A Tale of the Halfling Alchemist
The Golden Promise
"It can take an age to create complete perfection, but only a brief moment to destroy it."
"Have you ever heard of the paladin, Falos?"
Gunza peered through the flask at the cloaked figure stooped in the dark corner of her workshop. Even though he'd be there for nearly an hour now, she still hadn't glimpsed his face, a long hood pulled down low, hanging beneath his chin. All she could make out were wisps of grey hair.
"No, should I have?" she waited for the final droplet to fall from the condenser and then lifted it away, the contents of the flask hissing as green smoke filled the glass chamber, like a venomous serpent uncoiling itself from its basket.
The cloaked figure laughed; a pained wheeze that could easily have been mistaken for a man's dying breaths. "That's why I like you halflings, not a care for the world around you, nor the people in it."
"I care about my work, that's all that matters," she peered at the vessel as the green mist dispersed, swishing the luminous liquid around inside.
"Yes of course, that is of the upmost import."
She looked across at him again, pushing the goggles up, onto her head. Was that a hint of sarcasm she detected in his voice? But his face was still covered and so she brushed the thought aside, placing the flask back onto its stand.
Reaching down into the gold pouch at her side, she removed a thin crystal and held it above the potion. The nearby candlelight catching its edge, sending a prism of rainbow light across the table.
"This is the final ingredient, are you sure it's what you want? When I put this in, I expect full payment."
The figure shifted. There was no shuffle or limp as she expected, only unnatural speed.
"It's what I've come for," the croak of his voice came from behind, the stink of his breath on her neck.
Suppressing a shudder of discomfort, she dropped the crystal into the flask and waited. The sludge roiled and bubbles groped at the glass stone before it was finally pulled beneath the surface. A faint pop and fizz sounded, and the room suddenly smelt of wet, charred wood.
"It's done," Gunza said, moving away from him. "Why did you ask me about Falos anyway?"
"Ahh yes, Falos, chosen by the Angel of Light herself," he revealed a long roll of cloth from beneath his cloak and laid it upon the table. "Falos is her champion, one of the greatest paladins alive in Khymeria."
"And what's that got to do with me?" she asked.
"This is his sword." With that the man flicked the roll of cloth and a long sword clattered onto the table.
Gunza gasped, "Is that a crystal blade? A Khymian blade?"
"Remarkable isn't it, that the Kreidehm fools spend so much time and money on creating such items. After all, a sword is only a sword. If the hand that wields it has no skill, then what does it matter how fine the blade?"
"I'm guessing the Angel's champion has some skill," she tried to keep the scorn from her voice.
"Precisely why I came to you, Miss Goodwort, and your talent with potions," he gestured toward the flask.
It suddenly became clear to her what he wanted and a shiver ran down her spine. "You do know that this won't work on its own, don't you?"
He chuckled again and she felt the cold tremor twist into terror within her gut. A long mist of breath came from beneath his hood and the candlelight flickered, almost guttering out. She wasn't sure if the chill about the room came from him or if it had arrived hand in hand with the dread that now beset her.
"Everything has a price and that is why I offer you such payment. Nothing in my experience is ever done for free," and he lifted a small, golden scroll before her. "I even had it written on gold leaf for you."
She stared at the light shimmering across its surface. It was what she'd asked for but didn't for one moment think she'd ever get it.
"It has been signed by Lagfael himself," the man added and Gunza could swear he was smiling as he spoke.
She lifted a long trough from beneath the work bench and placed it onto the table. "The sword must go in there."
He shook his head. "Alas, I cannot touch the blade itself. Not without the protection of the runes that have been spun into the cloth that carried it."
She looked at the blade lying on the table and for a brief moment, considered taking hold of it and striking him down. But then the golden glimmer of the scroll caught her eye again and she banished the thought from existence.
Placing the crystal sword into the trough, she lifted the flask above it and held it there. Sometimes in life decisions must be weighed carefully over the reckoning of time and against the tally of experience, but occasionally, one must grit their teeth and just take the bull by the horns.
"You best cover your mouth with something, this has a tendency to become quite rancid," she said, holding a rag against her mouth and pouring the liquid over the blade.
Gunza had been to Shimmer City a handful of times before, but she had never visited the Victor's Colosseum. The building was truly magnificent, crystalline walls that rose high into the sky, punctuated with pointed columns that sparkled in the midday sun. The gateway was just as majestic, with more crystal pillars standing to attention and the entrance arched with rich ore, including a thick band of gold that coaxed a smile through the nervous tension that had accompanied her on the journey.
Warriors in highly polished armour were posted everywhere, each one looking immaculately turned out for the day's event. She had even heard rumour that the Angel of Light herself may be there.
Before she could marvel at anymore though, she was whisked away amongst the press of bodies jostling to get into the colosseum.
Once inside she looked around and found a seat nearby. Shaded from the sun and far enough away not to draw any attention from suspicious eyes that might be searching, it offered a grand view overlooking the white sands of the arena floor.
It didn't take long for the place to fill and the noise was incredible, everyone excited for the games to begin. As a smartly dressed man started to walk towards the centre of the arena, Gunza gripped the small pouch around her neck and squeezed it tightly.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the man began, his voice filling the colosseum and drowning out the loudest of shouts. "We have gathered today to witness some of the finest warriors our land has seen. Among them will be those on their final paths to becoming knights and paladins of the Silver Shield." He paused to let the cheers reverberate around the tall walls. "But first we have a grudge to settle," and the crowds fell to silence, desperate to hear what he had to say. "It's not often that we allow guests from Mortis to enter our city of light, but when a grudge has been born and there is a debt to settle, it is only right you bear witness to such a thing." Again, a round of cheers rippled about the arena.
"I won't speak of this grievance for to give it air would leave a foul taste in your mouth, but I will offer you its cure. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the Angel of Light's own champion himself, the mighty, Falso the Paladin."
If Gunza had thought the cheers were loud before, then she couldn't believe the noise that descended upon her now. It was a miracle the crystal walls didn't shatter with the chants that echoed about the place as a tall, golden-haired warrior strolled onto the white sands, his armour gleaming and white cloak billowing in the breeze that had come from nowhere. The orator let the commotion continue before eventually lifting his hands for silence.
"And our guest, representative of those that dared insult our Angel, is allowed entry to answer for the crimes of his people. I am told he is known in his land as a great warrior, so please, offer your most average of welcomes. I give you, Rultagaak."
There was booing and hissing that rippled throughout the crowds, followed by angry taunts shouted at this new arrival. Some folks even took to their feet, waving fists in the air and venting their fury with words Gunza had never heard before.
When the cloaked figure stepped into her line of sight, it snagged the breath in her throat. She tried to swallow the discomfort away. Of course, she couldn't be sure, but this warrior made her think of the man that had come to her workshop nearly a week ago. He was tall but walked with a crooked back. The same black cloak covered him entirely and a long hood was drooped over his head, concealing his face.
It was when he neared the centre that she was certain though, whilst Falso was putting on his winged helm. The sun caught upon two small crescents of silver and they were all that Gunza could make out as Rultagaak jerked forward into a quick dash, moving in a blur of speed, a fleeting shadow across white sands.
Falso fumbled his blade but couldn't lift it in time as Rultagaak's curved knives cut deep, black grooves into the paladin's chest plate. Silence ghosted about the arena, not one person dared speak as the cloaked attacker spun into a crouch, sweeping the vicious daggers across the back of his opponent's greaves. But Falso was ready for him, swinging his long sword around, the blades meeting in a clash that echoed up to where Gunza was sitting.
The two continued to fight, their movement so fast it was difficult for the eye to follow. When either one seemed to gain the advantage, the other would manage to somehow dodge out of the way or block with incredible speed, following up with a lightning riposte. And so the dance continued, neither of them tiring and there being no obvious breach in their defences.
It wasn't until Falso unleashed a brutal assault of his own in answer to Rultagaak's whirling dervish that she remembered why she was there, the cloaked man jumping away from the attack, his head turning to where Gunza was sat and a glimmer of light passing beneath the shadow of the hood. Her hand still gripped the small pouch about her neck and she slowly opened it, drawing forth a long, thin crystal from within, the same crystal she had used in her potion. Taking hold of either end between finger and thumb she spared a moment to look up. The pair were circling each other now, like lions prowling, looking for an opportunity to take the other by surprise.
The time for any deliberation was over, Gunza had considered the right and wrong of it all countless times. The dilemma had held her in bed at night, its tight squeeze keeping her from sleep and refusing to let go. Maybe now the time was nigh it would all become easier, she had her golden promise after all.
There was the faintest of snaps as she broke the crystal in two. Nobody could have heard it, not even those sitting next to her, but Rultagaak's body seemed to flinch at the sound. His posture changed then and he boldly charged at his opponent. Falso met him as he had done countless times before but as their blades clashed, there came a pained screech of metal and Rultagaak ducked to the side, breaking away from the assault.
A strangled cry came from within the knightly helm of Falso, as he held aloft his sword and the sun glinted upon the crack that had opened across it. A moment later it broke in two, the more generous portion falling to the sandy ground with a weighty thud. Gasps fluttered through the crowd and soon Falso's cry of despair was on all their lips as the people witnessed the defeat of their champion.
Gunza felt sick with guilt and slid from her seat, easing herself away from the crowds and finding the steps that led down towards the exit. As she hurried to get free, the voice of Rultagaak rang out behind her.
"People of Khymeria, I have your champion at my mercy, but...I will not kill him. Today you have born witness to the power of the Mortis. The tide is turning and the waters that once washed your grime and deceit away, are ebbing, retreating back to the sea to leave your fraudulent, naked lives on display for all to see.
"I am simply a messenger for the great Lord of Darkness. He has taken measure of each and every one of you, and you all fall deliciously short of the pathetic perfection you strive so hard to achieve. But fear not, he has promised a place for you all in his kingdom, where the deceitful and treacherous may prosper. All you need do is give your life so that your soul may be reborn..."
Gunza had heard enough and hurried from the colosseum, passing the guards who were seemingly transfixed by the words of Rultagaak, caught under the sway of some intoxicating spell. Words that bled with despair, each one flaking away at the brightness of life just as rust slowly consumes the body of its host.
She continued to walk until she could hear him no more and it was only then that her legs failed and she fell to ground, a deep sorrow welling up inside, entwined with such an agonising grief it choked the breath from her. Reaching beneath the cloak, her fingers brushed against the golden Alchemist's breastplate they had awarded her with, two years ago to the very day. Remorse sapped any warmth from the sun above as she took out the small scroll, her reward for it all. Carefully unfurling the golden leaf, she read the words written within.
'To the bearer of this token, death will never come for you until the day you call him.'
Just as Rultagaak had said, it was signed by the Lord of Darkness, Lagfael himself.
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