The land of the ever-blooming Krokus...

Rachel walked up the corridor, then over to the counter, where I recalled we were due to receive two jugs of beer. While she spoke of the mess to the publican – who did not seem surprised; she spoke of one of the town's residents shooting someone by 'sound' with his roer during the first part of the night and then having a portion of his stoop scattered by a bomb of some kind – Sarah and I each had not merely refills of our cups ready, but also two cold jugs of beer. I knew that Sarah would be glad for the jugs, but once she'd put them in the buggy, she mentioned where we needed to go next. She then showed me the piece of paper hiding underneath her jug with a map drawn on it.

“It has numbers that speak of our itinerary,” she said, “and I guess we get to go wherever in this place without a guide.”

“That's not much trouble, as they told me you needed to go to Henk's right off,” said a man who was waiting on horseback with a huge musket, this shouldered as if he expected to use it shortly. “I don't have hard-cast loopers in this gun, but I do have stiff shot, and it holds a nine-gage tight on its muzzle, so it's bored for shot.”

“That's a roer?” I asked.

“Thimble ignition, and done here,” he said. “Powder's from here, too, so I need to use one o' their measures for the stuff, as that ain't normal powder, and this ain't a common gun, roer or no.”

“Not if it's made here,” said Sarah, who seemed quite relieved. “Henk is the jeweler, correct?”

“The one what does plating,” said the man. “I need to go there myself, so I get to guide you there.”

He also proved to not be inclined toward wasting time, which proved a blessing, as traveling in this place, even with a map drawn by an 'artist', wasn't particularly easy. The roads, especially the main ones, made for rapid travel; but most of the main locations were 'off of the road', as the man explained while traveling down a path that initially required single-file travel, then widened out to a normal 'varnished' road width of perhaps twelve feet. Here, we had a chance to see houses, fields – these small, heavily farmed, their beds raised perhaps eight to twelve inches, and planted with 'carrots', as Sarah identified and our 'guide' affirmed – and then, after passing several such fields – including two more small patches having Krokus and three more 'brier-patches' – we came to our first-numbered destination as drawn on the map.

It was up against a surprisingly tall and steep 'hillside', this constructed of mortared stone covered with varicolored species of long draping mosses, the 'wall' going up at least twenty feet. The shop itself had a stone stoop covered by a wide verdigris-stained old-looking copper roof supported by a sextet of stained wooden posts, and the stoop below it was of stone some foot and a half tall from the surface of the ground. The door was doubled, as was common for shops elsewhere, but there were no windows.

Windows were a liability here. They made an easy entrance for a chain-wrapped bundle of dynamite, and that followed by jugs of distillate.

The odd silver-colored pole in the place's yard looked to be a copy of the one I had seen in the fourth kingdom, only this pole didn't turn into a soft-furred silver ferret and the lettering was legible – if one looked at it for perhaps three seconds so as to make out the three words, none of which was that magic name that conjured the soft-furred creature of recollection. The man grinned as he dismounted, then I saw his 'reins' just before I leaped off, then grabbed the blanket. It needed fluffing out, and finding a place to hang it so as to air it out took some modest 'looking' until I found a short section of unoccupied hitching post to put it.

“Such a thin lead?” I asked, blanket in hand, stunned, rock-formation-still. I glanced down at the horse's hooves, and there saw obvious bronze 'clips' holding on what had to be bronze shoes, if I went by their burnished 'bronze' color and apparent 'thinness'. The clips were quite shiny, showing obvious 'polishing' by grass and dirt, as well as slight amounts of wear, chiefly their once-sharp corners were now slightly rounded and wavering. The wearing tendencies of such shoes were lived with, much as were the other costs of using a horse that was a good deal better than average for this area.

“Why you askin' me that question, if you use nothin' at-all there,” said the man – who, I now saw, used a blanket in lieu of a saddle, much as I did. “This horse is just barely able to tolerate what I use, but she ain't like that one there.”

“He has no idea how to use such things,” said Sarah, “and I doubt much he can use them.”

“Yep, I ain't surprised,” said the man. “I hear Lukas and Gilbertus talk about him enough, but it's unusual to actually meet him.” Pause, then, “he fits right in here, though, and he'd have no trouble.”

“But I must be out there,” I said, pointing to the north and west. “We drop off our rivets here for tinning, correct?”

“That, and you need to see some real jewelry equipment, I suspect,” said the man. “I had to live here after my last run-in with swine, as the witches burnt me and my family out after they learned I'd lost part of a foot to a pig.” Pause, then, “most of my foot grew back, but only two places can make the shoes I need to walk right, and one of 'em's in here, and no one gives me trouble, so I stay here much as I can.”

“And I go to the other of the two locations you spoke of, correct?” I asked.

“Well, that just proves you've learned what you need to know out there,” said our 'guide'. “I'm in the market for a gold ring for someone, so I need to see how it's coming and drop off some money for it.”

“Uh, what happened?” I asked.

“The witches got every one of my family 'cept me,” he said. “Killed them all, so now I not only had to live here, but get married again to a widow who lost fingers while fighting witches.” A pause, then, “I've shot witches every single time since then that I go out riding, and I got another thing for them witches what are hard.”

“Those stinkers want these,” said Sarah, as she indicated her rifle by its strap. “I've dropped witches at ranges a three inch gun would have trouble with, especially if it used common shells.”

“The ones done here are the best to be had up up this way, or they were,” said the man. “I think the jeweler's here does some o' their parts.”

Again, I was noticing that aspect of 'lapsing dialect' that I had noticed with several people that had traveled and worked in a number of places in their lives, such that their tongues could not seem to make up their minds as to what to say and then how to say it. I followed Sarah to the door, with 'the man with the big gun' by my side. The fact that I looked to be more heavily armed than he was didn't help my senses much.

“Now that's what someone needs for organization,” he said, looking as I came by Sarah's side. “You got squibs there, looks like. They work good for flushing witches?”

“They scatter them and their houses, sir,” said Sarah softly as she tapped at the door, this in a faint pattern of a nature I had never heard her use before. It seemed to be a code of some kind, and the woman who met her seemed to be 'quite familiar' with her. I followed her in, and her aspect of 'knowing' this location was astonishing enough for me to whisper, “have you been here before?”

“Yes, several times,” she said. “I slept here more than once last winter.”

“And helped teach me about the ways of close-balances,” said the woman – who I was not looking at.

I was staring at the first round door I had seen close-up before, and this thing was an absolute marvel – thick planking liberally studded with blackened screws and washers, with thick inletted iron bands running across the thing from one side to the other and a pair of uncommonly wide multi-jointed hinges. The weight of such a door must be substantial, or so I suspected, if I went by the hinges and their odd nature, their brass washers, and the thick pins used as pivot points, these last with a small brass wire at the bottom holding everything together and the upper part having a brass-capped cup formed as the pin's upper end.

“That's our cork-door,” said the woman. “When she was here last, she told me about the sealing tricks they needed to work right, and helped me redo the packing and tighten up those hinges so it actually sealed tight.”

“And that door?” I asked, pointing to one nearly twenty feet away to our right in this surprisingly large 'showroom' with its near wall-to-wall 'hand-rubbed' planked counter. I then noticed the light-sources themselves: more titanium lanterns, these turned down to a comfortable level, with tinned metal reflectors behind them to focus and help direct their light, much as if they were linear versions of a parabolic reflector, one where the source of the light was too close to the reflector so as to spread the rays rather than concentrate them into a small ribbon or spot. There was one lantern-and-reflector arrangement in each of the four corners of this long and somewhat narrow room, and the effects were such that where we stood the light was at a comfortable level, one where shadows were few and barely to be noticed.

“You plated those?” I asked, pointing to one of the reflectors. “Tin – or did you wipe it?”

“Those we could wipe, so we did,” said the woman. “Rivets, especially those leather ones done here, we do differently using current.”

“He's the one to talk to about that business,” said Sarah. “He knows more about it than I do, and not a little more.”

“Then that matter is true,” she said, speaking this last word in an odd tone, one which sounded as if she were hearing Holy Writ for the first time ever in all of her days. “Perhaps you need to see good jewelery equipment, and I need to be near you while you should see it, with a ledger and writing dowel handy while remaining close-by.” A pause, then, “your speech is the quietest I have ever heard.”

“Meaning I might give you ideas when I see what you have?” I asked. “Oh, that's right. The rivets.”

I had to get those out of my possible bag, and as I began to unload the thing of all its ordnance, the woman – and our 'guide' – were first appreciative, then awed, then absolutely stunned. The fact that the top layer of this hefty leather satchel carried ordnance currently and I knew only that I had put the bags of rivets and their washers 'somewhere inside near the rear'. Beyond that, I could not recall precisely where I had put them beyond the fact that I had indeed put them in the bag.

That, and 'travel' tended to shift the bag's contents more than a little. Hence, periodic reorganization was a must.

“That thing has more in it than what Pump himself carries, and about half o' what's in it so far looks to be good for shooting,” said our 'guide'. Again, that lapsing dialect, this time showing time in the borderlands of the fourth and fifth kingdoms. I wondered if I should ask him if he'd done time in the mines.

“Or poking, sir,” said Sarah. “He has a special awl for that business, and I suspect he's used it.”

“Five times earlier today,” I said. “It works especially well, for, uh, pithing witches.” Pause, then, “I got the idea from Lukas when he showed me how an awl could be used for such matters in the fifth kingdom house proper.

“He usually talk like that?” asked our 'guide'. “Uses words that a west school lecturer would not know about?”

“He knows enough to teach those people,” said Sarah. “Only one person might know more, and we just saw her.”

“That would be Rachel,” said the woman. “We've put her up here several times, though how she can endure our back rooms is a mystery.”

“They're most likely not that bad,” I said, as I next removed several knives of various sizes, with that one rigging knife taking pride-of-place in 'knife-country' to the right of and next to my bag – and that still-sheathed 'combat-knife' right next to it. I would need to reorganize the bag partly, I now saw. It made for digging out the small brass 'clipboard' so as to make my own list of things I needed to get. Still, though, no rivets, even if I found thus far found several tools that had 'gone missing' since I had last organized matters.. “Quiet, reasonably warm, no rats nor bugs, privy just down the hall – a privy that has little odor...” I then made the connection between what I had heard 'some time' ago – some time in the last few days – whenever it had been spoken of; and asked, this as I finally found the bag of rivets and their washers. “Do you have a place where you run distillate here?”

“Yes, though it's a small one,” said the woman. “It's at the other end of town from the powder mill, and it's walled off well, same as that place I named first.” Pause, then, “both kinds of places are known for going up, or so they tell me.”

“Uh, mostly 'road-tar' is made here, correct?” I asked, as I began the process of reorganization of my possible bag. “You only get three 'cuts' from distilling that nasty stuff, as your distilling apparatus is rather crude, and, uh, it needs work done to it that you have no clue about...”

“Best let me get that ledger now,” said the woman, as she turned to go in that one door to the right. “They have nothing but trouble with that equipment, and that daily.”

The woman 'vanished' into that one rectangular door, and as she did, I felt reminded of a question that I was to ask Sarah earlier, but had forgotten to do so due to the press of matters and my ever-wandering mind – and now, the need to put my possible bag back in order. I'd used up about two and a half feet, roughly my easy reach, to each side of me on the top of the counter, and I suspected our 'guide' marveled at the need for so many pistols, knives, and other potential tools of death.

He was definitely admiring my 'death-awl', and contemplating a purchase of a similar device.

Only now, I finally realized amid bag-reorganization, did I actually have a chance to speak of steering a boat, and seeing a round door a minute or two earlier brought to mind the supposed 'steering wheels' used by ships.

I'd know soon enough what they actually used here, though a round wheel seemed likely enough.

“Did you once drive a ship?” I asked. This was directed to Sarah. I was still putting things away in my bag, and I suspected Sarah was surprised at how fast I could do this once I'd found a place for everything.

“Yes, and I did well, or so one of the usual pilot-women said,” said Sarah. “The ship-leader wished to keep in close touch with me, or so he said. He did say that if I was in the market for work after school he wished to have me on his boat for duty in steering it.”

“Was this a boat that goes day and night?” asked our 'guide'. “Only slackens sail a bit, and keeps going at a decent rate, a count of ten or less for the red-cork to catch-up to the line-tosser?”

“It was, sir,” said Sarah. “I also had a chance to see a real sextant be used three times, not one of these things that's fit for looking at only – and that one that I saw had real telescopes, not these things that are fit for giving sick-headaches only, which are telescopes that only witches wish.”

“Most of those things are that way, 'cause they're made o' common brass, and witches like to buy 'em,” said the man. “I've seen the good brass a few times down in that fourth kingdom's market, and it looks real different from the regular kind.”

“Really different?” I asked. “A peculiar golden color, hard and tough, especially...”

“Not like that,” said the man. “Bad brass is real streaky stuff, rough to the saw and files like it's got sand in it, while the usual stuff down there is better, while the good stuff is a solid brass-yellow color with no streaks to it, 'cause it has copper and gray-metal to it.”

“No tin?” I asked.

Our 'guide' did a double-take, then spat, “so that's what they do!”

“I am not sure what they do, but I am sure what I do, and that's add a certain amount of copper, a bit of tin, and use rolled brass as much as I can,” I said. “It makes decent bushings, though bronze, especially with added tin, works better.” Pause, then, “describe this 'good' brass, please.”

“It cuts easy, so your tools last better, and it's easier to get a good finish on,” he said. “Most rolled brass has to be fairly good to stand rolling to size or thickness, and that at the least.”

“Hence thin brass needs regular annealings between rolling sessions, perhaps a bit of tinning if it can be managed, because that helps it come out easier, and...” I paused, then said, “that other material...”

“It's out of an old tale, as no one I that I know of pours it today,” said our 'guide'.

“The best brass,” I muttered. “So Georg was wasting his time trying to have those sextant parts cast.”

“Those patterns you saw were for wall-hangers, also” said the soft voice, “hence you will not merely need to make your own patterns, but then you'll need to formulate that 'brass' and then pour it – and no, that kind does not burn or fume.” Pause, then, “as you might well guess, it will need some experimenting to learn how to gate it so as to avoid shrinkage voids or other matters, as well as the use of the right kind of casting products and tools” – I had a picture of a range of four 'commonplace-shaped' founder's trowels and some special ones as this was spoken – “and it is not possible to overdo one's care with that metal – and that from its initial formulation to those finished products made of it.”

“Then you are as likely as anyone to make such metal behave itself, as no one puts as many runs or shrink-blobs as you do,” said Sarah. “I've seen people fight over your bronze, that stuff's so different from the usual stuff.” Here, Sarah turned to our 'guide', and withdrew that knife she had taken on this morning. Somehow, she'd copied Anna for hiding the thing – in her clothing for concealment, yet ready to hand in case quick use was contemplated. “This one needs to remain mostly sheathed, as it is as sharp as something out of an old tale, and then these are done fit for fighting in darkened realms, where one does not wish shiny things.” Here, Sarah loosened it slightly, so the man might see its edges and the balance of the blade nearest the hilt without worry of being 'sliced' due to careless handling.

“The witches will see them if they are done as if they are done fit for their use,” said the man. “I've read enough tales since coming here to know about what a lot of them say.” Again, his dialect seemed to be 'lapsing', this into the more-proper form of someone educated like Sarah, or perhaps her cousin. I wondered if the situation was as simple as Lukas had said it was.

Was this lapsing volitional, or was it due to something else? The man then interrupted my thinking.

“That's the metal” – here, he pointed at the hilt of the knife – “and you don't know the half of how people fight over that bronze up here,” said the man. “You don't get much chance to go into Public Houses, on account of your business, but I do, 'cause that's where I learn about where the witches are.”

“Is this a personal vendetta, or do they have a 'Kommando' here to deal with witches?” I thought. “As in those wearing greens are the 'formal' people of the first kingdom, and what is done here is...”

“In his case, it's mostly the latter,” said the soft voice. “He did give oath in the town's church, so he's just a bit more serious than many of those 'outriders' who tour the central part of the first kingdom.” Pause, then, “that's one reason why Roos has remained where it is as long as it has, as these people have kept the witches of this area 'down' as much as they could.”

“As in 'if they really get going, they'll raise a big enough army to then shell the place and bury it under shell-fragments',” I thought.

“The witches haven't had the chance to bring that many guns into the area,” said the soft voice. “It needed Koenraad the second to bring enough guns to have anything resembling a chance of doing so, and your destruction of the Swartsburg brought the supply of those guns down to where no one witch could marshal enough of them to try for the place in the time they have left.” Pause, then, “that does not mean they won't try again, but that time will have hordes of rank amateurs who barely know which end of the gun is the dangerous one.”

“But if they get such guides as that man I shot...”

“Those people will be dead by that time,” said the soft voice. “There aren't that many of them, especially people that good, and you actually killed off a tenth of those they have good enough to come in here with a realistic expectation of being able to make it out of the place alive.” A pause, then, “more than one of those spies in recent days has been killed by someone shooting a roer loaded with stiff shot when said spy made too much noise and alerted someone who kept their 'bedside roer' ready to go.”

“There are only ten that good?” I gasped silently.

“Now there are but nine,” said the soft voice. “Don't be too surprised if you get one or two more of them while you're over there taking the place – and getting more than that is not impossible.” Pause, then, “you're about to see a generator done prior to the war that needs some serious repairs, as that woman has finally found a decent new ledger and several sharpened pencils.”

“New?” I asked.

“I suspect she either has heard about what you have done recently regarding those things, or she expects to write a great deal in it,” said Sarah.

“Both, actually,” I murmured. “I might well have to put my hands on that thing, as that's about the only way this will get done in less than an hour.”

“You still need to see their equipment, as you'll learn something you need to know,” said the soft voice. “That's the main reason you're here, actually, as they have some parts to an old 'Sextant' that were hidden here by those first occupants of this area, only they have no idea as to what they are.”

The woman reappeared just as I was finishing up my possible bag, this with pistols covering its top: the suppressed one most-handy, that one 'common' pistol next to it, that being the one I had used today coming into the house proper to drill several witches; and then the Hand-Howitzer in an off corner, with a topped-up magazine. For an instant, I wondered just how we would recover the spent casings.

“They'll get that information overseas, remember?” asked the soft voice. “They'll know where to find all of those things, as they have the equipment to do so and will bring it so as to recover all you've 'recorded'.” Pause, then, “it does help when yours is as detailed as it is.”

“What?” I asked. “Pictorial thinking..?”

“Yes, it happened on the way over here,” said the soft voice, “or rather, what you had in a crude form became the finished product. You have a photographic memory now – and I do mean 'photographic'.” A pause, then, “here she comes now.”

As if she'd heard the cue, the woman then beckoned to the three of us. We, being marked or recognized as such, were safe enough, or so it was reckoned here, but when I saw the knife the woman was carrying on one side and the holstered revolver on the other – they were hidden by her clothing, but hers had some odd slits in it such that she could reach them quickly – I knew that 'paranoia' was indeed the watchword in this location. I had my small 'clipboard' out, and as an afterthought, I asked to see the woman's ledger.

The touch of my hand caused a strange tingle, and as I grasped its spine, the leather changed under my hand – that to the touch, such that it was somehow converted into something vastly more durable than mere leather...

“Is this treated leather?” I thought. “It would be nice to see some leather that's been treated, least so I know what it looks like.”

The ledger then squirmed more, and when I held it up to look at it, the odd 'dull' nature of the leather gave way to show not merely a strange reinforcement, but also, the stuff of the leather itself had been changed more than a little. While it still looked ordinary enough, a touch of the leather showed an eerie smoothness – almost as if the stuff was covered with a grainy species of varicolored Teflon; when I opened the erstwhile ledger, I saw printed upon the very first page– this as if with a hand-stamp – the following dreaded block letters, their colors a brilliant orange-red: R. C. S.

These letters were surrounded by that faded and striped green I had seen a number of times prior in recent days, though the oddly glossy nature of the paper told me 'this is not normal paper any more'. I then wondered if a conventional writing-dowel would make an impression upon it.

“No, no time for either my drawing or theirs,” I thought, as I closed the book and prayed my very hardest, this with eyes closed and clenching the book with both hands. The book began squirming crazily, so much that only when I heard yelling did I cease praying – and there found myself on my back and on the floor, this while surrounded by clouds of 'smoke' in an obvious workshop of some kind, and holding a smoking book in my hands.

A book that was now a real book, this for both size and heft. I then realized where I was, and staggered to my feet.

“Here, drink this,” said Sarah, as she handed me a honey vial and took the book from me. “What you did is something that is so far beyond an old tale that I have no idea of it, as you were walking and suddenly I was surrounded by these odd machines...”

She looked around, then said, “no, not like it is here. What I saw was so much more than this here that I have no words for what I was seeing.”

“The generator?” I asked. My voice had gone hoarse, this with a level of exertion that felt as if I'd worked hard all day – only done so in a matter of minutes, not twelve hours or more.

“Is over here,” said a voice that but slowly grew familiarity as I first got down the honey, then a dose of something, then began guzzling beer as if famished. I then noted how sweaty I was.

“Pray until you're damp with sweat?” I asked quietly. “I've done that more than once before coming here.”

“I think what Deborah was speaking of and what you just did are two very different things,” said Sarah. She was paging through the book. “Madame, I think you need not write a thing in this ledger, as he just did a book for you...”

“I had heard of that happening,” she said, “but I had no idea it cost him that much, or it happened that quickly.” Pause, then, “that was not a common fit, was it?”

“No, it wasn't, and I've seen enough weird things happen in the last three days to last me the rest of my natural life if I live to be two hundreds of years old!” said Sarah. “This type of thing has already happened once today, and I suspect it will happen more before the day is done.”

“Not quite, dear,” said the soft voice. “What happened at Hendrik's office was one thing. This – this will need months for them to figure it all out, as that isn't a commonplace book.”

“Microfilm at the edges of many of the pages,” I said. “It will need viewing with a Heinrich magnifier like we have to see what's present, either that or a computer with a suitable reader – and we can get those, and they'll print what's in there...”

“What is microfilm?” asked the woman. I was surprised that she could say the word. It made me wonder if she was marked.

“This... What is this dark clear stuff here?” screeched Sarah. She sounded as if she had seen runes writ with dried blood.

“Microfilm, dear,” said the soft voice. “It's one way of showing a lot of information in a very small amount of space, one that doesn't need a lot of technological sophistication to use.”

“Meaning you could read it using something like a Heinrich magnifier, even if a computer with a microfilm reader is a lot easier to use,” I said. “Now, do they have those?”

“Not like what you were speaking of,” said the soft voice. “Use a commonplace camera connected to a computer, with a stand for the camera – and then, you'll have something that makes what you were speaking of look to be worthless.” Pause, then, “they can support computers here, or will be able to do so within at most a month of them sending out their contingent to the Abbey.”

“And there is at least one Heinrich magnifier on these premises beyond what we have,” I said. “You can read them now, it's just that a computer properly set up will make it much easier, much faster, and then you can print those drawings and other things out.”

“All six sheets that are present in each picture, as those are not commonplace microfilm images,” said the soft voice. “A Heinrich magnifier will show the obvious portions, while a computer using a camera will show them in their entirety – and if you use an evidence camera, it will show the other otherwise-hidden details that make building what's shown in there become a good deal easier.”

“Then those people across the sea...” Sarah looked at me, then asked in a tiny voice, “will they read that from you?”

“They will, and more, they will get all of what is present, not just what was possible to print on paper and microfilm – and more, they'll get the needed manufacturing instructions in a form that readily translates into what's needed for them to make all of it easily.” Pause, then, “they'll also have an idea as to just what awaits them over here, also – and that in photographic detail, with a volume of information sufficient to write an entire library of books.”

While I finished first one cup of beer, then another, as I started upon a third cup, the effects of being dosed then began to manifest: first as slowed-down time, then a rapid brightening of everything in the sphere of vision; then, odd colorations began to manifest; and finally, that intense sharpening of focus that at times like now was helpful...

And the rest of the time, a nightmare worse than any 'bad trip' I'd ever heard about. It was worse than what I had had where I had come from, that hypersensitivity to sound and noise that meant I could only endure solitude if I wished to work. I was then interrupted in my viewing of the generator.

“Come here to look at this,” said the one woman. “By my missing left toe, this is just what we need for that distillate shed!”

“Yes?” I asked. “Please, describe what you see. Is it a round-bottomed pot or flask with fins, these odd things atop it in a stack with a string of pots coming off each one, fifteen of them, and then this portion at the top that looks like it comes off of your current pot-type distillate stills that you have nothing but trouble with because the person who made them was building the things as if he were making a cussed fetish?”

“That's... That's right. It's also very old, and it's what we had.” Pause, then, “but it was made here, so how...”

“We got fooled by that stinker, that's how,” said our 'guide'. “There's spies in here we cannot see that need someone like him finding them...”

“Mostly because I could feel his presence,” I said. “I was not aware of there being such people until Rachel spoke of them, and then I had this feeling that he was nearby. So, I get out into the hall quietly...”

“That was so frightening it almost made me scream,” said Sarah. “That was no old tale, that made them seem silly jokes, and I do not mean the commonplace tales, but Smokestack Heroes itself!”

“What you know about Berky, what they know about Berky, and what he knows about the places which inspired it and its sister camps are three utterly different things,” said the soft voice. “Remember, those who designed the camps, Mangle chief among them, were dependent to a great degree on intercepts.” Pause, then, “in him, it isn't a muddied unclear intercept, but his clear-as-daylight memories of what he endured there – and I do not mean as most there might endure.” Another pause, then, “I meant as someone chosen by me might well endure, someone equipped specially, which is why he lived over forty years in a species of Hell that makes your very worst nightmares seem tame.”

“Please, continue describing this distillation apparatus,” I asked calmly. I was now engrossed in looking at an ancient generator, one repaired at some length by a long train of people who had had a very vague and altogether fetishistic understanding of something with more parts than they had fingers and toes. More than a few had indeed thought the device a fetish, due to the tales they had heard regarding Charles and his way of dealing with anything he did not understand upon the instant of his seeing it irrespective of his fatigue – which was but one reason among many that that one 'witch'...

I then knew: he wasn't a witch, merely uncommonly ignorant, if not 'two bricks short of a load'; and hence because of him being a 'simpleton', he'd been 'bought in' to the place.

“Bought in?” I asked.

“His parents paid a high price to have him put here to live, as such people, while not marked 'explicitly', are indeed endangered fully as much as marked people. More importantly, one of the parents was marked, and hence those then living here accepted that supply of then much-needed cash to take him.” Pause, then, “only years later did they learn that he was a species of 'idiot savant', meaning he might well be useless at nearly everything else that needed doing, but he could form copperware as few on the continent could manage then or now.”

“And hence, he was more than happy to make those and other distilleries, as those used for distillate were big enough that he could crawl inside one of those things they've been using here and bang away with his collection of hammers more or less as he was inclined,” I thought. “My, they were treating this thing like it was a fetish – it says here, 'this thing was made by a witch, so I put God's curses upon that witch'.” A question, then, “It wasn't made by witches, was it?”

“No, it was imported from Vrijlaand through a number of intermediaries by the Mistress of the North, and she'd had it put in her supply-warehouses as a spare for her engine-driven generators – hence it was marked originally as being her property, same as all else in that warehouse.” Pause, then, “it was intended to be driven a whole lot faster than 'water-wheel speeds', so that meant both good and bad for using it here.”

“'Good', in that poor lubricants scantily applied worked passably, provided one applied them frequently and kept a close eye on this machine so its bearings didn't overheat; and bad, because then instead of full voltage, this thing did well to provide anything resembling current, as this thing uses field windings...”

“It has a small permanent-magnet generator in the rear,” said the soft voice. “It needed some substantial adjustments of a most-intricate nature using tools and test equipment and a manual that its' finder burned without reading, and had that work been done correctly when it was first put to work, then it could have put out perhaps enough to keep most of their then-existent batteries charged readily, if not the hundred or more kilowatts it was designed to produce.” Pause, then, “tallow is not a suitable lubricant for generators of this type, even if they're only turning a maximum of sixty revolutions per minute – and tallow, because it's readily available in the town here, is more or less all it has received most of that time.”

“Hence the shafts are worn badly and they have no way of turning them on a suitable lathe, so now the thing turns stiffly and the scored and out-of-round shafts are about forty thousandths out of line with one another.” Pause, then, “it needs dismantling and...”

“It needs scrapping, and the various metallic and plastic materials need recycling,” said the soft voice. “It may have originally been a very good generator, but it was designed to be transported readily, not run all day every day for most of a millennium – and that apart from poor maintenance and being treated like a fetish.”

“At least this distillery has a drain for the road-tar,” the woman said with obvious admiration. “Now these pieces shown here...”

“I may have better luck with that magnifier on those,” said Sarah as I straightened up. I'd seen enough of this generator to know it could stand a lot of improvements from a design standpoint in addition to being scrapped and its metal used toward making a new one. If the thing needed scrapping, what was needed to replace it was a large-diameter generator designed to be turned by slow-turning water power, with hard shafts of large diameter running in white-metal bearings, these fed with lubricating cups filled with red-paste mixed with a lighter-weight synthetic lubricant. Finally, its adjustment for voltage and current needed to be simple enough that one of these people could manage it readily. The current setup was enough to give me trouble – and that given the appropriate manual, the right tools, an entire night of voiceless and movement-free solitude, and a plethora of good lighting.

“It needs replaceable bearing shells for slow speeds and heavy loads,” I thought. “I've done some of those here, and they seem to work well enough, providing you keep a close eye on them.”

“And make them right in the first place, and measure their 'shake' regularly, and change them out a lot,” said the soft voice. “You might do that well enough with your equipment, but as for most people – you can guess what they're willing to do.”

“Uh, change oil every run?” I asked, this silently. “Dismantle that type of an engine every third time Frankie runs, like it's currently about due for a thorough checking right now?” Pause, then, “probably has enough bearing-shake that I need to lap the crank journals round again and redo the bearings to get the clearances correct, right?”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That engine may turn a lot faster than anything made since that war – it turns faster than that generator engine at the Abbey once it's warmed to its task and running 'full blast' – but it's got a decent crankshaft that's file-hard where it needs to be – a good file, not one of those commonplace ones that go dull quickly – and that bearing alloy you have compounded here isn't like what you had where you came from for your engines; and then, 'motor-oil' isn't quite the same stuff as it was where you came from, either - and I include the expensive synthetic stuff you used when I say that.”

“Both things here are worse than what I had there, correct?” I asked.

“If you used a more heat-resistant version of 'motor-oil' in your engines there, as well as that bearing alloy in those bearing shells, you would not need to have crankshafts reground every second time you went through those engines, and you would not have had to change out bearings as often as you did, either” said the soft voice. “Oh, it would help if you could have purchased real E4340 instead of what you were actually sold, as well as the appropriate heat-treating regime for that alloy – again, like you paid for and did not receive.”

“I was sold, then,” I thought. “Figures. No metallurgical testing possible on my part, so I cannot tell the difference, and those people took advantage of me. Can't toss them a big enough order to care, I guess.”

“You would have needed to go well out of your immediate area to not get sold regarding much of anything, much as you went several hundred miles to the north and nearly a hundred miles west in that other car you had for interim transport to get the titanium needed for those engine parts you made of that metal, and the same for its heat-treating,” said the soft voice. “They had no suitable pieces of what they used where you got the titanium, so you had to deal with a local firm – and that widespread 'list' you suspected of existing, while the common version was nowhere near as formal as what you suspected, was well-known of in that area.” Pause, then, “hence, while that firm had real E4340, and commonly sold that alloy in the size you needed, you were sold a lesser grade of material – at an inflated price, one charged as if paying for the real thing – as per the implicit requirements of that unwritten 'screw' list.”

Another pause, then, “there were some firms, however, that knew of the true lists, those far-more detailed versions that were actually written down regarding those slated for eventual murder – and those lists followed you and those others writ upon them whenever and wherever you were employed, with each of those firms running that sizable area receiving a copy of the then-current lists by the time you were once more 'in the system', so that information was slowly disseminating out into the community, although at a much slower rate than that of the 'screw' list – which was a most-common species of talk at the area's 'drink-houses' frequented by those who knew of it.”

“Then why did that firm just know of that informal one?” I asked silently. It was quite a revelation to know this nonsense was indeed the truth – and quite another revelation to learn that many local 'upscale' bars had regular talk in them about the ways and means of harassing certain people, me being one among them.

“Because your purchasing that material happened while you were unemployed at a conventional job,” said the soft voice, “and hence the most-up-to-date written lists having your dossier were kept at your last employer's location for 'safekeeping'.” Pause, then, “and no, that group of firms didn't give out the formal list to just anyone, and that firm selling you that alloy steel billet and those that you needed for replacements didn't bother calling to get it, as that 'screw' list was well-known and they would have been lied to anyway – as you surmised, it was a commonplace matter of gossip at the tonier 'dispensers of high-test' – and you were impossible to mistake for anyone else, based on the common descriptions that were routinely circulating as to those who were on that 'screw' list.”

Pause, then, “using a housekeeper to secure your daily living supplies really messed them up badly, though – as she wasn't even on their radar, and she 'kept house' for a number of people, hence 'your' things were mingled in with those of over a half-dozen families besides her own.”

“And they did not wish to 'nail' that many people,” I thought. “That would alert the authorities to what they were doing.”

Eventually it would,” said the soft voice. “They might have owned a lot of people in that area, and owned yet more in a number of other areas around the country, but outside of those regions they owned – they dared not do things that would uncover their lucrative schemes, and hence they had to leave her alone almost entirely.”

“And their car didn't work well enough to handle a longish commute...” I had worked on it enough to know something about the condition of that elderly Fiat, even if I had needed the help of her husband's superior manual dexterity to do things that were otherwise beyond my capacity. He then marveled at what I could do once I had the part or assembly out where I could readily work on it.

“No, simpler than that,” said the soft voice. “They might both drive passably, but they spent most of their lives driving bad roads slowly, so they're not used to driving fast enough to stay out of trouble while engaged in daily long-distance commuting on expressways. Shopping, yes, but not commuting real distances quickly in that kind of traffic – and neither she or her husband was inclined to commute well over a hundred miles a day, which is how far they would need to go to get out of the reach of the small circle of companies that controlled that area as if they indeed owned it and all that lived there.”

I had been somehow looking at the generator all this time, with my hands putting their fingers here and there – it was not connected up now, thankfully – and when I turned to go back to where the others were standing, I noted not merely the intense brightness of the room – more titanium lanterns were in use here, as well as at least ten people were at work on one item of jewelery or another – but I also took in the whole of what there was to see in what seemed the eons it took to actually make it over to where Sarah was struggling with a thoroughly balky magnifier.

I could plainly see 'red' fingerprints all over the tarnished brass case of the device, though these did not signify 'this thing has been messed with by a witch', but rather, 'those touching it might as well have been witches' for their understanding what was a 'marked-person-only' device while it was being developed and for the most part when it was constructed at the Heinrich works. I then waved my hand over the magnifier, and both the red fingerprints vanished and the thing suddenly became an utterly different device.

“What did you do to this thing?” screeched Sarah. “It was badly messed up, and I was telling them it needed to be sent back to where it was made so as to be gone through.”

“Not that, dear,” I said. “I might be able to work on those, and I might not – they might well need a lot of special tools, gages, and jigs to properly assemble and align the lenses they use in this thing – but whoever has been messing with this thing was treating it like a fetish, and they an arch-witch.”

“That would not surprise me,” said the woman. “Now, what did you see?”

“It would take me perhaps half an hour to speak of the matter, and I doubt you wish to hear me babble on that long,” I said. “I did look at your tools, at least those in this room and...” Here, my voice rose an octave. “You people might as well be a pack of witches, the way you do everything in here!”

“I'm not surprised,” said the woman archly, as everything around me came to a halt. “When a group of people stay too much in one area, ignorance gets compounded if it's left to itself, and this area has become very ignorant of what lay beyond it. Those living here know what they know, which is a small fraction of what those living here once knew, and for the most part, those who live in this area are often satisfied with what little they might know.”

“Then that rubbish needs to cease, and people need to take their heads out of their rears!” I screamed.

My screaming seemed to take something out of the air, and the first obvious thing that had vanished was the lighting. In the sepulchral darkness that now lay upon this tomb, this slave-warren, this house of death, this eater of the bodies of dead people: all I could hear was the animalistic screaming common to those consigned to the lowest portions of hell; and I grabbed the book, the rivets, and Sarah, and headed out that door that I alone could see. Only when I had made it outside to the buggy did I actually speak, and my voice came out a gasp.

“That place is not a jeweler's, it's a witch-hole,” I spat, as I undid a grenade. “Haven of the marked, rubbish! This entire place needs to burn, and it will burn, and we will get ourselves out of it first.” Pause, then, “everyone in this town is a stinking witch!”

I then came to myself, and found myself looking closer at the generator – which had somehow changed drastically.

“What happened?” I shrieked.

“I think one vial of honey followed by dosing, as well as three cups of beer, was not enough after doing something like that book,” said Sarah dryly. “I could hear you clearly, as could everyone else in this room, and you were telling them they were a pack of witches.” Pause, then, “for thinking at the least, they might as well be what you named them, as everything you said was the absolute truth about this place.”

“We might as well be witches if that is the whole of our thinking,” said the woman. “We might be better than those around us, but we've been thinking that way for so long that it has caused us to feel a full and sizable measure of hubris – which is a word Rachel has spoken to people in this whole area, and most of them both do not know what it means and have no desire to learn its meaning, thinking they know better.” Pause, then, “they do, because it describes them and their ways to a perfection.”

“Did I say they weren't inclined to learn?” I asked.

“They think themselves inclined to learn, but it is as you said,” said Sarah. “They are no better than those outside, and that is because they've had so little trouble for so long.” Pause, then, “and it is constant danger and eternal trouble that causes people to learn matters, which is something being around my relatives so much taught me.”

“That, and then how many people in here are actually marked, other than those who have had to flee to this place of refuge to avoid being killed by all that they might meet, both man and witch?” I asked.

“Perhaps one in ten, if that,” said the woman. “That is a lot more than the rule in the outside, but when most people who become marked come here, they have not have a chance to leave their hard-earned witch-thinking behind them out in the witch-owned-realms – unless they were born marked and came here as a child – and then they are told to be silent when they question fetishistic practices.” Pause, then, “we cannot tell you to be silent, as that would name us enemies of the one who caused you to come here.”

“Recall what I was saying when I saw this thing glow a bit reddish around its edges?” said Sarah. “How it looked like it had been handled a lot by witches?” Pause, then, “he said much the same thing, only he wasn't here when he was speaking that way.”

“Sounded like he was everywhere inside the shop,” said our 'guide'. “He's right, though – if you don't get out of here enough to learn what it's like outside, then what little that is found here is all you know – and a lot of people come here with nothin' more than ignorance and rags, and they don't ever get nothing more while they live here 'cept a life that's boring and dull and as dense as a column made of southern black-cast.”

“I spoke of those born here, sir,” I said. “About half of the population, if not a bit more, is born here, lives here, and dies here, and those people never go outside of the walls of the place.” A pause, so as to let what I had said 'sink in'. “There haven't been any 'real' number of witches, or swine, or trouble beyond 'what is commonplace for this town' since the time of the war for the most part.”

Again, another pause. This was important information. The preacher here might as well be a bones-holding true-witch, one recently graduated 'with highest honors' from Boermaas for all the good he did. “This enclave has never endured the consequences of 'The Curse'; it never...”

I slapped the side of my head, then spat, “in the ever-war found on the outside, you have the witches trying to run everything all the time for time out of mind, so there's a continual struggle to merely exist; and while the witches have worked long and hard to make people stupid and have succeeded to an astonishing degree...”

Pause. Yet more time. What I was saying in this 'witch-hole' was a critical matter. An extra few minutes here would hit these people where they lived if I said what needed saying, and I could feel a distinctive and pronounced urging to 'continue until I had finished speaking'. “If you go to a place like this, an isolated enclave where nothing much ever happens beyond the usual and the commonplace, the witches don't need to do anything except wait until entropy becomes the law – and then their goals are completed and all of you become fully as much witches as they themselves are, so they mount just enough energy to keep you people bottled up in this hellhole, and no more!”

“That would be for the most part,” said Sarah – who obviously knew more about the area than I did. “Witches have know this place exists for time out of mind, and hence they think it to be full of things they wish to have.” Pause. “Were they to come here, they would think it to be a species of witch-town – it may have a lot more money than those regions to the south that they control like slaves, but it's not much different otherwise.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “For much of that time, the witches were either busy squabbling among themselves or fleeing for their lives from groups of marked people hunting them down, and hence this 'small enclave' has never endured much of anything of a genuinely difficult nature for hundreds of years.”

I know knew why I had felt what I did coming in here, and I spoke of it.

“Inbred, like a remnant of a far-gone Appalachian time,” I muttered. “Inbred as to knowledge and intelligence, not as to genes, as enough new people come in here to keep that from happening. The end result, though, might as well be the same: lazy, 'happy', and as stupid as a pack of arch-witches.”

“Which is why we've been choosing people to go to the Abbey,” said the woman. “Rachel took charge of that almost the moment she came here, as she's been testing those inclined to learn.”

“Don't want to stay in the dark ages one day longer than needed,” I muttered. “Maybe some people here do want things to stay as they've been for time out of mind, and hence choose to remain the inbred idiots they currently are...”

“No, everyone who is inclined to listen to you is listening,” said the soft voice. “Look around you, and see how many people are working now.”

I did, and in what seemed an age and was actually perhaps three seconds at the most, I took in once more the whole of the room. It was no longer intensely bright, even if every place that had someone working – easily a dozen 'tables' that were within perhaps five strides of where I stood in this large room, and more people elsewhere half-hidden within its nooks and crannies – had its own lantern and reflector to provide bright shadow-free lighting.

No one is working,” I thought. “They've all turned toward me like I'm some kind of preacher, one doing what some have named a 'calling sermon'.”

“No, it is not one of those,” said Sarah. Her speech was audible. “No preacher has preached such a sermon in many years in the first kingdom, as none of them were given to the last of the pendants.”

The hush that overwrote the preexisting sounds of labor in the place was replaced by a demon-screamed bedlam once more, and I waved my hand. Silence reigned once again; a pin dropping would have echoed like the blast of a metal pear, and I could faintly hear the sounds of breathing, it was so quiet.

“Now here,” I said, pointing at the now-spotless satin-brass-finish magnifier that nestled in a small mound of rust and dust, “is a prime example of your ignorance. This device demands care, thought, knowledge, and a significant level of real effort to use, much like everything in here is supposed to need all of those things.” Pause. “It does not tolerate the actions of a pack of idiots who think they know all that there is to know when they actually know next to nothing, which is why there is this mound of dirt, rust, and rubbish surrounding it, and why it is now as clean as when it left where it was made nearly eighty years ago.”

“It also has new markings on it,” said Sarah. “They would need Rachel reading them, if you cannot.”

“The usual place that once had 'three 'X's' no longer has them?” I asked, my voice gone higher in pitch while dropping in volume. I'd been upstaged, and that greatly.

“No, as they've been replaced by letters of the type writ by the Chosen,” said Sarah. “These letters are in the older form of that language, also, so there are few if any helping marks to them, not like the form of that language writ currently.”

I knelt down, and as I looked at the markings, they suddenly rearranged themselves so that I saw the following red-inked in my 'native' tongue:

Field-grade magnifier,

type 416.

Specifications: SECRET

Type Number MEDNO: 13FA46-45EDA9

“So this is now a medical-grade device,” I murmured softly, as I felt for something in one of my pockets on the vest after straightening up. I then pulled out a small plastic box of a waxy gray color, and removed the top by sliding it off. The slick feeling of the box's thick walls and the glistening padding within spoke of a high level of graphite impregnation for both box and padding, much as if its contents were most static-and-impact-sensitive and needed protection from anything close to abuse. Inside it this small padded box was an odd red device, one perhaps the size of a business card and about two milimeters thick by my guess. I was most-disinclined to handle it.

“What is this thing?” I asked. “It looks very strange – conformal coating, the outer portion a metallic red color, its main materials a heat-dissipative ceramic, or something like it? Almost like a type of computer memory device. Is it?”

I wanted to ask, “can we read it where we are going?”

“It is exactly what you thought it would be,” said the soft voice, “and not only does it have the complete design documentation and the suite of machine programs needed to make that device that you just 'cleaned up' from both its owner's fetishistic handling, but also that of its makers – but it also has the whole of what is in that book there for viewing once you get your hands on a suitable computer.” Pause, then, “figure less than five days, not counting today. Granted, those will generally be long days, but five days after today, and then you will have a computer in hand.”

“And there is nothing more in here that I need to see today,” I muttered. “It all needs replacement, and its owner's minds need to be emptied off all of their witch-spewed lies and then filled with something other than 'witch-rubbish' – especially that attitude that says, 'we already know everything we need to know, so we do not need to know anything else – and forget learning anything beyond that which those over us command us to learn', which is the way of the arch-witch and the fully-owned witch-slave.”

“Good that you're telling them that,” said our 'guide'. “If all they got is witch-gear in here, then – then why am I paying anything here for a ring when I know of jewelers elsewhere who don't think like a pack of witches?”

“So we can get rid of this witch-gear we've been using and get some new tools, ones that are a help and not a hindrance to our labors,” said one of those who had been working. He might have been roughly Sepp's age. “These might be easy enough to hold onto, but most of those working here have just lived with their shortcomings – and they have plenty of those, let me tell you.”

“Uh, toes?” I asked.

“I have an extra one, one I was born with,” said the young man. “You're right about people being ignorant here, save for those of us born different. It happens here fairly often compared to outside, or so those who go outside say.” Pause, then, “I never went out of this town, leastways so far I haven't.”

“You will need to go outside soon, then,” said the woman. “Rachel shall hear of this, as your speaking up about these tools says you to be a fit one to labor on saving the world from its plunge into hell.”

This last speech rang strangely, as once more the world went dark and I had to run out of a place better named 'an antechamber of hell', one where darkness reigned, functionaries blue-suited and otherwise commanded 'proles' to do what the General Orders of said functionaries implied without a shred of teaching on the matter, and punishment for infractions was capricious, arbitrary, brutal, and repressive – and purposely designed to keep that below-the-scum-line underclass in a state of rank 'every-waking-minute-obedient-to-their-masters' terror.

And then I actually woke up, this sitting on Jaak. I wondered for a moment as to what had just happened since I had become 'gone from this world and was in another one too much like where I had originally come from', then asked Sarah. In this instance, we no longer had a guide, but she seemed to know where to go just the same.

“That was like nothing I ever heard or saw before in my life,” said Sarah, with a trace of hysteria lurking below the screechy tone of her voice, “and if that was a jeweler's shop, they must have not known much at all beyond those things customary to jewelers.”

Sarah did not mean 'decent' jewelers, either, but rather those common to 'those out of the way locations' where such people had effectual monopolies in regards to those things the witches running the area said that they alone could do – and hence, such 'jewelers' had no incentive to do a particularly good job, and that in anything remotely resembling a timely fashion.

Such jewelers, more often than not, did little beyond make and polish coins for the witches of the area, as that was the only way they could earn sufficient to survive, given their usually falsified documents and their appalling ignorance of everything save how their bread had its cheese spread applied to it; and in doing so, those realms which they soon more or less owned became wide-spread witch-holes replete with appalling ignorance. It made me wonder more just what had happened in that place, as it had felt like a witch-hole in some strange way once I had been led toward the rear, almost as if I could clearly see yard-high blood-painted runes covering much of the walls proclaiming the place to be owned utterly and in all possible ways by prewar arch-witches. I then asked Sarah again.

“Did I h-hallucinate that whole mess?”

“I think not!” squawked Sarah. “You were walking around that entire shop, not just the one room, waving your hands over people like they were fetishes the whole time, and most of them were tossed all over that entire shop, then all of their equipment, the close-balance included, became hidden by thick smoke and and glowed red like it was made by witches, and now that place has to redo everything inside of it, and that out to the bare walls.” Pause, then, “I never felt like that when I've been in there before, but it was if I had iron chains and shackles upon me, like a slave out of an old tale, and I could tell that that place or one like it nearby once housed slaves from before the war.”

Galloping hoofbeats came from the rear, and I turned to see our 'guide'. Thankfully, he wasn't pointing his roer at us, even if he was otherwise 'primed' for action.

That was something to see,” he said. “I'll have that ring inside of a week now, as all of their tools were worthless in there, save for the handles not hurting their hands.”

“Is there a smith's shop in this town?” I asked softly.

“That, I think, is where we are to go next, correct?” said Sarah. “This is not a commonplace smith's shop, is it?”

“No, it ain't, and only marked people work in there,” said our 'guide'. “I'd guess there's one in ten in town here who's marked, or maybe more, but now that place knows who's been told off to go to that Abbey place, and I wonder if I and my wife-to-be are to go there now.”

“There will need to be some people with intelligence and a proper attitude remaining here to direct the full-scale renovation of this place, as it will need to become and remain an effectual place of refuge until this Curse I've heard of entirely breaks,” I said. “It's quite simple – enough people have been coming in here from the outside to mirror closely the decline into witch-thinking and witch-behavior that is so commonplace outside, and since they don't need to labor and struggle to merely survive once they're in Ploetzee, the place has gone badly stagnant in addition to learning to think like a pack of witches – and it seems there's a big curse or collection of curses over this place, also, one that's a good deal too big and nasty for me to remove right now – which does not make such change easy at all.”

“There is?” asked Sarah – which made me wonder: did she know slaves were once housed in this area? “How is this place cursed?”

“What was this location used for prior to the war?” I asked. “Was it...” The idea seemed so infernally outlandish that I nearly screamed. It came out anyway. “Was this area a slave-pen of some kind?”

And an amphitheater visited by high-ranking witches for the viewing of blood-sports, much like a certain well-known ruin where you came from,” said the soft voice. “The war might have destroyed the buildings and everything else the witches had actually built here, but those laboring didn't feel or know about the 'slave-curses' that were put upon this location by Imhotep his-own-self at the start of its building seventy years before the start of that war – and those curses will only go when he's entirely 'gone to where he belongs'.” This last was said as if there were indeed graduated levels of hell, much as Dante had been given a measure of 'inside knowledge' while writing his Inferno.

“And their, uh, other curses, those that help and support the 'big' ones dumped by Imhotep,” I said. “Is there something underneath this location – like a long-buried shaft that goes to the secret way?”

“There is, and more, it's a fairly large one,” said the soft voice. “This location took a direct hit from a potent Vrijlaand missile early in the war, and while that destroyed much of the cursed location, it did not affect those curses put upon it by Imhotep, Mangle, and a number of other witches – and those coming here at first had no knowledge of curses beyond 'witches do those' and 'this place once had witches in it, but all their buildings are gone, so their cursed gear must also be gone'.”

“They didn't realize how curses actually work,” I said. “Am I the only one here who understands those things to any real degree?”

“At this time, unfortunately, yes,” said the soft voice. “You might not know as much as some do elsewhere, but as for here – you know as much about how they actually work as anyone, man or witch, since the time of the drowning.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“Note I said, 'how they actually work',” said the soft voice. “I did not say, 'how to deal with them' or 'how to toss them effectively' – yet.” A pause, then, “by the time the curse breaks entirely, you will know how to do both of those things better than any witch ever born on this planet – and by extension, better than any witch ever born anywhere.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “I will be an especially evil and horrible witch.”

“No,” said the soft voice. “You will be Terror to witches, and that no matter where they might be.” Pause, then, “in order to fight such things effectively, you will need to know not only what they are and how they work, but you will need to know them in a most-detailed fashion.” Pause, then, “recall one of the things you're here to do – countermand a Curse indeed, one that almost destroyed a planet? You have to understand those things in an extremely good fashion in order to deal with them. Then, there are times you will need to toss them, also – as you will need to do in order to stop enemies from coming here and trying to cause trouble.”

“And what I have been doing with fetishes lately?” I asked. “Is that a form of curse-tossing?”

All I heard was a soft giggle, and again, for what must have been the thousandth time, I wondered if I had somehow become a witch. I then recalled one particular section found in the fifth section of the book, the one called 'the second law'.

“Curses for disobedience,” I muttered. “They are a type of those things that make Hell indeed what it is.”

“Got it in one,” said the soft voice. “By the way, those people inside that jeweler's shop were the 'dregs' of this place, as they were put in there to teach them a useful task in hopes of learning to stay out of trouble.”

“Why would they be jewelers, then?” asked Sarah. “That demands...”

“That work needs thinking, care, and the right approach,” I said, “and those people there were being taught how to do those very things.” Pause, then, “who was that person who wrote on that generator about it being witch-gear?”

“A person who lived here who was eventually shot here as being a witch,” said the soft voice. “They do try in Ploetzee, it's just that many in this place are abysmally ignorant, and hubris isn't particularly rare, either.” Pause, then, “outside is worse in many places, as at least these people, even the 'troublemakers', actually listened to what you said.”

“And what I said in there?” I asked. “Did I give them a solution to the business of distillate here?”

“Yes, and they'll be machining what parts they can manage at the next place you're going,” said the soft voice. “Having a generator on site that actually develops a useful amount of current is going to change everything.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“You put your hands on that generator,” said Sarah, “and I think that is what started it, as that thing changed before my eyes into something so strange I could not imagine it before seeing it.” Pause, then, “They were really having trouble with their pots once you did that.”

“Why, what happened?”

“They were boiling!” said Sarah. “Every pot they had in that place, all twenty of them, was boiling and fuming so much that they had to pull the clutch out from that thing and I had adjust it down.”

“H-how could that be done?”

“Well, at least as far as I could tell, it was much simpler than what they had before,” said Sarah. “All one had to do was move this brass lever with a big silver piece riveted into it along this circle of silver contacts, and that controlled the current. It took me about a minute to figure it out, and I had to show them how it worked while you were walking around yelling and making things change in there.”

“What?” I gasped.

“You were yelling, but I think you needed to,” said Sarah, “as that place was as bad as a witch-hole in the second kingdom house itself for thinking, and more than once, you were tossed by an old fetish when you told it to go bother some witches.” Pause, then, “I have read about witches tossing curses, but that kind of thing almost sounds worse.”

“Sending their curses back upon them?” I gasped. “Sending them back upon the witches issuing them in a worse form?”

“Those tales speak of that, also,” said Sarah. “Supposedly witch fought with witch that way, but I had no idea what that meant – until now.”

“I hope I have not turned into a witch,” I squeaked.

“No, you haven't, but those witches that got those smelly things are going to have trouble,” said our 'guide'. “Next place has this buggy you need to look over, and that thing's about as strange a piece of work as I've ever seen. We were going to bring it in tonight, but talk has it over the wires that there ain't hardly a witch left out there.”

“I would still wait until sundown to start your trip, and deliver that buggy to the care of the Public House after the town is mostly asleep,” said Sarah. “This is a very important matter, as while witches are scarce in the area, and that spy he shot is one of but a very few, that does not mean 'no one will see us, so let us no longer bother with care in important matters'.” Pause, then, “I would still be most-careful as to how and when you deliver that thing, and you had best be careful, even in Roos now that everyone's house is cold and drafty enough to remind them day and night not to think like a pack of curse-chanting witches.” Pause, then, “and they were thinking like that, so they were running hard to keep the witch-thinking out of them yet when we left town at least an hour before dawn this morning.”

Yet as we rode to the 'other side of town' – where we had been was close to the powder mill, or so our 'guide' told us, while the smith's shop was over closer to where the 'distillate-pond' was located – I had a strange picture and a description of what I had given for a distillate-refining setup run through my mind. The only reason this was the case was, I surmised, that I would need to make many of the parts, and as we rode – Ploetzee was not a small town; it was easily over two miles from 'end to end', and while we could manage 'full speed' in much of it, our 'guide' wasn't inclined to go that fast. The fact that I was being urged to get more beer down, this nearly as fast as I could get it down my throat, might well have had something to do with not 'hurrying more than is wise'.

He also spoke about 'hurry makes for worry'. It was an odd version of 'haste makes waste', but it did make sense.

With our travels down one lane and then another – the smith's shop was well-off the beaten track, as well as quite large, or so our 'guide' said – I mulled over the details of the distillery in my mind.

A round-flasked bottom, this with a tapping place that came out of the 'firebox'. This last was fueled with wood and small additions of 'cooked' coal, as the place also had a small coal-seam – either actually in the town's area, or one nearby that could be readily 'mined' with few being the wiser. Cooked coal was already a commonplace article here, supposedly, which meant this area needed a coal-cooker so as to not have to 'play games' as they did currently with the stuff.

Item: a readily-dismantled fractionating column, one insulated with pumice gathered from the side of that one volcano and then 'powdered' in a mortar. At the back of my mind, I knew that not only was it not particularly dangerous for 'those familiar with the area' to go to the volcano – one did not need to go near the very top, but just look around the flanks of the wide cone for the needed material – but also, that the cannibals would be done – permanently – within a month of my returning. Then, it would merely be a volcano that one could gather pumice and obsidian from as needed, with the latter being used for a species of thimble-mix.

Hans had never tried powdered flakes of obsidian in his thimbles. It made that green glass look worthless for them, even if it ate nipples rapidly if they were soft. Mine weren't, but every nipple I had removed from a revolver or fowling piece, save for a very few, was 'well-machined butter' for hardness. Green glass from that one place was probably the best workable compromise that Hans knew of.

Item: a mention of putting small amounts of ground coal in with the road-tar that came out of the bottom tap of the pot, then redistilling it in an improved version of a 'pot still' so as to get a better species of 'bitumen' for road-surfacing, but also more chemicals, many of which would have definite uses in the months to come.

Item: the fractionating column would have fifteen steps, with the insulating material built into the steps and bound by mortar to form 'insulating refractory bricks' – firebricks that were both fairly light and easily 'worked'. More, they would not need baking, merely appropriate compounding and then molding in suitable molds.

“Best to farm those out,” I thought. I then dismissed the matter, as the people here needed to get off of their sorry behinds, and that as a whole. Sending the best and brightest out wasn't nearly as good as merely choosing people by a lottery of some kind – as that would chose those that needed to go outside, as what went on in here was fully as important as anything elsewhere.

Item: each step of that fractionating column needed to have three to five finned bronze settling pots arranged in series. This was to give a further 'cleaning' aspect to each individual cut. The end settling pot of the series was to be the largest one, while those in the pots before it were to be fed back to the column-stream somewhere further up the column – to then be settled out once more.

“That thing's complicated enough to befuddle me,” I thought. “It will...”

“It will more or less drive most of the witch-thinking out of Ploetzee,” said the soft voice, “as this project, while it is the first of quite a number, is large enough – and complex enough – to not merely take much of this year to complete, with much of the town's remaining people laboring on it, but also need much contact with the outside world.” Pause, then, “not just where you work, by the way. It will also need trips to the Abbey, getting their hands on computers and radios, stringing lots of insulated wires in the trees, electrification of the whole town, working much longer days than they're accustomed to, and finally, working to tolerances well beyond all save yours.”

“Distillate refining needs real machinery,” I muttered.

“That's the truth, if you don't want constant trouble,” said our 'guide'. “You were talking about that, and it seems this place we're coming to, about two others, and that powder mill are about the only ones not being run by a pack of witches for thinking, and I wonder some about that man who does the powder, as he will not let most people in his doors.”

“He does not wish to be blown up by their witch-thinking,” said Sarah, “as I've been inside there, and he's told me that himself!”

“And this distillate-refining setup is going to be but one of a number of such complicated things,” I murmured. “The Abbey will need to run several of them, most of them larger than the one here.”

“How will we get enough distillate?” asked Sarah. “There is no such pond there as they have here.”

“Wrong,” said the soft voice. “There is – a huge one and in the process of digging that excavation for the new section's multi-level basement, they will uncover the rock-plugged shaft – and it has both a lot of distillate-tar currently present, but your using that privy got those bacteria that convert the stuff 'interested' again, so further use of the old section's privies just needs a certain level of repairs under the main floor and then you can start feeding that pool once more.” Pause, then, “and it will get a lot of such feeding, at least initially.”

“But does that pool not need replacement?” asked Sarah.

“Those huge pools were done before the place became a witch-hole in truth, and their work was farmed out to neighboring countries, at least for their engineering,” said the soft voice. “Those who had that technology in its most-advanced state got the contract then, as that happened before Imhotep was born and when that one dark-haired witch was still a very young child.”

“And once that technology was proven and the place learned to make them, they made their own,” I murmured. “They knew they were going to be heavily dependent upon that stuff, so they made a lot of those places, and most of them were built sturdy enough to withstand just about anything.” I then muttered, “witch-thinking! Put lots of reinforced concrete, so even if the stuff is bad, it will get the job done.”

“First, that concrete wasn't nearly that bad,” said the soft voice. “It isn't as good as what is commonly used overseas at this time, but they did put in an ample safety factor, then they didn't use any cursed materials, and finally, they did coat the outside of those huge tanks with their first runs of chemically-modified 'bitumen'.”

“And that stuff made with the coal?” I asked.

“That will make a vastly superior material for roads compared to what is currently used,” said the soft voice. “But one trouble.”

“What is that?” asked Sarah.

“That type of road is time-consuming to make, time-consuming to maintain, and then will be 'obsolete' by the time the curse breaks entirely,” said the soft voice. “Every road in this place will either be made of stone – heavy, deep enough to not wear significantly for a long time – or an even more-wear-resistant material similar to that 'moldable stone' you spoke of earlier, one that can endure heavy traffic – and then finally, there will once more be above-ground tracks for trains.”

“But not the kind Sarah's read about, correct?” I was thinking of an odd species of train, one that did not actually touch its strange-looking track, one that could go 'end-to-end' of the full-sized continent overnight.

“There will be those, and the kind Sarah has read about and you've seen, save done to a much higher standard.” Pause, then, “those will be for 'scenic route' travel, visiting many larger towns and those smaller ones that have stations on the routes, and such trains being fit for general freight and passengers – and those will be altogether strange, even if you've ridden in things like them where you came from many times.”

“Electric trains?” I asked. I had ridden those a lot in years past, even if the location of where I had spent a large portion of my inheritance had had no public transport within fifty miles of the place. It was either stay home, or 'get rich and get a car' for nearly anyone who wished to live in that area – and predatory lending practices with ultra-high daily-compounding interest rates for all save those who were indeed 'rich' was the norm there. Based on what Mrs. Ulyanov had told me, these people were, in a word, “criminals of the worst sort.” She would then use words that sounded so strange that only by looking them up did I know she essentially meant 'Mafia'.

One of them was 'Urki', and another, 'Blatnye'. Both were habitual criminals, and the words she had used for people like me, or at least, what such people would call me, was 'Frayer', or 'Pigeon'. I suspected she meant 'pigeon' as in 'ripe for pillage'.

I hoped then she had not meant 'ripe for eating, and easy to bring down with a lupara'. Those weapons that had remained of my gun collection were some distance away, and I wondered if her husband would have enjoyed shooting a rifle more accurate than 'that worn out old relic from the great patriotic war' he'd spoken of being trained on while a conscript. He'd seen some of my last targets and had nodded appreciatively when I showed them to him – though he wondered why I had not been able to shoot at any target shaped like a person – then.

I had tried to tell him, “but they are not shooting at me, so why should I kill something I cannot eat. This isn't 'the war of the rats', as far as I can tell – though if some wretch tries for you or her, I just might forget the matter and act as if it were.” That usually meant some very meaningful looks, a glance around, then at least one oath containing a word I recognized as that of the then-reigning dictator's name, the name of some very strong drink, and the name of a month in the fall. He'd not been old enough to go there, but he was old enough to have some of his relatives be all-too-involved in that particular fight.

“Not like those trains you recall, as these won't need wires,” said the soft voice. “They won't be like some electric trains that witches use, either.”

“Some witches use electric trains?” I gasped. I could clearly recall the screeching of the Metropolitan Area Express, that being the name for the train in the town where I had gone to my last instance of school, and where I had had my last 'good' job. It wasn't bad as towns went, and I sometimes wished I could have afforded to remain there after my belated graduation.

“Copies of what was once used during wartime for transport of soldiers and munitions,” said the soft voice. “The chief advantage of these things was their lack of fumes compared to the 'quick' trains, as once the vent-shafts were gone, it was man-powered or electric trains for nearly all use.” Pause, then, “the witches found some old ones during the time of Cardosso, and have been able to get 'updated and upgraded' running gear for them, as well as 'updated' generator stations since that time.”

“Hence they 'drive' those for a ways, stop, unload and pick up witch-cargo, and... Pause, then, “did some of these witches get into that one underground armory?”

“They did, and more, those armored battle-cars were controlled in a very similar fashion to those train-cars they use for hauling cargo.” Pause, then, “it isn't every day when you can haul five times the weight of a common freight wagon at a speed that well-exceeds that of a lightly-laden postal buggy with a fresh team.”

“Would they go faster than I can when my team is given ample mash?” asked Sarah. She was hearing things she'd never even dreamed of.

“If they stop often enough to load and unload cargo, then when they're moving, they do – and that easily,” said the soft voice. “Of course, that does tend to reduce their actual travel per day, but most 'drivers' of those things figure five days from the fifth kingdom house proper to the upper part of the first kingdom, or they did before so many locations in the first kingdom became hazardous to such travel.” Pause, then, “now, such shipments tend to stop at the second kingdom house, if not further south yet, as that location now has steadily-spreading below-ground troubles of its own.”

I then had a question.

“Those microorganisms that produce that distillate stuff?” I said. “They want those overseas, don't they?”

“Very much so, and you can get some here easily,” said the soft voice. “Just get the people running that 'still' – they'll scrap it within days, so as to have a supply of bronze for the first castings that use bronze in that setup – to get their sampling tube down into the tar-seep and suck the fluid that comes up using a large piston.” Pause, then, “decant that fluid into a tube, and you'll have some good bacteria for those in the medical establishments over there.”

“Could we get some today?” I asked.

“I think that is one of the other places we need to visit,” said Sarah. “I am not sure if we can do that today, but I suspect our 'guide' could go alert those people to get ready with their sampling tube.”

“I'll do that, as talk has it you'll be going across the sea, and I think we could use some work on things there beyond what's been done to keep it good.”

“Meaning that mess has been treated like a fetish, also,” I said. “Most likely, it has – fetishistic practices, fetishistic materials...” Pause, then, “no burning of witches, and no burning of pigs either.”

“Them black ones outside, those get buried where they fall, once the metal's been stripped off,” said our 'guide'.” He paused, then, “they're usually too heavy to haul back here, even if the other kind ain't.”

“Those pigs go in your manure-piles, correct?” asked Sarah. “Most of the bodies of witches, also?”

“That's how their bones get cleaned up enough to spike at the entrance,” said the man. “Pigs and witches ain't good for much, but they do make good manure – and the man who runs that powder mill gets his share of 'em whenever we have enough to spare for his niter tunnels.”

We went on in silence. I needed more beer, and more, I needed meat and bread, especially the latter with cherry jam. Accordingly, I chewed up as much of both things as I could, and while I faded in and out of consciousness, I wondered if I would be up to dealing with another microcosm of the ills plaguing the entire continent contained within a small enclave of a few square miles.

“Practice for the big time,” I thought. I could feel a distinct aspect of 'definitely' in the air, and I continued eating, until I saw something but a few feet off of our road. It looked more than a little like a very small open-pit mine of some kind, one perhaps twelve feet wide and a similar length, and a depth that was sufficient to need a ladder for those digging at the seam and a windlass with a bucket. A smallish mound of obvious 'coal' seemed to be growing slowly on a smaller buggy or wagon near the seam. To the far side of the coal-buggy, I saw what looked like a mound of overburden, and the obvious aspect of the place made for wondering – as in these people dug out a stretch in a given year during the warm-season, then filled the dirt back in before it rained – and resumed digging once more in the spring, there to hit the coal vein once again. It was a short vein, however, one good for perhaps eight to ten years at their current rate of utilization.

“That?” I asked, pointing at the 'coal mine'.

“Is one of the places they dig coal here,” said our 'guide'. “I think it's like distillate, as most coal places are where a lot of manure has been buried, and they smell a bit like distillate ponds, only...”

“Different batch of microorganisms,” I said. “So you periodically shift your manure places, and at the very bottom of a good-sized manure-pit, especially one that's seen a lot of household waste, and, uh, horse and chicken dung, then there's usually some coal starting.”

“Pile dirt on it, let it set a ten-year, and it's decent coal, if a little brown still,” said the man.

“Give it increased pressures, higher temperatures, improved bacteria, and a proper container, and you'd be able to make 'coal' in months instead of needing decades,” I said. “You'd need a vessel able to be sealed tight, purge it with carbon dioxide and, uh, hydrogen and methane, then warmed to 'High Summer' temperatures and then pressurized to between three and ten atmospheres, depending on what kind of coal you want. If you want hard black stuff that's like rock, then you need more heat and pressure, and the right kind of bacteria mixture for making it.” Pause, then, “most of what is called 'coal' up here is brownish – they called that stuff lignite where I came from – so it's either dug up too far too soon or it's not seeded with the right bacteria before it's buried for however long.”

“That black coal you spoke of is found in the fifth kingdom,” said Sarah. “There are several pits down there with that stuff, large ones, and they fill sacks of it up daily.”

“There are a few places that have black coal up here, also,” said the man. “The brown stuff is common enough, and we get it quickly here, so that's what we use the most.” Pause, then, “you said it could go in these other cookers in that jeweler's shop, and doing that would turn it entirely black and fit for running hot furnaces.”

“And make it so it does not smoke or smell at all,” said Sarah. “You would get a great many chemicals from doing that, most of which you can readily sell in the fourth kingdom – and soon, at the Abbey.”

“What will we do with them there?” I asked. “Use them for formulating some kind of, uh, aircraft fuel? Plastics? Chemical supplies I cannot dream of?”

“They do go in the good stuff, yes,” said the soft voice – who then clarified what was meant by 'the good stuff'. “Aircraft fuel and some other fuels, most of which you've never heard of, take small amounts of such chemicals, but you will learn plenty about those in the months to come.” Pause, then, “eat as much as you can, as while this place you're going to does not need nearly as much work as the last location, and its people are far more 'willing' – as in 'give them some ideas, for the most part' – it does have its needs that way also.”

“Their machinery is scrap?” I asked.

“No, but it isn't currently capable of holding the needed tolerances to make a distillate-processing setup similar to what you spoke of work safely.” Pause, then, “it was a good deal more complex than just distillation you had put down in that book and were thinking of, by the way – that was an entire 'processing center', one that produced finished chemicals more or less to order, which is why the place you're going to, while it can and does do true 'buggy-level' precision, is not up to doing 'petroleum-refinery' levels of precision.”

“Almost as precise as a sextant?” I asked.

“The equipment there is nearly up to making the two-ringed kind, and in the past, this location has done those,” said the soft voice. “Pause, then “a distillate-processing plant here is not nearly the same animal as those you encountered where you came from.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“How many 'escape-prone chemicals' are present where you came from?” asked the soft voice.

“Not many, if there are any,” I said. I then recalled the tendencies of that blue oil. “Not like that blue oil! I doubt there's anything...” I then gasped, “Oh, my. This thing needs doing to a standard that would hold high-pressure hydrogen gas, or even the liquid stuff. That stuff does like to escape.”

“Not like this it does,” said the soft voice. “That stuff is merely good at finding ways of getting out. It can be restrained with close tolerances and the right practices and materials.” Pause, then, “it does not try to escape.” Another pause, then, “that means properly stress-relieved heavy-gage materials – hard materials for the column, not soft bronze, as is appropriate for settling pots – all surfaces machined carefully in a temperature-controlled environment, then each sealing surface surface-ground and then lapped and scraped to a flatness level approaching that of the more-precise parts in that sextant, then gasketed with oven-cooked thin sheet tin – and a lot of suitable bolts, these tightened so as to give even clamping pressure. Then the stuff will stay put.” Finally, as if to change the topic, “ask Sarah about what you did to that close-balance, and how it now behaves itself.”

“First, there was the portion I mentioned regarding that cork-door,” said Sarah, “and you fixed that right on your way out,” she said. “It had gone sloppy again, and while I told those people it needed more work than I could manage then, but it seems they did not hear me very well.”

“That sounds about right,” said our 'guide'. “We turn here, go single file for maybe thirty yards or so, then it's a winding way to where this place is. Over in a corner, secluded, all by itself, as these people need quiet so's to think good.” Pause, then, “I think they do that more than any other place here.”

“How will you get a four-horse team and that thing up that entrance?” asked Sarah.

“Easy,” said the man. “We use that entrance you came in on for people on foot, those riding horseback, and buggies like yours, as anything bigger will get hung up.” He said this with a grin. “The witches don't know about the back way, 'cause it's not only really old, but it's hid so good it took people here a long time to figure it out, then a lot of marked people with real markings to get it running – and I'm glad at least one of those people at this smith's shop has got those, as that thing needs regular going over and new parts now and then.”

“An elevator,” I muttered. “A horse-driven elevator, one that needs three or four horses to turn its treadmill. It's got a hidden outlet, up near the top of that dike, the top comes out in this stone-walled building that's got walls nearly three feet thick at the base, a bunch of loopholes and two stands of full-loaded muskets along with a stone roof shaped kind of like a truncated cone, and has a guard on it nearly all the time. Correct?”

“You said it better than I could, 'cept it usually needs more than one person with real markings to make the parts for this thing, same as it needs someone like that to make the parts to make a distillate distillery that does a good job and not try to blow up every time it's used.”

R-real markings?” I asked.

“He was born with six fingers on both hands, and then getting here had the witches after him all the way from the middle of the second kingdom, so he got more markings on the way here,” said our 'guide'. “He learned so fast once he was eating decent that he was beyond them teaching him by the time he'd been here a year, then he started going through every book in the book-house they got here, and then he needed more books, so we had to start getting those as fast as we could, and that wasn't easy at all, 'cause the witches ain't interested in anyone knowing anything other than their position in the witch-world to come – and that is slaves and slavery, unless you're a witch.”

“And what else did I do to this balance?” I asked.

“First, it was stiff-working, so it would not respond to small movements on the shortest of the three bars, the one with the wafer-weight,” said Sarah. “It was so lively after you spoke to it that I wondered why it grew this weird pendulum thing at the bottom with this thing that seemed to attract that weight and a screw to adjust that thing up and down.”

“Damping, dear,” I said. “A balance like that which is that 'lively' would otherwise take a long time to settle down.

“That presumes you could get such a balance to settle,” said Sarah. “They could be trouble that way at the west school, especially if the day was a windy one.”

“Is that why you did so much work in that place at night?” I asked. “Less wind?”

“That place has wind during the day,” she said, “but it is rare much of the year if it has wind once the place has its fill of darkness.” Pause, then, “I also needed to read and study during the day so as to save my candles for when I needed them, yawn.”

“Not much sleep with that regimen,” I said.

“There were many times when I received perhaps half the sleep I needed,” said Sarah, “and I had to take naps when and where I could.”

“Otherwise, a thorough cleaning, correct?” I asked. “A lot of rust, dirt, bad paint, and, uh, 'curses' left lying on the floor?”

“That and its entire frame became all of one piece,” said Sarah. “It was painted a glossy white color, and it was marked in characters from the old portion of the book, with three 'X' marks under that.”

“It wasn't one of those things before, and that new man fainted when he saw that happen,” said our 'guide'. We were now traveling single file, and the close-clutching brush seemed made for ambush. I looked up overhead, and again, I saw the tall-reaching 'triple-canopy jungle'. It made me think once more about short black clad individuals wielding automatic weapons, these people – all of them – possessing no scruples whatsoever.

Those come later,” said the soft voice. “You learn to deal with them, and you can cope with nearly anyone – here or elsewhere.”

“What?” I asked. “We will be enduring... What were those people called?”

“They will not be those individuals, even if they look and act enough like them to make you wish to name them 'Viet Cong',” said the soft voice. “These people, however, will make you wish you were dealing with such individuals in their homeland, though – as they will be worse, and not a little worse.”

As if to disturb my mind from this frightening revelation – those overseas would read it, and most likely, they would soil their underwear to know they would be sooner or later dealing with 'Charley' or whoever those soldiers who had gone over there had called such individuals – I then heard the voice once more of our 'guide' and Sarah conversing. I was riding 'tail' in this convoy, where I could protect our rear from ambush by the local version of Charley.

“No, not that name,” I murmured. “Chucky. These people that are coming are worse, and that's when they're not using Shpagins on those they're hunting.”

“Him and his whole family came, and it was a near thing for them, too,” said our 'guide'. “The house he's staying in was cleaned up for him so he lives near that one jeweler's shop, the one called the west-works, and he's having to toss a lot of things he learned down south so he can learn to do jewelery right, or so we thought until you came. Now everyone there has to learn to do it right, not just him and his family.”

“Does he know of that place's pots?” asked Sarah. We were still in the close region.

“He does now, all of 'em, copper, silver, gold, and a couple of other metals with longer names,” said the man. “Ain't no one in that place ever seen those things boil, though.” Pause. “Now each pot has these letters and numbers writ on them, and those people got to get a good chemist up here so as to know how to do that stuff so it just needs one run, not the dozen or so pot-runs they were sometimes needing to do to get good metal.”

“I recognized some of what was written there,” said Sarah, “and you are right. We should know just how to run pots like that correctly, as well as do the other steps right in short order.” Pause, then, “I think Andreas needs a proper generator for his pots at the house, as...”

“You did not explore that chemistry lab entirely yet,” said the soft voice. “There's an entire room dedicated to electrolysis-work, and another room, one next to it, with a suitable generator in it.”

“No power plant to drive that generator, though,” I said.

“You'll be able to make one readily,” said the soft voice. “One of those real steam engines you'll draw up within the next week or so will be more than powerful enough to run that generator, especially as it only needs a few hundred revolutions per minute to deliver full output and there are a fair number of boxed-up 'greasy' gears that just need some modest 'cleanup' to run quietly.”

“And gearbox-housings,” I muttered. “And bearings, and shafts, and seals...”

“You have all the equipment to make the housings, engines, boilers, and all the other matters – though I would use one of those quiet air-compressors from overseas instead of a boiler, as it will need much less attention from its users and far less time for you to construct its parts and assemble them. Annistæ will be busy enough as it is to not wish to keep an eye on a solid-fuel-fired boiler.”

“And she will wish compressed air in the place anyway, for stirring devices,” I said.

“Much more than just that,” said the soft voice. “She's working right now on drawing up a steam washing machine from her recollection, and between her and Andreas, they should have it figured out enough that you'll just need to look at it and point out the mistakes needed to get a finished article – and those work well on compressed air, if you use other means to heat the water, such as a small two-tube boiler under a heating lamp.” Pause, then, “the needed plumbing fittings and tubing are common things overseas, or you could make your own easily enough. That tube roller would manage boilers like that one well.”

After some few more back-and-forth exchanges between the two ahead of me, the road suddenly opened up to another of those wider 'varnished' lanes, this one a bit wider than the norm for Ploetzee. Here, there were not merely houses to each side of the lane; there were shops, also, and the subliminal humming of 'industry' here was a marvel. The only place that I had encountered that compared with it that way was the central part of the fourth kingdom, and the aspect of 'these people work long hours, they think about what they do, and they take care in what they do' was far more pronounced than at that jeweler's shop, so much so that I knew I had seen the very worst the place had to offer.

I then heard a noise that nearly startled me out of my wits.

A high-pitched yipping cry seemed to come from everywhere at once, and I hurried to Sarah's side so as to ask what the source of this noise was. It sounded distinctly 'ridiculous' and 'scary-dangerous' – with both of these conditions being present in large measure at the same instant.

“That is the noise of a scent-hound,” said Sarah, “and I think that dog to be one of the rarer ones. It should be close by, as I've seen tree-rat sign here, and those things are a pest if you wish to raise vegetables.” Pause. “I've put enough shot in them to know about that trouble, least while I was in the west school.”

“They eat them?” I asked. I had meant the tree-rats eating vegetables. I had no ideas as to the diets of squirrels here.

“They do that,” said our 'guide'. “There's someone here who raises those dogs, and though he don't raise a lot of them, more than one witch has gotten killed by one recently.”

“Those spies?” I asked.

“Those dogs can't be everywhere in Ploetzee,” said the man, “but I think they've caught several witches lately, and...”

Again, that high-pitched yipping noise, then over my head a sleek brownish form shot as if a bolt of lightning, then rocketed up a tree as if it could outrun lightning itself. I caught a glimpse of a dog – one roughly the size of a dachshund – as it shot up into the tree as if it could outrun an electrified tree-rat.

“I know what that dog is now,” said Sarah. “That dog is a pure-bred Breganz scent-hound, and nothing beats them for catching animals or finding things by smell.”

As if to remind us, I heard a faint scream, this far up in the branches, then something tumbling down, piecewise, something that made me stop as a dark-green-smock-clad woman came dashing up with an earth-caked 'digging hoe'.

“That was a tree-rat,” she said, “and it had cleaned out half a row of carrots before the dog woke up and went after it.”

“A flying dog?” I asked. “It went up a tree like nothing I've ever seen, and it jumped over my head...”

As if to prove me wrong, I could hear the previously-heard objects coming closer to the ground, then first the front half of a dead tree-rat, this one obviously glutted on something, then the back half a second later, this with a long and bristly blue-gray tail – and then, but perhaps a second and a half later, the dog in question landed with a soft thud, its mouth clean, black-lipped, its eyes bright as fire, its feet seemingly equipped with opposable thumbs – and its prehensile tail, nearly as long as its body, this neatly laid over the dog's back so as to stay out of the way when on the ground.

The tail, obviously, explained the animal's capacity for arboreal travel, as well as its ability to control its 'flying' tendencies.

It was, indeed, the size of a common dachshund – save for that long tail, it looked just like one of a number of dogs of that type I had seen before coming here – and as I watched, it went over to the tree-rat's front half, sniffed for a second, then it opened its mouth so as to 'bite' the dead animal's head and bring the front half to its master.

“Th-that s-small of a dog?” I asked, as the dog opened its mouth wider. It had the capacity to open its mouth like a proverbial bear-trap, seemingly. It could open its mouth wide enough that the tip of its lower jaw actually touched its throat. It then made to bite the squirrel's head – and the dog's teeth then showed themselves.

The teeth...

“How do those things fit in that dog's mouth?” I gasped. Those..!”

The sight of such massive teeth in a dog of any size was sufficient to supply a sizable stable of recurring nightmares – as these things were not the commonplace teeth I had thought wolves to have.

Long, pointed, like spears for their tips; sharp at the back, like hollow-ground razors; and their length, nearly two inches for the canines – and the whole ensemble meshed together like an expensive pair of razor-sharp cloth-scissors I had once owned, such that – indeed, this dog could bite off limbs as if they were made of soft cloth, and that with a single lightning-quick snap.

You left out the dog's bite-strength,” said the soft voice. “No other animal on this planet has that particular jaw structure, nor muscles of that efficiency – in general, not just those muscles that move its jaws.” A pause, then, “Iron Pigs wish they had that kind of biting capacity.”

Animal?” I asked.

I did not include those like you,” said the soft voice, “and that situation will change drastically in the coming months when you get the help you need.”

The dog now bit the squirrel's head, and the teeth in question sank into the bones of the skull nearly an inch as if said tree-rat's bones were made of waxen putty. The dog then brought the front half of the dead 'squirrel' to its master, where it laid it down, and here, I saw where the dog had bitten the squirrel in half with a single 'snap'.

Only a sword like mine could have made a cleaner cut, assuming I could climb trees faster than an electrified monkey and then slice on a tree-rat with my sword while both I and the rodent were in flight. The only thing that was more amazing was the woman's name for this utterly strange and entirely frightening dog.

“Come here, Lumpi,” she said, now rubbing the dog's head. It wagged its tail, this an odd wriggling motion that was enough to make for shudders. A dog with a prehensile tail could do some amazing gyrations that way, even if this example seemed friendly enough to its master.

“No, I'll take a dark gray kitten any day, claws and all,” I thought. “Besides, I think Sarah wants one, and I'd like to be able to feel one regularly.”

The sense of comfort in stroking such a purring creature made for soft sighs, and as we left Lumpi and her owner behind – that name indicated the dog was a female, most likely, as names ending in 'i', especially regarding pets, indicated feminine gender as a rule – I thought to ask Sarah where one might get a kitten of that type. I was about to ask when we came across a field of cabbages, these planted on raised-above-the-ground beds, with several farmers walking the rows, their eyes intent upon the plants, their hands holding large brass tweezers, their other hands holding copper canisters of some kind.

“They're checking for bugs,” said Sarah. “You wished to ask me something?”

“You mentioned the possible desire for a kitten,” I said, a faint purring noise in at the back of my voice. “I know I would like to have one, dark gray or otherwise – and I'll put up with any tendencies to climb my legs readily.”

“They have those here, and I think that is one of the places where we go sometime after visiting this shop – so as to put in a request for one of the next litter.”

“What kind?” I asked.

“Several families raise long-haired cats in Ploetzee, but many of those found here are the dark gray going to black kind, which are the very fiercest of the breed,” said Sarah. “Mind, if we get one – it may well become as dangerous as a lion, one like those written of many places in the book.”

“If you going to have witch-trouble, ain't no animal better to have handy,” said our 'guide'. “Plenty of people in this town, me included, owe their lives to having a dark gray cat in the house or living nearby.”

“And such soft fur,” I purred. This time I actually managed something of a purring sound.

“Now I know why you might want one,” said Sarah. “You...”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “He cannot be rubbing on you constantly, especially when he's drawing or working, but he frets more than any ten people you've ever heard of, either currently or in old tales, and having such a kitten or cat in his lap will become a near-requisite while working so as to not go out of his mind.”

“I had no idea that was the case,” said Sarah. “I may fret some, but that...”

“Yes, which is why I like rubbing on you so much,” I said. “You may not be such a kitten, one with such soft fur, but you do smell good...”

“Hence his desire for scent for the women of the house,” said the soft voice. “He thinks you could use it, and Anna also – though she should put it on twice a day so as to keep him sane.” Pause, then, “only a brace of ticklers would be better, those being kept for bedtime.”

“Those...” squeaked Sarah. “How could we keep one, and where do they have them up here?”

“Currently, in two places,” said the soft voice. “Ploetzee and the marshes.” Pause, then, “there will soon be a tickle-room in the house's chemistry lab, as Annistæ is going to need their help.”

“And wish tickling, also,” I said. “I could use regular tickling, though I'm not picky at all as to who does it.” Here, I was most definitely looking at Sarah.

Here, I saw more houses and shops, these on short side-streets with lanes perhaps ten to twelve feet wide between storefront and house. It made me wonder how horses would be stabled, until I understood. Ploetzee tended to have centralized 'stables' for much of its populace, due to a scarcity of forage; while only certain people kept their own animals. The practice seemed altogether feasible for a town of its size, where most people seldom had to travel on foot more than ten minutes to get the neccessities of life in this town of some few thousands, even if in truth only the kingdom house itself was much larger for actual area.

Centralized stables made feeding, housing, and gathering manure for the animals a much less bothersome and far quicker task, especially for people who needed to use every possible hour of the day to the fullest, or so they attempted to do.

“Which provides one obvious need for electrification,” I said. “They're limited in terms of the time available for working outdoors by sunrise and sunset, and because of this town's location, those events happen later and earlier than those of the surrounding area – and those titanium lanterns aren't the most-common things in this town, even if good aquavit has become much more so in recent weeks.” A pause as I looked at an obvious field, this one 'decent-sized' for this area, then squawked, “what? Cabbages? That color? Cabbages larger than people's heads already?”

“Cabbage is nearly a year-round crop in here,” said Sarah. “It's one of the few places that runs three seedings of cabbages a year in the first kingdom – and cabbage does best in shade, hence those grown here fetch premium prices.” Pause, then, “that bluish tint to a darker-than-usual green is caused by shady growing conditions and especially well-suited soil.”

“Aye,” said our 'guide'. “I've taken cartloads of cabbages to Roos several times during times when they normally weren't in season outside o' here, and gotten good money for them things, on account o' them things being reckoned prime.” Pause, then, “the thinnings of the cabbage fields go into the greens here at the Public Houses, and that which does not get used on the day it shows is either pickled in salt and vinegar and crocked, or it gets dried in a slow oven for packing light.”

“And no corn is grown in the place,” I murmured. “The trees might keep out much of the bad weather when they're growing like this, and a fair number of weeds grow poorly – but corn needs full sun, and that isn't to be had here.”

“Corn's cheap enough outside, 'specially if you buy it when it's plentiful and bring it here in the cobs to dry in an oven so it shakes out o' 'em easy,” he said. “Now over there,” here, he pointed, “we have some of our potatoes – and those like we have here are like those you will find nowhere else in the five kingdoms.”

“How so?” asked Sarah.

“They may be on the smaller side, and take a lot of work to look after...” he said. Sarah interrupted him, as he'd observed potato growing, and potatoes 'ran in the blood' with her relatives.

“Potatoes are like that no matter where they are grown, and I've done work on, around, and with potatoes in both the second and fourth kingdoms,” said Sarah. “My relatives live in the potato country, the northern third, and they dealt with witches, swine, potatoes, and they had trouble year-round and day and night with all of those things.”

“Why they stay?” asked our 'guide'.

“No better place for them to live,” said Sarah. “They might need to live in their own fortified village, but they had enough money to send my cousin to Boermaas to be educated as a preacher's helper, and those stinkers tried to make her into a witch.”

“If she's who I think she is,” said our 'guide' with a chuckle, “she might not have cleaned the place out o' witches, but she sure enough made it hot for them.”

“She killed enough of them, you mean,” said Sarah, “as did I while I was in the west school.” Pause, then, “how are these potatoes different, other than where they are grown?”

“They keep better than most other potatoes I've seen, but the biggest difference is their shape,” said our 'guide'. “These things are long, a bit twisted, a brilliant red, and you can eat 'em the minute you peel and wash them, and they taste a lot better than any other potato, and that no matter how they are before you eat them.”

“Raw potatoes?” gasped Sarah. “That's like out of an old tale”

“I think these came from the time of those tales,” said our 'guide'. “Then, there's how they bear. Each plant throws a lot of those things, and you can remove 'em as they get big enough, not all at once, so you get more of them for a given bush.” Pause, then, “we get fresh potatoes here from the start of harvest outside until almost Festival Week, which is when we actually get snow here, and only that part of the potato country you spoke of grows more potatoes for a given amount of ground.”

“Last winter?” I asked.

“Had enough snow to make most of the trees drop their leaves, and some snow made it onto the ground, but it was nowhere near as cold in here as it was in the area outside,” said our 'guide'. “It did not stop our turnips, though, and 'most everyone here grows a row or two of those things.”

“Yech, turnips,” I said. “Awful-tasting – hot, spicy, and too much like bad Krokus for me to like it.”

“You get those grown outside, then you're right, and no mistake,” said the man. “These in here are not bad, specially if you're careful about how much and when you put the manure to them.”

“That is what gives them their bad taste, or much of it,” said Sarah. “You grow them in raised beds, and you let each such bed get its manure, then rest for much of a year before planting it with turnips, correct?”

“That, and we use the turnips that grow here,” said the man. “These are a lot longer than the regular kind, and they look strange enough to give some people fits, and then they get big, and then they're more out of the ground than in it, but they do work well in stews.” Pause, then, “the south-end Public House has a pot o' that stuff on the counter under this small brass lamp what came from outside that runs on aquavit, and the same for where the stand came from, but that stew-pot itself is nothing less than a marvel, and that stuff's kept ready for whenever a person has a mind to have it. They dish it up right then, and it's as good a stew as one could wish for.”

“Is this stand folding, of sheet iron, and riveted with many smaller rivets of tinned brass?” asked Sarah.

“It is,” said our 'guide'. “That thing's got people here wantin' 'em bad, that whole setup, as lots of people living here have little time for cooking, and that setup is made to order for such cooking as they're up to doing.”

“Then I know who to ask about the matter,” said Sarah. “I see him regularly, and between that and the house-orders, I think those things need reworking.”

“How?” I asked.

“So you can make them in large numbers without spending so much time,” said Sarah. “You have good cast iron now, so for those intended for places where weight is less of an issue, you might well cast many of the parts rather than form them of sheet-iron...”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “Have the ones you take with you copied overseas. That will give an even lighter assembly that's far more corrosion-resistant and far stronger, and then he won't have a great deal of extra work to do.” Pause, then, “between making the patterns for that sextant, learning the tricks of that 'brass', pouring pieces of that sextant that will work, and then machining them, he's going to have his hands full getting that thing done in time for its scheduled pickup date – and it, and those to be made like it, are a truly critical matter regarding the entire breaking of the Curse.”

“Meaning I do not have a lot of time, at least for the first one,” I murmured. I meant the one I had learned of my first day on the job here.

“Much more than you might think,” said the soft voice, “considering that you now have good tools, good supplies, and will soon have those master alloys and plenty of pure raw materials, what with two locations in the house being able to run pots and the ones in Ploetzee able to do far more than they used to manage.”

“No fire-refining furnaces able to handle weight here, though,” said Sarah. She sounded more than a little worried.

“They do have the needed drawings and pictures so as to make several of them, and in the mean-time, they can keep the five furnaces they do have running crucibles regularly.”

“Five furnaces?” I asked.

“They're able to more or less keep one or more furnaces under blast all hours of their-longer-than-is-usual-for-the-first-kingdom working day,” said the soft voice. “They also run three larger crucibles per furnace, not two medium-sized ones like what Andreas' furnace can cope with, and more, they run distillate-gas as well as a small bed of charcoal in each furnace.” Pause, then, “that refinery, though – that setup will make lots of good fuel-gas, so much so that much of it will be put up in compressed gas cylinders and taken throughout this area – and perchance, some may well come where you-all live and the house proper.”

“Bottled gas?” I asked.

“No, it isn't acetylene,” said the soft voice. “It is nowhere near that hazardous to use.” Pause, then, “it does burn very hot, though, hot enough to be used for all types of jeweler's soldering without the use of compressed air.”

“And the setups at the Abbey?” I asked.

“Will fill a lot of such bottles, as they will be needed for the work inside there and across the sea,” said the soft voice. “Don't be at all surprised if Annistæ spends some time inside that place so as to improve her knowledge of chemistry while having her health problems dealt with appropriately.”

“Now here is that turn I told you about,” said our 'guide'. “About another hundred yards on this path, and we have the south fish-pond on our left. It's a decent-sized pond, as such ponds go.”

“Pond?” I asked. “Are there fish in it?” I almost said 'fishes'.

“Yes, and many of them,” said our 'guide'. “They do not become large enough to have lodestones stick to their heads, as that takes a run to the sea and a larger size, but these fish do become big enough to make for a lot of roast trout in the town's Public Houses – and that winter and summer.”

As if to catch my eye, I saw the body of water in question – and indeed, I could clearly see this stone-lined pond, its gin-clear water – and its vast numbers of teeming trouts. The pond seemed fed by an underground river that entrained a great deal of air, as the number of air-bubbles coming to the surface was only exceeded by the number of trouts splashing and trying to catch one of a vast multitude of small insects flitting about near the surface of the water. That made for a question.

“How are those things fed?” I asked.

“Jumpers, mostly,” said our 'guide'. “They're kept in some underground rooms here, so as to not drive people out of their minds with the noises they make.”

“They're bad about that down in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “This shop should be but a short distance ahead, shouldn't it?”

“It is that, right next to the shaft what goes up the top, and it has its guarded doorway at the bottom, also, though those guarding that entry point have shops to each side.”

“What kind of shops?” I asked.

“One of 'em does leather, and that from the raw hides to the finished articles,” said the man. “It's where I go for my boots and shoes. That one place you go to does the same, or so I hear.” Pause. “That other shop, it sells thread, though there was this one kind that they could not get, and people here wanted that stuff bad.”

“That one witch of a thread-seller sold it, and no one else would try bringing it up from the fourth kingdom,” spat Sarah. “She will not be able to rob people any more, and that one shop that bought up that thread will now have their good stuff to sell to whomever waits by their door in the morning with ready coin.”

“That shop is also witch-owned, or it was,” said the soft voice. “The bones-holding owner and all of his fully-owned witch-slaves have all eaten 'much warm lead' in the last few hours.”

“Good, then they will wish to hunt up places to lay until they get over it, I suspect,” asked Sarah. “Some of them may find such quantities of lead too much for them?”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “They each caught one or more roer-loads of 'large' stiff shot, so now they're heading for one of the city's manure-piles.”

“They sift that stuff for shot before spreading it out on the fields, correct?” I asked.

“Regularly,” said Sarah, who implied a fair number of people actually worked 'the city manure-fields' so as to mine them for objects of interest while spading, mingling, and processing the 'compost'. I hoped we would have people up here soon to do likewise for the fast-growing city that would sprout 'overnight' so as to work on the Abbey. “All fourth kingdom manure is regularly sifted in these special rotating cages of tinned brass, and they put a great many manure-worms to it, also, as that helps break such manure down faster.”

“And those worms help keep the shot 'decent', also,” I said. “They probably recast that shot after cleaning it up and adding a bit of tin and hardening metals so it drops better.”

“I had no idea they did that,” said Sarah, “even if I've been in both of the shot-towers in that area, and they drop a lot of lead.”

“The better shops add enough tin and those hardening metals to get a clean round drop when they rent those towers,” said the soft voice, “and then, in a few 'back rooms', one of which is at Roesmaan's chemistry, the 'best' shops plate first a thick coat of copper on the 'best' shot and then a thin coating of nickel on top of the copper.” Pause, then, “that isn't quite as good as what many witches can sometimes get their hands on, but it does help the shot penetrate better, and then that stuff usually remains in the sieve or can be readily picked out, washed, and reused by that town's shopkeepers in their fowling pieces and roers.”

“Witches sometimes get their hands on nickel-plated shot?” I asked. “Where?” I wanted to ask 'what size or sizes of nickel-plated shot'?

“Why, where you are going,” said the soft voice. “It was one of those things developed to deal with 'Brimstone-breath bomb-toting wired-up wasps' and the thin conformal ceramic-armor tiles often glued to their bodies by the witches.” Pause, then, “soft lead shot did little to such an insect, so one wished the good stuff to drop bugs like that reliably.”

“It most likely works well on thugs, also,” said Sarah. “That building over there looks like a plant-house, like some they have at the west school.”

“It is,” said our 'guide'. “They got a number of those places in here, and if you ask the right people at the big Public House, you can get certain vegetables that you cannot get outside of the fourth kingdom.”

“Such as, uh, blood-fruit?” I asked. “Sarah said they tighten loose teeth, and her cousin was being kept like a slave for months, so her teeth are loose enough to wish to have some those with her greens – and she really needs greens, as that's just the tip of the ice-mass for vitamin deficiencies in her case.”

“Then I'd ask for a few,” said our 'guide'. “Now here is the road to that one shop, and we'll need to go single file again through this close space until we reach the other limits of the place.”

Again, the triple-canopy jungle closed in, and once more, I had the position of 'drag'. This time, however, instead of wondering if I might encounter black-dressed thugs, I could feel another spy close by and coming closer steadily; and while I did not have a Shpagin, I had something that could pass for one. I was glad I had a machine-pistol, and as I lined up on this hidden wretch, I silently chambered a round – which had Sarah turn around to watch me fire a short burst off into the clinging brush.

The sudden explosion that resulted as I let up on the trigger nearly pitched me off of Jaak as he bolted forward, and as I turned around to look at where I had been before, I gasped, “was that another of those stinking rigged-up spies?”

“It was, only he was making a bit too much noise to expect to get out of here alive,” said the soft voice, “and hence you heard his moving about in that brush as he tried to move cross-country. He was planning to investigate that distillate-processing location.”

“Those people don't stick to trails, do they?” I asked.

“Not in here they do,” said the soft voice. “Those sending them call this place the equivalent in their terms 'Indian Country' – and it now deserves that label, especially as that device sent back just how that stinker was actually located before his self-destruct charge detonated.”

“But I thought those were command-detonated?” I said, as I made the weapon safe. I'd still kept my burst short, oddly enough – perhaps five rounds, if that.

“Seven, actually, as you thinking of that other weapon temporarily 'adjusted' that one up to a higher rate of fire,” said the soft voice. “One of the bullets actually hit his self-destruct charge, and it detonated and blew that spy to wide-scattered bits.” Pause, then, “it was the last shot of your burst, so his chest been turned into something resembling a sieve before you hit that device.”

“What was it, one of those green cans?” I asked. I wondered if the thing had fragmentation capabilities instead of merely a most-hefty blast.

“A smaller version of one, yes,” said the soft voice. “That was some recent-vintage cyclohexanite – the version currently used in those people's clothing, anyway.”

“And what we have?”

“Is the product of an older process, a good deal purer, somewhat denser, and about twenty percent stronger for a given weight,” said the soft voice. “With some adjustments, the newer process can produce better than what you have, and that in all respects save one.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“Devices containing 'rocked' cyclohexanite are still going to be a bit too sensitive for 'commonplace' use,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though – you may wish to use a crystalline form bound with a solvent-diluted synthetic wax in 'squibs', smaller satchel-charges, and 'grenades'.”

“What will that do?” I asked. I meant the wax-bonding process. I suspected it would make the stuff less hazardous to handle, especially if a small amount of graphite was added to the wax. Cyclohexanite was more than a little static-sensitive.

“Reduce the sensitivity a good deal while having little to no impact on the other properties of the material,” said the soft voice. “Add a small amount of an oxidizer and a trace of flash-metal or powdered aluminum, and the resulting material will gain significant strength at a small loss of brisance.”

I then caught up with Sarah and our 'guide', who had once more come out onto a road of sorts. Here, on our left, was again that tall moss-overgrown stone wall, only in this area, about every thirty feet I saw a small stoop topped with a green-with-verdigris copper roof and one or two doors beneath that roof, as well as a small vertical sign indicating what was sold or done there. To our right showed a solid wall of that dense triple-canopy jungly stuff, and overhead, our way was mostly shaded by trees some thirty feet above our heads.

“It's right up ahead,” said our 'guide'. “This is the biggest shop in this area, on account of what they do in there.”

“Uh, not just smithing, correct?” I asked. “Lots of old machinery, most of it run by overheads, and... I paused, then asked, “just where is that water-wheel?”

“About a mile that way or so,” said our 'guide', pointing down the long, winding, and somewhat narrow lane to the north and a trifle east. “That overhead shaft goes through nearly every shop and warehouse on the east wall, and if a person's in that place and using it, he or she needs to put grease to the shaft-pots daily.”

“Not tallow, correct?”

“Oh, it may have some in that grease, supposedly, but the best stuff is gotten locally, least now,” said the man. “There's a little vial on a shelf near each bearing that line-shaft runs in, and everyone's got to get their stool and drip oil onto the wad of rags that hold it on that line-shaft and feel that housing while they do that.”

“And add more oil if it's more than a little warm,” said Sarah. “You do not drip oil on that folded rag with an awl, do you?” Sarah obviously meant 'a commonplace awl', not an awl like I used for poking witches and thugs.

“No, we get longer dropping tubes from the same place as the oil,” said our 'guide'. “That stuff gives a good fifth more turning on these things in this shop here, and if we'd had it for that one generator, it would not have been entirely fit for scrapping.”

“It was unsuited for the task, and that greatly,” said Sarah. “What replaced it, though... You saw what that did.”

“It's intended to give a useful current at low revolutions,” I said. “Now does that thing have a two-stage planetary gearbox? I was thinking of there needing to be one, so as to bring up the revolutions at the input shaft by a factor of eight to ten, if not a bit higher yet.”

“Yes, and it also uses a full quotient of antifriction bearings, with a substantial oil-bath that everything runs in,” said the soft voice. Pause, then, “it will run with no attention, save those adjustments needed to supply the proper amount of current and voltage to their pots and any batteries they will wish to charge, for roughly a year or so of constant use.” Another pause, then, “it will then just need to have its lubricant changed and the 'trash-screen' examined while the oil-cleaning pad is renewed.”

“And it's dirt-simple to use, also,” I said. “Any meters?”

“Yes, two, and a small gage showing pressure in these strange units called 'bars',” said Sarah. “I told them they wished to have two units on the one that said 'pressure', and the other, that one marked 'flow', they needed to adjust the control such that pressure remained at two and 'flow' did not exceed 'ten'.” Pause, then, “and one wishes to keep the one marked 'bars' in the green if the generator was turning.”

“Ten amperes?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “That generator can deliver one thousand amperes at the lower voltages used for electrolytic refining, and over three hundred at voltages sufficient to charge batteries like the one in that battery torch.” Pause, then, “they can easily run a pot-room as big as the one on the fourth floor at the house proper, and charge batteries, and run a DC-to-AC converter for short-range electrification, once that generator is suitably 'updated' regarding its control mechanism, as it will be in the near future.” Pause, then, “it won't need any routine checking then, unlike now.”

“I hope they have the ability to handle such current,” I asked. That much current wanted substantial bus-bars, these over a quarter inch thick and several inches wide, and of electrolytic copper alloyed with silver.

“That portion became updated also,” said the soft voice. “Now they wonder why all of their pots are rectangular-cross-section instead of round, are twice as tall, wider by four inches and deeper by twelve, and have the needed data on them for appropriate measuring molded into the glazed ceramic.”

“That is so they can do much more per pot as for weight,” said Sarah. “The small booklet that showed spoke of each pot running several pounds of its respective metal in the course of a day, and they have twenty such pots, so they can now do forty or more pounds a day.”

“If they follow the instructions closely,” said the soft voice, “their output will be closer to a hundred pounds of pure metal – genuinely pure, the stuff your ring is made out of – in a given day's time.” Pause, then, “they haven't yet found the pots that were packed away, though, nor the testing equipment needed to ensure maximum efficiency.”

“What?” asked Sarah.

“That generator is sufficient to run nearly a hundred pots at the 'near-boiling point', and they can easily make more pots like what you saw, what with the two molds and the instructions present with those other pots,” said the soft voice. “Remember, you're going to need every single pot you can possibly run to process all of the metal currently on the continent so as to remove its taint, not just that used for coins – and that means every location that can run pots needs to do so, and with both the greatest number under power and at the highest efficiency possible.”

“Hence that design of generator..?”

“They'll be able to make most of the critical parts overseas,” said the soft voice. “Winding those coils it uses may be a bit difficult unless you tell them about using several coils of thinner wire connected in parallel, much as you did with your plating supply.” Pause, “then they'll manage such coils fine.”

As if this back-and-forth-interchange had not been occurring, our procession had proceeded at its former rate, and here, we came to a location with not merely a commonplace door under a rather small raised stone stoop and copper awning, but also a wider sliding door, one that was but partly open. A wisp of steam came from within this wider door, and I thought to gaze inside.

A humming hive was the best word I could use to describe what parts of this place I saw, as calling it 'huge' was to belittle it.

“Not just a line-shaft, but one or more steam-engines, and at least one of them is running,” I murmured.

“Sometimes the available power of the line-shaft is not sufficient, or it's taken down for needed repairs,” said the soft voice, “and then, there are those instances where thirty to fifty revolutions per minute needs substantial gearing up to reach suitable speeds. That makes for a desire for a powerplant that turns a good deal faster, and what's present in here does that.”

“Yes, I know,” said someone yet hidden inside. “You three are about due here, aren't you? Been expecting you for a while, on account of the person selling notions here having a ticker in her back rooms.”

“There was a spy trailing us, and he” – here, she indicated me – “nearly got blown up by that stinker. Then, there was trouble at the northeast works, and...”

The man in the shadows beckoned us in, and closed the door. I then noticed his hands.

“Fully six-fingered, and each finger of them works properly,” I thought. I then noticed he had two opposable thumbs, as well as a degree of 'jointedness' that was astonishing. It was as if all of his fingers had an extra joint apiece, and more, more strength and dexterity compared to a five-fingered hand as well. He made me look clumsy – as I was now.

“I wish I had hands that worked as well,” I murmured softly.

“Yours can be and will be fixed soon to a degree, and fully within a few months,” said the soft voice. “He will most likely have his 'troubles' fixed a bit later than yours, as he's one of the key people here at this time – and he needs to remain on-site for nearly the entire time between now and the Curse breaking here, as he's one of the few people currently able to handle this place quickly catching up to roughly where the Valley is today near its southernmost border.”

The way the word 'quickly' was spoken implied a very short period of time, one measured in a handful of weeks. It had much further to go once it got there, however.

“I figured that much,” he said laconically. “You three are safe enough, so I can show you the whole place, not just this buggy that's due to leave here today.” Pause, then as he turned to me, “you'll need to look that one over specially. Might as well do that while I see about slowing my engines.”

I wondered about his 'engines' – their nature and their number – as our 'guide' led me to a cloth-shrouded 'edifice', this an obvious buggy, but one larger than anything I had yet seen that could be called a buggy, with taller and wider wheels than were common to 'buggies'; they looked to be stolen off of a freight wagon save for their height, which was perhaps the width of a hand more than that of most buggies I had seen. Sarah did not wait for the thing's unveiling, however – she leaned against its rear, and gasped.

“It must use a very special species of sleeve,” she said, “as it rolls very freely.”

“That's 'cause that one don't have sleeves,” he said. “It has these special bearings and this oil they like, and that stuff's only been getting here recently after nearly a hundred years of doing without it.”

“And the tires?” I asked. I wanted to ask about the wood, also.

“Those we did here, out of the metal that came from Roos,” he said. “It needed rolling at a yellow heat, then straightening carefully followed by reheating in a yellow flame, then when it was right, we had to weld it at a sparking white heat and then roll that place several times again while rolling each tire to its finished size.”

“Did you grind them?” asked Sarah.

“Some, in places, but if you have the right kind of dies in your rolling mill, you can get tires to the right size and shape with almost no grinding, even ones like for that buggy there.” Pause, then, “first, had to have the wheels done here, as they don't do 'em right outside save in one or two places in the entire first kingdom, then they needed boring and turning on the big vertical spindle lathe here...” He looked at me, then said, “here, let me take you so's to look at all of that stuff and tell me what's wrong with it, while they get that thing there ready for you to look at it. I bet you can tell me a lot.”

“Uh, your machinery,” I asked, as I looked overhead to see a surprisingly clean and rust-free steel line-shaft nearly eight inches thick running overhead, with a number of sizable wooden pulleys running along its length here and there. Bearing housings supporting this oil-glistening line-shaft were numerous, each one with an obvious oiler hanging from the bearing support, one using a pump-action aspect similar to some I had once done for home use before coming here. The pulleys tended to have bearing housings on each side of them in addition to the others I could see.

“I hope I can get a thicker species of that oil, as that stuff works better for machines than anything, and it lasts good, too, especially for things like this.” Here, he pointed to a machine that superficially resembled some that I had seen before – many years ago. Unlike those, this one was clean, save for a lack of paint and a thin freshly applied film of oil. I could see an obvious 'oil-rag' laying on the machine.

The machine itself was obviously very old, with a lot of replacement parts made over a period of many years.

“What is this?” I asked. “Is this an 'automatic'?”

“It is,” he said, “and I got three entire shelves of tool-sets for it, most of 'em older than me – and the newer parts they made as replacements for those what wore out are all older than I am, too.” Pause, then, “It runs off of that overhead there, though it's slow enough for running to make me want to grab ahold of my teeth and feel 'em.”

“What?” I asked.

“Come on, now, I bet you've done that a time or three,” he said. “Something ever get under your hide so bad it feels like your teeth want to escape from your mouth and hide somewhere?”

“Yes, and so have I,” said Sarah. “That is the best – and largest – buggy I have ever seen, even if I can tell it is not a freight-wagon.”

“For size, no,” said the man. “For loads – it could handle eight full-odor mules, and carry loads that would bust most wagons I've seen that were run by freighters.” Pause, then, “I'm glad the man getting it is no freighter, and I'm more glad yet he wants nothing to do with witches, least right now he don't.”

“If he receives a double-barreled inquest?” I asked. “A huge bribe in one hand, and a fowling piece in the other?”

“That might get him to go along, but then again, it takes a lot of stone to tell a witch to go to hell if he's got you covered with a double-barreled gun near enough to a roer for each bore to make no difference, and each o' them barrels having a smallish handful of stiff shot plated with copper and then nickel.” Pause, then, “I heard tell there might be a way to use up gray-metal and make something good out of it. You know anything about it?”

“Y-yes, and I should be able to run some as soon as I get back,” I said. “It wants a special furnace, so as to avoid trouble with fumes and sickness.”

“You need help with both o' those things, and no mistake,” he said. “I will too, soon enough, but I ain't half as sick as you are.” Pause, then, “you need to be seen by what them in that Valley call a doctor, and not a common one, but a good one, one like they got in this mountain over there.”

“You've seen this mountain?” I asked.

“Ain't been inside it, but I have gotten close enough to it that I can tell you roughly where it is if you show me a map of the place,” he said. “There's a lot of entrances, and it's a big place, or so they tell me, and them people living there don't get remotely close to those older sections, on account of what gets onto them then if they do.”

“Whites?” I asked.

“They call those things that, but they're spirits, and that much I know,” said the man. “Now this thing here. How badly worn is it – it need some grinding, or can I just lap it in, or does it need taking entirely to bits?”

“How close your parts holding to one another?” I asked. “If your parts are really consistent, and the only differences you find are as your tooling goes dull, then your machine is probably tight enough to do the jobs you run on it.” Pause, then, “if you have good bits, though – that helps a lot.”

“Most of what I use is Heinrich steel, leastways if I can get it,” said the man. “Some of what I got is marsh-steel, but I heard there was something better than both of those put together coming out now, and this steel that came for this buggy told me who might know of it.” Pause, then, “would you?”

“He would, and they've but teemed their very first batches, so it is still something of an experiment,” said Sarah. “This knife is made of one of those first batches, and it is sharper than a razor.”

“It get used recently?” asked the man, as he drew the knife partly from the scabbard and noted its rainbow-gleaming edge – who then looked at me. “You'll use yours today, I'll warrant, if you've not already done so.” Pause, then, “if you can get me some of that steel, especially that stuff what will cut a file cleanly and not go dull, I want some, as every tool I got can use that stuff, even that stuff I don't use much.”

“And over here, we have one of your lathes,” I said. “No marmots in evidence, as they don't manage the revolutions nor the torque you need, and hence, you have your own engines, this being one of them connected to the lathe by a system of pulleys and a flat three-ply elk-leather belt.”

“Yep, started with a smaller Machalaat engine, then upgraded every part in it so it that thing was utterly new, and now it turns three times the speed of the original.” Pause, then, “it might be a small one as such engines go, but it likes that motor oil, and I change out the rag over the drip-screen every morning when I top it up.”

“Uh, how large is this engine?” I asked – which I then retracted, as then I saw the thing.

“About half the dimensions in every aspect compared to one I've seen, only yours is t-triple-expansion,” I murmured, “and theirs are not, and then this one looks up to actually working well.”

“Yep, three holes, small, medium, and large, with a boiler like some I've seen drawings of,” he said. “They do decent bronze here, but it ain't near as good as what comes out of Roos, so I've been scheming to get together an order for a buggy-load of ingot so's to run it here.”

“Start with your own scrap copper, melt under a reducing cover-flux in a crucible, add the tin as a copper-tin master alloy with a few old silver coins thrown in to give increased fluidity, and then you'll have a suitable alloy,” I said. “Oh, pound your molds firm, vent them with a wire thoroughly, and paint their insides carefully with blacking mixed with aquavit, and run lots of sprues, risers, and shrink-lumps so you don't get any voids in your castings. Doing all of that helps a lot.”

“And use Joosten's sand,” said Sarah. “Screen it well, toss it regularly, moisten it every time you toss it, and then make sure no animals bury their dung in it, as that ruins castings worse than if a witch used your sand-pile as a sinkhole.”

“Hence one chief reason for a sand-house,” I said. “Keeps the witches out of the place, and the same for the stray animals.”

“Now if I do that, will it help keep my castings good more often?” he asked.

“It does with mine, but I tend to take no chances with those unless I have to,” I said. “Oh, run your bronze under a reducing fire, go slow with heating it to a suitable pouring temperature – higher for thin castings, lower for the thick ones – use burnt-coal mixed with charcoal for a fuel, and then use the right kind of furnace, one that runs with minimal forced draft, so you're less likely to go oxidizing.” Pause, “for bronze, the one I use needs none.

I paused, this to walk across the shop, and here, I found the first honest-to-God foundry other than the one where I worked and another that had not been used in close to a millennium. I took one look at the tools hanging on the walls nearest the 'heap', then asked, “where did you get these?”

“They came with the shop, and I never did a casting before I came here,” he said. “The others that are normally here are out today, as they've got outriding to do and this job here is done.”

“Do they chant at this stuff?” I asked, looking fixedly at the tools. “No matter. This man has enough trouble without tools that work so badly they could make me spit.” I then spat, “you stinking fetishes, go churn the guts of a pack of witches, and give this man tools he can do foundry-work with and get good castings!”

The tools – and much else in the shop – vanished with a thunder and a roar, and the shop filled with dust, haze, what might have been faint threads of soot; and faintly, I could hear screaming and clanking chains as if a multitude were thrashing in torment. I headed toward that noise, my hand grasping the hilt of my sword, then as I came upon a room yet locked and needing a special key, I removed that one evidence key from its hiding place on the long cord around my neck, and put it into the round keyhole of the lock.

The lock went to dust and rust as the key went through the lock and into the space beyond it, and as I leaped back, the key in my hand, the door itself went to a door-shaped block of wormy sawdust – sawdust that then mounded itself upon the floor in dust and ashes. Keeping my body outside of the just-opened room, I looked inside: and there, I saw, row upon compounded row of long room-width 'stocks', each slot with its neck-and-arms bar holding down a dusty skeleton in place.

Every metal piece in this room was of Dead-Iron, for each such piece I saw in an eyeblink of time flashed its chiseled and blood-inked placard redly:

This Iron Be Truly Dead,

And All It toucheth becometh fully Dead.

Upon the walls, each of them that I could see from my current position in the doorway, lay myriad instruments of torture, each and every one of them glowing redly amid the glaring strobes of color common to truly powerful rune-curses.

The walls in this room were covered with such curses; not an inch remained unmarked with the blood of innocents; and with each such blood-writ curse, the effect upon the area – the whole of this rock-bound enclave – was multiplied.

What seemed eons ago, I had once wondered – perhaps during a nightmare – about the use of stocks here at one time or another, they being both historical and medieval where I came from – and medieval ways of life seemed the preferred ways and means of witches. I now knew about stocks: they were the tools of witches, the dire tools of torture that witches were so in love with, and I knew both why they had been used and who had 'invented' the damned things I was seeing here.

“No, can't break Imhotep's main curses right now, but I can do the ones in this room today,” I said. “All of you things made by witches: witches want things like you. Go and bother them, and put something useful to us here in their place.”

The thundering roar and blast tossed me back such that I rolled on the floor past another lathe, then a faint noise, that sort of plop that came with 'arrival', echoed within my ringing ears as I got to my feet. Behind me, I could hear three voices speaking of fetishes and how they behaved.

“There were a lot of those in there,” I said. “Now let's see what was left for us instead.”

The first step in this room now showed a difference beyond comprehension: before, the floor had been hard-packed dirt over a species of brick used as a foundation. No longer: now, the floor was smooth enough to be a touch slippery, its color a soft yet glossy white for ease of cleaning. Where the stocks had been freighted with skeletons laying in the dust of centuries, there were now neatly-painted shelves, this of the same soft yet glossy white.

“Why that color?” I thought, as I went inside, this with fear and trepidation. I glanced at a bare wall, and saw written for an instant in that unmistakable bluish-white 'color of lightning' “this finish is especially easy to clean, and it repells dust and dirt.”

Where before, the room had been filled with the skeletal evidence of Imhotep's fondness for torturing people, there were now neat rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves; and when I went to the very first shelf, I gasped at what I saw.

All was in a most-definite order, neatly boxed and categorized. I turned, running to the doorway, its door now vanished.

“Come here quickly,” I squeaked, my voice ringing like that of a giant bat. “This room has a lot of stuff you really need!”

I waited not for their coming: I went back inside, found the first shelf, and looked at the first box I found. Printed on the top of the 'varnished' box was the following, this as a picture and as a legend: “REX A2A, High Speed Tool bits.”

“Not something I can make right now, correct?”

“With what you currently have, not really,” said the soft voice. “You can get close, however.” Pause, then, “they can make that kind of steel across the sea right now, and that variety is widely acknowledged to be the best type in their older documentation.”

That name?”

“Is from an intercept,” said the soft voice. “Nearly all of the names they have for tool steel come from intercepts of one kind or another, but that formulation is among the hardest to make well without the right equipment, and also the hardest to form to shape, so much so that the usual in the past was to press-form the bits to size in close-tolerance cermet forging dies and then 'grind' them to shape by first electrical-discharge machining and then diamond-lapping – and hence bits like you have there were renowned for their ability to take and keep an edge.” Pause, then, “notice the numeral between the 'A' letters, though?”

I nodded, this as the others came at a dead run and tried to fit all at once through a doorway that would have readily passed one of the men.

“That batch was one like you'll be making in the foreseeable future, and people will fight over those whenever and wherever they should show.”

“Why?” I asked. “Don't tell me – so infernally wear-resistant that they never need more than light honing, and that but seldom?”

“Try more like, 'they cut everything as if they were of the best carbide, you cannot chip or break them, and they never wear out – unless you abuse them horribly',” said the soft voice. “At the speeds used here, those bits there essentially will not go dull, and they're sharper than a straight-razor, so they'll take hefty cuts at 'water-power' speeds.”

“Just the thing for making oil refinery gear that works,” I murmured appreciatively. “Now, did his foundry get updated?”

“Go look at it, but first show the two of them that box,” said the soft voice. “That size there is fit for automatics, and he's got enough spares of them to outfit half a dozen more machines like the one he currently has.”

While the others went into the 'room of treasures', I went back out into the shop. Where before, many plinths had held machines that were disused due to a lack of knowledge or a degree of wear that rendered them useless, now there were new machines; while those two machines that I had seen earlier were now markedly updated. More importantly, each machine in the entire room had, on a pallet next to it, an obvious electric motor, as well as several fiberglass bins. I lifted up the lid on one of the bins and was astonished to see an obvious 'CNC head', the device used to actually program and control such a machine.

“He's going to really be surprised here,” I thought, as I could hear laughter coming from 'the room of treasures'. “He'll be able to do much better work now, but those other two people need to be straightened out bad – as they'll think all of this stuff to be witch-gear and wish to ruin all of it.” Pause, then, “they're so ignorant they'll think these letters here are runes, when they're obviously not.”

Seeing Hebrew lettering on machinery told me 'there is only one person who could have caused it to come here, and that person is one we're supposed to cling to with all we have, not hate with a passion'.

“There is a high probability that they will not be coming back here alive,” said the soft voice. “That party found some witches, and are now engaged in a pitched battle with a sizable group of second-kingdom witches.”

Another party of those thugs?”

“This was another spy-group, and they have no knowledge of their leaders' death at this time,” said the soft voice. “One helper who worked here has been hit high up in the gut with a ball from a ten-bore roer, and the other was centered in the chest by a load of stiff shot from a double-eight fowling piece like that one you once fired in the fifth kingdom house proper, though at a range where such a load seldom kills reliably.”

“Then they're probably dying,” I said. I then recalled both of these people were supposedly marked.

“One of them is in very bad shape indeed, and the other soon will be, as neither man took cover like the others in the group did when the point and second man alerted the patrol.” Pause, then, “and hubris is punished more in those marked – greater as to severity and greater as to swiftness – should they develop it to the degree those two men did.”

“So it's just him now,” I murmured. I then noticed the 'foundry', and walked over to it.

“No sand-house, so they got to water and fork this stuff...” I then noticed a large number of neatly-parked dusty rows of wooden barrels, easily three times the maximum number I had ever seen of this type of Georg's. I looked at the well-worn top of the nearest, and made out the letters 'Joosten's' through the layers of fine dust that seemed to have etched themselves into the worn wood of the barrel's top.

“Least they have good sand, rather than that stuff they dug out of the gardens here,” I muttered. “Probably way too much dung in it for it to work right.”

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “Now, look at these tools. Notice anything familiar?”

I did, and nearly screamed. In almost every possible way, they were copies of mine. The only differences I could see were that there were a range of sizes of molding tools, much as if this person and his helper...

“He will need a helper, won't he?” I asked softly, as I looked over a trio of tinned brass riddles, these coarse, medium, and fine.

“That group coming back will have several wounded in addition to those two that are likely to die before they are brought back,” said the soft voice. “One of them had a ball hit his foot, so he's going to lose two toes, and since he's a young man and has wanted to do this work, he'll be inclined to listen and learn, unlike those two that were here.”

“Hence this buggy is...”

“Nearly the entirely of it is the work of a few artisans here, this man doing about ninety percent of the machining, with his helpers tasked with doing those things they could do well enough to avoid causing him more trouble than needed,” said the soft voice. “That man who returns, should he survive the next few days, will be worth three times what the two of them were, and that within a week of his return.”

“If he survives?” I asked.

“He'll need to spend a good deal of time praying, much as Anna did with her toe,” said the soft voice. “He's not eaten grass in hell.”

As I wandered over the rest of the shop – there were now three furnaces like the one I used here, which meant ready production of bronze, and with the use of a small blower, crucibles of cast iron – I noted more and more the aspect of 'this place makes Georg's look really small' but also 'this place is really well-equipped, even if this equipment looks older than it really is'.”

“It is no longer 'old' as to wear or capability,” said the soft voice. “All of the worn and substandard parts have been either built up to specification size and finished properly, or they have been replaced with the right ones – and in most cases, the supplies needed to fully automate the place are present also, once some generators are present to power it.” Pause, then “most of those will be sited up on the river-bank in a blockhouse that is currently disused near their shipping area, and the power lines will come down into here to provide power and lighting to those locations that need it – and this location will be one of the chief consumers, once it's fully set up.”

“Not all locations here?” I asked.

“There will be a lot more of those improved titanium lanterns handy within a month of your return, including several models that are not currently being made overseas.”

“One fit for farmers?” I asked. “Big domed reflector, small 'bulb', double-sized tank so it needs little attention save now and then while said farmer, like, uh, Paul, is out in his barn working his mash-tubs and distilleries? Esther rubbing down the cattle and 'soothing' them?”

“Those will be most-popular here and in many other places, as they will also work well for home use,” said the soft voice. “It isn't every day to have a lantern able to imitate 'common' lights in the range of forty to over a hundred watts that can run that long on a fill of fuel.”

“And hence one only need fuel them up now and then, unlike the current models, which need a lot of attention and need turning down a whole lot to avoid causing blindness.” Pause, then, “I think that 'new' type of lantern will be a huge seller.”

“Given those currently running the place over there have contrived a high degree of artificial scarcity so as to make those lanterns an exclusive matter and maintain the highest possible prices that their market will bear,” said the soft voice, “you're absolutely right.” Pause, then, “they might need to move three times the number of lanterns, but they'll actually make more doing that than they do right now.”

“And then, a compact model for the usual kitchen,” I said, thinking of where we lived as an example. “Two globes for that one – one that imitates a tallow candle's light-spectrum, and another, one which makes the lamp think itself a sixty watt bulb when turned up 'good' and a twenty-five watt one when it's backed off.”

“Those will also sell especially well, mostly in the first kingdom, as those will be 'kitchen' lanterns,” said the soft voice. “That candle-spectrum globe will work especially well – just put a thin piece of gauzy cloth in front of your parlor window, use that candle-spectrum globe, keep it turned down to a moderate level, and the vast majority of witches and those who will wish to be witches will think you're just burning a lot of stinky tallow candles so as to have enough light to see by.” Pause, then, “they'll need to have inside knowledge to know otherwise, that or come inside your house and find one, to actually know better.”

I then finally turned my attention to the buggy, and here, I was surprised, both at the color – a dark subdued gloss of the wooden portions, a multitude of thin yet well-made darkened iron pieces for reinforcements in strategic locations, thin 'iron' straps running the length of the bed, and then the wheels themselves, these capped with darkened brass 'hubs', each hub secured by a castellated nut.

“Sealed, mostly, and using tapered roller bearings,” I said. “This thing's got enough wood to look more or less conventional, but it is not a conventional buggy.”

“Not even that,” said the soft voice, as I looked under it to see triple leaf springs supporting both axles. These also were reinforced with sheet iron, this blackened and screwed on with a vast number of small blackened screws. Those I had seen earlier were a primer for these, which showed the full work where they were much less readily seen.

“Did my recipe come here?”

“Yes, and that gunsmith's shop is glad for it, as now they can turn out 'finished' pieces at but modest added cost,” said the soft voice. “This shop got it first, however, and one of his back rooms now has the needed vessels for darkening the parts he makes. This buggy was his first application of that formula, in fact.”

“Night deliveries?” I asked, as I admired the dark-stained wood of the thing. It was a most-handsome rig, one that a witch might well wish to steal.

“No, not this one,” said the soft voice. “Not nearly ornate enough to suit a witch, too well constructed, and more, it's all business – as in Georg will be much in the market for a seat-pad when he begins to run it, as otherwise he will have a very sore rear.” Pause, then, “I would expect, however, to have some of the local freighters get many ideas from it, and those that can will wish to have their rigs done likewise.”

“They don't haul heavy metallic things, do they?” I asked. “Lots of such heavy things? Need to really make time while hauling substantial loads?”

“They do need to do the last, and that while carrying heavy loads,” said the soft voice. “A rig done like this one would not only handle a third more weight for a given size than even the best-maintained rigs with sleeved wheels, but the team pulling it would manage ten to twenty miles a day more – and if you're a freighter, that means your income is increased to no small degree.”

“His horses?” I asked.

“You'll be seeing them next,” said the soft voice. “This part is the machine shop. The smith's shop is next door.”