Slice! Continued.


Since I had now relearned certain matters regarding 'overwhelming odds' and 'how to think on one's feet while making consistently decent or better decisions', I now had to retrieve my sword, then go try out Gabriel's sword. It also helped that now, there were no 'Spooks' handy in the region, and my suspicion – softly spoken to Annistæ – was that the nonsense done in the last few days had disturbed them enough that they had decided to play games in their former 'playground'.

Annistæ had never really used a sword before, and as I spoke of now cleaning the thing – one wanted to do that as quickly as possible, even if she obviously knew enough about the need for surprise, raw speed, and the capacity to think upon one's feet...

“Ai, though there are no weapons that I know of that may be used upon whites other than what I had in my hand,” she said. “That, and prayer, and I was doing that before, during and after what happened just now.”

“Swords work on those things?” I gasped. “That is a new one for me.”

“It must be an edged weapon,” said Annistæ. “Now there is this strange dagger someone has told me – who, I barely recall, as it has been a busy time for me...”

“It has happened to me bad, dear,” I said, as I got the sword finally somewhat clean of blood. “This blood looks and smells real enough to me. Probably like this one time in this big 'looks a lot nicer than it really is' type of place some distance to the south, and...”

Here, Deborah came to sit to my other side. She had her 'sword' out. “You said these work well against those things she calls 'whites'?”

“Mine did, now that I think about it, and it seems these rather unpleasant little daggers do also,” I said, drawing mine. “How in the heck did I clean this thing up so good in that, uh... Did I actually go back to this location during that 'then'?”

“You did,” said the soft voice. “Annistæ was praying for both you and her the whole time, as she, like the majority of the people she has known, is afraid of those things to no small degree.”

“And because I sliced on a big nasty lizard that tried to light me on fire repeatedly while doing so, she...” I paused, then, “that first dream where I flew. I had to take that little girl, maybe about the age of those starting school here...” Pause, then, “is starting school that late a witch-inculcated practice?”

I meant the tendency to start the 'schooling' of children at such a 'late' age compared to what seemed more-workable. I recalled hearing of some children learning at ages that astonished me.

“Partly so, but much of it is simply the fact that how many three-year-old children who do not have 'substantial markings' are up to walking several miles each day of the five normally assigned to school here?” said the soft voice. “They start at the age of five overseas, but there, the class size is both quite a bit smaller and the teacher actually picks the students up and takes them to school and takes them home when the children are done for the day.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“Using one of their 'slow' battery vehicles,” said the soft voice. “Those are painted yellow, by the way, and only 'designated' teachers may have them. Otherwise, students walk – and they do that earlier, also – as school is year-round there, more so even than here – and students here do not have 'vacations' save during Festival Week and Harvest Day.” Pause, then, “otherwise, it's 'come to school if you're able to get there', and that's expected to be the case year-round.” Another pause. “They get no such excuse overseas.”

“Have?” I asked, regarding the battery vehicles used to transport students.

“They are issued for that purpose only, and then withdrawn from use otherwise, under the guise of 'needed maintenance',” said the soft voice. “Most vehicles there are battery operated, so that does make a certain sense, what with the need for charging their batteries twelve or more hours out of every day.”

“Oh,” I said. “Slow?” I asked.

“About as fast as Jaak walks when he's inclined to go from one place to another and neither hurry nor waste time,” said the soft voice. “Now, you can resume speaking of first that young girl you took to see that woman who painted herself out to be a lot more attractive than she turned out to be in person, and then resume wiping down your sword.”

“That thing!” I spat. “She had thought that woman to be just the sort to travel with for 'an exciting trip', and I proved to be a lot more excitement than that, uh, 'witch' proved to be.”

“Why?” asked Deborah. “Here, let me. At least I have some spit in my mouth. You need more beer, and I have a smaller measuring cup that I can put it in and use that to clean your sword off the rest of the way before cleaning and oiling it.”

Deborah was right: I was still dehydrated, and I suspected I'd need to hunt up a privy in the area quickly.

Within seconds, I rephrased that to 'I needed to find one now', and I left my sword with the two women – Sarah had left to attempt to 'train up' the others while I was recuperating enough to teach them, or so I had suspected – while I ran at what felt like to me the sluggish pace of a 'constipated mule' and what was later described as 'you were there one instant, and gone the next' when I returned.

However, I had to run into the darkness, and here, it was real darkness, such that while I could see fairly well in this murk now – I was seeing in infrared, and I could home in on a seriously disused privy by smell alone – I knew that as ran first down one hall, then did a screeching wall-climbing turn at speed, then slowed fast enough to screech to a sliding halt just in time to push open the brown door and then undo things enough to use the stool – that the others would have trouble avoiding walls with their hands out in front of them.

The privy smelled horribly when I opened its lid, and smelled worse yet after I was done, as I had to do first the one activity I then knew of, and then the second that became manifest once I had emptied my bladder.

“Got the runs again,” I murmured. “Hopefully, uh, toilets are going to be commonplace there.”

“They will be – for someone like you who can find disused houses and then open their doors,” said the soft voice. “For nearly everyone else, they're not easy to find outside of where they work, where they go to school, and where they live, as while the door 'locks' over there look conventional enough, the knobs are a bit unusual.”

“Unusual?” I asked.

“As in 'domiciles' over there are 'state issued', and there's a device that essentially resets the thing when it is issued to a 'family' or 'group' – and those doorknobs can only recognize a maximum of four people.”

“Recognize?” I asked.

“Much like that little 'brass' cube now recognizes you as the person to listen to,” said the soft voice. “By the way, it is a very wise idea to keep it in your vest, as that way it can learn you better while staying 'secure'.”

“Nothing in the pockets, then, if I'm going to be bouncing off of walls and running a lot,” I said. “Pickpockets in that port, correct?”

“There are some thieves that try that sort of thing, but they usually have a short life expectancy,” said the soft voice. “Sarah's killed more than one, as they're not just found there.” Pause, then, “they're more common yet in that market town.”

“And hence, uh, draw the flail and thump that wretch?” I asked.

“One 'thump' will serve in your case,” said the soft voice. “Sarah has spoken of slinging brains, and you would be worse yet that way – as you demonstrated with that one 'witch' who had just succeeded in downing his first dose of those drugs.”

“What?” I asked.

“He was their first recruit, and thought to hide in the privy once taking one pill of all three types after they gave him a small number of their tablets,” said the soft voice. “That dose, once it had taken effect, would have made him desire strongly to make his bones – and that on the spot.”

“Those d-drugs d-do that?” I asked.

“If the person is interested to any degree beyond the most-trivial in becoming a witch, those drugs, especially that particular combination of drugs, causes that interest to go from 'I wonder what witches are like' to 'I do not wonder at all – where is a weapon, that I may become a witch'!” said the soft voice. “He was a little more interested than that, which is why he was recruited so readily – and why he would have begun killing within minutes had you not stopped him so decisively.” Pause, then, “not only would he have turned the main floor of the kingdom house into a killing floor, but between his modest initial interest and that combination in those doses, he would have become about as hard a witch as Joost's brother right away – and with succeeding doses, harder yet.”

“And those three that came in that one nasty room that proved to be a meeting room for witches?” I asked.

“Were a good deal less so initially, but you banging their heads like you did with that 'witch in training' forced them to either give it all to me or give it all to Brimstone – and most of those people, at some level, decided that 'since we are dead men, we might as well die as witches'.”

“What?” I asked. I was glad this place had privy rags, as I'd really stunk the place up, and I wondered if I'd caught any new scars dealing with those thugs.

“No, you didn't, but the privies down here do not drain particularly well, so much so that one of the first things Annistæ is going to wish, other than a recent-vintage chemical suite or something similar, is a sump-pump so as to get her 'synthetic alcohol-and-other-chemical' plant running.” Pause, then, “plumbing this place properly is going to be somewhat difficult, as these 'stools' are not what are used where you are going – and the plumbing here would need full replacement to use them.”

“Uh, what do those do?” I asked.

“Produce enough pressure when they 'flash' that they can pump the resulting dilute solution of sewage up nearly fifty feet,” said the soft voice. “They require clean water, a non-trivial amount of electricity, and some small training on the part of their users, but the ones that work well over there are much appreciated.”

“Most of them do not?” I asked.

“No, most of them do, it's just getting access to them can be a bit difficult if one is away from one's home,” said the soft voice. “Work tends to have functionaries present, and those people are very particular about when and how many times one must visit the 'water-closet' – and, by the way, they must ask, just like you did when you were growing up.”

I now had to retrace my steps, but while I did this at a walk, I noted the maze-like aspect of this place, and I wondered if here was a good place to try those strange headlamps. I then realized we had not brought them with us.

“Think again,” said the soft voice. “Deborah took quite a shine to one of those odd 'camouflage' pouches that looks like a 'purse' where you came from, and she put several of those kits in it.”

“She did?” I asked.

“That, and she's teaching Annistæ about 'how to clean large blades properly', as she's just about finished oiling your sword, and will then 'grease' it.”

“Oil and then grease?” I asked.

“You used oil until very recently, and it's worked pretty well here,” said the soft voice. “You really only need to grease it in an environment that's like a very chilly rain-forest for dampness, or actually upon the water out in the ocean,” said the soft voice. “It will take some days for that place to become warm and dry enough to not need to worry about greasing your weapons, and by then, the citizens will have smashed or dismantled all of the more-obvious means of 'surveillance'.”

“Still have the resource-use ones present, though,” I said. “Oh, that's right – they use the network connections present going to the, uh, 'apartments' or whatever they're actually called.”

“The most common word – the official word – is 'domicile',” said the soft voice. “It will tend to knot the tongues of every person of the party save yourself and Sarah, as at least she knows of that word and has an idea as to what it means from her long perusal of tapestries.”

Get ex-experienced,” I murmured, as I suddenly came upon the others. “G-get experienced.”

“Ooh, d-don't speak that,” yelped Sarah – who then sniffed. “You found a privy, didn't you?”

“Back that way,” I said. “Here, follow me if you're in a hurry. Good, you brought a string.”

Not only had Sarah brought a string, but she'd also brought two of these strange 'hair-bracelets' that Annistæ had figured out once Deborah had produced one, and while they didn't put out a lot of light, they did light matters up enough that I could proceed at a decent pace and not need to worry about Sarah losing me as she paid out the string, then once she had located the stinky place I had just marked with my leavings, I waited warily by it, my knife in one hand and my suppressed pistol in the other, and as she returned after making a stinky place yet stinkier, she left the spool by the door. It was one of those we'd looted from the Abbey, one containing a thin 'braided twine' that was almost invisible in the darkness.

To me, it was almost invisible. To Sarah, it needed her first shining her 'headlight' upon it, then actually turning the thing up.

We'd been running along with their lights at their lowest setting, and more, with the candle filters in place. Removing such filters and turning them up showed them to be not bad at all from a standpoint of light, so much so that we could now both move quickly back to where the others were.

Deborah had finished cleaning my sword, and as I went to find Gabriel, it seems that Sarah needing to go had caused a need for a quick use of the place on the part of everyone.

I asked Gabriel for his sword as he left, and he drew the thing without a protest, especially as he had a machine pistol and shotgun, and the latter, I noted, was being carried 'broken open' with a pair of shells between the fingers for 'dunk, snap, boom-boom' type shooting. I then wondered if those forcefully ejected their shells when broken open for reloading.

“Try one,” said the soft voice. “Better, ask Sarah.

“Dear,” I asked, as the two of us were left alone and I 'got used' to the heft and reach of Gabriel's weapon by moving it about – no 'slices' yet, “did that, uh, fowling piece toss its fired shells?”

“It did, and I nearly wore one in my hair,” she squeaked. “It tosses them out of the gun if you've fired them, and it seems to know if you've just fired one or both of them.”

“And, uh, having two in the fingers?” I asked.

“Is a very good idea, if you must shoot those much,” said Sarah. “I think Annistæ must have taught him that, that and he had ample chance to learn how to reload quickly as he had those witches coming after him as much as they were coming after you for playing that...” Pause, then, “now what is that music called?”

“That?” I asked. “What I played?” Pause, then, “I'm not really sure what to call it, as it was something I was given on the spot.” I paused again, then said, “most churches I went to where I came from would have tossed me had I played something like that.”

“I think those people would be better named witches than anyone else,” said Sarah. “If I go by certain of the old tales, they spoke of witches starting in those places, actually.”

“Taking over churches?” I asked.

“In many places, those who went to those places called churches then were among the very first witches in a given country,” said Sarah. “There were a number of them on the continent before the war, and it seems the only place that had real churches was Vrijlaand.”

“And in this area, they did not have them,” I muttered.

“If they did, they were few, small, and in the hinterlands before the witches started,” said the soft voice, “and were gone entirely by the time they became at all numerous. Most of those not inclined toward witchdom left before the borders became like the wired walls of Berky.”

“Wired walls?” I asked. “Oh, those things we found in that deep-hole – coiled-up barbed wire barriers? As in 'erect your fences, barbed wire, watchtowers with their guns'?”

“That is exactly what the wired walls of Berky were like,” said Sarah, “and what the borders of this place when it belonged to Brimstone utterly were like also – only in many places, one could get through the borders on this country, if one were careful enough.”

“You mean if one were marked beyond the trivial,” I murmured. “So that's why those people were declared to be trusties during selections at Berky – those running that stinky place knew those people would cause mass escapes if they had the desire to try, and hence they ran them right into the grave as fast as they possibly could.”

“They would be able to get out, but most of those otherwise would either not wish to try, or die during the attempt,” said Sarah. “They would not be able to keep up with such people, and would either have to content themselves with a very few miles a day, or die due to exhaustion.”

“Oh, walking skeletons?” I asked.

“I think not!” said Sarah. “I meant if they tried to leave within two days of getting into that place!”

“Then why..?” I was very confused.

“Because they were not used to the life of those marked,” said Sarah. “It is as much a mental matter as it is a physical one, and that I can talk of, as you must be willing to push yourself very hard indeed, much harder than most of those in this area are used to, to do those things which must be done to get out of a place like Berky or escape from a great-find-crush-kill – and those come from what they did during escapes from that place.”

“And I am not going to attempt to speak that evil-sounding Underworld German term,” I spluttered. “I know exactly what it is, also.”

“If you do, then I would be most hesitant to write it, also,” said Sarah.

“Especially as he knows the original term and not the watered-down version the witches were forced to use,” said the soft voice. “The original term caused mass destruction and killed thousands of witches each time it was spoken until that dark haired witch determined that it needed to be added to those words 'not to be spoken, written, or thought of' – and she was both the originator and 'maintainer' of that list.”

Pause, then, “that word is still very dangerous to speak, by the way, and it will remain so until the curse upon this planet is entirely and fully broken. After that, it may be written in common letters without causing that immediate region to essentially turn into an arising of hell.”

As the others came back after their using of that one privy, however, I was actually trying to figure out just how to use Gabriel's sword. It was a surprising 'effective' weapon, such that slicing with it was almost a natural thing, and I knew its principal use.

One sliced with this thing when either confronted by a brigand, or when on the run past a group of thugs; or upon running into their middle, one could slice on them with utter abandon. More, it would cut them up like a huge cleaver.

A huge cleaver that I made, one so sharp that merely dropping the thing carelessly would result in traumatic amputations. Gabriel returned, then as I first reinserted his sword, I asked him to draw it again, this while walking around him so as to observe his doing so; then, I wondered if he wished to try slicing on 'something'.

“How?” he asked.

“First, very slowly,” I said. “Reach in, as if you're going to hand a smallish pouch of gold monster coins to Mister Thug, then as your sword clears your clothing, turn the blade 'edge-away' and push off and away from you while aiming the tip of that thing at his neck.”

“Like this?” asked Gabriel, as he first drew the blade and then made a 'backhand' slice, this fairly slowly. “Isn't that a weak move?”

“Yes, but it will most likely still remove a thug's head just the same with that blade,” muttered Sepp. “ Remember how I tried swinging that thing a bit while he was hunting up a privy, and though you do have to get closer than for a regular sword, using one of those things would be cheating for the butcher's test.”

“Th-that?” asked Gabriel.

“Is done with a knife, one just like this one,” said Sepp, as he drew his knife, “and passing that test means you get to kill at least one of those mean black cattle with your knife while not getting hurt or killed. You want the best knife you can get when you try for a mean black bull, which is one of these, and then you must be quick if you want to stay alive when downing one of those cattle.”

“They are not slow when irritated or intoxicated, Gabriel,” I said gravely. “I turned loose every one of them penned up in the region between the inner and outer Swartsburg walls when I went after the place the second time, and the witches had a warehouse full of strong drink handy, so when I got the gate open after first giving some of those cattle a taste of 'high-test', the rest of them got the idea very quickly, and every single one of them became the, uh, 'liquored-up bull' – and they were all-but unstoppable then. They trashed that place good, then those that survived that place going up went out into the town and went after the hidden drink there and trashed every location that had it!”

I then showed Gabriel some of the follow-up moves, what few of them there were with that 'cleaver-like implement', that being more or less slicing at the portion of the person's body he wished to remove. Then, I thought to teach him knife-work, though I suspected that was a matter better delegated to Deborah or Sepp. Both of those people would be trouble with a knife, though Deborah using two knives, one in each hand as she showed her moves...

It made me wonder about her.

“You'll wish to practice with that thing every chance you can until we actually sail,” said Deborah once she'd sheathed one knife. “Now how much work with knives have you had upon thugs?”

“None,” said Gabriel.

“Then you must get some time in with those,” said Deborah. “I can tell you, though – you will slice and poke some with that dagger. I can tell that much – you will use it, and that other thing that reminds me of a marriage between a cleaver and a corn knife will get its share of business also – and no one will wish to be around you when you are swinging it.”

“Why?” asked Gabriel.

“Because they will bathe themselves in blood!” shrieked Deborah. “I've gotten that stuff on me many times, and calling it horrible is too good for how it feels!”

“Earlier today being but the most-recent instance,” I muttered – and then resumed speaking of that one grizzled guard who had spoken of the need to become all bloody before the witches of the Swartsburg would listen to you.

“Oh, right,” I spat. “Did that stupid wretch ever visit the third ditch and see the blood there?”

“Yes, after the snow had become less and a road had been cleared out that way so people could look at the rotting dead and retrieve their plate.”

“We never got all of it, did we?” I asked, as I let Deborah tutor Gabriel in the use of his dagger. I could tell she was a lot more familiar with them than I was, even if I had done two 'crazy desperate fights' with that species of knife and had sliced up a bull with a much smaller weapon but a short time after coming here – and had sliced up a number of traitors and witches as well with a knife that was but an inch longer in the blade.

“Downing cattle,” I muttered. “I wonder if that straight-horn bull counts as 'downing cattle'?”

“If that one was this one cursed bull I've heard of, then I'd say any place that gives out butcher's papers would have counted it as good enough,” said Sepp. “Now, Gabriel, come in low with that knife, pointing it toward the thug that wants your money and then your life, 'cause he's a stinky witch that wants your finger bones in his meat-sack.”

Deborah then asked me, “how were you more exciting than that smelly witch to that girl?”

“First, I have to get her there, and this place is really hard to get to, as there weren't many roads heading her way, so I had to fly her there,” I said.

“How did you do that?” asked Sarah. “Did you use one of those green things?”

“No, dear,” I said. “I put her on my back, asked her to hold on tight, leaped into the air, and flew – and I was not flying slow, then either – perhaps as fast as a wood-pigeon, or a bee when it's in a hurry.” Pause, then, “I had to – getting there by road would have taken far too long, and that girl wanted to meet her really badly, and...”

“Were there roads?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, some very busy ones, ones with narrow raised footpaths to their sides,” I said. “I remember at the end, when I'd exposed what that woman was actually like and how she'd found traveling with someone like me...” I shook my head, and said, “when you have this big strong person like me, acting just like I do, get down so they're eye to eye to you and talk to you just like I do to you right now, none of this rubbish a lot of 'adults' do with children, and that when you're on the footpath and they're out in the street so you're kept safe – now isn't that strange?”

I had meant 'I was acting just like I really am – no trying to hide anything from the surrounding hateful world. In that place, there wasn't much they could do to someone like me – or rather, I wasn't thinking of my own safety. I was thinking of her safety, just like I had done more than a few times with others.

That was the way I was – and am in truth, right now, today.

Sarah looked at me, a knot in her throat, then gasped, “I think I know what you were, if that was a dream, and you acted like you do now.”

“What, dear?” I asked. “I did everything I could to protect her, I was there to help her see what she wished, and I did not talk down to her in the slightest.”

“Yes, I know,” said Annistæ. “That is just how Espirutu Calienti is said to be, and Rachel said that she was helped by him when she was small.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“He flew her a good distance away from some smelly Cabroni, and he killed many of them so as to keep her safe. She then knew who he was, and Déo came and picked her up off of the floor when he saw her crying – and he was watching over her the whole time. That is why we know of him, and why we ask him for protection, as if he could protect her, he can protect m-me – and you did just that.”

Here, Annistæ was in tears, and I gave her my only clean rag, then went over and dried her tears. She almost screamed, and said, “it is him! This is just what he would do!”

“Now you will make me cry, dear,” I said. “Please, don't cry. I had to do what I had to do to save your life, as those smelly thugs were rather much for you and you needed help.”

That only made her cry all the more, at least for a time, and while I was caring for her – I quickly had help, at least in the form of beer, more rags, and then a piece of bread for her to eat – I soon turned around, drew my sword, and screamed, “you smelly thugs! Leave this woman be!”

The echoes that resulted from my scream were so loud and shattering that when I heard a snapping crash at the end of some far-distant hallway, Annistæ ceased with her weeping, and asked, “what was that noise?”

“A badly walled-up section that will tell us just how those stinkers plan on getting in here,” I spat, “and I'm of a mind to trap it – oh, and slice up the survivors of Big Momma, the ones who somehow ducked out when I was going after them.”

“There weren't any,” said the soft voice. “If they lived in that place, you killed them, and that gun was able to send its bullets through their concrete walls quite readily with more than enough punch to rip lethal holes through their bodies.” Pause, then, “these 'thugs' you were feeling just now are those that have been here for many years, ever since the house proper was actually put into use, and they lived on this floor and the one below it.”

“And that, uh, noise?”

“They left the door open when they 'escaped',” said the soft voice. “I'd find it, learn its secrets, then leave an 'annunciator' behind you to let you know when they're coming in.”

“Such as a metal pear with a length of tallowed fishing string?” I asked. “No, want something better than one of those. I think I want something resembling a brick – painted up just like one, this nice bright red color – and having multiple triggers, including a time-delay example that is triggered when it is picked up.”

The plop that showed next to me was so strange-sounding that I wondered just what had happened, until Sarah pointed at the thing that had showed with what only could be distaste.

“Where did that brick come from?” she asked. “What gives with this...” Sarah looked at me, then almost laughed.

“It will fetch them, won't it?” I asked. “Nice dark blue tape, and this, uh, fishing line...” I paused, then murmured. “No, just lay that thing in their path, and set it for 'delay-trigger' when it is picked up and carried.” I then brought out that little brass 'cube' – it had grown darkness unto it, somehow, and when I opened it up, I felt not merely the time upon its dials, but also, I saw the screen light up and show me what was inside this roughly two-pound brick as I held it atop the thing and moved it about slowly.

It was making that one noisy little device held in that one man's hands I recalled already look worthless, and was making me a believer in magic being 'technology beyond my capacity to conceive'.

“Oh, wonderful,” I murmured, as I touched the screen to get an 'analysis'. “Three hundred grams of cyclohexanite, a hard and tough ceramic exterior, and these lines are strictly bait, so this thing looks really cursed, almost as if some witch like the Mistress of the North took a grade-A curse-brick and turned it into an especially nasty bomb.” Pause, then, “oh, probably writ about in that black book, only those then were made of stones and not, uh, bricks.”

“Especially not that color, which indicates it is a 'real' curse-brick. That brilliant red color there is called 'crimson' in that black book, and it represents blood-curses and sacrifice to witches.” Pause, then, were it a real curse-brick, you could name your price and expect to get it, no matter how ridiculous the sum seemed to you.”

“A thousand guilders?” I asked.

“Get real,” said the soft voice. “No witch in his right mind would sell an authentic 'straight from Geeststaat's furnaces' curse-brick for so paltry a sum. Multiply that by at least twenty, or make it two units of full-minted gold witch-coins, and then you would have the appropriate price for a real curse-brick among those witches able to afford such things.”

“So they will think it an especially powerful fetish, and then take it with them,” I murmured. “Now, let us see here...” I was now 'setting' the bomb. This strange little box was proving quite the capable device – much like a certain key had proven to be – only stranger, as it was responding to speech, or as I soon learned, thought. “Set it for continued movement, then wait roughly four hours after the thing becomes and remains stationary – and then...” I had turned the brick over and was now scanning its 'bottom' – and found something perhaps the size of a pea. It was too familiar-looking to be anything but one item, and I knew this thing like the back of my hand. After all, I had been on one like it. “Oh, Ho! A proximity sensor. Wait until it's set undisturbed for four hours, and there are a lot of witches nearby, and then detonate. 'And' those two values.”

The thing was done and the trap 'set'; with my finger pressed firmly on the sensor so as to 'control' this hideously nasty trap, I went off in search of the location where the tunnel had broken through. Here, we would no doubt have more amusement, this being 'rope down into an area that probably stank worse than a septic tank', lay down the brick some distance away from the door, and then either climb up the rope, or come back out that one hidden doorway in a hurry – and then, somehow, ask the bricks or whatever that had actually collapsed to flow back into the hole once I had 'broken through to the other side'.

I was now going into an area utterly unfamiliar to myself, as this portion of the house proper was both poorly lit at its very best and quite seldom used, and as I passed by 'drifts' to each side – this place really felt like 'the lost Dutchman mine' – I could clearly feel the aspect of 'this whole site is cursed'. I was glad for a headlamp here.

“Is that still true?” I asked, as I moved at a rapid walk. Those headlamps were proving quite the popular thing, and enough of our party had them to light the way for those who did not. Deborah had brought six, though my intimation was that more than that had arrived, if I went by her talk. More, I knew they weren't particularly rare overseas, or at least the parts to assemble them were not – and with samples, they could easily make them in some numbers.

There was no answer, and I suspected another issue: if it was, I probably was not yet able to deal with the matter.

“Or is this a matter of dealing with a great many curses, and what is here merely calls upon them?” I asked.

“Both of those things,” said the soft voice. “Some of which you will deal with when you return and clean out that floor below you, and a lot more once you deal entirely with Norden – but until then, or perhaps a bit after putting Norden to rot, you'll need to work against this nonsense like you're doing now.”

“It isn't enough to kill the witches, even if I wipe them out utterly,” I muttered. “Every single trace of them, their thinking, their speech, and all that they have done must go where they belong, all save enough reminders of their evil that we never go down such paths again.”

While there was no answer to that matter, I could smell the raw stink of a badly-disused pathway ahead, and when I came to the roundabout of the main stairway, I went past it...

Due south, down this one hallway thick with dust... Dust, this thick, clinging, noxious-smelling, into a realm at once older than time...

“This was once where that factory stood,” I murmured. “They had two stories, both underground, this being the main floor...”

Here, I saw broken and cracked concrete, this beginning to go to powder underfoot, and I wondered for a moment how those not doing the excavation for the floors of this place had missed it.

“This portion?” asked the soft voice. “It was walled off by a curse-barrier of non-trivial strength, so those witches who were guiding the efforts here knew of it but could not cross it, and the secret of how to travel upon this route was one handed down from witch to witch since about the time of Cardosso, when it was found again.” Pause, then, “that one room, though – that had remained in use, and that lowest section of this building was once a portion of that factory where cursed munitions were made.”

“Then it is cursed,” I spat – and then, brought up short. Ahead, I could see an alcove, and there, past the second degree of separation, I would find the hole that had suddenly showed. More, I looked down to see a place that now was not concrete, but a species of brick.

“Brick that shape?” I asked, upon seeing bricks shaped just like what seemed the most-common size being cut for construction. “Does that wall surrounding the Abbey need to be relaid?”

“Yes, as that one man has now learned,” said the soft voice. “He is spewing a great many oaths at those 'idiots', as he knows there are certain shapes and sizes that need to be avoided, and duplicating the size of stone most-beloved of witches...”

“Resonance modes,” I mumbled. “They need curses to stand any time when they're shaped fit for cursing, and the black sack will destroy anything made that way. They need to be an inch longer, and slightly tapered, such that they are laid in a keyed manner, then holes drilled in them for both insertion of reinforcements and killing the off-resonance modes. Then they'll stay together...”

The resulting shaking was so great I grabbed at the wall, then faintly, I heard a deranged-sounding screaming.

“I know what that is,” said Annistæ. “That is him, that man you were speaking of, as now that wall is right, and he does not have to remake it.”

“You know about those resonance-modes?” I asked.

“Yes, especially if one uses stone, it must be laid either undressed entirely, or one must cut it strangely, so it does not draw whites,” she said. “Now this I can see was done by Cabroni, as they do things like this.”

“Is this whole building cursed?”

“Weakly,” said the soft voice. “As you well know, resonance in mechanical objects, just like resonance in electrical circuits, is destroyed by adding resistance – either resistance as you know of it, or resistance in the form of damping.”

“Mass-spring-damping,” I muttered. “Put enough damping, as in 'horribly sloppy work', and the building resonates very poorly – so this place was put together by people trying to do their best work, but the results were so abysmal due to those over them being the usual drunken stinkers that they could neither build a building able to endure, nor a building able to be really inhabited unless the witches were really strong.”

“Very true,” said the soft voice. “They compensated for that 'sloppy' workmanship by the means you've learned in here, unlike these people – who needed to chant at their buildings and paint them with blood and coat them with soot to get them to stand up.”

“Duh, just put up a lot of mass, tie the load-bearing walls together with the inner walls save where it needs to be otherwise, don't go too high with the structure, and make lots of small odd-shaped rooms...”

I paused in my speech, for here, I had come to the alcove, and upon shining my light upon the ancient poorly laid stones of a thousand years and the aftereffects of weapons that did very passable nuclear weapons imitations...

“It has collapsed,” I muttered. “There's a hole there...” I then paused, then, “why, all of a sudden, did it collapse?”

“Because the witches of that time were not only 'sloppy' in building and relied heavily upon curses, but they also knew the simple truth that 'lots of badly-laid stone, if done accordingly to certain very simple rules, can endure fairly well',” said the soft voice. “Your scream not only drove off those spirits, but it also found a weak spot in their construction, and 'broke on through to the other side'.”

“It almost put blood in my ears,” said Sarah. “I think you're as loud as a dark gray cat for volume, and higher-pitched than Deborah when she's of a mind to scream.”

“I am not sure if he is higher-pitched than I am or not,” said Deborah. “I am sure I cannot scream nearly as loudly.”

“Your cousin was given perfect pitch for a very good reason, dear,” said the soft voice to the last speaker. “It wasn't just so she can learn to play music especially well, nor stay out of trouble when in incredible danger.” Pause, then, “navigation in space requires perfect pitch, or very close to it, as well as a very discerning touch and feel – and the further your 'reach' is, the better those capacities must be.”

“Reach?” I asked, as I began to feel about the hole with my hands, my fingers probing carefully. The stones appeared solid, as did the mortar; and the roundness of this hole looked more like someone had cut through the thing, rather than caused a collapse. It did not follow the mortar bonds in the slightest. “How does one produce a round hole like this?”

“By screaming like you did,” said the soft voice. “That stone plug fell more or less intact to the floor below, so once you lower yourself down into there and then go to the doorway about twenty feet to your current left, then you can put it back into place while the others go to the deepest floor.” Pause, then, “let Annistæ carry that 'brick' for you, as she'll be careful enough and is familiar with such things.”

“Curse-bricks?” I gasped.

“Non, that stuff you call explosives,” she said. “That thing there is a very bad bombé, one that will catch a great many Cabroni when it explodes, and I have made many of those, so I know enough that I will pad it well with rags and then put it in this pouch here.”

“You like those things like she does?” I asked, pointing to Annistæ's new 'purse'.

“Cé, though this is not the best color-type for in here,” she said, as she took the brick and began to wrap it with rags. “This is better for where there are lots of leaves and trees. For open places, you want less variations, like what you wear, and then for places like this...”

“It works better than you think in the dark, dear, as that stuff does respond to light,” I said. “Those colors blend together in the light, so they become this vaguely mottled green like those called 'greens', then...” I squeaked. “Cloaks done with our cloth and their dyes. They would be perfect for clothing done for work out in the forests and grasslands!”

“Yes, if you wished clothing that wore rapidly and demanded a lot of upkeep,” said the soft voice. “However, do not worry – there will be a way around that mess, and then you will have an ultimate answer.”

“As in, uh, linen-waste, subtly change the fiber, then...”

“I think you want a rope now, rather than such cloth,” said Karl. “Now this here is some really strong rope, even if it is thin, and I think you might wish to use it. It says it has a thousand kill-o-whats for its strength, and that is when it is working. It has more if you want to break it.”

“What?” I screeched. “I'd seen some that was five hundred, now you speak of a thousand?”

“Yes, and I never said that word before,” said Karl. “Now this is the thickest stuff I found when I was looking for rope in the Abbey, and I have wanted some good rope for a long while. This is thinner than I what wanted, so I hope you have leather gloves.”

“I brought some that fit him, if he does not have them,” said Sarah. “I make sure to carry a clean pair with me any more that fit his hands, as well as a pair that fit me.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Handling those greasy spades, right?”

“Those especially,” said Sarah. “It seems those medical satchels each have a pair of gloves in them, only those things are strange.”

“How?” I asked. I meant the satchels, not the gloves. I was looking at what Sarah was removing, and they looked to fit especially well.

“If I remove the gloves,” she said, “more gloves show when I open them again, and so far I have three pairs each, these sized for the two of us.”

“That is a good thing,” said Sepp. “Now hand him his, and Karl and I will hang onto that rope. We can do that, I think, though it may wish us all holding our end up until he is down on the floor there, and then us knotting this thing so we can haul him back up in a hurry should he faint from bad air.”

“I'll hold my breath, then,” I said. “I can probably manage twenty feet...”

As I said that, I knew that I could 'manage' more than twenty feet; and more, in that environment, I might well need to. Cursed places acted very strangely when someone like me was in them, but as Sepp made ready the 'rope' – this was real rope, even if it was a bit thin for 'mountain-climbing' unless one wore good leather gloves – I put on the gloves Sarah handed me.

“A bit thin, but otherwise flexible enough,” I said. “They'd serve well as patterns, as they show where they were sewn.”

“I know,” said Sarah. “Now in that hole with you, and once you are down, tug on the rope. I'll run around to the other floor quickly, as I can get there from here, and I'll trail out my privy-string so the others can follow me readily.”

“P-privy string?” I asked.

There was no time left for an answer, and as I took my 'seat' in the rope, I hoped and prayed it was not a long drop to the bottom as I 'jumped' into the hole, then swung slowly as I went through no less than four feet of many courses of badly-laid stone.

“Stuff is cut as if by a laser,” I thought, as I came clear of the stone and began swinging. I could feel the others steadily lowering me, however, and as I came eye-even with the sooty ceiling of the place, I saw that I had not only but a short drop to the bottom – perhaps another eight feet to go – but also, that there were two tracks, these perhaps twenty inches apart, of 'recently-made rails' that had obviously been greased in recent memory, and more, that the air, while smelly and smoky, was marginally breathable.

I soon learned the truth as my feet touched the stone plug and I leaped out of the rope with a jerk – I began running toward the cracks in the doorway ahead, and when I came to it, I didn't hesitate.

I kicked the door: and it being a cursed door, it went to pieces. What surprised me was the howl that came from the other side.

“I hope you do not plan on doing that again,” yelled Sarah. “I had to dodge that throw-junk and rock you sent my way. Now what is this, an entrance to an accursed mine? It has two sets of rails, just like one of those bad places!”

“If I go by this dream I had, it isn't fun to travel in, especially if you're the one about to be sacrificed,” I murmured. “Now that there's air in there, I need to, uh, clear the rubbish away from that doorway, then put this bomb in about twenty feet in further than that plug, then somehow put that thing back in place.”

As if said 'plug' had been listening to my speech, the thing jerked off of the ground, and leaped back into position. I then turned to Sarah, shrugged my shoulders, then murmured, “your guess is as good as mine as to why things like that happen.”

“I saw that,” said Deborah. “Now Annistæ is right behind me, while the three men are coiling that rope back on that spool.”

“Here,” said Annistæ. “Here is that bombé.”

I was handed the 'brick', then said, “now to put this thing in where it belongs.”

I ran inside, now noticing the rank foulness of the air, and as I went past the position of where the plug lay, I came further into the realms of dust and foulness. Farther and farther, now conscious of needing to put this thing in the right place, and as I ran, the feeling of evil seemed to grow. To each side, I could feel curse-entrances walled off by curses, but when I set the brick down atop one of the rails, I had another intimation.

I then noticed the 'cart' to my side, and put the brick upon that – and gave it a push with my foot.

The noiseless moving of the cart shot it down into the murk to then 'vanish', and as I turned to go, I once more felt the cursed doorways to my right and left. I pointed at each one as I ran, thinking, 'become a witch-trap, one that shows itself readily to the coming witches, then transport him straight to the dinner plate of Brimstone' – and when I emerged back into the light, I saw the 'mess' I had made.

I had a solution for it, however: “become as you were before, even as to appearing fully as cursed as what you once were – only from this side, let you be visible to those of us able to cause trouble for the coming troublemakers. Thank you.”

I had to move Sarah out of the way, as now that 'throw-rock' flew back into place with a vengeance, and within perhaps two seconds, the 'wall' was once more present.

Save for one difference: I could clearly see a doorway outlined, and I went to it and pushed it on the right edge. The door opened easily on hidden hinges, and with the small 'carved-out' place I found, I pulled it back into position. I then thought to hang a very noisy device on it.

“Oh, a bell,” I murmured. “We want a really bad and rattly bell, one that firstly, the witches cannot figure out... No, make it look like a fetish, like, uh, 'bell, book, and candle', or some similar kind of rubbish. That way they figure no one but they can hear it, but we will know when they're coming through this doorway.”

As if to remind me of what I wished for, a huge post, this absolutely ancient-looking, had a bell easily a foot across and two feet long, long, tapering, with an exponential 'bell' at its base. This bell-post was placed with a system of levers working on hinges in the corners just off of the floor, and I thought to once again open the door.

While the door opened easily enough, the hideous long-rattling clangor that abruptly resulted – deep, baying like a deranged dog, thundering like a cataract – seemed enough to alert anyone within the kingdom house that was at all awake.

“A cursed bell?” I asked. My ears were ringing yet from it.

“No, but those witches will look at that thing and think it quite the fetish,” said the soft voice. “That shape is hinted at quite strongly in that black book, so when 'the bell tolls', it will inform anyone with ears who happens to be awake that trouble is on the premises.”

“For whom the bell tolls?” I asked. “Why, it tolls for the witches. Now, we need to get up some stairs, after retrieving our things from that area above and to the north of us, and I think we want some food from the refectory, also.”

“Best get what you need up to the fourth floor, first,” said the soft voice. “Fetching food is going to be a bit easier than moving adequate supplies of gear, and in the process, you can drill Gabriel on 'the stairs' and other matters that might well mean his life in the days to come.”

“He's right, as that one Public House that I've been in has an upper floor, and one may rent rooms there,” said Sarah.

“And, the place is full of sailors, some of which are part-time pirates,” I murmured.

“Perhaps it is so, but that place is full of sailors, as a rule,” said Sarah. “That place had a lot of old bloodstains in it when I was last inside, so I hope they've been cleaning it.”

“Clean up the old bloodstains, or just keep them down?” I asked.

“I hope they clean them up properly,” said Sarah. “I know they do work at it, as a thief tried for me in that place and I dumped his guts on his boots with a knife.”

“You did?” I asked.

“Yes, I had a common-sized knife when I was traipsing, same as do most students at the west school, though mine was hidden by my cloak,” said Sarah. “My first knife may have been a commonplace one, but by the time I was into my third term, I had enough funds to get one started at Machalaat, and that knife was the one I kept for the rest of my trips and my time as a messenger.”

“Commonplace?” I asked.

“It was one of those commonly sold to students, which are better than the usual for up here,” said Sarah. “Hans' old knife is but little better than one of those, but if you get one of those preferred by sailors...”

“A r-rigging knife?” I gasped.

“Those are not the usual for most sailors,” said Sarah, “and what I had from there is what is called a pilot's knife. Those are a bit stouter in the blade than is usual for up here, and I was very sad when I had to leave that knife behind me when I left with those witches hot for my tail. I could have used it.”

“Pilot's knife?” I asked. “What are those like?”

“Much like those eight daggers you made, save with a single-edged blade,” said Sarah. “They have a slim blade that is hollow-ground, much like your blades are, then they're narrower by perhaps eight to twelve lines for their blades, and about three lines thicker for the bulk of the blade, and then, like yours are, they have the whole of their tang in their handles.”

“I have wished for one of those for years, but...” murmured Deborah sadly. We were well back toward our supplies on the floor we had left them.

“You've told me enough to make some of those, dear,” I said. “Now I suspect that those are going to be very popular overseas, especially among their sailors – though for some reason, I suspect those people would rather have ones like I used to have in my desk.”

“They'd want both species of knife, actually, especially once they start coming up this way,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, most of those people want folding knives, preferably done like that one you left behind where you came from.”

“Th-that knife?” I gasped.

“Similar to it, anyway,” said the soft voice. “They have several pictures of that one and knives like it, but they've not been able to make them since the takeover – so reading your mind will give them the details they need to make those, especially as they can easily make metals superior to what you had in that one.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “No sailor is a proper sailor without a knife of some kind, and I'm glad I have both of mine, as I will wish them if I am pressed into pilot-duty.”

“No, no press-gangs,” I said.

“I did not mean that,” said Sarah. “Anyone who has gone with Pieter, even but once as I did, is known among ship-leaders as an excellent pilot, and that boat that will be carrying us sails at night...”

“It will wish someone with good night-vision,” said Deborah. “Mine is good, but I think you have had more practice using yours lately.”

“I have not piloted a ship,” I spat. I could just see myself trying to drive some weird 'three-masted square-rigged ship' or whatever was commonly used to sail here, until Sarah looked at me strangely. I could feel my gear ahead, and when I found it readily, she said, “that there would have you in the pilot's house for certain, but if those people learn anything about what we did coming down there, then they will want you driving that boat.”

“How are they steered?” I asked. I was expecting something that belonged on an old whaling craft – a tiller, to be precise, one long, knobby with 'warts', and a built-in tendency to whack you in the head if you didn't pay close attention to what the ship was doing. That, and one had to run a lot when tacking, so much so that a gutter was worn in the planks of the ship from the boat-steerers moving the thing through its wide arc.

“With a wheel, one with small nubs about its rim so it stays tight in your hands,” said Sarah. “Pieter's is a bit larger for diameter, but his nubs are not the usual pegs. They are more like the carved-out places I have seen on some stringed instruments, and the rim is a bit narrower. I found it a bit easier to hang onto when I was in the pilot's house.”

“Familiar, then,” I said. “Most, er, boats...” I asked, “how big is this, uh, boat?”

“I think it's a bit smaller than the usual, but it's as fast as Pieter's, almost its' twin, perhaps,” said Sarah. “You want a boat that can cut turns, especially if you are working with a contrary wind, as then you must cut to the right and left of your track so as to keep some wind in your sails. It is worked using arrows in that type of mathematics called Geometry at the west school, and one of my classmates went on to become a pilot.”

“Vectors,” I said. “I could show you what those mean, if you want.” I said this as I helped with 'folding' the cart, then as we went toward the stairs, I said, “no time like the present, Gabriel – let the people ahead of you get clear, then try swiping that thing around while you've got a load in one hand and are climbing stairs.”

“You're right, they had us do that very thing at the west school,” said Sarah. “I had a lot more trouble with those swords there than what I have now.”

“You worked with them there?” I asked.

“Not very much, as they were far too heavy for me to use well,” said Sarah. “I ended up doing flail-drills on stairs, though, and I could beat nearly everyone who used a sword.”

“Nearly?” I asked. “Who did you have trouble beating?”

“One person – I think it was the lesser instructor – got lucky and cut my flail-rope in two,” said Sarah. “I drew my knife and went for him right away, and that got to him, all right.”

“It did?” I gasped. Gabriel seemed to be getting the hang of using what amounted to a sizable razor-edged kukhri.

“He needed to spend three weeks in bed, and needed regular visits from Liza afterward as well, as I nearly cut his leg off,” said Sarah. “Weapons training at the west school gets more than a few people hurt, even if dying isn't terribly common.”

“How did he live if his leg was nearly cut off?” asked Sepp. “That kind of a cut usually means bad infections, and those kill people.”

“Yes, up here that kind of a cut usually kills people,” said Sarah. “They have better medicines down there, they take better care of hurt people down there, and I think Liza gets some medicines from the Valley,” said Sarah.

“No, not 'think', dear,” I said. “I suspect she sees tinkers now and then, as they aren't at all rare in that area, even if they tend to be careful as to when and where they should show themselves for who they are, and then...”

“They come into our towns,” said Annistæ. “I know most of those people, and I know they buy our medicines, what of them we can sell, and some of them speak of there being two or three who know something of medicine on the other side of the mountains from El Vallyé.”

Can sell?” I asked. “As in 'they're really hard to make, and we have a lot of trouble making enough to keep our people from dying'?”

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “When you fight Cabroni much, then you need much medicine, which is why most towns that are not filled with Cabroni have Téatraæ in them.”

We were now even with the main floor, and here, we paused, for two of the party went off to fetch food and drink, and our loads were redistributed. I now had to carry my rifle and possible bag atop what I had carried before, and with this load, I found that while I could climb stairs like a mountain goat, it hurt to do so.

Badly, so badly that before I had gotten to the third floor I was needing a dose from that one vial of tincture, and upon reaching the fourth floor, I had to unload everything onto the cart once it was set up, save for my knife, pistol, and the flail.

My knees were really giving me trouble by then, so much so that I hoped fervently I would not have to do much climbing with a full load after today. Even 'welding' on my knees had not helped much with the pain, even if they weren't as likely to 'give way' as before. I suspected that all I had really done was 'buy myself a few days' by doing what I had done – as I would need to have surgery done on them there, and not a little surgery – and that for my knees.

“Nothing you do overseas before you get medical help will be as bad as what you just did, even if you will be going up and down stairs to some degree.”

“Uh, how?” I asked, as I began massaging my knees intermittently while waiting for the others to 'gather themselves' and 'form up'.

“Mostly as you'll be carrying less equipment, even if you will have it all with you – and you will need all of it, also,” said the soft voice. “Most of the time, long shots will be rare, so you'll need to have equipment handy – just not need to carry all of it.”

“Uh, a truck?” I asked. There was no answer, even if my suspicions about vehicular transport over there were growing by the hour. We had heard about those 'fairly rare' yellow trucks that might barely manage a bit more than ten miles an hour, but somehow, they didn't sound like what we needed.

They did sound like what we wanted initially, though – as while they sounded as if slower than sugar-tree sap in a dead-winter, they'd be a lot faster than walking – and more, they'd give us the time to find something that could move.

There were things like that over there. I knew that much, as I left off massaging my knees and resumed walking.

Gabriel, thankfully, was still practicing with his 'sword', both drawing slowly and noiselessly – his scabbard now barely made any noise – and also rapidly, this drawing and then slinging backwards while lunging forward. The results soon manifested before my eyes.

Gabriel really got some attention in that port with that blade, and that on the night of our arrival, as more than once he'd cut down thugs as they ran up on them while they were fixing to blow a doorway to a drink-house, and Karl was waiting...

A night once dark with clouds now roared with the crackle of flames, and those who wished to live bailed out of their secret entrances along the Long Wharf, as while most of the people present were either witches or supplicants, some were simply sailors just back from legitimate voyages, and while there hadn't been a 'shore patrol' since the place had been taken over by witchdom in the guise of the third kingdom...

There was going to be one from now on, and we would start things off with a bang – a bang that would be heard at the house proper itself at whatever hour of the night we happened to come in.

A sudden screech shook my from my revery, and to my astonishment, I saw a sizable white rat cut cleanly in half, with Gabriel's sword dripping blood onto the floor. He was shaking, and I drew my machine pistol and shot its eyes out as if it were the most usual thing in the world.

The tinkle of empties vanished into sacks, and now, we moved. I wanted that rat for priming the 'tanks', as what had showed in Annistæ's area would work with dead rats quite nicely.

“That's the oil-type, isn't it?” I thought, at the recollection of fats and oils of one kind or another being used to make that type of lantern-fuel. “The other type...”

“That can use table scraps and things that otherwise would go out on the manure-pile, as well as a certain amount of manure and the whole of what accumulates in privies,” said the soft voice. “More, the 'dregs' of that process produce a very high-grade compost, one that takes days instead of months to fully mature – and adding that compost to the existing manure will speed up the outdoor process drastically.”

“Almost want to run the contents of the privies into those tanks, then, smell or no smell,” I said. “That one big pond out back...”

To my complete astonishment, someone had bagged up the two halves of the rat and was carrying them, and I waved my hand at the pool of blood and saw it vanish as if a mist, this without missing a stride. Gabriel was still practicing with his blade, but as we came to where Annistæ's 'rooms' were, I murmured something about a 'practice dummy' for knife-attacks, and Karl quietly laughed behind his hand.

He tried hard to be quiet just the same, and did not quite manage it.

“Yes, and what is it you laugh about?” asked Deborah. “I hope you didn't use wearable fetishes for clothing such a thing.”

“No,” said Karl. “I got these clothes from the town where I live, those in my house and those of my relatives, and they save old clothing for selling to rag-merchants.” Pause, then, “I didn't know where the used clothing was in this place then and do not want to know about it now, but I knew about what my family and relatives had, that and lots of straw and some old string, so I was working on this thing up in that room that used to be an armory.”

“What for?” asked Sarah.

“Not all of us get much chance to poke people,” said Karl, “and after I had trouble with witches trying for me in a few of the privies here, I asked Sepp about what to use for practice, so he helped me out some with making it, and since I did not want those old gaffers thinking me wanting to start a farm in that room where the armory used to be, I hid the thing up this way where it was not likely to be found, if I went by how thick the dust was when I hid it.”

“Up this way?” I asked. “Where?”

“Down the hall here,” said Karl. “It may take the two of us a bit to find it, but I've gotten better with my knife since the two of us made it.”

“Go fetch it, then,” said Sarah. “We'll be working hard enough in Annistæ's rooms to want breaks, food, and baths between now and bedtime, and that sounds like something we could use.” Pause, then, “I know I could use such practice, as I've not poked many people recently . Clubbed them and shot them, yes, but not poked.”

“That one man?” I asked, as Karl and Sepp took off at a run, Karl paying off a string as he ran with what looked like the ball from a roer tied to the free end. “When did he come up with that one?”

“Since I told him about it,” said Sarah. “I was reminded about it last night, and then Deborah told me about it as if to remind me again. We used that idea a lot when we were exploring Boermaas.”

“So how will they know the rest of the way..?” I asked.

Sarah took another 'spool' of string, tied its end to that of the huge musket ball's string, then began unrolling it as we went further 'into the catacombs' that led to the laboratory. Up the hall, then the left turn, past first the long corridor with the marked door at its end on the left, then the shorter and narrower corridor on the right that led to the chemicals, and then the two doors, these creaking slightly as they opened. For some reason, I did not wish these to not make noise, as they were intended to be noisy when opened, and my feeling the first one open told me that noisy tendency was 'built in' as a warning measure.

The gap between them, however, was meant for rigging, and I had a distinct impression – we'd want some 'board mines', these hollowed out, lined with small shot, and then a thin layer of plastic explosive on the inside. Several of them, all of them wired, with some peculiar rigging devices that could be triggered from the inside.

“Turn those stinkers into sieves and wake up anyone in here,” I muttered.

“Cé?” asked Annistæ. “You have an idea?”

“Yes, several,” I said. “Put some nice plaques, these having 'the rules' regarding anything one might find in here as a reminder, nicely varnished and made of hardwood, and with the back hollowed out and filled with glued-in shot and a thin layer of plastic explosive,” I said. “We chisel the places for the wires in the walls, either that or just put some kind of paint over them, put dim lighting in the place just above each plaque so as to, uh, light the rules up, and then have some kind of a proximity detector present. We use a pot-battery and switch on the inside... Oh, and a number of such plaques in this place, also. Rig each one of them up...”

Cé, that is a good idea,” said Annistæ. “I am not sure how to carve wood well, but if I have a good scooping tool, I can...”

“I can teach you,” said Deborah. “I did not just do waxes. I did clay, as sometimes I needed to do something larger so as to see a matter better before doing waxes for jewelery, and then I also carved wood, so I think I can get some wood and tools from that carpenter's shop downstairs until we have our own tools here.”

“Yes?” I asked. “You'll want some woodworking tools. Right?”

“Yes, as this place will need a fair amount of things to be done that way,” said Deborah, as she turned on her battery lantern. “We can use these lanterns in here, but what is all this over here?”

Deborah was pointing out no less than three head-high and man-wide stacks of fiberglass bins, and when I went off in a slightly different direction, my hand unerringly reached for a lantern.

A lantern, this brimming full, and if I went by its shape, one like those that had showed in 'the white room' on the ground floor. I pumped the thing up, turned it on, and over a quick count of three, the thing cleared out and had to be turned down.

“Oh, my,” I gasped, once I had opened my eyes. Not merely was the place nowhere near as dirty as I had thought it was, based on what I had heard, but we'd gotten a lot of supplies in here as well.

“Ai, and workbenches, too,” said Annistæ. “There were two of those, and they were fit for paper, and now there are ten, and I can see three hoods for smoke out in the main area, and...”

“Oh, guess what else I found?” I asked. “Look, dear. Wires. Insulators. Ceramic tubes that go up into the ceiling, so I'll bet you've got some kind of an antenna.”

“Not 'some kind of antenna',” said the soft voice. “It might not be 'the big one' that is in one of those books you 'made' today, but it will be big enough to give good reception until you can get the big one put up here.”

“Uh, transmission?” I asked.

“You'll need to make one, but yes, you'll be able to do that, especially as there are no less than three sizable bags of ready-machined metal and plastic parts needed to make 'Frankenstein' switches'.”

“Which means?” asked Sarah.

“Just the wood parts will need making from scratch, most likely,” I said. “They can do those out in the boatwright's shop. Now, all of you, fan out and look in all the rooms, but don't touch anything yet. Let me or Annistæ look at it first, as it might well be hazardous.”

As if to disabuse me of what 'hazardous' meant, Deborah loosed a soft moan, then turned, her face the picture of terror. I ran where she was pointing, and inside, I gasped.

“Oh, my,” I squeaked. “Quick. Come here. We have not just a generator here, but also... What? Three generators? I thought there was the big one, and then the exciter to drive the big one, with two windings, but then there's this third one, and...”

“Look closely at that one,” said the soft voice. “That one's for things that want a bit more than four hundred units of power.”

I cautiously went into this 'jumbled' room, equipment all but lining the walls and two central rows of more equipment, and as I passed piece by piece of obvious electrical gear, I went past an 'engine' of some kind, a tall 'boiler', sundry water-lines that were labeled as 'cooling water' and 'condensing', then came to the main generator. This was nearly as tall as I was and heavier than a house, as it was intended to supply thousands of amperes of current – or so I thought until I came to the thumb-thick wires coming out of it.

“Those wires cannot handle that much current – or can they?” I asked, as I saw the shaft coming out of the massively-constructed white-painted cast-iron gearbox. This, strangely enough, had what looked like not only a copper-finned oil-cooling radiator, but also a sight-glass with 'lubricant level' printed and painted onto the tall thin copper tank.

“No, but recall how each pot in Andreas' pot-room needed its own current and voltage regulator to achieve maximal output?” asked the soft voice. “The next room over from this one is the pot-room, and under each of the workbenches on metal stands are those regulators, one per pot – and the storerooms in here have more pots, pot-regulators, wires, and other needed matters once they get enough practice getting these going.” Pause, then, “now, look at that direct-drive generator, and look closely at its nameplate and the other matters present.” Pause, then, “you've seen something like it recently.”

I did so, and while the shaft here was smaller in diameter, its thickness was easily an inch or more. I then noted the generator itself, and saw a finned portion that went to its front, as well as a blue-gray screen flanked by four buttons. I asked, regarding the finned bronze 'gearbox', “what is that?”

“The 'power transformer',” said the soft voice. “Think 'very sophisticated automatic transmission' to keep the voltage and frequency constant up to the rated maximum load of the device – which is a quite a bit more than that needed to run two soldering stations.”

“What will they need that generator for, then?” I asked.

“Why, machinery,” said the soft voice. “Annistæ needed to make most of her own equipment where she came from, remember – well, that meant she needed to be a fairly accomplished machinist, and Deborah can learn that business rapidly.” Pause, then, “that generator will earn its keep in the months to come, even after the other ones get put in, as then it will be a backup generator when and if the others might need to go off-line.”

“Uh, does more than just that, doesn't it?” I asked.

“It does,” said the soft voice. “That 'automatic transmission' is an integral part of the power-plant's control mechanism, and it indicates not merely the actual engine revolutions, it also indicates its overall power output via a network of variable resistors, tuned circuits, and magnetic amplifiers.”

“And the rest of this equipment?” I asked. “Those, uh, pipes overhead?”

“Condensers for the exhaust to keep the place warm in the winter,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though – this generator takes regular coal, partly gasifies it, burns some of the gases, and then adds a certain amount of steam so as to get the maximum amount of power from a given amount of coal using a synthesis-gas reaction – and no, it does not burn all of that gas, either.”

I then noticed Annistæ was looking in the doorway with me. She looked at me, then followed with her hand some rather strange-looking silvery tubes, tubes that went out of the wall. She then had a question.

“What are those for?” she asked.

“They go next door,” I said. “I'm not sure what's there. Fuel-storage?”

What proved to be present in that location was so utterly strange that I had to have Annistæ explain it to me: not only did she have some of the equipment needed to make both 'fat-based Farolcumbusteblé' and 'alcohol-based Farolcumbusteblé', but also another material, this one so strange that it made for wondering until she began looking at her ledger. She then said, “I think that is for cleaning solvent.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “While you could use some of that liquid in your parts washer, what you'll make using that reactor-assembly will be of especial use for a number of matters, chief among them a lot of organic chemicals – ones you've wished to make in quantity for a long time.”

“Uh, some really strange binder?” I asked. “Really tough stuff – smells positively awful, but it cures so strong and hard that when you put glass fiber into it, it makes furniture that's indestructible?”

“Cé?” she asked. “The kind we had was good enough, but it could be broken. This type will not be so?”

“Several times stronger, also,” said the soft voice. “They will want the formula for it overseas, as nothing they have that is that strong is safe to handle, and this material will be.”

“Just smell absolutely horrible,” I said. “Just wear gloves, possibly a chemical suite to keep the stink from bugging you too much, and...”

“We had to do that with ours so as to not get sick,” she said. “This will not cause illness?”

“No worse than Komaet,” I said. “That said, Komaet isn't terribly fun to use.”

“Yes, and I am glad we have jugs of that stuff,” said Karl. “Now this is not a farmer's field, so this thing here is not to keep quolls out of your rye.” A pause, then, “what is this place?”

“A laboratory,” said Sarah. “It makes that of the west school look to be worthless, so I think I had best do what I'm told until I know what to do so as to not get us all sooted up or scattered, as there's enough strange things in here...”

“You and me both, dear,” I said. “I'm not a chemist, and she is.”

“Do not be so certain about that,” said Deborah. “We may want you up in here a fair amount, as neither her nor I have any idea as to what is in that one room with all the machinery.”

“I have some idea,” I said. “There's a lot in there I do not understand terribly well either.” Pause, then, “now, where is that pot-room?”

That proved to be between 'the power plant' and the 'chemical room', and here, the room was not merely sizable, but it also had row upon row of benches, these made of what was either a very sturdy species of fiberglass, or some kind of chemically-coated metal. A glance underneath each of these chest-high pots, however, showed me not merely a sizable electronic device, but also a trio of analog meters, and then the pots themselves...

“They have labels as to what they're to be used for,” I murmured. “This room is full of them, though.”

“The one next to it through that door over there is not, and it's nearly twice the size of this one,” said the soft voice. “That's for the second stage, once they get used to keeping the pots in this one running and keeping that power plant operating.” Pause, then, “perhaps you might wish to bring it up just to show them what it can do?”

While the others busied themselves moving the bins to the benches for easy 'access', I took Deborah and Annistæ into the power-plant, and here, as I went from the coal-hopper to the 'pyrolysis vats' and then from those to the 'gasifier', I asked, “does this equipment need a lot of attention?”

“About twenty minutes when you start it at the beginning of the day, periodic checking, and then twenty minutes to shut it down,” said the soft voice. “It's not entirely automated, and that's because it uses a fairly variable raw material.” Pause, then, “oh, something else it produces. It also produces a significant amount of synthesis-grade burnt-coal.”

“It does?” I asked.

“About ten times what Andreas' setup does, with a small fraction of the effort and care,” said the soft voice. “More, that other room with the 'fuel' equipment has both several compressed gas tanks, a small compressor-liquefier, and the needed equipment to produce a very hot-burning fuel gas, so they can run fuel-torches for welding.”

“No oxygen, though,” I murmured.

“Wrong,” said the soft voice. “Across the main area next to the main storeroom is where the gas-fractionating arrangement is located, so Annistæ can get any gas she wishes in both gaseous and liquid form – including liquid helium, so she has quite the setup here.” Pause, then, “then, if you were to go down this one hallway next to this one fume hood – a hallway that's fairly well camouflaged at this time – then you can find more room when you're ready for it, including the big fume-hood and the reverberatory furnace.”

“What?” I gasped.

“With what is present and set up here now, you could begin refining metals in sizable amounts,” said the soft voice. “By the time you return from your trip, not only will everything currently usable be working at or near its capacity, but then you'll also have the other rooms being worked on, and in some cases added to – and this location will produce well over a thousand pounds of ready-to-run coinage metals per day when running at its full capacity.”

“And medicines,” I said. “And a great deal else. And need about four to seven helpers, all of which you'll – no, we'll – need to train by the time the two of you are ready for your sojourn in the black sack – and both of you will be in there for either most of the time, or the entire duration.” Here, I turned to Annistæ. “You and Graćiella will become full fledged, uh, 'doctors', there – or whatever they actually call those people who make those called that where I came from look like curse-chanting fools, even the good ones, and then, uh...” I nearly broke down and screamed, this shaking my head.

“What?” asked Deborah. “Will you..?”

“I suspect so,” said Anna, as she suddenly showed like smoke. “Karl, this is not a farmer's field, so what are you doing with a farmer's dummy in here?”

“So we can take practice poking it when we get tired of doing other things,” said Karl. “Now this clothing is from my family and my relatives, and so I doubt it has had witches putting their things in it.”

I went over to the dummy, touched it, then drew my hand away.

“I guess you were wrong, Karl,” said Sepp. “They got to your family's stuff just like they did at the house.”

“N-no,” I said. “This c-clothing f-feels like it has a lot of b-bugs on it, and it feels so awful that you could not get me to wear it in a hundred years!”

Sarah touched it, then nodded. “I know why they had this stuff ready for selling to rag-merchants, then – it's as buggy as anything I've ever touched, and I do not like that feeling at all.” Then, as if on a whim, Sarah drew her knife and stabbed the thing three times, this so rapidly that her movements seemed a blur. “There. Now it feels a bit better. Only a witch would want clothing that buggy to wear as clothing.”

“Yes, so that is why it is for poking and not wearing,” said Karl. “Now, you want to watch Sepp, as he's a butcher, and butchers have to know knives...”

A sudden blur shot past me, this literally leaping like lightning, and the 'dummy' suddenly showed no less than a dozen slashes and slices in it. Deborah then came from behind it, looking from its side, then said, “I got both of the urine-glands – I think. Come here and tell me if I missed.”

Sepp came around, looked then came back shaking his head. He then looked at me.

Time came to a screeching halt, then as I leaped through the air, my dagger came out, and as I hooked my arm around the middle of the dummy, the knife went in, this with such rapidity that before I knew what had happened, I was holding nothing but torn shreds of cloth mingled with straw.

“I am glad I brought plenty of straw and old clothing, as that one is fit for paper right now,” said Karl. “Now how many times did you poke that thing?”

“I'm not sure,” I said shakily. “I know I put more than a few holes in it.”

“You tore it apart,” said Deborah. “You did that with a knife?”

I showed the one I had used, then said, “That was the third or fourth time I used it, dear. I seem to be improving quickly with this business, all right.”

There was no small muttering among the other three men, as now Gabriel needed to help make up another dummy for 'poking', and Sepp was doing most of the muttering. He soon had Anna helping him, then Sarah – as these clothes needed a lot of mending. Karl's family tended to really use their clothing until it was nothing but patches, and their mending, to put it mildly, wasn't very good.

“About as good as mine, if I go by what they're doing,” said Deborah – who then whispered, “what is that thing over there?”

We were in the power-plant room, and Deborah was pointing to the engine. It was, indeed, totally enclosed, with lagged plumbing and a few external oil lines to give some indication as to what it actually was – and more, it used a dry-sump, complete with an embossed line on its tall cylindrical copper tank and a long tubular sight gage to ensure it had plenty of oil. The thing said 'topping full', that being the literal meaning of the embossed phrase.

“First, we need to put the coal to this thing,” I murmured. “Now this big, uh, thing down here...”

“That is a big accumuladoré,” said Annistæ. “Now it has green dots, so this one is full.”

“Green dots?” I asked.

“Cé, as those speak of its gravity,” she said. “Green means it has plenty of power. Now, there is this part here, some of which I understand...”

I read the whole of it instantly, and began flipping switches. A soft muted grumble began to come from something below a wide green-painted steel hopper, and opening the lid showed obvious – and foul-smelling – lumps of brown-streaked-with black coal.

“Coal-fired power-plant,” I said. “Now I see the pollution, rain down out of the sky...”

“Not here you will, and certainly not with this one,” said the soft voice. “There's a reason why that one uses gasification, as not only does it get all the energy out of that fuel, but it also burns cleaner than any such fuel-source currently available on the continent.”

“And what it is doing now?” I asked.

“Give it about ten minutes to get a good bed of ground coal in that reactor and 'get the fire lit', then watch what happens to the boiler.”

“Ten minutes?” I asked.

“The small boiler is producing steam right now,” said the soft voice. “You need steam, heat, and some other matters to get that synthesis gas reaction going, but once it is going, then you'll get steam pressure within perhaps three minutes, you'll be able to turn that engine over, let it get good and warmed up while it's bedding in, and then bring the power plant on line. Notice the lights – green, red, yellow, and how they're changing colors?”

I nodded mentally.

“It might not be nearly as automated as one of those devices that will be showing up here within a few weeks to a month, but it's easy to operate, and then, you'll be able to train 'engine-room artificers' in here – as the difference between this power plant and what is needed to drive a ship like what Pieter has is its size, not its functioning or equipment.”

“Two of them, also,” I said. “About twice this large for dimensions overall, but otherwise very similar.”

“No, nearly identical,” said the soft voice. “The only real difference is what goes on the other end of that gearbox. Otherwise, you're right – what you'll want for a two hundred foot two-masted schooner is two engines of about twice the horsepower of this one.”

“Meaning about how much larger?” I asked.

“Figure about a third larger for their dimensioning for everything save the coal bunkers,” said the soft voice. “This bunker has enough coal in it for about three days running at full capacity. The ones they'll wish will need to be quite a bit larger, as is appropriate for circumnavigating the continent as it is now.”