Alchemists’ duels are weird.
Part of it makes about as much sense as duels usually do, with two people throwing alchemy at each other for whatever reason. The particular details of alchemists’ duels are more unique.
For one thing, both participants have easy access to Elixer of Life. So no duel ever actually ends with anyone dying, which means alchemists are more willing than, say, wizards, to fight duels at the drop of a conical hat. Sometimes they do it just for bragging rights.
I have no idea what caused the one I saw. Maybe Aceso accidentally insulted Heptamegistus (yes, silly names are traditional), more likely he just wanted the boost in reputation from having beaten her, but for whatever reason he challenged her to a duel and she agreed. They scheduled it for thirteen days later, and started preparing.
I asked someone who seemed to know what was going on, and apparently thirteen days is standard. Some of the more powerful mixtures take precisely a fortnight to prepare, and they don’t want those being used around spectators. (It has to be a fortnight and not just fourteen days. Most of the people I asked didn’t know the difference either, but they all pointed out that they weren’t alchemists.)
Heptamegistus publicly bragged that he had found a way to brew the Evil Tomato Juice Of Powerful Power in less than a fortnight. While the people constructing the arena started moving the stands farther back to keep them out of the blast radius, reporters asked Aceso if she was worried about facing someone armed with that. She didn’t even change her expression, just said that he was probably lying about the fortnight and had more likely started preparing it before challenging her.
The former underdog kept going, claiming that he would use more and more powerful and dangerous abilities. Every time he escalated, it was obvious that he was getting more and more stressed, but Aceso continued being aggressively calm. Now the interviewers were asking Heptamegistus whether he really thought it was a good idea to challenge the Aceso to a duel, and did he really think he could win this. Aceso continued not reacting, and commented that she wouldn’t have to use any alchemy at all because her opponent’s nerves would lose him the match.
With three days to go, Heptamegistus said he had an idea and disappeared. He was hardly seen at all after that, but when he came out on the day of the duel he looked prepared. He was still shaking, but he told the interviewers that he had created a potion that would give him nerves of steel, and with the firepower he was bringing he could leave a giant smoking crater where Aceso used to be. It would take her weeks to recover.
I had made sure to read up on what the point of these duels was. Apparently, ever since the formula for Elixer of Life became public domain these duels hadn’t been duels so much as games. The winner would be whoever was left standing, but the real point was to win with style. The crowd was expecting fireworks and lightning, at minimum.
The contestants walked on to the arena. The audience had to strain to see them; normally they would have been nearer but for this duel their normal distance might be too close.
Both duelists were checked by the officiating wizards for any traces of preexisting alchemy, and walked up to their assigned cauldrons. Duels could either end in seconds if one had prepared something the other was unready for, or go on for hours or even days as they improvised with the ingredients they brought. The arenas had to be entirely made of alchemically boring aluminum, and had been ever since an incident where a duelist vaporized the wood floor with a single drop of dragonfire.
Both drew out their allotted single chalice of previously prepared liquids, and Heptamegistus drank. Aceso poured hers out in front of her, and it was pure water.
Her opponent froze with the glass to his lips, and the ground rang when he fell.
At the post-match interviews, the first time someone asked Aceso what she had done to Heptamegistus she answered that she had done nothing at all; but he was in no pain and would be back to normal any minute. She had simply arranged for him to drink an excessively literal potion.
It turns out steel wires aren’t that great at correctly transmitting electrical impulses for the nervous system. It works better with actual nerves. So Heptamegistus was receiving no information from any sensory organs, and could send no instructions to his limbs to move them. He would stay conscious but paralyzed and insensate until the Elixer of Life brought him back to normal.
Without that elixer, Heptamegistus would have been basically flayed alive from the inside—the sciatic nerve, for example, is roughly the size of an epee blade and perilously close to several arteries, and thinner nerves would be sharper and more numerous—but with it he’d just spend a few minutes unable to see, hear, feel, or move. He later reported this as having been the worst few minutes of his life, trying to mix potions but not knowing whether his body was obeying his commands, or even if he was still alive.
The audience, thoroughly impressed with Aceso, decided to tell Heptamegistus that he had fought on bravely even after Aceso hit him with a compound that took away his senses. It’d be less embarrassing for him than the truth, and it’s not like he could know the difference.
And after that, nobody challenged Aceso for a very long time.