The temple had been abandoned for years. Not because the Blood of Blackheart had lost their faith in the Two-Fold Queen, but simply because the smaller temple was no longer needed. Anivar, the Untainted Eye initiated the construction of the Black Cathedral of Darkholm to accommodate the daily horde of pilgrims visiting the bustling capitol city, and it was to the Black Cathedral that they flocked to attend his service.
Yet the older temple had never been re-purposed. Perhaps there was still the provincial hesitation to deconsecrate its sacred halls.... but that was just an excuse readily given by the hand-wringers that did not want to admit they were afraid of something more... incorporeal. At night, green and red lights flashed through the windows. Children no longer played around its twisting columns; they swore they heard the ghastly screams of a young womann from inside. The air around it constantly reeked of sulfur. Even the least superstitious made an effort to walk on the other side of the road when they passed through, to avoid being the unwitting victim of some lost soul's misdirected vengeance.
And so, the temple laid fallow, but it did not seem to be bothered by this. It happily retreated back into the looming shadow of the nearby Darkholde Keep, and the populace was quite content to leave it alone.
On this overcast day, a young mann walked briskly along the mossy path, towards the twin jet spires that pierced the gray sky. There was determination in his eyes as he approached the foreboding temple. His long hair, pure white as snow, billowed in the breeze behind him.
Peering over his shoulder to ensure he had not been followed, he produced a bog-iron key from his pocket and unlocked the wooden doors. Not a trace of fear marred his expression; if anything, he appeared to be in a choleric mood.
He pushed open the reinforced doors and stepped into the sanctuary. A shadowed figure in a dark cloak stood hunched over the altar, their face obscured by a hood.
“Close the doors!” the hooded figure hissed.
The mann shut the doors immediately, the foundation rumbling with the reverberating echoes. He strode down the dimly-lit hall with an enviable nonchalance, his scuffed boots thudding against the marble tiles. A cracked statue of the Two-Fold Queen made of jet and bone dutifully maintained her vigilance even without a congregation.
The hooded figure at the altar also drew closer. Perhaps the dark, obscuring garments were an attempt to appear intimidating, but that was rather difficult to accomplish when the white-haired mann stood nearly two hands taller in front of them.
The mann spoke first.
“Luzien's bones... please don't tell me you're going to leave me with another message. I had to track down a copy of Al'tzanon's Atlas aer Chemie to decode the last one. I'm tired of your games and your ciphers. Who are you, and why am I here?”
“Was it the illuminated version of the Atlas?” A bright female voice piped up from beneath the hood.
“Illum-I-don't-care! What in Karcion do you want from me?!”
With a rustling of silk the figure dropped their cloak, revealing a young womann with a bright countenance and cropped black hair. Her eyes, wide and inquisitive, glittered gold in the dim light that filtered through the rose-quartz windows.
Golden eyes... she was royalty?
The mann was too baffled to bow. “Lady... Darkholm?” She was the cryptographer penning those irksome letters?
“Isolde Darkholm,” she confirmed. She thrust out a pale hand, smiling widely.
The mann's features were angular and dour; a stark contrast to Isolde's brimming effervescence. Though both were blessed with the same amount of youth, his face seemed to bear the weary apathy of one that had already weathered the blows of a lifetime, ghostly white skin stretched across his face like parchment. He shook her extended hand with slight trepidation, unsure what was going on or why she looked so excited to meet him.
“Syl Bloodraven,” he replied with measured wariness.
“Yes, I know who you are!” she exclaimed proudly.
“No, I meant that I know about what happened at the university.”
“Yes... everyone knows that I was expelled from Hollow University for burning the laboratory to cinders. Rumor has it I even did it on purpose,” Syl replied testily.
Taking a beat to examine his surroundings, he saw that the sanctuary was not in disuse at all; what he assumed was an altar was actually a modest alchemical workstation.
He walked over to get a closer look. An alembic and retort rested on the altar. On another table was a round-bottom flask with something the mann had never seen anything quite resembling it in his life. A crystal growth the color of silver, with dendritic branches sprouting from the stem. It looked as if Isolde had actually been growing a crystalline tree within the flask.
Seemed she had been using this place as her personal laboratory for quite some time. Shelves hung on the walls lined with jars of reagents, labels scrawled in that spidery handwriting Syl recognized from her ciphered letters.
“All these years... you were the one that's been 'haunting' this temple?” Syl scoffed in mild amusement. “Tell me, temple ghost, why did you go through all this trouble just to meet with me?”
Isolde flung her hands up incredulously.
“How could you not know why? You've created liquid fire – not extinguished by water, but fed by it. Don't you understand, Syl? As we speak, every alchemist that knows about it is furiously trying to replicate it, and they know you only had whatever materials were available at the Hollow University's alchemy lab. Why, any fool could simply toss reagents into a crucible until he finds the answer if he doesn't burn his face off in the process. But while they are all busy doing that, I have been developing a defensive measure... a neutralizing agent, to fight your fire, before an enemy inevitably formulates it to attack us. The horror! A fire that is fed by water... imagine them attacking our peat bogs!”
Syl nodded idly during Isolde's rant, more intrigued by the crystal tree in the flask. Perhaps if he watched long enough, he might catch a silver branch sprouting from another...
“I see... you brought me here to make liquid fire for you, so that you may test your... preemptive countermeasure against my formula, that nobody else knows?” he asked.
“Yes! I have any apparatus and reagent you would have had at the University. I just can't quite figure out how you did it. Will you show me?”
Isolde gazed up at him imploringly, her citrine eyes voracious for the knowledge that only Syl possessed.
The air was impregnated by a heavy pause. Syl held her stare with narrowed eyes. It was silent in the temple, save for the rustling of wings in the tower above them. The young mann turned away from her stare, looking down at the marble tiles.
“Do I even have a choice? When a Darkholm asks this of me...”
“Oh, of course,” Isolde said quickly, waving her arms like an excited goose. “You are not under duress. I command no armies and half the royal court dismiss me as peculiar. No one knows of our meeting. I arranged it in secret to protect you. You are free to leave. I promise that no one will follow you.”
“Is that so...?” he asked, his voice laden with sarcasm.
“Yes. I give you my word, from one alchemist to another.” Isolde matched his sarcasm with equal sincerity.
Syl sighed again. He thought about it for another deep moment. She was an odd one, eschewing the composure and grace expected of her House. Her curiosity was pure; not yet ravaged by the wolves of academia...
After some time, he pulled the iron key from his pocket and held it out to Isolde.
He waited for her to take the key, but Isolde merely stared at his outstretched palm.
“Keep it. It's the only way you would be able to return. If ever you are in danger, or you... change your mind...”
He closed his fist around the key, waving his other hand in dismissal as he walked towards the doors. “You are very earnest, Lady Darkholm, but I'm not ready to share my knowledge with the world. You'll just have to toss reagents into a crucible like everyone else and hope for the best.”
Isolde watched him leave. Her expression was impassive, but her yellow eyes seared into his back.
With one hand on the door, Syl glanced over his shoulder at her and smiled.
“Truly, I am sorry. Try not to burn your pretty face off.”
It had been three days since Syl left, but Isolde had rolled up her sleeves and started her own research, as focused as light through a pinhole. So far, she was not able to replicate a flame quite like Syl's; a blue flame that would burn indefinitely, only aggravated further by water... a flame that extinguished at its own whim. But at least she had not yet burned her face off, if that was any bitter consolation amid her mania.
The birds above stirred at the sound of a key turning, and they fluttered away as the wooden door burst open, diffusing the petrichor through the temple from the rainfall outside. Boots thumped on the marble floor again, squeaking from the dampness he tracked in.
Isolde did not turn around. Her hands were stained silver by some element that one could only hope wasn't mercury. She wiped them off on a nearby handkerchief.
Her back was still turned, yet her busy hands had ceased moving, as if waiting for Syl to speak first.
“Lady Darkholm.” He gave a stiff bow of acknowledgment.
“Call me Isolde, if you please. This is a laboratory; there is no need to burden ourselves with awkward formalities. Unless you prefer that I address you as Lord Bloodraven.”
“Isolde then. You were true to your word.” He walked towards her. She still did not turn around. He continued speaking to her back. “I apologize for my rudeness the other day. I...”
His voice faltered, unable to convey in words the entanglement of thoughts, emotions, experiences in a way that was concise and coherent enough for anyone to understand.
Isolde abruptly spun on her heel, facing him now. The luster in her eyes brought Syl out of the labyrinth of his own mind; with one look she seemed to say, I know.
“Not another word. You need not apologize for anything.” She clasped her hands together and grinned, walking him to her workstation. “Let's get started now, shall we?”
She had bounced straight into action, and Syl was grateful for it. He hung a crucible over the fire and turned the dying charcoals to rake life back into them.
“Well, first... I'm going to need whale fat. And sulfur.”
Isolde wrinkled her nose by reflex; the lab was going to reek of blubber and rotten eggs for days.
After calibrating Syl to the particularities of her lab, Isolde retreated to a pew where she could watch him with a silent, catlike curiosity. He had steady, careful hands, she noticed. Precise with measurements and temperature as he boiled the fat into oil. She scribbled a few notes on vellum, but otherwise kept rapt attention on his work. Time passed, but neither seemed to care, or even notice.
“I am curious, Isolde...”
When Syl spoke again, Isolde had been so focused for the past several hours that she jumped a little. “Why would someone like you be forced to conduct their research in a place like this?”
They were watching a separate mixture in an alembic as it distilled. Swirling black vapors clouded the glass.
“Oh, for the same reason you were expelled from the Hollow University,” came her nonchalant response.
The white-haired mann scoffed.
“You burned down a university building too?”
“That's not why you were expelled.” Her tone was persistent, challenging even.
Syl glanced over his shoulder, arching an eyebrow at her.
“Was it?” she pressed.
There was a thoughtful pause before he spoke again. His voice was low.
“After the... incident, all of the professors were called to discuss my punishment. They told me that I would be exonerated if I shared my formulae with them. They even would have waived the expense of rebuilding the laboratory and replacement of the materials that were destroyed. But I did not trust their motives.”
“And now you're in debt to the University and discredited.”
Syl scowled. “Thank you for reminding me, Isolde. I had nearly forgotten,” he said acidly.
“But Syl, it is much the same reason I study here. You were treated with revulsion. They tried to blackmail you into revealing your secrets, and when you refused, they denounced you as a common vandal and ruined your name, all because you discovered something they feared... Here, I am able to avoid the machinations of so-called academics that would muddle their politics into our science. I can focus on my duty to serve the Queen and the people of Blackheart.”
“But... why this place? It is hidden in such plain view that I wonder if you are a genius or a madwomann.”
“It is not so terrible as you make it sound!” Isolde puffed up. “It is on a quiet path normally avoided by the populace, with none but the crows to disrupt my research. There are only two keys to this place in existence, and Anivar gave me both... and these walls are so strong, one would need a siege machine to break in.”
“Of all people, you gave me your spare key without question? And you didn't even change the lock when I left. Why?”
Isolde shrugged. “Why not? I trusted you. You are always welcome to return if ever you need a place to conduct your experiments. I would not mind your company.”
Trust. That was a heavy word. Syl looked as if he were about to say something, but he turned his back on her again to remove the flask from the alembic. He capped it immediately, before any vapor could escape. Isolde watched with fascination. The glass was so clouded that it appeared as if it had been coated in thick black paint from the inside.
“Isolde... before I give this to you, I want to be absolutely certain that you will handle it with the utmost caution. Don't be a fool and throw it in a peat bog.”
She laughed. “I'm not a dunghead!”
As Isolde reached for the flask, Syl barely relented, still apprehensive about letting her handle such a volatile concoction.
The bottle was warm in her hands. She turned it over gently, examining the black liquid inside.
“Very clever that you would even think to make this. But if I am correct, I should be able to neutralize it...”
She tossed the flask over her shoulder.
“Don't---!!” Syl cried, but it was too late.
The flask shattered.
Fire erupted from the broken glass, spreading quickly between the wooden pews. The blaze turned white, then blue.
Thick black clouds of smoke billowed upwards like a noxious fabric. The vile concoction produced a conflagration unlike any other. It was terrible, all-consuming, like a hundred fires densely compacted into one, spreading exponentially to feast upon and snap the wood.
Syl tried to pull Isolde by the arm towards the door but she twisted free, snatching a large jar from her desk.
Using both hands, she flung it at the fire. It shattered. The liquid that splashed out from the glass frothed into a white, foamy substance. The frothy neutralizer quelled the flames, blanketing it like a fresh snowfall.
Syl's mouth hung open in disbelief.
White-hot embers continued to leap like grasshoppers fleeing the dissipating flames, until the fire was completely dead, with only ashes and broken shards of glass to prove that it had ever existed. The crows on the ceiling beams were screeching, fluttering up towards the bell tower.
“It worked!” Isolde cried out, beaming with triumph.
A loose ember from the ashes leaped in its final act to catch onto Isolde's trailing bell sleeve. It sparked and the silk erupted into another flame from the single ember.
Syl rushed forward. He grabbed her sleeve to smother the flames in both hands, starving it of oxygen.
He clenched the fabric tightly, his face convulsed in searing pain.
He released her singed sleeve, hands trembling.
They stared at each other for a dazed moment, both paralyzed from shock.
“Why – why would you do that?” he sputtered.
She looked at his hands. He had burned himself.
Snapping back into action, Isolde scraped some of the ashes from the floor into a porcelain bowl. Hurriedly, she found another jar from her wooden box and flung a few spoonfuls of some sticky golden substance to mix it with the ashes in her bowl.
Ushering Syl to sit on a pew, she sat across from him and gently took his blistered hands.
“I'm sorry this happened to you,” she said.
Syl was either too angry or too shocked to acknowledge her. He continued to stare blankly ahead.
Isolde began to apply the salve.
“Reckless...” Syl finally said, cringing in pain. “Unbelievably reckless.”
“At least I didn't accidentally drop it at the University lab,” she retorted harshly, but immediately softened with regret. “Truly... I'm sorry. I was just so excited to test my neutralizer....”
“I can't believe you threw it, Isolde. What were you thinking?! You could have killed us both or destroyed your own lab–” he finally looked down, as if noticing for the first time what she was doing.
“Erm... what are you putting on my hands?”
“A simple healing salve. Ash to disinfect the open wounds. Cardinal honey to soothe the burns.”
Indeed, a cooling sensation began to numb the pain, and the blisters were already closing. She was right. It worked, and quickly.
“Perhaps this is what makes alchemy so fascinating to me. This... duality. The same reagents we use for a wicked, destructive force may also be used to heal and purify,” Isolde mused as she began to bandage his wounds. “Just as life can sprout from death and decay.”
Not meeting her eyes, Syl's posture became rigid. He continued to stare at his hands while Isolde wrapped clean linen around them.
“These hands... they are the wicked, destructive force. People fear me, and rightfully so. The thoughts I have are... horrible, and I happen to be very good at materializing them into horrible things. I look for the most vile combinations of toxins beyond your imagination. Poison that turn a mann's bones to soft pudding, boils the acid in his stomach, putrefies his organs from the inside. And liquid fire, that destroyed a university laboratory in minutes. You see, I am very good at causing bad things to happen. But you have a mind for healing, creation, purification... To you, it seems to come so easy, but I...” he trailed off.
Isolde tucked in the ends of the bandages, but did not yet release his hands.
She had that look in her eyes again, that starry, citrine gaze that reassured him he did not need to explain himself.
“You do not fear me,” Syl spoke barely above a whisper.
Isolde shook her head.
“Syl... only the ignorant fear that which they do not understand. At first glance, your work may seem diametrically opposed to mine. I seek new methods to prolong life; to heal and enhance, while you research how to undo all of that – to poison, ravage, and contaminate. But nothing is ever truly destroyed. You did not destroy the laboratory at Hollow University. It merely changed its state of existence. Alchemy is not about creation or destruction. It is transformation. We may see each other's goals as contradictory, but if we share our knowledge and work together... we can build something eternal.”
((This is the founding story of the R.B.S.A.P.))