Alchemist’s Alphabet

I didn’t realize what the building meant when I watched it go up. I didn’t know what a blast furnace was, or a converter. I didn’t care when the first plumes of smoke rose from its chimney. It wasn’t until the orders stopped that I realized my life had changed forever.

It started with the glow stones. People wanted oil lamps these days, and so I stopped enchanting glow stones. It was a small part of my business, not worth fretting over. Then it was the poultices, then the artificing. Then, finally, Alex came into my shop and opened my eyes.

I put down the scale I was cleaning as the door swung open.

“Alex, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Just thought I’d handle pickup this week, give the apprentice a break. You’re well, Alemnus?”

“As well as ever. I had a few steel orders dropped this week, but nothing too extraordinary.”

Alex pursed his lips, and I got the sense he was holding something back from me.

“Everything’s in order, I assume?” Alex said.

“See for yourself.” I pointed to the steel ingots stacked by the door. “Perfectly uniform, every one.” I might have been bragging, but I wasn’t exaggerating. A village wizard needed to know all branches of magic, but alchemy was my passion.

“Aye, looks good,” Alex said, though he’d barely glanced at them.

That was when I knew something was wrong. “Usual order for next month?”

“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. There won’t be an order next month.”

I must have heard wrong. “Excuse me?”

“I won’t need another shipment.”

A month of frustration poured from between my lips. First Ulrich, then Stefan, now this? Alex was my biggest customer.

“Who are you getting it from? Mendelus over in Greyspring? Because his work isn’t half what mine is, I assure you. If it’s cost–“

“It’s not Mendelus. It’s him.” Alex glanced out the window to the new building. “That Fletcher fellow.”

“The one with that glass contraption strapped to his face?”

“Aye, that’s the one.”

“You’ve been my customer for twelve years.”

“I know, Alemnus, that’s why I came myself. All the other smiths are buying from him, dropping their prices. I had to, to compete.”

“How much is he charging? I’ll match it.”

Alex leaned in, as if he were whispering some dirty secret. “Three marks a pound.”

I nearly gagged. That was impossible. I’d studied with the best alchemists at the academy, and my costs were twice that. There was no way, unless they had some new technique.

“Can you match that?” Alex asked. “Because if you can, frankly I have a mind to think you’ve been robbing me blind the last twelve years.”

“No, I can’t match it.” What else could I say?

“I’m sorry, Alemnus, take care of yourself.”

I nodded mutely, helping him load the steel into his wagon. The moment he was out of sight I locked up shop and went to see Fletcher.

I knew I’d come across something terrible the moment I stepped through the door. This was no alchemist’s lab. The center of the room was dominated by a furnace the size of a small home, and from the heat I might have stepped into hell itself. It was a blistering heat, the kind that makes you squint and turn your gaze away. The air stank of coal, soot and iron.

When Fletcher came over to greet me I nearly mistook him for a demon. His face and hands were black with ash, save for the two glass pieces which sealed around his eyes.

“Can I help you?” he shouted over the roar of two enormous bellows.

I nodded and introduced myself.

“Let’s step outside!” Fletcher said.

I didn’t need to be told twice. “What is that thing?” I asked once we were out of the building.

Fletcher wiped his face with a rag, restoring a bit more of a human appearance. “It’s called a converter.”

“What kind of sorcery is that?”

“No sorcery: science. And engineering.”

Science. The word left a dirty taste in my mouth. “You’re not a wizard, then?”

Fletcher shook his head. “No sir.”

“But steel-making is wizard’s work.” I frowned, trying to wrap my head around it. “It takes alchemy. It always has.”

“Not anymore,” Fletcher said with a smirk.

How? Everything I’d learned at the academy said this should have been impossible, but here it was, staring me in the face. That was when I started to get angry.

“You can’t do this. If all of a sudden anyone can start making steel…”

“There won’t be much need for alchemists, I know. If we’re lucky, soon we’ll be rid of them and all the other wizards.”

I felt myself take a step back, recoiling. “Why would you want that? The world needs wizards. It needs people like me.”

“For what, draining out people’s pockets?”

My lip curled; that one hit a sore spot. “If I cared about gold I would have stayed and been an alchemist in the city. But I didn’t; I came back here, because I wanted to serve this town.”

“And you charge a tidy sum for this service, don’t you?”

He was missing the point, but what could I do but answer? “Very few can do what wizards do. We deserve to be compensated.”

Fletcher smiled, as if he knew his argument was won. “No, very few people could do what you do. We’re on the brink of a new age, one in which everyone has a chance to do what was once considered magic. Where no one is limited because their parents weren’t wizards.”

I could feel my body going numb as he spoke. This was madness, sheer madness. “No one will want to work in a place like this. At first they’ll be excited to do something they once called magic, but that’ll only last so long. Once the novelty wears off, once they’ve seen what kind of devilry this really is, they’ll go back to whatever they did before. And the smiths will come back to me.”

Fletcher smiled again, looking far too self assured. “We’ll see.”

By the time I got home my anger had been tempered into outrage.

“My God, what happened to you?” my wife Sarah asked as I entered the apartment above my shop.

Realizing I probably still smelled of soot, I explained to her what Fletcher was doing. She sat while I paced back and forth in front of her, growing angry again just speaking about it. In the background I could hear my daughter Alice starting to cry. I tried lowering my voice, but when I got to Fletcher’s comments about wizards I couldn’t help but shout.

“That’s terrible,” Sarah said when I finished. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll have to speak with my customers, I suppose. Try to make them see reason. I’m sure they’ll come around, given time.”

Sarah didn’t seem to share my confidence. “And in the meantime? Alice is too young for me to go back to work, and with three of us to feed…”

“We have enough saved to last for a while,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “We’ll get by.”

The next day I went to speak with the other smiths. I explained how Fletcher was creating his steel, how it was a far cry from alchemy. In return I got nothing but disinterest and a few looks of sympathy. It seemed the others didn’t care as much as I’d hoped.

So I went to speak with the mayor. “This furnace is an abomination, and it’s ruining my business,” I told him. But he wasn’t concerned either.

“And what do you want me to do about that?” he said.

“Stop it. Non-wizards shouldn’t be allowed to make steel; it’s unnatural.”

“Unnatural maybe, but it’s profitable. I’ve spoken to Fletcher; did you know he has over a dozen people working for him now?”

I hadn’t, and said as much.

“He’s bringing gold into this town,” the mayor said, “more than it’s seen in years. I can’t argue with that.”

What more could I say? I’d told them this was wrong, what I saw this turning into. If they didn’t want to listen, I would just have to wait until they saw the evil in it for themselves.

In the meantime I tried selling glow stones for less than the price of a gas lamp, but it cost nearly that much to make them. Soon our savings started running dry. I wasn’t using my enchanting equipment, so I sold it. I sold my inscriber, my decanter, my burners, my pyroglasser. I sold until one day I walked down into my office and found every shelf barren except one. It held the bare minimum I would need for steel-making. I suppose I should have sold that too, but it would have felt too much like giving up.

“What now?” Sarah asked me that night.

“I just need a little more time,” I said. “We can get by another two weeks. People will come around, I know it.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Then I’ll look for something else to do,” I said. “Two weeks; I promise.”

Two weeks came and went, but nothing changed except my purse getting lighter. One more week, I promised Sarah again. Then just one more week after that. Each time I could see her faith in me dwindle a little, but what could I do? It wasn’t that I didn’t intend to keep the promises when I made them. Things would change soon; I was sure of it.

But they didn’t. Another promise came and went, and then one day Fletcher came into my shop. I was immediately suspicious.

“What do you want?” I asked.

Fletcher didn’t take the bait. “I hear you’ve been busy, speaking with all the smiths. Tell me, how many have you gotten to go back to you and your arcane arts?”

“What do you want?” I said again, my eyes narrowing to slits.

“Easy, Alemnus, I came to make amends. I know you have a wife and child to feed. Your daughter’s what, a year old?”

I nodded.

“I came to offer you a job. You’re still an able bodied man, and I could use another strong pair of arms. It’s not glorious, but it’s honest work.”

I gripped the edge of my counter, knuckles going white. “You insult me in one breath and then offer me a job in the next?”

Fletcher smiled, holding up his hands defensively. “I’m trying to do you a favor. I know you haven’t had much work lately.”

That was about all I could take. “Get out.”

“Don’t be a fool, Alemnus. I’m offering you a way out.”

I stepped around the side of the counter, my hands clenched into fists. “Now.”

“Have it your way,” Fletcher said, and showed himself the door.

“Alemnus!” Sarah called out the moment the door closed. I spun to find her at the top of the stairs leading from the shop to the apartment.

“Alemnus, he offered you work. We need the money.”

“He came here to rub salt in my wounds,” I said. “That’s it.”

“How many times have you promised me you would start looking for another job? And then one falls into your lap and you don’t even consider it? Don’t even speak to me before you turn it down?”

I knew the look on Sarah’s face, a mix of disappointment and bewilderment. Now I was in trouble.

“Sarah I’m sorry you had to see it, but I can’t take a job from him. I’m a wizard.”

“Yes, and a husband, and a father. You want to see why you should have said yes?”

I didn’t, not really, but when she stormed up the stairs I knew I had to follow. She flew into the kitchen, throwing open cabinets one by one.

“Empty. Empty. Empty.” The doors slammed against one another as she flung them open. From the other room I could hear Alice start to cry again.

“We can’t go on like this, Alemnus. If you need to swallow your pride and work for Fletcher to put food on the table, that’s what you need to do. We’re at the end. I’ve sold my jewelry, my dresses, what more do you want me to do?”

She was so distressed it pained me to look at her. “I just need a little more time. It can’t be much longer now.”

“Why?” she demanded. “Why won’t you take another job? If not from Fletcher then from someone else.”

It was so clear to me. Why couldn’t she see it?

“I can’t just take other work. How can I convince smiths to leave Fletcher if it looks like I’ve already given up?”

Sarah stared at me, imploring.

“Unless you want me to give up,” I said. “Is that what it is?”

“Not give up, move on.”

“There is no moving on. Wizardry isn’t just a job; it’s my career, and it’s a part of who I am.”

Sarah’s eyes burned like coals. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen that kind of anger in her before, and it scared me.

“Fine.” She spat the word like a curse. “Keep waiting. But I can’t, and your daughter can’t. If you can’t take a job I’ll take her to my sister’s in Greyspring.”

“Sarah, you can’t do that.” For the first time a note of panic crept into my voice.

“I can and I will.”

Sarah turned away, and I followed her into our bedroom, watching as she gathered what few clothes she had left. Alice was still crying, so I picked her up and rocked her in my arms. I tried stepping between Sarah and the dresser, but she didn’t back down. She put her hands on her hips, glancing down at Alice

I handed our daughter over.

“I’m going, Alemnus. Let me know when you’re ready to be a father again.”

I think it was sometime after sundown when it hit me that she’d really left. That night was the longest of my life. I kept waiting to be woken by Alice crying, to learn I’d dreamt up the whole argument. But the house was silent. I spent another few days speaking with the smiths, but by that point even I could tell it wasn’t doing any good. By now the changes were undeniable anyway. People were leaving their farms, coming from the villages to work for Fletcher. The building itself grew, inching ever closer to my home as a second chimney was added. A third quickly followed, then a fourth. Soon it would be so big people would have no choice but to see the evil in it. But soon didn’t come quick enough.

Two weeks after Sarah left, Fletcher made his first offer to buy my shop. “I’m doing you a favor,” he said, just as he had when he offered me a job. I turned him down the same way. He came again a week later, then a third time the week after that. By then my wizard’s robes hung loose off my shoulders. The flesh had melted from my face, so that I barely recognized myself in the mirror.

“What do you want from me?” I asked him, unable to keep the dejection from my voice.

“Same as before. I want to buy your shop.”

“You ruined me,” I said.

Fletcher sighed. He wasn’t wearing his glass contraption today, but that only annoyed me more. I didn’t want to see him as human. “My gripe is with your profession, Alemnus, not you.”

I held back a laugh; you could no more separate me from wizardry than separate my mind from my body. But the shop… Maybe that was different. I could buy it back once the world came to its senses.

Fletcher was still speaking, making me an offer. It was generous, even more so than the previous ones. “So, what do you say?” he asked.

I bit my lip, toying it over. I would still be a wizard, so long as I kept my equipment. Buildings could be replaced.

“Alright,” I said.

The next day I walked out of the shop with my alchemical equipment bundled into my last spare set of robes. Finally I handed over the key.

“You’re doing the right thing,” Fletcher said. “And the other offer still stands; I can always use a good set of arms.”

I turned my back before he was finished speaking. I forwarded almost all the money to Sarah, and then I found myself standing alone on the street. That was the first night I spent outdoors.

They tore down my home the very next day. In its place they added another wing to the blast furnace. Another chimney. I was watching the construction when Professor Thesius walked in front of me.

“Professor?” I could barely believe my eyes.

He turned. “Alemnus, is that you? You look… what happened?”

“I fell on some hard times,” I said. It sounded more dignified that way, as if my robes and hair didn’t give away where I’d been sleeping.

Thesius nodded. “Haven’t we all. Believe me; I miss the old days as much as anyone.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Heading east, looking for a new trade. Maybe I’ll move through Greyspring and then on to Haplor.”

“What about the academy? Who’s teaching alchemy?”

Thesius tilted his head to the side. “You haven’t heard? The academy is closing. No one wants alchemists anymore.”

The academy was eight hundred years old; it couldn’t close. “What about all the other disciplines?”

“Some held out longer than others. Potion-makers were doing well, but that’s changing. Something new called chemistry. People are still buying charms, but that’s soft magic. You don’t need the academy for that.”

My head swam, like I’d had too much to drink. But by now I could say the words by rote. “The world still needs alchemists; once people realize how evil these changes are, they’ll come back to us.”

“Evil? People’s lives are getting better, Alemnus. People can afford more, do things which were once the domain of a select few. The world’s changing.”

“And you’re just going to let that happen? You’re running away?”

“All I’m doing is changing with the times.”

“Call it what you want, you’re running.”

Thesius scowled. “And what would you have me do?”

“Stay and fight. Call for a return to the way things were.”

“Is that what you’ve been doing? Because it doesn’t seem like anyone’s listening. It’s too late anyway; the world’s moving on, and it’s leaving you behind.” He gave me a pitying look. “Goodbye, Alemnus,” he said, then started walking away.

He took ten steps before I called out after him. “You’re a coward, Thesius!”

He stopped and turned. “Yes, maybe. But at least I’m not a fool.” He turned back around, and that was the last I saw of him.

His words played over and over again in my head as I sat on the side of the street. He was right about one thing; no one was listening any more. No one was paying attention. It was too late to just call for change; I had to create it. Something strange came over me then, a kind of manic certainty I’d never known before. If the townspeople wouldn’t throw Fletcher out on their own, I would just have to help them along.

The flames leapt into the night sky, sending out showers of sparks. Ten, twenty feet high they climbed, as if the inferno within the furnace had come free of its confines. I could still feel the slick of the oil between my fingers, smell the kerosene. I could have done it with magic, but it seemed more fitting this way, letting one bit of technological devilry destroy another.

I expected it when they came to put out the blaze, everyone in town forming a bucket line. Living on the street seemed to make me invisible, and they passed me by without a second glance. The last flames were out by the time the sun set. What I didn’t expect was everyone coming back the next day to rebuild. The entire town pitched in, raising new walls and filling in what fire had eaten away. A week later one could hardly tell anything had happened.

Why? I shook my head, struggling to comprehend. It didn’t make sense. Unless they really cared about the forge. Unless it really meant something to them. The reality sank in slowly. I was too late; their minds were already made up.

I sank to my knees and then sat down in the alleyway. My stomach was tied in knots, a combination of grief and hunger. A part of me thought about going to Greyspring, the part which yearned to see Sarah. To see my daughter’s smile again. But I couldn’t face them like this.

That was when I made the sign.

Will Work For Food

I chose a spot across from the forge. Looking at it repulsed me: the columns of smoke, the workers moving mindlessly in and out like bees. But at the same time I couldn’t take myself away. Part of that plot of land had been my home. It was more than just a stretch of ground; it was where my daughter had been born, and where I’d made my first sale as a wizard.

The next day I had the first person stop. He was stocky, probably no more than twenty. One of the strangers come to work for Fletcher, no doubt. But my eyes were drawn to the sandwich he carried in one hand, missing only a single bite. He gave me a look, half amused and half suspicious, then pulled a glass and metal contraption from his pocket. Spectacles, I’d heard them called. One of the lenses was cracked down the center.

“Think you can fix these?” he asked. “Damned backwater town doesn’t even have a lens-grinder.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “If you asked me a few months ago I could have fixed your eyes, made it so you didn’t need those things.”

“And how much would that have cost me?”

“Sixty gold marks,” I said. The number sounded comical; what I would do now for a single copper bit.

The man laughed. “No wonder you ended up like this.”

“The materials are expensive, and the labor–“

“Save it,” he cut me off. “Can you fix them or not?” He held out the sandwich, making himself clear.

I lowered my eyes to the ground. “Yes, I can fix them.”

He handed them over. I didn’t even need equipment for something this small, and a few minutes later it was done. The man turned the lenses over in his hands, apparently satisfied.

“Here, enjoy.” He tossed the food onto the ground. I dove for it, snatching it up and biting without even bothering to wipe the dust off. After going so long without, it almost hurt to eat. It wasn’t until I was done that I stopped to look at myself. To consider what I was doing. What I saw revolted me.

“My God, what have I become?”

My fists clenched as the tears came, hot and sudden. It wasn’t worth it. The certainty swept over me like a wave. I’d had a family, a home, a life. I had traded them for pride, and I just sold that for a sandwich. It wasn’t worth it.

I stood up, my bones creaking from the time spent out in the elements. In an eye blink I crossed the street to the blast furnace. I hesitated for a moment, reaching out for the doorknob. If I went in, sold myself to Fletcher, there would be no going back. I pictured my wizard’s robes left in the mud, saw myself hauling coal and iron, my face covered in soot. Then I saw Sarah, the way Alice’s cheeks blushed when she laughed. I turned the knob.

The silence threw me. The roar of the bellows and clanging of hammers was gone, replaced by hushed voices. With the furnaces cold the place was surprisingly dark, somber even. I found Fletcher in the back, near his office.

“I came to take you up on that offer, if it still stands,” I said.

Fletcher looked like he’d just tasted something rotten. “It doesn’t.”

The remark struck me back a little. I’d been afraid he would make me throw myself at his feet and grovel, but I didn’t think he would just turn me down.

“Look, Fletcher, you win. I’ll work for you.” The words left a sour taste in my mouth, but I knew what I was doing was right.

Fletcher took off his goggles, wiping them on the side of his apron. “That’s not it. There’s no job for you.”

“I might be dirty, but I’m as strong as the next man.”

“If you’re here to gloat, there’s the door.”

“Gloat?” I tried to piece together what I was hearing. Just a minute ago everything seemed so clear.

“Like you haven’t heard?” Fletcher said. “I’m letting a third of my workers go.”

That would explain the mood. “Why?” I asked.

“Because the smiths have found someone else, that’s why. Someone’s found a way to make it better than I can.”

“And you can’t do the same?”

“He has some new process, some way of making the steel stronger.”

I frowned, confused. An annealing adjustment wasn’t something to close shop over. “What kind of inclusions are you using?”

“Inclusions?” Fletcher looked puzzled for some reason.

I stopped a moment, trying to decide if he was being genuine. “To adjust the properties. Like mirror-iron, for carbon.”

Fletcher looked at me like I was speaking another language.

Could he really not know? I spouted off the most common additives and their properties, one after the other.

Fletcher’s jaw dropped. “Where did you learn chemistry?”

“I’ve never touched your ‘sciences’. Any alchemist worth his salt knows about inclusions. You’re telling me you’ve never heard of mirror-iron?”

Fletcher shook his head. “I’m not an alchemist, I just do what works.” He paused, scratching his chin. Then something in his eyes lit up. “Come take a look at this.”

He started away so fast he was nearly running and, not knowing what else to do, I followed.

“See here,” he pointed to a bunch of metal bars, “how it’s blistered? It has something to do with the cooling curve, I just haven’t been able to…”

He trailed off, because I had already turned away. I grabbed the first thing I could find, an iron poker, and started scratching formulas into the dirt floor. For a moment Fletcher just stared, and then he grabbed another poker and started writing equations next to mine. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, until I took a step back and looked at them side by side. The symbols were different, but the relationships were the same. I was startled by how much of it I understood. More importantly, I saw the omissions, the little tweaks missing here and there. Maybe we weren’t speaking different languages. We just had different alphabets.

We looked up at the same time, and I could see in his eyes he understood too.

“About that job: I think a position may have just opened up.”

“No shoveling or hauling?”

Fletcher shook his head, smiled, and held out his hand. It was calloused and covered with the scars of a lifetime of metalwork, not so different from mine. Maybe there was a little alchemist in him after all. And maybe there was more to me than being a wizard.

I thought of Alice, picturing the way she giggled when Sarah rocked her in her arms. I would have to throw myself at their feet, to beg Sarah for forgiveness. But the thought of humbling myself no longer bothered me. It was time to put wizardry aside. Time to be a father again.

I stuck out my hand and shook.

Author Joseph Argento is an engineering student at Manhattan College and hobby blacksmith.

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