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Lead and Gold
Arcania, 1975; The Ryldspar Countryside
Godricke Sylvas crept through the underbrush, eyes trained on the pinpoint of light that marked an exit from the forest. His sable robe molded to his form protectively, seeming to hungrily drink in the scattered light filtering through the treetops; he might as well have been the shadow of a fleeing deer. He stopped a moment to look back the way he had come, the forms of the townspeople just receding pictures of detail. They had all chosen to remain behind,—“So as not to hinder your heroic mission, Sir Godricke”—but he knew better; they were just cowards seeking the easiest way to rid themselves of their problems. He loved them, because they loved him, but sometimes he felt as if he did do much for them, as if their dependency was exactly what made them so miserable. He did not feel as if this ‘mission’ they had sent him on was desperate for one of his nature. They claimed there was a monster stalking the countryside, one that had been driven from village to village after relentless effort. Upon being questioned, none of the ‘victims’ could give an accurate description of this creature. The most they could give as a response was the feeling of a presence, or unusual shadows—in other words, the very same things that basic fear is made of. He half expected to reach his destination and only find a rabid wolf or dog, nothing that required a crossbow and stealth. Reluctantly, however, he bore their weaknesses, if only for the sake of their happiness. Not all of them were so selfish, however, and he had seen that in an old, leathery woman that had approached him. She had yanked a small trinket off a cord around her neck and dropped it into his palm, wordlessly turning away, with no explanation or demand of thanks. At the time, he had seen it as inappropriate to scrutinize it to closely—he did not want the old woman to think him ungrateful or too quizzical—but here, away from the disruptive murmur of the excited people, he retrieved the object from the coat pocket he had deposited it in.
It was simple, a t-shaped piece of wood, devoid of any detail save for the natural patterns of its cut. It seemed vaguely familiar to him, though he could not place a name or a purpose to it at that moment. Despite the odd manner in which he had received it, the emblem comforted him in a way he could not describe. He only wished he could put a name to the soothing object. What was it? A cruz? Cr—Godricke was jolted from his thoughts by a violent report that reverberated through the forest, sending flocks of blackbirds barreling from their treetop roosts. Instinctively, his hand dropped to his crossbow, gripping the polished bronze stock, already beginning to draw it from his hip. It was only after a few moments that his mind processed what he had heard—it was the sound of a massive door closing. He cursed to himself silently for his moment of fright, stowing the weapon in its original position. Composed once again, he started off at a trot, hoping that his lapse of focus hadn’t cost him his mark and the favor of his people.
The structure that Godricke arrived at was grand in comparison to the basic styles of village life. Whereas the countryside was dotted with thatch-on-wood cottages, this relic was composed of smoky brick upon smoky brick, its height towering far above the standard height for a normal residence. Several of the bricks were so weatherworn that it seemed as if the surrounding stone pieces would cave into the gaps, but, by some miracle, the structure remained quite sturdy. The steeply sloping roof was crowned by two pointed towers, the highest of which swallowed the figure of the sun, leaving a fiery aura to illuminate the outline of the stone. Upon one of the towers, a larger scale replica of the trinket Godricke held in his pocket had been erected, but from his position, the glare prevented him from noticing it. Lower down, large windows were evenly spaced along the entirety of the wall—at least, what had been windows. Now, they were just empty spaces, rusted steel frames still stubbornly retaining a few odd shards of colored glass. In the eastern most window, a somewhat larger glass fragment had managed to endure the elements, though its color had been completely stripped away, leaving it to closer resemble a mirror than its original design. It was to this window that Godricke advanced, for the moment completely oblivious to his surroundings, eyes only focused on the reflection that approached him as he moved.
Dull black hair hung over a pair of slate grey eyes, eyes that perfectly blended into the stone before them. A pale face stared from the mirror, expressionless, a slight nose suspended above thin lips, both slightly offset by a crude scar mapped across the chin. The body that lies beneath the scope of the reflection was similarly thin compared to his other features, but it was by no means frail. Godricke’s position as village chief required that he attend to any maintenance or repairs requested by the people; that also meant that much of the manual labor was left to him as well. Days and long evenings of towing wooden beams from one side of town to the other left him fairly toned, though it sadly was not enough to make him appear imposing. For some reason, though, he felt vulnerable. Maybe it was just his nerves, or this place; maybe it was the very task at hand, what he may have to do, that put him off; he only knew that he felt unusually vulnerable.
Another report shook him to attention, this time from within the building. Godricke dropped to his knees and pressed to the wall, eyes squeezed shut and heart beating erratically. He had done it again; why today, of all days, was his focus so poor? Taking a steadying breath, he walked forward in his crouch and around the nearest corner, the grand doors coming into view. There were no windows surrounding the entrance, and he stood without fear of being caught. The entryway was gracefully arched, engraved with countless plaster vines and granite rosebuds, never really fully blooming. The way the vines seemed to almost choke the ebony doors, the way the buds seemed to rest upon the outline of the door, made it seem as if they were trying to hide the entrance from prying eyes; the ebony was just an elaborate part of the wall, nothing to see here, move along. Above the door was etched a single phrase, now unintelligible, a possible attempt of warding; the words were just marks now, their power, if ever there was any, long gone. These words had been rendered helpless to time, leaving only an illusion of their purpose behind. A few steps away from him was the beaten brass doorknob, glittering faintly in the specks of sunlight that wasn’t hidden by the spires of the roof. For the haunt of a monster, he thought, still moving forward, this place is hauntingly beautiful. Before he knew it, his hand was gently wrapped around the bronze, angled slightly, not yet fully turning it, but disturbing it from its original position. He allowed himself a final pause, eyes trained on the scars the elements left upon the dully gleaming black before him. What was he about to face? On more then one occasion, his people had been in possessed by bouts of raving mania, pulling at their hair and screaming. They said they had heard stories about this thing, stories handed down from their great-grandfathers, and probably farther back. His eyes fell again on the faded words, and he wondered what effect Time had had upon the creature inside—had it beaten him down to a shell of what he had been? Or was Time the one who had been beaten back?
Closing his eyes, Godricke pushed the door open.
The whisper of a tireless quill and equally tireless dust filled the warmly lit study. Stacks upon stacks of hand-bound books littered what little space the room had been able to retain, forming a turret around the single occupant, who sat dead-center of the piles. A heavy, hooded raven robe separated the man from the surrounding light, leaving him to look as a shadow of a man who was not truly there. In a sense, that assumption was true; his hand worked the smooth stroke of the pen, his arm extended for leather bindings now and then, but it was all in such a mechanical manner, like a paper press belching out sheet after sheet of text. His body had been in the high-backed black velvet chair for hours, yet he had never set foot in the study.
The man's head raised stiffly, his snowy white hair shying away from his eyes, which were trained on nothing in particular. The presence that had been circling the Church perimeter had finally passed the front doors. The presence—easily discerned as a male—was not the surprise; no, not the man himself. What surprised him was the fact that this male had actually built up the nerve to intrude so boldly. The others who had come here were all taunts and flare; they tossed stones through the window, barked obscenities, even launched the odd projectile or two, but by the time the sun set, the front doors remained firmly locked. Maybe, he thought, just maybe, this man would be different. This man would—
"Oh, no use getting ahead of yourself," he murmured quietly, his voice a wisp of silk in the impenetrable silence.
Delicately setting the pen aside—one must not waste such a precious commodity—he stood, pushing the chair back. A blanket of brown and grey dust slid—how long had he been sitting there?—gracefully off his body, forming a ring at his feet. His mind was preparing for the confrontation to come, but his eyes remained stubbornly on his books. There were so many volumes just on the single desk before him: Stories of disease, of war, of poetry and art, architecture and faiths, recipes and weather, mountains and oceans. Collectively, they were an epic of Time itself, and, fittingly, were augmented day by day. Each binding came with a stack of blank sheets, in case any urgent additions came along. Time was not concrete; one never knew when something would change. He finally brought himself to turn away from the papers—it was a chore—and faced the diminutive door that lead to the more spacious entry room. Standing there, eyes trained on that door for the first time in an immeasurable amount of time, he could feel the dry and yellowed pages boring into his back, piercing his spine with every dot, curve, and line. They did not want him to go, could not live without him, but knew that he must. They knew that he, as much as themselves, was a part of the very stories he transcribed. The only difference was that another scribe would record his role. For a moment,—and a moment to him was vastly different than a moment to most other men—just a single moment, he allowed himself to worry about whether or not he would return to his room, would breathe in the cloying dust again, his perfect version of oxygen. He allowed himself to wonder if some freak tremor would tip the purposely placed candle, finally allowing it to burn its brightest, which it was never allowed to do; he wondered if this whole place would be compressed into a story about the composition of ash and the effects of unchecked fires.
Isn't that what part of him secretly wanted?
"Do not get ahead of yourself," he murmured again, closing his eyes to dislodge the incessant vision of the jaundiced eyes behind him. Taking a final breath, he moved towards the door, ripping the stagnant air apart as he went.
Godricke did not know what he had prepared himself to see, but it certainly was not this. What he saw were books, piles upon piles of books. There were towers of books, mounds of books, trails of books and stairwells of books. There were books forming bridges to distant books, books teetering upon the edges of books which threatened to throw them upon even more books. There were books that seemed to solely exist to support an imposing wall of thicker books. Although there was no attempt at organization, each and every book seemed to be in its one and proper place. He did not know how he had not seen them from his outer viewpoint; maybe the sheer amount of them had managed to reject any light attempting to creep through the windows. For a moment, he was rooted to the spot, afraid that any misstep would send each and every volume, manuscript, and anthology toppling inwards, creating a wave of dust that would choke him as a fitting punishment. As carefully as he could,—it would have been painful to watch, were there any onlookers—he closed the thick door behind him, instantly feeling the difference the outside air had made in the room. Godricke's heart stalled as his vision was completely stolen from him—the damned books were blocking the windows!—but after a few helpless moments, the natural lighting provided from a few distant, random candles brought his eyes into focus again. It was only then, with the doors closed and all exterior influences kept at bay, that he realized how immense the chamber was. Despite the seemingly endless heights to the paper-stacks, the ceiling was even higher. In the dim lighting, Godricke could make out vivid murals mapped out from east to west. Unlike other famous murals he had become acquainted throughout his short life, these pictures did not seem to hold a central theme. In fact, each and every picture seemed to follow its own style. In one corner rested a single, quiet seraph, wings extending along the wooden beams. In another, an imposing gargoyle leered down, its black eyes not really holding any specific spot in its gaze. Vaguely, the two figures almost seemed relatable—some reproduction of an angel-versus-demon scene—until Godricke began to notice every other picture. A fish swam though a purple patch of fire; a bird skirted through a tangle of an inverted trees roots; a single music note drifted up in a gray concrete bubble. There were too many depictions to describe, and none were similar to any other. Even being so drastically different in style, meaning, and color, they seemed to come together to form one massive, beautiful piece of art. Eventually, after the initial awe had passed, the scene began to strike him as odd, seeing as how worn the outer walls looked. If, in fact, this building had remained untouched for as long as he supposed it had, than this paint, even hidden from the natural elements, should have at least begun to fade. The truth was quite visibly the opposite. Each and every puzzle piece of paint was fresh and unscathed, as if they had been done up yesterday.
"Enjoying the view?" murmured a voice from before him, which emanated from a man standing not five feet away from where Godricke currently was.
Godricke's body snapped into action, his hand flying to his person for the first thing he thought to grab—the wooden trinket. Stupidly, almost childishly, he thrust it out in front of him, like a shield, because he felt as if that was the unnamable purpose it was meant to serve. He heard a gasp, and was dumbfounded, because he let himself believe—foolishly—that his act had had some effect on the stranger. Indeed, it had inflicted a wound, but it was on the psyche of the man before him, not his body, that that mark lingered.
"Oh…you do not…you do not know what that thing that you hold is, do you? No, no, I can see it in your eyes. You have no clue…well, put it away. It is quite beautiful, but you are holding it the wrong way; it should be around your neck, because you are going to ruin the wood, gripping it like that. Just put it away, please, and do not throw it out again. You have no clue what it is."
Without thought, Godricke obediently did as he was told, lethargically stowing the wooden piece inside of coat. The voice made him feel as if he should, no questions asked. Despite the sheet of darkness clinging to the room, Godricke was just able to perceive the figure that stood before him. It was a man, roughly his own height, covered from neck to toe in a heavy-looking black robe, one so black that it seemed to be able to set itself apart from the variety of black the room displayed. Standing out in a stark contrast to his backdrop stood a unruly mess of snow white hair, which hung across the eyes of an unsure color—grey perhaps? It was hard to tell—which, he knew, were trained upon him. Aside from these few characteristics, there was not much to see.
"Wh—" Godricke began unsteadily,
"Who am I? Oh, yes, introductions. I apologize. It has been quite some time since I have had—a visitor. My name is Alurayne—that last part as in water--Giodornoe, of homeland Unimportant, family Unremembered, and title Long Forgotten. I am the Keeper, Slave, and Prospective Owner of this beautiful Cathedral, which, I am afraid, you are intruding within. May I have your name, so I can properly and respectfully dismiss you from my sight?"
Although Godricke knew that those words Aluraune had spoken, coming from any other man, would have angered him, they did not now. It was not because of the quality of the voice, or the unnerving elegance of the man who spoke them; it was because the words were completely devoid of emotion. There was no sarcasm, humor, bitterness or reluctance to the introduction and demand. They were, simply put, spoken words, stating an idea, and a question, which, simply put, was to be answered. There was nothing else. There was no avoiding such simplicity.
“I am Godricke Sylvas,” he said, making a slight bow, which Alurayne returned. “I am chief of Renil, the nearest town west of here. I have been sent to validate tales of a m—“ Here, he paused, because, prior to this meeting, he had been more than willing to say a monster, but something about actually seeing what it was the people were afraid of—a simple man—made him reconsider his words. “Of a minor disturbance. My people were frightened, and I—“
Godricke could do nothing but blink as Alurayne began to chuckle, first quietly, so that he had to strain to hear the noise, then more boldly, until the spacious chamber echoed with the sound. He could have sworn that even the books began to rustle, mocking him for coming here, for playing into the fears of the town, for being afraid himself. At length, Alurayne’s laughter ceased, and the air returned to its viscous silence. It was all Godricke could do to meet Alurayne’s gaze when he looked upon him.
“Do forgive me, Sir Godricke, please; I did not mean to imply you had said something comical. It is just—oh, do forgive me. It is just that I know what you had wanted to say, that quietly tremble and overstress of that “m” said it all. You were going to say monster. No, no, do not try and explain yourself—honestly, you are not incorrect in wanting to say so—What I do wish to know, however, is what about me that you see makes me fit your perception of “monster”?
Godricke paused for a moment, and thought, and realized that, aside from the word of his people, nothing here excused his opinion. He said as much.
“Nothing. Nothing does.”
“Do I have a prolonged snout or teeth?”
“Do I have an unusual tail or leathery wings?”
“Do I spew fire from my eyes or fingernails?”
“No, you do not.”
“Do I seem to growl between words? Does my English shift into guttural inflections? Do I seem on the brink of hunger?”
“N-no, no, not at all.”
Here Alurayne paused, not for a lack of words—Godricke felt as if this man could say what he wanted, at any given time, in any given manner—but more for Godricke’s sake, so as not to put him on a defensive. Something about his manner changed in that pause. Whereas Alurayne had been masterfully composed before, his voice straightforward and simple, a barely visible hand now quivered, and his gaze seemed to slip past him, to the door behind him, though Godricke knew that he did not see the door; he was looking past it, past all the broken windows and trees, past the underbrush and the animals, to the very heart of the down that lay beyond them, to each and every man, woman, and child that dwelt there. The pause, which lasted far too long, was finally broken with the quaver of Alurayne’s voice.
“What, then, Sir Godricke—no, do not interrupt—what, then, I ask, gives you the impression that I am a monster, besides the fact that I freely state that I am? On your journey here, what thoughts spurred on your mind, your courage? What truly made you come here?”
Godricke felt as anything he possibly said would not be a sufficient answer, though he knew he had to try, because that quaver, whether or not it was a sign of weakness, demanded it.
“My people…they are why I came.”
Across the span of feet that separated Alurayne and himself, Alurayne’s eyes—they had no definite color—seemed to pierce into his own slate grey ones, like the mason’s spike driving into stone, breaking it, revealing its inner structures.
“You know that you do not believe that.”
“They are why I came. I have a duty to them.”
“You are lying. Why did you come?”
“Because they were afraid, they could not sleep at—“
“You are lying. Why did you come here?”
“I told you! My people needed me! They—“
“Stop lying to me!”
Godricke's body trembled at the sound of that command; it remained emotionless, and the anger in the voice was pure anger, not as it is typically perceived, but its base essence, like a peal of thunder. It was kindred to natures anger, which did not form its brutality based on emotions, but simply lashed out when it did, with no logical reasons or intentions; rainstorms did not plan to shatter the bark of trees; floods did not seek to drag mortals beneath its shadow; hurricanes did not wish to uproot homes from their foundations—these things simply happened, just like Alurayne's "anger". It left him rigidly rooted to the exact tile he had been standing in since he examined the murals. It left him waiting.
"I shall ask you again," Alurayne murmured softly, a hint of the thunder still evidently underlining his words, "Why did you come here? Do not tell me why you were asked to come here; tell me why you came here?"
Godricke took a moment to process the words and subtract the previously wrong answer from the equation. If it was not for his people, then why had he came? True, they needed him, but he had began believing that they were too dependent for their own good. Even in the forest he had keenly felt the resentment to come, yet here he was. That resentment was only coming here on their behalf, which, logically, left a personal motive. What was that urge that had drawn him here?
Then he had remembered the sensation of vulnerability.
The more he thought on it, the more he realized that, as odd as it was, he had not felt the least bit afraid. The feeling had been unexplainable, which meant that an explanation as easily made as Fear would have come to his mind with no effort. He had not been afraid, so what had he been feeling? I was…
"I was curious," he murmured, not completely aware that he had spoken aloud.
Almost instantly, the tension between himself and the man seemed to be severed. A candle on a far off wall flared, as if the dissolution of the tension had created a breath of air that stirred the flames. Even Alurayne's unbecoming shudders had ceased, leaving him looking as calm and composed as he had been when he entered the room.
"Curiosity…" he whispered, eyes refocusing upon Godricke again, whatever business they had with the specters beyond the door now finished. "Yes, Curiosity…that is what brought you here, of course. Curiosity makes men do many foolish things…many, many foolish things." A cough interrupted his speech, though it was obviously intentional, ending whatever comment he had been about to make.
"Well, Godricke, that, I believe, is the correct answer. Your men and women may have wanted you to come here, but, in the end, you made that choice. Your curiosity led you through the trees, to the doors, and into this room. I myself am a connoisseur of the deceptive Lady Curiosity. I truly believe you understand, that, no?"
With that said, Alurayne turned on his heels and slowly began moving towards the study again, leaving Godricke immobile. Hand on the antique black handle worked into the wood, he spoke, not bothering to turn to look at the statue behind him.
"Come, come, I wish to show you something. Do not worry, I shall not harm you—if either of us were prepared to do that, one of us would be silent by now. Come, please, this way." And with no further explanation, Alurayne disappeared behind the slightly splintered door.
Godricke, after a few moments of indecision, found himself easily following.
Alurayne lead the unsure Godricke into the small room, leaving the door slightly ajar behind them—closing it completely might just make this little hound bite. Inwardly, he felt a small twinge of satisfaction upon hearing the gasp of wonder Godricke gave as he took in the contents of the room. No other entity had ever set foot in here, save the occasional rodent, and even then, some instinctual fear drove that away, too. For as much time as he spent in here, it was the loneliest room in the whole complex.
"What…what is all of this?" Godricke asked quietly
"My life's work, I suppose. Or maybe that is unfair. I suppose I should say the life's work of everything around me."
"You mean these are…it's a…"
"Yes, Sir Godricke; these are histories."
Godricke cautiously advanced to the closest pile of books, gingerly lifting the topmost volume, tensing when the disturbed dust began to swirl. His fingers stroked the old leather cover, feeling each and every mark in the material.
"You made this?"
"Yes. I cured each strip of leather and bound the paper myself."
"This must have taken—"
"Years? Yes, you could say that. Then again, a year to me is the blink of an eye. This more than likely took centuries."
Godricke breathed in sharply again, eyes intent on the book in his hands.
"Go on, Godricke; open it. Check the date."
Godricke hesitated, realizing that he was beginning to tremble. Up until now, he had tried to convince himself that this whole panic was blown out of proportion, that Alurayne was simply some spent hermit scaring the countryside with his antics. He knew, though, that if he opened these pages, and saw a date that far exceeded the youthful appearance of the man before him, that that rationalization would be shattered. He knew that he would have to accept the reality that this man held some dark secret, and maybe, just maybe, he was a monster.
Isn’t that what he had come here for?
His fingers crept beneath the cover, knuckles propping the worn leather up to reveal the elegant letters beneath, and just below the letters, a set of numbers:
Godricke closed his eyes, taking a slow, deep breath; his resolve was fully dissolved. Who are you?
Alurayne smiled slightly, though it did not seem to touch his eyes.
"There, is that what you came here for? Does the proof satisfy your curiosity enough to make a judgment? 'Oh, what monster is this??' 'How can such a thing exist?' 'Demon, devil, monster!'" Godricke heard the loss of composure in that last word, as if Alurayne had not been quoting another frightened soul, but condemning himself. He was not asking Godricke if he was a monster; he was proclaiming it freely.
Before Godricke could reply, Alurayne began speaking again, somewhat more withdrawn.
"Yes, yes…I know…you wish to know what happened…everyone who comes to this place does," he laughed bitterly, his eyes trained on some invisible target somewhere behind Godricke. "That seems to be the only history I have never taken the time to record. But, that's not what people strive to learn, is it; learning about monsters? They want heroes, wars, and faith. They only want monsters when they are at the end of the blade of one of those 'greater goods'."
He turned away from the stacks and moved to the eastern side of the room, where several layers of dust were collecting on an ancient looking leather tarp. Blowing away some of the dust, he laid his hand upon it gingerly, instantly leaving a print in the grey.
"I made this as well," he murmured distantly, his head tilted down, hair falling around his face. Finally, he tore away the cover to reveal what lie beneath.
It was a rough wooden workbench, appearing to have been unused for quite some time. Upon it lay several glass beakers and vials, their only contents being a mixture of dust and mold. Many of the containers were cracked or missing shards, leaving the whole set-up looking rather dangerous. Glittering specks of glass had settled into the grain of the wood, looking more like veins of silver than an uncared for workstation. In the top right corner of the table were stacked several books, of a different style then Alurayne's handmade compositions. The covers were a myriad of colors, the only similarities being the arcane symbols sinuously curving along the worn material. The language was unknown to Godricke. Alurayne, however, seemed to decipher that odd text as he began to tell his story.
"Alchemy," Alurayne murmured, answering the unspoken question, still just as detached as when he had entered the room. "I do not know if the practice is familiar to you—it is the art of transforming the worthless metals of the earth into more priceless gold, and of brewing Immortality, and of mastering the Elements. None that I know of practice it any longer, and I do not blame them; it is a difficult art to master. Quite difficult…"
He trailed off, eyes never straying from the equipment, and Godricke thought it best not to disturb him.
"I became enthralled by the concept of gaining the power to bend nature to my will; of being able to change the dull glow of lead into the glitter of gold, and, if that was not possible in my lifetime, of brewing The Elixir and extending the time available to achieve my goals. Back then, it was such a seductive dream, one that promised no end to what I could do. My companions in the Art abandoned their efforts long before I did, claiming that it was a fruitless endeavor, seeking only to sap their wealth and energy for nothing in return. They called me a fool; dedicated, but a fool. Maybe I was, but, at the time, what lay at the end of my sacrifices stole all of my sense. I spent long days and nights in my chambers, memorizing recipes, recording, testing my results. For a practice that revolved around the core components of life, I had little regard for life itself. I brought vermin by the dozens, pouring concoctions down their throats without thought; when their writhes of pain began to disturbing me, I would brush their rapidly decaying bodies into the furnace to fuel the heat to the beakers. My neighbors began to complain of the sounds and the smells, but I brushed their words away just as carelessly. When my own wife began to plea with me to end my madness, I sent her away. 'If you cannot support my dreams, then there shall be no dreams of us,' I told her. Her tears only made me think of the water boiling in the glasses. The Work utterly consumed me; I hardly ate, or slept, or even went out. My skin began to bleach from the lack of sunlight, and the constant exposure to the chemicals affected things such as the color of my eyes. When I would look in the mirror, I hardly recognized myself, but I did not care; I told myself that the Cure to all pains would be my reward, that Immortality would pardon all of my sins. And one night…"
Again, he trailed off, but now he turned to face Godricke, emotion tingeing his face for the first time. It was pain; pure, unchecked pain.
"And one night, it all came to fruition. I sat at the table, my eyes stinging from the fumes, breathing tainted from whatever unholy vapors I had inhaled, but I heard something: Nothing. There was silence. No sputtering of a fatal reaction, no pop of combustion; nothing. Slowly, I looked up, and examined the vial before me, and it contained a liquid of the most beautiful red shade. It was as if a handful of rubies had been tenderly heated to perfection, causing them to liquefy to this watery jewel. I could not tell if the tears in my eyes were a result of the pain or overwhelming joy. My hand timidly reached for the drink, terrified that at the slightest contact it would shatter and erase its contents. My fingers wrapped around the neck, and the intense burning of the heated glass did nothing to dissuade me; no pain would keep me from what I had so long sought for. I am sure that the skin from my lips was torn away as I brought the glass to my lips, but I was only aware of the liquid slowly seeping into my mouth; if it killed me, then so be it; there was no more searching from that point on. I swallowed…and nothing. I felt nothing. I sat motionless; eyes focused on the red tinged beaker, waiting for something, anything. Nothing happened. I felt no change. If I had believed I had a heart any longer, it would have shattered. All I could do was hurl the glass across the table, watching the red fragments rain down upon the table. Several of the shards pierced the still struggling body of my last test subject, a sickly looking rat that had nothing more to live for. Gradually, its contortions ceased, and I could only think, Is that what my heart would look like? And then the rat stirred. I thought it a trick of my eyes at first, brought on by the grief that was surely there. It was but a twitch of its foot, easily the spasm of a loose nerve. But then, it was the whole leg, and then the contraction of the stomach, and then the jerk of a paw. The creature was moving again, and its beady eyes had opened wide, and it rocked onto its four feet and lived. The fragments had injected the serum into the poor things veins, and it had done what I knew it was meant to! It had granted that most sought for taboo, what they had all given up! It had given Immortality!"
Alurayne was trembling now, and Godricke felt a nagging sense of fear; the tremble could be pain, or confusion, even rage, and if he was right, then the type of being Alurayne was would have the rage of a demigod.
"And then I felt it! The fatigue had been stripped away, replaced with a vitality I had never felt before! My throat felt purified, and my eyes, clear! I threw myself from the chair and onto my feet, knocking it back with a force I had never known. I had to go outdoors; I had to show them what I had and what they didn't! I was barely aware of making contact with the door, of heading outside, of stumbling down the steps. The occupants of the street turned, taken aback by the sight of the long-locked door being flung wide. And then…the first woman screamed. Several of my colleagues were gathered upon the road, and they turned in the direction of the shriek, and saw me. Instead of the awe I had dreamt of seeing, I saw only revulsion. They yelled my name and dropped their books and papers, stepping farther away from me. The women continued to shriek, some deciding to flee rather than wait for an explanation. I could not comprehend their reactions.
" 'I have done it, my friends! The Elixir, I have made it! It works! My life has come to have meaning again! I—' I felt the blunt force of a text book strike me in the temple, and I dropped to the floor. Sometime later, I awoke; face down in a murky puddle of water, no doubt soiled by the fleeing pairs of feet. I propped myself up on my hands, not feeling the strain, and then I saw what they had seen. My eyes were sunken in their sockets, and my face was drawn into terrible contortions of wear and fissures. The skin itself was pale and sickly, tortured by the steam of the chemicals, and changed beyond belief. I was a monster. They all knew that, and I heard them returning, reinforced with the sound of several more pairs of feet. Some of the steps sounded metallic—the village guard was with them. It was the classic 'creature being driven from town by its people'. I had no choice but to abandon my home as it was and flee, flee from the people I had trusted for so long, from the memories of dreams sought and found. They all followed. I managed to outrun them—vitality does that to a person—and hide in a distant town that knew nothing of my evils. Knowing that I still could not trust these strangers, I donned the robe you see me in now, and hid my face away, as it should be; for hiding away from the world, from those I loved, from those who loved me, it was only just that I was forced to hide when I thought I would be allowed freedom. Under this poor disguise, I sought to purchase new equipment; if I had brought this upon myself, there was surely a way to reverse it. Each attempt I made was a failure, and eventually, my true state was discovered, and I was again driven away. It was the same story in each place I came to. As time passed, I realized that whatever restorative effects that the Elixir had bestowed upon my life-force had taken the liberty to further heal me. Gradually, my skin began to repair, and my features returned to normal. But the rumor of my actions quickly circulated between the people, and my appearance mattered not. The label of 'monster' had been solidly placed, and no one would forget that."
"As time went on, I began to realize that my biological systems were undergoing radical changes. I no longer needed to eat as I did before, and gradually, sleep began to leave me as well. I could feel every minute change of my organs as each and every one began to deteriorate. It was as if my inner body was dying, but the rest of me was loath to catch up. It began to drive me mad, knowing how inhuman I was becoming. By all logic, I should have been dead. But I wasn't, and there was no escape from that. Weeks passed, then months, years, and then decades…time became irrelevant. I was changing, but the people around me weren't; they were still the same, ignorant fools they had always been. They continued to track me, to condemn me and dog my heels relentlessly. When they had first began to call me a monster, I was hurt, because I knew that the only wrong I was guilty of was pursing my dreams. Later, though, when I began to change…I began to believe them. In my spare time, I conducted research on the nature of my 'illness'. I raced through countless volumes, tore pages from their spines, and wrote notes furiously, tirelessly. My labors bore no fruit. Meanwhile, I began to realize that my bodily systems had not all changed at the same pace. Though my major organs had begun to fail, my blood vessels had only been slowed and depleted…they caused me acute pains. I realized that I needed a means of replenishing them with a steady, healthy source. And that is when I came across an old, worn journal…the name of the author was illegible. The content, however, was very understandable…"
"Vampires…" Godricke whispered.
"Yes, vampires; that is very observant of you. I came across a study of vampires, the immortal dark gods of myth. Although the means of becoming one varied in several sections of the entries, I found none similar to my own. It was disheartening, but I persevered, empowered now that I knew that there was an explanation of my sickness. The explanation was simple: My alchemical endeavors had lead me to the Elixir, The Immortal Drink, which had in turn lead to the natural biological decay of a body. However, the vitality granted to me from the tincture caused only parts of my systems to break down. My blood had been the only thing that endured the transformation, and, in effect, was reduced to a pathetic state. The only means of preserving myself—despite my distress, I was too much the coward to see if a continuous state of depletion would kill me—was to obtain more blood. And the only way to do that…well, you can figure that out. To say the least, I had become the monster that the people had always wanted me to be, the thing that validated their reasons. I never…drank…in excess, though; I always acted only out of necessity. That made no difference to them, though. If they killed and maimed and feasted for survival, it was excusable—survival is survival. But, when I did the same, it was sacrilege, blasphemy, because it was not like their practices. Funny, how that works; how the concepts of good and evil are determined and defined by those who have the most power. Stealing is wrong—if a good man steals, it is honorable. Killing is wrong—if a death is brought about in defense, it is just. Condemnation is wrong—if a pious man gives it, it is necessary—but, I digress. I was what I was. Until I could find a solution to all of the wrong that I had done, I would suffer the punishments brought upon myself. It was only just, of course. I cannot even remember how longer ago it was that all of this occurred…a week ago? A century? Does it matter? I am still the same creature—the same monster. I became what, at heart, I knew I always was."
Godricke's eyes were plastered wide open, his heart beating impossibly slow. This was the monster he had been sent to hunt? This was the demon that had terrorized the people?
"You are no monster…you are a victim."
Alurayne barked a laugh, hastily turning back to his books.
"You are the first to say so, though it hardly has meaning. If I am not a monster in figure, than I am most certainly one in practice. I threw away lives as if they were the worthless liquids in my vials. I shunned love in hopes that I would find love in gold. While the world was open to me, I shut myself away from it. Would you still call that human?"
"Take that trinket from your coat pocket."
"The trinket…?" Godricke reached into his pocket and retrieved the small wooden T, timidly holding it out to Alurayne, who mechanically took it from this hand. He quietly examined it, turning it over in his palm, seeming rather familiar with its handling.
"Do you know what this is, Godricke? It is called a 'cross'. Its use has long since been forgotten, and I can only guess that an elder entrusted it to you in some feeble attempt to pass on its legacy. Long ago, it was a symbol of hope and belief, not merely a piece of wood, but a representation that had no material form. There used to be a thing called "God", and he—or It, if it so pleases you—was a sacred idol to the people. They used to gather in places such as this—called a Church—to worship the God, for they looked to the God for guidance and comfort. It used to be a daily practice, and then a weekly one, then, a monthly one, and soon enough, the dedication began to die out. The countries of that time began to war amongst themselves, and they turned away from Worship in favor of more efficient means to get their points across. Worship turned to War, and Rebirth turned to Murder; they forgot the lessons of their Deity, and the Deity surely took notice, for their wars soon began to escalate to a level that they could not possibly see."
He brushed his hand over a volume titled The War of Sacrilege, as if to remind himself that what he spoke of was more than a dream.
"Their alliances began to crumble, and what had begun as organized tactics transformed itself into mindless battles with no apparent goal. Men slaughtered men as they always had, but now, there was a chilling aspect to it that was absent before—Chaos. Orders ceased to reach the battlefronts, and the people began to fight for the single pleasure of spilling blood. Cities—a grander version of the villages you now know—were razed by fire and chemicals, both heedless of the innocent lives within. Governments—tighter versions of the current Village Councils—began to war from within, and the structures those people had so long strove to built finally crumbled. The countries all turned on one another, and, as was inevitable, destroyed one another. From that wreckage, the survivors banded together after seeing their follies and founded Arcania, their final attempt at repairing the incalculable damage they had wrought. And I was there to see it all. The men and women who had so readily labeled me as monsters had become the tyrants themselves, but, somehow, my legend endured among these Reborn inhabitants, and they again chased me away, so easily forgetting their recent sins in favor of drowning their pains in my own. And I documented each and every story along the way."
He again turned to Godricke, and Godricke took a small step back; there was a tear forming in the corner of his eye.
"And that is all, Sir Godricke. That is what you came here for; for the man I have just painted in these histories. You came for the man who stood on the guidelines and chronicled each and every tale of the people who did not approve his existence. You came for the monster known as Alurayne Giodornoe, the Alchemist, the Historian, and the Monster. You came for the fool who believed that a sole goal in life could be something as simple as Lead into Gold. I was a fool for not realizing sooner what that meant. From the very beginning, I was the Lead. I was the imperfect substance, and my goal in life was to learn and build upon myself in order to find the true Gold. Hells, I began as the Gold, and I reduced myself to the Lead with my selfish corruption. My colleagues surely understood that, and they did not flee from the difficulties I faced, but saved themselves from it. I am Alchemy's grandest experiment gone terribly wrong, and I have paid for it, keeping true to Alchemy's laws of exchange: Eternal life for Eternal sorrow. Lo and Behold, the secret of the Alchemist!"
He swept his hand behind him, sending several pieces of the equipment flying against the wall in a glitter of glass. Godricke stood rigidly still, watching the scene before him. He felt more pity than fear. When he saw that the sharp splinters had not even scratched Alurayne's skin, the fear almost completely dissolved; to not be able to feel pain might have been the greatest pain of all. When the episode had subsided, Alurayne let his arms hang limply at his sides, body drained of will.
"So, Godricke Sylvas, are you prepared?"
"For what you came here for, of course; to "slay the beast'?"
"Slay? No, no, you cannot expect me to—"
"Oh, but you must. You would return to your people a failure, an incompetent leader who was unable to bring security to a frightened countryside. They look to you for guidance, and you cannot let them down!"
"My people lied to me!" Godricke blurted, quickly silencing himself. Alurayne, however, had caught the slip, and was looking at him expectedly; silence would not be allowable as an answer.
"They…they painted me a picture of a devil, of something that tortured them and left them sweating at night. You…you have done nothing to provoke them. They…"
"They are the monsters…"
"Well…they portrayed you as…"
"As a monster? Yes, they did; but was it undeserved?"
Godricke had no answer.
"So, you shall have to make a decision; I am not interested in playing games of morals. You came here with a purpose, and I have learned that when one has a purpose, one must follow through to the end, no matter the results. You, my friend, have not ruined the Grand Experiment as I have. Your Gold is still in reach. Mine is long gone. It would be a mercy to end me here, for I have been much too afraid to test whether or not this "Immortality" is as long as I once believed; I hardly believe in anything any longer. If you kill me, I would only ask that you protect what memories I have left here. These histories may speak of evils, but they are not evil themselves. Then again, I can see what kind of a person you are, and I can tell that slaying another human—however monstrous—would go against every fiber of your being. In other words, you have to choose which monsters you shall serve, which, in my opinion, is what humans have been doing all along."
Godricke still had no answers.
"Well, what is your decision? I told you I have no time for games."
This is not what he had come for. This is not the leader he wanted to be. He was pitted between two forces that he had not completely understood before playing their games. There was so much that he did not understand, but he had no time to question them. Alurayne was right; he had come here with a singular purpose: To be the leader that his people needed him to be. That was the task he had been entrusted with, and that was the task he was obligated to carry out.
His hand dropped to his waist.
Godricke emerged from the trees with a somber face, each and every villager jumping up at the sight of him.
"Were you successful, Lord Godricke?"
"Did you find the beast, Lord Godricke?"
"Are you hurt?"
Godricke stood quietly, looking at each and every face before him, the faces that he had trusted before he had passed those doors; the faces he had believed showed him the utmost respect. He had a task he still needed to finish.
"I found the monster of which you spoke of, and I let him free."
The expected cry of disagreement did not faze him in the least, and he endured their scorn with quiet patience.
"I let him free because you, fellow people, were not honest with me. You painted false images to lure me into this game that you play, and I refused to play into it."
The cries were cut short as quickly as they had begun.
"You, who told me to hunt down a monster, never revealed to me who that 'monster' really was. Lie no longer—I know that you were aware of the whole story. How could you be ignorant to such a tale? This is a game started by your ancestors, by individuals you could not possibly be aware of, but you were very aware of the story itself. You sought to tell me half-truths to satisfy your own desires: The death of your own fears. Did you ever consider, however, what other fears breathed besides your own?"
"I have heard both sides of this tale, and, as your appointed Chieftain, I uphold my duties as the final Judge of all decisions. As your Chieftain, I shall not betray your trust."
A murmur of agreement buzzed in the crowd; maybe there was hope, they thought.
"You set me upon this task, to track down the terror of the countryside, and I return successful—I have found the culprit."
His gaze left no doubt in their minds as to who he had accused.
Each Chapter title—or Step—represents a step in one of the oldest Alchemical recipes, which was documented in the Tabula Smaragdina, which is one of the oldest known documents pertaining to Alchemy This recipe dictates the creation of an object called "The Philosopher's Stone", which is supposedly the perfect Alchemical substance. Studies in Alchemical Psychology—an obscure branch of Psychology that believes Alchemy's true intent was not the transformation of Lead into Gold, but a transformation of a human's "shadow" conscience (Lead) into their 'perfect" conscience (Gold)—believes that the true Philosopher's Stone is not a true object, but a human being. A human supposedly begins as lead—ignorant of their true self—and slowly transforms themselves into gold—a state of perfect self-awareness. This ideological framework dictated how the chapters were organized.