There was a thing in the lower chamber that paced.
It paced the perimeter of the room around the fire pit, past the alcoves in the ancient stone walls with the stone glaive-bearing statues, past the eastern wall dominated entirely by the expansive, intricate, worn carving of a seven-pointed star fifteen feet in diameter.
It paced the magically sealed prison cell it had known for years, decades, a century.
The most eccentric taxonomist would have been at pains to categorize the thing as goblinoid: eleven feet tall, six hundred pounds, thickly-muscled torso perched atop gaunt legs skeletal in aspect. Yet kin to goblins it was, though born in Hell and migrated to the Prime to feed and shed its skin in years now gone from human memory. The thing’s arms ended not in hands but in three serrated prominences that could could only be called claws, each the length of a butcher’s hook fit for the larder of a hill giant. The head was an exposed skull, elongated with a thrust jaw, cavernous black eyes, bleak exposed sinus, great tearing teeth, the whole shape some terrible amalgamation of horse and canine set gigantic on the shoulders in a drape of mane that was not quite fur, not quite hair, not quite the color of savannah grass blighted by disease. Loose, filthy wrappings of the grave stained with ancient dirt were draped about it in mockery of respectful presentation. Not undead, the thing drew deep breath echoing from the prison cell walls as heavy iron dragged across stone. The flickering from the fire pit cast awful light across the thing in its horrible ambulation, and the shadow of its movement on the walls bore as much menace as the thing itself.
Those in the fortress that contained the sealed stone prison knew of the thing only by warning and occasional restless nightmare. Not the druid Gogmurt, not the mighty bugbear Bruthazmus, not the unsually tall Ripnugget and his giant lizard mount, not the warchanters, not the unrequited mercenary, not the lovelorn arcanist thought to do aught but leave the magically locked stone door to the lower chamber firmly closed and absolutely untouched. Only one in that place regarded the thing in the stone prison with ambition, and she was not yet of a power to release it and be certain of control. For the present the stone door remained shut and ensorcelled behind its long-established wards.
There was a thing in the lower chamber that paced.
Two parts nitre dust to one part water. Mix to paste.
Spread paste evenly around small crucible.
Autumnal Invocation of Accessibility
Set over dull red coals until the paste changes color throughout. Remove and allow to cool.
Sift powder over single hedgehog mushroom and wrap in cheesecloth. Suspend cheesecloth in pine sap to saturation.
Elemental Water Invocation of Infusion
Remove saturated mushroom and pulverize. Add firefly ichor to bind pulverized parts into lozenge . . . .
And here she was at impasse, though her elven insight tickled her intellect with the certainty that she was close—very close, indeed—to understanding the next step. Tschurumishliahai govan narhamtal vohum vad bradiashveen. She could just imagine her father’s voice imparting a lesson . . . .
More than mere experimentation, more than mimicking motions of those who had mixed before, this was a threshold: A doorway in the practice of alchemy, a transition point in the magic describing the essential nature of matter and energy. This point of development was itself a kind of alchemical process, one founded in the materials of the mind and transformed in the alembic of magic. In her were already situated the admixtures necessary to advance the alchemical art. She had only to locate all the relevant components within and align them in creative synthesis.
Yet she was stuck. Kara Silverleaf sighed and pushed back from the table in her small room upstairs at The White Deer Inn. The table surface was a clutter of uncapped jars, scattered herb leaves in various states of dessication, phials of extracts mundane and strange. Here sat tongs, calipers, shears, mortar and pestle. There collected a surfeit of containers: ceramic and waxed leather and gourd and glass and animal bladder. At hand awaited pouches of diverse catalysts, some acid, some base, some that produced light without heat and some that divulged vibrant flame and prismatic smokes.
Through the small open window of her room came the salt smell of the sea just streets away. The elf woman closed her eyes and drew the scented air long into her lungs. She listened to gullsong above the noise of Sandpoint township. Then she turned and, throwing her cloak about her shoulders, left her room and the inn.
She made for the southeast side of the village and then into the fens beyond. It did not take long to leave the sense of overwhelmingly human (she admitted to herself in what sounded like her father’s voice) habitation behind. As she strolled the wild and overgrown lands broken only by the occasional farmstead, her practiced eyes saw all manner of important aspects to the geography. She could gauge the frequency of rainfall by the consistency of mosses. She catalogued at a glance the deciduous trees of the region and their state of autumnal transition. She noted the evergreen varieties constant against the change of seasons. Vital fungi stood out to her sight as brightly as signal fires across vast nighttime landscapes.
She realized she had left the road when her boots splashed deep in cold standing water. She looked around. Her musings on the alchemical threshold had dominated her attention; now she found herself in the midst of a bog. It stretched before her, wide swaths of water bursting with thick collections of brush around which collected mud and peat. Her feet chilled as the water lapped over her boot tops and pooled inside.
But Kara was stock still. It seemed the sea breeze died for a moment and her long hair—not the rich gold of her oracle friend, but rather the pale yellow of winter sun late risen—settled around her shoulders. Her eyes were riveted on the scene before her. Her breath caught at the sudden realization that tumbled behind the walls of her mind in shocking illumination that dwarfed the lightning power bottled in her most powerful grenadoes.
The water was thick with clutches of green branches emerging from the glassy gray surface. Tiny elliptical leaves clustered around thin, creeping stems giving the impression that a vast group of migratory, foliant eels had suddenly paused to elude the gaze of a predator. And among the branches were numerous clusters of small, red, ovoid fruit.
In that instant the catalyst of magical artistry fueled the reaction of her understanding. She saw the proportions, the structure, the process, the brew. She saw the alchemy of it. With shaking fingers she reached into the chill water among the branches and plucked the ripe fruit: now one, now two, now three, now ten, now twenty. She drew the hem of her tunic up with one arm in a cradling cloth bowl and began to gather the berries therein. Her awareness was barely present, already awhirl in the laboratory of her mind shaping the recipe. She wouldn’t even need another application of heat, just the juice from the berries as substrate for the lozenge followed by the Moonlight Invocation of Transformation. It seemed obvious now where an hour before it was a hare evading hounds, a scent on the wind, the barest racing glimpse, impossible to catch.
She would have run back to the inn but for fear of spilling her clutch of vivid, succulent, sweet-tart gemstones, more valuable in that moment than any ore or jewel churned into sunlight from the depths of the earth.
By the time she reached her room she had cast her cloak’s hood over her features to hide the welling mist in her eyes. She did not want concerned townsfold to ask after her, nor likewise her new friends. How could she explain that, since the moment of threshold in the cranberry bog, the sound of her father’s voice in memory had begun to change as she had guessed that it must and dreaded nonetheless?
How could she elucidate that she could hear her father’s voice diminishing in its tone as instructor, growing in its aspect as peer? How could she possibly express the soaring joy and stunning sadness that had transfixed her the moment she recognized the cranberries, the moment when it felt as though the distance between the memory of her deceased father and her own soul increased, not because he was leaving her behind, but because she was moving ahead?
Thus was the shroud of alchemy momentarily unveiled in the glistening red convexity of cranberries awash in teardrops, heating to white-hot the realization that any transformation of the materials of the cosmos was nothing more—and nothing less—than transformation of the substance of oneself.