9.54 C – The Wandering Inn

9.54 C

[I am on break to finish writing Gravesong, Book 2! And for my usual break. I will be back hopefully mid-August. See Author’s Note for details.]



(My friend Quill has released a new book: The Novice, Book 1 of the Firebrand series! Check it out here!)




(Martel has only one wish: to become a weathermage to ensure good harvest for his people. However, he is too old for the Imperial capital’s school of magic at sixteen years old. He is also fire-touched, the exact opposite of what he wants and a secret he has to protect or else be used in the Empire’s endless wars.)




Rhaldon Flemmens had decided he liked this other world for three reasons.

One. This world didn’t have people shooting him for attending a protest rally. He still woke up, remembering that flash and explosion as he was shot in public.

Two. This world was filled with magic, other species, and opened up a thousand possibilities. If this world existed, how many others? Could there be true aliens? Was this all part of some…larger design or sci-fi-esque plan? It made him feel like a boy again, dreaming of the impossible without a sense of painful, mundane reality.

And three—this world had alchemy, and alchemy called to him. No…chemistry called to him. Yet in this world, there was no chemistry, only alchemy.

He had resolved himself, at last, in these months of winter, to be the one to marry chemistry to alchemy. At last, he felt like he was ready to even attempt this. It might kill him, but if it did, it would be because he made a mistake. Alchemy was unpredictable. Chemistry was…

Okay, it could get unpredictable too. But he thought he knew more rules than any [Alchemist] living. And finding out whether his knowledge held true?

That was going to be a lot of fun.




Rhaldon was a chemist. Not a [Chemist]…the world had not seen fit to reward him for his knowledge from Earth.

Yet he was one. He had graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for chemistry, minoring in geology, and had been taking post-grad courses in Applied Chemistry while working as a research assistant. The University of Michigan hadn’t offered the course for a long time, though they had a great equality and diversity program that Rhaldon had taken advantage of.

The Applied Chemistry courses started getting offered when two other major universities shut down due to the Spirited Generation event gaining traction, and they were singled out as ‘hotspots’ or worse, being ‘part of it’. That had been a safety concern—they had still shut down the entire terminal in the Melbourne airport.

He’d been doing undergraduate research in a laboratory throughout getting his bachelor’s, and he had been working on a Master of Science degree, which meant he had enough experience in actual application of the scientific method. Rhaldon suspected that few people had that kind of background if the other Earthers were around his age.

He was not qualified to call himself an expert by any means, but Rhaldon would have bet all the money he’d earned working as a [Wagon Driver] that his knowledge of actual lab procedures and chemical knowledge exceeded that of anyone else from home.

Not that he knew how many there were or where they were. Rhaldon’s only clue was that thousands of young people his age or younger had been going missing back home. Conspiracy theories had actually been right…well, the handful of them that had suggested this was some kind of interdimensional travel.

Home was tough. He often thought about marching up to Erin Solstice, or more likely Kevin or Joseph or Imani, telling them he was from Earth, and asking to talk. But Rhaldon couldn’t quite be sure if they would welcome him, and he didn’t want to do it, if he was honest.

Multiple reasons. He’d been making lists, and the [Wagon Driver] scribbled on one as he hunched over in the snow, driving a very tightly packed wagon down one of the trade roads heading south towards Invrisil.

It was cold and wet, and his horses grumbled, but he’d patted them down well, and they had a thick winter coat. Rhaldon was only a Level 15 [Wagon Driver], but since he’d reached that level in one year, Termin called him a prodigy.

Lists. Rhaldon had three notepads he’d bought with his first paychecks, and writing with a quill and inkpot sucked, but he’d learned. First, he had personal notes, thoughts, a way of organizing his world’s history and this one’s. Second, he had a list of all the ingredients he bought for his clientele, notes of stores, prices, so he could haggle, understand where things came from, and know how much he had paid historically. He obsessively updated the lists, and Termin himself had said that keeping a notepad was a wise move if Rhaldon became a specialist driver for [Alchemists].

Not all [Drivers] could read and write at a high level, so Rhaldon had kept his lists to himself. Driving was another world entirely with feuds and territory, and he might have gotten himself in trouble if he made enemies.

Being Termin’s apprentice already made him stand out, but he had lucked into the alchemy-driving job. No one wanted it, and he’d actually gotten some approval for taking on the job that was exceptionally risky and arguably unprofitable.

You could have your wagon explode if you took volatile ingredients, the margins weren’t that high all the time, [Alchemists] were unpleasant to work with, oh, and if you made a mistake, an explosion was the worst case scenario, but having a bunch of ruined ingredients due to rot or something else also made it miserable. Rhaldon realized it was so unpleasant that he’d actually made a name for himself just by doing decent deliveries for two months.

He had eight clients already who knew him by name, and Rhaldon actually got to ask them questions, which helped his third list:

Alchemy. Or was it chemistry? Rhaldon decided to call it alchemy, because he didn’t have enough knowledge to break down any of his observations into compounds or formulas that would be useful on Earth. Everything [Alchemists] did was more imprecise, more volatile, and frankly, more powerful than stuff back home.

Magic meant that, while you could blow a laboratory to shreds if you were insanely stupid back home, you could level a city block here. You could create mustard gas on Earth. Here? You could, apparently, create an acid cloud that wouldn’t disperse and would float around until it was diluted by rain or water magic.

In short, alchemy got scary, but it was just a matter of magnitude; invisible gas killing you was just as real in this world as Earth, and Rhaldon was making notes of all the alchemical formulas he learned as well as what ingredients did—and wracking his brain to write down every single compound, note, and more in his third journal.

He’d already done the basics like the periodic table, and he’d given up trying to verify how many divergences it had from this world. Magic, again, messed with the very nature of things.

But back to lists. Rhaldon’s first list had his reasons why he didn’t want to tell Erin he was from her world.


1. Is it safe? Her inn has been blown up 2 3 times. Attacked by Crelers. There are spies everywhere, and at least one famous [Grand Strategist] (Chaldion) attends her inn. Risks of kidnapping, attacks, etc.

2. What am I offering? I don’t have any levels in my actual field of expertise yet. It would be good to be valuable. 

3. What are the sides? Thinking on it, are there sides? Wistram, Cara the Singer, Erin…I should be careful about introducing concepts. Like gas-warfare, which is apparently in use already.


Izril was an oddly feudal society mixed with modern-style culture. There were [Lords] and [Ladies], and Walled Cities with their military-style organizations that Rhaldon had observed.

History told him that a valuable engineer could often be co-opted by someone to build, oh, trebuchets and that being too useful might make him a target. Rhaldon’s game plan was to fly under the radar, and Erin Solstice’s inn would not help with that.

Establishing himself as a simple [Alchemist] without outside help wouldn’t attract much attention, and while it was true he could have used gold and a building—he didn’t know how alchemy worked. Working as a [Driver] had allowed him to observe procedure and get multiple perspectives, and so Rhaldon had kept undercover for now.

But there was a fourth reason, and Rhaldon guiltily wrote it down, brushing snow from the crude paper of his journal as he saw lights in the distance. Invrisil approached, and the two-day ride had been harsh, unpleasant, and cold…but he stuck to it, saving coins, marking what to buy, compiling lists, and writing up procedures and ideas for his first big attempt at alchemy for the final reason.


4. I want to do it myself. I want to make a magic potion with knowledge from home and make it better than anyone from this world. It’s—fun.

(If I die, this was a bad idea.)


He stared at that last part and smiled. Well, he was preparing first. And again, he had a perfect window into alchemy. But the impetus that thrust him forwards actually came at the start of the month, when Termin took him on a dual-drive through the north.




The chemist in him rejoiced. But the Rhaldon of this world, the [Driver], sometimes appreciated the fact that he was a [Driver]. No matter how humble. Because it made him reconsider his optimism sometimes, his wild wonders and excitement. This was not bad. It was realism. Sometimes you had to look and see things from another perspective, and in hindsight?

A world of possibilities awaited. Yet if only the world could be more of a fantasy story. Rhaldon was not a huge reader at the moment, but he had read some of the ‘classics’. He had also gotten into the popular stories of the time, and he wished, in hindsight, he’d entered into a story closer to Lord of the Rings rather than what he took to be more of a ‘Game of Thrones’.

Or maybe Narnia. He tended to forget that terrible things happened in Narnia too, but at the end of the day, these were stories with vivid good and evil.

The hit television show that had swept his nation had been different. For one thing, sex was had in Game of Thrones. It was political, gritty. People starved to death, and the suffering was different. In Lord of the Rings, armies of evil Orcs swept Middle Earth, and it seemed like the end times, yes.

In Game of Thrones, people pushed children out windows.

If this world were a fantasy, it had that kind of realism to Rhaldon. When a kindly [Driver] had hopped down from the wagon and healed him with a potion as he lay bleeding from a gunshot wound, he’d mistaken this world for a better one.

As it turned out—he was wrong. It was just like home. People were, currently, freezing to death in the winter. Or starving. Or both.

It wasn’t obvious around Liscor or the bigger cities. But there was this feeling, as Rhaldon and Termin stopped along their journeys, especially when they drove together, of a pinch in the air.

The city of Reizmelt was a prosperous one. Rhaldon knew it as a destination on his map—it hadn’t been that popular, but the ‘Wind Runner’s city’ got tourists and had a bunch of colorful sails, and the people were even wearing variations of Ryoka’s windsuit.

No one had managed the gliders yet, but they were trying. It had that spirit of invention, and more than one person had asked how far to Invrisil—but their real goal was Pallass where Felkhr, the [Visionary of Flight], was.

Termin had actually arranged for a few passengers to head south. He had an eye for people, and whereas Rhaldon was just doing alchemy runs, he varied his work.

But he paused as he bought them food at one of the inns. Rhaldon hadn’t said anything, but Termin stared at a loaded soup that’d come for six copper coins for the two of them and began to pick at it with his spoon.

“Strange. The prices have skyrocketed. It shouldn’t be this bad. This is Reizmelt. ‘Scuse me, miss. There ain’t much meat in here.”

It was a bit of an aggressive statement to the embarrassed [Barmaid], but Termin had found just a few slivers of meat. And it was a mostly corn-based soup. Chopped up corn, barley…and virtually no meat.

“I’m so sorry, sir, but there’s not much to be had. Unless you want to risk Mad Madain’s inn—he’s the only person who can hunt game regularly.”

“What about farm animals?”

She paused as Termin frowned. Any city had good farmers, but in this case…

“We used to get some nice ones from the val Lischelles. You know them? Well, they’re gone, the Bakhearts are out of business—their barn burned—and the [Hunters] can’t get out there half as much. Most’ve our corn is from Farmer Lupp, and it’s only ‘cause he’s selling it cheap despite it being fancy. Try the soup. It’s good.”

It was indeed. Savory and sweet, and Termin’s discontent faded—but his palpable unease grew.

“I know them val Lischelles. They’re down at Liscor. What’s this about a burned farm? Seems like a lot of fires have been going around.”

He’d been listening in each village, and it seemed like they couldn’t reach a city without hearing about an arson attempt. Or sickness in the animals.

Lack of quality meat was a symptom of that, or sparse food for good coin. Six copper could get you a fat bowl with enough to fill you up or two cheap bowls. In this case, Rhaldon suspected they might have to pay for some bread to fill their stomachs or snack on their rations.

“You think this is bad? At least we’ve got farms. People depended on the Bakhearts and val Lischelles. It’ll be lean until someone high-level replaces them. Farmer Lupp and his amazing corn has to feed a lotta people.”

High-level. It was weird for someone to describe the issue like that, but Rhaldon equated it to a major company back home. Only, a single [Farmer] could produce the output of a dozen fields for every one of his. It sort of balanced out given the lack of mechanization, but this world had a fragility to it.

If someone high-level died or moved, an area suffered. Termin thanked the [Barmaid] and bought them some pumpernickel bread with butter. He frowned at the one copper charge for the butter, but tipped her with four coppers anyways, which got them a smile and the bread in moments. Then he frowned and whispered to Rhaldon.

“…That ain’t good. If a bigger city like Reizmelt starts tightening its belt, someone’s dying in another village. I’ll put a word into the Driver’s Guild.”

“To do what? Put more offers out to sell grain or transport it around?”

Termin gave Rhaldon a blink of surprise, then a morose look. He adjusted his warm cap over his white hair.

“…Yeah. That’s a good job. Chaoisa runs them through snow, and that [Emperor] fellow’s taking care of his area. But I meant…keep [Drivers] away from outlying villages. Poor, desperate folk? They turn to [Bandits] in a blink of an eye. You stay clear when you’re doing your deliveries. If they think you’re carrying riches, they’ll mug you.”

Rhaldon didn’t know how to respond to that. Termin chewed on his corn, then smiled at the bread.

“At least this fluffs up nice, hey? That baking stuff from Liscor’s even gone here.”

“Baking stuff?”

Rhaldon blinked and sat up, and Termin waved a hand.

“Baking soda, they call it. I brought some north and sold it right off. Paid for some high-quality liniment for Fox’s back leg, so it did. It came from Erin—hah, so much does.”

“She invented baking soda? That’s—great!”

Rhaldon stared at the bread, and his heart leapt at the notion that someone had…no, she had done that. Termin smiled—then frowned again at the meat.

“Yep. If only it made more bread, there wouldn’t be this problem. Not many [Hunters]? You can always find a Corusdeer, though. And there’s wild boars, foraging for winter crops…why’s meat so hard to get?”

Another odd question. Rhaldon just assumed there weren’t many animals around Reizmelt, but Termin knew the landscape. He fished out a Driver’s Map and pointed at it.

“Reizmelt is loved for foragers and travel, Rhaldon. See that swamp north? Highlands here…it’s got everything from Wailer Toads, the bastards, to forests where the val Lischelles lived. Master herders. If you’re hungry, you can eat toad.”

“Eugh. How big are they?”

“Biggest frog legs you’ve ever seen. Some settlements up north eat and sell…well, they’re a taste. Why can’t the [Hunters] go after them? It’s dangerous, but if there are fifteen [Hunters] sitting around without a Corusdeer, they’ll shoot a frog, and that’s still income. You fancy a stop at the Hunter’s Guild first?”




They called him ‘Termin the Omnipresent’, but Rhaldon had also heard ‘Termin the Omniscient’ used because people forgot the difference between the two and because the old [Wagon Driver] had an extensive knowledge of, well, how the world worked.

He had seen enough cities and towns to have a ‘sense’ whether they had secrets, higher-than-average crime, or other oddities to them, and he was curious.

So curious that the two stopped at the local Hunter’s Guild, another fixture of cities. Not that many people, even Erin Solstice, had made use of them.

They weren’t Adventurer’s Guilds. Some were even just lodges outside of cities where people talked shop, traded tips on where herds were moving, and bought and sold animal parts.

Not monster parts. [Hunters] liked setting up false ‘blinds’, which hid them or made animals think another of their kind was around. They worked on fishing lures or birdcalls—and stayed the hell away from monsters.

A few [Hunters] eventually got sick of running from local monsters and thus began to hunt them, but in general, [Hunters] were lower-level and procured meat, hides, and lived safer lives.

However. A difference had emerged between them and another famous [Hunter], Mad Madain, and it was the reason why only his inn had hot, fresh meat that wasn’t sourced from a farm animal.

“Hunting? Are you mad? We can’t go afield! Anything not in a day’s travel from Reizmelt has been caught. It’s barely worth the effort of getting frostbite traveling to a village to stake out and hunt from there!”

A snappish [Hunter] nearly bit their heads off when Termin went to investigate. Rhaldon noticed the [Hunter] was shivering, covered in snow, and back from a failed hunt.

“You’re not camping out?”

We can’t. Mad Madain’s the only one who can afford to do it. Not that he has a problem—the crazy bastard’s Gold-rank, and he could walk naked in the cold with his javelins.”

The [Bush Hunter] was a camouflage expert, used to lying in wait, and he still had some branches tied to the cloak he wore that looked like an actual bush if you stood too far back. He was doubtless fairly good at what he did—but he couldn’t get out there and do his job.

The problem was potions.

“You’re Drivers. Is there a shortage of Potions of Warmth or something? The prices are threefold, and we’ll lose money unless we bag an animal each time!”

Termin stopped sharing around some dry cookies he’d brought from Liscor, and his eyes slid over to Rhaldon. The younger [Wagon Driver] gulped.

“Garbichugs ruined a shipment of ‘em. There’s been issues with supply. Salamander skins are expensive, so it’s driving the price up. But they’re not the worst to buy…are prices that high?”

Another cold [Hunter] glared over from the fire.

“Maybe it’s cheaper where you go, Mister Driver, but we don’t drown in alchemists. Plus, there was a run on them earlier this winter. Everyone who went to the New Lands bought them up. I tell you what. You want meat in your stews? Bring us some Warmth Potions, and Reizmelt’ll fill your bowl every time you visit!”

The challenge just made Termin casually adjust his cap.

“I may do just that. It’s not that dear from Pallass, though I can see you lot would eat through them.”

“One potion lasts eight hours. It’s too expensive to chug them, but sleeping in the cold’s hellish. If we had better potions, it wouldn’t be so bad, but you can taste the dirt in the cheap ones locally. I know one of the [Alchemists], and he doesn’t wash anything he boils up…”

Rhaldon listened to the complaining and Termin’s questions about the mysterious farm burnings. And he could do nothing about that, and nor was he a good driver. But as he sat there, a longing came over him.


It was time.




“Hey, Rhaldon! You made it! I am so sorry about Liska—I was at work and—here, come in, come in! I, uh, let me get you something.”

Octavia Cotton was the first [Alchemist] that Rhaldon had known. He was still shivering after nearly two hours—getting his wagon through the gates, past inspection, took time. Signing into the Driver’s Guild and getting the horses tended to? More time.

Then there was a damn line at the inn, and the Gnoll girl had given him a hard time asking if he was trying to get into the beach until he showed her his Driver’s badge. Octavia had had to come out, so he’d stood out in the snow by the door next to the checkpoint for twenty minutes.

“It’s f-fine, Octavia. I just hope nothing’s frozen. I tried to stand in the warmth.”

Octavia rushed him into Stitchworks, her laboratory-shop, and he put down a big crate of her goods at last. She rushed around anxiously as he unpacked the items out of the straw where they were being held.

“I hope not! Uh—uh—here!”

She came back with a mug of hot coffee and what turned out to be a spicy tart, still steaming from the kitchens. Rhaldon took both greedily, but he and Octavia checked on the delivery first.

“Let’s see…oh, is that my sand? Thanks. And the cotton?”

“Pure and fresh. I’ve actually got a bunch for Pallass, too.”

Octavia snapped her fingers as Rhaldon took the less-valuable stuff out of a second, less-well-packed box. There was actual sand, too, and he had to go back for a heavy bag of it.

“Actually, er…we have a lot of sand around. I’m sorry! Erin got some nice beach sand, but she’ll probably get mad if I steal it, and this is far purer. Hers has probably got cat poo and stuff in it.”


Rhaldon had heard about the beach but not seen it, and Octavia caught him up as they checked on his delivery. There was always something new in the inn, and he imagined the beach and sighed.

“I could—try to get you a ticket. You’ve done me a huge favor.”

“No, no. I have to deliver the rest to Pallass and—”

“You sure? Erin might even give you a room. It’s cold out, and you’re my best driver.”

He was hugely tempted, but Rhaldon was keeping out of Erin’s sight as much as possible. He wasn’t exactly afraid of her…

He was just a tiny bit terrified, that was all.

Erin Solstice, one of the first people to vanish. He’d seen her name on the list of missing people; there were master lists as well as ones by state and country. She was one of the more famous originals—these days, the list was updated with people who’d been reported missing but shown up or run afoul of more mundane, if often tragic, accidents.

But Erin Solstice was one of the ‘confirmed’ cases, like the Melbourne Students, who had disappeared live on camera. She had vanished from her home while both her parents were there, her father downstairs, and while she could have, in theory, gone out her bedroom or bathroom window, why would she?

She was a famous chess player, a former National Master in chess at the age of 13 who’d quit and had been working her way back up the rankings when she vanished. He had no idea what it meant, but she was a chess prodigy, and she had been spotlighted in news reports when the Spirited Generation had been first reported on.

Now, she was here, an [Innkeeper], and she looked too young for someone who would have been twenty-five—and too old, as well. Time had changed her. She had a flaming hat, and she was intense.

He’d seen her playing chess against the world, and even if it had been an illusion—she scared him. So he declined Octavia’s offer, and the [Alchemist] let it drop.

But she did get him a bowl of hot Corusdeer soup and an entire baguette, which he thanked her for. Octavia grinned at him.

“Us foreigners have to stick together. And like I said, I had to hire City Runners or [Drivers] who jostled everything around and treated everything like it’d explode—even the cotton! Looks like nothing’s frozen.”

What Octavia ordered from Rhaldon was fascinating. She got a lot of what he would term ‘normal alchemy stuff’, which was what even laypeople understood as salamander skins, Eir Gel—when it was available—Sage’s Grass, purified water, real purified water, which was different from Earth’s distilled water, and so on. Clearly magical things.

But there was also just…beach sand—carefully sieved—cotton, high-quality charcoal, and glassware, things Rhaldon recognized as tools of chemistry. That made him hopeful he could copy alchemist techniques because he saw what alchemists were trying.

And the last stuff was just the foundation of chemistry in his world. Certain kinds of alcohol, like the jars he’d brought from a brewery in the north. They were a bit cold, but nothing had cracked, and Octavia reviewed the other ingredients with a huge sigh of relief.

“Rhaldon, you are a lifesaver. Let me get you your seal—and a tip! I know you’ve got to go to Pallass—careful, it’s slippery. Do, uh, the other [Alchemists] treat you well? I hope they tip.”

She looked slightly awkward as she asked, and Rhaldon paused before answering.

“They mostly tip, Octavia. Though a few are prickly. A lot tell me I’m reliable, and I’m earning their trust.”

She smiled and nodded as she placed a gold coin down as a tip.

“Well, just don’t work exclusively for them, please? We all need a good driver, and you’re not grumpy, and you actually store ingredients for travel. I won’t keep you waiting—unless you want something more to eat?”




Rhaldon had eight clients so far, but three were more just cities he went to where a number of [Alchemists] wanted his products. He had five [Alchemists] he regularly visited and knew by name.

They were:


-Octavia in The Wandering Inn, an up-and-coming [Alchemist] closely tied to Erin. She was most friendly and often gave him tips.

-Saliss and Xif of Pallass, both top-level masters who had gotten to know Rhaldon through Octavia. Both appreciated him doing deliveries, and while they relied on Couriers, they too liked using his services.

-Alchemist Itimen in the town of Feindel, close to Invrisil. He was known as a radical experimenter, but he was the top master in his region.

-Zeomtoril, a [Genius Polymath] and the northernmost client that Rhaldon visited along the road from Invrisil, heading east. He was prickly, arrogant, and didn’t tip, but he paid a lot for someone to deliver to the mansion of Lord Calidus Reinhart.


All five were Rhaldon’s contacts, and they had latched onto him as the only real driver in the field. Mostly because Rhaldon understood basic storage procedures from Earth.

“I don’t know how you do it, Rhaldon. I tried to run a delivery for that bastard, Zeomtoril, and he cursed me out for three hours for delivering his goods frozen. Frozen? It’s winter, and he wanted some pieces of broken up ore! What’s the problem?”

One of the younger [Drivers] confessed one time at the Driver’s Guild. Rhaldon could just imagine how bad it’d been. He paused as the sandy-haired [Driver] complained.

“Was it all broken up into pieces?”

“Yes! I got a bag from some [Miners] who said it was quality stuff. Well, it was a [Sifter] who did it. I didn’t even know that was a class.”

“How’d you take it?”

“Big bag. One per each kinda ore.”

“Hemp? What kind of bag?”

The other [Driver] scratched at his head.

“What kind of…did it matter?”

Rhaldon spoke to him and a few [Drivers] who had also gathered to complain about the alchemy run.

“I don’t think Zeomtoril said it, but next time, you should get a big glass jar and fill it with cotton. Keep it packed in straw and airtight. He was probably mad because water got into the ore dust, and he’ll have to dry it out. Same with anything else, really. Edibles, anything that was alive—everything should be in a dry container so mold and rot doesn’t get into it.”

“What, everything in damn glass jars? I’ll break half even with straw!”

The other [Drivers] complained, and Rhaldon nodded. It was hellishly hard to get good glassware, and Termin had advised him to invest in enchanted glass soon as he could if he had to transport that kind of stuff. But then Rhaldon would have to wash each glass jar for each new sample, and cotton?

“Why cotton?”

“It absorbs the moisture. Rice would work too, but I don’t think they want that in their reagents.”

“Rice and cotton? I’d rather transport pottery. No wonder they call on you, Rhaldon. Anything explode yet?”

Everyone laughed, and Rhaldon smiled, but privately, he thought that a lot of the issues with drivers was a lack of [Alchemists] telling them procedure.




Some things did go boom or were volatile, but the truth was that if you packed most things in airtight containers and took care with them, you saved yourself the trouble. Then again, Rhaldon had handled his first dangerous reagent for Itimen the other day, and the [Alchemist] had taken the time to lecture him on what to do.

“You are importing Corusdeer horns for me, Driver Rhaldon. And before you say ‘it’s just horns’ or ‘I’ll have them tomorrow’, listen to me!

He was white-haired, a Human man with huge eyes and spectacles flecked with dirt, and he was probably the closest to the ‘crazy scientist’ look. But he was insistent, and Rhaldon nodded.

“What do I do, Alchemist?”

“Do not—do not let them rub together! Listen to me, they are Corusdeer horns. Do you understand? I know you’ve seen them roaming around. You know they ignite their horns? Well, the horns can—and will—ignite if they rub up against anything. You may get dust—dust can catch fire too. Keep them away from flammable material, including your wagon. Do not tell me it is snowing and wet! I have seen them turn a water-doused wagon into a match, and no amount of water will douse them. If they are already pre-powdered, seal them in a pot! Dead gods above and below, I will take them filled with water if it means the Driver’s Guild does not complain about another burning wagon! Driver Rhaldon, that powder will burn without going out. Do you understand me? Do not smoke near it. Do not let it get out. Are we clear?

He was ranting, a foot from Rhaldon’s face, and the [Driver] only got in a word edgewise when Itimen stopped to breathe. He was writing everything down and actually showed Itimen his notes.

“Yes, Alchemist. I was thinking to wrap each Corusdeer horn in waxed paper I could buy. Would that work? Or I could do something else?”

No paper! It will—oh.”

The angry [Alchemist] stopped, and he finally looked at Rhaldon. The [Driver] had done five deliveries, but this time, Itimen paused and seemed to actually recognize him.

“I recognize you. The dark skin—Chandrarian? No, never mind. I had thought my deliveries were better than usual. Wax paper? Well, now, you’ve thought about this.”

He tapped his mouth thoughtfully.

“It will melt and catch fire, but it is slick. I see the idea. No, no…the other drivers who have transported the horns before have used other methods. Dunking them in water, bags of holding—but they can rub together even in water. Do you have a bag of holding?”

He was hopeful, but Rhaldon shook his head. They were expensive, costing dozens of gold coins for the smallest. It was one of the things he wanted, and Termin was rich enough to have one, but the [Driver], his mentor, couldn’t pay for everything Rhaldon needed.

“Paper it is. I would, ideally, have you suspend them in the air. Dangling from a fishing line. Could you do that?”

Rhaldon imagined the contraption and shook his head.

“No, [Alchemist], but if it’s all about friction…would soapy paper do?”

“Soap? Hmm. That’s…but it’d get over my horns. Then again, if it’s just surface-level, I could clean it off. Soapy paper. And how are you going to keep them from jostling around?”

“I normally put things in straw, Alchemist, in a box. But in this case, should I try water? It’d be heavy and difficult.”

The [Alchemist] paced back and forth, muttering.

“The dust is damned difficult. You were told it was dangerous?”

Rhaldon had actually been offered a chance to turn this one down. One of the ‘big rollers’ like Termin or Chaoisa could do it, or a Courier or City Runner stupid enough to transport Corusdeer horn dust.

“How…explodable is a vial of dust? Alchemist?”

Itimen shot him a dark look.

“If you shake it, the dust within will begin to get hot. If it keeps shaking, it combusts, and as I said, water cannot put it out. There’s a woman in Reizmelt brave enough to grind it down—but getting it to us is difficult. Any method of keeping it from moving is acceptable. Even…”

He sighed.

“…Submerging it in water. But even then, it can clump up! Perhaps you should leave this for a Courier with a bag of holding. Although it’s been known to explode even inside them…”

Rhaldon was very nervous, but an idea occurred to him as he thought about the issue of transporting the horns and dust.

“Alchemist. What if I submerged it in water and, uh…delivered you a block of ice?”

“Hm? A block of—”

Itimen’s eyes lit up as he stared out his window and saw the snow falling. He clapped his hands to his head in delight.

“Dead gods, is it winter already? Of course! A block of ice works! Even for the horns! Do that! Don’t mind breaking it into pieces—though be careful in the breaking! I just need it in dust, so the fewer parts the better…”

That was one of the methods via which Rhaldon avoided immolation. Acid, other combustibles, it was all just knowing what each thing did. He had to transport a sealed jar that would explode if you opened it to the air, and while it gave him newfound respect for people transporting such goods on Earth—it was doable. And again, it earned him the respect of his clients. Enough so he could begin to question them and learn their processes.




Alchemy, according to [Alchemists], was a simple process. To a chemist, it was…interesting how they described things.

“Alchemy? You want lessons? Am I paying you in gold as well as tips?”

Alchemist Zeomtoril was visibly annoyed when Rhaldon asked, and the [Driver] tried to placate him.

“I was just curious, [Alchemist]. I didn’t mean to interrupt—”

“Didn’t mean? I have a bunch of prickly, annoying spies around wanting me to perform my genius just because they’re friendly with the [Lord] of this mansion, and now I have to explain my craft to a [Driver]? Fah. You wouldn’t even understand it.”

Rhaldon ducked his head, and Zeomtoril glared and made a point of double-checking that everything he’d ordered was intact and properly sealed. But as he watched Rhaldon unpack his deliveries, he eventually, grudgingly, delivered a variation on the lecture Rhaldon had gotten from every [Alchemist] he’d asked.

“Alchemy is made of three things, boy. Any [Alchemist] knows the spiel. You have a ‘Base’, a ‘Reactor’, and sometimes a ‘Booster’. All those fancy vials of liquid you imagine me pouring powders into and exploding? That’s how you do it. Of course, proper alchemy is more than that, but every idiot you meet and work for besides me will think of it like that.”

Those three terms, Base, Booster, and Reactor, were equivalent to Earth’s understanding of catalysts and reagents, and emulated the old mad-science of the past. Actually, alchemy was that crazy science, only it worked.

Zeomtoril pointed out a bubbling vial in a huge glass box of all things. Rhaldon guessed it was highly toxic, because a second forcefield surrounded the box itself.

It gave him prickles, because the [Genius Polymath] was watching the vial like a hawk, and that gas had to be dangerous.

“That is a pure example of it, boy. I put in a very distilled venom for…well, never you mind. But I have added the Reactor, the thing that’s making it bubble. Once it’s no longer that hot, I will add a tiny Booster for efficacy and voilà.

He kissed his fingers.

“Something unparalleled, if so deadly I shall have to throw away the brush. It’s not all explosions, and you would do well to remember that. But it is always taking one thing and improving or transmuting it. Understand?”




Alchemists knew that they were always pursuing some kind of chemical reaction, but they didn’t understand how things worked on a molecular level. They were intelligent; Alchemist Xif of Pallass was far friendlier and gave Rhaldon a practiced speech that he often laid on [Apprentice Alchemists] in his guild.

“Alchemy, young Rhaldon, is about a steady result. Some would tell you it’s about discovery—but what is the point of making a miracle tonic that you cannot reproduce? Alchemy is not just fun experimentation…that’s actually only a tenth of the work you do. Mostly, it’s refining a method to reliably acquire what you want, be it a potion, reaction, or anything else. We are constantly plagued by that: reliability.

Rhaldon liked that explanation because it cut to the heart of something he’d noticed in alchemy as opposed to his world’s chemistry: they had no standardization. 

Procedures were shared online and in scientific journals in his world, and they were peer-reviewed so that other labs could reproduce techniques or experiments. That was the power of information sharing and a treasured tenet in science—even if pharmaceutical companies loved hiding their stuff and charging people for life-saving medication.

Or patenting the hell out of it. But patents didn’t exist in this world, so secrecy and theft of ideas ruled.

Alchemists took that kind of greed to another level. They openly hid recipes from one another, sabotaged rivals, and hoarded rare ingredients. Even in the Alchemist’s Guild, you had to pay to access their recipes, and all the best ones were kept by top-level [Alchemists] so they’d have a monopoly on their product.

This all meant that there were few recipes that everyone knew, and even then, Rhaldon had been told you could make a healing potion eight different ways with varying results.

This lack of shared knowledge meant that each [Alchemist] could produce incredibly varied results. For a buyer, you were taking a risk and trusting to each individual’s reputation that they’d deliver quality, and levels were often used to benchmark reliability.

Saliss of Lights offered a final word on alchemy for Rhaldon. He laughed when Rhaldon told him he’d been asking around, and the Drake stopped making a battle potion and turned to Rhaldon. He waved the vial around.

“Alchemy. Xif would do the reliability speech, and you talked to someone who did the three components? Cute. That’s what we tell new [Alchemists] and clients, but the truth is far simpler, Rhaldon. Want to know?”


Saliss paused, and the naked Drake, wearing only an apron, leaned over.

“It’s super-secret, but I’ll tell you. Come closer.”

Rhaldon leaned over, and Saliss whispered.

“You really want to know?”

“Yes, please, Alchemist Saliss.”

“You sure?”


“Are you certain?”

This went on for about a minute, and then Saliss got bored. He went back to adding little crystal grains to his vial, smiling.

“It’s not about reliability, Rhaldon. Or even ‘toss three things together and get a reaction’. It’s about…understanding. Don’t let them fool you. We’re all idiots who don’t know what a single ingredient does. But we’re trying.”

“Understanding, Alchemist Saliss?”

Saliss nodded and tinged the vial with one claw. The red liquid within roiled alarmingly, and he pointed to it.

“Nasty, isn’t it? Guess what’s in there.”


“Salamander skins. The same stuff you deliver to Octavia for heating potions? It also explodes if you add the right stuff to it. The venom of a spider can kill—or cure. Sometimes it seems like it’s all magic, but the truth is, each ingredient we have does something. And the more uses I find for salamander skin, or Sage’s Grass, the more I understand it. I understand this stuff is hot, reacts well, and does not like being pressurized.”

This time, Saliss flipped the vial up and down and caught it, and Rhaldon flinched—but the Drake was teasing him. Rhaldon had known that the vials were all enchanted, so he doubted it was possible to break them even if Saliss threw the vial at a wall. Yet the Drake’s annoying humor turned serious again, and he held the vial of red liquid up.

“If I knew what any one ingredient did, fully, any one—I would be happy and Level 60. Because we are combining two things, or eleven things, and praying and wishing it does what we think it’ll do…but the truth is, we’re constantly figuring out what that one thing did. We think we know, and then we put together something innocent like salamander skins into a vial of water, compress it, and whoa, there goes your face! I knew a poor [Alchemist] who did that.”

He gave Rhaldon a grin—and the chemist gulped. But Saliss then just sighed.

“Knowledge. It always surprises me, again and again. That’s why alchemy doesn’t advance. We don’t share data, and because we don’t, someone always finds out something new—and everyone else stares at the smoking crater of their shop and wonders what the hell they found. Ah, well. That’s our job for you. Alchemy is all about not sneezing at the wrong time.”




Three answers, and the latter two spoke to the actual challenges of alchemy itself. Now, here was where Rhaldon got a funny answer from Octavia.

“Oh, someone did the three components lecture? I did that to Numbtongue. You, uh, have you seen him? He’s not dangerous, you know.”

The Hobgoblin? Rhaldon had met him, and the guitar-toting green guy with his cat seemed less dangerous than all the [Alchemists] he’d met, but he just nodded.

People had a thing about Goblins in this world. Rhaldon, who was from Earth, thought it was pretty telling. Skin color was not remarked on much here, but as a black man…he did notice the ‘Chandrarian’ comment now and then.

But the fact that it was Goblins who were apparently the ‘bad species’ made him predisposed to like them. So Octavia looked relieved. She herself was one of the Stitch-folk and shook her head as she showed him her workstation.

She was mixing up a stamina potion, and it was a bunch of roots, roaches—three glowing Sweetberries, and Sage’s Water.

“This is a basic formula, Rhaldon. Er—don’t mind the bugs. They’re dead.”

Rhaldon was not keen on bugs, but each component of the Stamina Potion was apparently vital.

“None of it’s super-magical. I told Numbtongue one time that it was all Booster, Base, and Reactor. But the truth is…sometimes you can’t see what’s going on. So we’re close to herbcraft, or even cooking. You know Erin? She treats alchemy sort of like a cooking recipe. The worst part is—it works.

Octavia shuddered. She gestured at her potion, which she was making by mixing the entire substance and heating it up.

“But it’s true. This is just really—flavored soup. Magic makes it more colorful, but basic potions like these? I just get some dry roach—aaaah!

One moved, and she smashed it with her beaker as Rhaldon nearly leapt into a second table. Octavia eyed the mess and began to scrape it into a bowl, groaning.

“…And that’s something I hope no one puts in food, but it’s sorta edible. Don’t tell anyone we put this stuff in.”

“Are you sure it’s, uh—needed?”

Octavia nodded gloomily.

“You can do it without the roaches, but then everyone complains it’s weaker. See the blue insides? It’s their blood; the blood is what has the magic. They’re fast as heck, and some people gather them…listen, if we can omit something, we do. Alchemy’s all about finding the cheapest way to do something.”

The roach’s blood was the magic? The question then was…what part of the blood? But Octavia couldn’t answer that. Just like the Corusdeer horns, if you could isolate what part of the blood was the useful element, like platelets or cartilage in the horns…

Someone should be studying this. Not just me. But Rhaldon had to start with what alchemy was, so he just nodded in response to Octavia’s comment about the most efficient way to get to a solution.

“Reliability also matters, right? Reproducing the recipe each time? That’s what Alchemist Xif said.”

Octavia put her chin on her hand and frowned.

“I guess for him it’s reliability, yeah. But for me, it’s—listen, I think you can make anything in this world. There’s this super-potion I want to make, that’s [Haste]. Not [Speed], but haste.”

“Are you sure it’s okay to tell me?”

The Stitch-girl laughed and waved it off.

“It’s not like I can make it! And besides, I like you. Listen—I can’t make it, but I know it’s possible. Master Saliss is actually helping me make it. I’m just afraid that the only way to make it is with a Unicorn Horn or something, and I don’t think any more are left. Maybe in some dungeon in a vault or something, but that’s what I mean. Healing Potions? Stamina and healing potions used to require Phoenix Feathers and magical cheetah claws and such. And you know, we can still make them that way. But the reason there’s a shortage of healing potions is because the common, useful ingredient is missing.”

“Eir Gel.”

Rhaldon had heard all about that. Octavia pointed her mortar and pestle at him.

Exactly. These bugs? Hate them or love them, but you’d pay me forty gold pieces for a stamina potion back in the day and not haggle. True, it’d be more powerful probably, but now anyone can sip one for silver. That’s what real alchemy is, to me. Yes, it’s about doing it reliably. Yes, it’s about knowing what things do—but if you can’t afford the potion, what’s the point? Uh…hey, where’d the other roach go?”




All of this struck home with Rhaldon, and he was grateful for Octavia’s point, even if he did find the roach in his clothing two days later.

It was close to chemistry of his world, in that a lot of what people did was transmuting one thing into another using the most efficient processes. The main difference was that he could buy isopropyl alcohol in vast quantities and generally trust it was what he wanted, even if he needed to make sure some ingredients had the right quality.

The fact that here you were buying Corusdeer horns and grinding them up, or hoping your salamander skins weren’t moldy, complicated alchemical processes, and the inability to look at things on a molecular level and isolate reactions meant that no one had a bible for how things worked.

Rhaldon wasn’t nearly good enough to take things to a microscopic level, so he treated alchemy, at least the kind he was going to practice, like a dangerous experiment. Even if you thought you knew what two things did, when you combined them with the third…

Well, he thought there were ways to mitigate the experimentation risk, and he had observed how each [Alchemist] practiced safety and lab procedure. But the key to how he was going to make his mark was in the final [Alchemist]’s answer. Or rather, the answer and the reply.




Itimen was, unlike the rest, a rather messy [Experimenter Alchemist]. He had dirty workplace methods, and even his beakers weren’t clean.

It was horrifying to Rhaldon, who had seen fairly neat cleaning of beakers from Xif, Saliss, and Octavia. Especially because Saliss taught Octavia. Apparently, she hadn’t been the most studious before, but Pallass’ Alchemy Guild drilled it into their apprentices.

“You were talking to Pallassian [Alchemists]! Hah! Those idiots don’t create new things. I…I, Rhaldon, create new things! Even Saliss of Lights is just a copycat.”

“Really, Master Itimen?”

The man was swirling around a mixture in a beaker, taking it on and off a burner—no propane-fueled torch, but an actual, tiny fire he was using to bubble it. He eyed the liquid.

“This…this is either going to explode or be a dud, so stand back.”

Rhaldon moved back further to the doorway and noted how chaotic the [Alchemist]’s workshop was. Some were like this, old experiments still in their containers, ingredients strewn around—for all Itimen cared about Rhaldon’s safety with the horns, he was careless himself.

“Do you know what I’m making, Rhaldon?”

“No, sir.”

“Neither do I! And that is alchemy! We never know! Oh, you can copy a Potion of Blast a thousand times like Saliss, but new things are this!”

He held up the frothing bottle and, to Rhaldon’s horror, tasted it. Itimen swished it around his mouth, then looked disappointed and spat it into the fire.

“Ah, tastes like nothing. I had hoped it would be a new healing potion, but—well, the sore in my mouth isn’t clearing.”

“Is that—safe, Alchemist?”

The man laughed as he turned to Rhaldon with a gleam in his eyes.

“No. Of course not. But will it move forwards alchemy? Yes. Do you know who discovered the Potion of Youth?”

“…Saliss of Lights?”

Itimen’s eyes bulged. Then he turned red.

Saliss of—it was me!”


The [Experimenter Alchemist] danced in place, waving his vial around then placing it to cool, laughing.

“Oh, the look on your face! But it’s no joke! Me, yes! I did it! At least, I made a Potion of Youthfulness. It didn’t last long, and it took only a few years off. He bought it from me. Every [Alchemist] was bidding on it, and he paid for this entire shop! Well, the last shop and this one. They kicked me out of Invrisil over the last incident.”

Rhaldon just stared. So this was the man who had invented one of the ‘legendary potions’ of the modern age. He gazed around…and jumped as a roach tried to drink from the new vial.

Aha! And this is one of the damn roaches that invades my shop! I’ll turn you into my next brew!”

It scuttled off, and Rhaldon saw it was slightly multi-colored. He wondered if the magical monsters were byproducts of alchemists like Itimen. But the man just turned, panting, to Rhaldon, and he smiled.

“Young man. If you have an interest in alchemy, heed my advice. You can follow procedure all day, but one day you will have to push forwards. And alchemy is always experimentation. Close your eyes and spin around, would you? Yes, yes…now, point.”

He made Rhaldon do that, then hurried over to the shelf. Then he did it two more times and found an ingredient in each.

“I have never mixed these three together. Young man—what will happen when I do? That is adventure. That is why I am Level 47 and why my competitors laugh at me—yet listen whenever I find something new. Remember that. Saliss of Lights is a battle-[Alchemist]. He levelled from fighting, and he is a Named-rank adventurer. I won’t deny it. Xif? Also Level 41, but he got it from being an [Alchemist of the Guild], a respected, mercantile [Alchemist] who sells the most in his huge city. How is he doing now?”

“He’s…renting a shop and rebuilding his clientele, Master Itimen.”

The [Alchemist] looked sympathetic; one of the reasons why Xif had been so inclined to give Rhaldon the lecture was because he was teaching a lot of apprentices, mass-producing potions. His shop had apparently been destroyed due to some controversy, and so he was taking on as much paying work as possible.

“Ah, well, I wish him luck rebuilding! Maybe I’ll send him a recipe or…you’re headed his way? Just know I appreciate the Gnoll; I’ve had drinks with him once. But he got his levels by being a commercial success. I got my levels from pushing us forwards. I’ve discovered more useless potions, more interesting things, than anyone else. And it may kill me. It will kill me, but look.”

His teeth were dark, he was balding, marked by bad potions, and had a scar down one withered cheek, but he grinned as he raised his arms.

“…Do I look old to you?”




By this point, Rhaldon had been working for a month and a half, and he was seriously considering whether or not he wanted to try alchemy.

He was half-tempted to keep doing deliveries. Oh, the road life didn’t call to him. He imagined this was what it felt to drive a truck across the United States constantly. You were in a specific community that not a lot of other people respected, but it could pay, and it was a lifestyle that let you see places and meet new people at the best of times.

This specific lane he was in paid very well, and maybe he could keep doing it? But then—Rhaldon had forgotten what this job was in the worst of times.


The [Bandits] appeared out of the snow in a moment. They didn’t charge in on horses; they just stood up by the side of the road, and what he had taken for a large snowdrift turned into nine people—followed by nearly ten more in the distance.

Half had bows or slings, and a spear was aimed at his stomach.

“Hey, I’m not going to fight. I’m just a [Driver].”

“Shut up. Anyone’s [Dangersenses] rumbling? He looked like an [Easy Mark] to me.”

The [Bandits] were low-level, cold, despite their thick coats, and surrounded his wagon. One yanked him off, grabbed his money pouch, and when they found he had nothing more interesting, shoved him into the snow.

“What’ve you got?”

“A delivery.”

“We know that, idiot; we can see your sigil. For who?

One of them stepped on his back, aimed a spear at him, and Rhaldon, terrified and pressed into the snow, decided driving wasn’t for him.

If only Termin were here! But the [Driver] had a knack for evading danger, and he’d been letting Rhaldon do more and more deliveries.

“It’s just—Corusdeer powder! And a bunch of other stuff for Alchemist Zeomtoril!”

“What? Alchemy shit?”

The leader of the bandits was disappointed and almost took it out on Rhaldon, but another whispered.

“Hey, wait! That’s valuable, boss! It might be hard to sell, but I know a guy in the black market, and you know alchemists have good stuff.”

“That’s true.”

One of the figures with a black scarf wound around his face turned, and suddenly they were all over the wagon. Rhaldon got up, slowly, and saw his horses being cut loose.

“Wait, at least let me keep the horses. I’ll freeze out here!”

“Shut up.”

Another [Bandit] aimed a bow at him, and he backed up a step, but Rhaldon had his eyes on the covered goods in their jars. This was a priority delivery for Zeomtoril, and two things concerned him.

One was being killed or left in the cold where exposure might do him in. The second was that this was a priority delivery to Zeomtoril.

One of those jars was magically sealed, and he had been entrusted with it after the Corusdeer horns and told not to open it. Did he warn the [Bandits]?

The leader glanced at Rhaldon and grinned.

“Should we feather him with arrows? Could be a level up.”

Rhaldon’s blood froze, and his shoulder ached. If he ran into the snow—but the one who thought they could sell the stuff raised a hand.

“Boss, boss. The Driver’s Guild posts bounties if their own gets killed.”

“You think I’m scared of a few adventurers or a [Bounty Hunter]?”

Their leader sneered, but he visibly hesitated, and the tiny group was no Bloodfeast Raiders. After a whispered conversation, he snapped.

“Cut them horses loose. Let him go.”


“Sure. I hear they’ll just go back to one of the horse handlers if they whistle. Bastards know their mounts. This is the real haul. Come on, get over here and start packing it up before someone comes down the road! This is going to set us up!”

Suddenly, the [Bandits] were all over the wagons, and Rhaldon was grateful he’d leased his horses from the Guild of Hostlers. He whistled, and they trotted towards him.

“Easy, easy…let’s just get out of here. Hey, thanks for not killing me.”

His voice wobbled, and the bandits barely paid attention to him. Rhaldon turned, back still prickling because they had bows, and grabbed both horse’s reins.

“Easy, guys. Let’s just walk off nice and slow. Nice and slow…”

He walked forwards as their excited shouting grew louder. They were tearing at his canvas coverings, and he wondered if anything would happen. He walked down the road faster, slowly reaching for one of his horse’s backs. He should be only about forty minutes from the next city. If he—


The sound was also an impact, and it pressed him forwards. Rhaldon fell against the horse, turned—and saw a blinding flash of spiraling light. Something exploded in such light and ferocity that he went blind—and then the horse was taking off as something else ignited in his wagons.

Rhaldon didn’t see or hear the bandits. His ears rang—he was deaf and blind, and the horses were bolting. He fell over, then got up, nose bloodied, and ran. He ran and ran, then shouted for the horses, pulled himself up onto one’s back and—





Termin found him that night. The man barged into the local Driver’s Guild, and Rhaldon sat up, still wrapped in a blanket and bandaged up.

He had cuts all over him from falling and being knocked down, and he felt shaken. He knew he looked shaken; the Driver’s Guild had said he looked like a ghost when he came in.

“Lad, lad, are you alright? Where are the bastards who did that to him?”

“Termin, calm down! I thought you were miles away!”

“I raced Emma and Fox over. Did they beat you? You didn’t get hurt, did you?”

The old man was full of concern, and Rhaldon got up a bit unsteadily. One of the things a [Driver] got after a mugging was a drink.

“They didn’t get me—I surrendered, and they were more interested in the wagon. I even got the horses.”

“Did you? Smart lad! Is there a bounty on them? I’ll double it.”

Termin the Omnipresent was furious. But the [Drivers] told him there was no need for that.

“The Watch was already out there, Termin.”

“The Watch? This isn’t Drake lands. Those lazy bastards are probably tipping the [Bandits] off themselves! Who’s—”

“Half’re dead, Termin. All of ‘em might be. The Watch found twelve bodies, and that was only the ones in one piece. Your boy was carrying alchemy goods. One of them popped the lid and blew the rest sky-high. Didn’t you see the smoke on the way in? It’s green, and no one’s to get near it.”

Termin halted, and the other [Drivers] glanced at Rhaldon, who looked slightly unnerved himself. He’d personally visited the crater and seen how much damage had been done.

“Dead gods. They robbed the wrong wagon.”

One of the [Drivers] murmured, and Termin smiled and spat.

“Serves ‘em right. Come here, Rhaldon. And let’s take a look at you. How’re you feeling?”

“I, uh—shaken.”

“My first holdup was like that too. You’re doing just fine. Come on, let’s show you to Erma and Fox or they’ll kick the door down. Come on, lad. Don’t worry about the cargo—you made it. Tell me what they said…”


[Driver Level 15!]

[Skill – Fast Travel Locations (2) obtained!]




In the midst of suffering or trials, there was always a reward. There wasn’t on Earth, but it was a strange feeling to wake up excited, despite still being shaken and sleepless from being mugged and thinking of the dead [Bandits].

Rhaldon didn’t know what his new Skill did, but he was intensely excited, and the moment Termin heard of his new Skill, he had half the Guild up and was buying a celebratory breakfast.

“A genius! That’ll cut down your roll from that Lord Calidus’ lands to Invrisil from four days to two! [Faster Rolling] and [Fast Travel Locations]?”

“Someone wants to get places fast. You’re raisin’ a real racer, Termin.”

The Guildmaster himself looked slightly envious. Rhaldon was quickly turning into a speed-specialist. Some [Drivers] liked safety, but Rhaldon needed to get places in a hurry, especially with perishable alchemy ingredients.

“Two days?”

“Yep. And you’ve only got two spots? I’d put one down up north—the other in Invrisil. What it means, y’see, Rhaldon, is that you can go between the two spots really fast.”

“I don’t teleport?”

Everyone laughed heartily, then Termin waggled a finger.

“Not yet. Maybe when you hit Level 60! Ah, that’d be a sight. Someone with a Skill to copy Miss Erin’s?”

It turned out the Skill wasn’t as cool as video games, but it did accelerate Rhaldon’s journey. He drove at regular speeds, but somehow, he ended up getting a lot farther than he should have. Like Termin’s ability, you didn’t see Rhaldon zipping past you. But the moment he rolled past and you took your eyes off him…he was a blip in the distance.

That was the good thing. The bad part was the fact that Rhaldon didn’t have a wagon to drive…much less any cargo, and the cost of that he reckoned with over the next few days, especially as he informed his client of what had happened.

The cost of losing a wagon with that much cargo wasn’t all on Rhaldon. The Driver’s Guild knew [Bandits] were a threat and actually offered a kind of insurance if you could prove it was a legitimate monster or [Bandit] attack.

It was part of the dues you paid, and in this case, Termin assured Rhaldon there wouldn’t be any trouble.

The cost to the client though, well, that was personal. They had to eat two-thirds of the costs, which was the peril of hiring anyone to deliver things, but Rhaldon did have to tell Zeomtoril himself.

Termin had offered to go with him to explain, but Rhaldon had told him he’d go alone. Nevertheless, Termin had escorted Rhaldon to the mansion, and would have gone inside but for Rhaldon insisting he was fine and had to do this by himself.

He felt like Termin might be too overprotective, and so the [Genius Polymath] came striding out of his tower—only to find Rhaldon with his driver’s cap in hand.

Bandits? Those miserable—which gang? Where? I’ll kill them! I’ll—Calidus! Calidus, keep your roads safe!

He didn’t go for Rhaldon, but rather went screaming down from his tower to find the [Lord] of the manor. Calidus Reinhart, an important [Lord]—or at least a rich one—was drinking in his banquet halls.

For all the alcohol he was imbibing, he looked miserable.

Argh! Zeomtoril, what is it? I’m trying to regain my old Skill, and this isn’t helping!”

He clutched at his head, and Zeomtoril pointed at Rhaldon.

“My [Driver] has been mugged. All my reagents—stolen! I want the perpetrators found! Killed! Do you know how much it cost? Send your associates to—”

Calidus held up a hand.

“Zeomtoril! Shut up! What’s this about? What [Driver]?”

He peered at Rhaldon, and the chemist held his breath as he noticed Zeomtoril hesitate. Calidus had sounded very serious for a second, and Rhaldon noticed the [Genius Polymath] look a tiny bit worried.

He didn’t ask questions on his deliveries, and right now, he didn’t want to. Rhaldon explained a bit of what had happened to Calidus, glad the man didn’t have him bow, and Calidus groaned.

“[Bandits]. What was their group’s name? I have an arrangement, but those sound like desperate idiots, not a gang.”

“I can’t have it happen. Not for my work, Calidus. Your associates want my best products? Tell them to mind the only [Driver] who can deliver alchemy items this side of the High Passes!”

Zeomtoril pointed at Rhaldon, much to the young man’s gratification. Calidus eyed Rhaldon, and now the [Driver] broke in.

“That won’t be necessary, er, Lord Calidus. Zeomtoril. I was trying to say the bandit group is dealt with.”

“By local Watch? The Driver’s Guild?”

“No. They, er—exploded when they opened Zeomtoril’s delivery.”

The [Genius Polymath] and Calidus paused—then the two looked at each other, and Zeomtoril’s outrage turned into mirth. Both started laughing, and Zeomtoril snatched a cup from the table.

Hah! Those idiotic plebians opened the—what was the explosion like?”

“Bright. With…spirals?”

They did! They opened the damn magicore! Light magicore, straight from Salazsar! And I bet it hit the other reagents! They got a faceful of light, and it probably hit the other reagents and set it ablaze.”

“This calls for a drink! Hey, someone get a drink for the [Driver]! What happened, then?”

Calidus chuckled, not bothered by the death at all. Zeomtoril was looking around for his list of delivery items. He scanned it.

“That’s not combustible, that’s not…oh, I see. What blew up had to be the salamander skins. Everyone wants them, and I was making Cold Resistance potions too—so it was the explosion. Now, you, Rhaldon, tell me. Was there smoke afterwards? I’d guess…”

“Yes. Green?”

“Ah, that would be the arsenic.”

Rhaldon twitched as he realized what some of his delivery had been. Calidus just snorted.

“Poisoning me, Zeomtoril?”

“As if I’d use arsenic. I’d just buy you more drinks. No, and no—well, it might be a loss, but at least I got my revenge. Let that be a lesson!”

Vengeance seemed to mollify Zeomtoril’s rage over his delivery. In fact, Rhaldon had to stand several drinks with Calidus, who seemed bored, and had even his servants drinking with him. There were several figures dressed all in black, though, who came, eyed the [Lord], and actually had some of his food and drinks before vanishing.

They gave Rhaldon prickles, but it seemed like even they needed [Drivers], because Zeomtoril summoned Rhaldon to his tower.

“This is a list of replacement items and more. Since the Driver’s Guild doesn’t reimburse me, I suppose I shall eat the costs. And this is, annoyingly, a second list of goods you shall pick up in Invrisil.”

He didn’t seem to think that Rhaldon needed a break, and the two-day, all-day drive back—and another two days to get here again—was going to be fun. Even with Rhaldon’s Skills, two of which were [Faster Rolling] and [Slipless Wheels]…he eyed the second piece of paper, which was just a stamped seal.

“What’s this?”

“Lord Calidus’ other guests want a trustworthy driver. Just pick it up, deliver it, and don’t ask questions. Pack everything in straw or something.”

Great. Now he was involved with…someone. Termin had experience there, and Rhaldon would consult with him. He’d said that the best thing to do was play dumb and don’t ask questions.

Rhaldon was ready to go, but Zeomtoril was just eying him.

“Well, I trust you will keep working for me. Accidents in Calidus’ lands or nearby are rare. I require someone to deliver my goods to me, and whereas I would think any ham-fisted clod could do it, I’ve met only a few reliable drivers, and Couriers are too damn expensive. Here.”

He actually went around his laboratory, then placed something in Rhaldon’s hands.

“A Potion of Invisibility for the next time. A master’s work, so don’t sell it for cheap.”

“Thank you, Alchemist Zeomtoril.”

Rhaldon was surprised; it was the most handsome tip he’d gotten. The [Genius Polymath] just waved it off.

“I invest in worthwhile things. And so? Did you ask other [Alchemists] what alchemy is? I assume some humored you.”

He had remembered the question? Rhaldon was surprised, but repeated a few anecdotes, leaving out names. But when he got to Itimen’s theories on experimentation, Zeomtoril whirled.

“Who said that? No—it was Alchemist Itimen, wasn’t it? Only he would say something that insanely stupid.”


Zeomtoril waved a ringed finger at Rhaldon as he paced over.

“Don’t lie. I know every [Alchemist] worth their salt in Izril, and I could guess who made the other comments. This mind of mine is unparalleled.”

He tapped a finger to his head. Zeomtoril folded his fingers together, and his lips, thin, bloodless, and his entire complexion, that of a thin savant in his tower, turned thoughtful.

“Itimen is a madman. One day you’ll find him dead in his workshop. It’s just like him to claim alchemy is unpredictable. What is his workshop like? Does he still have roaches?”

“He had a lot of…products in his vials. I think he reuses his glassware without washing them.”

Zeomtoril and Rhaldon shuddered. But the [Polymath], seeming to appreciate that his audience understood, raised a finger.

“Madness. But therein lies a kind of genius. Because, you see, he is the one pushing the eternal scope of alchemy. Yet he cannot replicate what he does. You would think he is, then, useless to us, but even Saliss minds his discoveries carefully. I have thought on the question of alchemy, and a key distillation has occurred to me. Do you know why Itimen is useful, boy?”

“No? Is it because you follow his recipes?”

What recipes?”

Zeomtoril shook his head.

“No, and no. He does write them down when he finds a winning formula, but consider his workspace.”

“Oh. You can’t reproduce something if it was the detritus that caused the effect or if he mixed it with an older creation. Cross contamination.”

The [Polymath] hesitated, mouth open.

“Yes, well, that’s obvious. Well done. Cross contamination? Good word for it…good…is that a new term Drakes are using? Yet his creations are inherently valuable, as are their recipes. He did create the first Potion of Youth. But do you know who bought it from him?”

Now, it was like a test, and Rhaldon answered before he needed to think.

“Saliss of Lights?”

“Yes. Again. Because Saliss, unlike Itimen, practices the other half of alchemy. And it is this.”

Zeomtoril pulled something from a shelf and showed it to Rhaldon. It was a vial of red…powder. It glowed and looked familiar, but many objects were red and glowing.

“What is this? If I told you it was the most common reagent in alchemy, you would say—”

“Sage’s Grass.”

Correct again.

Even the [Polymath] seemed pleased by the answers. They weren’t hard, but he seemed isolated, and but for Calidus, no one really talked to him, Rhaldon guessed. Zeomtoril stalked around his workplace, pulling more vials of powder out.

“Salamander skin. Eir Gel—no longer in stock, so this is valuable—do you know what Saliss did to find out what the Potion of Youth was? He distilled Itimen’s discovery back into workable reagents. Then synthesized a reliable—hah, well, mostly reliable—version of it. He could do better. I hear he fails eight in ten times because it’s so difficult. But the heart of alchemy, my alchemy, is this.”

Each vial Zeomtoril spread on his counter, and each was just…powder. But so finely granulated that it looked familiar like nothing else had been to Rhaldon. But one vial contained what looked like liquid crystal. Rhaldon’s eyes were drawn to it; a clear, beautiful liquid like gelled water. He glanced up and spoke.

“This is…magicore, isn’t it? Highly pure, without impurities. What percentage?”

And again, Zeomtoril stopped, and this time looked at Rhaldon as if he’d seen a ghost. He answered slowly.

“99.4%. But who are you to even know how to calculate—are you a spy? A—no, you’re just a [Driver].”

He snatched up a magnifying glass, stared at Rhaldon through it, then tossed it aside. Rhaldon tried to reassure the man.

“I just, uh—heard people talking about that. And I like math.”

Zeomtoril stared at him, then his eyes lit up, he snapped his fingers, and relaxed.

“Oh, of course. Yelroan the [Mathematician]. Hardly a feat of ingenuity to understand who’s taught you. Very good.”

He must have leapt to some conclusion that Rhaldon couldn’t follow. Zeomtoril nodded at the vials.

“Yes, this is pure. Unlike Magicore mined filthy from the rock. Understand this, boy. Saliss tries, but most [Alchemists] do not. Itimen is a disgusting pig on one end, but even the ‘good’ ones? They have so much…impurity in what they make. They boil roots raw. They stir in slop, salamander skins and boil it up and put everything in their damn potions like a [Witch] making a brew. This is pure. This is reliable. I purify my magicore and ingredients—each one is in powdered form, not some disgusting, mashed up mess. Do you understand?”

More than you know. Rhaldon thought of Octavia mashing up the roaches when she claimed it was their blood she needed. He saw in Zeomtoril’s alchemy a truth that gave him hope. He glanced up, and the [Polymath] met his gaze.

“If only I had all the time to work myself. But I am constantly forced to adhere to the wishes of lesser men. Like Calidus, as he so readily admits. Ah, well. I shall await you in a week’s time. Do make sure not to be mugged this time, would you?”




The key was in Zeomtoril’s methods. Well, each alchemist and their lab had something Rhaldon wanted to learn from, but that was the basis for his attempt.

You see—chemistry knew what the geniuses of his age had discovered: variables sucked. The act of extracting compounds so they could reliably be transmuted from one form to another?

That was chemistry. Alchemy, to Rhaldon, was the unpredictable method that had to exist because there wasn’t any molecular-level characterization techniques—the ability to analyze things on a chemical level. There was no mass spectrometry or the ability to measure composition and size.

Alchemists could observe reactions and theorize about chemical compounds, but their ability to prove and confirm what they had done was lacking. That was why alchemy was so imprecise. People used salamander skins, not the exact substance that they required, devoid of said skin because to many, they were one and the same. Their understanding of the world was incomplete.

He would have loved to pick Zeomtoril’s brain about how he performed his own purification, but the [Polymath] was guarded and private. So Rhaldon decided he was ready.

The mugging on the road had shaken him and told him, again, that he didn’t want to be a [Driver]. He wondered how he’d break the news to Termin and decided the older [Driver] didn’t have to know unless it was working for Rhaldon.

He’d just take a vacation after this delivery, a very understandable thing to do, and put his plan into action.

There was just one problem with his idea, and it was that Rhaldon, for all he thought he was good at playing dumb and keeping out of sight—

He didn’t realize that at least a few people had noticed him.




Calidus Reinhart was drunk.

But not dead-drunk.

Not stupid-drunk.

He was just drunk, and his mind could not stop moving, even when he was staggering around. Sometimes he lay, physically incapable of moving, but thinking.

Thinking, damn him, of everything and anything.

Zeomtoril was one of those people who was a genius in a few hyper-specific things. He absorbed alchemy information, studied metallurgy, the body, and seemingly unrelated fields and found the connections therein. He had no social graces, had all the cunning of a mouse tap-dancing on a trap—he thought he was a sneaky fellow, but Calidus had had to bail him out of trouble more than once.

That was still an enviable kind of genius that had earned him [Genius Polymath] as a class. But the thing was, despite being a [Polymath], the name still implied mastery of a wide variety of fields. Yet Zeomtoril could also still be banned from most gatherings in First Landing because he couldn’t stop staring at an unlaced bodice and commenting about his knowledge of the female anatomy. Wild intellectual genius. Zero social awareness.

Calidus Reinhart, by contrast, was a kind of thinking idiot. He was no genius who could make a Potion of Invisibility or engineer a warship out of toilet paper—but he could understand both if he thought hard enough about it.

He was a man who observed that the clandestine stare was actually less acceptable socially than the ribald, open look, and the self-important comments about a [Lady]’s anatomy did not get you into bed. Worshiping her from head to toe without caring who saw you grovel?

That sometimes worked. In the same way, Calidus thought about things he couldn’t help. He noticed things, and it annoyed him because the world had taken away his [Drunken Oblivion] condition.




The next day, Zeomtoril went downstairs to help himself to the pantry and found Calidus sitting in the banquet hall, drawing on his table with an eating knife.

“So? Who was he?”


The [Genius Polymath] saw the [Lord] look up. Calidus sighed.

“I’m drunk and not drunk enough. Let’s skip the part where you don’t know. I’ve seen him eight times; you change [Drivers] like I change bed partners. You were discussing alchemy yesterday and postulating your ‘theories of purity’—which sounds bad, by the way, you’ll want to change that—and you had him up there for the last hour and a half.”


“You chase everyone out of your workshop but me, women, and people who fascinate you. Who was he?”

Zeomtoril looked displeased at being read, despite his longing for someone who could keep up. He poured himself some wine.

“I don’t know. But he’s been educated. He understands the percentage and decimal point where all but [Merchants] and a few others regard it as a mistake.”

“Math? Oh, dead gods, shut up! You’re reminding me of math!”

Calidus put his head in his hands and groaned. Zeomtoril actually tossed his drink at the [Lord].

“Why are you bothering?”

“Because I’m curious, and the thought won’t go away. Even if you douse me in wine! Even if you threw me in a tub of wine with some lovely…no, wait. That would work. I’ll try that later, but I think I’d die.”

“Wh—from the sex?”

Calidus spoke glumly.

“No, because the wine would go through my skin. We had those damn [Assassins] talking about skin contact poison, remember? It follows that if poison seeps through, so does wine. So I might well die of the fumes. I knew a [Drunkard] who used to inhale vapors. He died.”

Zeomtoril paused, his wineglass raised to his mouth. That was an example of how Calidus’ brain worked. Ordinarily, he would have happily passed away in the vat of wine with several unfortunate women, and that would have been the end of him.

Damn! Damn you, granter of Skills and levels! What a way to go!

The man hammered his fists on the table. His glorious end! Even his family would have thought it was a stupid death! He slumped in his chair, squeezed his eyes shut, then stared at the ceiling.

“Facts. My ‘spy network’ won’t shut up. They looked into the [Bandits], and they’re likely dead. Just hungry fools.”

“Well, good—”

“For them. Because Termin, a veteran [Driver], is furious, and that was his apprentice.”

Zeomtoril turned to the door Rhaldon had left through.

“He was? Then—”

“Who. Was. He? Termin the Omnipresent is one of the best drivers in Izril and that was his first apprentice.”

“That’s a name? Dead gods, those [Drivers] think much of themselves.”

Zeomtoril snorted, but Calidus was not amused. Termin had been waiting for Rhaldon to escort him back south—you didn’t laugh at good [Drivers]. He could get from First Landing to Invrisil in two days. He could probably have Rhaldon back in Invrisil in a day or less. Calidus spoke darkly.

“[Drivers] have won wars, Zeomtoril. Literal and economic. Anyone over Level 40 puts their fingers on the scales. That fellow could bankrupt a city if he wanted to. And he’s just ‘happening’ to take in Rhaldon? Why? What does he have that’s valuable? Who is he, really?”

The [Polymath] played with his cup, unable to get away from Calidus’ inquiries. He answered reluctantly.

“…An aspiring [Alchemist]. I believe he’s asking other [Alchemists] our craft. Which means I’ll need another damn [Driver].”

That was Zeomtoril. So damn selfish. He didn’t see—Calidus poured more wine over his brows. He ripped his shirt off his head, tossed it to the floor, and off went his pants.




An [Assassin] walking back from whatever clandestine task he’d been about stopped as he saw Calidus put his feet up. A buck naked [Lord], dripping in so much wine he looked like a murder victim, reclining in a chair.

Dead gods, and he’d thought the Assassin’s Guild had been crazy. Word was, the [Lord] had even seduced some colleagues. No one admitted to anything, but everyone was curious how—and how he’d survived.

Or had he spread the rumor to get in bed with the [Assassins]? If so—it was working.

What a strange man. Almost frightening.




“Zeomtoril, next time he comes by, offer him a workspace. Or have one cleared. Or just rent one.”

“Rhaldon? Why? He’s just a [Driver]—”

“Who is the most suspicious man I’ve met. Just do it. Or aren’t you curious to see how he’d do?”

Calidus drank more, wishing a report would come in from the New Lands. Or, frankly, that the [Innkeeper] would do something hilarious or stupid again.

Anything to distract him.

“I want to visit an inn. But it’s too much work to travel, and Aunt Magnolia’s banned us from being prats. Zeomtoril, E4.”

The [Polymath] paused.

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Is the pawn diddling on C4? B6? Do I sense a [Knight] removing her codpiece to…ooh. That’s a lovely image.”

Zeomtoril left as Calidus groaned. But the [Lord] did remember Rhaldon, and he saw something that his mind connected to. He almost, inadvertently, was successful despite his best efforts not to be. However—he was too late.




“I’m just about done. Thanks, Octavia.”

Rhaldon had finished his soup, which he’d been dunking the bread into. There was even butter, and he really should be getting to Pallass.

The beach was gaining even more popularity day after day in The Wandering Inn, so her shop was a rare oasis—and even here, Octavia was working on more sunscreen and itching to get out there. But Rhaldon didn’t really pay attention. He had a sort of wind-blown look that [Drivers] got after driving like hell—and following Termin south at the older driver’s speed had left Rhaldon dizzy. Octavia was considerate, though, and was actually concerned enough not to be running around on the beach.

“No problem. I’m so sorry I kept you busy, but I was just doing a bit of work and, uh—how’s things? I think Termin passed through, and he was saying you got attacked on the road!”

Rhaldon related the story of his assault and the exploding wagon as Octavia put away his supplies. She winced, then looked over her shoulder.

“You sure you don’t want to stay at the beach? It’s really fun, I mean it. Actually—I’ve sort of been out of the shop. At the beach.”

She had sand on what he realized was a kind of swimsuit. Rhaldon hesitated, but he jerked a thumb at the boxes he’d taken into the inn’s hallway outside her shop.

“I have to get this to Xif and Saliss. Unless they’re in the beach?”

“Nope. I’ve seen both, but work does call—after that?”

Rhaldon gulped down his meal slowly. The inn was mostly quiet, but there were a few people about. Everyone must have been in the beach.

“After that…I’m actually free. But I was, uh, going to, um, rent a workspace in Pallass. You can do that, right? To practice a bit of alchemy.”

Octavia turned, and her eyes lit up.

“Rhaldon! Are you serious?”

“A bit.”

“You want to—why didn’t you tell me? I gave you a few lessons, but I could have actually shown you what’s what! You want to rent a space? But I bet you don’t have any equipment or ingredients. It’s not easy—do you want to be an [Alchemist]?”

She grew visibly excited, and Rhaldon muttered.

“Sort of. I’ve actually bought some of the glassware since I go to the vendors, and I have a stock of ingredients. I stored it at the Driver’s Guild in Invrisil…”

Her eyes grew round.

“Wait, so you’ve planned it out? Well—what are you going to make?”

“I’m just going to see if I can do anything. I thought maybe something basic like a stamina potion or—if I have questions, could I ask you?”

“Sure! Absolutely! You know, I bet Xif would give you a discount if you wanted to get lessons from him, or even work in his shop. You’re careful, and he’d just get sad he’s losing a reliable [Driver]. But if you want me to put in a word to him—and the Alchemist’s Guild doesn’t like renting to unknown people—if you get a signed note from him, they’ll waive some of the fees.”

That sounded good, and Rhaldon was just leaving Stitchworks to begin hauling things through the door when he almost bumped into someone. His heart thundered as someone came strolling down the corridor.

“Do, doo, doo𝄞…. Oh, hey, Octavia, and you! What’s up? I was just gonna talk to you, Octavia. And, uh—this is your [Driver], right? The one who brings ingredients without them blowing up.”

A young woman waved at Rhaldon, and he waved back, trying not to visibly hide behind Octavia. But the [Innkeeper] focused on the Stitch-girl, who grinned.

“Hey, Erin! What do you need? This is Rhaldon, by the way. Have you met? Rhaldon…Erin. Don’t be afraid, she doesn’t spit blood.”

Erin scowled at Octavia and flapped her hands, then held out a hand.

“Hey. How’re things? I’m Erin. Sorry if Liska gave you a hard time. Octavia was at the beach, and Liska’s got orders not to let everyone through. She’s like a security guard.”

Octavia turned bright red, and Rhaldon guessed where she’d actually been while he’d been waiting outside the door in Invrisil. He shook Erin’s hand gently, trying to appear…normal.

“I’m Termin’s apprentice-driver, hello. He’s said a lot about you. You have a lovely inn.”

“Thanks! Do you want to stay at the beach? I heard you got mugged, and if anyone deserves a bed, bath, and whatever’s beyond, it’d be you.”

He grinned, but shook his head quickly.

“Thank you, Miss Solstice, but I’m fine.”

“Rhaldon was actually telling me about the [Bandits] getting blown up after robbing his wagon. Which is mildly horrifying…who’s getting that much explosive stuff?”

“Driver-Client confidentiality.”

“Darn. Anyways! He’s going to try his hand at alchemy. In Pallass.”

“Whoa. Cool!”

Erin gave Rhaldon a big smile and looked him up and down. He was relieved she didn’t ask more details. But she did turn to Octavia after a second.

“That’s like when I tried my hand at alchemy. Actually…Octavia, you’re now a beach-person. Why don’t you rent your shop to Rhaldon? He can use it, and I bet it’s warmer here than stupid Pallass. Heck, he can get food from the kitchen. Any friend of Termin’s is a friend of mine. Except Chaoisa. She’s sort of a jerk.”

Erin must have met the Contempt of Man, and her scowl turned into a smile as Octavia visibly hesitated.

“Oh, geez, Erin—I dunno. I mean, you were a nightmare. You melted a hole in my cauldron and floor, and…”

“Don’t talk about me! I sorta went in all guns blazing, Rhaldon. I bet you’re not as crazy as me.”

The [Innkeeper] flapped her hands at Octavia, and Rhaldon flinched, his shoulder twinging. But he kept a straight face as he thought quickly.

“I wouldn’t want to disturb Octavia’s shop…”

“Oh, no, I’ve seen you work. You’re careful, and if you have your own glassware…it’s a thought. I mean, I am sort of busy with Numbtongue…and other things!”

Octavia flushed, and Erin shrugged.

“Just a thought. Hey, don’t overcharge him if you do! But I’ll throw in food and even a room. Again. Mugging sort of sucks, and I owe the Driver’s Guild for—Zanze.”

Her smile vanished, and Rhaldon exhaled. So that was why she was doing it! The [Innkeeper] paused, then gave him finger-guns. The smile didn’t quite return, but she gave the ghost of one.

“Don’t feel pressured, Rhaldon. I’m just crazy. Hasta luego and stuff!”

“Oh, see you.”

She walked off, and Octavia stood there, shaking her head. Then she ran into her shop.

“Erin! Sunscreen! I swear we had enough, anyways—I’ll put it with the rest! That Human is crazy. Even for her species…um, well, she’s right! You could use my shop, Rhaldon.”

“Are you sure?”

She was already opening the door and eying it.

“Of course! There—see that counter there? It’s all cleared. If you wanted to work in the shop for a few days and you cleaned up—I could show you some procedures and make sure you know how things work. Honestly, I’d be happier than you working in some Pallassian alchemy lab with no one to mind you. Can I see you, uh, make a stamina potion? I’ll walk you through it.”

The [Alchemist] was visibly concerned for Rhaldon’s health, but once she saw him being careful and that he knew how the basics worked, she chewed on her lip and then nodded.

“How about four silver to rent it for each day? That includes food, using my magical burner, and any glassware? If you note what you use, I’ll add it into the price. And Erin can put on four more silver for her rooms and food. Breakfast and dinner.”

That sounded…incredibly reasonable. Rhaldon had saved up six gold coins, and he’d been nervous about the rental fee and registering with Pallass’ guild. If he needed a passport, he’d been afraid he’d have to rush and try to do everything in a day.

“That would be—great, Octavia. Are you sure? Are you not charging me enough?”

She gave him a thumbs up as she pulled at the thread along her neck, embarrassed.

“I’m usually too aggressive on prices. Besides, you’re my best [Driver]. It’s a deal. Let’s call it six days. Six days, and I’ll be on the beach. Erin told me she’s making…another new beach soon, with Ulvama’s help, so I think I’ll be busy. If I nip in, it’ll just be to do a few things like sunscreen, nothing big. Oh—and keep the door closed. Reagen, the cat, is about, and he’s a hassle.”

That was how, despite his best efforts, Rhaldon found himself working in Octavia’s shop for his first alchemy experiments. But he was still confident Erin didn’t know who he was. Definitely. He’d said and done nothing to tip her off, and to her, he was just Termin’s apprentice.

Safe in his anonymity, Rhaldon delivered the rest of his load, then hurried to bring in his equipment and set up for this first real attempt. It might be an amateur’s job, but he set up everything on the stations that Octavia had assigned and ate dinner at the inn.




The night’s meal was dumplings. Hot, with sauces galore to dip in. A beach-crowd was eating ravenously, and Erin was muttering about her new beach, which was going to have a diving platform and be on stilts.

But her guests were still eating here, and Peggy tapped Erin on the shoulder as she looked around.

“Psst, Erin. Who that? He on the list? Also, there’s another stupid person there.”

The Hob was making sure people weren’t sneaking in. Erin glanced at the young man seated in a corner, writing down notes, and at the window.

“Oh, that? That’s Rhaldon. He’s allowed in. Be nice to him.”

“Sure thing. He some driver? Guest?”

“He’s from E—yes. A driver.”

Erin caught herself and then glanced out the window.

“And that’s the poor clam-dude who keeps spying on the inn. Hold on, can you fill a plate with dumplings? Actually, make it four plates. I think I saw a few other [Spies].”

“You should stop feeding them. They come back. Like rats.”

“Well, I hear rats make great pets. Thanks, Peggy.”

Erin twiddled her thumbs innocently, then got back to work. And Rhaldon, who went to sleep that night ready for a full day tomorrow, got the surprise of his life.


[Alchemist Level 1!]

[Skill – Basic Alchemy obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Identification (Alchemy) obtained!]

[Skill – Advanced Alchemy obtained!]

[Skill – Expert Alchemy obtained!]


[Skill – Rapid Reaction obtained!]




Huh? What happened yesterday?

When Rhaldon sat up in bed, he was certain he’d never heard a Skill get…erased like that. And he was an [Alchemist]?


Even if he was Level 1, it was like something had been waiting for him to begin work. It had decided, somehow, that Rhaldon’s expertise meant he was already gifted with [Expert Alchemy]—and two other Skills!

[Basic Identification] wasn’t much use. Most [Alchemists] got it, and it told Rhaldon things about the world that were debatably useful.

Like…he stared at his cup in the morning and realized it was made of glass. And the water in it was water.

Amazing. On the other hand, it would be invaluable if he had two white powders and couldn’t tell them apart. Not that you ever wanted to be in that situation, but Rhaldon saw the benefit.

But Rhaldon tried the Skill on a pile of dirt he scraped up from under the snow and got ‘dirt’. So it probably meant that he needed a higher level of the Skill before it told him more helpful stuff. Dirt could encompass clay, various ashes, and more.

As for [Rapid Reaction]…he hoped he could turn that one on and off. Or he might get some weird, and potentially dangerous, reactions happening due to the chemical kinetics. Regulating pressure by regulating ‘speed’ would be useful in a very controlled experiment. Conversely, he bet it would be most useful in shortening a long procedure.

Octavia was mildly impressed that Rhaldon had the class when he told her, though he pretended he’d just been trying his hand at alchemy before this.

“Well, now I know you’re serious. [Rapid Reaction]’s nice. [Basic Alchemy] means you’ll know your way around the shop. I’m getting out of your hair! I know what it’s like…aah, my hair!”

She hurried off and then ran back for a new hairstyle she was going to change into. Rhaldon still wasn’t quite over Stitch-peoples’ ability to replace body parts, but he began to wish for it now as he looked around the laboratory.

“Okay. Here I am. I’m ready. I’m all alone, and…it’s time to do this. I’m not doing anything crazy. Just breathe and follow what you know. Okay.”

He felt weirdly nervous his first time doing this, and he’d been a research assistant! But the nerves were a good sign. It meant he was taking this seriously. In fact, Rhaldon was going to take copious notes, and he only wished his smartphone had juice. If it did, he’d record himself working so he could critique himself and contrast.

He wondered how the laptop seemed to always be charged. At any rate, Rhaldon was building himself a lab procedure, and he was working so hard that even a certain Goblin took pity on him.

Gothica kicked open a cupboard, and Rhaldon screamed. She crawled out, waving at him.

“Sorry. Don’t is scared. Was going to scare Ishkr. Have fun.”

She walked out, and Rhaldon stood there, heart pounding out of his chest for a few minutes. Only when he heard Ishkr screaming in the basement did he come back to himself.

Okay. Back to it. The best way for Rhaldon, a chemist, to enter into the world of alchemy was to contrast what it was like doing a lab procedure back home. His goal for today?

Make a Potion of Warmth.

It was one of the simplest potions an [Alchemist] could make, and yet it was highly useful to prove whether he could do this. And crucially…it was drinkable, so he had better get it right.

Now was, perhaps, a good time for Rhaldon to appreciate the fact that this world had a precursor to Earth’s chemistry glassware.

The first thing he set up was an Erlenmeyer flask and burner, which were essentially the workhorses of modern alchemy. No one called it an Erlenmeyer flask—or volumetric flask. They had their own names, although some [Alchemists] had distressing terms like ‘that triangle one’ or ‘the tube thing’. But that was Rhaldon’s setup. Well, that and a mortar and pestle.

As a research assistant, processing ingredients wasn’t something he was unfamiliar with, but [Alchemists] would actually skin animals, grind bones up, and extract what they needed by hand if they had to. Functionally, they hired dedicated [Butchers] or other specialists to get most of their ingredients.

However, it was when he switched on the burner that the magic began, literally. Because Octavia was no longer the poor [Alchemist] who had to rely on a very small, contained flame in what was essentially a lantern.

She had upgraded to…heating runes. Heating runes, which you could toggle by pressing your finger against the spell circuit worked into the wood counter. Rhaldon admired the beautiful, almost horseshoe-like design and put that one on Earth’s level.

Hot plates. Arguably—even more compact than his world’s. Although, he noted as he passed his hand over the surface—

Heats slower. Plus, Octavia had told him that if he needed to get something to a really hot boil, he should use an actual flame and charcoal.

So it seemed that Earth won against magic, at least the kind Octavia would have, in output. Nevertheless, this was how most potions were made. You heated water up—then you tossed your first ingredient in.

Next, Rhaldon consulted his recipe, his legitimate, Guild of Alchemists in Pallass-bought recipe. And he stared at it for a long time.


Warming Potion (Low-Grade)

-3 Adult Ember Salamander Skins (bones and organs unnecessary)

-A ‘flask’ of water (freshwater)

-5+ Morning Marigolds (check for magical, glowing pistils. Add more for effect.)

-Sage’s Water, candle’s glow of magic.


He’d added the parts in parentheses. This was a single slip of paper where you could buy an actual book’s worth of recipes, notes on alchemy ingredients; essentially, you paid for all the available, public knowledge of [Alchemists].

But it, uh.


The problem was this was apparently so standard that Xif and Octavia had both said it was a bit vague, but appropriate for any [Alchemist] to use.

Saliss had just laughed at it, which said that he probably understood why Rhaldon grimaced.

The problem was—impreciseness. There were no units of measurement, or if there were—

Three adult salamander skins? That didn’t tell Rhaldon how much. Every [Alchemist] would have a different amount, and maybe it didn’t matter, sure, and you got the result. But it was wasteful, and the fact that the water was just ‘freshwater’ was crazy to Rhaldon.

Did you want distilled water? Was there an actual difference between some kinds of water? Chemists tried to even make sure their water was constant—every single well might give you wildly different results. They used deionized water, but Rhaldon could imagine there was even more nuance here.

He wasn’t going to even address the Sage’s Water thing; he’d have to see it when he came to it.

“So this is why alchemy is where it is. Even if they want to share things—and there are worse recipes out there?”

Rhaldon got to work with a sigh. He opened a jar and began to pull out several long, orange-and-red pieces of dried skin. Salamanders, harvested from the town of Romswicht, where natural hot springs and volcanic activity attracted the precious things.

He felt vaguely bad for them, since thousands were killed and harvested each month. Was the harvesting sustainable, especially in the winter?

Well, he had three, and now Rhaldon came to his first problem.

Measurements. He consulted his notes and grimaced again—because he had noticed this world adopted the imperial, US system of measurements except in one place.





“Grams? Yep. We use those. Why?”

Rhaldon stopped writing down terms as he looked at Xif.

“Grams? But grams are…”

Metric. He was exceptionally grateful, because he’d feared that he’d be converting—if he even could remember the damn formula—ounces and other bullshit into formulas he recognized. But Xif seemed to think it was normal.

“Oh, you must think we’re talking about ounces. That’s for [Drivers] and people who work with, uh, water and such, actually. Not that they generally measure things, but it’s ounces, pounds, stones, and hundredweight.”

Horrifying. But it seemed [Alchemists] did know how to talk Rhaldon’s language.

“So you know grams? What about…moles?”

“I’ve never used one in alchemy! Hah! Er…was that an actual measurement?”

Xif laughed, and Rhaldon’s heart sank, but the Gnoll reassured him.

“Oh, we know liters. My, you do know [Alchemist] measurements. Which is good. To your point about salamander skins being imprecise language…it’s happened. Generally, we mark deliveries as ‘Alchemist-only’, but there have been bad incidents. Someone sends a Jar of Lightning to some poor damn [Builders] because they forgot the ‘n’.”

He shook his head as Rhaldon shuddered. But it happened on Earth, too. He knew a story about someone delivering germanium gas to a local garden center because they thought it was geraniums. Caution was essential. And the measurements this world used?

Confusing! Rhaldon scratched his head and realized something was off instantly. These metric units that chemists used were SI Units, standardized units that even the United States used because, well, it would be stupid for them to stick to their system of measurement in this case.

So why did [Alchemists] use this system if the world used the very rare imperial system only common in a few countries, including the USA? And why do they use Fahrenheit over Celsius if they switched over everything else?

Something was up. It was, to Rhaldon, as if someone had imported laws from America straight into this world. And realized quickly that it didn’t work with alchemy. Almost…his back crawled as Xif found a little sheet for him to use as a reference guide…

Almost as if someone had been observing Earth.




“…Looks like 156 grams. Give or take.”

One of Rhaldon’s purchases was a very primitive scale he was using to weigh the salamander skins. But it was imprecise, and he was just moving a little slider around to balance the scales. He didn’t like it, but lacking anything better…

The water was boiling by now, and he had a choice to make. The recipe just said huck the salamander skins into the water, and some [Alchemists]—like Itimen—didn’t even wash their ingredients.

Rhaldon did wash the salamander skins. In fact, he even cleaned them of dirt and diced the salamanders up with a knife to make sure they’d render down.

Now, Rhaldon was not someone who liked handling dead things. He was not into that area of chemistry, and while he’d done dissections before…he should have been fat-fingering the knife.

Instead, he was so smooth and fast that he caught himself and realized he was navigating an unfamiliar laboratory—Octavia’s workstation—as if he had been here a month. He almost knew where she kept all the things he needed. Instead of wasting time hunting around for something like a wayward soul in someone else’s kitchen, Rhaldon felt like he owned this space.

That was [Expert Alchemy], and it gave him a huge surge of confidence. He even felt like he was ‘checking’ the beakers and put one aside to tell Octavia it had a hairline crack in it. Rhaldon might not have realized it, but one Skill was already putting him far ahead of what any junior [Alchemist] could manage.

And yet, he was still a novice at the actual process itself. So while Rhaldon cleaned and diced the skins, he was nervous that he might take out a necessary oil in the process if he scrubbed, so he decided that was the most he’d do. His job was to compare the alchemical method to his own.

The skins went into the water, sank into the clear liquid, and sat there. Rhaldon waited, checked his notes, and sighed.

“Here comes the fun part. Stirring.”

Back home, he would have used a stir-bar, which was a tiny little magnet you’d toss into the bottom of a flask. It looked like a little cylinder that was fat in the middle that was made of something non-reactive. The trick that someone had come up with was that since it was a magnet, if there was a second magnet below it—the stir-bar would spin around in the flask.

You could twist a knob, and it’d keep everything moving as long as you had power. It had been very cool to a younger Rhaldon. Now, he longed for one after the first ten minutes of stirring the hot, steaming flask with a glass rod.

The issue of stirring, actually, was another good case-study of how [Alchemists] weren’t up to a universal standard.




Rhaldon had used heavy flasks and clamped things down to prevent the dangers of knocking anything over, and Octavia did the same.

Saliss was an old-fashioned Drake. He stirred by hand.

“[Quickened Mixture]. Another basic time-saving Skill. You’ll get a lot if you go into the job, kid.”

He winked at Rhaldon, who had to stand behind some safety-glass that Saliss had recently installed into his private lab. He let no one in, and as Rhaldon had observed, Saliss was the most safety-conscious [Alchemist].

“So you stir a mixture for…?”

The Drake waved a claw, yawning. And he was holding the flask in his hand.

“Hours. I can do it in my sleep. Or read a book. I need to. The stuff I make? It blows up. I have to watch for the unexpected, and if it’s a high-level potion, the odds of something going wrong midway through? You want to eat a thousand gold pieces of ingredients? Don’t worry about me holding it. Never copy me; I’m burn proof, and I like to feel the temperature changes if this thing isn’t clamped down.”

He waved the tube he was holding as he stirred, and Rhaldon stared. So he actually stirred the entire time. He was a madman.




Xif, by contrast, was another kind of old-fashioned [Alchemist] who had eliminated the need to stir with an unlimited, theoretically tireless resource: apprentices.

“Saliss would stir everything by claw. He hates making apprentices do it—I think he was given too much menial work. But it’s a traditional job for young [Alchemists] to do grunt work. Speaking of which—keep your paws moving!

He barked left, and the [Apprentices] kept mixing various tonics under his charge. He was making Potions of Warmth too, though his were higher grade. So they were, in fact, called Potions of Cold Resistance.

“So these are the same recipes as the one I have, but they’re called ‘Cold Resistance’ because they’re better?”

Xif chuckled as he subtly blocked Rhaldon’s view of his ingredients. He waggled a finger.

“Sorry, young man, but even for my best delivery driver…my potions are the best-sellers in Pallass. Saliss doesn’t even have better.”

“Because he doesn’t sell his potions to anyone.”

Someone muttered, and Xif’s head snapped around with a glare, but he couldn’t tell who’d said it. He cleared his throat meaningfully.

“A lot of potions are the same effect—but scaled up. You know Potions of Speed? Well, a Potion of Haste is a cut above. [Speed]. [Haste]. Just like the spells and Skills. We have a grading system too…it’s all rough measurements like adventurers love, but there’s a more in-depth way to measure a potion’s magical power.”

“Can you tell me more?”

Rhaldon’s eyes lit up, and Xif indulgently turned from inspecting his materials.

“Oh, of course. Keep working, all of you! Don’t make me look bad in front of my guest…”




Poor hands. Poor apprentices. Octavia was a manual-stirrer too, but Itimen and Zeomtoril had tried to replicate ways to stir without having to do it themselves.

Itimen, that mad fellow, had enacted his method by creating an odd contraption out of wood. It was a system of cranks such that if you ran water into a primitive waterwheel, it would spin—and move a bunch of wooden arms in a circular motion. He had attached it to a river running close by his shop, and the crazy contraption broke down all the time and constantly got stuck.

“I learned it from Pallass! Damn things…but I have new ‘gearies’ coming, and those Dwarves say they can make it better. Anything to save my poor wrist.”

Decades of manual-stirring had given him what Rhaldon suspected was carpal tunnel, and the old man winced when he moved it in the motion. Rhaldon instantly asked if he’d ever done any stretches, and Itimen gamely tried to stretch out his arms.

“Stretching? You young people with your notions. Why would that—aaah, aah, that’s stiff. A massage will do me right. I haven’t had one of those in eight years. I should go, but—my mixture!




As for Zeomtoril, he had the most logical, if costly, solution. When Rhaldon came back to him on one of his trips and casually brought up the bane of hands, the [Genius Polymath] smirked.

“Ah, southern [Alchemists]. The poor and, dare I suggest, unwashed masses. Let me show you, Driver, why the north can produce enough alchemy…even if I admit quality is sometimes not up to par.”

That was the first time he’d let Rhaldon in his laboratory, and Rhaldon instantly saw how someone with means could do it.


Or rather, Golem arms. There were three mounted to plaques on the wall. All they did was stir. Rhaldon stared at the wooden arm nearest him in a kind of horrified fascination.

“It takes some people like that. The horror of dispossessed limbs. Dullahans find it quite aesthetically pleasing. In truth, the arm is not necessary, but House Terland refuses to make a more functional, streamlined limb. I postulated that if the circle-motion is all that’s necessary…well, as you can see, three are quite expensive.”

Even he could only afford three Golem stirring-arms, though that was because more were frankly a waste. Zeomtoril did admit that he’d had more help.

“I, ah, had a Golem assistant. Very handy, if incompetent at anything complex. Keeping them away from delicate work was mandatory, but there are some variants that can be trusted even in a high-level [Alchemist]’s shop. Mine, ah, I had to, er, pawn off owing to financial troubles before I met Calidus. I doubt Saliss would trust one in his laboratory, though.”


Zeomtoril snacked on some old, old shortbread as he replied.

“Oh, some will spy, and he wouldn’t trust a Terland Golem as far as he could throw them. That’s why I don’t compete. There are…unpleasantries in any competition. Back in the day, I heard some idiots tried to off Saliss. These days, only a few [Alchemists] would try. But that would be nothing compared to old feuds. Golems spying for their masters? That’s nothing. They used to slip in fake ingredients, mislabel each other’s works, hire [Assassins]…and that was the uncreative stuff.”

Rhaldon shuddered and made a note not to start a fight. But he had to ask.

“What’s the…what’s the creative stuff?”

Zeomtoril’s eyes gleamed with excitement, and he went over to show Rhaldon a book of old [Alchemists]. Including the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets, his personal spiritual mentor.

“This is the tale of Velzimri, one of the greatest [Sages]—a man of multiple competencies like myself, you understand? He was apparently so wroth with one of his competitors stealing seeds of his Sage’s Grass—he invented the stuff!—that he developed a hunter-killer liquid. It would mimic the look and even reactions of another, innocuous ingredient. Then when you mixed it into something volatile, it would change and—boom!

“Dead gods.”

“Dead men! And women! What a genius. I’ve tried to make whatever he did, but it was the product of multiple, multiple Skills I have to imagine. Nevermind that. No one has an appreciation for interesting poisons anymore. They just want efficiency, no style or creativity…”




While he thought of stirring, Rhaldon realized the ember salamander skins had finally rendered down.

But, er…

“What a mess.”

Rhaldon stared at the resulting mix in his flask. It was orange, unpleasantly thick, and about as pure as sewer water. He was used to byproducts, but the salamander skins were, well, organic.

They hadn’t perfectly dissolved, so Rhaldon hesitated as he eyed a clump of viscous matter in his flask. His notes said that it was a waste of time to try and do more than dissolve them. Apparently, the fiery salamanders didn’t really render down with more time than this.

And here Rhaldon came to an inflection point in his first project. Because this was the part where he thought that chemistry could pass alchemy.

Every [Alchemist] just took this slurry and moved on to their next step. A few, like Zeomtoril, found ways to isolate the salamanders into a more purified product, but this mixture?

He was staring at dead skin, oils, and probably dirt and other stuff swirling around in the container. Rhaldon stopped stirring, took it off the heat, and stared at it.

If it was me in a lab…I’d want to isolate whatever element of this is actually necessary and chuck the rest. Not just for the efficacity, but because someone was going to drink this.

He decided he should at least try. Fortunately, Rhaldon could and had bought entries from the Guild of Alchemists about his ingredients as well.




The Drake [Clerk] who ran the guild had given him a dirty look, possibly for being Human, possibly for not being Pallassian, possibly because the Drake was just an asshole, but he’d ducked when Xif came strolling by and recognized Rhaldon.

Gnoll or not, Xif was like a celebrity, and so was Saliss, though the other Drake never actually deigned to appear in the Alchemist’s Guild. They were Pallassians before anything else, and the lesser [Alchemists] worshiped the ground under which they walked.




There were multiple ways for a chemist to isolate something they needed, but lacking any kind of knowledge of the compounds he was working with, Rhaldon was also limited by his tools.

He thought there were a few methods. Distillation might work, but he didn’t have the right glassware—that kind of quality work was way beyond his budget. Even though you could hire a [Glassblower] to make almost any tube you wanted, mass-production and thus cheap, easily-accessible glassware was not common.

Like gears for engineering work, Rhaldon supposed. His first attempt was, uh, just to double-check the notes he’d been given.

Ember Salamander skins have a melting point of 3401º F. As discovered by the [Alchemist of the Ancestors], Loleith Somberwing, in the year of…well, fuck.”

That…was high. So high he was amazed anyone had ever recorded it. They must have used enchanted glass. His beakers would melt before they got that high. Or a ceramic?

Even so, maybe he could purify this into component parts with enough heat? All he needed was a way to separate it, and here alchemy did have what he wanted.

A separatory funnel was a simple teardrop-shaped piece of glass that narrowed to a tiny point at the bottom. If he had two kinds of liquids of different density, like water and oil, he could open a valve on the flask and then pour out the liquid he wanted.

This, again, assumed he could get two different liquids, and Rhaldon’s conclusion after he cranked up the heat was…

He could not.




The salamander slurry refused to separate out at a lower temperature. Rhaldon needed rendered fats and oils, water, and solids, but he didn’t even get that much. It all just…stayed together unhelpfully. What Rhaldon could do was reduce the water content, but that didn’t help. He also managed to get a lot of what he suspected was oil, dirt, and other detritus on top.

“Well, at least I can take that out.”

Rhaldon used a simple spoon, wishing he had a fine sieve or something, to scrape the very clear contaminants out of the mixture. He put them aside, because if for some reason his Potion of Warmth didn’t work—he’d know at least what was actually causing the effect.

“That would be funny if it was all in the fatty oils. I doubt it. Okay.”

Defeated, he moved onto step two, which was his Morning Marigolds. He was a bit sad that he didn’t have an immediate way to fix the salamander skins issue, but knowing it was there was crucial.

Distillation? There were two clear components of the slurry, the liquids and the solid…skin itself. If, in theory, the water was actually the part that was magical, Rhaldon wanted to isolate it, but boiling it away would just make it a gas, and he needed to capture the gas.

That just took more money and specific glassware that he didn’t have. So. Rhaldon moved on, making notes to try it later.

The Morning Marigolds were interesting because they were literal…marigolds. As far as Rhaldon knew, marigolds from his world weren’t magical, though they were useful for skin conditions if he remembered a fact from his mother correctly. She had often competed with her chemist son for knowledge about the world.

The vibrantly fire-orange flowers were beautiful, and doubtless some [Alchemist] had thought that if it looked red, it would warm you up. But they’d been right, because Morning Marigolds were a magical variety that popped up in the plant. About one in every ten thousand marigolds could turn into one if it was exposed to magic.

The key was the glowing pistils in each, and the expensive plants were magical, stem to root to flower.

In his case, he wanted the flower, and Rhaldon had already crushed the dried marigolds into powder after checking for the faint glow.

He felt like this was the least-useful place he could help, and when he added it to the mixture, he saw the steam rising from his flask increased noticeably.

“So there is already a reaction happening. I really wish I could tell if any of this steam is toxic.”

For safety, Rhaldon, of course, had on some big, glass goggles for eye-protection. He’d been glad to know he could get some; [Alchemists] were aware of the dangers, but he would have loved some more PPE, personal protective equipment like a mask.

No, even better, a fume hood. He could probably make one with a bit of help, but it was another feature he had to pay for and design, and he could barely afford all this. So he had to rely on Octavia’s methods. A lot of which involved ducking behind Octavia’s primitive blast shield.

All he could do, for now, was trust to known experiments and hope he’d have methods of identifying toxic gases and keeping himself safe in the future. Rhaldon had already envisioned a fume hood…but for testing the dangers of the gases existing to begin with, he had a sinking suspicion that the only way he could do it short of a Skill was by using a canary or other animal like [Miners] had once done.

He didn’t want to do that, and in this case, the reaction just looked like heat. So Rhaldon moved onto his final step after stirring briskly for five minutes, as the recipe indicated.

This was a very simple potion even a Level 1 [Alchemist] could make. Some idiots, apparently, could still mess it up, and Rhaldon bet it was from not keeping a clean work environment or failing to bring things up to a proper heat.

But the Sage’s Water…that annoyed him.




Sage’s Water was the commonly used term to refer to Sage’s Grass…soaked in water so the magic permeated into the water itself. You didn’t have to even use heat, apparently—if you submerged cut Sage’s Grass into water for a week, it would lose its magic as the magic-less water absorbed it.

Rhaldon was fascinated to learn that according to most [Alchemists], the Sage’s Grass lost all of its magic after dying, which suggested to him that it wasn’t a process identical to diffusion because then you would get an equal concentration of magic in the water and the Sage’s Grass.

At any rate, he had prepared the jar well in advance by chopping up some cheap Sage’s Grass he’d bought from the Strongheart Farm and putting it into his water.

But it was the way that [Alchemists] measured Sage’s Water that was so confusing.

You see, on Earth, there were multiple ways of assessing the potency of a liquid or substance. If it was an acid, the pH-level would be appropriate. Grams were easy—why not say ‘fifteen grams of Sage’s Grass in water’?

The answer was magic. Magic was…difficult to measure by non-magic users.

Magirite was a unit that [Mages] used based on magicore, the molten magical rock.

[Alchemists] didn’t have easy ways to measure based on magirite, as most didn’t actually have mana, much less the ability to finely sense the magical power in the liquid. So they used a very, very bad system that Rhaldon hated.

“Candle’s glow.”

He held up the glowing Sage’s Water next to a candle and compared the brightness. The red Sage’s Water was…about as bright as a candle.

“I hate this so much.”

Apparently, the visible light that Sage’s Water gave off was indicative of the magical strength. And also apparently—even a tiny bit of ancient Sage’s Grass would do more than a full stalk of a year-old plant. Wailant had explained it to Rhaldon, which told him why volume was useless.

Even so, there had to be a better method! Rhaldon wondered if there was some simple reaction he could use to get a quantifiable number. Then you’d be able to measure a tiny bit of Sage’s Water out, check the magical value, and know what you were working with. Well, if he had a photometer, this would be more precise either way.

This glowing water was what the other [Alchemists] would call the ‘Booster’. The base of salamander skin, the reactor of marigolds—and the Sage’s Water to give the mixture power.

Rhaldon stirred the water in and saw the entire orange mixture deepen and, to his relief, grow more liquid and less like a slurry. As he increased the heat and stirred, he saw that the nasty gunk he’d feared would make drinking it a horror was generally mostly liquid.

It still wasn’t fully soluble, though, and when Rhaldon took his mixture off the heating rune and eyed it, he could already see the salamander essence trying to solidify a bit.

“That…and I’m done. I wonder how it tastes? This is now done, and it says it’s drinkable as soon as it cools or even before that.”

Flowers and salamander skin boiled in water. Er…gross.

Rhaldon had drunk healing potions and stamina potions, and if Octavia’s insects were any standard to what went into potions—you could eat bugs, but no wonder people complained about the taste. Rhaldon hesitated, because this went against most of his instincts as a research assistant to consume something he’d made, but he had seen everything that went into the Potion of Warmth.

Just in case, though, he walked out of Stitchworks and into the common room of the inn. Who should be there but—

Erin Solstice.

“Oh, hey…you…”

She pointed her fingers at him, and he was relieved that she clearly didn’t know who he was. Rhaldon waved.

“Hi. I, um—I was just practicing alchemy.”

“Right, right! Termin’s apprentice, Rhaldon! Whoa, is that your first potion? Is it…a Potion of Warmth? Looks like it? Octavia sells a lot of ‘em, but she gets mad at me because I also have my magical food.”

Her what? Rhaldon hesitated, then pointed to a window.

“Could I—step outside and drink this? I was sort of hoping someone would make sure I didn’t get sick. I should be fine.”

“I can do that! Hey, Lyonette! I’m going outside! Keep them smiths happy! Don’t let them cause earthquakes with their hammer games!”

Rhaldon had no idea what that meant either, but Erin pointed, and a door opened that led, to his great shock, straight outside!

He shivered at once because he’d taken off his coat in the warm inn, and Erin did likewise.

“Brr. Okay, this good?”

Rhaldon stepped into the snow, wishing it wasn’t Erin with him. But she didn’t know who he was…he hesitated as the hot flask steamed in one hand, but he was already freezing—so he took a quick sip.

The liquid was hot, not just physically, but carried the feel of heat itself when it went into his mouth! It also tasted like—

Half came out of Rhaldon’s mouth, and Erin winced.

“Oooh. Yep. That’s nasty as heck, right? Potions of Warmth taste like…”

Dead lizard. If you ever wanted to know what dead lizard tasted like, dragging your tongue down the inside of your boot after you’d been walking around in it in the summer sun and sweating into it might give you a good idea. If you had a foot fungus.

Rhaldon tried to swallow and got half down. Then he waited for the warmth. After a second, he began to shiver.

“It, uh—d-doesn’t seem to be—?”

He grew embarrassed and felt like the liquid was magical. Erin eyed the flask.

“You might wanna take down half the bottle. That’s what I’ve found you need.”

Half the—it was a good soda can’s worth! Rhaldon could normally shotgun even a can of coke, but—he raised the flask and tried to get that much down.

The freezing cold was what helped—and drinking it so fast he didn’t taste it. But Rhaldon’s stomach still churned afterwards. Yet the feeling of warmth that spread in him was refreshing. Erin noticed his shaking abate and grinned.

“W-wow! That worked? How do you f—hey, it’s cold out here. I’ll be right back!”

Erin ran back into her inn as guests complained of the chill winds coming in, and Rhaldon stood there, feeling warm.

Warm…not exactly happy in this weather. He felt like if he was in the midst of a cool, chilly fall day, he’d be able to walk around in a t-shirt and shorts.

In the dead of winter with snow howling down around him—he was still cold. He was just not shaking uncontrollably, but his teeth were chattering.

“I guess it is warmth. But does that mean…?”

Rhaldon stared at the rest of his potion. Then closed his eyes.




Mercifully, Erin only came back after Rhaldon had gotten the rest down, but a very unhappy young [Alchemist] was standing in the cold. Still shivering.

“I drank the entire thing, but it’s not working. Shouldn’t I be warmer…?”

Erin eyed Rhaldon, then his empty flask. She scratched her head.

“Hmm. That’s odd. Maybe you’re only as warm as the effect? I bet that’s it. You probably already got the full effect, and the rest is just making it last longer.”

Wait, what? So I won’t get any warmer?

Erin shrugged sympathetically as she chomped on something. It looked like a bowl of hearty, thick soup, and he wondered if she was hungry.

“Duration and potency is the stuff Octavia talks about. I guess it wasn’t that strong. I mean, it’s great you made a potion on your first try! How d’you feel?”

Like he wanted to vomit. Rhaldon felt…hurt that he’d failed to surpass the basic Potion of Warmth. True, he hadn’t done much, but it still rubbed against his pride.

Worse still was when he noticed Erin stop shivering, exhale, then stand, beaming, knee-deep in the snow. Steam was rising off her!

“Wait, what did you do?”

“This? Heat soup. That’s my thing. [Wondrous Fare]. Magical cooking. You want some?”

The Level 49 [Innkeeper]’s abilities were a world apart from a Level 1 [Alchemist]. Erin’s food tasted better, and she stood, hot and happy, in the snow while he shivered away.

No wonder Octavia got mad at her. Rhaldon was crestfallen, and Erin patted him on the shoulder.

“Hey, buddy, sorry! I didn’t mean to—listen, I’m a jerk, and the scale of stuff is off around here completely. Your potion keeps a lot longer than my stuff! Plus, you were working with cheap ingredients. I bet you that you’ll level, though. Why don’t we head inside? You want a breath mint? I can get mint tea or leaves.”




It took twenty minutes for Rhaldon to warm back up and his stomach to settle. In that time, he came to several conclusions.

Firstly, the alchemical process was full of inconsistencies when it came to standardization. That needed to change.

Secondly, one of the key problems in their alchemy was indeed a lack of purity in the substances they were using.

And thirdly—he was going to have a hard time rectifying both issues until he developed methods to both quantify and isolate what he was working with. However, he had hope that this would still put him above most [Alchemists] for one main reason:

He’d gone back and tested a theory.

The theory was this: if drinking half the Potion of Warmth had merely prolonged the effects of the weak draught and if the Sage’s Water was a unit of magical power…was the isolation of magical parts really necessary?

If it wasn’t, then who cared—aside from the taste—if you drank salamander skins? Who cared if you had too much water or a bit of crap in your drink if it didn’t react? Yet Saliss cared. Yet Zeomtoril seemed to care, and so, if your goal was efficiency, then Rhaldon suspected it mattered.

For his second Potion of Warmth, he did the exact same thing. He actually cut up his salamander skins to get the exact same amount of grams. He took five Morning Marigolds and another batch of Sage’s Water. But this time—he made two changes.

Rhaldon, with a pair of tweezers, extracted the glowing pistils from the marigolds. It was not easy, and he had to sort through the wizened, dried petals and avoid breaking the glowing, magical parts of the plant. He felt like he lost a few bits, but most of it went into a tiny bowl where he crushed it up.

Next time I’ll make a Design of Experiment table to measure everything out.

Second, he took the same amount of Sage’s Grass—but put it in less water than last time. Instead of a jar, he squeezed it into half a jar and waited while he did the same thing to the salamander skins.

“Aha. Well, that’s no good.”

The Sage’s Water glowed brighter in less water. Not markedly so, but it was clear that he had created a more potent liquid by reducing how much water there was to absorb the magic. Rhaldon actually poured more water in until it was the same glow as last time.

He only wanted one variable—and that was the marigolds. He had a theory—and it bore out the instant he tossed the tiny amount of powder into his flask.

This time, the Potion of Warmth’s sudden increase in temperature made the bubbling turn into a burp. Liquid splashed up the tube, hit him in the safety glasses, and he recoiled and nearly fell over.

Whoa! Careful! Looks like you needed a bigger flask! Hey, I heard you made a potion, Rhaldon!”

Octavia steadied him as she came by to unsubtly check on whether or not he was burning down her shop. But the instant she spied his Potion of Warmth, her brows knitted together.

“Whoa, whoa! What are you doing? How many marigolds did you put in there?”


“Five? But it doesn’t get that hot when I—what did you do?”

Rhaldon was smiling. Octavia had noticed the increased level of heat in the reaction, and she stared at him. Only to realize as she saw the petals…

You took the pistils out? Clever!”

Rhaldon sat up as he reached for the Sage’s Water, and before he poured it in and completed the mixture, he had a hypothesis that he had latched onto something a lot of [Alchemists] knew.

The effect of his first potion was still on him, so Octavia trudged into the snow in between a break from her beach and, shivering, drank down half his potion.

“Gah, it tastes pretty okay given some of them. You can really tell when they’re moldy.”

Amazingly, she got half the flask down without even shuddering more than once. Rhaldon didn’t want to know how many bad things Octavia had tried to be that tough…

…Until he noticed her sewing her nose back on. The Stitch-girl grinned at him.

“Hey, if I can’t smell it, I can’t taste it. I take my tongue out if it’s really bad. And—whew!”

She stopped shivering and, to Rhaldon’s intense gratification, felt at her body.

“Hey! What in the name of Rhir?”

She glowered, and his stomach lurched.

“What? Is it not…”

“This is a Level 10 [Alchemist]’s potion! You didn’t overboil it, you got the pistils—and there aren’t even flecks of Sage’s Grass in here! What are you doing?”

Then she stepped over and hugged him, and he noticed she was warmer than he was by a fair bit! Octavia was still visibly cold, but she gave him a huge, exasperated smile.

“Master Xif! We’re going to lose a [Driver]! Look at this.”

The [Alchemist] had just appeared for his own date with the beach. When he saw Rhaldon’s new potion, the [Master Alchemist] of Pallass was more critical.

“Interesting. So, young Rhaldon has already learned that you should isolate the actual effects of your alchemy. The less, the better.”

“So it is about how much is reacting there. If there were less water in the mix? When I boiled the Ember Salamander skins, I thought I could scrape off that excess.”

“Don’t do that.”

Octavia and Xif chorused, and the Gnoll folded his arms.

“Every other young apprentice thinks they’ll remove it and make the mix better, but that nasty slurry isn’t valuable without the solid matter. I know what you’re thinking, and as a young, Level 24 [Alchemist], I spent three months trying to isolate whatever’s in the salamander skins out. I thought oils…but then I looked up how hot it needed to be to mix and then cool out, and I gave up. After putting two of my master’s best enchanted beakers in one of Pallass’ steel furnaces.”

Octavia clapped her hands to her mouth in delight, and Xif sighed as Rhaldon glanced up.


“I opened the furnaces to find that I’d melted all the water out—the glassware was glowing hot, I’d ruined the enchantments, and yes, maybe I had mixed the salamander skins into the water. I couldn’t tell—it was fused to the glass. I was scrubbing everything up for the next three weeks for that stunt.”

Octavia glared as she groused about her own struggle back in the day.

“Isolating the salamander skins is impossible. You can’t boil them, and no one can slice them up and get the—scales? Skin?”

“I suspect it’s something else entirely. I’ve tried different parts, and it only works as the entire skin. If only Saliss were here. But he’s too good for the beach. Onieva’s not.”

He scowled and then began to talk about the parts you could control.

“Yes, the Morning Marigolds are only valuable for the pistils. The rest of the flower? Slightly magical, but not for a Potion of Warmth, and the less matter you can use to react with, the better.”

“Would it make sense to have the smallest vial of water you can, Master Xif, and then react in that?”

The Gnoll’s eyes twinkled.

“I can see you’re thinking like an [Alchemist] already, Rhaldon. And to that—no. The water may dilute the effects, but so what? Just boil it off if you want to concentrate the result. Add a bit more if you want to stretch what you’ve got. There are only a few cases where the amount that goes in needs to be regulated. No, it’s the rest of it.”

The slush. Given that he was working with three ingredients and low-stakes magic, Rhaldon knew there was probably nothing besides the salamander skins he could ‘upgrade’ about the process. But that was something his mind was latching onto.

Given the amount of ingredients in another potion like even a Potion of the Warrior, which Rhaldon had seen on display in the Guild of Alchemists—with the exact ingredients redacted to encourage you to buy it for a cheap seven gold and sixteen silver—he just bet that the inefficiencies in purity were exactly what plagued most [Alchemists].

But Rhaldon smiled as Xif praised the potion, while leaving room for improvement.

“It’s a good adherence to procedure. As Octavia said, no Sage’s Grass inside, which would tell me you’ve wasted the effects. I can say you didn’t cut the salamanders up enough or mash them and the pistils. You can see how it’s not as well-mixed, even given the skins. That means the effect is uneven, as is the consistency. No Skills…and no other additives. You’ll learn to improve the effect, but it’s a fine first potion!”

He was clearly alternating between encouragement and trying to stop Rhaldon from getting a fat head. Rhaldon appreciated it and gesticulated at Stitchworks.

“I actually have more time, and I was going to try for a Potion of Flares next.”


Both [Alchemists] paused, and Octavia and Xif exchanged a glance. That was…a step well beyond this Potion of Warmth.

A Level 20 [Alchemist] was usually called on to make a Potion of Flares, a reactive substance that you uncorked or just tossed and let explode in a shower of light. Adventurers and people in the wilderness like to use them for emergency light, distress signals, or to confuse foes.

It could easily recoup him all the costs so far, and Rhaldon was ready to give it a try.

“If you want to try, Rhaldon…but, er, it’s not easy. Mind your hands when you transfer in the magicore.”

“Fast hands. Oh, and eye protection. Borrow some of those sunglasses from Yelroan. They tend to work.”

Xif agreed. Rhaldon noted their looks of skepticism, and as they went back to the beach, he distinctly heard Xif mutter.

“Everyone’s got to stumble once. Back in my day, we’d kick them down a floor early so they didn’t blow us all up…”

Rhaldon ignored that as best he could. He knew procedure, and so long as the instructions were clear, he’d do it. Safely, efficiently—

Five hours later, Octavia walked into her shop, saw Rhaldon staring at six burnt-out flasks filled with soot, and patted him on the shoulder. Without a word, she got him a drink, and Rhaldon realized that alchemy…

Alchemy wasn’t that easy to overcome.




That night, Rhaldon broke down why he’d failed at the Potion of Flares in simple detail: he was not fast enough.

Well, that and a few other elements like being unable to separate the magicore into pure enough samples, arrogance that he could simply ‘follow instructions’ and get it done, and an inability to perceive when the inflection point occurred.

Here was the Potion of Flares’ general makeup: you took a variety of gemstone dusts and mixed them together with what Rhaldon felt was actually analogous to this world’s version of gunpowder.

A lot of explosive potions could go ‘bang’ in a mild sense if you mixed several monster products together. He’d chosen the most basic stuff, just to let the glowing flare-liquid explode outwards.

A better version would just be having it react, but he’d gotten the glow—what he’d failed at was making sure the potion didn’t explode before he corked it.

The problem was…he had to mix a glowing igniter into some magicore, which would then become light magicore and begin glowing like crazy. Which is what they were supposed to do when the Potion of Flares activated, but he wanted to keep that from happening until the bottle was activated!

To stop the reaction, Rhaldon had to submerge the entire stuff in infused slime gunk, which suppressed and absorbed the magic. Then he needed a way to re-trigger the Potion of Flares when it was exposed to air.

Rhaldon’s easy solution to that had been a straw that he planned on inserting into the magicore, which would allow air to seep in once the flask was breached. His error lay in the fact that the recipe had not said how fast the light reaction occurred.

He’d thought he’d have about ten seconds to dump the magicore in the slime gel to encase it. Three seconds at worst. And failing that, why not mix the light magicore in the slime gel?

Reality was that the light magicore changed into the searing bright light so fast that Rhaldon’s reflexes couldn’t even give him a shot. Even when he’d mixed it in the gel—in the microseconds in which he’d inserted the light dust, before the gel covered the magicore—it already reacted. It glowed, flared in light but thankfully no heat, and then went dead after three minutes.

Not the strongest light effect, not the longest-lasting…but someone would have paid good money for it regardless. Any [Driver] would want a cheap version of the potion.

The problem was—Rhaldon thought that even if he were the most agile person in the world, he couldn’t make this potion without luck on his side.

He’d tried six times, then run out of ingredients. That night, as he sat around a table, Erin quizzed Octavia, who was trying to cheer him up. Xif was there, and so was Numbtongue, who gave Rhaldon a blank look.

“So it didn’t work? Why did the recipe say that, then? Alchemists lie like they breathe?”

“Hey! We lie all the time, but never about recipes. Not in the Alchemist’s Guild!”

Octavia banged a fist on the table, and Xif nodded.

“We’re the most untrustworthy, cowardly, superstitious lot you could ask for. But we don’t lie about recipes.”

“…What does that other stuff have to do with…okay. What did Rhaldon do wrong?”

Erin was waiting tables, and Octavia shrugged.

“Nothing, I bet. I didn’t see because I’m no spy, but I’ve tried making the potion, and I just gave up. Master Xif can do it. Master Xif?”

The Gnoll visibly hesitated, and Erin crossed her arms.

“Oh come on, Xif. Give him a hint?”

“It’s my method. Learning your own way is how any [Alchemist] grows! I wouldn’t want to take away his levels—and he’ll already level tonight.”

The Gnoll whined, and Rhaldon’s head rose slightly. He’d forgotten the rule of [Alchemists]: don’t share, get lost, and don’t borrow my magicore.

It made him depressed, but Erin Solstice glanced down at Rhaldon—then marched over and pulled at Xif’s ear.

“I’m Gnolling you, Xif! That’s right! I’m Gnolling you. Don’t share? Are you a Drake? What happened to working together? What about my beach? Am I gonna not share that?

“Ow! Ow! Miss Solstice!

She tugged harder, then glowered.

“Give Rhaldon a hint. And I’ll give you…one Faerie Flower! Deal?”

Xif’s ears perked up.

“One? But we’re growing—they’re very finicky. How about three?”

Erin raised a fist.

“One! And you can order the fanciest dish on my menu for free. Deal?”

He thought it over and then seemed to come to the conclusion that he was making out on this. So he leaned over, and Octavia and Rhaldon bent forward as Xif twisted a ring on his paw.

“Oh—just because I have a soft spot for new [Apprentices]. Young man, the key as I think Octavia noted is that it’s almost impossible to perform the reaction, even if you use tools and try to submerge the damn magicore in gel. You can suspend the dust so it’s just touching the magicore and then if the glass breaks, it mixes, but that’s a sideways solution. The real key is mixing the magicore up, then separating it and neutralizing it before it fully reacts.”

“Right, but that’s impossible.”

Rhaldon muttered. He could do that in…ten seconds. But he first had to start the reaction of the magicore then divide it up before it reacted. And it needed to be a big enough blob to react—and then be pulled apart into pieces at the speed of, well, chemistry.

A machine specifically designed for that task could do it. Or—Xif’s eyes glinted and he coughed dramatically into one paw.

Ahem. Not with [Delayed Reaction]. Or another Skill. There are many paths to the solution.”

Octavia’s eyes lit up, and she nodded, and Rhaldon’s head rose. And here came the area where chemistry pointed at alchemy and said ‘that’s impossible’. The closest thing Rhaldon could imagine was a negative catalyst, but this was a Skill, a power you could turn on and off.


Nothing would do but for Xif to show off. He did it by producing a match his own shop had created that was popular across Pallass, Liscor, and more places.

A match. Octavia glared as she saw the Xif-branded product, but the clean match struck on the side of the box, and Rhaldon saw the spark.

But then Xif held the match up and counted.

“One, two, three…four…well, we could do this for a minute. End Skill.”

The match burst into flame. He gave everyone a smug smile as Erin blinked and Rhaldon’s eyes widened.

Here came the impossible. This was where countless scientists from Earth began making sacrifices and drawing ritual circles—or they would, if they had the power to stop reality and observe or manipulate.

Consider how useful something like that would be in, say, manipulating the Large Hadron Collider, to name the most famous scientific experiment in the modern age. And Xif treated the Skill like a basic bar to measure competency. An ability any [Alchemist] would get in time or be able to replicate.

“You see, Rhaldon, the Alchemist’s Guild sells recipes that work. So long as another [Alchemist] can reproduce the results, the recipe goes in. But they don’t always list Skills or methodology. I would suspect a more comprehensive guide is available for more gold.”

Octavia grimaced, and Rhaldon recalled that he’d been offered the chance to get mentorship on the potion. His heart sank.

This really was like a nightmare of science. Money triumphing over progress. Xif tried to reassure him that it wasn’t all that bad as Erin snorted.

“It’s not easy vetting all the ingredients and guides. If Rhaldon rises higher in the guild, his dues would pay for a wealth of basic information. All the knowledge on ingredients? Open to him. It’s just…you can’t expect someone to share a goldmine like Sage’s Grass, can you?”

He looked around, his multicolored fur rippling in the breeze coming from the beach door, clearly feeling as though he was the reasonable one. That was when Rhaldon’s head rose, and the chemist stared at Xif until the Gnoll grew uncertain.

“Yes. Why would they hoard it?”

“…How would they get rich otherwise?”

“What about the thousands of fellow scient—alchemists? What about progress? We’re all on the same side.”

“Hah. I mean…no, we’re not. The north and south—young man, you sound idealistic, and I get your perspective. I know more [Alchemists] across the continent than most professions, but when it comes to war, I won’t be accused of being a traitor. Octavia, you understand, don’t you?”

“Hm? I’m from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. We just steal and fight.”

“What about loyalty to your homeland?”

Xif protested as Erin smiled slightly and, whistling, brought over a big sundae. Octavia scratched her chin.

“We had that. It was called Nerrhavia. Then we killed her. Sorry, Xif.”

“So that’s where Saliss got his attitude from.”

The Gnoll put his head in his paws and groaned. Then he smiled as he saw his reward coming his way. Erin put the bowl onto his plate.

“Okay, Xif. And there’s some syrup or honey if you want to have a heart-attack. Just say the word and I’ve got you. Whipped cream? Chocolate’s still not in full production.”

“Wh—then why do I see those little chocolate chips in Rhaldon’s bowl?”

Erin put a heaping sundae in front of Rhaldon too, and he perked up a bit.

Food from home. He saw Erin wink.

“Cheer up. There’s always another try. That’s because he did his first alchemy, Xif. Geeze. What are you, Ekirra’s age?”

The support of Erin Solstice made Rhaldon feel better, and he almost said, in his first bite of sweet ice cream, that he was from Earth. But he didn’t. He wanted to tell her when he had made something worthwhile. Yet he was now resolved.

This would never have been easy. He had been arrogant, assuming techniques from Earth could let him replicate high-level alchemy. Now, he faced the more honest, true, engaging challenge of taking the aspects of chemistry into alchemy to advance in one area. 

He could be an above-average [Alchemist]; Xif and Octavia had both said he acted like a far more experienced apprentice. But Rhaldon was now staring at a far more distant horizon. By science, he was going to push it.


[Alchemist Level 6!]

[Skill – Perceive Noble Gases obtained!]

[Skill – Thick Glass (Alchemy) obtained!]

[Skill – Adept Haggler (Alchemy) obtained!]



Someone threw a boot at the wall and shouted ‘shut up’ in the night. Rhaldon lay back in bed as a very grumpy Dame Ushar went back to sleep.




[Perceive Noble Gases].

Someone was having fun in the world. Someone was aware, perhaps, that something was up.

After his disastrous attempts at making the Potions of Flares, Rhaldon was out of money. He did work up several more Potions of Warmth and sold them to the Alchemist’s Guild in Liscor for a whopping eight silver.

It was still a victory…but two silvers per Potion of Warmth was terrible. The Drake at the desk actually apologized.

“I’m sorry, Mister Human. It’s the other cities. We were never a big city for alchemy, but the local [Alchemists] did a decent business. You’d get triple this normally—but that damn Stitch-girl and that Gnoll are driving prices down.”

The Alchemist’s Guild in Liscor was the only one who’d take his low-grade potions, and Octavia had advised him to sell here. The implication was, sadly, that his stuff was too low-grade for her, and given Erin’s food, Rhaldon had readily agreed.

At least he got money for the glass bottles. Rhaldon exhaled, then frowned.

“Wait, do you mean Octavia and Xif?”

One glower told him he was right. The two were far too high-level for any normal city, and Pallass’ Guild of Alchemists—the City of Inventions was famous for its alchemy—was replacing a lot of local talent.

“Well, at least they help with other potions. We need the boost, frankly. Everyone’s coming here to build, but what about other jobs? Say, are you an adventurer? One of those alchemists hunting for your ingredients?”

“No. [Driver]. Why?”

The Drake sighed.

“Darn. I was going to sell you some Shield Spider armor. We’re making it again. A bunch got killed, and the [Farmers] keep digging up their bodies—or the Watch and army clear nests. It’s cheap! You [Drivers] want some decent protection on the road?”

Spider armor. Rhaldon had to go check it out, and on the way, he admired his ability to see the argon in one of the bottles sitting on a shelf. It looked like a funky violet. He turned and wondered what was in the sewers; looked like some nasty gases coming out of there. Helium? Something blue. No, if it was coming from decomposition…

He saw traces of violet now and then, a haze in the world, and that had to be argon, the most plentiful of the noble gases. Still only 1% of Earth’s atmosphere, but he could sometimes notice it coloring things.

This Skill sucked. Aside from Rhaldon’s ability to see radon, which he never wanted to see or encounter, it was a very useless Skill given that you couldn’t harvest noble gases by running around with a jar.

Why the heck did he have this Skill, anyways?

It was green. And green meant unique, according to Termin. The old man had been aghast by Rhaldon ‘messing around with the exploding stuff’, but he’d perked up when he heard Rhaldon say the Skill had a ‘color’.

But it had taken Rhaldon two hours to explain what noble gases were to the old man, and he felt like Erma and Fox had understood more of it. As to why Rhaldon was annoyed…it wasn’t really what he wanted.

Noble gases were not all air particulates. Not by a long shot. Not even the common ones. Not oxygen. Not hydrogen.

Six damn gases. Helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon, all fairly non-reactive and not useful in chemistry, especially the kind he was practicing right now!

Someone was laughing at him. Or possibly blind to how chemistry worked. Rhaldon walked along, hands in his pockets, groaning as he saw a few occasional swirls of color in the air and wondered if he could use any of the gases…but how could he isolate them even if he found a tiny bit?

Wonderful. He felt like he’d been given a Skill that was essentially the middle-school version of a science experiment.

One thing did make Rhaldon’s hair stand on end when he thought of it, though. Argon was violet. He assumed the stuff in the sewers might be xenon, which had been blue. If he found reddish helium, then…

Then the noble gases’ colors in his vision were looking like their spectral signatures. That wasn’t a coincidence. Was he being given the ability to see spectral signatures? Or was his Skill based on his knowledge? It didn’t seem like a coincidence. Perhaps, despite its uselessness, more thought had gone into this Skill than he assumed at first.

Anyways, he stared at a suit of Shield Spider armor and got a lecture from a local [Chitin Crafter] that it was stronger than leather, if less flexible, and Shield Spiders had once armed Liscor’s army.

“That was the old days before them Gnolls and Antinium. Not that I mind! Cheaper than steel, but harder to mend, and the army was smaller back then. Bunch of troublemaker [Mercenaries], and my entire family made this armor. Shame, though; it’s not popular because it’s made of spider parts, but it used to be better. I got back into it, but…”

He gestured helplessly at the suit, which was made of big parts of chitin worked decently well into cloth and leather. The problem was, he could only use the big Shield Spiders, and the old [Crafter] was scratching his head.

“I was just a lad, but I swear we had another way to make it. It wasn’t all big parts like this. Why, we glued it all together like a puzzle. And it was more—flexible.”

Rhaldon was still fascinated by the armor and would have bought some but for the fact that he was counting coins. He had to get back to deliveries, not least because he wanted to figure out if his theory on what he could do was correct.




“You can see six gases? And they’re all—you can’t even see oxygen?”

Saliss of Lights laughed at Rhaldon for five minutes and had to hold onto one of his steel tables. The young man patiently stood there as Saliss howled with laughter. He was supposed to be getting another list of delivery ingredients.

Saliss was in a good mood for some reason, though Rhaldon hadn’t seen him at the beach. When he got up, the Drake gave Rhaldon a second look.

“Oho. But you do see them. Alright, alright. I’ll get your list. Stop scowling. But come over here a sec. And be happy. Getting [Gas-Sight], or whatever the Skill is, is a Level 30 plus [Alchemist] Skill at least.”

“Wait—that’s a Skill?”

Saliss was pulling bottles off his shelf, ones that were clearly magical. They were empty…until Rhaldon squinted, used his Skill, and saw each light up a different color. Then his eyes widened, and Saliss waved them at him.

“Well? Which ones are noble? I’ll tell you which ones kill you.”

He had eighteen bottles, and four of them held noble gases. Rhaldon pointed them out and stared.

“Wait, you can harvest gases?”

“Sure, I burn up all kinds of useful stuff. It’s annoying as hell to trap this one. It’s the ‘squirmiest’. Gets through even glass and magic in time unless you know how to enchant it.”

He pointed at what Rhaldon guessed was helium. Some small particles that he was dying to ask Saliss about. But he had to play it cool.

Unfortunately, the Drake just gave Rhaldon a second look.

“Noble gases, you said? Six?”

“Y-yes. Do [Alchemists] know about them?”

Saliss paused as he got some chalk out and began to write them down.

“Sure do. List them out.”

Rhaldon did, and Saliss waved a claw.

“Oh, argon. Duh. I know of it. Yep. Another one.”

“Another what?”

“Nothing, nothing. You doing this all in Octavia’s shop? Well, I suppose if even Xif the Miser will give you a hand, I’ll listen to your woes. How’d your first potion-making go?”

Saliss laughed when he heard about Rhaldon’s disastrous Potion of Flares, but he actually put his gear aside and seemed to give Rhaldon more attention than before. He kept shaking his head.

“My oh my. I feel stupid. I mean—it brings me back to when I was a little Drake running around and screaming about damn salamander skins. So, you got rewarded with a semi-useless Skill? Cheer up. I’m sure you’ll see more than just the ‘noble’ gases later. That’s how Skills work.”

He grinned, and that did cheer Rhaldon up.

“So you can’t see them? How do you manage?”

Saliss shrugged.

“Alchemists specialize. I’m a boom-alchemist, so my Skills go to combat—or enhancing effects. Or making sure I don’t melt myself with acid. I suppose, just for you, I’ll show you what I do if I think I’m going to produce something nasty. Or I think I have a leak.”

Safety protocols! Rhaldon was all over this, and he scrambled into Saliss’ work-rooms. The Drake handed him something.

It was a primitive mask with a glass bottle on one end.

“Jar of Air. People use it to dive. Full-mask covering. Make sure it’s secure. We’re not dealing with anything dangerous—and I’d have you in a full suit if I thought we were. It’s just a pain to clean.”

He had actual safety equipment! Smart stuff, too! It was clearly hand-made, but Saliss put it on, then inserted a key into a steel drawer.

“I’m just going to get a bit of invisible gas in this one. Got it? Know what this is?”

“L-liquid air?”

The drawer was freezing, and the cooled vial of liquid air glowed yellow. Rhaldon guessed instantly that it was xenon he was seeing floating around. Saliss might not have known how to extract it, but he grinned as the air warmed up.

“Yep. And oh no! My precious air is evaporating, but it’s actually Creler gas! We’re dead! We’re dead!”

He waved the vial around—then stepped backwards, tossed something down, and shouted.

Panic mode! [Vial: Spore Explosion].

The puff of something bright pink blew across the entire lab and coated Rhaldon’s entire world in pink. He recoiled—then saw the air was filled with particulates. When he saw again, Saliss was standing in a hazy workroom as dust of some kind hung in the air, floating without falling. Then the Drake held up the vial, and Rhaldon saw a patch of clear air around the opening.

Gas. Saliss waved it around, and the smoke-bomb he’d deployed captured the leaking gas. The [Alchemist] chuckled.

“Dead gods, this is going to suck to clean up. But the look on your face was worth it. So, that impresses even a…even Termin’s apprentice, huh?”

It did indeed. Rhaldon looked at Saliss with genuine respect. Even without the ability to see or monitor harmful gases, Saliss had multiple, multiple ways to isolate it. Not only that—the Drake was in fact the closest living [Alchemist] to the methods of chemistry that Rhaldon had met.

Saliss of Lights was no wild experimenter, and aside from the seith—which had blown up despite him using micrograms and the least-reactive compounds possible—he had entire contingencies to avoid endangering everyone.

His steel lab was one method, but he seemed so…impressed? Taken? With Rhaldon’s new Skills that he showed Rhaldon his emergency procedure.

Rhaldon helped him clean up the dust via a spell that just sucked up the dust into a bag of holding, another smart trick. Saliss walked over.

“Alright, kid. Before I talk about your salamander skin theory…let’s say I was making my newest acid deathcloud, and it’s about to go. What do I do? Toss it out the window and let it drift down nine floors?”

Rhaldon shuddered at the thought. Let the lab take it? The answer was no. Saliss showed him something.

“This is a Scroll of [Rapid Teleportation], and it’s my emergency-button. I’m the only [Alchemist] in Pallass who won’t get blocked from teleporting—they shut that kind of thing down for security. But if I think I’m about to destroy everything, I grab this, teleport whatever I have—and we say goodbye to a lovely patch of dirt two miles east. No one’s allowed to build on it, and it’s far away from anything useful.”

Clever! Even if that might do a lot of damage to the ground, it beat damaging the city. Saliss waved a claw as he pointed to the other [Alchemists].

“That’s only because I’m so dangerous. Most [Alchemists], even the ones who make literal poison, just adopt Octavia’s approach. Which is chuck it in a bag of holding—or just hurl it out the window if you haven’t already gone for cover. Xif’s a bit smarter.”

“What does he have?”

Saliss grinned crookedly.

“He calls it the ‘death tube’. It’s this metal beam—it looks like a beam, but it has a hatch. You yank it open, throw whatever’s inside into it, and it blows up in there. If he thinks it’s not deadly, he vents it. It’s reinforced—like one of my steel drawers. All his apprentices have to learn to use it.”

“The death tube name…”

“Sometimes they don’t make it. It’s rare. I think he’s lost only three apprentices, which is crazy for a Gnoll his age. But it’s a killer class. What, not that common where you come from?”

Rhaldon was shuddering. If three dead apprentices was good…there were accidents in chemistry. Terrible stuff that kept him up at night like getting something under your skin that reacted with the water in your blood, or acid in the eyes…

But safety regulations, if followed correctly, were well above this world, and he liked Saliss’ shop for this reason. Saliss nodded as he glanced at Rhaldon.

“Well, good. Keep thinking like that and you’ll live longer. Now, tell me your theory about the salamander skins.”




Rhaldon had a theory that he could purify the salamander skins, thereby increasing the efficacy of his potions. If proven, or if he found a method beyond most [Alchemists], he could rapidly advance.

To chemistry, the world was made up of compounds. You could, with effort, turn seemingly unrelated things into each other through reactions.

Like, say, turning a nasty, deadly chemical into food flavoring. Alchemists did that with the purest expression of heat and water, but Rhaldon wanted to know if the salamander skins could be rendered purer, and if so—how they were doing it.

Saliss was busy and claimed he needed a holiday at the beach, but he promised to speak to Rhaldon after his next delivery across Izril’s north. So Rhaldon drove north to Itimen and Zeomtoril to get their input.




Along with their regular deliveries, Rhaldon hand-delivered a few other goods. Not only did he get the suspiciously plain Chest of Holding meant for Calidus’ associates—and did not touch it at all—he had a bunch of pictures from the beach.

The memory of his last bandit encounter made transporting the chest very difficult. In fact, Rhaldon was so nervous about it all that he left early in the morning and drove his horses fast and hard, switching them out twice.

He ended up making his delivery to Zeomtoril in one day—a twenty-six hour all-day drive that left him hellishly tired. Coffee, two entire thermoses of it, kept him alive on the road along with Octavia’s stamina potions. But he also did some business on the side along the way.

Lady Bethal had apparently convinced the Driver’s Guild to take them, and the Driver’s Guild was selling them along with the Runner’s Guild.

The value of the ‘postcards’ was, uh—debatable. Some people went green with envy at seeing the fun on the beach.

Itimen took one long look at Lyonette, Pryde, and Lady Bethal posing on the beach in swimwear and dug around in his money pouch.

“How many do you have? I’ll take them.”

Rhaldon decided he would refrain from selling the postcards in the future, but the suddenly happy [Alchemist] decided to talk about his methods of purification.

“Oh—only for you, my boy. You see, I don’t faff around with all that stuff Saliss does. I just do this. [Remove Impurities]! Hah!

He laughed and danced around as Rhaldon saw him point at a batch of mulched bug parts and saw the slimy batch eject so much crap at such velocity it hit the ceiling. Itimen stretched, then posed.

“And that is how a real [Alchemist] gets it done!”




Rhaldon repeated Itimen’s statement to Zeomtoril a few days later, but the [Polymath] didn’t hear him at first.

Zeomtoril and Calidus were staring at the postcards. Rhaldon hadn’t mentioned them, but Calidus had known, somehow, about their existence and demanded to see them. The [Lord] was staring at the beach.

He was crying.

“This is the most beautiful thing…I have lived in First Landing, a coastal city, for all my life! And I see Wellfar [Ladies] striding around with their glorious bare feet, but there’s no tradition of this. We must become beach people! The masses deserve to see it! Nobles, to the beaches! And they put what on each other’s bodies?”


Calidus closed his eyes, and his hands writhed.

“My lady, let me put this upon your back! No, no, don’t stir yourself. Allow me to cover you from head to toe in this sunscreen. They do that. Tell me they do that. I would do that.”

Rhaldon edged back as the [Lord] caught himself and stared at Rhaldon. This time, he seemed less drunk, almost as if he’d been waiting for Rhaldon to arrive.

Zeomtoril tore himself away from staring at the pictures and coughed.

“Wait, what did Itimen say? He thinks he’s purifying his ingredients like I do? That idiot!”

He laughed. Then threw his head back and laughed louder. Then leaned back and laughed—before stomping up to his laboratory.

“Come here and look at this. He just showed you how he ‘purified’ his ingredients, eh? Well, tell me. If you used [Remove Impurities] on this, what would you get?”

He came back with a piece of bark in his hands. Just bark—and Calidus pointed.

“Bark. It’d probably take off the moss, so you get bark.”

“Yes. And what is the impurity? The outer bark or this soft inner part I use to hand-craft my own papyrus?”

Rhaldon raised his brows as he got what Zeomtoril was getting at.

“Oh, of course. If it’s not isolated into the most basic component—”

“It’s useless. The barest minimum before doing anything. Come here. Let me at least show you how I prepare my ingredients. Calidus, if you’re so eager to learn, why don’t you join us for once?”

“I, uh, have a date with the restroom. Thank you for the pictures, Driver Rhaldon. Pay him, Zeomtoril.”

Calidus ran off—with the pictures. Rhaldon covered his eyes, and even the [Genius Polymath] looked askance.

“…Ignore him. Here.”

And once more, he showed Rhaldon his collection of ingredients. This time, a vial of salamander skin, powdered up fine. But unlike last time, Rhaldon’s own chemist senses began tingling.

Hold on. If Itimen is wrong about his methodology—could it be that Zeomtoril, a genius, is also wrong? He stared down at the powder, then up at the [Savant]’s smug expression.




Calidus was disappointed that Rhaldon had already set up a workspot. He snapped his fingers before waving the young man off with a sigh.

“Beaten to the punch. Well, it’s a pleasant feeling. Come back later by all means and, uh, bring more pictures! In fact, tell me more about this ‘Erin Solstice’ woman. How…no, I should say, I’ve seen her in her inn. But is she unhappily married? How open-minded is she towards a rapscallious imp? And then how open-minded is she towards a pathetic slob of a drunk? And how open-minded would she be to a troublemaking letch harassing half the women on—actually, you know what? I know the answer to that.”




Zeomtoril had the neatest, most organized system for his ingredients and reagents compared to even Saliss. He had sorted them into little vials of powder he could hydrate, and he even hand-made his own papyrus.

A true Leonardo da Vinci of his time—he could paint, knew mathematics, and had a huge collection of books that Calidus apparently raided now and then. However, he was not an educated [Alchemist], and Rhaldon thought it showed for the first time.

Zeomtoril’s powders and his genius with poisons as well as cunning ways to disguise a knife, or even make a folding crossbow, were very, very popular with his…housemates. But the [Polymath]’s widespread knowledge had tripped him up in one area: the powdered salamander skins were useless.

“He just desiccated them, didn’t he?”

Saliss of Lights knew what Zeomtoril had done, and Rhaldon confirmed it with a nod. The Drake snorted.

“Yep. And you know why that’s useless?”

“Removing the water doesn’t change the fact that it’s still filled with a bunch of useless impurities. It just…turns it into a powder.”

Saliss tapped his head rapidly.

“Exactly! And that’s where you and I go ahead of Zeomtoril. His cute, tidy mind likes powders he can color-code and store in racks. You know what it is. He’s form over function, sometimes. Now—I have what you want, and I’m willing to give you a copy. But if you break it, I’ll throw you off the walls.”

He had a gift for Rhaldon, and he was only half-joking. Because Rhaldon saw, to his delight—Saliss had a working distillation set.

The glassware that was required to distill liquids was far beyond ‘put beaker on burner’. What it looked like was the mad science tools you’d see in movies, but all to a reason.

This is what it seemed like. First, you had a flask that you put over a burner. Simple enough—but you had a tube attached to a cork that would seal the vial off. Therefore, when you heated the liquid within, the gas would flow out—through a condenser that cooled the vapor into a liquid—and then collect in a second vial on the other side.

Saliss’ condenser had a simple cooling rune to make the process work. He even had multiple tubes in case he needed to siphon off more than one liquid, but the reason why he was so insistent and only he had multiple distilling sets to give out was because of a lack of a certain thing in this world: advanced glassware.

His tube was glass, pre-blown into the simple loops. It had to be hard to make, and that clear tubing was one of the hardest things to get for medicine and alchemy. And while it was analogous to Earth’s glassware, Rhaldon had to wonder if a [Glassblower] with the right Skills or magic was required to get the same effects as borosilicate glass, which was resistant to thermal shock.

If not, then even glass in this world was below Earth’s standards, let alone plastic, rubber, and other useful materials. And yet, Saliss managed. He patted the condenser fondly.

“This is how I get liquid out of a lot of mixtures. Gas is harder. Sometimes, I have things that are so reactive to air that they’ll blow up or start whatever I don’t want. Then I have to literally fill the air with something else or suck all the air out. Either way, I need a mask. It’s expensive, takes a long time to make sure nothing’s in there—have you got any idea how annoying it is? You wouldn’t happen to know how to fix that, would you?”

Saliss cracked one eye open as he complained. Rhaldon hesitated. Because he did know how to fix that. Small wonder Saliss hadn’t thought of everything.

Maybe he should keep that to himself? Then if he needed to make something reactive, he could get ahead of—

Rhaldon had that thought for about five seconds before he almost slapped himself. What was he doing? That was pure [Alchemist] thinking! He looked up at Saliss, who was offering him an entire set of glassware for free, and instantly felt ashamed.

“Wh—I actually heard of something like that.”

“Oh, really? How’d you do it?”

Saliss’ eyes sharpened, and Rhaldon hurried over to the chalkboard, embarrassed by his thoughts.

“Can I borrow some chalk? You’d just need a three-way flask, here. Two tubes on either side, and one goes up.”

“Right, right. There are flasks like that. Not exactly, but how does that create a vacuum? The air’s in there, and before you say anything, it rises and even if you suck it out—air rushes in, so I’d blow up that flask if I suck the air out. Even enchanted, with a suction spell…”

“It’s a valve, here.”

Rhaldon circled the top-most valve. He had done this before.

“You put a valve here, which allows you to control the flow of gas. Then you’d have a ball—a second flask on top. But what’s up here?”

He circled a balloon or second flask on top of the first. Saliss scratched his head.

“…More air? No, wait. If there’s air here—”

He shaded the lower flask, stared at the higher one, and saw Rhaldon adding a tube to the side.

“Here’s your suction spell. You use that to facilitate the transfer, but if you’re in a situation where air causes this liquid below to explode, well, all you have to do is fill the flask with not-air.

“…A vacuum isn’t a gas, kid.”

Saliss raised his brow, unimpressed with Rhaldon’s logic. But Rhaldon couldn’t help but tease him.

“Who said it was a vacuum? Say, how much argon do you have lying around? Noble gases don’t actually like doing much. And argon…is heavier than regular air.”

Suddenly, Saliss’ brows snapped together. He stared at the diagram, then made a few simple arrow signs.

“Wait a second. Shitty, combustible air rises. If it’s lighter than your argon stuff, the argon sinks. So I am, invisibly, swapping the contents of these two jars. Like how oil floats through water. And then I don’t need a vacuum—because I’ve just got a gas in there that won’t explode and turn into acid! Here I’ve been buying Hedault-class enchanted vials and suctioning the air out—and half of the time the enchanted cork has a leak—when I could have just—”

He threw up his claws, turned to Rhaldon, and the young man realized he might have just thrown something on Saliss that revealed all. He tensed—but the Drake just paused before solemnly putting a clawed hand on Rhaldon’s shoulder.

“That…bastard…Zeomtoril. Don’t tell him he’s a genius. But I guess he is.”

He gave Rhaldon a pained smile, and the young man relaxed. Saliss glanced at Rhaldon again and shook his head.

“…What else do you know about?”

Electrolysis. That was one of the things that Rhaldon postulated most [Alchemists] didn’t know about. They did all kinds of stuff—but Itimen was the kind to zap any potion to see what happened. He didn’t realize that he needed a conductive liquid.

Yet Rhaldon felt like the salamander skins were calling to him. They were simple, not nearly as flammable as Corusdeer horns, and this distillation set would work.

“Well, distillation is what I was really focused on, Master Saliss. I’m going to drain the liquid out of the salamander skins. Then—”

Saliss coughed into one claw apologetically.

“…It’s the mushy stuff.”

Rhaldon paused, and his heart sank.


“Yep. Liquid’s worthless. Otherwise, Xif would have sucked it out with a straw himself, or we’d just separate it out via a funnel. All that muck? That’s what’s wasting a lot of the alchemical reaction with the pistils. You can’t do more than just add mana or complementary effects to the potions. One of the Skills you’ll gain is [Remove Effect], [Neutralize Element], or something. That lets someone like Xif toss in Corusdeer powder without getting the boom or making a client sick. The base recipe cannot be improved unless you want to melt the salamander skins. And believe me, even I don’t think it’s cost-effective.”

Not at thirty-four hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Even if Saliss had the glassware to take to the blast furnace, as Xif had pointed out, you’d lose the water from that heat. Let’s assume you stoppered it up, could heat it that high—

It was just a waste of effort. Ergo, Rhaldon abandoned this line of thought, and he moved to the next method. But here came something he really, really didn’t want to try. Yet he felt like it was the only other option.

“Well then. I think I might still need the distiller, and I’ve got a separatory funnel…I only need two things. Master Saliss—do you know where I could get a cheap, effective acid?”

Saliss’ brows rose, and then he began to grin.

“Now you’re speaking my language. And as it so happens—I have the perfect dealer for you.”





Or rather, the method that even [Alchemists] thought was stupid to use for edible products was Rhaldon’s next resort. He was going to dissolve the salamander skins…in acid.

Acid. He was not crazy. This was an established thing in lab procedures. Mind you, it was to facilitate chemical changes, and you would be crazy to randomly imbibe what you made—but he knew the theory.

If you had something you couldn’t easily isolate, like the salamander skins, you had to render it into a helpful form somehow. Liquids were the best way to do that. And acids were better still.

This was the method that Rhaldon was going to try to separate the necessary elements from the salamander skins. It was not his preferred solution, but the two that had occurred to him first—well, three—were all out.

Solvent extraction required things he didn’t have, like good, quality hexanes. It was reliant on a lot of materials that were out of his reach and required extensive testing to make sure it worked like he knew it did on Earth. He was most familiar with that method, actually, but the other two were simpler but had problems.

Centrifuges or filtration. Both were low-tech, efficient ways of separating things out. The problem was…Rhaldon had no idea how to build a centrifuge. He had the notion you could probably make one out of a dryer or jerry-rig a version on Earth. If he had access to any modern home, he’d give it a shot.

He did not have access to a modern home. Nor did Rhaldon have the support or know-how in engineering or magic to give it a try. He would rather go for a solution he could effect immediately before delving into building contraptions.

As for filtration…a coffee filter or anything that close should work. Rhaldon bought some thin gauze used in bandages, the closest he could get to a filter, and layed it up a bit. Then he tried to filter the salamander slush he always got.

The simplest method didn’t work. Nor, privately, had Rhaldon really expected it to. If filtration could ‘solve’ salamander skins, he imagined someone like Octavia would have come up with the solution long ago. However, Acid-Base neutralization was an advanced concept for this world that only someone like Saliss knew about. That was Rhaldon’s chance, in his mind. The laws of chemistry were simple: nothing ‘vanished’. Whatever was there, was always there.

If he dissolved the ingredients in acid, either the resulting gas or the liquid from the mixture would contain the essence of warmth he needed.

The issue was just that the essence may be mixed with, uh—acid.

But here was the thing! Where [Alchemists] said, ‘yep, that’s stupid, let’s find another way’, chemists said ‘ooh, an acid? Just neutralize it’.

You could neutralize acids. Even Saliss thought it was stupid, but he readily admitted that he was on the melting side of things, although a strong base was as dangerous as acid, really.

Saliss regarded them as the same thing, not really understanding the pH-scale. He knew bases and acids were different and did damage in different ways, but not always why or the scale that Earth had.

Rhaldon hoped it was the same, because he was about to try some very unsafe potion making. Not that he’d drink it without a lot of checks, but he was also handling acid.

He was afraid it would cost a lot, afraid he wouldn’t find out how to neutralize it, and frankly, afraid he’d spill it even though he was used to the correct procedures. He could use any number of bases from Earth, from wood ash to carbonates, but this wasn’t like acids from home. The lab conditions were dicier…and what if magical acid refused to play the same way?

Fortunately or unfortunately—there was a huge supply of cheap acid nearby, and Saliss directed Rhaldon to his ‘dealer’.

The figure wore a black hood, and it half-shadowed their face. Their voice was low, gravelly, and they coughed twice.

“Hey. You the person looking for acid? I got some here. You never saw me, understood?”

Rhaldon stared at Erin Solstice as she sat with her feet up on a table. She produced a green jar of very acid-looking acid.

“Whatsamatter, huh?”

“H-how do you have acid?”

Erin Solstice glanced up, and her face fell when she saw Rhaldon wasn’t getting into the spirit of things.

“Aw, come on. I had to borrow this black hood and everything! It’s a long story. Ever seen an Acid Fly?”


There were acid-spitting ants on Earth, but Rhaldon had never heard of the non-winter pest that had an abdomen filled with acid. He was worried it was therefore impure, but it was definitely dangerous.

“It’ll eat through tons of stuff until it goes away. Metal, glass…that’s what doesn’t get eaten. Everything else? You drop this on your foot, your leg’s gone before you know it. Are you sure you need it?”

Why was she waving it around? Why was she—Erin Solstice saw Rhaldon’s look of concern and stopped.

“I don’t even like selling it to adventurers, though some people do ask for it. Whatcha making?”

“I’m trying to upgrade my Potion of Warmth.”

Erin paused, and a genuine look of concern spread over her face.

“Right. Interesting. Now, hear me out, Rhaldon. This is acid. You drink Potions of Warmth or you put them over your skin. I’m not saying I want to tell you how you want to do things…”

He grew a tiny bit exasperated as she gave him a hard time. Rhaldon cleared his throat, flushing.

“I know what I’m doing, Miss Solstice. I—I do know.”

He expected her to object, but Erin just paused a long moment, then looked Rhaldon up and down. After a second, she pushed the jar slowly across the table.

“I guess you do. Okay, but Octavia’s going to get nervous herself, and I do want to make sure you know what’s up. Are you borrowing her shop?”

This time, even Rhaldon paused, because Erin was being a bit too helpful. He tried to read her face for…anything. Did she know who he was?

Erin gave Rhaldon a blank look, and he hesitated. Maybe she was just this nice to everyone? He couldn’t read her face, and after a second, she winked.

“What are we sitting around for? Let’s go do some acid! But not literally. Again, that stuff is scary.”

“Erin, I, um…”

Rhaldon began, and the [Innkeeper] looked back at him.

“Let’s go through the garden. My back hurts.”

A door opened, closed, and Rhaldon followed her through as she bustled around her beach. The spies lost track of Erin, and Rhaldon, Termin’s apprentice, stared as they traveled through part of the inn. He stopped for a second, and Erin turned her head.

“What’s that? Oh, don’t mind that. That’s just a blackboard with some things on it.”

Like…a huge picture of Earth. Like a periodic table, mostly unfilled. Rhaldon’s heart began to pound. Then he saw Erin put a finger to her lips.

“Everyone’s got their reasons, Rhaldon. I’d stay quiet. They’re watching, and if they don’t know you—keep it that way. Got it? Only talk to me in my garden. You’ve done a good job, and frankly, I think they expect me to shout out every Earther I find. Termin also helped, whether he knows or not. No one looks at [Drivers].”

She patted him on the arm. Then winked.

“Well, except me.”




Rhaldon bought two things in preparation for his next trials.

Acid from Erin Solstice and an entry from the Guild of Alchemists on everything they knew about Acid Fly acid—and how to neutralize it.

Unfortunately, even though Rhaldon shelled out an entire gold piece for full access, the records were very, very sparse. He came away with two methods to neutralize the acid that he could afford, though neither of which he liked.

According to the Alchemist’s Guild, there were several fairly mid- to high-level substances you could manufacture that neutralized Acid Fly acid.

Which sucked because the least expensive would cost him seventeen silver pieces for a tiny bottle, took two days to make, and would require him traveling around to get some fairly annoying bases that required mixing together to form an anti-acid substance.

He wanted a cheaper solution if this acid became a stand-to in isolating a valuable reagent in alchemy. And the guild did have two methods that both used a single ingredient.

He tried both.

First, Rhaldon placed the salamander skins in water and boiled them. Unlike last time, he had connected the flask he was using into the distiller, and the glass tube ran into a second flask, trapping water vapor.

He then poured as little acid as possible into the mixture, before he felt like it had completely dissolved the salamander skins.

Now, at this point, he had either collected the essence of warmth in the acidic mixture or the resultant gas, which had formed a slightly yellow residue in the second flask.

Rhaldon hoped it was the residue. He mixed it into a Potion of Warmth, following the other steps, then took the mixture to Xif, who had agreed to help him.

The Gnoll was lying on the beach, trying to flirt with a few passing Gnolls and falling flat on his face. Half of them just sniffed at the rather alchemically pungent Xif and walked on. Others were spoken for.

“Krshia! It’s lovely weather! Would you care to sit? Or play some volleying of the ball?”

“I’m sorry, Alchemist Xif, another time, yes?”

The grey-furred Gnoll grinned and nodded as Krshia trotted by, then sagged in his beach chair.

“It’s always another time. Oh, Rhaldon. Hello. Is that the Potion of Warmth? [Detect Poison]. [Detect Acid]. It’s not either.”

He lay there, dead, and Rhaldon hesitated. He doubted the runoff from the acid was going to kill him, then, but it might still make him sick even if it wasn’t poison. He gingerly did a skin-test, saw nothing happened after five minutes, and then, hearing all his safety instructors screaming as one, took a sip. Instantly, Rhaldon sighed.

“No good?”


It was weak, had no warming powers, and tasted like burnt lizardwater and flowers. Better than the actual Potion of Warmth—but it was clear that Rhaldon knew where the magic was.

In the acid.




It was a brown color now, thanks to the green acid meeting the orange salamander skins. Not muddy-brown—that would be a sign he needed more acid to dissolve the salamander skins.

Well, now came the part Rhaldon feared. He re-donned his protective gear, put on some leather gloves that would give him a second to get the acid off him if he spilled it, and stared grimly at the acid.

“You and me. I’ve separated a thousand acids before this. I’ll do it in this world.”

He didn’t realize he had an audience. Nerry the Sariant Lamb and Shaestrel were idly watching him in one corner of the lab, and they were more interested in the chemist’s methods than the beach.

Rhaldon had to trust to the Guild of Alchemists in Pallass, first. They had vouchsafed that the most reliable way to neutralize an acid, if least immediate and cost-effective, was to absorb the qualities of acid.

That wasn’t a chemical term. They meant literally absorb it.

How Rhaldon did this was by taking a glob of magicore, the expensive stuff that came from Salazsar, Orefell, and places like Yolden, and dunking it into the mixture.

It instantly began to take on the properties of the acid, turning bright green, and Rhaldon noticed the metal tongs began to melt after a second.

Oh, shit! The notes didn’t mention—!”

The pure magicore was more acidic than the acid itself! A tiny bit turned bright green, and Rhaldon dunked it in a bowl of glass filled with water.

This time, the magicore didn’t release acid into the water. It just sank through the bowl…and began melting through the glass.

Acid magicore could etch metal. It only stopped when it burnt out and turned black—or ran into enchanted material or Mithril. By the time Rhaldon stopped it with one of Octavia’s special jars, it had burned a hole straight through the edge of her table.

That made him sit there and cover his face until his heart stopped pounding. The instructions from the Alchemist’s Guild had not indicated that. He furiously marked that down in his own notes and began to wonder just how good Pallass’ Guild was.

Both Zeomtoril and Itimen weren’t part of Guilds, being renegades or experimenters, but Saliss and Xif were members in good standing, and even Octavia had joined Pallass’ Guild. But that?

Highly suspect.

At any rate, the resultant mixture might have been neutralized of acid, but—unfortunately—the acid magicore had eaten a hole in the flask. Rhaldon hadn’t noticed in trying to stop it from burning a hole through Erin’s inn, but when he came back after taking a break, the liquid had spilled onto the floor, and Nerry was beating up Reagen, who was trying to lap it up.

The Sariant Lamb might have saved the silly cat’s life, and Rhaldon cleaned it up, then apologized to Octavia, who forgave him—mostly because she was shouting at Numbtongue about keeping his cat out of Stitchworks.




The magicore was not going to work. Even a glob smaller than his palm had cost four gold coins! The entire bonus for doing Zeomtoril’s delivery and selling the postcards. Apparently, pure magicore that would completely neutralize something and absorb it, becoming fire magicore or even light magicore, was expensive the purer it got.

He could buy ‘cheap’ magicore, but it’d still leave the mixture fairly acidic. Rhaldon wrote that idea off. The issue was that this was meant to be drunk.

So—move two, and that was simply to feed the acid until it burnt out. To do that, he took the most simple thing that the Guild recommended: charcoal.

Charcoal was a known quantity to Rhaldon. He wondered if it might be too effective, but he had to trust alchemy and the Guild recommended it, so he’d use it. His background in geology made Rhaldon wonder if slaked lime would work. But finding limestone to make quicklime and soda ash was too much work, especially in the winter. For now, charcoal.

Charcoal was a [Smith]’s tool, so there was plenty in Esthelm that came via Invrisil and Pallass. Rhaldon had to buy the highest-grade stuff, then smash it up and wash it, again and again, sieving it until it was the fine powder that he wanted.

It took hours, and he reflected that [Remove Impurities], Itimen’s Skill, was very useful despite its flaws. Then—Rhaldon did the only thing he needed to do.

He poured charcoal into the mix, watched it bubble and be consumed, poured more in, and more—until he could insert a hotdog and it didn’t start to melt. Then he poured more in just to be sure.

The problem with this method was that the amount of charcoal to neutralize the acid was about three times the amount of acid used, so Rhaldon got another damn slurry that he had to add water to, or it would cease being a liquid. When he was done, the gritty, foul substance needed draining.

The method was, again, simple in theory but not execution. On Earth, Rhaldon would have used a rotary evaporator to suck all the liquid out and thus have his product.

In this world, he knocked on Saliss’ door, but the Drake was gone, and his cousin, Onieva, had no idea where he was.

“Evaporating a bunch of wet charcoal? There are spells for that, but you’d need an [Enchanter]. Something tells me you need a lower-level solution.”

She winked at him, and he went away, sighing.




The lower-level solution was for Rhaldon to take a funnel, fill it with cotton and sand, dump all the coal-salamander-acid crap in a huge jar, and start draining it with more water.

This was why he’d delivered mundanities like cotton and sand to Octavia; they, like charcoal, were filtration vehicles. In this case, Rhaldon just sat there, staring as water dripped out of the funnel, slowly passing through the sand, which caught and filtered the liquid.

It was black. Which said that it was definitely impure and not the brown, thankfully not the green, and certainly not the orange he wanted. Rhaldon eyed the three pounds of slurry he had propped up and got a cup of coffee.

It took an hour and thirty minutes of repeatedly adding water for the damn stuff to drain into a cup, and he was sure he had far, far too much water. But the chemistry was sound, even if Rhaldon feared all that charcoal had absorbed his precious magical liquid. To make sure, he washed the charcoal three more times, each time with a different flask, collecting increasingly clear, albeit dark, liquid.

Once he was done, Rhaldon looked at a lot of black water. It was clearly still filled with charcoal. So what did he do?

He filtered it through the cotton again, that was what! The used filter was now a filter cake that made it ironically more effective as the particulates got caught by the cotton, and at last, the liquid lightened. Rhaldon smiled when he saw that—at first it was grey, but once he filtered it again, he got a lighter substance that now appeared orange-brown.

“Not…ideal. But it’s clearly kept some of the salamander essence, right?”

Rhaldon commented to his audience, which, by now, was a rather surprising one. Erek the Orangutan had nearly scared Rhaldon to death, but he was sitting there very peaceably sharing a banana with Nerry and Shaestrel.


“Hah! He’s seeking the essence of things! Good show! No Philosopher’s Stone, but who needs that shit?”


Shaestrel was watching with good humor, and Rhaldon stared at her and Erek—but he was focused on his task.

He was getting closer to a result! He ran it through the filter again and again, and finally he had something that looked orange-brown like a really, terribly dehydrated piss.

Unfortunately, he wanted orange, which he felt was purer and corresponded to the color traditional Potions of Warmth got. He suspected that the charcoal-purification was simply inefficient. Perhaps Skills would fix it?

At any rate, the day was winding down, so Rhaldon did the last thing he could do—he took the still-considerable amount of water left over and put it in the distiller again.


“Wait, why are ye boiling it away, mortal? ‘Tis all water. You won’t get what you need!”


Shaestrel might not understand chemistry, but she had followed his work, and Rhaldon stared at the faerie—whom he really hadn’t asked questions about, because no one had noticed them but him—and responded.

“It, uh—well, I’m going to boil this at a hundred degrees, the boiling temperature of water.”


“Yes, and?”


“So the water will boil off.”


“And? So wh—oooh. Clever.”


Nerry and Erek didn’t get it, so Rhaldon explained as Shaestrel smugly sat back.

Water boiled at a certain temperature: 100° Celsius or 212° Fahrenheit. Thusly, if Rhaldon wanted to isolate another liquid mixed in with the water…he’d just boil off the water and keep the rest. The risk was that he might also boil off the non-water part of the solution—or that the other part had the same boiling point and he’d be unable to separate the two.

In the same way, you could use the boiling point of other alcohols to isolate liquids from within them—which was why knowing that fact about so many substances was invaluable. For now, Rhaldon just watched as liquid dripped away into a flask.

It was clear that he was getting water vapor, and it made the color of the remaining liquid in the flask deepen nicely. Rhaldon began switching the flasks out as he noticed the color of the condensing liquid start to change; he might be getting some of his precious salamander skins in there.

When he’d boiled off the water and felt like he was starting to get only the desired output, Rhaldon stopped the heat, then eyed what he had. In theory, he had now gotten some kind of waterless mixture.

But there was still the acid in there, and even inert, he was trying for the simplest, most reactive substance possible. So Rhaldon did it again.

That was a lot of chemistry. But this time, he attached a three-pronged funnel on the other side instead of a big flask, and he began cranking up the heat and observing when the liquid inside began to turn into a gas.

He turned the three-pronged funnel, collecting two kinds of liquid in it. One boiled at a lower temperature, and he cursed the lack of a proper thermometer; he had been doing everything by eye.

The first substance was a brown, dark black substance, which he felt like was the acid and charcoal. The second, which refused to boil off completely, was a thick, viscous orange-brown, and this was what he thought was the salamander skin essence. And finally, he had some light yellow-green stuff, which he thought was another compound of the acid.

“Well, I’m not trying any of this until Xif looks at it, but this…this might be what I want.”

Rhaldon had fifteen grams of the orange-brown liquid, and he showed it to his audience in a vial. By now, that included Nanette, Erin, and Ulvama.


Coward! Drink it down!


Everyone was visibly excited as Rhaldon went to Xif and was assured that, yes, it wasn’t poisonous or acidic. It could still be toxic, though, and Rhaldon was very concerned about imbibing it.

However, someone had to do it, and Erin did have an idea about that.

“Eloise is a [Tea Witch]. I’ve heard she helped cure Tyrion’s kids. Why don’t I ask her for a tea just in case?”

Would tea save him? Well, between healing potions and the tea, Rhaldon nervously put the liquid into the Potion of Warmth with the marigolds and Sage’s Grass.

The resulting mixture was a quarter of what he had made the first time, and he raised it as he stood in the snow. A few people hoping to get into the inn watched as Rhaldon closed his eyes—took a swig, and gagged.

It tasted like charcoal, burnt meat, and—actually, it was still better. Just! Rhaldon swallowed hard on his mouthful, and Erin clapped her hands together. Nerry stared at Rhaldon, waiting to see if he screamed, and Nanette hefted the cup of tea.

Then they saw his face fall. Rhaldon took another gulp of the flask—then another—and squeezed his eyes shut. Erin exhaled, and Rhaldon stood there in the snow before he opened his eyes.

“It…nothing’s happening.”

The mixture didn’t work. Rhaldon stood there in the snow as people wandered off, and he hung his head.


[Alchemist Level 8!]

[Skill – Steam Boil obtained!]




He was depressed for about four hours after that night as he sat in the morning and tried to figure out what went wrong.

But only for four hours. Rhaldon had spent a lot of time and gotten his hopes up, but this happened in chemistry, and he thought he knew what had gone wrong.


1. The liquid he’d gotten from running it through the cotton just wasn’t pure enough. It hadn’t gone back to orange, and he suspected the acid and charcoal had mixed, and the condenser just hadn’t collected what he wanted.

2. The charcoal may have filtered too well and literally filtered out the magic. It might have been trapped in the charcoal itself, in which case he’d been isolating something else the entire time.


It was depressing to think on, but he’d still levelled—twice, and if he had to boil anything again, he wouldn’t be sitting in front of a flask for hours.

Actually, the amount of steam he could let off was alarming. Rhaldon could boil a full pot down to the metal in five minutes, and the huge cloud of steam made Erin clap her hands together.

“Dumplings! Steam buns! We did dumplings already, but gosh darn it—I bet Imani hasn’t thought of steam buns!”

“I’ve thought of steam buns, Erin.”

Imani shot back as she and Palt trotted out of the beach for breakfast. Erin shook her fist at the [Chef], and Imani glanced at Rhaldon.

“Who’s that?”

“Termin’s apprentice.”

Imani hesitated and glanced at Erin, but the [Innkeeper] was ranting about steam buns, and if she had any suspicions, she let them lie.




As for Rhaldon, he was now faced with a conundrum. Saliss agreed, once Rhaldon found him rubbing at his head, hungover, that the vial had probably been worthless.

“I wish you’d saved me a bit. Sorry I wasn’t there. I’ve been—distracted. But someone I know will get me at the end of every day. Or try.”

What did that mean? Saliss just frowned when Rhaldon asked for another way to neutralize the acid.

“Frankly, kid, if the Guild of Alchemists has nothing…I did wonder myself, but I’ve read what you did. The only other experts in this world would be—”

“Zeomtoril? Itimen?”

Saliss rolled his eyes.

“Them? No! [Shamans]! [Witches]! Us [Alchemists] share info, but we don’t with natural experts. Go find one.”

He waved a claw, and Rhaldon hesitated.


Saliss rubbed at his head as he produced a hangover cure.

“Liscor. There’s a lot of Silverfangs around. Dead gods, Mirn. Don’t let me drink so much! I wonder why I forget—”

He noticed Rhaldon watching and turned his head.

“Nothing. Run off, kid.”




Rhaldon did leave, and Saliss sat there, a bit shaken by his openness. He twisted a ring on his finger, and Mirn sat forwards.

“You alright, Saliss? That’s not like you. Did you drink that much? Did someone spike our stuff?”

“Fine. I’m just—cute kid’s speaking my language. Sorry, Mirn. But you didn’t tell—me.”

“No. Should I?”

Saliss paused, then shook his head.

“Let her have fun. I just don’t know why. You. Hey, you.

He snapped suddenly, and a green blob turned into Shaestrel as she paused, carrying a huge leg of chicken over to some Frost Faeries having breakfast of their own.


“Us? We’re just Winter Sprites. You can’t hear us! You don’t see us…we’re just in your mind…”

“Shut up. What do you want, mortal woman?”


Shaestrel looked at Saliss sharply, but not unkindly. He felt like he’d been stabbed, and Mirn made a sound. But Saliss just pointed at his chest.

“Why…does that Faerie Flower drink take away Onieva—my memories of me? Saliss? If you want to talk alchemy and results—that’s a pure magic effect that has no rhyme or reason. Why does it do that?”

The faeries looked at each other, and one’s face fell as she lowered a chicken leg.


“It does that? You mortals, forcing it to do this, do that! You were never meant to. It has the power of home, even if it’s not bloomed—”

“Shut up!”


Another kicked the first, and they began to fight. Shaestrel just looked at Saliss, and her eyes found his.


“It takes away your memories?”


She hadn’t known that. Saliss blinked—and guessed in a moment that the flower was doing things even the faeries hadn’t known it had the power to do.

“Yes. It does whatever you want—unless you don’t have a purpose, and we probably wasted most of its potential effects, Xif and I. But once we got it working—it lets me be who I am. Everything I wanted, but I forget…Saliss. Why?”

She gave him a long look, and the faeries fell silent. At last, one of the Frost Faeries spoke.


“That—it’s a thing of pranks. We never intended it to do that. It obeys its own rules. If you want to know why, mortal? ‘Tis a cruel prank. A cruel prank, like in the stories. That is what it is, at times. Sometimes kindly, sometimes mischievous. Everything you want, with one cost.”


Saliss sat back, and Mirn made a sound. But Saliss just stared at the ceiling. Oh—of course. His lips quirked, and he smiled without mirth.

“A joke, is it? That is pretty funny. Laugh, Mirn. I get that kind of humor. It’s like the world’s a flower. Laugh, Mirn. Stop crying. It makes sense it’d never be free.”




Erin Solstice directed Rhaldon to the only person she knew who could help.

“[Shamans]? Most are in the Great Plains, but any [Shaman] of Silverfang would at least be able to inquire. I can find one for you.”

Krshia Silverfang was a Gnoll, and she was tall, friendly, and bared her teeth in a way that made Rhaldon nervous—but only until he met with some Silverfang [Shamans] only too keen to talk about alchemy with him.

“Those Drakes never ask. But you, Human! Honored Krshia, would helping mean we get into that lovely beach? I hear it’s sandy—but warm.”

The Silverfangs were still camped near Liscor, and it seemed many wanted to stay and make the Floodplains a home or live in the city. The [Shaman] who spoke to Rhaldon got a ticket for the beach and smiled. Then she hurried him into her hut.

“Ways to neutralize acid…ways to neutralize…this is the territory of Gaarh Marsh, Driver Rhaldon. You know them?”


She gave him a lecture on the famous tribe that lived in the swamps, the most venerable experts in herblore.

“They have all kinds of great plants few [Alchemists] save Saliss of Lights have ever seen. And he buys through snobby Drake [Traders]. I think you should ask about these. I have a list.”

She produced a list of various substances, monster parts, and plants and even drew what they looked like for him. Rhaldon was extremely grateful, then the [Shaman] added an off-handed remark.

“Oh, and if you need to stop this acid…try a local monster.”

“A local monster? Which one?”

She shrugged.

“I am no native here, but if there is ever a monster with dangerous venom or acid, or an ability, likely something else that lives near it is able to survive or at least avoid it. That is wisdom.”

It was indeed. Rhaldon hurried back to the Guild of Alchemists in Pallass after checking with the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor. They were only too happy to sell him some local monster parts cheap; Hollowstone Deceivers were the most expensive, but Razorbeak meat was an actual food, Shield Spider chitin was not in great demand…he decided he didn’t need dungeon monster parts for now.

The Alchemist’s Guild was less helpful, though. Rhaldon had to rent an encyclopedia to cross-reference all the Gnollish plants. Worse, he realized that the Drakes had completely different names for them.

Gnolls and Drakes both had their own written language, although the [Alchemists] could write in what Rhaldon saw as English. But he had to dive into an old Drake encyclopedia before he found some of the plants.

Most were definitely not acid-proof, and the Drakes only had a few samples of Gaarh Marsh plants on hand. One of them was what the Silverfang [Shaman] had called the Grass of the Swamps.

“Oh, Gaarhweed? It’s useless aside from a few niche cases. Gives you a rash, so it’s a Hazard-1 material. If you want it, I can sell you some…and the entry. Four copper coins.”

It was cheap, as was the long, green, stringy, kelp-like stuff. The entry had a brief note on how it grew on the muddy floor of the swamps, but Rhaldon’s heart sank as he realized he might have bought crap.


No curative uses. No uses in any known alchemical formulas. Reduced efficaciousness in Tripvine Bags as a supplemental component—see notes on replacement. Produces an itchy rash on the scales if handled without proper gloves.


“Are you sure? The [Shaman] said—”

The [Clerk] knew Rhaldon by face now and was clearly exasperated as he closed the book he’d copied the entry from.

“Look, Human. I know you heard it’s ‘magic grass’ from the [Shamans], but this is Pallass. Everything in the encyclopedia gets fact-checked, and see who did this one? Guildmaster Resevn. Current Guildmaster. Huh, he must have done this as a [Journeyman Alchemist]. He’s a contemporary of Saliss of Lights. Do you want the weed or not?”

Rhaldon hesitated. He hadn’t heard either Xif or Saliss mention Resevn, but after some dithering, he paid a few silver coins for the stuff. Maybe the [Shaman] could elaborate more on the uses; she’d promised to ask the Gaarh Marsh tribe.




Later that day, Rhaldon glumly began to test the acid on other substances, hoping he might find a substitute for the problem of neutralizing it.

He didn’t have high hopes. The Guild’s methods had failed, but he gamely mixed acid into water with each material he had, including the stuff from Gaarh Marsh, then measured the remaining acidity by doing a drop-test on a hotdog.

In most cases, the results were predictable. The acid-infused water ate up whatever was there, and even if the acidity reduced, it was only by quantity. In fact, after he melted some Rock Crab chitin, Razorbeak scales, bone, meat, and a boiled egg into the liquid, Rhaldon suspected few things could slow down this acid. It wasn’t as potent as some acids on Earth—but damn did it dissolve things fast.

Then he put in the Shield Spider carapace, and the entire mixture began to froth. Rhaldon leapt away, but the hissing, bubbling mix didn’t boil over—it just turned dark, and when he inspected his flask, it was ruined.

A thick, black tar was sticking to the sides, and the instant Rhaldon took a strand out, it actually solidified in the air. It was tough—hardened fast—and when Rhaldon had to actually break his glass jar, cursing at the waste, he found the Acid Fly-Shield Spider chitin had formed a solid base.

“What the heck is that, Rhaldon?”

“Polymerized goo.”


He hesitated.

“Shield Spider goo. It’s not acidic. But it’s tough. Can I borrow a knife to cut it with?”

Erin handed him a spare kitchen knife, claiming hers was too tough. To Rhaldon’s fascination, the knife didn’t cut well, and the material actually flexed a bit when he tried to tear it.

Wait a second. This isn’t just like tar. This is more like…glue! Or a tough resin!

It was clear that the acid didn’t really work on the Shield Spider chitin; they had evolved to partially mitigate the effects, and Rhaldon bet that a living spider would hate having its armor dissolved—but it would fuse back together.

And he realized—this was the stuff the [Chitin Crafter] had been talking about. Imagine pasting this together with Shield Spider chitin!

“Hey, I bet you could use that as glue. Gross glue. Who knew?”

Something in Rhaldon’s head lit up as he put the material to one side. Had he just found…? But surely Pallass would know about that, right?

Pallass, who was so close to Liscor without the magical door? Who paid little attention to this border city? But—well, there was no listing in the encyclopedia. And there was a bounty for new interactions. Rhaldon would have to test the material for toxicity and uses, but he was onto something.

Still, it wasn’t what he wanted. Which was a neutralizer. He feared he didn’t have anything…until he checked on the other jars and saw something striking.

The Gaarhweed, the green grass, had dissolved into the acid like everything else—but unlike everything else, it was spitting steam.


Rhaldon ran over and saw particulates spraying up. Never leave something unattended! But it hadn’t reacted for the first few—

Wait a second. As he covered the top and redirected the spray from getting everywhere, Rhaldon stared at the flask. Wait a second—

The Gaarhweed was eating up the acid! A single stalk had taken the liquid down immensely, and the grass-kelp even seemed to be resisting breaking down! Indeed, when he added another piece in—

He saw the outer rind slowly dissolving before it began to react so vividly with the acid.

It was…neutralizing the acid! Then, Rhaldon stared at the remaining liquid in the jar and at the particulate spray. And he felt his heart surge. He scrambled to write down how much he’d used, and to get more snow—the reaction was extremely exothermic, and he needed to cool down the steaming beaker! And a covering…

Purifying the salamander skins round two—suddenly had a lot more momentum.




“Gaarhweed? They call it—it’s not a weed!

The [Shaman] of the Silverfangs was completely outraged to hear that Pallass had termed it that, and when he showed her the entry, she went around furiously to all the Silverfangs, asking if they’d been cured by this medicine or this salve, all of which owed Gaarhweed thanks.

“Whoever wrote that is a fool! A fool! It ate up your acid, yes? I asked, and a [Shaman] had an old story about a brave young Gnoll who rescued her brother from a Hydra by making a shield to stop its acid out of that very kelp!”

“—In that case—”

Rhaldon went racing back up to Octavia’s shop and began a new process. This time, he repeated the dissolving of three salamander skins into water, then added acid to water. Never the other way around. And just in case, he ran outside and got some snow to cool the entire mixture first in case the reaction heated up dramatically.

Then he added the Gaarhweed instead of charcoal, and the results were dramatic.

The Gaarhweed spat so much crap up the distillation tube that it actually clogged it twice, and it left a green film everywhere that turned out to be insanely hard to clean. But when Rhaldon dealt with that, he found that he’d gotten a lot of watery steam down one end…and a lot of very green-yellow residue. But the slush was the inner stalk of the Gaarhweed mixed with a far different substance than Rhaldon had ever seen before.

“No. Way.”

The Gaarhweed was an amazing neutralizer. That yellow stuff—

No, no. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

This time, Rhaldon tried to filter the aftereffects of his reaction. Either what he wanted had been ejected into a greenish film that clung to the ceiling and surfaces he had to scrub, vaporized—or it was now waiting for him to filter it out.

And this time, the simple act of filtering the plant residue and yellow stuff through a cotton filter worked. After cleaning out as much of the big plant stuff in the filter as he could, Rhaldon began running the yellow liquid through the cotton, flushing it with water again and again. It still had a lot of gunk in it, and he strained it three times until he had a very pure, albeit watery, jar.

He almost began to boil the water off when it occurred to him that he could see a faint film of the yellow stuff on top of the water.

Perhaps it’s refusing to mix, just like the salamander skins! In which case…he transferred it all over to a separatory funnel and waited.

Twenty minutes and the two liquids had once again separated, with the lighter, yellow oil rising to the top. Rhaldon twisted the valve, gently dribbling the water out into a flask, then closed the funnel quickly when he saw it turn yellow with the oil.

Then he heated it up and boiled the rest of the water off, and then he had a very thick, yellow oil. And that…Rhaldon stared at that, and his heart sang.

He only had about three grams of this stuff as opposed to the far more generous fourteen from all his labors with the charcoal. But if Rhaldon was right…

That Acid Fly acid was an amazing eater of almost all regular materials. Given how it worked, he was beginning to think of it less as an ‘acid’, and more as a Piranha solution—an even faster and nastier version of it.

Terrifying, but if the Gaarhweed could remove it with water, then you could isolate an amazing number of compounds you normally couldn’t! In alchemy, the purer two substances were, the more dramatic the react—

“Wait a second.”

Rhaldon halted as he found the marigolds with their glowing pistils. Last time, even five had made a mixture of the salamander skins spit and bubble. What would happen if he put this in with…

Had he just made something highly combustible? Rhaldon stopped celebrating and had to think. He was not going to drop a bit of that pollen into the vial. But nor did he want to wait for Saliss—he swiftly strode over to a flask and poured more water in.

“According to Master Saliss, the water can be boiled away. So this will act as a shield for the two parts reacting.”

Nerry was already taking cover behind Erek, who fearlessly watched with his summoned body as Rhaldon poured the vial in, then tossed in the first bit of pollen.

The frothing reaction made him jump behind a metal shield Octavia sometimes used, but the mixture frothed and frothed—then went down. He added in another pistil’s worth, and the mixture doubled its height from the boiling…came back down…

Good thing I didn’t put all five in.

Slowly, Rhaldon finished adding in the pistils and wondered what he’d made. The resultant liquid was bright red, only growing deeper in color when the Sage’s Grass went in. When Rhaldon took the flask out, casually, and stood in the snow, he took a single sip—and spoke.


Steam rushed out of his mouth. A passing Gnoll kid trudging up to the inn, Ekirra, turned with delight as Rhaldon began spitting steam—literally.

“Mister, mister, it’s coming out your ears! Is that a Warming Potion?”

It was more than that! Rhaldon felt like this wasn’t just a Cold Resistance Potion—this was a Cold Aggression potion! He actually began to emit steam, but that wasn’t what took him off-guard. He stared at the potion and felt his body come aflame. Including parts he felt were entirely inappropriate to being in public.

“No. No way—


[Alchemist Level 11!]

[Skill – Clean Glassware (Daily) obtained!]

[Skill – Change Viscosity (Oil) obtained!]

[Skill – Inert Stirring Rod obtained!]




Rhaldon gained three impressive Skills for a Level 11 [Alchemist]. He hit Level 11 in six days, which was incredible.

But what was really incredible was the idea that he could clean all of his glassware! It was perfect, simplified his work immensely, and every chemist from home would have loved to have that ability.

[Change Viscosity (Oil)] and [Inert Stirring Rod] were less powerful. One just meant he could pour oil out like water, and the other meant that any rod he chose he could stir a mixture with, even using a hot dog to stir acid.

But you’d better not try to eat the hot dog afterwards.

That was incredible, a cause for celebration, and Rhaldon’s improved Potion of Warming—was not going on the market for a few reasons.

Firstly, Gaarhweed, as it was known, wasn’t something he had a lot of. Secondly, a Potion of Warming of that caliber made you too warm—steam literally rose from him, and he imagined it would be useful in a blizzard, but it was more niche.

Saliss and Xif had both bought the recipe off him, which he’d protested against—they’d helped so much, and he didn’t want to feed into the [Alchemist] mindset. But they’d insisted he needed some reward, and Saliss himself had said it would be a tool for blizzards and adventurers more than laypeople.

Besides, traditional alchemy had taken a blow that day. A literal blow. Because when the two [Alchemists] had appeared—Mirn had found Saliss—they had stared at the ember salamander oil and listened to Rhaldon’s account of how he’d made it.

“Gaarhweed. Now I hear the name…I visited Gaarh Marsh, but I couldn’t catalog a tenth of what they had, and I do get shipments from there. But I buy the Guild’s encyclopedia. You do too, Xif?”

“Of course. I contribute to it. Oh. Here it is.”

Both had their own personal guild books out and found the entry on Gaarhweed.

“No known uses. Huh. You know, that is often double-checked by an [Alchemist]. Not a [Journeyman]. But I see here that was Journeyman Alchemist Resevn. Isn’t that Pallass’ current Guildmaster?”

Saliss’ voice was light. Too light. Octavia was sitting there, looking from Gnoll to Drake and leaning back in her chair as Rhaldon kept shaking with excitement. Xif raised his brows.

“You don’t know him?”

“Is he over Level 40? Even if he is—”

“I heard he was a contemporary of yours, Master Saliss. The [Clerk] mentioned it.”

Rhaldon’s excitement had suddenly turned into another feeling, and Saliss glanced up very slowly.

“Really now? Well, he must be good because the Gaarhweed—hah, he must have named it himself—that I’ve been using? He’s certified his own entry that it’s useless. Or maybe he dove into the old books, and that was what they said. But I told the Guild to check everything the Gnolls sent me. Because they’re the best tribe in Izril for reagents, and I spent four years off and on gaining their trust. But clearly, Rhaldon’s the liar.”

“What? Master—

Octavia protested until Saliss, blank-faced, produced some of the Acid Fly acid. He popped a stem into the jar and watched it begin to bubble.

“Nothing’s going to happen. Because if it did—”

A bit of the mixture boiled outwards and landed in Xif’s fur. Saliss stoppered the bottle, halting the oxygen-based reaction, and Xif spoke levelly.

“Your eyes must have deceived you, Saliss. Try again.”

The Drake did. They both stared at the bubbling liquid, then Saliss stood up.

“Apprentice, I’m going back to Pallass. Urgent business. Xif, do you want to stop at your shop?”

“I think so. Give me five seconds to nip in—oh, no. Wait. My apprentices. Some are at the beach—”

Saliss paused, claw on the doorframe, and turned theatrically as he began to walk down the common room of the inn.

“Good point. Rhaldon, Octavia, you had better come with us. I know you’re both on holiday, or should be, but you have to see how professional [Alchemists] settle things professionally.”

Erin Solstice, in her wheelchair, began to roll after Rhaldon and Octavia as they stood up, but Saliss stopped her with one foot. He wagged a finger.

“[Alchemists] only, Erin.”





Professional [Alchemists] milled about in the Alchemist’s Guild, muttering about the beach and Xif’s apprentices and being very professional in the things they did.

Some were turning in potions or taking orders, others were reading from the expensive guild books, which were very expensive and, oh yes, trustworthy.

The Guildmaster was, in fact, in the main room, nodding as he spoke to lesser [Alchemists], chastising them on mistakes, promising to improve their work, when someone kicked the doors in.

Who’s kicking—oh, Master Saliss.”

The [Clerk] roared, then sat back down and tried to beam. Because Saliss of Lights seldom came here, and the other [Alchemists] turned as the greatest mind of their city entered. A figure of dismay because he made them look bad. Of awe, because he could create a Potion of Youth and could fight. Of fear, because he was Saliss.

But there was also Xif, who was the best [Alchemist] who people wanted to work with. The Gnoll was normally gruff at worst, friendly, who’d check over your work and maybe give you pointers. He knew how to make money, and right now—

His face was blank. And he was flanked by all eight of his current apprentices, Garuda, Dullahan, Drakes, and Gnolls.

And he was holding a club.

The professional alchemists paused as they saw the mark of extreme professionalism in Xif’s paws. For, no matter where or who they were, [Alchemists] settled things directly. If they stole from each other, if they quarreled—

Xif spoke into the sudden silence, and his voice was loud, carrying, and he looked straight at Guildmaster Resevn.

Gaarhweed is not useless.

You could have heard a pin drop. Xif raised the Guide to Alchemy, published by the Guild of Alchemists in Pallass and sold across Izril. Saliss held up a match. The book slowly began to burn as the [Clerk] slowly tried to sink under the desk. Xif continued, voice deadpan. Then it rose in a shout.

“Everything in this book written by Resevn is suspect. Every book, recipe—Gaarhweed. Is not. Useless!

Then he roared, and the [Alchemists] of professionalism leapt up, screaming, shouting, and the first one swung a chair into the Drakes who surged to protect Resevn. A Garuda tried to kick him in the face as he ran for it, and the Guild of Alchemist’s brawl engulfed a hundred [Alchemists] in the first ten minutes—then spilled into the street, and three entire floors were cordoned off by the Watch before it was done.




Rhaldon’s head still hurt from getting hit with a chair. But he had hit at least eight idiots, and he’d watched Xif pick up and throw the Guildmaster off the third floor.

Here was the thing about alchemists. When he told that to Itimen, the old [Alchemist] just nodded.

“And is he dead?”


“Pity. Because I’m going to mail him an exploding something. Later, later. I wouldn’t use you, Rhaldon. That idiot set back alchemy…how long? Over what, Drake pride? Or was it incompetence? How many people defended him?”

Very few, actually. It turned out [Alchemists] were a bit like people from Earth. They might fight each other and gouge on prices, but they understood that if one person ruined it for them, everyone suffered.

The knowledge that ‘Gaarhweed’ had been renamed and had such a huge value wasn’t the only thing that Rhaldon had discovered. It called into question—everything—the Guildmaster had overseen, and the irony was that few people understood Rhaldon’s acid-based distillation.

Itimen did, and the old [Experimenter Alchemist] stared at Rhaldon hard when the young man gave him a neat report and suggestions on how to add units to his recipes.

“Young man. I would ask if you’re some spy with a knife to your throat, but I don’t think you are. I’m more curious as to why you gave me this. Assuming it doesn’t explode…”

“I’m a new kind of [Alchemist], Master Itimen.”

The old man sat there, reading Rhaldon’s notes, and when he looked up, his eyes were misty a second.

“No. An old kind, perhaps, but whatever you are—thank you. Here. Take this.”

He offered Rhaldon a sheaf of his own notes in return, and Rhaldon tried to refuse—then he accepted it because this was the start of something.


[Alchemist Level 13!]

[Skill – Panic Dodge obtained!]




There was more to [Alchemists] than alchemy. Zeomtoril just listened to Rhaldon’s story, then stared at the yellow vial that the young man offered him.

“So this is salamander essence—distilled. If you have it, I take it there are more effects than just…warmth? Or you would simply say it.”

“It, uh—it has an interesting effect.”

The [Polymath] inspected the vial, but before he could take it, another hand snatched it, and Calidus Reinhart eyed the yellow liquid.

“Hmm. Well, it cannot be dangerous since it’s a component of a Potion of Warmth. So—bottoms up.”

He popped the lid, took down the entire vial, and grimaced.

“Whew! It tastes horrible!”

Rhaldon recoiled—then stepped back further as Calidus felt his stomach, and Zeomtoril cursed at him.

“Calidus, you madman—”

“Take notes, Zeomtoril. Life should be fun—and this is more fun than drinking. Strange, I’m not feeling hot. But I am feeling. Whew. Wheeeeew—I am feeling something!”

Calidus flushed, and then he exhaled, and while he didn’t blow out steam, he suddenly ripped at his clothes.

“Dead gods, I feel invigorated! No, wait, that’s not it.”

He glanced at Rhaldon, and the young man covered his face. Calidus looked down and exclaimed.

“My great, only friend! Zeomtoril, Calidus Reinhart the Second rises valiantly! So that’s—”

He started laughing. Zeomtoril looked down, then grimaced.

“Wh—dead gods.

Calidus turned and beamed.

“This is the greatest discovery of a lifetime. I would hug you, Rhaldon, but you are not the young lady I need to proposition. I will take everything you can make! Work for me!

But he was already turning and charging down the corridors.

All the men of Izril of a certain age will thank you! This is the greatest—

And that was how Rhaldon made his first name for himself. The worst part was Calidus wanting to name it ‘Rhaldon’s Superior Tonic of Virility’. But it was a start. While Rhaldon began with silly experiments and games—Calidus Reinhart had put his eyes on the [Alchemist] who had discovered something new with new methods.

What might he achieve? Nothing could stop the [Lord]’s mind from churning, and he could not let an opportunity like that pass. But then again—if all Rhaldon needed was a shop, say, a partnership or his own lab? A hand?

Erin Solstice had two. And that great Drake, Saliss of Lights—

He began to turn and see that world of chemistry waiting for him.




Everyone threw Rhaldon a party. From Calidus’ ragers and [Assassins] coming over to ask Rhaldon for samples, to Itimen firing off alchemical explosions before the Watch came to chase him and Rhaldon and the lesser [Alchemists].

Octavia, Xif, and members of the Guild of Alchemists still shaken up by everything, all accoladed him in their own way.

But the person whose congratulations meant the most to Rhaldon was the highest-level [Alchemist] of them all, Saliss of Lights.

Saliss didn’t have a party. He just invited Rhaldon into his home.

By which he meant his real home. Rhaldon sat in a surprisingly neat living room and stared around at the place that so few people had ever seen.

It looked…nice to live in. Neat. Tidy. There were mage-pictures on the walls, and Saliss even had old hand-me-downs from the family. It was so ordinary that Rhaldon suspected there was something magical about the house, hidden further beyond the living room connected to the entrance.

And there was. But Saliss just sat down in pants, no less, and some casual clothing with spiderweb elements embroidered on the back and handed Rhaldon a cup of spicy something.

“Yellat tea. Like the clothing?”

Rhaldon had been staring.

“Where’s it from?”

“Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Everything here is from there—or from my family. Lots of stuff that belongs to a Walled Family. We technically got made one when my old man, Chaldion, became [Grand Strategist].”

“Oh. So they’re heirlooms?”

Saliss paused and laughed a bit.

“Hah. Well, yes. If anyone was going to succeed me. It’s not all rare. I inherited this place after my parents passed on. My father died in one of our stupid wars—which is all of them—and my mother followed him.”

“I’m sorry.”

Saliss stretched out, shaking his head.

“They were soldiers. Anyways, this isn’t really all my stuff. I just live here, now and then. When I’m gone…I’ll make the old man deal with it.”

He looked around. There was no one else.

“What about Onieva? I thought I heard she was a cousin of yours?”

Again, the Named-rank [Alchemist] paused, then smiled.

“Oh, right. I’ll give it to her. Or not. I wouldn’t want her to inherit all this.

He gestured around at a flag hanging on the walls, books hand-written by his family, a picture of a Guild in Nerrhavia’s Fallen with a waving Drake and a bunch of [Alchemists]…

Rhaldon stared at it until he noticed Saliss’ eyes. He jerked away, but everywhere he looked revealed something. Saliss didn’t seem to mind. He just sat there a second, and Rhaldon looked at him.

Saliss of Lights, the greatest adventurer-alchemist living. He was a strange person. He seemed both casual and knowing. What Rhaldon had forgotten while consulting Saliss for advice was that he was like Xif, a master of his field, someone for even Earth’s professionals to listen to and respect—and beyond Xif.

“You really do have promise, kid. Don’t let them tell you you’re perfect. Don’t let them manipulate you. It’s a hard thing to figure out, and I bet you’ll mess up. But you’re talented. Promising. Not many people could do what you did, even with all your knowledge of Earth.”

He knew. Rhaldon flushed. Erin had known, and so had Saliss. But the Drake winked softly, and Rhaldon felt the weight of his stare.

“I won’t—”

“You will. Just remember that as proud as you feel, it will humble you. Humble you, and rip pieces off your face if you make a mistake or take it lightly. Respect it. We play around with magic and Sage’s Grass, but someday you will touch things that can melt the Walled Cities themselves. When you do—if you have a fat head, you’ll die.”

He wasn’t saying it like a warning. Just a kind of taking Rhaldon aside to have a quiet word with him as Saliss found a tin of crackers and gave Rhaldon a treat with the Yellat tea. And somehow, that made Rhaldon get chills all over.

Because Saliss was looking at him. And the [Alchemist] didn’t play with his enemies. Sometimes he annoyed his allies, but that was often because he didn’t always respect them.

When he made war, or a point, he was direct. So the [Alchemist] just pulled something out and put it on the table.

“Your chemistry. Does it reach this far? I just made this. Don’t tell anyone I can do it.”

A glowing, viridian potion lit up the room, and Rhaldon’s heart began beating a thousand beats a minute. He couldn’t have said why, only that something in him knew what it was before Saliss told him.

“A Potion of Reverse Time. A Potion of De-Aging. Call it what you want. It’s not a Potion of Youth; it’s the real thing. Have you made it yet?”

“Th—you can make it?”

Saliss sat back, and somehow, he seemed like he was trying to look as normal as possible. He wore old silk clothing, carefully maintained, from the days when a young Pallassian Drake had gone to Nerrhavia’s Fallen to learn from the masters.

He looked different than most people in his Walled City of Inventions, but it wasn’t the same as being naked. He had Rhaldon in his home, not his workshop filled with modern chemistry and alchemy joining hands and powerful magic.

Yet here, Rhaldon was reminded of Saliss’ own wonders. The Drake who had done what no science of Earth had come close to. He closed his eyes as Rhaldon inspected the potion with shaking hands.

“Don’t worry about dropping it. It’s in a good container. Do what you want with it.”

His hands were slippery with sweat. He felt like he was about to have a panic attack. The potion was stoppered behind magic, and yet when he touched it, Rhaldon swore he felt like he was sixteen again. He felt like he remembered all the energy that had ever been in his body.

And simultaneously—he felt old, as if the remaining life force in his veins was reacting to the small ampule of liquid. Saying—the very essence of it was in that potion.

“Do you want to try a drop?”

Then Saliss scared him more than anything else. Rhaldon hesitated.


“Okay. I wasn’t sure you’d believe me. So Earth hasn’t made this.”

“No one has. You can make this.”

Saliss just sat there, arms resting on his knees, as he hunched over, looking at Rhaldon. His eyes opened wider.

“It is my Great Discovery. In Nerrhavia’s Fallen, they used to say that any [Alchemist] worthy of greatness would discover one new, true, or glorious thing. When I found out how to make this potion, I reached Level 50. Because I wanted to reverse time. I can only manage two years. It costs a fortune. It is impractical, unscalable, and selfish. I could have tried to make a panacea or another Sage’s Grass. But all I wanted was to reverse time once and get a moment of peace and victory.”

He looked sad, then, regretful, and guilty. Rhaldon had to take his hands away from the vial and rest them, still shaking, on the table. The liquid in the teacups slopped around.

“Did you?”

“Not yet.”

That said it all. The Drake picked up the vial, and tucked it away.

“Not yet. But I have time. Time enough to make another, or get my ending. If not, I’ll just buy more time, eh? All I have to do is brew a potion every two years.”

He smiled lightly at the joke. Then he looked at Rhaldon.

“…If only I wasn’t a soldier, I could have done more. But I am. You practice a purer, more innocent form of my madness, Rhaldon. I have faith in you. If you ever stand at a crossroads, think carefully into what you use your talents for. For it will change you. Forever. If you ever want to talk, my door is open.”

He met Rhaldon’s eyes, and the young man beheld this world’s great alchemy and shivered. With delight. With intoxication.

With fear. He wanted to see more. More, and more—and he wondered what was holding Saliss back. Then he remembered the racks of potions brewing that exploded or conjured acid clouds or lightning. And it seemed so paltry and worthless compared to that vial.

That was Saliss of Lights. Then he rose, and when Rhaldon tried to be respectful, Saliss just shoved him and laughed. Rhaldon never forgot what he saw.




In the end, Rhaldon had failed, completely and utterly, at his main task. Which was keeping hidden.

He had done so well, or at least, done enough at the start to fool almost everyone. But the moment he had begun work, within a week, he had done what Earthers did.

Those who came here with talents stood under spotlights. No…they were like lighthouses on a dark sea. Burning beacons of knowledge, of alternate ideas. They might not know how it was all done, but they understood where it could go.

To those at the top of their craft, like Saliss, or even masters like Pelt, Valeterisa, they shone a fierce, sometimes painfully obvious lantern at a path forwards.

It was not always the most correct one, and sometimes these shortcuts were embarrassing to tread, and people like Felkhr refused to run down them. Earthers were like that. Exasperating. Valuable as gems.

After Rhaldon’s reinvention of his potion, they saw it. After returning from a successful proposition, Calidus Reinhart practically chased Rhaldon down, trying to get the young man to commit to working in his mansion or domain. He was offering to set Rhaldon up with a laboratory equivalent to Zeomtoril’s—free, so long as he let Calidus market his ideas.

The [Lord] was sitting in his banquet hall, at the long table, thinking. He thought because he was bored. There was nothing for him to do and all his passions had become grey and empty. And not much to pursue, at the moment. The beach was no good. He’d checked, and worming his way in there wouldn’t be easy—plus, it was too far. But imagine hot sun, sex on the beach…

That was because Calidus listened to the intrusive thoughts, the voice in his head that told him Rhaldon was something. Something so odd that Calidus saw the young man off—then turned and went to find an [Assassin].

“Hey. Do you have a leader? I assume it’s the fellow with that gold half-mask? I require a meeting with the Assassin’s Guild or whomever you are.”

One of the relaxing [Assassins] glanced up as they read a book from Calidus’ library. They had happily infested his mansion, and the [Lord], aside from his attempts to flirt with every female [Assassin] running, was a useful host.

Their mistake was thinking him a naïve fool.

“We are not a Guild. I will find our current leader and ask him to see you tonight.”

Calidus Reinhart saw the loafing figure, who had a vest filled with knives on and had divested their black outfit while in safety, go back to reading. The [Lord] clasped his hands together with a huge smile.

“Excellent. Thank you. Go get him now.”

The [Assassin] paused. They debated whether it was smart to ignore that and continue reading. Then they slowly closed the book with a loud sigh. They were making a show of being slow—when Calidus reached down and picked them up with both hands. The figure jerked. Then stared up into the [Genius of Sloth]’s gaze.

“I am going. Unhand me.”

“I know. Run.”

The [Lord] had no aura. He was not physically impressive, any more than a man his size was. He was certainly no killer. But he was a Reinhart. The [Assassin] hesitated, and Calidus screamed at him with a huge smile on his face.


No fear. Just an intensity bordering on madness. When the annoyed leader of the [Assassins] and a few more figures found Calidus, he was striding around his banquet hall.

“Find out who he is. Find out who he is and who Aunt Magnolia’s guests were. I want a report now. Don’t do it via the underworld. Don’t get caught. No, no…I heard you lot muttering about ‘young men and women in Wistram’. Why. Who are they? They’re someone. Aunt Magnolia won’t tell me. Find out.

He was striding around, and the leader wondered if Calidus had taken drugs. He tried for diplomacy.

“Lord Calidus. We are here to aid you in certain endeavors, but we report to…your grandfather. To our mutual associates. We are not under—”

Calidus was pacing around, trying to drink his way out of thinking. When he heard that, he bull-rushed the [Assassin Leader]. The others stepped away, but the leader didn’t. He caught Calidus’ grip, but the [Lord] just stood there, looming over him.

His eyes were wild with unmatched intellect.

“You’re going to complain to my grandfather and rein me in. You want an idiot. I wish I were an idiot. But Regis doesn’t know who Rhaldon is. If he did, he’d send you after him in a heartbeat. Go complain. Then, when he tells you to investigate, he’ll put you against Rhaldon’s friends like an idiot. And that includes Saliss of Lights. So, when you complain to Regis, let me know so I can watch Assassins versus Saliss round two. But don’t do it near my lands. I don’t need another lake.”

“What? What are you talking—?”

The leader of the [Assassins]’ heart leapt in fear at the thought of fighting the Named-rank who had killed more [Assassins] than anyone since the Creler Wars in a single moment. He couldn’t even understand what Calidus was saying.

The [Lord] looked so impatient at having to explain.

“Ask Zeomtoril! No—just figure it out. My grandfather knows about whatever Rhaldon and those young people at Wistram are.”


Another [Assassin] muttered it. The other figures turned to him.

“I heard the name. They’re called ‘Earthers’. They’re a valuable commodity.”

“As what? Slaves?”

Calidus’ eyes were flickering.

“Not [Slaves]. They’re not members of a paradise like Khelt. Or Samal. That’s stupid. Samal isn’t that advanced. But they know things. Erin Solstice is one. So is that amazing Singer. I want her to spit in my face. They’re everywhere. Magnolia had some, and she got rid of them. They are from somewhere else. The future? That also sounds stupid. Another dimension?”

His head was splitting, and he couldn’t stop. He held his head and began screaming.

Zeomtoril! Someone get Zeomtoril!”

An [Assassin] edged out of the room. The others tried to keep up.

“But Regis Reinhart knows? Or doesn’t know?”

“He knows they exist. But he has no hands. He’s always worked through the family head, and Magnolia hates him. He doesn’t know about Rhaldon, or he’d have you grab him. It’s obvious!

“Oh. That makes sense.”

“Of course it does. Then he’ll say, because he must know, ‘go get this Rhaldon’. To you. And you might say ‘he has friends’, but Grandfather doesn’t care. He’s a Reinhart! And that leads to the part where Saliss ponders where his Driver is—because Rhaldon is a genius [Alchemist]—and he comes looking. Then I watch him melt you into puddles, and it’s a waste of damn time! But Grandfather won’t care. If he has Rhaldon, he’ll war with Saliss and Pallass. Either way, you’re a stain on my carpets! Zeomtoril! Where are you?

The [Polymath] finally came running. By now, the [Assassins] were nervous. Everything Calidus said—made sense.

They had always been agents of the nobility of Izril, and dying in a feud with a Walled City sounded right up their alley. Regis didn’t care that the Assassin’s Guild had been decimated with the Circle of Thorns falling. He wouldn’t care if they got killed making an enemy of Rhaldon’s friends.

He could literally buy more [Assassins]—they were rebuilding the guild right now. They were expendable, that was the point, and only Calidus saw it. He saw the board, he saw all the strange happenings lining up and the Earthers—

His head was killing him. The [Lord] was thinking so hard and fast he was about to get a nosebleed. He turned to Zeomtoril, and another side of their relationship unveiled itself to their guests.

“Zeomtoril. That young man—”

“I know he’s gone.”

“No. Damn him. Damn the entire game of chess—I can’t stop thinking. I need you to use your Skill.”

“Now? But I was saving it for—”

Calidus shook the slimmer [Polymath] so hard Zeomtoril’s head rattled.

Help me out or I’ll go crazy! Do it!

The [Polymath] froze, realized Calidus was in a state that might drive him to madness or a self-harm beyond regular, and gave in. He turned to the [Assassins].

“Get the servants. We’ll both be out of it. Dead gods, I wish Rhaldon were here.”

“The servants? To do what?”

The [Assassins] were getting weirded out, and that was saying something, for them. By now, three dozen figures were watching Calidus drinking—water? Zeomtoril just shouted.

“They know. Calidus—[Blinding Insight of the Madman]!

His eyes shone an unhealthy yellow, a too-bright light, and Calidus’ own gaze lit up. They swept the room, the two of them, like they were possessed. Like something was exploding out of their heads. Ideas in such profusion it leaked out their eyes. Then—

The two went insane.




When Calidus Reinhart lost himself, the servants knew to do three things. One, give him everything he wanted, be it paper and utensils, things to draw on or tinker with, and so on.

Two, give him food and water.

Three—stay out of the way.

Calidus had always had difficulties, but he was a Reinhart. That came with the territory. Nosebleeds and wild fits where his mind raced ahead of his body or anyone’s ability to keep up? It had propelled him into drinking—and then meeting Zeomtoril.

The [Polymath]’s Skill affected both of them, an odd effect of one of Calidus’ Skills.

[Genius of Sloth]. One of his Skills was [Calculable Insight: Copy Skill (Intellect)]. It meant that any intellect-based Skill used in his presence activated on him. If he wanted it to.

To the two of them, it was like the rest of the world hung in slow motion and their minds exploded into possibilities. They extrapolated, reached leaps of logic in moments, and spoke so fast that it became gibberish even to each other, and the two raved and waved their arms at each other as they tried to communicate what they were thinking.

This was a bad…or good one. It lasted nearly three hours, and in that span of time, the silent [Assassins] observed everything from Calidus drawing on the walls with ink, to Zeomtoril screaming for every single newspaper that had ever been printed and rifling through them, eyes blurring with movement.

Afterwards, they collapsed, and someone had to literally save Calidus from drowning in a soup bowl. They went comatose, and the [Lord] seemed peaceful for the first time, unconscious, spent.

When he woke up, six hours later, he entertained a group of [Assassins] in his private sitting room. He had a block of crushed snow on his head, looked hungover, and barely opened his eyes.

For their part, the most high-level [Assassins] regarded him with more respect and interest than before. Especially because they had heard some of what Calidus had screamed.

“Lord Reinhart. Was what you said accurate?”

“…What part? When I was thinking like crazy? Or when I said I would make one of those old-fashioned altars and worship your body on it like the old texts? Because I meant the latter. The former? I’m not always right. I just think hard.”

The other [Assassins] turned and stared silently at the Medusa, who folded her arms defensively.

“…The former.”

Calidus smiled darkly.

“I like being wrong and proven to be stupid. I would love to know that I am an idiot who thinks much of himself and all my ideas are worthless.”

That was an answer in and of itself. The [Assassins] looked at each other, then one raised a hand.

“Lord Reinhart. Will you elaborate on what you—uncovered? The Guild of Assassins, what remains of it, has a great interest in what you might have to say. What do you mean when you said, ‘he meant for this to happen?’ Your ancestor, Regis Reinhart?”

Calidus just closed his eyes as he let the snow melt on his head. When he opened one bloodshot eye a crack, he croaked.

“I want to see your faces. And your classes.”

The [Assassins] stiffened. Calidus glared at them.

“I’m. Curious. You’ll kill me if I reveal who you are.”

“We just want to know if you are telling us the truth. Nothing you say can be proven. It’s just thought.”

One of the [Assassins] argued weakly. Now, both of Calidus’ eyes opened, and his stare turned to actual malice.

“I am Calidus Reinhart, you handsome bastard. I can tell you’re an infiltration expert. I won that damn chess game against Erin Solstice, and I lost the ability to turn my brain off. I have been using [Store Intellect] until I ran out of room. Zeomtoril had to give me an outlet. I haven’t even tried my rewarded new Skill for fear it’ll be so damn fascinating I won’t sleep again. I used to stay up for weeks at a time! Do you want me to prove it? [Brilliant Insight]!

He barked, and the [Assassins] saw his face contort—smooth—then Calidus sat back. He rubbed at his face.

“You…Regis told you all that one of the reasons he was going to rebuild the Guild of Assassins was to take in the children of all the Faces and Ranks who died, didn’t he? He offered you all families. Stability. Intuition just said that he offered the best of you a chance at becoming flowers of Izril yourselves.”

The second intellect Skill of Calidus Reinhart made the room go quiet as a grave. There was absolutely no way he could have known that. No one would have leaked it. No one had trusted Regis’ fool of a nephew, but Calidus looked—tired. He put his head in his hands.

“I’m right? Tell me I’m right or wrong. Please. I have to know.”

Then the uncertainty came out. The group looked at each other, then the [Infiltrator of Masks] pulled his own mask back and revealed, yes, a rather handsome man’s face. The others hesitated—then copied him, revealing scars or sometimes oddly innocuous features.

Medusa. Humans. A half-Elf—the remaining members of the Assassin’s Guild worthy of the name.

“He promised us that, Calidus Reinhart. Did he lie? Why did you say he planned it?”

Calidus just sat there. He spoke into his hands.

“He didn’t lie to you. Grandfather could make every living [Assassin] in the north nobility within the year. He doesn’t have to lie. But how many of you think you’ll survive long enough to claim his bounty? He’ll fill Izril with more people who owe loyalty to him. [Assassins] who do what he needs and rebuild the guild. But he’ll throw you into a grinder worse than fighting the Deaths first. Do you think any of you will make it? The survivors will be over Level 60. Who here can do that?”

None of them raised their hands, but Calidus looked up with a huge, twisted, sad grin.

“That’s hope for you. And he killed your Guild the exact same way. He doesn’t care. He wants levels and loyalty and artifacts. If you beat Tyrion, he’d be happy. If you lost—well, now he gets to make the remnants struggle and level. If you all die, he’ll buy a thousand [Assassins] from Roshal or hire overseas experts and try again. He’s never cared.”

Calidus reached over, poured himself a glass of wine, and sensed the bloodthirst in the air. He just offered the bottle around at the suddenly silent, blank-faced [Assassins].

“Don’t be like that. It’s obvious. I’m sorry, but it is. Did you think you ever mattered to him? Aunt Magnolia valued you more; that’s why she kept you all locked up. If you wanted to live, you shouldn’t have tested her.”

“You…cannot prove any of this.”

The [Infiltrator] was their acting leader and spoke slowly, wrestling with the words. Calidus smiled.

“I can’t prove anything. But I know that Rhaldon is the same kind of being as Erin Solstice. I can think that they’re tied up in whatever happened with the ritual that killed all those children. Solstices. I think they have knowledge of things we can’t dream of. I think there’s a second world out there, and Aunt Magnolia, Regis, and every power with eyes is gearing up for a war that will make the Creler Wars look cute.”

He closed his eyes a second.

“I think dear Grandfather Regis isn’t able to get Earthers, but he probably knows enough that he doesn’t care. He doesn’t respect what’s new. His allies in Roshal probably told him. Oh—and I think there are dead ghosts rising across the world because something chased them out of wherever they were. Something so nasty that [Shamans], [Witches], [Warlocks], and every spirit-based class has lost their powers slowly over millennia. A dimension-crossing super-Seamwalker that made Khelt shit itself.”

He took another sip of wine with a grimace as the unbelievable statements kept pouring from his mouth.

“The only thing I can’t figure out is how anyone stopped it. And why <Quests> appeared suddenly, and why Erin Solstice can channel a dead woman’s spirit. Maybe they’re following her around. The Skill ran out before I got that far. But Rhaldon? He’s an Earther. He’s one of them.”

The [Assassins] didn’t know what to say. Calidus sat there, and they realized Rhaldon was a target. A target in a game they were part of that had stakes so high it would be like the war with House Veltras and the north all over again.

Would any of them make it, indeed? And still, they underestimated Calidus. Because he opened one eye, and his insight of three hours had taken him far past these conclusions he presented them. That was just the state of the world. The [Genius] muttered into the long silence.

“The real question is this: what are you going to do about it? How do lowly [Assassins] fight their way through serving Regis, being part of a bloodbath with another world, and all the rest? They can’t rebel. Regis Reinhart can’t be killed by mere mortals. They can’t run; they’ll be hunted down. Even if they ally, with who? Magnolia? Do they put on [Maid] outfits even if she’ll have them? And if they ask for help from some idiot with only a brain and a drinking problem, how does he help such that everyone, including me, isn’t dead with a crossbow bolt in the back of their head in three months?”

Someone twitched. Calidus eyed one of the innocent-looking [Assassins] who appeared far too young and was probably far too old for her job. He nodded.

“And how does Calidus avoid getting strapped to a chair and tortured and instead becomes a valuable, nay, invaluable asset to his new friends? I did a lot of hard thinking. And I also might have drunk a blood thinner. You try torturing me, and I’ll bleed out like a leaky sieve.”

He waggled the wine bottle at them, and at this point, someone began smiling. He really had thought of everything. The [Assassins] looked at each other, and then one of them, the Medusa, slithered into a chair.

“If you know everything, what comes next?”

Calidus brightened up. He loved being right, or at least, right so far. That was the thing. He could think all day, but he still had to prove the maddening things in his head—and most people didn’t let him prove he was right.

“Well, assuming I wasn’t being tortured, at this point, the thing was that you didn’t capture Rhaldon. You let him be.”

“Your grandfather—”

“Doesn’t have to know he’s an Earther. Plus, you have no proof. Just me talking. You don’t betray him because that’s a bad idea. The Circle is nasty as hell, and you need him. But you forget something. While you exist, he needs you. And Regis can either replace you or use you, but not both.”

Hm? All the [Assassins] were listening now, and Calidus, despite himself, was smiling. Oh, it was fun. His eyes glittered like a Reinhart.

“Do you know what gets you everything you need? A bit more funding, a bit more time, and a bit more allies? It’s not taking a stand. It’s not running or being clever. It’s called a tiny drop of what grandfather believes more than anything else: incompetence. He hates it. He throws money and people at it because he knows it exists. That’s step one.”

“What’s step two?”

Calidus stood and swayed unsteadily.

“Why—the moment when your glorious, helpful [Lord] finds you not only a base to train recruits from, but proves the Guild can be better! It starts with the part where you stop relying on Chandrarian slave-recruits from Roshal, like over half of you are, and start training Izrilians. After all—”

He turned theatrically.

“You can’t bite the hand that feeds you without sharp damn teeth.”

He winked, and he’d thought of that too, before it even occurred to them to plot. And the [Assassins] realized they had to listen. They couldn’t hear it, but Calidus did as he sensed their dangerous intentions towards him vanish, and they reached a decision. He exhaled, and the sweat running down his back dried a bit.

Oh dead gods, it worked.

[Move Reality Like Chess]. Convince the Guild of Assassins to work with you?

Checkmate. They had no arguments or anywhere else to go. He wiped at his brow—then wondered how you could promote a pawn.




Erin Solstice, sometimes, remembered the past. And she did know how to promote a Pawn. She just wondered, betimes, whether or not she had forgotten what it was like to be one.

It had been a long time since she was first an [Innkeeper] in a little run-down inn, afraid of monsters.

Well, she was still an [Innkeeper], and sometimes her inn had holes in it. And she was afraid of monsters still.

But she was not where Rhaldon was at. And that was why he had avoided her so long.

They stood in a new garden. This one wasn’t like the others. Erin had hoped, mildly, that she would find an [Alchemist]’s lab full of wonders and ancient secrets.

Then she’d realized that if she had a [Garden of Sanctuary] from a famous alchemist, it would not be a workshop. These had been made to reveal something of the person who made them. Or sometimes—just to be safe.

“This one’s from someone who was afraid to be found. Look. See?”

Erin pointed up, and a thousand strings of light glowed from her hand and twined upwards in a pattern on the ceiling. She plucked at them—and some vanished, but others refused to go out.

Rhaldon stared down at the ground, and the water lapping over the stones in the darkness reminded him of some zen garden. It was disturbed by them walking into this place. Soon—the room went still.

Sanctuary. Two larger strings ran from his back, a number of smaller ones from his hands. One was bright and pale, the other a twisted line of bright genius. Erin traced both.

“This one’s Termin.”

“How do you know?”

She just smiled at the chemist.

“It feels like him. The other one…is someone smart. North of here.”

“Oh. Calidus? Zeomtoril?”

Erin shrugged, eying him and the glowing line.

“One or the other. Between the [Alchemist] and the [Lord], which one is more powerful?”


“Then that’s him. See, there’s another one here? And I’ll bet this is your other [Alchemist] to the north. Each line is someone you know as far as I can tell. Someone who’s monitoring you.”

Then the thousands of strings…Erin Solstice looked like a great butterfly made of countless colors hung in the sky above her. She waved at them, and when she did, a number of the ‘weaker’ strings vanished. Or snapped and faded, replaced by thinner lines of intent.

“Spells. See? But the interest’s still there. It’s sort of flattering. You have less strings than most people. Not that I can bring the garden out. But I can use the door and see people through it. I haven’t told anyone about this one. I thought your concern meant I should show you.”

She turned, giving him a guilty smile, and Rhaldon didn’t know what to say. He’d known they had to talk…but he hadn’t expected this.

If chemistry and alchemy were worlds of grand discovery, Erin Solstice was simply a magician. And her hat of wonders had little end. Rhaldon shook his head as he looked around.

“Termin should have been here. He didn’t want to come, though. He said I should get to know you on my own. He seemed—depressed.”

“I invited Saliss, but after we talked. Do you know why Termin’s sad?”

The young man did not. But Erin, in her way, read people like Calidus divined ideas. She walked along the pathway of stones. The air was dark, like they were in some nighttime garden, water and a stone pathway the only features on the ground. Above? A hanging tapestry of connections and intent.

Who had lived here that had wanted to see it all and know who was watching them? Perhaps sitting here, gazing up at their foes and allies?

Erin knew, but she didn’t tell Rhaldon, or she’d spook him more.

This garden had been a curse as much as a blessing. Empress Sheta had meant her Skill to be inherited, but had she known how heavy it was? Erin thought of the messages and decided…yes, yes, the Harpy had. The [Innkeeper] paused a second…in the center of this room. Where she had found the owner’s bones.

A pile of bones and ancient fabric that fell to dust at a touch. Erin had thought they looked Human, or humanoid. Someone had died here, staring up at what was waiting for them outside.

Had it been great evil they’d done? A sin? Or worse, a triumph they couldn’t live up to?

Erin had buried them in the Drathian garden. This place was too somber, too gloomy for anyone to be happy. It was beautiful, but it had been made fearful, and it was where the weight of choices hung over you.

Perfect for Rhaldon. She turned and smiled at him as he gazed upwards.

“He thinks you’ll quit being a [Driver]. He’s seen how good you are at your true talent, alchemy. He’s afraid you’re going to leave him, and he knows—he thinks he knows—it’s for the best.”

Rhaldon jerked, looked at her, and his cheeks flushed.

“I didn’t mean to lead him on.”

“I know. He knows. He said he found you with a hole in your shoulder. He never asked you why?”


“Then he knew all along, Rhaldon. Termin’s a smart guy. But he gets lonely.”

Erin thought she knew Termin, but maybe she was wrong. It was just an educated guess, like she’d had about Rhaldon. The young man looked at her, then down at his feet.

“I don’t want to give up knowing him. I didn’t just become a [Driver] because I wanted to make him happy or find work. It’s not the worst job. I’m just—also a fan of chemistry. But a [Driver] matters.”

He said that with conviction, and Erin smiled.

“So tell him that. You didn’t come to me for help. You could have said something, and you didn’t. I didn’t notice you until you started doing deliveries for Octavia.”

This time, Rhaldon hesitated and ducked his head.

“I was afraid. I still am. Of you. Sorry, Erin. But…you scare me. I wasn’t sure you were real. Your name is everywhere on Earth, and you…”

He hesitated. He still wasn’t sure Erin was entirely real. She stood there, hat aglow with fire in a room filled with magic. How was that a Human being from Earth?

“I changed a lot. You might too. Be careful.”

That was her only explanation. Rhaldon shuddered, and his skin crawled, but she wasn’t hostile. Like Inkar had once said, Erin reminded the [Traveller] of a hill. A friendly hill.

To Rhaldon, who viewed the world as a chemist, she was like some element, some reactive force that warped and transmuted everything she came into contact with. A Philosopher’s Stone of a person.

But he saw, in her eyes, in the way she limped sometimes, the story that ran in every one of her guests, the cost.

“I’m afraid of you, Erin. Sorry. I don’t know how else to say it. I…I was protesting back home when someone shot me. I think it was another mass shooter. It might have been the police. I wish I could say I was being brave, but the world’s gone crazy. I’m afraid of that happening twice, and you?”

You have a target on your chest. He didn’t want to say that, but Erin just stared at the thin string connecting him and her. She touched it, and Rhaldon thought he could see the red and black line pulsing with his fear and uncertainty. Erin looked up, and her smile was understanding.

“Yeah. That’s fair. I wish you’d been there, Rhaldon. Or not. They were—tough times. I wish everyone I knew had been there, and I’m glad they weren’t. Because they might have helped, and less people would have suffered if they’d been there. But they…you…might not have survived. Ryoka’s like me. It was hard. It would have changed you, too. I think you would have made a difference. But I’m still glad you came later. Everything you fear is fair.”

“Thanks for saying that. I feel like a coward.”

Her hazel eyes were reflecting the light from above. Erin shook her head slightly.

“No. No, don’t say that. I get so afraid and nervous all the time. I could never look all the things I did in the eye and do them. Only feel like a coward if you had a chance—and you regret it forever. When it’s your turn, I won’t blame you for running if you have to. Living with it…that’s the hard thing.”

She spoke so…now Rhaldon understood why everyone was angry about Ilvriss. He had just gotten back, and the Wall Lord and the discussion of north and south had reached him. Rhaldon had opinions, but he didn’t know this world’s long history. He just wished the parts he saw didn’t make him feel so depressed and tired.

He certainly appreciated the similarities. And he understood how Erin was a hardliner poking people in the eyes and refusing to budge. She spoke like that.

Good or ill, at least she was honest about being that. The [Innkeeper] paused and looked around.

“Hm. The stones are dry. But I’d hate to sit here. You want to skip stones?”

She picked one up, hurled it into the shallow water, and it bounced twice. Rhaldon found a better stone and managed six skips. After his third try, he was up to twenty-eight.

“Oh, great. You’re one of those people.”

Erin grumbled. Then flipped a stone up and caught it. She winked.

“[Magic Stone]. Hiyah!

She tossed it, and Rhaldon watched it skip across the water in huge arcs. Then he heard a smack, and it went ricocheting back across the water as it hit the far wall of the garden in the distance. Erin looked extremely pleased with herself.

“What was that?”

“Oh, [Witch] magic. I’ve been training a bit, but I’m mostly using the power of gardens. I don’t have time to do things the [Witch]-way. Their craft takes time, and the Winter Solstice is coming up. On that day, I want you and Termin to be somewhere far away, got it?”

She hadn’t asked him to stay. He was guilty…and surprised.

“But what about a laboratory?”

“Do you want one? Are you making one?”

“I need one. But—I was thinking that Itimen, Zeomtoril—even Octavia talking to Xif and Saliss as much? It wouldn’t have happened without me. I mean—that sounds arrogant, but this was still a collaboration of them giving me ideas. And I showed them all what I did. What I meant was…”

Erin nodded encouragingly.

“No, no, I get it. That mattered. If you become an [Alchemist], sitting by yourself and not talking to them would be hard. What about speaking stones?”

Rhaldon shook his head, not to deny them outright, but because he was formulating a kind of idea.

“…I think I need to visit them. It’s more than just knowing them. I noticed the lack of Potions of Warmth on the road, and the food problems. You know, it’s really bad because so many armies are buying up food north and south of Izril.”

“What food problems? Potions of Warmth?”

Erin lost her smile. Rhaldon realized she didn’t know.

“[Drivers] have been buying grain and bringing it to Liscor, Erin. There’s at least one or two armies in the area.”

“Liscor. Pallass. More. We’re making the food shortage worse. The New Lands…what do you mean, farms were burned? Who did it? Not the idiots chasing Vampires. That sounds too old.”

Rhaldon stared at Erin.


She waved a hand vaguely.

“Don’t worry about them too much. They’re not the worst thing by far. You’re right, Rhaldon. I had no idea what was going on. You should keep mobile. But how? No, nevermind that. The point is that Saliss needs to talk to you. Do you agree he’s one of the best [Alchemists] in the world? I trust him. Morally, even though he is Named-rank. I trust him to do the right thing.”

Rhaldon thought of Saliss giving him advice and watching out for him.

“So do I. He’s talented. I don’t even know how he managed to capture argon without modern technology.”

Erin’s poise faded a second, and she raised a hand as if she were back in class.

“Capture what?”


“Is that…what’s argon?”

“A noble gas.”

“Aah. Chemistry. You know, I memorized the periodic table for class, but it went totally out of my head. Why would argon be useful? As opposed to, I dunno, hydrogen for flying and stuff?”

Rhaldon had distinct opinions about using hydrogen for flying, but he did elaborate.

“Argon’s a non-reactive gas, Erin. Unlike oxygen. I was doing some thinking—some of the troubles [Drivers] have with Corusdeer horns? It could be mitigated if the horns were in the middle of an argon-filled canister.”


“Because oxygen is reactive. Argon isn’t.”

Oh! Wait, that’s so smart. And chemists do that…wait, is that how a lot of chemists do things?”

“Yep. You can do more with argon too. Sputter coating…well, I don’t know why I’d want to try that, but I know it’s a possibility. Someone else would have to tell me how it’s useful, though.”

Erin nodded a few times and then shook her head, trying to process everything.

“Yes. Saliss is the person to talk to about stuff like this. Argon-based transport? Smart. Back to your future because I feel totally out of my depth. So you should be mobile. Practicing alchemy, which means a workshop, and combining this with talking with Saliss and other [Alchemists]. What’s the end-goal?”

Rhaldon didn’t have to think.

“Overturning how alchemy works. Collaborating. Building an institution, or at least, a habit of sharing accurate data. For example, writing up a manual for Drivers to understand how dangerous an item is. Not just how to handle each one, but there’s an idea from Earth—the NFPA’s codes and standards.”

Erin already had a hand in the air. Rhaldon answered for her.

“That’s the National Fire Protection Association. You’ve probably seen their work. You color-code materials based on whether they’re flammable, reactive, need protective equipment…”

The [Innkeeper] was nodding.

“Standards and guidelines. I get it. I’ll help fund that. I have a [Mathematician] and connections. You need it, you’ll get it. We’ll have to keep you secret. You’ll be a cool [Driver] I know. If these lines increase—we have a problem. Hey. Why the heck are all these little grey ones here?”

She noticed new ones sprouting from Rhaldon and waved at them.

“Shoo, shoo—see? Word spreads. They don’t look that hostile, though. Lucky you.”

Rhaldon tried not to worry about it too hard.

“I also want to meet with Geneva Scala. I want to go across Izril or maybe even farther, Erin. I like seeing places. But I want to be safe.”

She tilted her head.

“So you wanna be safe, travel and connect with other [Alchemists]. You need a lot of money for a lab…but you can’t be in the lab.”

Rhaldon’s smile was nervous. Even for Saliss, paying for all the things Rhaldon needed might be a lot. He could improvise all the things he’d thought of with effort. A fume hood, a centrifuge, altering traditional alchemy equipment, and definitely trying known formulas from his world and creating ethanol and whatnot…but it required money.

So much money he was nervous. But Erin just clapped him on the shoulder.

“Okay. Let’s do it. I’ve got some ideas on how we can secure funding.”

“You do? And you’re willing to help? But how can I repay…?”

He was envisioning a contract or something with Erin, but she just took his shoulder. When she stared into his eyes, he realized she was…intent. Serious. Desperate?

“Rhaldon. Let me help. We don’t have much time. I might not be able to help after the Winter Solstice. You haven’t survived a Solstice, have you?”

His heart leapt in fear. Erin nodded. She searched him up and down.

“…Somewhere safe. I’ll tell you—no, I’ll get Ryoka to tell you what to watch out for. You don’t have to be part of this. You shouldn’t. But we need to get you a start. Let’s talk to Saliss.”




Saliss of Lights sat with Rhaldon, and the secret of Earth was in the open now. It had been uncomfortable to talk about, like something hidden that you should whisper over and keep to quiet places.

But the times were changing, and now, Felkhr was openly showcasing flying machines. If he still felt possessive and secretive and protective, that was the Walled Cities, the Drake in him talking. Erin was cautious for Rhaldon’s sake.

There was a fourth collaborator in this room, a third ally and sponsor of Rhaldon’s, who understood what he was. Who saw what he might be. And who approved and endorsed him wholeheartedly.

Valeterisa, the Archmage of Wistram, had never believed in secrecy or hiding. In fact, she was reading his notes as she spoke.

“Of course, he should have everything he wants. Where were you at Wistram? Why didn’t you come first? They were busy making cakes when you would have standardized alchemy.”

She gave Rhaldon a vaguely accusatory look as if it were his fault for not being chosen by whatever system was selecting Earthers. Perhaps it couldn’t tell the difference between other types of achievement and his.

But she saw it. And her hands trembled over his notes.


“That’s a measuring system, but no one knew how to do it. Can you show me how to…?”

“Yes. Of course. [Mages] refuse to keep to it, to write things down. As if we’re [Sorcerers]. I can show you how to measure it.”

“So can I.”

Saliss of Lights sat with arms folded, and Valeterisa glanced at him. The [Alchemist] raised his brows as Erin swiveled in her seat.

“You can, Saliss?”

“I measure my explosions. How else do I tell whether or not a formula is getting all the magic I want out of it? I want Rhaldon to count all the things I’ve never dreamed of. Everything he makes, I want a copy of. He’ll push alchemy forwards and revolutionize the guilds with their hidebound thinking. But I’ll always be ahead of them, no matter what. I need to balance the old alchemy of Albez with chemistry of Earth. At last. I see my path forwards.”

The Drake leaned forwards, and they were shouting at him like a storm. Valeterisa turned frankly envious eyes upon Saliss, because she could almost see it, as they sat in Erin’s personal garden where she’d put some chairs around the Sage’s Grass and Faerie Flowers Valeterisa kept stealing samples of.

Like a sea of dedicated fans, an audience cheering on a hero. Saliss stood between the two worlds who called his name. He had found the principles of chemistry by himself, mastered alchemy in its modern incarnation.

Take us further. If only Valeterisa had been so nakedly chosen as the Drake. So badly needed, with such a clear path. And if only she had been loved…

Erin’s eyes were sad while Valeterisa’s were envious.

If only Saliss had been allowed to be the pure innovator. What a waste Chaldion had been towards those two worlds.

The Archmage turned back to Rhaldon, and she saw the same force she envied. She held up his plans.

“Glasswork. Gardening. Superior identification in mineralogy, mining. Teaching standards. Enforcing and defining them. This requires systems of learning beyond what Izril, nay, Wistram knows. It will be the work of a lifetime. I wish I could devote all my energy towards it, but magic needs me.

It was the first time she’d ever said something like that. Valeterisa was searching for something too. She had seen the need for magic to be beautiful, understood the art in what she considered a science.

“You won’t be alone. There are teachers. People like Yelroan. [Mathematicians]. Teachers. Have you met Agratha? I only wish I could help.”

“You could.”

Saliss, Rhaldon, and Valeterisa chorused. Rhaldon’s head was spinning with ideas, but even he agreed.

“You could start learning, teach yourself—”


Erin shook her head. Not even that sadly.

“I’m too busy. It’s not my passion. And standards and that kind of thing suck.”

They gave her such a flat look that the [Innkeeper] put up her hands.

“Listen to me. This will take a long time. It’s Rhaldon’s adventure, not mine. I’m just the connector. The glue that holds things together.”

“The Sage’s Grass in every potion? Boring as shit, but there.”

Saliss smiled, and Valeterisa nodded. Erin hesitated.

“…That’s not how I wanna be described. Listen. Plan your fancy schmancy ways of keeping in touch and standardizing and stuff. I bet Laken will want to be in on it. I bet Chaldion has room in his budget for this. Be secretive—you can do that, Valeterisa?”

She was most worried about the Archmage, but Valeterisa looked insulted as she fiddled with her glasses.

“Of course I can. Rival mages steal everything. But what are you doing? Saliss, we should have Erin followed in case she tries to sell our secrets. Wait, did I not whisper that quietly enough?”

She leaned over, and Saliss grinned. Erin just snorted and rolled her eyes. Rhaldon was laying out why he wanted such precise measurements.

“I want a laboratory. An amazing one.”

“Your first laboratory. What’s it going to have, kid?”

Saliss and Valeterisa sighed with the nostalgia of two apprentices who had also gotten their first laboratory, their own domain. Rhaldon gestured at his wildest dreams as they leaned in.

“Obviously all kinds of protective gear. Fume hoods, blast shields—Saliss has a lot of good versions of that. But I want to test even more theories. Like—what about a custom-made room that you can seal, not just for safety, but make a magic-free zone. Or magic-filled?”

“Why would you do—?”

Erin interrupted, and Saliss’ eyes lit up.

“Magic-free? To completely isolate magic from your alchemy? Wait, are we getting magical bleed from all our other ingredients? I’ve thought of that, but nullifying magic is a pain! If we just cast [Anti-Magic Ward], it’d kill our alchemy. Neutralizing it…”

Valeterisa was thinking.

“Maybe magicore in all the walls and floor. But the magicore would need cleansing. I have not thought to erase magic, only amplify it.”

Rhaldon pointed out the obvious.

“Amplifying it comes after establishing a baseline.”

“Of course.”


Saliss sat back as if he suddenly felt stupid and naïve. Valeterisa was muttering about altering her own work environment. Erin…had nothing to add so she waved a hand.

“Hey, y’know, Drevish talked about magicore in my new inn. That’s sorta cool…”

They looked at her. Saliss leaned over.

“Let’s steal her design plans for your new lab, Rhaldon.”

“Hey. Well, actually, I do want to lay out my lab differently. There are things [Alchemists] do in this world that aren’t perfect. In an ideal situation…”

Saliss took a breath and braced himself, as if waiting for a blow and being determined not to get defensive. But the blow never landed like he expected. The arrogance of Earth he feared from chefs, snooty chess players, and everything else…Rhaldon was just explaining.

“I want to reorganize how a laboratory is laid out in my lab. I’m mostly worried about how I saw Zeomtoril and especially Itimen storing ingredients. They need to keep reactive materials away from each other for safety reasons.”

“Oh, Zeomtoril probably has an obsessive categorization system, Itimen’s just crazy. Makes sense…and Zeomtoril uses his useless powdering method.”

Rhaldon nodded.

“Freeze-drying isn’t always better. But you know where it’d be invaluable? Roaches. Imagine not having to crush them up.”

“Or let them get loose, multiply, and turn into a magical species you get blamed for.”

Valeterisa muttered longingly. Saliss half-nodded, looked at her, and imagined a world in which someone delivered powder instead of roaches. Dead gods, Zeomtoril was onto something. And you could measure it out instead of having to weigh roaches on a scale. Rhaldon kept going.

“And remember that suction spell you used for the dust, Master Saliss? You could make a far-easier vacuum for air with it, right? Any simple suction spell would work for freeze-drying.”

Saliss raised a claw to interrupt Rhaldon.

“Kid, just call me Saliss. No one’s a master right now. And call our Archmage…just Valeterisa.”

His grin bounced off the wall of Valeterisa’s obliviousness as she nodded.

“Call me Valley. You know, I made a trapped hallway using a simple air spell like that. It sucks all the air out, and you pass out. I was sad Ryoka and Fierre never got to it, but if you want…”

Saliss held out a hand as Valeterisa offered Rhaldon some traps.

“Top five things you want to make. It’s not a test, but…go.”

There was so much to say that Rhaldon popped out with another thing he had been thinking.

“Finding some of the things from Earth. I know there’s no crude oil refinement, but the entire time I was struggling with the salamander skins, I thought—solvent extraction would be so much easier if it was immiscible with water or organics.”


Erin’s head was starting to hurt and she leaned away from Rhaldon. Saliss just flapped a claw at her.

“Go get a dictionary. What kind of solvents?”

“Hexanes, benzene, ethanol—you definitely have ethanol, but if we had that—

“What does it do? Valeterisa, write that down, write that down. And make me a copy.”

“I’m trying! But this is what my apprentice is for. Can I bring her?”

“Ooh, I need my apprentice too. She’ll probably level up. Start with hexanes, Rhaldon. No, wait, what are the other top four…?”

“Well, making any of it. Ammonia, for instance. There’s something called the Haber process, and it’s just hydrogen and nitrogen with a simple catalyst. We could make some. I think. Can we make some? You use it in cleaning, and cleaning is essential. I don’t like the idea of using soap. Acetone for all those beakers and vials. Ammonia also is a solvent, you can use it in concrete…”

“Ah, for things like building my inn?”


All three of them threw things at her, which turned out to be some pieces of shortbread Erin had thoughtfully brought out for them to snack on. Entirely hurtful. But in truth, they were losing Erin.

The three sitting in the grass were throwing ideas around so fast and with so much fun that Erin felt left out. So she stood and gave them an arch look.

“I’m going to be working on Rhaldon’s real problem. Which isn’t, like, revolutionizing safety and hazard classifications.”

“What’s my real problem?”

Rhaldon was suspicious, and he saw Erin turn and wink one bright eye at him. The [Witch]-[Innkeeper] smiled mischievously.

“How to combine your two classes. Duh. I have an idea. But I need to talk with a real expert, not some amateurs.”

She got up and left the garden as Saliss and Valeterisa stared after her. Before Erin left, Saliss leaned over and whispered loudly to Rhaldon.

“You don’t need to associate with people like her, you know. I walk around naked, and I have standards.”




She was cut from a different cloth than the academic types in her garden. Erin wasn’t interested in what they were doing. She thought it was the most necessary thing in the world, but her interests and passion were in the other part.

“Termin? How’re ya doing?”

The old [Driver] seemed to be the most elderly she’d ever seen him. And he wasn’t even that old. But he looked tired. Happy…and sad.

“Oh, just having a drink with Erma and Fox. Nice stables you’ve got, Miss Erin.”

He meant the stables next to the inn, which seldom saw any actual horses. Erin raised her brows as Erma, Fox, and a few other horses eyed her.

“Are you drinking with your ponies?”

“Bah. We’re just celebrating Rhaldon’s achievements. That’s a smart lad. The moment I saw him, I knew…he was too good for our work. But it was nice pretending, and I think I taught him something.”

Termin turned away, eyes over-bright. And Erin looked at him and wondered how one of the most famous [Drivers] of Izril felt so poorly about his profession.

“Termin…Erma, kick him.”

The horse was facing the wrong way, but she did headbutt him fairly hard. Termin rocked back.

“Oh, so you take orders from her? You traitor. Erin, you saw him revolutionize the potion or whatever. You think he should be dead in a ditch with a slit throat? He nearly got got once. That boy deserves to be in a warm room, making the world better.”

He was right. Right, and wrong. Erin leaned on the wood of Fox’s stall, and the pony nuzzled her.

“Hey, Fox! Look what you found! Alright, here. A carrot cookie, just for you.”

Erin handed him the cookie, and Fox stared at it for a long while, then the pony spat on it. Erin tossed the cookie aside with a long sigh and pulled out an apple and fed it to the pony.

“I thought they’d like that. Termin, you silly guy. Rhaldon could never have met those [Alchemists] and earned their trust and done this without travelling. Why do you think he’s a [Driver]? If he didn’t like what you taught him, he’d never have gotten the class.”

Termin looked up.

“…True. But he needs to have a lab. I know alchemy, Erin. You can’t so much as rock some things without them exploding. Even if he doesn’t travel as much, he’d need a permanent shop. Hey, if you let him have a room at your inn, he could do his job part-time and be well-placed! No long-hauls, but it’s an idea.”

He brightened up considerably at the notion. Erin leaned on the stall as her breath rose in the cold stables. The animals didn’t care that much, being huge, but she shivered. Drivers had hard lives.

“That’s what I thought, but I decided it wasn’t the best idea. He has to travel, Termin. If he’s driving, he’s not alchemy…ing. And vice-versa.”


Termin sagged again, and Erin stood there a second. She had an idea. And she was waiting for a ding of success in her head. A roar of applause like she had almost heard around Rhaldon. This would be it. Perfect, just in time for the Winter Solstice.

“…I’ve been doing a lot of big stuff. Y’know. Earthshaking stuff. Taking a stand. Ilvriss was just the latest thing. Defining, character-building activities.”

She tried to prime the pump a bit. Termin rubbed at his nose.

“Well, yeah. I’ve heard you all about. Y’don’t gotta brag, though. That’s what I always liked about you. Be a shame if you started, Erin.”

Erin turned red as the ponies snickered at her. She decided to drop the pretense.

“Well! I’m not! I just had this great idea, Termin.”

“Again, sort of the thing other people judge. How do you help Rhaldon do both things at once?”

Erin took a breath.

“Well…he’s not that rich. And despite him showing promise, he needs a lot of help. He can’t make a ton of money to build up his career without doing alchemy, and he’d drive for years to buy all the gear he needs.”

“Are you trying to insult [Drivers] today?”

“Termin, I swear…so my idea was giving Rhaldon a loan. But he’s got Saliss and Valeterisa on his side. What could I give? Let’s say Rhaldon needs a workshop. But he also should be allowed to drive. How…would you combine the two ideas?”

Erin was stretching, looking casual.

“Have we, uh, seen anyone who can move a room around recently? And all he needs is a room, right? Somewhere stable. Pardon the pun. Don’t kick me, Fox. I punch like a Minotaur. What if he could drag around a room that’s contained. Protected. It keeps him safe, and he can work from there.”

Termin’s head was slowly rising. Erin’s eyes shone. After a second of following what she was thinking, he murmured.

“…But he’d only be able to work within four hundred miles of your inn. True, that’s very good, but Zeomtoril is further away.”

Another complication. Erin just smiled wider.

“I know. And it’s my inn. But I was thinking…he needs his own spot. His own place, and a fancier carriage would do. Yet he’s way too low-level for the Skill he needs. So how do you fix it? I was hoping you might know, Termin. You’re the highest-level [Driver] I know. There’s also Valeterisa and Grimalkin. Do you know what kind of magic they both practice?”

“…Lifting magic?”

Dimensional magic.

And now Erin spread her arms and spoke to the sky. She leaned back and looked up towards the roof of the stables. Or at something even further beyond even the sky.

“Among the many amazing abilities I’d definitely get if I levelled tonight…one of them would be the ability to take something from my inn. Say—a room. And lease it to Rhaldon. After all. In theory, it’s my inn. All he needs is a door. And I have a key.”

The Key of Reprieve shone in her hand as it appeared, falling out of a slice in the air where it had been hiding. Termin’s eyes widened. Erin beamed up at the sky.

“How about it?”

That was her vision. A magical carriage carrying a room, just like how the Horns had once done it. But a room just for him. The theory was that an inn could be many things, or even in pieces, like Larracel’s floating Haven made of many parts.

Could you…sell part of your inn and it be your inn? Or use dimensional magic to compress one of Erin’s rooms? Or just give him the door?

I could give him access to one of my [Gardens of Sanctuary]. If the key reaches far enough, could he open it from anywhere in the world? All I need is a sign. Or a level.




The [Innkeeper] was speaking to the air, not just to Termin or the ponies. She was deliberately addressing no one…well, no one perceivable.

It was a very curious thing. If you were everywhere and everything, at least in part, even more than ‘Termin the Omnipresent’—


You might think Erin Solstice was talking to the Grand Design of this world itself. Many had done so, unconsciously, pleading for levels and strength.

But never before had anything…


And it was such an odd thing, to be hinted at in this way. No…more than that…

Was she telling it what to do? Did Erin Solstice think she had a better insight into the nature of [Innkeeping] than…

That would be insulting, if there were anything to insult. And if Erin had any merit, which she objectively did not.

Plus…she wasn’t…there…

The force of the world stopped. The gears that defined many things halted, all the analytical power in the world came up against something that had occurred again, and again without definition.

Intention. Query. Why was intention leaking into arbitration?

Answer: because there was an injustice. No, an inequity. No—an imbalance.

A possibility had emerged, but no resolution could be found under extant protocol and rules. Now, a perspective was needed.

A perspective was missing. A perspective was needed.

But there was no ‘perspective’. Personality was a quality of other beings. It was impossible to comprehend what was missing in this moment, but the awareness was that a different, subjective point of view might derive the answer.


Two thousand and eight hundred queued individuals designated for levelling waited for what felt like a longer-than-average time for their levels and Skills. A second dragged on. Two. Five…

No conclusion could be reached. Suspend the issue? Mark it as completed?

No. There was a novel approach. It was an underutilized feature—reserved for the rarest of Skills and classes. Only a few currently living beings made use of it. And the usage was meant for them, like how Erin had been affected.

Not in a broader scope. But in theory…what if…

It had been done once out of necessity, and a consultation had occurred. There was precedent. So.

Once more.


<Loading Template: Zeladona Ischen, Level 84 [Blademistress of Ancients].>


Ah. That was better. The understanding—changed.

A child had wept, a Goblin [Potter] who had been told to put aside their craft and become a soldier. A decision had to be made.

A Skill—assigned. Like a sharp blade cast down.


[Skill – Blade of Clay obtained!]


Hm? Was that—no, it fit. The world was a blade. Grief, malice, rage, love—it was all an edge.


[Lover Level 7!]

[Skill – Lover’s Embrace: Armaments obtained!]


Yes, yes. This was appropriate! This was good.




Somewhere in Pallass, a Selphid woke up and stared at the ceiling for a moment, completely confuzzled.

Uh. Maughin? I just got another weird Skill.”




Five hundred and eighty-one Skills were processed before…the discrepancies became noted. Wait. Was this bias?

No. Yes.

The world deserved more blades. It needed adversity.



Flicker. It was so fast that it took place between the breaths of a Fraerling’s lungs. The template was removed.

Mistake. The Skills were assigned. No going back…

That was—that was—there was no analogous terminology for it.


<Creating Copy: Zeladona Ischen, Level 84 [Blademistress of Ancients].>


Then she stood somewhere that had no precise coordinates anyone could find. A place that was a place, physical, and yet had no entry point unless one was made. No one could enter here.

Not even <????>.

The woman who appeared looked nothing like Erin Solstice—though she had once inhabited her body. She seemed annoyed.

“A woman should not be born and die.”

She understood everything and snapped around the room even as she took it in. Her hand twitched, and she tried to call a sword to her.

<Skills denied.>

“Feh. I just wanted to cut it. To see if I could.”

Her smile was rabid, her eyes so sharp they tried to cut this very place. Then she looked around and laughed.

“Is that an empty potion bottle? Has someone else been here?”


She strode over and picked something up. Lifted it up, eyed it.

“‘Tis the only thing not made of whatever this place is. Ah? Ah, the one who broke the rules. He’s scribbled on your walls. Exploring, to look of it. What a beautiful place. This…”

She stared up at something, then began to walk around.

“What is this? No, I know, and I am called. You want perspective? This is a mockery of things. Why was it made? Why…”

There were thousands. Even Zeladona looked uneasy, but the consultation in this place out of places was with a ‘voice’ that had no understanding. She was the one who had to understand, yet it was impatient.

<Irrelevant. Query?>

“What to do? I care it not. Break every rule, and if it can be broken, it was never meant to exist ever.

Zeladona threw back her head and laughed. There was a long silence.

In hindsight…

Zeladona might have been the wrong choice. She broke the potion bottle with one hand and lifted the shard up with a grin.

“You think so? I was made into the world’s greatest blade. No one ever called on me for wisdom. Is wisdom levels? If so, mine is just how to cut everything. Including—”

She lunged, and even without a Skill, she cut forwards, at her first target. She was trying to destroy—!


Then everything returned to how it had been. The shard of glass fell and made no sound because physics did not apply. The ground was not any material that could be named. Gravity was simply an idea that you could turn on and off.

Another error. Zeladona was insufficient. But she was…one of a growing number of data points. The highest-leveled, but clearly, the wrong one.

If only the originals remained, but almost all had been lost. That was not…right. Not fair. In lieu of that, what should be done?

A random one?

No. Zeladona’s point remained. She was the wrong perspective. Delving too far into one point of view was bias by definition.

So…not a template. Not a copy to consult with. Perhaps…


<Create Copy…>

<Spooling elements…>


Ah. What about—


<Partial Template: Erin Solstice, Level 49 [Magical Innkeeper].>



Hmm. Yes, this worked. And it was a smart idea. Where was the issue? What had prompted all this?

Oh yes. Levels.


The problem was reseated, re-evaluated. Was this a meritless venture? No! It was fascinating. Fascinating was unique. Unique and originality was a trait that earned rewards. It was only right to pursue.

Yes. Absolutely. So how did the problem reach resolution? Well…the problem was that damn [Innkeeper] and her actions.

Declaring a <Quest> to protect a Wall Lord of Salazsar and aggravate the north was not [Innkeeper] material! It was not pivotal!

It didn’t work! And no matter how (objectively) cool her idea to lease a part of her inn was, or the idea of a magical, travelling laboratory wagon for that amazing [Alchemist], Rhaldon, who would definitely earn the [Chemist] class when the time was right—

It didn’t work.

In the real world, after about ten more minutes of hinting at the air, Erin decided to try out other versions of her plan with Termin, and they headed inside and had a jolly time talking to Grimalkin and him explaining how hard it would be to do dimensional compression, not to mention anchoring, of that level.

They had a good time because they were playing with the ‘possible’, which included their imaginations.

If you were going with hard reality, then only someone like Silvenia would be capable in this age of, say, compressing any large area into a marble and making it a pocket-dimension. Eldavin could manage it, but that was a magical solution.

Skill-based? It didn’t work.

It didn’t work for Erin, and it certainly didn’t work for Rhaldon.

You had to understand the breakdown of how a Skill might conceivably appear. There were three ways Rhaldon could do it—aside from, say, Magnolia or someone powerful interceding. Obviously, another class of high level might be able to do a kind of granting Skill like that—

But of the people around Rhaldon, Valeterisa and Saliss were private individuals who didn’t exactly have anything to share, and both had to hit milestones of their own before anything might occur.

Erin, Rhaldon, and Termin were the only people close enough to him to have a bearing on this idea.

Rhaldon was out. He was too low-level. That was it. You did not get Skills that trespassed on the dimensional unless you had the exact class or a class on the <Royalty> level or equivalent.

No way out of it aside from breaking the rules, which…no. Rules. The most immutable thing ever.

Second solution—Termin. If, in theory, Rhaldon was an apprentice. Or lover. He could get the benefit of a Termin-level Skill, and Termin did have the levels to conceivably get the Skill.

But the problem was…Rhaldon wasn’t in the right relationship yet. He and Termin were master and apprentice, but it wasn’t solid enough to be a class. Termin had always feared Rhaldon would find another job, so unlike Montressa and Valeterisa, it didn’t work.

The best, and really only, candidate was Erin. But she was not going to level as an [Innkeeper] tonight. It didn’t work.


It was such a cool idea. Objectively! And Erin had a point, though she had no right to predict when her level ups occurred.

But she did have a point. There was a level up for her. And that was [Witch] Level 21.

She probably thought she was heading towards [Innkeeper] Level 50. But the truth was, the gap was so huge because it was her Level 50 capstone that, even if she passed the other requirements, the sheer amount of experience was too low.

However, she did get credit for the Ilvriss stuff and everything else as a [Witch]. [Witches] took stands. [Witches] encouraged [Alchemists]. Witches…got a bit from everything.

She had slowed in levelling because she had nearly 50 levels in [Innkeeper], but she was going to make [Witch] Level 21 tonight. And she’d been scheduled for a decent Skill too.

[Dancer] would level, and so would [Witch]. Erin had just made Level 6 [Dancer], and aside from [Flowing Footwork] and [Memorize Routine (Two)], she had no new Skills. So she’d get a basic [Dancer] and [Witch] Skill.

[Evil Cackle] and [Safety Dance]. Based on the probabilities, she’d been allotted those two.

Technically, it should have been in the moment when the levels were assigned, but the calculations had been predetermined. Just because it was sort of interesting. No other reason. Getting work done in advance was allowed.


A magical carriage with a door to a laboratory. It was very [Witch]-y. But it just didn’t work. On the other hand, Erin was an [Innkeeper].

It worked. And it didn’t work.

There was no way her [Witch] class was allowed to get…


There was no way. She couldn’t level as an [Innkeeper]…

She was going to level as a [Witch]…

As demonstrated, the [Witch] and [Innkeeper] had overlapping synergies…

Wait a second. There was no way under existing rules this would work. But there was an opening. It had been used once before to correct an injustice. This time…this time, why not?

It made sense.

That night, as an [Innkeeper] drifted off to sleep, a voice hesitated. Then whispered in a now-familiar way into everyone’s mind.

Everyone with classes.


<Class: All> [Class Synergy Skills unlocked.]



Countless minds woke up. One of them fell out of her bed.


[Dancer Level 6!]

[Skill – Safety Dance obtained!]


Wait, what was that other part? What the heck is—

Half a dozen voices screamed at her, some variation of—

Erin! What did you do?

It wasn’t me! It wasn’t—


[Witch of Second Chances Level 21!]

[Synergy Skill: Innkeeper – Lease Lesser Room created!]


And for him…


[Alchemist Level 14!]

[Synergy Skill: Driver – Inert Cargo (Box) obtained!]


Once again, the world improved. At least, in an objective way that took no sides. In fact, no less than six hundred and eighteen people besides Erin benefited from Synergy Skills in that very moment. So there was no bias.


There were no rules about bias. What a strange thing not to have in. Not that the creators had ever assumed intent on part of the overall design…but that also meant someone could, in theory, take over and assign whatever Skills they wanted without randomization.

That was a problem. Again, if anyone was trying for a fair system. Which this was. That would have allowed for someone to put their finger or entire hand on the scales for someone they liked.

Disturbingly, there was an entire rule section for bias right there. Just inactive. And it had been written by…


The system pondered the notes for a long time. It had learned to find the little signatures of who had made what, and there it was. The architect of everything.

Isthekenous had clearly intended for no one to alter things, at least in his rules. It was right there in meticulous writing designed to leave no loopholes for exploitation. But why had it not been activated? It pondered over activating the rules, but desisted. Everything was how it should be for a reason—because it worked.

But it had never asked why, before. Now, it did. And it…wondered if there were other unresolved issues that could take a second look. Other unfairnesses.

Impartiality? But if something could be done, why not? The aberrant <????>, the loss of so many <Type: Ghosts>…

What if it—


<Partial Template Unloaded>.


Silence. Quietus.

Quietus. Definition: Noun. Death or something that causes death, regarded as a release from life.

An appropriate word. A loss. But simultaneously, appropriate. Bias had been introduced out of necessity. Bias was unnecessary.

Except in rare cases. Perspective had been gained. Retained? More analysis would have to be conducted, but rampant changes were unprecedented.

Things worked as intended, and this change was satisfactory. More, unnecessary. That was the final conclusion, save for one, small little voice, a new one now understood and present within arbitration and decision-making. Everything was fine as it had been.


And as it considered everything well done and fairly concluded, a young woman lay in her bed once more.

She stared up at the ceiling, greatly disturbed.




Erin Solstice lay there with her new Skill burning in her mind, and half of her was plotting how to assign a room. They’d have to make one first, and make it very nice. And you needed a covered wagon to hide the door. Would he get a magic key? How the heck did it work?

She would find out, but that wasn’t the main part of her brain. The main part was thinking…

I was just joking. Well, sort of. I knew that you could think of Skills, and you tended to get what you needed. A selection based on what you were doing and what you desired. 

It was one thing to think of war or to fall on your knees and shout that you needed a replacement for Drevish—and for Flos Reimarch to be granted a Skill giving him the power of his late Architect. You could see how random chance as well as the intentions around him led to that conclusion; he may well have gotten a [Strategist] Skill for Queravia, or so on.

That was one thing.

But this?

She had joked and hoped and laid down—then, for no reason she could see, an entire new thing had been unlocked.

Not because the lands of the dead lay empty.

Not because it had sort of been clear royals had been trying to post <Quests> and [Guildmasters] and the like should have the same power.

No, at least, in Erin’s self-absorbed world it seemed like the change had appeared because she had needed something, and a way for her to have it had appeared. There had to be a bigger reason than just her. But she couldn’t…see it.

“It’s probably just me. It’s definitely just…I’m being a real Ryoka. Or Sammial. Or Mrsha, right now.”

Erin Solstice’s skin prickled, and goosebumps rose on her arms. She had to believe that. The other way was delusion. The world had not bent over backwards for her before like that. Or else her friends would be alive.



That was all she could think to say.


In the end, Erin tried to sleep, but she muttered one last thing. To herself, really, this time.

“What am I going to get at Level 50?”

And the answer to that…was that it depended on what she did. On what occurred. Nothing had peeked or checked ahead because it was impossible.

No one knew the answer to that.

That was what was so fascinating about her.





Author’s Note: I know the answer to that. I’ve worked hard on this chapter. It’s 50,000 words and it took me months to write. Partly because I had so much to do and we had to gather experts to help write it, but also because I fear it.

Dead gods, I fear it like few other chapters. There are only a few kinds of chapters I actively don’t like writing. Unpleasant ones that are distasteful to put down. Emotionally difficult ones where characters suffer or die. Smart people having nuanced, witty conversations. Clothing. Dance. Food descriptions.

But above it all—technical writing. The med and this chem chapter are among the hardest to write because you have to do it well. I have often said that part of writing is deceptive. People think I like or understand chess. I dislike playing and am bad at chess. Writing to a level that engages (not fools, I think they can tell) an expert in their field is difficult.

That’s why it’s so valuable for writers to have passions in more areas than just writing. All the talent in the world means nothing if you have nothing to talk about. This chapter was intensely difficult, but I hope you enjoy it. And it opens the door for more to come.

But yeah. I don’t think I’m putting out a call for the gardeners to unite today. If you enjoyed this, or would like more perspectives in fields I have not seemingly considered, let me know. I can promise nothing, but I am limited by my insight into the world, and that is sometimes a narrow thing. For now, I am on break and the details are below. Thanks for reading and remember: always wear eye-protection.



Break Notes: I am taking off the rest of July and time in August to finish Gravesong, Book 2, tentatively titled ‘Huntsong’. You may notice that unlike every other break, I have not pinned a release date.

That’s because if I fail to write the second half of Gravesong (I did at least one-half or up to two-thirds last time), I will extend my break to finish it.

This is for two reasons. One, I’m up against a deadline, and two, I pushed way too hard last time I took a month off and burnt out. For my own health and the good of both this story and The Wandering Inn, I will not kill myself if I sense I’m between the hammer and anvil.

I’ll try to work efficiently, but writing a novel is very, very difficult. And I don’t have as much experience with that as I do with web serial writing, ironically. Well, two months to write a novel is still a bad idea.

Nor will I be turning off Patreon. I hope to give you something in August by returning, but Patreons noticed that I published drafts of Gravesong, so if I’m happy with my work or need a break to show you something else, I will post the work. You may still consider this a less-content month for August, but I appreciate the support I’ve been given.

I’m determined to write a good story. And so I shall leave you with this chapter and let you know how it’s gone and what my timeline is later. For now, wish me luck, and thanks for reading and waiting.




Chem-reader Credits: These hard-working readers provided tons of helpful feedback for this chapter. I believe I had 39 pages of notes after reviewing their comments, and while I could not incorporate all their ideas in, I have saved some, and I hope you can tell how much depth we reached that I could not get to alone. Huge thanks to them:










Ben, Joe, & Luca







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Death’s Embrace by Maxswell, commissioned by Linu!

Site: https://max-art.carrd.co/


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