I may not be participating in NaNoWriMo to its letters, but with Cold Streets rewritten to the point of demanding test readers (more on Friday), it’s time to turn my attention to my un-rewritten fantasy novel Godslayer. It doesn’t count as NaNoWriMo because (1) technically parts of it were already written before November, and (2) since it’s a rebuild-from-scratch of an old idea, it doesn’t really count as a new novel. Maybe I’ll have something in mind for next year. In the meantime, please enjoy the first 1,745 words (sorry, Chuck) of Godslayer.
If he lost his concentration, he could die. Or worse, fail the test.
Asherian bent his attention on the challenge before him. Feedback from a botched transmutation did terrible things to the human body. He did his best not to think about ruptured organs or spontaneously shattering bones. More chilling, he knew his master would likely return to check on his progress, more than likely before he was done. The shopkeeper must have known Asherian would be showing up early in an attempt to practice, because he’d been waiting for the apprentice by the workbench at the back of the shop.
“This is lead, Apprentice.” His master had shown him the lump, about the size of his thumb, before dropping it in the middle of a transmutation plate bolted to the workbench. That, at least, Asherian wouldn’t have to worry about. It hit the center of the circle with a dull, resonant thud. “I want it to be gold by the time I return.”
Asherian moved his eyes over the circle’s lines, at the runes inscribed within its curvature, at the bisecting lines leading to inner circles and even smaller ones around the metal. His hands rested on either side of the plate, his magical ability flowing through his arms and into the circle at the direction of his will. He could channel, cast, incant, all the necessary components for transmutation. He could even inscribe circles of his own that impressed masters and elders alike. But if he could not do this simple task, he’d remain an apprentice for years to come.
It was his eighteenth year. He’d been an apprentice for eleven of them. It was, to him, long enough.
This was a test all alchemists had to pass, and Asherian was certain he could complete the task. However, he hesitated. He took a deep breath, knowing how close he was to becoming a Journeyman, even as other thoughts tugged at him. This was a choice he knew he had to make, and this was the moment.
As he began to incant, he felt the tug from the lump of lead. It resisted the change. It was a dense, simple metal. The reality of it, the years it had remained lead, pushed back against his intent to alter it. He focused more upon it, channeling more of his will, the tiny trenches in the plate beginning to give off heat. Repeating the incantation, Asherian felt the temperature rising, pushing away the sensation as much as possible as he kept his focus on the lead in the center of the circle.
Moments that felt like years passed as the apprentice tried to overcome the natural resistance of the material. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the lead began to grow hot, steam rising from the lump before it began to glow. Asherian fought down a feeling of elation, knowing that even the slightest distraction could undo all of his work. Sweat was beading on his brow, sliding down his jaw. Time was running out. He left the incantations out and simply focused on the process, feeling the lead give way to the power of his magic…
A drop of sweat fell from his chin onto the plate. At once, the circles flared brightly, almost immediately going out. Asherian, gasping, stepped back from the workbench with his hands raised. His breathing was ragged, his fingers twitching. He stared at the lump of metal, barely visible through the steam coming from the metal plate.
“For a moment there, he was your spitting image, Alwred.”
Asherian looked toward the front of the alchemy shop, through the threshold to the sales area where his master did business. The senior alchemist stood just within the work area, another figure behind him in the doorway. Both men wore robes in the deep cobalt and silver trim of Tel-Urad. Asherian swallowed, inclining his head to the second figure, the taller one, the headpiece of his staff with its precious center gem marking him as the highest member of the Sorcerous Guild.
“I recall working rather hard myself.” Alwred stepped into the room fully, regarding his son with a haughtiness that might have been pride but could just have easily turned to disapproval. His cheekbones were high and sharp, underscored by his trimmed beard of dark hair. “But he has his mother’s eyes.” Alwred picked up the lump of metal from the center of the still-steaming transmutation plate, turning it over between his fingers.
“I didn’t know you’d be here.” Asherian wiped his brow, nervousness filling his body with unwelcome electricity.
“I did not want you to.” Alwred handed the lump to Asherian’s master. “Zaru, this is not gold.”
Asherian felt deflated. He sank against the back wall of the workshop and struggled to remain standing.
“Hmph.” Zaru scowled at it. “So it is not.”
“Tell me, how many of your apprentices have been faced with the lead into gold test, only to transmute the lead into platinum, instead?”
Asherian blinked. Say nothing. Keep your thoughts closed.
“They are close, those metals.” Zaru weighed the lump in his palm. He was a broad man with thick fingers, and he disliked Asherian being taller and more thin than he. “And platinum is worth easily as much as gold if not more, for experimentation as well as trade with the surface.” He closed his beefy fist around the lump. “But the fact remains he failed his test. He missed the mark. Overshooting the objective is not the same as striking it true. Such a mistake could be fatal in other circumstances.”
Alwred said nothing. He kept his focus on how he should be feeling in this moment of apparent failure. If this test is the end goal, it’s not enough for me to fail. My father just had to show up, looming over me, judging me even more harshly. The transmutation plate exploding in my face would have been preferable. If this test is the end goal. His hands trembled, and he closed them hard until his fingernails bit into his palms. He fought down his anger and sorrow, raising his chin to the two older men in the room.
“I will collect my things and go, then.”
Zaru blinked. “I didn’t give you my leave.”
Asherian stared at him. “What?”
“I did not give you my leave, apprentice. Failure of this test does not mean your apprenticeship with me ends. It simply means you must remain part of my shop a little longer.” Zaru’s plump lips curled into a smirk. “Did you think I would simply cast you out if you failed?”
Asherian relaxed his hands. “The thought crossed my mind, master.”
Zaru laughed. It was a deep, resonant sound. “Are you so harsh with your apprentices, Alwred?”
“The ones that need extra encouragement, yes.” The High Sorcerer gestured for Asherian to come out from behind the workbench. Asherian managed to get his legs moving again, still finding it a struggle to let go of his frustration. His father laid a hand on his shoulder. “You cannot expect to pass every test that crosses your path.”
“I know, Father, but this test is the hallmark of a true alchemist! What am I without it?”
“An apprentice, and my son.”
Asherian bit back any further response. His father’s position was something that Asherian tried not to rely upon for special treatment, especially from the likes of Zaru. “Thank you for allowing me to continue my lessons, Master Zaru.”
“You have a great deal of promise, Asherian. Both your father and Elder Cahrn agree.”
“I spoke to Cahrn before I came here.” Alwred still had a look on his face like he was appraising Asherian’s worth rather than enjoying his presence. “He wanted me to wish you luck on your test. I did not know you’d already begun.”
“I knew the test would be difficult. I wanted to begin early, before Master Zaru had business coming through his front door.”
“And now that you’re done, I want you out of my shop. You’re sweaty and you stink of defeat. Get yourself bathed.”
“I will see you at home later, Asherian. We will discuss how this obstacle affects your future. I want to ensure that when you accompany me to meetings of the High Council, you are the best alchemist you can be. Which means you should be able to turn lead into gold without so much strain.”
With that, Alwred left the shop, bidding farewell to Zaru, who set about preparing his shop for business. Asherian watched him go before gathering up his staff and satchel. His training staff was as tall as him, made from maple wood gathered from a grove near the Magistone Wall to the north and etched with several basic alchemical circles in miniature. He’d gotten in the same day as his first focus, a simple copper band he’d slipped around one finger. It, too, had been engraved with alchemical symbols.
The implements felt heavier than usual. Bitterness crept into his mind as he felt their heft, his mood coloring the shop interior a shade of red. While his master chided him for not getting the transmutation exactly right, the fact that he had not only completed the exercise without serious incident but also made the transition from mundane metal to precious metal would have been lauded elsewhere. But staying to argue the point would gain him nothing, and he was long past caring what Zaru had to say. He had more pressing matters at hand, even as he focused on his feelings of rejection to deflect attention from his true intent.
The lump of platinum sat on the shop counter, as Zaru bent behind it to find some jar or other display. Asherian moved quietly, his fingers still tingling slightly, and waited for the right moment. Zaru mumbled and there was the clink of glass. Asherian’s hand darted out and came back with the platinum. He moved to the exit, slipping the metal into his satchel. Zaru took no notice.
As Asherian left his master’s shop, he kept his thoughts carefully guarded. He was not about to put past his father the notion of a seer plucking them from Asherian’s mind. However, Elienah had taught him how to guard himself from casual scans. He ordered his mind as he walked, just as his sister had shown him, only letting himself contemplate his plans as he turned onto the main thoroughfare of Tel-Urad.