A foul cloud of yellow-green smoke moved slowly down the alley. Dogs ran from it, howling and barking as if chased by demons. Children wailed as it passed, their eyes stinging and their skin blistering. Those fast enough to shutter their windows were spared the worst of it. But cracked wooden shutters with open seams did not provide complete protection, so nearly everyone in the neighborhood was affected by the cloud. Complaints flooded the office of the magistrate and by noon an immediate investigation was ordered.
When the mist had finally passed, a justiciar named Dathon was dispatched the the neighborhood known as Jake’s Alley. A veteran investigator, Dathon was surprised not to encounter the usual resistance to a justiciar’s inquiries. The residents of Jake’s Alley were quick to point to the source of the poisonous cloud: a young man, rumored to be the black sheep of some merchant family, who fancied himself an alchemist. “He’s a cranky one,” a one-eyed fisherman told the officer. “He comes from money. Makes a lot himself, too, he does, selling potions and powders. I went to him once. He healed me.”
Dathon examined the old man’s scarred face, pondered the single tooth he saw protruding from a bleeding gum, winced at the foul breath that smelled of kidney rot, and reasoned this alleged healer couldn’t be much. He thanked the old fisherman and gave him half a copper for the advice.
As one of six justiciars in Middleton, Dathon had dealt with his share of incompetent alchemists. Just last year a plague of frogs in the butcher’s quarter put the city into chaos. The subsequent investigation led to three mages and an alchemist who were attempting to summon the shade of another alchemist, who was rumored to have found the secret for transmuting lead into gold. None of them could explain what miscalculation in their formulations resulted in a rain of toads; all were found guilty and exiled from the city.
Dathon approached the door the old fisherman had indicated and took a deep breath. Frauds with money and connections could be difficult. In most ordinary cases, Dathon could simply haul the offender into court and have them answer to the charges. Most of these would-be mages and wanna-be sages were more than a little short of coin and could rarely pay the fines, which meant they spent some time doing labor for the city. Six months of cleaning the sewers and aqueducts, picking up garbage and emptying chamber pots was enough to convince any failed magician to seek another line of work.
But mages with money were another story. Most of them were the sires of merchants and other middlemen who had made their fortune recently. Many had inherited familial greed and transmuted it into a lust for magical power, and tended to pursue the latter in the a reckless manner. Their wealth and position often provided a degree of protection and lessened their accountability. When the justiciar came knocking, whether it was about all-night orgies or plagues of rats, these scions of wealth simply paid the fine and went back to their pursuits.
Dathon knock firmly on the door, six knocks, one for each goddess. An impatient voice from the other side called out, “Go away! I told you, I’m sorry about your damned goat!”
Dathon called out, “Justiciar. Open this door in the name of the law.”
The man on the other side didn’t try to hide his grumbling and swearing, but when the door opened he at least attempted a smile at the officer. “How can I help you, officer?”
Dathon was shocked. He expected a young man, based on the descriptions given by the neighbors. But the man before him had a wild head of steel-grey hair. It wasn’t until Dathon noticed the scraggly beard that he realized the man was young and all his hair had gone prematurely grey.
“Sir, would you give me your name, please?”
The grey-haired young man frowned. “What’s this about?”
“I’m investigating a cloud of vapor which caused some problems this afternoon.”
The frown disappeared, replaced by raised eyebrows and pursed lips. “Oh, that.” He took a breath and released it, not quite a sigh, and opened the door. “Come in, please.”
Dathon entered. The man’s room was as he expected: a small cot in the corner, a table strewn with parchment and a few precious books, and another table – a work table, complete with alchemical apparatus: clay urns, metal pots, colored and even clear glass bottles. Dathon could tell from the amount of gear that the neighbors had not been wrong about the man’s finances.
“Your name, sir?”
“I’d rather keep my name out of this, officer.” The man walked around the room, searching for something.
“Are you the individual some call ‘Greymadder?’”
The man rolled his eyes and sighed, then nodded solemnly.
“Very well.” The use of a distinctive alias was allowable by custom, if not by law. Clearly the man intended to settle the matter with coin. “Were you responsible for the cloud of vapor?”
“Indirectly,” Greymadder answered. He began searching his cot, pulling back several blankets to look underneath.
“Several citizens experienced pain and discomfort as a result of contact with the cloud,” Dathon told him.
“They should have moved out of the way,” Greymadder grumbled in reply. “It was a giant, bright yellow cloud of smoke. You could see it coming for miles.” He moved away from the bed and began moving the parchment and books on the table.
“Nevertheless,” Dathon responded. “Some damage was done. Several children received blisters. Seven dogs were seized by uncontrollable vomiting. And there is the matter of the goat.”
“Yes. That fellow has already visited. I promised to make it right for him and have agreed to compensate him by providing medical services to his family.” Greymadder finally found what he was looking for and shouted, “Aha!” He brushed some breadcrumbs from a page of parchment.
“Are you a healer?” Dathon asked him.
Greymadder presented the parchment to Dathon. It was a license from the city to practice the healing arts. “This is your legal name?” Dathon asked, indicating the name on the license.
Frowning fiercely, the man snatched the parchment from Dathon’s hands. “Of course it’s my name. Who’s name should it be?”
“Perhaps you would like to visit the children who were injured by your cloud?” Dathon suggested. “The orphanage could no doubt benefit from your medical services as well.”
The man made a strange sound in his throat. “Those people hate me.”
“Why is that, sir?”
“Because I’m special,” the man answered.
For three days Lucky had been searching for the magician. Three nights earlier he had dreamed of his destiny. The Great Mother had come to him where he slept in the stables. Though now he reasoned it must have been a dream, at the time it had seemed to Lucky that she was standing right there beside him in the stables. He could even smell her perfume over the stench of manure. Jasmine and honeysuckle. When she touched him on the arm he felt the softness of her skin. She called him by name, but it was the name he had not used since childhood. He told her the name everyone called him but she hushed him and told him that he was being summoned to fulfill a destiny.
“In the heart of the city is a man haunted by madness and conceit,” the goddess told him.
“You want me to kill him?” Lucky asked.
“Hush, my child.” The goddess smiled at him and he felt full of light and hope. “This man is my
child just as you are my child, as all of you are my children. I wish you to protect him from harm, to guard him as if he were your brother.”
“I don’t have a brother,” Lucky told the goddess. “I’m a bastard.”
But she was gone then. He could still smell the jasmine in the air.
“Let me see if I understand you,” Dathon said patiently to the man. The young grey-haired magician )it must have been the hair led to that nickname, Dathon thought) had a way with words and had managed to evade answering any questions directly. Instead he somehow avoided admitting that the cloud was his fault, or even that he was the cause of the cloud or its damage, yet did not deny that the cloud had come from this room.
The exasperated justiciar Dathon reiterated these things. “You admit the cloud came from this room. You admit that you were performing an alchemical experiment at the time. But you deny causing the cloud.”
“I deny directly causing the cloud, yes.”
“So you were indirectly the cause of the cloud?”
“In the same manner that I am indirectly the cause of you being a justiciar, yes.”
Dathon sighed. “Do you know the direct cause of the cloud?”
“Well, I know it come from somewhere, but where-from it came some, I don’t know.”
“Do you know what the cloud consisted of?”
“It seemed to be some sort of noxious vapor.”
“Yes, but it’s composition. What were the elements you were using in your experiment?”
“It wasn’t an experiment.”
“You said you were performing an alchemical procedure.”
“Yes, but it was not an experiment.”
“Can you explain?”
“I was simply making some healing potions, something I do every day. There was no ‘experiment’ to it.”
“If it’s something you do every day, what went wrong today?”
“I was attempting a shortcut.”
“What shortcut was that?”
“Are you an alchemist, sir?”
“No, I am not.”
“And I am not a justiciar. Would you care to explain the intricacies of Middleton property disputes with relation to familiar inheritance when no legitimate sons are involved?”
Dathon shook his head. “No, sir. We don’t have that kind of time.”
“So this shortcut – was it the cause of the cloud?”
“No, it most certainly was not.”
“Some reaction then?”
“I assure you that when I am making healing potions, there are no chemicals involved which would cause the weeping of children and mass canine regurgitation.”
“Well, sir. You can understand that I need some sort of explanation. For my report.”
“These things happen.”
“These things happen?”
“Yes. From time to time, these things happen. No matter what I do, no matter how careful I am with the process, these things happen.”
“Why is that, sir?”
Greymadder crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. “I told you. I’m special.”
Lucky stepped over the huge pool of dog vomit and wondered why anyone would let three dogs just lie there dead in the alley. It wasn’t his part of town so he didn’t think on it too much. Someone had told him that a grey-haired magician lived somewhere in one of these alleys. He was determined to find the man before sunset. For one thing, he needed a place to sleep. When he told the stablemaster of his vision, the man threatened to beat Lucky for blasphemy and sent him away. Since he had no job and no place to sleep, he needed to find the magician. Besides, the way people had talked about the man, he seemed to need some protection. He wasn’t well-liked, this mage, even though he healed people and made potions. It seemed he was very unpleasant and maybe a little crazy, which would fit with what the goddess had told Lucky in his vision.
An old man was coughing blood in the corner. Lucky stopped to see if the old man need help. When the coughing man turned Lucky saw that the old man had only one eye and was missing about half his fingers. Probably a thief and a peeper, Lucky thought. Or maybe just a guy with bad luck.
“Can I help you, old grandfather?” Lucky asked.
The old man coughed again, spat a thick glob of saliva and blood on the street, and waved a hand at Lucky. The hand only had two and a half fingers on it and the thumb looked like a dried fig. “I’ve been dying of the bloodlung for twenty years,” the old man told him.
“Perhaps you can help me then,” Lucky said. “I am searching for a magician. The Great Mother has sent me to find him.”
The old man coughed and spat again. “Sent you to kill him, I wager!” He laughed and coughed at the same time, a sound which made Lucky want to cry.
“You know the man?” Lucky was surprised. He hadn’t even described the magician to the one- eyed man.
“He’s a menace,” the old man cackled. “He’s been driven mad by the the orrium, he has.”
Lucky nodded. The goddess had sad something about madness. “Can you tell me where to find him?”
“Follow the trail of dead dogs and vomit,” the old man answered. “Follow the sound of wailing babies and weeping mothers.”
Lucky nodded and headed down the alley.
It was nearly a half-hour before the justiciar left his room. Greymadder was barely able to control his fury by the time the simpleton had gone away. It was all he could do not to cast confusion on the dolt and send him out into Whoretown.
His earlier procedure had gone awry – that much was certain. Everyone seemed to think it was a simple cloud of noxious vapor, which was a good thing. If anyone realized the cloud was actually sentient, some cloud-creature from another plane that had been accidentally conjured, Greymadder would be in serious trouble. The Archons frowned on the kind of experimentation he was fond of doing in his little room. If they only knew what he knew, they wouldn’t be so timid. They were content to master one, maybe two elements, fine with a lifetime of menial magic. Not him.
Since childhood he had been casting spells, first to help him see in the dark (his night vision was terrible) and later to help his family with illness and other matters. The goddess of day seemed to have smiled on him at any early age. When he began his formal studies, he followed the path of light in honor of her gift. But during these studies he became intrigued by other magics as well. He wanted to pursue a deeper relationship with the Light, and the best route to this goal is to follow the Path of Fire. But his ambition exceeded his patience for the limitations of formal education and soon after beginning his journey on the Path of Fire, he abandoned traditional studies and set out to master all the elements.
No doubt it was his orrium use which contributed to this. Drinking his special potions gave him even more power, albeit temporary, and not without cost: the occasional dosage led to hallucinations that would drive most men mad. But he was convinced he had a destiny, a purpose to pursue. It wasn’t a single goddess who had called him but the mother of all the goddesses together. They wanted him to master not just magic, but orrium itself.
Of course no one ever believed him when he told them this. This was, he knew from the lore, a common reaction to those called by destiny, and it convinced him further of his greatness. They all laughed at him: his friends, his family, his neighbors. It didn’t matter how much he did for them, how many healing potions he made or how tired he got from tending to their illnesses: to them he was just another healing mage, and they mocked his dreams and idealism.
Suddenly there came another pounding on the door. Greymadder cursed, stomped the floor twice, and turned to answer the door. He opened it and saw a man in armor, holding a broadsword and shield. Instinctively Greymadder flinched, awaiting a mailed fist slamming into his fist, or worse, a yard of steel cleaving him twain.
“Are you the one they call Greymadder?” the suit of armor asked.
“Some people call me that.”
The suit of armor dropped to one knee and bowed its head. “The Great Mother has called me to serve you.”
Greymadder threw up his hands and laughed maniacally. “You see? You see?” he shouted to the ceiling and to anyone who could hear. “I told you I was special!”
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