This is the kingdom house proper...


We had barely managed a hundred feet further from the house and were moving as fast as we could among running mobs of street-repairers when the witch-house exploded so hard that everyone present – ourselves included – was pelted with showers of coins. I personally was clouted with no less than five gold monster coins, while the yells of Sarah, Annistæ, and Deborah were a near-constant refrain until we had gotten out of the beaten zone of that mess. I was rubbing my head a great deal, and when I looked in my lap, I gasped.

“What are these doing in here?” I asked, as I held up a smaller cloth bag. Its loud clinking aspect spoke volumes to both my ears and mind.

“I think that clouted you on the head,” said Sarah – who was mumbling about wanting to wash her head with Komaet due to the sheer numbers of coins which had landed upon her.

“One good thing about all of those places going up,” said Deborah. She was very sore, if I went by the sound of her voice. “There is enough money in the back of this thing for the two of us to purchase all of what we will need and much more besides, unless this place is as costly as the fourth kingdom.”

“If you know where to go,” said Sarah, “it's about the cheapest place I know of, even in the kingdom house.” Pause, then, “food won't be a problem, not at the house proper, as they serve meals there.”

“I hope they do not serve meats that are High,” said Deborah.

“It's like the fourth kingdom house that way,” said Sarah, “only no one there currently drinks wine as a beverage, Gabriel excepted.”

“He will not be able to do that much longer, dear,” I said. “He doesn't have much left, and getting more is going to be very difficult – at least the type he likes to drink, that is.”

“Which is what – Groessfuetchen?” asked Deborah.

“He tried that once,” said Sarah. “Now, here is a bag. Bag up all the coins you find, and hide them where you can, as I think that started things, but we are a ways from finishing matters.”

“Such as a smaller Norden-pig?” I asked. “Big enough to have tushes started?”

“I hope not,” said Sarah with alarm. “Why, do you propose to shoot it?”

I nodded, then pointed at another witch-house. “El Porko is right in there.”

I was not prepared for Annistæ's reaction: she began giggling.

“What I called that pig?” I asked.

“Yes, that would be a bad-pig, only it is an especially bad one, one with a hard head,” she said. “You will wish those bullets that make holes in hard heads, as what you have is best for things that do not have those.”

I changed magazines, this time making certain I had 'all-purpose' bullets, then with rifle in hand and pointed skyward, I whistled my hardest.

The result was so astonishing I nearly fell off of Jaak: every door, including that doubled example that closed the buggy-way, absolutely erupted pigs, and when I saw that one particular coal-black animal emerge from the wrecked doorway of the house...

Its trotters flailing crazily as it came out the doorway chest-high, its hand-long tushes clacking amid spraying foam boiling from its mouth...

My rifle's front sight centered on the area between the eyes of the pig, and as my finger went into overdrive and the muzzle flashes 'lit up' the pig as it flew, I saw bullets rip gouts of black hair while sending sprays of bone chips flying off of the animal's thick skull. I wondered for a moment if I was actually 'getting somewhere', but as the animal began to descend from its initial bound, a quartet of bullets hit it just behind the skull.

Those made its short bristly hair fly also, but as the animal landed from its initial spring, I saw its front legs abruptly go weak...

Bullets walked their way forward, until one of them centered the animal's left eye, then two more struck the right...

The pig's skull was weakest there, and the trio of tungsten penetrators drilled deep with the remaining fragments of their respective bullets boring relentlessly in after them to scramble the animal's brains. The pig tumbled, then rolled side to side, its forward trotters clutching its aching head as it screamed blue murder. I then carefully aimed for its chest area from the side and front, and fired four more times. Each round blasted hair out of both sides of the animal's chest, and the rapid-spurting thumb-thick streams of blood I saw spoke of both hitting something 'important' and the animal's likely quick demise.

“Karl had best forget about using anything less than one of those big guns on one of those pigs,” I muttered, as I changed magazines and began shooting more pigs, these now the commonplace variety that worked well in manure-piles. The city needed manure badly, even if I wondered more than a little as to what to do with that one jet-black pig I had drilled fifteen or more times with 'armor-piercing' bullets.

The ones I was shooting now usually dropped on the spot if I hit them solid – with one shot per pig.

“Drown that thing in lye and then grind up its bones for case-hardening compound,” I thought. “Annistæ could make chemicals out of that thing once its fat is saponified, and I'll bet the bones those things have contain some unusual ingredients.”

The others were yet busy, however, as they were shooting at every pig that showed itself, or so I thought until Deborah tossed 'something' that smashed through the ground-story window of the 'pig-house' with a rending crash. A second, perhaps two – and then a blinding explosion turned the entire place into a blazing inferno instantly amid the screaming of witches and yet-to-emerge pigs.

“What was that thing you just tossed?” yelled Sarah. She was still shooting pigs when and as they showed, even if the locals were beginning to 'join in the fun' now that they'd recovered from the initial shock of having a well-stocked piggery in the middle of town. It made for wondering on my part as to just how the witches could transport 'dozens' of such pigs in this area without being caught.

“One of those strange-colored bombs,” yelled Deborah. “If that place has witches, they should enjoy their burn-pile now, they and their slimy pigs.”

As if to prove Deborah wrong, a screaming two-legged torch ran out of the building, and she dropped him with a single shot from a machine pistol, his head jerking back suddenly as she hit him in the forehead to spray burning brains out of the back of his skull. He now lay out in his sooty yard among the corpses of at least a dozen pigs, his flames growing steadily higher and smokier; and a peculiar chemical odor, one which I had never smelled before, invaded my nostrils.

“What is that smell?” I asked.

“That is what happens when a witch catches several sizable fragments of one of those 'firebombs',” said the soft voice. “The other witches are still inside, and all of them are burning like that man there.”

“He's burning all right,” said Deborah. “It's been a long time since I've seen a burn-pile, and I hope I do not have nightmares from seeing that witch burn like that.”

“Non, me too,” said Annistæ. “Cabroni are full of dung, so they need to be buried in dung so one can get use out of them...” A pause, then a sudden wild burst of fire from the machine gun that had me leaping off of Jaak and making the buggy in a single lengthy across-the-street bound.

“What was that?” I gasped, as I picked up the broom once more, its still-warm 'barrel' now once more finding the sweet spot in my armpit. Sore or not, I was not about to let witches cause trouble now.

As if tell me otherwise, here came an obvious coach some two hundreds yards distant and gaining fast, and I pivoted, going to my knees as I did so, then leaned into the gun as I fired a long howling burst that cut the mules down like a scythe from Hell and then blew the coach apart in a fiery blast that sent more money flying like rain. I tossed the broom back in the buggy, and ran toward Jaak as Sarah sought to outrun another huge shower of more 'deadly' gold monster coins.

“Let your money fly like rain,” I muttered, as I leaped aboard Jaak. “Bullets? They don't hold a candle to gold monster coins when those things are flying, and the silver pieces aren't much better, ouch!”

I was not the only person yelling 'ouch', and I was all-too-inclined to let the rest of the swine run around and find the rest of the witches. After all, if there were witches in the area, the pigs would find them, and there were lots of people in town with muskets who could turn the witches into lead-mines.

“At least they can do that if those stinkers aren't wearing plate,” I thought, as I saw black-cloth in my peripheral vision and snap-shot at a running witch. The distinct clank I heard as he tumbled and fell spoke of him wearing 'picked' pieces of looted 'tin'. I paused at the intersection of the two streets as the buggy rolled past heading north-northeast, its horses lathered yet still pulling hard.

Only another mile to go, but it promised to feel more like twenty – twenty miles of the fifth kingdom house's bad sections. That was my thinking, at least until the witch I had shot began smoking. Jaak wheeled, and I was glad he did a second later when the witch detonated like a box of dynamite and sent more money flying, this starting the enraged screams of a fast-brewing mob amid the crashes and tinkles of shop-windows shattering.

“Suicide-bomber witches?” I thought.

“No, but that one should have known not to carry his matches in the same pocket with three fused sticks of dynamite,” said the soft voice. “He fell, the matches caught fire, the fuses lit – hence the smoke – and when that dynamite went up, it set off the three bottles of smelly distillate he had in one of his other pockets.”

“And sent his money flying like rain,” I muttered. “At least I didn't get thumped by any of it.”

“No, but a lot of shopkeepers have broken windows, between the blast and his flying coinage,” said the soft voice. “That mob is going to be quite a bit larger than the earlier one today, as news has gotten out about the place being packed full of witches again.”

“And we started things up good-and-proper, also,” I said – as a pig ran across the road and my rifle tracked it until it ran into the open door of a house. I sent three rapid shots in the door after it, and the resulting dire screams were only exceeded by the sudden blinding-light-disintegration of the house and the two next to it simultaneously crumpling and then igniting – to then burn explosively to each side of the gone-to-kindling place that had blown up.

“There goes that shop,” said Sarah a minute later, once we were heading north-northeast along Kokstraat. “This area ahead shouldn't have many witches in it, and we will turn onto a road that runs parallel to Houtlaan in a short while.”

“Shouldn't, she says,” I muttered. “What, do I need to spray half the houses in town with the broom to get people to wake up here also?”

Deborah suddenly looked at me, then faster than I could follow, she picked up the 'weapon' in question and pointed it at a house. There was only one thing that surprised me more.

The broom roared, this in a stuttering staccato rattle that shattered the first story window and blasted sizable holes clean through the witch-laid stone walls, then as she let up, the house began smoking, this thick, dark, and black amid billows of deep red-tinged yellow flames.

“I would hurry, as she has started something in that place,” said Annistæ. “That one had Cabroni in it, I could feel them.”

My hand suddenly closed about that one odd cylindrical 'thing' that had showed, and I glanced at it briefly. Its bright green exterior and red 'warning' named it a bomb of some kind, and pulling the pin with my teeth had a peculiarly satisfying sensation.

Only tossing it into that one smoking house though the window-hole felt better.

“You'd best hurry,” said the soft voice. “You just really started something.”

Jaak needed no urging from me, and neither did Sarah; her team gave its all, but a few seconds later, a blast so massive I went deaf instantly blew me off of Jaak and onto the cobbles to tumble and roll as the money began once more flying like rain.

I ran for the fleeing horses, then leaped back upon Jaak as Sarah's team was now trying their hardest to gallop up Kokstraat, while the money...

That stuff was still coming down thick and hard, and there was a lot of it yet to fall down out of the sky.

“What did I do?” I gasped.

“That house was situated on top of a run of the secret way, and much of the still-coined money of the Swartsburg was bagged up on the ground-floor ready to go down the hole and onto a quartet of 'heavy' handcars for shipment to a hiding place selected weeks ago,” said the soft voice. “The common scavengers may have been gathering plenty of money in that place, but for every coin and melted mass of gold and silver they found, the yet-living witches of the area found at least five.” Pause, then, “now they and their money are out in plain sight.”

“They..?”

I stopped, for here, I saw the ripped-to-shreds corpse of a black-dressed witch, his face greased a glossy black mingled with red-dripping rents where something had 'gotten onto him'. He'd been tossed nearly a hundred yards by a blast of such intensity that all of the houses he and his compatriots had taken over were either flattened or now burning fiercely, and when I turned back to look as the money finally stopped falling about us, I saw a thick black column of smoke amid blazing fires fueled by distillate and burning wood.

“Good Lord, what did those people have there?”

“A great deal of some older off-brand mining dynamite that they were hoping to sell to other witches,” said the soft voice. “Of course, if you put a 'squib' like that one on top of one of their boxes, that distillate-augmented blast is going to be very powerful – and 'that money is going to fly like rain'.”

“I'm going to need to bathe myself in Geneva,” I muttered. “I've got lumps and bruises all over me, and all three of the ladies are most likely worse that way.”

“Yes, that is true,” said Annistæ. “We also have two bags full of coins in here, and are filling two more right now, so we will have plenty for setting up a laboratory and living quarters in this place you spoke of.”

“And laundry soap,” said Deborah. “And clothing...” A pause, then, “didn't you say that place had lots of old clothing?” This last to Sarah.

“It does,” she said, “but you will wish your underclothing to be of new stuff, as what little underclothing I have seen in those piles has looked to be ready to start feeling buggy, if it was not already in that condition.”

“Little?” I gasped. “There might be one piece in a whole bag of clothes!”

“That is what I meant,” said Sarah dryly. “Now I hope we do not run into more witches, as those...”

Faint echoing volleys of musketry rang out somewhere to our rear, and as I turned, I saw a coach trying to escape an infuriated mob. I turned, aimed deliberately at the box just under where the coachman was, and fired once.

The coach blew up so hard that the thing disintegrated and sent many of the mob's people flying to land and then slide on the cobbles – and then they were pelted with money. I could hear their yelling, faint and insistent.

“Enjoy it,” I muttered. “Broken windows are not cheap to fix, and you-all probably could use a bit of cash right now.”

“That, and then contribute toward the subscriptions you'll need to help write out upon your return,” said the soft voice. “This is but a taste of 'hard rain' composed of gold and silver, and the money you've 'redistributed' today will help make the town solvent again.”

“Solvent?” I asked.

“Robbery by witches, extortion by witches, 'usury' by witches, hostile takeovers by witches, and then witches demanding ten guilders worth of goods and services and paying perhaps two guilders – when they didn't reward good and faithful service with a load of stiff shot in the chest at powder-burn range.” The soft voice had but seldom sounded so 'hard' and 'cold' before – and then, I knew. That was but a taste of what I would both hear and endure.

“Hear, yes,” said the soft voice. “What you endure, and what others endure – those will be two utterly different things.” Pause. “Until the very last, though, many will think what you endure to be very easy compared to their loads, but they will eventually know the truth to be entirely otherwise.”

“I suspect them to be grossly wrong if they believe that, and I barely know the smell of that mule,” said Sarah. “Now, if you two have things for the ears, you will wish to have them handy, as we're getting close to Houtlaan, and their lathes are most likely at full screech.”

“When did we make the first turn, and then the second?”

“You were too busy shooting witches and getting blown up to notice much else,” said Deborah in a distinctively wry voice. “I never saw someone get blown off of a horse by an exploding pack of witches and their things before, but now I have seen it, so if anyone asks about why you want Geneva for rubbing, I can tell them what happened to you.”

“I feel sore enough to want that stuff we brought earlier today, and by tonight, Komaet itself, spewing and all,” I muttered – as a faint screaming chorus began to pound upon my mind. “Time for the earplugs, as calling Houtlaan what Sarah named it is calling it wondrous – and it is not that in the slightest.”

“Ai, I know,” said Annistæ, who then began looking in her bag. She drew something out quickly, much as if she were expecting a hoard of small and irritating red insects to attempt to 'journey to the center of her mind' via her ears. “Here, Deborah. One in each ear. You will need them, as I have heard these animals before, and those tormenting them are worse than Cabroni out of our old tales.” She then wrinkled her nose.

“That is naftá I smell,” she said, as she inserted her earplugs, then helped Deborah with hers. “I know just what to do with it should I get my hands on some, also.”

“What?” squeaked Deborah. “Do you plan on setting Houtlaan alight?”

“Non!” she yelled. “I wish to dose those animals with it, so they will be silent! They scream worse than a bad-pig with three bullets in its hindquarters!”

As Houtlaan and its squalling hoards of marmots – I now wanted several jugs of distillate also, though my thoughts were more along the lines of 'drive off the marmots, and then set fire to the lathes they were driving' – receded behind us, I felt better; but only once we were well and truly within sight of the kingdom house proper did I feel both relieved enough to not worry overmuch about witches trying to cause trouble.

I was proven wrong, as the bodies were being picked over by a small hoard of raggedly-dressed individuals, and the clinking I heard spoke of every single witch having at least ten to twenty guilders in coin upon his person.

“Try adding a zero on the end for most of those people,” said the soft voice. “More, because they were given 'commonplace' coins and not those polished fit for witches, Hendrik now has three years of operating money where he had one before.”

“Three?” I asked.

“At five times the usual rate of expenditure,” said the soft voice. “It costs money to turn a place intended to be a drafty 'castle' into something closer to a modern hospital.”

, that is right,” said Annistæ. “A good place like that needs a big laboratory with much equipment, as one must make a great many medicines, and that is if they are to be given by mouth. If one must make them fit for emergencies, then one must make them specially – and I have made that kind of medicine before.”

“Oh, what kind?” I asked.

“That for pain, and the type that must precede it, as one does not wish injured people to act as if they were about to be eaten by that smelly lizard,” she said. “They talk of things that lizard wants no part of, but I have heard many of them scream as if they would rather have its teeth in them instead.”

“Before being dosed, or...” I gulped.

“Ai, that and after, if the special drug is not given first,” said Annistæ. “The usual is to mingle them, if a drug for pain is to be given for emergencies, with the jæriquilla having a separation inside it so that the special drug that prevents torment goes into the blood first, and then the drug for pain.” A pause, then, “that one medicine I was given earlier acts much like it, though what I was given is slower to act and not quite as strong.”

“But I put plenty of the bull formula in that tincture,” said Sarah.

“I might try starting with that drug, if you have enough of it,” said Annistæ. “Now this is a large dwelling, one fit for two large settlements where I came from, if not three of them. What is its name?”

“The house proper,” said Sarah – who then realized her 'error'. “It does not have a name, at least none that I know of.”

“That's because you've not gone into that Tome much,” said the soft voice. “All five kingdom houses have their names written in there, both the names to be used by witches and the names to be used by slaves.”

“That is...” Deborah sounded perplexed indeed. “Slaves?” she squeaked.

“Yes, that is what Cabroni do, is they buy and keep others,” said Annistæ. “I turned loose three pens of such people on my way up here, and guided those people to shelter so those Cabroni would not keep them any longer.”

“You what?” I gasped. We were now well within sight of the gate, and here, I was glad to see three guards on duty. More, all of them were toting thimble-ignition weapons of one kind or another. Flint-ignition weapons seemed deprecated, now that their gross unreliability had become 'manifested'.

“Did more witches show?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, several,” said Mathias. “I saw them, and I wished I knew how to shoot one of those things that sound like tearing tapestry cloth, as I could have gotten the lot and not just the one.”

“No, you do not wish to know about those things, not unless you enjoy shooting things that kick worse than roers, and do that all of an entire day,” said Deborah in a most-chastened voice. “I shot that thing once, and I want my uncle's Geneva for rubbing, I'm so sore from it.” A pause, then, “I'll bet he needs to bathe in that stuff, as I saw him do that several times, and then he was tossed onto the cobbles from that horse he rides when a witch-house went up!”

The mere thought of bathing in Komaet made for nausea, and before I could catch it, I spewed – hard – and the projectile squirt of green fluid shot off into the air to suddenly vanish.

“No, I think not,” said Deborah – who now sounded as if she were very frightened. “You'd best stay clear of the wrong foods and lye, as I've only seen one other person spew like that, and I helped bury him not two days later.”

“They will not be burying him,” said Mathias. “I am not sure about how I know that, but they will not be doing that.”

“Burn, possibly, but not bury,” I muttered.

“They have tried that already,” said Mathias. “You got out of the three biggest burn-piles anyone I know of has ever spoken of, and you were not touched by the flames – and that is here, not where you came from.” A pause, then, “now what was that white thing that could have passed for a mobile burn-pile, and why did you go back inside that flaming oven after that woman's shoes?”

The silence that then descended was of such a profound nature that none of us seemed to breathe until after we had gone a hundred feet past the gate, and then Sarah shook her head. “I can tell him why you would do such a thing, but I doubt he would believe me – as he did not see Iggy, nor did he endure his flaming.” Pause. “I did.”

“Nor did he go inside the cellar,” I muttered. “He would have enjoyed that, I suspect.”

“He would have been turned into a cinder, also,” said the soft voice. “He's endured his share, or so he currently thinks – but he will endure far more in the months to come. Then he will not speak of you or anyone else who spewed green like you did in such a manner.”

“He is no Brujé,” said Annistæ in a most-serious voice. She sounded a lot like Anna did when she was in 'lecturing' mode. “You are very ill, and I can say that, as I have worked much with such people, even if I do not have their training.”

“You do have a great deal more training than most medical people in this area,” said the soft voice. “At least you can use the right equipment and have a good idea as to what is needed to prevent and cure a great many endemic illnesses common to this region – and that over what you were taught as a soldier.” Pause, then, “those 'Cabroni' have so enslaved the minds of most people in this area that they are as ignorant of such matters as if they were indeed 'bad-pigs' and not people.”

“I'm not sure what words witches use for those not as they are who are not like me,” I said, as I dismounted and removed the blanket from Jaak's back to then hang it out to dry on the 'hitching rail', “but in the minds of most witches, calling most non-witches 'bad-pigs' is an insult to one of their preferred meals.”

As we went inside – I could not feel any witches nearby, and more, I knew about the horse-barn's grooms and how they now kept every weapon they had full-loaded and ready to hand – I remarked, “oh, we had best get the carts out so as to unload that buggy – or should we?”

“I think some of what it has should come in,” said Sarah, “but I know we want to take two machine pistols over to Willem's, and we will wish some things for Paul and Esther.”

“And a lighter load, as we really will need to make time, dear,” I said. I then stopped my words, for wordlessly, here came Karl, followed by Sepp – and both of them preceded by Anna, who looked me over and said, “you'll need rubbing before you go back out. I'm glad I've brought some of that other Geneva as well as what I gave Sarah.”

Komaet?” I gasped.

“That is a good name for it, as one spews as if one of those things was roosting in your mouth,” said Sepp with a grin. “Now I hope we can carry enough of it with us on that trip, as there was talk of enough gunfire and explosions in the house recently to make me think the Swartsburg had come again.”

“No, not that place,” said Sarah over her shoulder. “We did deal with a great many witches, and there are mobs on the hunt for the rest of them.”

“If there are any more of those stinkers,” I muttered. “I think we might have gotten a good portion of the worst ones.”

“You mean 'you got most of the ones able to do much',” said the soft voice. “While there are witches remaining, the fact that their leaders were killed to the last man means that now they are not only panicked, but also those pigs you turned loose are rooting out the witches as fast as the pigs can find them.”

“They will become mines for lead,” said Deborah. “Now I smell cherries, and I hope I can get some cherry jam on toasted bread.”

“T-toasted bread?” I asked.

“She's as bad as Karl is for fry-breads, if you should speak of toasted bread,” said Sarah. “I might like honey on my bread, and that toasted or otherwise, but if she smells bread being put to a fryer, she will be on it quickly, and wish to devour that bread.”

“Yes, with cherry jam smeared on top of it,” said Deborah. “I was red-faced from such jam all the time once I got my first taste of it when I was small, and not having it for so long has made me...”

Here, Deborah stopped in mid-stride, turned about slowly, then pointed – at a certain door, this with an accuracy at once astonishing and uncanny. She turned her head, then, without sound, mouthed the words: “who is that stinker of a witch?”

“That would be Gabriel, and he smells of both dung and rotten eggs, and I helped put the eggs to him earlier today,” said Sarah. “He should be entirely without his hair by now, as Dennis put a whole basket of eggs onto his head.”

“How did you do that?” asked Deborah. “I have put rotten eggs to witches before, but not a whole basket of them, as I could not throw long enough.”

“He came in and slammed that basket down on his head while he was drunk with wine,” said Sarah. “Now, Annistæ, if you see a tall thin...”

“Cé, he is inclined to become a Cabroné,” said Annistæ. “If he should turn his way toward that smelly lizard, I will shoot him and put his dead head on his chest so the other Cabroni that he speaks to will know that he is dead and can no longer help them do what they wish.”

“His dead head?” I asked.

“Cé, one puts a piece of this smelly root in his mouth after cutting off his head, so as to keep his head from speaking to them,” said Annistæ. “I was told of this by a priest, and once I did that to Cabroni, I had much less trouble with whites trying to get their revenge upon me for killing their mules.”

“Krokus,” I spat – though it was all I could do to not laugh at the idea of putting 'garlic' in the mouths of witches, as if ever I had heard of 'rank superstition', I was hearing it now – even if the person who told me spoke from experience and not hearsay. “I've heard it poisons them, actually.”

“It does a lot more than that,” said the soft voice. “You may have learned of a field-expedient way of silencing witches when you 'plugged' those traitors, but you may wish to keep a vial or two of macerated Krokus in mind for dosing any future witches you need to silence.”

“Silence?” I gasped.

“Krokus may be a potent-tasting spice to non-witches, at least if consumed in small amounts, but it might as well be compared to a fresh batch of Hans' arsenic when it comes to witches – and that in terms of its physical effects.” Pause, then, “its spiritual effects... Those are in an entirely different league.” Another pause, then, “recall some bad horror movies from your childhood, about how 'garlic' would affect certain 'witches'? 'Witches' named undead, who were prone to nocturnal activity?”

I nodded, understanding 'Vampires' were being spoken of. In the past, I had thought them entirely artifacts of fiction, but that was where I came from. Here...

“Witches do drink blood, so I guess it makes them somewhat similar,” I thought. I then noticed just where we were.

We were close to the fold in the hallway leading to Hendrik's office, and by the sounds of speech that I could hear, we would need to give accounts of what had happened in the last hour or two at the least – and in my case, I would need to endure what rubbing I could, as 'sore' was no word for how I currently felt, and the day was still yet early. That quantity and quality of 'sore' was not a good idea for a day that would involve such labors as I would need to do.

“Think of something having a similar quality,” said the soft voice, “only the quantity of such effects is so much greater that it defies any sort of comparison whatsoever.” Pause, then, “why do you think that material is so hard to get up here?”

“The witches control the market?” I asked, as we passed through the fold. I could hear – or, perhaps, feel – the cart being unloaded.

“Directly, no,” said the soft voice. “Raising that plant, outside of a very few locations, is a most-hazardous occupation if there are any witches in the area.”

“The witches tend to go after such people as if they were marked,” muttered Sarah. “Now this is the king's office, and I think we are expected.” Here, Sarah tapped four times, this in a distinct rhythm, three quick taps and a somewhat louder one at the end. She'd never done that before, to the best of my knowledge.

“Andreas' summons?” I asked.

“I've known of it for years,” said Sarah. “I learned it in the orchestra, as did Anna, and witches don't go to those things.”

“They don't go openly, you mean,” I said. “The plain-dressed ones might do so, but not for the pleasure of listening to music – even if I would go for that reason.”

“Why do they go, then?” asked Sarah. I could hear steps coming quickly, these light and rapid. I suspected Maria to be their source.

“To either poison the musicians, or to gather 'dirt' on them so as to brew mobs up and kill them that way,” I said. “That, and among certain witches, saying they've been to the orchestra is good for bragging rights.”

“Only if one or more musicians have quit or become ill after their attendance,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, attending such affairs is thought a total waste of a witch's valuable time – and the same for anyone remotely interested in becoming a witch.”

The door then opened, and to my complete astonishment, Maria showed. She looked distinctly worried, and beckoned the four of us inside.

“No one can come up with any ideas,” she whispered. “None beyond the commonplace, at least in my hearing.”

“What?” I gasped. “Is there a fetish hid in here?”

The silence that came down was so total that I stood rooted to the floor as if a tree, then suddenly, as if 'guided', I strode rapidly to a large and ancient-looking book. I took this book out, holding it by its binding, and shook the thing vigorously.

A blood-red piece of cloth came fluttering out, and as I slammed the book back into the shelf and the cloth fell to the floor, I yelled, “leave, and don't cause us trouble!”

The strobe-flashing explosion tossed me nearly the length of the the room to roll and tumble to within touching distance of Hendrik's feet, and when I looked up at him with stunned eyes, he shook his head. I then staggered to my feet, wobbling in place for a second, then shook my head to clear it. I was a bit shaken up by being 'blown up'.

“Now I know why Anna brought two jugs of Geneva,” he muttered. “How many times did you get tossed while clearing the Abbey?”

“Many times, sir,” said Sarah. “I was tossed a number of times myself, and more than once at the Abbey, I was nearly scattered by charges of dynamite, as was he.”

“Then neither of you need speak a single oath when you two are married,” said Hendrik. “I've seen what the two of you can do – and now, I know he'll never let you down, as I just saw him get tossed far enough to make most men turn and run, and he's done nothing of the sort!”

“No, he will not do that,” said Annistæ gently. “He could teach those men of the Mule how to fight, as I saw him do it myself, and...”

“And what?” asked Maria gently. “You were burned, weren't you?”

“Yes, but in this land it is reckoned to be the sign of a Cabroné,” said Annistæ, “as is missing fingers and toes that happen when one labors to save the lives of others, and much else that is good is named as being wrong, and this book here says it is wrong to do that.” Here, she brandished her example of the book. Her clothing now caught my eye in a way it had not done beforehand.

“Is that burn-clothing?” I whispered.

“That is what it looks like, if it is from the fourth kingdom,” whispered Sarah. “Anna might speak more on the matter when she shows, but she's not made that stuff.” Pause. “I have.”

“Perhaps she will not need to wear it in her, uh, rooms in here,” I said.

“Once she has proper clothing to wear, I suspect so,” said Sarah. “She may have trouble finding some, as much of the old clothing we have here is for men, and not women.”

“Yes, but there are women tailors here,” I said with a grin. “Use Anna's measurements for a pattern, only draw the waist in perhaps an inch at the narrowest point, slightly longer sleeves, and the shoulders a trifle wider for the upper garments, and, uh, some soft slippers with padding in the bottoms for her feet so they don't hurt so much walking on these floors – oh, and emphasize warmth over concealment, with perhaps a small pocket-insert for one of our little 'pop-guns'.” I said this last with a 'smirk' of sorts.

As if to announce her arrival, the door tapped once, and I pointed to it. It swung open to show Anna – who stood just inside the doorway, this in such complete shock that she clapped her hands over her mouth and her eyes went to 'saucer' status. Her machine-pistol hung on its strap.

“Yes?” I asked, speaking to Anna. “Her name is very similar to yours, dear – and you two have very similar personalities, given the differences as to your work and where you were raised, respectively.”

“In your language, my name would be Anna,” said Annistæ. “It is spelled differently, and pronounced differently, but I can teach you my speech if you will teach me what you know of yours.”

“I n-need to learn y-your s-speech, as we have medicines from the V-Valley, and...”

“Bring them to me, and I can tell you of them,” said Annistæ. “There is a chemist-place here, and that man there” – here, she pointed to Hans – “needs to learn to do his business rightly, so he does not bathe himself in soot so much.”

“I thought so,” said Andreas. “Now that we have a real chemist on hand, and...” Here, he came up to Deborah, then said, “your hands, dear?”

She held them up palms forward. I could see some definite sore areas, and I wondered if the tools she had been using recently were like those clumsy horrors I had worked over for another jeweler. I wondered if she wished a similar set, only done from scratch using metal from our latest batches of tool-steel.

“At least I have decent tools,” said Andreas, “and if I do not have the tools I need, then he” – here, he pointed to me – “can make what I need, and that quickly.”

“How could you tell I had to work with tools that were worse than useless?” asked Deborah tiredly.

“The markings on your hands,” said Andreas. “If I go by what I have seen on Hendrik's desk, then I would say you could equal me at carving wax, if not best me.” A pause, then, “did you carve wax much before those people grabbed you and locked you up like a deep-slave?”

“A little,” she said. “I was working...” Pause, then, “what did you call me?”

“An accurate description of those wine-soaked people and how they were mistreating you,” said Anna, who then motioned to me while speaking to another. “Karl, a stool. I'm going to need to rub his sore spots, what of them I can reach easily, and we'll want at least two buckets, one for each of us doing the rubbing, and one for him.”

“Why is it you want buckets?” asked Hendrik – who then shook his head. “Why did I ask, now that I can think again?”

“I can tell you what that question might be,” said Anna emphatically. “He got tossed again, didn't he?”

“He did,” said Maria. “Something exploded near the far bookcases, and it was nearly as bad as some of these round bombs made of ink-globes.”

“That was a bad fetish,” spat Anna. “Where was it?”

“In one of the Annals,” said Hendrik. “I haven't looked in that one in some months.”

“Then who was in here...” I nearly laughed. “I know just how it got in that volume. Recall this one particular clerk – the one you thought 'better', that clerk you trusted with the 'hard' work because he could do it better and faster than the others?”

Hendrik nodded.

“That man was a genuine-article witch, complete with a sizable library of highly-prized witch-books and a large blood-inked black book – and he got that fetish from, uh, his handlers at Norden.”

“Correct about all save the actual source of the fetish itself,” said the soft voice. “That fetish was one of Cardosso's personal 'rags', and the witches who used to be in General's Row received it from points south and sent it via two layers of intermediaries to that one Thinker – and then he gave it to that one man, who put it in that book when he was copying information out of it for Hendrik's use.”

Rags?” I asked. “Cardosso used rags? What kind of a fetish was that thing?”

“A most-tricky specimen, one that lay in wait like a Death-Adder so as to cause trouble when it could be least endured,” said the soft voice. “More, it was an especially 'clever' fetish, as its effects were very difficult to separate out from the more or less normal 'mental fog' caused by centuries of witch-indoctrination.”

“Hence you should be able to understand those plans a bit better now, now that that piece of lying curse-writ rubbish is gone where it belongs,” I murmured to those examining that 'monstrous' book showing the Abbey's construction-plans.

I now had to lay down, this in a far corner of the office, one well out of the more-concentrated light near Hendrik's desk. While Sarah covered me mostly with a sheet, Anna needed to rub me all over my body with a small 'sponge' damp with 'Komaet', and between spewings and attempted spewings, Anna mentioned that this particular jug had been 'donated' from the man who'd purchased that one 'old' type distillery I had made. More, further donations of a similar sort would be coming in the future, as there had been talk of the Abbey down in the potato country, and some people who lived there were planning on heading up this way so as to add their most-capable labors 'for the duration'.

“Blech,” I said, as I tried to not vomit and could not hold what I had in my stomach down – it escaped, and that as a projectile stream, one tinged deeply with green. “They know what awaits them if the witches win, so it's better to do without an income for a season or two and come back to a new world rather than see the place go entirely to Hell.”

“I think s-so,” said Sarah – who then spewed. “This stuff should be called spew-maker.”

“That is why it is named Komaet,” said Anna. “I had this strange dream about this stuff recently, and in it, some children spoke of some stuff of that name turning one's teeth green, then tasting like light distillate, and finally, how it made one spew – and how one needed to get some and then spew quickly.” Anna then did the last mentioned act, and finished with, “given how it works on risings and bruises, I'll gladly spew a dozen times a day.”

“Once we are done with this, then there are places I must show my cousin and that chemist,” said Sarah, who then tried to spew and made choking noises instead. “We can come by the office afterward, but we must be brief indeed, as there is a thread-seller's place that needs to be dealt with, then several matters that demand we go to Ploetzee, and then a very long and rapid ride cross-country to the Abbey, and then visiting Willem's location and one near it to drop off a stolen buggy and team – and we will be doing some shooting, also.”

“How will we get home, dear?” I asked. “Jaak might carry the two of us, but still, that is one long ride, and it's not wise right now to have him sore from carrying more than is good.”

“I think Paul might run you two back in his buggy,” said Anna. “Now for that part that is covered by your trousers. Sarah, cover him carefully, as if anyone's more sensitive than you are about not being clothed, it's him.”

A minute later, I was laying on the floor mostly covered, while my legs were carefully scrubbed and looked over one at a time with the rest of me covered. More than once, I felt something being 'removed' from either the back of my leg – or in several instances, my posterior.

“Good thing we found some tailor's antiseptic last night,” said Anna. “This splinter here would normally need opening the skin, but it's coming out as I watch.”

“Shot, Anna,” said Sarah. “He caught some shot from somewhere recently.”

“I doubt he caught it today,” said Anna. “That stuff there is bad enough that I think it's been in his hide for months and is finally coming out.”

“Non,” said Annistæ. “That shot I have seen before, and it is special shot, shot dipped in the blood of swine, dried slowly in damp rooms without light, and then sewn into thin leather pouches for loading in muzzle-loading guns.”

“Blood-shot?” I gasped.

“In your case, the stuff had lost almost all of its potency by the time that witch had shot at you,” said the soft voice. “It was done badly in the first place, so it wasn't that potent to start with.” Pause, then, “it was not done in the usual places where blood-shot is done down in the second kingdom, and it definitely was not done by Madame Curoue.”

“I have heard of that Cabroné, and I am glad she is dead,” said Annistæ. “There were tales about her in my area, and there were three stacks of coin for her head.”

“Head?” I asked, between attempts to not vomit.

“Cé,” she said. “If one kills a Cabroné, one must cut off the head and put a piece of that root in it, and then take the head in so as to show others, so that everyone who fights Cabroni knows that that Cabroné is dead, and will stay that way.”

“Spike that head on a pole?” I asked.

“That I saw done here too,” said Annistæ. “There were many such goat-trees, though it is usual for there just to be the head put on the rows of them that mark places where no Cabroné must go.” Pause, then, “Ai, that stuff makes there me sick, even if I must learn to make it, as it makes injuries vanish before my eyes.”

“It smells much like my uncle's Geneva, though it is much worse for causing illness,” said Deborah as she slowly wobbled over. “I think I want some tweezers like those you have there...” Here, Deborah turned and spewed loudly as she went to her knees, then gasped out a few words between attempts to repeat her latest action. “At least I put most of it in a bucket.”

“Good that you did not get it on him,” muttered Anna. “Now, cover him entirely, and let him roll over. We need to look at his front side.”

Most of the front side, Anna,” said Sarah. “If he's worse that way than I, then there is one area you do not wish to try to look...”

“I know about that place,” said Anna, “and he's a lot worse than you about that, dear. About the only time I was able to look there was when he was so deeply asleep he might as well have been dosed fit for setting a badly broken bone, one with its broken ends such that they protrude from the skin.”

“If you must do that again, then you need a Téatré, one with the right equipment, and two or more Brujé so as to do that work,” said Annistæ. “I am not certain I can set one up here.”

“No, but those across the sea will do so,” said Anna – who then asked, “how did I know that?”

“I think it is one of your toes,” said Annistæ. “A stinky Cabroné removed it, as he could not curse you when he died, so he did that instead.” Pause, then, “there, that place. Put a small pin there, as that is some of that bad shot and the wound is trying to close.”

“It is?” asked Anna. “What did they shoot him with?”

“Some bad shot,” said Sarah. “That, and I think whoever did this stuff used very bad shot to start with, as that type of shot has a much rougher surface, so it is harder for it to come out.”

“Hot water, then,” I said. “Anna does not have shot-drawing...”

“I figured that, as she dare not take that stuff any distance without the rest of her things – at least yet,” said Maria. “Here, use this.”

A soothing warmth seemed to spread out from a place in the small of my back, and as a soft cloth came up from the place, Anna gasped, then I felt a faint tickle. “It came right out.”

“Were there time to bathe him, you'd probably not need to pull that shot,” said Maria, “and could he answer questions while in that state, then Hendrik and I would be asking them – at least, if we needed to ask questions.”

“Needed to?” I asked.

“I'm definitely not a builder,” said Maria, “but now even I can follow much of these plans, and they're so unlike those of this building I would guess the latter to be drawn up by a pack of witches.”

“They more or less were, dear,” I spat, as the rubbing with Komaet resumed. “They started with those of the second kingdom house proper, then made them just enough different to fool anyone who wasn't intimately familiar with building practices as done in the fourth kingdom – and no, I do not mean 'Malodorous Jochen', but some of those people that just got up here from the fourth kingdom.”

“Who is this person you speak of?” asked Annistæ.

“Someone who knows much more about quarrying stone and laying the same for houses than he does about proper meals and bathing,” said Anna. “I've a mind to put soap to him myself, and not just on his hide after dousing him with hot water, but in his mouth also, as he has a mouth as bad as any witch I've ever heard of.”

“He is Cabroné?” asked Annistæ. “Does he have a great beard, like some few people to the north of El Vallyé who fumé?”

“They what?” asked Anna.

“They suck on weeds, Anna,” said Sarah. “That is what she meant.”

“They have large b-beards?” I asked.

“They are the only ones who can manage such beards,” said Annistæ. “Only Cabroni can grow beards more than the width of their hands, and most cannot do half of that.”

“Most people in El Vallyé, or in general?” I asked.

“Most people there cannot manage beards of length more than the width of a finger,” said Annistæ. “Such hair on the face causes much illness if it is hot, as then the skin becomes red and filled with Infeaccæoné.” Pause, then, “it is cooler here, so one can grow them a bit longer, if one is careful and washes well there, though I have seen more hair on the upper lip of men who mine.”

“That spot has less oil-glands,” I said. “Those become plugged and cause the Infeaccæoné, as the hair covers them too thickly, and then if one's diet is less than good, that makes it worse yet.”

“Cé, that is true,” said Annistæ. “He does not eat swine, does he?”

“With him, who knows?” said Anna – who then spoke to me specifically. “You need some clean clothing, as what you were wearing looked like you had been rolled in the mud some.”

“He was rolled in the mud, Anna,” said Sarah. “He was blown off of Jaak by a witch-house exploding, and I wore coins in my hair, and...”

“You'll wish rubbing also, I expect,” said Anna. “Soon as he's dressed and out from under those sheets, then he can go explain those plans and answer questions while the three of us look you over.” Pause, then, “I can take my time, relatively speaking, with the two of them – as I can tell they're sore also, and the best place to take her measurements is in here where she's safe.”

“They can use yours, Anna, with but a few small changes,” said Sarah, as she passed me a set of fresh mottled green clothing – clothing I had once thought of as forest-type camouflage. Now, I wondered if it made me look like a two-legged hornet, given how I sometimes behaved – and indeed, had behaved thus far today. “These are new ones, just made, and have been washed carefully three times.”

“Washed three times?” I asked, as I began putting them on while still covered by the sheet. I was glad they had included fresh underwear, this obviously done by Sarah. That clothing felt delightful.

“Yes, because your skin is so sensitive,” said Anna. “I've told them that, and it took Hendrik speaking on the matter for them to believe me.”

“They have not read many old tales, then,” said Sarah, “nor have they been in the fourth kingdom, nor have they bathed themselves in icy water rather than be dirty.”

“Not merely that,” said Anna. “His skin, Sarah. You know how sensitive his hands are? He's that way everywhere.”

“His hands are sensitive,” said Deborah matter-of-factly. “Does he pick locks also?”

“No, and he doesn't need to,” said Anna. “I've seen or heard about most locks opening by him either touching them or speaking to them, and then he has a special key, one which you must not speak about to anyone who is not in this room right now.” Pause, then, “that key is a very special one, and he's the only one who can touch it safely.”

“What would it do to someone like me?” asked Deborah.

“I doubt it would turn you into dust,” said Sarah, “but I do not doubt it would warn you off at the least, as I've seen that key – both seen it glow, and seen it work, and there is no lock made by man or witch that can endure it, and that no matter where that lock might happen to be, either here or elsewhere.”

“It opens them?” asked Deborah.

“That, or it destroys them,” said Sarah. “If the lock is cursed, it usually falls to pieces amid clouds of dirt and rust.” Pause, then, “I saw it do that to a lock cursed by the Mistress of the North, and that key broke it and sent its pieces to the floor.”

“Good, then,” said Hendrik. “That answered one chief question I had, as there are certain regions specified on this plan here...”

I was at Hendrik's side, then said pointed to one of the spots. “Electronic access codes will needed for those locations. Those are intended to be especially secure regions, as what happens in those places must not have witches get ahold of it.”

“As they will take it, or..?”

“They will attempt its destruction, sir,” I said, “and its undisturbed production will a requisite to our survival as a people.”

“Then these numbers here?” asked Hendrik. “Thus far, I have seen several of them, with 'five' being fairly common and only a few places showing 'one'.”

“Higher security clearances for lower numbers,” I said. “Two, or perhaps three – those numbers most likely means you either have to be marked, or something similar, while the one level...”

“You, and you alone,” said the soft voice. “At least at first, those places will be far too dangerous for anyone other than you yourself to go into – and those parts will be the most critical ones on this continent.” Pause, then, “they may well be the most crucial ones on the planet, at least prior to the breaking of the Curse entirely.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because that's where you'll learn how circuit fabrication from designs to finished devices is done here, among other matters,” said the soft voice. “You might well need to be the first in those places, and for quite some time, the only one permitted in those areas, but there will be others later who can be trusted to go into such rooms as that one and do useful work.”

“And otherwise?” I asked.

“You do not wish to have a large portion of the building be destroyed, do you?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “Recall those pictures you saw regarding what semiconductors can do here if mishandled?” Pause, then, “be glad you'll merely need to make the first examples and generate the production coding to make them there, as from that point on, they can be readily made in quantity on the machinery that will be then present at the Abbey.”

Hendrik went to another section, this dealing with the building's main structure. While poured concrete – wire-reinforced, this with a welded 'crinkly' species of twisted square-section wire specified as 'four-millimeter' thickness, with such 'blankets' being between the width of my hand and several times that, depending on the wall-thickness – was quite commonplace, stone blocks were the usual means of building walls, though these blocks were of uniform size and 'keyed' into one another regarding their mortar surfaces.

That wasn't was was 'bothering' him. What was 'getting to him' was the seeming need for a vast number of thin metallic rods, these varying from eight to twelve millimeters in diameter, and the need to drill holes in the stone blocks so as to pass them. These rods were especially critical for flooring sections on the many floors that would be present in the new section of the Abbey, and the walls needed their share also – due to the size of the building, and also something else of great importance that I had no knowledge of at this time.

“How will we get such metal?” he asked. “There are no facilities on the continent that can make that many of them that quickly, and even I can tell they are not to be of commonplace metal, but of something you've only begun to make in small amounts.”

“Firstly, those bars will need to be cast in billets and then rolled to size,” I said, “with a near-round contour, one that twists slightly and has these spiral indentations for the mortar to grab onto. Then, that metal... They'll need doing overseas, either that or they'll need equipment made overseas and brought here, and I hope we can make enough of them to build that place in the time we have allotted to us”

“They can make that material readily, and more, they have a lot of it already made in those sizes,” said the soft voice. “They have, or can quickly make, all of the needed supplies that are called out for in those plans.” Pause, then, “the reason those bars are to be used so commonly is what can and does often happen to buildings when they are that size should they spend non-trivial amounts of 'time' in altered realities.”

What?” gasped Hendrik. “What..?”

“Recall what would happen when we were heading back and I was needing to use the pendant?” I asked. “That thing effectively alters, uh, space.” A pause, then, “there's something else that happens, or is going to happen, to that place for a few months this fall, one where we'll have enough time to both build those things we need to fight a full-scale war with that witch to the north and then clear out every single witch on the planet – and in the process of doing so, we will clear out every trace of witch-thinking present in those who endure the life of that location in time and space – as no witch that has ever walked the surface of this or any other world could survive such an environment for very long, and witch-thinking dies as well, as it does not work in a place like that.” Pause, then, “I might well have to teach people how to endure it, as I've lived something like it for most of my life.”

I then muttered something about first real numbers, then imaginary numbers – those numbers signified by the operator 'j' – and finally those numbers that existed to describe space and time during the transition from 'normal' space to that special realm of unreality, those being complex numbers – a mingling of real and imaginary qualities in the numerical realm.

I had always wondered why such numbers were 'called' imaginary, when the result of ignoring them in one's calculations was usually a lot of trouble, which was anything but imaginary. Reactive numbers – as in complex numbers described impedances, which tended toward reactive behavior as a function of changing frequency – was a more-descriptive term.

For some reason, I could clearly hear the words that went with such thinking: “just ask the Axis.”

“Now you have lost me, and that completely,” said Hendrik. “Numbers are numbers, aren't they?”

“You've been taught just enough mathematics to think that you understand 'sums',” said Sarah, “as what tends to happen to those not marked should they go beyond the mathematics taught at the west school is that they invariably turn witch, which is why those instrument-makers that are worth the bother are almost always marked – and they alone are taught what is truly 'real' mathematics.” Pause, then, “everyone else, even those at the west school, is taught what is needed to be a fit witch-puppet.”

“What?” asked Hendrik. “Sums are not witchcraft – or are they?”

“They're not intended to be, but it seems there's a big group of curses...”

“No, not those,” said the soft voice. “There are no curses on mathematics.” Pause, then, “there are curses on people's thinking, and while almost all of those curses are currently 'manifested', as per the descriptions in that letter-collection, there are a few curses extant that literally do make people stupid – and they'll need to be broken entirely to unleash the planet and its people, as your speaking of the three basic types of dimensional numbers are what is needed to understand a key portion of time-and-space manipulation.”

“Faster-than-light travel, also,” I murmured. “We'll need to do that to entirely break the curse in the time we have remaining unto us, as conventional modes of travel would consign us all to the belly of Brimstone as the planet falls out of time and space and becomes conjoined to Hell.”

A pause, then, “Hell is described in four-space by imaginary numbers only, while Heaven is entirely real in all of its dimensions. Its location on the time axis is at zero, hence time effectively does not exist there, and Hell is much the same way in regards to where it is located on the time axis – though its axes are, uh, imaginary.” Another pause, then, “I know that does not make sense, but I have been there, and the place seemed real enough to me – utterly real, and altogether solid. No filmy white shapes in that place.”

“Yes, that part makes sense,” said Hendrik – who then looked at me and said, “real? How did you mean the use of this word in regards to numbers?”

“Normal space is described, by, uh, complex numbers, only the complex aspect is very small on this planet right now,” I said. “Heaven has nothing imaginary about it, hence we 'see' it and all that pertains to it 'through a glass darkly' at this time, but once there, 'we shall see, and that face-to-face' – as then, there will not be any of the pollution of Hell present to obscure who and what we will then see.” A pause, then, “however, to get there, we'll need to do a number of things, which means that sizable addition to the Abbey must be done in a very few months, rather than the usual timeframe of 'tens of years' appropriate for the largest building to be done on the continent since that war long ago.”

“He's right, Hendrik,” said Anna. “I'm glad I brought this jug, even if I've spewed three times already, as this stuff makes bruises vanish so quickly it needs to be part of every household while we are to be fighting wars against witchdom.”

“M-months?” asked Hendrik.

“Why, did you think to let the witches command you how to behave as if you were a witch-puppet?” asked Anna pointedly. “They've spent hundreds of years tying strings to our minds and bodies so that we dance their tunes whenever they've a mind to play them, and that only, and now we have a chance to cut those accursed strings and do what God wishes, instead of serving Brimstone in this world and giving him meals in Hell when we die.”

“It seems that that is all I know,” said Hendrik. “I had thought myself free, but now – I might as well name myself a fully-owned witch-slave, one who lives but for one thing, that being to serve witches until they deign to let me make my bones and become a witch myself, and then serve Brimstone until I feed him where he sits and eats.”

“Good that you admitted it,” said Anna. “Now hope and pray you do not need to eat grass in Hell like I did, as I truly doubt you will enjoy it.” Pause, then, “neither Hans nor I found the experience pleasant.” Anna then looked at me. “If you wish to know what the place looks like from another standpoint, then ask him – as he's spent time there twice dealing with the things that live there.”

“Yes, after you put two full tubes of the bull formula and several drops of that used for pain,” said Sarah. “I did not see that part as he did, but I saw what he did in a dream, and I woke up screaming and needed dosing so as to not live the rest of my life in a rest-house.”

“When?” I asked.

“You were too tired, and I think you had had your own dose earlier, now that I think about it,” said Anna. “I had to dose her with that special medicine she made up, and I hope I can make more of it tonight, as most people think swine are too bad for words – and they who think that have heads that are filled with witch-dung.”

“This summer will cure them of that,” I muttered. “Norden wishes to train as many thugs as they can for the big invasion, and the same for their pigs, as Ultima Thule has been getting a good deal of advice on the matter.”

“Those Thinkers she has?” asked Hendrik.

“Not merely them,” I said. “Some of those 'in charge' overseas have been contributing a great deal of equipment, ideas, advice, and God only knows what else – so there needs to be a bit of, uh, 'regime-change' in that place.”

“What?” asked Hendrik.

“We are going to take that place,” said Sarah, her voice cold as ice from where she lay under the cover, “as that place is like a huge den of slaves, and those blue-suited thugs act enough like fifth kingdom mining town thugs that we need to put hot lead and cold steel into every one of them we happen to see.”

“And arm the citizenry as best we can,” I said. “A disarmed populace is far more susceptible to coercion, hence one of the first things the current leadership did long ago was make the possession of anything that could be used as a weapon a matter of summary execution, this done in public by means of the most cruel and vicious torture they could manage so as to terrorize the populace into becoming slaves.”

“When they did not simply grab the person and sacrifice them,” said the soft voice. “There was another faction of that secret establishment – some of its leaders, to be precise – who were most-serious witches, and a few of them were of the level of the Mistress of the North, including the person who actually led the takeover plot and made it succeed in spite of all done to prevent it.”

“And now, back to these plans,” I said. “This building didn't use metal for reinforcement, because it was built using a layered construction, with an outer layer of thick stone blocks tied together in many places to the inner 'appearance' layer. Then, they just used a lot of stone, and finally, it isn't going up six or seven hundred feet into the air to match the height of the Abbey.” A pause, then, “I've done enough exploring in this place to know it could stand some serious work on both its water piping and its other piping – almost all of it was badly done by a pack of witches who did things by chants rather than care and knowledge.”

“It is a wonder the building endures, then,” said Maria softly. “Still, though, I suspect you are right, because I did my exploring of this place while at the west school, then some few times since living here.”

“As in you know where the musket rack is?” I asked.

“I could go there blindfolded at a run, as I've practiced doing that many times,” said Maria. “Just the same, I think I'll carry one of those weapons Anna seems to have an attachment to, as I've seen what it does to witches.”

“You did?” I gasped. “How?”

“The corpses, when they were being stripped of their clothing,” said Maria. “What you shoot might produce more-severe wounds, but these people had holes going in the size of a pistol's ball, like the ones you work on, and a hole coming out like that of a roer.”

“They were close, though,” said Anna.

“Most shots in the house will be close ones,” said Maria. “Those people dropped on the spot, if what I was told is truthful.”

“They did go down quickly,” I said. “Now, this portion here. This is for running a network... Oh, my. This thing's really got a big network – lots of cables, vast numbers of computers, and... N-no RF links?”

“Not as a rule, at least in the fashion you are thinking of,” said the soft voice. “They've learned the hard way about those across the sea, and hence you'll wish to have all computers you use have that portion removed so you cannot be readily tracked down by functionaries.” A pause, then, “the new ones will not have that circuitry in their cases, even if they will be able to communicate to each other readily without using wires to connect them.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because there will be no room for the usual circuitry,” said the soft voice. “That species of computer I just spoke of is what is needed to provide adequate 'assistance' – and you will have a crucial part in their development.” Pause, then, “recall that female voice you heard in your head during that dream of a 'wearable intensive care environment'?”

I nodded, this silently.

“Recall how I spoke of computers responding to voice commands in the future?” asked the soft voice. “You've heard equipment talk many times – mindless talk, but talk nonetheless.” Pause, then, “the talk you heard in that dream was anything but mindless.”

“She almost sounded like this, uh, doctor,” I thought.

“True, she did,” said the soft voice. “That was done deliberately, both in your dream and long ago in the past.” I then had a question for Hendrik, who was once more poring over the plans.

“How long were they building this house, and how large was the crew of laborers?”

“Nearly eight years,” said Hendrik. “I could understand it taking that long if many of the workers were witches or supplicants, but I've seen sizable buildings go up in the fourth kingdom in days.”

“Hence we need the outer structure of the place done, but we can do most of the real work inside during that period of individual days being stretched into a month or more.” A pause, then, “how many people worked on this house?”

“That depended upon what was happening in the area,” said Hendrik – who implied that he wasn't terribly sure of the numbers involved. Most likely, it was either not written down or was written so badly it might as well have been a 'paean to Brimstone' writ in the archaic form of Underworld German. “Planting, most of those workers would tend their fields, and the same for harvest, then during winter little happened save to those locations that were out of the wind, snow, and rain.”

“Tricky to lay mortar in cold weather, I suspect,” I said. “Now even if we have ten people for each one then, and few if any witches...” I paused, then said, “those that continued working that whole time were both the leaders and to a man serious witches or supplicants, and they worked while drunk as stinkers when and if they could get away with it.”

“They did that,” said Sarah. “Come, we must show those two their rooms and what hiding places we can while Hans and Anna look for clothing they might wear, and then we must select what weapons we are likely to wish for a long and dangerous trip.”

“Enough squibs, especially,” I said with a wry chuckle. “I have no idea how I had that many of those things, save 'the lord will provide' – and it seems he did.”

“You will need to speak of those 'squibs' when you give lecture tomorrow,” said Hendrik, as the four of us 'shot' out of the door and 'hied' ourselves for the back stairs. While not running, we most definitely did not waste a second's time, and when Deborah spoke between I and Sarah's commentary about what to expect in the near future and where to hide, she spoke of the situation we had left behind us.

“He thinks you're the only one who can see how that place might be built that quickly,” she said. “He's not seen fourth kingdom builders work much.”

“Yes, and I have seen my countrymen work also,” said Annistæ. “They are not known for wasting time, and they are most familiar with such work, those of them who do it.”

“I know we have at least a handful of masons in the area,” I muttered. “Now, I suspect I'm going to have to toss a lot of information at him so he isn't kept up at night with worry.” Pause, then, “about all he can see is 'toss a huge number of people at the project', 'cause that's what witch-thinking says to do, and that might get the job done – in twenty years.” This last was nearly spat out.

“And done badly in the bargain,” said Sarah, who then pointed down the south-running hallway we were passing. “There is a privy back that way, as well as Gabriel's old office. He'll have a new one soon, though where that will be is yet a mystery.”

“Uh, I may have to, uh, f-find it for him,” I said. “That, or have him sleep in his current one on a cot, at least until I can find one suited for him and his work.”

“There, you just solved that problem, at least for now,” said Sarah as she walked quickly. I was her second, my rifle slung, but I kept my hand near my possible bag and its silenced pistol. “Now these are the back stairs, and that long row of currently-unoccupied rooms we passed on the way to Hendrik's office used to be called General's Row.”

Deborah giggled – much like a schoolgirl, though Sarah sometimes giggled in much the same way – then said, “I've heard of those stinkers, and how they were always causing a row.”

“How?” I asked.

“Oh, I'm not terribly sure,” she said. “I noticed that man Gabriel, and that not by smell, so I suspected the same source at that time.” Pause. “I quietly asked that man named Hans while you were being scrubbed and I wasn't trying to fill a pail with vomit, and he told me something about them – that, and how more like them will show 'between two days'.”

“We must put traps in that place, then,” said Annistæ. “I was said to be good at doing such things in my town.”

“Chemists tend to be,” said Sarah, as we began to climb the stairs. “Now, you.” She meant me. “Do you have any kind of ideas for Hendrik so he's not going to gnaw his way through the inside of his stomach?”

“An ulcer?” I asked. “Milk is not to be had, and...”

“He would do better with Vlai,” said Sarah. “That might keep him in better health, and I will mention that, but still, he will need an answer to getting that building done, as even those of the fourth kingdom would have trouble with that size of building, and every day must count toward its building.”

“Assembly-line techniques,” I murmured. “Special tools, multiple overlapping shifts – four of them, each one no more than eight hours so people can do their best... A rotating guard to keep witches out of the area...”

“They will try to cause trouble,” said Sarah. “Now there is more, isn't there?”

“A lot of imported equipment from across the sea,” I said. “Stone saws, stone 'pointers' for surfacing blocks so the mortar can grab it better, stone-grinders for the floors, lime-kilns...”

“We can make those, but they're slow, I suspect, at least compared to those you spoke of,” said Sarah – who then nearly let out a screech. “Those people where we're going! They've built lots of huge things over the years.”

“True, they have,” said the soft voice. “It may have taken them 'a ten-year' to do so, but they built a huge underground interconnected grid of 'cities' able to more or less withstand heavy attack.”

“More or less?” I asked. “Some got, uh, caved in?”

“Some of the earliest-built ones, yes,” said the soft voice. “Those were built relatively shallow using open-pit techniques, as those were 'camouflage' for the real work – and the real work stood up to nearly everything the enemy threw at it.” Pause, then, “the only way the witches could hit things then was toss vast numbers of heavy weapons at suspected sites and hope one of their bombs or missiles flew down a camouflaged air-shaft – which actually happened a number of times.”

“And the current air-shafts of that type?” I asked.

“Have been closed off for a very long time, as those in charge realized that was the chief region of vulnerability after a few such hits,” said the soft voice. “They then went to the back side of their current area and put in a lot of new ones but a foot or two above the surface of the water – and then used those holes for air replenishment.”

“Small well-camouflaged holes under rocky overhangs, at least then,” I said.

“Most of those air-shafts still exist, save those in use at this time are a good bit larger and the fans inside them are far more efficient, so the place has good air,” said the soft voice. “The only trouble is that those in charge run that air through chillers so as to 'dehydrate' it, then deliberately spray moisture back into it so as to 'clean it of pathogens'.”

“So it's nearly a hundred percent humidity, and just above freezing,” I muttered.

“And is also full of the leadership's pathogens, most of which are in dormant states just waiting for a suitable host,” said the soft voice. “The air filters in that place have been turned off for quite a number of years.”

“Centralized control of everything, no doubt,” I muttered, as we passed the third floor landing and continued on upward. We were now heading into territory I had never gone before. Sarah was speaking of good hiding places in the region we had just passed, but for some reason, Deborah said, “the floor we are going to has better places and more of them, doesn't it?”

“I...” Sarah paused, then moved faster in her climbing of the stairs. “It does, now that I think about it, and the only people that go up this high in the building are guards now and then, them and a few cleaners when they can be spared for the upper floors.”

“Witches think there's nothing up there but dust and rats and rags and old furniture,” I muttered. “How wrong they are – correct?”

“Wait until you see that suite of rooms,” said the soft voice. “You've not been in there, and it's been years since Sarah visited that area.”

“Filthy as all get out,” I muttered. “Dust, dirt, grime, dead rats, rubbish – go find some witches and bother them.”

Faintly, a rumbling just above our heads grew into first a roar, then a shrill scream as if a jet engine were on the loose, and as we reached the fourth floor landing, the change in Sarah's features was such that she was shaking like a leaf.

“There was more dust and dirt here when I last came up this way, and that was when they were cleaning it better than they now manage.”

“More witch-inculcated rubbish, no doubt” I muttered. “Now stay clean long enough to give these ladies a chance to establish themselves, and then I'll most likely need to teach those cleaners how to labor.”

“You might not be good at cleaning, but I doubt I know anyone who beats you on how to labor,” said Sarah. “You...” A pause, this blink-of-eye-quick, then, “Esther. She needs to teach them. They'll do three days worth of work in one then.”

“You understated the case, as that will but complete what your husband-to-be just did,” said the soft voice. “He did not just send dust, dirt, dead rats, and a great deal of other rubbish into a second-kingdom witch-enclave.” Pause, then, “he also sent them the hundreds of fetishes laid on all of the floors of the house proper by witches over the years so as to keep this region for their use.”

“They never used this area, though,” I murmured.

“True, but they did wish to have it for themselves, and have it to themselves alone,” said the soft voice. “Recall that statement 'if we cannot have it, and that for ourselves alone, then no one must have it' – a phrase straight out of that black book?” Pause, then, “they hid large numbers of fetishes on every floor, it's just that the effects upon the cleaners currently hired were sufficient to make them 'very slow' and 'very stupid' – and now those fetishes are gone.”

“Hence they will get more done as it is now,” said Sarah, as she led off. Here there was another advantage: before, the place was dusty enough to show anyone with eyes in their head just who had gone here and where they had gone. Now, with its newly spotless floors that were totally dust-free, there was no way we could be tracked by such means.

“Here, or anywhere else in the building, at least for several weeks,” said the soft voice. “The two of you, once you see these rooms, will wish to come down to Hendrik's office to be looked over and measured for clothing, but in the meantime while the cleaners are told off to search the house-grounds on hands and knees to find every coin that got tossed, you'll do well to explore when and where you can – as Dennis' map doesn't cover the whole building – yet.”

“Oh, that's right,” I said. “I have one that covers much of the kingdom house, but the one I've drawn up for this place...”

“When next you see those maps, wipe both of them,” said the soft voice, “and then have them fill those pages in overseas once you-all 'take' the place. Then both sets of maps will be far more detailed than they would be otherwise, and totally 'inaccessible' to witches.”

“How will they be so?” asked Deborah – who then looked at the nearest source of light. “Good, that is a thick wax candle I see here, and I can see a great many more of them.”

“What?” screeched Sarah.

“The sconces all have thick wax candles in them,” said Deborah as she pointed out another one, this thing the size of a road flare for length and easily two inches in diameter, “and then there's a good-sized bag tied below each of the sconces.” Here, she paused to feel one of the bags. “I'd guess there's easily eight or ten candles like that one in that bag, and if they're like that one there, they're good for at least a day's steady burning, if not two or three.”

“We will wish lanterns like those that are common where I once lived,” said Annistæ. “Those give decent light, better than these candles, and they are safer than anything that does not wish current.”

“Current?” I asked. “Electric lighting?”

“Cé,” she said. “Those are not common where I came from, but my laboratory had a number of them, all of them using these accumuladoræ that I had made and filled with treated sulfur-acid.” Pause, then, “I used these long rolled copper strips plated with tin, and I ran them where I needed to have them over the benches. The accumuladoræ were all in their usual room, along with the jeniradoré and its fuel.”

“Didn't those things smell terribly?” asked Sarah.

“Non, as I had done the acid,” said Annistæ. “It must be done specially if one wishes to use it in an accumuladoré, as common acid of that kind works poorly in such things, and the stink it gives calls flies like dead meat.”

“This one chemical she made...”

“If it involved the common acid and the alkoli used for making drain opener, it does not call flies, not like sulfur-acid of the common sort put to lead in accumuladoræ,” said Annistæ. “Those need pure lead, also, as bad lead poisons the acid, and then one must punch small holes in the lead sheets and put the right chemicals in each of those poles before rolling them up with cloth of glass for an insulation.”

“And you have made those more or less from scratch,” I murmured appreciatively. “Now here, we must be careful, as whoever did this, uh, path presumed there might be an attack and made it readily defended.”

“This route to those rooms, yes,” said the soft voice. “The 'main' entrance has two layers of doors and its own guard-room – and in the past, when there were house chemists, this location was guarded much like Hendrik's door is now.”

“Not enough guards until...”

“Until you start training them,” said the soft voice. “That one man will have his head handed to him on a tinned copper serving platter if he doesn't copy everything you do down to the last thing, as Hendrik has told him that sword-in-hand.”

“He'd best plot his escape, then,” I murmured, “as he's not going to be able to pull that off unless I go after him and shoot him in the leg or something similar.”

“Shoot him in the head and be done with that wretch,” said Sarah. “We were told he wishes to be a witch, and while witches are not willing to accept him now, they most assuredly will wish to later when their numbers are depleted.”

“He will not live that long,” said the soft voice. “If he does not give up on the matter entirely in short order, he'll die before Harvest Day.”

“Hence we must tell that stinker,” I muttered, as I took the lead ahead of Sarah. I had such an absolute sense of surety as to where I was going that when I doffed my pack and pulled out first one of the 'tent lanterns', then one of the two 'battery torches', I handed the first to Annistæ. I was not prepared for what she did next.

“Ai!” she shrieked excitedly. “This is one like they have where I had my chemistry teaching, only it is yet better.” She turned to me, then asked, “these do not need to be run on tracks, but can be hung wherever one needs them.”

“One of the few places in the house where they'll be safe to use,” I said. “Now – here, I turned on the other light – “follow me. This will show a good deal, as until we can get some UV-proof glass panes for those candle lanterns...”

I then had a question: “could that, uh, glass convert that UV into the visual spectrum?”

“That type is currently unavailable,” said the soft voice. “Once the place doesn't have functionaries guarding the machines that generate that type of 'glass', then you can get as many panes of it as you want, almost.”

“And what will happen, beyond a bit more light and no more eye-burning tendencies?” I asked.

“Try more like 'triple the light output' as well as a variable spectrum,” said the soft voice. “You could ask them to give the light output spectra of a tallow candle, in which case you could use them where witches were present.”

“Good, then I will ask for some of that kind,” said Sarah. “We'll wish some that give a more whitish light for places where witches cannot see readily, but then they'll work for places like the kitchen and parlor.”

I had continued on in my walk through a seeming maze of narrow hallways, these with seeming dead-ends all over the place. It seemed made for surprise attacks and trapping, and when I came to an obvious locked door, I brought out the key instead of asking the door to unlock.

“Is that door trapped?” asked Sarah in alarm.

“I am not sure, but I do not want to take chances,” I said. “Everyone, behind me, low to the ground, and...”

“Ai, it is trapped,” said Annistæ. “It may have one of those shortened muskets of large bore some Cabroni use for close work.”

Hearing that definitely 'put the wind up my tail', as I knew about there being at least one well-executed gun-trap in the house proper, and I hoped there would be but little need for using that room save as a place to store 'witch-gear' prior to analysis and possible 'recycling'. I wondered for an instant as to the need to do the latter when I realized we would soon be in contact with people who were absolute masters of such labors, as they had had to be for many hundreds of years.

“That's one of the reasons why they put up with that rubbish so long,” I muttered. “Very subtle – disguise propaganda as if it were a requirement, and it seems all too plausible because in truth, it is a requirement there – while over here, the witches didn't have to play such games. They just went for the jugular and taught us to be fully-owned witch-slaves and waste everything we possibly could so as to be just like they are.”

“And have a strong impetus to actually become witches, as 'waste means want, and want wishes money' – and you know where the love of money leads, both here and where you come from.”

“It's the root of all kinds of evil,” I spluttered. “Now this hallway here is most likely trapped, though how it's trapped beyond a gun of some kind is used...” A question: “Is this thing loaded?”

“No, but it is well-coated with torment-grease,” said the soft voice. “It's a twelve-bore boarding musket with a specially modified barrel.”

“Then it would do execution, and that greatly,” said Sarah. “What did he mean by a 'specially modified barrel'?'

“Shortened, perhaps?” I asked. “Perhaps a flared muzzle, one done with a file so it makes the, uh, cut-shot spread really fast?”

“It also puts a wicked spin on that cut-shot, so it tears up anything within ten paces really bad,” said the soft voice. “I would keep that idea in mind, and I would examine this gun if you can before you sail.” Pause, then, “you don't have time to look at it today beyond noting just where it is and the fact that it isn't currently loaded.”

“Probably makes a good burglar alarm,” I muttered.

“I think so,” said Deborah. “I can think of other things that would work well, also, as you spoke of that rigging knife and what you cut up with it.”

“You wish some?” I asked. “Even though it smells awful and gives bad headaches?”

“Yes, if you can spare it, that and some caps and fuse,” said Deborah. “I dare say I can locate shot, or possibly some old type and make cut-shot, and I have done things with shot, dynamite, and old jam-tins.”

“Really got to those witches, didn't it?” I asked, as

“I wasn't around to find out,” said Deborah. “I was far enough away that I scarcely heard it explode when it went off.” Pause, then, “we turn here, and that boarding musket is on the right about four feet in.”

“A narrow slot for it, covered by old cloth, and this back route deliberately darkened?” I asked, as I shined my light on the cloth in question. “Oh, there's the hole for the trip-wire.” I then giggled.

“Yes?” asked Deborah. “Do you plan on substituting something like a fowling piece for that huge gun?”

“No, but I do know of wire that will work especially well to replace the fishing string they used to use,” I said. “As for the boarding musket – perhaps go through it and, uh, rework it once the grease is removed.”

“Is this bad grease?” asked Annistæ.

“It is that,” said Sarah. “Why?”

“There are types of grease that make me scream as if I am on fire and burning,” said Annistæ, “and that type smells like one of the worst of them.” Pause, then, “it may protect things good, but I must wear special gloves to handle it, and then use a parts-washer cabinet to get that stuff off of it.”

“Using Benzina, correct?” I asked.

“That is when it is very old and has rust because it was badly applied,” said Annistæ. “There is a much safer material that is made from that bad-smelling stuff fit for silencing those animals that scream, and it works well for dirt, oil, and grease – and it is nowhere near as bad for fires or sickness.” A pause, then, “both types of cleaner want a proper cabinet, with a pump, heater, and closures that work.”

“Might be a bit hard right now,” I said.

“Yes, right now,” said the soft voice. “They have those kinds of parts-cleaners in storage overseas, and will bring several of them over in the first shipments.”

“Can we copy their design, or does it...” I paused, then, “they'll send those in knocked-down form, correct?”

“They're currently packed that way,” said the soft voice. “You could take a smaller one back with you, and I would do so.”

“Smaller?” I asked.

“Large enough for this laboratory,” said the soft voice. “Annistæ could readily make a suitable solvent, given adequate supplies of 'smelly' Houtlaan distillate.”

“Like boiled distillate?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “This involves some rather involved chemical reactions using a number of materials, and the result, while it still looks like distillate, has a very different odor – and is nearly impossible to ignite.”

“Ai, it is that,” said Annistæ. “We used it much where I came from, as Benzina is made further to the north and we could make that type easily using our own supplies.”

“Simpler washers?” I asked.

“Non, just less hazardous to use,” said Annistæ. “One must wear special clothing and breathing equipment to use those parts-cleaners which have Benzina, while with this type of solvent, one just needs plenty of flowing air and gloves to protect the hands.”

“We do... Oh, yes we do!” I said excitedly. “We do have chemically-resistant gloves!” I then looked to my left, and noted another oddly darkened hallway, then just ahead, another to my right – and then, some further distance ahead, an odd-looking pair of what might have been barroom doors.

“Which first?” I asked. “This darkened hallway to the left, or this other, or straight ahead..?”

“I would check all three, though quickly,” said Sarah. “That darkened hallway on the left reminds me of some place, only too much has happened lately to recall it especially well.”

“That one room?” I asked. “The glassware?”

“Cé, said Annistæ. “It has a special door, one which needs the touch.”

“T-touch?” I asked.

“Shine your light up that way, and let us find out,” said Sarah. “If this is a marked doorknob, it may well only speak to you.”

“I'll try it first, but I think we all should, uh, try it – as the two of us are going to be up here some, dear, and we all may need to hide ourselves in that room.” A pause, then, “this is a pretty fair-sized room, by the way.”

Just how large the room might well be was rapidly becoming a mystery, as the hallway was deep enough that it had me scanning the floor for trip-lines. I found none, but when I touched the door, the lock clicked 'like magic', and the door slowly swung open to show a perfectly smooth white-painted floor.

“That is no normal paint,” said Deborah. “It looks like Marsh-paint.”

“It is not that material,” said the soft voice. “Andreas has not been the only person able to get 'strange' imports.” Pause, then, “those that did this lab up after exterior construction ceased were not only not a pack of witches, but about half of them had markings of one kind or another – and they had a route of supply which has since been taken over by witchdom.” Pause, then, “be glad that supply-route is going to be reopened quickly – and more, that instead of a trickle of such supplies, it will be a flood of such magnitude you will think yourselves swimming for your life in such equipment and other things.”

“S-swimming in the privy for your life?” I asked.

“That may be only a saying,” said Sarah, “but I suspect you've done something quite close to that, as that smelly wretch of a Teacher had you in that pool out back twice the time of anyone else.”

A cautious step into the room with the light in my hand now dialed up to full power and focus set to a narrow cone showed dust-free shelves, these darkly stained and of an unusual grade of construction, one far better than was usual for 'disused' areas. As I lead the way past the first shelf, wary for traps and other troubles, I could hear whispers, then, “Déo do bedégæ su!”

God has given us great blessing?” I asked. “Is that what you said means?”

“Cé, as this is good glass,” said Annistæ. “There is much of it, and... Ai!”

“What?” asked Deborah.

“It is the special glass, that which can be dropped and not break,” said Annistæ. “I see several tall cylinders made of it, then these special flasks that have three connectors, and all of the connectors are those which have taper.”

“Those are very rare,” said Sarah. “I have only seen three of them, and all of those pieces were at the west school's laboratory.”

“This must be all of it that yet remains upon the continent,” I said. “How did they get all of this stuff up here when the witches were more or less running the place?”

“Much as important supplies are done now, save with greater secrecy and much smaller donkey trains,” said the soft voice. “It took them nearly three years to get all of this glassware up here, by the way, and while you can get more glassware, and better glassware, when you go overseas, that equipment here is both fairly good by their current standards and is relatively plentiful.”

“Plentiful?” I asked.

“Walk the circumference of this room,” said the soft voice, “and shine your light on those shelves in here.”

I then walked to the back of the room, shelves on both sides packed with glassware from floor to the ceiling some four feet above my head, then nearly tripped over one of those metal 'stairs' like we had found in the Abbey's armory. A brief glance at this one, however, showed sealed bearings, and a touch made for smooth and noiseless movement.

“Those were grade AAA bearings when they were produced,” said the soft voice. “They can do better now as to accuracy, but those like that are still prized highly over there, as they last and the others need periodic replacement due to less-good metal and heat-treating.”

“Those..?” I asked, as I moved to my right, again shining my light over more chemistry glassware – more glassware than I had ever seen in my entire life. This place easily had more glassware than the university where I had gotten my last degree, and when I came to a familiar-looking box, I nearly screamed for joy.

“What is that?” asked Deborah, with 'bated' breath.

“I think this is a special scale, one that requires a delicate touch to avoid damaging it,” I said.

“While it is a special scale, that one's a bit harder to ruin compared to those like it at the Abbey,” said the soft voice. “It's an updated version of those scales you found there, so it's fully as accurate, significantly more durable, needs less-frequent maintenance, and is a bit more tolerant of operator error.” Pause, then, “note I said 'a bit more tolerant' – as in it still needs great care in its use to avoid damaging it.”

“The other one was said to need a touch like mine,” I said. “Weighed out to fractions of a microgram, which is what is needed for careful analysis.”

“This one does a trifle better, both for resolution and for maintaining its accuracy,” said the soft voice. “It's seen little use, so it's calibration is still close enough to work well.”

“Good,” said Annistæ. “Now I hope there is a common scale, one which weighs out to centimés of weight, as much chemistry does not need such accuracy as you spoke of earlier.”

“Meaning a tenth of a gram is sufficient?” I asked. I wasn't precisely sure what a centimé was, but I suspected strongly that it was similar to the weight I had just mentioned. I had had a scale like that for Mrs. Ulyanov to weigh out the portions of my meals, and it was good to two kilograms.

It also worked well for 'balancing' engine parts, especially pistons, wrist pins, and connecting rods.

“You'll bring several of those scales home with you,” said the soft voice. “They're good for both better accuracy and more weight than what you had at home – as in a hundredth of a gram resolution in the 'small' range, and ten kilograms in 'large' range – and there are two intermediate ranges, which the scale can select automatically.”

“Ai, that is what is needed,” said Annistæ. “That is similar to what I used in my classwork while at school both at home and away, but what I used for where I worked after my schooling was not nearly as good, as one needed to slide weights upon rods to weigh things, and do so in a room without wind.”

“That sounds like a close-balance,” said Sarah. “Was this thing nearly as tall as I am, and built of riveted iron for its frame?”

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “It was made to the north near the settlement of Mekhicho, but I have heard of the kind you speak of, and I think it was a copy of one of those scales.”

“The Heinrich works copied an old balance of that kind and improved them to a degree over a period of perhaps a hundred and fifty years, and those in the Valley did much the same – only they did a better and quicker job, with Annistæ getting one of the best ones they'd ever done.”

“Ai, I was sad to leave that balance, even if it wished prayers so as to speak its weight quickly,” she said. “Now these that were spoken of – will they wish prayer beyond that which I say when and as I can?”

“I doubt it,” I said. “My, that is a nice condenser there. Looks like what I've heard called a Graham type – the Liebig ones are straight inside, while that one there has twisted glass tubing inside the water jacket so it cools better.”

“Ooh, careful with that name,” said Sarah – meaning 'Liebig', most likely. “I saw it on a tapestry, and...”

“You thought it the name of a witch, or it looked to be a curse,” said Deborah. “I might have only seen a few of those things, but they're so confusing that you're better off spending most of your time on your face and praying until your clothing is damp with sweat than trying to decipher what's written on those things.”

“D-damp with sweat?” I asked.

“I did that often at Boermaas, and it was still a near thing for me many times,” said Deborah, “and that was when I was not exploring that place so as to find places to hide.” Pause, then, “I wanted my brass shields then, especially the one for the neck.”

“Didn't find many places to hide, did you?”

“No, the witches knew of all of them,” said Deborah. “I did find mining-car rails, though these were larger than what is used in mines and wider apart, and then other rooms below that place with locks that I could not pick.”

“Grade-A curse-locks,” I spat. “You would need a special key to open those – that, or be a strong witch and know the opening curse or curses for them.” Here, I reached into my clothing and produced the key in question. “I was given this as, uh, evidence after sending a bunch of witch-gear where it belonged, and when it showed, I was terrified, even if it was tagged as evidence.” Here, I showed Deborah the tag, this a small stamped piece of tin painted white with neat black letters. “I thought that stuff had all come back to h-haunt me.” A pause, then, “there's one thing that I still wonder about, even if I now have an idea as to what the original one would have been used for.”

“What is it?” asked Deborah.

“A rather large dagger,” I said, indicating its rough length with my arms as I continued on around the room. “There's enough glassware here to stock a huge laboratory, and make lots of really strange chemicals.”

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “I know most of its use, and it is the best type, that which needs this special grease to prevent it sticking together.”

“Silicone grease, or something...”

“That stuff never made it out of the laboratory here,” said the soft voice. “What they did come up with, however, makes what you spoke of seem totally worthless.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It stands up to everything, it is totally non-reactive, the film actually keys into the ground glass joints and then remains there, it does not migrate, and finally, it never gets hard – and I do mean, 'it never gets hard'.”

“Sounds like a single application is good for a long time,” I murmured.

“Years,” said the soft voice. “It's one of those many things across the sea that look simple and commonplace, but are anything but – just like your shooting blanket.” A pause, then, “the usual is 'once a term' for each chemistry class, a careful check prior to each setup, then clean the two parts of the joint with synthetic alcohol prior to reassembling the glassware for a given reaction.”

“Vacuum..?”

“It does not outgas,” said the soft voice, “and more, it stands up to zero levels of vacuum. Its use is sufficiently common over there that getting modest amounts would be very easy – and Annistæ could manage with but one or two tins.”

“Zero levels?” I asked. I had made a complete circle of this room, and it was bigger than the basement at home. More, it was packed floor to ceiling with close-ranked shelves, all of them holding 'new-looking' glassware – stuff that made what Hans used look worthless.

“What you bring back will but add to what's done here,” said the soft voice. “However, what you will be doing at the Abbey will make this laboratory seem as nothing.” Pause, then “zero levels of vacuum are what some of their assembly lines are capable of, and that level of vacuum and the overall lack of contamination will substantially help the operation of those tubes you drew up.”

“Where we fought Iggy was wrecked,” I said, meaning the laboratory at the Abbey. I was strangely mystified about the aspect of 'zero' vacuum – as in I had drawn these tubes with 'getter' rings, just like those I recalled seeing in the tubes I had used where I came from. The fact that these tubes would border on those called 'subminature tubes' for size would most likely help their performance.

“That portion of the Abbey will eventually be repaired and reworked, as will the rest of the existing structure in its totality,” said the soft voice. “The main chemical laboratories will be in the new section, that which is yet to be built, and all of them will make this layout seem 'tiny'.” Another pause, then, “now, out of the room and across the hall. There, you'll find what remains of the supplies of chemicals they were using when this place was last in use.”

“What remains?” I asked, as I walked out of the huge room with alacrity and heard the door close on its own with a clicking noise. “Who did the door?”

“I did,” said Deborah. “It seemed wise to pull it to, and the lock clicked for me.” Pause, then, “that lock does wish some oil, and so do those hinges.”

“Are they good hinges?” asked Sarah.

“They looked to be,” said Deborah. “All three of them were stout bronze things, with this small place up at the top of their pins for putting oil.”

“Machalaat hinges,” said Sarah. “I had no idea the house proper had any of them.”

“That's because you weren't looking for them then, dear,” said the soft voice. “In this room, you might recognize some of the supplies, as you've purchased them before in the fourth kingdom's market.”

What we found in that room was indeed a surprise, for here, the shelves – long narrow things, floor to ceiling, stoutly constructed of masonry and dark-stained timbers – were positively lined with labeled crocks, nearly all of them with intact wax seals. Many of these crocks had painted upon them 'Roesmaan's chemistry' as well as the address of the place in question in addition to the names of the chemicals, while Sarah recognized the other three main suppliers readily.

What she did not recognize readily were the several kegs found on a cart. Annistæ knelt down, smelled one of them, then nearly yelled with delight.

“What is it?” I asked. “Something you want badly, or need worse yet?”

“You will need much explosives to build this large place to the north,” said Annistæ, “and I will need powder for my pistol, and possibly others like it.” Pause, then, “that material in those kegs is used for making both mining explosives and powder for rifles and pistols, though if you can get me some of that kind from overseas, it might be better for pistol use.”

“As in you can just dunk it in cleaning solvent and then wipe it off?” I asked. “Will that work with those, uh, 'clockwork marvels'?”

“To a certain point, yes,” said the soft voice. “They will still need dismantling periodically for detailed cleaning, especially if you use the ammunition and supplies currently at the Abbey.” A pause, then, “the appropriate propellant for that pistol of Annistæ's, if it is a current production material – it would need no more maintenance than a periodic dunking in such solvent, shaking the excess out, and then wiping it down with a rag.”

“That type of pistol is simple to make and work on,” said Annistæ. “I hope you can make copies of it, as it works well for me, and that type is not easy to get in most of El Vallyé.”

“Uh, forged parts of high-grade steel, heat-treated properly, then, uh, blackened? A dark brown black-striped butt, shaped to fit the hand carefully? Of this rubbery material?”

“If you can do them like that, then I would like a pair of them, and I think she would wish one also,” said Annistæ as she indicated Deborah with her eyes. “I know she likes what I have, as it works well for securing pot-meat and shooting Cabroni when they show suddenly.”

I asked to see the weapon in question, and when I was handed the thing, I was surprised at its obviously well-worn finish. Yet still, it was even more obvious that Annistæ looked after this revolver with great care and uncommon diligence, and when I unlatched its barrel, I was even more surprised.

“How hard is this steel?” I asked softly, as I 'admired' the sturdy nature of this weapon. It might not be a Webley for size or caliber, but it was 'as reliable as a hammer' if maintained reasonably well – and like my revolvers, quite deadly if one put a bullet in a suitable location. Finally, it pointed well, and it was a 'handy' size – again, like most of the revolvers I had worked on.

“What you proposed to make those 'copies' out of would turn what is roughly equivalent to a weapon capable of coping with a lightly-loaded pistol round into one that could stand up to cartridges filled with the appropriate grade of powder – and she would not like such a pistol then, as she's needed to have bones in her hands repaired more than once due to firing pistols that were 'a bit much'.”

“Dragoons?” I asked.

“She has fired those,” said the soft voice, “and every time, she needed medical attention afterward.” A pause, then, “in your case, your grip strength is such that your bones are protected from breaking when firing 'hand-held artillery'.”

“They go numb, though,” I murmured.

“Have Sarah make up some shooting gloves once you get suitable leather from Willem,” said the soft voice. “You will not be the only person bored out of their mind once you get there and get caught up on your sleep.”

“Yes, and I will take a pair of those gloves also, once you've sewn a few pair,” said Deborah. “Now I hope this bottle here does not have liquid death in it, as that stuff scares me bright green and blood-red.”

“Non, it does not,” said Annistæ. “I think it means that chemical is close, and...” Here, she pointed, this at an unusually small crock, one tall and narrow. “That one there. It has that Toxé, and one wants chemist's clothing to handle it, and there is none of that to be had here.”

“There is such clothing at the Abbey, though,” said Sarah. “He brought some home, and another person wore some because she was sick, and I think there is at least one other suite there that would fit you.”

“Yes?” asked Annistæ. “Does this provide breath?”

“It has a mask, so you do not breath room air...” Sarah hesitated, then, “provide breath?”

“Yes, it helps one breathe easier,” said Annistæ. “Having help with breathing helps one's head very much, as then one can think clearer and is less worried, as chemicals can teach Särpientæ do Mallé how to act badly, and then if they should make soot, it is easier to clean it off.”

“What?” I gasped. “Evil snakes? Evil spirit-ridden snakes – snakes that are inhabited?”

“Those would be Death Adders,” said Sarah, “and I've gotten my share of soot around chemicals also, even when I was being a lot more careful than Hans usually is.”

“He has gotten better in the last few days, non?” asked Annistæ. “He is still very ignorant, but that can be fixed with time and effort.” Pause, then, “I hope to learn more myself, as I know I will need to know all I can, and I may need to learn to do medicine as well as chemistry.”

Medicine?” I asked.

“Yes, like that woman who looks much like me and has the same name,” said Annistæ. “Save for where I was burned and my hair color, I look very much like she does.”

“Your hair?” I asked.

“Mine is dark, like hers,” said Annistæ, indicating Deborah's hair. “It might be a little lighter on the top of my head because of much sun in my youth, and it is a bit longer, but that color of hair is common in that part of El Vallyé.”

“And your burns?” I asked.

“Those removed much of my ears,” she said. “I was like black-burnt wood for most of my body, as some Cabroné tossed his jug of strong drink at me after putting a lit candle in its mouth instead of a cork, and though I shot all of those smelly Cabroni while I was on fire and burning, I nearly died from their burning drink.” Pause, then, “most of the scars are hid by clothing, but not my burned ears or the marks of burns on my face.”

“I think those across the sea can fix those,” I said. “They probably aren't that bad. I've seen people with burn scars before – I had a few of them myself once, especially on my hands from soldering...”

“You have a good one on the back of your neck,” said Sarah. “I had no idea it was so large, even if Anna had told me about it more than once before I saw it while you were being rubbed down with Komaet.” Pause. “What was that thing, a slave-brand?”

“No, a hot-rivet being carried in bad tongs that were handled by a clumsy apprentice,” I said. “I have no idea what happened afterward, as I came to myself two miles away in a woodlot.” Pause, then, “we'll want more lights in here, and better lights in general, so as to do a proper inventory. Best get to checking out the rest of the place.”

“You're right,” said Sarah, who reversed direction and led out of the 'supply room'. As I caught up with her, and the other two women, I noticed she seemed to be frightened.

“Those doors,” she said. “I've never doors seen them before.”

“I have,” said Annistæ. “They are windproof doors, doors where you open one, close it, then open the other, and they have seals of some kind for all around them.”

“Makes sense,” I said, “especially if...” I paused, then, “that wasn't the purpose in here – they didn't have one of those too-sensitive close-balances in here, did they?”

“No, but they did have trouble with witches coming in unannounced, and that type of door confused such drunken invaders enough that they were much easier to kill before they could cause trouble.”

“Then one must carry weapons at all times, much as I did where I used to live,” said Annistæ. “One slept with one's rifle at hand, as those smelly Cabroni would come whenever they got enough drink in them, and that day or night.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I muttered, as I carefully pushed the door open, my hand on my possible bag. I could feel the chill grip of a pistol, and when I came through the second door, I saw what looked like a fast-moving shadow – and without thinking, I fired at it once.

The muffled 'plop' resulted in a screaming 'mess' about twenty feet away, and I ran closer, finding a sizable trail of fresh blood and then the still-feebly-thrashing body of a rat – a rat nearly two feet long in the body, with a shape that reminded me more than a little of a white rat. The animal's teeth were long, pointed, and it was biting at the air in a frenzy, and the claws were flailing about crazily.

I fired another round into the animal's earhole when I had the chance a second or so later, which stopped the thrashing instantly. I felt the others dodging benches and other obstacles to come look at what I had shot.

“The rats must have nests in here,” muttered Sarah.

“No, no rat-nests in here, but there are rat-nesting sites nearby,” said the soft voice. “Witches might take a while to catch on to what is happening up here once they start showing in earnest, but the rats will try to provide company on a regular basis.”

“Hence plenty of practice,” I said. “These little, uh, pop-guns do stop rats passably, as this one wasn't up to doing much after I hit it the first time, and I shot it in the ear to silence it.”

“Yes, and I think I want what I've been using as well as one of those pistols,” said Deborah. “If there are going to be witches showing here, then I think I will wish to sleep as I did at Boermaas.”

“How was that?” I asked.

“A brass sheet and neck piece under my sleep-clothing, and a fresh-honed knife in each pocket,” said Deborah, “and a fowling piece, once Sarah had gotten one for me, on its strap within easy reach.”

“Did anyone tell you how I slept on the trip?” I asked softly, as I began looking around further. This room was sufficiently large that I really wanted a good lantern, or better yet, 'Old Sole' and three more like him, so as to look the place over. Rodents would be infrequent visitors during daylight hours, and that level of light would make both rats and witches easier targets for those working here.

“We want a map of this place anyway,” I murmured. “Sarah, anyone – is there a ledger handy?”

“Here,” said Sarah, handing me a larger ledger she had been carrying in her satchel. “Why, will you wipe it?”

I said nothing, only put my palm on the ledger and softly asked God for all the guidance we needed so as to use this set of rooms so as to do as he wished. The ledger shook under my hand, and Sarah nearly screeched.

“Here, shine that light on this thing,” she said in tones of fear. “It's gotten bigger, and...”

“Just like that one set of plans,” said Deborah. “Those tones of green and brown fit for hiding in a forest, and then those letters RCS with periods separating them.” A pause, then “what do those mean?”

“It's a secret of some kind, an old one,” said Sarah, “and we all hope to get answers across the sea.” Another pause, then, “I think we can go out of this place, as we know where it is and how to get in at least one way, and we know at least two of us...”

“You two need to try that door also,” said the soft voice. “It's not a normal marked door, one that requires something like what Dennis was given to work consistently.”

“I think I have an answer as to why, also,” I said, as I led back the way we came. “Either we all will need to get in there at least some of the time, or...”

“We all may need to hide ourselves in there,” said Deborah. “If as many witches are coming here as I think there might come, then we need to all be certain to open that door so as to hide from them should they come in a big black mass.”