Slice!


With the missive inked and put upon a sand-filled 'plate' under a heating lamp turned down low so as to dry thoroughly in a minimum of time, Sarah and I were escorted out by Maria. I could tell she would most likely have new clothing within short order, that or have her current clothing altered for 'discrete carry' of weapons of one kind or another.

As the two of us walked back toward the room, I recalled not merely the need to find that 'eight and a half' revolver, but also, those needles Sarah had spoken of. She would need to select them, though I suspected that would be best done up on the fourth floor as we made our cots ready.

“Mining cots, most likely,” I said. “Is that what the two of them are sleeping upon?”

“I suspect that to be likely, though I know there are bedsteads being worked on in the boatwright's shop.”

“Uh, a wider-than-usual one?” I asked.

“I am not sure if either woman needs one,” said Sarah. “I doubt the guards coming shall wish them, even if I know more than one person from the Valley shall wish to be part of our classes.” I caught the use of 'our', as in Sarah would be helping me to teach. I was most glad of that – though when she looked at me next, it was the absolute picture of horror.

“N-no,” she said. “H-how..?”

“I had thought of that also, dear,” I said quietly. “About the best I could come up with is to roll out of bed to each side and land on the floor, then one at a time... I know I'll keep my eyes tight shut until you're decent...”

“I most likely will, as I must sleep in bed-clothing, and I know you do commonly,” said Sarah.

“Soft, warm, pleasant to the touch...” I murmured. “I really like the underclothing you do. Only those strange black ones I had felt better, and sewing that cloth was absolute trouble with that machine I had access to.”

“Hence the one that comes home with you will be much easier to use, as well as you'll have more of that underclothing like you currently are wearing,” said the soft voice. “Its current absence, save among those personnel deemed 'especially important' by the leadership there, make it a valued item.”

“If they have no money, then how can they purchase it?” asked Sarah. “Do they simply long for it and have no way of getting it?”

“While money is a rare thing there save among a few of those named 'spies' and those that are above them in the power structure, the 'commons' do have units of exchange that serve as money among them.”

“What?” I asked.

Fasteners,” said the soft voice. “Those 'stout' screws would be worth their weight in gold over there. Only one type is prized more for fasteners intended to not be removed and replaced.”

“Uh, what?” I asked.

Blind Rivets,” said the soft voice. “Those are worth more than their weight in gold over there. Figure a common aluminum blind rivet is worth roughly two guilders among those people, if you use the rates common to the central portion of the first kingdom's.”

“Common aluminum?” I spluttered, as we went back into the room – to there see Annistæ eating what looked to be a portion of fried egg upon toast. She was not the only person doing so: Deborah was also doing the same, though the small container of Raw-Deal sauce made for wondering, and the plates having toast and what looked much like scrambled eggs made for frantic scrambling on the part of myself and Sarah – as I knew I liked eggs, and I suspected she did also.

As did Karl and Sepp, and they both had their plates and eating utensils out. I then noticed that they were using those we had found at the Abbey.

“Using those?” I murmured.

“We might as well get used to using them,” said Sepp. “Now I did up that egg, and it was a doubled-yolk one, so it was enough for this meal.”

“Egg, or eggs?” I asked, as I asked for my share of the 'scrambled eggs'. I wondered how hard it was to make 'freeze-dried' meals – as 'scrambled egg upon toast' sounded like a good 'Kommando' meal.

“Egg, as in one,” said Sepp. “It was not easy to crack that thing, so I had to look in your possible bag for that hammer you used for riveting, then I had to pick out the bits of shell once I had broken it.”

“Ai, and he did well,” said Annistæ. “May I have some of that red-sauce?”

I passed it over to her, then using a small and slender silvered spoon I had not seen prior, she got out a small portion for the rest of her egg. She then noticed I was staring at her spoon.

“Yes, I can make a mold of this one,” she said. “It seems people do not use such things here for stirring their drinks.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. “The only things we have are beer and boiled water, and water really needs to run through a still of some kind to be entirely safe.”

Cé, but I can do that with the glass we have easily, so we can have good water to drink,” she said. “I can start that tonight.”

“Stirring one's drink?” I asked.

“Cé, it is this powder made from the boiled leaves of this shrub,” said Annistæ, “and it tastes very good. I ran out months ago of the powder, but I have some of the seeds in a small vial with their instructions.”

“Might not grow this far north,” I said. “Probably need to turn a room or two upstairs into a greenhouse of sorts – heat, light, humidity, everything controlled properly so as to grow those shrubs.” Pause, then, “is it sweet, bitter, uh...”

“It wishes dried sweetener and then this dried material from what you call yellow-fruit,” said Annistæ. “Then, if it is iced, one uses this type of spoon to stir one's glass. I saw some things in that room with the glass that looked as if they would work well for drink-glasses, but I will need to grow the plants first, and that means a warm place with strong lighting, and regular watering on a schedule.”

“I hope we can get such lighting overseas, then,” I muttered. “I think I might like this drink. Is it, uh, invigorating?”

“Non, it helps when you are tired and wish to sleep,” said Annistæ. “Beer here works some, but one wants a few drops of that one tincture that I could make into that drug so as to sleep well after drinking it, but this drink needs no such thing. One drinks a glass, then one gets into bed and sleeps well, or if the glass is a small one, it is good after a hard day of work or a bad fight – and we usually carried our vials of the needed things for that drink when we were going out to fight, as it helped a lot to have it.”

“Drat,” I thought, recalling the taste of iced tea between bites of 'egg on toast'. I'd used a 'spare' spoon from a 'mess kit' looted from the Abbey to get my own dosing of raw-deal sauce, and Annistæ was looking at me with a face that either spoke of 'awe' or 'wonder' – or perhaps perplexity.

“He likes that stuff,” said Sepp. “He says it helps his digestion.”

“Has he had his insides cut?” asked Annistæ.

I stood up and lifted my shirt, there showing the sheer number of slices and cuts I'd gotten – as well as a number of slightly puckered scars, these made by obvious bullets – and most of those I had not seen before. More than one of them was nearly an inch across, which made for wondering.

“Ai, you are as bad that way as Toréo is,” she said. “Now, were you shot with one of those weapons down in the fifth kingdom?”

“Not sure, dear,” I said. “I was so busy yesterday – I think I got those then – that I had no idea I'd been shot or hit at all when going after those thugs, but...” I paused, mouth full of egg-on-toast, then when I'd gotten it down, I asked, “when did that happen?”

“Yesterday when clearing that one large room with the beds on that lowest floor,” said the soft voice. “That really got onto those men, as more than one them accidently hit you with a ball from a roer, and you were hit repeatedly with stray loopers.”

“I was shot with a front-loading elephant gun?” I screeched.

“Yes, and you were so fixated on dealing with those functionaries that you 'ignored being shot'.” Pause, then, “that, however, just proved the matter as far as they were concerned.”

“Of what?” asked Sepp. “That he's as tough that way as one of those mean black cattle?”

“No, not one of those,” said the soft voice. “They then knew what he was, and what the witches would name him.”

“Monster,” I murmured. “Besté.”

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “They know, this by overhearing the conversation of witches, that there's one special example of monster – and that, and all the other hits you took then – told them you were that particular person.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “Sepp, I think you're about the best of us going for cooking. This egg is delicious. You put anything to it when, uh, cooking it – and what did you cook it in, by the way?”

“One of those 'mess-kits', though I needed to use the pot portion and keep it stirred,” said Sepp. “That was a big egg, and it wanted pepper and a bit of cleaned salt, as well as a tiny bit of Torga from my spices.”

“Yes, it had two yolks and more white, and it was larger,” said Karl. “It came from a large chicken, as the smaller ones choke on such things.”

“They become egg-bound, you mean,” said Sarah. “I know we will need to learn to speak properly so those people over there can understand us, and I suspect he's going to have to speak a great deal for us until we learn to speak rightly.”

“And I'm afraid to do so,” I muttered.

“Then just tell me what to say,” said Sarah. “If I can say it, and it does not knot my tongue, then I'll say it for you.” Pause, then, “if it is one of those unusual words, though, then you may have to speak it.” Sarah then looked at Sepp, her eyes wide.

“You put Torga in that egg?” she squeaked.

“Yes, a small pinch of the well-dried root,” said Sepp. “Why, is it trouble?”

Sarah began muttering, then said, “around you, most likely not, but if he...” Sarah paused, gulped, then said, “both Hans and Anna can tell you what happened when he was grinding that stuff up in a mortar, and he was saying it smelled like this strange chemical.”

“Stuff smelled like lacquer thinner,” I said, “and they noted nothing out of the ordinary, at least until I went near it with this candle in my hands. It was billowing these thick fumes that I could see, and then this huge red flash of flame went up and blew out every candle in the kitchen, and the mortar and pestle were both caked with soot where the stuff had burned.”

“That is why I insisted that I only get that which had been dried well,” said Sepp. “Torga can be trouble, or so I've heard from the cooks here, so I got some of theirs, because that stuff behaves itself around all of the cooks.”

All of the cooks?” I asked.

“One of them lost a toe to a witch, much like Anna did,” said Sepp. “She's a lot different than she used to be, and I wondered why, so I asked her.”

“Hans will get marked this summer,” I said, “and I suspect she might get more markings... Something about a sword, and we'll need to use that Life-Saver stuff on her, and I'll need to carry her on Jaak to the Abbey to the Theater they'll have there.” Pause, then, “at least by then they'll have a few doctors on hand.”

“Most of the people over there with medical training have an entirely different name for themselves,” said the soft voice. “They aren't normal doctors.”

“Brujé?” I asked.

“You'll learn soon enough what they're called,” said the soft voice. “Imagine someone who knows as much as any doctor you've ever encountered as far as medicine is concerned, then that person is able to make most of their own equipment, any 'pins' or screws they need, as well as limb splints and braces, and work on and program their medical equipment. That's what those people are like.”

“Ai, that is a Brujé, one like those from El Sierra do Nuëstra Brujé,” said Annistæ. “That is how they are, and the best one is named like that one Medikalé that was here earlier. She is very strange, and silly like Deborah, but her hands are golden, or so they say there, and she was wanting one of these books very badly for herself to read, as I saw her crying more than once.”

“Crying?” I asked.

“Cé, she was wanting Déo badly, and she knew not how to find him,” she said. “She was very afraid of the whites there, like most of those people are, and they stay out of the bad places. No one goes there, not even their bad people, as those places have more whites than anywhere save one place.”

“Oh, that place,” I murmured, as I finished the last of my egg-upon-toast. “I've been there twice, briefly, and it is not a place you want to go.”

“Cé?” asked Annistæ. “You went to the bad place, where it is as hot as an iron-melting furnace, and there are big mean whites that are...”

“They don't look filmy at all there, dear,” I said softly. “They look really solid, and really real, and earlier today, I saw this one really stinky witch riding an animal that was entirely curse-conjured...” Pause, then, “did that smelly witch of before the war actually ride one of those things?”

“No, he didn't, as he could not conjure one,” said the soft voice. “He did have one of those vehicles, though, and he drove it like an absolute maniac.”

“He did?” I gasped.

“It was not shaped like a truck, but like something you drew once,” said the soft voice. “Recall some of the cars you drew, and then the shape of what you had where you came from, once you had modified the body like you did? He tried to duplicate that vehicle, as he wanted something like it, but that car proved a bit beyond him, so he had to settle for one a bit less touchy.”

“Beyond him?” I asked.

“As in he bent the thing the first time he tried driving it,” said the soft voice. “It didn't help that he wasn't as good of a driver as you were – before you came here, that is.”

“How am I now?” I asked. “Worse?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “Recall what I said about your ability to press one of those vehicles to its absolute limits?”

I nodded.

“I meant 'the hottest things they had' when I said that,” said the soft voice. “Something that had about eight hundred horsepower and weighed under two thousand pounds – something that could leave burnt rubber in every gear at any speed less than its maximum.”

“Oh my God,” I squeaked. “But my car...”

“Had a much lower power to weight ratio compared to one of those, even if what you had wasn't a joke,” said the soft voice. “Recall how highly tuned that engine was, and how it needed the very best you could do to get ones that lasted more than fifty hours before they began to 'go leaky'?”

“Near 'full-race' levels of tune,” I muttered. “Never got one of them on a real dyno, just that one thing with the five flywheels and that water pump and three open-top oil drums for the water, and then this gate valve I modified a lot, and an old computer to indicate what was happening regarding torque and revolutions, and acceleration...”

“It wasn't that inferior to a real one,” said the soft voice. “It did tell you what you needed to do, and it did give you a fairly good indication of what your engines could do.”

“How loud they were, also,” I said, recalling the eerie howling wail of one of those engines as it ran up near its power peak. “Revved right up, even with that, uh, gate-valve turned down and...”

“Wait until you see what's upstairs in that laboratory,” said the soft voice. “Now, let Karl do the dishes – he's good at those – get a dose of that special tincture and some beer, and resume your packing. You've got perhaps an hour before it will be time for sword-practice.”

“Yes, I know,” said Gabriel, as he came in the door. His strange limping walk made for wondering until I looked at his leg, then realized he needed both another dose of Annistæ's medicine as well as a bandage-change and possibly treating with tailor's antiseptic. We'd filled several smaller screw-top plastic vials of that one jug, as well as at least three of the larger escape-proof containers. I had one of the latter, in fact.

I could change his bandage readily, or so I thought until I saw what looked like traces of pus once I'd removed the old one. I then spat, “cursed infection, go get into a witch, and leave this man alone!”

The 'pus' vanished, and Gabriel sighed, then said, “that medicine is still causing trouble. I'll need to take tinctures on a schedule to not have big brown hairy teeth showing.”

“Big brown hairy teeth?” I gasped. “Where?”

“Up near that shop where I was getting fitted for a belt,” said Gabriel, indicating the brown leather one he had been wearing. “It was three feet taller than I am, nearly as wide as it was tall, and it was a back tooth, not a front one.” Pause, then, “it had huge staring eyes, a mouth full of teeth like these bad fish out on the sea that scare me colors, and it was hungry – but that wasn't the problem.”

“What was?” I asked.

“It was covered with hair, or something like hair,” said Gabriel. “Perhaps it was closer to goat-hair, or the wool of a sheep, or something, but seeing that thing suddenly show like that made me run for that leather place as fast as I could, as it was coming after me, and it was hungry.”

“Quick, Sarah, the needles!” I said, laughing as I went in search for that one revolver. I had an inclination that I would soon need to teach shotgun shell reloading, and when Sarah came up behind me and gently nudged my back, she asked, “what did you mean by that? I had those needles in my pack still. Are you after one of them?”

“No, but I thought that joke was just too good to pass up,” I said.

“You know how silly I am,” said Deborah. “I think he's worse when he's inclined that way.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “I just wasn't sure what he was talking about. Now where did you learn that one?”

“This odd visual story, “ I said. “One of the main characters spoke something like that to the other, and it was regarding a needle – only he was not speaking of a sewing needle, but rather one of those evil horrors called Spraetzen – the ones that hurt really bad.” Pause, then, “I have no idea how he could stand those things, or what he was putting in them.”

“You can get those?” asked Annistæ – meaning 'Spraetzen'. “If you can, you must have them for Graćiella's supplies, as there are many medicines that must be used that way, those and some of the small glass tubulés that such medicines must be put to keep the small creatures out of them.”

“Uh, what shape are these tubulés you speak of?” I asked, as I continued looking for the revolver. I was getting closer, but so far, I had found most of the supplies needed for loading shotgun shells, and Sepp was looking with longing at a large cloth sack labeled as having 'Blue' shot. He was trying to speak the word 'millimeter' and having trouble even beginning to say it, even if he could tell the stuff was fairly large by feeling it through the cloth of the bag.

“How much is ten kill-o-what-its?” asked Sepp.

“About twenty-two pounds, unless the conversion factor I remember is off,” I said. “First with those shells one puts in the primer, which is a bit touchy. It needs a special tool, which I j-just found.”

Here, I handed Sepp an 'auto-prime' tool, this not only actually inserting the primers from its tubular magazine, but also indicating their seating depth and their 'force' – and 'force' was a crucial matter with shotgun shells, as too much 'force' made for higher chamber pressures and a possibly damaged weapon, while too little 'force' made for possible misfires – and one did not wish either of those things while 'repelling the boarder'. He asked me about it a second or so after I handed it to him.

“This thing is strange,” he said. “It has this dial here, with a red portion, one that is yellow, and a green stripe, then more yellow, a red part, and then black on the other end of the scale. I have no idea what these colors mean.”

“When you're inserting the primer, squeeze the lever gently until that indicator is centered in the green range, that part right there” – here, I pointed at the green range – “hold for a quick count of three, then slowly release the lever and remove the shell. That's the toughest portion of doing this business, is cleaning out those primer pockets and then priming these things. The rest is fairly easy, if I go by what I've done in the past.”

“There is this card here, and it folds,” says Karl. “It speaks of how to do this, and there is this brush that needs to clean those things out on the inside.”

Especially the primer pocket,” I said. I knew about those, and had had special tools for doing so when had been reloading ammunition in the past. It was really critical with match ammunition.

“No, more than that,” said Karl. “It speaks of using a stiff brush dipped in alcohol for both parts of that cleaning, and then setting the thing alight.”

“What?” I gasped. I'd finally narrowed down the portion of the stack hiding that eight-and-a-half revolver, and when I opened the lid of the hefty bin that was hiding it once I got the bin on the floor, I gasped.

There wasn't one of those 'eight and a half' revolvers. The bin was full of them, they and their 'cleaning kits'. I carried the bin over to the table, plumped it down, then drew out one of these weapons. The darksome blue-black finish was a soft lustrous 'glow' that seemed miles deep, the machining inhumanly neat, the cartridge size marked plainly – 8.5 X 25 millimeters – as well as the word 'Webley', and when I opened the weapon, the feeling, both superficial and 'deep', of total 'aerospace' precision was astonishing. I handed that one to Sarah, who then snapped it shut with a soft click, then aimed it at an imaginary place on the wall as if preparing to disintegrate an especially irritating manure-fly.

“This points nearly as well as a dueling pistol,” said Sarah. “It's out of an old tale.”

“What are these roughly equivalent to?” I asked. Mental math told me their nominal bullet diameter was roughly three hundred and thirty-five thousandths of an inch.

I knew I'd not wish to be shot with one.

“Recall that one pistol you had like these of stainless steel?” asked the soft voice. “The standard-velocity ammunition is about what you used in it for hunting loads, while the 'hot stuff' is bad enough to make you think you were firing that pistol again with full-power factory loads.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “Dear, these pistols are nearly as strong as those clockwork marvels.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those rounds are about half again as much stronger – in a pistol. In the machine pistols, that extra barrel length adds quite a bit to the muzzle velocity, which is why they're closer to that one awful-feeling weapon for power than what is normally thought of where you come from for that class of weapon.”

“Uh, larger diameter of bullet, similar weight?” I asked.

“No, a bit heavier bullet than what was usual for those of that type you fired once and thought 'never again', and but slightly less muzzle velocity, which is why they don't quite have the same range.” Pause, then, “the current-production rounds, used in a weapon like you have, will perform better yet – and realistically, they'll do the job for nearly all of the shooting most people will do overseas and here.”

“Hundred and fifty yards tops as a rule in either location,” I said.

“Most of the time, you can figure more like 'fifteen yards or less',” said the soft voice. “At that range, it has better stopping power than you might think, especially with ammunition loaded with recent-vintage high-energy propellant and the full complement of updated parts fitted.”

I had counted the 'eight-and-a-half' revolvers, and learned we actually had thirty of them, each with a cloth tool-roll containing the cleaning kit – which also supplied the two screwdriver blades needed to do a detailed field-stripping for cleaning of the inner works, should that prove needed. I thought, “two each for us, and a third for a spare, and then perhaps three more for the bags and samples for duplication, and the rest for people here...”

Annistæ took one look, removed one of the weapons, then aimed it as if she'd been shooting such weapons since she was a young girl. She looked at me, then said, “Deborah, I think you want one of these. They feel good, they point well, and they are as reliable as a maérro.”

“A hammer?” I asked. This was not a riveting hammer Annistæ had spoken of, but a forging hammer – perhaps a smaller one, but still, one used for pounding iron. “Are those double-action?”

“Try pulling the trigger on one,” said the soft voice. “You won't damage these by dry-firing.”

I did, and noticed that first, the double-action pull, while a bit long for my taste, was smooth, even, and the hammer fell abruptly, with no warning. The single-action trigger pull, was a total surprise.

“Like a glass rod breaking,” I spluttered. “These things are good.”

“Cé, they are,” she said. “You need three of them each, as I can tell something of those blue-suited Cabroni – they come at you as if they are full of drink, and while many need but little lead to go down, there are some that will act as if they are real Cabroni, those who dress in black clothing, and those will want much warm lead to drop and remain still, and with some, you may need your sword to remove their heads and then put some of that smelly root in their mouths so they stay dead.”

Sarah, however, once she had her three pistols picked out, began looking through her 'needles', and within seconds, she turned loose of a screech worthy of a mind-bending nightmare.

“What, dear?” I asked, as I brought forth another bin, this one feeling distinctly like it had ammunition in it. I left it lay, while Sepp opened it and began 'pawing about' inside it. I went to see what Sarah had found, as I could examine the bin's contents later.

“This is a first-quality fourth-kingdom leather-needle, one of a medium size,” she said, producing a needle a trifle longer than what I usually used for length. This one looked likely for 'shooting gloves'. “This type here is made specially by a firm that makes instruments, and they need two inducements and a total of forty guilders each!”

“That much for one needle?” I gasped.

“They are not normal needles,” said Sarah. “First, they are made of the Heinrich works' best grade of tool-steel, then they are ground carefully all over after die-forging, and then they are polished using these special machines, and finally finish-polished carefully by hand. They make these more or less to order, and they're perfect if one needs to sew much in leather.” Pause, then mumbled, “that smelly woman must have bought this one after it was stolen from someone.”

“She – or rather, they – did, and that's not the only needle like it in there,” said the soft voice. “Find the ones you're after for darts, and in the process, you'll find at least three more of those needles like that, as well as some very good sewing needles, ones you wish to keep specially in their own lump of beeswax.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“Because those are also special needles from the same firm, they being carefully contoured, highly polished, hand-burnished, very sharp, and nearly impossible to break,” said the soft voice. “They'll speed up your hand-sewing by nearly a third, they're so much better than other needles – and you'll want to give Dennis two or three if you find enough of them, as you know he can help you sew if you need him to.”

“Who normally buys those?” I asked. I had more than a few 'suspicions' regarding 'who' was buying up most of them – as indeed, 'money talks, and tailors walk' was the rule in the fourth kingdom. In fact, 'money talks' was the rule for everyone there – and the witches had more money than anyone.

Hence they got what they wished when they wished it, and everyone else fought for their leavings, just as if the fourth kingdom was indeed 'the prime slave-pen' witchdom thought it as being.

“Until quite recently, the price was bid up to artificially high levels by witches buying the bulk of that firm's output, but since the start of the recent witch-trouble in the fourth kingdom, there have been fewer takers in general, and it's also been a good deal easier to make those, as two of their 'chief' workmen have 'vanished'.”

“A pair of well-hid witches chanting curses and playing games with the equipment,” I spat.

“Much more than just playing games,” said the soft voice. “They were trying to take that place over, but they didn't have the knowledge or the care needed to turn out the mandated level of product – and when you have needles that costly, the buyers tend to be very impatient and quite demanding.”

“They ought to be if they pay that much for them,” I spluttered. I then recalled Annistæ speaking of medicine vials, and I thought to ask of their shape as I went to see what was in that bin which had Sepp so interested.

“They are thin, round-bottomed, of glass, and have this rim for securing the sealing ring, which is of copper,” she said. “They are not like some other shapes that we know of, as those shapes draw whites, and we worked hard for many years to find a shape that did not do so – and if you do not want those in your medicines, then you must have a shape they dislike greatly, and they do not like vials that are shaped like little tubes for testing.”

“Internal resonance modes,” I muttered.

“No, not merely that, but also the thickness of the glass, and especially its formulation,” said the soft voice, “and in order to get that shape to come out consistently with their equipment, they had to get their glass right.” Pause, then, “it helps a lot, also, when that shape lends itself to taking a long tube, scoring it with a thin grinding wheel turning rapidly, snapping each length off, then simply fire-polishing and then forming it, and then putting a stopper and ferule at each end – which is how the first ones were done, and in some places with less-sophisticated equipment, is still done.”

“That way is easily reused, also, which is good, as good glass is hard to make,” said Annistæ. “Toréo had to spend years getting all of that equipment right, and I helped him a lot, so between us, we were able to make glass good enough for chemistry glassware and optics.”

“The same glass for both uses?” I asked.

“Yes, as one wants clean glass for both things,” said Annistæ, “and dirty glass makes for medicine turning poisonous and optical equipment that is worthless – and no one wishes either thing to be so, not when it can mean their life.”

“And, uh, valfuelæ?” I asked.

“Those are done similarly,” she said, “as they have their base with the metal structure attached to the inserted pins, the main portion of the glass part, and the top with the place to remove the air.”

“Sounds rather leak-prone to do it that way,” I murmured.

“I have suspected as much for years,” said Annistæ. “Now I hope yours will not be so, as we had to make many of ours. At least with that way of doing it, they could be repaired without much difficulty, or if they were beyond repair, they could be taken apart and their pieces recycled.”

“Repaired?” I thought. “They would go bad quickly?”

“Often as little as a few hundred hours before they started to lose gain and 'go soft',” said the soft voice. “The usual type used overseas is worse yet, however.” Pause, then, “yours, though – those things will be known for their longevity and ruggedness, so much so that you may be surprised what kind of names they put on them.”

“What?” I asked.

“Hint: 'it takes a churning, and it keeps on a-burning',” said the soft voice, “and no, that statement does not come from where you do.”

With the revolver ammunition present – that entire bin was filled with cloth bags labeled as either 'standard velocity' or 'high-velocity' – and Sarah bagging some of each type up using a number of small leather pouches she seemed to have either been making on the sly or had gotten by some odd means – or possibly both – I thought to turn my attention to teaching the reloading of shotgun shells.

Between what the other three men had already figured out, what I managed to read in perhaps three minutes, and my previous experience in loading them where I came from – these weren't that different – the four of us were producing a full-loaded one every minute or so after the first two or three shells, even with the need to set them alight after cleaning them with aquavit. The small amount burnt for but a few seconds, and the shells cooled enough to readily handle within perhaps a minute or so.

I was also noticing that we were loading them predominantly with 'blue' shot, which meant putting the pellets in using some odd-shaped tweezers included in the kit, and counting their number as they went inside. Seven, five, seven, five, and seven, for a total of thirty-one pellets, and the heft of the individual pellets was astonishing. They felt as if they weighed nearly as much as the ball for a common-size revolver, and once we'd done up forty of the 'blue' shells, we went to loads of 'green' shot for the balance.

Those just needed a volume measure, thankfully, though one got two or three pellets more if one put them in with the tweezers. Sepp proved adept at putting those in the most-compact fashion, while I was given the priming aspect.

That was the most crucial matter, and I had underestimated its importance: not only did the alcohol entirely remove the fouling left by primer and propellant, but that brief period of burning followed by air-cooling annealed the thing enough for its ready reuse.

I was also glad that these thick shells more or less did not need resizing, due to their comparatively low chamber pressure – even if these shells were strong enough to blow apart any such weapon made where I came from.

Once cool to the touch – the folded laminated double-sided 'card' was critical about that aspect – the shells could be reprimed, and here, the easy use of the priming tool was astonishing to me: slip the shell in, squeeze gently – I got so I could get 'centered green' by feel alone after the third one – and then releasing the lever when I felt the primer not trying to jump out.

Gabriel put in the propellant using a small metal dipper and a 'spade' to scrape off the excess propellant 'granules' before dumping it into the shell, then inserted the plastic wad before handing the shell to Sepp. That individual then loaded the shell with shot using those special tweezers included in the reloading supplies, and Karl finally used his fingers to first carefully seat the slightly domed frangible plastic closure disk and then painted the 'mouth-sealant' on using a small pointed 'artist's brush'. He then wrote, with this one metal 'tube' that had been included, either 'B' or 'G', depending upon what we had stuffed the individual shells with.

We were not going after buzzards or fool-hens, but big nasty rodents and seriously hard thugs, and those wanted stiffer shot than mere fowls.

As the last of the empty shells became 'finished' – they went in shell-belts, these with latching metal buckles and seemingly intended to be worn over the shoulder – I could see Sarah doing something involving vegetable fiber and a sizable number of long needles, as well as a small ceramic vial. The odor of this vial gave it away as containing Krokus, and when I came near with the two bags containing the belts of shotgun shells, I asked, “the laundry? Our towels? Any clothing we'll need?”

I only then noted the two yellow-brown lumps of beeswax, each of them studded with the best sewing needles I had ever seen. Sarah put one of them in my hand, and I marveled at both the lump of beeswax and the number of needles present – in two sizes, a 'large' and a 'small', and not only were these leather-needles.

Some were obviously sewing needles, also.

“That will be some hours yet,” said Sarah, “and because we will become dirty while working in the laboratory, we will dirty up more clothing. They will be working late hours tonight, and if they sleep, it will be little indeed.” Pause, then, “these needles look likely for darts, and I have well over a hundred of them here. I just need glue for their bases to put this stuff on them.” Here, she indicated the vegetable fiber.

“I can make that easily,” said Annistæ. “That bad animal glue you have here just needs boiling with one of those pieces of special wire used in those lanterns that cause eye-trouble, some Alkoli, a bit of sulfur-acid, and a bit of water for an hour, and then it is much better.” She took up the vial. “This, it is juice of the plant we put to witches, and I can make it into something that will work especially well on these needles as a dip.”

“How, Madame?” I asked.

“By first adding this chemical made from distillate, adding it to the juice, then shaking while heating in hot water for perhaps twenty minutes, then drawing off the water portion and evaporating the resulting liquid in hot water until half its volume is lost.”

“Solvent extraction,” I said. “That one chemical Sarah made that can, uh, 'call flies' would work well.”

“I think they have some already done up in that one stockroom!” said Sarah. “It will smell horribly!”

“Yes, and when you dip your darts in it, it will put those Cabroni into the bad place quickly,” said Annistæ. “You hit them in the neck, and they will drop before you can count to three, and they will make no noise at all when it kills them.”

And yet, as we made our final preparations – this involving sewing and riveting various scabbards for knives and swords – that after our period of sword-practice in the lower portion of the house, we would need a brief time of rest. It had been a long day, a hard one – an especially hard one, if one had been tossed by fetishes much, or dealt with witches, and both had happened to me – and I was getting to the place where I was sufficiently 'in love with my pillow' that I was going to need a nap, even a short one.

“Before or after sword-practice?” I asked. I then looked at my hand, as I sat, I saw it – and the world about me – fading into a darkened realm, one of such blackness that when I abruptly jerked awake, I wondered what had happened to me.

“You need a nap,” said Annistæ. “I can tell. Now I know enough about blades that tired means getting hurt with them, and that is for what I am used to. Those like you do, that might mean your death, and no one wants that.”

I was bundled off post-haste to room sixty-seven, where as I put my gear on the floor, a sense of such weariness overtook me that I fell asleep while still standing and came to myself laying on my side on the bed, clutching the machine pistol to myself as if it were my lifeline. I came to myself groggily, then as I woke up more, I noted with growing horror that I had slept with the weapon set to full-auto with a round in the chamber – 'Ready to Rock', as someone in my distant past might say – perhaps someone like a coworker who'd been in southeast Asia when I was a boy, or some fellow in a wheelchair I might have met in the town I had gone to school last who had a close encounter of the bad kind – one involving a land mine, perhaps – in the same area.

“Eeek!” I screeched, as I immediately cleared the weapon and began a quick-cleaning. I found that my vest had somehow gotten a larger escape-proof bottle of 'rifle-cleaning solvent', and as I used that stuff, the amount of 'dirt' that came out of the weapon was well-beyond astonishing. It took over a dozen patches and use of both barrel and chamber brushes to get the whole of the barrel clean, and three more patches, these using the bent hemostats one wanted for reaching down into the 'lower works', for wiping down those parts I could reach with the cleaning solvent. I only then noted the strange yet penetrating odor of the stuff, and as I felt the metal surfaces as I used the last cleaning patch of the lot to wipe down the external portions of the weapon, I noted a slight yet definite oiliness remaining.

“Not quite the feeling of that blue oil, though,” I said, as I fetched that bottle out. I knew that stuff was a requisite to keeping these and other weapons running smoothly and not having trouble. Its regular use was a lifesaver, and my experience yesterday dealing with that mess of thugs had me not wishing to take unneeded chances with weapons quitting on me.

“No, it isn't,” said the soft voice – meaning the suitability of 'regular' cleaning solvent regarding lubrication. Perhaps with those revolvers of the name 'Webley' – those weapons here – it was good enough, but not this one. “You'll wish to use that oil to wipe off the bolt, the bolt-carrier, and the other moving parts you can readily reach in that weapon, and do so regularly as a matter of 'quick-cleaning'.”

After doing so with that slippery stuff, I put the weapon's upper and lower halves back together and inserted the pin, twisting it to lock it securely in place using a one guilder piece. This was the one difference between the original setup and the 'improved' one – it wasn't just a spring holding it in place, but also a twisting aspect. I wondered if that means of securing the upper and lower receiver into one was overkill, then thought, “no, this thing has worked without a single hitch or burp since I started using it, even if I doubt if I put that many rounds through it between cleaning sessions.”

“Think again,” said the soft voice. “You put over three hundred rounds through it in Ploetzee alone yesterday, more today, and that with a poor substitute for a cleaning solvent. You have some real cleaning solvent now, and you'll soon be burning enough ammunition that it will become very wise to clean your weapons properly whenever and wherever you can.”

“How long did I sleep?” I asked, as I put away the cleaning equipment. Somehow, my pack and possible bag were in here, as well as all of my weapons. I wanted some more rifle magazines, and more of those forty-round machine pistol magazines – and I wanted at least half a dozen more small cloth and leather bags for ammunition, each with either a writ-in-ink or stamped tin label.

I had my 'main' stamp collection with me, this in their sewn 'mail-sack-cloth' holder.

“Long enough to engage in sword practice without getting frustrated with teaching Gabriel or accidently cutting off one or more appendages when doing your own 'refresher course' downstairs.” Pause, then, “you do not want to be overly tired when wielding weapons that make freshly-honed straight razors – of the expensive kind – where you come from look dull.”

“Surgical scalpels...” I mumbled.

“Not even close,” said the soft voice. “The edges you get on weapons like those blades you 'treat' approach those spoken of in certain science fiction novels – as in 'they are unbelievably sharp'.” Pause, then, “those surgical knives you've made here would be coveted where you came from, as they acquire and retain edges of such a nature to make delicate surgery a much easier matter – and their edges, like those of your weapons, show the rainbow indicative of optical refraction when held up to the light.” Pause, then, “overseas, that's called an optical edge, and it's rather interesting to see the atoms arranged like they are using some of their equipment.”

I had once read of 'monomolecular' blades in a novel of one kind or another – I could not recall its name – but somehow, I doubted ours were like those spoken of. I did not doubt that they were in the 'scarily sharp' category, and I wanted to try swinging that 'large knife' I'd 'conjured' for Gabriel, so as to learn how to use it – and then be able to teach him how to use it. I suspected that there were about eight to ten basic strokes with that type of blade, and beyond those, one merely had to know which one to use when, and if more than one assailant was present, which thug to subdivide first.

Most of the bad thugs would be dead shortly after we arrived, I suspected, at least in the port. The others... Gabriel might well encounter them one at a time, though he'd probably see several of them in the course of his duties, and that blade would work well then, if using it was appropriate.

Save in truly tight places, like when those two witches had gone after Sarah while she was using the privy. Then, a suppressed pistol was the best solution, unless genuine quiet was an essential matter.

Then one used one's 'combat dagger' and sliced 'Mister Thug' somewhere important, like the side of the neck, or stabbed him anywhere serious enough that he'd give up 'thuggery' for a bit and worry more about other matters – such as the state of his soul, perhaps, or how to stanch severe bleeding.

Only then did I notice the cart, and once I'd shouldered 'the needed matters' and put the remainder upon the cart, did I think to open the door. This I did with a darkened room, one where I had extinguished the candle, and I moved out into an eerily silent corridor, this lit by several candles – wax ones, by their smell, and decent wax, also. I hung the disk on the door's hook, indicating the room was unoccupied but wanted looking at before reissue of the room for occupancy, and then began slowly wheeling the cart down the hall.

“Want to put some of that buggy-oil to this thing's bearings,” I thought, as I wondered if we had some. I then felt my vest, and noted a tin-tag-stamped 'escape-proof bottle' labeled as having 'heavy oil, for heavy loads'. A pause to dose the wheels, a brief wiping with a rag, then the cart seemed to move both easier and quieter, and as I moved across the hallway to what I now called 'the white room', I seemed to hear scraps of that strange song again.

I wondered if 'restless diesels' were popular overseas, and then I knew – that song was not one people enjoyed over there.

Or did they? How did they understand it? Did they rewrite it so it made better sense, because the original version described the life of witches leaving those they 'loved' – leaving them after eating them, like the treacherous wretches they were, and then going after more food amid the noise and the smoke and the rattle and roar of Geeststaat?

“Precisely, and that's more or less how the original version was understood where you are going,” said the soft voice. “There's another song that speaks of white, however, and it's very popular.”

“Which one?” I asked. “Does this..?”

“Alice in Blenderland is utterly unlike the book you once read,” said the soft voice, “and no hares are involved. About all it has in common is 'it describes a very strange place, the title is somewhat similar, and the main character – who is a girl a few years younger than Deborah – is named Alice'.” Pause, then, “the song in question has a species of hare in its title.”

W-white Rabbit?” I gasped. “Th-that song?”

“Yes, only with much-different lyrics,” said the soft voice. “They have both the original version, which they think speaks of the world those 'spies' live in, and then they have the 'updated' version – one you'll recognize instantly – which is much more popular. They think it describes their leadership, and they sing it secretly so as to stand against them as a people.”

“One suit makes you prosper, and another one makes you crawl, and the ones your mother bought you, they're the worst of all?” I asked. “That version?”

“Got it right on the nose,” said the soft voice. “They have all of those reworked versions, by the way.”

“What?” I asked.

“They're quite popular overseas,” said the soft voice. “Now it's time to close up 'the hole of the albino hare, a place where secrets live eternal, and only those marked dare', and then go to the sword-practice area. Take your catalytic lanterns and the battery examples, but do as much work as you can in dim lighting, and I would practice with all of your edged weapons.”

“All?” I asked, thinking of the 'death-awl'. It did have an edge of sorts – a very sharp hollow-ground triangular point, one drawn back to a very dark straw. I was hoping to make more of them, and make the future ones with improved steel and a soft-luster blackened finish, along with blackened brass ferules and well-rubbed 'oil finished' blackwood handles.

They would be tools of darkness indeed.

“That thing will get its workout also,” said the soft voice referring to my current 'death-awl'. “It does work very well, as you learned when killing those drunken witch-sentries.”

The size of our group permitted distribution of my 'load' among the others, and with an added dose of a few drops of that special tincture, I was able to manage my possible bag without undue pain. For an instant, I was wondering why I needed to bring everything down to that dark portion of the second floor when as we passed the roundabout that led off to the first floor below ground, Annistæ said, “it is becoming cold. I want a warm cloth.”

“Warm cloth?” I asked.

Cé, with an accumuladoré for power,” she said. “It is seldom indeed that it gets this cold in El Vallyé, so we have warm cloths for the cold places if we should go into them.”

“Need to get up into the mountains on the east side, the Blue Mountains, up near their peaks, during the winter,” I said. “There you can find some snow.”

“You find that up here during the winter,” said Sarah. “The last one was the worst since before I was born, and there were some places to the north of where we live where the snow came to my waist.”

“Fourteen-foot drifts,” I spluttered. “It's almost as cold as the Abbey's armory, and... There's a wind! How is there a wind down here?”

“Ventilation, of course,” said the soft voice. “Those masons didn't waste a minute's time, and their picks got through that inner wall quicker than Hendrik thought possible, even if he didn't enjoy the noise of their blasting.”

“Blasting?” I asked.

“Recall your two rock bits?” asked the soft voice. “How you cleaned and oiled them recently after using them that day upon blowing Iggy's door?” Pause, then, “Anna let those masons use one, and they're using it, all right – only they're using powder, not dynamite, and small charges stemmed with wooden pieces drilled for fuse.”

“Common powder, Valley powder, or some stuff from Ploetzee's powder mill?” I asked.

“Lukas brought in a small keg of the latter recently, and they knew of it. So they borrowed a small bottle of the stuff, thinking to repay him somehow with their earnings. They left a note speaking of the need of the stuff, what it was for, and much else.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped.

“It said on the last line, 'use this message in lieu of a privy rag when you next visit the privy, and otherwise keep it well-hid in your clothing once you see it',” said the soft voice. “It's under the surface of the powder in that keg, so only when he tries to get more powder out of it will he learn of it – unless you tell him sooner.”

We came to the roundabout for the second floor, and as the cart was put back together on the landing, I felt not merely the soft and flowing wind, but also a chill, this not quite icy yet biting just the same. More, the light was here and there showing itself in soft flickerings, with huge patches of darkness between, and the smell of wax, faint yet obvious, told me this was the raw-skimmed material directly from bee-runners.

It had not seen boiling beyond that needed for candle-dipping – which meant poor-burning candles. I thought to ask about them when I saw one, and gasped, “who did that thing?”

“I suspect a witch,” said Sarah. “It was not done by a local chandler...”

I had gone to the candle, touched it, noticed faintly glowing red handprints, and touched them. Putting my fingertip near my nose spoke of greasy hands that rarely bathed, a smell of rancid sweat, dust, hard labor – and yet, mingled with all of this, a scent reminiscent of smoky fires, this from from a bad stove – a stove best found quickly, then broken up and its pieces tossed into Frankie.

“Going to need to make stove-patterns,” I muttered. “I'm going to need to make more patterns in general, either that or have them made here, or at least, have the wood parts cut to size here and assemble them myself.” I then bent my attention back to the nearest candle, and as I looked into the guttering smoky flame, I seemed to see the scene where these things were being made, and then, as the scene before my eyes scrolled to a time before that, one of those traitorous clerks, this with a large leather pouch of money – several hundred guilders at the least – as well as Hendrik's writing, this speaking of 'a very large order of candles, this to be sent up to the first kingdom house proper in six portions, from a candle-works in the fourth kingdom'.

I then put the evidence I was seeing together: the clerks had bought the raw wax, processed it as little as possible, and dipped the bulk of these candles themselves; as for those areas which would be commonly seen, they purchased 'adequate' candles, not those specified, save for those needed for the king's own use.

Those had to be truly of 'decent' or better grade.

Hendrik had put in a large enough order for the whole of the house proper, in reality, as that money I had seen was but the initial inducement. That grade of candle was an expensive item, especially if bought in small numbers. They were somewhat cheaper when bought in the numbers indicated, but still quite expensive – as well as sizable, good-smelling, nearly smokeless, and nearly as bright as could be had.

For much of the place, however, tallow 'dips', as they were called in some towns in the area, simply would not do. Those things tended to smell too badly and burn too poorly to be nothing but a dead giveaway. Hence, for much of the building, the clerks had purposed the following:

Buy the raw unprocessed wax themselves from those they knew in the area. There were fairly large numbers of bee-logs, far more than I had thought possible, even if honey itself seemed a rare article. The reason it was, in reality, so rare was because witches bought most of the honey and wax for their use, with double-barreled inquests commonplace and hostile takeovers more common yet – with the erstwhile bee-runners becoming slaves of the witches, them and their logs being moved to realms the witches controlled to the point of being able to say truthfully that they owned them – and by extension, they owned all they did.

Witch-run wax was crude stuff indeed, but these ignorant men thought it passable, and as candle-dipping was candle-dipping – wax or tallow, the method involved was identical – they simply dipped commonplace wicks in the melted raw wax cooked over one of their stoves at a low heat, and hung hundreds of candles in their rooms at a time. This meant several hours of 'frantic' work daily, but the payoff was huge.

“Why did they even bother accepting those bribes, then?” I murmured.

“Because that allowed them to live like wealthy men,” said the soft voice, “and more, that kind of behavior is usually the start down the road to becoming a black-dressed drunken coach-riding witch.”

“And the money they received?” I asked.

“They spent a portion of their incomes, and hoarded the rest so as to become misers in truth, which at the time of their attempt, they were nearly 'there',” said the soft voice, “and hence the house was robbed of roughly a quarter of its funds for much of a year by their playing games that way.”

That much for candles?” I asked. “What are they, fetish-grade things fit for conjuring?”

“No,” said Sarah. “If this place is what I think it might well be, then those candles are only bested by a few places, and none of those places can come close to their volume – and they might well make a lot of candles, but they're in great demand, also, and they do take great pains nonetheless – and all of what they do to make the best makes for a costly candle.”

“Uh, the wax?” I asked. I recalled the expenses we had paid to do our candles, and while they were not trivial, they weren't quite up to this high of a price. They might account for perhaps half of the cost quoted, until I recalled just where we had bought them. Then it began to make a little more sense, as the cost of everything was higher in the fourth kingdom, unlike up here.

“Long-boiled, then certain other sources of wax are added, the whole mingled, then poured into molds – and they make their own molds, also,” said Sarah. “I spent an entire day in that place, talking to people, watching what they did, and actually doing enough myself that I could write about it with understanding.”

“Of what did they make their candle-molds?” I asked. I was expecting that one 'easy-to-cast' material Sarah had worked with at the west school, for some reason, as candle-molds only needed to be accurate and tight. Melted wax didn't get very hot.

“Bronze, and they produce some of the best bronze in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “Whatever they produce above their requirements goes for a very high price, and only one source of that metal goes for a higher one.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Where you work, and that would be your bronze,” said Sarah. “That brings a higher price, and not a little higher.” Pause, then, “the rule for most materials down there is 'if they are bought, they are commonly not terribly good, and if you want good alloyed metals, you must mingle them yourself.”

“Or process them from the concentrated ores yourself,” I spluttered, as I backed away from the candle. “At least that thing's not a sulfurous candle from the fifth kingdom.”

As if to advise me of my error, the reek of sulfur instantly suffused my nose, and I spat, “they put that stuff in their 'dips' to cheapen the wax!”

“True, they did, though no more than they thought they could get away with,” said the soft voice. “That one 'chief' clerk advised them as to the whole matter from the initial idea to laying out the final product, knowing that by doing so he made them his coterie – and he thereby got his share of the profit they were 'skimming'.”

“Sounds more like 'taking' rather than skimming,” I said.

“No, in truth, they were 'skimming' rather than taking,” said the soft voice. “They weren't witches, so their price for the raw wax was higher than if they bought the good stuff and had it shipped up here from the fourth kingdom, so they made perhaps a fifth of what that one witch had told them was possible – but still, that amount increased their individual incomes by no small degree, and they were doing that work 'on company time', so they were coming out ahead in a big way before that 'Stinker' got onto them. When he did...” Pause. “Everything changed regarding their raw-material prices. Their incomes went from 'very good' to 'genuine miser' status overnight, and that hooked them good.”

The obvious beckoned to me, for some reason, and yet, I felt a definite 'wait'. The poor light these things gave was precisely the matter needed for the work here, and their smoky nature and sulfurous tang seemed a fit backdrop for 'realistic' training. More, while Hendrik had lost money on the matter of candles, I suspect that what we had found for him in the last two days more than made up for it.

“Most of their hoarded funds were uncovered in their rooms, along with enough of their remaining supplies that he recovered nearly all of that money – and as for what has accrued to the crown in the last month as to supplies and money – the kingdom is no longer 'impoverished'. It actually is solvent now.”

“Going to be more than solvent shortly,” I muttered, as I led off into the 'maze' of rooms and hallways. It was nowhere near this dark as a rule during training, which told me that robbing this place of its candles was actually a better idea. “Now somewhere around here was this place where this one drill was done called 'the hall'...”

“Over there,” pointed Sepp. “I think we'd best try drawing these things first, so as to make sure we can do that without trouble. I know your old scabbard worked well, and I suspect this one...”

Sepp had drawn his sword, and the utter ease and silence of the matter was one of astonishment. “Now you, Karl,” he said.

Karl did so, and he looked at me in shock. Again, that total silence, a silence that spoke of death and the grave.

“Now, Gabriel,” said Sarah. “You have not drawn a sword before. There is a reason why you must learn to do so, as that blade is not this type, and more, you will be wearing such clothes as you do now, at least in the third kingdom port – and there will be thugs there, even after we deal with those drink-houses.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “Which side should it go on? I know you-all have yours on the same side as the hand you use most, but this isn't that type of sword, and...”

“That is why we must arrange it so you may draw it readily,” said Sarah. “Now, you currently do not have it on your belt, do you?”

“No, because I have not worn a sword before, and I'm more than a little afraid of this thing,” he said. “I've looked into it, almost as if it were an accursed witch-mirror, and it was as if I could see someone worse than Brimstone looking back at me.”

“Oh, no,” I muttered. “I created a witch-sword.”

“No, you did not,” said the soft voice. “You created a very unusual blade, and what he saw was a warning of what his choices were.” Pause, then, “fasten the sword on his off side, such that he draws crosswise. Since that is a slashing weapon, that will allow him to draw and slice in one motion, which will make learning a quicker matter and buy him needed time when it becomes needed to use it.”

That was done – it meant for a shivering few minutes for Gabriel, as his robes provided no small amount of warmth; then gently, I had Gabriel reach into his robes, much as if he were handing over a pouch of money to a brigand.

“Now grasp that handle, and draw. Very slowly, smoothly...”

Gabriel did, his face contorted with fear, and as he did, there was a faint hissing noise. He stopped.

“Probably just needs a bit of, uh, this waxy rust-prevention grease on it,” I said. “You two, you did that to yours, didn't you?”

“I used a rag with this stuff that feels like a mixture of grease and wax,” said Sepp. “Karl did too.”

“And I've been so busy with all I've been doing mentally and physically I forgot,” I spat. As if to remind Gabriel of what a sword could sound like unlubricated, I thought to draw mine.

I grasped the handle, the scabbard tilted slightly forward, much as it was supposed to do – that was why I had made the original belt-loop' for this scabbard close to three inches in width for the passage, and had done so ever since for swords – and with a smooth motion, that feral-sounding noise, that hiss of a serpent too evil to belong in hell by half, came forth, only this time it was worse than it had ever been – and this time, this didn't sound like a snake of a size I could readily picture, but one nearly as long as Iggy had been before I'd sliced on his tail.

Gabriel looked as if he were about to run, and I felt more than a little spooked. Only Sarah's voice prevented a mass panic – as I was on the verge of panic, and Gabriel was panicked.

“Gabriel,” she said, her voice strong and somewhat sharp-sounding. “That noise may sound like that of a Death Adder the size of a tree, but no such snake could do much in this cold. They have to be warm to be able to move.”

“It had me terror-stricken, as I've run from those more than once, and those were the times they gave chase,” he said, his teeth chattering with fear, “and this one hisses enough to scare me.”

“Try this rag,” said Karl. “I have it in my things, and it has that waxy stuff that is a bit like grease. Then it should be disinclined to rust, and it will be quiet.”

Gabriel did so, and as he wiped down his 'sword', I wondered briefly – would my sword still make that evil hissing noise if I put some rust-preventative 'grease' on it?

While Gabriel's sword moved smoothly and with near-complete silence after he wiped it down – he spoke of it moving more readily, also – mine seemed to be of another time and place, for even after wiping it down and reinserting it into the scabbard, I thought to draw.

This time, I got clear of the others, moving two steps forward into the darkness between the nearest candle and the one some twenty feet away, as I thought to draw as if I meant it, much as if someone like Jodocus was in front of me demanding 'your money, and then I'll take your life'.

Time seemed to slow, then stop as I reached for the blade, then with a sudden swift movement, the thing was in my hand and swinging in a glittering flashing arc, the guttering candlelight blazing off of it and seeming to light up the room like lightning.

That was not all, however: there was a faint scream that resulted, and then suddenly, the candles became steady-burning, much brighter, and when I looked at them, I noted they seemed somehow 'different' in multiple aspects. I then turned around, and noted Sarah shaking Gabriel – who had collapsed upon the ground. I sheathed my sword and leaped to his side, then felt his head.

“No, no fever,” I said, touching his head, then the side of his neck, then his wrist. “Pulse is regular.” A hand in front of his face, then, “breathing decent, a bit deeper than normally, perhaps.” I then looked at Sarah, and asked: “did I scare him?”

“I think so!” said Sarah. “I saw something when you advanced away from us, but I could only tell it was there by a vague feeling of 'something is not right here' before that; but when you drew your sword, I saw clearly what it was, and if that wasn't a spirit of some kind, I would like to know what it was!”

“Did my sword, uh, hiss then?” I asked.

“That greasy wax just made yours worse for that noise,” said Karl. “It was your first one, so perhaps it is bad somehow.”

“No, the sword's worked well enough to keep me alive when I've needed to use it, but I wonder a lot more about the scabbard. I had never made one for a sword before, even if I had made a few for knives before coming here and a fair number more after doing so – and I used the same ideas and techniques for both, more or less.”

I then thought, “but if I made it tight, then it should drag more. It came out easily.”

“I think that sword is just that way,” said Sarah. “Here, let me try it.”

I moved so that she could draw my sword, and as she did, again – that feral-sounding hissing noise came forth. She stopped after perhaps three inches of withdrawal, then said, “it was warning me. I could feel it – it was telling me to go no further than what I did.” Pause. I think it does not like anyone but you touching it, and that thing felt...”

“Did I make a cursed sword?” I murmured. “One of those things that wants to kill – a sword that is truly 'hungry' for blood and the lives of others, like th-this one collection of stories I once read about this one witch that looked like Joost's brother?”

“No, but it is yours,” said the soft voice. “It's as much a part of your equipment as what I've given you otherwise, and while Sarah could handle it, ever since you used it to kill Iggy, there's something that happened to both it and you that has changed – and that more than a little.”

“Oh, not just Iggy, either,” I said. “I s-sliced on another big reptile, too, and then I ripped a good one in that huge Desmond.”

“That just made that change that killing Iggy started go a lot further toward completion,” said the soft voice.” Pause, then, “ask Gabriel to wake up, and just tell him that he'll just need to get used to the noise of a sword that is intended to help you do your job.”

“And warning Sarah?” I asked.

“Recall what the black book said about the supposedly treacherous nature of such swords?” asked the soft voice. “Well, that one you have will fully live up to that reputation should a witch think to play games with it, and more than one witch has learned about those two stolen blades already.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“One of those transporting them tried to touch one of those blades, and he got bit,” said the soft voice. “He died on the spot.”

“Bit?” I asked.

“Those swords were not intended for witches, and they won't tolerate witches handling them,” said the soft voice. “That sword leaped up and sliced his head off, much as if you were using it, and then it fell back down in the box.”

“And got all bloody,” I murmured.

“No, that wasn't the only thing that happened to that witch,” said the soft voice. “First, his blood instantly ignited and burnt like distillate – and then his head and his body caught fire, and the other witches had to move the box clear of his burning body.”

“Sounds more like an inhabited sword,” I muttered. I could not remember that one character's name, even if I did remember the drawings made of him – and he was an albino. I knew of several real-life 'famous' individuals – two of them being musicians – like that, but they weren't 'Chucky' for danger, unlike Joost's twin brother had been.

“No, just a sword that doesn't like witches,” said the soft voice. “Once it gets back into the hands it was intended for, then it will behave like it should – as a means of protecting its owner's life.”

Gabriel had woken up, and now it was time that we all had to work out down here in this room. Since every wood-sword in the place had vanished – I had something else in mind for blade-training, but it needed technology we didn't have currently; perhaps it could be had overseas once the place was running properly – it was practice with real weapons, or not at all. Since most of us had used our swords in combat, it was mostly a matter of getting the kinks out, or so I thought until Deborah was watching both I and Sarah 'work out'. She seemed uncommonly interested, then tried to copy our moves.

“Like this, dear,” I said, as I slowed down my movements into something more readily followed. “Yours is mostly for poking, so think of it as if it were a long knife, and then...”

Here, I darted my blade forward, somehow 'stretching out' and leaping into the air to land nearly twenty feet downrange, this in a smooth flowing motion that seemed like the movement of a river composed of 'ghost-water'. I turned to see Deborah looking at me as if I were an old tale.

“Now how am I supposed to fly like a hornet?” she asked. “I might jump my own length if I work at it.”

“Is that how high you can jump, or how long?” I asked.

“How long, though...” Here, Deborah tried doing as I had done, and what I saw amazed me.

She seemed to 'flow', this almost as if she were a liquid, and when she came to earth, she landed as noiselessly as a small bird, her sword extended in the posture I had exhibited. She looked at me, then asked quietly, “how did I just do that?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “It is most likely that God is involved in some fashion. That's about the only explanation I can think of, dear.”

I wondered if Annistæ wished to try to learn sword-work, and here, I wondered yet further: they had such things, supposedly, but my sword warning Sarah made me wonder if it were wise to do so. I thought to try, carefully drawing the thing.

“Hisses like a big mean snake no matter what I do,” I murmured. “Just quieter if I do it slowly.”

“I think I understand, now,” said Gabriel. “That thing only wants your hand on it, and it's like something out of an old tale – it acts like it has a mind of its own.”

“And if I hand it to someone, then it's different?” I asked.

, that is like some swords in that secret museum,” said Annistæ. “They may be touched, but one must be careful, and no Cabroné must go near them, as I have seen what they do then.”

“What do they do?”

“One of those smelly people lost his hand, and he died before he'd gone thirty feet,” said Annistæ. “He was on fire that whole time, and he dropped with his whole body aflame, and we had to use fire-killers on him so as to put him out and put him in the pile with the dung, which is where all Cabroni belong.”

“One touched the sword, and caught fire,” I said. “You said there was more than one, correct?”

“Cé, and I put warm lead in the others,” said Annistæ. “I, my sister, Toréo, and three of my friends, we all put some warm lead in those smelly Cabroni, and they died where they stood. Only then could we get the fire-killers and put out the one that was on fire.”

“So, we see how you do with one of these,” I said, as I handed her the thing by the back of the blade. “Try to, uh, 'lunge'.”

To my astonishment, Annistæ leaped nearly as far as I had, her grace that of a hunting 'panther', and when she landed, she withdrew the sword from a 'seemingly imaginary' opponent, and then began slicing on someone or something. Her moves were so rapid she seemed blurred, then with one of those high-pitched yells, she ran down one of the darkened hallways in pursuit of something.

“Oh!” I yelled. “After her! We have trouble!”

I was not merely the one who yelled – I had launched after her so hard that I 'climbed the wall' making the turn, running such that I was running on the wall for an instant to then leap down onto the floor again, and as I did, I drew my dagger as I closed upon Annistae – who was obviously embattled and slicing on something ahead.

I dove for the ground, under her reach, then somehow, I flowed up once past her, and with my dagger in my right hand, I darted into this odd formless mist, and here, things got strange.

There were no less than eight 'beings', all dressed in long flowing black robes, everything about them seemingly as glossy as the plumes of a raven, their faces blobs of reddish haze, their hands holding strange-looking 'alien' weapons of a type I could not imagine save 'those things look a lot like those awful weapons made in that one country called stench guns'.

Whatever they were, these people were about to 'air out my smelly hide' with them, and I darted at the nearest one as the air became a roaring maelstrom of swarming 'bees' and powder fumes.

I flew past one of these foul-smelling creatures, his black-gloved hands clutching his bucking and snorting weapon, and ripped a jagged gash in his neck, then as I hit the ground, the scream of ricocheting bullets above me told me these beings were tracking my 'smelly hide' fairly well nonetheless.

They just weren't quite up to dealing with someone who could beat a white rat for speed, and as I turned around seemingly instantly before hitting the wall, I again 'launched' into the air.

Only this time I had to not merely dodge the guns of these thugs, but also something moving nearly as fast as their 'warm lead'. It was odd seeing flame-trailing copper-colored comets ripping all over crazily, but it was not odd to dodge what looked like an oddly silvered piece of lightning, and that took me somehow making a mid-course correction that put my path between two of the thugs about waist-level.

I ripped the side and front of one open, then ripped open the back of the other just above his pelvis, turning over as I did so and seeing his body suddenly develop a slice worthy of something a lot bigger than a knife with a seven inch long blade.

I was about to kiss the wall at about knee-height when I tumbled, then landed against it feet-first. I let my legs compress, bending at the knees and pelvis, then shot off of it at knee height. I was going to slice on someone's leg this time, and coming at this 'preoccupied' thug from the rear, I reached up...

Planted the knife just above his pelvis near his backbone...

And then used him as a pivot-point, ripping his guts out of his side as I moved and used my right hand to stay clear of the floor and give myself a boost up in the air so as to again dodge that silvered bolt of lightning.

I flew above it this time, and as I shot like a bullet, I found the neck of one of these thugs was in reach. He was trying to track me with his bucking weapon, but seeing a big stinking weird-colored hornet come at him with a big nasty stinger was a bit too much for him, and he tried to turn and run.

No time left for you, mister thug – no revolving door this time.

I flew past him, and as I did, I grabbed his head in one hand, and with the other, actually ripped his head off with the knife, cutting half-way around his head and ripping it the rest of the way off with my hand. His clothing began falling, and as I hit the wall this time, I collided with it sideways...

And fell to the ground, there to lay stunned for a second. My eyes opened, and Annistæ looked winded.

More, my sword was bloody, dripping blood onto the floor, and the tattered black cloth of several cloaks lay upon the floor, the reek of powder hot and pungent in the air, and I asked, as I got first to my knees, then shakily to my feet, “what gives with all that nonsense?”

“That was not nonsense,” Annistæ said. She sounded more than a little irritated. “Those were Cabroni, ones straight out of our old tales, and they wanted me dead, and I went for them, and that one I chased was the bait, so then I have a lot of them, and someone...”

Her knees gave way, then somehow, a ghastly wail, one that I instantly recognized as a prayer of some kind, came from her mouth.

“No, I am not that individual,” I muttered. “About all I have in common is my middle name is the same. I'm as, uh, human as you are, dear.”

She seemed to not hear me, and as I looked back at the wall, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Faintly, I could see a tower of flames, this not of hell, but of another place – flames of a realm a whole world hotter, far larger, and immeasurably stronger and older than anywhere but one location.

No, it wasn't something Howard would write. This was of a place older than anything he could even think of, where there was but one 'Great Old One', and he was the God.

“S-seraphim,” I muttered, recalling the 'official' name of some of the beings that were known to have that location for a home. “B-burning. Espirutu Calienti – a spirit of ardent fire. Is it true?”

Ghostly, faint upon the wind, I looked about, and where I now stood was not a darkened hallway, but a wasteland, a darkened moonscape, one where but perhaps forty feet away amid the rubble of a once-proud city shelled into something more destroyed than any place I had seen in pictures, was what might have been the remnant of a heavy reinforced concrete bunker. Around me lay black-clad 'obese' beings, these things foul-smelling, dead as dried bones, their outer shells leaking fluids of a putrid nature onto the blood-soaked ground beneath the rubble.

This had once been their world, the world they owned, and the torn-up and buried pavements of their shattered land had been glued and cemented with the blood of their enemies. I was one such enemy, and as I wiped the greasy sweat off of my brow, I found there a strange marking, and with my hand, I calmly peeled it off and threw it away.

They had once branded me a slave, but their marking as being 'property of the beast' didn't take in the slightest. It never would. I was the first-borne of a woman, and God had a claim on those since of old, since the very beginning. The first-borne were his, and no mere witch, even those like these, could steal them.

And, it was night. Here, the witch groped in the darkness, while such darkness was my world, a world at once of varied hue and shadows amid the suddenly showing stars and the part-hidden moon.

I came to the side of one of the fallen, and used his reeking clothing to clean my knife. It did not like blood upon it, and when I found the thug's leather 'purse', I found his looted grease. He'd stolen it from dead enemy soldiers, and as it made their accursed stuff look worthless, he took it and used it upon his gear.

I was not sorry to take it from him, nor sorry to use his grease-rag upon the blade of my knife before slipping it into the sheath I had made for it, this on my narrow belt, the one hidden beneath my thin and patched cloth coat – a coat more patched than whole, anymore, and those colors mostly dark hues. I now saw the purpose in it, and more, the purpose of the wretch whose horrible black cloth I had used to wipe the now-smoking blood off of my knife. He'd tried to murder me, and his goal was not merely my death. He wished to sacrifice me to 'the great dragon', that ancient enemy of the one who owned me.

I kicked his main weapon off to the side, and as I did, it went to rust and powder. It was not what I wanted anyway.

No, I knew where that was, and it was up ahead. These witches, only seeing but one person, had confidently come out of their bunker, all of them firing their weapons and yelling hoarse distorted metallic-sounding curses, and their marksmanship was of such an abysmal standard...

I laughed, this a silly giggling noise, and left the dead to bury their own. I knew what they'd left behind them. It was one of their infernal accursed machine guns, and when I saw the freshly-made weapon, complete with its box of ammunition ready to fire, I found the belt bag and attached it to the side, piled in all of the huge rounds, and then laughed again, this like a maniac.

This wasn't the usual rifle-caliber weapon. This was Big Momma, and I was going to act like Big Momma with it.

The weapon was heavy, but I picked it up off of its tripod, confident that its weight would make it semi-manageable, and I silently moved down the ramp into the lair of the witches. I could smell them; I was like one of their huge rodents, one worse than any predator in their world that lived, and the thought came to me, this of an intercept.

The Chosen are like rats...

Yep. Big Momma was a rat all right – all four thousand pounds of bleached white fury, irritable beyond measure, always hungry, and stealthy as a snake and more cunning than any weasel ever born.

“Oh, he called me a weasel, too,” I said. “Nastiest predator ever made – kills for amusement. This is a bit more important than amusement – this is the enemy, and he needs to die – and die today.” Pause, then this in a near-subaudible growl, “I live for killing these things. They call me monster. Well, witches, you've sown the wind, and you're gonna reap the whirlwind, just like that book you curse says you will. Get ready for Big Momma, you fools!”

And, I suddenly came to an accursed door. A single kick of my worn shoe shattered the thing like glass, and here, I found an absolute swarm of witches.

“Say hello to my really irritated Big friend, you stinkers!” I yelled, as I tripped the sear on the side of the weapon by pressing it with my hand.

'Big Momma' burped once, then twice – then began to fire steadily, the chugging roar gradually building to a growling thunder worthy of a whirlwind. Bullets the size of my longest finger ripped into the witches and through their witch-gear, and as I 'hosed them down' with this huge weapon, I was seeing the bullets fly, and all the while was causing this hell to show, I was singing.

This a song, one forbidden; but then again, I was forbidden yet more. So I sang it anyway.


“Let your bullets fly like rain...”


The way 'Big Momma' was acting, she was certainly doing that, and as I advanced, I pivoted like the crouching Tigris found in the thick green jungles far to the south. This was a huge cat, one swift as the wind, quick as lightning, deadly as a whirlwind filled with razors, and as strong as an avalanche; and it could show when and where it wished and vanish like smoke otherwise. That was for the common variety.

There were several types of such cats, and the worst of them all were a uniform dark gray color, their size and hunger legendary, and they knew whom to listen to. Their original sire was named Smoke, and he was of the Darkness, and now, in this realm of Darkness, I was as Smoke himself, come to bring fire and smoke and slaughter upon a world that needed killing, and as I found witch after witch, I tripped the sear again and again, firing the weapon in a way it was never designed to function, firing it in spite of the curses put upon it to bind it to none save the strongest witches, firing it in spite of the smoke it billowed and the soot the cursed ammunition normally left in the weapon, firing it in spite of all that could possibly cause it to not do so.

After all, I was a monster, and monsters could do anything they felt like. So the witches' black book said, and of course, they wanted my carcass dead to be used for conjuring Sieve.

Not today, fools. I may be a freak, but I'll never be like you. That was from another forbidden song, one that was played a lot overseas. Only one such forbidden song was better, and somehow, I managed to point to this one 'loud-speaker', a cursed one painted with layers of dried blood, and now, it somehow screamed out the opening portion of that one song as I continued my path of destruction though this now-thoroughly-chewed-up place.

They had claimed they were all Voodoo Children, and they had no idea just what that meant. In reality, there was but one of those, and he – he was my master, and I was as I was because he wished me to be this way.

“Try to stand up next to a mountain, you damned-to-hell fools, and just try to chop it down with the edge of your hand,” I said, as the song began to truly blare out of all of their blood-painted loud-speakers. “I'm no mountain, but I sure seem to be raising enough sand, er, hell, among you people. Isn't that what you want? To see hell arise? Well, here it is, you stinking idiots, and it ain't much fun, is it?”

The scene before me abruptly vanished, and I shook myself to 'wake up' from a most-peculiar vision or dream, one of such intense reality that it had truly felt as if absolutely real. Annistæ was looking at me as if she'd seen a ghost, and at my knees – I had collapsed, this worn out as if from running for miles at a speed that would leave Jaak behind were he in a mind to truly hurry – lay a huge weapon, this thing so monstrous in size that I wondered, “how did that get here?”

What was not surprising was the yard-long string of linked ammunition: bottlenecked, thick-rimmed, long terrible bullets like the claws of a hunting cat. I had seen this stuff before. Weakly, I croaked, “Sarah, everyone, come quickly. I n-need help.”

Annistae came out of her 'trance' or whatever and put something to my lips. It tasted horrible, worse than cough medicine, and as I downed another of those infernal Orc-Draughts or whatever this stuff actually was, I coughed, spluttered...

And then truly 'woke up'.

“Am I awake?” I asked

“I hope so, though how you managed to put all of these things all over the floor in here and carry that huge thing there like you were an old tale come to life is a mystery to me,” said Sarah. “Here, drink this.”

“Beer, I hope?” I asked.

It was, and I was glad for that jug and my cup, even in the icy chill of this near-winter-like place. It was once more cold, unlike the stifling smoky heat of a fire-enraged oven-like room as I advanced and pivoted like lightning, all the while firing 'Big Momma'. I then noticed what was still laying near my knees.

“What is that?” I gasped.

“Look at what's written on the side, and then you tell me what you used,” said the soft voice. “You wrote on it with grease pencil what it was when you found it, and you laid waste to the factory that was once at this precise location.”

“That d-door?” I asked, as I stood up to see an inky-looking drippy scrawl saying the words:


“Was the escape hatch when the main entrance was destroyed, and it led to a factory at this precise location – a very large one, one that made cursed munitions in huge quantities, and those overconfident witches didn't stand a chance when you got ahold of one of their heavy machine guns.” Pause, then, “now, ask that it become 'suitable' for tripod use.”

“Become suitable for tripod use, and, uh, could we have the loading data for those r-rounds?” I asked. My voice was shaking, as the letters on the side of the gun's receiver seemed to be crawling and dripping as if freshly-applied blood.

The weapon seemed to vanish, then suddenly, it rematerialized – and this time, the huge gun had been 'gone through' from the tip of the muzzle to the rear of the huge rivet-studded receiver. No longer was it cursed in any way; it had twin triggers, spade-shaped grips, and a massively-constructed tripod – and the whole gun itself had seemed to gain weight, power, and mass, this to withstand truly heavy use. After all, it was a 'heavy machine gun', and those dealt with sizable and destructive rounds – and until I had run amok in that factory with 'Big Momma', I had but little idea just how readily such weapons tended to chew up people and things. Like the white rat of that same name, 'Big Momma' was trouble when she got onto you.

“The watchtower?” I asked. It seemed obvious, as that was a good place to put a 'heavy machine gun'. I then felt my 'necklace', and noted a lot of those card cases. Several more had shown. “Did I just get the, uh, instructions?”

“You got a lot of stuff there,” said Sarah. “I do not believe my eyes, but that thing is straight off of a tapestry, and I do not know what it is.”

“I do,” I said. “That there is 'Big Momma', and Hell is nothing compared to what I was raising with that gun in that, uh, dream or whatever I was doing.” Pause, then, “was that a dream?”

“No, it was not,” said the soft voice. “Annistæ found 'something', you went to help her, there were some very persistent witches 'present', she was trying to deal with them, you killed them all entirely – just like you did with that one witch in the second kingdom house – and doing that got you transported to the 'real world' of their time and place – and they should have never abandoned their 'bunker' in order to engage in sport, but being 'trashed witches', they did just that – and they died at your hand there, also.”

“And I stabbed and cut them,” I said.

“Sliced the daylights out of them is more like it,” said the soft voice. “You were acting like one of the huge rats of that time and place, and those – well, the worst one spoken of ever was named 'Big Momma', and that was an apt name for that rat.”

“Like the one I knew of that name?” I asked.

“Similar as to temperament and color, and otherwise a lot bigger, a lot hungrier, and far more lethal,” said the soft voice. “You do not play around with a rat that weighs over four thousand pounds and has to eat half its weight of food every twenty-four hours to stay alive.”

“Did it spew fire?” I asked. I was thinking of a certain large, hungry, and altogether horrible bear.

“No, but it was very quick, very stealthy, very large, and very hungry, and it was the predator of that area – as in the very top of the land-based food chain,” said the soft voice. “More, it didn't just bite. It had claws nearly a foot long and could slice people up like a huge version of that one small noisy household tool your housekeeper was so enthused about where you came from, even if she found it needed great care in cleaning due to the sharpness of its blades.”

“Yes, and how is it you wrote on the side of this thing here?” said Karl, pointing to the blood-red letters writ in grease-pencil that the gun's warmth had partly melted and caused to flow and run slightly. “It has this writing on it, and it is named.”

“What is it named, Karl?” asked Deborah, as she 'admired' the huge linked cartridges. These were quite plump and nasty-looking things, and they looked far too much like that one portion of linked ammunition to be a coincidence.

“It is called Big Momma,” said Karl. “Now why would...” He looked at me, then asked, “what is this thing?”

“I think that to be a larger version of a fire-breather, Karl,” said Sarah. “I've seen pictures of those on several tapestries, and while they weren't nearly as large as those we found at the Abbey, they were a bit big to be carrying around.”

“Not readily, anyway,” said the soft voice. “That one, you'll wish a cart for, but then you can carry it.” Pause, then, “just put that thing on the watchtower once it gets built where you live, and you can 'light up' any witch you can see, almost.”

“Does this weapon fire explosive ammunition?” I gasped.

“Yes, if you load it with that particular type, which that one section of linked ammunition you found was not,” said the soft voice. “What you were using when you went back in time was the most-usual type, which was merely a very large bullet with a hardened core for enhanced penetration, similar in construction to those in 'all-purpose' ammunition, with one tracer every five rounds as a rule.” Pause, then, “of course, with that size of round, it isn't hard to tell where one's bullets are striking if your target is within five hundred yards or metrâè – and most of the time, yours were a good deal closer than that.”

“Could you use this on pigs?” I asked.

“It would handle them quite a bit better than the one you've used before, but I'd use those larger ones for the plated-up ones from Norden,” said the soft voice. “That type there is best for pigs like that one you put most of a magazine into from your rifle, or big grunters of the common type. One good burst will settle either animal right now.”

As I looked around – the floor was absolutely littered with empty shell casings from 'Big Momma', and they were everywhere – I saw a waist-tall stack of ammunition cans and fiberglass bins, and when I went to this stack, I was overjoyed, as atop it lay a packing list.

“We have... Twelve hundred rounds of 'all-purpose' without tracer, two thousand of 'four and one'.... Four and one?”

“That's four all-purpose rounds with one rather hot-burning tracer,” said the soft voice. “It helps a lot for low-light conditions, or if you're trying to get onto a coach at a good range for a three-inch gun.”

“Three thousand rounds of high-explosive...” I gasped. “High explosive?”

“Figure about five times worse for blast and trouble compared to those you recall reading about,” said the soft voice. “Remember, you can ask for 'strange' ammunition for that broom, so keep that in mind while in that port.”

“Uh, ask for exploding bullets?'

“They work quite well for 'raising hell',” said the soft voice. “Recall your thinking on how much witches wished to see Hell, and they didn't like it very much when you caused it to show while using their own gun on them?” Pause, then, “now, you're down to the spare parts and manuals. Read that portion, get some help, put 'Big Momma' on top of the stack, and then put the cover sheet over all of it, and ask that it not be seen save by people who know enough to stay out of trouble with what's hid by the sheet.”

“Me, Annistae, Toréo, perhaps Sarah, Deborah, uh, Sepp...”

“I know enough to stay well clear of that thing,” said Gabriel. “I could hear what you were doing with it, and causing those witches to see hell arise was no word for it – and that was what I heard. I caught more than a few glimpses of what was happening, also.”

“No, Gabriel, you saw but a little bit of what he did,” said Deborah. “I saw a good deal, and it was worse than awful, and those thugs were the witches in old tales.” She then turned to me as I resumed reading, and asked, “why were those people so filled with swine-fat?”

“I'm not sure, dear, even if they looked like they weighed four hundred pounds apiece,” I said. “They'd have a lot of trouble moving if they weighed that much.”

“They didn't,” said the soft voice. “Those were witch-soldiers, and they looked like that – and of course, they were trashed all the time, waking or sleeping.”

“Hence, uh, 'not very bright'?” I asked.

“Oh, they were bright enough when it came to killing people not up to fighting back,” said the soft voice. “Against people like Annistæ, they didn't do well at all.” Pause, then, “against people like you – not a chance in this world or the next one, and they died in seconds when you went after them with your knife.”

“Which needs, uh, cleaning,” I said, as I found a round brass tin with an oil rag. I had recalled packing these things, but how this nice-looking 'dulled and darkened' brass item had gotten into my trousers was a mystery, its mottled brown-black a wonder on the outside.

What was not a mystery was the folded oil-cloth, as well as that waxy grease, and I cleaned the knife carefully, then wiped it with the oil-cloth. The blade seemingly became 'dull', such that its darkness became more 'one' with that which lay about us; and after reading the remainder of the packing list, and putting the hugely heavy gun up on top with Karl's help, I found the cover-sheet in question, and with Sarah's help, I put the thing over the whole thing, and asked that it only be seen by 'those who know what this is and how to use it properly'.

“I doubt I myself could find it now,” I said. “Probably need Toréo to teach me how to use one of those things.”

“Yes, and what do we do about these brass things all over the floor here?” asked Sepp. “One can go anywhere within this general area and find them everywhere, and that will get people down here in droves once someone goes down this way to clean.”

“Bags?” I asked. “Can any of you, uh...” I then asked, “Could I have some nice bags for these empties, and could they go in those bags and be stacked nicely around this cloth to hold it in place?”

The thump put me on my behind some distance away, and as I recovered from being 'stunned', I noted that not merely did I have a soft cloth satchel handy, but it appeared to be full of something. Opening its 'closure' – how this closure worked was a mystery, as it was neither magnetic nor a button, and it most definitely was not that nasty-to-work-with stuff called Velcro in the area where I lived in, and something far less complementary where Mrs Ulyanov had lived most of her life.

She definitely knew of the stuff, and had I known better, she was cussing it for all she was worth whenever she had to try to sew it on a bag or piece of clothing. She definitely sounded irritated, if I went by the tone of her voice.

I'd eventually learned the tricks with that nasty stuff: first glue it in place, then use a contrasting thread to sew it on, and finally, when dealing with the prickly portion, be very careful about where you put the stitches.

This soft cloth satchel had as its contents a number of those huge rounds, as well as their components and their varied projectiles. One of the latter I decided to withdraw, and as I looked over this four inch long thing, I noted its base enclosure and the markings thereupon.

No,this is not what I thought it was,” I muttered. “It is not a fifty caliber weapon. This is marked fourteen dot five, and that means...”

“About twice the volume for the various fillers and a penetrator that's longer, heavier, sharper, and a lot nastier compared to those you were thinking of,” said the soft voice. “That's for those.”

“What is it – an explosive round?”

“Yes, and quite sensitive to forward impact,” said the soft voice. “Remember, it's using those explosives named as you recalled here, or versions of those that are named similarly – but they are not the same explosives.”

“Uh, Pentaerythritol Hexanitrate?” I asked. “Six nitrogen...”

“They do have six nitrogen-containing groups,” said the soft voice. “Then are not 'NO3' groups, but something closer to a 'really-weird amine-type structure' that has both a lot more oxygen, substantial amounts of fuel, and a tendency to produce a lot of short-lived but very energetic free radicals that accelerate the detonation velocity front drastically – which is why that explosive molecule has the highest brisance of all that is currently know. Then, there's the flash-metal powder mingled with another type that resembles zirconium where you come from – but as 'flash-metal' isn't magnesium as you know it, this stuff is not zirconium – it's harder to ignite, but when it does ignite, there is not only no means of putting it out, but it tends to use almost anything in the region as a species of fuel.”

“Uh, body parts...” I mumbled.

“Are either catalytically disassociated or changed so that they burn like a slow-burning species of oxidizer-deficient solid propellant, and the rate of burning is such that it caused a lot of old tales to be writ about them,” said the soft voice. “They were writing about the effects of those firebombs more often than not.” Pause, then, “the white allotrope of 'phosphorus' was a bit too touchy to handle outside of a laboratory environment – as in it needed remote handling in a vacuum to process safely, and it tended to find the smallest leaks.”

“White?” I asked.

“Was something of a misnomer with that stuff,” said the soft voice. “It currently is used as a getter in vacuum tubes overseas, and those things need it to work at all. Of course, it sputters all over them, kills their high frequency performance, causes them to short out and arc frequently, and finally, when too much air leaks in through their poor construction, causes the internal parts to partly melt.”

“Any special words for that?” I asked. “Uh, like, meltdown?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “It might amuse you to hear them speak of it, though, as it's a bad translation of an early intercept.” Pause, then, “the term over there for that happening is 'sniff the thrust' – as in what happened when you got too close to the exhaust flame of a strong-running jet engine running full-out while said unit was running late-formulation jet fuel.”

“Uh, what?” I asked. “Don't tell me – like getting too close to the rear of a rocket engine – a big one.”

“Close, but no Geneva for you,” said the soft voice. “Think 'long, luminous, brilliant white exhaust plumes that belong on a rocket coming out of a science fiction novel' – and yes, more than a few enemy aircraft were destroyed when one of those aircraft they were chasing engaged 'full reheat'.” Pause, then, “that tended to play hell with any missiles coming from behind, also.”

“What?” I gasped, as I drank my fifth cup of beer. I was finally feeling up to resuming sword practice, and I realized that I'd more or less done that – as well as some 'way-too-real' knife-practice that would probably come in handy overseas. I then wondered just how I had seen those flame-trailing copper-coated 'comets' ripping about all over, and more, where had they and their shell-casings had gone.

“In that one darkened room to your left,” said the soft voice. “Ask that they be bagged up, and use that brass for your additions to that tin-copper alloy you'll wish for bullet-jackets.”

“The bullets?” I asked, after asking that the bullets and brass in that room be bagged and then hidden from all save myself and those who could handle them safely.

“Used a rather badly-done species of copper-plated soft iron jacket with just enough poorly-smelted lead in them to give them the needed mass,” said the soft voice. “They'll wish heating to get the lead out of them, then both 'jackets' and 'filling' can be recycled overseas. The brass can go there once you melt it in a refining furnace.”

I had a final question: “do those need to be messed with beyond what was spoken?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “You can resume your teaching, now that you have had your refresher course.”