Class is in session


As I ate, I noted that Karl and Sepp needed to leave their plates frequently at a run, and I thought to ask Annistæ about the matter.

“They ate bad food somewhere,” she said, “and this is a serious illness, one that kills many in our country should they not be treated with fluids and medicine.”

“Yes, and they smell as if they ate something High, too,” said Deborah. “Neither of them are inclined that way, so I suspect witches had something to do with it, and their goal was to poison them.”

“Karl,” I asked, as he returned from the privy, “what did you eat yesterday when out trying to fill that errand-list?”

“It was a stew of some kind, in this one Public House,” he said. “Both Sepp and I have eaten there twice before recently, and they had decent food there.” Pause, this as he rose, his hands gripping his stomach, “this stuff, they called it stew, but it is acting like poison, and I think I want to toss a metal pear in that place.”

Off he ran, but when he returned, I had another question for him. I had heard recently of a Public House enduring a 'hostile takeover', only in this case, it wasn't merely the building in question: it was that whole area of town. Yet still, I wanted to know what Karl and Sepp had actually eaten.

“Did it have many small, uh, bones left in it?” I asked. Sepp answered, as Karl was doubled up from cramps still, and Sepp wasn't much better, even if he could talk at present. “Really small ones, brittle enough that they could be chewed up like those of some smaller fish, like, uh, half-grown herring or these really oily fish that are perhaps as long as a finger?”

“Yes, it did,” said Sepp. “I've never had stew like that before, and it was cheap enough, but then something happened to our insides, and we had to leave that place, we were so sick – and then the buggy went balky, and we were leaving vomit all over the cobbles and our underclothing was soiled badly, and that was before she dosed us.”

“Got the corks out, didn't it?” I asked.

“It is still doing that,” said Karl. “She said it would stop soon, but she also said we should not eat such food again, and I will heed that speech until I die.”

Sarah came over, sniffed first one man, then another; she then said, “do you know what those people fed you?” she asked, her tone insistent, sharp, and inquisitive. “You were fed chopped-up squabs mingled with the diced flesh of swine, and that food had curses chanted over it so as try to turn you two into witches!”

“That was why I gave them so much of that oil, and the other medicine that I could find,” said Annistæ. “If one eats such food by accident, and gets rid of it quickly enough, then the whites that go with it do not take nearly as well, and then she and I both put our faces to the floor and prayed with all we had until there were puddles about our heads and our clothing was wet with sweat.”

“And hence, all you two might need is 'painting' with oil,” I said, as I went over to where my possible bag lay. Therein, I found a small plastic vial, this labeled as 'first-pressed cooking oil', and I put the 'plus-sign' on each man's forehead, this with my index finger. In each case, a familiar sensation occurred, something like a faint touch of static electricity.

That it had happened again had not surprised me. What happened to the two men, however, did.

They both were tossed end over end to first fly through the air a dozen or more feet; then in coming into 'land' after being tossed, they crushed a pair of tables each; and as they lay stunned amid the gone-rotten fragments of 'kindling', a white filmy fog burned off of each of them for nearly ten seconds, a fog that continued to billow about them until both men slowly got to their feet, shook their heads – and then, as one, ran for the nearest privy. I could hear torrential 'volcano-type' noises coming from that location, for some reason. I was not overly worried, however: they were finally getting themselves uncorked, and those corks would soon be gone.

“That should do it,” I said calmly. “That nasty bird and those pieces of that Shoet were hanging up inside them due to those curses, and no amount of mere uncorking medicine would make that clog come out.” Pause, then, “It is coming out now, and they'll be fit for teaching in an hour at the most.”

“I'll say,” said Sarah. “Seems you also found another four bad tables in here.” This muttered: “if this business of tables going rotten continues, they'll need to make all new ones in short order.”

“They more or less will need to replace most of them by the end of summer, dear,” I said. “The tables used in this room need two coats of reactor-cooked wood-treatment, the very best glue to be had, oven-kilned hardwood, then a stint of oven-baking as needed to set that glue up tight and then truly cure that smelly treatment solid, which means one of the first things I need to do when I get back is...”

“Unpack the reactors they'll make for you, and then make your own reactors of tinned bronze when those they supply prove to be less than optimal for that process,” said the soft voice. “Remember, they cannot do conventional castings, but those reactors will produce enough of that material until you can get yours done – and more, they will produce that wood-treatment faster and easier than the means Hans currently uses, as well as give a better product. That means that Hans can easily make enough to keep the house proper 'in' the stuff and the carpenter shop in town 'awash' in it.”

“Hence woodwork that endures,” I said. “They'll buy me time to make those that will work better.” Pause, then, “I'll most likely wish to make sizable ones, correct? Those people are going to wish a jug-full every day or so, and that's just at home. The house is going to want two or three.”

“No, don't try to make 'huge' ones,” said the soft voice. “Make ones that process roughly a jug at a time, and make numbers of them.” Pause, then, “do those right, use the right materials, and you'll get a more-uniform product at a faster rate – as that reaction is a kinetic one, and the smaller the volume, the more-rapidly it goes to completion. Then, blending the outputs of several reactions and then adding Annistæ's improved hardening agent before jugging the stuff will mean producing as much in a day as you and Hans used to do in a month.”

“Just need to get her the vial,” I said. “She'll make a better 'kicker'.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “Get her that vial before you leave, and by the time you return, she'll have it coming out in pint quantities every few days.”

“Pint?” I asked.

“Not quite as much as would fill your usual beer-cup,” said the soft voice. “It will be a bit stronger, so ten to twelve drops of that material per jugful will be ample to give a hard and durable coating – the first instance thinned with boiled distillate, the second rubbed on carefully while the first is still tacky, and then cured overnight in a warm room – and you get something closer to what you wished you could have coated your workbenches with.”

“That really expensive paint,” I muttered. “Stuff was supposed to be nearly indestructible.”

“No 'nearly' about this wood treatment,” said the soft voice. “It will last, also, just like that really expensive paint, and then, of course, later – you can tint it, so then it makes a very nice stain or paint.”

“And then, of course, with quantity production of modest-sized reactors, they become much easier to make,” I said silently. “Twice as large of a batch as Hans currently does using a makeshift setup, far easier to do, a lot safer – no more big sooty messes – a much-better product, and then much less labor intensive.”

I then got my own 'kicker'.

“He'll be able to make enough of that material with the reactors you take home with you that he will then have another production issue – securing an adequate amount of the raw materials needed to make it, and I do not mean drying oil.” Pause, then, “I mean that 'winsome fish oil' he commonly uses.”

“That stuff stinks,” I said. I then noticed Annistæ looking at me. “Hard to get around here, also.”

“Non!” she squeaked. This was a new one for her. “That is not true. I know where there are such fish, several places where they are commonplace, and though they are poor for oil compared to those which are raised for it, I can make oil of them, as well as farolcumbusteblé.”

“Catch them and cook them up by boiling, then skim the oil off and filter it – correct?” I asked. “The resulting, uh, fish-meal?”

“It works well if you have chickens and wish their eggs,” said Annistæ. “I know a place nearby which has some chickens, and they shall soon be setting eggs, which is when they most need such meal.”

“Did someone speak of eggs?” asked Deborah. “I would like one, boiled preferably, though I will take it fried if no one is inclined toward an hour's boiling of such a thing.”

“An hour's boiling?” I asked. It seemed a bit much, actually. I'd seen eggs boiled before many times – though not here. Enough was different here that the local eggs might well need that much time.

“If you wish your egg cooked well, then it needs an hour's time, and that starting from when the pot begins to boil good and hard,” said Deborah. “Then, one wishes a small hammer to break the shell, and a good knife to cut the egg into slices, but on toasted bread, there are few foods I like better.”

“Did you receive some, uh, blood-fruit?” I asked. Hearing about eggs needing a hammer to break their shells was a new one, and then hearing Deborah's reply about the strange orange-red fist-sized 'Roma' tomato-like fruit I had glimpsed was stranger yet!

“Yes, I did!” she shrieked. “They were the best things ever, and I and Annistæ devoured them with these greens she found out in the field that I had no idea could be eaten, and my teeth no longer feel as if I will drop them like in a bad nightmare.”

“Non, Deborah, they were not common greens, but those used for food,” said Annistæ. “They were from a settlement's field, though it did not look like one of those around here, and I will pay Toréo when he shows next.”

“Whatever they were, they tasted very good with that cabbage-dressing she did up in the kitchen here,” said Deborah. “She's a much better cook than I, thankfully.”

“Uh, can you 'burn water'?” I asked. “Have people told jokes about my ability to supposedly do that?”

“There is no supposedly about that matter with me,” said Deborah. “I did that very thing once, when I first came to room with those people when they were still putting wine to old tough marmots and not down themselves, and after that, they said they did not wish me to come near a stove.”

“I'd best give you the recipe I gave Gabriel regarding soup, then,” I said, “and you could use a smaller heating lamp. Works easily enough that he actually managed it – and he's about as good a cook...”

“No, he's worse, and not a little worse,” said Lukas as he suddenly showed. “You can cook, it would just take you long enough to fix food for one person as it would take Anna to make a dinner fit for Festival Week for a houseful of guests, and unless you ate about three of what things you could fix, your cooking would gripe you bad.” Pause, then, “good that you're getting into some beer, and that mostly, as talk has it you need to have that more than everything else put together, 'cause you spewed green again, and this time, it was bad.”

“I know, because I did too,” said Sarah, “but he did two for my one.” Pause, then, “has Hendrik been told about the lead?”

“Yep, and I got it straight out of Hans,” said Tam as he suddenly showed. Like Lukas, he had somehow 'slipped into the room'. “Now, once we all get fed and them people out in the main hall are doing their jobs fit for a kingdom house and not a witch-hole...”

I went for my flail's rope with my index finger pulling it out, then as my hand found one of the poles I ran out of the door – to then find myself suddenly directly in front of a man...

He was 'sloughing off', as my stepfather had once put my not reading his mind to a perfection.

Instantly, the flail was screaming again, the two poles going from hand to hand like a whirlwind gone mad.

The only trouble was the nature of the poles of the flail and their screaming, for my first instance of using them was but a warm-up compared to this instance: for truly, now, they were screaming like proverbial banshees, their movement so rapid that even I could see little but a blur as they whirled and screeched all about my body.

More than once, the tip of a pole ripped a shock of hair from this man's head, much as if it were a flying razor – a razor eighteen inches long, one made by myself and sharpened as if it were intended for surgery.

What happened next, however, was even stranger, for I did a Norman.

I hopped into the air nearly as high as my head, the flails still screaming, then twirled about in midair like some kind of deranged acrobat...

I'd never seen this kind of thing beforehand, not even in movies. I'd never been all that thrilled with such films, for some reason, even though I had roomed with Norman for most of a year – and he'd told me more than a little about his former life.

I came to earth but feet away from another such 'lazy' individual, then 'hopped' again – and scythed a broad swath off the top of his head...

Another hop, then another, then more, each time ripping stripes or shocks of hair, each time sending the stuff flying as if a bullet had 'scalped' the people in question.

Eight more times, each time causing another 'hair explosion', all of this done in the time it took me to count to perhaps two.

Perhaps I could have given Norman trouble – not that I wished to; not him, nor Kevin, nor any of the other people similarly trained that I had known. Those people had never harassed me, or done me harm, or spoke evil of me. Therefore, I had no issues with them, and I had given them due courtesy as well, to the best of my knowledge and capacity.

Suddenly, like 'lightning caught in a bottle', I had stopped moving, the screaming stopping as well as I reached up and caught the free end of the flail as if if my hand were lightning and it moving in slow motion, then I spoke, my voice soft, yet seeming to echo eerily in this huge room. I knew I would now be heard. The sticks of the flail were held above my head, my arms held high: the stance here that of readiness when using such a 'tool'.

“You saw what I meant by clean,” I said, my voice seeming to ring and whine with each word. “I showed you what I meant by doing it in front of several of you, with my own hands, and by my own labor.” A pause. “Next time...”

Another pause, this one longer.

“For many of you...” My voice was rising in volume, and the ringing of my words was becoming like an avalanche of sound. I was getting echoes in the room, echoes that reinforced each word, building steadily, standing waves of sound, an acoustic cavity, resonance, rising like the sun, every word now building force and power, raw, elemental, infuriated.

“There will not be a next time for many of you,” I shouted. “There will be no places to put Krokus to you, you stinking witch-slaves. Now p-put some sweat on that damned-to-hell f-floor...”

My voice, and its echoing, stopped. I turned my head.

There. That doorway. Wait. A hazy mist...

Sounds, eerie, spectral, echoed in my mind. I could hear words coming, but the sounds were the issue now. Chiming, time slows. My hair waves softly in an unseen wind.

The mist becomes solid, forms a shape, cold, hard. An odor, that of the privy. I know, I know who this is, I know what to do...

Leap, this over twenty feet from a standing start, then as my left foot 'plants' itself in the floor, my right knee rises as my left hand turns loose of the flail and the right hand comes down like a bolt of lightning as I see the one that had hid himself in the privy suddenly show.

It had all happened in the blink of God's own eyes, and now...

The man doubled up, lifting up in the air such that his feet were a foot above the ground, and as his upper body became doubled over to a nearly horizontal position, the weaving motion of the hand-to-hand aspect of using a flail became my aim, and my arms...

Catch. Catch. Catch. Grip the grooves. They're there for a reason, and why, I now know as the blood begins to fly and my feet seem to flow forward, inching closer as the 'storm' erupts fully and the scream becomes solid in the air and in my mind.

The figure eight moving of the poles of the flail. Catch. Catch. Catch. Catch. Catch.

Black-and-white strobing images show my eyes a slow-growing explosion continuing to happen, the blood and viscera and bones spraying out in an infrared 'mist' as the power builds yet more, the poles of the flail screaming nearly like a die-grinder...

And acting much like a meat-grinder.

Stop. Back away. Reach up, grasp the other pole. Readiness-stance. Back away once more, this time a full step.

And slowly, time builds to a slow-motion frame-by-frame blurring to then reinsert reality once more as the meat of the man – that which once was a man, now all gone from the head to the tops of the buttocks – began to fall.

The thud his remains made echoed faintly in the hall as I stepped back once more. How long this had taken was no matter now. Yet suddenly, I knew.

“I could not have opened my mouth to count to one,” I thought, as I turned to face those still scrubbing. Many of them had a lot to scrub now, including that which now dotted and splattered their clothing and bodies. I then looked at my hands.

Bloody, dripping blood, blood running slow and red up to my armpits, my clothing all but saturated with the sticky red stuff – and here and there, dotted with offal, bits of bone, perhaps other things.

No matter: I had destroyed a man, that utterly. Only a high-powered radial aircraft engine running 'wide open' could have done as much, and as quickly. I had words, though.

“Damn your smelly eyes, I said work!” My voice was now that high-pitched ringing scream, that which had last echoed in this place when I was doing a third-degree session. I was just as much a mess now as I was then, and the echoing power of my voice...

Plainly, I could hear things of glass breaking somewhere, crockery going up like bombs to then subside amid their contents, contents dripping slow like blood over counters and tables.

“You saw what I just did, you accursed fools!” I screamed. “Nothing to put that smelly Krokus in, 'cause there's no head left?”

A shouted roar, this sounding like a million lions: “Hah!”

“Ain't nothing above his 'cursed snake left!” I screamed. “Put that one on and wear it, as if you weren't already doing that!”

The poles of the flail came down in my right hand, and grasping that portion held by the rope, I stuffed them into my belt as I 'about-turned' with precision appropriate to the military of where I had come from. Two steps, then another, and I planted my right boot upon the meat of the witch's buttocks. Reaching down, this with both back and knees such that I was nearly horizontal, seemingly, I grasped each foot...

The shoes had somehow vanished. I then saw them flung some feet away, in the corner where floor and wall met, his stockings scattered blood-sopping rags, the wall splattered with blood and gore behind where I had destroyed this man.

No matter. Now was not the time to ponder, to think. Now was the time to act.

I grasped each leg, then lifted up. Flesh began to tear as I put all my strength into the dead meat of the witch, then with a sudden wrench, I had torn his remains in three pieces.

A look to my right: I held a leg, shreds of meat and the head of the thighbone showing.

A look to my left, the same. Under my boot, what was left. I left it lay there as I turned, slowly, time coming now slow and yet slower. I had torn the trousers as well as the flesh of a man, and now, my teeth showing, a high, ringing and yet-rising roar seemed to come from everywhere at once.

I flew through the air, now my feet touching down as I somehow flew to nearly the end of the stairway, then turning, I found myself facing a long line of scattered people on their knees. I began running.

Left, a head. I have a club. Smash.

The face strikes the floor with a cracking noise, and the flagstone under it cracks with the sheer force of the blow. Another step, seemingly that of a giant, and to my left, another head.

Smash-crush-crack-splat. Gore on the floor, now more than before.

Right.

Smash.

Again. Again. Again.

Slowly, it seemed, yet with a roaring in my ears, I ran up the hall, my legs having minds of their own, each arm its own mind, each limb the power of a giant, and each-still kneeling body, a target like that of a gunsight. My world had gone black-and-white, and each target received its blow, until finally the wall loomed and here, I had to turn.

Feet fought for traction, sliding on the slippery stones of the floor. Nothing for it. I'd done this before, only that time, there was a motorcycle between my legs.

The berm-shot.

My feet actually went up onto the wall, my speed was so great, and I was running up chest-high to then gradually descend.

Smash, smash, smash, smash, each arm working, each club hitting, not a single miss, an aura ahead, light protruding in its impudent way showing through the wormhole of my mind.

Got to keep hitting, until finally, there are no more, and I step across the threshold...

From a black-and-white universe of the unreal, and out into the reality of sunlight and trees and grass.

“What do I need with the legs of a witch here?” I thought, as I threw them up, each arm giving the legs an underhand toss.

A toss that saw each leg go flying end-over-end to then vanish into the upper reaches of the trees nearly a hundred feet away.

I turned, now away from the sunlight, and crossed once more the threshold, only now, this world had sight, sound, color, and an ambiance at once nauseating and horrifying. To each side, as I walked, slowly, slightly wobbling, I saw people who were putting blood down on the floor as fast or faster than they were able to clean the flags of stone.

Here and there, though, as I walked through the laborers, I saw those who remained upon the floor, still, dead, gone from this world. They would not be late, and their next engagement...

Screams still echoed in the hall, coming from everywhere. I wondered what had happened to me. Had I become hairy, or had I gone warped in some way?

No matter. Some I had struck would never do anything in this world again, for they lay dead upon the floor. Perhaps one in five was truly up to working hard, and those people, even though they labored with might and main, still dripped blood.

A glance, this one longer, at one of those who lay still in a growing pool of blood upon the floor: the head was destroyed, the strike so powerful that their head was perhaps three inches above the surface of the shattered flagstone beneath it, and to several feet, radiating out in the pattern of a rising sun, lay brains, bone-chips, and blood.

Echoing in my mind, and ringing in my ears, I now heard the noises I had made when I made such a strike.

There was a thump like a huge mallet, one made of the trunk of a tree for the head, brass-bound and thrice-ringed upon each striking surface, and the haft, that thicker than that of any ax I had made, and that haft of blackwood.

Then, a hideous squishing 'Splat' sound, then the thud of a boot as it crunched into the floor and then a screeching as that impact rebounded into another step. Soft thuds left behind: the sounds of blood and brains falling in small arcs to either cling tenaciously to the floor or roll slowly like the dice of the dead.

The 'scenery' all fell away with a sudden rumble, that as if I were a giant scroll being rolled up, and around me, again, I saw a world of light, sound, color, and smell. Somehow, though, I had words, and I said them as reality once more intruded into a realm that I somehow had visited for a few seconds, a realm of energy and insanity and death.

“I see that among you who yet live, there are many broken noses,” I snarled. Finally, I was seeing real effort being put into cleaning the floor, now real labor, sweat dripping off of each forehead along with slow-delaying drops of congealing blood. “Good! About stinking time you fools learned the meaning of discipline – those of you who still live, that is.”

A pause, then, “one more foul-up on the part of but one person among you-all, then so help me God, there will be another third-degree session out in back where I will kill all of you slow and mercilessly, I will take your heads, I will cut you up myself, I will bag your stinking bodies personally, and I will then write the labels myself of 'traitor and witch' for each curse-tree to be planted in the kingdom house – and then I will personally vet everyone hired in here to make sure we don't get more stinking traitorous witches. Got that, fools! I here and now name you to be witches, and I command you to either go to hell where you belong, or repent of your evil here and now by leaving sweat upon the floor as you scrub it clean enough to eat off of!”

I then turned to see an audience, this of the 'rest' of the house, and as I stalked along, hands dripping blood and arms bloody up to my armpits, my clothing again a gory mess, gore dripping down my trousers: I barked, heedless of the mess I was making among the newly-cleaned sections of floor, “training time starts in ten minutes. Get it in gear, people – we've got a lot of work to do, and not much time to do it!”

I then saw someone familiar out of the corner of my eye, and I turned at him and ran. Before he could complete his turn to so as to run from me, I was in front of him, my flail out and dangling by its cord from my fingers, a gleam of madness in my eyes, and the chill of death in my voice.

“Going somewhere, you witch-spawned snake of a fool?” I spat, as my right hand moved and the flail's pole caught my fist. A flick, and the flail began twirling, this seemingly idly; it made a low pitched and yet menacing warbling noise – like the shaking rattles of an angry rattlesnake, that noise meant danger. “You saw how I just got messy again, didn't you?”

I could hear the Teacher of Guards audibly gulp.

“Yes, you heard the rest of what I said since I came here this morning, and you want to sell me out to the accursed witches that you know are coming, don't you?” I asked snidely. “Think the witches will give you thirty pieces of silver, fool – like the Judas-traitor you are?”

I gave the man no warning: right foot forward, left slightly back, flails grasped in both hands straight, then with a high screaming howl of rage that somehow sounded like a Samurai war-cry imported from the Dojo of my youth, I rammed both sticks into his gut with such force that he was flung backwards in an arching trajectory, then to strike the floor head-first and then slide another eight feet as the rest of his body settled and slid slightly sideways until his head almost touched a pillar. As I advanced upon the man, flail now whirling again, hand to hand in the figure of eight that destroyed bodies, he tried to turn over, but as he got his arms under him to begin crawling, he coughed a mouthful of blood, then one elbow gave way.

The other followed but seconds later, then as he fell to the floor with a thump and his legs thrashed and kicked the floor, he continued coughing up mouthfuls of blood and making gurgling noises somewhere deep within his chest. Blood was now all-but pouring from both mouth and nose, and the sticky red pool was spreading fast.

I waited, waiting for a signal, all eyes upon me – until he coughed once more, then twice again – and then a gout of blood shot out of his mouth like a fire-hose as he thrashed like a fish out of water for over a minute as he quickly 'bled out.' A final shudder as the flow of blood slowed and then stopped – and only then did he lay entirely still.

I caught the free pole of the still-moving flail with my left hand, caught the rope in my right hand, then tucked it into my belt. I backed away from the corpse, still wary, seeming to feel the state of those behind me – I could hear, feel, sense, almost see everything about me within over a hundred yards in all directions – then, in a high-pitched and ringing voice, this carrying with a piercing quality, I spoke.

“Clean up that dung-pile,” I shouted, as I continued backing away from the recently deceased, though I wondered if he were truly dead or shamming. “Cut off his head, put some Krokus in his mouth, and then bury the head facing east one one side of that pile of dung, and the rest of the body on the west side of that mound.”

Pause, then this in a low growl as I got nearly to the outer doorway of the refectory, “that stinker is burning in hell as of now.”

The resulting burst of fire made me very glad for having backed away from that fool, for with a terrifying screaming noise, the Teacher burst into flames, then as his 'fire' billowed upward in a raging cloud of luminous yellow, fiery red, and brilliant orange that reached to the height of the second floor amid clouds of sooty black smoke, I flicked my entire arm toward General's Row, this motion of mine hard, fast, and grimly determined.

The torch-like smoky flames flew after the burning body as it lurched off the ground like a missile and accelerated, leaving a thick trail of smoke as the thrashing body shot like a bullet toward General's Row. His initial speed might have been that of a 'startled quoll', but by the time he'd traveled a second, he was much of the way toward the opposite wall and moving faster than any mere bird I had ever seen.

As if he were expected within, the 'chief' door of General's Row opened, this with a sudden crash as it hit the wall behind it, and the flaming body shot within, followed by its long and luminous tongues of flame; then with a sudden rush, much as if that room contained a vacuum, the soot and smoke shot in after him – and when the screaming within echoed and the smoke was gone from the realm of the living – the door, opened just for him, closed with the crash of doom.

It had opened for him alone. Now it would seal his flames, his smoke – and his doom, for even his screaming as he burned was walled off within his now-blazing tomb.

And the smoke of his burning was the sign and signal for a multitude,” I murmured, as those still laboring upon the floor did so even more at seeing 'a chief fetish so disposed of, and in so summary a manner'. “Never more will he ruin guards and train them to be witches and the slaves of witches.”

A dull booming rumble came from within the door, but that doubled-thickness oaken door held the smoke and the flames within as the desks and other matters once precious to witches now ignited and added to the funeral pyre of a chief among witch-slaves, one a witch in all save the matter of having his bones. He was done with his evil in this world, and he was not going to be late for the next one.

“And don't be late,” I murmured. “Brimstone always wants his food on time and well-done.”

A last, fatal, and final scream – and then soot somehow rimmed the door's opening, and faintly, I smelled the scent of a crematorium. I had but one thing left to say to what had happened, and this, it was barely audible.

“They'll love the odor of that burn-pile when they get into that room,” I muttered. “Now, where were we – oh, a bath.”

It seemed a path was cleared for my cleaning, and when I entered the realm of tub and stove, that where I often had bathed here when coated and caked with blood, the water was hot in the tub, clean clothing and a fresh-washed bath-towel was present, half a bar of laundry soap for my clothing – and a small sliver of a greenish bar left for me.

I bathed with all possible dispatch, using my 'bather', scrubbing frantically every inch of my body I could reach; and when I had finished getting my body clean, I tossed my clothing in the tub, then 'crumbled' the bar of laundry soap and sprinkled the crumbs in the tub of still-warm water. Boots – they were scrubbed, then warmed over the stove and rubbed with some odorless tallow. Finally, I was dressed. It seemed like half an hour, but checking that little 'brass' cube of a 'clock' told me it took me but five minutes from start to finish.

Somehow, that thing's timer had been activated, and it froze when I had opened it. How it had stayed unsullied of blood was a mystery, at least until I wiped it off carefully with my 'bather' wrung mostly dry and needed to do so a number of times to get the blood off of its' outside.

“Was that why I need that thing?” I asked softly. “If I take that special tincture, my time sense goes completely out the window?”

“Your apparent time sense is accurate,” said the soft voice. “Recall what Anna said happened to you when you were first dosed – how you did everything faster than she thought could possibly be done?”

I nodded mentally.

“The synergistic effects of adding those pills to that tincture causes that time-dilation effect to increase more than a little,” said the soft voice, “and that was one reason why you could move around that man so rapidly, such that you more or less 'materialized' in front of him, then did a move that is unique to the 'power' school of 'martial arts' as practiced here.”

“What did I do to that stinker?” I asked, as I resumed my gear, what of it I was carrying. I meant my use of the flail to 'jab him in the guts'.

“More or less destroyed most of his internal organs, causing massive internal bleeding,” said the soft voice. “It's a move that isn't currently taught at the west school, as they rarely teach the 'power' system there due to a lack of suitable students.” A pause, then, “hence, I'm teaching you as you go, and you saw how fast using a flail that way dropped that man, and more, just how he was unable to speak after you did that.”

I had to remember that move. I would need it overseas, and the sense was as clear as hearing someone speak those words specifically.

“Good that I cleaned that flail, then,” as I finished dressing and tucked the thing in my belt before going out of the door and back into the refectory.

There, I was astonished to see no less than three sizable wicker baskets, with Annistae and Deborah explaining to Hendrik what had happened to Karl and Sepp, as well as how they had completed their errands within perhaps two hours – both had ridden horses, bareback, with soft leather thongs for leads, Deborah learning from Annistæ, and both going forth armed – and now, they were showing what they had done regarding achieving goals beyond what Karl and Sepp had set out to do.

That had not been the only thing they had done while out 'riding' in the kingdom house: they had located the Public House in question, and late last night, roughly near the beginning of the sixth posting...

They could speak of the matter now, as well as the precise contents of the three wicker baskets, for these each sat atop a new table – a table that had not been in the refectory yesterday. More importantly, there were no spies or witches left in the house proper who could 'rat on them', and hence, they were speaking of matters in hushed tones.

Before now, silence was the sole means of protecting themselves, as we had had witches in the place – well-positioned spies of one kind or another – and only my finding them had gotten rid of the chief ones, the ones most dangerous to our cause – because they could have given good information each night in this now-destroyed region that was being spoken of.

“Thank God,” I murmured, as I came into the room. I was thanking God I had actually killed almost all of the people that would have sold them out to the coming witches, and that in less than the space of an hour. “We need people like that in here, and I don't wish them hurt or killed by evil wretches who need to burn in hell!”

I then recalled another person: Gabriel might well sell them out, given an inducement of sufficient size and nature – but in order to do so now, he would need to leave the house – and I purposed that he would not do so without a capable well-armed escort, and that for any reason whatsoever.

“He's not going much of anywhere,” I thought. I would speak of him later. Now, there wasn't the time, not when I wished to learn just what those two women had done to a place that needed to go to hell in the worst way possible.

“So not a third of a brick, but two entire bricks of that smelly gray stuff molded to fit the space available between the jugs used, and then three jugs of southern cleaning solution roped securely together, and the rest of Andreas' new-found dynamite so as to sweeten the deal,” I thought. “That place ought to be about gone.”

“It is that, and the sun rose once more at midnight in the kingdom house, so everyone in town turned out and gunned down a number of witches and shot up the last two coaches in the whole of the central part of the first kingdom at this time,” said the soft voice. “More, it's not just 'no building' remains standing, but every building within a hundred paces of that place was razed and the foundations of that building were destroyed, as they'd been receiving large shipments of dynamite and distillate surreptitiously since that hostile takeover and those detonated in sympathy when that bomb went up.”

I had heard this, and had suspected something like that had happened, but when Sarah urged me to drink some beer, I did so. I then thought to ask about the list, and as I drank, I got an earful and more.

“We got what was on their list, and what was on our list, and I learned to ride a horse passably for the first time,” said Deborah. “I only needed the string for perhaps the first half-mile, and after, I let it go. It came in handy, as we had to carry bags of things on the horses, and more than once, shoot witches that showed here and there.”

“Did anyone speak to, uh, Hendrik about all of that lead we, uh, claimed for the crown?” I asked. “Was it mentioned that it would need cleaning and possibly alloying prior to casting in suitable ingots for issuing to people for the coming, uh, hostilities?”

“Yes, Tam did, and a very good idea,” said Esther. “First, we will need buggies to fetch it. There is one with smoked wheels, but it was a poor one to start with, or so Sarah tells me; but that leaves us five with sleeved wheels that are in good condition that I know of.”

What Esther left unsaid was the obvious: she knew of some of what was present, namely those she had named. She knew there might be more buggies, but also, they might be unsleeved – and those would be far too slow and noisy to be used for this business. She then resumed speaking, for her pause had been that to drink a mouthful of beer.

“Then, there will need to be many people with suitable weapons to guard that lead while it is being loaded there, during the trip, and once it is here; and finally, there will need to be people here conveying the stuff to a safe location for storage...”

“Ai, one of the rooms I have the use of, said Annistæ. “If it is wise to spread its weight, then there are numbers of such rooms in that area, as few go up there, and no witch has trod that place in three tens of summers.”

“Then we will need to move it hand-over-hand, which means most of those people cleaning floors will be about ready for that business around the time the first of the buggies returns with the stuff,” I said. “The four of us will need to pack, but I suggest Gabriel be given a place in the lead-passing line, as he really needs to be amply sore and get used to both laboring and working long hours – and he cannot contribute anything to our packing, save a great deal of trouble and confusion – at least until he learns to labor and becomes too fatigued to do aught save follow his orders without thinking.” Pause, then, looking at Hendrik and the king from the fourth kingdom, “does that sound workable?”

Both men nodded nervously, which made me wonder more than a little, even as I and a number of people, most of them either guards or 'important' individuals in the house, followed the two kings out of the room, and from thence, as talk spoke of matters, up to a room I had but heard of a handful of times.

I had never been in there, even if I had explored its general area to a certain degree, and had noted its location in my 'map ledger'. I needed to check and see what was in it with my own eyes, but as Sarah came alongside me, she whispered, “Gabriel will need training, you know.” Pause. “If he is not trained, then one of us will need to watch him and protect him, both in the third port and overseas, and there, if we deal with numbers of those blue-clothed silver-collared thugs, he will need to do his share – and not merely overseas. He will need to do his share in that port also, more than merely talk idly and speak palaver with 'dignitaries'.”

It was very interesting to hear the appropriate word for what witches said to each other while getting drunk enough to speak of their true thoughts – which of them they chose to reveal one to another.

“As in he will also need to help out with our packing?” I asked softly. My knees were again starting to hurt. “True enough, I do recall hearing that – at least now I do.”

I was only now recalling what had been another speed-and-labor-blurred vista in the run-together days and nights of the last few day-periods, these lengthened such that I could almost speak of a three-hundred and thirty-six hour week – or perhaps, more, given that our weeks were now so variable and the only indicator of when a month ended and a new one started was the time and the shape and the precise showing of the two moons as they both revolved about each other and the planet.

“Phase-of-the-moons” had a real meaning in this here and now, and it was about the only way one could really tell time here, at least until that odd little cube had 'arrived'. Somehow, I then spoke through my quickly growing pain.

Doing a Norman had its varied prices, and joints that were 'messed up' didn't cope well with such abuse.

“He'll need training with both a fowling piece and a machine pistol – and possibly a rifle as well,” I said. “Before we do that, though, we'll need to do this teaching session, then 'sweep' Hendrik's office...”

“I hope you are not planning on using that broom in there,” muttered Sarah. “Anything pertaining to brooms of any kind now gives me nightmares in the daytime to hear of it.”

“Well, I know one household item we won't have,” I muttered. “Besides, neither of us are that good when it comes to cleaning.”

“I am,” said Esther. “I'll help out if you should prove to need it, and not just with cleaning. I'll help out with finding fetishes, and then the questions, also.” Pause, then, “what will you do after you train that man?”

“Why, go on a rat-hunt,” I said. “Good practice, makes the place sound like 'old home week' as far as some people here are concerned...”

Sarah was looking at me in the strangest way imaginable.

“I did not go to the west school, dear,” I said. “Sounds like I really missed out on something.”

“I'll go with you, and I suspect Annistæ and Deborah and a few others will wish to come with, as I did not go there either,” said Esther. “Now who will teach that man how to shoot rats and not himself?”

“The four of us, I suspect, though anyone else who has knowledge to contribute is welcome,” I said softly. “Oh, this is...” I caught myself. “We'll need to get all of these, uh, bags downstairs first, and I'm glad I'm not packing my usual load, as...”

“And afterward?” asked Sarah. Her voice had a strange quality, one with an added aspect of questioning. I could tell she was not the only one who had questions about training Gabriel in the use of weapons, Tam being among the first and foremost. I could tell he just wished to kill Gabriel now – and had I no need for Gabriel's presence, I would have already done so.

“After his shooting session, they get taken away, cleaned, and bagged,” I said, “and should he mess up or irritate us while we're teaching him – well, there's nothing quite like a small but potent subsonic bullet between the eyes from a suppressed pistol, and then a hasty interment in the manure pile – head on one side with some Krokus in the mouth, his naked and headless corpse on the other, so as to grow more manure for the house and its fields.” Pause, then, “if we receive any 'static' regarding his absence in the third kingdom's port, then a simple explanation regarding the hazards of sailing a small craft at high speeds at night should suffice, and if those overseas speak of the matter, there's always the many and varied possible mishaps prevalent in a rife-with-thugs port – a port they've heard plenty about.”

“'Bout right for that stinker,” spat Tam. “Now I'd watch him close...”

“I am not sure you have anything on him,” said Sarah, indicating me. “Now, Tam – did you actually find and then kill those thirteen entire-witches, then deal with those others that looked to turn witch if given the chance, and finally still that witch of a Teacher and send him where he belongs – or did you just feel something wasn't quite right in the house?”

Sarah's tone was sharp, inquisitory, volatile, and more than a little irritated at Tam's 'presumption'. She was learning about me, and how I seldom presumed anything.

I usually just knew, much like the instinct of a wild animal; and when on the hunt, I rarely missed, and my kills were indeed kills – and I had killed hundreds in the last few days, and possibly as many as twenty so far today.

Tam had trouble 'doing' that many thugs in a year. Sarah had more to say, however, and now, her tone was even sharper. I could almost feel a grin showing on both Esther's and Maria's faces.

“Since when did you see a flail used like that, Tam?” asked Sarah. “Since when did you see the top half of a supplicant's body scattered like that, then the bottom half torn apart and used as a club, one leg in each hand, and then see someone go after everyone he saw who wasn't giving their all to clean up the mess before tossing those blood-dripping bludgeons out in the direction of the manure-pile?”

“He killed several more that would have turned witch then, didn't he?” asked Hendrik.

“More than just that,” said Esther. “Seeing that happen would get onto almost anyone, and I am glad I did not see what he did.”

“I did, and all of it,” said Sarah, in hushed tones of awe. “He kneed that stinker in the gut, then that flail was screeching like something out of a place that is more frightful than Hell.”

“Ai, that is what they call our Patrón,” said Annistæ. “He has the names, all three of them, but that second one, it is he who we ask for protection from Cabroni and their evil, and the great spirit as well, though now I know him as Déo, and our Patrón is his chief helper.”

“Ah, then I understand,” said Hans. “He has this card with those names on it, though he keeps it hid well, and then there is what is writ upon the pendant, though that I have not seen.”

“You do not want to look there, Hans,” said Anna. “I am more than a little afraid, and Tam... I would be careful in my speech. I might not have seen much of what he did, but what I did see – it was like seeing some of those spoken of in the book.”

“Uh, the jawbone of an ass?” I said.

“There wasn't one handy, so you used what was,” said Sarah. “You did enough damage to make me wonder if that story left some things out.”

“It is likely it did,” I said.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “You, nor she, saw those things that arrived here courtesy of divine delivery – and those did not merely contain the text that you are familiar with. They contained comprehensive grammars, translation-texts like those you had only vastly better, genuinely detailed commentary courtesy of me, and a fair amount more – including some books spoken of that are not commonly known of where you came from, such as 'the Annals of the Kings of Israel' and 'The book of Jasher'.”

“Need a wheelbarrow to carry one of them?” I asked. Tam was silent, though as we reached the top of the stairs, he gasped as I clasped my right knee and stifled a cry of agony as it attempted to 'lock up', much as it had once where I came from. I could feel the eyes of the 'multitude' upon me, and only when Anna looked closely at me as Sarah gave me a full tube of her 'special' tincture did he realize fully the magnitude of what I was enduring.

“Footprints dressed in red,” I thought, this all but audible. “Not half of what I'm doing today. This isn't a whole lot more fun than being nailed up.”

“I 'spect you know something like it, as I just saw your left hand when you grabbed your knee and tried to hold it together when it was trying to come apart on you,” whispered Tam. “I had no idea it was that bad for you, having steel go through your hand like that, and all those cut places and that bone sticking out of your finger where the tip was gone.”

“Nails were usually driven in the wrist, sir, though sometimes those the witches wished to torment especially would rope their wrists to their curse-trees and then nail those people in the hands.” Sarah sounded as if she knew about these matters.

“Uh, why? I asked, as I gritted my teeth and cleared the top of the stairs. It was easier to continue knowing the pain would be less in a few minutes, and walking on level floors helped also.

“Because it would hurt more, and the witches delighted in hurting those they hated,” said Sarah. “They still do so today, as you probably know well. I know I do.”

“And I,” said Deborah. “I can help teach on some of these things, as I have used a fire-breather, and one of those things like what you have, and a rocket-launcher...”

“You have not fired a mortar-gun, dear,” said Anna. Her tone was utterly serious. “We did last night, and that thing makes a three-inch gun look like a toy for trouble – and both Willem and Sarah were handy, so you can ask them if you think me a liar.”

“I know,” said Sarah. “I've been pointer on one of those, but those guns and what we used last night are not in the same town.”

“I'm sure, also,” said Willem. “How long was your lanyard – three paces?”

Anna nodded.

“I think I want two lanyards, one tied one another, if I'm going to fire one of those guns,” said Willem, “that and a hole dug so I can hide myself, and another hole for keeping those green things that have the red writing on them that look like bad hornets.”

We were progressing steadily toward this destination, and with the pain in my joints steadily diminishing, I was glad I was wearing goggles.

I was also wanting earplugs, everyone was so infernally loud. Anna then came up to me, speaking in what for her was a whisper and for me, amply loud. “I am very glad that you must endure that pain but another few days.” Pause, this to drink. “I was told last night as I mixed up those vials of tincture in my basket that both of your knees are worse than Tam's bad one was after that pig hurt him.”

“That was bad, least 'till he prayed for it,” said Tam. “Now why don't he...”

“My grace is sufficient for you?” I asked. “The book itself?”

That caused another bout of silence, though at the back of my mind, speaking that way caused no small disquiet. I was to receive help, medical help, and that went against all I had ever been taught on the subject.

And, as a rejoinder, the soft voice said, “they didn't have decent doctors then, so it was prayer or nothing, and sometimes, nothing wouldn't cut it, because the person who needed to 'go on' was far too injured to pray and I had to do what was needed without them asking. Hence you will get what you need; you will get it when you need it; and then again – don't I know best? Can I afford for you to fail?”

“Hence prayer, and this other, and...” I thought silently.

“And, and, and, and a whole lot more,” said the soft voice. “This isn't like getting pounded with rocks until you resemble a blood-dripping skin-filled bag of mush, and the reason you look dead is those people looking close at you can't tell if you have a heartbeat or not, even if you're busted up so bad that you're going to die in a hurry without divine intervention and at least some of that crowd had pounded enough people that way to know you're a dead man regardless.” Pause, then, “this is so much worse than being buried under such a rock-pile that there is no adequate comparison.”

“The ballroom?” I asked silently. We were nearing our destination. I could tell that much.

“The regular cleaners were told off early from money-gathering yesterday to clean the place to a 'decent' level,” said the soft voice, “and then put back on money-gathering while daylight lasted – and then worked another several hours indoors cleaning closets and other locations that have been far-too-neglected recently; and they were kept at such labor until the start of the sixth posting, according to Hendrik's explicit orders.”

“Decent?” I asked.

“Maria used a small bucket of clean handkerchiefs to ensure it was adequately clean,” said the soft voice, “as only witches have suitable 'white gloves' for proper 'inspections'.”

“You do not wish those things anyway,” said Esther. “They're only fit for starting fires in stoves, and that's for the cheaper ones. The worse ones tend to glow this reddish color, and I've been tossed more than once by that kind of glove when it went where it belonged.”

“Hence little dust and dirt to provide distractions,” I said. “Chairs? Tables? Ground-cloths? Lighting?”

“Tables are in very short supply right now, as it seems that not merely was that desk of Hendrik's made fit for a witch,” said Maria,” but it is going to pieces by the day, and a new one will be needed before you five return from the trip – and tables, much the same. Most of the best ones we have are now in that room.”

“Figures, that desk was nothing more than a fetish-carrier,” I muttered, “and now that it can no longer cause trouble that way, it's falling apart in a hurry.” Pause, then, “before I give any talk in that place I'm going to sweep it for fetishes, as I do not wish Anna to be tossed again, and better me than her in regards to being tossed.”

Again, Sarah mumbled about brooms and nightmares, though her voice was a bit too quiet to be heard readily among the sounds of boots of various types, shoes, and perhaps some soft moccasin-type footwear that Annistæ had somehow managed to retain. I suspected Sarah would wish some, as those were nearly as soft as gloves.

“I am not sure I want you tossed either,” said Hendrik.

“No, you don't, but we were both a prize pair of idiots in your office before he rooted out...”

An odd association with but barely-recalled words: “I've r-rooted this thing, and I've...” The sound of a multitude walking, this and words, returned.

“...those witches, and we do not need that kind of thing happening again,” said the king of the fourth kingdom. “I think he can endure a few days, though I'd have those stinkers he got to cleaning your main floor lie on the floor of your office so he lands on something relatively soft if he gets tossed.”

“So one of them can stab me, right?” I said. “I'll take my chances with the bare floor, thank you.”

“You killed the witches and supplicants, didn't you?” asked the man. There was so much he didn't know about the way this area was regarding how people were schooled to be 'fully-owned witch-slaves'.

“He may well have done that,” said Sarah, “but we were told he would also cause people to either be solidly behind him, or solidly against him; and were one of the latter used as a cushion, then such a wretch, even though he might not be a witch now, would hold enough of a grudge now to cause trouble any way he or she possibly could.”

“And given how many knives are commonly worn – either openly or concealed – no, the matter sounds a bit too palpable right now,” I muttered. “They have a long way to go before becoming as if forged into a solid bar of iron, one that will neither bend, break, rust, or give heed to any save the orders of its master, and I dare not put myself in a position that they could hurt me in any way, at least prior to our leaving tomorrow morning.”

A pause, this a long one as Sarah walked beside me down a disused-seeming hall – it was clean enough; no obvious dust, fresh candles, doors 'rubbed' with drying oil thinned with distillate – then “once I get back – then perhaps today's lesson will have sunk in among the survivors.”

“I saw you kill several with the legs of that witch,” said Hendrik with a shudder. “Will more die?”

At least a dozen more by tomorrow morning,” I said. “They'll get the floor cleaned 'adequately', but between just how much I hurt most of those I hit then, how hard they're going to be working, as well as how many will take unauthorized 'breaks' and be shot down while loading and unloading lead here and out in the field, and then be decapitated once they get back here – figure fully half of that batch you started with this morning that I 'inspected' will be stinking up that manure pile by the time we leave for the cove tomorrow.”

What I did not say was I suspected that more yet would die, firstly from infections caused by those head-injuries, and secondly, some of those head-injuries would take days to fully manifest their symptoms – symptoms that would slow but surely kill those having them, and that with tremendous pain that nothing would relieve. They would scream until their throats bled, and then continue screaming until destroyed vocal cords silenced them and they finished their dying in silence. I then heard speech, though how I heard it over the echoing screams and yells in my mind was a matter of some confusion.

“Those people were trouble,” said Tam. “Them others, they'll learn from this, and not carry no grudges once the others make that manure-pile start to smoke good.”

“Precisely,” I said. “The others will carry grudges, and they all would have caused nothing but trouble until they died. Hence, we must keep them too busy to cause trouble – and I would do that very thing with Gabriel, by the way, once we return.”

“You may rely upon it,” said Hendrik. “He will remain busy, and match my hours.”

No,” I said coldly. “Deep-slave hours, at least in his case.” Pause. “He will be locked into his current office around the clock, and each group of guards will not only inspect him to see if he has fouled himself, but also, see that he has done a satisfactory quantity and quality of work – and I would have marked people only visit him, guns hot and ready to go, with those people ready and willing to kill him on the spot, and have them escort him out to the manure-pile and then that one smelly pond to deal with his dung-pail.”

“Good,” said Deborah. Perhaps another hundred yards to go, as this was a sizable room, and more, I truly needed to see its interior and note all I that possibly could about it. I would need to 'add' it to my house-map in the highest possible level of detail, assuming it was not 'added' already. I suspected it was, but none the less, I would take a mental inventory of this place.

“Then, he is to be permitted no more water than is needed to support life and maintain a satisfactory level of output in terms of quantity and quality, and I would toss every place he has had access to since his arrival in this area so as to locate his secreted wine and all else he has hidden – and that wine he has hid is to come home with us so as to be made into tailor's antiseptic while the five of us are gone,” I said. “No bathing. I repeat. No bathing, save if he stinks so horribly that he begins to attract vermin or cause undue distraction on the part of others. Only then let him bathe. His food is to be bread and water, and nothing more, and that but once a day – and a lashing, a good one, each and every single day, so as to teach him his manners toward his superiors – and if I'm on the premises, I will do it myself, as I know how to do those.”

“He will be lucky if he lives longer than a ten-day, then,” said Hans. “I put stripes on that man, and a lot of them, but I think you could do better.”

“No, Hans,” said Anna – with a shudder to his voice. “He could kill him in three minutes by the clock, and that if he were inclined to take his time and use a whip, not a flail.” Pause, then, “you did not see the gore and the other body-stuff he flung onto the staircase, did you? Then how he tore what was left of that witch in half with his bare hands, and used each limb as a club to smash those people's heads into the floor?”

Hans indicated he had seen something, but he was focusing hard on trying to 'get his mind on learning something critical', so had not seen much of anything other than what he had expected to see, which was the utterly familiar.

After all, learning how to use 'weapons out of an old tale' was critical to his continued survival. What was on the stairs, in comparison, save if it caused him to fall and hurt himself, was not. I was thoroughly glad he had made that distinction.

And while this area was sufficiently unfamiliar to me to not know it terribly well, the room that we now went into was one I had never been inside before.

“What is this place?” I asked. The lanterns present on tall wooden 'lantern-hooks' were a bit too familiar to think them to have come from anywhere but a handful of places, Andreas' shop being the most likely location.

“The ballroom,” whispered Sarah. “Now look around you, as this place is most-important, and is oft-mentioned in the Annals of the house here and elsewhere.”

I did as Sarah told me, which but matched my sense of matters: I saw eight ground-cloths laid about atop a near-spotless floor, with several long thin tables arranged in a line near the front. These were of considerable age, and yet somehow, still in very good condition, and a closer look at one of them as the others filed into the room showed one reason for this.

Someone had built these things of blackwood for the load-bearing portions, and then spent a lot of time rubbing the entirety of these close-jointed things with drying oil, with periodic scraping to level the finish, most likely with 'spanners' like I had been accumulating. A glance to each wall, these some distance away in this sizable room, and several more of these long thin tables stood in place; and at the back wall, that which we had gone into, two other doorways. We had gone into the closest of the three, which is why I had not seen the others.

Only two areas on the walls to each side of the 'front' wall did not have tables: one, an opening on my right that led into darkness, this quite narrow and seemingly an 'obvious' route of escape; and another to the left, this in a far corner and hidden behind the folds of a deep red draped species of 'cloth'. Beyond 'it is not commonplace linen' and 'red like that is really rare in this area', I could not tell what, precisely, it was for fiber or dyestuff. I would ask Sarah about it later if the chance presented itself.

A glance at the floor showed but minor traces of dirt, this indicating a long-disused room, and the lack of odor in the place allayed my fears that this place would prove a potent distraction to learning crucial matters. For this, I gave silent prayer to God – and from seeming nowhere, I knew what to say.

Before, I had but little clue, and I was hoping Hendrik would do the needed speaking.

“Four persons to each ground-cloth, please,” I said in the most-pleasant tone I could manage, “unless you have handled one or more of these weapons, or those like them. Those of you who have such experience...

Echoes in my mind, this amid torrential gunfire and the sounds of falling strange and 'heavy' rain, this of a color I did not wish to see: “have you ever been experienced?”

I had to answer in the negative. I was given words regardless; it was the only explanation I could fathom.

“If you have such experience, then please, remain standing – and then start showing those who remain seated how to use whatever you are most-familiar with.”

Pause, this for emphasis.

“Please, do this: emphasize the following, if you can: firstly, keeping one's weapon functioning as well as is possible. That means keeping their insides clean, and if needed, wiping down their outsides as well. Dirty weapons tend to quit working when you can least afford it, and that means you...”

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “I know what happens then. I slept with mine handy, like most do.”

“As d-do I, and I slept with my hands laying upon what I use,” I said. “I d-do not wish your weapons to quit working when you need them, so please, keep your weapons cleaned, lubricated, and ready to fight with. If you've seen my behavior regarding weapons and personal cleanliness...

The room grew a sudden hush, then Sarah spoke.

“He may tolerate dirt worse than anyone in here, and blood on him makes him deathly ill, but I've seen him look after his weapons before he does anything else, even if he's filthy – and I have some idea of how that feels, also, as dirt makes my skin feel as if I am wearing buggy underwear all over me.”

“N-no,” I said. “It feels like I'm crawling with really nasty bugs, or it actually makes me sick. Still, today, I cleaned what I used before I cleaned my body – and dirt, grease, blood, gore, and things like them – all of them are such torment I have no words to describe them.”

Pause.

“Use that as an example of what is important regarding cleaning your weapons and ensuring they function as they should,” I said. My voice had grown softer now, now close to my normal tone and volume of speech, save a bit edgier, much as if I was afraid of something I could not clearly name. I then spoke of the matter.

“I am afraid for all of you,” I said. “Please, those of you who can, teach everyone in here to make every shot count – and for God's sake, verify that your weapons are cleared when you're not actually ready to shoot.”

Echoes of my own hypoglycemia-induced accident roared in my head, the bed being ripped open, an expensive book being ruined by bits of bullet-splinters as the hot-loaded '7.62 NATO, Full Metal Jacket' round detonated in the chamber of the rifle and ripped out at a muzzle-velocity of nearly twenty-seven hundred feet per second.

That recollection also made for nightmares, these awaking. I distinctly heard my stepfather calling me words like 'dummy' – that being a word he used commonly, and one of the more pleasant ones. A number of times he had spoken of 'dickskinners', these being the terms for my hands, just as if he were an evil Drill Instructor, and I an especially 'unmotivated' recruit. He knew about how to 'motivate' such as me: work them until they bled, then kick them into working more and faster – and it was never good enough.

No, not a Drill Instructor. I had met one of those people after he'd gotten out of the marines, and while at first he was scary, he was not my stepfather.

My stepfather was an 'Einsatzkommando', one of the 'nastier' men of a 'special action group', those -Männer that guarded the camps of the Nazis. He'd had experience – in the Dirlewanger brigade, those who had reduced Warsaw to rubble so as to crush the uprising – and in the process, killed all that lived. He defined the word 'cunning', and his supposed fear of me, merely a ruse.

Sociopaths did not feel fear, and this man was a stone killer, one waiting for me to make a mistake so he could kill me and not be punished by the law.

“Let me show you what I do,” I said, as I unloaded all save the machine pistol – which I then held up, its strap still around my neck. “These work well out to perhaps a hundred yards or a bit more, and inside that, they do very well indeed.” Pause, then, “some of you may have seen me use this one.”

Some nods, then a spoken 'yes', this from Deborah.

“Watch what I do, please,” I said. “I am n-not that s-smelly wretch of a Teacher, and I hope and I pray to God I do not become as he did.” I then removed the magazine from the weapon, pulled back the cocking lever, caught the ejected round in my left hand, then actually looked inside the chamber while holding the cocking lever back as far as it would go.

“That is how you know a weapon is safe,” I said, as I re-inserted the magazine, lowered the weapon to its hanging position, and picked up an empty magazine. “Now, I'm going to load this magazine. Unless you're in the middle of a fight, you fill a magazine of this length – oh, a bit longer than my hand, say, like those in this rifle” – here, I pointed to where I had laid it on the table – “and then you push out three rounds. Those you put back in one of your bags of ammunition – and if you expect trouble...”

“That's a certainty,” said Tam as I began inserting cartridges from a small cloth bag, this one larger than the one I had in my pocket. “Now go on. You're doing the best job I ever saw anyone do.”

“Th-thanks,” I said. “I've no idea how I'm going to h-handle a gr-group of itinerant seamstresses and, uh, miscreant boys. Perhaps tell jokes?”

“I think you will do well, actually,” said Deborah. “Now... What were you doing with that weapon when you were looking inside of it?”

“He was making sure it was safe, Deborah,” said Annistæ. “That is the right way, and I was taught so, though I think he is new to this and so is afraid.”

“N-not that afraid,” I said. “I fear for your lives, and it comes back upon me if that happens.”

I laid the weapon upon the table, the barrel facing away from the group and toward the wall, then as I drained a cup of beer, I asked, between gulps, “can anyone tell me why I laid that weapon's muzzle away from everyone else?”

“Yes, because you do not wish to take a chance on its' parts letting go, like some bad smoke-locks do,” said Deborah.

“Smoke-locks, she says,” I muttered. “I almost got killed that way by a badly-made number four musket sometime late last year!”

“See, he knows what he is saying,” said the king from the fourth kingdom. “Please continue your lecture. I find it quite refreshing.”

“W-what?” I gasped.

“I wish I had you for a lecturer,” said the king of the fourth kingdom. “You do a quite creditable job. How many times have you done this before?”

“L-like this?” I asked. “N-none. Th-this is my f-first time with a group of this size.”

“You do well,” said Willem.

“No, much better than 'well',” said the king from the fourth kingdom. “I would rate you in the top five lecturers I have ever seen, and I include myself among them – and this is your f-first t-time?”

“Y-yes,” I said.

“I was wrong,” said the king from the fourth kingdom. “You're the best lecturer I've ever seen.”

“I told you so,” whispered Sarah. She was kneeling by this man, and showing him details about her rifle.

“Uh, now to resume instruction, if I can...” I went over to my possible bag, and got a dose. My knees were bothering me again, and as I got the dose, I had to sit on the table and gently knead my knees for a minute. “You don't want accidents with these weapons, people. I had one once and it frightened me out of my mind, which is why I...”

I then recalled what was in my left trouser's pocket, and handling the thing as if it were a bomb with a sensitive trembler device installed, I carefully cleared the weapon and lowered the hammer on an empty chamber, then reinserted the ejected cartridge into the magazine and reinserted it into the pistol. I carefully checked this weapon, then said, “this is the way I commonly carry all of my weapons – empty chamber, or, as you might think of it, a 'dry' chamber, like a dry well. Nothing in it that can go boom and make you cry at nights, or as I did, scare you out of a ten-year's growth.”

I'd gotten through to someone by that line; I could tell. “Then, notice – safety is in the fire condition. That means all I have to do is work the slide on this pistol here, and it's ready to fire. Now, notice how I hold my finger in relation to the trigger guard.”

I turned around, this slowly, then walked with a slight limp to each group. Here, I pointed out the safety, it being on 'fire', the 'dry' chamber, and then, the relation of my index finger to the trigger guard.

“Why is your finger not on the trigger?” asked Matthys.

“So he don't have an accident,” said Tam. “You ask that lady over there with the brown hair, the one that limps a little, and she'll tell you straight, as she's one of them that's as good as a member of the Mule's group – and he looks like one of those people.”

“He fights like one of them, also, and that I saw,” said Annistae. “He was tossing bombæ with both hands, and each one of them a long toss, and it looked like a group of mule-guns was going through that town.”

“Finally,” I said, “this relates to aiming, and making sure you hit what you aim at. We do not have that large of an ammunition supply at this time, and getting more ammunition in quantity at this time may prove troublesome. Hence, while there is a lot more of most of it at the Abbey, there is what is present there, and then there is what we will need to have for this summer. I know of at least one location that is going to have witches massing upon it at least once, and possibly, multiple times, and for that, I have some plans.”

“Not 'some' plans,” said Sarah. “You're well along on those, and I've seen nothing like them.”

“They bad, or they good?” asked Tam.

“I suspect they are about as good as anyone here could come up with, as I prayed about them and I learned who had reminded him.” Pause, then, “that person is no man, and therefore, he does not lie – and I know that person more or less told him what to do and how to do it.”

“Uh, I read about this stuff, too,” I said, “but I was given a lot of guidance. So, we do our part, and the witches will do theirs – which means a lot of dirty weapons to clean and a lot of smoking manure piles.” Pause, this to drink, then, “my, this is thirsty work here.”

“It looks like it,” said Lukas. “Now that you showed us something about those smaller ones, let's talk about these others, like I was using yesterday.”

“No, not yet, please,” I said. “I need to show you how to do some cleaning on these, which means you will all need to stand and come close, then watch what I do and practice it among yourselves until you know how to clean and maintain these weapons enough to keep them working. Remember, your lives are at stake here. You do not wish a failure during a fight, or the witches will kill you.”

The others now gathered around, and I began to do what I called a 'quick-clean' of the machine pistol. Here, I was running cleaning patches through the barrel with first aquavit, then motor oil, then dry patches, and as I continued oiling those portions needing oil with that blue stuff and then working the parts and wiping off the excess, Annistæ said, “you need a solvent for cleaning guns, even if that looks to work well. I shall make some shortly, as I have a small tube with the organisms that make the chemicals.”

“I have one also, and I'm taking it overseas so they can work on it, and then...” I paused, then asked, “acetone? I am not sure how to speak of that chemical save in this language, and speaking it may well knot some people's tongues.”

“It smells like ripe fruit, and is dangerous unless it is carried in other chemicals,” she said. “I have become covered with soot by it more than once, and once I was tossed when I spilled a little on the floor once in chemistry class, and I had to clean the whole laboratory then because of the dirt and soot it caused.”

“Sounds like either that chemical or one that acts an awful lot like it,” I said. “We should get small amounts of it, but I really hope we get it in a form that isn't hazardous to use.” Pause, then, “at this time, this is the best I know to do. She might know better, in fact.”

“Non,” said Annistæ. “I could do better had I the right things, but they are not here, so we must do as we can, same as if we were fighting off Cabroni and they had come in such numbers that we were needing to use knives upon them.”

“He's capable with those, also,” said Sarah. “I am not sure if Deborah is quicker, but I saw him go after six of those smelly blue-suited functionaries, all of them hiding in this room as warm as a bake-oven, and he poked or sliced every one of those smelly thugs and tossed most of them out before I could count to three.”

“Had he done it before?” asked Deborah.

“I was told he had not,” said Sarah. “It was his first time, and if I go by how quickly he took up flails, he will become better in a great hurry. You might come with us when we go rat-hunting.

“Yes, perforating the rodentia,” I said. “Great fun, unless you happen on a big one that wants a full magazine in order to quit.” Pause, then, “I have a surprise for those, but I can but show it, as it's the only one we currently have and we're going to work hard at getting them copied overseas.”

“Yes, and I want one of those copies,” said Paul. “Now about these others...”

I agreed, and now laid aside the machine pistol, though for some reason, I wished to have a full magazine in the thing and hang it about my neck on its strap. I did so, put another full magazine in my right trousers' pocket, then took my rifle around. As I showed its salient characteristics – Sarah was doing likewise with her example – I spoke again of all the matters I had regarding the machine pistols, then also our ammunition situation.

“There is what is there at the Abbey, and there is what we will need, this to carry out a war of extermination on the home front this summer, and what we have present at the Abbey is nowhere near enough to do the latter, even if we only concentrate upon the worst of the domestic witches.”

A pause.

“If we go by what we know of Norden's people,” I said, as I showed one group how to quick-clean my rifle and answered questions as best I could, “they have ten to our one, and I speak of the entire population of the five kingdoms that will not make common cause with the enemy. However...”

Longer pause, this as I put matters back together. I emphasized that one needed a delicate touch with this type of rifle, as it was deliberately set up 'tight' and that to achieve 'unreal' levels of accuracy. I mentioned its capacity out to over half a mile, that being able to hit the eye of a pig at such a distance – a common pig, or perhaps, even a smaller Norden-pig. I then recalled just how hard to stop that one particular 'Bad-Pig' had actually been.

'Bad-Pig' wasn't nearly enough to describe the swine of Norden, but I could think of no better short phrase to describe them – and I suspected they were not described much better across the sea, even in their information storage locations. I then had to speak more.

“If we presume that they will endeavor to establish enclaves upon our shores principally and then move south from there, then the difference is closer to fifty to one – and that means we will need to bring war to their country and use any and all means at our disposal so as to render the whole of Norden incapable of sustaining life and have vast numbers of effectual ranged weapons...”

Again, I needed to pause. This preamble was a necessity, as even among such hard-headed realists as were currently gathered in this room, there was still a lot of witch-thinking present, especially that rubbish regarding 'the primacy of blades in combat'. I now thought to squelch that prime rubbish once and for all.

“The reason I spoke of 'ranged weapons', people, is that if we are forced to fight upon those people's terms with edged weapons, that stinky witch-queen knows she will win, and that easily – as each of those tinned thugs is more than the equal of five of our people, no matter how much courage our citizens might have – and given the nature of ranged weapons, that means 'we can stay out of their kill-zone, and we can readily kill them at ranges where they can do nothing save die in droves'.”

“Even their archers?” asked one guard, that one man named Matthys.

“Even those people,” I said. “Figure their maximum range is three hundred, er, paces. What I have here” – here, I hefted my rifle – “can shoot twice that distance and more, and drop them deader than a Shoet gone High, no matter how much tin they wear – and I can do it rapidly.”

“You want that distance, unless you want to wear coins like clothing,” said Lukas – who was sitting, even if he was quietly showing the others on his cloth what went to his particular rifle. “You get onto a coach, like some three or four I did yesterday, and you hit 'em right, and they blow cobbles and junk and dead mules and money far enough to make you want to stay a good two hundred paces off.”

“Uh, question,” I said. “Did you hear a clanking noise just before those coaches exploded?”

“Yes, and then I had to dodge some bad plate from Blomfels at two hundred paces for one o' those things,” said Lukas. “You shoot from two hundred paces, you want cover if you don't want to eat plate if you get onto a coach what's plated up solid.”

“And how far can most of those people from Norden shoot their arrows?” I asked. I had some idea of how far and how fast they could shoot, but I'd only been downrange of them for a short time. Granted, an intense period of 'raining arrows', but still, I'd only had them shoot those at me once.

“If they aim up a lot, then a bit further than two hundred paces, but usually they don't aim up much at all,” said Lukas. “Most of the time, a Norden-arrow has about double the range of a common musket, it shoots a lot faster than most muskets, and it tends to hit a lot more often than a common musket at those ranges, so they can hit ten people to your one if they have archers.” Pause, this to drink. Talking as he did obviously made for a dry mouth, most likely due to a vast store of flashbacks coming with each sentence. “Then, there's what they use for swords.”

“Not pretty to look at, but they do work,” I said. “Correct?”

“You bet they do,” spat Tam. “Most people are a pack of idiots 'cause they think the shine is the thing with a sword, but...”

“It once was the case, sir,” I said. “That lying witch of a Teacher spoke about that nonsense, but I tend to not believe such trite-sounding rubbish without testing it, and after learning what I did about their blades by testing them at some length – they might be pounded out by a pack of lug-headed wretches, but they don't break up when used hard, unlike most of ours – and that's for their common blades.” Pause, then, “if you see some of their exceptional ones, though... Those are a lot better.”

“Yours' seem the only reliable exceptions,” said Hendrik. “Yours shine, but talk has it...”

“No, not talk,” I said. “I was told, this by the best source available, that that metal is brittle enough that it needs to be polished before and after heat-treating, and that is so it won't break up when it's used – and the same for the shape – and then markings, even acid-bit ones, will cause them to break in use. I don't make fetishes, but weapons that work, and mine has helped keep me alive. Sarah?”

“Yes?”

“Describe what else we recently heard about how witches view those edged weapons I make?”

“As if they were fetishes made before the flood, and that because he makes them,” said Sarah. “Pack of stupid witches... No markings on them, they don't glow red, they...”

“Oh, they do do something if you're a witch,” I said. “They'll kill you, and then your successor should he handle them, and then the same for that person's successor, and so forth until they finally return to their rightful owners.”

“Hence the thoughts about them being 'fetishes of unsurpassed power',” said the soft voice. “But one trouble, due to the fact that they are not fetishes.”

“What?” I asked.

“They bring such high prices that the only witches that can purchase them are those that are Powers, but also, those people and their immediate cronies are now almost all sufficiently brain-damaged by various 'poisonous viands' that they can actually touch those things and not die upon the spot.”

“Brain-damaged?” asked the king of the fourth kingdom.

“They become far more inhabited, sir,” said Sarah, “and that level of inhabitation grants such a witch a degree of immunity from the effects of something that hates witches to such a degree...”

Temporary immunity,” I said. “Strictly temporary, and those blades will most-definitely live up to their supposed treacherous nature.” Pause, then with a chuckle, “they'll just do it when they can cause the most trouble, is all.”

As Sarah and I began to unpack our bagged supplies – they had somehow come into the refectory while the two of us were getting our breakfasts, then all save a handful carried one up to this room, myself being excused due to 'bad knees', and the need for dosing proving the matter conclusively as I had nearly cried out in pain – I found that the two of us had help.

Specifically, Deborah and Annistæ, as well as those two 'guests' we had brought with us. It was altogether touching to see Annistæ and those two embrace fondly and then speak animatedly in language that was obviously that of trained soldiers, real soldiers, only when I saw Annistæ's 'badge', I knew suddenly that this lady was no ordinary soldier – and then, our female guest brought out hers. I recognized her instantly: she was the person I had seen before, and she had the twin badges of 'expert soldier' and 'combat medic'.

“Ain't none of these people commonplace from the Valley,” muttered Tam. “Now you know what color that rooster is, don't you?”

“The black rooster,” I said. “Doesn't give up, never quits until it's dead...” I then almost didn't catch it in time, this faint and growing recollection about 'they spit on me, in my home land'.

In my case, I wished that had used 'spittle' and not urine, nor shovels, nor swords, nor bullets, nor knives. This seemed to come out in broadcast form, even if I had said nothing.

“They did worse to you,” spat Sarah. “Now who was that stinky little witch who tried for you when you were the age of a boy starting his second term in the lower schools?”

“Don't recall his exact name, dear, even if he was a head taller, had a good thirty pounds on me, he had the knife, and I still hit him and nearly put him on the ground.”

“Th-that...”

“Yep, them marked people are like that, specifically when they're born that marked,” said Tam. “Now this I can show you...”

Tam, again, was sitting, but one thing I noticed among those 'more' experienced: they tended to 'circulate' some, while those of us with 'real' experience, tended to circulate more. I did my share of talking, but I was far from the only one, at least until someone I had never seen before showed up.

Toréo!” squealed Annistæ. “Esté bueéno! Compré?”

“Cé, Gracilé,” he said.

“Dainty?” I thought.

“He's her uncle, and the term is one of endearment,” said the soft voice. “Figure you'll be fairly fluent in her language by the time you arrive in the third kingdom's port, and truly fluent within a month of your return.” Pause, then, “you already know nearly as much as Tam does.”

I wasted no time: I reached into my pocket as I came to the man, then handed him my money pouch. I asked, this as best as I could in his language as a mark of respect, that he take whatever he needed so as to provide greens for any people who lived in the house proper who he knew.

He looked at me in shock, then stammered, “but you do not know me.”

“Cé, he does,” said Annistæ. “He did that with myself and her yesterday, and we received so much money from those smelly people and their smelly coaches that...”

“The latest kiln, sir,” I said. “The glass-works. We will need good glass to replace the rubbish found so commonly up here, and you need this money to get that business running, as half the windows in town...”

“I know about glass,” he said. “Now, what is this business you have here?”

I was about to reply when he suddenly began to walk about the room, inspecting matters. Now and then, he knelt down, then pointed out matters that were not 'satisfactory'. I discretely followed, and as I came to the cloth where he was sitting next to Sepp, Karl shook his head.

“Keep trying, Karl,” I said softly. “It's very important, as knowing our weapons well enough to service them in complete darkness will mean our lives in very short order.” Pause, then, “We'll have to teach Gabriel how to shoot rats shortly after this session, and then after he works for a while on lead-handling...”

“Oh, I'll keep him moving,” said Tam. “I got that stock-whip handy. Now you gonna take them guns away from him?”

“Why, of course we will, as they will need cleaning, and he needs to work,” I said. “Oh, give it to him good, so much so that he wants tinctures for pain. He'll need them as often as I do, nearly, and then...” I looked at Sarah, who seemed satisfied with that arrangement.

“We will dose him as needed during the trip, so he will not cause us trouble,” said Sarah. “He will desire such dosing then, in fact, so give him plenty of whip-snaps to keep him working until we are ready for him to help us.”

Tam then continued, this speaking in a lowered voice: “if a witch is far off, aim for his chest, which with these is about four hundred paces, but if he's in musket range – that of a good musket...”

“Rifle, sir,” said Sarah. “Like what he has.” Sarah obviously meant my first one.

“Yep, I know that, but most of these people don't know much for words, and they'd not believe a Gustaaf exists until they actually saw one unchained and in use,” said Tam. “They mostly know what muskets are, and they know those bad things they remember hearing from their childhoods, and not much better than that for most of them who went to the west school.”

“I know,” said the king from the fourth kingdom. “I learned more from her reports than I did from all of my lecturers.”

“Then you would do well to listen to him after this time comes to an end,” said Sarah. “I will be in that room also, and the two of us will get as many fetishes as we can before we do ought of speaking on such questions as you may put to us.”

I also found that I was glad for the stool someone had 'conveniently' hidden in a corner, as I had to discretely rub some of Hans' liniment on my knees now and then. It was the best I could do for them, and now, I understood.

I needed medical help, and good medical help. It was not to be had right now, yet I had to go on, and while this was another planet, and the timeframe later than that of the events of the book...

“Not enough difference to mean anything,” I thought. “It was prayer or nothing in those days, and if it's beyond the trivial here, it's still prayer or nothing.” Pause, then, “here goes...”

My hands froze, and suddenly, I saw movement in the corner. I lunged for my machine pistol, chambered a round, then as the rat charged, I flipped the selector up to full-auto and fired a long burst...

The rat tumbled and lay still, and as I limped over toward the largest ever 'albino squirrel' I had ever seen in the house proper, I muttered, “one of these stinking things would have to show in here about now. What was this thing, cursed?”

“Yes, and by one of those imported witches, the true 'leader' that caught a bullet in the forehead when you sprayed that room with what you just used,” said the soft voice. “Now count the number of cartridge cases, and then the number of holes in that animal, and see where most of them hit.”

I had help policing up my brass, then when it was bagged – fourteen rounds – I went toward the rat, lying still as death, then at a range of less than a foot, I put two more rounds in it, one in each eye. Not a twitch.

“It's the dead ones that kill you,” I muttered. “Now I know that thing's dead.”

But as if to buttress the matter, I drew my sword and decapitated the rat. The stink of blood suffused the air, and as I wiped down my sword, then made my machine-pistol safe, I heard the truth.

Now it's dead,” said the soft voice. “That is one reason Sarah is bringing both of those smaller axes, the other reason being that they have special significance over there – one that will astonish her, and you nearly as much.” Pause, then, “count those bullet holes, please.”

I did, and to my utter astonishment, I had only missed a charging white rat once.

“No, not once,” said the soft voice. “You fired full-auto and hit that animal every single time,” said the soft voice, “and then you shot out both of its eyes, and it still needed decapitation before it was truly done. That's just how tough those things are.”

“Thirteen holes, and over half of them in its head and the remainder in the neck and forward portion of the body cavity?” I thought.

“Two bullets more or less went in the same hole,” said the soft voice. “Shooting out its eyes more or less killed it, but you don't want a white rat that large causing trouble in a room full of people.”

I now had a visitor, that being Sarah, then as the hefty rat was discretely laid upon one of those dark green-gray sheets spoken of as being waterproof and a bucket of soap and water procured, I began to scrub up the blood it had put on the floor. Thankfully, the blood came up quickly, and by the time I'd handed the bucket off to Deborah, I found that I'd 'gotten through' to everyone present in a way that nothing previously had come close to, even the distracting remains of what amounted to poisoning.

“Now,” said Toréo, “you just saw what awaits you if you do not pay attention to all about you. That man there with the long hair kept all of you from getting killed again today, and he will do it once more before today is through. Now, you, here...”

“How does he know this stuff so well?” I whispered to Deborah as she returned minus the bucket. “Is there a pump and all in here?”

“Yes,” she said with a giggle. “We thought it wise to take a break from work yesterday when it got too boring to pay the attention she said the task needed, so between her and her 'touch' and my lock-picking equipment, there weren't many rooms we didn't visit at least briefly, and this was one of them.” Pause, then, “you really got them paying attention now, as that's the biggest rat I've seen that color since my time at Boermaas, and I only saw one or two as large there.”

“Toréo?” I asked.

“I think he's taught this stuff before, same as that other man that has a name similar to one of yours,” said Deborah. “He's a bit stiff here and there, just like Annistæ is, but he can figure it out...”

I then glanced at what he'd now picked up, that being the mortar's breech. I was walking his way in a hurry, now wondering if people wished a demonstration of that thing, and I was recalling being tossed by it a bit too much right then to wish to fire it right now.

“Ai, this is like in our museum, the secret one,” he said. “Do you have shells?”

“Yes, but not nearly as many as we would like, and I hope to get more guns like that one, which is why we're hopefully taking it with us.”

“No, you wretch!” spat Deborah from somewhere nearby. “You do not force those things together!” She was speaking to Willem. “Do you do this with what you do when you assemble distance-shells?”

“No, because I do that, and he's afraid to,” said Esther. “Now, why is it this portion here...”

Sarah was over by her side not a few seconds later, and I not much slower, there to show Esther just how to cause one of these things out of one of my 'old tales' to seemingly 'do the impossible'. I showed her gently how it worked, then carefully, I began to gently twist the various knobs. Within perhaps two minutes, I more or less knew what they did, and as an afterthought, I thought to bring out 'the shoulder-fired artillery' – namely, that one huge 'anti-materiel' rifle, the one that shot its bullets faster than anything present where I came from, smoothbore main guns on 'armored battle cars' included.

“Gather around, people,” I said, as I put the weapon up and laid it on its side atop the 'shooting mat'. “There are a total of twelve of these things at the Abbey, and I have no idea if there are any more right now, so they really need careful husbanding – as I suspect they like to eat barrels.”

“Just like a hot-loaded three-inch gun,” said Willem. “Now those loaded hot, or are they loaded hot?”

I placed one of those 'evil' blue-tipped rounds in the palm of his hand, and he gasped, then, “th-this is out of an old tale.”

“Yes, and it sounds like a big powder mill going up when it fires,” said Hans, “and then it can toss you like one of your guns if you are close to its front, and then it shoots further than one of those things, and you can hit things when it is dark as if it was full daylight.”

“Uh, brighter than now, in fact,” I said. “About time for the morning guzzle, unless I miss my guess – or is my sense of time out again?”

“Check your 'watch',” said the soft voice. “Mind, that device has your name on it, so don't let anyone you don't trust entirely touch it.” Pause, then, “it will tolerate Sarah's touch, even if it won't show her nearly as much as it does you, and the same for Anna. Esther, a bit more. Annistae – more still, but it only reveals everything it can to the one whose name is on it.”

“Good,” I whispered. “No functionaries are going to have fun with it.”

“It will bite them and then return itself to you,” said the soft voice. “They will not enjoy being bit much, either.”

“Now who are these function-Gah!” spat Hendrik. I then turned to see him kneading his tongue with his hands, and he was making gagging noises. He looked to be a bit busy regarding the matter, in fact, and Maria was looking at him – when not being instructed in the use of rifles by Sarah or Toréo.

“A word you had best let someone else speak,” said the king from the fourth kingdom. “Who are these persons, by the way?” Pause, then, “they are people, aren't they?”

“They look very strange,” said Sarah. “They wear one-piece garments of this blue color that varies from a faded gray-brown to a solid medium blue to a blue-black mottled color, depending upon when and where you see them, then they wear this strange silver collar...”

“Not like that for a bad dog, I take it,” said our questioner. I was learning about another person who could 'get information out of people' readily. Sarah was better, however, and not a little better.

“No, not like one of those,” said Sarah. “I bagged up one yesterday, and though this one shows marks from an ax and traces of blood, it is otherwise more or less intact.”

“Needs a special type of 'key' and the right six-digit code to unlock,” I said, “and you don't key these numbers into the collar itself, but into a device that is held close to it – that, and this code is hexadecimal, which means numbers are zero through nine, then 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D', 'E', and 'F'.”

“Exactly, which is why many of those functionaries are starting to go into drug withdrawal about now,” said the soft voice. “Their supplies of that nature are far too hazardous to reach if they're any distance away from them, even with those groups that closed the blast doors in time.”

“So they either smother when their air gets 'toxic', or they die from drug withdrawal,” I said. “Three days absolute tops before the Toxic Lady decides she needs to guide them to Brimstone.”

“No, more like 'they're starting to go comatose now, and only a handful will survive two days',” said the soft voice, “as those blast doors are a trifle leaky in all save the very best-maintained cases.”

“He fumigated them, sir,” said Sarah, by way of explanation to the king of the fourth kingdom. Hendrik was still trying to get his tongue to work again, and was making a lot of gagging noises. “That bomb was a sizable one, and it would kill everything within twenty miles of the house proper down in the fourth kingdom...”

“Further, dear, and that in the open during daylight,” I said. “Darkness, confined spaces – hundreds of miles for 'it kills in a hurry' and quite a further yet for 'it kills overnight' – and that stuff is going to keep working for quite a while down at the functionary level, as well as continue to slowly spread.”

I wasn't sure how long that would be, but I knew beyond all doubt that much of the functionary level would be toxic as anything for well over a year – and possibly, indefinitely.

“Hence mostly the witch-level and that one other level that's a lot deeper than both of them will still be usable for travel,” I said. “That deeper level crosses somewhere down near the border of the fourth and fifth kingdoms.”

While I checked my 'watch' – the small brass 'cube' was now seeming to imitate the tones and texture of my hand – I found that not merely was it indicating the time, but also, the precise latitude and longitude on the screen, this within an accuracy of 'ten meters'. The small red printing at the bottom indicated 'significantly degraded accuracy', then when I touched one of the corner 'spots', I found that I had a 'globe' showing, currently stationary, and our location – our precise location – showing on that globe. Further touches permitted zooming in, then moving about as I touched the four delineated portions of the small screen.

“My touching?” I thought. I wanted to ask about the use of what looked like two-dimensional polar coordinate measurements.

“It's still learning your nervous system,” said the soft voice. “It will soon do a very passable job of reading your mind regarding what it is able to do, and those buttons will then be present in case you're badly injured or in sufficient pain as to give 'bad' signals.”

“Is this thing similar to a Global Positioning System receiver?” I asked silently.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Recall how it is learning how to read your mind? It is getting its information by that means, rather than by tracking and 'reading' a number of ancient barely-working satellites – and its performance will only get better with time, unlike those satellites, which passed their 'replace-by' date by the end of that war long ago.”

“They're still usable?” I thought.

“Yes, and not a little usable,” said the soft voice. “They will want replacement within a few years, though, as they're not working terribly well, and many of their former functions are both unreliable and degraded.” Pause, then, “they still give out decent signals so as to permit precise location, given the right equipment.”

After assembling the mortar and showing one of the shells, I let Anna describe the effects of firing this piece. As the others gathered around, I noted Sarah bringing out not merely the ax-chipped collar of one of those functionaries, but also several of their green clubs. Lukas wandered over to where Sarah was laying out things for 'show and tell', while I was now assembling the rocket launcher.

Deborah proved quite able at describing what it was like to blow up houses and even individual witches with that piece of equipment, but as Anna continued describing the mortar and its more-unpleasant tendencies regarding what it did at first the sending end and then the receiving end, I heard Willem speak.

“That ain't no gun I ever heard of,” he said. “It tossed him there onto me when it fired, and...

“Willem,” spat Sarah. “Wait until we have a sufficiency of such shells to permit practice with the five guns of that type that we have, as well as more of the guns themselves, and then you can get your own lanyard and dig your own hole to hide in.”

“Oh, no trouble, dear,” I said. “We may have five guns like that one right now, but we'll be coming home with parts for several more, and then once I get the crucial parts made so the ones we have will continue firing like they should, then we'll start to get parts for shells, better ones than we currently have, and then we'll see how much Willem likes firing such a gun with a ten foot string while laying on the ground.”

“I wish to be in a good hole if I need to use one that is that short,” said Anna. “I got tossed every single time that thing fired, and then its flame was as big around as a detached privy and nearly as tall as the house, and it tossed him good” – here, she indicated me – “and Willem...”

Anna paused to drink as if dehydrated, then she said, “he's crazy about that gun!”

“Four shells and Waldhuis is a grade-A mess right now,” I said. “Oh, we need to clean this thing out really good, and then...”

Cleaning the 'Mortar-gun' went surprisingly fast, and as I described the small parts I would need to replace, I noticed Deborah looking at one of the long green shells. I was glad the 'safety pin' was still in place on the shell, as seeing just how bad they could be made a believer out of me regarding their deadliness.

“This resembles a hornet,” she said. “I take it these cause much trouble when they land?”

“They do that,” said Anna. Her voice had more than a little 'awe' to it. “We spoke of putting the hornets to Waldhuis, and from what I heard him say this morning as we were leaving the house – that place is humming with hornets, both the strange-looking kind that you may well have seen...”

Anna was looking at me, for hornets were not normal insects here, either for their size or 'smarts'. While they did possess a 'hive mind' of sorts, their individual intelligence was not to be trifled with, with a degree of cunning and agility...

“Like a scent-hound, a good one, that flies,” I said. “Not quite the same for endurance, and they need to eat a lot, and that frequently, but those things are good at finding you, and then if you give them trouble, then... Oh, you do not wish to give those things trouble. Really, you don't, especially as they, uh, can recognize just who you are, and...”

“All of that and then some, and they are spoken of in the book,” said Maarten, as he came in with Katje. “Georg is finally getting himself up out of his bed and getting some beer inside him, seeming as how he got here so late, and he looks more dead than alive.”

What?” I gasped.

“Exactly what he said,” said Katje. Her voice had an eerie presence, one that I only now recognized. This aspect to her voice had been there since my return from the fifth kingdom and her return from a time in the heavenly one; it had been growing steadily; but now – now, it was out there where it could be seen. It made me look at her feet.

She'd get her markings soon enough, and she'd wish that all she had endured was being spat upon – no, pissed upon – among the ruins of her home. It had never been pretty – and now, it truly was going to hell. Literally. She then spoke once more.

“Part of what took us so long to get here was the arranging of our means for travel,” said Maarten. “We did not leave Roos until the beginning of the sixth posting, with Katje needing to awaken Anna so as to be removed from that clothing that contained her illness; and then once we were actually ready to travel, she spoke to me before leaving town of our need to be especially quiet and watchful, and it is not easy driving quietly in that mist that comes during the night.”

“It requires much prayer,” said Katje, “and even then, we still became lost in the darkness multiple times, at least until I recalled a needle Anna gave me before we left, one which had been rubbed against a lodestone a number of times.”

I wished to ask her if she knew how to tell direction with such a thing, especially given their inability to see, but she had paused but to quench a dried throat, one dried by fear more than by speaking, and she resumed speaking.

“I then had a small idea of where we might be going, for I carefully felt this needle periodically, but still, we did but little better until the mist left and the darkness became less just prior to dawn, and we only got here about twenty minutes ago.”

“You felt that needle?” I asked. “That was... It was that dark for you?”

“It was impossible for either of us to see,” said Maarten, “but I think her vision was a bit better than mine. I was as a blind man, one whose eyes had been burnt out by witches, and she, as if she were dim-eyed in that darkness. We kept on, though.”

“No sleep, then,” I whispered.

“Unfortunately, that is the case,” said Katje. “I do not see particularly well in the dark, even if I can sometimes receive guidance should I pray constantly and with all I have.” Pause, then, “I hope I can learn enough today to stay alive.”

“If you do not learn today, then remain here,” said Toréo. “It should be fairly safe, and I have taught these, as has he there, and then I will...” Pause, then, “where is it you live?”

“Alone, by themselves, and their house is falling apart as we speak,” said Sarah. “They need help, and a lot of it, and that is just to remain where they are until this place to our north and a bit to the west becomes such that they can live there instead of where they do now.”

“Ai, I could see that much,” said Toréo. “I have my signs upon me, which is why I have come here.” Pause, then, “you need to learn what you can, then when you do go back there...”

His voice trailed off, for he knew another matter: these people had special responsibilities of a crushing nature; they were but 'commonplace' for capacity, if one went by the standards of the area – and those people might as well be 'pigeons' as far as the predators of witchdom were concerned. More, the witches had had ample chance to learn their habits, and I suspected that had I time enough, I could find mention of how to deal with 'recalcitrant preachers' in that leather-bound collection of witch-notes, with references to them especially. I then knew a certain matter enough to speak upon it with fair reliability.

“The best Tam could do for them on short notice wasn't terribly good, and that neither for horses or that buggy,” I said, “even if both animals and vehicle are no mean improvement over what they had prior.”

“What we had for a buggy was fit for stove-wood, you mean,” said Katje, “even if Tam did the best he could.” Pause, this again to drink. Katje wasn't just dehydrated by a long trip; she was dehydrated by raw fear. They were easy meat for witches in that darkness, and both she and Maarten knew that.

“That was another reason why we needed to go so slowly – the commonplace for buggies are noisy unless you go very slowly, and that no matter what you use for lubricating their axles – and while red-paste can keep them from smoking and quiet them somewhat, it does not help a team that's had its grain stinted like ours has had – again the best that Tam could do on short notice.” Pause, then Katje resumed speaking, “at least now, I know to give plenty of grain, as much and as often as I can, and I did receive something of an answer as to why most horse-grain isn't very good.”

“What would that be?” asked Deborah.

“Most horse-grain tends to be sold by witches or their intermediaries – no, usually by their intermediaries, and it's both poor stuff in general and priced highly, and those who buy it do so because they are forced to,” said Katje.

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “There are other matters, also.” Sarah glanced about the room, and I was glad she had her machine pistol on its strap. I then noted Katje had one hung similarly.

“At least she is trying,” I thought. I then had words regarding finding animals. “It takes time to find decent horses in this area right now.”

“They can be found,” said Sarah, “but few take care of their animals particularly well, and then, this is not the fourth kingdom, so the majority of buggies tend to be in poor condition – as few have the time and money to have them partly remade every year, and then make them entirely new every third or forth year – and then almost no one pulls their wheels often enough to do much good, and the usual lubricant for such wooden hubs and wheels is bad tallow, either home-rendered or bought cheaply.”

“That's about all most know about,” said Tam. “I know better, and so do about eight to ten other people in that town where I and some others in this room live, and that's a lot for this part of the first kingdom.” Pause, then, “most towns, there are no such people.”

The king of the fourth kingdom was in something resembling shock at hearing this. For all its monetary cost, life in the fourth kingdom did have its rewards, and an apparent scarcity of stupidity-aided mediocrity was one of them.

It was also now apparent to me that here, that mediocrity and 'stupidity' was but somewhat more commonplace and a lot more obvious, as the fourth kingdom hid its 'dark' – no, better, evil – side better than almost anywhere on the continent. Where we were going in a few days hid its evil better still in some ways, while where I had lived four decades and a bit more...

That place hid its evil – its widespread, omnipresent, near-omnipotent deep-and-wide evil – better than anywhere short of certain smallish portions of Hell, those places being reserved for newly-arrived meals so as to fatten them with friendship for the slaughter.

There were people who had once lived by that principle where I came from, and they were documented as doing so. I had read a portion of a book that depicted their 'rules', and treachery was esteemed as a virtue there – treachery spelled out as those very words I had just thought. I even remembered the phrase used by that culture to describe what they did, and how when they said slaughter, you were being fattened up to be eaten – as this people ate the flesh of their enemies, and took heads as trophies of their conquests, much as if they were witches here.

What was not documented in any form, I had perceived by the time of my being removed from that place: one rule for the majority, another rule for those over them – and an entirely different set of rules for those 'fools' such as myself – those who did not belong. The witches here had a rule for those things, and its statement, thus:

Useless Feeders shall never live,

Save in the hungry arms of Sieve.”


“She is correct, and so is Tam,” I said softly. “Things look terrible here, simply because the witches do not bother trying to hide their near-complete control of events and people.” Pause, as I pointed specifically at the king of the fourth kingdom. “This package of witch-letters I retrieved yesterday has information about that region you govern, and not a little of it – and the witches have a definite strategy in place for each kingdom. If it is one they think they own, then they enjoy it to the extent they feel inclined. If it is one they wish to take, they try to break it and its people – and depending on where that kingdom is, they change their strategy so as to suit their goals... J-just like they are changing it now up here.”

“No, not at all,” said the soft voice. “This region has always been seen by witchdom as 'that place which we will have for our own', while the fourth kingdom's current state is 'useful, for it is our chief source of good slaves, hence we permit it to remain such that it continues to provide them' – which is why witches operate in secrecy there while simultaneously seeking to achieve ever-higher levels of real control. Besides, it takes training and an education to have slaves fit for making the very best fetishes.”

“Oh, my,” I squeaked. “If you heard that, then...”

“That educates my questions, then, and but confirms my suspicions,” said the king of the fourth kingdom. “They will start here, but those that are here...”

“They too are starting here,” I said. “This is to be their stronghold, their realm where everyone who still lives is to be a true-witch, even though the vast majority of witches have no idea as to just what that actually means, much less what it requires of they themselves, and...”

“They can no longer be such things, also, as the sole place that remained upon the planet where they could meet face to face with that lizard is now gone, and I saw it destroyed,” said Sarah. “Now, there are pistols available, and many of them, but some of them I wonder about, as the ones which are manageable in the hands need one to be an especially good shot, and most people are not that good.”

“I know,” said Tam. “Most do well to hit what they aim at if they are close enough to put soot on a witch.”

Tam's use of the word 'witch' here was the 'true-generic' form, not the 'relatively specific' or 'truly-specific' form, which now explained why so many people in this area used a single word to describe thieves of all stripes; that single word to describe the varied species of traitors; one word for sundry thugs; and yet that same word to describe lazy people.

Those were quite commonplace in the first kingdom; if one had modest aspirations, and was a proper 'fully-owned witch-slave', earning an appropriate living wasn't terribly hard. It was intended that way by the witches, as it made their lives easier in many ways, and more, it maintained that oh-so-desired state of themselves being the masters, and everyone else being their bought-and-paid-for slaves.

It also ensured that those who were hated by the witch-slave multitude had a very hard time surviving. It made for strange thinking; truly, this thinking was strange, yet it made entire sense.

“So trained,” I thought. “So thoroughly trained. Only those marked and those regarded as if marked are solidly against witchdom right now – as witchdom has no use for them.”

Proper sacrifices had to be unblemished in every way, and those like me were blemishes by definition. So well-trained were the majority, that I knew I was right, so right, so much so that only regular reminders...

The echoing roar and brilliant 'lightning-flashes of the machine gun as it sprayed vast numbers of hot-loaded 'armor piercing' bullets that tore holes through nearly anything they came across, all the while ripping holes in flesh much more appropriate to a much larger weapon, and in the process, reducing all that lived in Roos, save for a very few, to utter serfdom. This was definitely so, because no money remained unto the vast majority; the witches had, in the process of hiding, confiscated everything of value, especially money, as it was theirs and theirs alone...

“No, that stuff got 'redistributed',” I said. “It all went to the Public House.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “Part of being a slave, as you are well aware of, is having no money, and save for a very few people in Roos, that state is the current one of all who live there. Hence, where you lived has now made its contribution to the coming war-subscription, as all of that confiscated money will come to the house proper. August sent his daughter at dawn today with a carefully drafted letter, and it will arrive shortly.”

“Shortly?” I asked.

“He told her to stay off of the roads, which is something she seldom does, as you know is proper for 'fully-owned witch-slaves' so as to avoid tearing up the fields that belong to witchdom,” said the soft voice, “and while she is obeying her father, that animal is showing an uncommon amount of sense.”

“Riding either near woodlots, or in them,” I thought.

“Deep within them when and where it is possible,” said the soft voice, “and all that girl can do is take out a 'magic needle' and try to recall which end of the thing points north. She usually recalls the sharp end points north, which is about par for a young girl in this area, but that animal knows the horse-barn here, and hence is heading that way regardless, even if she is wary enough of trouble to act as if she's being hunted.”

“The mare,” I thought. August's daughter might know how to ride, but otherwise, she was about average for children in the area. That, hopefully, would change soon, but now, I knew the truth of the matter: in this instance, the horse was a lot smarter than its' rider, who might as well have the utter and total level of stupidity appropriate to a witch-puppet. “She's s-smelling a lot of blood and death, and hence is...”

“True,” said the soft voice. “Very true. At least August's daughter has sufficient sense to let that animal have its way, which is something her father has schooled her in at some length.” Pause, then, “she's also an unusually talented rider, which helps a lot.”

“Uh, how old?” I asked.

“Nine, which is two years younger than the usual for girls starting to ride,” said the soft voice. “She had her training start at six.”

“Less weight means an animal that endures better and travels faster,” I thought. I then realized I had been speaking audibly, and I now had Toréo in front of me.

“Uh, sorry,” I said.

“Non, be not so,” he said. “I could hear much of what you were saying, and some of what you were hearing, and it is all very important to those in this room, as that tells them why they need to fight often, fight well, and fight as well as they can until they either kill their enemies or die.”

I nodded, then retrieved that one smallest pistol. For some reason, however, as I grasped it, I then thought to retrieve my 'common' revolver. I held up the two, then said, “these longer ones here can be fairly quiet, compared to this other type which many of you in this room may be familiar with,” I said. “Note I said, 'can be'.” Pause, then, “they are not silent, which is why...

I laid down the revolver, then reached for my knife. For some odd reason, though, I felt reminded of not merely the 'dagger', but also the other knives I had – including that one huge rigging knife.

I then reached for an instrument-maker's knife. I had lots of those – all of them honed sharp enough for surgery, as they were made of the same steel as surgical knives, and tempered much the same – with the only real difference being 'how easy they are to make sterile for surgery'.

Surgical scalpels worked well for sentry elimination, as did awls.

I could almost hear audible snorts of derision at my holding up this 'easily palmed' yet 'sharp as a straight-razor' knife, at least until Anna slapped someone I did not recognize in the head and spat, “you did not see what he did to a large straight-horn bull with one of those things, did you? I did, and he may have stunned it with a bad ax, but he laid open the side of its neck to the bone, then dumped its guts on the ground, and yes, he used a knife just like that one he's holding, and I and Hans saw him do it.”

I nodded, then silently drew a knife but somewhat larger in the blade. It was the one I most-commonly used, and I looked at it as if to clean it once more of the blood it had once been covered with. I wanted to scream, so bad were the recollections associated with this knife, and I could hear the screamed commands regarding 'hopping on those left hooves when I chant cadence'.

This time, there were no snorts of derision. It was too well-known just what this knife had done in my hands, and the reek of death yet seemed to abide upon it. However, I now noticed a presence to my right, and I saw Deborah – who had both of her knives out, much as if she intended to go after someone if said individual troubled me or herself.

Hers were about seven inches in the blade, a bit narrower than the usual for the area, double-edged, and intended for one purpose, that being killing. She had proved herself altogether good at that business, fully as much as Sarah was, and a natural for guard-training; again, just like Sarah. I wondered just how I would handle a mixed class, and then, I knew.

That smelly wretch would have done all he could have done to wreck things, as that was something that he felt was his, and his alone, and he felt “'tis better to not have it happen at all if I cannot do it alone'.” That, I knew, was one of the chief tenets of witchdom. Deborah then spoke, her voice high-pitched, carrying, and her gestures, animated. I suspected everyone would get the point of her speech.

“No knife is a toy,” she said. “None. If it is sharp, you can kill someone, and if you are fast, several someones – which I did yesterday, and based on what Sarah told me and some others of you, he as well. Its' size matters far less than just how hard you are willing to be, and how hard you actually try – and when I say 'hard' in the first instance, I do not mean how that word is usually used, nor do I mean 'hard' as to how some witches become should they know the correct curses and are strong enough to say them and not die upon the spot.”

Pause, then, “I mean 'how hard are you prepared to be upon yourself'? Will you tolerate failure, as so many do so in this area so as to live a life of ease – or will you practice hard enough and often enough to make certain that you know just what to do in any eventuality? Do you picture merely the commonplace happening, which is what the witches wish you to do – or do you think past the edges of what you see every day, and see things like, 'what if this area was to once more become as it was in those tales that put me in the privy when I was small'?”

“As in they try for you as a small child,” I said. “Evil is everywhere about you, and there is nowhere to run to, and no place to hide, and every witch is a hard-witch, the very hardest type imaginable, that type of witch that needs his head removed, Krokus in his mouth, and then dismemberment of the rest of his body – and with that kind of a witch, it does not matter what kind of person you see. That kind of a person is so full of spirits that they are all male in personality – and I do not mean 'male' as in men.”

I paused, looked around, then said, “male as is thought of in witchdom – where being male is a part and parcel of being fully-owned and fully-controlled by Brimstone himself.” Again, I paused. “Five walls, people, five dark stone walls, tall barbed-wire-topped walls, walls baptized in blood, true-witches everywhere, the sky is all but blotted out by the smoke coming from the five tall chimneys that symbolize witchdom's crushing fist grabbing for all that is, where those who have given all save their lives give those to Brimstone so as to keep those home fires burning, and the witches utterly use them up.”

Berky,” whispered Sarah. “He's describing Berky, and it's as if he l-lived in the tale Smokestack Heroes.”

“They had the cheap imitation here,” I spat. “They had the real thing where I came from – and when there is but one guard per slave, you can toss the watchtowers, the guns, and almost everything else, 'cause that one guard only has the one thing to do and but one person to torture, and he can be busy elsewhere much of the time and still have that slave as chain-bound as if he were buried and rotting in Hell where he belonged.” Pause, then, “I lived that way for years.”

“They did that at Berky, too,” said Sarah. “Those were c-called trusties...”

I felt my head, and again, somehow, I seemed to feel that one strange cap: coarse itchy cloth, metal-reinforced fabric, scaling and filthy skin, boxy, narrow brim, near-metallic stiffness, rune-curses embossed into this plastic-impregnated cloth...

Control. Utter, total, complete puppet-like control. Use them up. Kill them eventually, but in the meantime, enjoy the torture of those hated by all and by one man especially.

I looked down to see the mottled green color of my clothing going to a faded and filthy gray with thin black stripes running horizontally, and around me, the scenery changed from a sizable well-lit room to a vast subterranean factory, one dimly lit for the most part.

That did not matter. I could see someone coming, and the reek of his particular stench-sticks – he burned weeds if he was awake, and he did not sleep, at least this version of him. I recognized the too-familiar odor, that being that of a species of burning animal-hair, hair coming from an animal with a hump, a bestial creature that bit all it could reach with its huge and toothsome mouth, clawed with every leg it had, kicked worse than any mere 'beast', and scratched at its enemies – everyone except itself – with every surface of its body. This was a beast that controlled its rider utterly, so much so that while the person riding it thought themselves the master, in truth, they were this creature's slave...

Its total, complete, and utter slave, for this was a creature conjured by 'chants, curses, and marks of power'. Its magic – it had that, for those were the steeds of witches, far more than mules – was a potent thing, and one had to be an exceedingly strong witch to even draw close to this creature, much less ride it.

“True-mules for the fool-witches,” swore the Slave-Master. “I ride this animal, and it does what I command, which is my way – and I ride alone, and over all.”

Then, it happened: understanding broke out in this mile-deep nightmare realm, this factory of death. Under the mountain, I knew the name of the beast coming, and more, I knew its rider – the only one who could ride this animal and truly be in charge of it – and to be in charge, one had to know... Know well...

One had to know its' name, and...

I knew its name. It was a Camel.

And like lightning, I hit the ground, rolling, for I knew who this particular slavemaster was. He held the keys to my life, and I was now able to take him down.

Falling toward me from an age and a place above, a bag seemed to flow into my hands, and my formerly-clumsy hands found the zipper. A faint whining noise as the zipper shot open, then as my hands felt cold metal, I stood up, this odd flowing motion so smooth, swift, yet brutal that as this thug came closer, I worked the slide of the shotgun, feeling clearly a shell flowing into the breech and the bolt locking up in the multiple recesses. Finger tightening on the trigger, taking up the slack. Steady...

No time for such niceties; shotguns didn't work like that: not on the trap-range, and not while hunting – and I had done both with such weapons. I need to shock this fool-witch first in order to shoot him, and I jump over the bench like he'd never expected me to. I could see him, riding high upon his towering beast, and as I leaped again so as to get a clear shot with my loads of number fours, I screamed...

“No way, you stinking idiot! I do not care if Imhotep himself copied you for looks and behavior! You are not getting my hide today!”

A sudden stab to my shoulder, and the huge red-white flash of the shot singing its' death song as the front bead of the shotgun lined up on Imhotep's chest, then as had happened while hunting before coming here, not needing any training to do so, the slide worked automatically, my hands knew their business well, and I fired again.

Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom, all five empty shells in the air at once as I ran toward this stinking witch, then somehow, dropping the shotgun, I shouldered my rifle, chambering a round as I ran. I was upon him nearly as fast as lightning, only to see his riding beast vanish utterly, and he with it.

I shook my head, then saw what I had done. To my right, laying upon the table, lay a still-smoking shotgun, its' chamber empty and the slide back with the front of the bolt showing, smoke trickling out of both there and the gun's muzzle. On the table to my right, lay no less than five still-smoking tinned brass shells. I then saw where I was, and as I moved to my left, then came around front of the table-row, rifle still shouldered, in that rapid crouch that meant showing less of me to the enemy while giving my weapons a firmer foundation, I noted where everyone had dove for the floor.

Even Toréo. Even Annistae, even Sarah. Someone touched then my knee, and I knelt down, my eyes still downrange, eyes still on the target ahead. I glanced over toward who had touched me.

Deborah.

She was as frightened as anyone I had ever seen. Her voice, a whisper:

“Is that witch I saw gone?”

In her speech, I heard a distinct difference: there was the neuter form that everyone used, and this form, this one so rare that it was not even writ in a Gustaaf: a most-specific form of the word – which told me but one thing had been possible.

She had seen an actual man-witch – the very witch I had seen.

The particular witch that was the very image of Imhotep himself. I now knew just what that stinker looked like, both in the past and now – I'd recognize him anywhere now, as I recalled that face and that stink from thousands of nightmares both waking and sleeping; and the face and the smell were essential parts of one another.

“I think they are dead,” said Annistæ as she got up from where she had dove for the floor. “He shot those Cabroni good with that thing, and it was like a mule-gun for noise and like some other guns I have seen pictures of for noise and fire.”

“Th-they?” I asked.

, three Cabroni, all of them with these bad weapons,” said Annistæ. “I think they are from downstairs, as all of them would have died before the sun rose tomorrow, and...”

“Carried grudges, so they thought they would shoot us,” I muttered. “Five shells, though?”

Cé, as two of them were hard, so you shot them in the chest and then the head,” she said. “Now, come quick with your sword, cut their heads off, and I will put that smelly root in their mouths.”

I was about to sling my rifle when I thought better of the matter, and changed magazines, working the charging handle so as to eject the all-purpose round. That went back in the magazine I had removed, and I carried my rifle by its strap in my left hand, barrel pointing at the ceiling. I hadn't yet drawn my sword, and for an instant, I wondered why.

No, no wondering now. I wanted my rifle handy, and those 'high-energy hollow points' would get to these people, for they had somehow become inhabited – either that, or they had been in that state already when I had banged their heads and smashed their faces into the stones of the floor. I kept walking steadily toward Annistæ, toward where she was 'holding down on them' with her machine pistol.

I could feel something happening. My steps quickened, at first a faster walk, my limping and pain now forgotten, then into a trot that had me leaping over entire parties of still-flat people. My rifle found my shoulder.

Witch number one – the lead-witch – was grabbing his weapon as he arose, bloody, sheeted with blood, suddenly now as hard as they came. My finger found the trigger.

A sudden roar blasted forth, and the witch slung slightly to the side as a hole was blown in the center of his chest. It was starting to come apart when another such roar occurred. I was firing instinctively, now no more than twenty feet away, and still advancing at a trot.

It flung him back the other way, then a third roar hit him just above the bridge of his nose and his head snapped back as his chest came apart as if a bomb had detonated within it and then his head disintegrated like a blood-filled claymore mine.

My sights automatically tracked on his 'second', the first of his followers, and again, the sudden roaring as he twisted first to the right, then the left, and then his head snapped back before his chest came apart and his head vanished a thick red-gray-white spray of bone and blood and gray mush.

Witch number three, however, still lay where my load of shot had dumped him, and as my rifle found its place behind me on its strap, I now seemed airborne, another one of those crazy leaps that defied logic, common sense, and possibly the law of gravity, and as my sword came out, I flowed 'over' his feet, then...

This move was one I had done before, and again, having done it before made it 'easier' – as practice at anything tended to do. I swung down as I came within range, a faint hissing coming down as the witch twitched slightly before 'coming back to life. I saw silvered lightning strike his neck and then seemingly cut a swath through his neck, then as I came in to land, I put my sword out to the side so as to avoid damaging it.

I then hit the wall face-first, only somehow, I just bounced back, feeling slightly 'silly' at hitting something resembling a 'force field'.

Only I had a weird idea. This wasn't a 'force field'; it was a source field – as in a programming construct, one of structures having multiple pointers to other structures like it, and the formation of interconnected structures formed a species of meshing nodes. I tucked that matter behind me, even as I recalled drawings I had seen in class about doubly linked lists and how pointers worked and a number of addressing means that needed an intimate knowledge of processor and machine.

I'd taken a tour of a smaller one. It helped to know what they might be like so as to deal with them.

I then came back to the present, to see Annistæ looking a bit bug-eyed, or so it seemed at first.

“You did that faster than anyone I have seen,” she said. “Toréo, come quickly. These are some especially bad Cabroni, ones that...”

“No,” I said sharply. “Back away, please. They're about to...”

I didn't wait: I grabbed Annistæ in my arms and leaped, then tossed her clear as I rolled and tumbled to somehow see the vista behind me and the three witches disintegrate like huge smoky flashbulbs – flashbulbs with sizable dynamite primers. I nearly flew into the table, and as it was, I was rolling, tumbling...

I then looked up, and saw above me a roof of solid wood, my sword somehow to my side yet. I had not damaged it, and it had but a trace of blood on its blade. I had but one word for this ugly mess, and as I crawled to my feet and out from under the table, my tongue got the better of me.

“Cursed stinking evil witches,” I spat. “Damn them and their spooks all to hell!” I then looked around.

Whereas before I had tossed Annistæ clear and had been tossed myself – I had been tossed worse, but this had been the worst instance today – this time, it wasn't just me who had been tossed by 'three bad fetishes' going where they belonged. This time it had been everyone in the room. I then heard the voice of Toréo.

“See, I told you he would save your lives again,” he said. “Now you must know why you must give him your attention, and I tell you true – if you do not give your all, some of you will be lucky to merely be burned and lose toes or fingers, much as I did.” Pause, then, “I think all of us should get on our faces to thank Déo that we are alive...”

I did not hear a further word, as I had first gone to my knees near where I had first stood after being tossed, then collapsed on my face, my tears pooling with weeping, then sobbing, crying out to the only one who could now comfort me. I was doing my best, or so I thought, and these poor idiots were not doing anything to learn – and I now had no idea as to what to do so as to get them to 'get it together'.

“Will it always be this way?” I sobbed. “Will everyone always be as stupid as if they were witches who have just made their bones and drunk their first mugs of high-test drink? Will everyone always not care about anything other than remaining fat, dumb, in a state of 'blissful ignorance', as is appropriate for the slaves of witches, while the witches think of them – and treat them – as if they were nothing more than meat on the hoof, ready for the slaughter, our choicest food, and the meat and drink of Brimstone?”

“Here, get up,” said a soft voice. I removed my head from the puddle of tears I had made upon the floor. “I have some idea. You need them to see it, and then tell them...”

“Will doing that help?” I asked softly to this unseen voice. “I have done all I can, and they just simply do not wish to learn a single thing, other than how to become true-witches themselves!”

My eyes then focused enough to see who was helping me up: Deborah. “I doubt that to be the case now. Look around you.”

I got up from where I had lain as if dead, now wondering much as to what had happened, and when I glanced down toward the puddle, I knew I had really had 'messed something up'. To my surprise, I had left blood on the floor, and I wondered aloud where I had been shot.

“Where am I bleeding?” I asked.

“Your eyes,” said Deborah. “You wept as much blood as tears.” She then turned to the others, standing as she did so after handing me a rag. I wiped my eyes, and the rag came away bloody. “Will you continue to curse God to his face when this man was willing to give his life for yours? When he does all he can, in spite of what you do to become as the witches will you to? Will you? If you do not, then you will sup with Brimstone. I can tell you that – you will, and I speak from experience.”

Deborah then stalked about the room, asking each person she could see pointed questions – questions at once probing, accusatory, almost vicious – then with a sudden swipe of her foot, she actually kicked one of the guards in the face, leaped upon him as he flew backwards to land with her face upon his chest, then as she bounced up, I saw her hand reach into her clothing...

Out comes the knife. Somehow, the thing has been honed unto a sharpness approaching what those eight latest knives have – the ones that make everything else look dull, the ones that are nearly unbreakable, the ones that can spike into bone repeatedly and yet retain the whole of their sharpness.

With a strength beyond my imagining, she stabs the knife up to the hilt in the side of the man's neck, then tears it across the whole of his neck, cutting through windpipe, both carotid arteries, and both jugular veins. The knife forms an anchor for her right hand, or so I think until it came through the other side. It had entered at ninety degrees, but had come out at closer to thirty, and as it did, Deborah had slowed.

She'd also swapped ends, and when she'd landed some feet beyond the man and on the floor, I saw the seeming impossible occur: she leaped from a sliding sprawl upon the floor straight up, and once more was airborne. This time, though, she'd not needed to fly through the air eight feet or more to hit her target.

Three feet was all it took, and when she came over the blood-erupting portion of the man's neck, out came another dagger, and this time, she spiked the thing in the man's spinal column.

The blade somehow didn't break, but now, I had an idea as to why Sarah looked so fragile and yet had thus far proved so unbelievably strong.

It ran in her bloodline, for Deborah was indeed 'not normal' when it came to a number of matters, and speed, tenacity of purpose, and sheer strength were all 'well-beyond normal'.

Only what I was doing was quicker: as she tore open the man's neck again – and further – I was accelerating forwards from where I had been standing, my sword to the right and once more in my hand, and as she cleared his neck by sheer inches, I bounded in the air again...

I have done this but scant minutes – perhaps but seconds? – beforehand. I swing downwards, the tip almost digging into the floor. I can hear an evil screeching noise as it comes down in a speed-blurred arc, while I seem immobile in comparison as I leap.

The blade comes close to the man's mostly-severed neck, then with but a slight resistance, it cuts through his neck entirely. I somehow get the blade out of the way, then reach down, grab the hair with my left hand...

And pull the head of the 'smelly wretch' away, flipping my body up with the sheer force of the blow such that I land on someone else, my legs well-up in the air, my shoulders and back striking them, and the head coming loose of my hand to then fly up towards the ceiling with a thick and meaty...

Low-pitched, like far-off thundering, the head strikes the ceiling like a bolt of lightning and the roar of a nearby lightning-strike, then bounds away, tumbling, dead, a ballistic projectile, its trajectory beyond my hand that was yet full of hair, much as mine is, even as I almost tumble, then bounce again to come to a stop with my sword held upwards in mid-air and the hair falling from my left hand.

Shakily, I got to my feet, then to my utter surprise, I barely escape the fast-spreading pool of blood. Deborah, however, was on the man's chest, and with one of those knives she'd used, she'd cut his clothing off of his chest.

“I knew it, this man was a witch!” she spat. Again, that proper use of the word, only this was not the same being as that which she had seen before. “Look here! An ink-marking, this one of a kind I have seen upon witches before, and in the precise same place as was upon them!” A pause; then softer, questioning: “but where would he get one of this kind around here ? They only do them like this down in the second kingdom house, as far as I know.”

“I had no idea, dear,” I said, as I walked over to her shakily. I was going to need to oil my sword shortly – and get some honey before before I that, so as to not cut myself badly. I then had a peculiar impression as I saw the tattoo, this one just like an example I had seen before – red, black, sizable, neat, and showing an inhuman-looking horned goat-headed man's face within a red five-pointed star, this nearly six inches high from the tip of the 'horns' to the tip of the 'sword' on the bottom amid filthy yet pallid skin – and asked, “when did he get that thing?”

“About half an hour ago,” said the soft voice. “He saw what you did to that smelly wretch of a 'Teacher', and when you spoke of that foul-smelling man as you did earlier – as in you hoped and prayed that you would not become as he had been – it was then that that man there decided he wished to kill you, and that got him 'inked' right then with the full-color version of that particular marking writ large – which is otherwise as Deborah said for the most part.”

What?” I asked.

“Recall some odd 'theory' you had about how things would happen where you came from during the arise of 'the days of Brimstone' just prior to the day of judgment, and how nearly everyone seemed to not 'get' what was written? About how they seemed to have hidden agendas and were only seeing what they wished to see? Seemingly all either spewing nonsense that made no logistical sense, or parroting one another, or not believing that those things mentioned in the book where you came from are but the tip of the iceberg, and the situation spoken of at the end of that fourth Gospel applies to the vast majority of that book?”

“As in, uh, like stigmata?” I asked. “As a person thinks in his heart, so is he?”

“Got it in one, and that on both counts,” said the soft voice. “That man there is a forerunner of what you can expect to happen to many from the time you go into the mountain to break that capstone-curse called 'The Curse' and the actual 'Day of Judgment' happening here some months later.”

“That wretch was acting like a bad fetish, then,” I muttered.

“That also,” said Anna. “Now I'm glad the two of you killed him, as he would have shot you both otherwise, and only his new-found stupidity prevented him from learning enough to do so before he died.”

“He was making us all as stupid as he was,” spat the king from the fourth kingdom. “It takes a serious witch to do that, one like those from the time long ago, or one of those named Powers today, at least in the case of some of them.”

“That sort of thing hasn't happened in a very long time,” I said softly. “It does not bode well for our doing much of anything useful once the Curse is broken, as then there will be armies arising of these stinkers...”

“They will all be as stupid as bricks,” said Anna, as she got to her feet and escorted Deborah to the room where she spoke of having a pump. “You're all bloody...”

Someone yelled, and I reached up to catch a flying object coming from lower down and flying but a foot away from me left hand. This I mechanically drew the cork from, much as if I were a wind-up toy, then drank the contents – and with the sticky taste ringing my mouth, all about me suddenly acquired color, depth, sound, and light once more.

Before, I was no longer certain if I was still here once more, for there was but a halo of vague light in front of me, and someone was speaking of no mere witch – or witch-thinking, for that matter – being able to endure that realm filled with that eerie purple fog and darkness.

It was not 'Night and Fog'.

It was the absolute opposite of that state, even if it was dark, and foggy; a place of madness, a place...

A place where only those marked could endure, save if those otherwise were helped greatly and spent a lot of time praying, and in the process of living in that place, it made the work the west school tried their best to do seem as if a silly – and dumb – joke.

This place was no such thing, and I had just killed the last witch in the place.

“For now,” I murmured, as all around me began a low murmuring. I hoped they were not cursing me, at least until the words they were saying became clear to my ears as the world began to once more make sense.

“Two in the chest, and one in the head,” intoned Willem. “That is what a hard-witch needs to get dead and stay that way, and not with shot, but as you saw demonstrated repeatedly.” Pause, then, “those two, at least they know that. Now you saw it done, and you-all – no, all of us – need to learn to do likewise, as that last man was as hard a witch as any we're likely to see.”

“They lose all of their smarts, and like a bad fetish they make all around them even less smart than they are,” I muttered.

“I know,” said the king of the fourth kingdom wryly. “I think I was wrong about you.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“No lecturer ever tried that hard, to the point of shedding his own blood and then killing to protect his students,” said the king of the fourth kingdom. “Either of you” – meaning Hendrik and Maria – “ever hear of that being done?”

“This would not be a first time for him,” said Hendrik.

“No,” said Sarah coldly as she wiped my eyes. “Look at this rag here. His eyes are still oozing blood.”

“Is he blind?” shrieked Hendrik.

“N-no,” I said. “You were a-all so s-s-stupid, and I had tried my best, and I was d-doing all I could, and, and...”

“I think we can learn now,” said Hendrik. “Now what is that she's holding there – what showed upon that r-rag?”

“Blood, sir,” said Sarah. “B-blood, o-only it... It's not just blood now. It's moving, and... And it's f-forming l-letters, and this r-rag is...”

“It is no longer cloth, but becoming something that is like paper, and this writing it shows is strange,” said Annistæ, coming beside Sarah. “I think I may read it, as it is like something writ by Rachel.”

Annistæ's pronunciation of that name came out 'Rack-Hell', for some reason, much as if she had trouble speaking what might have well been the name of a distant ancestor. She then began reading, her words halting and now and then needing to consult Sarah – who was having her own difficulties understanding what had turned a commonplace rag into a laminated piece of cloth impressed with blazing reddish writing.

“First, it says, 'trust no one'.” said Annistæ. She looked at Sarah, then continued, “it does not matter if you have known them for years: again, trust no one and no thing save the written word of God and the one who caused it to be written.”

“Ai, that is wise,” said Toréo.

“There is more,” said Annistæ. “Then, it says 'hide everything you possibly can from everyone, as you do not know who will turn against you and try to stab you in the back when they think they have the chance to do you ill'.” Pause, then, “profit might and might not matter, for as with evil, logic carries nothing save when it abets or coincides with the momentary inclinations of one's vast multitudes of enemies – and forget ever relaxing your guard until the day you go to your reward.”

Annistæ looked at Sarah, then shook her head. She handed the sheet to Sarah, then began kneading her tongue, much as if she'd indeed tied it in a knot.

“Never assume anything,” said Sarah clearly, “save that perhaps the following will occur: single-quote...” Pause, then with a strangled squawk, “today will be the very worst day of your entire life.”

“Sounds very familiar,” I murmured, as I came closer. Before I did anything else, I wiped down my sword with an oil rag, then sheathed it. I did not wish to have an accident with blades, as there was no one with stitches enough to sew up what this thing could do.

I'd cut myself enough with smaller ones to recall what they were like – both the cuts and the stitches. I looked down at my left hand, and once more seemed to see the scoop-shaped scar, as well as the small dots that remained of where the thing had been crudely stitched up so long ago. I then began reading this now full-formed document. I knew what our first run of 'Gutenberg-style printing' would be: this document here. It would need a decent run, easily a hundred pages.

“Plan for the very worst scenario you might think of,” I said softly, “and if you must assume anything, assume that things worse yet will come to pass, things worse than even your very worst nightmares; and that these things will occur in ways you could never dream of in a million years.”

Pause, this to drink. I was badly dehydrated, and after drinking no less than three cups of beer – life-saving was thirstier work than lecturing, and that by no small degree – I resumed. I could now smell the reek of burning flesh, and more, see the pall of smoke billowed up by such burning.

“Never, ever give up, no matter who throws curses at you, or how hard they try to stop what you are doing,” I said. In my mind, this was not merely 'good advice'. It was what took to win if you were fighting 'in hell itself'. “Whether you live or die does not matter, so long as the one you will be giving an accounting to is pleased with the end result – and that in every way.”

Another pause, this to choke down another cupful of beer. Someone was moving that last witch away from the group, thankfully – only they were doing it with a rope, and doing so at a run, for some reason.

“And, finally, 'there is but one person that you can count on to some degree, and but one person that you must trust with all you have.” Pause, then, “you can guess who the second is, but it says here, 'that second person must be God. The first person mentioned might be you.” Another pause, then, “might?”

“Sometimes, a person must trust someone other than they themselves,” said Deborah as she came into the room in clothing that positively reeked of vinegar. “I was almost paralyzed when I got that blood on me, and Anna had to help me clean it while I was wrapped up in this dusty-smelling towel.” Pause, then, “at least I have a good bath-towel now.”

“Now?” I asked.

“There were several of them in the room,” said Deborah. “We'll need them here, but I suspect that we should tow that small cart while hunting rats, as you-all need three where you currently might have one, and more if possible so as to pad what you are carrying.” Pause, this to read over what I was holding. “You!” Deborah was pointing at Hendrik. “You must get this copied, and hang a copy of it in your office, as it describes what it is like here to a perfection!”

“Typical, she gets all bloodied,” I muttered, “and she starts g-getting paranoid.” I then spluttered, “just like I am, and all the time, and I only trust me somewhat, and I only trust one person entirely!”

“Good that you said that,” said Anna. “I need a copy of that, and I need to read it aloud upon my knees every single day for the rest of my time here, as it will be the rule for my life, I suspect.”

“Besté,” said Annistæ. “You will one day become such a person, as will many of those in this room, and who they will be is yet a good question, but then you will know these things in your heart, and you will do them, just like he did with those three witches.”

“They are smelling the place up with their blood,” said Hendrik. “Now we must fetch cleaners, and...”

“No, now you are going to listen,” my voice suddenly going hard and cold. “You are going to remain here and listen to me, and me only, and not give the devil an ear until I am done. You hear those words? You will obey me, you pack of witch-slaves!”

It was as if I had crushed a curse collection, for suddenly the blood of the witches, all of it, as well as their sooty remainders, vanished with a roaring rush. I then saw the signs upon the walls.

I walked over to the nearest wall in question, and laughed, my laugh high-pitched, ringing, insane-sounding. What I had said had caused some dust to sheet down from the wall to the nearest side, this being one of the longer walls, and as I walked toward it, I noted I had three low steps to come up to then trod upon what looked like a smooth-ground masonry platform.

“A bunch of rune-curses,” I muttered, upon seeing the dust of more than a century of paint covering a wall covered with such curses, these chiseled deeply and filled with blood. “No wonder we've been having trouble. Those stinking Generals owned this place, and it was made by witches, and for witches – and I'll bet it will draw any such things we as we've been getting in here as long as we're standing about like meat on the hoof.” Pause, then, “that's just what they think of us – long pig, food for Brimstone's dinners, food for them, and then, food for swine and the other creatures they raise. After we give them, and by extension, Brimstone, all we have, then we give them our lives. Fully owned? Hah! We are not fully owned – we have all become them, and now, all we know is to get trashed, make trash, and be trash!”

There was dead silence. “No more,” I growled. “Not now. I was not sent here to make trash. I was sent here to get a job done, and if I must deliver up to God a sterile dust-ball where nothing will ever live again so as to get a place obedient to his will, then I will do precisely that!”

Again, dead silence reigned, and overhead, darkness. I was walking in a graveyard; this was no longer a room, even a witch-made room, but another realm entirely, a realm of darkness, clouds, night and fog, but I was as the fog amid this night. While here, the witches thought they owned it; in reality, there was but one type of person who truly owned this type of night, it and all others.

Those named monsters.

I was not merely such a being: I was the monster. This was my home, not theirs – and here, they were meat on the hoof as far as I was concerned. I had a silent weapon, my sword; and while it might scream when it moved, the witches screamed far louder; and as I met witch after witch, stupid as a drunken fool dressed in motley, blind as a sacrifice with burnt-to-ash eyes, deaf as a tombstone, and numb as a curse-brick – I ripped them apart, cutting off each head, slashing them into 'witch-chops' with a blurring flurry of strokes.

And every time, I left my mark upon the head of a witch: that of the plus-sign, only I did not profane that mark with blood.

I had a small vial of cooking oil, and here – there was no thing stronger, given just who put it on with their forefinger.

It bit deep, like an unusually virulent acid; and then it burned like the chemicals in a 'firebomb'; and finally, it was a poison so virulent that it made that one story of death and destruction visited upon the very prototype of a witch seem like a pleasant period of everlasting delight and enjoyment – all of tomorrow's parties compressed into an unbending drunken revel to then be silenced for all time.

“The space of half an hour,” I intoned – only someone changed the word 'hour' into the word 'minute', and here, I saw what the Red Death could truly do when it had fully manifested itself:

Firstly, it did not waste so much time as that fictional material. This stuff had molecular-level sentience, a true mind composed of billions of single-celled organisms, all of them acting in concert – and each of these microscopic particles had more intelligence than some of the people who had once been interred in this graveyard – and when one of them went in for the kill, it...

It teleported, straight from wherever it had been in the vicinity to the brain of its target, and while that distance wasn't huge...

“Nearly twenty miles,” said the soft voice. “It truly is unstoppable.” Pause, then, “go on.”

It could wait there if it chose, but when that single molecule decided it was 'time', then it entered a cell – and instantly, the cell became a swarming mass of such molecules, the original molecule coming apart and somehow taking over the DNA of the target, such that in this case, the stuff 'mutated'...

No, this was not mutation: this was by design, by deliberate intent. It bypassed all possible vaccinations and other countermeasures, and tailored itself to the target uniquely, such that no matter what that target had done to stay alive, it would die.

And, when that cell had been converted entirely to this newcomer, it 'detonated', spreading both more virulent uniquely-tailored 'organisms' that were much like viruses...

This molecule had two portions: one, a part like a virus, or rather, a vast number of such portions; and then the second portion, that portion which glued it together – that portion that when recombined, made several smaller uniquely-tailored neurotoxic molecules of an unbelievable potency. It had already bypassed every barrier...

“Stuff bypasses all protection,” I muttered. “It proliferates like it has become unglued.”

It was not the only thing that was becoming unglued: I was like the darkness itself, and now I was slashing down witches so rapidly that only the flames of the burning dead behind me provided a light for the witches to know of what was happening. Yet these lights were brief, for I had doused them.

I wished more darkness. After all, it hid me while causing the reddish glows of the witches to shine forth all the more – and like a shroud, my sword in hand, I descended upon witch after witch, took their curses as I took their lives, and then flung those curses about me like potent bombs.

After all, the witches had sown the wind. They were now reaping the whirlwind – namely, me. I had come to take control of this place, though not for my own use.

I had no such desire – neither for territory, nor for power. I had a job, this given me to do. I knew what that job was. I would do that job, no matter the cost – cost to me, or cost to others. And all who stood against me, I was to send to a place where nothing existed but a light at once burning and bright, and all else there was appetite.

Yes, Appetite. Hunger, never-sated. Always eating. Appetite.

And behind me, all that was left was a burnt-out wasteland, a realm where nothing lived, and would never live again.

Nothing would live there unless God made it live. If it was not bought by God, and owned entirely by him, it would no longer exist.

That was not my labor, even if much else was. I could do this, even if the work of creation here was done. This just required a hard mind and a harder-yet arm, eyes that saw in the darkness, and a body that was darkness itself in this ever-night; and behind me, now, I was not alone.

I had an ever-growing army composed of that darkness: and with each witch I found and killed, that army was growing by the numbers, an army at once beyond counting and yet intelligence defined, moved, measured, minuted, vicious, unstoppable, and yet calculatingly cold.

Colder than that realm found between the stars. A mind that cared for nothing save one matter, and that alone.

It would do exactly as it was told, and that no matter the cost. The witches themselves had created a monster, and now – that monster would haunt them into the ground and beyond its reach until they were all indeed where they belonged.

And, the worst witch had created the very worst monster: this witch was from another time and place, and here, I saw his true prototype:

An evil spirit, one of those chief princes but a trifle lesser than but one spirit alone if one spoke of Hell, and this spirit had but partly possessed that witch I was hunting now, that witch named Imhotep.

He had entirely owned that witch which had turned me into darkness, a witch far stronger than Imhotep ever hoped to be, a witch fully the equal of any that had ever walked upon this realm, a witch who rode one of the great beasts, who had as a wife a harlot who sat upon many waters, and they between them bore the Antichrist.

Who, in his own way, also educated me, and made me into the monster. I did not understand them or their ways, and now, I knew why.

I was not to be like them. I was to destroy them and their works; and in my heart, the only things that mattered were 'cling to that which is good, and hate that which is evil'. Hence darkness did not frighten me; I used it as a cloak to hide, first from the witches while they were teaching me their ways – and later, when I was hunting them so as to wipe them out utterly with no warning at all.

I had also learned to 'see' in this darkness, such that for me, there was no darkness, merely a strange species of light, a light at once different and yet familiar, and as the ever-growing army of shadow and death trailed after me, I killed witch, after witch, after witch.

I lived only to kill. I was a machine, a killing machine, a walking factory of death, and I had the allegiance of a machine, and a mind...

That was altogether strange. It was unlike anything ever seen, at least it was unlike anything the witches could fathom.

“Hence it gives me an advantage, and them an enigma – and they see what they wish to see,” I thought. “They see nothing but lies, they believe them – and those lies are and will ever be their downfall.” I then turned to my army, and smiled. “We, at least, know what the truth is, and we know who owns us – and it is not their master, but ours.” Pause, then, “they are the ones who are meat on the hoof. Kind of hard for such fools to eat someone like us, right?”

I then came to myself, lying on a ground-sheet, my forehead wet with sweat, smoke heavy in the room, and around me, coughing, choking people crawling below the gray haze that ringed us.

“Now that I never saw before, no, not even those things we have of Rachel's writing speak of it,” said Toréo. “I have seen those copper sheets, and read of them a little, but what I saw there...”

“Runes,” I said. “This place is the control-room, or it was, and it was here that the witches did sacrifice until that one king fifty years ago thought it dealt with.” Pause, then, “he didn't do a stinking thing other than just paint over the lies.”

“That was because the witch that indicated how this 'control-room' was to be done was Cardosso himself, and he used plans writ down by a scribe and dictated by Imhotep,” said the soft voice. “That was why you saw him, why those people downstairs came up here when they turned witch, and why everyone in here was so 'stupid'.”

“Th-those curses?” I asked. “Hidden carefully behind layers of paint, such that that king could have people paint over them and...”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “They were not merely painted on with blood – they were chiseled into the stone itself, and now these walls are bare of both paint and runes.”

“And what happened to that stone?” I asked.

“Recall how you were hunting witches where you were?” asked the soft voice. “How you were as if they had created you from darkness, and how you finally saw that one man for who he truly was?”

“He created the monster,” I muttered. “That one stinky witch...” I then gasped, “when it is time?”

“You will deal with him then, as he will recognize you – and you will destroy him,” said the soft voice. “After all, he's but a cheap copy of someone you knew in person, and that being was owned 'hoof, loin, and stench', as the saying is where that particular spirit reigned.”

“Being?” I asked.

“He may have started out human, but by that time where you recognized him as a slavemaster, he wasn't 'human' as most understand humans where you came from – and certainly not human as understood here.” Pause, then, “the closest thing to that man you've encountered here was Iggy – which was why you could kill that lizard almost single-handedly.”

“Ooh, do not speak of that lizard,” spat Sarah. “Now I need a drink, and then I can help you teach these people here about bombs involving that smelly gray dough and nails.”

“And pistols,” I said. “First better get into some food, though, as we have a lot to do yet.”

That we did, and then, the real teaching began.