Evil never sleeps.
Dinnertimes normally made for earnest devouring of food intermingled with talk, but in this instance, the order was reversed. I had bathed, put on clean clothing, and then first assembled the heating lamp, which I had hidden with a sack; I had then assembled the four knives, after first cleaning their pieces carefully; and had begun 'final-fitting' one example, this being where the wood and brass pieces were matched to the knives. That needed work with an assortment of files, and then time with a leather strap.
“The snow finally came today,” said Anna, “so now, getting wood will be difficult, and travel more so.”
“But it has been snowing,” I said. “Or has it?”
“That was the warning,” said Hans. “Now, it is no warning, but the real stuff, and there will be a good layer on the ground tomorrow. We finished the bathing room just in time.”
“And you'd best think about using it tonight, Hans,” said Anna. “That stuff you made didn't clean up completely.”
“Stuff?” I asked.
“He made some more of that bullet lubricant,” said Anna. “I might like it on certain parts of cabinets, but I do not much care for it on him or his clothing.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“It went up on me,” said Hans. “I tried making a bigger batch of it, and it dumped about half of it in the lab when I was attempting to cook it down so it was smooth.”
I stopped in mid-sentence, for I now knew why Hans had come to grief. He had gotten 'greedy', used an old pot of Anna's, and tried to make a year's supply at a time. The resulting mixture became overheated due to his 'relatively' poor stirring, and spat a thick gout into the air, much of which landed on him and his clothing.
“Was I what?” asked Hans.
“How big of a container did you use?” I asked. “Was this a pot that Anna 'condemned' because of its age and inability to become properly clean?”
Hans nodded, then Anna looked at him. I knew an eruption would ensue.
“Hans, you didn't,” she said in an irritated tone of voice. “I'd set that pot aside for making vlai.”
“I did not know that,” said Hans. “I thought you had tossed that thing, as it was set aside in the basement.”
“The bottom needs fixing,” said Anna, “as it has become too thin for regular use. It will work as it is for vlai.”
“What is vlai?” I thought.
“That is a tasty dish that is good for parties,” said Hans. Anna seemed to not hear him.
“Vlai is one of the very few things that can use fresh milk,” said Anna, “and it needs to be boiled with eggs and carefully sweetened with sugar-tree sap. Then, once it has curdled, it is dosed with spices, and then mixed with new-fallen snow until it is the consistency of cheese-spread. It is only possible to make it during the dead of winter, and that if one can find a wet cow or two.”
“Custard?” I gasped.
“What did you say?” asked Anna. “Ku-Ku... I cannot say that word!”
“It sounds like you were making custard,” I said. “It's thick, sweet, yellowish, and quite rich, and the flavor is delicious. It also makes me deathly ill.”
“Now how does vlai make you sick like that?” asked Hans. “When sick people are able to eat things harder than beer, vlai is one of the things they are given, as it is the softest cheese there is.”
“I am not certain about vlai,” I said. “I am quite certain about custard. If I ate more than a very small amount of it, I was miserable and in the privy for quite some time afterward.”
“Still, we will wish to make vlai if possible, or failing that, get it from the Public House,” said Anna. “I'd like to see you eat a dish of it, as it might help you.”
I then thought to fetch the heating lamp, and brought the thing covered by its bag to the table. There, I passed it to Anna, who gingerly opened the bag.
“Now what is this?” she asked, as she looked inside. “It looks like part of a fifth kingdom lantern.”
“It is not one of those,” I said. “Remember when I spoke of a heating lamp? That's the first example. Now I will really need to get working on a distillery, as that thing will guzzle aquavit like the people at the shop drink beer.”
“Or like you go through cider,” said Hans. “They are glad they have so many pears, as they have been pressing those things steady, and you get fresh-pressed pear juice when you do not get that from the apples.”
“They set aside a pair of new barrels for fresh cider,” said Anna. “That will prevent fermentation for quite some time.”
“And the... How do they get the stuff to ferment?”
“They put it in the old barrels, after cleaning them,” said Anna. “I would expect them to be cider-freezing within days, and we will want a jug or two of that stuff for Festival Week.”
“Oh, no,” I gasped. The horror of abusive drunks seemed at hand once more.
I seemed to not be heard, for Hans took the lamp downstairs and returned with it a minute later. He set the thing down on the table, and only when I looked close did I notice he had lit it. The flame, like that of a jeweler's lamp, was barely visible.
“Hans, why are you trying to set the table on fire?” asked Anna.
“I am not doing that,” he said. “I am showing you this thing. Put your hand near it, and see how much heat it is making.”
Anna did so, and nearly screeched, saying, “Hans, that would cook a pot of stew faster than the stove!”
“Yes, and it is not turned up, either,” said Hans, as he adjusted the wick up and down, with the flame following his actions. “This works nice. I think people will want these things, if they are not too much.”
“I think I might make a small stand for that one,” I said. “I don't much like the idea of putting legs on those boilers.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“What would I make them out of?” I asked. “Copper is too soft, and sheet brass, especially in those sizes, is expensive. Stovepipe-iron is good for a lot more than just stovepipes, and collapsible cooking stands sounds like one more thing I can make.”
I paused, then said archly, “now I hope you can handle a distillery soon, as that type of seam was the last part I needed to learn about.”
Once the heating lamp was extinguished with the snuffer I had provided – that portion covered the entire wick-holding assembly, and doubled as a cap to preclude leakage – Hans set the thing on the workbench. I helped with removing the dishes, then returned to my work at the bench. I had knives to complete, and as I cleaned up their final 'inconsistencies', I could hear muttering. I looked up and to my right to see Anna.
“Those things look strange,” she said. “What are they?”
“Knives, dear,” I said. “Haven't you seen these before?”
“Not that size, nor that shape,” said Anna. “Why are they shaped that way?”
“I wanted to try this size out for quite a while, actually,” I said, “and I'm finally getting to where I can think about finishing those two machines that are left tomorrow. I might actually finish at least one of them then, and... Will we be going wooding this weekend?”
“We might,” said Anna. “I only had the one pair of knit stuff, and it needed extra washing last time, so I had to stay home and do that.”
“Would you like to try one like this?” I asked.
Anna gingerly reached toward one of the knives, then held it. The handle seemed almost 'dainty' compared to the usual size, as it wasn't much bigger than that for the smaller knives I used.
“If it had the rear metal part, I would want one,” she said. “These don't have those.”
“They were the first ones,” I said, “and come to think of it, for one I want to carry, I think that is a good idea, that and a thicker guard. I think these will go in a little surprise.”
I paused, then said, “do you know where I might borrow a fork for an afternoon?”
“We could go to the Public House tomorrow, and you could use one there,” said Anna. “I think it's about time, actually. You've been working far too hard lately, and you need a good meal.”
“I wanted to trace one out for a pattern,” I said. “I guess I could do that there – that, and the spoons.”
“Spoons are easy to do,” said Anna. “We have those.”
“What about forks?” I asked. “Suppose I make some of those?”
Anna looked at me with huge eyes, then said, “how?”
“Would tinned brass work?” I asked.
“They might,” said Anna. “I'd try them, at least. Why?”
“Big sheets of brass are rare at Georg's,” I said, “unlike smaller sheets. I have something in mind for some smaller forks and spoons, actually, and it might take me a few days to make it happen. I'll need to do at least one or two bronze castings, perhaps – no, perhaps not. I have some spares left over from that oven.”
The gear finished up early the next day, as did the crank-arm for the buffing wheel, and I was able to turn the 'buffer' at an astonishing speed. While it was noisier than the grinder – at least, when the grinder wasn't actually grinding on metal – I suspected much of the noise was due to the gears being less than perfect. I wondered how to get a buffing wheel of some kind, until one of the apprentices found an ancient apron in even worse condition than mine.
“Perfect,” I said. “Now I can cut this one up and make a buffing wheel.”
The 'wheel' took but an hour of cutting and then riveting, and once attached and 'loaded' with 'lapping compound', I tried using it. It made the straps I'd used seem worthless, and within moments, I had 'cleaned up' a pot that normally took several times longer and much more effort.
I had also spattered my apron with dirty sludge.
While the sludge cleaned off with a rag, as did the pot, I found that Georg had gone. Since it seemed about time for the morning guzzle, I put the pot and its twin on his desk, with a slate indicating 'before' and 'after'.
“That should fetch him,” I thought. “Now I wonder if the others can do buffing.”
The display upon Georg's desk attracted the attention of both men, and while I was showing them on a second just-finished pot, Georg returned with a pair of jugs. I saw him in my peripheral vision, then as he walked back to his desk, he did a spectacular 'double-take' that nearly put him on the floor.
“What gives with these pots?” he shouted.
“Come over here and see,” said Johannes. “I think we might manage this part.”
Within minutes, I learned that while their overconfidence was annoying enough to be troubling, the truth of the matter was they could indeed buff pots passably. I found that it cut my buffing time roughly in half, and my labor by three-fourths to have them do the pots, as I had to carefully inspect and touch them up, then finish them at the bench with a strap. There were places where the wheel didn't reach.
I now had a drop-hammer to work on, and here, I needed to forge a fair number of parts. I was glad for the billets of well-cooked 'blister steel' that had accumulated, and between pattern-welding that material into the needed rough-forged parts, I cut several likely-looking sheet brass pieces that might make smaller spoons, as well as two that might work for graters.
I gave each man his knife just prior to lunch, and they both seemed grateful, as well as humbled. Neither had had a particularly good knife beforehand, and now they both had good ones.
“I think I had best watch how you do your forging,” said Gelbhaar, “as I think all I can manage is that soft stuff.”
“Does that forge best on top of the fire, or buried among the coals?” I asked.
“It gets harder to forge if you bury it, especially if you must forge the piece a lot,” said Johannes. “I was taught that only under certain conditions was I to bury my parts as you do, and...”
“Only foul-mouthed drunken curse-chanting wretches were supposed to do that,” I said. “Correct?”
“I wasn't told it in so few words, or that directly, but I think you are right,” said Johannes.
“Are you willing to learn?” I asked. “It isn't that hard, actually, especially if you start with that blistered stuff. That's actually easier to weld, if you do it right.”
“How?” asked Gelbhaar.
“By the time that blistered stuff is ready to be made into knives or things like them,” I said, “It's been folded almost a dozen times, and most of its slag and the other bad things are gone. I think the amount of slag that common metal has makes it much harder to weld.”
With that admission, I began training the two men, much as if they were apprentices, while I showed the apprentices how to 'seam' metal sheets for stovepipes. I suspected the more 'complex' processes were best done in batch mode, with only one step done at a time for a sizable batch.
I was also more than a little surprised to see Georg trying his hand at 'seaming'. Thankfully, he picked that part up fairly quickly.
“Why is it you are running stovepipes when there are no orders for them?” asked Georg. “Is this just to stay busy?”
“Firstly, there aren't orders now,” I said. “There will be orders later, and in numbers. Secondly, this process requires much more care than is common in the shop. Its seeming complexity doesn't help.”
I paused, then looked at the two men's forgings. They were still deeply buried in the charcoal.
“Because of that, and the saving of time and trouble,” I said, “batch-mode seemed a good choice.”
“How is that?” asked Georg.
“First, it saves time,” I said. “I know it does with me, and I suspect doing each piece the whole way through before starting another has an even bigger difference for others. Secondly, it breaks a complex-seeming process down into a succession of simpler ones. They look easier that way, because they are.”
Georg nodded. I hope he understood what I was trying to do.
“Finally, trying to learn when people are clamoring for a product is a recipe for scrap, trouble, and angry customers,” I said. “It's better to learn now, and then have stovepipe pieces all done and ready to go when people come in with money to buy them. They'll like that.”
I took my student's ledger to the Public House that evening, and there, traced out the fork I had the use of. While I waited for the food to arrive, I drew further details of the cookware that had occurred to me, then jotted other ideas about the clutch and other parts of the drop-hammer. That tool would need perhaps another two full days of work to become usable, unlike some of the travel cookware I had planned.
Our walk home from the Public House was a slow stepping through a white wonderland, for the powdery snow was gently sifting down around us. For some reason, I had not noticed it at all in the morning, but the roughly inch-deep powdery stuff had been packed firm along the roadside path. The stones still showed clearly amid the all-covering blanket of white, and looking up into the sky showed a faintly fuzzy darkness, one where no stars showed, and where the moon hid itself utterly. I suspected thick snow-pregnant clouds to be the culprits.
Wooding the next morning showed snow everywhere, and here, I was astonished at the buggy. Hans managed driving the thing passably, even though it tried sliding around like a ball on a skating rink, and once at a woodlot, we all set out after the wood.
The snow muffled our steps, and I suspected it would also muffle the steps of game. The trees had prevented much of the snow from hiding the sticks, though there was still a marked dusting of the stuff on the ground between them. Anna remained by the buggy with both a musket and the 'ax', and I could hear her steadily chopping on the overlong pieces of firewood Hans and I brought in.
A sudden hush seemed to gather silence to itself, and I stood up with my load of wood. Something was going to happen, and as I took my first step back toward the buggy, I heard the boom of a musket, followed by crazed screaming. I ran out of the woodlot as fast as I could.
Anna had shot a deer just behind the shoulder, and the deer was chasing her around the buggy with mayhem in mind and its spiky horns close to the ground. I wondered where the ax was. It seemed buried, for some reason, and as I knelt down and unloaded my wood, I drew out the revolver – and when the deer came around again, I fired at its head.
The shot seemed to get the deer's 'attention', for it left off chasing Anna and looked around to see who else was trying to drill holes in its hide. It seemed befuddled, so much so that when Anna crept up behind it and sliced on one of its rear hocks with the ax, the deer took roughly a second to respond. I thought it would chase her again, but instead, the animal's legs abruptly gave way and it fell to the ground with a thud.
As I pocketed the revolver and picked up my load of wood, Anna came running toward me with the gore-stained ax. I wondered why she was doing so, until she flung the thing to the ground and hugged me for dear life.
“That deer was trying to kill me,” she shrieked, “and you stopped it.”
“I distracted it, you mean,” I said, as I began untangling her arms. “Every deer I've gone after seemed to have a very bad attitude. Do they usually chase you?”
“No, they don't,” said Anna. “That was the first one in a long time.”
After Anna picked up the ax, I resumed moving toward the buggy, and I thought to look for Hans. I was more than a little surprised to find him working on the deer.
“What happened to it?” asked Anna.
“I think he distracted it good,” said Hans, “as he put a bullet up its nose.”
“So it acquired a sudden allergy to lead,” I mumbled. “That sounds like it drew it off of Anna long enough for her to get clear.”
“Yes, and it is leaking blood and gray stuff out of its ears,” said Hans. “I think you scrambled its brains, and it did not know it was dead at first.”
The 'sizable' deer meant for a long-seeming walk home to arrive with soaked-feeling shoes. Those went out in the bathroom, and I began working at the workbench. Here, I transferred my drawings of forks to sheet brass, then scribed the curved portions a trifle longer.
“At least, now I can use that jeweler's anvil,” I thought.
It wasn't the only thing I could use, for the first one I set aside as a pattern for sheet-brass forks; after cutting out the second blank, I began to carefully tap it into shape. I needed to anneal the brass frequently, and here, the heating lamp was a vital accessory.
“I wonder if I can harden small parts with this thing?” I thought. It seemed worth a try in the future.
After bending up eight forks – four for the kits I had in mind, and four for the house – I went down in the basement and fetched some tin. I set up for tinning under the fume hood.
“Now what is it you have there?” asked Hans.
“Forks,” I said, as I showed him one. “I'm going to try tinning these, and then we can test them out.”
The sizzle and smoke of tallow followed by flux was only exceeded when I wiped off the excess tin to give gleaming silvery forks, and after washing them thoroughly, I laid four of them down by Hans. He looked at them in a matter that made for wondering, until he took them in hand and ran for the stairs. I suspected why, even as I refilled the lamp with aquavit.
“I thought this thing would be thirstier,” I mumbled. “It uses less than I thought it would.”
I was met at the top of the stairs by Anna, who was waving the forks around in a manner that caused wondering.
“Yes?” I asked. “You like those?”
“I would be careful about these,” said Anna, “as unless Georg charges twenty guilders for each one, he will sell them by the bagful.”
“Let's test them first, and see how they work before you praise them overmuch,” I said. “Besides, those are not intended for routine, uh, table use. They seem a bit light compared to the ones at the Public House.”
“Then what are they intended for?” asked Anna.
“I had an idea in that volcano about cookware for traveling,” I said, “and those are an experiment in that direction. I've got some other things brewing...”
“Yes, and what would those be?” asked Hans. “I hope we can use that lamp thing for beer, as it will help a lot.”
“Perhaps I should make the stand first,” I said. “I might be able to do that this afternoon, if I can get a sheet of stovepipe-metal and some pipe-rivets.”
The stand took but little time to cut and bend the pieces needed, with the top being a piece of somewhat heavier sheet metal I had found in a box of supplies. Stove-pipe rivets peened readily on the jeweler's anvil, so much so that I was amazed it hadn't been marked when I finished the stand. It was roughly an hour or so after lunch when I had the stand made.
“What is that thing?” asked Anna, when I placed the finished article on the table.
“A cooking stand,” I said. “This will support the pot with the heating lamp under it.”
But why is it that way?” she asked.
“It folds for easy packing,” I said. “Also, it's intended to be fairly light while still being durable.”
Anna picked it up, then folded the legs. She began shaking her head, then said, “I wish we'd had one of these when on trek, as the usual means is a lot harder to use, a lot heavier, and much less good. I'd best get the things ready to do the beer.”
With the added source of heat – the lamp needed to be turned down, as otherwise, the wort boiled over in a frightful hurry – beer-making went a bit smoother, and finished quicker. We'd used a good deal more malt than usual, for some reason, and after jugging the stuff – we filled eight jugs – Hans said, “now, I think we need to go to that one second-hand store again. They might have more lead.”
“Monday?” I asked.
“No, today,” said Hans. “I've heard tell they have something special in, and I sent away for it a long time ago.”
What Hans was going to fetch was a mystery, or so I thought as the two of us set out. I was surprised to find that he also had one of the cloth cloaks – it seemed identical to mine, save in the tailoring department – and as we drove, I thought to ask why the matter seemed so 'secret'. The lateness of the day – perhaps an hour or so before it would begin to become 'dark' – made me glad I had taken two of the small lanterns.
“These are some chemicals I need to get,” said Hans, “and they are hard to get up here, especially if you want the best stuff. Albrecht can get some of these things, but after hearing about those people being after him, I used another way.”
“What are they?” I asked.
One of them is aqua fortis,” said Hans, “and the other is called liquid death. They are both bad trouble unless you know what to do with them.”
“What do you do with them?” I asked.
“Those thimble things,” said Hans. “I am almost out of the stuff needed to make them, and it seems that word has gotten around about those you made.”
“I need to make more?” I said.
“Yes, though not too many,” said Hans. “I would guess twenty to thirty a week over what you might need for your use. Then, there are the parts for friction igniters, and the chemicals those take.”
“The secrecy?” I asked, as I looked around. I wasn't certain what I was looking for, but the situation seemed to warrant a higher degree of vigilance than was usual.
“The usual source for all of those things is the fifth kingdom,” said Hans, “and they do not like you getting your stuff from places other than those they like.”
“Are there any such places around here?” I asked. “I want to stay clear of them.”
“There is one in the king's house,” said Hans. “I've gone there many times. Their chemicals tend to be less good, and their prices high, and they are in a bad section of town where a lot of black-dressed people tend to be.”
Hans paused, then said, “and for what I need to do, less-good chemicals will not work.”
“Do they have ways of finding out?” I asked.
“I have heard tell that those black-dressed people stick together close,” said Hans, “and I suspect they talk to each other some. That means if it happens up here and the ones up here learn of it, then the ones in the fifth kingdom will learn about it soon enough.”
“And they will come up here and cause trouble?” I asked. “Or ask their black-dressed friends?”
“I think the second is more likely,” said Hans. “Albrecht said he had them following him for days when he was bringing your stuff up here, and that is not good.”
The buggy slid and slithered as if alive, even while Hans drove carefully. I looked behind and saw what might have been a wicker basket or two, as well as at least one jug, with all of the food hidden in bags of some kind.
“Hans, how hard would it be for me to get a belt of some kind?”
“I would not worry about one of those,” said Hans, “as Anna has been using that stitching awl to work on one. I think it is for you.”
“And a, uh, bag like you have for your things?” I asked.
“That might take some doing,” said Hans with a tone I could not place. “The leather has been coming back from the deer and elk we have shot, but we have had but little time to do much with it. I hope there will be time during Festival Week, as at least you can sew passably. I am worthless for sewing, and that goes double for cloth.”
“Poking holes with an awl?” I asked.
“I can do that part,” said Hans, “and I can rub tallow on the leather, and cut it to size, but the sewing part itself gives trouble.”
We came to the store at 'dusk', and here, I was astonished, when Hans tapped, the second one had the door open abruptly, much as if the occupants had been waiting expectantly. This time, there was more than the woman we had met before; there was a man to help her, and when Hans and I came in with the baskets and jugs, she and her helper were profusely grateful.
“None of us can cook terribly well,” she said. “Is this dried meat?”
“That, potatoes, carrots, corn meal, bread, and spices,” said Hans. “Gerda is still helping with cooking?”
She nodded, then said, “let us unload those, and we can put those chemicals in them.”
That took less time than I thought it would, though the heft of the basket I had was astonishing. Hans and I put both baskets in the buggy, and then covered them – and to my surprise, we left right away.
“Did you have the money in among the food?” I asked.
“That is the usual method when dealing with them,” said Hans. “If I deal with some other person I know, I put in some extra silver for him.”
“Silver?” I asked.
“He does jewelry,” said Hans, “and he has a fair amount of trouble that way, as many places will not sell to him. Still, if I need to know what is happening in and around the king's house, he is likely to know it, more so than the king himself.”
I wondered for a moment as to why Hans had to be as careful as he was, until I recalled the statement I had made about 'medicines that worked' regarding 'witches' where I came from.
“Is that why?” I asked.
“What is this?” asked Hans.
“I know the people at the shop thought I was a witch,” I said, “because I did things they didn't understand. Is it the same way with medicine or chemistry?”
“Not like it happens with you,” said Hans. “I need good chemicals, they are hard to get, and I need to do what is needed to get them.”
“And those black-dressed people?” I asked.
“Know little about swine and those northern people, and care less yet,” said Hans. “They care a lot about what they want, and they do not like to be flouted.”
“Shouldn't that be 'they only care about what they want'?” I asked “As in little else matters to those people?”
“That might be true for some of them,” said Hans. “A lot of them like bad food and strong drink, too.”
Hans paused, then said, “I think we might want to light those lantern things soon, as it is getting really dark.”
“I hope you can light them,” I said. “I might get sparks reliably, but I still have trouble aiming them.”
Thankfully, Hans lit both candles easily, using a small metal saucer and tinder, along with a pinch of priming powder. The last lit the tinder on the first try, and after touching a tallow candle to the flame, Hans pitched the contents onto the snow. The hiss and sizzle as the flames died seemed a fitting accompaniment to what we were doing, and only when we were again moving did I relax.
My mind rummaged back to the first night I had been here, where every mention of witches seemed to especially conjure them and their bloodstained razor-edged 'killing knives', and again, I seemed to feel the same set of sensations as then. They were out here, watching endlessly for all that might be prey or a source of trouble to their manic dreams, and those black-dressed people – were they witches, or merely thought to be so due to bad behavior, appearance, and other things? – were in contact with them by some vague, shadowy, and nebulous means. 'The trees have eyes, and the bushes have ears' wasn't merely a saying here.
It was the truth.
I was glad when the buggy went in the buggy-way, and the horses went around back. I had charge of one of the baskets, and when I began lugging it in, I was met by Anna.
“Did he get the supplies he needed?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said. “I had no idea it was that much trouble to get that stuff.”
“It is, and it's gotten worse over the last few years,” said Anna. “I would take that stuff down in the basement, so Hans can unpack it.”
I did so, and as I turned to go up the stairs, Hans came down with the other.
“I'm glad you got the heavier one,” he said, “as that one has the liquid death in it. I should have some more of that stuff soon for the thimbles.”
“Didn't you have some...”
“Yes, and I had Paul take it over to Korn,” said Hans. “He was running low, and he had the other things for the tipped shells, at least that batch of them. I heard that another batch is due up here soon.”
“How do they get them up here in this weather?” I asked.
“It is only bad for the last two hundred miles,” said Hans, “and I suspect some are hidden among food and other things traveling north in buggies, and soon up this way, in sleds.”
“You would almost think those black-dressed people wanted those pigs and thugs to kill people,” I spluttered.
Hans looked at me, then said, “rumor has it they do.”
I had the impression that I had been told a frightful secret, one that was very uncommon knowledge, and I said, “that isn't something many know, is it?”
“No, it is not,” said Hans. “Most people just think those black-dressed people look strange, smell bad, and act rude. I think they are witches, especially after hearing about Hieronymus, at least for some of them. That is for that type of rumor.”
Hans paused, then said, “this other rumor I learned from that jeweler at the king's house, and few know of it. Now you do, and that because you asked and there are a lot of witches after you, more so than with him.”
As I helped Hans unpack, I was struck by the number of 'medicine vials', as well as the heft of three of them. Those had turned corks, and when Hans took those away, I asked, “liquid death?”
“It is bad stuff,” said Hans. “It is really strange to look at, though you do not want to look at it close. It has fumes that will kill you dead, and it needs special glassware to do things with it. I'm glad thimbles take so little of that stuff.”
“Aqua fortis?” I asked. I was beginning to wonder as to the names of the chemicals.
“That is in the other basket,” said Hans. “It is in two smaller jugs, and it has bad fumes too.”
After unpacking the remaining supplies – which included five small 'rounds' of lead, and three of tin – Hans handed me the tin, saying, “now this you have for that bearing metal, and tinning pots and things. I would hide it in your stuff here, and only take it over to the shop when you need to.”
“Georg going into those drink-houses?” I asked.
“He might only do that now and then,” said Hans, “but he is gone most rest-days for the first half of the day, and I do not know who he speaks with then. The others, they don't travel more than is common, and they see about as many as is common.”
Sunday after church and 'lessons' – I was not merely doing reading and 'exposition', but now sums; both of them needed help there, even if Anna was somewhat better than Hans – I began making spoons. Those needed a forming block, as well as several small punches and frequent annealing, and again, I made eight of them and tinned them carefully. The rest of the sets, I suspected, would need raising.
“At least I can do that fairly quickly now,” I thought. “Now I wonder how I can get some spices, and more, what kind of spices work well for cooking while on trek... Trek? Why do they call it that?”
The sole answer I had was that of history, that being the Boers and their term for long-distance travel. It was one and the same word as was used here.
I wondered next how to make graters, and here, I found that I needed a special punch and die. I spent much of the remainder of the day making the two of them, and trying the result with a scrap of brass showed a clean impression, even without hardening the metal. I would do that the next day.
In the course of the next two days, I did the raising for the cookware when I wasn't finishing the work on the drop-hammer. I had to make special 'supports', these being of cast bronze with threaded pillars that were attached to the support arm, as well as the cast bronze 'shifting fork' that engaged and disengaged the clutch, with the whole going on the 'ground and hardened' shaft. I was glad the shaft wasn't that long – and gladder yet for the practice regarding barrel-forging mandrels. I suspected hardened ones were most desirable.
The third day of the week meant forging drop-hammer 'dies' and then attaching them. I had some small things to finish on the travel cookware – chiefly, the three water bottles – and then tin those things that still needed tinning.
As I put the finish-filed drop-hammer dies deep into one of the forges, I could hear someone wondering about the water bottles, and when I came back to wire one together for 'soldering', Georg said, “now those are the smallest distilleries I have ever heard of. How will you rivet them?”
“With this stake I made,” I said, “and no, these are not distilleries.”
“Then what are they?” asked Georg.
“Water-bottles,” I said. “The distilleries should come very soon, though.”
“And the drop-hammer?” asked Georg.
“Should be ready for its first test soon,” I said. “I just need to harden its dies, and then mount them.”
I had the dies mounted by the end of lunch. Again, I had taken a shorter lunch, little more than ten minutes, and I had riveted the water bottles carefully. I found that when doing that type of work one really wanted to work in batch mode, as otherwise, one needed to move around an uncommonly large amount. The long thin tweezers, as well as the special stake, were demanded, and feeling the head of a given rivet go into the stake's dimple needed care, patience, and finesse; and once the rivet was seated, a quick blow from a narrow-faced riveting hammer finished the job.
Once all the rivets were seated, however, then came the tricky step, that being 'touching up' the rivets. I needed several light taps to 'flatten out' the individual rivets, with the need to make certain the rivet was entirely seated in the stake's dimple. I suspected that the water-bottles would be good practice for distilleries, as those promised to be much easier. These 'jugs' were not easy.
“Especially with that slip-roller,” I thought. “That will make them much faster.”
After quenching the 'dies' for the drop-hammer in 'oil' – the smoke drove everyone out of the shop except me; I had to then go to a regular forge-bucket and drown the thing the rest of the way – I put them on the edge of a forge while heating some billets of iron. I wanted to try the 'easy' stuff first.
I turned the dies twice, then drowned each at length. After wiping with a tallow-rag, I first mounted the upper die after propping the block up, then the lower die. I then lowered the upper die down on the lower.
By this time, the iron had heated, and I gave clear and explicit instructions: Johannes was to turn the crank his fastest, I would 'tong' the piece of iron, and Gelbhaar would engage and disengage the clutch. I would indicate when to do each step. I then ran the blast in the forge, and as I grabbed the metal with the tongs, I yelled, “start cranking.”
The grunting I heard was staggering to the ears, and the block was near its top when I laid the billet on the lower die.
The clang was unlike any mere hammer-meets-anvil sound I had ever heard. The block abruptly began raising again, such that by the time I'd moved the billet an inch forward, it was time.
Again the thundering clang of the upper die hitting the lower.
Muted coughing. The iron is cooling.
We managed three more hits before Johannes collapsed in a coughing fit and I was heading back toward the forge with a doubled-length bar. There, I put it in the coals, cranked the blast a bit, took it out, then hammered it flat and bent it back. I was going to pattern-weld the thing.
“Why are you going to pattern-weld it that way?” asked Gelbhaar.
“Too many steps from the forge to that hammer,” I said. “It's perfect for forging the bigger pieces to size, and it'll work fine for...”
The two men began grunt-straining the drop-hammer closer, and by the time I had the metal sparking-hot, they had it such that I could put the billet in.
“Are you ready?” I asked. “The two of you, switch places. This one's going to need some real cranking. Ready, set, go!”
I took out the iron, dashed the flux in, and put it in, just as I yelled. The rhythm of forging was now a 'bang-bang-bang', with each blow being triggered at half-height and the hits overlapping. In ten seconds, the entire billet had been welded – and squished such that I knew a third of the full height was better.
I put the billet back in the forge, and then saw the 'slag'. It had landed all over the floor.
“That thing really works,” said Johannes, “and at least we can do our share.”
“Can Georg tong the metal?” I asked.
“Either he or one of us can,” said Johannes. “I had no idea that thing was so loud or hit so hard.”
By the end of the regular day, however, the three men had forge-welded another five billets, and once packed up in a cooking can – their thinness would be especially helpful, as they would need fewer instances of carbon impregnation – I began stoking the furnace with the remaining charcoal from the forges, then topping up with fresh. I wanted to finish both cooking equipment and water-bottles.
I came home as darkness was falling, with a full 'bag of tricks' and filthy clothing. I had assembled both of the cooking kits and bagged them, and the same for the water bottles. It was before dinner, and I again wondered about spices while 'on trek'.
“Anna, what is used for spices when traveling?” I asked.
“I usually take some of what I commonly use,” said Anna. “Why do you ask?”
“I have a surprise, dear,” I said, as I went to the bench and drew out one of the sacks having a cooking set. “Close your eyes, then open them when I tell you.”
I was surprised that Anna bothered to do so, even as I put the sack in her hands. A smile spread across her face. I was even more surprised when she giggled.
“Now open them, and see what's in the bag.”
I had never heard Anna giggle quite like this before, and when she opened her eyes, she ran to the table. She began to remove the thing from the bag.
“What is it?” she asked, as her fingers moved nimbly. My knots were the work of an eyeblink.
“It isn't a quoll,” I said, “but should one show on trek, this will help.”
When Anna got the thing out of the bag, however, she looked at me with a face that signified intense and abiding confusion, and her comments confirmed it.
“This looks like a good game, or..?”
I shook my head, even as I saw Hans 'arriving' from the basement. I was not prepared for his comment, however:
“Ah, a witch-bomb. How much powder did you put in that one?”
“What?” I gasped. “There is no powder in that thing, save in a small vial for lighting fires. I've been working on these, and I wondered what spices were best on trek – that, and how best to carry them.”
Anna still seemed confused, so much so that I said quietly, “the bail, dear. Yes, that wire thing. Move it to the side, then lift off the lid.”
Anna did so, and Hans came to her side. He seemed nearly as surprised as she was as she removed the handle for the fryer, then the small 'measuring cups', the grater, the knives, forks, and spoons, then the 'bowl-plates', and finally a pair of rags, a small lump of soap, a small medicine vial labeled 'powder', and two tallow candles.
“What is all this?” asked Anna. “This is a lot more than we take on trek.”
“Yes, because we take things not meant for that, but for home,” said Hans, as he looked at one of the knives. “This stuff is made for trekking, and I have never seen anything like it.”
Hans then spied my 'bag of tricks', and said, “now what else do you have in that bag there?”
I turned, walked over to it, and brought out not merely the other cooking set – I wanted to call it a mess-kit, but refrained; Anna was not fond of messes – and brought the bags over. I began removing one of the water bottles, and once I had it out, I handed it to Anna. The second, I handed Hans, and the third, I put on the table.
“I have seen everything, now,” said Hans. “I did not speak of how to make witch-jugs, nor have I ever seen them made of copper and riveted, but these look likely enough. What are they for?”
“Common jugs break if dropped, unlike these,” I said. “After that episode in that volcano, I decided I wanted a non-breakable liquid container.”
I paused, then said, “when 'trekking', one fills these up, and puts them in a padded pouch with a cork.”
“Yes, I see that now,” said Hans. “They look like small distilling coppers, almost.”
“I know I can make those now,” I said. “These are not easy to make.”
At dinner, Anna said, “I wish you could drink more beer.
“W-why?” I asked.
“It seems to help you a great deal,” said Anna. “I have wondered how to get more of it in you, as I'm almost certain you have a serious illness.”
Hans looked at Anna, who then said, “and there is nothing 'almost' about what else happens to you. You need to be looked after, much as if you were deathly ill, and normally, I would give a person that sick nothing but beer.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “So they don't cause trouble?”
“Deathly ill people are nothing but trouble,” said Anna. “Still, it is best to give them beer, as they are much less trouble then.”
For some reason, I recalled the commonplace tendency where I came from to 'dose' chronically-ill people with mind-destroying drugs so as to silence, control, punish, and murder them, and that recollection seemed to 'control' my perception of Anna's speech.
“Are stupefied invalids easier to manage?” I asked.
“No, that is not why sick people are given beer,” said Hans. “That beer has a lot of vitamins in it, and it helps them get better faster. Then, it does not strain their digestion, so that helps them a lot.”
“It does?” I asked.
“That is why we fed those babies beer,” said Anna. “They were very sick, there was no milk for them, they were too weak to eat solid food, but they could drink beer. Had we not done so, they would have died.”
“Then, there was a picture in one of those books,” said Hans, “and I think Anna might have gotten an idea from it, as this man had this tube in his nose, and was being fed that way.”
“Ugh!” I thought. “Those things look to be as tormenting as anything. I'd almost prefer an hour-long endoscopy while awake to having a Nasty Gastric Tube.”
“What did they call it?” I asked.
“That one was called a feeding tube,” said Hans. “There was another setup where they put the food into the upper part of the chest.”
“Hans, that one is trouble,” said Anna. “You cannot use beer that way, as it acts like poison.”
“I've heard of both of those being done,” I said, “and for the second arrangement, the food needs to be processed specially.”
I paused, then said, “you give beer to sick people?” My voice still reeked of incredulity.
Anna nodded, then said, “I still wish you could drink more beer.”
The next day at work, I came to a near pitch-dark shop, and when I opened the furnace, the charcoal was almost 'gone'. The shop itself, however, was comfortable for warmth, and after setting up my candle lanterns, I began taking out the cooking cans and boxes. I had made two more recently, for a total of five.
The 'mashed-flat' billets the others had made were such that I wondered about 'ax-heads' of a proper size, and thought to stack three of them to get an idea of how thick they would be. Their blistered surface was such that I marveled, for it was now worse than ever.
“Didn't it take a week to get like this?” I thought. “It does that overnight here.”
Once I'd gotten a forge lit with wood, however, I thought to find my 'ax-mandrel', and as I laid out the blistered metal next to it, I thought, “this is about half an inch wider than that first one was. This might just work for a 'proper' ax.”
The others arrived by the time I'd gotten the three most-used forges working on their first loads of charcoal. I was still looking at that ax-mandrel, much as if pondering matters. I thought to ask a question.
“Has Black-Cap come by wondering about anything?”
“Not here he has,” said Georg. “You said you had his lock 'soft-fitted'?”
“It's further along than that now,” I said. “I'm hard-fitting it at home. I take it you want to have it handy if he shows, along with any other parts I have ready to do?”
“That might be a good idea,” said Georg. “At least now we can try those barrels.”
“And I can finish the patterns, make the molding tools, and get some proper flasks,” I said.
“I took care of the flasks earlier this week,” said Georg. “Those should come soon enough.”
'Soon enough' proved to be by the time of the morning guzzle, and I briefly went home to fetch the lock in question. I put it on Georg's desk, and went back to where I was puzzling out what to do about the possibility of making a 'full-sized' ax.
“Perhaps some small 'trowels', like that one I made years ago,” I thought
The trowels went rapidly, and as I made the set of three – they looked like odd steel spoons, almost, with odd heart-shaped sharply pointed and tapered blades progressing upward in size – I continued to think about an ax. Finally, it got to be too much for mere thinking, and I put the billets into the forge. I wanted to forge-weld them twice, then form them into a single billet.
After the first doubling, I wobbled over to the stool near my place, and sat down. Georg then came by, and said, “I have no idea how you knew, but while you were working on that blank there, he came by.”
“What did he say?” I gasped.
“He looked at that lock, seemed very impressed, and left another small pouch of gold coins,” said Georg. “I told him we needed to build a lot of new machinery so as to make some of the parts.”
“I hope he believed us,” I said. “It might be entirely true, but with those people, they see what they want to see, and not much else.”
“What were you working on?” asked Georg. “That wasn't one of those things where you do that two or three times and then put them back in those boxes with more charcoal, was it?”
“There's one really good thing about that drop-hammer,” I said. “It mashes the iron flatter, and seems to get rid of the slag faster, also.”
“What does that mean, though?” said Georg.
“Perhaps a day less time in-process,” I said. “The only thing that will be faster is running crucibles full of steel, and that needs something a bit more advanced than I can pull off right now.”
I resumed pattern-welding the billet for the ax, this time folding it carefully, then bending it double. Its width was almost two inches, and its thickness, nearly half an inch. I would weld it fully the next time.
That came roughly twenty minutes later, and here, I was flipping the head over and back as it slowly cooled, then I trimmed off the excess while the iron was still hot. Finally, I beat out the drift, and put the head back in the forge, where I let it 'soak' deeply buried amid the coals.
The ax-head needed three more heats to get to final size, and then it went in the ash-heap. Before the end of the day, I 'buried' another ax-head, made some other foundry tools, checked over eleven sections of finished stovepipe and another twenty-nine sections in progress, and checked over the drop-hammer's output. The others had made another fifteen 'mashed-flat' billets, and the pile of 'ready-to-forge pieces' had grown by a similar number. I was beginning to wonder about parts for my rifle now.
This train of thought carried over the work I did at home. As mine wasn't to be a flintlock, that meant a different – and in some ways, less complex – lock.
I wished I could say the same for the rest of the gun. Black-Cap's weapon was a sufficient challenge that I needed a 'practice run', and as I processed another batch of thimbles, I turned to look at the window to my left. I seemed to smell a familiar acrid aroma, one that I had smelled what seemed ages ago.
“Am I smelling that with my nose, or am I smelling it some other way, like that time long ago in that house?” Such thinking came readily after that time of nineteen months.
Sleep came readily that night, in spite of that instance of odor, but as I slept, I dreamed; and when this dream ended, I awoke screaming, much as if I was being incinerated in that hidden idol along with that woman and her child.
The night hid in its cold embrace the nature of the meeting, with its location in a noisome and crooked street on the flank of a low and broad hill. The streets of the city followed the lay of the land to a modest degree, and their close-choking cheek-by-jowl houses lay to the south and slightly to the east of a large rectangular building that lay amid a deeply green and brushy park-like setting clustered with trees.
That building, and what lay in its deepest-laid basement, was the focal point of the meeting; and those persons at the meeting, those important and wishing to be more so, had chosen this snow-darkened and fog-shrouded night for a concealment of themselves and their plotting.
These men, their number thirteen, now betook themselves to preparation. This first involved chanting, with brief courses of strange garbled-sounding syllables alternating with a more conventional-sounding language – though unlike the common one spoken in the region, this language had a dire tone, one of harsh snarled finality and grotesque secret meanings.
It was accounted 'the voice of command' and 'the language of power', and those gathered at the meeting knew both its meanings and its sayings.
These thirteen had nothing of the less-serious about them, for their purpose was as serious as their thoughts, and their thoughts were bounded round about by the massive black book that lay in front of them; the book stood alone on its stone plinth, and it dared its self-important owners to read its secrets.
The book was ancient, far older than its supplicants, and it lay open to provide power and inspiration to the men. The light sources – one per man, with tall chimneys, squat round tanks of fuel, and brilliantly lit globes enclosing their firing 'furnaces' – trickled thick black smoke into the air to conjoin their soot with the black-painted walls of the meeting chamber. Their purpose, even as that of the book and the men, was a serious one.
The leader of the group, somewhat older and a bit thinner than the others, led his people in a final chant. This one, unlike many they had learned, had a well-known name; and its name was 'The End'. It had a special meaning, just like all else about these men: their banners, their weapons, their dress, their appearance, their attitudes; and like all about these men, its purpose had both its surface and its layers of hidden aspects. In all ways, it was utterly, entirely, and irredeemably serious.
At the end of this chant, the leader closed the book, and secured it in its special wrapper, so as to prevent the escape of the power imprisoned in the angular letters of dried blood that had dedicated it long ago to the pursuit of blind ambition. All of these men, their faces wrought heavily with serious expressions, were long-hungry graduates of their harsh master, the one they called with due gravity Father Brimstone.
With certain phrases echoing in their minds, they began to remove those things that they commonly showed the normal world: black box-shaped hats, long black robes, black stockings, pointed black boots. These last showed their iron-stiff impressions upon the feet; in the case of those long bent to the service of self and ambition, their toes had gone the way of all flesh, and their scarred appendages were sharply pointed, much as the blades they adored and the footwear they preferred.
These appendages were no longer feet. They were weapons.
One of the phrases that echoed especially was 'Nacht und Nebel', and in their 'language of power', its immediate meaning was 'night and fog'. Its immediate deeper meaning – the important one to these men – were those of a war-cry, a symbol of their continuing struggle, a tocsin that screamed in the night for vengeance, and a continuing link to that time long in the past when those words, as well as much else found in the tome, was lifted from other sources long pondered with squandered time.
There were multiple deeper meanings, however, and the further depths of 'Night and Fog' were these: a monstrous and evil place; a land where the strong ruled and the weak died for their pleasure; an empire, one that shoveled its forgotten miserables alive into its furnaces to 'keep the home fires burning'; a realm of darkest night, where secrets existed and their keepers grew fat with hoarded information; and finally, a rapacious government that took what it wished from its citizens, and when it had taken all that could be had, it went further yet:
It took their lives, and then sent them to burn in hell as a sign and symbol of its rage and contempt.
The time of the book's writing was nearly a thousand years in the past, in the years just prior to a nightmare holocaust that nearly wrecked the planet. In that day, and in this place, there were those labeled as disgraced, as nature's own manifested evil; and this was done knowingly, and with malice, and for the following reasons spelled darkly within the depths of the tome:
Difference is evil;
and Cruelty, an answer to boredom.
The twin lightning bolts embossed in silver upon the corrupted hide of the tome had another name then, and the 'twin teeth' – their meaning 'standing teeth, that travel to devour their victims' – were the sign, symbol, and guarantor of power.
And more, the meaning of the word 'disgraced' had a vast collection of collaborating meanings, with the chiefest of them the desired ends of such inhuman objects: death from overwork as a slave, death for the joy of slaughter at the hands of their betters, death at the hands of those closest, yea, even at the hands of one's father and mother. Thus was to be the lot of those disgraced, and these men sought to extend that desired goal to all of life not at their beck and call.
To be a disgrace, and not dead and burning in hell where such evils belonged, was the greatest evil imaginable in that day; and to these men, those matters had not changed in the slightest.
Those objects that these men named disgraced did not measure up to the minutely imagined ideal of these men in all possible ways, unlike they themselves; they had achieved entirely the position of mastery, with its proof full and complete control of all they saw, this achieved from the instant of their conception until their arrival in Hell as duly-accepted minions of Brimstone. There, they would be fully recognized, and dine at their master's table among his most-favored servants.
The group now knew the time of hunting approached, and of their number, most were the king's advisers. The commonplace term was elder, and while these men tolerated its use by their inferiors, they yearned to hear more appropriate titles; titles foreign to the common language, and in common use among those speaking the 'language of power'.
The word 'elder' supposedly indicated substantial wisdom and not necessarily age, and these men varied in chronological age nearly twenty years from the youngest to the oldest. Their appearances, however, were remarkably similar: all looked grave, serious, and middle-aged, with an aura of power and authority far beyond that conjured by their clothing they had now mostly removed.
In the past, such 'hunting' enhanced knowledge and wisdom, albeit a perverted and amoral kind. As for tonight's 'chase', that was a question that was neither asked nor answered. It sufficed that there would be sacrifice done, and they would be those doing it.
Accordingly, the men drew lots while standing in their underwear. Each of them drew straws, save for one man, who had neither blood on his hands nor tattoos on his body. His job was to carefully insert the doffed clothing in blood-spattered black bags embroidered with red markings consecrating their contents to Brimstone. His name, for tonight, was Judas; his nature that of the 'goat'; and his unblemished skin not yet marked with the first and foremost seal of ownership, that being the grinning feral goat-man hybrid showing its face within a five-pointed red-tinted star. He would receive that sign and symbol once he had made his bones.
With the straws drawn, the six chosen to prepare the way were known, and so were the hunters. This way – the special way, older than time and blacker than night – led to the special room that was darker still. The new man's straw was drawn for him before time began. He was to go with the hunters, even as all of them had once gone as virgins and returned as made men.
The 'goat' now brought out a fire-blackened iron cauldron marked with rune-writ red curses, and the men formed in line, the 'goat' at its tail. The leader dipped a specially-shaped consecrated tool into the contents of the cauldron, stripped fully such that he was naked, and began smearing himself with the blackened salve. As he did, he chanted the hiding curse, and the others took up the six-rune chant:
The chant seemed to faintly echo in the room, as if the near-whispered syllables had screaming-loud voices of their own, and now the line formed a circle, with the tool's fire-blackened bronze paddle passed from man to man. Now and then, one saw traces of the datramonium used to make the salve, and its familiar reek – fire-rendered lard mixed with the burnt-black tallow of former victims – but added to the sensory derangement conjured by the salve.
The men felt spectral and strange as the salve began to work, and from another 'consecrated' container, they each removed their 'reminders to duty'. These went in various orifices, and as each man took his male organ, it seemed to writhe like a snake in his hands. It received the first of the long flexible plugs, and as the teeth of the snake clenched the bit, the man knew it was under his full and complete control. He now held its reins, and chanted accordingly:
“Yoh-Tagh-Moont-Wikk! Yoh-Tagh-Moont-Wikk! Aieeeh!”
The next plug needed assistance – or rather, 'mounting' – and was inserted from behind. Those who bore such 'saddles' were thought 'immune' to the control of other witches, and fully controlled by Brimstone; and the chant for 'mounting' was in the language of power:
“Arise, ye spirits, and mount!”
The salve was now having a marked effect, and the next set of plugs went in the ears. These had small holes, and their toothed brass outer portion reminded the men of the need to hear but one voice. These 'deaf-makers' had their own chants, as did the 'smell-breakers' inserted in the nose and the 'speech-guards' inserted into the mouth. There was but one thing remaining: the red-tinted soft contacts, the 'eye-screens' that caused the outer world to take up the flames of hell.
Those needed both a special tool unlike any of the others, as well as a special container. These were scarce, imported, and costly, but needed to fully bring one's body into subjection, that it might fully apprehend the will of Brimstone and perform those commands in perfect obedience.
With the red-tinted contacts within the eyes, the world around the men became truly a hidden place, hidden both in time and space. The walls seemed to become porous, with small figures, filmy and threatening, now showing in the men's peripheral vision, and with each repetition of the hiding curse, the hissing sibilant curses seemed magnified in both intent and resonance in the spirit realm. That place, and the once-proud name of where they were preparing, was the same: Geeststaat, the city of evil spirits.
The salve was now fully applied to all portions of the body, and the glossy black skin of these men seemed pooled with red flames. The thirteen lanterns in the room now billowed flames crazily amid their black pillars of smoke, for they had become ovens that burned corpses in the service of Brimstone. Their markings flamed redly, as did all physical objects in the room, and Judas waddled slowly to the consecrated hamper where the hunting clothing was kept, and moved it to where the leader stood immobile. There, the leader began distributing the red-rune-embroidered black bags.
The nature of hunting clothing was to give credence to the bodies the men had now acquired, and their gaunt forms seemed to flame redly, even as they continued chanting. They must not cease, for all who were perfect labored without cease, and to cease from labor meant disgrace. The slot that Judas occupied was due to that very reason, or rather, a greater one. One of the group had attempted to leave its clutching embrace, and was now paying for his treason where he belonged.
The first article of clothing was a black rune-embroidered strip of cloth, and this was wound around the loins and tucked in place with a trio of specially-shaped bronze clamps. The snake was confined therein, hidden in the wrapping's writhing coils; and with its hiding, the trousers could be assayed.
These, like all ceremonial instruments, had their chants and curses, and with each further garment – blouse, sash, swine-hide vest, leather skullcap with stubby blackened horns, leggings, and then boots – the men were more and more hidden in the bosom of Brimstone, where their reminders to duty were now firmly clenched. They were impossible to remove while the salve retained its power.
Now fully dressed for hunting, the vests were arrayed with supplies. Judas received the killing knife of black stone, while the other men attached more common weapons to their belts. These were long triangle-shaped daggers, pistols, ropes, and in the case of the 'more-advanced' members, short swords in black scabbards painted with red rune-spelled curses.
The killing knife itself was a bone-hilted and leather-handled foot of black volcano stone, and its faceted blade shown like a nightmare imprisoned in glass. It was purchased at vast cost from one of thirteen high-ranking individuals, each of whom owned his principality in totality, and thereby had the sole distribution rights – and rites – for much of what these men used. Such Powers were exceedingly wealthy, and their homes massive, lavish, dark, and filled with the trappings of power, unlike these men garbing and arming themselves for the chase.
Besides, Powers had their food and drink brought to them nightly by slaves such as these men. They no longer risked their status by mere hunting. They had larger and more interesting prey to kill, and labored without cease to accomplish their inclination of the moment, as was true of all who followed Father Brimstone.
The thirteen men now donned soft gray hooded cloaks. These provided further concealment, for the insides did not merely have red-embroidered rune-branded curses, but also several deep buttoned pockets filled with more hunting supplies – including tinctures capable of inducing unconsciousness in seconds, and needles to apply them to the prey.
The ovens were extinguished, that they be allowed to cool their fiery furnaces, and the odor of distillate-fueled sanctity that ensued was proof that Brimstone was pleased with their work. Their chants now softly mumbled, they left the safe-house in a line of thirteen, the leader at the head and the goat at the tail, each man clutching the shoulder of the one in front of him; and walking stiff in unison to the mumbled words of the chanted hiding-curse, they marched out into the street.
Unlike their usual footwear, these boots were utterly silent, and their thickly soft slave-stitched leather left no sound and but little trace. While the effects of the salve were thought to erase footprints, their boots were such that they needed but little help of a spiritual nature. As for their hunting grounds...
Only the 'Quality' such as themselves would be searched for if they vanished between two days. Others, no matter who they were, were worthy of but the one use, and the chant that was now mumbled in the language of power confirmed it:
“Death to my enemies, and may all of them die screaming in pain,
that the great dragon may devour them and increase my fortune.
Hail Brimstone, and welcome, Sieve.”
The two groups now split up, and ceased their marching, with the 'preparers' gone off a side path to vanish and the hunters now gathering in a loose and straggling line. Fog was abroad in the land to add to the hiding effects of the night, and all around these men, the faint indistinct shadows of the slain gathered to scream for vengeance; and this screaming, combined with the thirst conjured by datramonium, gave impetus to their every glance and movement.
The way of hunting, at least in the past, was one of killing everyone met by the means of blades, ropes, bludgeons, or projectiles, until one found a truly suitable victim for the altar of sacrifice. These men were not of the majority, unlike that time, and their rule was more one of their fancy than that of reality. Hence, they needed to practice discretion in their selection of time, place, and victim. They could not pave the streets with dried blood and body parts, as had been done long in the past.
The fact that this concept violently disputed with their self-confessed all-encompassing control of all they surveyed was conveniently ignored, even as all that contradicted the black book's truth was ignored. To be as these men, one needed to live a deep and dark fantasy; a fantasy that demanded an abundance of money, power, and influence, so as to avoid the realities of life every day, every hour, every minute, and at every turn.
A fantasy that demanded a peculiar way of thinking, one that called the tenets of the black book blessed and brimming reality, and called all in opposition to its wondrous truths lies, hallucinations, stupidity, and foolishness, even as these men did.
A fantasy that compelled the total absence of conscience.
A fantasy that required the ability to completely ignore common sense.
A fantasy which involved a desire for power so great that nothing was too 'low', too 'evil', too 'horrible', or too 'malicious'.
For these men, especially when hunting, there was but one supremely important matter, and the effects of datramonium but made this concept more accessible:
One's inclination of the moment. Gratifying it was the sole reason for living.
Yet still, discretion was a relative thing, so much so that when an apprentice walked sleepily into the path of these men, they surrounded him in silence, grabbed him with black-gloved hands, clapped hands over his mouth, and cut his throat; and following his death, they left his body lying in a slow-growing pool of blood. There had been no sound to alert the surrounding area, and hence, discretion had been practiced.
The path from the safe-house to the favored 'hunting ground' of these men was roughly two miles in a straight line. When following the streets and while remaining in the shadows, it was closer to three, and in the process of coming unto their 'haunt', they had killed two more men, three women, and a small child. All of their knives had become bloody by the time they had reached their place of waiting, that being near a sizable three-story building that provided services. One of the women working there had been deemed 'suitable'; she had been watched for nearly a fortnight, so as to know her 'schedule'; she, like those that had been murdered, was useless to these men save as a victim; and her means of survival meant she would be unmissed, unmourned, and dismissed with cursing and approbation by the local clerics, just as those people that had been murdered.
The fact that one of the hunting team's members was an 'overseer' of preachers was no accident, as was the rigid hierarchical control of those preachers not as these men. Slaves could not be trusted to speak the truth and act according to it otherwise, and rebellion – defined or real – was not tolerated.
When the young woman emerged from the rear of the building, she was surrounded, much as those previously; unlike them, however, her flesh was ripped with needles, not blades. The gag went in her mouth, her hands and feet were tied, she was tied to a 'meat-pole' assembled quickly without sound, and then draped over with a thickly padded sheet that was laced in place by the 'outriders' of the two that carried the prey.
The hunters now silently stepped toward their destination, that being the well-hid room in the deep-cellar of that one large building. The preparers had gone before them, for within a short time, the bloodied corpse of a man showed with spilled intestines and severed head to the right of their path. One of the group, however, quickly went into a house using a pass-key, and caught up to the slow-moving group less than fifty feet from whence he'd left it. His sword was now baptized in blood.
He'd killed an entire family as they'd slept, with each swift stroke severing a head as he padded silently through the house.
By the time the secret entrance drew closer, there had been several more killings; two had been in houses lit by candles, three of passersby, and one of a sleeping 'tramp' who nearly tripped one of the carriers when he was stumbled over.
The chanted hiding curse continued in its mumbled way, even as the entrance to their lair drew steadily closer. Every hundred rounds of the curse, the meat-bearers changed with others, and with each chanted syllable, their feet moved in a steady rhythm, each step now becoming stiff, formal, stylized, and rigid.
Left-Right-Left. Pause. Yah-Gogh-Nagh. Repeat curse, each step in precise time to each chanted rune. Each step must be perfect, for then and only then do we demonstrate our perfection and grace in the sight of Brimstone.
Near the northwest boundary of the city stood a small tile-roofed house with a candle flickering fitfully in a small window, and as the men drew closer with their bundled prey, one of the outriders came to the door and opened it with a secret grip upon a well-hid button on the underside of the polished brass knob. The guards – older, well-seasoned, trusted men – had been bribed with silver and a falsified order, and they were now elsewhere, with mugs of Geneva in their palsied shaking hands. Both were well on the road to stupefaction, even as they commonly were at this hour of the night.
The open door showed a glossy black stove, a small bucket of charcoal, a small desk to support the candle lantern, and in the middle of the floor and its stones, an outline showing gleaming lines of boot-polished metal. One of the outriders removed a polished metal 'hook' from his clothing, inserted it into a clay-hidden hole, turned, and then lifted. The trapdoor opened readily to show wide steps leading down, and taking the candle, he led the way into the darkened passage.
The trapdoor's secret was not known to the hand-picked guards that normally manned this outpost; they were unthinkingly obedient, as befitted proper slaves; they did as they were told; without question or complaint, no matter the time, the task, the place, or the people involved. Truly, they embodied all that was right about a well-known list of 'reality-statements' found in the black book, especially one in particular:
Statement number eight: obey higher authority.
There was more to this statement in the tome, in fact nearly two pages for it alone, but in the copies of the black book that these trusted 'guards' possessed, there was but the single line, and a brief paragraph below the list of ten such statements that stated emphatically their reality of existence and the truth of being. The statement just below number eight – “Statement number nine: those in authority define truth” – was amplified and expounded upon in that paragraph, and these 'guards' believed, accepted, and acted upon those statements knowingly and by conscious choice.
Many people in the surrounding area, while utterly ignorant of the ten statements themselves, behaved likewise.
The inner realm of the passage had five torches, all well-soaked in the tallow of former victims, and the candle was used to light them one by one. Each person not carrying the meat-pole and its victim bore a smoke-billowing torch, and as they passed the long-dead code-words painted in peeling black paint to each side, more paint came down from the ceiling to fall around them like corroded rain.
The original purpose of this passage was to escape from a building collapse above, and during that time, the chamber of sacrifice had been used as it was currently. While there were no Desmonds then, there were machines that accomplished a similar end to the victims of sacrifice, and with the destruction of both city and culture, the evil core had remained to be resurrected anew with the slow passage of the years.
After many changes of the carriers, another metal rectangle showed in the floor, and this example needed another 'key'. This one, unlike the other, was of a gleaming blackness, and its age as imponderable as the mechanism that opened the trapdoor. There was a faint creak of dry hinges, another fainter-yet noise of springs and counterweights, and after the passage of the column, another faint click when the rope-closed door latched in place.
This second passage was of an ancient time, one so old it was beyond recollection, and its appearance showed its age by corroded metal and oval rivet-heads. The ceiling, black with the soot of countless torch-bearing processions, showed fat cylindrical long-dead light bulbs. Those bearing the torches had no knowledge of their function, nor did they care.
Their nature was not important.
That which was to come in the sooty black room suffocating with odor and crawling with worms was.
Here, the chant was no longer mumbled, but voiced fully, and the speech-guards worked as intended: the men's voices became harsh, hollow, echoing, and clipped, with an occasional added whistle that rang in the long dark corridor. Every hundred rounds of the hiding curse, the meat-bearers changed with the outriders, and with each syllable, all marched in unison, as if machines running the same program. The true-step rang clearly, with its high-lifted feet and the snapping impact of heels against the floor muffled by the padded nature of the boots.
Far in the distance, another iron-riveted door showed, and two of the outriders went ahead to deal with it. One produced a key, and while the other chanted a list of opening curses, the other slowly felt the long-worn tumblers with a thrice-copied and badly-worn key. The lock was obstinate, as it was too badly worn to listen to the chanted commands to open, and only when the shorter of the two men found the 'secret' did the lock click and admit them to a stone-walled corridor well-lit with smoking candles.
The procession moved around the stairs leading down into this little-known area, and when the leader came to the door, he presented his key and placed it into the lock.
This door opened with alacrity, proving conclusively that simple mechanisms responded best to chants and curses, and as he went into the room itself, he saw that it had been prepared well.
The thick whitish smoke all but blanketed the room, and the odor of burning datramonium was thick, choking, acrid, and pleasing to Brimstone.
The altar was as it should be, carefully arrayed with its ceremonial tools and equipment, and all such tools in the exact positions he wished them to be.
His slaves were properly obeisant, with bowed heads and prostrate bodies before him, with slow soft phrases imploring him to have mercy, as was a fitting greeting for someone who did what he wished, when he wished to, and answered to no one whomsoever.
The sacrifice was hung, waiting, frantic, and fearful, as was his express desire.
The offal of past sacrifices twitched with the hunger of Desmonds. The reek of rotting flesh was a pleasure to apprehend.
And finally, the combined action of inhaled and absorbed datramonium had opened his eyes fully; he was no longer cold to the spirit world, but burning with energy and fire, just as did his true home; and he saw the unvarnished truth of life, with no falsehood daring to show itself.
It was time to begin, and the cloaks of the hunters came off to be hung on pegs.
With loud and distorted rune-chants, the covering was untied and then folded with due solemnity, as befitting a serious business, and then the laces that held it pocketed as per the time honored traditions of sacrifice.
The black stone altar had four ringbolts, and amid their dried thickly-caked blood showed new-looking thongs. The meat-pole was lad on the altar, then each limb of the sacrifice was untied and fastened down firmly with ceremonial knots, and the slot for the woman's head caught it.
With the sacrifice tied down, the leader produced a slim glass vial of virulent green tincture, and with a dropping tube tied to it, he set it down by the woman's head. He trusted no one to do this step other than himself, and as he uncorked the bottle, he raised his voice louder in the round of chants for sacrifice. He then found the pair of wooden plugs, dipped one in the green slimy liquid, and stuffed it clumsily into the woman's right nostril as another experienced member held her head back.
The leader now drew up a full tube of the liquid, his index finger held over the tube. This was held over the woman's left nostril, and when she inhaled, it was released – and the other plug inserted.
The chants swelled louder, for now was the time of waiting. The woman could not breath, and she thrashed wildly, even as a brilliant scarlet flush began to appear on her near-emaciated features. Within roughly thirty seconds, she became unconscious, and the red became suffused with a dusky blue.
The time of waiting was crucial, as the slime needed to be as absorbed as much as possible – and, when it was judged unwise to wait further, both plugs were removed. Each nostril then received a further trio of doses, and as the dusky blue faded, the red flush of datramonium poisoning rapidly took its place.
When her eyes abruptly jerked open, she thrashed maniacally, and tried to scream. The gag prevented screaming, and the dirt-caked walls and all else in the room absorbed sound as well as life. The chants continued, for the timing was critical for a good sacrifice: it must be fully conscious, it must be in agony, it must thrash as it bleeds, and the suffering must be at its peak when it finally dies.
The chants continued, even as the redness of the woman's skin became greater. Her breathing was now slow, deep, and gasping, even as her thrashing became violent enough to leave bruises upon her blood-red skin. The paralysis of suffocation would come within less than an hour. She would die long before that happened.
One of the older members came with an ancient stone bucket, and hung it from a black forged hook. Using brilliantly shining curse-consecrated tongs, this man picked up a thrashing three-foot Desmond. The worm was hungry, for it thrashed as if in pain and spurted foul-smelling black goo from its anus intermittently as it ground its triune teeth.
Judas now sliced a square from the woman's clothing with the killing knife, and as the cuts welled blood slowly, the Desmond was presented to the face of the woman. Sacrifices must see and hear the source of their pain and suffering, so that they know precisely how they are being punished for not being as their masters desire. The Desmond obliged with squirming and grinding teeth.
The Desmond was placed near the bloody spot on her stomach, and the death-cold of its white flesh was only exceeded by the bite of its teeth as it began to feed. It didn't waste time with skin, nor with muscle: it wanted life, and that was inside the body cavity.
Judas now had but minutes to act, even as the Desmond's behind spurted black goo and the woman thrashed as she was being eaten alive. The datramonium ensured her punishment was felt fully, felt well, and felt knowingly, with the pain magnified to unknowable levels.
Datramonium not merely magnified pain and suffering, but in 'heroic' doses, it prevented unconsciousness until the very last seconds of life.
The chants grew louder and more frantic as Judas sliced her left wrist to the bone, then her right. The altar's blood-gutters caught the blood and directed it into the consecrated stone bucket. Judas put his right hand on her forehead, shouted “Aieeeh Pee Skrull Yoh!” – and then nearly severed her head with a quick and brutal slash from ear to ear.
He now had to race the Desmond's teeth, and with quick practiced slashes, he ripped open her chest, cut away her heart, and snatched the choice morsel out of her body cavity but seconds before the Desmond's gnawing teeth emerged from her right lung.
While Judas was to receive the goat's share of what he had just harvested, the others were to taste his trophy first, and the bloody organ was gnawed and chewed by each person as they worried loose a small bit of flesh. Judas received the bulk of the organ back, and as he gnawed and devoured the meat of his first supper, the others took small silver cups and dipped them in the still-gathering blood of the sacrifice. They'd already had their food; now, they would have their drink before pouring out their libations upon their respective idols.
They needed to wait for their new initiate to finish eating and drinking, and after Judas had done so, he took the age-blackened bronze blood-measurer, and poured out three libations to his idol. He now owned it, and within seconds after passing the blood-measurer to another, he staggered off to collapse against the wall of the room to convulsively breathe in the incoming horde of familiar spirits, just as he had been told to do – and within seconds, the icy chill of sacrifice had been replaced with a sensation of fiery resolve and burning heat.
His eyes opened to see a dim room, one without any semblance of boundaries, and within the confines of where he was, he saw the vast and varied denizens of hell. While he was ignorant of their purpose, their names, and much else, he was no longer cold to the spirit-world. He knew at least that much in his stupor – he was an insider, a power-broker, an up-and-coming presence in the physical world, and all that he knew and understood of that realm was grounded and buttressed in the reality of what he now saw.
The remainder of the members continued in pouring out their libations, each of them breathing in deeply the fumes of datramonium and whatever added spirits wished to dwell within them, until three men were left. These men and their need for power was recognized, for each of them had the ritual scars that came with a blood-pact made to Brimstone. They had buried their pacts years ago under their respective idols, but under each blood-rotten ancient wooden post were hundreds of such scraps of paper deeding long-dead members and all they possessed to the great dragon.
Blood-pacts were quite common among these people, even if few confessed to them.
Recrimination, however, was rare, and dealt with summarily if suspected. That had been the end of the man Judas replaced, for the black book stated the obvious, and these men believed it utterly:
“You may check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
To assay such foolishness meant a fervent desire to become the object of adoration, and all such objects, or blood-sources, needed to die on the altar – just as that man who dared entertain second thoughts had done during the previous sacrifice a fortnight prior.
The Desmond was now returned to its sanctuary, where it needed to come to rest with both its larger size – it had grown nearly a foot in length, and an inch in diameter – and the remaining blood was flung up on the ceiling over the altar. This indicated the sacrifice was at an end.
The ceiling began to slowly smolder, then glow faintly red. Billows of heat leaped off of the stone as it began to bulge down from the roof, and as the altar smoked blackly with the burning blood, the thirteen blood-joined and bone-bonded men saw the flames of hell consume the rest of the woman's remains, or so it seemed until the ceiling returned to its former place and color.
The charred surface of the altar had been burned clean, and of the woman's remains, there were but two small bits remaining: the first joints of each index finger, both perfectly clean of flesh. This grisly omen spoke of the man's acceptance in the kingdom of hell, and as he produced his new leather sack, he chanted loudly his appreciation in the form of the hiding curse.
He had made his bones, and was no longer a supplicant.
There was but no time to waste: the burning datramonium was extinguished, the equipment put away, the cloaks donned, and the members of the group made to leave. The new member had the key to the outer door, and as he locked it outside the room, he smiled behind his grease-painted mask. He'd been given the key by his head spirit, along with his witch-name, the name he was to defend to the death and beyond.
The reality was a bit less spiritual: while under the influence of the incoming horde of spirits, the leader had slipped the key into his pocket. Such were the ways of many of the curses these men believed, and 'manifesting' curses was a finely-studied and well-honed art with them.
The predators of the night now hurried back the way they came, and in the darkness of the morning's wee hours, they made their way through the maze-like streets of the city. There were no more murders, nor house-assaults, nor other matters beyond mumbled chants, even though the streets were dead and devoid of life. They knew some rose early, hours before dawn, and while many late-sleepers were unarmed, the same could not be said of the early risers.
These men did not wish to become victims of their own well-honed propaganda that said all that stirred in the darkness was either a witch, or the property of a witch.
The hiding curse still worked its magick, even as did their boots and cloaks, and once inside the safe house, they ceased their endless repetition of curses – and replaced them with shouts and yells appropriate for who they were.
“Hail Brimstone, and Welcome, Sieve!” was the sound of Victory.
The new man, though he had his bones, still had other matters to attend to. After drinking deeply of long-aged strong drink, he laid bare his chest, and the other men used templates, knives, and ink to cut his first tattoo into his chest. This one showed the grinning half-man-half goat of the owning tattoo, the one that proclaimed him to be what he was, and when it was finished, he received his cult-name from the leader, that name that proclaimed him both a witch and a full-fledged member of witchdom.
The others drank themselves into stupors once 'Simon' had received his tattoo and his new name, and all of them waited for the effects of the datramonium to wear off. None of the various plugs and shields could be removed until then, and only time would release them. The pain and suffering of serving Brimstone well was meant to be savored and praised, not merely endured, and the drunken chants of the men reflected this black-book-listed truth.
The privy did a great deal of business just the same when the datramonium finally wore off and the various guards were actually removed.
Then, one by one, their eyes now normal and their dress their customary starch-stiffened black clothing, the reek of datramonium erased by bathing and rubbing with aquavit, these thirteen left at dusk for their houses, there to sleep off the nightmares of the damned in the forests of the night.