The sun sat high in the west, swelling of brilliant oranges and reds while emitting a heat that burnt off the morning chill. It warmed the Earth, warding away the recent storm while peeping through cotton-torn patterns in the sky.
"Your up, Mr. Rigger," Cohan O'hare, the boy's professor said. Boone turned his eyes towards a simple man, with a knack for alchemy facts though knew nothing about brewing a spell.
Boone smiled and he returned the jester with a half-raised lip. Hardly a man of emotion, his head was usually stuck in a book somewhere free from the sun and the public.
Mr. O'hare pushed his round-framed glasses back. "You're my last hope to show the others I've taught you well," he said, raising a hand to his lips, "and my last chance to keep my job."
Boone chuckled. He never understood why the bowtie and long sock wearing Professor O'hare took a job that he despised. The coin stunk and he revolted children. Boone's only guess was that he fancied access to the library and peeping on Mrs. Willowsworth from time-to-time.
"Just up those steps," he pointed.
Boone lifted his chin.
The tower loomed over him like a giant, made of large crossed and zigzagging beams. The stairs rose on the side of the structure, twelve feet high, where a fitted platform rested on top; a climb as daunting as the one to the top of the gallows. And Boone wanted no part of it.
He swallowed and nodded. You can do this. You're fifteen now. No longer a boy, but a man. His kind eyes narrowed as he swept his blonde bangs across his face. He then tilted his father's white-brimmed hat, which he intended to grow in to, up and out of his eyes.
A surge of energy came from his feet and pushed him upwards. One step at a time. He rose higher and higher until his fitted leather boots hit the top. There his nerves calmed but only for a second.
"Your spoon, Boy," said a man with a suspicious grin and greed-filled eyes.
He was lengthy and wore a black hat, black long-tailed coat, white skinny trousers, and black fingerless gloves. Boone had seen the man before and heard the talk around town: he was Richie Taylor the town stooge.
He shoved the metal tool into the boy's arms and lifted a golden cone-shaped instrument to his lips. He spoke into it at the edge of the platform, projecting his voice. "Next we have our final contestant!" He shot Boone an eye while lowering the instrument. "What'd your ma call ya?"
"Ma?" Boone whispered, raising an eyebrow. The word felt awkward off his tongue. He thought about his parents on occasions but they'd been long since departed.
The greedy-eyed man shook his head and said, "your Label?" Boone was lost for words. "Title?" The boy scratched his arm. "For the regiments sake, your name, boy, what is your name?"
It took a silent minute before he spoke. "Boone ... Boone Rigger, Sir."
Richie's face twisted in distaste. He turned towards the crowd and lifted his instrument. "We have Boone Rigar!"
"Damn. Rigger!" He looked to the boy for confirmation. Boone nodded. "Boone Rigger!" The man lowered the hunk of metal. "I need a stiff drink.
An uproar came from beyond the platform.
The greedy-eyed man waved a hand and Boone tiptoed towards him mindful not to plummet over the edge. He halted and glanced outward.
Built into the hillside was a large wooden structure, fitted into long rows, and crowded with people: women dressed in thin summer gowns and silk and straw bonnets while the men wore half unfastened button shirts, rolled at the sleeves, and large-brimmed hats to rid away the sun.
They held metal cylinder-scoped magnifiers in one hand and clapped their wrists with the other.
Boone's eyes shifted and trailed up the hillside to the massive bluff hanging above them; Crockards' Perch; as beautiful as the first time he'd seen it. It stuck out of the mountainside like a spearhead. Jagged. A hundred feet high. Where the air was thin, the eagles nested, and the pine trees shook from the winds fury.
On the flat, Crockernard's duelring sat hidden, but the boy sensed it's presence, visualizing the old war fort on the opposite side. He dreamed of the day he'd see a duel there. "When you're old enough," his Grandpappy often told him, which he said everytime he asked.
Boone jolted suddenly, "Grandpappy! Ma Jean!" He spoke loud enough to give Richie a startle. He searched the crowd vigorously but his grandparents were lost in the sea of hats and bonnets.
"Position, boy," Richie said, checking a round, golden watch chained to his vest. Boone looked at the man certain he was counting down the time until his next drink. "Over there," Richie pointed, "you have three minutes to study your ingredients."
Boone walked towards center stage, stir spoon in hand, eyes stuck on an enormous black and silver disk-shaped pot stowed between the platform. It was partially exposed, popping. He felt abrasive on his approach though somehow pushed forward.
At the cauldron, Boone grabbed his hat and peered inside, like staring into an angry well; black as the woods and smoky. It bubbled while steam rose, emitting a sweat searing heat. He turned his head away, eyes catching light beneath the platform; fire crackled and popped while swirling around logs.
I can do this, Boone thought, feeling the steam creep up his nostrils. Mark my words, I can.
Boone held out the stir spoon and its weight pulled towards the floorboards; heavy and long as a sword. He threw up his other hand and grabbed the black wooden handle, warding off the burden. With a mighty heave, he swung the spoon around and sunk the metal into the bubbling liquid.
"Few," He wiped his forehead, noticing the table beside him stacked with ingredients.
A rancid smell caught him next; his face twisted then sank. It was a burning stink, fishy and dead. Like a charred sweaty rat filled with fish guts. The boy waved a hand and pinched his nostrils, tightening his throat to hold back the soup wanting to expel from his stomach.
Breath, he squirmed, just breath.
On the table, he recognized common commodities and a few foreign to these parts. Boone's finger darted between each item: stem root, gun powder, red potatoes, black weed, exploding poppy—
Better stay clear of that one.
Dune dust, molten rock, snow owl feathers, chicken feet, white herb, maggot's rot, fish eggs, pine needles, tree sap, ice bark, a strange yellowish-green leaf shaped like a pear, and ...
"Cow dung?" He chuckled.
"Times up," Richie glowed. He announced to the crowd. "Boone will have just five minutes to create," His hand disappeared into his pocket.
Anything but —
The crowd gasped.
The man's eyes grew dark and his lips twisted with joy. "Good luck."
Boone's mouth came unhinged. Out of all the alchemy spells he'd learned over the last year Wart Remedy was by far the most difficult.
Richie swung the watch around, "time starts," and caught it, flipping it open, "now!"
Boone's heart pounded against his chest. He turned towards the ingredients and slowly sorted through each item. "There's more than one way to create Wart Remedy ... You can strike it." Boone saw the greyish-blue stone shimmering. "And you can freeze it." He picked it up as sunlight beamed off the rock, lighting his face like blue Yukimo war paint.
He bent down and heaved the spoon atop the cauldron, screeching as it slid. Boone placed the ice rock in the bowl and kept it steady, knowing one false move would send it plummeting into the cauldron, tarnishing the brew. Boone grit his teeth and pushed from the handle, the spoon glided against the rim, balancing as the bowl hung above the boil, swallowing steam.
Thirty seconds, Boone counted.
The crystal in the stone simmered into a sapphire-blue liquid. Boone carefully slid the spoon back, clutched the core stone, and tossed it aside. He took a breath and examined the goods. "Is it three or four ingredients?" He bit his lip and decided on three.
Boone leaned over and tilted the spoon; blue glowing liquid spilled into the cauldron as several cracks and pops echoed. The water sizzled, a raspberry-blue cloud rising like a demon from the abyss, hissing—
Boone had no choice, he leaped back avoiding the heat, allowing the smoke to pass. He then sprang forward, giving the brew a churn as it crystallized. With the spoon, he pushed white herbs and tree sap into the pot, rowing the brew further.
"Thirty churns, boy. No more, no less." His Grandpappy's raspy voice rang in his head. "Don't worry about the count," he spoke. "Nor the crowd. Just breath."
Somehow his Pappy was always there with him. Boone pulled and pushed while sweat rolled down his face, muscles burning. He was strong for his slender size and quick; skills acquired from the years of avoiding Mason Horn's knuckly fists
He groaned. Another churn and his teeth sunk into his lip. He didn't mind the pain. Boys were meant to be tough after all, and he was tough.
After the tenth stroke, Boone felt a vibration in his forearms; muscles rattling like plucked guitar strings. He bit his lip harder drawing blood. Not now ... Not when I'm this close.
He continued to churn. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. At twenty his arms trembled lightly then shook possessed. Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. He groaned and his hands betrayed him; the pale skin drained into a plum-purple flesh.
"I can't hold on much longer ..."
Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight.
Boone lifted his head and yelled, releasing the spoon as his arms waved with madness.
"Be careful, boy," Richie yelled, reaching out a hand.
Boone's heels tangled and he stumbled backward; feet left the ground. His stomach dropped like water inside a jug. He was weightless but not for long. Crack, he collided into the table and it shifted then he hit the ground.
Ingredients blurred past, the caldron devouring them as they fell. There was a hiss; the cauldron rumbled awake, spinning ferociously inside its confinement.
Boone flew to his feet.
"Out of my way!" Richie batted him down, racing for safety
"Coward!" Boone yelled, feeling a sharp ache in his thigh. The boy shook his head warding of the haze, rising to his feet
Greenish-blue flames burst through the platform, thrashing, and ripping at the wood.
Boone swallowed and took three steps back.
The cauldron whistled and howled as light expelled outward, dazzling the sky with sapphire blues, molten reds, and forest greens.
"What have I done?" He spun around and his legs carried him towards the steps; he descended.
At the bottom, Mr. O'hare waved frantically. "Run, Boone, Run!"
A sharp, popping noise surrounded him.
Boone looked between shoulders, the tower's beams splintered and the cauldron erupted; bluish-black misshapen chunks projected skyward then fell in flames, while wooden shards cut through the air like glass.
Boone threw up an arm and winced at a spark of pain. The tower buckled. His Legs seem solid, unable to move faster; the cauldron spiraled towards the earth.
I'm not going to make it!
He took three steps and collided into Mr. O'hara. The man fell back, Boone kept his feet moving, the ground trembling, racing away from the clash of metal.
Suddenly the tower cracked, and tipped, crashing as it hit.
A moment later it was silent.
The boy stood, panting, while the cloud of dust settled. His hands fell over his knees. "I made it —"
Something nagged at his arm; a sharp, electric pain pulsing from shoulder to wrist. He lifted his limb, eyes bulging at the torn skin, pale bone, and a splintered shard extending through his flesh.