We are sent to packing.


In the ensuing hours – the bulk of that first list I had supplied had long been deciphered, though Deborah was still thumping people on occasion; she had developed a liking to one of those long green clubs, and getting her to part with it was no small amount of trouble. I had to tell her that we would try to return with more of them, or failing that, she could ask Lukas to secure one for her. As if I had asked for that man himself, he suddenly showed in our 'secure-room's' doorway, his aspect wobbly, and his voice indicating he'd driven from the 'leaden fields' to the house as if out of his mind and the hellhounds hot on his trail.

“Least the horses get to roll in the hay for a bit,” he said, as in the background, the full excess of the house staff was now moving lead at the best speed they could currently manage 'somewhere' indoors. There was a lot of lead, the rumor went, so they knew they'd be going until it was either secured entirely or they died – and with the rumors of me being added to what I had done so already today, it was rumored I'd probably kill them if they didn't hustle. I'd already killed several of them today, so the rumors had real teeth. “I'm dry as a bad well from all that dust I was eating, and I had no idea quarrymen like sleeved wagons so much – or they could hurry like that if they were of a mind to do so.”

“Meaning they did not waste time,” I said, my voice as dry as Lukas' own. “Lead?”

“Lots of it out there still, and those out there guarding the stuff are not just having a hot time of it,” he said. “They keep finding more bricks of lead, and more of these big greasy pouches of money, and these other things that no one but a witch would want, and then these leather things that I told them had witch-papers in them...”

“You secured those, did you not?” I asked, meaning the document-folders. “Any intelligence we can get on the enemy right now is absolutely vital to our survival as a people, and it seems they tend to commit anything of greater importance than the date of their last visit to the privy to writing – though they tend to obscure matters quite thoroughly when and where they possibly can.”

“Cé, and he can figure their words,” said Annistæ. “I saw this huge witch-book grow in size and change its words, and I could tell he was angry with those two men for not understanding him, even if that third man, the tallest, knew well what he was hearing.”

“Hopefully they will believe him,” I muttered. “Neither of those men seemed all that bright.”

“No, actually they are,” said the soft voice. “Georg is used to having to live by his wits, as are most of those in this room. In contrast, both of those men have seldom in been in real danger for over a decade, they both delegate a lot of their thinking – or Hendrik did until very recently, and that other man still does – and they both have had fairly easy lives from a standpoint of real labor for over a decade's time.”

Pause. I needed to hear no more: what I had thought of as 'brass-cone-level stupidity' was more a matter of 'long-entrenched mental laziness and lax attitudes'. The latter could be cured, unlike patent idiocy – which was, to the best of my knowing at this time, both permanent and incurable in this world.

It tended to find a most-sudden cure while being gnawed by Brimstone in hell.

“Until now, that is,” said the soft voice – meaning 'that tendency toward mental sloth'. “Your 'outburst' got through to them in a big way, far bigger than you could imagine, and what they saw then... Well, let's just say they know something about the appearances of 'ye monster' now.”

“What would that be?” asked Gabriel. “Did they see your unveiled form?”

“He's not making sense again,” said Lukas. “Best watch him.”

“Non, he is speaking sense, as I saw what he was then also,” said Annistæ. “They saw Espirutu Calienti, the spirit of fire, and that is one you do not wish to see when he is angered, as only seeing Déo when he is angry is worse.”

“That is not what they saw, but something far worse than what you did,” said the soft voice. “The two of them, whether they realized it or not, were heavily mired in long-accumulated witch-thinking in addition to mental laziness and lax attitudes, and he had to say to them – and show them – what he did in order to 'snap them out of it'; and what they experienced was the whole of what he was shown the day after he'd had to torture the truth out of a twice-thirteen coven of witch-traitors.”

“Yech,” I spat. “That mess was awful, but what I saw the day after scared me.”

“Nothing compared to what they saw, smelt, felt, and heard,” said the soft voice. “They were viewing in full measure what those traitors were seeing brief glimpses of 'through a glass darkly', and both men soiled their underclothing both front and rear and are now crowding the privy worse than small children hearing an undiluted version of 'Smokestack Heroes'.”

“Georg?” I asked.

“Georg, you may recall, fired at a pig when the thing was on his gun,” said the soft voice. “When it comes to being stiff, Tam likes to think he's stiff – and compared to most people in the five kingdoms, he is.” Pause. “Georg, on the other hand, is about as stiff a person as you're going to find outside of someone with substantial markings – and many of those people in the first kingdom are in this room.”

“Now that I didn't know about him,” said Lukas. “He fired his gun when the pig was on his gun?”

“Ask Matthias, as he saw him, and Georg nearly died from that instance of swine, as his gun was destroyed and he was bedridden with his injuries for months after,” said Sarah. “Now, there is but one word left on this list here, and not even Deborah can figure out this one.”

“You finished that list, dear,” I said. “That word is 'Congratulations'.”

“Yes, for that list,” said Deborah. “There are these other lists that the three of us did while you-all were gone, and now, we must go two and two and go hunt these things up to bring them back to this room, and I think its door needs closing unless a group of us happens to be inside this room itself to keep it safe.”

That proved something of an 'adventure', as while we could split up in pairs, it seemed that Annistae had to be a member of one, Sarah a member of another, and I the 'finder' of a third, which meant for a three-person group in my case. Gabriel was one of 'my' three, and now and then, while I had to still dose my knees for pain, I made sure he got his dose also – as when my knees hurt, I usually found that I had pains elsewhere on my body, and when I had Karl check those locations – one of them was my back – he said, “you must be feeling his pain, as I do not see anything there other than a lot of scars.”

“They are not entirely Gabriel's pains he is feeling,” said the soft voice. “Do you know how he got those scars?”

Karl indicated no by a murmured decline.

“You'll get a real good idea of where those pains come from within the span of three days, Karl,” said Gabriel. “No, not a whip, either.”

“Why do you suddenly make sense now?” asked Karl.

“Because the witches have put a very high price upon my head,” said Gabriel gravely, “and while they name him a monster, they name me nearly as bad – and that name fastened upon me is traitor.”

“Gabriel, you ever use a knife?” I asked.

“Yes, but...” Gabriel paused, then, “you are not asking me about cutting quills for pens, are you?”

“No, I do not think so,” said Karl. He patted his sword. “These take a while to learn to use, but I have my old one, and it is still good, and you may use it if you wish.”

“I'm not sure he has the time to learn to use one of those, Karl,” I said, then turning to Gabriel. “That issue with clumsiness you have isn't just a matter of long and hard training by your parents in how to be a witch, Gabriel. You have a certain, uh, innate tendency that way, which is why, at least at this time...” I knew about that kind of thing; my mother, at least when I was young, made gentle jokes about my tendencies that way.

The children I went to school with were nowhere near as gentle. I usually did not get picked when sides were drawn up for games, and on the rare occasions I was picked, I was regarded as worthless. Hence, I was picked last when and if I was actually picked – until I was near my full size, this in high school.

Then, there were two sports where I was not picked last: soccer, which I was 'decent' at – not quite good enough to make the team, but the reason why was explained to me as a simple lack of experience; and wrestling, where only one person – a real jock – had pinned me. After that instance, though – something snapped inside of me, and I became the most vicious and violent wrestler in the whole class. No one stood a chance against me in my frenzied power, where I lifted people of my weight and more from the knees up and repeatedly slammed them into the padded floor until I had beaten them – not merely pinned them solidly, but beaten them black and blue.

Given the chance, I knew I could have lettered in wrestling. No mere man could stand against a berserker – and I drank ketchup before each bout, much as if it were blood, so as to fuel my rage and that relentless killer instinct that won matches quickly while breaking down opponents down to whimpering lumps of raw meat.

At least, until I was faced three against one. While I could toss these guys – and did more than once – they had discovered teamwork, and with one sitting on me, and one each holding my arms, they could pin me.

Once. I then knew how to deal with such 'nonsense': go for one while ignoring the others. Pin him, toss him out of the hall. Who cares if he got hurt – certainly not me while I was in the frenzy that overcame me then. Go after another, chase him down, pin him. Toss his butt out, and then so on, ignoring all attempts upon me, until I was the only one left standing upon the floor, and all the enemy lay still about me.

It was the Baresark way – get your enemies one at a time, kill them, and don't stop until they all lie dead.

I then had an intimation break in upon this fleeting series of recollections. “No, more than just that, even – no, not a fraction. When you were born, Gabriel, you had a bunch of curses put upon you by the thirteen reigning Powers of that era... And if Cardosso himself had been alive, he would have been among those people...” I then spat with fury. “You had Madame Curoue there in the flesh, and she was cursing you, such that you would become either become an arch-witch as strong in power as Cardosso, or die upon her altar with the label of disgrace.”

“Her curses wore off when she died,” said the soft voice. “That of the head of the Blomfels combine, though, as well as several others who invoked prewar curses that still have real power – they wait until he makes his ultimate choice before they go – and then much of his 'inherent clumsiness' will go along with the effects of those curses.”

Karl asked, this directed to me, “so then why did you speak of knives?”

“Because, to put it bluntly, he may well need to poke some people with one, both in that port and overseas,” I said. “I suspect that between Deborah and myself, during that time when she learns to use that small sword she has in that place downstairs where we trained with swords, I think that between myself, you, and Sepp, we could teach him enough about the use of knives and other edged weapons to keep him alive in that port.”

Here, I addressed Gabriel himself, looking at him square in the face: “that's the idea, Gabriel – overseas, most of the time, we'll be shooting ammunition from rifles, pistols, and possibly other things in sufficient volume to be as sore as if we were firing full-loaded doubled-eight fowling pieces and putting pounds of lead downrange each and every hour of a very long day, but there will at times when even the pop of a suppressed pistol would be most unwise, and then you'll wish a knife of some sort – or rather, two.”

“Two?” asked Gabriel.

“One that's strictly for poking,” I said. “I made eight of them, one for each person going and three for spares. Then, another larger item, one compact and easily hidden, yet good for slicing – almost like what Deborah has, though how I am going to come up with another one of those on short notice is...” I turned to Karl, then asked, “do they have any corn knives out in the boatwright's shop?”

“I am not sure if they do or not, but I suspect I can find one somewhere in here,” said Karl. “Now, what is this about bath towels?”

“First, they don't dry as fast as we'd like, especially in a cold and damp environment like we'll find over there, and we're going to want to bathe when and where we can when over there,” I said. “If you've seen how I get any time I cause trouble for witches, you can guess why we will wish numbers of them.”

“I know about that business,” said Karl. “The hall needed me taking three baths, one after another, before I felt as if I were wearing my own skin again.”

“I did not,” said Gabriel in chastened voice. “I did not go there.”

“You did do the messy parts of the Abbey, though,” said Karl, “and if you did that place, then you know about dirt and trouble.”

“I'm not sure which of those was the worst, Gabriel – the Abbey, the hall, or either instance of the Swartsburg going to hell,” I said. “Then, of course, you just had your baptism of fire, and now – well, you've really and for true 'seen the hare'.”

“I know,” said Gabriel with a shudder. “Am I staring long yet?”

“You might be, and might not,” I said. “It's kind of hard for me to tell, as I have trouble reading faces – seems to be something of an issue for marked people, as far as I know.”

“You are doing that some,” said Karl. “That was like at the fifth kingdom house shooting those witches there.”

“N-no, Karl,” I said. “These thugs coming for him weren't drunk as stinkers, and they knew exactly what they were after, and they didn't stop coming until they were dead, and each one needed killing entirely – and there might have been a half dozen of those stinkers that came close enough to get big holes blown clear through them.” Pause, then, “what he went through sounds worse than most of the fifth kingdom house proper, except when I had to deal with that one nasty hard-witch or go into that one room where they did the witch-clothing and almost got killed by a pack of witches.”

“They were that,” said Gabriel, “and more, they were yelling this word that I dare not speak, even if I know its meaning.”

“Which was?” I asked, as we came to the roundabout leading to the third floor on the back staircase.

“It means 'arch-traitor', and it vies for the word that means 'monster' if you are a witch and inclined to speak oaths or curse people,” said Gabriel. “More, these people were yelling it in rune-curses, and I was seeing a lot of strange colors and shapes when they yelled it.”

“Did anyone check them for ink-markings?” I asked. “After decapitation and some Krokus in the mouth, and before interment?”

“Yes, and all of those things were inked up good, most of them on several places and in colors,” said Karl. “I know, as I buried two of them myself, and I got the clothes off of three times that number more, and each one I saw had at least three ink-markings, especially this one big one showing a five pointed star with this strange thing that could not make up its mind if it was a goat or a person in the middle.”

“The Goat-Head,” I said. “That is what the word 'Cabroné' literally means – it means 'Goat-Head' – and it speaks of both that marking and what happens to a person spiritually when they turn witch or become a serious supplicant – and the Teacher of Guards never made it that far, much less came close to making his bones.” Pause, then, “Cabroni is the plural form, and it means 'Goat-Heads'.”

Pause, then, “now, down in that port, there is this one Public House, a really special one, and they have this special soup there. Know how to say its' name in the Valley's language?”

Gabriel shook his head as we came onto the third floor.

“Sopa con Piscé,” I said. “They tend to have a shortage of fool-hens in that area, but not a shortage of trouts, so they make flour-mush with those instead. Supposedly tastes at least as good as the stuff we once had, if a bit more delicate for its flavor. Then, there, are these fried fish-bits, though I'll need to stay clear of those if I do not wish to spend more time in the privy than out of it and smell terribly the whole time – and forget the fry-breads, no matter how good they smell!”

“Best not have those fish-bits or the fry-breads, then,” said Gabriel. “Now, there was this one armorer's room in this area, and it was said to want good lighting, as they didn't use good candles, and they stinted their number as well.”

“Hence this,” I said, producing a tent lantern. “We won't be able to use these much overseas, so we'll have to use those blackened ones I made that use candles.”

“Those need adjusting a lot, but they have shutters, and they are almost as bright as a wick-lantern,” said Karl. “They hurt your eyes a lot, though, so you don't want to use them more than you must.”

“We will need to, at least some of the time,” I said. “Hopefully we'll be able to replace their glass with something that blocks their, uh, troubling spectrum and changes it.”

“What?” asked Gabriel. His curiosity was absolutely genuine. Maagensonst was not the west school; their chemistry teaching was about the level I encountered in grade school.

“Why those fourth kingdom lanterns cause one to become dim-eyed if turned up high,” I said. “These candle-lanterns we have here are almost as bad for it, and it's due to the small wire coil emitting ultraviolet light in large amounts. That's what causes people to go dim-eyed.”

Gabriel muttered something about a dream he'd had recently overseas, that being last night, and about how 'they won't know what these things are' regarding Karl's candle-lantern as I turned on the tent-lantern and turned it up. I wished to save our candles for when we needed them – and we would need them overseas.

“You see those blue-dressed thugs?” I asked.

“No, not them,” said Gabriel. “I did see thugs, though, but you would not know them by their dress at first glance. They dressed like most do over there, or perhaps it looked like the usual, but if you looked closely at their clothing, you could tell the cloth they wore was better made and their clothing much more durable, but the big difference was their shoes.”

“Shoes?” I asked. For some odd reason, I was expecting dress shoes.

“Those named commons often have footwear that is better used for feeding their scrap-bins,” said Gabriel. “These thugs – they have special names over there – their footwear looks new in comparison, and shows very little real wear.”

“Is that a clue?” I asked. “Or is that a clue?”

“The latter, I suspect,” said Gabriel. “Oh, another matter about these thugs. They are not that common, but they are not commonplace thugs, and they are the most dangerous type that is truly common. There are worse ones, but they are quite rare.” Pause, then, “these people, especially in certain places, are not rare, and those over them have effectual means of telling them where to locate those who are causing trouble. They speak of such people needing erasure.”

“Then I and Sarah have encountered some people like this,” I spat. “They're called spies, and trouble isn't half of what they are. They're usually fairly hard, so if you have to poke one, stick him so that he's down, then clean his ears with your knife. That stops them cold.”

“Sarah said you did that with one of those thugs,” said Karl. “Did you?”

“Stabbed one in the eye, cut them open like I was using a sword, flung them out, nearly decapitated more than one – and yes, I stabbed one in the ear, all the way to the hilt.”

“With what?” asked Gabriel.

“With this,” I said, as I drew my 'combat knife'. “These are some of the most unusual knives I've ever made, and we have the very first batch of eight of them. They can be punched into bone and not go dull in the slightest, they won't bend, and I am not sure if you can break them.” Pause, then, “here's the place. Mind, there might be rats in here, so Gabriel, check your shotgun – and keep a stiff load or two handy, in case we encounter a large rat.”

“I think he might not want to use that stuff in here unless that rat is a big one,” said Karl. “I am not sure what those witches were shot with, but they were all deader than corpse-boxes, and most of them looked like pie-filling in places.”

“Any exit wounds?” I asked. “Places where, uh, pellets came out?”

“Yes, lots of them, though these looked like common shot for size,” said Karl.

“Oh, my,” I said. “Gabriel, scratch what I said about 'stiff shot for stiff thugs'. That stuff acts like it's twice its actual size for damage and penetration, and everything save the red stuff needs to be treated as if it's stiff shot.” Pause, then, “I wonder what that blue shot would be good for, then?”

Large rats,” said the soft voice. “It will drop thugs cleanly out to fifty yards, unless you shoot an unusually hard spy. It will hurt that person enough to allow you all to either take cover or 'ventilate him proper', as they used to speak of such people during that war long ago.”

“What does that mean?” asked Karl, as I led the way into the room, my suppressed pistol out with a round chambered and the safety off, finger beside the trigger guard. Gabriel was picking this stuff up rapidly; I could tell he was no slouch in the smarts department. He'd not had a chance...”

No, not that. His seemingly obdurate behavior at Maagensonst had gotten the witches running the place putting pressure on him to 'become as his family had commanded', and hence he had had to work for his marks, unlike those bones-holding witches and most-serious supplicants who merely had to do some work and turn in something on time as a rule.

He'd had no such 'grace', and more, his work had had to be genuinely good to get a 'pass'.

Just like with Deborah, where Boermaas had backfired, Maagensonst had backfired with Gabriel. Had he not come from a line of powerful and wealthy prewar witches, he would have become far more like that slim young lady with the soft brown hair.

“Ventilate?” I asked, as I moved slowly into the room. “Air out his smelly hide?” I then looked at Gabriel, showing him my soft slow steps, pivoting at the hips, scanning the room for trouble, maintaining total situational awareness.

“Notice how I'm moving, Gabriel?” I asked softly – as I then pivoted like lightning and fired at a rat. The bullet flung the rodent downrange to tumble nearly a dozen feet from where it had been when I'd shot it.

“It may take me some time to manage that,” said Gabriel. “Now, we do not have sufficient ammunition for me to practice with those pistols much – or do we? I saw two head-tall stacks of green bins in that one white room, and I doubt they came this morning on the buggies. Did they?”

“No, they didn't,” I said. “We'll need to go through those, between trips to find those things we need and packing everything we have room for in those waterproof bags we have, and pad everything well with bath towels and clothing in the process.”

I found the towels but a moment later, and we became 'quite dirty' in the process of gathering three large bags full of the things. Gabriel did not question the why of so many towels once we got out into good light again, as he muttered about 'dirt' and how 'seeing the hare means getting filthier than a smelly black pig'.

“Yes, and you know about that from the Abbey and that deep-hole,” said Karl. “Now, do you remember that lizard?”

“Y-yes,” said Gabriel with a shudder.

“None of those thugs has anything on what we did in the Abbey,” said Karl. I thought him a bit overconfident, actually. I then thought to supply a rejoinder.

“Yes, if you speak of most of them,” I said. “Now if we run into Chucky, though – then we will have our hands full, as that wretch is trouble.”

“Why is he trouble, and who is he?” said Gabriel, who then spat an oath. This was a first in my hearing. “Forget that I asked. I know who that is, and I saw him in my dream last night – and Karl, if you think Iggy was trouble – and he was that – then wait until you encounter one of those he spoke of.”

“Specially if it's one of them that's invisible,” I said. “You got to feel them, and I didn't know a word about those people until Rachel spoke of strangers that the hornets missed in Ploetzee – and hornets don't miss much.”

“Yes, and you got Joost's brother, too,” said Karl.

“I thought it was Chucky out there at first,” I said. “Worst instance I ever ran into. He had me scared more than a little, and he nearly got me more than once.”

“Good,” said Gabriel. “Not good that you were scared, but good that these people you named 'Chucky' overseas will not be that capable – as those like that man you killed out back are rare birds indeed in the five kingdoms. Now these towels smell as if they need washing, which means we should take them to the laundry room rather than put them directly into our bags, as I want clean towels to dry myself with if I am filthy with hare-dirt.”

While we were bringing our new-found bath-towels to 'the laundry', I felt the state of the house itself. Other than about half the usual number of cooks for this time of day, those working in our room, the handful of people in the king's office, and perhaps a handful of other individuals, everyone able to labor was doing one of several things: en route to the 'lead-site' while eating and drinking in the back of a wagon or buggy; at the 'lead-site' moving lead from wherever it happened to be found to the road using those two 'lead-sleds' Hans had brought to the site; loading a vehicle to capacity with that lead and anything else that looked 'useful or interesting' after first stuffing such articles into mail sacks; providing security at the 'lead-site' – a handful of people, mostly those from the Valley, with Toréo more or less in charge of that detail, with Tam and Matthias helping as well; heading from the 'lead-site' to the house proper at the best speed possible, where they conveyed the lead inside the main building to a location in the hallway near General's Row while the horses were fed, watered, 'grained', and if the chance presented itself, allowed to roll themselves in the hay for a short time – and then the cycle repeated itself anew, and all of this done with the best speed that could be mustered, given the likelihood of a very long and most-arduous day.

The lead was gathering within direct line-of-sight of the guard post outside Hendrik's door. I had a suspicion that what I had spoken about getting the stuff here first and then hauling it upstairs had been conveyed to Hendrik, and he'd told off the needed people, those being Lukas and Gilbertus, with possibly Toréo included.

I wanted that man helping out with guard training if he could be spared, and the same with Annistae and Graćiella. All three of those people were real experts – or so I thought until was again reminded about how only my handicaps had kept me out of first a military academy and then the regular military where I came from, and how in the first case, I had received alternate status just the same. As for those recruiters... I did recall my test scores as 'the highest I've ever seen', and then some other matters that these people probably saw in a very strange young man – someone who'd already endured years of being under a true sadistic sociopath, a life far worse than boot camp – complete with swearing worthy of a old-line Drill Instructor, military-type discipline, and a lot of physical abuse, including things, that to the best of my knowledge, didn't happen in the military.

The military never threatened to starve their recruits. My stepfather did, and meant every word.

Anyone who could down soup out of the can uncooked and eat raw bacon would call 'shit on a shingle' tasty indeed – unless it was an actual bowel movement laid upon a wooden piece used for roofs.

However, along with the long hours of 'fetch, carry, unpack, clean, pack, oil, check, make new lists, fetch more stuff, and other things that was our lot', those bringing lead also brought in snippets of gossip passed along by those people transporting lead. Among these was a lot of information regarding just what the witches had planned to do to where I lived – namely, kill everyone in town and burn the place to ashes. How they had planned to do so, and more, why, was a matter sufficient to chill my marrow.

It also meant at least one more question-session in the king's office, and that happened sooner than expected. This time, however, Anna was present. The woman looked as if she needed a breather of some kind, though when Hendrik asked me about what had been planned for Roos, I asked him.

“It's plain, at least what she tells me,” he said. “They were planning on taking the town, destroying it utterly, killing everyone in it, and not much more.” Pause, then, “the parts that are not clear are firstly, what their actual plans were, and secondly, their motives for doing so beyond killing you and anyone who might get in their way of doing so.”

“Their plans were actually fairly intricate and needed detailed communication among the various elements well in advance,” I said. “This was in planning at least two months ago, and...”

Anna looked at me, then said, “I might be able to read the commonplace part fine, and explain those portions fine, but none of us can find those portions at all quickly, and while there will be ample time in the future, there's a mail pouch that needs to go down to that third kingdom port along with you tomorrow when you sail, and Kees is going to have a late night tonight inking its contents, so we need answers now, not a week from now spent poring over a badly-organized collection of the drink-addled ramblings of witchdom's leadership.”

“They planned on hitting the two ends of town first,” I said. “That's how witches usually take a well-defended town, or one where they suspect its inhabitants are capable fighters and not commonplace farmers.” Pause, during which I heard frantic scribbling, then, “then, there were to be the third and fourth 'masses' of witches, these each sneaking through the cornfields to the west and east, so while the north and south ends of the town – the most worrisome portions – were being 'reduced' and the sheer volume of gunfire caused most people in town to be petrified with fear, the third and fourth forces were to come in through the fields, chanting curses all the while, then sneak into most of the houses silently and wait until the ends of town were subdued entirely.”

“Which would take some time,” said Hendrik. “Based on what I heard, it did.”

“During this time, those sneaking into houses were to loot them of readily pocketed valuables, with money being especially desired. They didn't find much money in town, but given the states of their purses and the sheer cost of being a serious witch, any added money in regards to a witch's purse is better than no added money.”

“True,” said Rolf. “Most people know witches are wealthy, but few know that they tend to spend a lot more than is the usual, and that because the things of witchdom are both mandated and costly.”

“Hence always having an eye out for getting all the more money,” I said. “Now, it wasn't just empty leather pouches these people brought in to bag up any compact valuables they might have found. They each brought in one or more wine-bottles filled with distillate, and in many cases, perhaps most, each such bottle had a short fuse, a cap, and a charge of dynamite? Correct?”

“Those wine-bottles found hidden in most of the horse-barns did,” said Anna. “Most homes had at least three such bottles present in their horse-barns with the goal of placing them as the witches left and igniting their fuses, and then two or more of those bottles had fused sticks of dynamite tied to them firmly with tarred string.”

“Hence they would kill the occupants and blow the houses flat if one such bomb went off, and all those bombs going off within the space of a minute in the center of town would create a holocaust that would raze the town within minutes. Then, the witches who would once more be hiding out in the cornfields would be waiting with hot guns where they would shoot down anyone who tried to escape, and rifle their shot-down bodies for more valuables along stripping off their 'commonplace' clothing – and then, after checking over the destroyed town to ensure those they wanted dead were indeed dead, those masses of witches would split up into smaller groups and head south at their best speed so as to collect the rest of their promised rewards in the second kingdom house.”

I then realized where I was reading, and I pointed at it with Sarah's rug-hook. “Right here. It goes into a bit more detail, but I got most of it in what I just told you.” Pause, then, “here – here is the reason as to exactly why those witches named Powers to the south attempted Roos' destruction – which means it was decided at the very highest levels of witchdom, and planned long and carefully so as to secure the best possible chance of full and complete success.”

Pause. I could feel the pencils of at least two people poised, as this needed to go south if anything did.

Begin-quote: this town be harboring a Monster, and as such, it and all that live there, which are ye full-boughten property of ye monster, must all be put to ye test by ye fire and sword; and if any survive such a testing upon the altars we shall set up upon the ashes of the town of Roos and the bones of its dead, then shall such slaves have their choice given them upon that selfsame spot: that they die for our pleasure with the name of ye Disgrace, or they shall kill our chosen enemies as our witch-puppets, for it taketh a monster to full-manifest that being which we nameth Sieve.' Finish-quote.”


I then looked at Anna, and asked, “any news as to the current state of the town?”

“If they are not collapsed and insensible due to exhaustion, they are working as if their lives depended upon it,” said Anna. “It seems August has a signal-mirror and knows wire-code, and it was relayed twice where Hans caught it to so as to give to me.” Pause, then, “he did get this through clearly, though – they are learning what your hours are like.”

“They are?” I asked. “As in they wish they were in Berky during its smoke-billowing worst?”

“I am not sure they wish that, but I am sure many of them are wondering, as August is hearing that place spoken of more than a little,” said Anna. “Most of them might get an hour or two of sleep when they collapse from exhaustion before he or one of his older children wakes them up with either a stock-whip or gunfire, and they're put to labor again – and August speaks of more than one of them being shot down as a witch, and he doing the shooting his-own-self with one of those new rifles.”

“Shot down as a witch?” I asked.

“Yes, as he saw the two shot catch fire and burn within seconds of dropping,” said Anna. “If what I heard of you doing this morning is any indication, then one of two things will happen: it will either make the survivors of Roos forsake Brimstone and his things completely for the rest of their lives, or they will turn witch – and most of those people in here you dealt with earlier today turned witch and are now rotting out back with the rest of the horse-dung.”

“Smells like a burn-pile yet?” I asked.

“Right now, no,” said Anna. “It is getting there, though, and I expect it to be smelling a lot like one by the time you-all leave tomorrow morning.” Pause, then, “and then, I hope I can put it in your hands when you return.”

“It?” I asked.

“My violin,” said Anna. “Music kept the worst of my mother's evil out of my life, and after what your playing Maria's guitar did, I suspect you'll wish an instrument of some kind – though what kind you'll need is beyond me.”

“It is not beyond me,” said Annistæ. “He needs one like my countrymen play, save with six strings, not eight, and solid through and through, so it must be played wired, and then you will hear someone as good as Roberto hijé Ion.”

“Who is that?” gasped Anna.

“I think it is time to get that little music-box set up,” I said.

“I am ahead of you there, as she was asking about it,” said Sarah, “and there is this strange metal knob here on the wall. It leads up to this hole in the ceiling, and I think it goes all the way up to the roof.”

I had the radio hooked up inside of ten minutes, and not three minutes later, I had first tuned in two 'practice signals', then a song that took perhaps two minutes to recognize, as it was sung in a very sad voice, and while I understood a bit more than half the words, I knew it instantly for what it was. I handed the headphones to Annistæ.

“It is that song about Ese Puerc, only this person is not bad,” she said. “Now, I think I know this settlement, and they usually have good players.” Not ten seconds later, a rapturous smile crossed her face, and she handed it to Anna, all the while speaking excitedly. Anna took the earphone from her, put it on her head – and looked at me with her eyes open past 'saucer' status. She listened for perhaps two minutes, then gave it back to Annistæ.

“Who was that, and what were they playing?” she asked

“That, I think, was the person she was speaking of,” I said. “Is Maria's guitar better than Hans', or is that otherwise?”

“I think hers is a little better, but both are fit for the orchestra,” said Anna. “Hans has a slightly lower pitch to it when it is tuned right, but otherwise... Why, did you play hers?”

“Cé!” said Annistæ excitedly. “He sounded better than the person you just heard, as that man was not Roberto hijé Ion.”

Better?” asked Anna. Her tone was utterly incredulous.

“Yes, and I heard him also,” said Sarah. “That music must be played in every church, as then no one who wishes to be a witch will wish to anywhere near that building or the source of such music.”

Annistæ began tuning around slightly, then she found another song, and spat an oath in her native language – one that was a good deal worse than 'Rat-Dung' in ours. It seemed if one wished to speak ill of someone or something, our current language had definite deficiencies compared to that of El Vallyé. She handed the earphone to me, and I listened intently. I felt sick and revolted by this piece of music, even if it was played 'well', as the lyrics seemed to describe someone like a fifth kingdom example of Chucky.

I'd shot a few people like that down in that area, the worst one being named Brumm.

“Wonderful,” I spat. “This one must be part of this infernal list called 'Songs of the Bad Life', as it is speaking of how this thug like Sam Brumm made a lot of money and filled several private graveyards with those he killed... What?”

“Yes, what is it saying?” asked Sarah. “Here, let me. I've heard of that type of music before.”

I let Sarah listen, and not twenty seconds later she was spitting oaths one after another, and growing more and more infuriated with each second. Finally, she handed me the earphone back.

“That was one of those songs, all right, and it wasn't just about a brigand and the life he led,” said Sarah. “One line spoke of how his fowling piece sang, but those do not sing, unless you speak of killing people.”

“Cé, that is what that line means,” said Annistæ, as she began tuning around once more. She then brightened considerably, even as she got the three knobs once more aligned to 'forty-two' on the main one. I was altogether amazed that she could work with this 'touchy little brick' so readily.

“They are saying, 'that song is not one you want to live, as it speaks nothing but lies. That way lies death'. Now this I hear now is much better.”

Better?” I asked softly.

“Cé, this is news of this settlement some distance to the west of where I last lived,” she said. “I stopped there on my way out of the Valley, and I know many people there.” Pause, then, “it is speaking of Cabroni, and how they like to live that kind of life, and how they recently put a lot of them in their manure-hills underground and turned their bad clothing into reinforcement for neumatícæ.”

“News?” I asked. “This other word? Tires of some kind?”

Cé, as printing equipment is scarce, and one wishes such things for inking the type as they speak of,” said Annistæ. “Paper is not common, but we make the best paper to be had in El Vallyé, and we make enough to sell it to the north, but printing equipment and things like it are scarce enough to wish its use for books of an important nature, and there are long lists of such books to be printed for any town that has such equipment, and it is costly to set up and needs much repair of both the equipment and its type – and the machine which makes type is the worst for it.” Here, Annistæ spoke of a 'bad-pig made of cast iron and rubbish', which I gathered was a pretty strong oath. Her look, if anything, told me I had underestimated just how badly-regarded their printing equipment was often regarded. Still, I was curious.

“Type?” I asked.

“Cé, that equipment is especially hard to keep running, as it must cast the type, and then it does a line of such type at a time, so it takes a long time to print a book, then such books must have their illustrations done using copper, tar, and acid, and then finally the leather must be prepared for binding them, which is why so many books are writ by hand there. Mine were, or most of them, and when I was given this one” – here, she withdrew a brown leather-bound example, it being 'the book itself' – “it was like being given all that I needed for living for three entire years!”

“Now that is poor,” said Gabriel. “It sounds nearly as poor as the third kingdom's back country.”

“No, that part of the Valley is not nearly that poor,” said Sarah. “Many things there are not that expensive, but printed books are nearly worth their weight in pure-gold in most of the Valley, and they are priced accordingly.”

“Not the paper, nor the binding, but the printing process itself makes them costly, correct?” I asked.

Annistæ nodded, then said, “a book with no printing is not that expensive, but if one wants a printed one, then one either must pay much money, or one must go to a special place far to the north and some to the east, which is where I had my training as a chemist. They print many books there, but that is a journey of ten nights on the back of a well-fed donkey, and then one must wait while the book you wish is printed and bound, so that is several more days in that place, and then ten nights travel back, and then the cost of such a trip, with lodging, food, drink, and cleaning – Ai! Only the cost of a book printed in my area is much more than that of such a trip, and then the book itself when bought there is yet more.”

After a short break-time, during which the earpiece was passed around and we all ate and drank, it 'was once more off on errands', and here I locked the door. I had Sepp with me, as well as the cart we had brought, and I knew one thing I wanted to fetch beyond several bags of cloth satchels in that one area.

I wanted at least two jugs of Benzina for Annistae. It seems that she would wish it for when our parts washer arrived, as there were a lot of old 'things' hidden in this place in various out-of-the-way corners, rooms, and between the structural and finish walls of the place, and while many of the things we would find would be 'worthless old junk'; and this particular Benzina, given the right chemical additives and glassware, lent itself readily to redistillation and substantial 'improvement'.

And, she had the very latest formulation in her ledger, which would improve that chemical we had to no small degree, as well as provide a lot of useful chemicals she could use, a lot of scrap wood for paper-making – both on-site and for 'delivery' to those coming from across the sea; and a lot of scrap metal for Frankie.

Low-carbon wrought-iron-type scrap metal, which we were woefully short of at this time.

“Oh, and update my maps and deal with that one huge knife,” I said. “We'll wish all of those satchels washed because of their smell – or will we?”

“No, not their odor,” said the soft voice. “First, they don't have much of one, unlike those bath towels you found, and then secondly, what odor they do have will confuse their sniffers.”

“Oh, what of the spiders?” I asked. I recalled the 'ropes' in that room, and while I didn't have a spider phobia, I knew Sarah did – and I suspected a number of cleaners found them nearly as much trouble as Sarah.

“Just ask the witches to have those,” said the soft voice, “and more, ask that they have some especially suitable examples. You can guess what kind they want.”

“Oh, I can guess, all right,” I spat. “Honest-to-God thirteen-stepped prewar blue-back spiders, numbers of them to arrive in every witch-hole worthy of the name, and each such spider having a level of intelligence and inhabitation that not only causes them to positively thrive in such places, but grow large, fat, cunning, and voracious – oh, and be nearly impossible to kill, also.”

“Now what will that do?” asked Sepp. I could all but hear him grinning.

“Why, cause the witches trouble,” I said. “Nice big spider – ignores curses of all kinds unless you're someone stronger than the Mistress of the North, hides really good, bites like it's crazy and stings like it's out of its mind, and then, of course, it tends to be nearly impossible to corner and catch, so they will keep on causing trouble – and then, of course, every thirty days, they dump another batch of the little ones, so while not much happens now, just you wait – give them a few months, and every witch worth his fetishes, unless he's too drugged or brain-damaged to know better, is going to be looking Brimstone straight in the eye and be in a state of terror too great for words.”

“Lots of them will die from that cause alone,” said the soft voice. “Those that don't die from fear, spider-bite, or related causes – well, let's just say those drugs that will suddenly become 'really common' and 'really cheap' will look 'really attractive' – and there won't hardly be a witch alive on the continent who isn't so stinking trashed he's a walking accident waiting to happen.”

“Sounds like that will be their doom,” said Sepp.

“Whittle them down to size a lot, anyway,” said the soft voice. “There will still be plenty of relatively sober plain-dressed witches, and lots of relatively sober supplicants, but as for those black-dressed coach-riding thugs who 'have got it and flaunt it' – outside of certain well-defined areas, by the time of this coming new year, they're going to be fairly rare.”

“And those others?” I asked.

“They will still be 'relatively commonplace',” said the soft voice. “Figure one where there are now five to seven, while where are now twenty or more that 'have got it and flaunt it' – they're going to be down to one impoverished witch minus his mules and coach, complete with a huge drug habit and an even bigger desire for high-test drink.”

“Still, that's a lot of dead witches,” said Sepp.

“Yes, if you speak of domestic witches,” I said. “They won't be able to mount filth columns in our rear when Norden tries to flatten our front – and even if we get a similar percentage of Norden's people, we are still going to have more witches than there are people in the first kingdom if a third of those witches who sail from that place manage landfall.” I then paused, this as we came up the back stairs. “This floor, wasn't it?”

It wasn't. One more floor to go, that being the fourth. I could feel that room with the still-roosting remainder of all those jugs of Benzina procured so long ago, and as my knees began hurting once more, I needed another dose from the small vial packed in a small cloth 'sack' Sarah had given me since my knees began hurting a lot.

I wondered if she had known in advance of this problem, as this small 'satchel', along with its longish cloth strap, was a handy thing indeed. It did not interfere with the use of the machine pistol at all, nor did it get in the way of my using the suppressed pistol.

“I think I might want one of those as well as a big bag like you have,” said Sepp. “I saw how those lay if you have to lay down to shoot – that bag goes right to the side, and one's pack stays put.”

“This is about as much as I want to be carrying right now,” I said. “It holds a small bag of pistol ammunition, or rather two such bags for reloads, a small vial of that tincture, two vials of honey, a small pouch of dried meat and a Kuchen or two, and, uh, I think it might have some few other things of an important nature, but it might weigh three pounds.”

“Four pounds, as it includes some cloth sacks for the satchels,” said the soft voice. “Get four jugs of Benzina on that cart, and then take it to her rooms and put it in the room with the glassware. It will be safe there.”

“No one goes up here,” said Sepp – who then held his tongue.

“Until recently, that was pretty much the case,” I said. “Seems since we got rid of the fetishes the witches have been planting all over the place, the cleaners have been hitting 'most every place in here, even places they've not gotten to in a ten-year, even up on the floor above us in some places,” I said. “Only reason we aren't hearing some up here right now is every person who can be spared right now is moving lead, and everyone – us, Hendrik, a handful of others excepted...”

“Maarten and Katje!” spat Sepp.

“Are helping out with hauling lead,” I said. “They might get some sleep tonight, but we'll probably get the most of all in the entire house proper tonight – and we aren't getting that much.” Pause, then, “lots of people are getting no sleep tonight, save if they fall asleep while riding to and from where we found that lead.”

“N-no sleep?” Sepp asked.

“First we need to get that lead in the house proper,” I said. “It's being stacked so those sitting at the guard-bench can keep an easy eye on it while it gets stacked up indoors. Then, once it's all here and those quarrymen get their meals and their horses roll in the hay, then everyone who can be spared is going to be trouping the stuff up this way, and somehow, I'll bet it will all go near where Deborah and Annistæ can keep an eye on it. I'll bet it will get rigged good, too – perhaps a few old bandage tins with some plastic explosive, electric caps, and, uh, mixed shot, none of it bigger than the green-labeled stuff. Turn anyone tampering with that lead into a pot-strainer.”

“You going to rig that lead?” asked Sepp. His voice was the utter picture of incredulity.

“Remember who comes here while we're gone?” I asked. “About the usual bedtime on the day they decide to get themselves here, General's Row will have no one alive in it, and not three hours later the place is going to be absolutely crawling with stinking-drunk thugs causing a Row!”

“I didn't think they'd manage that,” said Sepp. “I thought they'd have to sneak in...”

“Oh, they will do that, all right,” I said. “Freek can no longer find that one place where they used to get in when he was the cult-master of the coven that did their business here, but I would ride a tall stack of gold monster coins that at least the leaders of that big witch-group know not only just where that place is, but also know how to bypass the damaged portion of the hall...”

“Already done, no less,” said the soft voice. “They let things cool down after the place was destroyed, then while the scavengers went to work topside, they broke through from another portion of the secret way, established no less than three sizable and well-furnished way-stations where those people can hide while they're getting themselves up here along the secret way...”

“Fumes, wasps, hornets...”

“Yes, and a fair number of them have died due to those, and a lot more will die because of bugs and fumes,” said the soft voice, “which, while not due to those causes, was allowed for in those long-plotted plans mentioned in that document-collection you found.” Pause. “That tome now has enough exposition in it that given a certain amount of time, Hendrik, Maria, Rolf, Annistæ and Deborah can find much of what is needed while you-all are gone, and the full report will go south perhaps a week after you-all return.”

“Full report?” I asked.

“That waits on your labors,” said the soft voice. “It would take them months to finish otherwise, even given Deborah's report-writing prowess – as what the others might take weeks to manage were they to do little else, she would take a few days; but, she will be very busy indeed, and hence will have little time available for 'fixing' their errors.”

Pause, then, “you know what you can do now – and that might take you a day's labor at the outset were you able to spare the time now – and that to write the report unaided and then dictate it to a pair of scribes, whose combined efforts would then be given to Kees for inking.” Pause. “When you get back, though... You'll do so much better than you can do now it will turn your brain twice around and flip it three times over!”

“One of those writing devices?” I asked. I was hoping to get a good laptop, one with good feel to its keys and enough memory to keep up with my thoughts without its hard drive thrashing madly. My main computer at home had two gigabytes of memory, and a heavily optimized operating system similar to what I had learned to use in school – and two hard drives, both identical to one another. It was several years old at the time of my leaving, but I'd upgraded it as money and time had permitted.

Getting that level of performance using the company's preferred operating system would have required 'the latest and greatest' in all aspects, and they had a busy IT staff keeping those things running.

“That, partially,” said the soft voice, as we came up to the landing of the fourth floor. As we turned onto the one hallway with the jugs, however, I seemed to feel clearly the state of the entire building, and while this one room – indeed, this whole floor – had plenty of spiders...

The whole building had lots of them, and if I were going to use spiders on witches, I wasn't just going to deal with the ones I was going to encounter myself getting those satchels and Benzina.

No. I wanted to use every single such 'mobile munition' I could lay my hands upon, just as if I could have taught Finuegen about how to cause trouble.

“So the witches name me a monster,” I said. “Fine. They call me 'The Monster', even. Fine. So, this one is a little present from 'The Monster' to all of you stinkers who need your comeuppance: let every single spider found in this building become an especially accursed thirteen-stepped blue-back spider from prior to the drowning, one which knows neither reason nor limit as to its hunger or malevolence, a spider who desires the flavor of witches, witch-slaves, supplicants, and plain-dressed witches above all other sustenance, and desires above all other places as an abode their especial haunts. More, let each such spider gather unto itself an entire legion of the spirits of hell, such that it will listen to the hunger of Brimstone for meat, and that only; and then, let such a spider only die when it has fed Brimstone full to satiety with his choicest meat, which is the flesh of all who stand as traitors to God and curse him to his face every second they live!

I then looked at Sepp, and asked, “did I just dump a curse?”

Sepp didn't know, but when we came to the room of Benzina and rags, its utterly dust-free nature and its complete and total lack of spider-ropes spoke of but one thing: I had been heard, been heard loudly, and the witches would indeed receive their due recompense. The only area I seemingly was off was in regards to the sheer magnitude of that which I had poured out upon them.

“Were there fewer witches,” said the soft voice, “and fewer still inclined toward becoming witches in the days to come, and were they limited to the five kingdoms, then what you just dumped upon them would ultimately exterminate them to the very last man.” Pause, then, “as it is, figure that you now only need worry overmuch about the next few months regarding domestic witches, if you speak of the bulk of the five kingdoms, as you didn't just get nineteen out of twenty of those called 'pfuddaarn' in some circles.”

“What did he do?” asked Sepp, as he handed me the jugs of Benzina while I shined my tent-lantern in to light up the room.

“Not nineteen out of twenty, not in the long run, if you speak of most of the five kingdoms,” said the soft voice. “Those black-dressed thug-witches that remain after the first of the year, of those who now number themselves 'beyond counting' and name themselves either 'the black hundreds' or 'the fortune hundreds' – those people will be as scarce in general as they are above ground in this area today.”

“Which means we will have a good deal of trouble finding live ones,” said Sepp.

“No,” said the soft voice. “You won't be able to find live ones in most regions of the five kingdoms, and I include the fifth kingdom and the second kingdom when I say that. Supplicants, plain-dressed witches – a bit more commonplace, but they'll be so rare that only those truly good at hiding what they are will yet survive, again outside of certain locations.”

“Oh, and if they go underground?” I asked.

“Along come the spiders, and they scent meat on the hoof,” said the soft voice. “You can guess what happens next.”

“So, either one must light the place up really good...”

“That might cause the spiders to hide better, but it will not drive them away,” said the soft voice, “and then, of course, when one uses light-giving firebombs that extensively...”

“That will get to them,” said Sepp. “So if they go below, they die. They stay above ground, they get turned into pot-strainers. Now what happens if they hole up in those big houses they like?”

“You can go where you please, you can skid up the trees, but you cannot get away from the bugs,” said the soft voice. “Those spiders will like those houses, and since they can hide good, they'll eventually get into every witch-house that still exists or is built anew.”

Pause, then, “if there is enough greenery to provide cover for witches in a woodlot, you can bet there will be a hornet's nest in the area – and witches shoot every hornet they see, or they try to – which usually means an infuriated swarm of hornets coming within a very short time.”

“Hence they get stung a lot, and end up dead, and it's mealtime for every hornet within miles,” I said. “One more jug, three more of those bags of satchels, then it's off to where Annistæ's 'hiding place' is.”

We were on our way but a minute later, and as I led the way with my tent-lantern – candles were still very scarce in the house, tallow, wax, whatever; it did not matter: they had to be husbanded with great care, and I noted those bags of candles that Deborah had spoken of seemed 'looted' extensively – I noted the still-blatant absence of dust; and more, I noted a yet-greater absence.

The house had not a single spider remaining in it. Not one. I thought to ask as to their number beforehand.

“Suffice it to say that there weren't quite enough to 'blanket' the five kingdoms,” said the soft voice. “Still, though, when a finger-sized spider becomes that large and that cursed, it needs to to kill multiple times a week, if not one or more times per day so as to stay fed – and with blue-back spiders, the more they eat, the more they breed and the faster they grow.” Pause, then, “and, of course, you calling them out as preflood spiders gave them a high level of intelligence, extraordinary sensing capacity, and the ability to breed asexually.”

“What?” I gasped.

“The prewar thirteen-stepped spider needed to breed once during its several-year lifespan,” said the soft voice. “The preflood spider, in contrast, not only lived much longer – up to a hundred years, in certain cases, but it continued growing in size, appetite, and intelligence until it eventually died – and since all such spiders were females, all of their 'eggs' were fertile, they dumped large numbers of spiders regularly, and the newly-emerged baby spiders had more smarts when just born than a modern-day white rat has when it's three-feet long in the body – and that apart from cursing them.” Pause, then, “giving each such spider a legion of demons just made them that much bigger, meaner, smarter, and deadlier.”

“And I cursed them,” I moaned.

“Oh, don't worry about that,” said the soft voice. “You just did what has been done before by other 'strongly-marked' people – only what they did and what you just did has little real grounds for comparison.” Pause, then, “besides, don't you think you've got enough trouble to the north and the west without being stabbed in the back by a bunch of people that want you dead worse than anything?”

“Sounds like you got long-enough odds stacked against you the way it is now,” said Sepp. “Now where is this place we have to take these jugs?”

“Up ahead, some distance in...”

I knew just where the place was, and I led the way at the best pace my legs could manage. The stairs in this place made electric scooters of the kind common where I had once lived unworkable, but had there been ramps, and one had been available, I would have used it enthusiastically: and when I came to that one long hallway that led to the glassware room, I noted several reddish handprints that obviously did not belong there.

“So they have maps of the place, good ones no less, and they thought to cause trouble here,” I spat. “You fingerprints, go find the throat of a witch or three and choke those stinkers straight into the arms of Brimstone.”

The fingerprints vanished with a huge bluish-white flash, one that nearly put me on my posterior several feet downrange, and I asked, “now who is getting laryngitis?”

“Nearly a dozen witches just had their heads ripped off in a large 'abode' in one of the fourth kingdom's tonier districts, and as the gunfire in that market town starts up again, you can figure that Rolf is going to come home to a kingdom that is altogether different from the one he left.”

“What?” I gasped.

“You'll get to the third kingdom port long before he leaves the first kingdom's southern border,” said the soft voice, “and the riot that is now brewing up in that market town is going to be the biggest one in several hundred years.”

“Sounds like you got to some big witches,” said Sepp. “Now is this one of those big stinky places witches like?”

“Outwardly, no,” said the soft voice. “Inside – yes, and it's no ordinary example. The only places worse for their interiors would be the carriage district in the second kingdom, and that 'family' more or less ran that market town and the surrounding area.”

“Boermaas?” I asked. “Were they involved there?”

“They bought, negotiated, bankrolled, built and are building much of both the town and the school,” said the soft voice. “That will have little effect on what happens there, but the same cannot be said for that market town. Listen.”

Faintly, on the edge of hearing, I could hear a brief spattering of gunshots, and over the ensuing seconds, it swelled to 'Gettysburg' levels – from whence it grew in sound and fury by the second.

“Trouble is, with all the witch-trouble that has happened lately, every shopkeeper and other person in that area has been buying all the powder, thimbles, shot, and lead they possibly can, while building 'safe areas' inside their homes and shops. Figure the odds are going to be stacked a lot higher against the witches this time, as that many of their leaders suddenly dying that way means but one thing, according to the tenets of any well-kept large black book.”

“What?” asked Sepp.

“Why, the obvious,” said the soft voice. “The black book states that kind of sudden demise to be 'ye work of ye monster', and therefore, the following must take place: the witches must declare themselves to be the true masters of the entire fourth kingdom, they will assay wholesale – and I mean wholesale, as in what they planned to do to Roos – reprisals upon that market town and the region surrounding it, as well as the house proper; they will rob, loot, pillage, rape, and murder everyone they possibly can; they will attempt to set that entire market alight...”

“Oh, boy,” I said. “That isn't a riot. That's a full-scale war, and more, it's a war that the witches are going to lose big-time.”

“More than just 'lose big-time',” said the soft voice. “It isn't just the shopkeepers and householders that have been stockpiling supplies and bunkering their buildings. The king, before he left, called in every battery he could from the whole kingdom, had them hid according to some very old plans drawn up not a hundred years after the curse when the witches last tried for the area in real strength, hid his gun-teams, their horses and supplies all over using Willem's dictated advice, and told everyone he trusted that he expected nothing short of a full-scale war for the kingdom to happen 'before three months occurs' – and he approached the matter as if he had three days to get ready, so between the witch-wars that have been happening recently, and what has just happened in that quarter, it has finally come to the showdown.”

“They aren't just going to 'exact revenge',” I said. “This time it's for all the bullets.”

“Exactly, and it's starting up now,” said the soft voice. “It may take a week before the gunfire starts to die down, but you can expect huge smoking mounds of dead witches by the time this one finishes up – and while there will still be some witches in that town afterward, those people are going to be laying very low indeed for a time.”

“Till they get big drug habits going and decide 'now is the time',” I said.

“That's when they more or less get wiped out, as after this business, the central portion of the fourth kingdom is going to be totally without mercy regarding witches. No, not a bit. They'll kill anyone who looks, acts, talks, thinks, or smells like a witch, just like it was right after the curse struck and one had to daily prove the absence of evil in all possible ways.”

“Oh, that will work – mostly,” I said. “Some witches did that better than the 'righteous'.”

“True, but their capacity to work real mischief is going to be very limited, even compared to what it was before you-all dealt with the Abbey – and no, they'll not manage that trick while using those drugs.”

All this, and no more spiders for Sarah. For an instant, I wondered if spiders laid eggs, then knew: of course they did.

“Yes, if they're common ones,” said the soft voice. “Those you sent to the witches, though – those bear live young in numbers, with the newly-emerged spiders ravenously hungry, altogether lethal and all-too-ready to kill and eat.”

“At least we have bags for these satchels,” I said, as I reached for the doorknob and the door opened apart from my touch, much as if it knew who I was and my business here. Inside, the work of a minute; the jugs next to the wall, out of the way, yet easily found by Annistae and our people when it was time: then pull the door to, hear the tumblers clicking in their myriad multiples of possible combinations, and we were off, heading once more for the back stairway, portaging the cart when the stairs demanded it and otherwise trading off pulling the thing with its cargo of stuffed cloth sacks full of satchels.

I was once more wondering about nails, and again, I knew I needed to work on that knife.

“Now that was a quick trip,” said Deborah, who had obviously just arrived. Her winded nature, as well as that of Karl and Gabriel, spoke of three heavily laden individuals hurrying with all possible haste. I had but one question for them.

“Lead?” I asked.

“More comes in the house by the minute,” said Gabriel. “They stack the bricks, row upon row, long side to each other, short side to the wall, all of them where those setting the bench may watch over them.”

“Shorter distance upstairs, also, even if those narrow stairs will only...” I then laughed. “Hand-over-hand to each floor, then repeat twice more, and oh, Annistae?”

?” she asked. “Is this that cleaning solvent that I can redo so it works better at all save causing illness?”

“Well how did you know?” I asked in mock indignation. “Four jugs, just to the wall inside that one room with the marked doorknob. Now, I need to see my maps, and I need to do something with them, and then something really weird with that one large knife I confiscated yesterday. I did up one in the king's office, but that one needs to stay here. This other, I'll take it there for analysis – and cutting up bricks of that explosive.”

The two ledgers proved to be bagged and tagged, all three of them, just inside my pack. A moment's digging, and first, the one having the maps of the house proper. I put it upon the floor, did a press-up upon it, and prayed my very hardest.

The explosion tossed me to land upon my back with my head but inches from a very sturdy dark-stained shelf, or so I thought it to be until Sarah spoke of it being made of solid blackwood.

“That is the best-made shelf I have ever seen, and it looks to be kiln-dried, kiln-glued, and its finish kiln-set, so it should stay good long enough.”

“Centuries, dear,” said the soft voice. “That isn't ordinary blackwood – that's pressure-treated laminated blackwood, and that type is not only far stronger than the usual kind, but it's utterly impervious to dry-rot and the other fungal organisms endemic to this part of the first kingdom.”

“Must be hard to get,” said Karl, as he came back with his bags of provisions, along with Sarah holding a bag herself as I looked for the other ledgers.

They too had changed, this utterly, with color-coding showing piping, secret passages, and much else for the house proper, while the one having the map of the kingdom house was now done much as if it were a Thomas Guide, only far more detailed and with a lot of printed information in it. I then listened to my nose, and for a second, forgot my eyes.

The odor spoke of peppered dried meat, dried vegetables, dried cherries – there were lots of those – and the first sizable amount of a vast store of drowned kuchen. We would get more of those as they came out of the oven, and bag as many of them as we could. I then spoke of that matter as I withdrew that one 'huge' knife. Deborah had hers, and needed a scabbard for it. More riveting and sewing, though that would be as a break from other labors, and more, we would need two such scabbards, even though I did not plan on wearing mine. Deborah – good question. She'd need to be asked about hers, even though both were sharp enough to need leather to protect their users from being cut. I then returned to the idea of honey-drowned Kuchen thick with rehydrated minced cherries.

“Those things will need bagging,” I said, regarding the Kuchen.

“I know, which is why I procured many fresh-laundered bags,” said Sarah. “Now, for a mortar for that dried meat, and then we can set to grinding it while you check the lists we have and do what you need to do to that blade there.” Pause, then, “that laundry is steamy as a fourth-kingdom print-house with all those bath-towels, and the two there are working as if they had the lash put to them by Tam his-own-self.

I soon found that a corner of the long dark-stained 'laminated' table was reserved for my use, and as I condensed three part-filled lists into one somewhat longer one, I noted a state of most-intense industry in the room about me. There was a most-definite order in the air, for it was becoming obvious that while Tam and Lukas thought they knew about 'campaigning', Annistae was a true expert at the matter; and when Graćiella showed, the two of them working as a team accomplished more than any five of us – myself not included – if those of us other than myself worked at our utmost capacity.

“Lead?” I asked.

“Yes, there is still much lead to bring in,” she said. “I needed more ammunition for our shooters and some of those driving, so I am to bring out two small satchels of it, as well as a bag of grénadæ.”

“Two small satchels?” I asked.

“Cé, as we have but five shooters watching the place with the lead, myself excepted,” she said, “and we have made ourselves hides, and no Cabroné can come within five hundred metrâè unless he wishes to die,” she said. “One of the shooters is another woman, and she shoots better than any of us, and her rifle is a special one, one that she alone may shoot.”

“Esther,” I said. “If a witch shows himself...”

“Not merely when she sees one in the open,” she said. “More than once she shot into a clump of trees, or a large bush, and it exploded like it was filled with bad mining explosives, so the Cabroni are littering the ground as they try to fetch that lead, and they leave behind documents and coin-purses, among much else.”

“Which need tongs to handle,” I spat, regarding the coin-purses. “Small, but well-stuffed?”

“Cé, some are,” she said, as she gathered up some bagged 'all-purpose' bullets as well as two bags of those infernal hollow points, and then several magazines for 'ranged' weapons, especially rifle and machine-pistol magazines. Her eyes then lit upon the rocket launcher – the only one we had, as far as I knew.

“Try looking in those just-arrived bins,” said the soft voice. “You'll wish one for the house here, also, as well as a good supply of rockets for both launchers.”

“No, not many,” she said. “We might wish ten of them. You will wish all of them you can carry, almost, as there are many things that will wish rockets where you are going.”

“Ten?” I asked.

“Yes, as some of these rockets are very special,” she said. “They need a special viewer, and they look very strange in their front parts when you take their cap off, but if you set them right, then nothing of Cabroni can escape them unless it goes to visit that big lizard on its own.”

“Oh, those things,” I giggled. “Thermal recognition seeker heads.”

“That is what they are,” she said. “We shall wish those heads and the regular type, as they are scarce things right now and usually they are not needed.” Pause, then, “though if we must guard that lead at night, then we shall wish them, as they see in the dark like these large night-birds they have in this area.”

“Howls,” said Sarah. “Now I saw a large stone mortar in this room off of the main kitchen here, but it was big enough to need that cart and help lifting it...”

Karl went with her, the cart in tow, while I resumed laboring upon my still-growing list. I was becoming aware of a last instance of questioning that would come soon, though with this, this was to 'arrange' the report to go outside with us upon the morrow. More, I knew we had but a handful of hours to finish our packing and secure our supplies. I also needed to work on that one knife, but that needed a period of rest and food before I attempted it, and it was mostly a matter of 'get it done before we sleep tonight' – or so I thought as I began wiping it down with a rag while reading the list. I was surprised I could do both things passably, until I recalled recently getting a dose. I suspected another would help, and I got it from the 'special' vial, the one with the crushed pills in it. My head then cleared so fast I was stunned, and I could actually 'multitask' efficiently, so much so that the wiping was an automatic matter save near the sharp portions of that huge 'rigging knife'.

I then knew the real labor would begin for us shortly, as upstairs, we would be cleaning up Annistæ's laboratory further, and also setting the place up for her work to begin at once – and then, finally, our real packing would begin, as only then we would know what we would need.

“No generator engine yet,” I murmured – though at the back of my mind, I wondered. Could we wait months while I cast, forged, and machined the parts? Weeks, even? Was I not told I needed to practice doing such matters, much I as doing with this knife?

As if to remind me of this matter, Gabriel returned, from whence I could not fathom, and this with a leathern scabbard, this badly done save for its overall shape. What he pulled out, however, made for wondering, as while this was indeed a corn knife – it said so, in neatly etched letters on the shank of the blade, what I had in mind...

I stood up from the table, then while standing, I asked him to bring a stool and the knife in question, laying down the now-gleaming rigging knife. I could finish it later, unlike what Gabriel needed now. The stool he brought, while 'sturdy enough' for the time being, would be fit for paper by the end of the summer, and a strange thought occurred to me.

“Those generals,” I muttered. “Not enough to just let matters take their course. They had some of that odd culture that makes wood go rotten in a big hurry, and they broke into the boatwright's shop on a semi-regular basis...”

“Yes, when there weren't shifts going in there round-the-clock, which is not rare there,” said the soft voice. “Still, however, they could and did seed every wooden item with those spores when and where they could.”

“Is that why this chair looks as if it might give way if I sat on it carelessly?” asked Gabriel, as he laid this odd-looking age-pitted blade upon it. I looked at the ancient thing with a consuming interest; it was almost as if I could “picture what would be, that thing so limitless and free, so in need of a stranger's hand, in a desperate land, y'know, a Desperate land...

“Yes, quite likely,” I said, that infernal song-snatch still pounding like rumbling thunder in my brain.. “Then again, dry-rot is a big problem up here, so they just hasten the inevitable unless wood is used that is resistant to dry-rot and that other bug, like blackwood and some of the other harder woods that are used now and then.” Pause, then, “I hope I can use that type of wood for gunstocks, in fact.”

I then saw the new shape of the blade, and it would, indeed, be fit for 'the stranger with no name'. It was seeming to come through to my inner vision, it was trying very hard to come through, yet the ancient curses set upon it would not turn it loose from its slavery to hell. I pointed my finger at it, for this was not some witch-forged thing of rust, slag, and grime; this...

This was once a witch-forged blade, one that was old at the time of Cardosso, made by a third-rate witch as a blade for killing people as per its master's inclination of the moment, so as to pave the streets with corpses and cement the cobbles with blood.

I was not such a being. I was a monster; more, I was the Monster; and I wished Gabriel to have a blade, one he could hide readily in his clothing, yet bring it forth quickly and cleave a way to a new tomorrow, one where his name, whispered in dread speech by the witches upon land and sea...

The hood, no eyes to be seen, not even those rimmed by the eternal glimpse into hell that was the mark of the true-witch. Truly, one could not see even the outline of a face. It was as if dusty gray-yellow clothing, clothing that had been made animate and affixed with a will of adamant, had arrived; one with a high price upon it, for now, the witches had cursed it to its face, and...

They had sown the wind. Now, they would reap the whirlwind; and knowing that, and knowing no hope save that found in destruction and slaughter, it would give him strength and resolve beyond imagining. The wood of the stool beneath the blade was going to a fine gray dust, this slowly powdering down to the floor, while the blade, now hazed with blue, was coming in harder, darker, stronger...

I could now clearly see the lanyard loop, that which secured the blade to its user's wrist, then the sculpted and riveted handle of 'carbon-impregnated laminated blackwood', this filled with resin under pressure and both riveted and bonded to the handle; and as I recalled what I had needed to do to Deborah's rigging knife, I placed both hands upon the blade and the now-crumbling chair, and a dusky blackness seemed to billow out from among my fingers. The blade's steel was a poor material, originally from the green areas of L'amerika, but Gabriel – 'the man with no name' – needed the very best weapon he could possibly get.

Three units of 'full-minted witch-gold' was enough to set up any witch upon the continent 'for life', given reasonable care and 'safe' investments; given a tendency toward more effort and greater risk, that amount of seed money could easily become the twin of the net worth of the Blomfels' combine within a matter of years.

“The dirt is continuing to flow out of it, but I need a rag,” I mumbled with the effort of dealing with a recalcitrant blade. For once, Gabriel seemed to read my mind. He had a sack of the things, well-washed, and as I removed the blade from the chair, the chair went to dust upon the instant – and the blade, formerly perhaps fourteen inches from tip to handle – was now closer to eighteen inches in length.

More, it had a strange shape, and as I dirtied up rag after rag, I could feel that shape changing with each long smooth stroke. Each time I dirtied a rag, I left it by my side, but as I rubbed, again, I noted a difference.

The former roughness and rust-pitted aspect was gone. Now, the blade had a matte finish, one of a wondrous smoothness, with a thick spine nearly three-eighths of an inch thick running along much of the back of the blade, and slightly thinning, into the handle – the blade was over a quarter of an inch thick there, with a full-tang construction – and then what looked like the beginnings of a temper line showing, one that ran from the tip of the blade and along the swell of the thing, its slight curving bend, the utter absence of anything 'strange'; and the thoughts that ran through my mind as I rubbed, were “Gabriel needs a good blade, one he can hide readily, yet will cut people in half.”

That thought along caused the blade to change shape slightly, acquiring more of a bend in its middle, the temper line coming through clearer and sharper with each stroke, and as the rags gathered less and less dirt, I now knew it was time to ask for something special.

And yet, I did not have to, as this blade suddenly acquired a most-familiar tag. It had a long list of metals stamped into its tin, and the wire now found on the lanyard loop made for wondering. The only portion I did not wonder at was the phrase, this in bold black letters, “high-alloy 'exotic' tool steel.”

Faintly, as if from far away, I could hear voices, but my thoughts were alone upon my labors, and the darker and deadlier bluish tint as the blade began to shine and gleam made me wonder once more – would this dark blue blade with its wavy whitish edge have an appetite for death, like a particular black sword I had heard of? A weapon with a mind of its own? Especially cursed, its true material a black demon, one hungry for death and blood and needing constant feeding, much as if its owner resembled Joost's twin – the owner of that particular sword in those stories?

I shook all of that off, as I was no devil. I'd sliced on the devil, and our dislike of each other was a mutual matter. I did not wish to deal with him again, and I rather doubted he wanted me in his world, for it was just as I had been told: 'mad dogs' were not welcome in hell.

I then received confirmation: I was doing what had been done before long ago, it being writ in a number of old tales, and as the dirt finally vanished and the steel began to subtly press down and link its constituents together, I could see the voids vanishing in the blade. I had a lot to rub, even in the gold-colored handguard – it wasn't gold; it was that strange 'brass' that was at once incredibly hard, tough, and corrosion resistant, and the wood itself; and as the steel and its constituents continued bonding together, I noted the weight of the blade.

It weighed an easy half pound less than when I started, even if it was now longer than 'the sting of the hornet'. I then had a name for it: 'the mark of the nameless one', and as if my thoughts had strength beyond imagining, small deep-etched Hebrew letters formed on the brass guard, these burning blue-white with fire.

Another minute, this of vigorous rubbing, and no longer could I see a single void anywhere. I set the blade down upon the floor, and as I had done with Deborah's rigging knife, I pointed my finger at the blade.

This time, however, was so different from the former instance I knew not what to make of it, for the blade seemed absolutely enveloped in bluish-white fire, this blasting out from my fingertip, and I said, this in a voice at once strangely deep-pitched and cold-sounding, that of a machine or an alien, “become as cold as cold can possibly be, and drink deeply of a mixture of compacted tetracarbon monoxide, 'high-energy' argon, 'double-energy' nitrogen, and molybdenum nitride.”

The blade then became buried in a thickly smoking foot-tall mound of frost.

“Now we wait,” I said, my voice weak, sick-sounding, and most of all hungry. Someone gave me a vial, the contents honey, and I gulped down the syrupy liquid unthinkingly. Someone else led me back to the table by my slack and groping hand, much as if I were incurably nearsighted and without the glasses of my former life, and strangely enough, though my eyes were fogbound to a degree beyond belief, I was being 'spoon-fed' bits of toasted bread slathered with cherry jam.

“I am feeding you,” said Deborah. “I thought what happened to my knife was strange enough, but what you did out there is beyond belief.”

“You are f-feeding me?” I asked, as I tried to see Deborah through the billowing smoke. I then looked down and saw that the knife I had been working on earlier was thickly frosted and billowing smoke also.

“I think what you said and did got to this one also,” she said. “Mine will make hair jump, it is so sharp, and the rainbow it has is unlike anything I have ever seen. What else is strange, though, is the pictures.”

“Picture?” I asked.

“There are two, one on each side of its handguard,” said Deborah. “One is the prism, and I was told what it meant and why you were given that marking for your work, but on the other side, there is a bee, and it looks very irritated.”

“It's named, then,” I said. “It's tied to you, and no one else can use it safely.”

“And I have no idea as to what you did to that thing outside, but I think its leather is worthless,” said Gabriel. “It gained an easy four inches in length as you handled it, you dirtied up a small mountain of rags that are changed in some strange way, such that Annistæ will wish to make paper out of them, and then, there was what I saw happening while you were working on it. Your hands were glowing a solid blue-white like lightning, and sparks were coming off of them like small bolts of lightning.”

“Yes?” I mumbled, as I moved to the side. The smoke boiling off of that rigging knife made me wonder what had happened, and the also, the constituents of such 'smoke'.

“Mostly solidified nitrogen, with a bit of 'high-energy argon' thrown in,” said the soft voice. “The one out there, however, received that as its inner coat. The outer coat is solid helium, for a full cryogenesis.”

“What?” I gasped.

“You were asking for a very unusual blade, and you got one,” said the soft voice – who then spoke specifically to Gabriel. “You will receive your war-name across the sea, but your reputation will begin in the port, and dread whisperings shall follow in your wake – as they will see nothing, almost as if your clothing was tied to heaven by invisible strings and it removed arms, legs, heads, and other things as easily as if you were using a war-ax like that one that was in Hendrik's museum.” Pause, then, “that type of sword is known for its capacity in that way, and in the mountainous region where their use is common, almost everyone old enough to labor has one – and yes, that region produces some particularly fierce soldiers who use such weapons, often to devastating effect.”

“I could teach you how to use that type of 'knife' in about ten minutes, as they're not really intended for 'swordsmanship'. You pretty much just swing the thing at whatever you want to remove, and if you're intent is sure and you put some strength into the blow – well, that body part is probably going to fall to the ground.” Pause, then, “I'd remove heads as much as possible, as not even a hard-witch retains functional capacity without his head.”

“I'll remember that, as those who try for me will be especially motivated,” said Gabriel. He then sniffed, and said, “aquavit. We need aquavit, strong aquavit and plenty of it, this for cleaning a great many things, and those boxes against the wall need to be looked in for things we might need.”

I had to hand them down, but between Annistæ and Graćiella, I could hear excited speech. The latter found something truly unusual, and when I turned, I noted Sarah speaking of how to use what she'd found, that being a suppressed pistol. I knew there were more of those in these boxes: they just needed us looking for them.

“Not just that,” I said, as I handed down another of the bins. “Look for an improved clockwork marvel pistol. I suspect there are at least three or four in these bins, and the improved ones are actually worth bothering with.”

“Yes, and what are they?” said Graćiella. “Are these pistols that injure the hands?”

“They can, yes, but they are not the really big ones,” I said. “I have an 'improved' one in my possible bag, and while I need to study the manual to learn how to dismantle them so as to properly clean them, the improved ones tend to not misbehave nearly as much.” Pause, then, “their only real problem is how hard they are to dismantle and clean properly – and with our old propellants, that means pretty much 'if you shoot it, you need to clean it as much and as often as you can.”

“They are very dirty, non?” asked Annistæ. “It is like the powder I use for my pistol.” Here, she paused, dug around a bit, then let out a yell so high-pitched that I nearly dove for the floor. As it was, I had nearly jumped under the table, and only the presence of Sarah and Deborah had prevented me from doing so.

“Ai, this pistol is a good one,” she said. “I can say its words, but they are not ones I have seen before, and it is a large one, one like I have fired before.”

Cé, and you needed to go to a Téatré to have your hands worked on after,” said Graćiella. “Remember how I needed to splint them and then dose you for pain?”

“Yes, but I got that one big Cabroné, and it put him down for good,” said Annistæ. “He was wearing plate, and that bullet went through it.”

I came over to look at what Annistæ was holding, and asked to 'handle' the weapon. A glance at it, and I nearly screamed.

“I-it's a Webley!” I screeched. “A four-forty-two Webley! Now do we have ammunition for it?”

“Cé, and much of it,” said Graćiella. “It is like a common pistol, like most have where we once lived, only larger, and its cârtuchæ are longer and larger.”

“May I look at one?” I asked. I meant the cartridges.

I was handed a small cloth bag, this with a stamped tin tag, and upon untying the knot, I drew out one of the rounds. The thick brass rim, and overall 'stout' aspect of the cartridge made for wondering, but when I held it up to my ear and shook it, I could hear nothing.

“This thing is full,” I gasped.

“Yes, and only those you name 'hand-howitzers' recoil harder,” said the soft voice. “However, unlike those pistols, these are very easy to maintain, quite accurate, and easy to reload.”

“Probably kick bad,” I said. “Going to want... Why did this arrive?”

It's one of several,” said the soft voice. “That one is so you can take it overseas and have it copied, as if you look in that other bag, you notice not merely its cleaning kit, but also a memory card in its holder containing the code needed to produce those weapons.”

A four-forty-two Webley?” I gasped. “This thing is fit for, uh, dirty what-was-his-name!” The man in question, a Gendarme, was notorious for the use of powerful large-bore pistols and his tendency to skirt official procedures in order to ensure he got the thug or thugs he was after.

He did tend to get them – and they usually tended to have their smelly hides aired out well. I then realized that while there were no 'official procedures' here, I tended to use an elephant gun.

“That design scales readily, and more, such ammunition can be loaded 'down' for more-manageable recoil levels,” said the soft voice. “That ammunition right there will drop a hard-witch inside of fifty yards, and that if you hit him solidly anywhere in the torso. Center his chest – he'll be dead before he hits the ground, and the same for head-shots. Common witches could use lighter loadings, as that pistol there will still hit with real authority when loaded down to manageable levels.”

“Manageable?” I asked.

“Seventeen grams of a hard-lead bullet driven at just under the speed of sound,” said the soft voice. “Then it's a bit of a handful, wants both hands, but it won't break your bones or leave your hand numb – and that large of a slug will drop thugs reliably, even fairly hard ones. The full-power rounds, on the other hand – all they give up to those big pistols you call hand-howitzers is about a line's worth of bullet diameter. Otherwise, their effects and range upon thugs is more or less identical.”

“Nice to have an eight-point-five millimeter one, say, with a twenty-five millimeter case loaded with medium-burning flake powder.”

That will be the most-popular size overseas, and quite popular here, also,” said the soft voice. “Look in another bin, and you'll find one – though I warn you about that pistol.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It might not have the size or heft of a four-forty-two, but it's still quite a handful when loaded 'hot' – a bit worse than those suppressed pistols when using the 'hot' ammunition, and far deadlier than your usual revolver, as that size takes a jacketed ten gram bullet.”

“Full metal jacket, or..?”

“What amounts to a soft-point showing a fair amount of lead,” said the soft voice. “They hit hard enough to drop most witches if you hit them solid. Only hard-witches and those northern people will want 'two in the chest and one in the head' with those.”

“Best to have a four-forty-two for them,” I said, as I moved aside the pistol and found another 'four-forty-two'. These were sizable revolvers, fully as large as that one man's dragoons, but when I unlatched the rear latch and opened it, the sheer ease of opening – the star-shaped ejector snapped out as it came fully open and then snapped back with a soft click – and the aspect of overall 'aerospace' precision made for gasping.

“This thing is as tight as anything,” I spluttered as I tried wiggling it. There was no play anywhere with this weapon. “It may work easily, but drilling thugs at a good distance is going to be easy!”

“You did not look at the sighting apparatus on those,” said the soft voice. “They have adjustable sights, so you can adjust for range and windage.”

However, as I was finding 'goodies', I could hear talk in the background, and when I smelled the nose-incinerating reek of aquavit, I saw Gabriel being shown by Sarah how to wipe down those green clubs we had taken from those functionaries. Her explanation was short, to the point, and explicit.

“We wish our gear sanitized,” she said, “as not all of their spies are people. They have a great many things, including these devices that have noses like scent-hounds, and we do not wish those devices alerting those who are the masters of those blue-dressed thugs.”

“Hence the use of aquavit,” I said. “It absolutely kills the 'odorants' they put into those clubs, and then we take only our clothing, and... Those things they have called sniffers – they're really sensitive.”

“Like that one scent-hound,” said Sarah. “That was a pure-bred Breganz dog, Gabriel, and what they have over there is so strange that I have trouble believing it, but that shower was enough to give me an idea as to what they might have.”

“Shower?” asked Gabriel, as he rubbed down a club. He was not wasting time, but he was being careful to wipe all of the club, and more, do so twice so as to not miss any spots.

“Good,” I murmured, as I found a small plastic box and handed it to Graćiella. “Here are those special seeker heads. I hope... Oh, they have some overseas.”

“Not like those they do,” said the soft voice. “That's just one box. You have a total of five such boxes, and I would advise taking four boxes of them with you while setting aside three of those things for them to examine.” Pause, then, “that will save them a lot of time.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “All that secret research?”

“They'll find that fast enough, but there's enough documentation that looks as if those writing it were far gone in Geneva that they'll have to guess quite a bit in order to get ones that work. Having a few of those on hand means no guesswork is needed, and you'll go home with full boxes of them and much more besides.”

“And now, a rocket-launcher,” I said, as I removed the pieces to another launcher, this with two 'viewers', or, as I learned upon looking at the placard on the second and larger one, a visor. “Remember to wipe ours down good with aquavit inside and out, someone – those sniffers will smell it otherwise, and we will have trouble.” Pause, then, “best take some containers of aquavit with us in case we need to use it while we're sailing.”

“Urgh, I know,” said Deborah. “I was shooting this thing, and that I liked a good bit, but now I must clean it, and that part is not, urp, fun at all.” A second later, then, “that was the second time I spewed with this stuff.”

“What is it, Komaet?” I asked.

“N-no, but it came from the house's distillery here, and it's so strong it's trying to light my nose on fire,” said Deborah. “I was told they run nearly a vat a day through that still, and it makes this stuff in one run.”

“I put a taller column in it with more stripper plates than the usual number, as something told me it was a good idea.”

“Yes, I think so,” said Annistæ. “That is some very strong Alkoli, such that all it needs is thirty parts of fuel to one of saw-oil, and then I could use it to run a fuel-saw.”

“What?” I gasped. I then wondered, “does Annistæ want a fuel-saw? We do cut a lot of firewood up here, and save for the noise, those do sound likely – and the same for falling trees, come to think of it. Most of our lumber trees aren't that big.”

“Yes, I have used them,” said Annistæ. “This one had a forty-five centime bar to it, and its engine was a fifty-five, so it could cut wood quickly.”

“Fifty-five?” I asked. “What did it sound like?”

“Like an angry cat, one which is long-haired and of dark gray color,” said Annistae. “The smaller ones can turn up to twelve thousand revolutions, though one does not wish to hold them there, as they become too hot then.” Pause, then, “I usually turned my high needle out a bit and the same for my low one, and mine ran good when it was my turn on a wood-cutting detail.”

“What does fifty-five mean?” I asked. “Is that the model number or..?”

“That is the engine size,” said Annistæ. “There are three types, one which uses the piston as its intake controller, another that uses these thin brass strips for a demand-valve, and the best type, which uses a disk for its intake. Those like that are strange, and need much work to run their best, but if you must cut wood and wish to do so quickly, then that is the type you want.”

“Rotary valve,” I murmured. “Gobs of power, so much so that when you hit the trigger it jumps up a foot and a half from the engine torque reaction.” I'd once tuned a saw that 'jumped' nearly as much, though I suspected what Annistæ was referring to not only had more displacement, but about twice the power.

After all, hers ran alcohol, which made more power than gasoline where I lived, and I had a hunch alcohol here was like model airplane fuel where I came from – and not the weaker type, either. The saw in question was a 'professional' model, one that needed to be treated with care and respect.

Cé, that is what they do,” said Annistæ. “They go through a thirty centime log in the time it takes to count to five quickly when they are set good, and I always went over my saw before I left my home when I was to go on a woodcutting detail.” Pause, then, “I had to pay more to buy it, and work on it much, but I had one of those with the disk for the intake.”

“You had one?” I gasped.

“Cé, as that size works well for much that involves wood,” said Annistæ. “There is one thing they do not work well on, though, and that is Cabroni.” Annistæ said this with a distinct tone of distaste, as if she were trying to say 'Eew' and not quite managing it.

“What?” shrieked Deborah. “You took a saw to a witch?”

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “The saw cut him in half, but it took me two days of labor to get that Cabroné out of my saw, and I knew better then to just use a pistol for such, but he surprised me, as such saws are very noisy and I was busy cutting wood, so when he shows, I just turn around on him, squeeze the trigger all the way, and slice him in half before I could count to two, and then my saw was all bloody and I was all bloody, but it was him or me, and I was glad I was alive, even if I needed a bath right away and my saw needed to be taken apart entirely and then cleaned and oiled.”

I was then most surprised at the heft of one such bin, and when I opened it, I gasped.

“Bagged-up nails!” I screeched. “Good thick ones, half as long as my finger, and a lot of them.”

“Yes, and I know what I wish to do with them, as soon as Deborah gets done cleaning that rocket launcher,” said Sarah.

“What are you planning?” said Deborah in a low voice. She was still cleaning out the rocket launcher between attempts to not vomit.

“He brought down three bags of those cloth satchels,” said Sarah – who then looked at me in alarm. “I hope there are no spiders in those bags. You did check, didn't you?” Sarah's unspoken comment was 'I do not wish to do a spider-dance'.

“No, but he sent those things to the witches,” said Sepp, “and he did something to them, too, such that the witches will have a lot of trouble.”

“What?” asked Deborah.

“Preflood thirteen-stepped blue-back spiders, each of them with a legion of demons to help it cause trouble?” I murmured. “Have them want witches and those like them for food more than anything else, and desire to live where witches do more than anywhere?” Pause, then, “not a single spider left in the whole house, if I go by what I can feel. Not a one, dear, so there shouldn't be any of them in those bags.”

“Now that sounds about right,” said Deborah. “I hope some end up in Boermaas.”

“Some did, most likely, though they won't show much of themselves for a while,” I said.

“No, but they will kill their share of lecturers and students,” said the soft voice. “No, the place isn't going to get cleaned out, but anywhere between three and seven people a week in the town and school are going to be suddenly found dead and drained of blood.”

“With lots of little red marks all over them from hungry spiders getting food out of them,” I said. “The real trouble, though, is going to be in that market.”

“What is happening there? asked Deborah with alarm.

“A big war, as the witches have decided to take the kingdom,” said Sepp. “They're going to eat a lot of lead, though – those people have been having so much trouble in the last few weeks with witches and thugs of one stripe or another that they've stocked up on powder and lead, and turned their places into fortresses. Then, they brought in every cannon in the entire kingdom, so they're going to shoot up the witches, and finally, every guard in that house down there is going to be using his rifle on the witches – and they have plenty of both guards and rifles there, or so I heard.”

“Rifles?” I asked.

“Lukas told me about those,” said Sepp. “They aren't as big in the barrel as one of those fifth kingdom things, but they shoot further than what his does, and they hit nearly as hard as what you have if the range isn't too far.” Sepp implied that the sights were the limits on these things: they didn't have adjustable sighting equipment like mine.

“How big are they for bores?” I asked.

“He said they were usually about a two-gage, but they took bullets that are like those cheese-bullets you came up with, so they shoot a far distance and hit hard, too.”

“Two-gage,” I said. “A bit more than half an inch. I'll most likely be making a fair number of similar-sized weapons when we get back.” Pause, then, “nails? Perhaps cut those bricks of explosive in thirds using that big... Oh, my. The frost is gone from that huge knife.”

“I would be careful of it just the same,” said Deborah. “Give it another turn of the glass or half an hour by that little brass-looking watch you have, as that cold feels like fire if you are not careful.” Pause, then, “what happens if you get some of that explosive and put nails to it?”

“Trouble,” said Sarah. “We put a three-foot fuse to one we did using half of a brick, but these were smaller and thinner nails, not at all like these things, and when that bomb went, it ripped up those witches and mules worse than a whole limber full of distance-shells.”

“Oh, and those things we put in the satchels,” I said. “Perhaps make up a few, and put the nails to those.” I then asked, “do we have, uh, pull-type fuse igniters, ones which burn for, uh, ten to twelve seconds?”

“Third bin from the bottom, with more plastic explosive below it,” said the soft voice. “Note that while this is the gray material, its' formulation has been 'updated', and hence their sniffers will not know what it is.”

“Gray?” I asked. “No odorants?”

“Not just 'no odorants',” said the soft voice. “No fillers, and no smell at all, less even than that white stuff.”

“Hence lots of nails in our satchel charges,” I said. “Oh, maybe add some cooking fuel to those things to give them that smoky flavor.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Deborah.

“Oh, I was making a very bad joke,” I said. “Now, if we put a third of a nail-studded brick on each side of a goodly lump of that military-grade cooking fuel, connect both charges by that nice exploding rope called det-cord, use one of those non-smoking igniters with several turns of that det-cord around its cap to give it something of a boost, and then pitch one of those into Funkelmann's, it should give them a very hot time.”

“I think so!” spat Sarah. “I was thinking of putting a round mine with a brick of that cooking fuel, actually, and that right up next to the door.”

“Those places are going to be absolutely crawling with thugs, dear,” I said. “Spraying the place with a machine pistol is just going to get them irritated. We'll need to do this carefully – one person cuts loose with one of those, the other of the pair tosses in the satchel charge, the first two run like hell, the bomb explodes, then as the smoke billows out of the door, the others put the ready-prepared round mine up against the door after they pull it shut, they get clear while unrolling the wire, and then set it off with a pot-battery while person number five provides cover with something like a rifle, or possibly the broom.”

“What happens then?” asked Deborah.

No more drink-house,” I said. “They might be able to salvage the foundations – maybe. The above-ground portions are going to be gone, and everyone inside the place and those running out of the rear will sup with Brimstone – if they aren't doing so already from hot lead or being nailed.” Pause, then, “that kind of a satchel charge is going to do a lot of damage, so we won't have swarms of thugs trying to bust down the door when we set the mine in front of it.”

“That sounds like a very good plan,” said Gabriel. “Were I able to help upon the sea, I could...”

“Once you finish with those clubs, Gabriel, let me smell them, or better, let Dennis smell them, and if they're passable, then you can help us make up some of those bombs,” said Sarah. “Between the three of us, we should manage several, not just three, as I have a distinct feeling that there will be places like Funkelmann's overseas.”

“They won't look like Funkelmann's, but they'll have a lot of drunk-as-stinkers thugs in them, and that kind of bomb will settle them good,” I said. “Oh, the pills, also. We'll wish to take those, as we need to dispose of them before their filling becomes 'touchy'.”

“Dispose?” asked Gabriel innocently. “How do you propose...” Pause, then, “place them in the right place, and light their fuses?”

“That, or toss the stinking things,” I said. “I won't be able to toss them far, but I might manage enough distance to, uh, get to some of those stinkers, especially if I happen to find 'spy central' or whatever they call their monitoring stations.”

“There's but one large one for the whole place, and if you put one of those pills in there, you will really cause a lot of trouble, as all of the secret networks go to that location. Kill the personnel there and wreck the place good, and you will have messed up their command-and-control situation worse yet.”

I then had the chance to start sniffing the clubs, and I soon found that all I could smell was the vomit-inducing aroma of aquavit. I then went to the one Gabriel had worked on first...

Gah!” I spat. “That thing smells like aquavit, and I want to spew!” I then had a question.

“What will that show up as?”

“Something they have no records on save in a place that would take weeks to get to,” said the soft voice. “That odor will remain upon those clubs to some degree for over a week, but I would wipe them down again with aquavit while you're on the sailing craft just to be certain.”

“And, uh, those satchel charges?” I asked.

“These are better nails than what we used,” said Sarah, “and that rigging knife of Deborah's is perfect for this.”

“About the only use I can think of for it, actually,” she said. “Now if I had an instrument-maker's knife...”

I went to my possible bag, found two of those – I had more at home and in my bag – and with due gravity, handed them to Deborah. She was overjoyed to the point where she hugged me as if crazed.

“These are the best I have ever seen!” she screeched. “Now, did these get the ice?”

“Not sure, dear,” I said. “I've not needed to sharpen them yet, but I make so many of those that...” I took both in my hand, set them on the ground, and prayed, asking that their steel be changed into that infernal 'Superalloy' and then be impregnated with the other materials, and finally get 'the deep chill' that 'made' the stuff. Both knives erupted smoke, then became covered with several inches of frost.

“What did you do?” asked Deborah.

“I asked that they be like your knife,” I said. “Now the tricky portion, that which will need a decent meal...” I then looked at Sepp.

“You're the best cooker, I think,” I said. “What do you say we try our our field gear, and prepare a meal?”

“Good idea,” he said. “Best wait until we go upstairs, though, as I'm loath to do cooking around ammunition and explosives.”

“Sorry, I forgot,” I said. “Trouble is, we'll need to do that over there more than a little.”

“Easy enough,” said Sepp. “There, we'll keep those supplies well clear of where I do the cooking. Now this mortar here works well, and this big pestle thing is turning this dried meat into something like this really coarse brown powder.”

“Less bulk, cooks faster, and, uh...”

“Right,” said Sepp. “Now where did Karl get to? I could stand a spell on this and learn about that gray stuff that looks like moldy Kuchen dough, as I want to do some of these other things up if I have the chance.”

“You wish to wrap it well in rags, unless you have gloves like these,” said Sarah, exhibiting her 'chemical-proof gloves'. “Two layers of rags, tie them well with string, then poke in as many nails as you can, and then put the cooking fuel in between the charges, and tie the whole together with that stuff he calls det-cord. This sheet here shows how to do so, as it has several suggested traps listed, and that setup he spoke of is listed as being especially good for 'house-clearing'.” Pause, then, “that one we did for that thread-seller's place cleaned house, all right, and it was a lot smaller.”

“How many nails did we get?” I asked.

“Ten kilos, and all of them five centimeter high-tensile concrete nails,” said the soft voice, “as well several boxes of things that are far easier to use than friction igniters, a lot sturdier than friction igniters, fully waterproofed, and with a variable delay built in to them.”

“Caps? I asked.

“Those are in their own box, are quite stiff as such caps go, and screw onto the end of these other things,” said the soft voice. “Just tie that cord about the cap and loop it a few times before tying it in place with string, set the delay using the knob, then press the red button. It will start then.”

“Will it smoke?” I asked.

“No, and the timing mechanism will be barely audible,” said the soft voice. “Those drunken fools won't hear a thing until that thing detonates, and when it goes, you'll need to be quick with those round mines, so much so that I would make them up beforehand and do each such drink-house in turn, with Funkelmann's being the first, Goortmann's being the second, and Snoggwaart's being the third – and anyone you see running about while dealing with those drink-houses, don't bother to find out who they are – just kill them. If they're out at that hour of the night, they are sure to be inclined toward witchdom at the very least.”

I then asked to learn how far these devices were waterproof to.

“To thirty meters,” said the soft voice. “You'll wish to save a few to have them copied, as that's a drastically improved wartime device that they have no records of.” Pause, then, “once you're done in here, and get your meals in the refectory, go up to the chemical laboratory on the fourth floor, and you'll get some more surprises there when you help get Annistæ's and Deborah's living quarters set up tonight.”

“Where will we be sleeping?” I asked.

“Why, up there,” said the soft voice. “You'll hear about a lot of things Annistæ wishes for while helping her there, and those are things that will be most-needed in the house proper and where you live, also.”

“Things she wishes for?” I asked.

“A cold-box, for one,” said the soft voice. “Most houseware production lines have been idled overseas for a very long time, but bringing them back on line will commence before your group leaves.”

“Will they need drastic updating?” I asked.

“No, but modest production of 'the latest-current-design' devices will happen before you leave,” said the soft voice. “Granted, most of their parts will need updating over time and there are designs for them, but the way most housewares are over there, that's a quick and easy job due to their modular nature, and most of the currently functional cold-boxes are composite assemblies kept functional by using cannibalized parts removed from older ones 'gone over the hill'.”

“Gone over the hill?” I asked. “Desertion from duty?”

“That only became a problem, at least overseas, during the waning years of that war,” said the soft voice, “and it never was much of a problem, at least for where you are going. The consequences of doing so in that area tended to be so dire it was better to stick it out in that nation's military, no matter how bad it seemed.”

Pause, then, “on the other hand, it was an issue from 'day one' for that one witch-nation that once stood where you live, and that situation only grew worse with time as their mobilization become total and the military took over the country in its totality – and as their territory grew and their ability to control it grew also, even so, desertion was a continual problem – as it was impossible to suppress the stories that were circulating about 'hundred-percent-casualty-rates' and 'if you encounter a heavy scout team with a 'monster', you're absolutely going to die horribly' – and both situations were nothing short of the dire truth.”

Another pause, then, “it may have been a constant and growing problem, but that place had fewer deserters than anywhere on the continent, especially once the Mistress of the North was put in charge of the entire military effort.”

“What can they do to me?” I muttered. “Ship me to Berky?”

“That was no joke then,” said the soft voice, “because all deserters who were caught – which, up until the very end of the real wartime effort in this area, was every single one of them – ended up in that very location – if they were 'lucky'.”

Pause, then, “that presumed that they were not sacrificed when caught and then eaten, and given the tendencies of the Mistress of the North that way and how she was 'the overall commander, and that in perpetuity' of the military effort – she was much more than just commanding soldiers, by the way; she was also in charge of armament production, training camps, and everything connected with fighting the war, and had automatic levy and requisition powers, which made her, in effect, the absolute ruler of that country, as Imhotep had gone into hiding with his liquid assets carefully cached in safe-regions known only to himself, and he rotated his stay among those locations on his own private rail line.”

Another pause, then, “unless the deserter or captive had useful levels of skills that were needed by that woman and her coterie, then the rule when dealing with such people was 'first torture them, then sacrifice them to Brimstone, and then devour their remains raw'.”

Over the next hour, we cleaned, prepared, now and then ate, and in the process, learned from Annistæ just how commonplace – and capable – radios were in the 'realm of the Black Rooster'. She described the nature of the usual settlement transmitter, this being capable of either code transmission – one used that was unlike either that used here or by the witches, hence it was 'relatively secure' – or voice, and then, the nature of the antenna used.

“Weak transmitter, good fidelity, but the antenna used more or less makes up for the lack of transmitter power,” I squeaked.

Cé,” she said. “Then, there is the usual receiver for the settlement itself, and it has ten to twelve valfuelæ. It is much larger than this small one, and a bit more sensitive, but it still needs a careful touch to use, and then there are horns set up in several places, so whoever has radio duty can either send out news or pick up news, and the same for music.”

“Is there a specific time for transmissions, say, by given regions?” I asked.

“Cé, that and differing frequencies for transmission,” said Annistæ. “This radio with its headphone would be good for field work, as it is small and uses little power, but I really wish a bigger one, as those can drive horns.”

“And, uh, smaller transmitters?” I asked.

“Cé, we had them also,” said Annistæ. “They needed to use code, and stringing up the antenna wire was difficult, so we eventually went to ones which were a bit larger for their size but needed cans because of their shorter wavelengths, and those used voice. They did not work as well for range, but ten thousand metrâè is much distance for much of what we did when dealing with Cabroni, especially near our borders, and they worked well to nearly twice that.”

“The other type was useful when you went to cut wood,” I said. “You were gone long enough, and far enough, that you needed that kind of range, and possibly one or more relays of your signal.”

This caused a strange association, that being the letters 'A.R.R.L.', and with it, I could tell at the back of my mind all of that mostly forgotten code was there. More, I could relearn it readily – and I knew I could make suitable 'straight keys'.

After all, they had nice ball-bearings overseas, as well as small powerful magnets and gold-plated reed switches. My keys would work good, and that no matter how they were 'abused'.

“Cé, when conditions were bad, we needed to relay our signals,” she said. “Much of the time, though, we could get through well enough, and that is always better.”

“Uh, a dedicated room, lots of batteries, a charger in the room next to it, a lot of work to keep it running right?” I asked.

“Cé, only if it was a larger transmitter, the shelves of batteries would take up an entire wall, as one wanted over three hundred cells to give sufficient pressure for such valfuelæ to work well, and they usually took fifty to seventy small units of flow when running. The receiver merely wished thirty to fifty cells, depending on whether we wished to drive several horns or use headphones only.”

“Cells?” I asked.

“For such equipment, they are fairly small, a bit bigger than these large cups of beer some like here,” she said.

“You mean liked,” said Sarah. “The cooks chopped those awful things up and bagged up the pieces, and Georg is to take that scrap metal back with him tomorrow.”

“Brass, copper, uh, tin?” I asked.

“I would melt my copper and tin, then add my brass a small bit at a time with long tongs in a good flow of air,” said Annistæ. “That will keep its burning and fumes down. Then, one wishes but a little brass, but if one gets the formulation right, it makes very good jackets for bullets.”

“Nine parts copper, one part tin, perhaps half a part of brass?” I asked.

“That is what is used for bullets that travel especially fast,” said Annistæ. “The more-common type we used wanted more brass and less tin, and though the jackets are still copper-colored, they break up more easily when they hit something like the gut of a Cabroné, which is what is needed to stop such smelly people quickly when they are full of what they like for drink.”

Someone then tapped at the door, and to my surprise, I saw one of the women tailors come and motion to both Deborah and Annistae. I wondered why the tailors weren't on the lead detail, until I saw that in the case of this woman, she was one of the three left on the premises so as to get certain people 'clothed'. More, it was now known that all of our used clothing was best made into paper, or otherwise recycled, and for some reason, I had this weird thought in my mind.

Annistæ would actually prefer this 'stuff' over strips of clothing if she could get her hands on such thick 'yarn', as it worked especially well with her rug-hook as it was now. I thought to ask her when she got back but as I continued checking through the bins we had, I found a strange-looking 'vest', this unusual in its size – it was for someone of short and slight figure – and also, it was obviously for a woman. I thought to bring it to Sarah, who took one look at it and screeched.

“This thing has my name on it!” she yelled.

“Perhaps try it on?” I asked. “See if it fits?”

Sarah did just that, and not three minutes later, she returned.

I then learned the truth about these vests: they tended to make women look especially lovely, and it was all I could do to not hug the stuffing out of Sarah. As it was, I felt strongly inclined to rub her, and she seemed to like that greatly.

“You really seem to know when my neck or shoulders are getting knots,” she said. “Now, does this make me look more attractive?”

“Yes, dear, it does,” I said soothingly. “You look especially lovely, though I think you look lovely no matter what you are dressed in. Now, all you need is one of those nice soft cloaks, one that helps keep out distractions, a special recliner for sewing or studying, a computer, and perhaps some other things I cannot currently think about – oh, and a comfortable headset and a good radio to listen to, so you can enjoy music.” Pause, then, “only one thing missing, and I have no idea where or how to get one for you.”

“What?” asked Sarah.

“A small red stone, very fiery and brilliant,” I said. “I'm not sure if it goes on your finger or on a chain about your neck, but they were called rubies where I came from, and I think you need one the size of a small pea.”

“What would I wish one of those for?” asked Sarah.

“To remind you of why you are laboring so hard, and who you are laboring for, and how important what you are doing actually is when matters seem dark, gloomy, scary, and forbidding,” I said. “There's something about remaining a long time in the black sack that makes many women greatly desire such adornment, as they need reminders.”

“I already have one about my neck, remember?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, but that one is from the one you are to serve,” I said. “This one would be from m-me, and it says how much I cherish you.” I then reached into my pocket, and for some odd reason, I found something in a small wooden box. I took it out, and gave it to Sarah – who then opened it. She gasped, then said, “what is this thing! I have never seen anything like it!”

I took one look, then, “the small finger of the right hand, dear,” I said. “That is one of those stones I was talking about, and now, we both know this thing is a lot bigger than what I thought it was. You're going to need that ring, really need it, and in the black sack...”

Sarah looked at me with a look that was the very picture of horror, then hugged me, whispering, “thank you. I was just told why you wanted me to have it, and saying I need it is a gross understatement.”

“You'll get a much fuller explanation tomorrow about the need for that ring,” said the soft voice. “You have a marriage seal, but that ring isn't like one of those.” Pause, then, “they have plenty of those stones overseas, and they will become very popular at the Abbey in the foreseeable future.”

“Why?” I asked.

An enigmatic reply came to me: “can't tell if I'm going up or down.” Pause, then, “it helps to have that kind of a reminder to duty then, as then you can tell if you are going up or down – or sideways, or the time has slipped in some fashion, or any one of a number of strange things that can and do happen in an altered time and space regime.” Another pause, then, “such rings will be required space equipment, by the way, as if you think the black sack is strange, wait until you try going faster than light in a starship. Then you'll need one to avoid trouble – and that for both men and women, especially if they're doing work on the flight deck.”

“Me?” I asked. There was no answer.