— Chapter 1 —
Heinrich Kramer was not an imposing man – at least not physically. Now in his mid-50s, the inquisitor was beginning to show his age, with crows feet snaking their way from the corners of his eyes and bunny lines breaking out across the tops of his cheeks. Perhaps then it was something about his demeanor. Although not a demonstrable man, Kramer’s eyes burned with a fierce intelligence and unsettling calculation. His lips were also perennially pursed, giving him a fixed expression that resembled pain, as if the act of being was itself a struggle.
But inside of Kramer there was a different story. His mare, Arendeel, was making good time, and his heart was light, eager and thankful. For the first time in his life, the inquisitor felt as though he was on the right course. Armed with a papal bull, he was at last equipped to conduct the fully-empowered inquisitorial work for which he had long advocated. His destination was Innsbruck; his mission was the town’s salvation. In those days, Innsbruck was a bustling community in the Tyrol region, its destiny shaped by the city’s opportune location at the northern edge of the Brenner Pass. But for all its good fortune, rumors of maleficence had trickled out of the area like water through a closed fist, tales of curses and crop destruction, hauntings and heresy. These were the stories that made Kramer’s blood surge, filling his body with a hot and toxic rage. But they were also the stories that he had trained for, and he knew it was within his power to bring such a disordered land to heel.
Kramer’s companion, servant and bodyguard, Aldo, galloped alongside him. Ever since Kramer had been assaulted a few years ago while trying to conduct a witchcraft inquisition in the small city of Strub, he had rarely gone anywhere outside of Salzburg without him. A local miller hadn’t been particularly enthused when Kramer had looked into a case involving the man’s wife. This anger turned into outright hostility when the inquisitor had suggested a few tried-and-true methods for determining the woman’s guilt, particularly dunking her at the local pond or doing a full bodily inspection for the elusive “third nipple.”
Kramer knew that if Aldo had been there, he would have interceded, just like he always had since their fateful meeting in Salzburg a few months later. He was unquestionably a brave man, not to mention loyal to a fault. But more than anything, he was a good friend, one of only a few that Kramer could claim he had. He was also a congenial and even entertaining traveling partner, telling the priest stories of his time growing up in a small mountain village in the Western Alps and gently ribbing Kramer for his ardent and seemingly never-ending devotion to his creed.
“Does our Father allow us to stop my lord?” Aldo cried jokingly as the night fell.
The men’s horses slowed, moving from a full-on gallop to a trot and then an eventual walk. Both steeds were tired, their heaving flanks flecked with foam. Kramer himself felt the familiar hand of fatigue grip him.
“There is an clearing just up ahead my lord,” said Aldo, spurring his horse ahead of Kramer.
The inquisitor followed behind him, his eyes glancing back and forth, starring harshly at the chaotic trees and thickets that flanked both sides of the road. Aldo quickly led them off the beaten path. His horse charted a new course through the tall and wet grasses and eventually into the thicker forests, its hooves crackling and snapping with every stride. The moon had emerged from the dark clouds above, bathing the trees and the brush with silver. After a few moments, the two horses and their respective masters broke through the tree line to enter the clearing, and both were instantly engulfed with relief that a decent night’s sleep might be at hand at last.
A fire was lit, dinner was cooked, and before long, the two men were occupied with preparing the camp, unrolling their bedrolls and settling in for the night. Aldo tossed his bedroll out with a coarse casualness that was, if not crude, almost certainly uncouth. Dark earth was strewn across his blanket, but the man seemed unaware or perhaps even unfazed. He rutted about in the folds, finally settling onto his broad back and looking up intently at the sky above him. Conversely, Kramer gingerly prepared his bed, tentative and uncertain about the ground’s ability to offer even a modicum of comfort.
“My lord?” Aldo said from the darkness directly to Kramer’s right.
Also had turned his head in the monk’s direction.
“Do you think the stories are true? That we will find real witches in Innsbruck?”
“But of course, Aldo. Do you now doubt it?”
“No, no. Of course not. This is a cruel world. Undoubtedly, such creatures exist.”
“Good. I need you with me on this.”
“Of course, my lord.”
Kramer lay down and turned on his side away from the other man, fully facing the glowing embers of a dying fire. His eyes bore into them, watching as they winked away to nothing. The cold chilled him, wrapping itself around his throat. He pulled his thin blanket tighter, and he recognized that he was afraid.
“My lord?” murmured Aldo sleepily, his voice thick and stupid sounding.
“Yes?” the priest snapped, slightly annoyed and slightly relieved.
“Will we find God there?”
“What do you mean?” Kramer scoffed, although the bottom of his stomach seemed to have fallen away.
“How can God allow such demonry? If he sees all and knows all, how can he permit it?”
Kramer didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. Instead, he lay silently, wrapped in a blanket and staring into the inky blackness of the forest. Before long, like clockwork, the familiar sounds of Aldo breathing and snoring rose into the crisp night air, leaving the monk lonelier than he could remember ever being before. Finally, after much tossing and turning, the veil took him, and he dreamed. His mother and father – long lost and typically faint – were there again, waving across a field of flowers marked by cerise and gold. He grabbed for his parents and their hands clasped tightly together. But then the dream changed, collapsed, and he let them go.