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SEVRIN LORE: Gunpowder

Gunpowder has been known in Sevrin for nearly 500 years.  It is an explosive black powder made from saltpeter, ground charcoal, and sulfur.  All of these ingredients are readily available to Sevrin’s alchemists.

Saltpeter, also known as niter, is a white crystal that results when waste matter decays in the presence of lime or similar minerals.  Some of the sea caves on Stormwall Island are mined for salterpeter, which results when bat guano decays on limestone.  Manufacture of saltpeter is common in cities and towns, where human and animal waste can be collected in quantity and mixed with wood ash or certain types of rotting vegetation, then periodically doused with urine.  It should come as no surprise that saltpeter mining and production is not a highly regarded profession.  It is, however, well compensated and highly regulated.  Penalties for selling fake saltpeter include exile and hanging.  This might seem excessive, but only up to the moment when a canon refuses to fire upon invadors.

In addition to its use in gunpowder, saltpeter has several medicinal and culinary uses.  It is sometimes used to cure meat, particularly corned beef, and in pickle brine. Saltpeter may be prescribed to cool a fever or to relax muscles.  This use led to rumors that it could quench male ardor.  It does, but only in the same fashion as a fatal hanging. A high dose of saltpeter is more likely to stop a man’s heart than his libido.

The best charcoal for gunpowder comes from willow, alder, blackthorn, and pine.  All of these trees grow on Sevrin’s islands.

Sulfur, a non-metallic crystal abundant in nature, is one of the three “heavenly substances” and widely used by alchemists. Sometimes called brimstone, it is regarded as an essential element of Life and a symbol of man’s search for knowledge.  In its natural form, it’s a pale yellow crystal.

Proportions for gunpowder are approximately 75 parts saltpeter, 15 parts finely ground charcoal, and 10 parts sulfur.

SEVRIN LORE: Alchemy in Sevrin

Alchemy has been practiced in the Known Lands for hundred of years, but knowledge of this tradition reached Sevrin about fifty years ago.  In its infancy, Sevrin alchemy was a central part of the plan to overthrow Eldreath, the sorcerer lord.  This early focus determined the course of Sevrin’s approach to alchemy.

In the southern lands where it originated, alchemy is as a philosophy and spiritual tradition in addition to being a practical art.  Personal transformation is considered to be the goal of wise men, and the notion of “changing base metals into gold” is a metaphor, not a literal quest.

In Sevrin, however, the search for alkahest, a universal solvent, became a search for alchemical weapons that could melt metal armor, burn with unquenchable flame, or cause noxious fumes that could stun or kill.  Such weapons won Sevrin’s freedom from Eldreath and discourage other countries from attacking, but the price has been high. 

Corin, a small island at the northern end of the chain of islands that make up Sevrin, is a casualty of those early experiments. Once a thriving community of fishing villages, small farms, and busy market town, it is all but deserted.  Most people of Sevrin believe that Corin was destroyed by Eldreath’s sorcery. 

Since the overthrow of Eldreath, Sevrin alchemy has diversified.  Some adepts still focus on weapons, others lead the search for medicines that will cure ills and prolong life. Others focus on metals and craftsmanship, building clockwork machines that have become Sevrin’s most profitable export.  These machines range from toys to safeboxes,  from devious traps to musical instruments, from  animated statues to small hand weapons.  Two adepts, Rhendish and Muldonny, are famous for their clockwork guards.  They jealously guard the secrets to these creations, however, and keep these metal servants strictly for their own use.

SEVRIN LORE: The Alkahest Conundrum

One of the most ancient alchemical quests involves the search for alkahest, a universal solvent.

The definition of alkahest varies from from one alchemist to another.  To some, alkahest is a solvent that will reduce composed material into its component parts.

This type of alkahest would be particularly useful to alchemists  who wish to redefine magic on their terms.  In theory, they could break magical potions down into components, measure the proportions, and mix identical potions that would have the same effect.  Early attempts have been disappointing, but they have raised intriguing new questions as to why the reconstructed potions do not have the same effect as the original.  Some alchemists postulate that the potion’s elements can be broken into into even more basic substances–substances not yet discovered or defined.  Others believe there is an unidentified component, something common to all such potions, that, if isolated, could become a source of enormous power.  Still others believe the fault lies with the alkahest and continue to refine the solvents used.

Most alchemists consider these studies fanciful, if not downright heretical.  Accepted wisdom states that a universal solvent is impossible. The alkahest conundrum points out that before a universal solvent can be compounded, one must first find a container that it will not dissolve.

The alkahest conundrum is generally regarded as one of those questions alchemists regard as an exercise of reason and everyone else considers pure nonsense.  This is not to say that alchemists don’t research solvents:  They do, and some of these compounds have powerful applications in medicine, art, and warefare.

There are, however, a few on the fringes of alchemy who still seek the theoretical ideal.

One such alchemist, a man who is known only as Avidan and only to a very few people, has made great strides toward true alkahest.  His success is based largely on his choice of container:  a dragon’s tooth.  Avidan argues that alkahest is specific to the realm in which it is compounded. Dragons, being creatures from another realm, are not affected.

Flasks made from ancient dragon teeth are not difficult to find in Sevrin, when antiquities and curiosities are a cultural passion.  Thanks to his friendship with Fox Winterborn, a skilled thief, Avidan possesses the finest collection of dragon teeth in the city.

Avidan believes he could do better still if he could find a living dragon.  Since no dragons have been seen for many human generations, Avidan’s friends view this goal as yet more evidence that the alchemist is as crazy as three caged squirrels.


Scribe’s note:

The dragon tooth flask pendant depicted is the work of the artists at Remnants of Olde. For more information, including how to purchase such an artifact for your own nefarious purposes, please follow this link.