to the bagged ones, at least for their 'commonplace' content,” I said, “but since those things have larger 'commentary' sections and a lot more secret markings in addition to their higher price, the usual result when an owner of a boxed set makes his bones is a large black book, a lot of start-up money, and a sinecure-type 'position' so he can become one of the, uh, Fortune Hundreds' or whatever that type of witch is called outside of the fifth kingdom house.”

“The Black Hundreds,” said Sarah. “The chief difference is their name, as otherwise they look, talk, and act the same, and they're all a pack of lying murderous thieves when they aren't acting like witches.”

“What you first said spoke of witches,” said Lukas. “You mean they ain't acting like witches when they do what they do in plain sight?”

“No,” I said coldly. “They do not own the entirety of the five kingdoms yet, hence they cannot do as the witches of before the war did – which is mentioned at length in the larger black books and other books such witches possess.” A pause, then, “they do that stuff in their places, and there they do as per their inclination of the moment: sacrifices, burnt corpses, long drunken orgies, fights to the death and beyond, drunkenness so total that lesser witches often die and are sacrificed to Brimstone when they 'fail', beat their droves of slaves in time to drummed rhythms so that the screams of the dying provide a devilish serenade fit for the ears of witches...”

Hendrik looked as if about to faint, as did most in the room. Only Sarah stood fast. She then spoke.

“That is much of what they did before the war, and I needed to bathe to see that tapestry while they watched me using special equipment, that and wear their clothing,” she said.

“I n-never saw that one,” said Hendrik.

“You more or less need to be recognized to get inside that place,” I said. “I was told I could see what they have, but finding time for it...”

“Is not going to happen anytime soon,” said Anna. “Someone else might well need to look for you, or you might have to learn what their tapestries speak of by other means, but that information will be of service if it can be gotten.”

An electric hush seemed to gather, even as static seemed to gather my hair and pull it up toward the ceiling, such that once more I felt reminded of Rachel and her using two hands to write mathematical equations and solve them as fast as she could write the answers. Hendrik was trying to read something, mumbling as he did so, then as I flipped through more of the 'greasy feeling' pages of this huge collection of letters, he spat, “one must be a seer to understand this this book I have here, even if I know it has nothing of the witch about it.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Is that one of the manuals we have regarding weapons? The one that gave Sarah a migraine when she attempted to read it?” I'd just used a word that the Gustaaf spoke of and had no speech regarding its meaning. It was probably a special word, one with special meanings, and reserved for witch-use only.

“One needs to be a seer to understand you sometimes,” muttered Hendrik. “There is that word again.” Pause, then, “what is a sear?”

“In that context...” I could hear pages flipping, and I glanced across the room to see Sarah flipping pages maniacally in a huge book parked upon what looked like a sturdy lectern, this with two thickly-hinged all-covering halves flopping down. Each half had multiple hasps for locks, and from two of the five hasps I saw from where I stood, two sturdy-looking key-type locks dangled. Sarah was still flipping pages. I then resumed speaking, now that I had finally seen a Gustaaf 'in the solid', as said the vernacular of the region.

“A sear, when one speaks of a weapon, is a term used by gunsmiths...”

“He would know of it, as he works on those a great deal,” said Anna. “Sarah, I doubt you will find that word in there, as I've seen Hendrik spend hours in that thing more than once.” A pause, then, gently – unusual for Anna, or it would have been prior to her fight with a swarm of witches – “what is a sear?”

“A critical part of a weapon,” I said. “It holds back either a striker, like in those smaller pistols we received, or a hammer, which we have in the larger pistols, the machine pistols, and the rifles.” A pause, then, “the machine guns I've cleaned use hammers also, even if they fire from an open bolt.”

“You lost me entirely,” said Hendrik. “You might understand such matters, but can you read this?”

Here, he handed me a book, and I picked it up. With astonishing rapidity, I read page after page in the 'users' section regarding the type 1116 military rifle, this flipping them at the rate of perhaps one every five to seven seconds. The pages had a fair number of detailed pictures, these intruding into the text on each side, so it was quicker work to read. Still, it wanted multiple readings, with a ledger in hand and a jug of beer nearby, as this book could stand improvement in a number of ways.

“He reads faster than anyone I've ever heard of,” said Sarah, “but...”

“Yes?” I asked, as I looked up. “The Gustaaf? We heard news of it recently, didn't we?” A pause, then, “the only words the witches think fit for us 'Undermen' to use – what they call 'untermenschen' in this batch of letters here, and no, that word is not capitalized...” I paused again. “Capitalization is a great matter in witchdom, as the nouns of witch-language are always capitalized so as to give them greater Power, and nouns referring to lesser beings are never treated with anything remotely approaching 'respect'.”

“We received this very large book having the words of witches,” said Sarah. “It is fully as large as a Gustaaf, and...”

“And we can get the entire list of all of the words overseas,” I murmured. “But one more reason we need to go there, as this batch of letters here... Oh, here's one. It speaks... Oh, my! This was dictated by the sitting king in the fourth kingdom, and he had a lard-slimed elk-leather bag of bones the size of a human skull!”

I could feel the hush descending once more, at least until Hendrik screeched, “what?”

Rigged elections, sir, and that in all five kingdoms,” I said. “Those, witchdom's owning this entire kingdom and the second, both of them entirely, such that it once truly was witch-country, and all of that single district under a single Power, the then-sitting master of all witches in the five kingdoms...” I needed a pause, that to drink. I found a chilled cup of beer handy on a light-laden table, and drank the thing off at a trice.

I was then dosed by Anna, and the clearing of my head was so shocking that I gasped, “what was that in that dropping tube?”

“Some of what Sarah mixed up last night,” said Anna. “The stuff that's close to the bull-formula with some of that tincture for pain mixed in with it.” A pause, then, “a drop or two helps a lot when you're sore from shooting, and seeing you leave piles of brass things like you did out back told me you were most likely still sore, even after rubbing with that jug's Geneva.”

“Piles of brass things that look like brand-new bird-whistles,” said Hendrik. “A noise fit for frightening witches into the jaws of Brimstone, and putting droves of people who wish nothing to do with witchdom into the privy. Then what you have slung about your shoulder in place of your usual weapon, and what Anna seems to be an expert with, and finally...”

Here, Sarah laid a hand-howitzer on his desk, saying, “these pistols may drop big rats quickly, but they will hurt your hands.”

“Hard-witches, also,” I said. “I dropped four witches wearing spam-plate with one, and my hands went numb, just like when I was shooting those stinking dragoons.”

Hendrik shook his head, then said, “I hope we can get word-books fit to use, then, as what you have told me...” Here, he paused, then, “what else is writ in that Tome there regarding witchdom's hold upon our world? What you have told me so far puts everyone sitting in or near a kingdom house in a cage made of forged and hot-riveted iron, and in order to break out of our piled chains, we must give our all, and that without stint or cease until witchdom is no more!”

“Especially given that both the first and second... No, the third kingdom also.” I paused to drink more beer. This was proving to be thirsty work. “The second kingdom house – they call all of those places castles, which means in witch-language 'a place where our will is spoken and those who hear it make it a potent reality, reading our minds to a perfection as is appropriate for obedient slaves' – was designed and mostly built by witches, and this one nearly as much so. The third kingdom house, being older, had its share of witches involved, but those otherwise worked hard at finding them and killing them, and many of the survivors of Cardosso's home died during its building.” A pause, then, “they'd regrouped entirely by the time of the building of that huge witch-warren called the kingdom house proper in the second kingdom, which is a realm entirely owned in full by witches, and...”

Hendrik was shaking, this visibly. “I can call that man to heel with what you just said. You realize that, don't you? If I speak to him of these letters, he will be under my foot, and my foot upon his neck, and the same for any other person who dares oppose the utter and complete destruction of witchdom.” Hendrik paused, then, “and as for you, you are given to the last of the pendants, and hence it makes you...”

“Responsible for this planet, and that in its entirety,” said Anna. “That pile of rubbish probably calls him the fifth witch of a title.”

I flipped back to the 'end' of the book, then stopped at the most-recent letters. Glancing through them showed that I could read this variant of Underworld German fairly readily, and like most witch-rubbish of a similar nature, I would get full understanding 'soon enough'.

“It will happen faster than before,” said the soft voice. “They wrote their words before the Abbey was taken, and those few witches that know of what happened there that still live call you a great many new names – and some of the old names are now believed entirely.”

“The return of the monster,” said Sarah. “I recall reading something in that one tapestry about the pendants...”

“Yes?” asked Anna. “I never have had a chance to read a tapestry, and I hope I get to read some in the future.”

“They're very confusing,” said Hendrik. “Most can only go by the pictures, as their language is most-poor for expression, and their sections do not follow each other at all as a rule...”

“True in all of those ways, save for a very few,” said Sarah. “One needs much time and effort, which is why I often spent days reading them ledger in hand and writing or drawing the whole time, and for every hour I spent looking during the day, I spent another hour upon my knees in prayer at night so as to learn their meaning.”

Hendrik gasped. He had heard something so unusual that he said, “do you have...”

“Not yet, at least those that can be seen,” said Sarah. “They wait to show themselves outwardly, however, and I will become what the witches name a monster before this mess reaches its end.” A pause, then, “he already is named such a being, and not a common one found in the Grim Collection, but that especial one spoken of in the tales of the witches.” Another pause, then, “could someone tell me what I just said? I do not remember a word of it.”

“More evidence,” I said. “I hope it can be written down, and I hope I have time to go over the writing, as the usual that comes from those able to write here will be dismissed as worthless, and if I...”

“If he writes it, it will not be ignored,” said Anna to Hendrik. “Just give him your words, let him use one of those devices available across the sea to write with, and then send that to each of the other four kingdom houses by trusted messenger.” A pause, then, “that will separate the men from the witches. Just you watch.”

Anna gulped her beer, then said, “we killed enough witches coming here to make up a solid black mass of them, and at least one of those stinkers was as hard as they come these days.”

“Did you need to put a third eyehole in his head?” asked Hendrik. “There was one in the fifth kingdom house proper, and he took two balls in the chest and ignored them, and that after wounds that would put a common man on the ground dying.”

Two in the chest, and one in the head,” I muttered. “They have the entirety of that, uh, poem or song or whatever overseas, and we'll start hearing it shortly.” A pause, then, “it might as well be describing the way things were for those marked when this place was called Geeststaat.”

“Which is why you wrote it the way you did after you were dumped on your back by that woman and then cursed at length for your idiocy because you did not read her inclination of the moment, as was appropriate for 'scum' and 'vermin',” said the soft voice. “The witches of Geeststaat were glad they had Bertha and not that woman, as she would have had that fifth title. More, she would have dined on Imhotep and taken over the whole of his vast empire after wiping her mouth with his tooth-ripped clothing.”

“T-tooth-ripped?” I asked.

“Many witches had fangs painted upon their blackened faces, but in truth, they had more or less normal teeth – if you speak of witches before the war,” said the soft voice. “She would have had them in truth had she come here, much as did the arch-witches of the time just prior to the drowning.”

I thought to touch certain of my teeth, much as I had done years prior to coming here before going to the dentist, and nearly screamed at the pain – much as if I'd touched a well-honed fang. I'd had sundry comments made about my teeth long years before coming here, but now... Now they were indeed fit for Dracula.

“What happened to your teeth?” asked Sarah. “Did you break one?”

“He never had normal teeth,” said Anna. “I looked him over carefully after the bridge, and when I saw what he had in his mouth, I nearly fainted.”

“What?” I asked.

“You do not have teeth like most do here,” said Anna. “The ones in front might as well be carpenter's chisels for sharpness, then those that surround them are long pointed things that remind me of the teeth of a scent-hound, and then there were your ears. I had to be most-careful about those, and I'm glad your hair grew back as quickly as it did then.”

“What?” I gasped again.

“I think I know why your hair grew so much recently,” said Anna. “It is not just what is writ in those letters – and yes, you'll need to sit in Hendrik's office a fair amount in the days to come, as that 'letter' that will be sent for the signatures of the kings will both be long and need careful wording, and you'll need to read many of those smelly things in that book there.” A pause, then, “hair hides much, and in your case, it needs to.” Another pause, then, “I hope you can find a small mirror to lend them, at least until they come back to the house here on their return trip.”

“A signal-mirror?” asked Hendrik.

“No, one used for looking into for shaving, if you still need to shave,” said Anna. “You don't need to shave nearly as often as you used to, come to think of it.”

“You're right, he does not,” said Maria, as she showed with a ledger. “It took me some time to get matters ready. Now, this letter that needs writing – will it need writing as if to present to lecturers, or will it need to be better yet?”

“I-I am not sure any more,” said Hendrik. Here, he pointed to what was burdening the table, and watching me as I leafed through it, still looking quickly for what I had been after. I wasn't sure where it was, but I knew it was writ about in here, and in multiple places, no less. “That is a document writ by witches, in witch-language, and I cannot read a word of it.” A pause, then, “no one in this room can – save him.”

“And most witches,” said the soft voice. “Most of those who were once able to read that language have eaten enough brain-rotting foods that they're no longer able to read or write in any language.”

“How...”

The curtain seemed to close, this invisible shroud a delicate haze of electric blue – the color of lightning, lightning as seen here – lightning at once brilliant and violent, lightning that made the dirty stuff where I came from look to be weak and whimpering in its relative impotence. I then had a vague impression of what might happen.

It was going to frighten me greatly, and it was of utmost important to our survival as a people.