The Dwelling of the Alchemist

Larkas finally saw it through the thinning trees. The dilapidated structure looked like a tall barn, sitting lonely and incongruous among the boulders and snow drifts of Mount Runkhorn. As he stepped out of the woods, his whole body felt suddenly pierced by the bitter wind that the pines had been blocking. He gasped reflexively. The fatigue of a four-day trek up the mountainside seemed to have been stored up in that blast of frigid air. But even more, Larkas felt the weight of his own rage upon that wind, his need to end a nightmare, his hope to set things right. He fell to his knees and remained motionless for a long time, his limbs aching and his head swimming from the thin air and a gust of conflicting emotions. Eventually, Larkas hauled himself up and stumbled to the dark building, closing the distance that separated him from his dangerous purpose.

His numbed fist felt nothing as it pounded on the desiccated wooden door. After a short pause, the door creaked open a hand’s width. He peered through the narrow opening at the gaunt face of a powerful-looking man with no hair. The bald man held a thick candle whose flame flickered and went out as the wind swept over it. His glazed eyes slowly looked Larkas over, then fixed their dead stare on his face.

“I am here to see the Alchemist,” said Larkas, shivering.

The bald man’s emotionless face did not change.

“How you find?” he said with a heavy Berellian accent.

“Janth Myronokor,” said Larkas. “Don’t worry, he’s dead now. He won’t be revealing any more secrets.”

The bald man made no immediate response, continuing to stare at Larkas.

“Proof?” he said.

Larkas opened the leather satchel he had slung over his shoulder and removed a ruby-studded ring. He handed it to the bald man who examined it for no longer than a heartbeat before dropping it as if it were a worthless stone. Larkas bent down, picked up the ring, and returned it to his satchel.

“Alone?” said the bald man.

“For now. My associate will be arriving tomorrow with a large amount of Ælliri white gold. Not in trinkets or coins. In demi-bars. The Alchemist might be interested in knowing more about my business proposal.”

Silence followed. The bald man cocked his head to one side and seemed to be listening to something.

“I check,” he said.

Icy hands frisked Larkas thoroughly and rummaged through his satchel. Larkas had brought no weapon, knowing in advance how futile it would have been. When he had finished, the bald man pulled open the groaning door just wide enough for Larkas to enter, and stepped backwards into the building, keeping the door open.

“Come,” he said brusquely. “Stay.”

Larkas entered and the door was slammed shut behind them. In an instant, the drone of the howling wind became a distant groan and the pallid sunlight vanished. Larkas could see nothing, but heard the bald man shuffling away into the lightless interior. The air inside felt barely less cold than outside, but at least it was still. Then the perfume enveloped him.

In space, Larkas had taken a mere step forward, but his sense of smell had been transported to an entirely new realm. He took a deep breath, inhaling the odors of a wild mélange, intermingling to create some hitherto unknown innovation. His nostrils flared at the sensation. The aromas seemed to undulate and vibrate, deepening almost to the point of becoming edible and then dissipating to a mere suggestion. Larkas knew immediately that he was in the presence of a skill that transcended the limits of mere science. The Alchemist was truly an artist.

Twenty paces across the darkened space, a vertical slice of light appeared as another creaking door opened, only to disappear again an instant later. The bald man was gone. Larkas sat on the ground, his weariness overcoming any sense of decorum, and waited for nearly half an hour in total darkness, all the while however, enchanted by the mosaic of fragrances.

Finally, the far door opened again and someone stepped into the doorframe. The figure’s enormous girth blocked the light behind it like the moon Creska eclipsing the sun. Even from across the room and in the dim lighting, Larkas saw that the newcomer was a head taller than him and twice as wide. The corpulent figure stepped back into the room, then returned holding an exquisite silver candelabra, its myriad branches thick as a full-grown tree’s and each topped with a burning candle.

The figure glided forward with unexpected litheness, its massive weight belying an almost dainty step. In the light of the candelabra, Larkas could clearly see the features of a man. His skin was pale and seemed delicate as if made of the finest porcelain. Although his wavy hair appeared wild and unkempt at first, Larkas saw that it had been styled into place by some grease or oil whose luscious scent emanated from him as strongly as the light from his candelabra. Fat lips jutted out of his almost spherical head and his beady eyes lay hidden in deep, fleshy recesses. The man wore a fortune in jewelry and Wallon silk clothing, most notably two chains of Ælliri white gold. Larkas’s wager on that point had been correct. He prayed that the rest of his conjectures and surmises about the Alchemist proved likewise.

But more than any other detail, Larkas noticed the Aura, a barely visible but unmistakable shimmer that swirled around the man like the waves of heat rising off a distant desert horizon. The Imperial interdiction against the Magician Guild’s use of the Aura spell had been one of the key provisions to establish an armistice between the Empire and the Guild seven years ago. The Alchemist’s flagrant and notorious refusal to present himself to Guild authorities and have his Aura spell revoked rendered him in violation of both Imperial law and Guild precept. In the criminal circles that had dealings with the man, such recalcitrance only enhanced his reputation.

Larkas had never before seen anyone imbued with the Aura spell. Descriptions of it had not prepared him for the electric sense of power that it radiated. It would indeed prove to be a difficulty, Larkas thought to himself. But if he knew one thing about the Magician’s Art, it was that no spell was invincible.

“You have killed Janth Myronokor,” said the Alchemist.

His voice was quiet and raspy, and his stare pierced through Larkas as if attempting to read his very soul. Larkas shook his head.

“I did not say that. I said that he was dead. I never claimed he was killed at all, and certainly not that I had killed him.”

The Alchemist considered this, his gaze not lessening its penetration, but altering in a subtle way that Larkas could not interpret.

“But you did kill him,” he said flatly.

“You can see that about me?”

Bulbous lips curved on one side to form a grin.

“You might say, I can smell it.”