Note: This is the first installment of my new fantasy novella, “The Alchemist’s Chalice.” Hope to eventually publish it in its entirety on Kindle.
The Story of the Chalice
Once upon a time, in the great city of Amuneth, there was a king named Shep. His father, King Odep, was keeper of the Alchemist’s Chalice – a powerful object crafted centuries before, by the talented potion-maker called Allasin. The alchemists had been searching many years for an object in which the Elixir of the Sun could be brewed: for the elixir was the only thing that could defeat the demons of Maza.
Maza was a vast pyramid that stood just beyond Amuneth; and for ages, terrible demons had dwelt within it. They tormented the army of Amuneth, and lived only to wreak destruction. The Elixir of the Sun was created by an alchemist named Esha – and although he hardly knew whether the elixir would succeed, still he carried it to Maza, risking his own life to face the demons there. He splashed some of the elixir on the guards outside the pyramid, and although it did kill them, it began also at that moment to burn through the container in which it was stored. Esha went on against the demons who came to face him, and slayed every one that the elixir touched. But then the bottom of the container was melted; and Esha was burned alive.
Since that day, the alchemists sought for a material that would withstand the power of the elixir. But for many years, they all failed. It was only Allasin who succeeded, though he died before having shared the secret of the chalice. Therefore it could not be replicated. Yet it was treasured as a safeguard for the people, and was guarded constantly by King Odep.
The chalice was used to ward away the demons, each time they came to the city. The people begged that Odep would take the chalice, and go to Maza to wage war against the demons; but he feared that the vessel wouldn’t hold enough of the elixir to slay them all. So he never attempted it.
When Shep was still but a young man, he came into his father’s chamber one day, to find him murdered: and the chalice vanished. It was never seen, after that day. So the demons returned to Amuneth.
King Shep spent his entire life searching for the chalice, and for the person who had killed his father. But never with any success. He defended his subjects as best he could against the demons, but more and more frequently they penetrated the city walls, to terrorize the people.
Shep and his wife had one daughter, a dark-haired and beautiful girl, whose name was Nadina. She told her father, when she was very young, that she wanted to fight against the demons; but her father only smiled sadly, and told her to put the thought from her mind. Truthfully, he had sometimes wished for a son, who could help him to defend the city. But of course he wouldn’t allow his daughter to attempt it.
And yet, as she grew, Nadina became less and less what her father wished for her to be. She refused every suitor who came to call, and she would not dance at the balls. She only stayed in her chamber, by day and by night, studying the ancient history of the land, and seeking the demons’ weakness. Yet she could find nothing – save for the Elixir of the Sun.
So she finally resolved, to begin hunting for the Alchemist’s Chalice. She went out of the palace in the dark of night, and down to an old seer in one of the villages.
“You should not be here, young princess,” the woman said with a smile. “Your father would reprimand me.”
“I wish to seek for the Alchemist’s Chalice,” Nadina explained. “But I don’t know where to start.”
The old woman studied the princess’s face, for a very long moment. But finally she said: “Of course I cannot tell you where the chalice is hidden. Your father has come to me, many times – and neither could I tell him. But still I can give you, what I gave to him.”
She went to a cabinet that stood in a corner of the room, opened its doors, and took from a little box that stood upon a shelf, a fair stone that was attached to a string.
“This,” she said, “is called moonstone. It’s a magical thing, that can help you to find what your heart is seeking. When you come near to what you seek, it will begin to glow.”
She hung the stone around Nadina’s neck, and then went back to the cabinet. She pulled from it a long sword, which shone impressively in the candlelight.
“This,” she said again, “is a sword of light. It’s crafted from the powerful ore that’s found in the Diamond Mountains, and is wielded by every soldier in the army of Amuneth, to keep the demons at bay.”
She placed the sword in Nadina’s hand, and added, “To protect you on your journey.”
Nadina eyed the cabinet, and said, “I don’t suppose you have a pair of wings in there, too?”
The old woman grinned, and replied, “I certainly haven’t. You have a great deal of ground to cover – but you shall have to ride a horse, just like everyone else.” She knitted her brows, and asked Nadina, “Do you even know where you’ll start?”
Nadina thought a moment, and frowned. “Not in the city,” she said. “If the chalice were here, surely my father would have found it by now. So I will start beyond the gate.”
“And you do not fear the demons?”
“Not to fear them would be madness. But I will go, anyway.”
The old woman laid a hand on Nadina’s shoulder, and said, “Your father told me once, how he wished he had a son to aid him. But I do think, that you are quite as brave as any man could be.”
So Nadina took the gifts that the old woman had given her; and although she didn’t ask for money, still Nadina gave to her, a great handful of coins.
The Peasant Girl
In a little village some miles from Amuneth, there lived a seamstress and her daughter. The woman’s husband had died, many months before – killed by a demon. There in the land beyond the mighty walls of Amuneth, the demons ran rampant, killing men, and taking women as their slaves.
When they came to the village where the seamstress lived, and slaughtered her husband, they took notice of her daughter: for she was very beautiful, with fair yellow hair and white skin. They wished very much to take her back to Maza. But also, the demons were fond of the splendid silk garments that the seamstress wove. So they considered taking the seamstress, as well. But she said to them, that if they took her daughter, she would never sew another stitch for them.
“Then we will kill your child,” one of them said to her. “Is that what you want?”
“I would rather she were dead than your servant,” the woman rejoined staunchly. “But if you kill her, you will never have the beautiful silks you desire. So the choice is yours.”
Stymied by the woman’s logic, and outwitted by their own vanity, the demons agreed to leave the seamstress’s village in peace – so long as she continued to make for them the articles they desired.
But one day, the seamstress grew ill. She knew that if she couldn’t work, the demons would return for her daughter. So she said to her: “You must go from this place. Take the money from the jar on the shelf – and run.”
The young woman shook her head, and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I can’t leave you, Mother.”
“They will kill you!”
“I am dying, anyway!”
The sickly woman took a shaking breath, and beckoned her daughter near to her. She took her hands in her own, and smiled.
“I love you, Ivana,” she said. “More than anything! Do you see that my life will have meant nothing, if you do not survive?”
Ivana clutched her mother’s hands, and said, “Then come with me, Mother! We will leave tonight, and we will –”
“No!” her mother interrupted. “I am too weak to move. You must go alone.”
Utterly wretched, the young woman stared down at her mother. She knew that she couldn’t make her change her mind; and there was nothing more to be done.
“Take the money,” her mother repeated fervently. “Put on your cloak – and run!”
So Ivana did as her mother bid her. Then she kissed her, and went away.
Now, Princess Nadina had been going each night beyond the gate, and traveling as far as she could manage before morning’s light. Of course her father’s soldiers would never have permitted her to pass through the gate. So she used a secret passage that she had discovered in her youth: a narrow tunnel that ran beneath the palace and the city wall. It opened up in the desert, far from the city. She had wondered, when she was a child, whether she should tell her father about the passage, fearing that perhaps the demons would make use of it to enter the city. But she was loath to lose her only secret. In the end, then, it was selfishness that caused her to err (as it is in most cases, with most people) – but still, she was glad now that she had kept the secret. She dreamt of the day that she would find the chalice, and return with it to her father, who should be greatly pleased with her – and who should never wish, after that day, that she were anyone but the person she was.
These thoughts filled her mind, every night when she set out with the sword and the stone. She paused at a different village each time, and requested a horse there, keeping her hood over her head in the case that anyone should recognize her. But no one had yet; and she prayed that her luck would hold.
She had been going on in this way, for many nights on end, and without any shred of success. She was sorely afraid of the demons, at first; but when a few nights had passed, and she saw no sign of them, she began to grow easier. Then, on the fifth night, she saw them passing through the desert: with their dark hoods drawn over their heads, racing their black horses beneath the starshine.
Nadina wondered, for a moment, if it could have been the demons who slaughtered Odep, and took the chalice. But she was sure that, if they had ever made it as far as the palace of Amuneth, they would have wrought much more destruction than that; so finally she put the thought from her mind. Still she questioned whether she should follow them, to learn the details of their nefarious activities – but as of yet, she wasn’t quite brave enough for that task. So she put that from her mind, as well, and merely went on with her quest.
She spent whole months in the deserts outside of Amuneth. She learned to hide amidst the shadows and the sand dunes, when she saw the demons coming; and they never took notice of her. But sometimes she couldn’t help seeing the direction they took, and couldn’t help seeing the horror they rained upon the villages. She wanted, every time, to do something to help – but of course she couldn’t think of how.
Months had passed, yes – but the stone had never glowed. At first, the failure only made Nadina more determined, but gradually it began to discourage her. She had started to give up all hope of ever seeing the stone alight – when one night it happened. She felt warmth against her chest, and looked down to see the stone glowing, white as a star, through the darkness of the night. She took the stone into her hand, to hide its light from any evildoers who might pass by (demon or otherwise), and then pushed her horse into a gallop.
The stone glowed brighter, and brighter, as she approached the River of Amicles. She could hear it rushing in the quiet of the night; and she looked round about, for any house or structure where the chalice might be hidden. But she saw nothing.
Ivana wandered the land round her village for many hours, unsure as to where she should go. She had warned one of the village elders, before she left, that the demons would soon arrive; and the place had just flown into a flurry of fear and confusion, as she slipped away into the night. She felt terribly for leaving the villagers – but she would not disobey her mother.
It was too late to find anything to eat; though even if it weren’t, she had only a little money with which to buy it. And the more she wandered, the more disoriented she grew, till she hardly knew where she was going. So she was infinitely relieved, when she heard the sound of rushing water. She knew, then, that she had come back to the river. She made her way over to it, and lay down on its sandy bank, watching it flow black under the pale moonlight. The night was hot, so she took off her cloak, and placed it under her head for a pillow. Then she tried to sleep.
She felt that she had only just drifted off – when she was startled half out of her mind, by something that fell against her. Someone else cried out – and so did she. She bolted upright, and flung herself away from the spot, thinking that perhaps someone was trying to murder her. She would have jingled the pouch on her belt, and told them that they would get little enough for their efforts; but her heart was pounding so heavily, she couldn’t speak.
The moon had hidden itself behind a cloud while she slept, and the riverbank was pitch dark. But suddenly a white light shone against the blackness; and a slight figure came into sight. The figure removed its hood, and revealed itself: a dark-haired and beautiful girl, standing with a small, bright stone in her hand.
“I’m so sorry!” she cried. “Are you all right?”
Ivana eyed her warily, and took a step back. “Yes,” she said hesitantly.
“Did I hurt you?” the young woman asked.
“No, no,” said Ivana, brushing the sand from her frock, and trying to hide her face from the light of the stone. She felt that she couldn’t trust anyone, now. She was just preparing to grab at her cloak, and run, when she realized something strange: that the stone, indeed, was glowing. She peered at it in astonishment, and then looked into the young woman’s face.
“What is that?” she asked wonderingly.
The young woman looked down at the stone; and then looked at Ivana, just as carefully as Ivana had looked at her. But finally she sighed, and said, “It’s meant to lead me to what I seek. And you see how it glows! I thought that I had finally found it – but now I see that I haven’t.”
Then, all in an instant, the stone went dark. The two young women stood squinting at each other, neither one speaking for a long moment. But eventually Ivana reached for her cloak, and turned to go.
“Wait,” said her companion. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” Ivana answered honestly.
“But – what were you doing out here, in the middle of the night?”
Ivana paused a moment, thinking of what to say. “I am running,” she told the young woman.
“What are you running from?”
“From the demons.”
The young woman walked away from the spot; and Ivana saw now that there was a horse, standing a few yards away. The young woman took a lamp from a pack on the horse’s saddle, and lit it. Then she stood staring at Ivana.
“Do you have anywhere to go?” she asked her.
“No,” answered Ivana. But the question made her think of her mother; and she was overcome with misery. She covered her face with her hands, and began to weep.
The young woman set the lamp on the ground, and hurried to Ivana. She put her arms around her, and took her head on her shoulder.
“Please don’t cry,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what’s happened – but I do know that some terrible ill must have befallen you. If you’ll accept my help, I promise to aid you, in any way I can.” She looked into Ivana’s face, and asked her: “Will you let me?”
Ivana was at a loss as to how she should answer. But she had no other choices; and even as she stood, looking into the young woman’s face, she felt that she trusted her completely. So finally she nodded.
“Then I must bring you home with me,” the young woman said. “But then – if I mean to do that, I suppose I must introduce myself. My name is Nadina.”
She went to take up the lamp again, and stood beside the horse, seemingly waiting for Ivana to come and join her.
“You are named after the princess of Amuneth,” said Ivana. “It is a beautiful name.”
The young woman smiled anxiously. “No,” she said. “That’s not quite right.”
Ivana looked at her in confusion.
“I wasn’t named after her,” Nadina explained. “King Shep is my father. I am bringing you to the palace of Amuneth.”
Ivana laughed aloud; but the look on the young woman’s face made her pause. “You aren’t jesting with me?” she asked seriously.
“No,” Princess Nadina rejoined.
So Ivana merely stood, staring in shock at her companion. But finally Nadina smiled, and said, “You haven’t told me your name.”
“I am Ivana,” the daughter of the seamstress murmured faintly. “Ivana of Dalrec.”