23

Aerie of the Alchemist

The bead of gold sizzled under the spurt of blue torch-flame, the metal glistening as it heated, slowly becoming liquid, dripping from the end of the malleable strip to flow into the groove around the seam of the golden orb. The Alchemist worked slowly and carefully, not because he was worried about wasting the precious material, but because he dared not overheat the sphere of soft, yellow metal.

One final turn, a sprinkle of water bursting into steam, cooling down the surface, and he was done. The orb gleamed like a giant, emotionless eye, resting on a wooden pedestal on his bench. It was heavy, weighing more than he could ever hope to lift, but that was no longer his problem.

He chuckled at a grim thought. The king would have to select a very diligent ogre to carry this precious object down the stairs from this lofty laboratory. One slip and the orb would start to roll, and on the first bounce, or the second, the glass bottle of potion enclosed in the sphere would crack, the liquid would mix with the powder, and the destruction would transform Dracoheim Island.

He heard steps outside his door, the muttering voices of his guards humbly greeting someone. There was a knock on his door, and the portal swung open.

“Don’t you keep this locked?” barked the Dowager Queen, striding angrily into his room. “You know there are intruders reported on the island!”

The Alchemist shrugged. He was not in a mood to be cowed or deferential.

“There are six of your hefty guards outside my door. If they can’t protect me, I don’t think a little iron bracket is going to make much of a difference.”

“It’s dark in here,” she complained, gesturing to the shuttered window.

“Safer that way,” he replied.

Only then did her eyes fasten on the gleaming metal sphere. She came forward, licking her lips, placed her massive hands on either side of the orb. “Gonnas be praised,” the elder queen whispered, awestruck. “So much power in such a small package. It is completed?”

“Ready to be carried down to the ship,” the Alchemist said quietly, wishing that she would just pick it up and go.

Queen Hanna shook her head. “It is better to keep it here for now,” she said. “Until we have the matter of these intruders taken care of and the elven Messenger is caught and skewered on a spit. My son has taken his warriors in pursuit on the highland, and Queen Stariz leads a full company through the valley. I have no doubts but that the blood of these insolent wretches will soon be soaking into the ground.”

The Alchemist nodded, strangely ill at ease with this conversation.

“Bah,” Hanna said, seeing his expression. “You are a pathetic weakling. I will be glad to leave you behind!”

“Leave? You are leaving here?” he asked, surprised.

She snorted in amusement. “Yes. I return to Winterheim with my son. You will be fending for yourself from now on.”

“But…” Cold fear gnawed at the Alchemist. “Can I not accompany you? I have heard so much about Winterheim. I would like to see it!” His need was suddenly so acute that his hands were shaking. “There are things I could do… serve the crown. I know that the Hornet is lost. I could supervise the building of another galley!”

“My son’s carpenters did well enough with the plans you provided. They still have the plans, if not the ship!” The Dowager Queen smiled a tight, wicked smile. She looked as though she were enjoying herself immensely. She had never liked this strange man, and he was one of the things she would be happy to leave behind in Dracoheim.

“But I have other skills. Tell me-” He was begging now, and Hanna cut him off with a stinging slap, knocking him back against the bench to look at her through teary eyes.

“Perhaps someday we will have need of you again and return,” she sneered. “If that doesn’t happen I, for one, will be glad to be rid of you. You make me sick, with your craving, your pathetic weakness!”

“When are you leaving?” the Alchemist wondered numbly. Where would he get his potion from now on, he wanted to ask, although he knew that she wouldn’t care.

“As soon as the Messenger and his companions are slain,” she replied. She glanced at the cask of elixir-the potion of haste-which was still half full. “You’d better try and make that last as long as you can,” she observed cheerfully, a glint in her eye. With that, the Dowager Queen stalked out and slammed the door behind her.

He looked at the cask of potion, which suddenly seemed much emptier than it had before. How much? How many more sips? It would last through the summer, perhaps. He remembered there was a little left in the small bottle, the potion of gaseous form she had made for him earlier in the spring. Two swallows, perhaps, a few more precious days of enhanced existence.

Suddenly the winter looked very dark and very cold.

“Let’s hurry,” Kerrick said, touching Divid on the shoulder, nodding to the gully dwarves still gathered around them. “I thank all of you at the ‘Wayfare House’ for your hospitality. Now it is time for us to continue on our way.

“You climb, me stay here with pals,” the gully dwarf said. He offered a two-eyed wink, nodding to the grimy female who had gotten food from Moreen. Now that gracious damsel was snuffling about in the dirt, nostrils pressed to the ground, as if she sought to confirm some intriguing scent there. “That Darknose,” Divid whispered. “She hot for me!”

“She’s, er, lovely, but we still need your help,” the elf declared sternly. “We don’t know the layout of this castle. Please show us how to find the Alchemist-then you can hurry back. I’m sure the, er, lady will wait for you!”

The gully dwarf looked at his comrades, many of whom were cheerfully gnawing on the piece of carrion, wrestling back and forth, occasionally flinging maggots at each other. Cloaker was sound asleep against the wall, and apparently that was enough to convince Divid that he could risk leaving his lady-love alone for a trifle longer.

“You give us pretty good eats,” the gully dwarf admitted. “Guess me show you which way to tower.”

“Thank you,” said Moreen.

The elf, looked skeptically at the ladder, which leaned precariously and seemed barely capable of supporting their weight.

“I’ll go first,” Kerrick told Moreen, feeling he should take the greatest risk. “Divid can follow, and you bring up the rear.”

He took hold of the ancient ladder, feeling mildew and mold on the lower rungs. Suppressing a shudder of disgust, he started to climb. Hand over hand, step by step, he made his way upward.

The ladder was surprisingly sturdy, and soon Kerrick spotted a hole overhead, a circle of grayish darkness. Pulling himself up the last stretch, he emerged through a gap in the floor of a stone-walled room.

“This be cistern, water for castle,” Divid announced, following him out of the ladder shaft.

Moreen came last. They stood on a ring of cold flagstones, a circular underground chamber around a pool of deep, clear water. Another ladder, this one formed of iron rungs planted in the stone walls, rose from here, toward light glimmering above.

“Up,” pointed their guide. “We gullies not usually go here. Ogres see us, they stick us with spear. No good.”

“You are very brave,” Moreen said, patting him on the shoulder. The praise made Divid beam, and as he started after Kerrick the elf reflected that, indeed, the grubby little fellow was performing an act of no small heroism.

This time when they reached the top, they climbed through a hole in the floor into an alcove off of a darkened corridor. Stone archways supported the ceiling, and a stairway of wide steps led upward. Divid took the lead, and they gingerly followed him, ascending at last into a large, dry room. A flickering of oily flame cast light from some unseen space just beyond the arched entrance.

“This one of favorite places… castle dungeon,” the gully dwarf explained in a loud whisper. “Sneak in here sometimes, but gots to run if ogres come.”

“Just show us the way to the tower,” the elf replied, gripping Divid’s arm in an gesture that was meant to be encouraging.

“Ouch!” protested the little fellow. “No grab!”

“Sorry,” Kerrick said replied quickly. He heard a rumbling sound from around the corner. Cautiously he peered around the edge and saw a large ogre lying on a bench, snoring loudly. The elf’s attention immediately went to the wall behind the bench, where several spears and a couple of swords stood haphazardly in a wooden rack. Beyond the bench the corridor was blocked by a barred iron door with a large lock.

This was a perfect opportunity. Kerrick had lost his sword when his boat went down, and he was weaponless.

Gesturing for his companions to wait, the elf crept forward as soundlessly as possible. The sleeping ogre snorted and half-rolled over, and Kerrick held his breath, afraid the lout would fall off the bench and wake up. Apparently the turnkey was used to his narrow perch, however, for he curled around and resumed his sonorous breathing.

The elf reached over his flabby belly, selecting the smallest sword in the rack. He lifted it out without managing to rattle any of the other weapons. The sword was a little long for him, heavier than his elven blade, but still a prize. He thrust it through his belt.

Divid led them away from the sleeping guard and the locked door, to another flight of steps. As they climbed Kerrick felt a heart-pounding excitement. They moved into a brighter hall, a place illuminated by the genuine light of day!

They emerged into a covered entryway next to the castle gatehouse, an arched passage leading directly to the wide courtyard around the keep. The trio pulled back into the shadow of the arch as a troop of twenty or more ogres marched past. Kerrick’s hand clenched around his new sword, but he knew that if they came this way he and his companions were outnumbered. He didn’t breathe for a full minute until the patrol had moved well out of sight.

“Up there,” said the gully dwarf, pointing to indicate one of the towers. “That where Alkist lives. Alla way to top.”

“We can climb from the gatehouse, then cross on that bridge,” Moreen suggested breathlessly, pointing to a stairway that the elf hadn’t noticed before. It seemed to lead up within the large, square building where they found themselves. That route offered some concealment. It was certainly better than a dash across the open courtyard.

“All right,” said. “Let’s do it.”

He turned to thank Divid for his help, but the gully dwarf was already gone.

“They’re giving up,” said a dismayed Strongwind, watching the ogre pursuers milling around more than a mile away. “It looks like they’re turning back to the castle.”

The ogre party started down the long slope toward the path on the valley floor. Strongwind saw the brutish warriors waving, apparently signaling to the larger party that had progressed toward the coast. Now those ogres, too, reversed course and started toward the looming castle.

“I wonder if that one, the big fellow wearing the black cape, isn’t the king, himself,” Randall mused, chewing on a blade of grass. “Didn’t Lady Moreen say something about a black bearskin that he captured from her tribe?”

“Yes. It was a tribal symbol, a bear slain by her ancestor as I recall. I’ve never heard of any other black bear. I bet you’re right.”

“There’s got to be a way to get their attention, to keep them chasing us,” Randall suggested. The berserker scratched his chin, a wry smile upon his face.

“I fear not. What do you propose?” asked Strong-wind, anxiously.

“Well,” said the berserker, with a mild chuckle. “Up until now we’ve been fleeing. We could always attack.”

“This way!” hissed Kerrick, leading Moreen along a small, narrow passageway. They had ascended a spiral stairway within the gatehouse tower and emerged from that route on top of the curtain wall. Now they followed this enclosed tunnel toward a battle platform, the outside rampart visible before them and bathed in bright sunlight.

At the end of the tunnel they paused, concealed behind the frame of the arch, watching as several guards strode along the parapet. One moved away from them, but two approached, so they shrank back into the shadows.

“That’s the bridge over to the keep,” Moreen whispered, touching his arm, pointing to a break in the parapet.

“Be ready,” Kerrick replied, leaning forward to see the guards. The two that had been approaching stopped and turned, engaging in some muttered conversation as, step by step, they marched away on the continuation of their rounds.

“Now!” whispered the elf. Together he and Moreen scuttled out of the gatehouse, staying low so that they couldn’t be seen beyond the wall. In seconds they were around the corner, crouched against the rampart of the bridge. The span itself was unguarded, empty. Even better, a hundred feet away it led to a doorway into the tower.

As quickly as possible they crossed the bridge, hunched over, racing toward the door. As they were drawing close, however, they heard tromping bootsteps and froze. A guard came into view, marching right past the door. They saw him plainly, marching from right to left, so close that if he glanced onto the bridge they were doomed.

Instead, the ogre walked past, and once again they scuttled forward. At the terminus of the bridge, however, they met an open space that they had to cross, a circular platform around the outside of the tower. Crouching, they heard ogres in conversation just a few feet away. The gap of open space was at least ten feet. They hesitated, uncertain what to do.

The piercing blast of a horn suddenly rang through the castle, originating from somewhere near the gatehouse. As the echoes faded, they heard heavy footsteps, stomping guards, the chaotic sounds of movement gradually receding.

“What’s the fuss?” called an ogre nearby. “See anything down there?”

Kerrick guessed that the sentry was looking down over the wall, not toward the bridge. Grabbing Moreen he darted past the ogre, no more than five paces away, who was leaning over the wall, looking into the courtyard. Kerrick pushed open the door, and the two slipped inside the tower. Quickly the elf eased the portal shut behind them.

“I think they know we’re in the castle,” Kerrick whispered. Moreen nodded grimly.

“We’ve come this far. We can’t very well go back,” she said, with an easy grin that he suddenly found immensely heartening.

Another dozen steps brought them to an open arch leading into a larger room with no windows, the area lit by several flickering torches. A wide stairway led down and up from the chamber, while several arched passages on the far side apparently led deeper into the keep.

Footsteps clattered on the stairways, drawing closer, and once more the two intruders shrank into the shadows.

Some ogres were right outside. It sounded as if several had come up the stairs from below. They paused, and Kerrick’s hand found the hilt of his sword. If any came through the arch, the two of them would certainly be discovered.

Instead, he heard guttural voices arguing and questioning, then growing silent as more ogres came down the stairs. Finally he could make out some words.

“What you find up there?” demanded a bullish voice.

“Nothing, no problems,” came the reply in a similar tone. “Guards up there saw nothing, heard no noise neither. Alchemist still in his room. False alarm, if you ask me.”

There was a snort of disgust, then the original speaker continued. “You stay here, you and Bone-breaker. Keep watch. I’ll take the other fellas down to the main hall.”

“Okay. Move fast. The queen’s not happy.”

Immediately there came a clatter of heavy boots going down the stairs. They heard a sniff of broad, clogged sinuses, then a disgusted spit.

“What’s up?” asked an ogre.

“Some humans running around outside,” replied another. Kerrick and Moreen exchanged looks. “Somebody come in by the cistern. They found muddy tracks.”

“I hope them humans come this way,” said the first. “My blade is thirsty!”

Crude chuckles followed. Kerrick glanced at Moreen, whose one good eye was bright, staring at him. “The Alchemist is up those stairs!” she whispered.

He nodded. Suddenly he was overwhelmed by the reality of the challenge they faced. What could the two of them do, against so many hulking guards? What had he expected? That the Alchemist would be alone in his room and invite them in? The elf slumped against the wall, overwhelmed. To come so far and be defeated. It was too much!

• Moreen touched his arm, then gestured. The gesture was clear. The Arktos chief wanted him to put on his ring.

He knew that was exactly what he had to do. Nodding, he reached into his pocket and slipped the golden circlet over his finger. Immediately his fear and weariness fell away, replaced by a vibrant energy fueled by rage, hatred of the two ogres who stood between him and his objective.

With a quick smile at the chiefwoman he drew his sword and raced through the archway to confront a pair of very startled ogres. One died, stabbed through the heart, with the surprised look still etched on his face. The other marshaled a great shout and lowered the haft of his stout spear, holding the weapon crossways to block the attack.

The elf’s heavy blade whistled down, cutting the spearshaft cleanly in two. The ogre gaped at his broken weapon and was still gaping as the sword slashed back through his throat, leaving his head barely dangling from his gashed neck. With a gurgle, the ogre toppled backward.

Unfortunately, he had been standing at the top of the stairs. The limp body smashed down the steps with a clang of armor and weaponry. The ogre’s metal helm, slick with blood, also tumbled down the stairway. The clatter was more alarming to Kerrick than a hundred bells or a thousand clarion horns.

“Come on!” cried Moreen, racing past Kerrick, tugging at his arm. Without a backward look, his sword still red with gore, he turned and raced after her up the stairs leading to the top of the keep, and the laboratory of the Alchemist.

“You’re right-that’s the king himself!” Strongwind said, when they got close enough to recognize the enormous ogre wearing the black bearskin cape. The golden breastplate was the same one the ogre leader had worn at the battle of Brackenrock-the Highlander could even see the hole where Kerrick’s sword had pierced it.

“Let’s go! We’ll take him in a rush!” Strongwind urged boldly. They could strike quickly, maybe even hurt the king himself, then break up the hill. He felt giddily hopeful that he and his companion could distract the ogres with the crazy attack proposed by Mad Randall.

“Let’s go, then,” said Randall cheerfully. “There’s only twenty of the bastards. Shouldn’t be much of a problem.” Strongwind noticed the twitch of his old friend’s lip, saw the light of war come into his eyes. The madness of battle-frenzy was coming over him now.

The two men burst from concealment, sword and axe upraised, racing down the hill. “For Kradok!” shouted the Highlander king, invoking the name of his people’s god. “And for all the Icereach!” he added, allowing himself one last, fond thought of Moreen. Randall’s voice rose in that shrill, ululating scream that had terrified so many opponents of the past, as if a great predatory bird swooped down on the ogres.

They ran full tilt toward Grimwar Bane and his band of stunned, disbelieving ogres.

“They’re in the north tower!” came the cry, as the Dowager Queen scurried through Dracoheim’s great hall. She was ahead of her bodyguards, who were still buckling on their swords. She herself carried a massive cudgel, a heavy weapon of cold, black iron, the studded head imbued with the crushing power of the Willful One himself.

She came to the base of the winding stairway to find a group of guards standing around staring at a bloody helm and nearby a still form sprawled across the steps.

“It’s Bonebreaker,” one ogre guardsman said. “Head mostly cut off.”

“By an elf?” grunted another, astonished.

“Not just an elf-an enemy my son has battled for eight years!” snapped Hannareit. “Today, he dies!”

With a roar, she started up the stairs, heartened by the sounds of a dozen of her warriors rushing close behind.

Moreen’s lungs strained for some fresh air. Her limbs were leaden, her eye stinging with the sweat trickling off of her forehead. Her already blurry vision was reduced to a small patch of light before her, and in that light she seemed to see only an endless string of steps leading upward.

Kerrick was at her side. When she stumbled he reached out, finding the strength to bear them both. She remembered his ring and dreaded the price he would pay for this magical sustenance, but she also understood that, for now, it was their only chance to reach the Alchemist.

They had to stop and catch their breath. It was then that they heard shouts from below and the unmistakable sounds of pursuit-heavy boots clomping on the stairs, weapons clattering, butts of spears cracking against the flagstones.

Kerrick was looking at her oddly, his expression remote. She drew a breath, steadied her nerves. “Let’s keep going,” she said. “I can keep up.”

“Wait,” he said abruptly. “We have to slow them down somehow.”

“How?” she asked. He went to a large stone table, one of several placed at the various landings. It must have weighed a few hundred pounds, but he pushed against it and toppled it over, then shoved it across the floor until he had wedged it firmly atop the flight of stairs. Giving it a final push, he fixed it in place as a barrier. He turned and gave her a grin.

Once more they flew up the steps, around corners, one after the other, until they came to a landing. There were two arches leading to a sunlit outer parapet and one door in the opposite wall. Most importantly, there were six ogres standing in front of the door, staring at them in shock and disbelief, scrambling to lower spears and draw swords against an attack they had clearly thought inconceivable.

Kerrick didn’t hesitate. He rushed forward across the narrow landing, his sword raised. Two ogres were slain in quick stabs. The other four roared and closed in, spears thrusting, blades chopping. One by one they howled with pain, falling to the whistling blade, the steely determination of the elven Messenger. In a few seconds four of the ogres were dead, and the other two were crawling away, bleeding and moaning.

Kerrick thrust the sword through his belt and raised his fist, furiously prepared to smash the door down. Only then did Moreen rush forward, restraining him. She reached out, lifted the latch, and pushed the unlocked door open.

The elf rushed into the room, Moreen at his heels. The chamber was thick with shadow, smelling of arcane fumes. She saw a man seated at a cluttered bench looking up at them. There was a large globe of pure, immaculate gold just behind him, the only brightness in the room. The chiefwoman couldn’t read the expression on the thin, withered face, but slowly the man, on wobbling legs, stood to face them.

“Are you the Alchemist?” she demanded.

“I am called that, yes,” he replied. His voice was weak and reedy, yet somehow familiar. His features were also distinctive, vaguely reminiscent of… what?

Silvanesti!

She turned to Kerrick and saw an expression of shock mingled with horror on his face. All at once she understood.

“Moreen, Lady of Brackenrock,” Kerrick almost spit the bitter words, in that same accent, the silky elven tongue. “This is my father, Dimorian Fallabrine, once a hero of Silvanesti, a leader to make every elf proud. Now, you see, he is the Alchemist, pawn of an ogre king.”

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