Deeds, Not Words

By Carmel Rechnitzer

Otto Streit believed in the sanctity of human life. He also believed in the sanctity of the body, which must be treated with respect once the soul had fled. He also, with all his heart, believed in Kaspar Dietrich. It was a shame that this third belief conflicted with the previous two. Shame or no shame, he accepted the contradiction, carrying it in his heart like he carried all his sins. Neatly filed away behind the ironclad certainty that serving Kaspar was effectively synonymous with serving Theus. Context would absolve him.

Full of shame and certainty, he began the evening’s work. First, he ground the malachite with mortar and pestle. People mistook the green “stone” for gemstone or crystal, but as a trained craftsman, he recognized it as a copper derived carbonate. Perfect for making green ink, and the copper within would bind and alloy itself to Syrneth silver. He couldn’t ask for a better base component for tonight’s alchemy.

Next, he folded in pinesap and blessed water, to thicken the malachite dust into a slurry. Crushed nettle would cause an agitating tingle, necessary to reawaken muscle and nerve. Poppy extract was too risky a painkiller… Otto had shelled out several ounces of gold for imported cocoa from the lone Nahuacan herbalist in the City of Five Sails. Depending on how they were ritually processed, cocoa beans could be transformed into a stimulant or a numbing agent, and Otto could certainly use both.

The materials in his mortar coalesced into a thick treacle, imbibed with a crude element of Sorcery. It would not be potent enough to work the miracle Kaspar needed. But Otto knew what blasphemies to mix, what obscenities to perform, to increase the efficacy tenfold. All it would take was the unholy harvest of a fresh corpse.

Otto offered another prayer in memory of the recently slain Anders. He hadn’t known the mercenary, never seen the Vesten man alive. The strongman had been one of the many victims shot dead during last night’s dreadful ambush at the City’s dockyards. Whether it had been the Musketeers, or the Cat’s Paw Gang, or… Who even knew? So much about last night remained in dispute… whomever it had been, the ambushers had pushed just about every corpse out and into the sea. Anders had been too heavy and hefty. The mysterious assailants, apparently running out of time before the dawning of daylight, had simply covered his corpse with a tarp and slunk away. An Eisen regiment, accompanied by the City Guard, had been sent to retrieve the dead this morning. Anders had been the only body retrieved.

Thank you and bless you! May you find rest in Theus’ gardens! Otto offered, for the twentieth time that night. Queasy but determined, he poured Ander’s cerebrospinal fluid into the mortar. The final, grisly component transformed the inadequate alchemy into powerful Hexenwerk.

A knock came at his laboratory door. It repeated in the correct rhythm. Wonderful. Otto’s attention rose up from his workbench, and he realized he’d forgotten the other preparations for tonight. Hurriedly, he fell to hands and knees and began clearing the cluttered floor. Books, ingredient jars, oh Theus, what hadn’t he scattered all over the tiny room? Now that his secret was out of the bag, maybe he could employ a maid to clean this place.

The knock repeated, and Otto realized he forgot to welcome his guests in. Before he had a chance to speak, the heavy door swung open on well oiled hinges. A thoroughly confused Rosine Friese entered the room. Her stern schoolmarm’s features gave him the harsh kind of look that would haunt a pupil’s nightmares. She clicked her tongue expectantly, and he felt a childish compulsion to explain himself. No teach! I wasn’t up to mischief! I swear!

He took a deep breath and rose from the floor. Theus help him, the woman was almost a full head shorter than he was! She managed to glare down at him all the same. He took another deep breath, and decided not to let her disapproving eyebrows get the better of him.

“I couldn’t find a gurney,” she said. “We’ll have to make do.”

She didn’t break her disapproving glare. She did, however, jostle the bundle of bedding in her arms. Otto broke eye contact with her, which was honestly a relief, and realized she wasn’t wearing a cape to hide her form in the night. As well as the cloth in her arms, she’d wrapped a heavy winter blanket around her shoulders.

Not ideal, but it will do, Otto thought. He stripped off his apron and overshirt, quickly bundling them into a makeshift pillow.

“Herr Dietrich has slept in worse conditions,” Rosine consoled herself. “Compared to the field encampments, your dusty floor can’t be that bad.”

He maintained his silence. What a sharp set of eyes she had. She’d honed them to weapons.They peered above the rims of her glasses like a pair of cannons mounted above a barricade. The urge to profess was clawing at the back of his teeth. If he spoke, however, he might spill his doubts – about Kaspar’s survival, about the nature of his magics, about…

“Smells like a witch’s chamber pot in here,” came a gruff complaint. The voice was gravelly with age and hoarse from a lifetime of shouting orders. Wilhelm Dunst stood at the door. The old warrior wasn’t notably tall, but was broader than a barn. He would have needed to carefully maneuver through the door just passing through on his lonesome. Tonight, he cradled the unconscious form of Kaspar Dietrich in his arms. Getting both of them through the narrow doorway together wasn’t going to be possible.

To Otto’s disbelief, a Voddacen nobody sprung forward to assist. The clothing, the Vaticine Traditionalist jewelry, and the fragrance of garlic gave the “nobody’s” nationhood away in an instant. Herr Vodacce grabbed Kaspar’s ankles, and all three of them managed to make it inside without hitting the doorframe.

“I ain’t kidding around, Otto,” Willhelm insisted. “It’s rancid in here. Diabolically Rank. What deviltry are you up to?”

Otto refused to explain himself, ignoring Wilhelm’s question the way he ignored Rosine’s. He motioned to the blanket neatly laid out on the floor. His jaw rattled with fear. Wilhelm caught the subtle motion, and seemed to take Otto’s fear as an admission of guilt. That’s sort of what it was, wasn’t it?

The otherwise unconscious Kaspar gave a feverous cough. Wilhelm continued to cradle him, tipping his head to the side and letting the phlegm sputter out of him.

“Set him down already!” Rosine demanded.

Willhelm did as instructed, though his eyes gleamed with suspicion the whole time. The moment the old soldier’s hands were free, Rosine moved herself between them. No matter which way the bulky zealot shuffled, she followed in step. It was about as awkward a dance as Otto could imagine, but he appreciated her defense.

“Remain calm, my honorable Herr Dunst,” she warned. He grunted with disgust. His hands lunged forward, gnarled but strong. He stopped an inch away from her shoulders, apparently unwilling to manhandle a respectable lady out of his way.

“I spent three winters chasing diablorists and idolators through the cursed woods of Eisen!” Willhelm warned. “I know this smell, Otto! And I can’t imagine Old Iron would ever consent to this, no matter the risk.”

Otto pointed to the Vodaccen henchman Wilhelm had brought along. To the Vaticine cross hanging around his neck, and then again to another Vaticine cross tattooed on the man’s forearms.

“We won’t take your objections seriously, if you don’t take the Objections seriously,” Rosine retorted. “How do I know you didn’t bring some Inquisition spy in our midst! You couldn’t find a single Objectionist in our ranks to assist you?”

Wilhelm growled. “He’s not hired help. He’s the delivery service. Delivering what? Theus help me, I don’t know. But Daniella said it would help.”

“I am Angelo,” the stranger said in the Voddacce tongue, as if that was any sort of explanation. “As promised Daniella Dietrich, I come with the offer of the Silver Spine of Syrne. ”

Both Eisen men paused. So many questions sprung to Otto’s mind. Why would the Vodacce hand over such a priceless artifact? And which Vodacce has the authority to trade away such a thing? The gangsters? The noblemen? How did they know Herr Dietrich was wounded? Did Daniella reach out first, or did the stranger? By the confused look on his face, Wilhem was likely stuck on a single question ‘what in Theus’ name is a Silver Spine?’

Otto only knew, because Daniella had explained the artifact to him. He wondered if Rosine had gotten the same information.

“Gentlemen, we’re running out of time,” Rosine reminded them.

They both looked towards Kaspar. She was right. Their beloved leader was pale, and his breaths were shallow. His hair was slick with fevered sweat. Otto had only heard what transpired last night – Kaspar had caught a speeding bullet with his Panzerhand – and now Otto finally saw the consequences. Whatever instrument of war had fired at Kaspar was no ordinary armament. Judging by the hollow hole in his hand, the bullet had punctured through the oiled leather palm of the Panzerhand, and exited out the back of the metal gauntlet. The upper left of Kaspar’s chest was viciously bruised. The bullet had lost momentum flying through Kaspar’s hand, failed to penetrate the breastplate, but had clearly caved the armor in. If Kaspar hadn’t been prescient enough to try and catch the bullet, the musket ball would have chewed its way into his heart.

Otto knelt down, examined the emergency relief already given. The hole in Kaspar’s hand was stuffed with gauze, with heavy daubs of wax keeping the packing in place. It was the best anyone could have done to stop Kaspar from bleeding out. The hand would still be rendered useless, even if the wound somehow healed and didn’t rot. Those fingers would never bear a gauntlet or hold a sword again. They’d never even hold a fork. Never run through Frau Dietrich’s hair.

“Whatever tragedy you’re imagining, Otto,” croaked Wilhelm, “it’s better than hexenwork. Better than damning our Lord Dietrich!”

Rosine reached out to cup Wilhelm’s cheek, but seemed to think better of it. The angles of her face, the edge in her voice, every part of her was too sharp to be motherly. She patted his shoulder, stiffly and mechanically.

“In any other circumstance, Herr Dunst, I’d agree,” she said. “But the war for the City of Five Sails isn’t over. It’s barely begun. If he were awake, he’d choose strength over sanctity.”

“How dare you act so certain! Who gave you the right?” Wilhelm asked.

The two of them stared at each other, each set of eyes ablaze with zeal. Otto ignored them, and turned to the Vodacce stranger. The young man was anxious to leave. Practically quivering in his boots. Met too, Otto declined to say out loud. Dunst is one word away from violence.

Angelo unslung a pack from his shoulders. It made a loud, metallic clatter as he laid it on the floor. The clanging noises produced an oddly angelic note, even if the order and tempo of the sounds was random. He tipped the pack, and spilled out thirty pieces of silver. To the average eye, their size and shape was malformed and random. Otto recognized the forms for what they were, the vertebrae of a human spine.

Carefully, Otto turned Herr Dietrich onto his back and cut open his tunic to reveal bare skin. Rosine spread her arms and legs wide in a protective X. Whilhelm looked past her with righteous fury, but his fear and reverence to Theus was too great. He would not batter and beat an unarmed woman, even if she stood in the way of stopping sorcery.

“You’ve stopped me for now, Rosine. I will simply kill Otto tomorrow,” Wilhelm promised. Otto sighed. So it was. If he saved Herr Dietrich’s life today, that was enough. His many debts, accrued over a lifetime of battlefields and sieges, would be paid. He’d die having squared away his ledger.

Angelo awkwardly squeezed himself to the wall and circled to the door. Before leaving them to their standoff, he offered a goodbye in the Eisen language. He had a thick accent, and he dropped a consonant, but they knew what he meant. He moved to close the door behind him, but something kept him a moment longer.

“Spit it out,” Wilhelm insisted.

“The Don Constanzo sent this gift of the Silver Spine as an offering of unity. As his sworn man, I am required to repeat the following,” he explained, and rolled back his sleeve. The doltish goon had literally written an Eisen translation of Don Constanzo’s words on his inner forearm. Angelo read the letters phonetically, sounding out the words he didn’t know through spelling alone.

Ahem. He says the following: ‘we have taken the Forum from you, Honorable Mr. Dietrich, but as a matter of necessity. The Scarpas have the skills to administer the needs of the State. See this treasure as an offering of recompense and apology. Let us work together, so that the Dietrichs can freely continue to administer the needs of War.’ So said my master.”

Angelo completed the translation, and gave a sigh of relief. Otto didn’t know whether to cringe or laugh. No doubt, Angelo had been required to memorize the peace treaty so that no written record of it would remain. The goal was an informal, vocal agreement that Don Constanzo could deny at his leisure. The Don, or whatever intermediate underboss delegated this job further down the chain of command, had failed to consider that Angelo barely spoke Eisen.

Otto’s upcoming task was no less awkward. He grabbed the bowl of hexenwerk, and traced the magical ungent along Kaspar’s spine. The morbid shiver of magic passing through Otto made him feel as uncomfortable as Angelo must have felt a moment ago. He was a chemist and economist, primarily. Hexenwerk was a discipline he only dabbled with out of desperation – a language he couldn’t comfortably speak.

Meanwhile, Wilhelm prayed to Theus for forgiveness. Not to forgive Otto, obviously. But to spare Kaspar from whatever misfortune the Almighty might level on Otto for such sin. Otto ignored him and traced a line along the bones of Kaspar’s arm, from shoulder to palm.

Otto wanted to join him, and would have meant every word of it. He had to settle for repeating the prayer in his mind. If he dared utter Theus’ name, Wilhelm might grab Rosine out of his way and beat him senseless. Heavens forbid, but Wilhelm was strong enough to grab Rosine and use her to beat Otto senseless.

So Otto prayed silently, specifically out of cowardice. This too, was a sin. As always, he was resigned to living within the contradiction. He grabbed the first Silver vertebrae. He pressed it into Kaspar’s lower back. The flesh offered no resistance. The already existing bone was magically subsumed into the Silver, but the artificial vertebrae was still too big. The top knob of the metal remained exposed above the surface of the skin. One by one, he continued the grisly task, praying all the while.

With each piece slotted into place, Kaspar’s fever declined. His breath evened out. From time to time, the muscles twitched and flexed with mystical strength. Otto broke his rhythm on the final piece, and instead sunk it into the palm of Kaspar’s wounded hand. The fingers curled and uncurled, as strong as they ever were. No, Otto recognized. Stronger than they ever were.

Rosine and Wilhelm looked on in awe and disgust. Regardless of reaction, each of them was relieved to see the spell was working. All three of them were mortified to see that the hole in Kaspar’s hand did not close around the Syrneth artifact. Kaspar would wake and find a silver stigmata driven through his right palm.

“One more word, if I may,” said Angelo, in his native language this time. Otto nearly leaped out of his skin. He hadn’t realized Scarpa’s servant had remained at the door, as transfixed by the “miracle” as the rest of them were.

“What is it?” Rosine asked.

“My master’s words are… My conscience demands…”

“Out with it,”Wihlem insisted, for the second time.

“This is just another of my Master’s schemes,” he admitted. “I saw you all praying. I know you are men and women of Theus, even if you’re Objectionists. I can’t – I have to warn you. Don Constanzo wanted to make peace with Kaspar. Make allies. It’s a contradiction – kindness but also Villainy. Because it’s no longer Kaspar’s choice. Yevgenni the Boar seeks the Silver Spine – seeks all the pieces of the Lost Colossus of Syrne. This gift will give Kaspar back his health. But it also paints a target on his back. Quite literally. That Boar will sniff you out, like a hungry hog sniffing for truffles.”

Overwhelmed by… maybe it was guilt? Who knew… Angelo left and shut the door behind him. Otto turned Kaspar over, more concerned with his lords’ current health than future danger. Kaspar’s fever had broken. The bruising was already starting to recede. Good.

Wilhelm didn’t share his joy. “See what demons you’ve laid in our bed, Otto? Syrneth horrors, debts to the Don, and now the ire of Ussura, too. I’ll be seeking Herr Dietrich’s permission to hang you, first thing tomorrow morning.”

Otto declined to respond yet again. What was there to say? Words are cheap, and deeds weigh as much as gold. His debts were paid. If the noose was next, so be it. Kaspar would live – would thrive – to conquer another day.

This first chapter in the Blind With Rage storyline was influenced by several events and community decisions.

At Gamehole Con 2023, tournament winner Tom S (2023 Eisen District Captain) selected Otto Streit as this piece’s protagonist.

At the PAX Unplugged 2023 tournament, some participants attended in costume! Going forward, each participant in an official 7S5S event will have their name, moniker, or preferred alias added to the Death Roster and will appear in an upcoming fiction to die. Anders Lemchen attended PAXU with a fantastic pirate costume, as so his corpse made it into this fiction! If you’re already on the Death Roster, but haven’t seen your name yet, worry not. Your time will come. 

At the Gen Con 2023 For the Family multiplayer event, participants chose for one Vodacce character to have a redemption arc across future narratives. Angelo, the lowly Vodacce goon was chosen for redemption, as demonstrated in this piece.

The Syrneth artifact known as the Silver Spine was selected to become a part of the Lost Colossus by participants of the New in Town online league.

Finally, the winner of the PAX Unplugged 2023 tournament, Dan “the Don” Dineen (Vodacce), invited his fellow Vodacce players to help him develop his victory story decision, which guided the plot of this chapter.