‘Why, in the name of the Celestial, would they need this many stairs?’
It was not the first time Emil had asked himself this, and it probably wasn’t to be the last either. The spiraling staircases and terraces of the often exploded, often rebuilt, often incinerated Alchemists’ Quarter stretched out before him, layer over layer of twisted, twisting architecture. It was getting dark and the choking smoke of the lamps had risen enough to hide the place’s less savory parts.
‘How will I ever find Master Ludwig through all this?’
He looked despondent at the twirling towers and oddly shaped masonry gargoyles that guarded every nook and cranny, trying to find at least the church his own Master Barke had pointed towards.
Two flights of stairs up as you pass the Church of Old Hope on the right alley, a sharp turn to the left before the cliff, two flights of stairs down and by the collapsed well, were the instructions his master had given before sending him away to fetch the old wizard. How he’d manage that, Emil hadn’t the slightest clue.
There was no point in waiting around for the old man to reveal himself out of the thickening oily mist, so he chose the least twisted direction he could still discern in the dark, and clambered on. For as much smoke as the lamps produced, the greenish light they offered could barely illuminate two steps around each post and he wondered what the point of such street torture could be.
Something exploded somewhere below, illuminating the fog briefly. Someone screamed and cussed, others laughed, their voices carrying distorted through the choking clouds. The quarter was slowly coming to life at night, when curious eyes and disapproving militia generally kept far away from the place.
The road climbed and twisted just as much as the others, leading through sinewy, small alleyways, up and down flight after flight of small, uneven stairs.
He almost fell more times than he cared to keep track of.
He was offered more substances than he’d ever cared to know existed.
“She’s young and fresh, young master, a steal really. She’ll make a man out of you.”
He did not know what ‘she’ was supposed to be, and hightailed it away from the stocky little man without a word, chased by curses on his manhood. All he wanted was to ask for directions to the church, nothing else.
The hours grew longer and the place grew louder, smellier and more crowded, people coming and going through the oily mist, masks covering their faces and goggles their eyes, hurrying to and fro.
No other part of the city could compare to the frenzy of activity that was the Alchemists’ Quarter, and no other part was as confusing. Emil had almost given up on his task, ready to return home and face the master’s wrath rather than even try to navigate deeper into the labyrinth and face the denizens. He’d been cussed out, threatened, offered strange services, drinks, organs even, and more girls than he would ever fantasize about.
It was all for naught, he felt. There could be no way to find one single person there.
Night soil splashed at his feet from somewhere far above. For the first time in many hours, he looked up, ready to offer a piece of his mind. His discontent died before he could utter a word. Outlined against a crescent, hazy moon, he saw the Cross of the Old Hope, cutting through the fumes. He had wandered right behind the church, close to the quarters of the brave nunnery that handled the wayward, yet dedicated flock. Handling highly explosive substances apparently mixed very well with religion and faith in a higher, protective power.
All that, of course, was quite lost on Emil. For the first time in years he made the sign of the Cross on his forehead and offered a short, silent prayer of thanks to whichever deity had decided to take some pity on him.
The next parts he would later not remember at all, as he ran down the alley, nearly threw himself off the cliff, almost broke his neck down the stairs and just barely noticed the ruined well before barreling right by it. Only one, small house stood before him, as if separated in a clearing in the dark, misshapen forest. No light shone through any window that he could see as he circled it, until a small, crooked door came into view.
It was not a polite knock that followed, as instructed by Master Barke. It couldn’t even be called a knock at all, but rather the desperate pounding on wood of someone that had finally found the tavern in the desert and could not open the door.
“Master Ludwig! Master Ludwig! I have urgent news to discuss!”
He hammered on the door for minutes on end, calling out, too stubborn to give in to the growing realization that the man may be out, lost among the throng of people going about their shady business. He’d have to be a shady man to be living out here. He’d have no reason to be staying in at this hour of the night if he were, indeed, shady.
“HOLD YOUR FUCKING HORSES!”
A voice exploded from inside, hoarse and raspy, of a man that was livid with anger after having been roused out of bed by such a late racket. Footsteps and banged doors and furniture could be heard from the higher levels of the house, and the sound of something heavy falling down a few stairs. A moment of silence and then another sound of furniture being barefoot kicked around, followed by a stream of cussing that would make a whore blush. It died down as it approached the door, transforming into incoherent mumbling.
The whole house seemed to shake as a heavy bolt got drawn back behind the door.
“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?”
A beet red face shot out from the dark behind the door, and one almost skeletal hand holding a pan with a few pieces of a candle, all burning. The man himself was not what Emil had expected of a wizard, aside from the floppy, pointy night cap he wore haphazardly on one ear.
For one thing, he was a full head taller than the lad, whom was already one of the tallest servants of his house. A crooked, sharp nose set roughly in the center of a gaunt, round face, almost stuck him in the eye as the man looked closer on his visitor, illuminating him to get a better look. Deep set eyes studied him from under bushy, snow white eyebrow furrowed in absolute anger. He had to bend over to exit the house fully; and he didn’t seem to care much that he wasn’t wearing anything other than a long nightgown, patched in so many places that the original fabric was impossible to distinguish.
Emil stuttered, eyes locked with the old man that seemed ready to strangle him, if not worse.
“Uh…um…Are you, perhaps, Ludwig? The wizard?”
“Of course I am, you bloody imbecile! If I weren’t, you’d be a showered in fucking acid if you woke up the wrong person. Now what is it you want?”
The boy felt that the question carried the implication of terrible things happening if the answer would not please the old man and, more than at any point in the night, he felt close to soiling himself in fear.
“Master Barke requests your aid in a matter of utmost urgency.”
“Fuck him. Anything else?”
Ludwig’s expression melted into uninterested apathy as he turned to close the door. The mention of Bartholomew Barke, one of the wealthiest merchants in Titan, did nothing but apparently bore the anger out of him.
“No, please, it’s terribly urgent. He’s told me you’ll be handsomely paid. I’ve searched for you all night through this green, stinking Hell. You must come! I’ll be whipped otherwise.”
Pleading, they say, will get you anywhere.
This was one of those times, fortunately for Emil. It may have been the pleading itself, it may have been the promise for payment, or the way the boy had run out of hair halfway through whatever it was he was trying to say, but Ludwig stopped, bent over, half way through the door.
“Wait here and try to not wake anyone else up. If it’s another stupid ghost chase, I’m going to administer the whipping myself.”
There wasn’t much changed when he came back out. The droopy night cap had been exchanged for an equally droopy pointy hat, the nightgown for a tattered robe, the bloodshot expression of anger for the very same expression. A staff, usual accessory for most wizards applying their trade, was strangely missing.
“I don’t trust you to lead the way, boy, so you follow me and shut up. I’m amazed you even managed to get all the way out here without help. I’m pretty sure you can’t manage to get us back out though.”
Emil had to run to catch up and keep up with the stride of the tall wizard as he made off. The greenish smoky mist swallowed their forms as they headed towards the Centrum.
In the Alchemist Quarter…something exploded. Again. The night was not still.