by Richard Lee Byers
available now from White Wolf Publishing
Montrose found himself on the threshold of a huge, high-ceilinged chamber, where masses of barrow-flame blazed upward from wells and pits in the floor. Many of the fires were comparable to those employed by mortal blacksmiths. But some were considerably larger, while one, in the exact center of the room, blazed upward like some primordial tree. Noxious vapors hung in the air, stinging his eyes and throat.
Big or small, every blaze had at least one Artificer working beside it. Many of the smiths had skin seared the same sooty black as Montrose's escort. Some toiled bare to the waist or nude altogether, as if they no longer minded the bitter cold, or wanted to convince one another that they didn't.
Their labor, of course, was the grisly business that other Hierarchs preferred not to discuss, the practice that had outraged Heretics and Renegades for centuries, though their qualms seldom prevented them from availing themselves of the fruits of the guildsmen's labors. Beside each fire stood at least one jointed, counterbalanced metal rack, a contraption designed to immobilize a human body and position it at any desired attitude in the flames. Many of the victims hung limp in their bonds, their faces slack, or simply squirmed sluggishly. But a few thrashed and bucked, their eyes rolling wildly. No doubt, had it not been for the gray iron muzzles, they would have screamed.
When their substance grew glowing hot and malleable, the Artificers placed them on their anvils and began to shape them, pounding them with mallets, chanting incantations, drawing luminous strands of plasm with their forceps, and sometimes slicing a captive wraith into sections. Looking about, Montrose saw some prisoners who looked battered and crushed, but still essentially human, and others all but completely transformed into a selection of the necessities and amenities of Stygian existence: guns, chains, heaps of coins, silverware, artificial flowers. In the latter cases, there was only an occasional sign -- a finger oozing from the side of a grandfather clock, a face forming and dissolving inside a propeller intended for some ship -- that the article in question had once been an animate soul.
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