Our first ride up a horse-driven elevator...


The others now came out of the room, their faces creased by grins amid the shades of laughter, and I thought to ask about any other 'rooms' off of this main one this location might have. The man surprised me.

“That one was the only one that wasn't opened when I first came here, and its door had this chalk mark upon it that said, or so some people said to me, that it wasn't wise to try to open it, so I didn't, least at first.” Pause, then “later, though, I thought I could use the space, so I try to open it with the keys they have here, and none of 'em would fit.”

“A curse-lock,” I said. “Now why did that one not explode on me?” I asked. “Was it the key?”

“Right this time,” said the soft voice. “Note that using that key does not guarantee curse-locks will not explode, it's just a bit less likely as a rule.”

I shrugged, then said, “as far as I can tell, that buggy looks fine. Your other rooms?”

“One of them has all these huge sacks of gray-metal that people been salvaging for only God knows how long. They say it's witch-metal, but I know better,” he said. “It smokes and fumes a lot, and them fumes is dangerous to breathe, but if you can do up that one metal out of it, that would help lots here.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“First, you'd be getting rid of some stuff that a lot of people in this area think is witch-gear, and not all of 'em's outside,” said the proprietor of this now drastically-updated shop. He was looking at the furnaces now. “Then, there's lots of little parts most people can use in town here, and with the two of them, it was trouble, as they'd think speaking from the book was more important than doing a good job with their hands, markings or not!”

“Witch-thinking, and they were chanting from the book instead of rune-curses,” I said. “It is highly likely you'll be having someone else to help you within a few days, providing he gets his self right with God before his foot becomes infected enough to kill him, as he's an ignorant wretch right now and would be no better than those two that are currently lying out in a field somewhere in this general area while slowly bleeding to death.”

“They get into a fight with witches?” asked our 'guide'.”

“Seems that group 'stumbled upon' a large column of witches lying up in an old trench in a woodlot,” I said, “and the witches weren't yet entirely asleep, so the witches volleyed at close range at those people they could see – and while the two in the lead dropped flat upon hearing the arch-witch in charge command his, uh, slaves to 'fire in volley, fire!' those two were so hot for trouble that they were absolutely 'nailed' – one with a ball from a roer, which hit him up high in the gut...”

I pointed to the exact place, and looking down, I realized it might well have turned his liver to mush.

“He's a dead man,” said Sarah, looking at me and my finger indicating where that four ounce ball of pure lead had struck. “That type of injury kills within a short time nearly every time, no matter what size of ball it is – unless the person has markings beyond the trivial, like Rachel had.” Pause, then, “go on.”

“The other man caught a load of stiff shot in the chest, though the witch that managed that trick was a good twenty paces further from the start of the witch-column, so he got pretty well peppered with shot.”

“How stiff was this stiff shot?” asked Sarah. “If it was on the smaller side, it might well wash out with a good bath in hot water, but if it was like what we do, with that harder metal you mix up – that would put him down right there, and he'd be dead shortly.”

“It was like some I've heard of,” I said. “Lukas said there were three common sizes of 'stiff' shot, and what we run is this weird size that's halfway between the 'middle' and 'big' sizes.” Pause, then, “this stuff wasn't much bigger than what's commonly used up here for game, but it was not commonplace shot.”

“What was it, then?” asked Sarah. “Was this shot shiny?”

I nodded, this nervously.

“Then that man might last a bit longer than the one who was hit with a roer, but his grave will be dug and he will be lying in it dead before tomorrow dawns, given the fact that there are no doctors here and most people here are but somewhat less ignorant of medicine than Anna was before she ate grass in Hell.”

“They might not pack wounds with cheese or anything like that, but about all they know to do is bathe the person good and wash their wounds especially well with the aquavit they make on-site, bandage them up, and then get on their knees and pray – right?” I asked, this silently.

“That, a few tinctures that happen to actually work to some extent, that tincture for widows, though it's rare here, and that for pain, which is rarer yet,” said our 'guide'. “Usually, a Kommando like that only has marked people, but I guess I was detailed here to look after you-all, and he needed to be here because he needed to get this buggy and its horses ready to travel.” Pause, then, “I could have sworn they were marked, though.”

“They were, sir,” I said. “They were also sufficiently full of themselves to think such markings as they had permitted them to ignore God, the speech and example of those leading the group, and common sense – and ignoring any of those persons or things is a bad idea no matter who you are, even if I was told it went harder for you if you were marked and did any – or in their case, all – of those things.” I then had a question, though based on what I had heard earlier, I could guess the answer as to their location.

“Where are the horses, if I may ask?”

“Next door, in the smoky part of the place,” he said. “It's a lot smaller, and if those two helped me in there, they did little beyond what just-starting apprentices do in most communities outside of here, even if they were of the age of most smiths who were ready to journey.”

“What did they learn, then?” I asked.

“Like about a third of the young people here, they were so stinking full of themselves that you could not teach them anything unless it was how to be a witch,” he spat, “and since I didn't do that, they most likely learned what little they knew while in a Public House listening to others their age.” Pause, then, “it's only gotten bad in the last ten-year, as far as I can tell.”

“No, sir,” I said. “It has merely become much more visible within the last ten years in this town, even if it has been happening faster and to a greater degree outside.”

A pause, this to think a bit. I was more than a little distracted, as I could clearly see several wooden boxes, these carefully made and obviously new, with the labels of 'electric blowers, for furnaces'. He had his 'wind' troubles solved, and cast iron would be an easy matter here, given some modest practice and perhaps some written material on the matter. I then resumed speaking.

“It has been brewing slowly here for a very long time, perhaps as long as the last several hundred years, and now that rot is finally beginning to show itself in a most-unpleasant fashion.”

Pause, then, “I'd almost say 'send your troublemakers to the Abbey, and in that place reduce them with hard-labor and whips while digging out the place's varied excavations, and let them perform much of its other vast amounts of stoop-labor' – and those of them that survive that business will be fit individuals for that time in the black hole or whatever it's actually called overseas.”

“I know that now,” said Rachel as she suddenly 'appeared'. Her ability to move about quietly and suddenly show was utterly uncanny. “I had thought to send those thought to be the best and brightest, but after hearing what had happened at the west-works and then what has recently happened to your two helpers, I almost think that to be the best solution practicable.”

“Get rid of the deadwood here, and put them under the lash like slaves while working twelve, fourteen, and sixteen hours a day and every day of a given week for the entire time, with no days off whatsoever?” I gasped. “Make them work for their bread and water by the sweat dripping off of their noses and having their eyes sting with burning sweat as they get stripes across their backs from their whip-cracking overseers, much as if they were in a penal battalion?”

Pause, then, “round them all up before this day is through, and then march them off there tonight with nothing more than the clothing on their backs and the shoes on their feet, all of them doing something like that accursed slave-march with the left hand on the shoulder in front of the person in front of them, all of it done in the utmost silence and with the greatest possible speed, and those riding alongside of the coffle with loaded guns to keep them moving 'double time' or faster yet the whole waywithout stopping for anyone and anything? Shoot anyone who does not give perfect satisfaction during the trip, and the same for the duration of their enforced service?”

“Yes,” said Rachel with finality, much as if she'd heard these words from God himself, “and as for those others who come there who do not give their very utmost from the first day they show, we shall put them in such a thing as well, and name it that precise phrase you s-said.” Pause, then, “I am not sure I can say that second word, now that I think about it. I might need to unknot my tongue afterward.”

“I do not wonder about that second word at all, as I have seen that phrase upon many tapestries,” said Sarah. “Those in Vrijlaand who were suspected of harboring any noted sympathy toward their old way of life were put in such things as you spoke of, and they were the first to go into that brush where the odds of dying were the highest.”

“Uh, big nasty firebugs, lots of other poisonous critters, vast numbers of traps set by the invading troops as they retreated so as to delay pursuit, and lots of unexploded ordnance of all kinds?” I asked. “Sounds like more of them died than survived.”

“The rule in Vrijlaand's numerous penal battalions was 'if you survive ten days while doing this work, you can work anywhere and give your utmost anytime under any circumstances',” said the soft voice. “I'd do that very thing you spoke of, all of it, including that 'raid' today – as in 'get cracking now' – and run that march tonight to the Abbey, only I'd 'crank up' the discipline that's currently in place there to the maximum possible levels – as in public executions by beaters for the first few slackers that show themselves; nothing more, and nothing less – so the others coming from the first kingdom and any other places get the message, that being: 'everyone must do his or her very best, do so all of his or her waking hours, and give one's utmost no matter what the task might be'; and after that, I would be most free with whips during the first month or so, and deal with such people in the manner that Gabriel was treated yesterday so as 'to beat the witch-thinking out of them'.”

“He's still going to bear watching,” I muttered tonelessly. My soft noises, however, were as cold as the grave, and grew yet colder with each further word – much as I had suspected they would. “I've got three pop-gun rounds with all three of his damned-to-hell witch-written names on them, and he'd best know that before we go anywhere with him. He can feed the killer-fish after we're done needing him, should he give any trouble beyond the trivial – and if he tries to pull any witch-nonsense before then...”

Pause. I had to let what I said sink in.

“It's 'pop goes the witch', and over the side of the boat he goes to lighten the thing of his troublesome witch-ballast, or we just leave his corpse lying in the halls over there after I cut off his head and put some Krokus in his mouth before laying his dead head on his chest to put the fear in those functionaries and those over them.” Another pause, this for emphasis.

“I'll just tell anyone who asks me about his sorry carcass that 'he turned witch and tried to kill all of us so as to make his bones by one means or another', and we could not let him ruin the mission. It's as simple as that.”

I had four people now looking at me, then as if pulled by an invisible string, Rachel vanished. Some faint moving foliage told of her likely means of 'escaping' with such news, through when a tree-rat suddenly shot out of the undergrowth I drew my silenced pistol, racked the slide, and shot it – this in one smooth – yet to my eyes – blurred motion. I made the weapon safe in silence, all the while watching said 'rat'. There would be one less to devour the vegetables here, as calling these things pests here was speaking well of a bad situation.

“Now I know that witch-slave you spoke of has no chance in this world or the next one,” said our 'guide'. “Where did you get that pistol, and how did you get it out so quick, and...”

The 'smith' took the rat up by its long and bristly tail, and noted its third eyehole with a measure of satisfaction – or so I thought until he actually spoke. I then wished to hide myself.

“I think not,” he said. “Now I know why he got that first spy, that one no one could catch here, and he gets a second one not ten minutes ago? He's worse than that family's whole pack of scent-hounds.”

“I cannot climb trees,” I said flatly. “Those can.”

“You've not tried climbing them since you came, either,” said the soft voice. “Were you to do so now, you'd be altogether surprised at just how rapidly you can move through the branches of a woodlot.”

“No, I am not a monkey, nor even a tree-rat,” I said. I then wondered, this aloud. “Is that thing dead, or is it?”

The smith laid the tree-rat on the ground and crushed its head under his boot-heel. Brains squirted, and when he lifted his foot, the animal's head was a crushed-to-the-ground mass of gore. “It is now,” he said laconically, “though I think it didn't matter, as no animal 'cept an Iron Pig does good when its head gets centered like that.”

“Iron Pigs, he says,” I muttered. “I put no less than twenty rounds of armor-piercing ammunition into a smaller one's head and neck, and the stinker acts like it has a sick-headache when I shoot its eyes out and put four rounds into or close to its spine just behind its head as it's doing a crash-dive – and then I put four more through its ribcage, so I hope that stinky pig bled out quickly.”

“It had much more than a sick-headache,” said Sarah – who had also noted, this without speaking, that I had continued to shoot at the pig so as to ensure its quick and certain death; I did not take chances with witches or their chattels when it came to slaughtering them. “If those swine clap their forepaws to their heads, they are seeing death come for them, and that swiftly.”

What?” I asked. I had wasted precious ammunition on a dead pig, and that in ignorance, or so it appeared to be.

“What my cousin's relatives told me,” said Sarah. “That pig just did not know it was dead yet, but you needed to stop it now, so it needed more lead.” Pause, then, “you shooting out its eyes killed it, it was blind and it was dying, but that's only the third one of those things you've actually seen, if what Hans and Anna have told me is right – and you shot the other two with your first rifle, and that can stop a large pig.”

“And you've seen lots of them,” I said.

“Burned two, also, though that second pig was a close one,” she said. “I was nearly roasted by the fire when that pig tried to climb up the tree after me and the tree caught fire, and only jumping from tree to tree until the fire got to that pig helped me stay alive, that and praying the whole time I was in the trees and for a good hour after I'd gotten clear of that swine.”

As the 'smith' – or perhaps 'machinist' was a more-accurate term – went into another door on the other side of his wide sliding example, I looked down the road to the south to see what might have been two other sheet-copper awnings, then an 'open' space, then a third such awning covering the truncated corner, and finally, a fourth awning, this one showing the usual vertical post in front, this being one that read 'notions'. I wondered for a moment just what 'notions' this woman had, and more, what kind of device was present to lift horses and other animals the fifty feet or more up the shaft from where they actually entered – as that too-obvious entrance wasn't the real one.

It was a fake, that done to confuse the issue in case the place came under real attack from within or without. The real entrance, I knew, was close by and set up with an eye to its ready defense; and when the man we had just met beckoned to me, he asked, this quietly, “you figure out where we get to the lift?”

“No, but do I know that that place that looks to be the most likely doorway isn't it,” I said. “Serves well to confuse those in here trying to learn secrets they can spill to witches if they decide to go out to see what's outside this town without leave.”

“That's so,” said our 'guide'. “I might have some idea how to get to it, but he's the only one here to use it regularly.”

“Him and two or three other people, but he gets to guard it.” I said. “It comes out in this room next door to this one, one in a hidden place in one of those back rooms that I didn't look at – a path that's behind first this one curtain that serves in lieu of a door, then behind one well-camouflaged false wall that slides into the wall adjacent to it, then another such false wall that does the same, and finally the actual entrance itself about forty feet further in, the path running in a vague circling path with two niches, both on the outside of the turn, those being for defenders to kill pursuers.”

Pause, then, “then there's these narrow rails that circle about wide in this one big room that's holding the elevator platform itself, and those rails run into the hidden storage places here, those you and maybe four or five others know about, that one person running the powder mill being the other person who's well-known in this town who has knowledge of them beyond 'they might exist' – and he's in charge of the 'main line' or whatever is used to move those small flat cars that move things into 'long term storage', as well as convey loads of fresh dung into his niter-caves and then take the crude niter out of them when it starts to climb the walls and drip off of them.”

“You got that right, and you're about the only one I'd trust with knowing that stuff who doesn't live here,” said the machinist. “Now, here, I had to redo every shoe on these, and I redid 'em with bronze, on account of these animals need bronze shoes attached with clips, and soft silver wire leads for their mouths.”

“I had no idea that was the case,” said Sarah.

“The one owning them didn't either, but when they got here, we had people that know horses look at 'em close for a full glass's turning twice over, and that's when I learned about what he had.” Pause, then, “they'll need their stable redoing, about three times the grain they been getting and decent grain too, and a lot better looking after than they've been getting.”

“Georg does not stint his grain, but I suspect he had no idea as to what kind of animals he had,” said Sarah.

“How often he run 'em?” asked our 'guide'. “They might get by with the common amount of grain, if he don't run them much or run them hard.”

“He runs them more than most farmers where we live, but he seldom went that far or went particularly fast, and I doubt he went more than perhaps an hour between stopping,” said Sarah. “Only once did he ask them to more than loafing, if they are indeed...” Sarah's eyes then lit upon the first such horse, this a deep brown color with faint lighter stripes, these almost like the reverse of a species of zebra. “Those horses are fit for bronzes, and no mistake,” she said. “How could I not see it before?”

“How much you look at them before, and how close did you look, and in what manner of light?” asked our 'guide' – who then looked at me. “That witch-fight? Anything else happen?”

“Two more wounded, neither man severely,” I said, “though when the witches saw they were about to be wiped out, those half-dozen witches still able to shoot at that time shot mostly at the two that were lying more dead than alive on the ground, and that witch with the roer hit both of those men in the head – so they're dead now,” I said. “That witch with a roer, though – that wretch was the leader and the best shot by a large margin, and he just might get clear, now that he's the only witch left who's still able to shoot and move freely.” Pause, then, “the others are going to die where they're setting now, even if they'll keep shooting until they're hurt too bad to continue shooting or they run out of ammunition.”

“I hope he does not get clear of that mess,” said the machinist, as he led out the second horse. It was almost identical to the first one, which to my thinking was a good idea. I'd never driven a team, so I didn't think much of such thinking as mine.

“The man that's to receive that buggy said he was getting two more horses, and these two do look likely,” I murmured appreciatively. “Our one injured man who's due to lose two toes just now killed that one witch with the roer, by the way.

“How he do that, if he's wounded?” asked our 'guide'.

“He made his peace with God,” I said, “and then cut that witch's throat.”

Everyone was looking at me in stunned shock. To me, it was an utterly simple matter, and I continued.

“He thought himself dead and buried in his grave already, given the location of his wounds and their high probability of becoming infected,” I said. “In one way, at least, he is dead, and that now.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“He's dead to this world, and therefore dead to the attractions of witchdom,” I said flatly. The obvious remainder was too easy to guess. He would now only live to see God's will accomplished, just as if he'd taken oath as a tsoldato – and he'd take oath in church once he got back here. This man would henceforth be a stone killer when it came to witches, a veritable killing machine, much like Tam had become.

As I had become before coming here, most likely, and quite possibly, had always been. I then was once more interrupted in my interminable ruminations.

“How'd he cut that witch's throat, and when he do it?” asked our 'guide'. He, and the machinist, were babbling. Sarah, however, was not, nor was I spewing babble. She knew how easy this kind of thing could be if one used one's head, and how dangerous it could be otherwise. I – I had no idea. I'd reckoned myself dead multiple times in the last few days, the last time being when 'taking' that one shop earlier and the witches were trying a pincer movement. There were a lot of those thugs in that place.

“Just now, it seems,” I said calmly – and, more than a little, coldly. “While that witch was getting ready to leave the area, that one man had gotten done with his prayer – the first real prayer he'd ever done in his whole life, so his face was filthy from the mud his tears had made in the dirt – and he decided to go after that witch on his own after seeing what kind of trouble he'd caused the group in the way of bullet and shot wounds.”

“Now that sounds like a marked person,” said Sarah. “That's exactly what they would do.”

“Right,” I thought – until I realized all too often that what I did went far beyond that trivial state of affairs, and had done so today more than once already. I then continued my narrative. “So, he's filthy from praying face down while getting his clothing torn up and skinned in a few places by bullets and picking up some shot from the remaining witches shooting at him when they see him coming, and he starts crawling closer, getting nicked more and catching more shot so he can get into some cover and achieve surprise on the one witch that's still shooting at the group when and where he can while he's getting ready to make his escape. He does do that – he got close enough to get that witch – though not quite in the way he had expected to do so.”

“How'd he manage it then, then?” asked our 'guide'.

“The witch stepped right in front of him as he was sneaking along the ground through the weeds like a snake or a worm, and he reached out and cut the witch's main leg-tendon with his knife,” I said. “That caused our chief arch-witch so much pain that he tossed his roer and his other gear on the trail ahead of him, and then the witch then fell to the ground thrashing and screaming like a person having a fit. Our man, thinking he's going to die anyway and so he has nothing to lose because he's already dead, jumps on our witch while said witch is screaming and yelling, and cuts his throat faster than he and our witch can believe is possible.” Pause, then, “I cut one's throat earlier today with a knife that's got a blade smaller than what he used, and I did so quickly, so it's easy enough to do if they're not fighting you tooth and nail.”

“You nearly removed that stinker's head with your knife!” spat Sarah. “So, will that one man live?”

“I'd say it's a lot more likely now, as he's resumed praying his hardest, this while cutting off that witch's head entirely with his knife, and he's getting pretty well caked with blood doing it. He already got sprayed thoroughly when he first cut that witch's main leg-tendon – sliced that stinker to the bone – then he got doused stabbing his way up toward that witch's throat, and then he finally stilled him.”

The image I was trying to paint was the man had written himself off and figured he was going to burn in hell where he belonged, so he might as well get this particular witch in the process; and because of his inability to walk readily, he stuck his knife in wherever he could and used it as an anchoring point to pull himself up toward the witch's throat, all the while punching and gouging with his free hand and then stabbing the witch again and again in strategic places so as to provide leverage. This was one hard witch, and such examples needed a lot of poking and slicing, as well as decapitation, if one used a blade.

“Three times in the chest alone, and he about disemboweled that stinker,” I muttered. “Only then could he cut his throat.” Pause, then, “he's calling his bloodstained body and ruined clothing a cheap price, as he's just finished cutting that witch's head off with a knife and is now crawling to where he can find a stick to spike that witch's head.”

“Crawling?” asked the 'machinist'. “Why is he crawling?”

“Because he wasn't hit with a commonplace musket,” I said. “This was one of those fifth kingdom things that fires a projectile about, uh, fifty lines or so. Slug weighs two ounces easy, and 'cause those guns are rifled and the bullet expands to fill the bore, they hit a lot harder than roers do unless you've got your roer stuffed with hot powder and a patched ball, and then you put soot on your target.” Pause, then, “he's more or less unable to walk right now, because that slug did far more than merely remove two toes.”

“What did it do?” asked our 'guide'.

“It may have removed two toes, but he's got a really messed up foot,” I said. “This wasn't just something clipping his foot – it got hit pretty solid, actually, so he cannot walk because his foot's pretty well wrecked. That's why he figures he is a dead man – that kind of an injury usually gets badly infected, and the person usually dies unless God decides to save him or her.” Pause, then, “one good thing, though.”

“What could that be?” asked our 'guide'.

“He's thinking this as he's trimming that stick for spiking the head of that witch,” I said. “He's really gotten the message.”

“Which is?” asked Sarah. I suspected she knew what it was, but the others needed to hear it.

It does not matter if I live or die, as long as they go where they belong, I said. “Now, that gives me a most-useful idea, one that I'll personally see implemented, as I've spiked a few heads.” Pause, then, “we need a long and wide forest of such spiked heads, all of them circling the Abbey, a triple-row fence of one, with all of such heads but an arm's-length apart from one another, a fence that says blatantly to all witches and witch-slaves, 'we are the headhunters, and we kill every witch and person who thinks like a witch that we see or we learn of, and that no matter who or where they are'!”

There was an instance of silence. What I had said had somehow 'gotten somewhere', but where – that was a bit of a mystery, even if I fully intended to do just as I had said, including the part about being a pack of murderous 'headhunters' who killed for seeming 'sport'.

It wasn't sport. It was the moral equivalent of genocide, and I was possibly the only person here fully prepared to actually do everything I possibly could to actually make it happen. It made me wonder about a question that occasionally cropped up in my dreams.

“Am I evil?” asked this odd inquisitor. I usually looked that witch straight in the eye, then launched myself at him like a weapon, screaming all the while, “you bet your hell-spawned carcass I am evil! You'd call me that if I did anything other than worship your stinky rear, you damned-to-hell fool!”

I then noted that Sarah had been writing – somehow, she'd gotten my small brass 'clipboard' out of my possible bag, and was writing steadily at a rapid pace – and the 'machinist' had disappeared; while our 'guide' was looking over the horses with a most-practiced eye.

I thought to join him, as I'd never knowingly gotten a close look at a bronze-shod horse – and while I was more than a little ignorant about most parts of looking after horses, I knew something about their feet, and I knew that ample grain, especially when done right, helped a lot when one needed one's creatures to do their best – as well as a good rubdown on a regular basis. That helped a lot, both with horses – and now, I realized – me. I could almost see myself pleading with Sarah to “please, dear, my back. Please rub it. I need to feel g-g-good r-right now.”

My looking at these animals proved enlightening, as these creatures, I could tell, were unusually 'docile' for such horses; they were not inclined to buck, rear, or do anything of that sort. Biting – that was yet a good question, and I did not wish to get 'bit' by a horse, anymore than I wished to get kicked.

“Duh, Georg puts this harness on himself, and he was careful about having it done,” I muttered, as I saw the neat 'form-fitted' harness the animals wore. “He does not believe in tormenting animals, and he thinks they've got a hard enough job as it is even if he makes their job as easy as he possibly can.”

“He does at that, as I've seen nothing in the way of marks that indicate more than a bit of ignorance,” said our 'guide'. “He had these shod the usual way, but that was because he didn't know what kind of animals these were, not because they were troublesome.”

“He thought he was the trouble, actually – he's gone to get lessons from Tam, who has run freight a few times,” I said.

“I think Tam will tell him to get the best grain he can, that being from my sources,” said Sarah, “and get that grain in a rolled state, not coarse-ground.” Pause, then, “and, he will wish grain pans such as those you made, and he will carry buckets of such grain mixed as I did this morning, and put it to those animals every chance he possibly can.”

“I can turn such rolls for mills now, and if I knew their working, I probably could do them,” said the machinist as he brought out the third and fourth horses. “These are a year or two older, and needed more work done to their hooves to fit their shoes, but that was about the end of the matter. The one owning them was merely somewhat ignorant, as none of these animals show any real sign of abuse.”

“He knew his limits, their limits, and the limits of his buggy, or at least the buggy he had then,” I said. “He's nowhere near as 'dumb' as he seems to be to many people, and he's a lot more cautious than most give him credit for being – oh, and he wishes comfort, namely a good, soft bed, one kind to his back – rather than wealth.” Saying this made me wonder: did Georg have back trouble – really painful back trouble, like some coworkers I had known years ago? Did he merely wish a good bed, one suitable for a man that was a lot sicker than he looked? A real 'sickbed', one suitable for a hospital?

“Given his diet and what August told me about his tendency toward griping at many foods, I wonder little about the last matter,” said Sarah. “I think he might well be ill and wishes to keep the matter a secret.”

“Why?” I asked. “So the witches...” Pause, then, “do the witches have an interest in him and his shop?”

“I would ride money on that being so,” said Sarah, “as I've learned more about what happened while you were gone on that trip south and back.”

“Yes?” I asked, as I began examining the hooves of the third and fourth animals. We had other places to go in here yet today, but once this business was done, we would move rapidly once I'd checked over this matter and seen the animals harnessed in a team. I needed to see that done, and I needed to see them pulling the buggy, so as to ensure its proper functioning.

It would receive a substantial workout, and that quickly: as Georg had several swords to deliver, and that he would be leaving at daybreak upon the morrow, using the back roads when and where he could so as to save time, and he would not stint the grain to his animals then.

“Those stinkers I spoke of made much of that scrap, far more than those three men did,” said Sarah. “Georg had many misgivings from the first, and he knew it was beyond him within the first hour of starting, but he knew the house was about to write about the kingdom's need for such a furnace, so he felt obliged to try to make one.”

“And hence he did try, using, uh, 'scrap' metal so as to learn what he could about such matters before the good stuff he had ordered showed later,” I said. “He knew he needed to learn a great deal within two days of his beginning that effort, and gave up on the matter shortly thereafter.” Pause, then, “who made much of that rubbish we found, as if I had to guess? A large pack of witches?”

“Yes, them especially,” said Sarah. “They knew far less than Georg did about smithing, who without you handy to keep him from going wrong tried driving perhaps a dozen rivets and then gave up on the matter.”

“So most of those buggered-up rivets I saw were done by a pack of witches, who chanted while doing their hammering, thinking their chants and curses formed the rivets and then fastened the metal together, and not the swage itself and how they drove the rivets it formed; and when the rivet-swage did not respond like the 'oh-so-powerful' fetish they believed it to be, they 'destroyed it' as being a danger to them and theirs, as its power was far too great for them. Right?”

“Closer than you might think,” said the soft voice. “That, and they were thinking the usual rubbish for witches, that being 'if we cannot have it, and that to ourselves alone, then no one must have it', and that being so for both man and witch.”

“And now, horses,” I said. “I'm about totally ignorant of these beyond feeding and looking after their hooves, as...”

“The way you ride, and what kind of animal that is, those are about all you need to know – but you need to know those things good, as I saw you looking over those shoes and all like you'd made 'em,” said the 'machinist'. “I know about grain, too, as we get that out there bagged up in the whole grain and store it up in the back regions here so's to keep bugs out of it before we use it, and we keep enough on hand to last a good long while, so we buy it when it's during the middle of harvest when it's most common.”

“Keep bugs out of it?” I asked. The other portion, to me, was obvious: common grain meant cheap prices, and this place used a lot of such grain for animal feed as a rule.

“If you store your grain in the dark, with several hundred paces of strong darkness between it and the light, the flying bugs can't lay their eggs in your grain, so it don't get grain-bugs eating it,” said our 'guide'. “Besides, it's cold in that place, and really dry – a lot dryer than you might think for a place that's under a river.”

“Cold, dry – almost 'refrigerator' cold, correct?” I asked – and then realized my likely error in referring to a refrigerator. “Cold-room storage?”

“Not right yet it is,” said the machinist, “but once we get that distillate setup going, then I can do the stuff needed to run cold rooms there that will make ice in a hurry.”

“Which you will wish a number of beyond those to be put in the varied Public Houses here,” I said. “This harness? How does it go on?”

That needed the four of us working, and here, I had Sarah and our 'guide' showing me how this all worked, especially as Sarah said at the start of fitting it to the horses, “he's not been taught a thing about this, and I'm not surprised he's having trouble figuring it out, especially this type of harness.”

“And I need to learn something of it, as I'll need to at least help harnessing a pair and, uh, 'running' a buggy.”

“You going to do that the usual way you ride, with no reins?” asked our 'guide'.

“I have no idea how to use those, and I suspect my piloting of teams is going to be a rare issue, as soon we will have things that I can drive well.” Here, I had a picture in my mind of a miniature sand-rail, this with knobby tires on all four wheels – wide knobby tires appropriate to an 'Open' class motocross bike – and I was slinging dirt like crazy as I rowed my way through the gears of a close-ratio seven-speed box hooked up to a seventy-horsepower engine howling up near 'ten thousand revolutions per minute'.

With an open exhaust, no less, this with both cylinders running into a megaphone, and the engine itself swilling alcohol. More, I was not hardly dropping the revs at all, but keeping the engine on the cams as the gears clicked home one after another in the sequential-shifting gearbox. This item shifted fast, and one merely moved the lever. The 'clutch' pedal was optional save for launching the vehicle.

This engine sounded positively infuriated, much as if said alcohol was that variety 'spelled' CH3OH, and that fuel heavily dosed with nitromethane, complete with a dash of both acetone and propylene oxide for 'added kick'. I then came back to myself, noting how my hands had carefully installed a number of buckles in this rather intricate harness. It worked very well for harnessing horses, even if it was rather complicated to put on a four-animal team.

“This is the best type of harness, and he used decent elk-hide for it,” said Sarah. “I almost think he went to a good tanner and then carefully selected his hides – and then he went to someone who did harness for guns, as this is gun-harness.”

“Or he went to Willem to get his leather and possibly some help in getting this stuff done,” I said. “After all, he once was a cannon-master, and a good friend of Willem's – which might be why he trusts those two to bring in his hay.”

“Those two will wish a hay-wagon done as this one is when they see it in use,” said Sarah. “We'll be going there next, though there are several places more we must go to before we leave Ploetzee.” She then looked at our 'guide'. “Do you know where our next stop is? Where the distillate is run and the tar-lake, so we can pick up an old 'tube for testing' with that liquid underneath that tar in it?”

“That capped with a waxed cork, which is what I spoke of while you three were inside there and I slipped out to let them know,” he said. “That tube you'll be getting should be boiling in this strange bronze thing called a pressure-pot right now, one of them he most likely worked on.”

“There aren't many orders for those,” I said,”but I've been making them with some regularity. Georg puts them on his shelves, or so I thought.”

“No, they do sell, though not up here, or so I thought,” said Sarah. “I know Albrecht has been taking two or three at a time down south recently so as to get them into the fourth kingdom, but I had no idea they came here.”

“They have, three of 'em so far,” said our 'guide'. “I'm glad he's making those things steady, as when those new people come, they're going to buy them as if they were better than sliced bread coated with melted fire-cheese.”

“I figured as much,” I said. “I do the castings for making one whenever I get enough bronze going to make one of them in addition to the usual bronze things I cast in some quantity, which is usually once or twice a week – and I try to do one each time I run bronze if I've got the room for its' metal.”

We had the buggy itself out in the road what seemed minutes later, at least so I thought until I was told once more that my time sense was seriously off; and in truth, it was now the time for 'the morning guzzle' were I home and the day one of 'normal' length.

“How many more 'long days' will we have?” I asked silently.

“Tomorrow will be somewhat shorter, but the day you sail will be the longest for daylight thus far,” said the soft voice. “You'll need it to first get married early, then get 'entrained' with that boat, and finally, get it into the downstream cove up here, have it assembled by those coming with you and a party of men from Ploetzee, and then launch that thing and load it up – and I would take as many ledgers as you possibly can and let Sarah write down and draw whatever you speak of and point out – as that information will be crucial to those coming from across the sea.”

“The river-channel, also,” I said. “Will I need a sounding lead, or have someone else do soundings?” For some reason, I was hearing a deep bass voice saying, “mark fathoms five, deep water.”

I had expected that voice to speak of 'mark twain' – as in deep enough for shallow-draft boats of the more-usual size. Our boat would not need more than knee-deep water to float, even with us and our gear on it.

“You might, and might not need to do soundings,” said the soft voice. “They have a lot of detailed maps, but you'll be able to point out the most likely channel 'datums' that they'll need to run their boats up the Main to a suitable landing point – and they'll need to be about fifteen miles due north from the site of the Abbey.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Will something weird happen?”

“They have records – old ones – regarding the effects of altering time and space,” said the soft voice. “What will happen at the Abbey, though – that will 'blow their minds'.”

“They will have squibs in their heads?” asked Sarah. She was now checking the harnessing I had done, and to my surprise, was finding it done 'passably' at the least, even for this complex harness rig.

“You should manage those horses at the Abbey, if Willem from the fourth kingdom is handy to check your over your work,” said Sarah. “You're picking this up quicker than anyone I've ever seen.”

“Those horses have common harness?” asked our 'guide'.

“I suspect they do,” said Sarah.

“Then he'll do fine, at least for harnessing 'em,” he said. “Guiding 'em – I doubt he'll need reins. No, not at all.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “I think he was told that already, but hearing the same thing again from another person never hurts. Now, who do you wish to drive this buggy so as to test it?”

“Get yourselves in the back o' this thing, and I'll try it out,” said our 'guide'. “I ran freight for three years, so this kind of rig should be easy enough.”

“Careful now,” said the machinist. “These are not commonplace cart-horses. You'll need to pay close attention to them, as they all have thin reins and soft silver leads.”

For some odd reason, I had a distinct impression. “No, let me watch you. That front seat is wide enough for two, isn't it?” Pause, then, “besides, if tree-rats are indeed such a pest here, I can easily pot any that show and not startle the horses.”

“Good,” said the machinist. “I'd best get back to checking what-all changed, as I'm going to need help undoing this stuff that's holding it, and you're about prime for that business.”

“I know,” said our 'guide'. “These two need guiding first, about another hour or so, or perhaps a bit more – then I can pick up Walther, and the two of us can help you get your things settled. He do your shop?”

“He did,” said the machinist, “and the smith's part of the place too, as now there are three anvils, and all of 'em's Dietrich 102's, which are about the best to be had.”

“He likes those,” said Sarah. “He has two that he uses a lot.”

“They're reserved for his use,” said the soft voice. “Georg is hoping to have both of them gone over where they are made sometime this summer so as to 'clean them up'.”

“Surface grind those things? I asked – though as I asked this, I was getting definite ideas as to how that particular type of anvil needed a different shape for my usual species of use. “Heat-treating them, only doing it right so they're hard but not too brittle? Pack-hardening, this for upwards of a week to as much as ten days at a dull red heat?” I paused, then, “get those coal-cookers done, put those anvils in one of those for a few days with some coal being run into coke for a source of heat, cook them good in their boxes, then two more days in that special carburizing mix at a bright red heat, and...”

“You will not have a Dietrich-102 anvil if you do that,” said the soft voice. “You'll have a Vrijlaand anvil, which is what was originally copied to make what are called 'Dietrich-102' anvils today.”

“Why, a high-carbon alloy-steel case over a strong alloy-steel core?” I asked.

That much cooking makes for a carbon-rich case nearly two inches thick,” said the soft voice, “and the outer half inch of that case will be both extremely hard and very tough – and that with no quenching beyond 'bring them outside at full-night and let the night-mist hit them until they're cold to the touch'.” Pause, then, “they will need grinding, both surface and contour, to finish to proper size – and then prompt surface treating to prevent rust.”

A mottled gray-and-black anvil,” I chuckled. “Keep one of those wiped down with that waxy 'grease' when not in use, and it will never wear out or go 'mushy' like some of those other ones have done at the shop. Things had to be made of 'butter'.”

“Those would be better tossed into Frankie as scrap-iron,” said the soft voice. “Keep all of the good anvils, and then send the best one you have out to make forging dies after it's been fully cleaned up.” Pause, then, “you're going to want anvils for the Abbey, and that in some very substantial numbers – and the shop needs more than half of its anvils replaced now and will need several more anvils above its current number in the foreseeable future.”

“Lots of smiths at this Abbey place?” asked our 'guide'.

“To actually make things in any real numbers, no, as there are far faster methods available, and those methods will need to be used,” said the soft voice. “For teaching people how to make things – yes, and many such people will need to use them, hence a lot of good anvils will be wished for and most-needed.”

I got into the side of the buggy-seat, and as Sarah clambered into the back, I saw our 'guide' gently twitch the reins. I then knew he'd been far too 'hard' with these animals. He needed a hand like Sarah's to properly guide these horses.

Much easier,” I said, as I formed a series of pictures in my mind signaling 'go ahead at a steady walking pace, as if you were traveling normally. Follow the path of this road, please'.

The horses began to do precisely that, and now, I kept an eye out for spies and tree-rats. I saw one of the latter overhead about forty feet above my head and slightly to the front, and I 'drew-loaded-and-fired', again drawing from my possible bag and doing all of those actions in a swiftly blurred motion – to me.

To the others, it bordered on frightening, for neither our 'guide' nor Sarah had ever seen a pistol suddenly show as fast as I was now finding myself capable of 'drawing'. It was as if the pistol suddenly materialized with a loud 'popping' in my hands, and only Sarah's yelp of pain startled our 'guide' more.

Ouch!” she screeched. “I wore that brass thing in my hair.”

I then saw another such rodent, then two more, these further away, and the noises of the pistol firing merged into one as each fast-moving squirrel did a nose-dive from its high-standing perch to either hit the road or first thump against an awning or – in one case, the wall – before sliding boneless and limp to then land on the dirt of the road.

At least, so I thought until Sarah pitched a dead tree-rat out of the buggy.

“How did you drop that one?” she asked. “I could not see your hand move, you were shooting so fast!”

“You were dodging those brass things these toss,” said our 'guide', “so you were not looking close.” Pause, then, “he shoots a lot faster than I can count.”

“I've seen him do that before, also,” said Sarah, “but I think he might be growing faster, both to aim and then fire.”

“You know how he gets that thing out of that bag he has so fast?” asked our 'guide'.

“No, I don't, but I know it doesn't matter where he has a weapon – if it is within ready reach, he can pull the thing out and shoot before you can think it possible, and I can nearly do the same.”

“Empties two rotating pistols before I can count to one,” I muttered, “and she puts every ball into a hole maybe the size of a gold monster coin.”

“It was smaller than that,” said Sarah with chastened voice. “I saw the carpenters fit the plug to the door, and it would not pass a five guilder piece.” A pause, then, “you'd best be careful with that thing, though, as I was dodging its brass, and those are hot enough to hurt if they land on bare skin.”

“It would be good practice for him, though,” said our 'guide'. “Talk has it among some here that you-all are going after a big mess of thugs.” He paused, then said, “now this is weird. I ain't doing nothing with these reins, no, not a thing, and these animals are going as if I had a four-in-hand setup, one where I've got a set of reins for each animal.”

“I think he's telling them what they need to know so as to travel,” said Sarah, who now had her own suppressed pistol out. I was more than a little astonished when she fired it twice at 'something' and was rewarded initially with a dire scream – and then an ear-rattling explosion that had shopkeepers flying out of their doors with loaded fowling pieces and roers. Thankfully, we received nothing save a faint dusting of what might have been debris of one kind or another, even if the shopkeepers were still pointing their guns somewhat down and across the road, lifting them only as we passed and then dropping them down once more into the 'ready' position, much as if they expected a swarm of witches to boil out of the trees and they would need to kill every single black-dressed stinker that showed upon the instant.

“Everyone in this place seems to expect trouble?” I murmured, as I again drew, then this time 'aimed' nearly seventy yards ahead on an overhanging branch and dropped a tree-rat as it ran like a silver-gray high-speed electric train. The rat screeched as it fell to the road – it had hopped its rails – and then lay silent upon the ground.

“You're clearing out those things faster than anything short of a bad hard rain,” he said. “That's the kind of rain that came down when God drowned this world, or so I've been told.”

“And I think I just potted a spy,” said Sarah – who really emphasized the word 'Schpee' when she said it. “That was a real stinker, as I smelled that nasty drug on him before he showed.”

“An acrid stink?” I asked. “Like old sweat, not bathing for days, only sharper to the nose?”

“Yes, that also,” said Sarah. “I could smell that stink, but only when that wretch showed himself by the branches moving by the roadside did I see something I could shoot at, and I fired twice, as I was not sure and I wished to make sure I hit what I was shooting at.”

“Something?” I asked.

“It was quite vague-looking,” said Sarah, who then calmly shot down another tree-rat. “These things are a big pest if they're this common here. Your manure pile will be smoking at this rate, between the spies and the tree-rats.”

It also turned out that our 'buggy-test was intended to 'show us' some important matters in Ploetzee, as the two places I had visited were not representative of the town. Here, I saw the easternmost Public House off some small distance away, with its yard fronting on our current road – two more had been started recently, to supplement the three that at certain times commonly had lines waiting in or near them – but also, some odd 'tree-like' structures that were most-obviously man-made. I thought to ask about them as we passed a small forest of these 'trees', each one of them on stilts above the ground and nearly twelve feet tall in the structure and three to four feet wide for the semi-round 'trunk'.

Calling them 'as tall as a house' was not much of an exaggeration with these 'trees', and I asked a most-peculiar question.

“Those do not look like common logs,” I said. “They're too big around for most trees I've seen here, they are on stilts, and then they seem to be rubbed well with this wood-preservative stuff that adds almost no color to the wood. What are they?”

“That is because those are bee-logs,” said Sarah. “They're done exactly like they are at the west school, or so they look to be.” A closer look, then, “yes, they are. Four hinged doors, each with its catch to the side to hold the door closed.”

“So, as to, uh, remove the honey in its containers?” I asked. “Combs?”

“I have yet to find a comb in a honey-pot,” said Sarah, “even if I do keep that comb you gave me in its own pocket in my latest bag.” A pause. “The wax collects in these small globules with the honey in them, and if you melt that wax, the honey will come out and float on top so you can ladle it out. Then, you must heat the wax until the water boils out of it, and then scoop that stuff off to put in candle-molds or whatever, and finally, the nails and feathers and other things that one usually finds in the bottom of such a pot.”

“And opening a portion of the 'log' causes what to happen?” I asked.

“One must grab the honey and put it in the bucket, close the door quickly with one's bucket in hand, and leap from the ladder and run as fast as one can for a secure refuge,” said Sarah. “I've done it a number of times, and gotten nailed more than once each time, though the first time was much the worst for bee-nails.”

Bee-n-nails?” I asked.

“Yes, nails,” said Sarah. “Liza needed to keep me for two whole days and clean out the places where I'd been nailed, and she said I was lucky I did not get the whole of the log's bees after me, as then I would have been nailed too badly for her to help.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Poison?”

“You've shed enough shot, so you most likely have an idea,” said Sarah. “Being nailed by a bee is nearly as bad as a witch hitting you with the edge of his pellet-swarm at a distance of fifteen to twenty paces, and that when that witch is using especially good shot or that shiny stuff – and not the small shot, either, but that called 'stiff' in some parts of the fourth kingdom house.” Pause, then, “being nailed by a bee-swarm is like being centered with a roer's load of such stiff shot, and I was bleeding a lot from those nails.”

“Yep, them bees is hot for those bothering 'em,” said our 'guide'. “I've run with honey buckets a time or two myself, and I yet got the places on me from being nailed.” Pause, then, “one good thing, though.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“Bees do not like witches,” said our 'guide', as he tried to get our team to turn in an 'intersection', and I needed to guide each horse individually by means of 'broadcasting' pictures so as to bring the wagon around 'smartly'. I hoped Georg was going to be up to coping with such a team, but I brightened when Sarah indicated she would teach him the proper means of handling a quartet of uncommonly mettlesome cart-horses. I somehow suspected 'tonight' – as in he would be over for medical attention.

“That time I didn't touch the reins at all, and I was getting these pictures in my head, only they were the weirdest things ever,” said our 'guide'. “It was like I was seeing this weird language used long ago what used pictures, only this was as if it was done specially for horses.”

“That language with pictures is that of Vrijlaand,” said Sarah. “Now, more of these bees, as I think some will have them near or at the Abbey, and he needs to hear of them. Honey will be much-desired if there are many marked people on the premises there.”

“They will keep the witches off, especially as a, uh, 'bee-master' is en-route with a crate of his best bees,” I said. “He has his own private room on that ship, and he's the only person who can endure the noise of those things.”

“What does it sound like?” asked our 'guide'.

I had no idea how to describe the racket made by a large radial aircraft engine running at a good pace for such an engine, but much of that kind of noise was a continuous issue in regards to a too-tightly-packed 'log' of bees. It made for a strange remark, one I had no chance of saying because a leather-coated individual suddenly showed, complete with a form-fitted leather hood and leather trousers. I was amazed he could move, as this was thick wax-boiled leather – hard, stiff, and able to check most of the attentions of an irritated swarm of creatures that often resembled homicidal hummingbirds with three-inch-long needle-pointed beaks.

“Someone talk of bee-masters?” he asked. “I was checking the east-logs, and they seem to be doing well.” Pause, then, “any more of them hard-to-see witches show?”

“Yes, three so far,” said Sarah.

“Good, as I'd like to hive them witches a swarm o' bees, as they'll find them.” Here, he produced a long-as-my-arm clarinet-like instrument, one with a pronounced taper and an exponential 'bell' at the 'noise' end and a place for blowing on the other, and began to play a most-peculiar tune. There was but one trouble.

His instrument, though for the most part, did not sound like a clarinet. It sounded like a cross between a bagpipe and a didgeridoo, with the latter's low tones able to travel up into the range of a commonplace flute, or so I imagined, all the while droning at several fundamental frequencies at once due to his 'clarinet's' multiple sets of reeds and their respective internal tuned pipes. He stopped playing his odd 'tune', then said, “they got one really strange witch two days before this one, a witch I never saw before, both for clothing and the other things he wore.”

We had completed the turn, and this man had decided to 'hitch' a ride with us. He found the back of the buggy spacious and comfortable to ride in, and it was faster than his walk, if not mine when I was of a mind to hurry.

“In what way was this witch so strange?” asked Sarah. I could hear her 'inquisitor's tone' clearly.

“Why, first it was his clothing,” said the man. “It was this blue color that varied according to how much light shined on it, and then how it was cut, with this strange thing that opened that stuff when I tried moving it up and down. It went from the top of his neck all the way down to near his trousers, only he didn't have those. This clothing was all of one piece, with a lot of pockets and other places to put things.” Pause. “Then, there was how this fabric felt.”

“How did it feel?” asked Sarah. She now sounded a bit nervous, as the description she'd just heard was a familiar one – one she'd most likely seen in dreams.

“Very slick to the touch, like no fabric I've felt before,” he said. “It was not dyed, either – that color was in that fabric, as I cut a piece off and tried to wash the dye out before it went up in smoke like the rest.” Pause, then, “I had to toss that stuff, as it went up on me like a bad chemistry experiment.”

“Nylon, or something similar, and dirt-repellent, with an odd tendency toward ignition if mishandled,” I said. “Not terribly good for cold weather, but it isn't cold right now, save perhaps late at night – and these people only show during the day, at least if they're dressed like that.”

“Yep, them bees nailed him good in the daytime,” said the man. “His clothing lost this thing here.” Here, he showed Sarah this small 'box', one of a smooth slick dark-colored plastic. I noticed this out of the corner of my eye, and wondered if I might touch it so as to learn what it felt like. I was not prepared for what happened.

The box jumped out of Sarah's hands, and shot into mine such that I had to catch it like a flung rock.

“Now that acts like something fit for an old tale,” said the man. “Now, then, there was his collar.”

“Collar?” said Sarah. I could hear the alarm in her voice, and as I saw the obvious latching mechanism of the device sitting in my hands, as well as several rows of contacts inside its metallic shell, I knew the device itself was very important. I dug out a pair of gold monster coins, and gently tossed them in the man's lap, saying, “I'd like to buy this item, if I may.”

“Sure,” he said, looking at the coins in stunned silence. “This is about half of what I get during a good month here, and it's eating money for much of a month.”

“Running bees, unless one wishes to be continuously sore from their nails, is not known for paying well,” said Sarah. “Now, describe this collar. Did it bulge out somewhat from where it was on the man's neck, with this hinge like that for the lid of a piano in front and and a clasp at the rear, with a greater bulging aspect nearest this hinge?” Pause, “it was not like the collar you might put on a dangerous dog, was it?”

“No, it was just like you said, only that bulging part was easily three fingers for thickness and came down his chest a good hand and a half from the rest of it, and that collar weighed a fair amount.”

“Did this collar have this odd silvery color? I asked. “Did this person smell as if he'd worked especially hard, doing really sweaty work like digging ditches or something similar – as if he had done so for a week without stopping for anything, even eating or sleeping?”

“Yep, it had that color, and he did stink like that,” said the man. “Did he ever stink, and what you said was part of his stink. He smelled bad entirely, almost like he got into High Meats regularly.”

“Did you attempt to retrieve his collar?” asked Sarah.

“We did, only it needed cutting his head off with a knife, careful-like,” said the man. “They was going put him in the manure pile, but it was getting late and the one person among the four of us with the lantern was running low on fuel in that thing, so we left that witch lay where he'd gotten himself hived, and the next day, all of his stuff and his body – it was all gone, his collar as well as his clothing.

“Gone as in vanished, or gone to ashes?” I asked. I was getting a distinct impression about this particular 'witch'. “No loud explosions during the night, correct?”

“Not that night,” said the man. “I hope you-all go up to where the notions are, as I need to get something for my wife there.” His use of the word 'vrou' made me distinctly nervous, as Sarah was most definitely wearing her ring. “She has a ring on her finger, one just like hers.”

“Our ceremony is early in the morning the day after tomorrow,” said Sarah. “In the meantime, we are about crown business of an especially pressing and dangerous nature, and much of our business here and in other places in the days to come pertains to our survival as a people and a planet.” The bee-runner then resumed his talk. He sounded altogether different from the usual, as if he'd not done much traveling at all, and his 'accent', what of it remained, was that of the area of those bridges south of the potato country – or so I surmised. It definitely sounded 'second kingdom', that much I could be certain of.

“He was all gone to ashes, only these ashes were real ashes, not the dust witches sometimes make,” said the man, “only they had some wires and things left in those ashes. They were all corroded badly, as if they'd been burned in a hot fire, so I took them to the west-works in hopes they could find a use for them.”

“As in they might well attempt to refine 'bad' coins and other 'bad' species of metal there?” I asked. “They have a fire-refining setup, only now it actually will work decently, what with new instructions and other matters that have changed or will change very soon?”

“They do decent work there, if you go by that done by most of those people outside,” said the man. “Now I know they could do better as for part of that business, as I used to be a fire-refiner, leastways until my furnace decided it wanted to eat me, and it nearly did that.” Pause. “I had to run for this place, as the fourth kingdom was much too far on foot in burn-clothes, and the same for the marshes, as walking is really hard in the usual for burn-clothing made up here, and the witches were after me the whole way, with lots of coaches and witches riding horseback and on mules, all of them full-loaded and black-faced, and that day and night. I only made it here by moving strictly at night and raiding certain gardens for food.”

“Certain gardens?” I asked. I was wrong about his accent; he was from the first kingdom, or rather, had most-recently gone there. I then realized that while the man most likely had grown up in the second kingdom, he'd found no work fit for him in his birth-region, and had decided to head north as a young man so as to earn a living.

“They had these head-tall wooden stakes pointed out about even to the top and the sides, and they were all tied together by ropes, with these stakes going around the whole of the field save for the gate and its posts,” said the man. “I just got into a tree next to those gardens and jumped inside, got a bag of carrots, and climbed back up on the ropes and jumped back out.”

“That was a witch-garden!” shrieked Sarah. “No commonplace person has those guard-spikes up here.”

“They surely do, or they did in some places if you go about four days of slow walking to the west and such a day's walk south of where we are now,” said the man. “I only bothered the corners of commonplace gardens, as most say they leave those for the poor and those wandering, but few practice what they say, or they did when I saw them last.”

“I know,” said Sarah. “I lived as an itinerant tailor for nearly two years, and I removed a few carrots and a cabbage or two from the corners of fields, as the book says to leave those for the poor and the wanderer.”

“What happened to the ashes of this smelly individual?” I asked. “Everything he had went to ash, correct?”

“It surely did, all of it 'cept that which I took off of him that you gave me two gold pieces for, and some wires that went to the west works, 'cause those looked to be copper of some kind, and I know they can do things with copper, even if the stuff is as bad as anything I've ever seen.”

“Now, another matter,” I said. “Did he leave any soot around the region where his ashes lay?”

“Yep, he left plenty of soot, and that went in the manure-pile as well.” Pause, then, “that was how I knew he was a witch, as he went up like witches do if they've made their bones and got any real number of fingertips in their leather pouches.”

“You know of this?” asked Sarah.

“Sure, 'cause they tried to get me to be one where I was, seeing as how I was a fire-refiner, and I told them I had no time for their rubbish, and I had enough danger in my life refining gold and silver to suit me,” he said. “Now that place over there is the notions shop, and I see this one horse who's got this blanket in his mouth, and this other buggy that's got a decent team – though that buggy has to be sized fit for donkeys and not horses.”

“It is, sir,” said Sarah. “Thank you for your description of this smelly person, as you added no small amount of information as to what we are about to embark upon.”

“You going to take some place?” he asked. “This clothing not only hides my scars from that burn, but also my missing fingers and toes.”

What?” I asked.

“Most of 'em grew back for the most part by the time I'd gone half the first night after I hid myself near the ruins of my shop the rest of the day, and the pain was a lot less by the night after, which is when I started to feel hungry,” he said. “Two toes and one finger never grew back entirely, so I just got stumps of those.” He looked at me penetratingly as I made to dismount, then said, “there's something like that about you, but it's hid really good, and I think I know why you got hair fit for one of those long-haired people from the Valley.”

“You know of them?” asked Sarah in surprise.

“Yes, as they came upon me not ten minutes after my furnace tried to eat me, and they did some things that I had no idea were possible, but I think they had something to do with my survival, and they shot a bunch of witches with these weapons that fire so rapidly it sounded like the noise of the hall when it was going where it belonged.”

“You know about that?” asked our driver.

“I ought to know, seeing as I was in the line with my rifle shooting those witches off the wall!” said the man. “Now, I might want some help getting out, as this boiled leather is stiff stuff and my joints aren't the best.”

Here, I learned about Georg's 'tailgate', which worked so well I suspected that which was on Anna's buggy had been both copied and 'improved'. My suspicions about that were confirmed but a moment later.

I had other suspicions, however, about what our 'bee-master' had told us: unlike that far-too-obvious rigging charge, what had been fitted to this one particularly smelly blue-clothed wretch was far less obtrusive, if no less effectual.

It simply removed all real evidence of his presence – ultimate deniability, this of the ultimate nature – as this whole affair didn't smell of what fetishes commonly did. I shook out Jaak's blanket, folded it, then leaped into the 'saddle'.

Sarah wasted not a minute, for her horses had remained harnessed; and with but a few words from Sarah to the 'machinist' about possibly adjusting certain matters on the buggy, and then Sarah correcting our 'guide' regarding his heavy-handed approach to driving a team of such horses – the latter mounted up, and led the two of us off toward the 'oil refinery'.

That meant 'back into the jungle', and seeing this coming made me exchange my part-full magazine in the machine-pistol for a full one. This time, I thought most clearly to myself, 'lock the magazine in place fully' – meaning, insert it fully, then check that it was indeed seated by wiggling it or trying to withdraw it – and then chamber a round, namely 'load'. I did not bother setting the safety to 'safe'; I put my finger beside the trigger-guard, such that I could reach inside it as I lined up on the threat.

Milliseconds counted when one could encounter 'spies' in the 'jungle'.

Chucky,” I muttered under my breath. “That's who this is. It's Chucky.”

Who are you speaking about?” asked Sarah. “I've never heard that name before in my life!”

“These stinking spies,” I muttered. “Now hist, dear.” This was a whisper. “These people...”

I didn't get to finish my speech, as a thrashing came through the brush, and I barely turned in time to see one of the people in question come out of the brush in full nightmare-blue regalia, silver colored-collar and all – and I ripped a burst into the thug's chest and he ignored it...

For perhaps as long as it took his feet to trip each other up and send him sprawling, with his weapon flying across the path under Jaak.

“Dear!” I shouted. “Cover that weapon!”

I dismounted, sliding off Jaak's side like no one's business, covering the still-thrashing spy as he tried to rise and found it a bit much. I set to single fire as I inched closer, slow noiseless steps; at a range of perhaps five feet, I tapped the trigger twice, lining up on his head carefully. Blood, bone chips, and brains flew in a shower of gore as his head erupted twice. My thoughts then turned to Sarah, only I backed away from Mr. Spy so as to cover her as she picked up the thug's weapon. She then grunted with the effort.

“What is this thing?” she squeaked. “It's long, it's as heavy as a boarding musket, and...”

“Boarding musket, eh?” I asked, upon seeing a weapon that looked too much like one of those finger-biting shoulder-crushing can't-keep-the-bullet-holes-on-the-paper weapons I had had to fire during my first 'match'. The resemblance was absolutely uncanny, save for one chief difference.

There was a substantial-size magazine protruding from the bottom of this weapon, and the metal on this version of an 'M1' was of that mottled gray-black color. I found the magazine catch on the protruding metal portion ahead of the trigger guard, pressed it, and removed the magazine. I then hauled back on the operating rod handle, waiting for a positive 'click' to indicate it had locked back. There wasn't one, so I had to hold it back in position while I checked the chamber.

A round, long, deadly-looking, and positively mean, had meanwhile leaped out for Sarah to catch. She looked at it, then said, “this one shows a lead tip, but the rest of it is copper. What does that mean?”

“Stinking wretch wanted to make sure whoever he hit went down and stayed down, solid hits or not,” I spat, as I looked once more up the chamber to ensure it was indeed 'dry' before turning the operating rod handle loose. It went home with the crack of a bear-trap. It made for a question.

“Are these the kind of weapons that bite the hands that feed them?”

“Yes, only that one's been thoroughly overhauled and had most of its wear-prone parts rebuilt or replaced, and that spy you just shot in the head wasn't a common example,” said the soft voice. “He didn't have the clothing of that one you shot in the Public House, nor a fraction of his training, but like every spy you've shot in this place, this fellow has one of those devices attached to his clothing. Get it, quickly and make your search rapid, as he's got an 'accelerated decomposition' device in his clothing.”

“Get that, toss it clear, and maybe we can keep parts of his clothing,” I muttered. “Best drown it in a bucket, so we have some to show the others, and that...”

I wasted no time: I went back to 'Mister Spy', kicked him over as if he were a soccer ball, and unzipped his bloodstained and bullet-torn clothing – and then I noticed his shoes. I removed those – they too were of that weird shade of blue which had trouble making up its mind, at least as to its tint. I looked directly up for an instant, and saw how the lighting varied noticeably in the 'jungle'.

“That clothing actually works here, and in, uh, woodlots, and...” Pause, as I thought. “Do these stinkers tend to stay in woodlots as much as they possibly can and otherwise move during the wee hours of the morning and just after sundown?”

“No, and for a very good reason,” I heard. “Their night vision is worse than that of a trashed black-dressed witch.”

“And in this stuff?” I asked, meaning the 'jungle' in Ploetzee.

“They do 'reasonably' well,” said the soft voice. “You have about five minutes to check that thug's clothing and gear over, as he's got one of those less-obtrusive types of 'self-cremation gear' present, and there isn't anything you can do to prevent him and all his equipment from going up in smoke.”

“Unless I find and remove that data module he's got,” I murmured, as I began rifling through the thug's clothing. “No ID, so... His chest. Rip his underclothing, I'll find it there.” I went toward the unbelievably smelly wretch's neck, then found first a greenish 'nylon-feeling' undergarment – it had a slick feeling, one that was cold and death-chilled – then under that, a soft white garment, this absorbent, soft, like whole-body underclothing sewn by Sarah of 'fine linen'. Out came a smaller knife, and I cut a small swatch from that stuff. It wasn't rigged, even if that intermediate 'nylon-feeling' clothing functioned as an oxidizer of some kind and the outer stuff was immanently burnable as a fuel. I cut pieces off of the other two, and moved all three swatches well to the side, some foot or more away from each other. I then found a silvery chain around the thug's neck under his collar, and reaching into my possible bag, I found my wirecutters, these a longer-handled and better-finished duplicate of a pair that had come in my workbench, this pair using that steel I had then used in knife blades; and with a silent prayer upon my lips – first, that this chain wasn't part of a rigging scheme, and second, that these cutters would do the job without undue damage – I snipped the chain's links: first one, and then the other.

They were a bit on the tough side, but otherwise they cut readily, and I removed an aluminum disk the diameter of a gold monster coin, one with an odd blue-black metallic-looking backside, and the whole of this odd disk in a conformal clear plastic pouch. That went well away from the other things. Finally, I began ripping the man's clothing off, this in a race against time, knife at the ready and cutting cloth when and where time mattered more than all else.

I soon had help, only Sarah had a distinct aspect of chill which she expressed in her speech.

“This is one of those thugs out of my dreams, all right, only he isn't a commonplace thug for over there,” she said. “He's a really bad thug.”

“Bad, as in..?” I asked. I was racing the clock, trying to find that infernal black 'device' that looked like plastic and was a species of metal in truth.

“Tricky,” said Sarah. “This type changes their clothing a lot.”

“They soil it from fright?” asked our 'guide'. He was wondering about the footwear, at least until the 'shoe' he was holding began smoking in his hands and he tossed it some distance away.

“No, they have as many disguises as I have different articles of clothing, and they use those to get into people's confidences so as to either kill them themselves or have those other much-more-common thugs murder them in large numbers.” Pause, then, “what are you looking for?”

“The wiring harness,” I said. “This character has not only one of those odd modules, but also a small battery and a wiring harness, and when one of two things happens... There, there it is, the main cable. Now got to find out where it goes to...”

Sarah had found an obvious connector, as well as another of those black 'plastic' modules. I took the connector from her without further ado, then unclipped it and unplugged the module.

“You've now got about twenty more minutes to look him over at length, as that device had a countdown timer and was about to 'start' those two layers of clothing's reaction,” said the soft voice. “Be glad those people are not that common over there.”

“There are more than nine of these stinkers, aren't there?” I asked.

“Some hundreds at this time, but a fairly large percentage of them rotate over here for a time to become 'seasoned',” said the soft voice. “They tend to travel underground for the most part, and while they go back below as a rule before sundown due to severe night-blindness...”

“Those other spies do not have that problem,” I said.

“No, but they do have a rather limited range they can travel away from their supplies,” said the soft voice. “These people do not have such limitations, and while their level of training tends to be less – usually a lot less – they are currently a good deal more common, especially in certain parts of where you will be going.”

For some reason, the word 'parts' became 'tracks', 'sectors', 'cylinders', and especially, the word 'nodes', as in the too-familiar programming concepts I knew from my last session in college.

“This thing has an anti-tampering device, isn't it?” I asked.

“It has one built-in, but you removing it from its power-source automatically deactivated that portion of the software,” said the soft voice. “That's loaded in the device's volatile memory, which is part of the device's processor itself. The important data is written to non-volatile memory, much like that card you received.”

“Non-volatile...Flash?” I asked. I'd had a few of those small devices where I had last lived, and I kept them well-hid as 'emergency' devices, namely I'd kept critical system files and data on those and kept them on a string near my bed. I only updated those periodically, unlike the laptop which went by my bedside for when I was ill and needed to stay in bed. I worked on matters as I could then just the same.

“No, it isn't that type,” said the soft voice. “It has a fraction of the leakage current of static random access memory where you came from – a very small fraction. Then, the power source recharges when it's being used, and then finally, it can hold that charge and keep the devices' information 'alive' for many years – and they hold a lot of information, more than you might believe possible.”

“Many years?” I asked.

“Decades,” said the soft voice. “How many decades depends on just how well-made the devices are. Common ones, figure 'at least thirty years' if they're not used once during that timeframe. The good ones, like the one you received earlier today... Closer to a hundred, and that's if they're not plugged into a computer during that time. Do that with any frequency at all, even briefly, and the device will essentially not forget anything unless you smash it with an eight-pound sledgehammer or toss it in a forge blown to a welding heat.” Pause, then, “put those cloth swatches in separate sample bags, the smaller ones Sarah brought with her, and then put both modules in a fourth one. They'll be very interested in those overseas – all of those things.”

I did so, noting that I had partly ripped the clothing off of the man, and noted not merely that I had kept my burst's shots in a commendably tight pattern, but that I had also hit him with all of the half-dozen shots I had originally fired.

Why did that stinker ignore being shot, then?” I thought, as I began to get ready to remount. I wanted to be well clear of this stinky thug when his clothing suddenly decided to react, and when I put his weapon in Sarah's buggy, she looked askance at me.

“We'll put it in the museum after showing Karl and Sepp,” I said. “Do they have many of these?”

“Yes, but finding ones in that kind of condition takes real doing over there,” said the soft voice. “Most of them are in much worse shape, and do well to actually fire single shots.”

“And that one?” I asked. I then had a distinct intimation. “Is that thing capable of full-auto fire?”

“Yes, and it's a lot worse than anything you've fired that way,” said the soft voice. “More, it isn't like what you once fired at that one match for recoil.”

“Is that one worse?” I asked, my voice filled with dread.

“Yes, and not a little worse,” said the soft voice. “That thug spent months learning to cope with the weapon's recoil alone by firing it daily, and then he spent further months learning to actually hit what he was aiming at while shooting those rounds.”

“How accurate are those weapons?” I asked.

“A well-maintained example, like the one you just recovered?” asked the soft voice. “About as accurate as a well-made version of one of those awful-feeling rifles you fired once and said 'never again'.” Pause, then, “the usual for those things, especially the well-worn examples, is quite a bit worse – and that in all ways, not just what you noticed then.

As if to supply a rejoinder, the clothing of the thug: torn, tattered, bullet-ripped, and now blood-soaked – suddenly began smoking, then as I watched, the smoke turned first to a human-shaped sea of inch-tall flames – flames that then became several feet high and brilliant white with flashes of red-orange less than a second later. The heat of this fire was so intense that we all had to back away from the sparkling flames and billowing sooty smoke that threatened to engulf the jungle with darkness, and when the flames finally died down amid thick and choking clouds of smoke some ten to twelve seconds after the start of these spectacular 'fireworks', all that was present was a scorched portion of the 'jungle', some smoking ashes mounded in the vague shape of the thug, and what might have been the mostly-melted remains of the thug's wiring harness.

“Why was he wearing that gear?” I asked. “Biometric data?”

“That, detection of potential desertion – that is thought to warrant preemptive action – a high level of real-time control while out of reach of his base, and then the capacity to record everything he saw, smelled, felt, and touched,” said the soft voice. “Essentially, he was rigged up as a portable sensory suite, and the reason he was issued his weapon was in order to hopefully find those 'running' this community and then assassinate them.” Pause. “Failing that, he was to cause as much trouble as possible while killing as many people as he possibly could with it.”

“One magazine?” I asked. He appeared to be issued but one such item, which seemed ridiculous with such a weapon. Common sense said 'issue as many as can be readily carried'. “How many..?”

“Twenty, same as the number of rounds which was seen in a fairly large number of intercepts,” said the soft voice. “He was only issued with the one magazine, as he was not trusted with more than a total of twenty rounds.”

“Well-beyond-paranoid leadership, then,” I murmured, as we resumed our trek through the 'jungle'. “Don't trust anyone, not even those they know well from long years of intrusive around-the-clock observation.”

Orwell had nothing on these people, which then gave me an idea. I almost laughed with the knowing of it.

“That is a grave weakness, and it lends itself readily to exploitation,” said the soft voice. “Just taking down their networks will cause a great deal of trouble among certain levels of their leadership.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Those levels are primed to see disloyalty everywhere? No matter what actually happens, if it's not what they expected to see in all possible ways, those they had 'trusted' have become... No, not that. They always were traitors of the very worst stripe, and only now have made the final act in their long-plotted goal to kill their leaders?”

“Got it in one, even if you underestimated greatly just how paranoid those groups of people actually are,” said the soft voice. “Getting so many of their spies in this area this quickly isn't helping matters one bit over there.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “Now I smell distillate, and a lot of it. I hope whoever is running that still has doused his fire, as he's about ready to blow up half of Ploetzee otherwise.”

“He has, dear,” said the soft voice. “The west-works has one of the main 'tickers' in Ploetzee, and someone there told those three running that mess to shut it down post-haste.” Pause, then, “the only reason that place hasn't blown up is that it's a marked-only job, and more, those marked who are chosen to run it are specially observed at some considerable length and then trained most-carefully – if they don't already have considerable skill and training, much as the current individuals do to a man.”

“Observed carefully?” I asked.

“People like those two 'machinist's helpers' would not be allowed in the general area of the distilling apparatus, much less past the place's walls and gates,” said the soft voice. “Those working there not only have to have markings they are born with, but they also have to have spent well over a decade proving themselves, usually doing things like Kommando on the outside or similarly dangerous matters, before they'll even be considered, same as matters generally are for that powder mill here.”

“And they'll have the stuff waiting, correct?” I asked.

“Now they will,” said the soft voice. “They might let you look at their current setup, but then again, you don't have time to do much in the way of looking, and then have little need to spend a lot of time, given what's present on that memory device.”

“Especially as I can probably tell you what kind of setup they are using by the smell alone,” said Sarah. “The only differences of note from those places in the fifth kingdom I have seen are probably the size of the equipment, where it is located, and who is running it.”

“More than that, but not much more,” said the soft voice. “This setup is a bit safer than what is commonly used in the fifth kingdom, due to the use of steam for heating that stage of the process which gives up light distillate.”

“And a small burnt-coal fire for the 'heavy distillate' cut,” I said. “Both of those initial cuts of distillate have little use here at this time, even if they are stored carefully.” Pause. “The main thing here, the main 'cash product' from that 'tar-lake', is that this place makes 'ready-to-use' tool-cleaner of an especially good species, which sells well in the overall area at a premium price.”

“Now that's the truth,” said our 'guide', “even if it tends to eat tools as much as it cleans 'em.” Pause, then as he sniffed, “they doused their fire, and are emptying out that thing's last-ever run. It will all be cut up for scrap within days at the most.”

“Doused the fire?” I asked.

“Each run takes three days,” said our 'guide'. “The first day gets steam under the still, and that one we get light distillate out of, though not that much cause it leaks out a lot; then the second day with a bit more-intense heating using a small fire in a fire-pot, which gives heavy distillate; and then what is left in the still gets cleaned out with specially shaped bronze-headed spoons and rakes.” Pause, then, “that tarry stuff either gets mixed with burnt-coal so as to make it into bricks for easily-stored fuel that makes little smoke, it gets jugged up for tool cleaner to be sold, or some gets painted on the black-roads here now and then, so's to keep them good.”

“Not very often for such painting,” said Sarah. “I see little sign of flames around here, and they burn that stuff into the High Way every year during High Summer.”

“This we make here don't need that,” said our 'guide'. “It's a good bit thinner than the usual for road-tar, so if one warms it a bit with a hot-water boiler, and then scrubs it in those black-roads every so often, then the roads stay good.”

“That, and the roads here get much less traffic, and usually lighter-weight traffic, if one compares them to the High Way,” said Sarah – whose voice then went up an entire octave, so much so that she was now screeching. “Phew! That stuff smells worse than any exudate I have ever smelled!”

“We'll be glad for that new setup here,” said our 'guide'. “You know where else you got to go before you go back to the main Public House and then up the shaft to the top?”

Sarah shook her head, though I knew what and who we would see on our way to the main Public House most likely involved gunning down any more spies we might encounter. It made me wonder if we would be watched as we went downriver and then into the varied shallow-water channels off the west coast of the mainland.

“We'll wish that rocket-launcher for the trip,” I murmured, “and at least three full packages of rockets, as we'll find a use for it on the way to the port – and possibly where we are going, also.”

“How so?” asked Sarah. “Ships from Norden?”

“Those did enter my mind,” I murmured. “Now this, uh, walled compound is up ahead, and the walls near the base are nearly as thick as they are tall, they're nearly ten feet tall with a pair of narrow gates, the walls themselves have broken glass as well as sharpened sticks embedded in the top to act like, uh, barbed wire...”

I then thought, this coming strangely and yet unbidden:


Erect your fences, barbéd wire,

Watch-towers with their guns...


A faint aura, one that spoke of something nightmarish looming fast and spreading widely at a faster-yet speed, seemed to settle softly upon us like a night-misting rain; and I could feel, faintly at first, billows of fast-spreading fear proceeding unto terror and then blooming into rabid paranoia. First one huge musket boomed close enough to make me jump, then another 'cannon' a second later; then bangs, crashes, and booms ripped through the whole of Ploetzee as the entire populace turned out and caught a small mob of blue-suited functionaries that had somehow come into the area. It made for a comment.

“Maybe that one character I shot in the Public House snuck in here,” I spat, as we drew yet closer to that distillate processing location, this one walled off well from the rest of the place to the same degree as the powder mill, “but there's someone in this town who's a real traitor, and I think I know who it is!”

“Who would it be?” asked Sarah.

“This one man who masquerades especially well as a preacher, and is in truth a most-serious witch in preachers' guise, just like the hall wanted preachers to be in truth,” I said. “He was selected specially by the hall years ago, he was a graduate in high standing at Boermaas who graduated a few years before your cousin, the arch-witch then presiding over the hall personally cut two of his fingers off and then drove him here on foot at a dead run with a fowling piece loaded with stiff shot, and he did not stop running that stripped-naked whip-lashed man he'd disfigured for anything, as he wanted him to know that he had to earn his way back into the world of witchdom – and our arch-witch cared not a whit if his new-made slave lived or died, as he had that stinker's severed fingers to make him his personal boot-slave once he'd entered the embrace of Brimstone.”

This seemed utterly too much. I had to pause, but the need to speak was too strong. I continued.

“...his hand became badly infected, but because he was a 'strong' witch and they bathed him especially good once he stumbled down the path weak from blood-loss, he survived...” My voice seemed to be fading in and out, much as if I were in the grip of a time of especially-needed prayer. I did not feel all the way here, much as when I had been taken to that darkened house all those years ago so as to turn on the lights and drive the evil out of it thereby; I could no longer tell if I was still 'here' on this 'plane of existence' or not, just like then.

“...so he had his 'credentials' here due to his being disfigured and the witches had a hold upon him yet due to some special curse that still works involving fingers, that and the witches gave him a cursed-at-some-length map so as to know how to get down to another shaft of the secret way, one that the witches running the Swartsburg had known of for many years.” Pause, then, “they knew it was located directly under this place, just like with a lot of other old maps of where that place runs that they had or maybe still have.”

“Then why are these blue-suited thugs showing, and not the usual witches who wear black everything?” asked our 'guide'.

“Because...” I paused, then asked, “that shiny shot that some witches get in modest quantities, and perhaps some other things.” Pause. “How do they get that stuff, and from whom do they get it?”

Sarah looked at me in horror, her mouth soundlessly opening wider like a drowning fish just pulled free of its world and into a realm of death and immolation.

“Then, how do those stinkers so reliably manage to buy up so many special things as if they know precisely when and where they will arrive,” I said, “much as if they received m-messages from the mouth of God – when in reality, they are somehow getting them from another source – and I do not mean 'Brimstone's minions show up in the midst of sacrifices, like they used to do long ago prior to the war', either.”

I had to pause, this to drink and settle my dust-dry throat. I continued after draining a mug of beer. “Those over there across the sea are playing a deep and wide game of cards, one with a marked deck whose marks only they are able to see, and they do so here as much as anywhere else.”

“And then those smelly people at the Abbey...” Sarah looked once more at me, so much so that when the jungle gave way to a clearing with its centerpiece a tall-walled compound roofed by tiles, she could say nothing – unlike our 'guide'.

“That is not what I recall seeing there before,” said our 'guide'. “We used to have thick stone walls for that place, two of them, one inside the other, but they were not so thick as these I see now, nor nearly so tall, and now that stuff atop them is straight out of an old tale.”

“Barbed wire,” I muttered, at seeing the thick quintuple-stranded 'concertina-type' razor-wire with angled metal supports every foot or so atop the outer 'mud'- covered fence. Even I could tell this stuff wasn't mud – that was mere camouflage – though there was an added question, one that needed asking; and its answer, one that demanded action. I bore the responsibility regardless, hence my heated language:

“Where's the watchtower, and why isn't this place here guarded day and night with blazing spotlights and hot guns manned by itching-to-kill guards?” Pause, then, “no matter. That spy-master dies before we leave, and his house gets rigged good so no one tries that one again.”

“And those spies that remain?” asked our 'guide'?”

“He can only house so many of them at a time,” I said calmly while my mind positively raced, and my further speech became forced, the words spewing out as if 'pressured' by a raving species of mania. “It now makes a lot more sense,” I said. “Those stinkers have their supplies in his basement, they hide themselves there during the night while they're in here spying, they can only have so many of them in this area without becoming too obtrusive and making the town aware of their presence, and there are a handful of locations in this enclave that those sending them wish to keep watch over – and, one day, take control of.” I paused, then, “that one shop was one, because of its strategic location in relations to that elevator shaft at this location because it has something they want; that powder mill..? Maybe, and maybe not for that place.”

I had to pause to think. Here, I knew not what to do. How did I signal to those inside? Had their walls been somehow secretly breached and those inside, chosen carefully, were now dead and replaced by blue-dressed thugs trained at length to blend in especially well with the locals? Nothing had changed in so long here that that was altogether possible, given their lengthy documentation of this location compiled by generations of spies like that first one I had shot.

“Another part of the puzzle,” I muttered. “Those spies have been coming here so as to accelerate the rate of decay and win over people to their confidence in the Public Houses by mingling among them and spreading dissension, and in the process learning the true secrets of how this place has endured as well as it has for so long.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. She sounded perplexed. I then noticed our 'guide' had picked up a 'rock', one which had been wedged in the crotch of a tree on the edge of the clearing about this place, that being easily fifty feet in all directions, with the road near the trees. He was about to toss it, or so I guessed.

“What...”

“This is how they inside there know it's me,” he said, as he took out a piece of red chalk and began to make marks upon this smooth dark-blue 'rock'. “I write something I know on this piece of pottery that they would know, and I do it with varied colors of chalk, so they can rub the markings off afterward and I can put the rock back where I usually leave it.” Pause, then, “we agree on the password between us before I leave each time, and the same for the color of chalk I'll write the words with, and I tell no one, and neither do they.”

“Good,” I muttered. “You've got a crude species of one-time cypher pad, and you don't...”

“They manage a good bit better than that,” said the soft voice. “Those two men grew up together from the time they were young children, and the markings he uses are things only the two of them would understand – and neither of them have told anyone else in this town or elsewhere about what they agree about.” Pause, then, “doing the same thing repeatedly will get you caught out by a too-numerous enemy with little else to do beyond watch your every move and the utter lack of morality that makes no action 'unthinkable'.”

“And these people know that,” I said.

“Some of those currently living here, yes,” said the soft voice. “Your eliminating that source of ongoing trouble will help them considerably, as the current plan of action by the masters of those 'spies' is 'sub-rosa operations as long as they continue their downward spiral into our hands, while transitioning into a state of active warfare should they decide to reverse what we are doing in any meaningful way'.”

“And hence we must destroy their base and trap their house – with multiple traps, no less.” I then had an idea.

“There's a gas-tight, uh, hatch going to that part of the secret way, correct?” I asked.

The sense I had was 'indeed there is. What do you have in mind?'

“Fumigation,” I murmured. “Toss a really nice and sizable fumigator down that hole, close the hatch and dog it down tight, and let those fools send more witches into this area so as to kill off a whole lot of them.” Pause, then, “oh, and not a normal fumigator, either, but a really nasty one, one worthy of giving the Toxic Lady nightmares that would leave her a mound of ash upon first morning's light.”

There was no answer, and while our 'guide' tossed his rock to land with a faint thump inside the 'compound', followed by soft footfalls that only I seemed able to hear – I also seemed to 'feel' a presence, one manifested by slow soft steps coming closer. These stealth-masters were indeed tricky, but as I silently chambered a round in my machine-pistol, I seemed to 'lock' onto their locations, and as I turned and saw one suddenly break out of the trees, time came to a sudden, total, and complete halt.

Finger in the trigger guard as thumb finds the selector switch. Flip it all the way up to get repeat-fire. A short piston-like press, perhaps a third of a second. Four, perhaps five rounds are on the way with a thundering pounding roar, this long, drawn out, and echoing in my mind.

The pounding of my shoulder causes me to ignore the sudden bursts of blood on the functionary's chest as his rifle begins to fall and I begin turning. My finger let up, then again, as the sights lined up on functionaries number two and three, I fired first another burst...

One, two, three, four, five, pause...

One bullet, then another; one for each eye. Sent specially, as this one is as hard as they come.

Bang. The left eye explodes and his head snaps back as brains spray out of the back of his head. Bang, there goes the right eye, the same thing happens once more, only less. His head is now as empty of brains as if it were that of an Egyptian mummy.

Behind him and a bit to the side, his rifle at the ready, moves the third functionary. He's glowing red like a bad fetish, and when I aim 'center of mass' and squeeze off a burst, he doesn't 'blossom-red'...

He disintegrates in a massive eruption that flings his slow-falling 'head-guard' up limp and lifeless into a tree, where he detonates like a massive green-white-red flashbulb. I barely get time to look at the man I had first dropped – his head was up from where he lay dying in a fast-growing pool of blood, but blood was billowing out of his mouth like he was about to die – when he disintegrated in a blast that sent body parts flying to within perhaps two feet of where I stood.

The red mist of death hovered about and over the land. I put my weapon on safe, now removing the magazine and inserting a full one, then as I had done with the magazine I had removed but a handful of minutes before, I began slipping new cartridges into the part-empty magazine. I figured I wanted at least a dozen rounds in this one, if not 'full minus three'; and I wanted all of my magazines topping-full when it came time to take that one witch-house, as I'd most likely empty most if not all of them there.

Only then did I come to myself, rocked back and stumbling in the aftermath of three rapid blasts fit for a trio of those strange green 'cans' called training aides.

“Thank God those thugs weren't filled with Cyclohexanite,” I muttered. “Now what did I do?” My ears were still ringing like the chimes of a huge cathedral. I then saw Sarah holding another of those rifles, and our 'guide' was gone.

“What gives with this thing?” he yelled from somewhere nearby. “I ain't never seen a spear on the end of a gun!”

“I've read of those,” said Sarah knowingly. “Now there were three stinkers, and I know now we must take that witch-house so as to put a stop to these thugs coming for us like this.”

“How many of them are left?” I thought, as our 'guide' returned with another person, this individual holding one of those 'detachable-magazine M1 rifles' as was our 'guide'. Three more such weapons, for a total of four. I wanted to get all of these weapons I could, as I suspected they could be used by our people – those of them suited for roer-work, that is, as these things were in that category for recoil.

“Those explosions tossed these things good,” said our 'guide', “but this is weird. This one has a knife on the end, like he expected to use it like a swine-spear.”

“A bayonet, sir,” I said. “Were they called that here, dear?” Again, the question, this thought yet unspoken: “how many more of these stinkers are there in Ploetzee?”

This time, I received answers: first from Sarah, then the voice I most needed to hear in the whole of time and space.

“Those 'knives' were used in that war long ago, though their most common users were the common soldiers owned by the witches over them, or so the tapestries speak,” said Sarah. “These people, I am not sure, even if I do recognize that type of gun-knife.”

“You do?” I asked, as I heard another voice saying the precise same thing as I had just heard.

“Yes, from both tapestries and in my dreams,” said Sarah. “Those smelly blue thugs use such guns to keep their people in line, much like the witches of this area did before the war, and their soldiers were issued such knives to convert their rifles and muskets into spears should they lose or fire off all of their ammunition.”

“Exactly,” I said. “They were used that way where I c-came from.” I then whispered, “over the top!”

“That was on that tapestry I bathed for!” shrieked Sarah. “The soldiers would gather their masses in trenches, all of them full-loaded and black-faced...”

“Full-loaded, meaning full stores of ammunition and bombs on their persons, with no food or water carried, as they did not expect to return,” I said. “Their faces and clothing were a mottled black so as to not stand out in the darkness – which is where the term 'full-loaded and black-faced' actually came from originally. It means something entirely different in that black book, as that deals with 'real witches' and not 'half-baked supplicants at best'. I then asked the question once more as to the number of remaining spies.

“Fewer than you have fingers on one hand,” said the soft voice. “You know what to do to that house that's next to the church – the one where the 'preacher' lives.”

“Kill all that lives which is inside it, and then burn it to the ground, leaving nothing of use to witchdom as a warning and a reminder,” I said – though there was more than a hint of question in my statement, a statement taken from the 'section' of the book named Jozua.

“No, you do not wish to burn that house to the ground,” said the soft voice, “nor do you wish to make that much of a mess inside it, as a new occupant will be living in it soon enough.” Pause, then, “you do want to get into the basement and look that location over carefully, as that information is critical to both here and where you will be traveling to in the next few days. Otherwise, though – you will wish to kill everyone you find that is inside that place.” Pause, then, “that will deal with the remainder of those spies that are currently present here.”

“Good,” said our 'guide' emphatically. “You got three more o' them exploding witches, and I'm about twice more than angered at 'em tryin' to cause trouble.”

“No trying for these people, Jonas,” said the other man. “They've been succeeding at it handsomely, and that for many years.”

The lilting 'Irish' speech of this man absolutely marked him as being from the central part of the fourth kingdom, and I was not prepared for Sarah's reaction – she not only moved on this man as if to greet him effusively, but she also seemed to both know him and respect him greatly.

“He might not be Ivo,” she said as she embraced him about the waist, “and Annistæ could teach him much, but he was a lecturer at the west school, and I sat under him for my first four years.”

“Until an experiment went wrong in one of the labs at the west school, and I was burnt badly and had to leave all that I once prized,” he said. “Most in the central part of the fourth kingdom think witches to be scarce, but that is but the seeming and not the truth; and I had coaches and brigands after me from my starting out three nights later until I found sanctuary in here, as the marshes need you knowing someone inside of there to get inside.” Pause. “Not even traveling with a large group of travelers kept my life safe, as the witches killed all of those people in an attempt to kill me, and I barely escaped with my life then. I was washing out shot and dropping balls for days whenever I bathed after that nighttime attack.”

“Burned?” I asked, this a bit warily. “Were you attempting to improve that one particular oil – that stuff that involves working with distillate and some other chemicals, tallow among them? By direct orders of the king, as a workable outcome was deemed needed for the kingdom's survival?”

“Aye, and even with the work of that equipment being done by the best firms and careful assembly by those of us working on it, it was not enough to keep those fumes where they belonged,” he said, “so some got too close to an unshielded candle, and the place blew itself to hell and sent me higher than the second story of a house setting across the cobbles when it scattered itself to the four winds.”

“And seeing things like this mess here tears my underclothing into three pieces,” spat our 'guide'. “We have witch-trouble, and that means we must rouse the entire town so as to hunt them down.”

“No, Jonas,” said the 'refiner'. “You want to listen to him, and listen with both of your ears and think on what you hear most-carefully, as anyone who could take the Swartsburg twice and come out more or less unhurt both times will know more than all of us summed together about doing things to witches.” Pause, then, “and that does not include those other things. How he lived through the third ditch still mystifies me, even if how he killed all of those thugs does not.”

I nodded, this most uncomfortably. I still had words for them, though. “All that is needed is a small group of men and women, this composed of the best shots, and those people need to be gathered quietly, so as to not alert those stinkers,” I said. “Perhaps a dozen or so shooters, but all of them need arming with either roers or larger fowling pieces, each gun to be stuffed with loads of stiff shot for close-work. They'll need to surround the house while taking what cover they can – and if they have rotating pistols, they'll wish those also, with the more of those they have the better.”

The 'refiner' seemed to grin. “I've just about cleaned out that kettle of tar, so we can start cutting it up once it cools entirely.” Pause, then, “just let me get my roer and my bag, and I can help you. I've gone out on Kommando many times, and my notch-sticks are about due for the starting of a third one.”

“Recently?” asked Sarah. “Have you done such work recently?”

“He's the one for the tough businesses,” said our 'guide'. “He can track almost anything that leaves a trail, and then, it is not just his roer that the witches need to fear.” Pause, then, “they also need to fear his rifle, as it is done fit for the marshes, and I've seen him make long shots with it, ones fit for three-inch guns firing round-shot for distance, and he's dropped witches many times.”

“Aye, and twice I've shot hard-witches with that one,” said the 'refiner'. “Both of those stinkers dropped where they stood, and they were dead afore they kissed their bloodstained dirt.” Pause, then, “what will the two of you do with that place?”

“We have cleared one witch-warren today,” said Sarah coldly. “This one, we should do much as well as we did the last one.”

“I'll find that stinker,” I said, my voice much colder than Sarah's iceberg-chilled voice. I meant that accursed witch-preacher. “Then she and I will kill his, uh, guests once I do his carcass.”

“That...” Our 'guide' was confused, even if the refiner had 'vanished'. He had a tube to present to us, one wrapped thickly in rags to protect it, and then the rag-wrapped tube to be placed in a small varnished wooden box of a kind used commonly to convey or store things in Ploetzee. One of the carpenter's shops in this town did these with some frequency, often enough in fact to have patterns for them made of 'best' rolled brass and then marked with the needed information so as to build them rapidly. I was then surprised once more, only this time I wanted to hide.

“What you just heard is the sort of planning done by a person who can win consistently against tricky witches,” said the soft voice. “The three of you, get ready to go inside the walls of this place. He needs to show you what is present there, so the two of you who are to leave this town today know under what handicaps he and his two helpers have long labored under – and then, there are two other matters found inside those doubled walls.”

“What would those be?” asked Sarah.

“You might have seen tar-pits as done in the fifth kingdom, but he has not,” said the soft voice. “He's never seen one, here or there. Then, he needs to have an idea as to how large of a space is present inside those walls for the new equipment, as that determines both the scale and the processing possible inside there – and finally, you'll want room for setting up that watchtower he spoke of, though not merely for putting one or more 'heavy weapons' on it.”

“What else will we put there?” I asked, even if I had a clear picture of a smaller artillery piece, like a nineteen millimeter gun. Those could shoot for miles, and they worked well for indirect fire. I could recall a suitable shell type for that species of gun, one that would give El Porko and his sundry friends more trouble than the 'armor-piercing incendiary' rounds we currently had.

“One end of the wire for the main radio transmitter,” said the soft voice, “and the other end will be put at the powder mill, with the lead-in coming into the chief Public House.” Pause, then, “and with what you've done to this place's walls, you've improved their security enough that you don't need to do more right now than look the place over for a minute and then pick up that tube of liquid.”

As Sarah and I, along with our 'guide', made ready to enter the place, those rifles went in Sarah's buggy once I had removed their bayonets and wrapped them in rags. Each of these blades was over a foot long, sharply pointed, thick-spined, and the file-test – I did this quietly, warning the others when I did so so as to not alarm them – showed these knives to have 'decent' steel.

The file still bit slightly, however, which meant 'tough, but not hard enough on the edge or the back to suit me'. I then showed one to Sarah.

“This is much like a corn-knife for size and shape,” she said. “Perhaps we can let Georg use one of these while we are gone.”

Yet while I replied in the affirmative, my chief worry was now making Ploetzee truly secure. It educated my next comments.

“And with that back door closed at that witch-preacher's house, then keeping Ploetzee secure enough to be the haven it should be becomes a whole lot easier,” I thought. I then had an idea, one so outlandish that only what I had been told about such thinking: “how much talk and disinformation were those stinky thugs actually spreading in here? Not just recently, but for a long time?”

Most of it, actually,” said the soft voice. “That accumulated disinformation just added to the stagnation and brought-in witch-thinking that was happening here over the years, but when such 'nonsense' in addition to that ongoing stagnation and 'outside rot' has been going on for many years, the end effects become more and more apparent over time – until like that one 'machinist' said, he'd only really noticed it in the last decade, even though this particular enemy has been working on this place since roughly the time of Cardosso.”

The walls of the place were indeed 'camouflaged' with what looked to be a species of mud, for once inside the head-and-arm-tall first wall, there was a narrow space, perhaps six feet wide, and the walls did indeed taper in thickness on both sides in this narrow pathway. Here, Sarah pointed out not only the way the blocks of stone were laid out, but also, how the inner wall – the thicker of the two, or so she implied – had rounded-edged loopholes, these but barely large enough to permit the thick barrel of a shot-stuffed roer to protrude enough to 'do execution', as she put it. She then mumbled about 'this being a fit place for cut-shot' and how well it worked at close ranges. Hearing that made me wish to make some of it using the hardest lead I could cast.

“Aye, and that works best for close-work, especially if you should dust it well with blacking so it does not clump when the gun is fired,” said the 'refiner' . “I make some now and then, and I use printer's lead for the stuff, same as for those cheese-bullets my rifled gun takes.”

Rifled gun?” I asked.

“The bore of it, land-to-land, is too small for the fitting of a musket-gage, even that size numbered as 'one',” he said. “There was talk of someone who could do special rifling, a type that starts out slow and gains pitch as it travels the bore, and he's said to have such a weapon.” Pause, then, “would you be that person?”

“He is,” said Sarah, “and that rifle drops elk reliably, though I was told it would drop nearly anything we might run into overseas.”

“Gun-shields?” I asked. We had been told about those.

“They have large burrowing rodents over there,” said Sarah. “I can use a flail on those things if I must, that or my sword.” Pause, then, “what worries me are if they have rats like those we needed to deal with at the Abbey.”

“How large are his bullets?” asked the refiner. “Talk has it they resembled lead corncobs for shape, if not size.”

“They do, sir, at least until they are greased,” said Sarah. “It is a most-strange grease, though, as it not only uses blacking, but also tallow, oil, beeswax, and some other things, and it needs cooking and thorough stirring for quite some time to mingle all of its ingredients.”

“I think I will wish some of it, then,” said the man. “Have you measured his bullets?”

“Here is one of them,” said Sarah, as she produced an ungreased and slightly wrinkled example, one that would normally go back in the lead-pot for recasting. “I kept it aside, as I think it came from when the mould was not fully warmed, so it is likely to be a trifle small. I made it out to be twenty-four lines and two hairs, while a common number one musket's bore is around thirty lines.” Pause, then, “he should be able to make you a proper mould once he gets back, though he will be very busy making things that are demanded for our survival as a people – and finally, he is very ill, so much so that I am glad Anna ate grass in hell and fought witches the same day, and lost a toe fighting them.”

“She sounds as if she'd be due to live in a rest-house for the rest of her life,” said the refiner. “Here is the inner gate, and it has a special doorknob, one with neither button or keyhole.” Pause. “Now you try to open it, miss.”

Sarah reached toward the doorknob, which clicked open for her easily. The eyes of both men opened wider.

“Now that says something right there,” said the refiner. “I suspected it of you when you were in my classes, but now that proves it. Either you are marked, or you will become marked, and I do not mean markings that are commonplace, but ones like those of the man you are to be married to.”

Sarah looked at him, shook her head silently, and as she went in, she mumbled about being given to something so huge and 'nasty' it would send most women into a rest-house and make them never wish to leave the farthest corner of their own cloistered room.

“And this is something most-special, correct?” asked the refiner. “Kasper should have that tube boxed up fit for travel soon.”

Kasper?” asked Sarah, her voice shocked and climbing in pitch with each subsequent word. “What happened to him? Jonas? Was he hurt too?”

“Who do you think were the two people helping me try to improve that oil?” asked the refiner. “Ivo had gone home, as he was tired from a long and hard day, and this reaction needed long slow heating, and though the Heinrich works made our reactor, and we were most careful about our sealing, what with Jonas checking the bolts once more like he always did...”

“They did it wrongly,” I said flatly, meaning those who had put a finish fit for a fetish on something that wanted a definite 'tooth' to its sealing surfaces to better hold its gasket material – and leather, even good leather – wasn't a suitable gasket for this reaction, not with the heat and pressures involved. Even replacement of such a gasket after each and every run was doomed to failure, with severe injuries the least of the possible consequences for those involved

These men had done well to survive with severe burns over most of their bodies – burns severe enough to normally mean death within hours. I continued speaking a second or two later, based on what I knew of the needed sealing surfaces. My car's cylinders had needed o-ringing each such surface – the upper portion with two o-rings of rubber to hold the water, and a pair of smaller ones of copper to cope with combustion pressures, while the bottom had needed two o-rings of rubber. Common gaskets leaked on a hard-running engine, and a too-smooth ground finish on the cylinder liners had leaked also – and I didn't need a filthy engine compartment that needed constant cleaning, nor an inclination toward self-ignition whenever I needed to drive real distances in the course of a day.

“They needed to not grind and then scrape those surfaces to a high polish, but jig the sealing surfaces in a tight lathe, indicate each of them in carefully with a 'close' dial-indicator, and then turn the sealing surfaces with a specially ground bit so there were a lot of little grooves to hold the gasket in place, then instead of those nice-looking but bad-working leather sealing gaskets, they should have used oven-softened one-line tin sheet as a gasket and a lot of small bolts for even clamping pressures.” Pause, then, “they only used a few bolts, big 'sloppy-as-Brimstone's hunger' hand-forged ones, thinking they weren't working with something that really likes to leak out of joints that are less than perfect for the job – and those joints needed to be nearly perfect to hold those reactants in place, so as to avoid fires and e-explosions.”

“He did this book on how to make this equipment so it would not need constant prayer to stay alive,” said Sarah. “I'm beginning to wonder about some of the firms in the fourth kingdom, even the good ones, now that I've heard him speak of them.”

“Such as the Heinrich works doing nothing new unless a marked person has an idea and brings it to a finished state for those less capable to work on, and then most of the rest who work there treat much of what they do as if they were a pack of witches making fetishes,” said our 'guide'.

“No, with them it's mostly ignorance and long-perpetuated bad information based on an abysmal level of real knowledge,” I said. “They don't chant, they do try hard, but everything that comes out of there that needs real precision is either done elsewhere, or it's done by marked people – and I need to do a lot more studying on how three-ring sextants work.”

“Those parts you gathered up while tossing those bad fetishes?” asked our 'guide'. “Here, watch your step. They're scooping out the last of that tar into metal buckets with ground burnt-coal in them now, and then that old pot comes down from its plinth tomorrow to get cleaned up and then melted for its copper and bronze.”

We get a fair amount of copper scrap,” I said regarding what we did where I normally worked, “and we'll be getting more sheet-copper scrap shortly, but for really good bronze, you want electrolytic copper and sublimed tin, this latter deposited under an inert gas to prevent oxidation and other bad things from happening to it, then about three parts out of a hundred of electrolytic silver and two parts of electrolytic nickel,” I said. “It will look very much like ordinary bronze, especially if you keep your tin in the range of between ten and fifteen parts out a hundred, but it will melt at a slightly lower temperature than is common for bronze, it will be extremely fluid – it will handle thin sections well and be non-critical regarding gating and shrink-blobs and then it will age-harden if kept near a forge that's used on a daily basis over the course of a week or so.” Pause, then, “failing that, just put it on top of a bread-oven. Those get warm enough to make this happen.”

“How does that work?” asked Sarah. “I'm writing all of this down.”

“The temperature rises and falls in that workpiece over the days' passing due to the use of the forge or oven, and that causes the atoms in the metal to change both their shape and how they arrange themselves in the metal's structure, so the bronze becomes a lot harder and a good deal tougher as well.” Pause, then, “that's the stuff you want for knife-handles and handguards, as it will machine readily and give a good finish, it will be most-disinclined to corrode, and then it work-hardens rapidly, so then it becomes very disinclined toward significant wear.” Pause, then, “It would make great water-pump parts, both reciprocating and rotating types, and I suspect it might work well for some plow parts.”

“No one I know of uses bronze on a plow,” said Sarah.

“This stuff isn't normal bronze, and I do not intend to use much of it on those three plows that are currently in the shop,” I said. “There may be some bronze parts used on them, smaller ones that would work well, but the bulk of those plows' parts will be one or more kinds of iron or steel, and many parts may need to be cast so as to get the right shape readily.”

“Not cast-iron, I hope,” said the refiner. “There's the pot, over there the 'well' where the raw tar-pool sits over it with that cover hanging from it our hoisting equipment to scoop it out as it accumulates, and then here, we have the spare room that used to be used for holding our bins of burnt-coal, that will now be needed for proper apparatus.” Pause, then, “I hope you'll draw it all up and do the parts that must hold pressure, as I'd still like to work on this one type of oil...”

“You...” I paused, then almost laughed. “What were you... Oh-ho! You were trying to make a temperature-resistant extreme pressure lubricant, one you could use in liquid form for heavily-loaded steam engine bearings and cylinders, and while you were making some progress with that stuff, those three tool-making stinkers that more-or-less ran Machalaat Brothers were not inclined toward building anything larger than their usual 'larger' size engine – and you wanted one of theirs that is taller than I am and twice as long as me, with four holes, each succeeding hole larger than that before it to get maximum shaft-power for a given boiler size.” Pause, then, “that sounds like something fit for powering a large concern's machines, or something to drive a ship.”

“Yes, I know,” said Kasper. “It was the king's speaking on the matter, done in no small degree of secrecy, and he was getting people from Boeskmann's to build a ship fit to carry such equipment, and another firm to make the bricks for a suitable boiler, but those stinkers from Machalaat were not about to make an engine with a foot of stroke and nine inches of bore for the smallest hole, with the largest one being nearly twice that for its bore.”

“Oh, my,” said Sarah. “That is twice the size of any engine I have ever seen, either with my own eyes or on a tapestry.” Pause, then, “what would it have done?”

“About as good as a decent wind from directly aft for a good ship,” said Kasper, “and when the wind was decent, it would be looked after as to its oiling and other maintenance while turning slowly if at all, but when the wind was not blowing well, such as it does at night south of the fourth kingdom and on much of the east side of the continent, then such an engine would give us our own wind, and we would make good speed regardless.”

“And hence reliable passage to any given port within its range,” I said. “Not merely reliable passage, but also swift passage, because then one could run at a good speed whether the wind blew well or not, and that whenever one had decent pilots and the other things needed to run safely at night.” I wanted to add, “you'd want radar and a radio, but first things first.”

I then almost laughed. “Sir, I have a sextant to make first, and then some other engines – none of them running distillate, mind you – but I do suspect we can eventually do up something fit for such a ship.” Pause, then, “I warn you, however – it is most likely not going to be nearly as large or as heavy as what Machalaat would have made.”

“You?” asked Kasper.

“How large of a boat would this have been, and how fast would you wish it to go?” I asked. “If I go by what you described for a powerplant, this boat is not particularly small, and an extreme of speed is not the wish of the king.”

“No, just the commonest-sized ones they slide down their ways when they put them on the water,” said Kasper. “That is a ship about forty paces for its length and perhaps eight paces for wide, with the faster ones being that width and about ten added paces for length, and some a bit narrower yet for the same lengths, if they are expected to make good time in the strong-wind zone, or as one man does... If they are to be used for making charts all about the continent, where winds are often fickle and his traveling a dangerous matter, hence he must carry first-class artillery, ample ammunition, and a good gunner to train his pieces.” Pause, then, “now, look about you. Tell me what you see.”

“I first see a boiler, and I was wrong about its crudeness, as this one isn't a badly-made boiler,” I said. “It's just the person who did it had no idea just how tight it needed to seal so as to not be a deathtrap, and he did it fit for distilling mash into Geneva, not processing that tarry seep into the various grades of distillate.” Pause, then, “it would have worked quite well for Geneva, actually, or for distilling water – nice wide mouth, good shape to the arm, very gradual curves, and a good matching of the cap to that sealing surface, so it would need little rye paste to seal tight were he to build a still for Geneva.. It's a lot easier to clean than the usual for that style of distillery.”

“He was said to be especially good at making copperware, if little else,” said Kasper. “I think you are right. Now, what will it take?”

“First, a steam boiler, much like that one there,” I said, pointing to a sturdy-looking assembly of cast bronze and riveted copper – again, a well-constructed item, done with unusual care and skill. “That one needs to stand but little pressure, as the times where one puts steam to the distillate are early in the process so as to both 'hydrate' it and warm it up. That chimney there will do, as will that firebox, even if you'll want a gas flame with an adjustable air-passage and fuel-valve and not burnt-coal, as you'll need precise control of the amount of steam, and burnt-coal is better when you wish much heat and do not care much about how fast it comes or precise control of its quantity – and you need both of those controlled closely to avoid trouble here.”

“Steam?” asked Kasper.

“Hydrogenation of the incandescent burnt-coal to make a type of synthesis gas,” I said. “It gets added downstream in one of the reactions in this process so as to make this really strange lubricant – something like what you were after, only it actually performs well in general.” Pause, then, “that odor?”

“We make these fuel 'biscuits' here in some numbers, as we are able,” said Kasper. “They take sieved powdered burnt-coal and pulverized charcoal and excess road-tar as a binder, and we bake them in this small pot with two other bronze pots coming off. Those catch the liquid part that comes off during their baking.” Pause, then, “those cakes store well then, they don't smoke save when first lit, and they're ready to hand should people need to heat themselves or food with little smoke or odor while on Kommando.”

“Very compact, also,” I said. “A few twigs, a small piece of this stuff, and it's enough to cook a meal for three to five hungry men, correct?” I was looking all around as I spoke, missing nothing.

“Figure one cake per meal for a given group of eight to ten men, and they weigh little and ignite readily,” said Kasper. “Most men that go out on Kommando carry at least three of them in a small cloth bag, as well as a small cast-iron tray for burning the stuff so we don't leave traces of our group's travel for our enemies by digging holes in the ground.”

“Cooking fuel, sir,” said Sarah. I walked over to the well, looking down it. That exudate Sarah had spoken of was but a few feet down this stone-lined tunnel, or so it seemed.

“Ah, but 'tis hard indeed to get it up here,” said Kasper. “This we can make ourselves easily, and though it takes some small lighting with wood-shavings should no matches be handy, it does work.” What was not mentioned was obvious to me: these men did not wish to give the witches an 'in' by ordering a material that was far-too-readily tracked at this time in the field, even when gotten into Ploetzee by the most careful means possible. The current-production stuff had a most-pronounced odor for that precise reason, and only a drunk-as-a-stinker witch – due to his own consumption of a similar 'fuel' – would not notice the odor of recent-production cooking fuel as sold in the fourth kingdom if it was present in a general area. The military-grade fuel had no such 'odorants' added, as it was intended for such uses as these men put their current cooking 'cakes', and their near-total lack of smoke and smell when they burned was a plus in the field.

Military-grade cooking fuel had zero smoke and no odor, as well as negligible light signature, unlike these men's 'smokeless fuel', which did give off some light. A small cast-iron 'fire-pot', one fit for palming, sufficed for most cooking needs unless one wished to quickly boil the water in a wash-pot.

“The cooking fuel situation will change shortly,” I said, “and you can trade those fuel-cakes two for one by weight for a better material, one that lights without using any wood that has no smoke or odor – odor while carrying, or odor while burning.” A pause, then, “they'll really want those cakes of that stuff, as they've been after something like that for ever so long, and they want it for this one type of fuel that's uh, used in aircraft.”

“The good fuel, yes,” said the soft voice. “It would be considered an 'exotic' fuel where you came from, by the way.”

“Not, uh, 'jet-propellant number eight'?” I asked silently. That was supposedly the currently used material. It was a bit thicker than kerosene – not quite diesel, but close.

“No,” said the soft voice. “This stuff would slag the most advanced engines to be had there were they to assay its use, but if the engines could handle its heat and energy, they'd give twice the range for a given mass of fuel; and more, a given volume would have twice the density of what you mentioned – oh, and a given engine could develop three times the thrust when not using reheat. Using reheat – over twice as much again.” Pause, then, “that's for the fuel fit for turbines.”

“There is another type?” I asked. “Stove-oil for, uh, special stoves?”

“No, silly boy,” said the soft voice. “Racing fuel.”

What?” I gasped.

“Racing fuel, like what you used to order in drums for your car,” said the soft voice. “You would have needed larger radiators for lubricants and coolant, much better valve materials for both intake and exhaust, more oil-cooling to the pistons and heads, a better pair of water pumps, and a wider-range electronic sensor array to handle it. but had you been able to use that fuel, you would have had about a hundred more horsepower at the rear wheels with that stuff – when it was being run 'correctly'.”

“And it probably had a narrow range of best performance...”

“Lean mixtures, yes,” said the soft voice. “It's very tolerant of rich mixtures, just like that place's alcohol-based fuels, like those used in model aircraft.” Pause, then, “but one unusual thing happens when you go rich with that stuff, and it's due to a very unusual chemistry and molecular structure..”

“Soot?” I asked. I knew where the watchtower needed to go, now – and also, its needed height.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Up to a certain point, adding additional fuel past the stoichiometric point acts much as if one is adding healthy amounts of nitromethane or a similar power-boosting additive, and one's output power increases linearly with increased richening, at least up to a certain point.” Pause, then, “it tends to leave deposits on igniters then – or rather, somewhat heavier ones than normally.”

“L-lead?” I asked.

“This material does not use lead compounds,” said the soft voice, “nor does it use other metallic substitutes that put weird-looking hard-as-stone deposits on one's valves and cylinder heads.” Pause, then, “those deposits are supposed to be present if the fuel is run richer than stoichiometric, and they erode as fast as they are deposited, so all one gets is a thin gray dusting that can be removed by wiping with a soft cloth.” Another pause, then, “if you should remove an igniter from an engine running that fuel and not see deposits, then you will have trouble in short order unless the condition is corrected quickly.”

“Meltdown,” I murmured. “Burnt valves, burnt pistons, warped rings...”

“All of that you spoke of and then some,” said the soft voice. “You do not wish to run that fuel lean, and the same for some other fuels to be had here, some of which you have heard of where you came from.”

The others had not been hearing matters, for while Sarah had a box under her arm, this of varnished wood and dovetailed jointing, she indicated that there was a matter she wished me to see. I went over to her, now conscious of the press of time, and as I looked in another small room, that one 'refiner' was showing her 'his pride and joy', that being the 'press' used to make these smokeless-fuel cakes he'd mentioned earlier.

This press was designed to turn these things out 'like hotcakes', and I suspected that these particular fuel-cakes were made in substantial quantities. I then had an idea.

“That fuel you put up here isn't just used for people going out on Kommando, is it?” I asked.

“No, we make as much of that stuff as we can,” he said. “It keeps especially well, it stores readily, it's very compact, and if you need to get heat into your house, you only need build a small fire of kindling or a still-burning stub of a candle, then put one of those cakes on it. It will burn long enough to light damp firewood, and a lot of it, and that can keep you alive.”

“And, if needed, then one puts two, which will heat up your house enough to keep it feeling decent under your blankets until morning, save in a dead-winter,” I said. “That's why you keep most of what you have, in fact – in case there's another winter like last, only worse yet.”

“There are three such winters listed in the Annals of the kingdom house,” said Sarah. “This last one merits inclusion as the fourth of them, though personally I suspect those others mentioned were worse.”

“Norden's weather comes here,” said the refiner. “No trees retain their leaves, evil winds blow...”

“You mean 'hot winds blow'? They blow up there, and put their weather here so we freeze up solid and their pigs and thugs have an easy time of matters, relatively speaking, as they're used to the cold and we aren't?” I asked. “Not hot as in temperature, but the sitting witch in Norden is able to conjure especially bad weather? 'Hot' winds up there, so they get better crops, while we get their weather?”

“Be glad Ultima Thule is just starting out with her curses that way,” said the soft voice. “What is not recalled here is that those three years happened in a five-year span of time, and the combined effects nearly wiped Ploetzee out of its people.”

“And the weather came here specially, as that witch had this region 'focused' on her map,” I said. “You didn't store up bags of these cakes then, but you now keep enough of them on hand for such a development should it recur.”

“True, even if they won't need them for that business again,” said the soft voice. “That witch only has one more winter, and while she will try to make it as nasty as the last one, those 'dead-winters' take a much stronger witch, one who is willing to pay an extremely high price to get them.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“Something about how it takes a lot out of witches to pull that kind of nonsense if they're not really up to such matters?” I asked. “As in that one woman learned the needed curses, became strong enough to wield them effectively – and then died a short time after dumping the third on the place in five years. Correct?”

“She went for the big win, and lost bigger, because she didn't have the strength to deal with that curse-collection's spirits,” said the soft voice. “That's one area where Norden's witches actually can work the weather like the witches of before the drowning, at least to a certain degree.” Pause, then, “Ultima Thule lost about ten years off of her lifespan doing up last winter in a half-baked fashion, and were she to try to do a repeat of last winter this coming winter – she would not survive that conjuring.”

“That smelly woman knows that, doesn't she?” I asked. I'd seen enough in here: it was, indeed, time to go, though we wanted to go 'across-country' through the jungle – staying off of any trails or roads – so as to surprise any other spies outside of their retreat, then gather ourselves for the 'assault' upon that one house about eight hundred yards north and some two hundred yards to the west, this moving slowly and using cover and concealment the whole while as we moved through the jungle. We were getting our training for our times across the sea in a great hurry, and we would need to train others as well in what we were learning – and that soon.

“She does have an idea of what doing so would cost her in terms of her life and goals, and your 'guide' is busy getting those people he knows rounded up, while the man here plans on gathering those at this end of the town once you've finished your work here.”

“That's done,” I murmured, as I turned to go. “To the buggy, dear. Full loads of ammunition, especially machine-pistol ammunition and, uh, grenades – or are those wise in that place?”

“You'll wish to keep their use to a minimum regarding buildings here,” said the soft voice, “but it's better to repair a damaged room than you two ending up shot full of holes.”

“Training aides, then?” I asked. “Thump the rooms – no, the room – in that place?” I asked. “All the survivors going to be in one room, as they've lost contact with their superiors by some strange means...”

“If you get the thugs currently moving toward your position, there will be a total of three of those people in one room, so tossing a grenade will get all of the leaders,” said the soft voice. “Take that place, search the house thoroughly for evidence that has a bearing on matters here and overseas, have one of the people take your buggy toward the main Public House to there receive the things you've asked for earlier, then follow it there in the buggy that will be provided for you two after the mess is over – and then, hie yourselves to that one 'smithing' shop so as to ride that elevator to the top of the dike.”

Sarah looked at me, then moved rapidly toward the door. We soon had echoes behind us, quick-moving ones, and when I came outside, I noticed not merely the rock replaced, it utterly washed clean of all markings – much as if it had been scrubbed clean – but also, the three men who normally worked in the 'distillate-processing plant' had vanished within seconds of clearing and then locking the place. Faint steps indicated the three men were moving rapidly in their several directions to as to round up those 'dependable' shooters each of them knew from having gone out with them personally, and as Sarah and I gathered up every magazine and bomb we could readily carry, I had a distinctive impression. I reached for my possible bag, then at a range of perhaps ten feet as the man in question ran toward me with a small pistol in his hand, I shot another blue-suited thug right between the eyes.

I dragged this thug off after removing his identity disk and data module, then as I bagged them up, I heard two pops, then Sarah ran forward, sword out and ahead of her.

“Careful, dear,” I whispered.

I need not have, as the two bullets had hit Mr. Blue-Suited Thug in the chest, and he was standing stock-still, wavering on his feet, near-ready to topple, dying in a hurry. Sarah, however, did not wait to see him die.

She leaped up while at a run, then somehow did an odd gyration that had her body going one way sideways nearly five feet off of the ground as a lightning flash ripped by the thug just above his collar – and as she continued flying, the thug's head fell to the side as his blood fountained and his head toppled forward to land with a thud just before the rest of him fell backwards to land with a louder crash.

“There,” she said, as she landed on her feet. “Now where is that black thing these stinkers have? This one will wish its removal quickly, as those things really react to taking sword to these stinkers, for some reason.”

I moved quickly, kicked the body over, then sliced the clothing open and removed the device, for now I knew where they were located. I then jumped back an easy ten feet, which proved very wise.

The thug erupted in greenish-yellow head-high flames, and as the first thug ignited to burn slower, number two thug burned fiercely for perhaps thirty seconds before his smoldering remains died out as to flaming and his scattered lumps of charcoal collapsed into mounds of ashes.

“Neither of these men had those rifles,” said Sarah. “I found this small pistol, though I can tell this one is fully as much a deathtrap as is one of those four-shooter pistols witches like.”

“More so, dear,” said the soft voice. “That weapon might not be a fetish by intent, but it is one for construction – and those who are given them, even the very freshest functionaries, know that such weapons are useful more as indications of leadership approval rather than genuinely workable weapons.” Pause, then, “they're quite dangerous to fire, actually, more so than a badly-worn 'Tosser' pistol.”

“Which means they don't commonly fire them,” I said, as I removed the weapon's magazine and cleared it, then reinserted the round before handing it back to Sarah. She then put the thing in her satchel. “If a functionary is reduced to the use of such a weapon, it's usually a case of 'either take a fair to middling chance on losing a hand, or definitely losing one's life' – and if said functionary is hurt that bad, he's a dead man anyway, as that means he's chosen to disgrace those over him by his knowing, malicious, and willful choice to become a traitor.”

Sarah looked at me, all the while continuing to load up as many good magazines as she could, each one stuffed as full as they would go. We would most likely empty them shortly.

“I'm glad we have some of these boxes that hold forty cartridges, as that 'R' setting is good for about four or five longer presses,” said Sarah. “I have no idea how you keep yours sounding as if they are the belch of a new infant.”

“Babies burp that loud?” I asked.

“No, they're very quiet, unless they are the infants of witches or are injured or ill,” said Sarah. “I meant when such a baby burps, it's a very short burp – though if that baby has consumed much, it will burp a number of times.”

“One thing at a time, dear,” I said. “Thugs, our search for evidence, gather... Oh ho! This place has some real goodies in it.”

“What would those be?” asked Sarah.

“It seems that not merely are there more of those, uh, upgraded rifles, but at least three whole bins of foil-wrapped filled magazines for them, and then at least two more small bins of shot – and not common shot either, but the shiny stuff, this in bags!”

“Then we shall wish some of that,” said Sarah. “I am not sure how much of it we can carry, but we will wish some.”

“Perhaps have much of it sent to the house once our, uh, 'war department' rooms are set up?” I asked. “That one room in the lowest portion of the basement sounds about right for one of them, provided it's been thoroughly gone over, enlarged to several times its current size, perhaps painted an easy-to-clean color that wears well, and then a good metal-strapped stout door fitted with, uh, a hard-lock, one that your cousin could pick in ten minutes of hard labor and your average witch would have a screaming fit trying to open.”

“I know where those are made,” said Sarah, “and we can speak of this matter to Hendrik tomorrow.” Pause, then, “that sounds like a very good idea, actually, as that place tends to stay cold and dry, almost as cold as that place at the Abbey where we found these things, and I suspect that one point of witch-entry can readily be rigged so as to deny its passage to witches.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, as I began to make certain I had what I needed, this by patting down each pouch and pocket quickly, a habit I had picked up long ago as a young man. It had been called pathological where I came from, this tendency; it had been labeled an obsessive compulsion. Here, it meant life where being 'normal' would mean death. “We'll need to go through the 'jungle' here, about five feet apart from one another, moving at our best quiet speed, and using silenced pistols until we actually see the place – or better, until I actually kick the door in – unless I find another way that works better.

A minute later, the two of us were 'running through the jungle', this at a slow trot. While I made no noise at all, I was surprised at how little noise Sarah made – at least until I saw her do another of those strange gyrations that sent a stream of blood flying to splatter across the trunk of a tree, then I fired at a thug 'stumbling along', a green club held at high and rigid at 'strike' position. This thug was not merely one straight out of a recent-vintage nightmare, but it told me another matter, or so I suspected when Sarah came close enough to whisper in my ear.

“That thug I sliced was carrying a club, just like in my dream!” she whispered.

“They're sending out the last of their 'ready' people, then,” I thought. “One ahead, directly. I'll take him.”

I reached into my possible bag, then drew that one knife. The scabbard seemed to unclench itself from the blade, and as the man suddenly 'showed' in front of me, he seemed in a sleepwalking 'daze', one so total that when I cut his throat ear-from-ear with a blurring slash he continued to walk for perhaps a second or two, then toppled forward...

With his head hanging backward, such that he fell with his sightless eyes actually facing upward as his pupils dilated wide in stark death, this going from nothing at all – absolutely 'pinned' pupils. I'd actually cut through his spine between the vertebra, and without those supports supplying the rigidity needed to support his skull, all that remained was a piece of skin and some withered neck muscles holding his head onto his body.

I left him behind me, now 'target-fixated', and as I moved at a speed that had me marveling, almost as if I were seeing myself move from thirty or more feet up in the trees, I...

Turned to the right...

Drew my silenced pistol as I flung the knife clean of blood. The stuff smoked gray as it flew to then vanish as a sheet of gray fumes that faded into nothingness.

Saw the slide of the pistol work full-stroke. I'd kept it 'dry-chamber', as usual for a pistol. No more bed-ruining hypoglycemia-induced accidents.

Aimed, this at a 'weatherproofed video camera' sited well up in a tree. The thing was not merely camouflaged with green fleck-type paint, but very small, perhaps the size of a baby rat – a pink one.

Fired...

And nearly did not duck in time as the thing went up with a soundless flash – I'd gone deaf with the vicious detonation – and a blinding light that sent me stumbling forward to nearly land in the low crotch of a tree some ten feet in front of me when I had fired.

“That was close,” said Sarah. “What was that thing?”

“Their eyes in this area,” I whispered as my hearing came back up. “Their ears also, and possibly their mouth. They're now singing their death-songs, as they've lost communication with their controllers, they have no idea as to what to do – and I do mean no idea at all – and they're getting ready to 'defend themselves' – which is something these people don't have a clue about either.”

“How?”

“Not now, dear,” I said, as I took off again. This time, I was running, stealth no longer mattered, and when I encountered the blue-suited army that had been sent against me, I sent body parts flying like a red-misted hurricane as I swung my sword in one hand and shot thugs too far away to readily reach with my sword with my pistol in the other.

I went through the thugs in seconds, flung the blade of my sword free of blood, sheathed it in an instant once stopped, and then resumed a full run, doing a quick reload by feel alone as I ran, hopping through the jungle and over farmer's fields at a speed a deer might envy.

Ahead, through the mists of what might have been time and space – I was traveling rapidly, now – I could see the 'house' in question, it being between two others much like it, with the church itself to the rear, and as I found what looked like a side window in the area between the first house I came to and the one of interest, I leaped up, covered my head with my left arm and the pistol, and flicked the knuckles of my right hand at the glass to shatter it and knock it away before it could cut me as I dived through the window.

The entire sizable array of blue-gray lead and smallish bubbled panes of glass disintegrated with an explosion-like roar when my 'back-knuckles punch' blasted it in as a spray of glass and lead fragments, and this 'high-velocity hurricane of metal and broken glass' caught a pair of oncoming blue-dressed thugs, clubs held high in the strike position.

Their entire fronts – especially their faces – went from a darkened blue color into a glistening purple, then the upper half of their 'uniforms' ran solid red with flowing blood as they fell to the floor screaming, knees buckling first, hands clutching their ruined faces, clubs dropping to the floor, now both falling to the glass-riddled floor from the waist with crashing thuds as one man. I came to the floor, boots running, and as I ran over both men, I fired my pistol, swapping hands as I needed so as to shoot each man in the back of the head and kill him.

The prolonged crack the weapon made as I fired twice was surprisingly loud, and the mess it made was worse, as brains splattered the stones of the floor for nearly a foot to the side, and and each bullet slung bits of skull and torn-off chunks of scalp and close-cropped hair far enough to nearly land in as I came once more to the floor at a run.

The hall went for some distance – this was a most-unusual house compared to those I had seen elsewhere; it seemed intended to be a fortress of sorts in truth, not the half-baked 'comfort place' that was the usual in the first kingdom – but to my left, I glanced into the nearest opening, and had to grab the post with my left hand to avoid passing it.

Three black-dressed thugs, kneeling as if in a trance, line abreast, weapons to their front, low humming as if from a transformer the size of a bank vault, waiting for the attack to come through the front door, the only way they knew of getting inside.

Didn't figure on a lunatic crashing through a head-tall window. Someone like me. They were too 'elsewhere' to hear the two shots merged into one', or so I figured as I lined up on the central thug.

This all happened in what seemed a blur:

The center thug, he's the head. Back of the head, execution style. He turns his head, better. Nice. Between the eyes, the sights line up, squeeze...

Crack!

His head snaps back as the back of his head disintegrates from the impact of a small but high-velocity slug. He's as brainless as a long-dead mummy in that fable once named Egypt.

The right thug, now as if a puppet obedient to my will, and my will alone, obliges me with a presented face. Thank you, Mr. 'Next-in-line'. Crack!

The third thug tries to dive for his weapon or the floor. Doesn't matter, he's as slow as an iceberg and I'm faster than a striking rattlesnake. He's the third in command, and now – he's the third to die.

Crack! Brains fly, as does possibly the bridge of his nose and one or both eyes. He's done in this world, and none of the big three troublemakers will be late for the next one.

I then noticed just 'where' I was – I had come closer, walking silent, such that my last shot had hit the third man from perhaps four feet away. I looked around, this in growing bewilderment at the arrays of gray-painted metal shelving, all of it neatly stacked with labeled bins and boxes, the current hexadecimal numbering system overseas very much in use – as was the too-prevalent use of words ending in 'NO', 'MILNO' being the most commonplace one.

“Bingo,” I thought, as rapid steps came to the doorway, and I waved it open. Sarah showed, her sword running red with still-dripping blood, her still smoking pistol in hand. In her case, she'd shot the weapon dry, as its slide had locked back. I walked over to her, removed the dry magazine, then inserted a 'fresh' one from where I had reached for my 'tactical reload' while at a run.

“Oh-oh,” I said, as I recalled the noise the weapon had made. I then removed the magazine from mine and changed to the 'slow' material. “You might have the hot stuff in that one.”

“I heard gunfire,” said Sarah breathlessly, “but most of it was coming from behind me, and those shooters out there were helping keep the thugs off of me when I could not slice or shoot them. I made something of a pile out there.”

“Did that in here, too,” I said, putting the pistol on safe and putting it in my possible bag. I unslung the machine pistol, the selector up to 'R', safety off, finger beside the trigger guard. “They all dead outside?”

“As far as I could tell,” said Sarah. “Do you propose to clean out this house?”

I smiled at Sarah's euphemism for house-clearing, then nodded as she unslung her weapon and did likewise. “Baby-burps, dear. These people aren't at all hard. I put two on the floor screaming with glass when I went inside through a window.”

“How..?” asked Sarah. “You should be all bloody.”

“I might not have been taught how to take out windows with a certain type of punch, but I have taken out glass sheets before that way. Took out the entire side of a ten-gallon aquarium that way once – no more glass left in that entire frame, in fact, and not a scratch on my hand,” I said. Pause, then, “I got better here, so I sent that glass flying ahead of me when I jumped in through the emptied window frame, and it acted like it had had 'Vlai' on the outside of it with a stiff cap to make it explode.”

The hallway suddenly erupted blue-clothed brainless club-waving thugs, and here I found 'F' to be a better solution, as well as 'let them come to us'. Sarah and I backed into the room, moving further apart, then the rapid-fire crackle that paved the way to the corpses of the three black-dressed stinkers became fast and furious, the thugs finally seemed to peter out when the floor was almost covered in blue cloth sprayed with red here and there.

“'Bout paved this room with thugs, dear,” I said. “They all got those green rubbery clubs...”

Sarah had picked one up. “We shall wish these for the house proper, as this type will work well on any rat smaller than a well-fed Shoet.” A faint shake, a fainter-yet rattling noise. “I think these to be filled with lead, actually.”

I picked one up myself, stuffing the thing in my pack-straps. If silence proved golden, one or more of these thugs had a green future awaiting him.

A thundering boom came from outside, then several 'rifle' cracks that were met with dire screams.

“They must have had a pre-planned escape-route,” I said, “either that, or these, uh, stinkers...”

They were well-beyond stinking now: they smelled like a room filled with meat gone High. I looked at the shelves attempting to hide the walls, and there, I saw an ammunition can.

A most familiar type of ammunition can, one marked with a circled 'P', a doubled-six hexadecimal number preceded by MILNO, and a question in my mind, even as I wondered where that accursed preacher was hiding himself.

Another fusillade roared forth, this time composed of 'cannons' mostly, and the unearthly chorus of screams that resulted spoke of 'the last charge of the brass-cone-wearing-thugs' going down to bleeding defeat.

“Are those, uh, fumigators?” I asked softly. “I was hoping for some really bad ones, and those... I really do think those to be fumigators. Are they?”

“Those?” asked Sarah, as she began cleaning her sword. I'd need to clean and oil mine shortly, even if I'd 'sheeted' the blood off of it, but the thugs – and that creature of a preacher – were not done, not even close. “There were none like that at the Abbey, not if I recall correctly, even if that is the type of box those things came in.”

Sarah then sheathed her sword after carefully wiping it with oil, then said as I drew mine out to wipe it down – her hand was on her slung machine-pistol; she was picking this business up quickly, even changing out part-full magazines for full ones if the chance presented itself – she said, “there was talk that we had some of the worst that place ever made there, though.”

“That was at the time of its shipping,” said the soft voice. “What you have there is the fully-developed version, a gas that makes that stuff you found there seem altogether tame – and it that gas at the Abbey is not even close to being 'tame'.” Pause, then, “any functionaries you find that manage to escape you two will be caught as they try to escape by those roer-toting men outside, as they can tell 'Magraat ate the rulebook' and 'it's every man for himself'.”

I had caught the particular emphasis upon the word 'man', and I muttered, “as in 'over-man'?”

“Very close,” said the soft voice. “Only the large black books speak of such beings that way, and no one in this house has ever seen one.”

“That one stinker of a 'preacher'?” I asked. “He still in here?”

“Was one of the first shot when he tried to escape out front, and he's been verified by direct examination of his hand,” said the soft voice. “Catching a roer's load of shot at ten paces tends to put most witches down in a hurry, even if that shot is mingled stuff, and this instance was no exception.”

I walked over to the box, then asked, this silently, “the whole box, or two of them, or..?”

“Just dump one of those things down that air-shaft when you find it,” said the soft voice. “That will make the area under Ploetzee extremely unhealthy for a considerable distance, and that from now until the Curse is fully broken.”

“A considerable distance?” I asked. “Both the functionary-level and, uh, the old levels?”

“They meet down there, though the functionary level is roughly a hundred meters further down, at least in this area.” Pause, then, “those devices there were capable of rendering entire districts in Geeststaat 'dead zones' for months – as in nothing could live there, not even strong witches, and that above and below ground.”

“Hence seal that hatch tight after dumping it, or it will turn Ploetzee into a 'dead zone',” I muttered, “and I'd best pray like I mean it when I dump that thing.” I had grabbed one of these odd-shaped bombs, and noted that save for its pin and detonator arrangement – those looked to be 'stolen' off of a training aide – the resemblance to an old round-nosed aerial bomb for shape, if not size, was not a joke.

I had barely got this thing pocketed when a small mob of blue-suited thugs tried to squeeze through the hallway entrance over the two-and-three deep piled bodies of their erstwhile companions. I admired their idiotic persistence, but that told me the next matter, this before I did all else: kill every such thug in the place, then pitch that bomb down the air-shaft to prevent a reinfestation of these obnoxious thugs.

Sarah and I took our time, shooting them single-fire as they came into the room, and as the last of them screamed from a wound I put just under his armpit, I realized one point of such a mobbing tactic.

“We have to either climb over these bodies, or have them dragged out, or we pull them out ourselves,” I muttered. “Thugs, outside with you, mound yourselves four-square and four high in dead-stacks...” Pause, then as I came to a finish, “and those of you yet alive, find that accursed air-shaft and pile yourselves in it so as to uncover it for us, and then we can then kill you all!”

Only then did I notice I had a bolt locked back. I removed the magazine, inserted another, and the bolt shot home. More cannon-like booms came from outside, followed by screaming.

“Didn't know these had bolt hold-open features,” I thought. “I thought...”

“That's one of the ones that was changed last night,” said the soft voice. “It makes for staying alive in situations like this when seconds count.”

I then had a question, as the thugs began slowly moving themselves toward the door, this as if crawling slowly. A wave of my arm now and then had them moving faster, this to talk coming from outside of 'old tales' and 'this is no old tale, it makes those things look to be silly'.

“Do these people have self-igniting clothing?” I asked, in some alarm.

“No, as that stuff needs one to be a certain 'elevated' level of functionary to even think of receiving it,” said the soft voice. “Common functionaries, as are these people, are thought to be more-or-less expendable, which is one of the reasons why they receive such 'cheap' clothing as they do.”

“That, and there are a lot of these drug-addled stinkers,” I murmured, as I waved my arms faster. I was glad I had changed magazines, as several still-alive thugs had been buried under the crush of bodies and wounded, and I shot them as they showed their intact nature.

“Will more of them continue to escape?” I asked softly, as I fired at another thug that had been shamming. He would sham no longer; his brains were splattering the dead upturned face of the thug next to him.

“Yes, as that basement is a lot bigger than even you thought it might be,” said the soft voice. “They've had this house for a number of years, and what 'common' witches do in years when it comes to building, these people do in weeks – which is why that basement went from commonplace-sized a few years ago to 'well-equipped, triple-level, crammed with bunks, and ample waste-processing and food-storage facilities' – once they'd made contact with the person who had been 'installed' here.” Pause, then, “this 'facility' was intended to house a sizable private army, which is why there are so many blue-suited club-wielding thugs, and those three black-dressed 'leaders' you saw were planning on taking Ploetzee when the time came – which was to be soon.”

“Which was?” I asked, as the thugs continued to flow out the front door at the rate of one a second or so. I needed to catch my wind anyway.

“They received word of their spies dying at the Abbey within minutes of that 'worst' one dying,” said the soft voice. “They knew it was going to happen soon when they lost all of their spies there in the course of a single day.” Pause, then with the faintest hint of a chuckle, “they had no idea it would happen this soon, though.”

“Just clubs with most of these people?” I asked. “That, uh, dumb and inept?”

“Feel one of those things a bit better before you dismiss those clubs so lightly, or better yet, use one on one of these thugs,” said the soft voice. Pause, then, “remember the following: where they come from, this level of functionary is both very common and considered 'expendable', just like a grenade or another round of ammunition; the spies they've been running over here for the last fifty years or so have been giving their masters the information they wanted to hear and not the truth, so those at the planning level thought the entire populace to be a pack of 'degenerate fools' and not merely a fair-sized portion of the youngest and least-capable third; and then, think – a surprise attack with a club, if your enemy isn't suspecting your presence, much less your intent.” Another pause, then: “how well does that work, especially when you can see them well and they have trouble seeing you?”

“V-very well indeed,” I said, recalling that minutes-long 'wild hunt' in Roos where I had destroyed hundreds of witches with a club. I then saw an arm twitch, and I shot that thug in the head as he flowed out the door in line with the ones ahead and behind him.

“Best save your ammunition,” said the soft voice, implying that those outside had ample stores of powder and lead, which we did not have on our persons at this time. “Now, look around you carefully. This equipment is far too bulky and heavy to take with you overseas to have it analyzed, but you will need to eventually get it looked at. In the meantime, this house will need a thorough cleaning and airing out. Think, as you explore it quickly in the process of finding that air-shaft – actually, an elevator whose most-visible sign is something that looks a bit like a huge domed hatch off of a submarine – just how you will explain to the people here to not touch anything on these racks on account of most of it being important evidence that will help all of you survive the months to come.”

“Once those people from across the sea are at the Abbey...” I murmured. I was babbling, possibly. I didn't have that much of an idea as to what to do, actually.

“And you have an evidence-camera with an assortment of memory devices,” said the soft voice, “and those people, at least a few of them, will have demonstrated that they're sufficiently trustworthy to the people here. And you have ways of hauling this equipment out for 'remanufacturing', as much of this equipment is 'functionary-issue' and is more scrap-metal than truly usable.” Pause, then, “the shelves themselves are mostly good enough, provided you don't stack them heavy with bullet-lead.”

“Besides, we have enough gear for the boat as it is,” I said. “I'll just tell those here who seem the most-careful to not touch anything that looks like it might have come from an old tale, and just clean up the obvious messes, like, uh, blood, gore, and that sort of thing. Stuff that gets stinky in a hurry.” Pause, then, “I'll then tell them I can take care of what's on the shelves, because I will soon learn just who made it and get information about it from them.”

“Good,” said the soft voice. “Now, another minute to catch your breath, check your weapons and magazines, and then go down the hall to your left, which leads to some stairs and then that triple-level basement-cum-barracks.”

“Bright-lit stairs,” I murmured, as I glanced at the hallway in question. I seemed to have a better eye to the relative darkness that seemed 'prevalent' in this place, this used by these blue-suited thugs as a species of camouflage. It had worked 'well enough', at least until we got here and Rachel had spoken of a particularly tricky spy. “Do they, uh, have a generator in here?”

“They do, but it's nowhere near big enough to electrify Ploetzee, as it's only used for lighting,” said the soft voice. “It's the smallest commonplace generator they currently use overseas, and that size of generator is very common there, if very well hidden from the average 'prole' as a rule.”

“Two kilowatts?” I asked.

“Twenty,” said the soft voice. “You'll understand better why so much power is needed when you see the lighting, and you'll be very glad you're wearing goggles.”

“I hope these are not witch-lights,” said Sarah. “Those were spoken of in old tales, and...”

“These people don't rate those,” I said. “They were all expendable, just most of them were a lot more that way than some of the others.” Pause, then, “soon as that hallway's clear, I'll lead off, and you cover my rear in case we get surprised from behind. These thugs do know how to hide, and ambush is a specialty of theirs.”

“It helps a lot when they have suitable places for hiding, which they don't have in this house,” said the soft voice. “About the only places you're going to find in here like that are under the lowest levels of their triple-bunk beds.”

“T-triple bunk beds?” I asked. “Uh, why t-triple-bunk... Barracks?”

“Got it in one, only these weren't the regular military barracks, but the secret military ones,” said the soft voice. “Those operated closer to the way Berky was during its smoke-billowing worst for this class of functionary – and still do, at least during the lengthy training regime these blue-suited people endure.”

“Makes n-no sense at all,” I thought, as I led the way down the hall. I was cautious, but I also could once more feel the distinct press of time. There was much to be seen here, and little time to observe it – and we did indeed need to 'clean house', as if there was a single surviving functionary once I had closed the door and 'latched' it down, he would open it – and ensure the destruction of Ploetzee at the very least.

“No,” I thought simply. “I will ask that lock to open for me alone.” I then hoped I was not indulging in hubris.

“I would do precisely that, as there will be people attempting to emerge from the other side while dressed in the best current-version chemical warfare equipment they have available to them,” said the soft voice. “If they cannot open the door, then they will die where they stand.”

“Current-version chemical warfare equipment?” I asked.

“That which is available to that level of the 'government' isn't even up to 'made by the lowest bidder' standards,” said the soft voice. “If they had the medical people make it 'from raw materials to finished articles', it would work a lot better, but in order to really stop that gas, it needs something a bit better than what those people can currently make.” Pause, then, “I wouldn't worry much, as that late-war gas isn't terribly commonplace over there and you'll both locate all of what stocks remain and find appropriate uses for it so as to 'dispose of it properly'.”

“And we will have something worse than that stuff sometime in the future,” I mumbled. “The Red Death...” Pause, then, “do they have that story overseas?”

“Yes, and it's been waiting time on a computer for many years so as to decipher the modulation schemes used and then collate the many fragments of intercepted transmissions into a coherent whole.” Pause, then, “if you end up doing much waiting over there, you might find some of those intercepts quite amusing.”

The hall now turned to the right, then came to some steep-plunging stairs of uncommon width, both side-to-side for wide and for the breadth of the individual stairs. Ahead, I could hear a faint whining noise, but it was Sarah who alerted me to it first as to what it was – or rather, what she thought it was.

“That sounds like bugging-flies,” said Sarah. “There must be clouds of those nasty red things down there.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Rats, possibly, but none of those red things. Oh, possibly some thugs hiding under the beds, but we can deal with them easily enough.” I then noticed the whining noise more. Calling it obnoxious was calling it wondrous indeed “What is that screeching noise?”

“That is the noise made by hungry bugging flies,” said Sarah. “I think there to be enough bugging flies to stuff a hundred mine-birds to the point of glutting!”

The light that began to show, however, had its own aspects of trouble. While a faint greenish tint was visible, the predominant tone was a screaming – no, a warbling – chrome-yellow; glaring, ghastly, ghostly – like that one chemical-warfare agent the witches of long ago preferred to be trashed upon.

More, this light had profound aspects of ultraviolet radiation present, which made me glad for my goggles. I had worn them all of the day, and now, I knew why.

My eyes were no longer tearing as if I were in the middle of a desert storm-wind filled with grit. It made me wonder if I had allergies.

“In the way that you are thinking of, no,” said the soft voice. “It is an indicator of you needing serious medical help, and needing it quickly.”

“Quickly?” I asked.

“You'll get that help in time,” said the soft voice, “but in order to get that help quickly, you need to toss a fumigator down that shaft.” Pause, then, “doing so will buy those across the sea enough time to get well and truly 'established'.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Don't tell me – a lot of functionaries are 'elsewhere' right now.”

“More than you might believe possible, and fumigation of one of the the main transport hubs means they must either detoxify it at a substantial cost in personnel so as to return to base in a timely fashion; travel a substantial distance overland to another location while dodging artillery shells, bagged charges of musket balls, round-shots – and large amounts of gunfire the whole distance; or they must stay put where they are located now until that gas gives up enough of its potency to permit them to travel by the usual routes and means – which means none of them go anywhere until early next year.”

“Any way they try to go, it kills some of them,” I murmured, as I continued descending the stairs. The warbling multi-tonal whine was now screaming-loud and blindingly-intense, a noise that seemed to form weird and formless pictures in the mind, much as if it were shouting an especially inept rune-curse, one like 'go deaf' or 'become stupid', or perhaps 'take more of your drugs and function worse than you do already'.

“It succeeds at doing all three of those things handsomely,” said the soft voice. “That screeching aspect is merely a poorly-designed power supply for this location's version of 'fluorescent lighting'.”

“Where are they?” asked Sarah. “I can hear enough bugging flies to fill the house proper down here.”

“No, not those, dear,” I said. “What would happen if that power supply were working right? A higher switching speed, properly-wound inductors of the correct frequency range, some different switching devices – ones with a much higher transition speed..?”

The noise abruptly vanished, and the light went from that fit for viewing life while under the influence of a thoroughly nasty drug to a glaring far-too-bright whiteness. Either one thing or another happened: the phosphors in the 'bulbs' were exceedingly efficient when properly excited, or the former power supply barely worked. I then thought to ask, “an appropriate intensity for searching, while not causing one's eyes to hurt? This is as bad as arc-welding without a helmet.”

The lights dimmed to a realistic workable level, and now, in clear light, bright yet shadow-free – it was like a cooler version of daylight, one perfect for work, or in our case, noting evidence – we could look quickly and without distractions. The first thing I found was an obvious privy-stool in a small alcove 'cut out' next to the bottom of the stairs, though the odd shape of this item made for puzzling remarks until I found a red tag inside it saying 'not yet installed'. The glaring nature of the tag seemed made for the 'dumb-as-a-brick' mentation level of a thoroughly trashed group of functionaries.

Only for some reason, I thought to call them 'Organs' – as in 'the Organs of State Security', complete with their omnipresent drum-magazine-stuffed heavier-than-they-looked-to-be Shpagins.

“N-not yet installed?” I murmured. “That was one strange-looking, uh, toilet there.”

“Running the needed plumbing was proving to be far beyond the functionaries sent to do that work,” said the soft voice, “so the detached two-hole privy to the rear of the property quickly smelled bad enough to make for a lot of wondering in the last few days, especially as it seemed to be occupied nearly all of the hours of the extended day and night.”

“Probably was occupied that much, given how many of these smelly blue-suited thugs we've found in here,” I murmured, as a telltale blue shoe showed underneath a bed and I pulled a functionary out to smack him in the head with my confiscated club. The sudden crunch that resulted, followed by the blood that spurted from his mouth, nose, and ears, told me plenty about what I had just used. It was deadly enough to pass for that bronze-spiked thing, at least when it was in my hands.

“Those clubs are a lot better than they look to be,” said Sarah, who came over. “That thug is a dead man, or he will be soon, as you cracked his skull.”

Crushed it is closer to what he did,” said the soft voice. “That stinker is not going to do much except lie there and bleed until he dies – which might be ten minutes from now at the outside.”

The first floor showed nothing beyond row upon row of familiar-looking green-flecked-brown fiberglass bins on four-high metal shelves that lined the walls, three-tired bunks arranged with a degree of precision that made me wonder if 'the secret military establishment' was merely 'secret' and 'military' – especially after I pressed down upon one of the bunks and found it possessing a thin hard-as-a-rock mattress, two thin and somewhat 'buggy-feeling' sheets, and a blanket that did far more for appearances than warmth.

“K-laager business, indeed,” I spat. “Just like at Berky. Neat enough to read the mind of one's ruling arch-witch, 'cause that wretch is never satisfied until he looks at you and sees a perfect reflection, much as if he were looking in a special witch-mirror, one that tells him what he wishes to know and that only.” Pause. “He then knows he is the God in your eyes, and you worship him with the totality of your being, and will do so to the death and beyond.”

That was on that one tapestry I bathed for,” said Sarah.

“That one you could actually read passably for the most part, couldn't you?” I asked. “Sort of the 'master tapestry', whereas all of the others needed prayer and divine assistance to make out anything close to sense regarding their language portions, and their pictures were often an entire mystery unless you'd seen that one?”

“I...” Sarah gasped, then, “that's exactly right, and my cousin was right, too. Without seeing and reading that one I bathed for, you're almost better off getting a boxed set of those stinky books if you're at all inclined toward witchdom, or you're better off spending time on your knees such that they become toughened to prayer.”

“Which is what she did, and that because she had to,” I said. “I often do so on my back, as...”

“The only time you can do so?” asked Sarah.

“That's one problem they really need to fix, or do what they can for him,” said the soft voice. “He may not look it, but his knees – both of them – are worse than Tam's bad one was before he was prayed for.”

“Hence they tend to, uh, seize up now and then,” I said. “I hope that...” I paused in my prayers, hoping that my knees would last 'long enough' to do that assigned to me, then, “do what they can?”

“A lot easier for them to work on your problems than your previous knee surgeries, and they can do a lot more than merely remove damaged tissue,” said the soft voice, as we resumed our bed-checking and dragging out more functionaries and then testing our new clubs on their heads and bodies. I resolved to pack at least one such club in my things on the trip, and after Sarah smashed the face of a functionary in when he rose up out of nowhere, she stood in shock as the man toppled over as if shot to then hit his bed-frame before falling to the floor with a muffled dead-as-a-sack-of-meal thud.

“These things work like flails!” she shrieked. “That wretch was dead the instant I hit him.”

“See, dear,” said the soft voice. “Remember, these people may be made into individuals fit to wear brass cones by the constant administration of one or more neurotoxic drugs, but those things they are trained to do well, they do well indeed – and they are trained for years as to how to use these clubs, both how to strike and where to strike.” Pause, then, “you might be better at doing both things, and not a little better, but when you've not had a shred of their training and three to five of these thugs gang up on you from out of nowhere and do one of the few things they've been trained to do well...”

“Hence they could have taken Ploetzee,” I said. “Sufficient numbers come up that shaft until the house is entirely full, wall-to-packed-wall-full, they storm out in a mass attack at apparent sunrise or whenever it's bright enough for them to actually see where they are going, they thump every person they find just like they've been trained to do at length in their three-to-five person killer-teams, and those controlling the show behind them using video cameras like that one I had shot just keep sending out more thugs as fast as they can accumulate them, until every person in this enclave either leaves it for other places or is killed.”

Pause, then, “human wave attacks, just there's almost no end to the waves the enemy sends at the people here, and these waves ignore gunfire, flames, and all else, because their drugs remove all semblance of common sense and they follow orders 'because they are orders' – and do so far worse than any witch currently on the mainland might think to do.”

“Exactly, which is why there are so many of these thugs 'on assignment' away from their homeland right now,” said the soft voice. “They are being 'seasoned' by assignment to 'overseas' duty, with the usual ones becoming significantly better at doing their normal 'jobs' after six to eight months of 'easy' work 'overseas' where they actually learn how to deal with one class of 'under-man' – a class of person generally reckoned by most functionaries as 'meat on the hoof' regarding intelligence and capacity – and then when they graduate to more-intelligent and more-capable under-men, they actually last a fair length of time before they are 'used up' or 'kicked upstairs'.”

The shot?” I asked. I was hankering for that stuff, for some reason, even if I knew looking for it needed to wait until all the other matters in here were completed to a 'satisfactory' level.

“Find the stairs first, after you clear this room entirely – and that means looking under each and every bed. Remember, these people are experts at hiding.”

Accordingly, I and Sarah started at one corner of these bunks, and row by row and column by column in systematic order, we reached under each bed with clubs at the ready. The number of hiding functionaries was so great that it seemed every single bed had grown at least one such thug – more than a few beds had two, and once I found three thugs under a single bed, packed under the space like crocked herring, with the last man needing me jumping across the bed as he slid out the other side to then smack him in the head. As we systematically shot or beat them to death – my death-awl here got its second workout of the day, as it did ensure quick demise with minimal mess – it became clearer and clearer in my mind.

First, kill everything that currently lived in this house, no matter who or what it was. That meant the functionaries especially, as even one of them escaping our labors would cause his masters to learn of just what was really going to happen when they tried to invade 'the land of ice and snow' – and how it was not what their spies had spoken of.

“Is there a specific drum rhythm involved with invasion from the north, especially, uh, Norden?” I asked. “Two deep throbbing beats, then two higher-pitched rim-shots? As in those northern people play drums that way to keep time while they're rowing? Especially up-river, where they've got to go distances against a current?”

Sarah didn't know, even if she did have her own troubles enough with a stubborn functionary to need to shoot him in the lower back so as to remove him from under the bed. She'd used that 'hot' ammunition, which made for a massive eruption of blood underneath the front of the functionary in question and a relatively easy 'thumping on the back of the head' followed by a poke in an ear from an awl.

“I wonder if they've recorded it?” I asked myself, as I dragged out a functionary with one hand and smashed the back of his head with my club with the other. The dull thud and his sudden trembling spoke of his likely trouble regarding doing much of anything in this world again.

“Do-it-yourself-lobotomy,” I muttered. “No surgical tools needed, just one of these clubs here.” Pause, then “best get at least half a dozen of these, only we'll need to hide 'em good under our clothing in the 'clothes' bags, and wipe 'em down good with aquavit – twicebefore we pack them.”

“Best get Gabriel one of these and a machine-pistol, and tell him about not using that 'R' setting,” said Sarah. “He may need to practice some to hit things, perhaps as much as an hour's shooting at rats.”

“And one of those shorter-barreled fowling pieces, with a bag of rounds, and two straps for shells,” I said. “That would give him quite a load.”

Finally, a last check for the functionaries showed all of the ones on this floor we'd found to be either dead or close enough to that state that it made no difference to us. I 'held' the floor while Sarah went up to get help from some of the shooters now the the gunfire had petered out outside. I could hear her speaking to our 'guide' about using his rotating pistol on these smelly blue-suited thugs as the two of them came back down the stairs.

“They're safe enough to shoot, but you'll wish to hit them in the head to still them quickly, and then organize a row of body-bearers to bring out the bodies and start stripping them of their clothing and those collars.” Pause, then, “You'll wish to bag up those collars and clothing, as we can find ways of reusing both of those things overseas.”

“Not as how they use them, but for real clothing and, uh, medical stuff,” I said as the two came into the vestibule leading to the room. “Those collars are basically a type of centrally-controlled IV pump...”

“Pump?” asked our 'guide'. “They look like collars for bad dogs more than anything.”

“I've been hooked to a bulkier and cruder version after surgery when the pain was really bad,” I said. “It was like taking that tincture for pain, only a lot easier because you pressed a button so you got dosed when you needed it for the pain – and you got relief fast.” Pause, then, “they did things there that are straight out of an old tale for medicine compared to anything I've seen so far here, but these things might as well be straight out of an old tale for me that way, and that's why I need to find out just how they and the rest of this stuff works and then get them to people who can, uh, use the parts for treating people hurt fighting swine or witches – or in their cases, lots of these stinkers.”

Our 'guide' nodded at me, this grimly. “You're right. Lots of times you don't want to give things by mouth when a person's gotten a sword-wound of any real severity, and same for a lot of other serious injuries, injuries that those people not only know how to treat, but will have effective ways of treating...”

“They will be teaching us, also,” said Sarah, “and Hans, and Anna, and possibly Annistæ, and Anna recently lost a toe to fighting witches, so it's like she's becoming a different person very rapidly.”

“And this other person?” he asked.

“Was badly burnt, and is a chemist that makes anyone that way in the five kingdoms seem an ignoramus,” said Sarah. “I know I and my cousin will be helping her as we will be able, and we will be needing to, and she needs medical attention nearly as bad as he does.”

“I don't see anything on him that's bleeding,” said our 'guide', “so it must be something bad.”

“It is that, sir,” said Sarah. “I've seen him spew green many times.”

“Then the only reason he ain't dead is 'cause he's what them witches name a monster,” said our 'guide'. “I'll want a line running these stinkers up, all of 'em with rotating pistols, as this here's a witch-basement, and no mistake.”

“Witch-basement?” I asked. “Now where are the downward stairs.... Oh, over there. Real logical layout, just like some architect did this according to a plan so old that he just 'cut and pasted most' of the details and all of the instruction-collection so as to make a new drawing. Saved him a lot of time.”

“Try 'a whole lot of time', as he was part of a group of some specially-tasked and very-trashed functionaries and hadn't an original fiber in his body on account of his being in that state every waking minute, and he only slept at the prompting of large doses of multiple drugs.” Pause, then, “you'll hear about those people over there soon enough also.”

As two more teams of dead-carriers came down, each man with a pair of revolvers holstered in gun-leather that made me cringe – until I saw one reach toward his pistol, draw, and then fire on a fast-moving rat and blow the thing off of the floor and onto the wall – our 'guide' blocked our rear from further attacks as we trod the second run of stairs heading downward.

“Deep floors,” I whispered, going down the stairs, moving slow, step by quiet step. “Listen. Shh. You can hear them breathing.”

“Them silver-collared witches that look to be smothered 'cause they're wearing that color of blue?” he whispered.

“They may think like witches, and I suspect they have made their bones in some way or another,” said Sarah, “but if these people have even heard of a black book, much less seen even the lowest grades of such books, then I am a mule with full odor.”

“Those three black-dressed thugs?” I asked. They were the leaders, a much 'higher' class of functionary, and a more-trained class of functionary – but yet, still, each of them an expendable, just like these beyond-counting blue-suited silver-collared individuals.

“Now those people were dressed like witches for color, but were otherwise unlike any witch I ever did see,” he said. “Their clothing is soft, smooth, clean, and it feels decent to the touch, even if it is black, and they felt like they bathed daily, and...”

“We can trade that nasty black cloth to those new people, who can remake it into more pleasing colors, such as a mottled green like, uh, I have, or better-yet color schemes for forest work,” I said. “People here, especially while out on Kommando, could use that. Then, this type of vest...” I drew my suppressed pistol, then asked it in silence to work full-stroke; and this time, I saw the round flow smoothly in front of the bolt as it went home and then locked up solid. It made for a question.

“They ever do weapons that used a swinging link under the back end of the barrel and have that back end lock up and into the weapon's ejection port?” I asked.

“No, because they never could get a decent intercept of one that did,” said the soft voice, “and I would keep that in mind for your pistol-family, as they will be much easier to field-strip, a good deal easier to make, tolerate more abuse, and then be able to be 'dunk-cleaned' readily given modest levels of use.” Pause, then, “heavy use will still wish proper cleaning and checking for undue wear regularly, but that business will be relatively quick and easy compared to most pistols currently in inventory.”

“Good replacements for those clockwork marvels, then,” I said. “Perhaps some modest improvements could be assayed with suppressors....”

I was interrupted in my stealthy tread by a thug come a-running up the stairs, a bayoneted rifle in his hand. Without thinking, I shot three times...

The first blood-bloom marks him in the chest. This is the hot stuff, so the 'crack' is unmistakable, even if the suppressor helps hold the muzzle down and moderates the sound level. He seems to ignore it, but he won't last...

My finger works too fast for me to think, as another crack blooms blood but an inch to the right of the first one. He's a hard buzzard, 'tis sure now.

Time to meet Brimstone as a delicacy, witch.

The bridge of the thug's nose gets replaced with a small black-edged hole, and he does a sudden backflip, this so violently that his rifle hits the ceiling to impale its bayonet there. I move to his feet, grab the weapon, then flip around the twelve pound 'monster-gun' as I walk down three steps and spear him in the throat once before handing the rifle back to our 'guide', he who was now following me as 'second' with a ready short-barreled fowling piece, one larger in bore than a number-four, if I guessed right. I suspected it was close to an 'eight' – not much less than a 'doubled-barreled roer'.

His whisper was short but perplexed: “how did you do that?”

“Standard hard-witch drill,” I said. “Two in the chest, one in the head, stinky witches gonna be dead.”

I could tell Sarah, at least, thought that rhyming nonsense, while it was true enough, to be very amusing. I then had a question for our 'guide'.

“You fire that roer you have slung much?” I whispered. I had only now noticed he had a second 'shoulder' arm on some species of sling as well as a brace of revolvers and that shortened fowling piece. The 'older' people here would have taken a lot of functionaries with them before they gave matters up, and quite possibly, those sending these functionaries would use up a larger percentage of their 'expendables' than they were willing to give. I then realized those at the top the control-pyramid overseas were indeed witches of a sort for thinking at the least, and only the man's answer interrupted my thoughts.

He whispered a faint “yes.”

“Then if we find the other magazines to these weapons, then you've got something that can not only drop plated-up witches and make horrible messes of any coaches you see, but also something that will stop an irritated elk when it's in the mood.”

“It will also ruin a great deal of that elk's meat,” said the soft voice, “which is something no good hunter wishes to do to what is regarded as 'prime' meat, meat that runs a very close second to that from 'mean black cattle'.”

“They're loaded that hot?” I asked.

“Mostly back off the powder charge about a third as to mass and use a slower-burning propellant, put in a heavy-jacketed soldered soft point instead of a modified version of an all-purpose round, adjust the weapon's gas system so that it functions properly with the reduced pressure of gas at the tapping point – and then you have yourself a weapon that's fit for irate elk.” Pause, then, “they'll work 'well enough' until you can design a weapon fit to fight northern thugs and reliably put elk in Public Houses.”

“Oh?” I asked, as I reached the bottom of the stairs. I then returned to my 'duty', speaking appropriately to that task. “Each person take a row of beds, or a column, one by one, then check under each bed, and if you find a functionary, kill that stinky wretch when you do. No exceptions, they all die before we do anything else.”

It turned out Sarah had not been 'tail-guard' after all, as one of the 'oil-refinery' workers had collected up an armload of clubs, and he and one of the other men I had seen there passed them out to those coming into the room not having them. Faint screams to our rear showed that there were a lot more clubs present nearby, and more, that they were indeed in use.

“We just wounded a lot of thugs, didn't we?” I asked silently.

“They would die fast enough, but the word has gotten around as to these people doing 'very passable' hard-witch imitations, so the usual is to thump every thug's head until brains show, then decapitate him on the spot with a battle ax.” Pause, then, “besides, that's the quickest way to remove those collars, and those people doing the head-chopping are seeing some very unusual medical hardware.”

“Very unusual?” I thought.

“You've had temporary versions of these things in your hands and arms a number of times,” said the soft voice, “and you've heard of 'permanent' versions in use for when long-term treatment for certain serious conditions is required.” Pause, then, “they solved all of the problems associated with such venous access ports during the early years of the war, and now all functionaries have one or more of those ports implanted.”

“Implanted?” I asked.

“They'll be instantly familiar to you when you first see one,” said the soft voice. “More, you've got your own implant of this material – that screw in your head, remember? The one that will have them doing handstands, as when they see that they'll recognize you?”

I then had to dodge another rifle-wielding functionary, only this instance was so ridiculous that the 'poor stinking drug-addled wretch' had no chance in the world. He came with his bayonet-fixed rifle down low, the point angling down somewhere between my knee and hip, yelling some indecipherable 'noise' that might have been speech – and I simply moved to the side and put the muzzle of my pistol in his ear and pulled the trigger, this movement of mine slowed from my perspective to the point of dreaminess.

Only grabbing his heavy finger-biting rifle and its long pointed bayonet took any real effort as his death-relaxed hands let go of it, as this wretch was about to both shoot and poke me when I'd suddenly 'vanished' from his narrowed field of view and then 'cleaned his ears' with a six-gram bullet traveling at nearly five hundred meters per second.

But one trouble: unlike using a death-awl, cleaning a person's ears with a high-velocity pistol round made an unholy mess on the nearest wall.

“That is why we will need the place cleaned up,” said Sarah. “He was using that hot ammunition.”

“Only a dragoon does worse,” muttered our 'guide'. “They make bigger messes. Now did he clean his ears, or just...” He paused, seeing a blackened – no, a badly charred remnant of an ear where I'd fired and the muzzle flame had vaporized the external portions of the man's ear. “I think so, only this ain't soot. He burnt his ear off!”

“The beds, sir,” said Sarah, as she started on a row. “Check each bed, check it carefully, and if you have any doubts, shoot under the bed so that you may be certain to hit anyone who might be hiding there.” Pause, then, “I hope you have more than one rotating pistol full-loaded, as we've been finding plenty of shamming stinkers under these beds.” Mumbled, then, “they must have gotten ideas for these things straight out of Smokestack Heroes.”

“They have their own version of that tale,” said the soft voice. “It's well-hid – now.” The implied portion was 'it is not going to remain so much longer'.

“Irritate them worse than an angry nest of hornets when they learn of it, I suspect,” as I went down a row, dragging out thugs and bashing in their heads with a speed that had shocked gasps coming from our 'guide' and Sarah's whispered urges to hurry himself so as to keep up. She then turned, and motioned to another – and then turned back and kicked someone so hard that his body went flying between bunks number two and three in the 'row' or 'column'. I wasn't sure which of those it was, and it didn't matter anyway.

Where he landed right in front of me, face up and stunned senseless by a kick to the head, did. I stamped on his face with the heel of my boot, and the sickening crunch seemed to echo in the room.

“That one's dead,” I muttered, as I moved on, then reached down and grabbed another thug by the leg and smashed in his head with the club. His head was crushed, and he was dead upon the instant.

There was a silence in the room, such that now, the men of Ploetzee, those who had – with some justification – thought themselves to be 'hard'... Now, they were learning just how 'soft' they actually were in comparison to a true 'monster' when it came to killing. I had finished my row, then as I turned to go down another, I saw two blue-suited thugs trying to escape across the floor ahead of me and shot both of them, the shots merging into a single crackle and the thugs tumbling into the stand-irons of bunks, their heads dripping gore mingled with brains upon the floor.

Both had destroyed heads. I paused just long enough to make certain they weren't going to try nonsense, then resumed pulling arms or legs and crushing skulls when I got a clear shot with my club as the functionaries screamed and struggled.

They could now tell 'this was the end', and as I met one of the others, I asked softly, “every bed cleared, or do I need to go back...”

A blurring movement had me draw and fire, and a screaming functionary pitched up against the side of a tubular metal bed-frame – which meant more than one type of bed-construction was in use here. I leaped over the top bunk, somehow landed next to him, and shot him in the head before my feet touched down, changing magazines a fraction of a second later when I saw the slide lock back on an empty magazine.

“I told you these people hid good,” hissed Sarah as I reloaded quickly by feel. “Now you know why he said to be careful. Pause, then, “this is the exact reason why we'll wish to have well-armed cleaners and a rotating guard about the place for several days, so as to stop any of these stinkers that try to escape.”

“You can cut back on the guard at night, as these people are so night-blind that it borders on ridiculous,” I said. “I'd still post a guard, mind, just not as big of one as during the day.”

“Several days?” asked our 'guide'.

“They'll run out of their drugs by then,” I said. “Notice just how these people smell? That isn't because they don't bathe, but for another reason entirely.”

“'Cause they're filled with spirits,” said another man.

“That may and may not be the case,” I said. “I've yet to see one of these stinkers glow red – which means little, as these spirits may be the type that are especially good at hiding themselves. I've seen that lots of times with fetishes, and exactly once with a spy.” Pause, then, “however, what's in those silver collars that connects up to this thing in the side of their neck... Neck?”

“Their leadership goes for the jugular in many ways, that being but one of them,” said the soft voice. “Besides, using their neck leaves their hands and arms free for work, and it tends to be much less vulnerable site in general if you're a blue-suited functionary.”

“That collar protects all of their neck, not just where the drugs go in,” I said, as I checked over the beds one last time. That one escaper must have been uncommonly capable for such a thug, as most of these people were too 'dumb' to do anything beyond 'get under the beds and not move', and then hope we'd actually be as stupid as the term 'meat on the hoof' implied.

“With most people in this town, that ploy would actually work more often than not,” said the soft voice. “They have been observing people here at some length.” Pause, then, “they did not count on you or Sarah showing up here this quickly, and they didn't count on the pair of you getting backup from the best people in the town, either.”

I motioned toward the last run of stairs, and here, I could feel a difference. Not merely was this particular 'dormitory' the largest one by far, but we'd want door-guards behind us as well as a fair number of backup shooters to clear the place out. Finally, this was the location that not only had the generator, but also the 'showers'...

Showers?” I gasped, this silently.

“They're not much as showers, even by the standards of where you last lived,” said the soft voice. “On, off, no temperature control so the water's set a bit on the chilly side, three minutes of scant water total – thirty seconds for 'dampening', a blast of soap, and two and a half minutes for rinsing, a brief warm-air blast for drying, and then an electric shock to get the occupant out of the 'container' and 'keep him where he belongs'.” Pause, then, “be glad most 'prole-domiciles' over there have better facilities, as this location was considered to be a 'training camp', and hence was done as per wartime documentation for the secret military establishment.”

Training camp,” I thought, with an inward shudder as I led the way down the stairs. This time, I had the machine pistol out and ready, and when a swarm of functionaries crowded the hallway, I methodically shot them down single-fire, this so rapid that I heard yelps of pain both before and behind me as I methodically walked the bullets among the thugs and paved the last ten steps two and three deep with bodies.

“These bodies will need carrying up,” I said, my voice the temperature of liquid nitrogen as I changed magazines. “Each one of these people, cut his throat on the way up, no exceptions to the rule, just do it before you bother picking his sorry behind up and hauling him out. We can clean up the blood and mess later, but I don't want a single survivor among these people, and I want a lot of new heads spiked on that wall coming in when you get enough of them ready. No survivors, lots of death's-heads. Got it?”

They 'got it', all right, as when I came to where the bodies began and started slicing throats myself, I could hear faint rumors behind me as I began hauling up bleeding bodies by their blood-dripping arms; rumors of Charles, and those like him that might have been worse – then clearly, “Charles? He wasn't given to the last of the pendants, and now I know why he was given to that thing!”

“Which is?” asked Sarah sharply. She was doing her share also. I was glad I'd packed at least one set of clean clothing today, as I was getting messy in a hurry doing this business.

“He won't leave a single witch alive,” said our speaker. It was that one man who sounded like Lukas. “No, not a one. He'll kill 'em all, and he'll do that if he's got to kill every single witch that lives on this world his-own-self.”

“You must not have heard of the third ditch, sir,” said Sarah. “I walked it later that same day, and I saw there what they did, and then what he did, and I killed more than one witch who tried to kill him while he was being taken home to be looked after.” Pause, then, “I had to give Anna no small advice on the matter, as she was lost then, even if she thought she knew what to do entirely, and the same for Maria.”

Maria was lost?” I asked, as I hauled up another fresh-made corpse that was fountaining blood from a partial decapitation. I was not playing games here; when I meant 'cut throats', I really did as I said needed to be done 'as per example'; and the usual result was a flopping head with a severed spine. “I can hear more of those people hiding down there, but the serious thugs are piled up here, just like they planned on doing so as to cost us what time they could so as to let some of the others escape. No trouble, they won't get away, as they're not going to outrun what I have planned for them.”

“No, she was not,” said Sarah. “She had to tell Anna what to do, same as I did, though she was going more by the tapestries and old tales rather than what I had heard of and seen what had happened while with my relatives in the potato country.”

I was making surprising progress, though this double-wide pathway down made for wondering why it was so wide in comparison to those others, and when I asked the question silently it made no sense at all.

Trashed designers, trashed workmen, and trashed functionaries?” I thought. “What were they trying to prove?”

“They sound like they have no brains in their heads,” said Sarah, this audibly. “If one is going to fit a basement of more than one level, or even a manufactory with more than one level, one must make allowances for the number of people likely to be present should they need to remove themselves quickly from the premises.” Pause, then, “these people must have been consuming something a lot worse than what is consumed in mining towns.”

“Not if they drink lots of it for years,” said Lukas' 'relative'. “They get into that stuff they think is specially strong drink what ain't intended to be drunk, or they make their bones, and they lose enough smarts to make wearing a brass cone a good idea.”

“And if they do both of those things?” I asked.

“They're still dumb as fifth kingdom bricks unless they spend two ten-years learning how to do everything all over again,” he said. His own knife was out, and his forearms were both slick with blood, as I was now going after the 'worst' functionaries and leaving those 'easier' – as in either dead or close to it – examples for my 'second' and 'third'.

There was no 'last' in a 'heavy scout-team'. Positions in those groups rotated by either mutual agreement or by the clock, depending on the team's beforehand agreement; and ruthlessness was a byword – when they didn't have someone like me handy.

Then 'ruthlessness' didn't come close to how such teams behaved when 'on the hunt' for the enemy, and their casualty ratios tended to be astronomical – as in hundreds of witches died during a single outing, one lasting perhaps two hours – and perhaps one person on the team was hurt badly enough to need serious medical attention so as to save their life.

I'd somehow missed a functionary, as this stinker swung at my leg with his club. I leaped up, his club perhaps hitting my ankle – I could not tell at this stage – but I did tell when I stomped on his head and heard the crunch of my hobnailed boot as I 'curb-stomped' him on the concrete stairs. I reached up, sliced his throat to make sure, then threw him back and moved forward once again.

Behind me, though, I could hear awed talk, this of old tales and things yet worse, for what I was now doing was an old tale, my systematic progress, utterly ruthless...

No, that word was not adequate. In my current state of mind, I was inclined toward genocidal slaughter, with truly 'no mercy, no relent – meaning, don't stop until they're all dead – and no tears'. Witches, and by extension, 'fully-owned witch-slaves', deserved nothing of the sort.

They received none from me, and as I flung back the last functionary on the stairs, I was startled by an explosion to my rear.

I turned around to see my second, his 'double-barreled roer's' left barrel still trickling smoke. He said laconically, “that one was about to try for you, and I centered his back. Put soot on that wretch, and he don't need his throat cut, 'cause I can tell when they're dead.”

Do it anyway,” said Sarah emphatically. She was speaking from experience. “Remember, treat all of these people as if they are fully-hardened witches, which means remove their heads and put them on their chests, with a piece of Krokus in their mouths. That will ensure they stay dead.” Pause, then, “why did I say that?”

“Annistæ spoke of doing that, and it seemed to help in her case,” I said. “If they're decapitated, then putting a piece of that stuff in their mouths won't hurt matters in the slightest.” Pause, then, “I'd do it just the same, as it will help your manure.” Another pause. “The presence of some Krokus really helps the bacteria that 'devour' flesh and turn it into compost.”

I now stood in the doorway, and as I came into the room, I unslung my machine pistol. This place was easily two hundred feet wide and half again as deep, and here, I understood: they indeed had formed up an army, a well-hid army...

To my right, nearest the entrance: a 'door' made of what looks like stainless steel. This has a latch, one shaped like that of an old-time refrigerator, one of those with rounded corners. I'm not sure what I am seeing is, but I wait until I have backup until I go further into this room.

Yet still, I could feel the presence of a functionary behind that 'doorway', and when first Sarah, then our 'guide' showed, I went to that door, opened it silently by speaking in my mind – and then reached in and grabbed the functionary that was hiding inside, pulled him out – and did a strange kick that sent that stinking blue-suited fool over the nearest bed to land on the floor with a bone-snapping crash.

“You must have had training as I did,” said Sarah. “I might learn from you, but then, I might need to teach you, also.”

“Both of those things, dear,” said the soft voice. “He did not receive training for five years in 'hand-to-hand combat like you did, even if he did get some training as a child, this being many years before coming here.”

“What?” I screeched.

“She would progress rapidly to the level of some people you knew when you were younger,” said the soft voice. “She already knows most of what it would take to achieve the highest 'regular' levels of any martial art you might be familiar with.”

“And she uses flails,” I muttered. The door had closed, this seemingly of itself. There were two more doors like this one in the room, and I again, asked the door to open. This time, I waited for the hand reaching out to close it.

I grabbed the thug by the wrist, then pulled him out – and let him go as he 'launched' into the air to land some twenty feet downrange after banging onto the top of a three-rank bed.

“I cannot do that,” said Sarah. “Now is that thug dead? He was screaming like a burnt Shoet until he landed on that top bed two rows over and then tumbled off to hit the floor.”

“We'll get to him soon enough,” I said. “Right now, we first need to clear the entrance of bodies and get them outside, then slowly, row by row and column by column, we'll need to methodically clear this room. That means search carefully in a 'skirmish line' or whatever it might well be called, and in teams of two if we have enough people, as two sets of eyes are better than one unless you can...”

I turned, drew my pistol, and fired at another functionary as he ran out of another of those weird stainless doors. He tripped on his own two feet and stumbled, then slide to crash into the metal stand-bar of another of those triple-rank beds.

That heavy hot-rolled I-Beam structure was a standardized feature of the beds at Berky – these were the real slave-beds; the others were cheaper ones – and these people had obviously gotten samples of such slave-beds from Berky. Hence this slave-like mentality, and then living as if these people were slaves to be driven through life by the lash and the screamed rune-curse.

Row by row, column by column, node by node, ring, track, and sector: massive skirmish lines, methodical 'clearing', massive human waves gunned down by truck-mounted heavy weapons...

I tossed such thinking. It was not a matter for now.

It would be a matter for later, though. That much I knew, and I knew how my mind wandered when I was not 'engaged'.

Like now. I was waiting, which was something I did poorly at best.

“You'd best hurry with those thugs,” shouted Sarah. “There's a lot of them down here still, and we need that path cleared of them and...”

Here, Sarah stopped with her voice, and pressed a slightly sticky vial in my hand. Mechanically, I gulped down the sticky liquid after removing the waxy-feeling cork, and as my mind cleared out from its 'fuzzy' state, I was suddenly in a state of complete and nightmarish shock – shock so total I let the cork fall from my trembling hand and only consciously hanging onto the small vial helped until someone took it from me.

“I know where all of these people are,” I spat, as my mind cleared out entirely with a sudden rush, like a blast of lightning. “Stinkers, out with you, and...”

My fingers found the machine pistol's grip, only I set the thing to 'R' and as the thugs came in a solid screaming club-waving wall of blue, I fired short bursts, these methodically 'stitching' thugs in the region of their chests. I was somehow all but seeing the bullets fly, and their oddly curving paths...

No, more than that. I was actually aiming my shots, two or three per thug, even when what I was firing was shooting at roughly seven hundred rounds per minute – and in nearly every instance, each thug I hit received at least one slug in the chest or sometimes...

Crossed his 'T'. A third eye. Center-punched his head. The 'death-shot' that dropped hard-witches consistently if one hit them with what I was using at this range.

The thugs now had a wall of bodies to their front, but still they came regardless. Their clumsiness in clambering over the piled corpses of their 'comrades' was so blatant that I knew I was dealing with drugged-up idiots. Now, I was firing single rounds, this nearly as fast as I had done when firing full-auto – and now, every shot was a 'kill-shot', one that slung brains and dropped the thugs when I shot them.

“A hundred meters per second more velocity,” I thought. “This thing really is as good as one of those nasty-feeling weapons, only it does not feel nasty.”

“More accurate, also,” said the soft voice. “You'll still need to clear the room properly, but all of the hard-cases will soon be either dead or 'deactivated'.”

The thugs finally stopped coming, though for some reason, I really wanted something like a 'big firecracker' or one of those things supposedly used on Harvest Day. I felt my vest, noting two of those green cans called 'training aides', then thought, “if only I could get something with, uh, less punch...”

“The most common types of those things are most suitable for what you have in mind, and if you know where to look, they're easy to find.” Pause, then, “they're usually found near containers that have 'wasp-shot', the conjunction of which will give some of those medical people ideas.”

“Oh, nice gree-nades,” I thought. “Just the thing for flushing thugs like these.” Pause, then, “do they have something like, uh, hot-melt glue?”

“Yes, and it's very common,” said the soft voice. “So are 'bad' ball-bearings, out-of-tolerance fasteners, and other varied bits of scrap-metal. They usually go in what's called 'scrap-grinders'.”

“Which turn out, uh, rounded chunks of sundry metals in pelletized form,” I thought. I was getting distracted again, but I had to wait until that pathway was cleared of bodies. We needed more people in here than I had first realized, and hence those in here were watching, waiting, forming a semicircle close enough to touch one another, expanding outward as more people became available. One or two had already reached under the nearest beds and removed thugs to then bash them with clubs.

“Separated carefully as to alloy content,” said the soft voice. “It's a needed matter in some of the maintenance areas, as getting suitable metal for what they need is not easy at this time.” Pause, then, “hence, the wasp-shot will be used mostly, and within days of your arrival, people will be making those things in quantity.”

“I could use one about now,” I thought, as I felt my vest to find a strangely lumpy thing that I removed with some trepidation. It was obviously an aluminum can of some kind, this with an odd species of igniter: this one had a loop, a pin, and a screwed fitting. I then looked at the thing closer, and seemed to see through the stark white ceramic-looking nickel-dotted 'mess'. The 'wasp-shot' was 'a trifle large', compared to most common shot found in the area, but its nickeled aspect would make it act as if it were 'stiff' indeed – and I wondered about the 'glue', also. It looked as if it would cause nasty wounds – much as if it were a species of glass.

“This is a training aide,” I spat. “What is explosive 'A-3B1'?”

“Something about half as strong as Cyclohexanite,” said the soft voice. “It's a lot 'safer' to use, and it needs a stiffer detonator than most explosives you're going to find over there.” Pause, then, “pull the pin and toss that thing over in that furthest corner.”

I pulled the pin, and the subtle pop told me I'd best not wait on this thing. I flung it as directed, and the oddly-shaped bomb flew like a football, spiraling all the way until it detonated as an airburst at the far corner of the room.

The screams that resulted were so horrifying and numerous that I wondered just who or what I'd 'nailed' with that bomb – at least until I heard the tramp of a vast horde come a-running.

I mechanically put in a fresh magazine in the machine pistol, then as the first functionaries came from between the beds, I began firing.

It seemed the signal for all of our people that had come to help us, as I knelt down as did Sarah – and those behind us, those with roers and things like them, volleyed.

The results were horrifying: beds splintered, dozens of functionaries flew backwards spraying blood in gouts, sheets were ripped and torn as if I'd used a broom on them...

No time for such contemplation, as Sarah and I now had our rifles shouldered, and were firing those at every functionary we could see – or, in my case, see or feel. My bullets were now not the only ones weaving about crazily to hit thugs; Sarah's were now doing the same, and we were both shooting crazily so as to give our backup people time to reload their weapons. They could so so fairly quickly by the standards of this area, or so I suspected – and most people in Ploetzee could do reloads fast.

“Down!” shouted our 'guide'.

I dropped to the blood-slick floor, Sarah did the same, and our 'escort' walked around us, guns shouldered, again the roers and double-barreled 'royal-gage' shotguns in use. As they went past us, I pointed to the side, and as the second column of people now guarded the door, I ran up the side of the 'right' wall. I'd not gone more than ten feet when the first functionary showed, and I shot him down, then as the wall of thugs came, I went to my knees, machine pistol still slung, rifle firing and spraying hot shell cases like I was firing the broom.

The thugs were dropping so fast in front of me that when I needed to change magazines, I gasped at how sore I was.

I then looked around. The floor in my area was littered with shell casings, much as if I had indeed been firing the broom, and I stood up to see them mounded about my right leg.

“That thing was almost as bad as the broom,” screeched Sarah. “You were firing it so fast that those people had no chance in the world, and I know a lot more came out of that thing than that box could hold.”

As if to supply an answer, a roer boomed, then two more, then another volley. These people did learn quickly about 'thug business' when they knew their lives were at stake, and as the cracks of revolvers started, I knew what needed to happen. I leaped from a kneeling position to land on the top bunk of a bed, changed magazines to 'hollow points', then began drilling the heads of thugs as they came on in a line, just like that one line of witches I had killed earlier today with my sword.

I must have shot thirty or more thugs in the head as I scanned from my vantage point, but then Sarah began popping her pistol, and I leaped off of the bed to kick a thug in the back just below his neck. He went flying, Sarah ducked as his body flew over her, then she leaped upon him and stabbed him.

Moving like that one man who'd thought himself doomed, crawling up the body with both hands, stabbing with the knife to provide an anchor point for added leverage as she moved closer to his throat, then as she found the man's head, she sawed through his neck in what seemed a few seconds and then slapped his head viciously to the side.

“No time for Krokus, not now,” she said. “I think one of those thugs hit me with his club.”

“Where?” I asked.

Sarah pointed to her leg, and I now noticed, she was standing on but one leg. I knelt down, gently grasped her injured leg, and closing my eyes, prayed as hard as I could.

Sarah screamed, then as I took my hands away in fright and opened my eyes, she flung her hand as if slapping someone in the face.

Shot rattled on the floor, then as I noticed the floor around her, it was covered with shot and balls. I then wondered, this aloud, “me”?

“Turn toward the beds, and yell your loudest,” said the soft voice. “Close your eyes, as what happens is going to be very bright as well as very noisy.”

I turned, rifle at the ready, this standing, closed my eyes, and screamed, “Stinkers! Go jump in the lake!”

The blast that rocked me was so violent that I was flung back to slam against what felt like a concrete block wall, and the screaming that resulted was so tremendous that when I opened my eyes, I saw a number of worried looking people, these looking as if coated with soot...

“Just like doing the hall,” I muttered as I shook my head. “This is war, and war to the knife, and beyond that, even.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “That 'image' will fade in the eyes of those not drugged within perhaps a minute.” Pause, then, “those thugs, though – they're blind now, and they'll stay that way until you-all kill them.” Another pause, then, “a lot of those stinkers caught your lead, by the way.”

“Now we can take this place right,” said Sarah. She was speaking loudly. “Each bed, check it! If you find a blue-suited thug, kill him right then! Make certain he dies! Row, by the row, move!”

I found Sarah's 'military' speech oddly reassuring, as what she said was exactly what I had in mind. I simply was focused upon my current task, this to an extreme degree, and now, with both rifle and machine-pistol slung and that one 'upgraded' common-caliber pistol in hand, I began searching bunks.

The number of functionaries I was finding was so astonishing that I had people behind me laboring mightily to carry the head-shot thugs out of the place, and now, I could feel the constant stamp of boots. There were three layers to this business: the first one, that having the duty of 'search and destroy', which is what Sarah, I, and about eight to ten others, all of whom had lost body parts to witches, were doing; then, there was 'body carrying'. These people used knives, and without exception, they partly decapitated each thug with a knife – or in some cases, what looked like short swords, these with a thick back, a single edge, and a point ground at a forty-five degree angle. The point was usually sharp as well.

“What are those things they're using?” I asked, as I removed another functionary and cut his throat with that one blackened knife. He was too injured to do much beyond bleed, as he'd been hit by several sizable pellets of shot in his torso, and what might have been a revolver-ball in the chest. He was coughing blood steadily from one or more wounds.

“These here are corn-knives, and the best to be had in the kingdom, at least now,” yelled one of those using them to 'cut heads'. “We might not use them for corn in Ploetzee, but they do work well on Kommando for swords if you want something light so as to move quick the whole day's traveling.” Pause, then, “though after seeing what you and she have, I'll gladly use one of those instead.”

“Yes, but you have that knife now, and those swords and things like them will be later,” said Sarah, as she 'cleaned the ears' of a functionary with her suppressed pistol. She was using the 'slow' stuff, which gave a gratifying yet messy result, as the result of such ear-cleaning was a functionary with a fist-sized hole in the other side of his head.

The gratifying aspect was the relative lack of noise. My pistol, on the other hand, was loud enough to remind me of using that hand-howitzer earlier this morning, and my ears were ringing like chimes.

“Forgot to put in the earplugs,” I muttered. “Gonna have bad hearing loss by the time we sail.”

“They'll be able to fix that, once they have the place,” said the soft voice. “You'll have all of your hearing back then.”

“Good,” I thought, as I shot another functionary in the chest as he charged me with his club. I grabbed his club as I moved out of his way, then smacked him in the back of the head with it as his knees buckled. I put his club in my pack-straps; now I had two of them.

That thump, however, sent him sliding nearly to the feet of one of the second portion of our group, and with another person armed similarly with pistol and knife, he picked this thug up to take him to the third section, that being 'the line of people passing up bodies to the top and then outside'.

He'd cut the thug's throat before doing anything else, and the thug's partly-decapitated head had billowed blood while the two of them had gotten ready to carry his body.

“I hope it's not going to be like this overseas,” I murmured.

“I expect it to be worse,” said Sarah. “We will be on their ground, and it will be unfamiliar to all of us...”

“Except me,” I whispered, as I found another functionary, this man crawling to get under a bunk. By the blood-trail he was leaving, he was hurt badly enough that he wasn't going to live long – no matter what anyone did to him, me included. Still, I did not wait or hesitate for an instant.

I leaped, club in hand, then landed on the man, and smashed his head with the club such that brains flew out of the side of his head and splattered over the nearest bunk.

“The work of the monster,” seemed to ring in the air, ghostly, a voice from elsewhere, much as if a bell were tolling out the paean to death and destruction, and as I kept going down the aisles in a systematic fashion, yet still rapidly, I could feel the functionaries dying. Those roer-loads of shot 'did execution', and while not everyone who caught one or more of the pellets they were firing died 'right away', the usual result with those people was 'they were hurt badly enough that they were very easy to track down and then kill'.

Our people were doing precisely that, as there were blood-trails everywhere, and in many places, the concrete floor was slick with blood. It wanted full sets of hobnails on one's footwear, and now, I knew our business, and how we would be needing trekking boots for overseas.

Those worked on bloody floors, better than anything currently available here or overseas. Treating them would make them more-durable and vastly easier to clean, but otherwise – the medical people overseas would wish to study them, as that kind of footwear would become 'standard overseas issue' once the place had gotten its mess straightened out 'adequately'.

“I hope the shoemakers here can handle the business, then,” I thought, as I bashed thug after thug. I'd put the pistol away, now, and just swung my club when I was 'clearing house'. It helped my hearing, as the ringing was starting to fade already.

“About, turn!” yelled Sarah. “You, the four of you, one per row, move!”

“What is she saying?” I thought.

“What a 'real' group-leader would say during house-clearing, or so she has read,” said the soft voice. “The groups that worked well needed no such directions, as they were both all marked and they had all learned to listen to me well enough to not need such directions.” Pause, then, “that is precisely why she's giving such directions, by the way – not everyone in here has learned to listen well yet – though this experience will make most of those people do a lot of face-time.”

“Pray on your face?” I asked, this audibly. “Like I've done a number of times?”

“I think so!” spat Sarah. “I was told to tell these people what to do and what to say, and they need to do what you spoke of when this business is done!”

“It's good enough, then, dear,” I said, as I finished a row and started on another. These rows were long, but my capacity for finding injured thugs was such that I could now proceed down a row at a rapid walk – one perhaps a bit faster than a common buggy – find a thug, reach under the bed for the usually badly-injured wretch, and then smash his face or his head with the club. If he seemed 'hard', I then shot out his eyes with the suppressed pistol, using the 'slow' stuff. I really wanted the ringing in my ears to quit, and I thought, “let these thugs hear such ringing in their ears!”

The resulting screams were followed by a ragged volley of gunfire, one that lasted perhaps three seconds, then the cracks of revolvers began once more. I wondered just how many of our 'house-cleaners' had multiple pistols, but when I saw our 'guide', he had a smoking revolver in his hand, two more holstered, and bulging pockets as well – and two slung long weapons.

“Five pistols?” I asked, this silently.

“He got the idea from what you put on the 'table' when you were in the west works,” said the soft voice. “Most of these people tended to carry two or more of those pistols routinely, but those 'cleaning house' borrowed at least one beyond all of those weapons they have that are in workable condition – and that gun-shop in Ploetzee has been turning out pistols at the rate of ten to twenty a day every day for the last two weeks.”

“Meaning most adults in this 'town' have at least one such pistol,” I thought, as I leaped to catch a running functionary and then somehow flew through the air to kick the man in the back of the head. He flew so hard that he smashed face-first into the nearest wall, there he fell until a body-carrier came and cut his throat.

“This stinker is dead as a corpse-box,” he said. “What did you do to him? Kick him like a smelly mule?”

“No mule can kick like that, not those raised that are today,” said Sarah. “Now I suspect something happened to him on the way here, as that kind of thing shows training like I had.”

“He did not have years, dear,” said the soft voice. “In his case, though – his training was 'multiplied', and when you have that level of capacity, that kind of strength, and all the other things...” Pause, then, “that is one of the things that is writ in that black book about 'the return of the monster'.”

I had come to the last row, and here, I saw that the others had been quite thorough in their searching. However, they were used to dealing with black-dressed witches, not blue-suited thugs, and I found no less than four badly injured thugs hiding under beds, all of which I killed with my club. I then went to the outside of the row, and met up with one of those men who worked at the 'oil refinery'.

“Kasper?” I asked.

“No, that is him over there with the fowling piece,” he said. “I am Jonas, and I will wish liniment after this business, that and two good baths, one after another, and my clothing soaking in special soap.”

“What is that, uh, gun?” I asked.

“This is a doubled-eight fowling piece,” said Jonas. “It takes a good load, and I am glad we will recover most of our lead, as I have put three pounds of it in this gun today so far, and I will most likely put more yet through it.”

“Three pounds?” I gasped.

“It takes two ounces to the barrel,” said Jonas, “and half an ounce of powder, should I weigh it out and not just use the measure.” Pause, then, “and I am using decent shot, though I wish I could get some that is stiff.”

“Decent?” I asked.

“It is what is dropped here,” said Jonas. “That gun-shop here drops shot, and that stuff looks like that bullet your wife showed me, so it works passably on witches.” Pause, then, “I'd like shot of twenty lines, as that is almost as good as loopers in a gun like this, and you just dump a handful in each barrel.”

“Double-barreled roer,” I muttered. “Only thing worse is this one huge rifle that weighs twice what I usually shoot, and that thing is worse than a three-inch gun for noise, or so I've been told.”

“It is that,” said Sarah. “I have found two doors, and they once had thugs in them, but there is this one doubled door of strange metal, and I can smell at least one of them inside that place.” Pause, then, “it feels much like an oven for baking bread, at least for its warmth.”

“Don't wish them to die in there, as then the stench will be awful,” I said. “The door, dear. Where is that one door, and can you cover me while I deal with those stinkers?”

Sarah walked rapidly, this to a region near a corner far from the entrance but upon the same wall as the entrance and the previous two doors I had opened, and here, I felt the heat from nearly twenty feet away.

“Bake oven is right,” I muttered. “What is that in there that makes that kind of heat – the generator?”

“I think you are right,” said Sarah. “That horrible noisy thing at the Abbey made a great deal of fire, and that area near it was a lot warmer after you'd run it for a short time.”

“The heat of hell,” I muttered, as I came to the doubled doors. The warmth seemed to be increasing by the second. “Cannot shoot them in that place, so I'm going to need to act like your cousin, dear.”

I found I had more than just Sarah for backup; our 'guide' had arrived, and he was holding his double-barreled 'eight-bore' gun at the ready. He muttered something about 'special' shot he'd gotten from Lukas, and how it was especially scarce right now.

“Is this shot shiny, and especially hard?” asked Sarah. “About eighteen lines or so?”

“It is that,” said our 'guide'. “Best shot I've ever seen, and it's as stiff as it gets, too.”

“There is some that will work nearly as well hid somewhere in this room,” said Sarah. “We will wish some, but shot is a heavy matter and we have ample weight already.”

“Put some in your shot-pouches,” I said. “Trouble is, that stuff will chew up your bore unless you've got good metal...” I then looked at the 'gun' itself. “Twenty-eight inches of barrel, a stout stock, twin hammers, decent metal...”

“No, it ain't no Heinrich gun, but it does work well enough to suit me,” he said. “Those people in that gun-shop aren't the fastest workers I've ever seen, but they do decent work, even by the standards of the fourth kingdom.”

“One of those people is, uh, from the Heinrich works,” I said. I wondered why I was waiting, and then I knew. Injured thugs would be less capable if they were partly cooked, and I'd need to move fast so as to get them out of that mess without making a mess in the place. Hence, I needed rest, and they needed to get good and messed up by heat-stroke.

I first shed my rifle, then my machine pistol, then pack, and finally, my possible bag. I took the one knife out of it, unsheathed it, wiped it down with an oily rag. I now felt 'light', so much so that without a shred of warning, I leaped to the doors, opened them with my left hand, then darted in like a bolt of lightning.

Like an electrified mongoose, only faster.

The first thug had his club raised, but when I stabbed him in the gut and ripped the knife out, someone grabbed his collapsing body before his guts spilled out of the foot-long rip I'd made in his belly. I then turned toward the next thug, dodging his club as if he were a glacier and I lightning, then a quick dart of my hand.

I spiked him in the right eye, and then left him as he fell. I had 'pithed' him, or rendered him 'out of commission'.

The next thug, however, was hiding, and when I grabbed his arm, he barely resisted me as I tossed him over my shoulder.

Trouble for him, though, was I tossed him with my left hand. My right hand slashed his belly open diagonally, and he rained blood as he flew out of the now oven-hot room. I glanced around, seeing what looked like a huge 'purple' colored finned tank, an obvious radiator, this with an electric fan, a lot of sizable copper piping...

I could feel another thug, though, and I darted clean to the back of the room, this so fast that none of the three remaining thugs I saw in the process of reaching that back wall could react. I launched forward off the wall, and as I passed the center thug, I stabbed him in the throat and tossed him outside, then I somehow reversed course and kicked the right one in the gut, and as he doubled up, I sank my knife in his back, then as he began screaming, I picked him up and running with my hands on his shoulder and rear, I tossed him into the nearest heavy frame of one of the bunks once I had came outside of the stifling 'oven'. I then turned, knife at the ready.

Thug number six had 'woken up enough' to try to follow after me as I had 'bum-rushed' number five, so I waited for him to come to me – then like lightning, I darted to the right side, landed, then launched myself at the man.

And plunged my knife into his ear.

His dead weight slid him off of my knife as I flew past, and I landed on my shoulder to slide on a blood-slick floor. I stood up, my clothing now 'more blood than all else', and asked, “Is that the end of them?”

Number six was the only thug remaining in the area. All of the others, those I had tossed, were gone, even if someone or several someones had cut their throats before doing much else to them. As I watched, number six had his throat cut deeply enough to partly decapitate him, then two more men ran with him for the stairway. I looked then to my left to find Sarah as I scrambled to my feet.

“I think that to be all the ones that need us hunting them,” said Sarah. “Only my cousin is quicker with a knife, and her, not by much.” Pause, then, “how often have you gone after people that way?”

“That was his first time, dear,” said the soft voice. “He'll get better in a great hurry.”

“Those thugs?” I asked. “How long was I in there?” I wanted to ask for beer, and I first cleaned my knife, sheathed it, then found my cup. “Beer?”

“Aye, and the good stuff, as you look to need it, same as we all do,” said our 'guide'. “Here's some for your cup, and there will be more waiting for you at the Public House when you get there and pick up your things.”

“Our buggy?” asked Sarah.

“It will be there, as one of those who were hurt was detailed to drive it there,” he said. “He got thumped by a club, but it's only a broken leg.”

“I think he should stay there, as...” Sarah looked at me, then said in a whisper, “Rachel. She might well manage.”

“Prayer?” I asked.

“If not that, then she might well know enough to treat his injuries,” said Sarah. “Worst case, you could...” Pause, then, “no, not after what happened to you when you yelled.”

“What was that?” asked our 'guide'. “There was this huge explosion, like a jug-bomb filled with the fines from that powder mill here, and not the usual power but the hot stuff, and then all of this shot and balls flies as if we and ten like us each were firing roers filled with the stuff across the room. I know some of those blue-suited stinkers got hurt bad then, and most of 'em acted as if they could not see.”

“They are blind, sir,” said Sarah. “Now, we must search, or first get this mess off of us enough to...” Sarah looked at those two rooms closed by stainless doors that I had seen when I first came into the room, then said, “what, precisely, is a shower?”

“Something I'll need to change the programming on, dear,” I said. “I think we can get ourselves clean in those then, and do it passably at the least.” I then asked for 'the bag of clean clothing', and while someone went up the stairs so as to fetch it, I went toward one of the showers, suppressed pistol in hand. There might be a functionary hiding in the place, and I was more than a little surprised to not find one in either location. I then saw the bloodstains.

“First, send those into the drink of witches, as they like to drink blood,” I muttered.

The bloodstains vanished 'instantly', and something was happening behind me, also. I turned to see floors once slick with blood now rapidly becoming 'relatively clean', and I walked into the shower, the pistol slipped into my trousers' pocket. I then looked carefully at this 'can'.

The shower itself was round, even as to its door when that was closed and latched, with welded seams, these inhumanly neat. The sense I had was this device was made and then installed, and little was needed to do beyond 'hook it up'. I looked above my head, and noted an odd-looking 'shower head', this perhaps five inches in diameter, and able to swivel in a strange manner – almost as if it could descend like a snake and spray water into everywhere imaginable.

Around me, I saw small ports, these round-edged slots closed by sealed metal valves, and as I looked at the door again, I noted its sturdy construction, much as if 'this needs to be made strong to stand up to idiots working on it'. I then noted the floor.

This was a pierced metal grid composed of slats mounted on what might have been a whitish ceramic insulating gridwork, and the colors of these slats were red, blue, green, and yellow, all in a line, endlessly repeating the colors of that nasty 'idiot-drug' these thugs used. There were a total of twenty such slats, and only now did I observe the size of where I was.

“This thing is huge,” I squeaked. “Four feet across if an inch, and... And what is that little black thing sticking out like an odd-looking plastic 'cork'?”

“Look at it closer,” said the soft voice, “and do so while praying to see its insides.” Pause, then, “you'll be very surprised.”

I did so, now drawing closer, then with my eyes perhaps three inches away, I could see a small sensor hidden behind the black plastic of the 'cork', this device housed in what was roughly the size of a TO-5 transistor can. This 'sensor' was mounted on a small red-coated ceramic substrate, this roughly an inch across, and surrounding the substrate was a lathe-turned heat-sink, this colored an odd iridescent red. I guessed it was 'anodized', or a similar process.

“And that 'cork' there is the lens,” I murmured. “It actually gathers...”

“Quite a bit more than you might think,” said the soft voice. “Now, close your eyes, and pray that you might see what the thing actually is, as this is a taste of what awaits you overseas. It is very important. Very important. VERY IMPORTANT.”

I did so, asking softly, “may I see what that thing actually is?”

Instantly, I felt as if submerged, then I was walking atop a strange white plane, this covered with yellow and silver and black roads of varied widths and occasionally overlapping, with odd 'sculptured' jumps one over another here and there. Odd spider-like devices, these like square or rectangular gray 'bricks' with strangely 'figured' or 'carved' sides such that they resembled modern-art sculptures, were everywhere, and I often had to dodge their wires. I was in search of the 'monument', but in order to see it clearest, I needed to first find a portion of this odd world's 'brain' – and climb up upon it, and then speak down into it.

It would put me onto the 'monument' then.

I knew where the nearest 'brain' part was, and I leaped upon this slick gray rock as if I were a flea, and there saw the vast number of intricate designs upon it. I now knew why it had such a peculiar appearance: these 'blocks' were inlaid as well as covered with designs, and one had to tread with care and lightness while walking upon them, all the while mindful of their hollows and potholes, as the top was a modern-art sculpture as well as the sides, save for the very edges where the wires merged into the thing. I saw stranger-yet designs down below the surface, however; and suddenly the gray block turned into something like a glassy sea, one where I could swim like a fish. It was here I needed to speak, and I said, “warm water, as long as the person inside the shower desires it. Now to the next such brick, the one that speaks of drying.”

Instantly, I was transferred from one such 'brick' to another one, again a glassy 'sea'; and here, my speech was a longer one: “listen with great care to the one within the shower, and know their desires for cleanliness, and grant them those desires if you possibly can. Ignore what you have been told before. Do what I am saying instead.” Pause, then, “now, if this is sufficient to work as you should, then send me to the monument, so that I can open all of its eyes.” Pause, then, “otherwise, send me to those other parts that need my speaking.”

Instantly, I was standing on this thing I had called a monument, and I saw that it had a strange shield, this made of an odd gridwork, thick, sturdy, strong, and very heavy, with tiny square holes and heavy riveted bars of lumpy 'iron', this jagged and irregular in nature. Below, I could see the 'eyes', these looking like strange crystalline stalagmites of varied rainbow colors.

“This grid, please,” I said. “Make it such that it only filters out noise, not 'humanity' or 'kindness'. This is a shower, not a place to remind evil people of how to become more so.”

The grid then became infinitesimal, something made of wires so fine that I floated through them like a snowflake, and as I slowly passed the 'eyes' to land upon the surface of their world, I found that there was first, much rubbish upon the floor of this place, and then the eyes had themselves been painted over with a multitude of coats of paint. Thick paint, sloppy paint, all colors mingled, and the whole like a thick coating of dried varicolored mud.

“No rubbish in this monument, and no paint, and nothing else that prevents proper service,” I said. “Now, let this device obey the one who has sent me, and give honor to him all of the time, without stint, without pause, without...”

I opened my eyes and found myself back in the shower; and shuddering, I opened the door. It swung open, its new movement so utterly unlike the old grating sensation that had been present before that Sarah took one look at me and handed me a cup of beer.

“Drink that,” she said. “I have some bread, and I was eating a piece while you were in there.” Pause, then, “that was very strange.”

“What was strange?” I asked, as I drank down the beer, then began chewing on the bread. “Oh, the device that controls these things?”

“That was a peculiar matter, but how you vanished for a count of ten and then returned here is one yet more peculiar,” said Sarah. “I think you went inside of that thing, actually, and you told it to behave itself – and more, told it to honor God.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “They will enjoy seeing just what he did, as will you.” Pause, then, I was addressed. “You know what you just did, don't you?”

“A very weird thing, something I barely understand,” I said. “It felt like I was doing programming, only that was the strangest programming I've ever done.”

“That device you were 'touching' is not merely the sensing array and its interfacing electronic devices,” said the soft voice. “In terms of power, that device had as much computing horsepower as one of the computers you used at home – your laptop, for example.” Pause, then, “that 'microcontroller', at least the way it was, is commonly thought to be a dumb one.” Another pause, then, “the usual 'microcontroller' used overseas is a good deal smarter, much faster, and in general, far more capable.”

“And what I did?” I asked.

“You effectively gave that shower a lot more smarts, chiefly by doing a very efficient job of programming a dumb device and removing all of the errors in its programming – both at the software and at the 'firmware' levels.” Pause, then, “you can try it out shortly, and you need to do so, as your clothing needs to be changed inside it so it gets cleaned also.”

I began removing my boots, and as I took them off and my stockings, I asked, “will it clean these?”

Now it will,” said the soft voice. “That particular shower is now much closer to the commonplace 'accommodations' that you'll find over there.”

“How are those different?” asked Sarah. She was getting ready to bathe also, and she had her bather in hand, setting it aside so as to begin to remove her bloody boots. Only mine were worse.

“Chiefly they've seen more use,” said the soft voice, “but they cut a lot fewer corners in making them, so they're in general very pleasant to use.” Pause, then, “you'll get an idea of how they work shortly.”

My clothing came down, this still in its bag, and Sarah was told hers was on its way as well. Since I was the 'messiest' person present “by a large margin” as our 'guide' said, I was to have first go at this 'thing what is straight out of an old tale'. I found that I took my clothing inside with me, and as I did, I could distinctly feel an odd sensation. I was being watched, and this by something not of this world.

Or rather, something I had never felt before. It was unsettling to say the least – at least until I heard a most-familiar voice say, “they'll really want your programming skills. Getting a dumb device to act like it's got ten times the power it should have and triple its normal speed through programming alone is a tough act to follow as far as those people are concerned.”

“This thing is watching me, though,” I said. “Will it hate me?”

“No, because I was guiding you, and it doesn't have enough brains to do that,” said the soft voice. “It is waiting for you to undress, and then it will douse you with warm water, followed by a very pleasant soap, then more warm water, and finally it will dry you off nicely, so you can have your clean clothing passed in and bag up your stuff that needs washing.” Pause, then, “note that this soap is a very powerful material, and it removes 'mess' as well as anything you've ever used.”

“Eats skin?” I asked, as I removed my underwear.

“No,” said the soft voice. “You did not just change the programming of the sensor array and make it work right.” Pause, then, “you changed this entire shower, and now it has medical soap in its dispenser – recent-vintage medical soap.”

“Oh, good,” I said, as I stripped off my underclothing.

The shower started but a second later, and the water was indeed, delightful. I was soon moaning with pleasure, at least until the shower head 'doused me' with soap. I then began giggling, as calling this stuff 'bubble bath' was a bad joke.

More, it tickled, and I needed a chance to laugh.

The blood absolutely 'fled' away from this ticklish stuff, and when the 'rinse-cycle came, again, there was more pleasantly-warm water. More importantly, this shower head was really weird, in that no matter how I moved, it seemed to know where to squirt me – and how much – so that I became thoroughly rinsed.

“Ah,” I sighed. “This feels wonderful.”

The sudden eruption of warm air, however, nearly made me jump, and it whirled around me, much as if I were in the eye of a hurricane. More, it seemed to know where to blow, how hard, and how warm I wished to be, such that when it ceased, I went to the door, unlatched it, then waved my hand. My bag was passed in, and I was dressed not three minutes later. Sarah came up to me as if in shock.

“I have never seen men wear scent before, but I like that smell greatly,” said Sarah. “It's quite faint, but I think it means 'I am indeed clean'.” Pause, then, “it got your boots clean, also, and they look to be dry. Did it clean your clothing?”

“Yes, quite passably, as far as I could tell,” I said. “I suspect you might be very surprised at what that thing does, but otherwise, it's as good a shower or bath as anything I've ever experienced.”

Sarah wasted no time whatsoever; she was in that thing in a trice, and not two minutes later she yelled as if frightened.

“Yes, dear,” I said. “It's nice and warm, just how you like it.”

Soon, however, there were soft sounds, these as if being soothed; and then suddenly, a terrifying laugh, high-pitched, almost screaming, maniacal.

“What is that thing doing?” asked our 'guide'.

“Soap!” yelled Sarah. “This stuff is tickling me silly, and it's making more bubbles than anything!”

Sarah was out of the 'strange shower' not five minutes later, and in her case, the change bordered on miraculous. She whispered in my ear, “we must get one of those things. It cleans clothing better than a fourth-kingdom laundry, and it cleans people better than anything!”

“Yes, dear,” I said contentedly. This was the speech of someone who, upon hearing the desire of his beloved for a sizable ring, one set with a stone of considerable value, would do anything, so long as it was not against the laws of God or man, to secure such a ring so as to delight the heart of the one he loved.

Sarah did something very strange, then – she leaped up and hugged me.

“Now, we have businesses to do, and those quickly,” as I resumed my gear. For some reason, it seemed cleaner, and when I smelled the leather of my possible bag, I asked, “leather-soap?”

“We do have that here,” said Jonas, “and I put some to that bag, so the blood will not stick to it. It will come out with warm water if you wash it like your other clothing.”

“That thing will get your clothing clean,” said Sarah. “That soap may be the silliest stuff imaginable, but it does get one entirely clean.” Pause, then, “now, before the two of us do aught else, we must fumigate these wretches, so we do not have to do this nonsense again!”

I wondered for a moment if Sarah had gotten one of those bombs, but as she looked at me for an answer, I wondered where the place was. Walking along the walls, I had a sense of 'getting warmer', as well as the fact that the 'plan' was most-definitely in place. There were more of these blue-suited thugs below us, a great number of them, easily several thousands; and now, I understood once more just how they could have taken Ploetzee – and more, how those over them would count the cost cheap at any price. They wanted this place bad.

“How fast does this, uh, elevator work?” I asked, this idly.

“It handles perhaps five or six thugs at a time,” said the soft voice, “but it isn't particularly slow. More, it goes down a lot faster than it goes up, as it's usually carrying cargo on its upward trip.”

“Is this like some elevators I've been on?”

“In some ways, yes,” said the soft voice. “Chiefly it starts slow, but then builds speed steadily until it begins to slow – and it's 'sensitive', much like that shower is now, so it knows how fast it can drop or climb.”

“And the thing is hidden behind, this, uh, special wall that slides out if you know how to work it,” I said. “Wall, move aside for me.”

To my utter and complete shock, a sudden rumble occurred to our front, then a section of 'wall' suddenly fell onto the floor with a crackle of something like breaking plaster. I ran in, suppressed pistol at the ready, and here, I saw bloody footprints, footprints that were slowly vanishing before my eyes.

“I knew it, some of those wretches got down there,” said Sarah.

“More like 'they tried, and then died',” said the soft voice. “The platform was down at the 'witch' level, and they in their pain and fright simply jumped down rather than keying the thing to come up first.” Pause, then, “you now have an idea as to what to do.”

This last was said to me, and as I came to the huge 'dome' of the thing, I noted the eight-spoked handwheel some two feet across, this on a sizable shaft, one nearly two inches thick. A hinge was on one side of this massive 'finned' dome, and to its side, on the wall, were three buttons. All of them were six inches square and set in a thick-looking 'shiny' white-colored metal panel – the whiteness was in the metal; it was not paint – and above each one, were the requisite words: UP, DOWN, and STOP.

“Intended for dense people,” I said, as I hit the 'down' button with my fist – which caused a faint whirring noise that had me back away quickly.

The 'button' shattered like glass, sending plastic everywhere, and Sarah and I ran out of the room as the other two buttons 'blew up' after 'Down' went to hell. Smoke began to stream out of the alcove, this thin, gray, pungent, and penetrating as to its burnt-chemical reek.

“Sounds like I broke something,” I said. “Now it's all manual operation.” I then pointed at the wheel, and whispered, “turn around.”

It did nothing of the sort. I walked over to the thing, then walked up upon the dome itself. I could now feel its solid metal, and how they had brought it up and installed this three-ton artifact was a mystery. I then kicked at the wheel, much as if I were a potter working clay at a kick-wheel.

The wheel spun with dizzying speed, so much so that I leaped off as the wheel came up nearly two inches on its 'acme' threaded arrangement. Suddenly, as it came to a stop, there was a number of clacking noises – and then slow, noiselessly, the lid swung up, until it stood straight up in the air.

“Now we can stink those people up down there,” I whispered, as I noted the 'bank-vault' locking arrangement on the lid, its gaskets – four of them, all fairly new looking, substantial, and greenish-gray – a thin coating of a waxy-based 'preservative' on all of the metal surfaces; and then finally, a ladder, this of narrow rungs perhaps a foot wide and a foot apart, going down into the darkness. Below, I could faintly see what might have been a platform, one perhaps a hundred feet down at the most.

It was far down enough to cause jumpers to die when they hit it.

“This tunnel is lined with concrete,” I muttered, as I found the gas-bomb. I had an idea, a most strange one, and it came out as a shout.

“Down,” I yelled. “Down all the way! Drop like a hot brick and crush those stinkers that are waiting at the bottom for you, and never come back up here again!”

The hissing I heard from below built to a terrifying scream amid a dense spray of mist, and below, I could hear a vast number of other screams, these not of machinery gone insane, but of men about to die. Their screams echoed, they echoed in the tunnel and in my mind, yet hearing this infernal chorus only cemented my resolve to destroy the enemy. I had the bomb in my hand, the deadliest gas in this world, only I wished it to be closer to the Red Death.

Not now, I knew. Yet still, no half-measures. If I had the means to cause a massive problem for the leadership, and we needed to take their land, then I needed to do my utmost.

The gas-bomb was in my hand, its pin still in place. With a whispered prayer upon my lips, I stood up, then with all my strength, I threw the bomb down the shaft, and ran to the other side of the lid. There, I began pushing, and the thing slammed down so hard that I stumbled and fell atop it.

“Hurry” yelled Sarah. “Lock that thing!”

I did not waste time: I jumped up, turned about, and this time I kicked the wheel 'closed'. It whirled like the impeller of a blender, then with a terrible wrenching noise, it groaned hideously – and then the wheel flung itself off as the fetish-built rotor twisted in two like the scrap-metal it truly was. The better-made salvaged wheel slid across the floor to clang against the wall. I had more to do, however.

“Weld this door, all around its surfaces, such that it is truly gas-tight, and that on every surface where welding is possible,” I shouted as I leaped off the metal dome. The silence in the space about me was absolute, but I kept yelling even as I landed on the floor. “Let this portal only open upon my command, and until such a time as I speak to it so as to cause it to open, let it remain tight to gas and all else!”

“Now they are doomed,” said Sarah. “That thing changed in your hands when you threw it like that.”

“Changed?” I asked innocently. “How?”

“It was not the size it was at first when I saw it leave your hand,” said Sarah. “It grew in size then, and I think it grew in size all the way down until it burst at the lowest level of that thing that vanished.”

“Grew in size?” I asked.

“That was one of the reasons why I said 'both underground levels will remain unhealthy for a considerable distance and a long time,” said the soft voice. “When you did what you did, though, that bomb became both quite a bit larger and more than a little worse than it was; though still, it's not that one material you were thinking of – that material that kills in the space of half an hour, at least according to what you've read.”

“Worse?” I asked.

“As in a lot of those blue-suited functionaries are now dying,” said the soft voice, “and the distance they'll need to travel overland to reach where they can get home is now a lot more than 'twenty to thirty miles'.”

“How far?” asked Sarah.

“Near the border of the second kingdom now, as while the fumes of that stuff are volatile enough to poison the juncture point for some miles, the vast majority of those fumes will stay on the 'functionary' level – and a bomb of that size is sufficient to render a lot of those roads most unhealthy.”

Pause, then, “figure 'functionaries are going to be scarce around here for a while', as if they think to travel overland that distance, they will not survive the trip; if they get up onto the witch-level, they run into the same troubles as the witches are currently having; and if they stay at the location where they currently are, they will die in vast droves as the fumes of that bomb get to them.”

“Did that stuff change its nature, also?” I asked, as I saw the rim of the dome begin to glow a dull red. It was being welded throughout the entire joint, with the multiple locking bars that had seated themselves in their sockets becoming welded in place also. It would not come undone until I spoke to it, as to cut through the doorway with anything that the leadership trusted their underlings with would take days of steady labor by a sizable working party – and that gas would kill them in minutes.

“A few minutes,” said the soft voice. “Those 'over-men' across the sea will lose a lot of people, enough that when you take the place, it will now stay taken – and those overseas will now waste no time whatsoever helping out those who liberated them from their oppressors.”

“They call them a real strange name, don't they?” I asked softly. “Down-pressers?”

“Very close to what they say, and that term is from one of a number of popular intercepts,” said the soft voice. “They really like that man they call 'Bobs', as he seems to 'speak' to them as much as that one man you're more familiar with did.”

Hearing that name pronounced “Boo-aah-bsss' was enough to make for strange thoughts, and only one that was rattling my mind right now was worse. As I went about doing a 'final' check for functionaries – this by feel; it was faster than looking under this mess of beds – I asked, “do you know of common names for dogs? Uh, Rover, perhaps?”

“I know of no dog named thusly,” said Sarah. “I have seen that name on tapestries, though.”

“Any words associated with it?” I asked. “Something about moving over to let... How..?”

“They have trouble saying his name,” said the soft voice. “The best they can do is 'Yee-imm-eee', but otherwise, that line is very popular over there – as in 'move over, Rover, and let so-and-so take over'.”

“That name was on that tapestry I bathed for,” said Sarah. “It was once a common name here, supposedly, though it was spelled differently.”

“Uh, James?” I said. Saying 'Yah-mes' was a bit much to my ears.

“That's a name what people speak in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “Up here, there's but a few names that cause children more trouble, and you have the two worst ones of all, and those one after another.” Pause, then, “that is glowing red enough for me to think it welded shut. Is it?”

“It is that,” I said softly. “Now, we do not have to worry about ambush from more blue-suited idiots with silver collars, at least from that source – and when they try to recall those people from other parts of the continent...”

“A great number more of them will die, as by that time, that gas will have gotten to the main portal used for functionaries,” said the soft voice. “Figure you got more than half of the current crop of functionaries with tossing that bomb.”

“Still are a lot of those thugs over there, though,” I muttered. “Now, we need to look the closet in this place over and find anything else we need to know about, then find that nice shot, those magazines for those rifles, those s-spare rifles...” I gasped, “how many of those are there?”

“Over a dozen,” said the soft voice. “Also, a manual, though this one is a 'dumbed-down' version and deals strictly with the routine maintenance those weapons need to be safe to fire.”

“Meaning cleaning, checking parts...”

“That and simple repairs,” said the soft voice. “There are a fair number of spare parts, and these manuals are written for dumb-as-bricks functionaries, so the people here should manage.”

“One for the buggy, to put in Hendrik's museum,” I said. “Those here can keep the rest of those things, and then perhaps ten to twenty pounds of that shot for our use, and otherwise a good look...”

I had been walking all this time, and I had come to another 'blank wall'. I put my hand on a portion of it, and had to jump out of the way as the wall fell down to again crackle like bad plaster. The dust this stuff raised was hard to believe, and I wondered if it would happen commonly overseas.

“That was scary,” said Sarah. “Is that like those thug-places where we are going?”

“Yes, and he found two of them easily,” said the soft voice. “Remember that tale regarding Finuegen and what he did? You'll all want to act like that rascal overseas.”

“I wonder if I am worse?” I asked idly, as I went into the doorway of what was actually a well-organized – and well-lit – 'storeroom'. It was easily the size of that one room on the fourth floor with the glassware, or so I thought until Sarah found a row of shelves, these narrow, heavily constructed, and with stripes of color on both the unusually small fiberglass bins and the shelves in question themselves. It resembled the obsessive-level organization I had strived for where I had lived before coming here – and now, wished to do once again.

“What is that?” she asked, pointing to the shelves.

“I think I had best look,” I said, walking closer slowly. “Odd, four colors, all of them those that show when you're under the influence of that nasty witch-drug that should be called a chemical weapon – red, yellow, blue, and green.” Pause, then, “I wonder what these colors mean here?”

“I think I know,” said Sarah, “as I found what looks like a fowling piece, only this thing is so strange it's fit for an old tale.”

I took one glance and yelled, “a repeating shotgun! Yes!”

“It isn't the only one here, by the way,” said the soft voice. “There are two more of those weapons, and those upstairs are wondering what those 'weapons out of an old tale are', even if they have some small ideas about the tinned brass things they have in their tubular magazines.” This last was definitely a hint of some kind.

“I'll put this one to use,” I said, now looking the weapon over. I thought to work the action, and to my surprise, out leaped a shell – which Sarah caught. She smelled it, and then said, “this one they rigged, as this thing is giving me a headache.”

The shell then suddenly went 'glassy', and within, I saw 'an entire filling' of these odd granules. They were a grayish-black material, small, uniform, like graphite-coated coarse sugar in consistency. I thought to ask what it was, and then the shell went opaque again to show the letters 'B-3AD' for a second or so. The three letters made for an odd association – as in B-A-D.

Bad stuff?” I asked.

“That material is what is currently loaded in 'real ordnance',” said the soft voice. “It's about as hot an explosive as can stand 'handling by functionaries' – which means it's still fairly sensitive, and only 'rocked' Cyclohexanite is much stronger.”

“Meaning this thing would have blown me up good,” I said, as I emptied out the entire weapon by working the slide, then saw that each shell was filled with that explosive. “Oh, just the thing. Let these nice little bombs wedge themselves under the wheels of vehicles traveling on the secret way, and...”

The six shells vanished with faint plopping noises, and deep below, I felt a shudder, then two more, then three more shudders, one right after another.

“Now you have a panic started, as the leadership-level functionaries down there are stranded and that tunnel is blocked,” said the soft voice. “Fifty grams of any of the B-3A series of explosives is enough to derail trains if they're put where you asked them to go.” Pause, then, “be glad they were using 'slow' trains and not the express versions.”

Express versions?” I asked.

“Unlike any train you've ever heard of, even if you've heard of trains able to go that fast,” said the soft voice. “They've best described as 'rolling deathtraps'.” Pause, then, “you'll learn why soon enough.”

“And now, I have a repeating shotgun,” I said, looking at the weapon. “My, this thing looks really familiar, almost l-like...” I then saw the name of the weapon, that being 'Remington', and the type, that being '870'. “What gives with this?” This last part came out as a high-pitched ringing screech.

Sarah came over, then said, “I am not going to try to speak that name, as it will put my tongue in a knot.” Pause, then, “I have seen it before, though.”

“You have?” I asked. “Where?”

“In your ledgers, in describing the nature of the most common type of rotating pistol,” said Sarah. “You speak of them using that word, and then some numbers, those being 'one-eight-five-eight'.”

“Eighteen-fifty-eight Remingtons,” I said. “This weapon looks just like one I had, and that one was made by that c-company...”

“They got a good and sizable collection of intercepts regarding those weapons, and once they had perfected them, they were issued commonly to soldiers so as to bring down those accursed wired-up-bomb-toting wasps.” Pause, then, “most of those guns are now rust and scrap metal, but that's one of the few left of the original wartime guns – and it's one of the best they ever made, as that one was built during that brief period between the time they'd gotten the design thoroughly debugged and before the need for huge numbers of those weapons made them start taking shortcuts in materials and machining.”

“And the contents of these shelves?” I asked. “Does their contents go in this weapon?”

I seemed to move over to where the bins were, and opened up one of those having a blue stripe. The shiny gleam of 'nickel', this in smallish spheres, had me astonished; but Sarah was a good deal more than that.

“This is that shiny shot, all right, and it's stiffer than anything!” she yelled. “These things have to be twenty lines large, and that easily!”

“Buckshot, then,” I said. “Now what is this stuff below it? Smaller shot?”

It indeed proved the case, with 'green' being a trifle larger than the area's common shot, yellow a trifle smaller, and red being noticeably smaller. A somewhat longer glance at a bag of 'red stripe' had me spit, “three millimeter shot, extra hard...”

“Guess what the graduations are, then?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “By the way, even that 'red' shot will drop thugs reliably if you are close enough, as its lead isn't the stuff that's available here.”

“That shiny shot always thinks it is a good deal larger than it is,” said Sarah. “I think we wish two bags of all of these, save for that blue stuff.”

“How many of those?” I asked. I'd more or less figured out the sizes: three, four, five, and six millimeter – and that last stuff was, indeed, 'buckshot' – though a bit on the small size to be labeled that, supposedly. Our Heinrich mould dropped larger shot than anything on this shelf, so Sarah's naming the blue stuff as being twenty lines when it really was closer to fifteen was a bit off; but both five and six millimeter shot would be considered 'stiff' in these parts due to its significantly better penetration compared to the commonplace material.

“F-five,” said Sarah. “That stuff would drop thugs at thirty paces, and only that plate worn by those northern people would stop it.”

“Which those blue-suited people people with the silver collars do not wear,” I said. “Thirty paces?”

“Yes, if she speaks of yours,” said the soft voice. “Your average pace, when you are in a hurry, is well over a yard, so figure a load of that stuff will kill two or three thugs if you get to them within that range and they're swarming you.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “Why are you looking at that green stuff? Do you wish more than two bags of it?”

I nodded, then said, “rodent-disposal, especially if said rodent is longer than my leg and has a desire to dine upon my leg.” Pause, then, “the rats over there are a good deal fiercer when it comes to swarming you, unless you compare them to white rats. Those are worse, pound for pound, but still, a large rat of any color isn't a joke when it's that aggressive.” Another pause, then, “I shot one down in the fifth kingdom house, remember? That's the kind of rat I'm talking about, and they have those.”

“You forgot what else that size of shot is sometimes used for over there,” said the soft voice.

“What?” I asked.

“They may have bad rat-trouble, but hamsters are universally thought to be far worse for trouble compared to rats,” said the soft voice. “Hence, every machining area tends to make certain 'practice' parts when the machines aren't running a 'designated' job, and the result is a strange-looking single-shot break-open weapon that is readily dismantled into parts that do not look like weapon-parts.” Pause, then “It's fairly common to have those guns in metalworking areas, in fact, as the functionaries tend to become especially irate over ruined parts and damaged machines, and hamsters can and do both of those things if they're not kept out of such areas.”

“Hence they, uh, liberate a certain number of shells, some, uh, shot, pistol propellant...”

“Yes, small amounts at a time, and with great care so as to not get vast numbers of people killed by swarms of club-waving functionaries,” said the soft voice. “The usual is to take such dead animals immediately to the nearest medical facility so they can recover the shot while making the animal's body into useful chemicals of one kind or another.”

“Uh, useful chemicals?” I asked, recalling the fact that these people did lots of chemistry work. “Such as small-arms propellants?”

“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “Granted, they might only make enough in a given experiment to load eight to ten shells at a time, or perhaps three times that many small pistol rounds, but the results of what a typical 'medical' chemistry class can do in a few weeks' worth of work amounts to enough to load up 'shotgun shells' for six months or more at a larger metalworking facility.”

“H-how?” I asked. “Eight to ten rounds per reaction? How will that dispose of that many of those nasty critters?”

“There are a lot of medical students, for one,” said the soft voice, “and more than a few reactions are done multiple times, in order to acquire a high level of skill in performing 'difficult' syntheses. Then, there are modest amounts of 'off-the-books' chemicals in many medical facilities, and finally, it's not at all uncommon to play some smallish games with the recorded amounts of chemicals used and the resulting reaction products. Individually, those things aren't much, and the amounts are small, but it does add up – and that's one way the medical people there have done their best to help their people survive.”

Sarah then startled me: “what is that thing?”

I looked where she was pointing, still keeping the shotgun in hand, and walked over to what looked like a old-style dial-type telephone – one of a type in common use when my grandparents were young men and women. It was definitely an 'antique', but when I saw the base go gauzy to show a small but potent charge of cyclohexanite, I wondered for a moment.

“No, best send it to a witch who wishes to speak to Brimstone in person,” I said, “and fill that thing full of that explosive in the process of him getting his fondest wish.”

The 'rigged device' vanished with a plop, to leave a cord with an odd round connector, one with a sizable number of pins. A glance at this told me that not only were there nineteen pins, but that each pin was shielded, such that in reality, I was looking at a nineteen-circuit bundle of coaxial cables. The connector might have been a half-inch in diameter, while the cable itself was less than half of that, with a smooth silvery outer 'conductive plastic' material for 'added shielding' and a polarizing pin, so it only went together one way.

“Get used to seeing that kind of arrangement,” said the soft voice. “That witch in the second kingdom who received that 'telephone' is now getting his fondest wish, as he is speaking with Brimstone in person – he, and those who were with him in that council-room.” Pause, then, “the fact that he had several light-distillate pressure lanterns going in the room just added to the blast of that device, and now another witch-held district in the second kingdom house is going to burn down before today ends.”

“Who were they?” asked Sarah pointedly, as I continued looking at the cable. Nineteen circuits definitely did not mean 'serial' communication was happening here; this looked more like a very high-speed parallel connection, one that transferred a fair number of bits at once.

“That's an old one, and it's slow,” said the soft voice. “It might manage their equivalent of one hundred million bytes per second on a good day.” Pause, then, this addressed to Sarah, “that particular group of witches were the 'replacement' leadership people, designated in advance to take over from those who were killed yesterday.”

“Their equivalent?” I asked, regarding what I now recognized as an obvious networking cable. “Not eight bits, but more... Twelve?”

“As a rule, yes, though that 'pipe' can handle up to fifteen 'units',” said the soft voice. “The more-common 'pipes' over there handle thirty such 'information-units', which if translated to 'pure-numeric data', amount to somewhere between twenty-four and thirty-five characters per 'transition-period' – and that happens at between sixty and ninety million times per second in that type of pipe, depending upon the nature of that data and the condition of the line in question.”

The obvious portion, that left unsaid, was 'as a rule, such 'pipes' moved a lot more data than this one could manage'.

In the next ten minutes, I found a sizable jug of 'fast pistol propellant', this having a double-six MILNO number, as well as a 'compact' loading device for shotgun shells; a bag of odd plastic things that Sarah had no clue about but I recognized instantly as 'shotgun wads', a small box of primers – these in an odd plastic-looking caddy that a touch of my finger told me instantly it was no plastic I had ever touched beforehand in my life. It made for an odd question, one I needed to ask Sarah now, for some odd reason.

“No, that reason is not odd, as you need to know of such matters, and you'll wish to know before you two see Rachel again,” said the soft voice. “I would be careful about speaking that name, though.”

“Name?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, you had five years of training in this stuff at the west school, or so you told me,” I said. “I've seen moves like that before, and...”

“And you do your own moves of that type,” said Sarah. “Mine is 'quickness', and yours must be 'power', as there were four styles taught there, and no one tried 'power' unless they were both marked and very strong.” Sarah was implying these markings were more than merely added toes, as 'power' required not merely uncommon strength – it needed acrobat-level agility as well, and a number of other qualities peculiar to those with 'substantial' markings. Done right by a person who was suited to it, it was the ultimate form, and in the past, that form peculiar to those the witches had named 'monsters'.

“Styles?” I asked. “Did they t-teach something like, uh, Kung-Fu?”

“Not under that name,” said Sarah with alarm. “I was taught the full five years, and I was given a master's pin, hence I can teach that style named 'quickness'.” Pause, then Sarah seemed to think while gazing about the room, then, “I recall now. I saw what you spoke on a tapestry, only I could not say it then, and some stinky witch defaced it.”

“It was thought a rune-curse writ commonly, and that 'stinky witch' was eventually found out and burned,” said the soft voice. “He was doing his bit to make certain people stayed in that total-ignorance state most of those surviving were in after Charles' labors were done here.”

“Ignorant state?” I asked. “Don't tell me – the only book permitted is the one we name that.”

“More or less correct as far as he was concerned,” said the soft voice. “Given that he knew that in time the needed knowledge to rebuild the planet could be relearned rapidly if no more witches and witch-thinking existed, he was justified in burning all of the books and things he could find, save for one particular all-too-rare instance – which was then only printed in Vrijlaand, and that as needed in small batches.”

“Uh, most literature available then dealt with witchcraft?” I asked.

“Not 'most',” said the soft voice. “Everything save that book encouraged witch-thinking in one way or another at that time, and that was the case everywhere if it was outside of Vrijlaand's territory, if you speak of the continent – hence Vrijlaand is where most of the knowledge that currently exists on this continent has come from.” Pause, then, “make your final tour of this room, and then get ready to leave. You can speak of this other matter while heading to the Public House, as then you will have the time for it, unlike now.”

With that, I did not waste time: Sarah and I gathered the shot we had spoken of – I made certain to get several bags of 'green' and another of 'blue' beyond the five Sarah had spoken of – I got the jug of pistol propellant and the primers, put the shotgun in one hand, and I scanned the rest of the room in the course of perhaps two seconds. I thought I knew about the 'generator', but I was met by our 'guide', who saw us now laden as if the two of us were pack-mules, and he motioned to Jonas and Kasper.

“They got to check this other thing out better, now that that room is at a reasonable temperature,” he said, as he began to remove our burdens, those of them that we had just looted being the first to be removed. “I can ask them questions while I drive them over to the Public House about what we can use here.”

“Most of it, sir,” said Sarah. “That weapon he selected needs to be taken overseas so they can make more of them, but you can keep most of the others.” Pause, then “one of those rifles that thinks itself a spear needs to go to the house proper, as it needs study by our group that is to launch in two days, and then it needs to go in Hendrik's museum.”

“There is a lot of ammunition for those things,” I said, “and a manual, as well as over a dozen more of those weapons beyond the ones we've found thus far.” Pause, then, “you'll want to read that manual thoroughly, then use those weapons sparingly, as those things...”

“Are best reserved for those things what need them,” said our 'guide'. “If it looks like an old tale, it most likely can wait until you-all get back, unless you found some of that shiny shot, as we know about that stuff.”

“We did, sir,” said Sarah. “There is a great deal of it, but you will wish to be sparing of it also, especially as I suspect we will be able to make more of it some time in the future – but when is a very good question, and I do not have a clue as to how long or how much work it will take.”

“They got enough of it in these packs here, including some I've never seen before,” said Kasper, as he glanced into my pack. How he was managing that was a mystery, unless the thing was really sagging under its weight of lead. “This stuff with the blue stripe is double-stiff shot, and it...”

“You do not wish to use that in a common fowling piece on a regular basis,” said Sarah. “I heard that from Gustav my-own-self, as it will damage the barrel if you do.” Pause, then, “if you have one that's been done specially to handle it, then it will fire hundreds of rounds before it becomes damaged enough to warrant repairs.”

“So I heard,” said our 'guide', who then turned to address me. “Now, off with that thing there what looks like a pack fit for a mule.” Pause, then, “it looks heavy enough to make a mule bend double.”

He was speaking to me, I now realized, and when I first shrugged it off and then handed it to him with one hand, our 'guide's' eyes bugged out in utter shock – until he grabbed it.

“Worse than I thought,” he grunted, as he wrestled the thing onto his shoulder. “He's got to be what them witches call a monster to carry a mule's load that easy.”

“She is not much less,” said Kasper. “Sarah, your pack. You two need to look at that one thing, and then you two need to hie yourselves.”

I had been too busy while in that oven-like room to note more about the electrical plant present here to do more than glance about while slicing and poking a quartet of thugs, but upon returning to the room, I now noted but a modest level of warmth, not the previous oven-like heat. Those things I had noted earlier: a huge 'purple' colored tank with fins running its length, an obvious copper-cored radiator fitted with an electric fan, a lot of sizable copper piping...

“No, that tank's more of a bluish color, rather than purple, and those fins are wavy, so as to dissipate heat better.” I then asked, “if that's the case, then why is there a fan-driven radiator?”

“Because those lights were sucking more current than this device could consistently supply with the more-usual setup, and therefore it tended to run hot,” said the soft voice, “and the only way those functionaries that installed it knew how to deal with that was to fit both a large copper-alloy water tank, but also a radiator and booster pump to give added pressure and volume of coolant to the powerplant.” Pause, then, “your correcting the lights and 'turning them down' reduced the current draw by a factor of nearly ten, and hence now this generator is running at a fraction of its nominal load rating – which is less than half of its 'rated' power.”

“Nominal?” I asked. “Where is the device itself?”

“Go inside that room and look at the equipment,” said the soft voice. “Before, you were so 'target-fixated' that you saw little of the equipment and all of the functionaries – and you dealt with them in the only practicable way possible.”

Once inside the room, however, I noted a lot more than just copper piping: there were two long insulated things labeled 'heat exchangers', and I knew those were for the showers. The valves going to them were obviously electrical in nature, and as I followed them to a metal box on the wall, this hidden by a black panel of some kind, I felt led to touch this panel.

As if by magic of some kind, a keyboard folded down, and a prompt showed, this an utterly familiar one save for the name of the 'computer': it was not 'Dopey' or 'Grumpy' or 'Doc' or any of the other computers I had where I lived. Instead, this was a six-digit hexadecimal number, though looking 'closer' at it told me that this was the representation. The true nature of this number was, if one spoke of pure numeric data, a great deal larger.

“Easily two to the fortieth power,” I mumbled.

“Yes, if you have your device in 'binary' mode,” said the soft voice. “That, by the way, is a real microcontroller, and it has about twice the power of your main computer at home, a similar amount of 'hot' memory, and about five times as much 'program' memory.”

“Hot memory?” I asked.

“That memory which is in the device,” said the soft voice. “You would think of it as 'RAM', only this stuff, because it's on the substrate, acts like it's a huge on-chip cache for speed.” Pause, then, “the program memory is on a separate section of the substrate, and it's roughly equivalent in size to the disk drive you had in your main computer at home.”

“A microcontroller,” I gasped. “Th-that much power?”

“Yes, which means programming them tends to be something that can be done very easily, provided one uses the right language and an appropriate suite of programming tools,” said the soft voice. “The usual type of 'code' is a very high-level language, and the tools used do a lot of hand-holding – far more so than anything you've ever used.”

“That almost sounds as if a functionary could do it,” I squeaked.

“Some of them do write such code,” said the soft voice. “There are four classes of languages used over there, classes 'A' through 'D' – and no one has done 'D' level languages since years before the war.” Pause, then, “you like that kind of language, which is mostly how you made that 'dumb' device controlling that shower act like it was one of these.”

Here, the 'screen' went gauzy, and I saw a device so strange that it made me wonder: it had a blue conformally-coated substrate nearly three inches square, this surrounded by a turned aluminum heat sink that permitted grasping and a degree of cooling. The back side of the device, I then saw – and the number of pins was staggering. There were easily over five hundred of them, and most of them were 'coaxial' style pins good for microwave frequencies.

“That's a 'functionary-grade' device,” said the soft voice. “The 'prole' level is better built, if much older, while the best ones have double-six numbers preceded by 'MILNO' – and those look similar, save they are totally enclosed in that heat-sink, it has significantly greater fin area, it's 'anodized' according to its color-coded purpose, and then it's usually housed in a special forced-air-cooling device, one that uses a small high-speed blower to keep it running cool under hostile conditions.”

“And that one doesn't use anything save convection,” I said. “How do... Can I log into this thing?”

“Yes, you can – and then see just all it does, including a lot of pictures,” said the soft voice. “I'd skip the pictures, and just log in and type 'list -all' and hit that one red button shaped a bit like a carrot.”

I wondered how to log in now. Could I use my name? I typed my initials, then hit return, then typed a series of six letters chosen at random. It was a half-baked guess.

The screen flashed an ominous red, then went back to its former dark-blue background – only instead of white letters, now they were a brilliant eye-burning red.

I was really shocked at what my 'user-name' was: root.

“Oh, my,” I muttered. “I've r-rooted this thing, and I've...” I then recalled what command I needed to do, and did so – and the listing spat so much data onto the screen that I thought, “I wonder if I can put a pipe in there and add 'less'?”

I tried that 'list -all | less' – and I found that I could use the keys shaped like arrows to page through the data. More importantly, all four of them worked, as this listing wasn't merely a one-dimensional one – I could page right and left, also, and in the process, I found out a great deal of information.

“Almost want a record of this stuff,” I muttered, as I continued paging.

“You'll have it if you keep doing what you are doing,” said the soft voice. “Make sure you log out once you do so, as you do not wish people here playing with that device.” Pause, then, “you did not get 'root' access on that device, by the way.”

“What did I get, then?” I asked.

“A level that's beyond root,” said the soft voice. “That's the precise level of 'cracking' that you'll need to do overseas, by the way – and that on any system you encounter, no matter where it is.” Pause, then, “a word of caution – that 'operating system' may look very familiar, and for the most part, it will work like what you used at home – but it is not the same system, not by a long shot.”

“More difficult to use?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “It's a lot friendlier, it tells you a lot more, and it has nothing whatsoever about 'read the bleeding manual' in its 'manual sections'.”

After finishing paging through the output of this sizable 'data-sheet', I then typed 'logout', and the computer screen blanked, then went back to its former prompt. I gently folded up the keyboard, then noted Sarah looking at a very strange-looking device, it being the center of attention in the whole room, seemingly.

As I drew past the radiator, I noted more: all of the piping, this being dull-finished copper roughly an inch and a half in outside diameter, seemed to be converging into the area where Sarah was; and as I drew closer, I noted that she seemed 'hypnotized' by this odd 'display' of some kind. I came to her side, and asked her a very strange-seeming question.

“Is that thing telling you something important?”

“I think so!” said Sarah. “There is this number, only it cannot make up its mind at all, and that is when it displays that number. It has three or four others, and they alternate as if they were the swinging-rod on an old clock fit for a witch!”

“Here, let me look,” I said. “Perhaps I can...”

Sarah moved aside, and here, I saw what she was looking at: the display was on the side of a device elevated perhaps two feet off of the floor, the device itself shaped like a 'trash can' with a high domed lid, tall sides roughly three feet high, the diameter perhaps twenty inches, then a round-cornered bottom with a radius of perhaps one inch. I knelt down, and looked at the bottom.

“So, all the connections are down here,” I murmured. “Power cable and all. Dear, this is the generator itself.” I then stood up, having to bend over, then read the display. It had four buttons, none of which I touched, for I knew they did things of an unwise nature if pressed in the wrong order or under the wrong conditions. I could tell this device was more than a little touchy that way, even if it wasn't 'fetish-touchy' like that one huge thundering generator engine.

The first number displayed was the output voltage, thusly, in light blue letters on a grayish-white screen:


OUTPUT PRESSURE: 145.8 UNITS.


The next, that being flow of some kind – which kind, I wondered about:


OUTPUT VOLUME: 07.8 UNITS.


In this case, the word units 'vanished' to be replaced by 'Amps'. I had a comment, doing some semi-rapid mental math: “About eleven hundred watts, assuming they use that unit.”

“They don't, at least not commonly,” said the soft voice. “They need that word-book as much as the people here do, as they'd rather use such terms than what they currently use. It's a lot more cumbersome to use and to speak of.”

“What is that thing doing?” asked Sarah.

“Generating electricity,” I said, as I put my hand on the domed top of the device. For some odd reason, that went gauzy to show an obvious centrifugal coolant pump, though the small size of the rotor and the electric motor driving it were a marvel.

“How fast does that motor turn?” I asked. “Feels like a full-speed die-grinder.”

“Correct as to revolutions, even if that motor has about five times the torque of your strongest one,” said the soft voice.

The display had changed again, this time to show the device's 'temperature', that being in 'units' also:


DEVICE CORE TEMPERATURE: 1234.8 X 10^7 UNITS.


“What?” I asked. “That h-hot?”

“Recall what Andreas has 'well-hid' in his work-area? It's identical to what's setting in front of you,” said the soft voice. “Yes, that is a genuine-article fusion powerplant, and that is a normal core temperature for such a unit. Now, look at the next reading, and notice the 'temperature differential' – which is an important matter when using one of these devices.”


TEMPERATURE DIFFERENTIAL: 57.69 UNITS.


“Now you can tell Sarah precisely what it's doing,” said the soft voice.

“This, dear, is a water-cooled generator,” I said. “Like we were told a few days ago, this one – it's currently running 'cool' for one of these – is very quiet.”

“I cannot hear anything,” she said. “Even if I put my ear to it, I can feel something happening, but it is something I cannot hear.”

“A more or less sealed case,” I said. “No sand in the grease for these.”

“Look closer at that bottom,” said the soft voice. “You'll see the bolts then, as well as notice better the type of connections this thing has, and you'll wish to follow the thinnest 'fuel line' to where it leads, as that's the other important portion of this installation.”

I ducked down again, and because I had been told to do so – and told about the bolts – I now saw them, all of them strange socket-headed things. They looked to be about 'ten-thirty-two' size, save these didn't use 'hexagonal' keys.

“Stinking T-t-I cannot recall their name!” I spat, upon seeing one of these dreaded fasteners every inch or so around the circumference of the casing. I noted the short lengths of 'fuel line' hose going from the generator to the various water lines, one marked 'in' with a species of orange tape with 'IN' spelled out in block letters, while the other line had 'OUT' spelled out using yellow letters.

There was another line, this long, thin, like a Teflon-lined braided stainless brake hose for size – I knew about those – and I followed this hose as it went to the wall via a significant drooping portion, then the hose was attached to the wall with padded metal clips in a workmanlike yet otherwise sloppy-looking fashion – until it went to another device, this seemingly a smaller version of the generator for shape – if one took the generator proper and slimmed it down about a third of its girth or so.

This other device was also elevated on a platform, and it too had a display – and when I saw two sizable copper pipes going 'straight down' into the concrete, I asked, “now what does this thing do?”

“It extracts the fuel from the water here, and returns that water to the aquifer that begins about twenty feet below this room,” said the soft voice. “It's called a concentrator, and that readout gives its output, its input percentage of 'fuel', its extraction efficiency, and then its excess power generation.”

“Excess power generation?” I asked.

“It usually contributes several hundred 'pressure-volume-units' to the power grid,” said the soft voice. “They will like to use 'Watts' when you find that word-book.”

This unit was warm to the touch, and when I looked at the readout, it actually printed to the small screen the following, these all at the same time:


OUTPUT VOLUME: 4.56 UNITS.

FUEL INPUT VOLUME: 4.67 UNITS, 402 UNITS OF WATER PER TIME-UNIT.

EXTRACTION EFFICIENCY: 98.7 PERCENT.

EXCESS POWER: 395 UNITS.


“Question,” I asked. “How much of this, uh, fuel is in the water around here?”

“Ploetzee's main aquifer has a higher-than-normal concentration of that fuel, so that concentrator has no trouble producing enough to make that generator 'smoke',” said the soft voice. “As you suspected, if you run these anywhere close to their 'rated' power for any length of time, they tend to 'cook', so you must either run them very conservatively or provide a lot of cooling capacity – which that open-top tank will provide, because as you know, converting liquid water into steam takes a lot of heat, far more than this setup here can cope with.” Pause, then, “Annistæ will receive a larger generator than this one, so it will have that reserve she'll need at times – and that metal refining setup will have one of your engines.”

“I think that is enough for now,” I said. “Dear, I think it is time to go.”

It was that, for it seemed nearly 'noon', and once in the buggy with our 'guide' driving – he was driving at a 'conservative' pace, but he was not wasting a second, either; he had a lot of work for these horses today, or so I suspected – I now thought to ask Sarah about her five years of 'martial arts' training.

When I wasn't sucking down all the beer I could, and devouring bread and cherry jam as if starved.

“I was taught a little bit when I was a child, but I seemed to take to that as if it was 'easy',” I said. “Was it easy for you?”

“Yes, which is why I have my master's pin, and that for 'quickness',” said Sarah. “When I get a flail put together tonight or tomorrow, then I will demonstrate their use to you, so that you may see them and how I can move them about me.”

“You...” I had a picture of Sarah doing things that would utterly astonish me, as when she was doing her 'exercises' or whatever they were called at the west school, the two sticks of the flail were blurred to the point of near-invisibility – and she swapped hands on them as fast as I could swap hands on knives or pistols. I then wondered if I could indeed use these things, so much so that I blurted out, “I may have only had a short time of training, but I seemed to have learned a lot somehow...”

“You did, and more than you could possibly imagine,” said the soft voice. “Not only that, but that capacity is something that tends to be wired-into the nature of marked people,” said the soft voice. “It's one of the reason why Deborah is such a deadly knife-fighter, and why Sarah can do as she does with flails, knives, swords, flying kicks, and any other weapons she might have handy.”

“And what I do?” I asked. “Kill a witch by punching him in the head, and that but weeks after I came here? Those traitors? The damage I did to so many of them? Killed several with my bare hands, and jumped through the air like some thing not of this or any other world?”

“I'll buy that,” said our 'guide'. “I saw how you can jump, even loaded like a mule, and there's but one explanation. You're one o' those people witches call a monster, only you ain't no commonplace one. You're the monster, so far as witches are concerned.”

I could hear a distinct shudder in his voice during this last portion.

“Much more than that,” said the soft voice. “What you – and a number of other people saw today – is the difference between a person who is strongly-marked and those with less-strong markings.” Pause, then, this to me: “your childhood training, brief as it was, was multiplied to just short of second-dan black-belt level on the way here, and you've improved enough since then to give Norman trouble – or any one of a number of other better-known martial artist types – world-known ones.”

N-Norman?” I asked. He'd been trained since early childhood, and his capacities – as well as to a small degree, his appearance – matched that of a most-famous martial artist, one world-renowned for his abilities. His talk of killing two Doberman Pinschers by grabbing them by their throats from behind without turning seemed the stuff of legend, and his abilities that way were frightening to hear him speak of such matters. I wasn't certain what level of black belt he had, but he could have opened up his own Dojo. He was that good.

“Just like I did with that stick...” I muttered. “No turning around, I knew where it was, I reached around behind me and I knocked it out of that stinker's hand and out into the middle of the street – or using that umbrella to parry that one stinker's knife when he tried for me.”

“That's a strongly-marked person's doing,” said Sarah. “You did this where?”

“Where I spent part of my childhood,” I said. “I was no longer under that one man who could pass for a nasty witch, but the people that lived around me made up for his not being around.”

“Now I got my questions for you two,” said our 'guide'. “We most likely can use those weapons that take those spears on the front, but they sound like trouble, we'd best have you show us.”

“They are, sir,” I said. “If you're used to shooting a roer, they should be manageable, provided you fire them on their 'single-fire' setting.” Pause, then, “they'll need careful cleaning and checking on a regular basis, but if you don't use them much, then there's a good chance I might well be able to do that for you during my times sitting guard at the house proper.”

“I doubt we will, not for a while,” said our 'guide'. “The Public House is just ahead, and you should have your things ready.”

“They are, sir, and Rachel... Oh, my. Poor woman. She's about ready to faint.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“She prayed for that man while she was setting his leg, and while it isn't entirely healed, he is able to walk provided he keeps it splinted,” I said. “It's healed enough that not only is it straight like it should be, but he'll only need that splint for a week.”

“Then only a few can do better, and only one can do that consistently,” said our 'guide'. “I'm not surprised at her being about to faint, as I can see right now what it costs you to do what you do.”

“She has not been tossed by fetishes,” said Sarah. “I saw him tossed more than once today.”

“Wrong,” said the soft voice. “She's not been tossed nearly as much as Dennis has, but she has had fetishes 'go up' on her in the second kingdom house.”

“How many?” I asked.

“You got tossed more today than she's been tossed, ever,” said the soft voice. “More, you were tossed further and harder, and you took injuries several times while taking that house alone that would have killed anyone else on the spot.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“You closed your eyes,” said our 'guide', “but those of us who didn't saw him almost explode, and only one of these things out of an old tale would be worse, them being a kind of mine that was round and painted strangely.” Pause, then, “now, here we are. You go inside and get your things, mount up, and then follow me to the shaft. These horses got work to do there, same as another team that should be there about right now.”

We wasted not a second, and while I attempted to ensure we had our 'Krokus' – we got an entire sack of bulbs, these intensely smelly and potent, as well as nearly a dozen 'sizable – as in nearly four inches tall and two and a half inches wide – 'medicine jars' full of carefully labeled 'partly-dried minced Krokus', and a number of smaller jars, though their odor told me enough about them to not bother with reading what they were.

I was glad all of these jars had waxed corks, and I left an extra pair of gold monster coins as a 'thank you' for the assistance we'd received.

As I was headed out the door, I saw Rachel, and the woman was indeed as I had stated: she looked ill, she was sucking down beer, her clothing was 'soaked', and again, she was eating what she could.

“I have not done that in many years,” she said, “but the last time I did so, I was selected to be the next leader of our people.”

“Yes?” I asked. “You are a leader, and your 'Totem', if you wish to think of it as such, is that of 'the she-wolf, the one who defends her own unto the uttermost extreme'.”

Rachel nodded, this slowly, then resumed drinking beer. As I went with my smelly load, I heard a whispered, “thank you. Now I know it to be true.” Pause, then, “you have Krokus juice in those bags, also.”

“What?” I asked.

“Yes, I helped label it,” said Rachel. “It's well-padded.” Pause, then, “but one thing more, this being that 'proclamation' you must post in here.”

“Proclamation?” I asked, as I handed my load to our 'guide'. He took the bags wordlessly. “Is there paper to print it?”

“Here,” whispered Rachel. “This one will be very special.”

She laid out the paper, and I placed my hand upon it. A sudden surge of energy seemed to turn my hand and the paper into a strobing strike of lightning, and when I opened my eyes, I saw printed in bold blue and green, a clenched fist, this with blood-red letters upon it. This fist, however, was missing the tip of a finger, and I looked at my left hand. For an instant, I saw its scars and what else had been destroyed. I then read the printing upon the hand, which was not surprising: it was the first verse of that infernal poem titled 'The Crushing Fist'.

Only this time, it was my fist doing the crushing, for below that blue fist with its four green fingernails – the ring-finger was missing its last joint – I saw the following:


To whomever shall read this proclamation:

All who shall remain in Ploetzee shall be those who are entirely serious about keeping the place from the jaws of Brimstone; and as for those otherwise, they shall be gathered by main force upon the instant; they shall be caused to leave their homes in this realm with that clothing that they are wearing when they are gathered; their hands shall be bound behind their backs, as is fitting for slaves; and their necks shall be bound together by chains, so as to form a coffle fit for the transporting of slaves from one point of labor unto another such location.”


Here I needed to pause, for this was 'blowing my mind'. A quick gulp of beer from my cup – I had left it on the counter on the way to the privy, that being the first thing I had done before going to the counter – then I continued with my reading.


Those that are so gathered are to be marched at their best speed to the Abbey, this under armed guard, with specifically issued CROWN ORDERS...


“How..?” I asked silently.

“Keep reading,” said the soft voice. “You need to check this edict so it is right, and yes, Hendrik will back anything you do. After what he has seen and heard today, he knows his place in the scheme of things, and inside of a week from the day you leave for overseas, every king in the five kingdoms will also know who they must listen to – or they shall burn in hell where they belong.”


to kill anyone in that column, or any other person, who should think to cause trouble during this march from Ploetzee to the Abbey. This march is to be a forced march, meaning no words will be spoken by those in the coffle; they will march at their best speed, urged on by whips as needed, and shot if they cause more trouble than is deemed tolerable by their escorts; they shall move with as few stops as is practicable; and once at the Abbey, a precise and letter-perfect copy of these official orders shall be posted in a prominent location on-site, where all such unwilling persons must and shall read them aloud to themselves on a DAILY basis. Daily, mind you; Daily.


Another pause, this to drink deeper. This was getting far over my head, as there was more present.


Henceforth, such people as you are, are hereby declared to be slaves by Crown Edict. That means that silence shall be your speech, save when specifically addressed by your overseers; because you are slaves, you must not complain, and that for any reason whatsoever, for complaints are an indication of your rebellion against your masters both earthly and in heaven. Rather than admit sickness, you must work until you die, and therefore die as dogs do, for sickness occurring in the likes of you is but the sign of God's judgment, from which there must be no appeal; and finally, since you are hereby conscripted as slaves for the duration of hostilities, or until the curse is broken in its entirety, that means you are under 'extreme military orders', as is appropriate for desperation measures – which these most assuredly ARE.”


Another needed pause, for now, here was the portion that needed me demonstrating just what being a slave was to be like.


This means 'you shall do everything as per your explicit and implicit orders, and that to the perfect satisfaction of those over you in every conceivable way; or you will die publicly, and that by long, slow, and painful torture – and then be 'treed' outside the camp with the label of 'traitor and witch' as a sign and a warning to other fools who are like you.”


“There,” I said. “Good enough.” A pause, then a question. “The coffle?”

“Is being gathered up outside, as finding all of these people is likely to take much of the day's remainder, and that coffle is going to need a number of armed guards due to its sheer size,” said the soft voice. “You will need to show them the proper means of marching as is fitting for slaves, and unfortunately, that means you must teach them how to march like a pack of witches.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “I'll really mess up my knees doing that.”

“No, just tell them how to do it by the numbers and thump them with one of those clubs until they get it right,” said the soft voice. “They must learn to hear orders, they must meditate upon those orders so as to do them correctly without fault or cease; and then, they must demonstrate, in word, thought, and in deed, that they are wholly committed to the task or tasks assigned them. Only when they do that consistently without fault or cease for at least a month's time – a current month's time – then they can be released from 'slavery'.” Pause, then, “much like you had to demonstrate where you came from.”

I went out the door, my cup of beer in my hand, and walked to the buggy. Jaak was waiting, as was Sarah; but I knew at least some of the people gathering up a group of 'miscreants' had heard my words, and I went to the first 'group' and savagely kicked them to their feet.

“You will demonstrate to those others being gathered up at this time the proper way to march as slaves, fools,” I spat. “I will count cadence, and you will march until I am satisfied – or until you all die and are in the belly of Brimstone, which is where you currently belong.” I then raised my voice to a high-pitched shrill scream, this higher and louder even than the time I was torturing those traitors:


LEFT! LEFT! LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT!”


Since there was a definite need for speed, I did not speak of the hopping on the left hooves, portion, but I did poke most of these 'men' with my club, and more than once slapped one of them such that I left a brand upon his face.

“That's going to remain on your pig-swilling face until you either shape your carcass up proper or are shipped off to Brimstone, fool,” I screamed. “Now march like you mean it, damn your eyes! Kick those accursed hooves up higher than your waist, slam them down like you're trying to shake the earth, then do the same with the other hoof, and do it in time to my words!”

Five minutes of such screaming, as well as more slaps, kicks, thumps with the club, and a few 'soft' punches that usually put the whole roped-together group on the ground, had them doing a passable job of doing that fifth kingdom slave-march.

“There, that will do for now,” I said. “I need your carcasses in sufficient condition to work until you either get the message or die, otherwise I would go much further toward getting that march right. Now, when the rest of you idiots and swine are gathered together, you people will be put among them; and you shall teach them what I have just taught you.”

Pause, this for effect. I wanted everyone to hear my words, hence my speech was in that high-pitched scream that carried for miles.

“I hold you people ultimately responsible for getting that march right, getting it going in a rapid yet steady rhythm, like I was counting out, and I put all responsibility upon you individuals for ensuring that entire coffle reaches its site where it shall labor, or it shall die – and which of those happens means nothing to me.” A pause, then, “I hope, for your sakes, that you understand where I am, what I can do, and more, what I must do. The whole of the planet bears down upon my shoulders, and if you fail, it is my fault. Hence I will drive you unto the brink of death; and if any of you should turn witch, I shall hunt you down and kill you, for it is my life that hangs in the balance – and I have lived years as a slave, so I know what you are about to do.” I then nodded to those guarding, and ran for Jaak.

The blanket seemed to float in place, hovering perhaps an inch over my seat, and to my utter astonishment, I had somehow gotten all I needed to carry. It was all entirely in place. How, a mystery – but I was glad just the same.

“Off,” said Sarah. “We must hie!”

Hie we did, though because of our 'guide' and his knowledge of the roads, we went at his pace. He went in a path that seemed as if he were heading directly across the main portion of Ploetzee, but as we traveled, I could hear the mustered 'Kommando', this those closest to 'tsoldato' status in the town, rounding up those who had demonstrated their treason toward our Lord and our King – and those persons in heaven and in this place. They were doing a most-thorough job, with more than a few doors kicked open and houses tossed so as to find everyone who belonged here – and by extension, all who needed to leave for laboring 'in the coal mines'.

“I'm glad it's not me,” I thought regarding either 'king', “as I have enough to drive me out of my mind. Ulcer? Ha!”

“You'll get that trouble dealt with also shortly,” said the soft voice. “You've got one starting, and what you did so far today has made it much worse.”

“Shall I begin spewing blood, then?” I asked, this also silently.

“No, because they will fix that as soon as they can,” said the soft voice. “You might be quite surprised at how they do that, by the way – but, you'll manage. Today is about the worst one until you actually get in that location overseas – and you'll have real help, medical help, within seventy-two hours of your arrival, with a good chance of it being much sooner, depending on how you do over there.”

I was riding besides Sarah now, keeping an eye out for any stray 'spies' or escaped functionaries, but all I could find were splashes of blood and occasional bits of blue cloth. I wondered for an instant if they were, indeed, all dead, then forgot the matter as I looked at a most-obvious wooden box in the bed of Sarah's buggy.

“What is that?” I asked, this silently.

“Those sextant parts you found at the west works,” said the soft voice. “By the way, those are parts to a three-ring sextant, so you will get some ideas from them, even if they're far too old and worn to actually use.”

“Old?” I asked. “Worn?”

“They did not know what they were using,” said the soft voice, “and close-tolerance gears are a rare matter in the five kingdoms, no matter where you should look for them.” Pause. “Hence, they went to various 'fetish-machines' that were being used steadily to turn out 'salable fetishes' – which were thought to be jewelery by all concerned until you showed up there today and 'cleaned house'.”

We arrived at the 'machine shop' but a few minutes later, and I walked in first, much as if I knew the precise way to where we needed to go, this past a pair of well-hidden 'sliding walls' that slid into the stone walls of the 'workroom'; and from there into a curving passageway hidden by a cloth curtain, this with two niches for defenders to attack pursuers during the whole of the fifty feet or so I walked – as usual, in front, alone, with but one helper I could count on with me. It then occurred to me that the whole arrangement was obviously very well thought out by a person who was an expert at both hiding from witches and killing people in general.

Jaak followed me, and as he did, I knew I would be the first to travel up this strange contraption, with Sarah and her team – as well as the buggy – needing two trips. More, I saw in seconds, by the dim light of a pair of candle-lanterns, just how this thing actually worked; and more, the strange narrow-gage railway that went off in at least three directions, with a partial circling of the elevator itself and a junction switch. No 'flatcars' were handy, however, and I looked once more at the elevator's workings.

“Huge screws,” I murmured, as I counted four of these tree-trunk-thick things. “These big, uh, sprockets, this huge chain, and then that odd turntable over there,” I murmured. “At least this type of elevator will not let one down.”

“Yes, I know,” said our 'guide'. “Now you and that horse first. You'll need to speak to him, the way you do to horses, as this isn't an amusing ride.”

“Jerky?” I asked.

“No, it's very smooth,” said our 'guide'. “By the way, my name is Yakob, and yes, I know what that name means.”

“You need a name-change, sir,” I said, as I led Jaak onto the metal platform. It had seen a lot of use, but it was in astonishingly good condition; more, this thing had been cared for well. It would not let us down.

Yakob closed the gate, and I stood, ready, speaking to Jaak about how I was by his side and the two of us had a much larger being holding us in the palms of his hands; and as the elevator slowly climbed up the shaft, I saw that it had been lined with stone blocks and mortar. More, this mortar had seen frequent 'repairs' and in some cases, obvious relaying of the stones themselves.

The slow travel of the elevator seemed to be at first boring, but the steady humming of the massive screws seemed to lull me to sleep. I was astonished when out of a deep darkness, an eruption of light shone upon me brilliant and glaring-bright, and another man, one I had never seen before, opened the doorway of the platform, just as he had opened the door to the top a fraction of a second earlier. As Jaak went out, then I, he pulled a rope I had not seen before; and as he closed the door, I could hear the slow steady humming of the platform descending.

“Need a different gear for that one,” I said.

“They have three such gears, but shifting them is a bit of a trick, and it needs two men, one of which will be available within two days,” said the 'door-man'.

“Uh, that one man?”

“Is on his face in the church right now,” said the soft voice. “He's given about the strongest oath that a man can give – that he will do what I want, and that regardless of what it costs him, and that no matter what the task or whatever the outcome – and he put blood, his blood, upon the altar itself.”

“A blood-oath?” I asked. “What..?”

“Here, that is the strongest oath a person can give,” said the soft voice. “That blood usually comes from a witch-inflicted wound, and Anna did the precise same thing regarding her toe – which is but one reason among several why she is changing so much, and will change yet more in the months to come.”

I now looked out upon the top of the dike, and here, I was surprised indeed: a channel, easily fifty feet wide and nearly three hundred yards long, had no less than four small sailing craft – each perhaps twenty feet for length at the most – either being loaded or unloaded. From what I gathered, the usual crew for these boats was four to six people, with most of them rowing when the wind was not going 'their way'. They didn't travel very fast, but as a rule, they were 'safe' from witches.

“Once Sarah comes up with her entire team and you help harness them, you'll see the water-wheel and then the downstream cove – and from that point, it is traveling more or less in a straight line to Willem's house.”

I took that advice to heart, even as first Sarah came up with her horses, then left them with me while she returned for the buggy. I was amazed at the fact that the platform could carry two animals, but when she came up much quicker and wheeled out the buggy easily, she said, “the lighter the load, the faster the rise. Now, it is more time to teach you for harnessing. Come, help me.”