The aging alchemist Gilman awaited an appointment with a customer, but that did not make the mysterious, nocturnal visitor any more welcome. His silver however was, and Gilman knew well enough not to inquire too deeply into its source. It rankled him that respectable patrons were so rare these days with the rise of the mystic cult Masgrah, which seemed to be developing into a full blown hanse. The members, which included most of the aristocracy of the city of Magnus, were forbidden to deal with outsiders except as absolutely necessary. Gilman refused to give into these ecomonmic coercions but unless he did something soon his business would fail.
His eminent customer’s medicinal orders were some of the few means of support he could find in his toubled situation, tough the covertness often bothered Gilman. Gilman had wondered about the man since he had first entered his laboratory almost a year past. At first appearance the youth seemed to be among the riffraff commonly encountered in the poorer sections of any city the size of Magnus. He appeared unwashed, unkept, and half-starved; his clothing little more than rags. His face seemed a battlefield of pox scars. But the feature which repulsed Gilman most was the constant twitches and jerks which wracked the youth’s frame. Still, he possessed two qualities which did not align with this image: money and a classical education. Gilman often worried about the source of funds which allowed him to acquire such rare ingredients at what Gilman well knew to be inflated costs. He had been similarly astounded to glimpse the youth’s knowledge in classical science and literature in their discussions. So great was his education that Gilman often wondered why his own services were required by the youth at all. But then the youth’s unsteadiness and nervous aggitation would be a major hindrance in the laboratory. The youth’s background was one mystery into which this well-meaning investigator would not pry as he feared the prospect of losing such a monetary find.
A gentle but unrhythmic rapping roused Gilman from his thoughts. Approaching the barred door, Gilman called for his visitor’s identity. The sole answer “Atros” was sufficient passage into the alchemist’s combined laboratory and home. The youth appeared if anything to be more nervous than normal.
“You have completed the Nepenthe of the Mahedeos?” Atros asked. His articulation was so flawless that once again it startled Gilman.
“I await only the second half of the payment,” Gilman answered noticing the strange expression in the youth’s eyes. “It is by far the strongest nepenthe that I have ever compounded. Its potency will surely overcome the tolerance which you seem to be developing. I promise that your sleep will be both deep and undisturbed by dreams if you imbibe in this ‘Little Death’.” Gilman chuckled lamely, growing uncomfortable.
“I’m afraid that I don’t have the money yet, but surely some arrangement could be worked out,” Atros said with a rehearsed tone.
“That is not according to our agreement nor my policy. Full payment on reception of the vial.” Gilman had already promised the youth’s coins to a creditor by the following day.
“Allow me to take it and I will have your money within three days,” Atros offered weakly.
“No, I cannot accept credit. I cannot….” Gilman’s mind filled with his eminent monetary troubles.
“There is no other alternative?” Atros asked faintly.
“No.” Gilman responded hardly rising from his worries.
The youth seemed to be taken by a particularly violent jerk of his right arm which flew toward the old man. In a near blinding flash of motion, Atros wedged a knife in the old man’s chest. Gilman stared in astonishment, gurgled once, and died. Already beginning to mentally curse his impulse, Atros removed the knife and cleaned the blade. Not for the first time had he tragically let his instinct rather than his mind control his actions.
“Fool! Coward! Where will I ever find another supplier!” Atros shouted at himself. After a moment, “He was just a harmless old man…” he mumbled leaning over the body, accepting yet one more burden of guilt.
He began to search the building knowing that Gilman’s apprentices would discover the crime at sunrise. He easily located both the vial of nepenthe and Gilman’s alchemical notes and texts. With greater effort he found the old man’s disappointingly small cache of coins. Careful so as not to be seen he slipped from the building and returned to the hovel in which he was currently residing.
Once there he began to consider his situation. Surely, Gilman’s apprentices knew of his nocturnal visits. He would never escape the headman’s block if he remained in Magnus. He resolved to leave as quickly as he could pack his meager possessions, which were mostly comprised of rare and coveted books on a wide range of subjects. He was reluctant to leave any of his prizes but he realized that they would only slow him down in his flight. Quickly, he made his selections and headed for the north gate. He had heard of a distant port near Dargon where a man might lie low for a few months. He hoped that such a place could cater to his needs, but he realized that skilled alchemists were quite rare, especially ones who would accept a client as unaristocratic as he himself appeared. He tried to convince himself that his change of residence would be an oppurtuntity to begin anew, but he had drifted too much not to know that you always take yourself along with you. Within a few minutes he slipped past the guards at the northern gate and was leagues distant from the city by sunrise.
A few hours after sundown of the following day, Atros sat near a small campfire in a secluded grove far to the north. Though he was very weary he had taken a great deal of time preparing as good a meal as possible under the circumstances. Of course, he had only attempted to delay the inevitable. Finally, he lay close to the small fire huddled in rags and slept for the first time in many days. Well aware of the finite supply of the nepenthe, he had chose not to partake of the drug hoping that the weariness of his body would prevent dreaming. He had been wrong.
Atros didn’t know when he first became aware. The environment about him had come into being quite gradually. Perhaps it was the heat of the forge itself which had roused him. Atros knew almost instantly that this was a dream, at least it was what other people in the waking world called a dream, though Atros was no longer so certain of the distinction. He also quickly realized that this was one of those few dreams wherein he was present as only a discorporate observer. This frightened him since such dreams, with their innate feeling of helplessness, were often the worst.
His point of perception was suspended about three feet above a curiously crafted forge or oven. It was a hollow stone cube with two opposing sides open. Within the cube a bank of red coals were fanned by a strange wind which passed through the cube’s open faces. The forge itself seemed to be composed of a gritty, brown rock which was encrusted in soot.
Atros first perceived a disturbance in this scene with the sounds of the approach of several person who were beyound his field of vision, which seemed to be fixed downward. Shortly, he periferally sensed a dark, muscular figure who examined the coal bed, grunted, and placed a long, somewhat squared bar of black metal into the forge. The metal quickly grew red with firery intensity.
After a time, the man, whom Atros took to be the smith, removed the brand, placed it atop the forge and set to striking it with a blunt, iron mallet. Each blow seemed vaguely unsettling and disturbing to the point that Atros mentally winced in anticipation of each strike.
During this time another figure beyound Atros’ sight began speaking to a third. He seemed concerned that the metal was too imperfect to temper it so harshly, but the third voice reassured him that the alloy was finer than before crafted and that none other could fill their purpose. This seemed to mollify the second voice to some extent but his voice retained a tinge of nervous anxiety.
After what seemed to have been an eternity of excruciating blows to Atros, he gained awareness enough to look upon the product of these labors. He was astonished to discover a fantastically beautiful, silver brand of glossy smooth finish extending from a fine point down a double edged shaft to a thin tang bolt. Atros’ mind was awed by this creation while the smith wiped his sweaty grip and brow on a soot-smeared rag.
A barely perceived motion suggested that one of the as yet unseen figures had given the smith an ornately carved dark walnut box, which the smith fumbled open. Inside lay a fine silver chisel and a heavy mallet made entirely from a single casting of bone white metal. Here again, the voice of the second figure gave caution. He was unsure whether the forthcoming action was totally justified when the dangers were fully considered, but the third reassured the smith and set him about his task.
Carefully, the smith took the hammer and chisel in hand positioning the chisel’s tip on a point just below the sword’s point. He raised his right arm and with a mighty blow came down with his full force which sent fine crack through the forge. Simultaneously, Atros elsewhere perceived the astonished stares of grocers, merchants, and midwives to a single clang from their chapel’s bell tower, which for centuries had been used to signal a call to arms. This dual point of awareness was only momentarily disorientating to Atros as he had experienced the like before in other dreams. Returning to the forge, the bewildered Atros saw engraved on the blade the entire word “Cogne”, but the smith was not yet finished.
Once again, his hammer rose and fell but with an even greater force which further enlarged the forge’s flaw. Once again, the high noted report of the barrel-shaped warning bell drew attention of distant farmers, herders, and millers. The blade now bore the highly stylized word “Tu” at its mid-section.
The smith, exhaustion seeping from his pores, stretched his frame over the hot forge to impart the last engraved word to the haft. For the third and final time he drew his hammer high with incredible slowness and delivered it with the unmatchable strength that arose from the last of his reserves. As the block split, his blow caused the sword to leap outward lodging the sword’s point deep within his abdomen. Exhausted by his efforts the smith calmly accepted death. Simultaneously, the bells of the church tower broke out in a furious and undying clangor demanding action from all the denzines of the manor.
Struggling to keep out the clamor, Atros concentrated on the still visible haft of the sword which rose from the crumpled form of the smith. The word “Ipsem” was firmly engraved, but Atros also noticed that a fine crack ran from this engraving to the tang bolt, where its prescence might cause the handle to snap in its wielder’s grip at some future date. Still, the clangor of the bells continued as Atros drifted apart from this vision.
After some moments, Atros rolled over in his sleep somewhat roused by the bell. “Who was that? Dear.” He called to the supine form laying beside him in bed.
“Wrong number… Go back to sleep,” a rich feminine voice replied.
Atros drifted into sleep once more.
Atros awoke with a startled cry jumping to his feet and throwing some of the begraggled bedding into the smoldering coals of the nearby campfire. He was sweating profusely though the night air was quite cold. Quickly, he rescued what scraps he could from the flames and croached back near the fire. He struggled to force the unpleasant recollections of his dreams from his mind. Aided by that natural psychological force which seperates our dream lives from our wakeful lives by forgetfullness, he managed after an hour to recall only that his dreams had been most unpleasant. No longer willing to take such chances, Atros quaffed a rather large dose of nepenthe and gradually returned to unconsciousness. His final thoughts lingered on the translated phrase which occupied his mind long after his dream had been forgotten. Still, he recognized that he had considered the phrase vitally important only moments ago. To the occasionally cynical mind of Atros, “Know you yourself” now seemed just a sample of that profound sounding drivel which streetcorner philosophers fostered on the unwary. It could not be worth troubling one’s sleep over so, he let this too pass from his mind. Gilman’s word, after all, had been good. Atros experienced the sleep of the dead for the next nine hours.
A few minutes after Atros had administered himself with the drug and safely passed the arms of Morpheus without mishap, a black cloaked figure arose from the brush at the edge of the fire light, floated smoothly across the glen floor, and stood motionless above Atros’ helpless form. It stood thus until nearly daybreak then glided into the nearby depths of the wood to wait yet again.