Category Archives: Wraithblood: The Elixir

Wraithblood: The Elixir, end notes

First, and most importantly, thank you all for playing!

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The idea behind “Wraithblood” was a heist movie. You know the type – a gang of mismatched criminals undertake the Heist of the Century. Every heist movie generally has the charismatic leader, the sullen muscle, the wisecracking sidekick, the scheming traitor…and the eccentric mechanical genius.

The charismatic leader is usually the protagonist, but I wanted to try making the eccentric mechanical genius the protagonist.

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That said, I don’t think this “Choose Your Own Adventure” really worked. I’ve come to realize that a “Choose Your Own Adventure” requires a protagonist who can do lots of action, who can get kinetic, to put it in military parlance. Nerina Strake was too cerebral , too morally compromised – a good protagonist for a novel, but not for a “Choose Your Own Adventure”, I think.

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“Choose Your Own Adventure” will return towards the end of August – I’ve got some ducks to get into a row first.

Until then, thanks again for playing!

-JM

Wraithblood: The Elixir, Episode 23b

You leave the coffeehouse of Megabyzus, and walk to Istarinmul’s Old City, the wealthiest portion of the city, where the house of Ishtara Anthraces stands. Or the mansion of Ishtara Anthraces, rather, an opulent pile of gleaming marble and polished bas-reliefs in the high Anshani style.

You have a terrible headache, and it is all you can do not to think about wraithblood.

You walk into the house. No one stops you, and the few slaves you say scurry out of your sight. A hushed silence hangs over the house.

The silence of someone waiting to die.

You hear the sound of weeping coming from the stairs, and follow it to a bedroom.

Ishtara slumps over a bed, sobbing, her hair in disarray, her black eyes bloodshot. A six year old boy lies strapped to the bed (heartblight, in its final stages, causes homicidal mania), his face and chest and arms covered with black sores. The boy is unconscious, and his thin chest still rises and falls, but every breath comes a little harder, a little slower.

Ishtara’s son Darius. He has an hour. Maybe not even that.

“I asked to be left alone,” says Ishtara, and her voice trails off when she sees you. “Strake? You…you came back? I was sure…I was sure you were going to have that Alghol kill me.” She rises to her feet and grabs your arms, her face full of desperate, piteous hope. “Did you…did you get a vial of the Elixir? Please, please. Use it on Darius.” All trace of the haughty Anshani noblewoman is gone, the woman who threatened to poison you if you did not help her, and now only ragged desperation remains. “Please. I beg you. I’ll do anything you want. Anything. I’ll give you everything I own, I’ll sell myself into slavery, anything you want, anything.” She falls to her knees before you, clutching at your arms.

Your headache is getting worse, and you pull away from her. “Stop talking. I don’t like you. You’re vain and cruel and selfish and stupid, like every other slave owner in this miserable city. Gods, I wish my father had never come here. I…”

Abruptly, you realize that you don’t care what Ishtara thinks, so why are you talking to her?

You step past her, pinch Darius’s nose shut, and pour the entire vial of silvery Elixir down his throat. For a moment nothing happens. Then a sudden breeze blows through the bedchamber, tugging at your hair and clothes. A silvery glow surrounds Darius, almost like a cocoon, and when it fades, the black spots have vanished from his skin, and his breathing comes smooth and easy.

The boy sits up, blinking. “Mother?”

Ishtara lets out an inarticulate cry and grabs her son, pulling him close.

“Thank you,” she whispers, staring up at you. “Thank you, thank you, thank you…”

You leave without another word.

###

Later you sit in your workshop, brooding, staring at your father’s clay statue of Rioghath, the old Caerish death god.

The urge for wraithblood hasn’t gone away, and it’s gotten worse. Is this what the rest of your life will be, you wonder? Trying to fight off an addiction, only to inevitably succumb? It’s been almost six months since your last vial of wraithblood, and…

You blink in surprise.

Actually, it’s been more than six months. Six months and three days. You lost track of the time while working for Nasser.

In fact, while working for Nasser, there were long stretches of time when you didn’t think about wraithblood at all. Your mind, your feverish, numbers-obsessed and puzzle-crazed mind, had other things to occupy its attention.

You leave your workshop.

###

Khaenset guards the door to the back room of Megabyzus’s coffee house, and lets you past with a nod.

Inside Nasser sits at the table, and white teeth flash in his dark face as he sees you. “Ah. Madame Strake. Welcome.”

He was expecting you.

“I don’t care about the money,” you say, and then remember the debts. “Well, not very much. But I need…puzzles. Problems. Distractions. Otherwise I’m going to kill myself with wraithblood.”

Nasser’s smile widens. “Well. We shall be richer than kings, you and I…but that’s not the main thing, is it? Come, then. Let us keep you occupied.”

###

IBRAHAIM NASSER’S legend grew in the following months, as he pulled off heist after daring heist. Rumor held he had acquired the skills of a cunning locksmith, a genius against whom neither lock nor trap were proof.

When asked, Nasser only smiled, and said that fortune favored the bold.

RAGGAN and ZOSIMUS both blamed each other for failing to steal the Elixir Rejuvenata from Callatas, and their vicious gang war intensified.

AZACES kept his vial of Elixir Rejuvenata hidden – one never knew when it might come in handy, after all, and lived quite comfortably on his share of the profits from the heist.

And when Nasser needed muscle, skill, and daring, Azaces came. Nasser was a madman – but the man knew how to make gold. Even if he did persist in hiring that lunatic locksmith.

KHAENSET continued his service to Nasser. The Alghol had made a pact, and he would see it through to the end.

ISHTARA and DARIUS ANTHRACES lived a quiet life after Darius’s miraculous recovery from heartblight. Ishtara freed her slaves, moved to a smaller house, and devoted herself to securing her children’s station in life.

And someday, she vowed, she would find a way to repay Nerina Strake.

SAMNIRDAMNUS was most amused.

The broken locksmith had survived the perils of Callatas’s mansion. She had learned the secret of Hellfire – even if she did not yet know its significance. And the lines of destiny surrounding her grew ever tighter, ever sharper.

Oh, yes, the prince of the djinn would watch her with great interest.

The MASTER ALCHEMIST CALLATAS was rather annoyed.

Still, none of his losses were devastating. His laboratory could be rebuilt. More Elixir Rejuvenata could be brewed. And Tarquin had been a useful servant, for such a treacherous little worm, but slaves were cheap and abundant in Istarinmul. He suspected Samnirdamnus of treachery, of course, but that was the price one paid when dealing with the djinni.

None of his main plans had been affected. Very soon now, the rule of Istarinmul, and the entire would, would be his.

Still, if he ever found out who had stolen the Elixir, they would pay for it. Most horribly.

NERINA STRAKE paid off her debts, and continued to work for Nasser’s “enterprises.”

He brought her such fascinating problems.

The urge for wraithblood never left her, of course, but so long as she kept busy…she could live with it. She could live with it.

THE END

Wraithblood: The Elixir, Episode 22b

You grab the jars and vials and began mixing together the ingredients for Alchemists’ Hellfire.

Another sheet of blue lightning arcs over your head, digging into the wall.

“Last chance, Nasser!” shouts Tarquin. “Come out with the Elixir or you’re going to regret it!”

You mix the ingredients together in a stone cup, and the resultant fluid begins to glow – a sullen, cherry-colored glow, like a dying coal.

Hellfire.

Behind Tarquin, Khaenset gets to his feet, and lunges at the eunuch.

Tarquin squeals in alarm and looses another lightning blast, throwing Khaenset over another stone counter and onto the floor. You surge to your feet and fling the stone cup of glowing Hellfire. It splashes across the eunuch’s orange robe, soaking into it, and dripping onto the floor.

“What is this?” says Tarquin, scowling.

“Get down,” you tell Nasser and Azaces, ducking behind the stone counter. “Right now.”

They know you well enough by now to follow your suggestion.

You begin to calculate how much explosive force is contained in that amount of Hellfire, and then you hear the crackle of Tarquin’s lightning rod.

This is followed by a bright white light, a deafening roar, and heat.

A great deal of heat.

You crouch against the stone counter as flames roar overhead, the floor shaking, chunks of glowing stone raining from the ceiling. Azaces is screaming at the top of his lungs, alternating between a prayer for the Living Flame to save him, and a variety of assertions about your parentage, sanity, and sexual habits.

Then the flames wink out, and you risk a glance over the counter.

The laboratory is in ruins, the intricate glasswork melted, the walls charred and blackened. A large portion of the ceiling is gone, along with a good chunk of the floor. All that remains of Tarquin is a melted puddle of copper dripping into the pit.

Khaenset drags himself to his feet and limps towards you, the burns from the lightning blasts already half-healed.

“What…what did you do?” says Azaces, looking at the destruction.

“Hellfire,” you say, taking care not to touch the counter. It’s really rather hot.

“Hellife?” says Azaces. “You know how to make Alchemists’ Hellfire?”

“Apparently,” says Nasser. “I suggest we leave at once. The sound of the explosion will draw every Immortal in the mansion.”

“Possibly every Immortal in the city,” you say, performing a mental calculation. “The explosion would have been audible for at least seven miles in every direction.”

“Then let us make haste,” says Nasser, and you leave.

###

The next morning you return to the back room of Megabyzus’ coffee house to divide the spoils.

“I don’t see why we have to pay Riordan’s share,” grumbles Azaces.

“Those are my rules,” says Nasser. “Any man of my crew falls, his wife and children receive a double share.”

Azaces takes his payment – a purse of gems and gold and a vial of Elixir – and leaves.

“And yours, madame,” says Nasser, handing you a purse of the same size. Inside are enough gold and gems to pay off your debts, and leave a fair amount left over, as well. “And this, of course.”

He hands you a vial of the silvery Elixir Rejuvenata.

You stare at it for a moment. You don’t want it. You want a vial of wraithblood, instead. You want one so badly that you can barely think through the craving.

“Nasser,” you say, “can the Elixir cure wraithblood addiction?”

For a moment there is something like pity in his dark eyes. “The Elixir can heal any natural malady or injury. But wraithblood is a sorcerous concoction. No, the Elixir cannot help with that.”

Another thought comes to mind.

You could sell the vial – sell it for a lot. Enough gold that you could live in comfort for the rest of your life, and buy all the wraithblood you need without going into debt.

Of course, if you start using wraithblood again, the rest of your life probably isn’t going to be that long.

[poll id=”127″]

Wraithblood: The Elixir, a terminal episode

You grab the jars and vials and began mixing together the ingredients for Alchemists’ Hellfire.

Another sheet of blue lightning arcs over your head, digging into the wall.

“Last chance, Nasser!” shouts Tarquin. “Come out with the Elixir or you’re going to regret it!”

You mix the ingredients together in a stone cup, and the resultant fluid begins to glow – a sullen, cherry-colored glow, like a dying coal.

Hellfire.

Nasser springs to his feet, whirls, and flings a knife at Tarquin, who shrieks and ducks, the knife whistling past his ear. You follow suit, flinging the stone cup at Tarquin, a long arc of liquid Hellfire reaching for him.

Nasser flings another knife, which glances off the stone counter in a spray of sparks.

One of the sparks lands in the spray of Hellfire.

That’s not good at all.

The world goes blinding white, and then very, very dark.

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Wraithblood: The Elixir, Episode 21a

You take a deep breath, produce your tools, and set to work on the door’s three locks.

Time passes. You couldn’t say how much. The world shrinks, until you forget about the mortal danger of Callatas’s mansion, the men around you, the Elixir Rejuvenata behind the door. The world only contains you and the door, and the intricate mathematics underlying the masterwork of the door’s locks.

You even forget about wraithblood.

Bit by bit you probe the lock, prying open some of the steel plates to have a look at the mechanical innards of the traps. From time to time you stop to scribble notes on the wall or floor with a piece of chalk.

“How much longer?” says Tarquin, wiping his sweating hands on his orange robe. “How much longer?”

“Do be silent, Tarquin,” murmurs Nasser. “She is concentrating.”

“She must hurry!” says Tarquin. “If the Immortals find us…”

“If she makes haste and the door blows up in her face,” says Azaces, “then we’re finished, fool. Can you pick the lock? No? Then shut your damned mouth.”

In truth, you barely hear them. Numbers pour through your mind, an endless torrent of them, pattern after pattern of them. Sweat drips down your face as you maneuver your picks into the locks, prying a gear loose here, adjusting a spring there, digging ever closer to the end…

And then, all at once, the equation balances in your mind, and you push your pick into one of the keyholes just so…

The locks release with a massive clang, the traps disarmed. You pull on the door, and it swings open on oiled hinges, revealing the interior of Callatas’s strong room.

And you feel disappointed, hollow, empty. The lock is open, the puzzle is solved, the equation balanced. You hardly care what is beyond the other side of the door.

You very badly want some wraithblood.

“Well done, Strake,” says Nasser, gently pushing you to the side. “Well done.” Nasser, Riordan, and Azaces step into the strong room. It is a small room, empty save for a small wooden table in the center. Upon the table sit a dozen small crystal vials with wax seals, filled with a silvery liquid, a liquid that gives off a pale glow.

The Elixir Rejuvenata.

Khaenset remains standing next to you, looking indifferent, while Tarquin peers at one of the long stone counters, giving furtive glances in Nasser’s direction. After a moment he picks up something long and metallic, and hurries away from the counter. You glance over Callatas’s shelves, and wonder if the Master Alchemist has any wraithblood here…

“Well done, gentlemen,” says Nasser, loading the vials of Elixir into a leather satchel. “Now, let us be gone from here, and…”

“I think not.”

Tarquin has moved in front of the laboratory doors, his right arm pointing at Nasser. In his hand he holds something that looks like a large copper meat fork, albeit a meat fork that has silver runes scribed upon its length.

A blue spark flickers between the tines, growing larger and brighter.

Nasser’s face takes on a placid, dangerous-looking calm. “What is that?”

“One of Master Callatas’s tools,” says Tarquin. “You don’t want to know what it does. Now. Put the satchel with the Elixir upon the counter, and then step back into the strong room. All of you!”

“Why?” says Nasser.

“Because otherwise you’ll find out what this tool does,” says Tarquin.

Riordan is behind Nasser, and you see him quietly slip a bolt into his crossbow.

“Bah!” says Azaces. “Wretched eunuch! What, you think you can take all of us?”

“I don’t need to,” says Tarquin, grinning. “I’ll hide the Elixir, and turn you over to the Immortals. Then when the Master returns from the Padishah, the Immortals will show him your corpses, and the Master will conclude some of thieves escaped with the Elixir. And then, once his suspicions have passed, I will sell the Elixir and escape.” His smile widens. “The Elixir will heal my maiming, and the rest of it will make me richer than the Padishah. Then I will be the Master!”

“Tarquin, Tarquin,” says Nasser. “I’ll give you once chance. Put aside this foolish scheme, and share in the profits of our venture. Otherwise I’ll show you how I deal with treachery.”

Tarquin sneers. “I’ll give you one chance. Put down the Elixir, or you’ll see just what kind of weapons the Master can make…”

“Khaenset!” says Nasser.

Khaenset moves in a blur, racing for Tarquin, and Riordan raises his crossbow. Both men are fast, far faster than a fat eunuch in an orange robe.

But the thing in Tarquin’s hand is faster than any man.

A sheet of snarling blue lightning erupts from the fork, slams into Khaenset, wraps him in a cocoon of crackling fingers. The blast knocks him to the floor, his flesh charred and smoking, and a massive arc leaps from him to strike Riordan. The crossbow shatters in his hands, and the blast knocks him back against the wall, his hair on fire, his chest and face a charred ruin.

If he’s not dead already, he’s going to be soon.

“Down!” yells Nasser, and you, Azaces, and Nasser duck behind one of the massive stone counters as another sheet of blue lightning rips over your head. A second bolt slams into the counter, sending jars and vials raining to the floor around you.

“I told you!” says Azaces, “I told you not to trust a eunuch, I told you…”

“Unless you have a pertinent suggestion,” Nasser says, “kindly shut up.”

“Give up, Nasser!” shouts Tarquin. “Give me the Elixir, and I’ll kill you quickly!”

You look over the vials and jars scattered across the floor, and a sudden cold feeling settles over you. Some of the symbols on the jars you recognize from the formulae on the library’s mosaic floor, and you realize that you have all the materials handy to make Hellfire, the Alchemists’ deadly liquid flame. The slightest spark can ignite Hellfire, and if you can throw it on Tarquin and his lightning rod…

You see Nasser reach into his coat, draw out a throwing knife. Undoubtedly he hopes to kill Tarquin before the eunuch can bring the lightning rod to bear.

And beyond, you see Khaenset’s charred body twitch. The daevagoth in Callatas’s dungeons could not kill him, and apparently neither could Callatas’s lightning rod. The Alghol assassin is creeping, inch by inch, towards Tarquin.

[poll id=”125″]

Wraithblood, The Elixir: Episode 20a

You take a deep breath, and before anyone can stop you, you slip past the library doors and into the corridor.

“Strake!” hisses Nasser. “Are you…”

Then he falls silent as you step into the Immortals’ field of vision.

You take one step, heels clicking against the ornate marble floor, and then another. The Immortals are looking right at you. You can see the harsh blue glow of their alchemically altered eyes through the black skull masks of their helmets. They cannot possibly miss seeing you.

Yet they do not seem to notice you.

Samnirdamnus was right. For whatever reason, the wraithblood has rendered you invisible to the Immortals’ eyes.

You stride forward, until you are between them, lift your hands to gaps in their armor, and trigger the spring-loaded blades in your bracers.

The reaction is instantaneous, and violent. Both Immortals collapse to the floor. But rather than lying motionless, they go into violent seizures, and you only just avoid having your foot crushed by a black-armored fist. The library doors fly open, and Nasser, Riordan, Azaces, and Khaenset race out, trailed by a terrified-looking Tarquin. In short order, both Azaces and Riordan kill the Immortals, staining their swords with blue-glowing blood.

“Why did you kill them?” you say. Mathematically, you know, it makes sense. But the priests who weaned you off wraithblood would not approve, and their ridiculous morality apparently has worn off on you.

Azaces gives you a strange look. “Whatever that drug you had on your knives…it wouldn’t have lasted long. Even the most powerful poison won’t kill an Immortal. But why the devil didn’t they see you? I just about pissed myself when you stepped into the hallway.”

“I don’t know,” you murmur.

Nasser laughs. “Your concern is touching, Azaces.”

“Bugger that. She just needs to stay alive long enough to open the strong room door.”

“Who cares?” said Tarquin, fidgeting with fear. “We just killed two Immortals! We must take the Elixir Rejuvenata and be gone before other Immortals arrive.”

“He speaks sense, for a eunuch,” says Riordan.

“Come,” says Nasser, and pushes open the doors to Callatas’s laboratory.

The Master Alchemist’s laboratory is enormous, large enough to contain your entire home twice over. Long stone counters run the length of the chamber, laden with strange machines built of brass and bronze. Multicolored liquids run through intricate mazes of glass pipes. The air reeks of ozone and chemicals. And there are darker things, like the row of human heads in jars of brine, our the half-dissected corpses lying upon metal tables.

All of that, however, is only peripheral.

The strong room door fills your mind.

“Well, Strake?” says Nasser. “Can you open it?

It is a masterpiece of Strigosti metalwork, carved with the strange, geometric reliefs favored by the Strigosti. You walk to the door, rapt with fascination, equations beginning to flash through your mind.

It has three locks, and three separate traps. The first trap, you believe, will make Hellfire, a flammable elixir brewed by the Alchemists, shoot from narrow grooves in the door. The second will spray flesh-eating acid as a mist. The third will spew poison gas from hidden vents in the massive metal door. But from a mathematical perspective, the door is a thing of beauty and harmony, each gear and spring working as part of a larger, cohesive whole.

You are so excited by this challenge that your hands begin to shake, until you force them still. Having your hands shake as you try to open the locks would be a incredibly poor idea.

Azaces snorts. “Look at her face. I think she likes the thing.”

But the basic principles of the strong room door are the same as the Strigosti trapbox that held Samnirdamnus’s totem. If you successfully pick the locks, you can bypass the traps entirely. However, a single mistake on the three locks, and all the traps will go off at once. Alternatively, you could disarm the traps, and then pick the locks in relative safety. However, you must disarm the traps in sequence – if you don’t, that will set off all the traps at once.

It’s time to get to work.

[poll id=”124″]

Wraithblood: The Elixir, Episode 19a

“Khaenset,” you say, still staring at your brother in the mirror. “What do you see?”

Khaenset shrugs, expressionless. “I do not know.”

You wait, and then realize he’s not going to say anything more unless you prompt him.

“What do you think you see?” you say.

“Some sort of creature,” says Khaenset in his toneless voice. “There are pincers and tentacles and talons. Normal men would find it hideous to look upon. So hideous their sanity might crumble.”

“No!” wails Malcolm, rage enter his voice. “Don’t listen to him, Nerina! Let me out, let me out, I’m so hungry, I’ve been so hungry for so very long, let me out!”

The edges of his form blur and shift as he screams, and you catch a glimpse – just a glimpse – of what Khaenset was describing, and you recoil in horror. The others flinch as well, and Azaces starts cursing at the top of his lungs. You suspect the creature – whatever it is – has the ability to wrap itself in illusion.

“Kill the thing!” says Azaces, drawing his scimitar.

“Don’t be foolish,” says Nasser, grabbing Azaces’s arm. “It needs us to break the mirror. If it could attack us, it would already have done so.”

“I will kill you!” screams Malcolm, something like a barbed tentacle coming from his mouth, “I will feast on you…”

Azaces turns and levels his scimitar against Tarquin’s throat. “Why didn’t you warn us, fool? By the Living Flame, if you weren’t already a eunuch I swear I’d cut it off and stuff it down your throat.”

“I didn’t know!” squeals Tarquin. “I swear I didn’t. The Master always keeps his mirrors covered when he’s in the library, and…and…”

“Enough,” says Nasser. “Time grows short, and we’ve almost reached Callatas’s strong room. Tarquin, lead the way.”

Tarquin squirms out of Azaces’s grasp, giving him a murderous look, and walks away. You follow, along with the others. Tarquin walks towards the library’s doors, two massive slabs of oak, and points.

“The Master’s laboratory as at the end of that hall,” says Tarquin, “and beyond the laboratory is the strong room. And…”

He stops.

“What is it?” says Riordan.

Tarquin creeps to the door, peers through the cracks, hurries back.

“There are two Immortals guarding the laboratory door,” he says.

Grim silence answers that pronouncement.

“You can kill them, can you not?” says Tarquin.

“Chancy,” says Nasser.

Azaces snorts. “What he means to say is that we have three fighting men here – myself, Riordan, and Nasser – along with a damned Alghol.” He gives Khaenset a sideways glance. “That leaves a eunuch and a half-mad wraithblood addict. Three fighting men, an Alghol, a eunuch, and a half-mad wraithblood addict are not enough to kill two Immortals.”

“Is there another secret passage?” says Nasser.

“No!” says Tarquin. “That is the only door into the laboratory. We cannot turn back now! We’re so close!”

You take a deep breath, remembering Samnirdamnus’ words. The djinn claimed that Immortals could not see you, due to the damage you inflicted upon your spirit with wraithblood. You could stroll up to the Immortals and dose them with your paralytic. Or simply cut their throats.

Assuming Samnidamnus told the truth. And assuming your paralytic actually works on the alchemically-altered constitution of an Immortal.

Of course, Azaces has his bow, and Riordan his crossbow. You could have them coat their missiles with the paralytic and then shoot the Immortals.

Your eyes stray to the far wall of the library, to the doors opening on to a high balcony. You could simply go over the balcony and take a ledge to the laboratory’s windows.

Though if you slip, it’s a ten-storey drop to the street. You quickly calculate the amount of injury you would sustain in a fall from that height.

The results of that equation are not at all pleasant.

[poll id=”123″]

Wraithblood: The Elixir, Episode 18a

“No,” you say.

Samnirdamnus blinks, and for a moment the djinn, the ancient, immortal prince of the spirit world, actually looks surprised. “No?”

“No,” you repeat. “I will not ask for a secret.”

“Why?” says Samnirdamnus.

“Because,” you say, thinking it through. This would be so much easier if you could express it mathematically. “Because any secret you give me would probably lead to my destruction.”

For a moment Samnirdamnus stares at you, and then a wide smile spread’s over the djinn’s false face, the face of your father.

“Ah,” says Samnirdamnus. “I had thought you were supremely clever, but not wise. It seems your suffering may have taught you the beginnings of wisdom. Or, at least, as close to wisdom as mortals can ever come.” The djinn frowns, eyes of smokeless fire narrowed. “And, yet…the lines of destiny around you wind ever tighter. Farewell, then, broken one. I shall watch with great interest the choices you make in the next hour. For the destinies of millions yet unborn are now in your hands.”

Samnirdamnus vanishes, and you scowl at the empty place he occupied.

“What is it?” says Nasser, looking back at you. The others have returned to consciousness, free from the djinn’s power.

“Nothing,” you say, and follow the others.

You and the rest of Nasser’s crew follow Tarquin through the narrow stone maze of Callatas’s secret passages. At last Tarquin stops at a dead end, and presses a hidden switch. The wall swings open, and you step into the Master Alchemist’s library.

And the library is magnificent. Shelves fifteen feet high line the walls, heavy laden with books and scrolls and tablets of clay and stone and metal, written in a score of different languages. Mirrors, each the size of a large doorway, rest in niches within the shelves. Long tables hold more books and scrolls, along with strange artifacts of glass and metal. Strange symbols cover the mosaic floor, and you realize they are alchemical formulae. Which, as it turns out, are not all that different from mathematical formulae. You stare at the rows of symbols, fascinated, numbers clicking and spinning in your mind…

“This way,” says Tarquin. “We have to pass through the Master’s private gallery, and then we’ll reach his laboratory and his strong room…”

Azaces stops, staring at one of the mirrors.

“By the Living Flame!” he says, his face going bloodless. “No. No! It’s not possible.”

You turn, frowning…and feel your jaw drop.

A man stands behind the glass of the mirror, staring at you with pleading eyes. When your father and brothers were murdered, you only mourned one of them. Malcolm, Niall Strake’s second son, who was ever kind to you, who looked out for you against your father’s rapacity.

Who now stands behind the mirror’s glass, holding out his hands to you.

“Malcolm?” you say, astonished.

Around you, the men likewise stare at the mirror.

“Nerina!” says Malcolm. He looks thin, almost gaunt, with the manacles of a slave on his wrists and throat. “Thank the gods you’ve come. Father’s enemies didn’t murder me. They kidnapped me, and sold me to Callatas! He’s kept me in this sorcerous prison for five years. Please, please, free me before he comes back! I cannot endure this torture any longer!”

“How?” you say.

“Break the glass,” says Malcolm, “and free me, and I will escape with you.”

You step forward, intending to find something heavy to break the mirror, but then stop. All the other men are gazing at the mirror, their expressions rapt. Except for Khaenset, who looks as emotionless as ever, save for the slight, almost puzzled frown on his face.

“Nerina!” says Malcolm, sobbing, at the pain in his voice twists at even your cold heart. “Please! Callatas will return at any moment. Please, please, free me!”

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Wraithblood: The Elixir, Episode 17a

“We should go through the library,” you say.

Everyone turns to look at you.

“Callatas, as a Master Alchemist, will value his library greatly,” you say. “So, therefore, it seems mathematically probable that the defenses around the library will be less…destructive.”

Azaces gives you a contemptuous sneer, which is as close as he will ever come to agreeing with you.

“That seems logical enough,” says Nasser. “Unless anyone else has any better ideas?” No one does. “Then lead the way, Tarquin.”

The sweating eunuch leads you into the marble maze of Callatas’s mansion. More of the Master Alchemist’s dreadful statues stand in niches in the wall, men and women forever transformed into marble and glass and crystal. Tarquin stops before an empty niche, and presses a hidden switch. Part of the wall swings open to reveal a narrow passageway.

“This way,” says Tarquin.

You walk through the cramped passage, Tarquin and Nasser leading the way, followed by Azaces and Riordan, while you and Khaenset bring up the rear. Out of the six of you, only Khaenset does not look alarmed, while even Nasser looks somewhat grim. You try to calculate your odds of surviving this venture with your life and sanity intact.

The numbers do not look good.

Then Azaces stops, and you walk into his back before you recover yourself. You start to chastise him, only to realize that everyone else has stopped as well. In fact, they are frozen in place. For a moment you wonder if you’ve triggered some sort of sorcerous trap. But you can still move.

“Fear not,” says your father’s voice. “They are unharmed. For now.”

You look up, and see the djinn Samnirdamnus standing on the wall, wearing your father’s form, his eyes of smokeless flame staring into you.

“You said,” you say, “that you would not warn Callatas, nor interfere with us.”

The djinn smiles. “Nor have I.”

“So you’ve merely stunned them…because you want to talk to me,” you say. “Which means you want to make a bargain with me.”

“Your mind is like a razor,” murmurs Samnirdamnus. “It cuts, it cuts, and it draws forth blood. Mortals are often so tedious…but you are not. If only you could see the lines of destiny that draw tighter and tighter around you, like a chain waiting to snap. Or a noose to choke you. In the next hour, you will make a decision that will change the world of mortals forever…or you will die, horribly.” The burning eyes flash. “If you are lucky.”

“If you intended to make a bargain with me,” you say, “this approach does not increase the odds that I will agree.”

“I have not come to make a bargain,” says Samnidamnus. “You have provided me with great amusement. And I am Samnirdamnus, a prince of the djinn, a lord of hosts beyond count. I pay my debts. Therefore, I will give you two gifts.”

You frown. There are all sorts of tales about gifts from a djinn. None of them ever end well.

“The first is a secret,” says Samnirdamnus, “not even known to the Master Alchemists themselves. The Immortals cannot see you.”

“What?” you say.

“The vision of the Immortals extends into the spirit world,” says Samnirdamnus, “and due to the massive damage you have inflicted upon your spirit with wraithblood, they cannot see you.”

“Oh,” you say. That sounds useful.

Unless Samnirdamnus is lying to you.

“My second gift to you is a question,” says Samnirdamnus. “Or, more precisely, an answer. You may ask a question of me, any question at all, and I will give you a true answer.” The djinn’s eyes burn brighter. “I am older than the mortal race, and I have seen this world for time beyond count. Think of all the secrets I know. And one of them can be yours.”

You can think of any number of secrets that might come in handy just now.

Assuming, of course, that the djinn tells you the truth.

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Wraithblood: The Elixir, Episode 16a

“We should hide,” you say. “Right now.”

“The lady speaks sense,” says Nasser. “Tarquin?”

Tarquin shakes himself out his terror and points a third-story balcony overlooking the hall of terrified statues. “There. We’ll have a good view of the great hall, and three different corridors open off that balcony, if we need to escape.”

“Move,” says Nasser.

Tarquin leads the way, and you and Nasser and the others follow the orange-robed eunuch up a spiraling staircase of wrought iron. The railings are shaped like misshapen monsters, and the stairs themselves seem to bear the images of screaming faces.

“Callatas’s taste in art is tedious to a degree of mathematical precision,” you say.

“Shut up,” says Azaces, his face tight with fear, sweat beading on his forehead.

You reach the balcony and crouch with the others behind the railing, alongside more of Callatas’s disturbing statues. And not a moment too soon – the double doors boom open, and you hear the tramp of boots against the marble floor. Eight men in black march across the floor. They wear knee-length shirts of black mail, beneath black cuirasses, and sword and dagger rest ready at their hips. They also wear ornate black helms, the faceplates wrought to look like grinning skulls.

And from within the eye holes, you glimpse a pale blue glow.

The men are Immortals, the elite bodyguards of the Padishah and the Master Alchemists. The Immortals are slaves, purchased young, and subjected to years of brutal training. All the while they are fed alchemical solutions to make them stronger, faster, more resilient than normal men.

And rumor holds the Immortals are fighters without mercy or fear.

You crouch in silence with the others until the Immortals pass.

“Immortals, Nasser?” hisses Azaces. “You failed to mention that Callatas would have Immortals guarding his mansion?”

“I did not know, I fear,” says Nasser, glancing at Tarquin. “Someone failed to mention it.”

“I didn’t know!” squeals Tarquin. “The Master doesn’t tell me everything! I didn’t…I didn’t think he would use the Immortals to guard his mansion while he was away.”

“Obviously,” says Azaces, murder in his eyes, “since his slaves are so trustworthy!”

“Enough,” says Nasser. “No plan goes off without a hitch. You know this. Now, Tarquin. Presumably the Immortals will guard the central staircase. Is there another way to get to Callatas’s strong room and the Elixir Rejuvenata?”

Riordan frowns, and Azaces say, “You’re going through with this? In the face of the Immortals?”

Nasser snorts. “If you want to run off with your tail between your legs, do so. I will not stop you. But the rewards go only to the bold. Tarquin. Another way to the strong room?”

“No,” says Tarquin. “Well…yes.”

“Make up your mind,” says Riordan.

“The Master has…secret passages throughout the mansion,” says Tarquin. “So he can come and go as he pleases, unnoticed by even the slaves. But I have served the Master for years. I know some of the secret passages. Two of them will take us to the Master’s private apartments, and then we can make our way to the laboratory and the strong room.”

“Oh, as easy as that?” says Azaces.

“Not quite,” says Tarquin. “One passage opens into the Master’s library, and the second into one of his summoning chambers. Both have…guardians, though I am unsure of their nature. And the secret passages themselves might have a guardian.”

As Tarquin speaks, you glance over the balcony, and see a window at the end of the hall. Callatas’s mansion is ten stories tall, and you’re already three stories up. Both Riordan and Azaces are carrying ropes and grapnels. Why not simply scale the side of the mansion and avoid the Immortals and the guardians entirely?

On the other hand, you calculate it is exactly ninety-seven seconds until the Immortals return to the great hall and pass beneath the enormous, ornate crystal-and-iron chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

And the chandelier’s chain is anchored to this balcony.

If you release the chain at exactly the right time, you calculate at least a seventy-three percent chance that the chandelier will kill at least six of the Immortals.

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