Spider had been walking up the mountain trail for a good half hour, and her feet were starting to hurt. It didn't help that she was carrying a heavy backpack: she'd done long ruck marches in training, but she'd been out on rehabilitation for a long time and knew she was out of shape. Hopefully, the rest of this trip would help.
Thankfully, she could already see the small log cabin up ahead. A thin stream of smoke emitted from the brick-and-clay oven nearby. The high, metallic sound of hammer on steel could be heard even at this distance.
She hiked her backpack a little higher, took a drink of water from her camelbak, and forged on.
Hopefully, the blisters would be worth it in the end.
"So you've finally come down to visit, huh, girl?"
Heinrich Guggenheim looked exactly like one would expect a dwarf to look: short, stocky, and massively built, with forearms the size of hams and fists the size of small kegs. He was a middle-aged, balding man with a neatly trimmed, white beard and intense, beady eyes, and his face and arms were marked with dozens of small, pale burn scars. He stepped back and looked Spider up and down once, and laughed out loud. "Looking good. You're wearing that new body well."
"Thanks," Spider said, smiling. "Complete thaumatological identity reassignment will do that. Given that I'm gonna be spending a lifetime working for the Coalition, the least they can do is let me feel comfortable in my own body."
"And now that you're settled in, you've come to visit old Guggenheim for those knives he promised you, huh?" The old man laughed out loud. "All right, girl. Let's see what I can do."
Heinrich let out a low, impressed grunt as Spider unwrapped the heavy, silk-wrapped package she'd been carrying strapped to her backpack. "Is that real?"
"Yeah," Spider said. "It fell over Siberia a few years back. I've been buying up as many pieces as I can."
He picked up one of the fragments of meteoric iron and weighed it in his hand contemplatively. "High iron content," he said. "But are you sure it's going to be enough to make three knives?"
"It doesn't have to be. We can fill in with regular iron if we need to. Sympathy and Contagion will transfer its properties over."
Guggenheim nodded. "I've been saving a good solid ingot for you. From the days back when you were apprenticing with me. Got a lot of history behind it. We smelt it into blanks along with this, and it'll work out great. Which brings us to the question of payment."
"You're not going to bring up Brisingamen again, are you?"
"You said it. Not me. It does have the weight of tradition behind it," Heinrich smirked.
"Unlike Freya, I have something better to barter with than gold." She opened up her backpack and pulled out two corrugated cardboard cylinders.
"18 year?" Heinrich asked.
"25. Two of the Yamazaki. And one 30-year Hibiki."
"… yeah, that'll do nicely," Guggenheim laughed. "You could have gotten this done for 12-year, you know."
"I know. But I want it done quickly, before the Coalition calls me back up again. I'm technically on 'psychological rehabilitation,' but the shrinks think that doing this will help my healing process. Even so, they won't let me stay for too long."
"Yeah, I heard," Guggenheim admitted. "Good on you getting back into the game." He raised the bottles of dark amber liquid to the light. "For this? Yeah, I'll get it done fast. But you'll be helping me."
"Wouldn't want it any other way."
"So you're wanting the full set, then?" the smith asked. He sketched out the broad outline of three knives on a sheet of butcher paper on the roughly hewn table in the cabin's kitchen. "Athame, boline, and secespita?"
"Yeah," Spider said, sitting down across from him.
"Any particulars in design?"
"I'll leave that up to you, as the expert."
"Mmmm. Boline's easy. You want a hawkbill blade. Concave cutting edge. Well suited to cutting mistletoe and tree branches. And the athame… straight blade, double-edged dagger, with a broad fuller so we can carve in some runes. Secespita's the tough one. Some people prefer a clip point: gives you a sharper tip, but drop point's better in my opinion. Less chance of slicing open the guts if you do haruspicy."
"Not much call for that these days."
"Not much call for hand-forged ritual knives, either. But then again, you've always preferred the traditional methods." Guggenheim quickly sketched out the details of the three knives in charcoal, filling out the details. "The athame will be the largest. Boline and secespita will have at least partial serrations. Full tang wootz steel. You'll want sheaths too, right? Leather's the best material for sheaths."
"They have to go onto tactical webbing. Maybe I should see if the armorers can adapt the sheath from an OKC-3S or something."
"Nylon ruins the purity. Leather's better."
"There's no proof that storage in plastic or synthetic fibers can disrupt the EVE signature of a ritual device," Spider pointed out.
"You want my help, or don't you? Leather sheaths. You can attach your nylon loops and stuff to them if you must, but the part that touches the blade must be leather."
"If you insist. Do you have any?"
"I do, but for these knives… hmm." Guggenheim leaned back in his chair and ran a hand over his balding pate. "Can you still handle a bow and arrow?"
Spider knelt at the base of the tree, arrow nocked to her bowstring, and took a deep, cleansing breath, clearing her mind of all distractions. She could feel the cool air of the forest all around her, caressing her face and throat. It was soothing. Calming. Still.
Memories of a childhood spent in the woods. Trudging through the forest following her father's orange vest. Listening to him give advice on how to stalk the prey, how to hold perfectly still, how to respect nature and all its living things. The pride in his eyes when she'd shot her first buck: single rifle bullet through the heart. A good kill.
Remembering her father's eyes reminded her of worse days. Angry voices and narrowed eyes. Raised voices. A slamming door.
She hadn't heard from her family in years. Not that they would recognize her. She'd changed too much since then.
She sometimes wondered if they thought of her. She wondered if they'd declared her dead yet.
She wondered if her father had forgiven her.
The sound of a snapping twig roused her from her thoughts. She opened her eyes very slowly, careful not to move from her crouching position in the bushes.
The stag was an old, powerful buck, with twenty-point antlers and greying fur at its muzzle and throat. It scanned the treeline warily before emerging to dip its head and nibble at the berries and salt she had laid out in the clearing.
Spider slowly raised the bow and drew the arrow back to her ear.
She released the string smoothly, and the white-fletched missile leaped from the string with a sharp hiss.
It struck home with a dull thud, penetrating right behind the shoulder.
The deer leaped away, bellowing in pain and terror. It turned to run, but collapsed within a few steps and lay still on the leaf-strewn ground, sides heaving.
Spider drew a second arrow from her quiver and got to her feet. Approaching quickly, but carefully, she advanced to around ten feet and fired a second, precise arrow through the dear's heart.
The beast quivered once and then lay still.
Grabbing the dying animal by the antlers, she drew the blade of her hunting knife across its throat.
Warm blood spilled over her hands and pooled underneath the animal, staining the fallen leaves bright red.
She took a moment to cut a sprig from a nearby tree and place it in the animal's mouth. Breaking off a twig from that branch, she dipped it in the blood and put it into her hair as a souvenir of the day's hunt.
Then, working quickly, she used the knife she'd cut the deer's throat with to draw a circle around the carcass.
She wondered if she should do this next part skyclad. She decided against it: the weather was far too cold to be gallavanting about naked in the woods, no matter what the ritual significance.
She removed the arrows and put them side: one of them was reusable, the other had broken when the beast rolled over onto it. She then turned the deer onto its back and, starting with the sternum, opened up its belly with a slow sweep of the hunting knife.
The intestines spilled out, warm and steaming, onto the forest floor: she lifted them in her arms and tossed them to the south, trailing out of the deer's belly like a long cord. The lungs she pulled out through the ribs, spreading them open like eagle's wings. The liver and heart she kept, putting them aside for later.
It was long, bloody, tiring work, and the sun was setting by the time she finally got to her feet. The skin, head, haunches, and much of the meat she took with her. The rest she left for the wolves and scavengers to return to the earth. Wiping a few flecks of blood off her face, she bowed once to the setting sun and turned to make the long hike back to Guggenheim's cabin.
Guggenheim poured some of the deer's blood over the chunks of iron, glass, sand, and charcoal inside the clay crucible. He tossed the heart onto the charcoal before sealing up the clay-and-brick oven and igniting the flames.
They dined that night on venison steaks and potatoes, after Spider had cleaned the hide and set it in a barrel with salt to cure. They would stay up all night pumping air into the oven through the great bellows, keeping the flames alight.
Dawn came, and with it came the opening of the oven, and the removal of the crucible. Guggenheim smiled as he saw the glowing ingot emerge from the slag and clay. "Good steel," he said. "It'll make good knives."
"The best," Spider agreed.
He added the deer's liver to the coals of his forge: it sizzled and smoked as he plunged the ingot into the hot coals. Spider helped him to pound the steel into a long, thin blank, raising and slamming down the heavy steel hammer until her back ached and her arms felt like jelly. Then, with chisel and hammer, he divided the glowing steel into three pieces.
Long days passed. While Guggenheim devoted himself to heating, pounding, and shaping the blanks, Spider finished cleaning and curing the deer's hide. She chose one of its antlers, and two of its ribs, and saved them for handles. The meat she cured, salted, and dried into jerky.
The beast had given its life for her, and she would make use of it to the very end.
The first blade Guggenheim finished was the athame: long and slender, double-edged, with slender quillions, a broad fuller inset with silver runes. She carved the handle out of good, solid oak, stained black, carved runes into them and inlaid them with silver. This was the ritual blade, the one that she used to draw circles and cut through the ether.
The second was the boline: curved and short, with a concave edge and a blunt tip. She made this handle out of the deer's antler, carving and polishing it into a smooth hilt. This was the working blade, the one she could use to cut herbs and mistletoe, a tool for everyday work.
Those two blades would never draw blood. But the third was the secespita, the killing blade, the knife of sacrifice. This one Guggenheim made with a sturdy drop point and a razor-sharp edge. She carved the handle out of bone, taken from the deer's ribs, the bones that lay close to the heart.
The night after Guggenheim finished the third knife, she took it with her into his rabbit pens and picked out a big, fat one ready to be eaten. She held the struggling animal down on the oak stump and cut its throat.
The blood spilled out over her hands once more, and she shivered as she raised it to her lips and tasted the life-blood of the dead creature. She drew the circle with the point of the athame and burned the sage that she had cut with boline. She inhaled the smoke and closed her eyes and slept that night under the stars, wrapped in the hide of the deer she had killed, with the knives she had crafted from its body resting around her at three points of an equilateral triangle.
Three knives. One meant for harm. The second meant for harvest. The third for power. The tools of her craft.
"You happy with them?" Heinrich asked the next morning. He'd put a final polish on the blades, and now they lay on a blanket made of soft deerskin: the long, slender athame, the short, hawkbilled boline, the broad secespita. They shone like rippling water, beautifully damascened. Forged from the same steel under the same moon, shining like stars.
"They're perfect," Spider said. She wrapped them in the deerhide and bound them in leather cord. She would have the hide tanned into hard leather, and would bring it to the Coalition's armorers to craft into sheaths for these new knives of hers.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" Guggenheim asked.
"… I think so," Spider replied.
"Then good luck down there, girl," the old man said, and he leaned forward to kiss his student on the forehead. "And take care of yourself."
"I will," Spider whispered.
Tears welled up in her eyes, and she sat down hard, silent sobs shaking her body.
Guggenheim sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. They would sit like that together until the pain stopped and she could stand on her own once more.
"Bullfrog." She sat down across from her team leader at the conference table, nodding to him respectfully. "Kitten. Skunkboy."
The four of them took their seats around the table as Bullfrog turned out the lights and brought up a map of a small coastal town up on the projection screen.
"This is Dunwich, Massachusetts," he said. "It's a neutral zone between humanity and the Subpelagics, and one of the few places where cross-breeding between the two species takes place. The town has been neutral ground for both parties for at least one hundred years. And last week, that neutrality was broken…"
He went over the details of the incident, the rising diplomatic tensions, the emergency treaty that narrowly averted all-out war between humanity and the dwellers of the deep. "Our mission is to find out what's actually going on," he concluded. "We'll be seconded to PSYCHE division's investigative team. Our job is basically to be on hand if and when they need someone with combat experience. In the meantime, we'll assist with the investigation as best we can. Are there any questions?"
No one answered.
He took a deep breath. "All right, then one last thing." He turned on the lights, illuminating the room fully and casting the shadows away. "We've been hurt," he said, his voice low and husky. "And this is our first time back out in the field. And what makes the hurt worse is that it was one of us… it was me… doing a lot of the hurting. I still think that our team is solid. I still think we're strong. But… if you need to do anything… to say anything… so that we can put that hurting behind us and get the job down… I'm here. And I'm ready."
There was silence, broken only by the sound of the projector's cooling fan slowly turning.
Spider licked her lips and breathed in very slowly, then out just as slow.
"Bullfrog?" she said.
The big man's mouth twitched once. He turned and looked her in the eyes for the first time in over a month.
"I'll follow you wherever you lead me," she said. Her voice shook a bit, and she cleared her throat. "Even into hell."
Bullfrog nodded at that. For a moment, she thought she could see moisture well up in his eyes, but then he blinked and set his shoulders, and his eyes had returned to their usual cool, calm, flint-like hardness.
"Then let's move," he said. "Meet up in the hangar at 1800. And pack heavy. We may be there for a while."