The girl wound up her arm and slapped Ned. The ground shook and the crushing press of an explosion rocked his eardrums.
Ned rubbed his cheek. He saw a black, greasy cloud rising into the air a few blocks away. He couldn't be entirely sure from where he stood but it looked like the cloud was forming directly over the apartment that he rented with his fellow alchemist, Hobnob the goblin. Ned had left his warty friend with a small pile of semi-rotten carrot shavings and precise instructions that Ned had painstakingly copied from The Compleat Guide to Alchemical Riches: Ninety-Seven More Materials to Transmute into Gold! Very painstakingly copied, as the bookshop had recently hired a pair of very burly and very stupid dwarves who only enjoyed two things: being paid and hitting things.
The girl, who hadn't seen the reason for the earth-shaking boom, held her hand out at arm's length like it contained a fistful of the particularly unreliable sort of gnomish firecracker. Ned knew that it simply contained the depressingly common power to destroy a young man's hopes and naughty dreams. He turned and walked towards the cloud.
As he picked his way through the narrow streets of the Artisan's Quarter and approached the blast site, the broken bottles and donkey leavings common to the Quarter began to disappear under pieces of singed sub-standard roofing. One of the pieces looked very familiar. Like a burnt version of his nightshirt. An arm rose from another pile of rubble.
"Ned," said a blackened and slightly-crustier-than-usual Hobnob.
Ned crossed his arms and stared up at the gaping hole in the roof that used to cover his workshop-slash-apartment, and, if the women in this town weren't so frigid, slash-den of lasciviousness. Ned felt a bit of pleasure from seeing the sharply slanted roof, to which he'd so often sacrificed pieces of scalp, in smoking ruins.
"I think I added the ingredients in the wrong order," the voice said again, now coming from an altitude near Ned's elbow, where it usually did when he talked to his short, goblin friend. He looked down at Hobnob. "Baby dragon scales first and then heat, or heat and then baby dragon scales?" Hobnob asked, rasping. Hobnob always rasped.
"What do you think?"
"I think that we should've used a dash of bismuth instead of any baby dragon scales."
"That's ridiculous," Ned said. "Bismuth doesn't have any panache at all."
"That piece of paper you gave me said to use bismuth. Or, at least, that's what it looks like," Hobnob said. "Looked like," he added. He glanced up at Ned while he picked a bit of ash off the wart at the tip of his nose. His greenish skin now showed the patina. "Your handwriting is terrible. It took me the better part of an hour to figure out that you meant 'yoke of a runny egg' and not 'joke of a funny leg.' Hey, what happened to your face? Why is your cheek so red?"
"Step one," Ned said, ignoring the inquiry over the reddening hand print on his cheek. "Rent a new workshop. Step two, make me a love potion."
"Hah!" the goblin chortled, clapping his hands together. "I knew she wouldn't say yes! You owe me a pint!"
"I could've gotten that date if you hadn't distracted me with that explosion. And the bet threw me off. Too much pressure. And, uh, and I was worried about how the experiment was turning out."
"That wasn't the deal," Hobnob said, grinning. "One ale."
Ned sighed in defeat. "Fine. But tomorrow, love potion." He looked around at the wreckage of his workshop, picked up a particularly blackened piece of charcoal and shook it. "We'll have to do it from memory. I think this used to be Successful Mixture, Successful Marriage."
"Remember the last time we tried something from memory?" Hobnob said. "Five minutes and one explosion ago?"
"I choose to forget that," Ned said, his cheek now really starting to sting.
The sun rose and was surprised to find Ned already creeping through the streets of Balliemor.
Its light found him stalking through an alley; he held a long, skinny package under a brown cloak with most of the charred bits scraped off. He peeked around the edges of his hood. The streets were not deserted even at this early hour because the city of Balliemor never slept. Neither did the Lady Balliemor, it's eponymous governess – she was, fundamentally, a thief. She just happened to be skilled enough to steal both a noble title and the entire city.
Drunks and bakers, city guards and prostitutes, all intermingled on the streets with nods and sincere wishes of "good mornings" borne out of the camaraderie, transcending class and station, shared among everyone awake that early in the morning. Ned tried to dodge them all as he fled from Mucklefaire Market, one of Balliemor's several mercantile districts. Mucklefaire Market contained the craftsman who were too unique for the overpriced monotony of Lupenne's Avenue and too brilliant for the unruly chaos of the Groggenheim Squat. He hugged the package against his chest with one arm. It had taken him a week to track down the necessary ingredients for the love potion but now he had collected the last and hardest to find.
Successful Mix, Successful Marriage read, if he recalled correctly, that the love potion required "the surest sign of love, the symbol above all others."
He'd wracked his brains. Philosophers and poets alike had argued for centuries over what constitutes "the surest sign of love." Wars were fought and lives were lost (and, Ned thought, created) because of love. Love made empires crumble into dust, the wise behave like fools, and cowards strike with the fury of a hero. Its symbol, then, must be powerful yet subtle, yielding yet firm, a testament to love's many qualities.
Ned remembered reading a poem on the wall of an outhouse speaking about the association between flowers and love. Its author had, in a lyrical style worthy of a playwright, made it both literally and metaphorically pornographic. Ned had encountered it during his formative years, back when he used to slop stables and live in hay lofts full of the burly barn-mice that could scare off cats just by flexing their muscles. He decided now that the outhouse wall was as authoritative a source as any on what constituted love's true symbol.
That, and most of his money had been blown up in the blast, which wasn't as big of a hit to his financial future as one might presume. It'd be easier to steal flowers than, say, gemstones.
He sneaked into the back garden of a florist's shop and plucked several flowers. In the pitch darkness of the new moon Ned couldn't tell what kind of flower they were, let alone their color. The type shouldn't matter, he thought – the object of his heart's desire shouldn't be materialistic or picky, anyway. He wrapped the flowers in a bit of brown, greasy paper that had previously held the fish and chips that he'd bought as a pre-emptive reward for a job about to be well done.
When he arrived back at the Gorging Ogre inn, where he and Hobnob had rented a tiny, cramped room in the attic on the fourth floor, he found that his companion had not been idle. A vast pot of syrup simmered over the hearth. Hobnob slept in a chair in front of the fire. One of his calloused feet rested on the edge of the pot.
"Wake up," Ned said, poking the goblin. "Get your stinky foot away from my potion. I'm going to give that to some babe and then she's going to make out with me. I don't want her to taste like one of your toenails."
A mighty snuffle came from Hobnob's ample nose, and then he yawned, stretched, and finally opened his yellow eyes.
"Don't be like that, I've been stirring your potion," Hobnob said with the considerable bitterness that only a freshly-awakened goblin can muster. He dug a hand into the corner of an eye and extracted a piece of sleep crust as large as a tea biscuit. He flicked it into the fire where it fumed for a moment. "Did you get the flowers?"
Ned nodded, and went to the small workbench. He used his forearm to shove aside a few crusty bowls and laid the package out on the table. He peeled back the greasy paper and took a good look at his ill-gotten bounty. The orchids lay on the table in a bundle. Some shone with a golden light, like the blonde locks of Lady Balliemor herself, while others were as red as a violent sunset. Gentle variations in their color gave them depth and texture, and their delicate structure only intensified their beauty. Even the stems were wondrous: as green as fine emeralds and with just as much luster.
"Nice orchids. Will they work?" Hobnob asked.
Ned didn't reply.
Ned still didn't respond.
"Ned?" Hobnob said, sliding off of the chair and waddling over to the table. Ned continued to stare at the orchids.
Hobnob stood in silence next to Ned for a few more moments and then he snatched them up.
"Off into the pot with you."
Ned snapped out of his trance.
"I should save one. In case this potion works. I can give it to the girl."
Hobnob shrugged. Ned selected one of them from Hobnob's arms and laid it aside. Hobnob took the rest over to the pot.
"There's something odd about these flowers," Hobnob said, industriously shredding the orchids with a small knife and stirring the pieces into the syrup. "Where'd you get them?"
"I dunno. Some place down in Mucklefaire Market."
Hobnob nodded. "Some exotic cultivar, no doubt." He maneuvered his nose over the cauldron and took a deep sniff up both wide nostrils. "Aahh, smelling perfect, like candy and flowers and romance with just a hint of desire and recklessness. How long do we cook this for?"
Ned stood up. He came over to stand near Hobnob and peered into the brownish red syrup. It shimmered every so slightly.
"If I recall correctly, we're only supposed to simmer it for a few more hours after we add the orchids."
"Who are we going to try it on?"
"I, my little lumpy friend, am going to try it on Odilia. When I saw her last week she told me to stop by her father's shop to take her out for lunch. I don't know what the family business is. Gardening or something. It's next to the Olde Tyme Tinsmithes, that's all I remember."
"Is Odilia that girl you've been pining over for the past six months? And you don't even know what guild her father belongs to?" Hobnob asked, settling back into his chair.
"I have not been pining for her, just, uh, you know. Keeping an eye on her relationship status."
"That's not what you've been keeping an eye on," he said.
The next day, with the help of Hobnob's keen eye for style, Ned headed out towards the tavern. He had combed his hair, tried to clean the spots out of his clothes, and even put on a clean shirt. Ned carried the orchid that he had saved from the potion-making, still looking magnificent. He had wrapped it in a bit of clean paper, to protect the blossom.
Ned left and worked his way through Balliemor towards Mucklefaire Market. Nominally, Mucklefaire Market was a street. Practically, it had none of the qualities of a street, such as pavement or making travel faster. First, the street had some patches of paving stones now and again, but if you wanted to enjoy them you had to act fast. Anytime the Balliemor council paved the Market, all of the paving stones would be immediately removed by the residents and sold. Second, the merchants would delay pedestrians to try to sell them things such as jewelry, parrots, or paving stones. The people to Balliemor widely accepted the fact that the only effective way to travel through Mucklefaire Market was in the back of a carriage going at top speed and even then carriage drivers made no promises.
That's not to say that the Market didn't have its good side. Many extremely reputable craftsmen set up shop in Mucklefaire Market – one of the barons from the Baillemor countryside often commissioned tapestries for his mistresses' villas from weavers in Mucklefaire Market.
Ned elbowed one of the more persistent merchants in the face, considered by Balliemorians to be an acceptable negotiation tactic, as he walked through the throngs of buyers and sellers and tried to find the Olde Tyme Tinsmithes. After several minutes of watering eyes from the smoke of a grease fire at a food stall, he saw the retina-searingly reflective sign of the Olde Tyme Tinesmithes. Odilia had said that her father's shop was adjacent to it and that her father periodically threw a bucket of pitch onto the tinsmiths' sign because he was sick of his customers blinking furiously at him.
Ned found Odilia's shop, nestled between the tinsmiths and a store named "Hickory & Such." The voice of the proprietor of Hickory & Such drifted through an open window.
"No, it's real hickory."
"Why's it look like pine? Oy, this is soft wood, too," said another voice. "Look how it scratches!"
"Uh, good quality hickory looks just like pine. Very good quality hickory, like this chair is made out of, is extremely rare. You know how if you want to buy a good pillow, you go with goosedown because it's soft? Same thing with chairs. This is rare, soft hickory."
The door to the shop opened revealing a red-eyed, tearful Odilia.
"Odilia! What's wrong?"
"Come in," she said, moving out of the way.
Ned entered. It smelled great. Flowers were jammed here and there in buckets of water, in stacked rows. Ned recalled Odilia saying that her father cultivated and sold flowers. Ned was almost right. He was a florist. Out the open back door, Ned saw a garden. The garden that he'd visited last night.
In a chair near the back door, Odilia's father sat with his face cradled in one massive, powerful hand. The other hand held a broken orchid stalk.
"This is my father, Oden. Dad, this Ned."
Oden looked up, nodded in acknowledgment, and put his face back down into his palm.
"What's wrong?" Ned asked quietly.
Odilia pulled him aside.
"Lady Balliemor, and all of the other nobles before her, have had a standing order for a thirteen dozen orchids for the spring equinox festival. It's a tradition of Balliemor since before it was Balliemor, long before the Lady came, and our family has supplied the orchids for generations. Nobody but my family grows the particular orchids for the festival. My father opened the shop this morning and found that someone had taken a bunch of orchids from the back garden and trampled most of the rest, and we don't have enough to fill our order. The city has always kept our tax assessment low in return for our special status. Without the orchids and without the tax break we may not be able to keep the shop open," she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
"He's a bastard, whoever took those orchids," Ned said.
"Did you bring me something?" Odilia asked suddenly, noticing the package in Ned's arms.
"Uh," he said, thinking fast. But not fast enough.
"That's sweet," she said, grabbing the package away from Ned and having it open in an instant. As she looked down at the orchid in her hands, her smile faded.
"Where did you get this?"
The door to the street burst open, and Hobnob stood there, panting.
They both stared at Hobnob. Oden had pulled his heads out of his hands and watched the commotion.
"This is one of ours. Did you steal the orchids?" Odilia said.
Oden stood up.
"Uh, well, see," Ned stammered.
"There's only one place to get those orchids that we used, and Odilia is his daughter," Hobnob rasped through lungfuls of air.
"Thank you, Hobnob," Ned said, out of the corner of his mouth while backing away towards the door.
Oden had moved behind Ned and now he backed into the larger man.
"Did you steal my orchids," he said quietly, just above Ned's ear.
Ned gulped. "Yes," he whispered.
Oden grunted. In one smooth movement he bent down, grabbed Ned's ankles, and pulled them up into the air so that Ned dangled upside down. A cascade of junk fell out of his pockets.
"You better have a good explanation for why you destroyed my flowers!" Oden growled, beginning to shake Ned.
"Theee-rreeee iiiittt goo-oooeessss, aaaaa-cccttuuuu-aaalllyyyy," Ned said, trying to point to the small vial that had fallen out his pocket.
Oden peered at it. "Pick that up," he said to Odilia. She did, and held it up to the sunlight from the window.
"What is it?" Odilia asked.
"Pppplll-eeeeeaaaasssseeee sssttt-ooopppp ssshhh-sssshhhh-aaaakkkkkkkinggggg mmmeeeee," Ned said.
"I'll stop-for a minute," Oden said, doing so.
Ned's head kept shaking even when Oden stopped, so Hobnob jumped in.
"It's a love potion," Hobnob said.
Oden's eyes narrowed. "You mean like that herb that old gaffers take to give their wives a rowdy evening?"
"Dad!" Odilia said, embarrassed. Her eyes flicked to Hobnob.
"No," Ned said. "It's an actual love potion. To make the drinker become enamored with the first person that she sees after she drinks it."
"Oh really," Oden said. "And why did you need it so badly that you'd destroy my reputation?" He glared at Ned, then up at Odilia, who had realized what the potion was for just a moment ahead of her father. The furrows in his forehead deepened.
"You were going to drug my daughter, is that it? Just slip it in her drink, hunh?!" he shouted, shaking Ned again.
"Iiii'mmmm sssoooo-rrrrryyyy," Ned said.
"Dad! Stop shaking him!" Odilia said.
"So I can beat some sense into him!" she said, drawing close and kneeling down so that she could look Ned in the eye. "I said that I thought you were cute, but now I see that you're just a bit of fungus. Why'd you need this if I'd already agreed to go out with you?"
"Enough," Oden said. "We have to dispose of the potion. Odilia, grab that little goblin," he said, nodding towards Hobnob. Before he could react, Odilia had grabbed him in an impossibly tight lock. Even a goblin, known for their escape artistry, was helpless in her grip.
"Bring him over here," Oden said, "and give me that potion."
Oden flipped Ned right side up and before Ned knew what was happening, Oden had uncorked the vial with one thumb and thrown the mixture down Ned's throat, who swallowed involuntarily.
"Oh, shit," Ned said, tightly closing his eyes.
Oden shoved him right up against Hobnob. Ned could smell the mushrooms on Hobnob's breath.
"Don't open your eyes!" Hobnob said, panicking.
Oden reached up with a hand and pried open one of Ned's eyeballs, just a crack. Ned squeaked. Oden, satisfied, let go of Ned, who slithered to the floor in defeat. Odilia relaxed her grip on Hobnob, who sprang away from Odilia.
"There," Oden said. "That's what I think of your love potion."
After a few minutes of silence, none of them had moved.
"Did, uh, did it work?" Hobnob asked.
Ned's eyes fluttered open, and he sat up, and stared straight at Hobnob.
"I-I-I," he stammered.
"Oh no," moaned Hobnob.
"I don't love you!" Ned shouted in triumph.
Hobnob grinned and began jumping up and down and clapping his hands. Then he paused for a moment. "I actually don't know how I feel about that," Hobnob said.
Ned turned to Oden. "It didn't work! My potion didn't work! My potion didn't work! Oh, thank the gods, my memory is crappy and I brewed the wrong potion!"
The floor shook.
"Dammit," Ned said.
The rest of them exchanged glances.
"What was that?
A cloud passed over the sun and extinguished the light that had been coming through the windows.
The floor rumbled again.
Odilia paused, staring at the wooden slats of the floor.
"What the hell is that?" Oden said.
The rumbling turned to a violent shaking. Ned, Hobnob, Odilia and Oden struggled to keep their balance. The nails shot out of the floor and the slats jumped up and down like the keys of a piano.
The roof lifted off of the shop. They glimpsed overcast skies for a moment before the sun went out. They were plunged into a darkness deeper than night, more absolute than the lowest places of the earth.
They shot up into the air. Or rather, the earth shot down away from them, along with the clouds and the sky and the chunk of burnt-out coal that used to be the sun. The three humans and one goblin floated in pitch blackness, losing all sense of direction, space, or time.
"This is weird," Hobnob said, in a voice like the sound of a thousand of stars being quenched echoed out of his mouth.
"No kidding," Ned said, in the same voice.
A red spot appeared in the void, distant but growing closer, and soon they could discern a hulking form as tall as a mountain. None of them could fathom its depth or shape, just its magnitude.
"I am Urgoth the Defiler," came a voice that resonated within each of them. "I bring agony, pain and torment and leave only despair in my wake. Many have prayed for delirium in My wake, but found no escape from Me."
The awesome presence of this elder power struck the very words from the minds of the quartet.
"You have summoned Me with a potion whose recipe should have been lost before the age of man, goblin or elf. You are Ned, I believe," came the voice of Urgoth resonating in their bones. The great shape in front of them seemed to have skin like molten lava, always flowing, and corpses bubbled to the surface and were again buried, each screaming wordlessly.
"Yes," Ned replied, his altered voice now sounding positively friendly when compared to Urgoth's.
"And it is to you that I speak," Urgoth said. "You four have floated before me for eons now. Your minds would instantly break if you could understand the time you've spent – thank Death, when he finds you, for sparing your kind from learning the limits of your consciousness. I learned much of you in those eons, studying you as intently as an alchemist studies gold."
"I'm an alchemist," Ned said.
"You, Ned, are a fool, and know how deeply I mean that. And you, Odilia, know that this man is a fool who loves you, and he cannot hope to hide it anymore."
"Um," Ned said, now speaking in his normal voice.
"That's sweet and all but, oh wait, no it isn't."
"He tried to poison my little girl!" shouted Oden, his voice sounding thin and distant.
"He did no such thing – although his methods were idiotic, he risked capture and punishment from the police, and worse, capture and punishment from you, Oden, in an attempt to win the heart of your daughter."
"I mostly just wanted to get some," Ned said. Odilia looked aghast at this pronouncement. Oden, unable to move, flexed his hands as if choking something. Hobnob just shook his head.
"You summon Me to your insignificant world before My time, cause Me to ready My scythe before it is time to reap My harvest, and you reject My relationship advice?"
"Kind of, yeah. I mean, I don't know if you lava and corpse people even have sex but Odilia is pretty hot, and she's always been nice to me."
"Do you have dating problems?" Urgoth's voice thundered.
"Yes," Ned admitted.
"Do you realize why?"
"Women can't appreciate my inner beauty?" Ned suggested.
Urgoth sighed. A thousand and one universes flared and died before he finished.
"Allow me to reveal something."
Ned blinked, and in the lifetimes that he observed in real-time on the inside of his eyelids like a screen, he understood. He turned to Odilia.
"Shit," he said by way of explanation.
They floated there while Ned struggled with his newfound knowledge.
"So, uh, Mr. Urgoth, are you going to kill us?" Hobnob asked.
The sucking force of the negative answer gave them all runny noses.
"The Time has not yet come for Urgoth the Defiler to visit your world in an…official capacity."
"Then why did you come?" Odilia asked.
"I cannot stand a sad story," Urgoth intoned, and then was gone.
The world returned under their feet, and the roof materialized Everything appeared as it was before.
Ned was a lot of things, not all of them good, and that meant that he at least had to be fast. Ned was through the back door a fraction of a second before Oden barreled after him. As Oden went through the backdoor, he collided with a stationary Ned. They both tumbled end-over-end into a tuft of orchids, but that was okay because there were plenty more orchids, growing in every inch of the backyard, even more beautiful than the ones that Ned had stolen.
Ned and Oden each stood up, speechless.
"Where-" Oden said, incredulity spreading across his face.
Hobnob and Odilia came through the door and shared his reaction.
"Dad!" Odilia said, running to her father and hugging him.
"We need to go," Hobnob said quietly, sidling up to Ned and tugging on his arm.
"Well, lad, it seems that Urgoth paid your debt to me," Oden said. "So I'd advise you get on out of here while I have a kind heart in me and before you blunder your way into a choking."
Ned stood up at his full height. "I will, but first, Odilia, you know that I learned some things, floating in that formless, shapeless void. Will you go out with me some time?"
"Oy!" Oden yelled. "Don't push me, I still have a mind to tie you into a piece of pretzeled bread!"
"I'm a big girl, dad," Odilia said. "Yes, I will. But you have to make me two promises."
Oden had a short temper but was a reasonable man. He recognized that he had no present reason to choke Ned since his daughter, for her own inscrutable reasons, didn't wish it. "I'm going to start gathering these flowers," he said. "Goblin, why don't you help me. Grab one of these baskets."
Hobnob scratched a wart on his chin, and glanced at Odilia and Ned. "A fine idea," he said, grabbing a basket and following Oden deeper into the now-lush garden.
"What do I need to promise?"
"First, giving me flowers isn't cute if you've stolen them from my father, so knock that off," Odilia said.
"I think I can manage that," Ned said. "What's the second?"
"Never make me dinner, okay?"
"What? Yeah, okay. But why not?"
"You don't seem to be able to follow recipes."
That night, Ned dreamt about the end of the world. As the dirt beneath him cracked and a vortex of mud and lava formed, a great voice boomed out of the hole.
"Well done," it said.