Small hands with sharp nails clawed at his face and slapped his cheeks. The accompanying chittering told Tinton Usteine that Lurx, his homunculous, was trying, in its own primitive way, to bring him back to consciousness. It had been ten years since Usteine had created Lurx from samples of his own blood, skin and hair but never once had Lurx spoken a word. The small, grey, leathery-skinned, bat-winged creature was undoubtedly cunning and clever in its own way but it could not speak in a manner Usteine could understand. Perhaps the chitters, screeches and low purrs the creature made passed for language amongst its own kind, if, indeed, there was a recognised kind. Usteine had long since abandoned trying to fathom Lurx's tongue though, strangely, the creature seemed to understand every word he spoke and would even obey commands if the mood took it.
Despite Lurx's efforts, Usteine was still only barely conscious and he let his thoughts drift. What had gone wrong? he wondered. The process to create the Philosopher's Stone, that mystical substance which could transmute matter from one form to another, had been well documented in that ancient tome which, some said, had come from a different plane of existence. Such metaphysics were not Tinton's area of expertise. He had spent nigh-on five years preparing for the process. He had translated, almost word by word, the ancient text, written in no tongue known in the Seven Realms. His equipment and raw materials had been assembled, at no small cost to himself, from the best manufacturers, glass blowers, craftsmen, miners, prospectors, explorers and so-called "scientists" across the Seven Realms and beyond. His researches had led him to bury his superstitious distrust of the Art of Divination, to choose the right time, place, phase of the moon and alignment of the stars to begin and end his process.
The process had been running smoothly for nearly ten days when the explosion had taken him. An alembic had leaked, spilling coloured liquid down the exterior and into the flames heating the substances roiling in the flask. In the blinding flash that followed, the entire apparatus had shattered into razor fragments of glass, ceramic and metal and the explosion had thrown him across his laboratory. Usteine was not sure how long he had been unconscious until Lurx had started slapping and scratching him to wakefulness.
Something impinged itself on his senses, masking even the choking stink of sulphur mixing with potash and producing something unnameable in their fumes. He was aware of pains beyond even Lurx's claws. And there were lots of pains. Everywhere. Glass fragments were embedded in his face and hands. The left sleeve of his robe was smouldering and giving off some purplish smoke. His right hand was stinging as if burned. Yes. That was it. That was where the worst of his pain seemed to be.
Oddly, his hand felt wet. Not the sticky wetness of congealing blood but as if he had bathed the hand in water. Water does not burn like this, Tinton thought vaguely, then it hit him. Aqua Regia. Tinton sat up and screamed a curse as the other aches, pains, bruises and lacerations assaulted his body in concert. He ignored these minor troubles and staggered across his laboratory to the single remaining barrel of water he had stationed for such emergencies. The rest had been smashed in the explosion. Usteine plunged his right hand into the water and cool relief surged through him. The relief would not last long, he knew, and the pain would soon return. He must act quickly to save his hand.
"Lurx," he shouted. "The white powders on the shelf." He watched the homunculous leap into the air and flutter to the rear of the laboratory, snatch up two jars of powders and fly back to him. "Again! Get the rest," Usteine ordered and Lurx fluttered back to the shelves, relaying several more jars to the alchemist. He checked the labels, written in his own hand. An incorrect mixture could cost him his arm! He wanted the sodas to neutralise the Aqua Regia. Finding the correct jar, Usteine used his teeth and left hand to lever off the lid and pour the salts into the water barrel. The water began to fizz and release clouds of white vapour which made him choke and cough harshly. Still, the burning pain in his hand began to ease and he was soon able to lift it out of the water. His little finger had been reduced to a charred stump and the palm was blackened, burned and the skin had toughened like leather.
All in all, though, Usteine thought grimly as he bandaged his ruined hand, a lucky escape. If I had been just a few feet closer to that alembic, I would have been torn to shreds by the exploding glass.
He surveyed the wreckage of his laboratory. Costly glassware lay in shattered piles along the benches and worktops and glass crunched underfoot as he walked the aisles between the benches. Sections of the stands used to support the glassware were embedded in the walls. Small fires, sputtering flames and smoke of various, sometimes unidentifiable, colours, were burning on the benches and floor. Water-clocks, candle-clocks and timing mechanisms lay in ruins, their entrails of springs, cogs and pointers spilled across the floor. The expense alone would beggar many nobles but it was the wounds to his pride and standing within the loosely connected cliques of alchemical society that would pain him for many years to come.
He stopped at the lectern on which the book and his notes had been resting. Strangely, the book itself seemed largely unscathed, while his notes bore charred edges, tears and stains from the storm of destruction that had surged through his laboratory.
What had gone wrong?
It cannot be my fault! Usteine raged inwardly. He had brewed potions and elixirs of such potency that he had drawn the ire of some of his contemporaries. Alchemy was ever a jealously guarded Art and its practitioners were known for spying, scrying and even sabotage against rivals. He had taken all the necessary precautions, even the life-threatening bargain he had struck with Nydar-Onk, the wicked entity whose immaterial form warded his laboratory from prying eyes, both natural and supernatural. Ten men-at-arms also stood guard outside the small tower, prepared to defend against more mundane threats.
Usteine paged through his progress notes. He had followed all the stages correctly, of that he was sure. Durations had been precisely governed by the horrendously expensive timing mechanisms. The fires burning under his flasks had had their temperatures controlled by the exact amounts and types of their fuels. The reagents had been meticulously weighed, checked and double-checked to ensure the correct quantities were used.
No. It could not be his fault. Barring supernatural sabotage from a much higher agency, there could be only one conclusion: Leonardo Da Vinci was wrong.
With the laboratory wreckage cleared by natural and supernatural means, Tinton Usteine had retired to his rooms on the top floor of the tower. For seven days he had brooded, railed, cursed and even wept at the ignominy of his failure. The creation of the Philosopher's Stone was to have been the crowning glory of his career in the Art of Alchemy. When it seemed to be in his grasp, some unforeseen disaster had destroyed his precious equipment and five years of preparation.
Calmer now than he had been since the explosion had cost him a finger and almost his life, Usteine sat in a plush velvet-covered armchair, paging through books from his library. His original source was obviously incorrect. Whether the original alchemist had failed in the same way as he or whether his actual practices had been deliberately obscured, even falsified, Tinton Usteine would never know for certain. One thing was certain: he could not risk the same near-fatal mistake happening again. A different approach was needed.
Now he pored through the books on Oracles, Prognosticators and Augurs. While Usteine usually discounted mortal Diviners as insane ravers, he had some theoretical experience of the supernatural equivalent. Entities which travelled the time-streams and pathways between the planes often basked in the flow of knowledge and conversation they overheard in their journeys. He had never actually summoned such an entity to this plane but, at least in theory, they were less dangerous beings than the protector, Nydar-Onk, whose very presence chilled him.
At midnight, Usteine stood in the room below his usual apartments. The floor had been swept and meticulously scrubbed clean. Several spells of purification had been cast over the area to purge the psychic residue left by his summoning of Nydar-Onk. One hundred and eight candles both lit and warmed the room. An eight-pointed star, drawn in a mixture of powdered silver, salt and an oily substance secreted from behind Lurx's pointed ears, covered most of the floor. Each of the eight points was inscribed with a rune describing the qualities of the entity he sought to summon. Had he known the entity's true name, the summoning would have been a little easier, but such information was incredibly difficult to come by.
Now he shed his robe and, clad only in a loin-cloth, stood in a smaller circle, around which were inscribed further runes, spells and incantations of protection. These spells were swirling through the depths of Usteine's subconscious as he began the Ritual of Summoning.>>>>>[NOTE: Extra section here as the demon of knowledge hears the summoning and sets out to investigate. She has her own orders/plans, too. ]<<<<<
Dawn was breaking as the ritual was completed. Usteine had no knowledge of the time, however, as his summoning chamber was windowless. Tired almost to the point of fainting, the Alchemist came back to some semblance of consciousness and slowly opened his eyes.
"Oh, you are awake," said a quiet feminine voice. "I had become concerned that you had departed this world completely. Dead on your feet, so to speak." The spirit gazed around the chamber. Thank goodness, it thought, if he had not woken up, I would have been trapped in this hovel for all eternity. The shame of it! And to be trapped here with that boor Nydar-Onk would be the most egregious insult.
Usteine looked at the woman. Though the entity was not, in fact, a female of any genus, species or form known to man. It had merely chosen this guise, in this reality. Years spent with glassware, potions, obscure reagents, noxious fumes and the crabbed, indecipherable writings of alchemists past, had rather dulled Usteine's libido but even he could see she, or rather it, had adopted a pleasing physical appearance. Tall and slender with shoulder length hair of jet black, large brown eyes and pale, smooth skin, the entity was wearing what Usteine took to be a white evening gown of some unfathomable fashion and white silk slippers. The Alchemist pulled himself together.
"I am Tinton Usteine, Grand Alchemist of the Fourth Rank, and your master in this realm." Usteine faltered for a moment. Sorcery was not his primary Art. Entities such as this could be questioned, bargained with, ordered or bound to serve the master for a length of time, even eternity, but all deals, bargains and orders had to be carefully worded or the spirit would find some way to renege on the deal.
The woman-thing walked to the edge of the summoning circle. Its motions were fluid and graceful in a way mortal women could scarcely dream of achieving. "I have no master in this or any other realm," it whispered. Then, more forcefully it said, "You ... " and jabbed a finger towards Usteine's face. Sparks crackled through the air, arching over the dome of magical energy which enclosed the summoning circle. Artfully, and with barely a second's thought, the entity changed tack, " ... do seem to have some mastery over me. I salute your skill." It needed time to think. "What do you require of me, master?" Though that last word dripped as much sarcasm as malice.
"I have questions for you. Answer them to my satisfaction and I may release you. Prove useful and I may bind you to my service for a year and a day." Usteine lowered his voice to what he hoped sounded suitably menacing; his years of inhaling corrosive and generally unpleasant fumes certainly helped in this. "Fail or lie to me and I will damn you to the deepest Hell I can find."
"Master," it said, unctuously, "I shall serve as you desire but, as ever, there is a price. What will you give me first?"
Usteine had expected this. He produced the original treatise on the Philosopher's Stone, following whose techniques had nearly killed him. Plainly, the work was faulty, false or simply fiction and was no use to him. Entities such as the one in the circle, however, found all knowledge, even lies, fascinating, so the book was his offering in return for the entity's help. "This is the work of a noted alchemist. Perhaps you will find it of interest?"
The spirit's eyes widened greedily as it saw the book. Usteine tossed the waste of parchment from his protective circle into the summoning circle. All the lithe grace of the creature vanished in an instant as it leapt after the book like a rabid dog chasing its tail. It snatched up the leather-bound tome and began leafing through the pages.
"Yes, Master Usteine. This will make a fine addition to my own library of occult researches." The entity smiled and its beauty returned to its previous dazzling state.
"I have your word on that, do I?" Usteine inquired. He needed final proof that the spirit was his to command.
"Yes, yes, of course," she (it) said, rather irritably, as it paged through the book.
Usteine laughed. He had her! "You'll find it a waste of shelf space," he said, rather unkindly. "It seems the processes described are inaccurate, false, misleading or outright lies. The writer was a madman, nothing more."
She looked up from the book and realised that her summoner was a bigger fool than she had originally thought. She held the key to the riches of an entire world in her hands and Usteine had given it to her without realising what he had lost. Let's play! she thought. "You have tricked me, Master," she said, with a hurt expression in her eyes, then lowered her gaze. "What do you wish of me?"
"I wish to know of the Philosopher's Stone," Usteine said. "Specifically, how to make it. That," he indicated the book, "is but a work of fiction. I deal only in facts."
She glided from the centre of the circle, wishing she could throttle the fool who had brought her here. While some of her cousins in the Pits would revel in the task, such violence was not in her nature. She stood at the edge of her magical prison, almost within touching distance of the alchemist. The energies that held her here would not allow contact between them. "I can do little for you standing here, Master," she said gently. "Release me from the circle and I will help you as you command."
Usteine spoke the words of release. The demon could sense the magical barriers dissolve and the energies released made her hair bristle for a few seconds. With her slippered foot, she scratched at the lines on the floor and cleared a small gap through which she could step.
"You must wear this," the alchemist said. He held out a fine gold bracelet, engraved with glyphs of binding, to hold the spirit, and runes of retribution, lest she try to break her bonds."I am, in words you can pronounce, named Saylight," she said as she slipped on the bracelet and curtsied to her master.
"Follow me," Usteine ordered, curtly.
Mortal womenfolk might call it a sigh of relief but, for Saylight, it was merely part of the act. The sigh made her shoulders rise and fall and disguised the whisper under her breath, a short spell which made the book disappear from this world. She followed Usteine up the stairs to his apartments.They sat in high backed armchairs in front of the fire. They sipped wine and discussed Usteine's trials and tribulations thus far. He described how he had followed the directions in the book. How his preparations had been exacting and his methods perfect. And still the failure.
"But why?" Usteine asked, almost plaintively.
"You are truly a great alchemist, Master," she thought it best to start with flattery, "and, while you will not believe me, the work you followed was also written by an accomplished mage and alchemist." She saw Usteine tense as if about to fly into a rage. "Please. Let me finish." Only when the alchemist had relaxed did she continue. "His works were not for, or of, this world but for a plane separate to this one. A planet known variously as Terra, Gaia, Earth or one of a hundred names." She paused and sipped her wine, wishing she could taste what Usteine had said was a very fine vintage.
"So what you're implying is that his process would never have worked here or in any of the Seven Realms. Not now. Not ever." Under his breath he muttered, "What a fool I've been."
"Exactly, Master." Saylight laughed merrily, as if a simple child had finally tied his own shoe laces. She sobered a little before continuing her lesson. "In the same way that the mundane worlds you inhabit have their own rules, so there are rules in the supernatural worlds. You cannot break the Laws of Metaphysics. You just need to know which of the Laws apply in your own reality."
Tinton Usteine stood at the summit of Mount Waywyn, the highest peak in the Realm. It had taken nearly two weeks of travel to reach this point and he had lost two of his guards to a bandit attack three days after leaving the city. His remaining men had taken much placating, and silver coins, before they would continue.
Now the preparations described by Saylight had been made. He was to summon a sylph, one of the elemental spirits of air, command it, and bind it into the form of a small blackbird, whose left leg was tagged with a small silver ring bearing the glyph of air. The bird was caged beside him and looked up at Usteine with beady black eyes. Lurx was perched on a small boulder several yards away its wings curled around its scrawny body to ward off the biting chill of the wind. Of Saylight there was no sign, though the entity had accompanied him during the journey, and shared more of her knowledge as they travelled.
The wind started to strengthen and Usteine knew the time was approaching. Sylphs of the air were being drawn to the energies of the summoning circle and, ever curious spirits that they were, one of them would venture into the circle. Usteine cleared his mind and fell slowly into a trance. The words of summoning seemed to bubble up through his subconscious and spilled from his lips, first as a gentle whisper then, as the spell increased in power, grew into a gale and then to a storm to rival the mountain winds themselves.
The alchemist opened his eyes and saw, in the circle, an un-natural stillness. While winds whipped the mountain top, lashed his clothing and forced his men and Lurx to take cover in whatever shelter they could find, the inside of the circle was deathly calm. Not even a blade of tough mountain grass stirred. Usteine knew, then, that the sylph had come.
"Do you hear me?" Usteine asked.
"Yes, mortal," replied the sylph in a breathy whisper. "You have me trapped. I am yours to command."
Usteine carried the caged blackbird into the circle. "If you wish to be freed, enter the bird and possess it. You are bound to the ring on the bird's leg."
The colly bird squawked uproariously as the sylph entered its lungs and forced its very anima into a dark corner of its mind. "It is mine," cawed the colly bird. Its eyes were now a bright blue and it fixed Usteine with its gaze.
The alchemist almost collapsed as he sat down on a nearby rock. He was exhausted but drew some comfort from the lack of physical harm the rituals had caused. Better this, he supposed, than an arm shredded by an exploding alembic. He chuckled at this grim thought and rubbed the stump of finger on his right hand.
"It is good you have kept your sense of humour, Master." Saylight's soft voice sounded from behind him. He could hear it clearly, even over the wail of the wind.
"Where have you been, demon?" Usteine asked. He felt his servant was talking down to him for some reason and could not keep the bitterness from his voice.
"Oh, looking around," Saylight replied with an air of innocence. If she was concerned by Usteine's bitterness, she made no sign of showing it. "It is in the nature of me and my kind to seek knowledge wherever we may find it. Did you know, that from the peak of this mountain, you can see to the northern border of this Realm and even as far as the capital city to the west?" Saylight made sweeping gestures with her arms and turned a graceful pirouette to indicate the directions.
"And why would simple geography concern the likes of you?"
Saylight almost bridled at Usteine's tone but rallied well. "Other travellers may need that information at some point. One can never tell when even trivial facts may be useful."
Usteine lurched to his feet and staggered towards the demon, anger twisting his face. "You would dare betray me to another?" the alchemist roared.
Saylight stood impassively, with her hands on her ... ITS ... hips. "Master. How could I?" She held up her left arm and displayed the bracelet which bound her to the alchemist. "I am yours," Saylight finished simply.
"Then why speak of other travellers?" Usteine demanded, sharply.
Saylight made to touch the alchemist's face with her left hand but stopped a hair's breadth from his cheek. Then she lowered her hand and looked at her feet, abashed, like a chastised schoolgirl. "Mortals have been known to trade in the knowledge of my kind. Whoring me, if you will, in exchange for other secrets and services." Again the false sigh; Saylight was not breathing the air of this plane but she needed to maintain the pretence. She looked up into her master's eyes. "But I believe you to be better than others of your kind. You are not so base, Master."
With those few words, Usteine wilted under her benevolent gaze and Saylight wrapped the alchemist one turn further around her little finger.
Two moons had passed since the binding of the sylph. Saylight's lessons in the metaphysics of the planes had continued, as had her instructions in the summoning of gnomes, the elementals of the earth. The preparation for this ritual had been even more strenuous than the perilous climb to the summit of Mount Waywyn.
The circular pit was ten feet deep and exactly eighteen feet six inches in diameter. Saylight had been very strict on the dimensions. A whole week had been lost when Usteine's hired labourers had to refill the six inches they had, in error, dug beyond the oracle's specifications. The alchemist knew that Saylight had a broad vocabulary - drawn from planes above, below and beyond the natural - but some of her expletives at their failure had shocked even him. The summoning circle had been inscribed by hand, literally. Usteine had scratched each individual line and rune into the hard-packed earth of the pit's walls and floor, leaving his fingers bloody and raw.
Now Usteine stood in the pit, warded by his own circle of protective runes and sigils. Gnomes were immensely strong entities and, should the captive elemental break free, would be capable of breaking his bones with a single blow. The rim of the pit was only a few feet away; with a running jump he might even have been able to grasp the edge and haul himself up.
He let his thoughts trail off until he became aware only of the oppressive mass of earth around and below him. As the incantation of summoning took hold on his mind, escape outside of the pit became an increasingly impossible dream. Doubt flooded through the alchemist's mind now. I could break it, he thought, cancel the spell and flee for the outside world! Usteine forced the doubts back down. She would call me foolish and her taunts would haunt me forever. I cannot allow that!
Clearer in purpose, now, Usteine redoubled his efforts in the summoning. The floor of the pit rippled under his feet and loose stones and handfuls of soil began tumbling down the sides. His voice deepened, grew louder and echoed around the pit.
First to appear in response to the summons was the fist. The stone extremity burst up through the floor and was quickly followed by the rest of the arm. A second fist made an even larger hole in the floor and began to haul the rest of its body up from the bowels of the earth.
The sides of the pit were beginning to collapse at an alarming rate, Usteine noted, as he struggled to maintain his concentration on the summoning incantation. If the walls caved in completely, not even his own protective circle would save him from being buried alive.
The gnome struggled from the hole it had made in the centre of the summoning circle. It stood, ankle deep (if, indeed, it could be said to have ankles above its lumpen, three-toed feet) in loose earth from its own excavations and the soil that had fallen from the walls. The elemental turned to face its summoner and regarded the alchemist with a blank expression. It stood about two feet tall, with thick legs and what might be described as massively muscled arms which ended in three-fingered fists. The head was roughly spherical and displayed cracks where the eyes and mouth of a better proportioned human sculpture would have been. Of what might be a nose, there was no sign.
Usteine stepped tentatively to the edge of his own circle of protection and held out the caged colly bird, which was futilely preening fallen dirt from its feathers. "Enter the cage and take the bird's place," Usteine ordered. "You are bound to the ring on its leg."
The gnome trudged laboriously forward and stepped out of the summoning circle. Usteine, alarmed, stepped back and dropped the bird's cage where it landed at he gnome's feet. The gnome remained outside the protective circle and may have stared impassively up at its summoner. Usteine watched as the gnome raised its massive fist and drove it down onto the cage. There was a brief, terrified squawk from the colly bird and a small explosion of black feathers and woodchips from the ruined cage. Usteine flinched and shielded his eyes from the blizzard of splinters. When he looked again, the gnome was gone and the bird was gazing sullenly back at him. It flapped its wings disconsolately and barely managed to lift itself an inch from the ground before settling back, with a resounding thud, to the earth.
Usteine's satisfaction with his work was short lived. The shock of the bird's landing rippled through the ground and vibrated in the walls of the pit. Soil and stones began to tumble down into the pit at a greater rate. In a panic, Usteine grabbed for the colly bird, which made another half-hearted attempt to get airborne, and was almost brought to his knees as he tried to lift the bird. The creature, in nature, was barely eight inches long from beak to tail feathers, and he had been able to lift it easily. Now it seemed to weigh as much as a cart horse!
He grasped the bird in both hands and struggled to the edge of the pit. "Help me," he yelled up to his men. Usteine spat out a mouthful of falling dirt he had swallowed. "Ropes. NOW!" He was now almost waist deep in soil and rocks from the pit and its crumbling walls. Worried-looking faces appeared at the rim of the pit. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and soon ropes were lowered to him. He held the ropes with one hand and the colly bird in the other.
"Heave!" Saylight's voice, calm but firm, ordered the men to pull, and Usteine was slowly dragged up the wall of the pit to the surface.
He lay scratched, bruised and filthy on the grass and gasped great lungfuls of clean air. The bird was perched on his chest and made his breathing more labourious. Saylight, effortlessly it seemed, lifted the bird from his chest, smiled and said, "A fine specimen. Well done, Master."
Another month of perilous journeying had brought Usteine and his band to the desolate Drahat Plain, a seemingly endless expanse of sparse grasses, stunted trees and little water. He scuffed at the dry soil with the toe of his boot and after a few seconds exposed the bedrock of black basalt. Barely six inches of soil covered the rock. His men had complained bitterly that it was nearly impossible to pitch the tents as the pegs for the guy ropes bent or broke as they hammered them into the ground. In the end, they had simply weighted the ropes with loose rocks.
Saylight stood at the edge of the summoning circle, which had been gouged into the topsoil down to the bedrock. A frown furrowed her normally smooth brow and, in the manner of mortals, she chewed her lower lip while deep in thought. The mortal had made great progress with her teachings and even grimly accepted the inherent risks. He might even be successful, she mused, and what an achievement that would be.
"Why here, demon?" Usteine asked testily, as he walked from the encampment, where he had been arguing with his guards. The oracle was jolted from her train of thought and turned to face him.
"Master Usteine," Saylight answered as she turned and curtsied, "I have been admiring your work. The details are most impressive." Her flattery, however, failed to calm Usteine's temper.
"The devil take the artwork!" Usteine snapped. "We have trekked across half the continent, endured bandits, orcs, usurious merchants, lazy teamsters and cowardly soldiers," he stormed. "Now we are in this gods-forsaken wasteland for reasons known only to you. Why?"
She began gently. "Beneath our feet is a solid plateau of rock formed from the very fires of this earth. Deeper still is a river of molten rock which flows from the core of the planet. Where better to summon a creature made of pure flame?" Saylight paused and smiled as she dredged her memory for local geographic knowledge. "The volcanic island chain of Kinuatha, a thousand leagues hence, would be too dangerous, even for a man of your undoubted skill and courage. And neither you nor I could stand on the surface of the sun." The oracle cast her gaze about and ignored the raging alchemist for a few seconds. "We discussed this in detail on the journey, Master. Where we stand is the best place on this continent for contacting the fiery salamanders."
Usteine wilted. He knew Saylight was correct. Fittingly, the fires of his own ambition drove him on. "Very well, demon. You have convinced me."
As the sun set, Usteine made final preparations for his summoning of the salamander. He poured oil into the runnels the gouged lines of his summoning circle formed. Saylight handed him a torch, curtsied briefly, and retired to a safe distance. Some of the flames might scorch the surrounding grass but he was sure they would not lead to a life-threatening wild fire. Usteine moved to the edge of the circle closest to his own protective circle and, at arms length, touched the torch into the oil.
The oil ignited with a whoosh and the flames licked out along the gouged pathways describing the circle. Within scant seconds, the entire circle was aflame, the fires perfectly defining the intricate symbols and lines.
Usteine staggered back into his protective circle, driven back by the intense heat. He worried for a moment that if the wind changed direction, his circle would not hold and he would be burnt to a crisp. Not a man normally given to vanity, he nevertheless took a moment to admire his handiwork. Magnificent, he thought. His thoughts turned to the matter in hand. Distractions in a case like this could prove fatal.
The alchemist began the summoning spell. Words in dozens of languages, some unpronounceable in a human throat, spilled from his lips. His senses became focussed on heat in all its forms: the searing pain of burns; the gentle trickle of sweat running over his brow; the roar of a fire in the hearth; the blinding light of a brazier; the smell of charred wood; the taste of a steak, seared over an open fire. All of these sensations, and more, accompanied his rhythmic chanting of the incantation.
Shapes were moving around the circle. Small, lizard-like creatures, wreathed in flames from deep beneath the earth, were being drawn, like curious cats, towards the circle. Usteine's voice grew in power. One of the creatures started at the alchemist's cry and bolted through the flames into the centre of the circle. There it was held, paralyzed, facing Usteine.
"You are mine, salamander, creature of fire," bellowed Usteine. Saylight's lessons had impressed upon him the need for power when dealing with fire elementals. They did not respond well to mere requests but rather recognised commands. Authority in all things, Saylight had said, will make these creatures submit to your will.
The salamander gazed back at Usteine with eyes as red and hard as rubies. It slithered to the edge of the summoning circle and looked about, as if searching for an escape route.
"Halt!" Usteine ordered. "Your only means of escape is to obey my commands. Inhabit this bird," he held out the caged colly bird, "and serve me. Else I shall leave you imprisoned in this circle and there you will perish."
The salamander's eyes blazed and it launched itself from the circle towards the cage. To Usteine, for one brief second, it seemed little more than a jet of flame heading towards him. Before he could drop the cage, the salamander struck the colly bird and immolated the poor creature in a burst of scarlet fire.
Yelling furiously, Usteine staggered from his circle of protection, clutching his left hand. Flames wreathed the sleeve of his robe and he felt his skin begin to burn beneath. In desperation, he tore off his robe and threw the burning garment to the ground.
Saylight appeared by his side. She eased him to the ground and tended the burns on his arm with a cooling ointment she produced, seemingly, from thin air.
"I suppose I have failed, this time," Usteine said weakly. "The bird could not have survived that flame."
The oracle smiled. "Do not count your chickens, or rather blackbirds, before they have hatched, Master." She held up the cage where the bird was hopping about in a state of consternation. "It seems the binding has worked, Master." Saylight paused and wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Though it seems a side effect is that the bird rather stinks of singed feathers."
It was the end of another long and exhausting journey. And, in truth, there was no further they could realistically travel. Usteine and Saylight stood on the shore of the southern coast. A gale was blowing off the sea, bringing with it the salt tang and clear, fresh air.
"Are you sure that thing will float?" Usteine asked. He nodded in the direction of the raft several hired carpenters were building, to Saylight's exacting specifications, further along the beach. His men - five of them now, as three more had been lost to orc attacks and desertion - were patrolling around the work site and camp.
"Beyond a doubt, Master," Saylight replied. "Your workers are very skilled.""They should be, given their fees!" Usteine muttered through gritted teeth. The costs were exorbitant!
"Common silver and copper pennies will be as pebbles to you when you create the Philosopher's Stone, Master Usteine," Saylight answered, with the easy condescension she had become accustomed to using with her master. "And what price would you have placed on your arm or hand had things gone awry, either in your laboratory or out here in the natural world?" For the first time in the seven months they had been together, Saylight took her master's hand and gently caressed the stump of his ruined finger. "You stand on the verge of the greatest accomplishment in your Art. Do not let common avarice stand in your way."
The wind had, thankfully, dropped as Usteine stood on the raft and his men, with much grumbling, towed the platform out into the water. Exactly one hundred and seventeen yards from the low tide mark, as indicated by Saylight, anchors were dropped and the raft ground to a halt. His men swam back to the shore.
The raft was precisely twenty one feet square, built of large pine logs and waterproofed with oils and tar. The four corners consisted of heavy posts reaching above and below the waterline. Three ropes were stretched between the corner posts to provide some semblance of safety. The summoning circle, edged with lines and curves representing waves and ringed with sigils representing water, fish and other marine creatures, was centred exactly. This left little space for Usteine's own protective circle, which was barely three feet across and uncomfortably close to the edge of the raft.
The alchemist let his thoughts dwell on the waters surrounding the raft. He noticed how the waves broke against the raft; how runnels of water sluiced across the deck; he saw white flecks of foam fly from the crests of the waves. Water. The origin, if the "scientists" were to be believed, of all life. His mind cleared and he began the incantation.
The raft lurched and Usteine staggered. He barely kept his balance, let alone his concentration on the summoning. It took an effort of will, when he opened his eyes, to maintain the ritual. Grey fins carved through the surface of the water. The raft was surrounded by sharks! He felt his bowels loosen as primitive memories, intense fears, surged up from his subconscious. Why should he feel this way when he had never travelled by sea before in his life? Some part of his mind reasoned that the "scientists" may be right after all and these fears of waterborne predators were rooted deep in the subconscious of all land dwellers. The thought was almost too terrifying to contemplate. Usteine forced down his panic and managed to tear his gaze away from the water just as a shark - half the length of the raft, he'd swear it! - broached the surface. Terror gave way to a flash of insight. If the "scientists" were right ...
"Hear me, undine of the deeps!" he yelled. "I summon you to the upper world of air and light. Hear me, sister of the life-giving ocean!"
Usteine saw her climb gracefully from the water, a small, feminine figure, perhaps a foot tall. She had white hair, reminiscent of the spray from the ocean waves, skin of pale blue-green, like the ocean on a bright summer's day, and her eyes were the clear blue of the skies reflected in her home waters. Her gown followed the curves of what a mortal man would regard as a pleasing figure.
"I have answered your call, Tinton Usteine," the undine whispered, in a voice like the sea ebbing back over a beach of shingle, "but I am not yours." With that, the undine swept her arm in a semicircle, which seemed to leave a trail of bubbles through the air.
The raft lurched again as, this time, a shark leapt out of the water and landed with a crash on the deck. Wood splintered and the raft tilted sharply. Usteine slipped and managed to grasp the rope with one hand, while flailing to catch the colly bird's cage with the other. The shark circled the raft then slowly sank beneath the waves.
Concentrate, Usteine railed at himself. Don't lose her now!
"I still have you trapped, sister of the water," he said. "Aid me, sister, and I will release you."
The undine considered this. It would be a simple matter of waiting for the shark to return and devour the sorceror. Would Mother Ocean condone such an act? Most likely; the sea was known as a harsh mistress. The sorceror was helpless, on the verge of drowning or being consumed by the shark. The elemental reached its decision. It would help the human.
Usteine watched the undine's human-like form trickle away to form a small puddle in the centre of the summoning circle. The puddle then flowed from the circle and reformed into its human shape before his eyes.
"Enter the bird, possess it and help me. Then you shall have your freedom."
The undine bowed. "As you wish," it whispered, then flooded into the colly bird's lungs. The small bird drowned in an instant but its spirit, subsumed by the undine, lived on. The bird turned to Usteine and said, "Now, let go of the raft and I shall save you."
The shark was circling again. "Are you mad?" Usteine shouted, as he clung to the raft with the last ounces of his energy.
"Forces of nature are not mad, mortal. We merely are. Now let go and swim, or I will let the shark take you!"
Inwardly, Usteine said a fleeting goodbye to his life, let go of the rope and slid into the sea. Instantly, the undine forced the surrounding water away from his body, allowing him to breathe, as the elemental powered him away from the shark and towards the shore. A few moments later, a water-logged Tinton Usteine lay on the sand, gasping for breath like a beached fish.Saylight picked up the cage holding the colly bird and its bound undine. The small bird looked almost as bedraggled and weather-beaten as the alchemist. "Worth every penny, don't you think, Master?"
Tinton Usteine collapsed wearily into his favourite armchair in his apartments. He had not been home to his tower for nearly three months. The old place seemed strange and he felt rather closed in, almost trapped, by the oppressive weight of stonework about him. Perhaps he should hire a stonemason to build some new windows? Or even a skylight and easy access to the roof would be possible.
Balderdash! he thought. Months of living rough in the wilds had obviously played tricks on his mind. Here he was, back in his natural environment of laboratories, libraries and his life's work with strange reagents, noxious fumes, flashes and bangs. Ah yes. He was home.
Saylight drifted into the room, her movements as graceful and fluid as they had been when he first brought her to this plane. Worst of all, after so many weeks travelling the wilderness, she had not a hair out of place, her nails were perfect and there was not even a smudge of dirt on her white evening gown. Her perfection was so stunning that mortal women would have killed to know her secrets.
"I have consulted the almanacs and ephemera, Master. It seems we have six days before the conjunction is precise and we are best placed to create the Philosopher's Stone."
"And where should we be?" Usteine asked, waspishly as his distrust of the so-called Art of Divination surfaced like bile in his throat. "How many gods-damned miles do we have to travel next, demon?"
Saylight was well accustomed to her master's outbursts. He distrusted mortal diviners as madmen (and women) and so treated their treatises on the subject with disdain. Perhaps he was right to do so, Saylight reflected, at least within limits, but Usteine needed to trust her judgement, supernatural "diviner" though she was. "If you would but check the almanacs as I have, Master, you would see that we are already in the right place. We just await the right time."
"What nonsense is that, demon?" Usteine demanded.
Saylight spirited a book onto Usteine's lap and it opened to her chosen page. "Here," she indicated with one perfectly clean finger, "it says that the conjunction of the planets you know as Skeliss, Cheroth and Rildra is best observed, and reaches its maximum potency, at this location." She tapped the page. "Your tower is at the exact centre of this conjunction."
Usteine laughed loudly for the first time in months. "We travel to the ends of the earth only to end up here! What a bizarre coincidence."
"Coincidence or destiny, Master Usteine. Sometimes it is difficult to tell them apart."
The time was approaching.
Usteine walked around the summoning hall on the floor below his apartments and reviewed his final preparations. He had drawn a four pointed star on the floor, its points perfectly aligned with the four cardinal points. The four colly birds, still caged, were placed in each of the arms: North held the sylph; South the salamander; West held the gnome; and, finally, East for the undine. A complicated arrangement of pulleys and lines had been built to open the cages simultaneously at the culmination of the ritual. The birds would be released, their elementals would destroy each other and the energies released would create the Philosopher's Stone. This point at least, Usteine could understand. Many alchemical processes would create new substances, sometimes as a solid precipitate, or as a gas bubbling from the solution. The Philosopher's Stone would, in theory, precipitate out from the fifth, or quintessential, element, Ether.
Usteine was still perplexed, however. Why would a fire elemental neutralise an air elemental, or earth the water spirit? Surely fire versus water and air versus earth would be more logical? Saylight had patiently explained that logic had little place in magic and the metaphysical laws and the Art of Divination held sway here. That remark had made Usteine bridle until Saylight had placated him. The zodiac circle of twelve signs, the demon had explained, always had a fire sign opposite an air sign and an earth sign opposite a water sign. In this case, opposites would not attract but destroy.
Cleaned, purified and clad in a white robe, Usteine stood in his own protective circle. This was inscribed with runes which were strange even to the alchemist. Symbols like "Fe", "Cu", "Si", "Pu" and even a simple "U". Saylight had explained that, in the plane Da Vinci's original treatise had been written, such symbols held meaning and a power of sorts.
"It is time, Master," Saylight murmured.
Usteine nodded and began to chant. He fell into a trance that would last six hours.
Saylight watched patiently from the other side of the room. She could feel the energies swirling through the chamber. Tinton Usteine was undoubtedly a skilled alchemist and he had learned well her lessons in sorcery, elementalism and magical lore. Now he was taking the final step towards true greatness. It would feed his ego to rise above his peers with such an accomplishment. Of course, she would have her moment of greatness as well.
The incantation had grown from a simple rhythmic chant to a full-throated roar. Usteine was swaying in his circle, though whether this was from exhaustion or the energies pouring through him, even Saylight could not tell.
Usteine felt the power. It was tremendous. With one last yell, he pulled the cords that opened the cage doors.
The colly birds flew from their cages and collided in the exact centre of the star. The explosion that followed shook the walls and floor of the tower and threatened to drive Usteine from his protective circle. Even Saylight stepped back against the wall and raised her hand in front of her eyes.
Salamander flame roared briefly before being extinguished by the blast of air from the sylph. The undine, like a wave crashing against a cliff, smashed the gnome to gravel. Sparks, steam and grit were blown up to the ceiling on a column of air. To Usteine, the cloud looked rather like a mushroom.
After a few seconds, the cloud began to dissipate and, with a gentle tinkling sound, particles of a ruby red substance slowly drifted to the floor. Usteine watched the particles accrete, forming a crystal of polished stone about the size of his fist. He staggered from his protective circle and tottered to the centre of the four pointed star. The alchemist reached down and picked up his prize. The Philosopher's Stone was in his grasp at last!
"I've done it!" he shouted joyously. Months of travel, hardship, expense and not a little terror had led him to this moment. Tinton Usteine, Arch Alchemist of the Fifth Rank, exulted in this moment, the crowning glory of his career. A thought occurred to him and he turned to Saylight. "How do I use it?" he asked the demon.
Saylight shrugged, then smirked naughtily. "I don't know, Master Usteine. You did not specify that knowledge of me when you brought me here. Perhaps another quest to find out?"