In my hometown of Sombermorey, everything south of Alchemy Street is zoned as the Industrial District. These days, most of the extant manufacturing facilities are owned by a local tech company called Thorne Tech Enterprises, but they’re heavily automated and only employ a couple of hundred people at most. Local tourism, recreation, financial services, and Avalon College account for most of my city’s modern economy, but the abandoned factories remind us of the days when most people earned their bread by smelting iron or spinning textiles.
One of these derelict factories looms high above the rest, both physically and in our local folklore, and that’s the Fawn & Raubritter Foundry. Thaddeus Fawn was a local industrialist, whereas the mysterious Herr Raubritter was allegedly a Prussian investor. Raubritter was also largely absent, though many workers testified that he visited more frequently than should have been possible for someone living abroad in those days.
As a result of this arrangement, the day-to-day operations of the Foundry were almost entirely left to Fawn. This was very unfortunate for the downtrodden workers, since Fawn embodied every hateful stereotype of a 19th-century industrialist. His employees were nothing more than cogs in his machine, meant to yield the greatest output for the least cost. He primarily took in the least skilled and most desperate, and yet somehow cajoled them to create some of the finest metal products of the day.
Men, women and children would work sixteen-hour days, six days a week, often for as little as fifty cents a day. Workplace injuries and deaths were common, with some statistics showing that up to a third of the men who worked there were either killed or permanently maimed on the job. I couldn’t find any statistics for the women or children, but I doubt they fared much better.
Everyone slept on filthy, threadbare cots in cramped dormitories, and were fed a meager allotment of bread and gruel. Any other expenses, damages, or just lost productivity were deducted from their wages with interest, and many workers soon found themselves working just to pay off their ever-increasing debt to Fawn and never saw a penny for themselves.
But of all these abuses and horrors, the worst were undoubtedly the Foundry’s overseers. Their brutal and merciless discipline made sure that everyone under their charge were too terrified to ever dream of retaliating or slacking off.
The strange thing about Fawn’s overseers was that none of them were local men, and no one had any idea where they came from. They were all tall, hulking brutes who wore strange helmets that obscured their features, and they eschewed the light as much as their duties would allow. They were only occasionally seen outside the Foundry, and always on business. When they spoke, it was in a deep, bestial voice that barely sounded human and lacked any sort of regional accent that could be used to identify their origins. Most curious of all, all the Foundry workers attested that the overseers’ eyes seemed to have a dull amber glow that mirrored the incandescent light of the molten metal.
But even though the Foundry was dependent on the ruthlessness of its overseers to function, it was also ironically the cause of its downfall.
The Foundry met its end when one night, over a hundred years ago, there was a riot. Accounts vary, but most say that at least one of the overseers had been caught sexually assaulting a young girl. The man who caught them had been so enraged, and the overseer so compromised, that the worker successfully managed to run a fire poker through his skull, killing him almost immediately. A pair of nearby overseers began beating the man to death, but by then the commotion had attracted the attention of the other workers, and within minutes it was a full-blown uprising.
A fire was started that gutted the interior of the Foundry, and Thaddeus Fawn was burned to death. Officially, Raubritter wasn’t in town at the time, but many of the workers say that they saw him glaring down at them from the administrative offices as they destroyed his Foundry. As for the overseers, they all just vanished as mysteriously as they had arrived.
Thaddeus’s share of the Foundry passed to his son Theodore, but as he was a medical student at the time with no interest in rebuilding or running a factory, he sold his share to our local real estate and financial magnate, Seneca Chamberlin. Chamberlin never re-opened the Foundry though, despite the high demand for its products, and no one ever saw Raubritter again.
Some speculate that Chamberlin bought Raubritter’s share as well, but that only makes his failure to reopen or repurpose the Foundry all the more baffling. Its doors and windows were shuttered, but to this day people still claim to occasionally hear people and machinery inside or glimpse flickering light through the wooden slats.
The current owner of the Fawn & Raubritter Foundry is named Seneca Chamberlin as well, and if you believe the stories about him, he’s the same guy as the first Chamberlin. He has declined to make any convincing public statement about why he’s holding on to an officially defunct factory and sizable plot of land that’s providing him with nothing but property taxes. And as for the sounds and the lights people say they’ve witnessed? Chamberlin insists that’s just the angry ghosts of all those poor exploited workers continuing their Sisyphean labour for all eternity.
Most people are convinced he must be doing something illicit there, but the cops insist that the place is clean. I wasn't willing to take their word for it, though. If there was any chance that the Fawn & Raubritter Foundry was operational and exploiting captive workers like Willy Wonka, then that was enough for me to investigate on my own.
I knew that possibly picking a fight with someone as powerful as Chamberlin was risky though, so I didn’t go in unprepared. I armed myself with a hunting knife and a bat/flashlight combo, and I wore a bullet and slash-resistant vest under my leather jacket.
I was a bit concerned about what I would say if the cops caught me with all that stuff, but as soon as I rode my motorbike into the Industrial District that evening, I felt immediately vindicated in my decision. The profusion of abandoned buildings combined with the low number of active businesses and the complete absence of homes meant it was a hotbed for criminals, addicts, and vagrants. The majority of the streetlamps didn’t even work, and I was terrified that every figure I saw huddling in the shadows would come running out screaming and brandishing a weapon.
Fortunately, no one hassled me that night. I’d like to think that I was successfully projecting enough of a badass biker chick persona to make anyone think twice about messing with me, but it may have just been dumb luck.
I cruised around the Foundry for about half an hour, scoping it out as best I could. It was enclosed by a cheap plywood fence that had numerous breaches in its perimeter, so getting onto the property wasn’t a problem.
It was so much worse in there than being on the road, though. There were no functioning lights at all, and I was going so slowly that if someone did charge me from the shadows, they likely could have caught me before I even had a chance to speed away. Thankfully, the lot appeared to be abandoned, filled with nothing but gravel, overgrown grass, and piles of debris.
There were a few different buildings on the lot, the biggest one of course being the Foundry itself. It was long and narrow, maybe forty or fifty-feet tall with a steep roof and made from dark, colourless bricks. Most of the windows were near the top, and they had all been boarded up from the inside. The front door was the first potential point of entry that I checked out, and it was sealed with a padlock and chains. For the hell of it, I gave the lock a gentle tug to see how sturdy it was.
It unlocked effortlessly, and the chains slipped out from between the door handles almost like slithering snakes, allowing me free entry to the Foundry.
I was awestruck by how lucky I was, but convinced myself that’s all it was; luck. The last person hadn’t locked up properly, and that was it. I very cautiously pulled the door open, listening for any signs of activity from within the Foundry. I waited for over a minute, and heard nothing but silence. I took that as a sign that it was safe to proceed and stepped into a small, dark vestibule of some kind.
As soon as the doors closed behind me, lights flickered on and a security shutter descended from the ceiling, trapping me inside.
“No!” I screamed, flying into a panic and pounding on the metal slats as hard as I could. I even unsheathed my bat and took a few swings at it, but it barely even made a dent. “Oh no. Oh no.”
Behind me, I could hear furnaces being fired up, machinery clanking and turbines whirring.
The Foundry was coming back to life.
“Please, not to be hitting the door, yes?” a crackling voice said in an insincerely kind tone. I frantically looked around the room for the source of the voice, my eyes eventually falling on an antiquated P.A. speaker in the corner. “Are you here about the job application?”
I squinted in confusion at the old squawk box as I pondered what it had just said. I had come to investigate the urban legends surrounding the Foundry, and it seemed that they were true. The Foundry was still operational, and it was hiring.
I quickly mulled over my options, and decided the best way to get the most information was to play along.
“Ah, yes. Yes, I am,” I replied reticently, slowly sheathing my bat. “So sorry about the door. I’m a touch claustrophobic, and I just panicked when it closed like that.”
“Is alright,” the voice said apathetically. There was a sudden whizzing sound, and a rolled-up piece of age-browned paper was deposited into the vestibule by a pneumatic tube. “Please read and fill out the application promptly, then place it back in the tube when you are ready to proceed to the interview.”
"Th…thank you," I mumbled, tentatively plucking the ancient-looking scroll from out of the tube. I gingerly unfurled it, scared it might disintegrate in my hands. In the header, it said ‘The Fawn & Raubritter Foundry – Alchemical Metallurgy & Humour Refinery’ in big, calligraphic letters.
“Alchemy?” I muttered incredulously to myself. “Ow!”
The damn thing had given me a paper cut, leaving a streak of blood along the top. Mystified, I watched as the parchment soaked the blood up like a sponge in a matter of seconds. I swear, the paper seemed to get a little bit younger from that taste of blood, and the black font took on a noticeably red tinge. There was still blood on my finger, so I tried wiping it on the application to see if it happened again. It didn’t, so I shook it off as seeing things from a combination of the creepy surroundings and dim lighting.
I tried not to consider the possibility that the paper was just full.
Not wanting to keep whoever was on the other end of the P.A. system waiting, I sat down at an old roll top desk and grabbed what I initially mistook as a fountain pen. When I tried to write with it though, it was clear that it wasn’t depositing ink but extracting a dark red substance from the paper itself, a substance that I could only assume was my blood. If I tried to make a mark with it on anything else, nothing happened. There weren’t any other writing implements at hand though, so I pressed on.
The first thing the application asked for was my ‘True Name’, and when I tried to write down a random alias, the blood was reabsorbed into the paper in seconds. I finally decided ‘fuck it’ and wrote down ‘Ella’. That time, the blood remained as indelible as if I had carved it into stone.
That was pretty freaky, and it was enough to put me off writing in my full name. Some of the other questions weren’t too weird; age, sex, and physical abilities, for example, but it also asked about my relationship status, fertility, and even if I was a virgin. It asked for my ‘Blood Status’, which to me sounded like something from Harry Potter, but I just assumed it was a weird way of saying blood type and wrote ‘B-’. Then it got really weird, asking about various occult affiliations and inborn or acquired preternatural abilities, and I just put a big ‘X’ beside all of them.
Just as unsettling was what it didn’t ask for; my address, phone, e-mail, whether I had a criminal record or was legally able to work in the country. That’s all stuff I had thought would’ve been standard. It also didn’t ask what sort of position I was looking for or what hours I would be able to work.
After that was an incomprehensible wall of text, filled with esoteric words I didn’t recognize. I got the vague impression it was describing the company and swearing me to secrecy in order to be granted the privilege of an interview.
Since the only way out was forward, I checked yes.
I rolled the scroll back up and stuck it back in the pneumatic tube. Without pressing anything, it was immediately whisked out of my sight.
“Yes, thank you most kindly, young lady,” the voice said again. “Please make your way across the factory floor towards the lift at the far end, and we will conduct the interview in my office.”
The vestibule doors slowly and noisily sputtered open as though moved by rusty gears, revealing the cavernous industrial powerhouse that was the Foundry. I gazed upon it, awestruck and dumfounded, before finally mumbling “It’s… it’s bigger on the inside.”
I didn’t know how it was possible, but the ceiling was far higher than fifty feet, and if I had to guess I’d say the inside was at least a couple hundred meters long. Tarnished crucibles swung through the air on heavy and rust-covered chains, deftly weaving between blast furnaces and assembly lines, pouring molten metal into moulds.
The furnaces and the assembly lines were both attended to by workers who, even though they looked like they were in a state of near-total starvation, performed their duties with mechanical efficiency and without any hint of exhaustion. Coal was shovelled, castings quenched and blasted, and supplies moved from point to point with no sign of weariness, inexperience, or disgruntlement.
Some of them were naked, but most still had at least some remnant of tattered rags on them. It was like they had been working in the same set of clothes they had started with, and they had never been repaired or replaced for years and years. If they had any hair, it was only thin and patchy, and as devoid of pigment as their pallid skin and milky eyes. Many of them had bronze braces riveted into their limbs, torso, or neck, and I could only assume that those braces were all that were still holding them together.
I saw that anyone with a sedentary job either didn’t have any legs, or if they did, they were mangled and atrophied to the point of uselessness. Workers without arms were yoked to carts that they pulled like mules. There were even a few quadruple amputees that were harnessed to the backs of able-bodied but blinded men, and appeared to be issuing them instructions.
Desperate to look at anything other than those horribly abused bodies, I looked up towards the windows. From the outside, the windows had been boarded up. Looking out though, the windows were unbarred and the sky was perfectly visibly. The sky was swirling with sickly yellow clouds, that pelted the windows with brown, likely acidic, rain. Wherever the inside of the Foundry was, it wasn’t in Sombermorey.
Finally, I looked towards the very far end of the factory floor, and at the very top was a large window to an administrative office, placed so that those behind it could survey the entirety of production from a single location. I could make out a silhouette of a man standing in that window, and despite how very far away he was, I clearly saw him gesture for me to come to him.
With a feeling of dread swelling in my stomach, I swallowed nervously and made my way to his office.
None of the workers gave any sign that they noticed me. They didn’t give any sign that they noticed each other except when their tasks required it. I was vigilant for them, since I doubted they would stop for me if I got in their way.
Just as the voice on the P.A. had said, I found a lift at the far end of the factory floor, right under the office. As soon as I stepped upon it, it began to rise, and within seconds I found myself standing in an ostentatiously old-fashioned office. Stained-glass lamps appeared to be the only electrical appliances in the room. Next to a roaring fire-place, sitting in a claw-footed, high-backed chair was a man in a cravat, top-hat, and three-piece suit.
He was as hairless and as pale as his workers, and though he didn’t look to be starving there was still a sharp leanness to his features that suggested a primal, predatory hunger. Despite the dim lighting of the room he was wearing opaque, hexagonal spectacles that prevented us from making direct eye contact.
He rolled up a piece of paper he had been reading, presumably my application, and grinned a wide grin at me. All of his teeth were baby teeth, but he had enough of them to fill an adult-sized mouth – fifty at the least.
“You are Ella, yes?” he asked in an unplaceable though vaguely European accent. It almost sounded fake, but I think it was actually just one that was so old nobody speaks like that anymore.
I nodded meekly, unable to bring myself to speak.
“You walked the factory floor, yes?” he asked, his grin growing even wider. Again, I just nodded. “Is good. Is how I weed out non-serious applicants. Please, sit. Not to worry about social distancing, no. I am… exempt, yes?”
He picked up a hand mirror and exhaled upon it, holding it up so that I could see no breath had condensed on it.
My right leg was twitching with the urge to bolt, and I had to bite my lip to keep from screaming, but I did as he said. Whatever this thing was, I couldn’t fight or run from it. All I could do was play along.
“Allow me to be introducing myself, yes? I am Herr Drogo Raubritter, and I am the co-owner of this marvelous Alchemical Foundry and Refinery,” he boasted proudly. As he spoke, he poured some heavier-than-air black vapour from a crystal decanter into a gilded tumbler, as though it were a fine liqueur. “Tell me, how did you come to hear about my operation?”
“Ah… through friends,” I mumbled.
“Might I be having their names, please? We have a very generous referral program here,” he said with a sinister smirk.
“I… I think they’d rather remain anonymous, for the time being,” I replied, nervously clearing my throat. Raubritter gave a slow, begrudging nod.
“And do you know what it is we do here, Miss Ella?” he asked.
“Well, I understand the metallurgy and refinery parts, but I’m a little unclear about what you mean by ‘alchemy’,” I replied, wondering if he might be at all inclined to tell me what the hell was going on in this place.
“Alchemy, yes! Alchemy is the heart of this business, Miss Ella,” he said, his voice full of pride and enthusiasm at the very mention of the word. “It is the first science, the purest science, the greatest science! It is through alchemy that we distill substances down to their foremost essence, eliminating any undesirable contaminants. Here we distill and purify not only the metal in our crucibles but the very blood in our veins!”
“Your… blood?” I asked timidly, my voice barely a whisper.
“Yes! It is… unorthodox, I admit, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the results speak for themselves,” he bragged. “My blood, for example, has been distilled to only that which is essential to my work as an industrialist and scientist, purified not only of physical ailments but also less tangible defects that may distract from my efficiency.
“The same is true of the workers you saw. The working class exists to work, and any desires they may have to do otherwise is contrary to productivity, yes? An unproductive worker is not a happy worker, and unhappy workers are… liabilities. So, after a certain incident where the unhappiness of my workforce came to a boil, thanks mainly to the incompetence of my deservedly late partner, I decided a new business model was needed.
“I needed happy, productive workers, and my workers needed productivity to be happy. So, I realized I could no longer hoard the benefits of my research to myself, and instead implemented it as my first and only employee benefit.
“Now, my workers have no desire but to work. They eat, sleep, even breed only when it serves the higher purpose of work. They have nothing to distract them from their productivity, and thus are utterly fulfilled and content. Their bodies are also physically augmented as necessary to withstand such an unnaturally relentless workload, as I’m sure you noticed.”
“You mean, those people down there, the way they were, you did that to them as a job perk?” I asked, gazing upon him with a new found revulsion.
“I did, and it’s proven to be the smartest investment I ever made,” he nodded. “It is through the distilling and concentration of the blood’s desired qualities and the removal of nearly all its imperfections that I have created a workforce of such unparalleled efficiency that, were my methods not trade secrets, they would revolutionize the world. Of course, the world is no concern of mine outside of my own business dealings.”
He stopped talking, and I just starred in shocked silence. If I understood everything he just told me, he was claiming to have achieved transhumanity through medieval means, and used those same methods to permanently enslave his workforce.
“You’re… you’re going to alter my blood so that I’m one of those… things, down there?” I whispered, unable to stop tears from rolling down my cheeks. He quizzically cocked his head at me.
“Only if you agree, my dear,” he assured me.
“Why would I, would anyone, agree to that?” I asked, utterly baffled.
“Why work for me when you can work for someone else, you mean?” he asked. That wasn’t exactly what I meant, obviously, but I didn’t object since it seemed the closest his warped mind could come to understanding. “As working class, you must work or starve, yes? I make no pretensions otherwise. But, whereas other employers either care nothing for your happiness or try to make you happy with extrinsic methods, I will intrinsically change you so that you will always be happy as my employee. You are not capable of true happiness because you have so many conflicting desires inside of you, and satisfying some means denying others. I can purge you of all conflicting desires, leaving you with only one; the desire to work.
“I assure you, that’s a desire that will never go unfilled so long as you work for me. The happiness of my workforce has been the key to my success for the past century. I can transmute even the most desperate and common of plebeians into assets I can use, assets that produce the finest works of smithery for nothing more than gruel in their stomachs and transmogrified blood in their veins.
“And you, Ella, your payment will be something that you likely never would have found anywhere else; fulfillment, contentment, happiness. At least, but the definitions you will accept after your first ‘orientation’. The job security is wonderful as well. I will ensure you’ll last as long as you’re profitable to maintain. For so little maintenance, that could very well be forever if you’re lucky, yes? You could live forever, Ella, live forever in bliss, so long as you’re willing to live down there.”
He paused again, awaiting my response.
“But… you won’t take me if I’m not willing? I can refuse? I can leave?” I asked softly, unsure if he was toying with me.
"Yes, you may leave," he nodded, letting out a small sigh of resignation. “The process is far less cost-effective if you resist it, and I have no shortage of willing applicants. Times are quite desperate out there, it seems. Your blood didn't smell quite desperate enough, but that could change, yes? I'll keep your application on file, and you can come back at any time. Maybe later, you'll be starving, or you'll be sick and dying, or you’ll just be depressed. And then, maybe working for me won't seem so bad, yes?"
He snapped his fingers, and from the shadows emerged a large man dressed in what looked like a 19th-century police uniform and some sort of three-horned hoplite helmet. Underneath the brazen mask of the helmet, I could only discern two faintly glowing amber eyes, and I knew at once that he could only be one of the old overseers. Raubritter’s alchemically enhanced workforce likely didn’t require as much oversight as it used to, but apparently the overseers weren’t completely obsolete either.
“Kindly be escorting Miss Ella back outside, yes?” he ordered. The overseer nodded, but he apparently didn’t hear the word ‘kindly’ as he pulled me up roughly by the arm and started dragging me towards the lift.
“Wait! One more question,” I pleaded. “Where is this place?”
I pointed at the window, and at the greenish-yellow clouds in the sky, hoping Raubritter understood what I was asking.
He smiled, and finally picked up the tumbler of heavy black vapour he had poured for himself.
“Where dreams come true; my dreams, at least,” he taunted, simultaneously drinking and inhaling the contents of his glass. “Off you go now. Auf wiedersehen.”
The overseer grabbed me by the scruff of my jacket like a kitten and hauled me downstairs, across the factory floor, and tossed me back outside like I was a sack of garbage. Scrambling back to my feat, I leapt onto my motorcycle and sped all the way back home, crying the entire time.
At least now I knew where Alchemy Street had gotten its name.
I had gone to the Foundry because I thought something illegal, maybe even monstrous, was going on there, but I never dreamed something so impossible and otherworldly was hiding behind those brick walls. I never dreamed that there’d be so many people trapped inside, maybe even beyond saving. For all I know, Raubritter’s alchemy can never be undone.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to revisit the Foundry during daylight hours, and there wasn’t the slightest sign of anything amiss. This time, the doors didn’t unlock for me, and there was no sign or sounds of industry coming from within. Wherever the inside of the Foundry is, it’s not inside the Foundry, at least not most of the time.
If there’s nothing I can do to help those people, then all I can do is warn others. That’s why I’m posting this now. If you’re ever in Harrowick County, and you see that the Fawn & Raubritter Foundry is hiring; please, for your own sake, don’t inquire within.
Written by The Vesper's Bell