Official site for the high/dark fantasy books of authors Barb Hendee and J. C. Hendee, including the Noble Dead Saga (a.k.a. The Noble Dead series), the Mist-Torn Witches series, the Vampire Memories series, and TNDS: Tales from the world of the Noble Dead Saga.

New Beginnings... Part 3

new_beginnings

NOTICE: The original post was damaged and its pertinent parts are restored. For those stopping in on this series for the first time, you might take a peek at Part 1 and Part 2 to get caught up on what this is about. Be mindful that these are extracts from a copyrighted work in progress. And so, let us continue…


Chapter 1, Scene 3

That morning and well before dawn, Master Venon Kriändul tapped a boney finger on a teardrop-shaped, glass vessel with a fluted top and bottom. The tap's vibrations caused verdant mist within the glass to swirl suddenly in agitation, trapped as it was by an amber handled stoppered in the vessel's top. Venon straighten, wheezed an agonizing breath, and pulled his maroon robe tighter around his now frail frame. He still shivered against growing inner chill.

That teardrop chamber was the first in an intricate arrangement of bulbs, tubes, and receptacles. Altogether, it was one of many strange devices and contraptions upon an oak table darkened by age and purposeful treatments to make it impervious to mishaps.

Yes, even he made a mistake now and then in his experiments. Some had cost him dearly, but he was still alive after too many years. Most others were not.

This was the risk and ultimate price of failure in mastery of the art, craft, and science of Alchemy.

Venon began to shake with the weakness of too advanced age. He dropped too quickly into a high-backed oak chair treated like the table and darkened as well. With one boney hand of quivering fingers, he adjusting his turban-wrap to settle it tighter about his head. And he dragged that hand down his gaunt face, feeling the wrinkles that had returned to his features once again.

Two days of fine stubble grated against his touch, for he was too stricken to shave.

The mist finally settled toward the bottom end of the glass vessel. It seeping into the next downward glass chamber etched with many symbols stained in a wild array of colors. Around this second vessel, three candles on tall stands warmed the contents gently so as not the make the mist rise again. And its downward progress was so achingly slow. It had not fully cleared the first vessel before its lead end wormed down into a third and final vessel of hammered brass, exposed to greater heat from a bottom burner.

Venon fixed upon that verdant trail amid his dark surroundings. Earlier, he had barely found the strength and stability to start a small fire in the fireplace below a stone shaft to the surface and then to light a taper for one lantern on the table. This subterranean room with its iron reinforced door was neither his home nor his only laboratorium. It was his secondary sanctuary as a master among alchemists—perhaps grandmaster, if that had any real meaning. He worked here as was necessary when monitoring the subterranean mill's extraction of the purest sea-salt known and sold on all shores of the ocean.

That was how fortunes were truly made in the most practical art of magic versus thaumaturgy, conjury, or even reviled sorcery. No, those like him did not create great fortunes; that notion was for ignorant fools and fairytales.

Transmutation of base metals into precious ones decreased the commerce value of what was created. When and if such treasure was used in abandon, kingdoms toppled, wars erupted, and chaos mounted as coin became virtually worthless. He had seen this for himself in long years, decades… maybe more than a century.

Fortunately, permanent transmutation of inert material was a secret not easily mastered. Those who did uncovered the true way knew better than to use it. As to those who stole that secret…

All such within Kriändul's extended reach had passed due to “natural causes,” “serious ailments,” or “unfortunate mishaps.” Or they simply vanished. This too was the duty of all within the grand art, craft, and science.

Magic was not for the masses.

Now, it was his own too-long life and something else that concerned him. A crucial ingredient for preparing his inhalant was all but gone. Leaning forward in his chair, it took him intense effort to reach for an ocher-colored box the size for a deck of cards upon the his work table. Three quivering fingers pressed in three separate locations—twice—upon on the box. Only then did its lid lift free.

Inside were traces of what looked like pure salt. Those grains had not come from the sea-salt mill in the levels above him. As one of three alchemists known as the Trion, who had created the mill's immense mirrors, glass panels, and other machinery, Venon was impatient as well as ill.

The day's work would begin in a limited fashion soon after the sun rose above the eastern mountain range, which shadowed the land each dawn. The amount of purified sea-salt only the Trion could extract had to be regulated. The flow of true wealth must be meticulously controlled in balancing two influences—desire and desperation.

Control supply to control demand; thereby control the value of the supply. Salt was valuable in many ways, and more so that of such purity as only the Trion's mill could product. But the salt that Kriändul had used up was of another kind.

Milhk'ēn'mōt—the “salt of death.”

His yearly—and costly—delivery was late by one day. In the past, that would have meant nothing to him. Over more recent years, his need of a restorative had grown more frequent. So where was that wastrel layabout of an apprentice he taken in?

Venon peered at the iron-banded heavy door of his chamber, which had a lockplate without a visible keyhole. He had left it “unlocked” in expecting his apprentice. Why had he ever let his second cousin badger him into taking on her son?

Of course, Beatris Bayrtäz was not his second cousin.

After a few too many decades, he no longer cared to calculate the proper term for a granddaughter of his actual second cousin. Without a spouse or child of his own—or rather any that had lived—Venon had still begun to feel the need of an inheritor.

If only there were any other but Devnik Bayrtäz!

At least his something-second-nephew was not an utter half-wit. Lazy? Yes. Conniving? Most certainly. That second flaw might used against the first in baiting the layabout into delving the deeper mysteries. Of course, only so long as that gangly do-little stopped looking for shortcuts in everything!

At rapid rap upon the door, Venon quickly returned the lid to the ocher box.

“Enter,” he wheezed, followed by a breathy whisper of “finally!

The heavy door cracked open without the slightest squeal of iron hinges. A head of flatten black hair around a pasty, bony face, squeezed through the narrow opening—and at such height that it brushed the doorframe's top. Unwashed hair above and a scraggly tuft of beard below framed bulging eyes over jutting cheekbones and a flat slit of mouth.

“Master?”

“Get in here…” and Venon had to take a breath, “…now!”

His so-called apprentice squeezed through the partly opened door, though not that much of a squeeze was needed.

Devnik Bayrtäz was an overly tall, near-nothing at first sight, and so skinny even his narrow-cut dingy pants, shirt, and hip-long vest sagged on his frame. The more deceptive part of him were those seemingly vacant, slightly bulging, dirt-brown eyes. Those twitched about, peeking at everything on the master's work table, side desk, bookshelves, wall shelves, and…

Again, Devnik had forgotten his work apron.

Venon put that aside for more urgent matters.

“I have an errand for you,” he declared with effort, “before you clean the amplification lens and mirrors after the day's extraction process.”

Devnik halted three paces away and ceased all furtive glances. “Errand, master?”

Oh yes, anything to forestall real work. All the more if the spindly whelp thought it might have to do with his master's secrets.

Venon followed another of Devnik's glances toward where the mist had fully settled into the heated brass vessel. He quickly twisted the vessel's upper valve closed, snuffed the burner, and when he looked back…

Devnik was staring at him, perhaps a little more bug-eyed than usual.

Venon knew how he appeared to others in his current state, though he rarely let anyone see him this way, and never anyone outside of his direct influence. His years had caught up with him again, sooner and sooner every time. And now even the sight of a mirror, let alone glancing into it, made him cringe in rage and terror.

He saw his own death looking back at him in glass.

“Go to the northern low docks,” he ordered. “Captain Fas'sud of the Haroun was expected by yesterday. He bears a package for my eyes only. If he has not arrived, check with the portmaster for any news and wait. Either way, return by noon.”

Venon leaned forward with effort and reached around the ocher box. From between all of his contraptions, he plucked a plain-looking envelop prepared much earlier. When he settled, thumping painfully against the chair's high back, he held out envelop.

He willed his hand not to shake but failed, and Devnik inched forward and reached out.

Venon withdrew the envelope for an instant. “Need I warn you not to open it?”

Devnik quickly shook his head, which didn't move a lock of his matted hair.

“No, master,” he quickly assured. “But… it's a ways… up the coast to—”

“Yes,” and Venon wheezed. “You may take a cargo cart… a small one.”

Devnik quickly snatch the envelope amid a half-bow and backed away. Tilting toward the door, he was halfway out when he froze.

“Yes?” Venon hissed.

When no answer came, he rolled his head on the chair's tall back. Again, Devnik's hungry bug-eyes flickered about the room; again they widened and narrowed at the too many little items between the books, tomes, and bound sheaves upon the shelves. Of course the most precious of such had their individual protections.

“Yes?” Venon snapped again.

“I was hoping, master… perhaps I could… study a bit more… later.”

Venon looked away to his brass vessel. “If there is time… after your work.”

A long silence passed before he heard the iron-banded door clunk shunt. He waited longer until those slow and then hurried steps faded in the stone passage outside. Venon forced himself upright in the chair and reached for a set of long tongs nearby. It took both shaking hands to tong-grip the brass vessel and pull out its connected glass tubes. He quickly doused the vessel's top with water from a mug to cool it, twisted its valve open, and put the opening to his mouth.

Master Venon Kriändul sucked the verdant mist into his lungs—and convulsed.

Burning began inside of him. His sight blurred. Pained tears leaked from his eyes. When his vision cleared, he still flinched away at a glimpse of himself in the brass vessel's polished surface. Had the lines and wrinkles and spots in his face begun to fade yet? Had any strength at all returned to his flesh?

If so, how long would it last this time?

Venon expelled a breath without a hint of verdant mist. He collapsed forward in racking, hacking coughs. Flailing to brace himself on the table, he scattered the ocher box and other instruments before he collapsed forward and flattened there.

Another knock upon the door, and he could not yet raise his head.

The knock came again, three even and sharp raps, so certainly not those of Devnik.

Venon finally pushed up and flopped back in his chair with a breath that took less effort than the last.

“Enter,” he called out.

The door swung wide this time, and there stood Alvair Nourt.

Portly but dressed in a maroon robe like Venon's, Alvair had a face like an inverted triangle. A wide jaw hung beneath a splayed nose below narrow-set gray eyes capped by a balding pate. There was more hair on his chin than his scalp, though his upper lip had a thin line of over-waxed moustashes.

Alvair, as one of Venon's two associates in the Trion, did not scan the whole chamber. Those ashen eyes remained fixed on his “partner.” Venon said nothing in waiting.

“Preparation is almost complete,” Alvair stated. “How much should we extract this season?”

“A quarter ton at most,” Kriändul answered. “Sale of our salt declined last season. Supply should decline twice the loss to revitalize long term demand.”

After a long pause, Alvair countered, “as expected,” but he just stood there staring, studying his partner.

“And?” Venon added, straightening more comfortably now in his chair.

Alvair neither blinked nor shifted his focus from Venon. There was only one thing in this chamber that interested another master of the grand practices. One eyebrow as thin as his wax-twirled mustaches raised slightly. Perhaps Alvair smiled, though it passed too quickly.

“One day I will find something,” he began, “to tempt you in a bargain for that secret.”

His gaze shifted to the brass vessel on the worktable—the evidence of his true desire—and back to his partner.

“Not this day,” Venon returned, “or you would mentioned it upon entering.”

Alvair smiled slightly but openly and then turned to leave, but he did not close the door.

“I will await you above in the mill,” he called out, his voice echoing back down the stone passage. “But do not dally… old one. Getany, our other partner, is younger than even I… and thereby she's considerably less patient than you.”


FINAL NOTE: The next installment may take a little while but hopefully no more than a week; see you then. —J.C.