Bookstores had really fallen out of fashion in the age of technology, with the shelves packed with dusty tomes being cleared out for board games and a Starbucks. The smaller ones remained hidden from the glossy exteriors, their handpainted signboards and cobwebbed windows showing their age and invited passerby to keep on walking - there were no DVDs here, no coffee shops. Just books - and still, one in particular that managed to survive, tucked away from the crowds, its only entrance in an alley.
The boy who stumbled through the darkened alley was just that - a boy. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his hoodie, the hood itself pulled up to cover most of his face. Only a few stray strands of sandy hair escaped, his profile somewhat aqualine. He didn't look side to side but instead moved with a purpose, stopping only at the very small bookshop and taking a deep breath before he entered.
"We don't have Harry Potter," the clerk greeted, not looking up from his book. "Or movies. Or a Starbucks. Have a nice day."
"No Harry Potter, huh?" the voice did not fit the slim, boyish figure who had just entered the shop. It was low and resonant, like puberty decided to make up for what it hadn't done to the kid's body. "Then how about Jameson's Theories of Transmutation or Minari's Summoning a Demon - Safety and Security? And just for the record, Starbucks is overrated garbage."
The man looked up, startled. An actual customer? What was that nonsense? He pushed his glasses up his nose, studying the newcomer carefully. "Got them both, but I wouldn't recommend summoning a demon, even if it is for your thesis."
The boy shrugged. "It can be done safely and Professor Ignatius is expecting something extraordinary. He's an asshole."
"So are demons when you can't banish them back. Why not just bring in some rare creature or something? Tattoo shop down the street's got a couple of really crazy things."
"I'll think about it," the boy replied. "In the meantime I'd like both books, please."
"Take a look around. Jameson's is in the Alchemy section, Minari's is in the Really Stupid Shit section."
"How judgmental of you," the younger man said calmly. "I would think that a discussion of safety when considering even the subject of summoning would be taken more seriously. It's been highly rated and not taken lightly."
He silently rolled up his sleeves, showing the multitude of burn marks and deep scars of what looked like claws. "I followed the instructions, too."
The younger man pulled his hands out of his pockets and displayed his own scars (although none were made by claws). "Anyone who is or has been a student has these, mister." He passed the clerk and headed to the Alchemy section.
The clerk rolled his sleeves back down and returned to his book, occasionally keeping an eye on the customer - the tags were faded and yellowed after years of use, and could be hard to read - not to mention he never really liked keeping a logical order when it came to his categories.
The boy looked for a bit, then rolled his eyes and sighed. He briefly closed his eyes and murmured a tracking spell, the air vibrating with the slight magic.
"Creative," the clerk commented, then suddenly tilted his head to the left, casting a quick negation ward without saying a word. "But not here. There's far too much to discover."
The student frowned. "So you don't want to make a sale? For talking so much about stupid shit you aren't very smart yourself, are you?"
"Best way to make a sale is to have the customer look around. This may work at your university library...but here, you need to seek out the magic."
"No, the best way to make a sale is to tell the customer where the book they are looking for is," the sandy-haired young man murmured. "It's called customer service. That gets you further than existential bullshit."
"I did tell you exactly where to look --this is a bookstore, I'm not Google, and I kind of have a monopoly on actual useful knowledge."
"Your idea of actual useful knowledge and mine are completely different." The younger man pulled out a sheet of paper from his pocket and scanned the words. "I guess I can head to the next bookshop on the list. They will likely be more 'useful' than you have been. Park's isn't far from here.... have a nice day." And with that he turned to leave. Jooheon had been wrong about this place...
"Park's doesn't have any demonology books," the man said, not looking up. "Franchising out, you know. Going to be a Libro."
"But they do have the Jameson....and I can figure out the Summoning on my own or ask them who else has the Minari. Thanks anyways."
The older man smirked. "I'll see you in an hour, then."
"Nope," the other replied. "If you ever decide you'd like to help customers and not be a total dickhead you can find me on campus. Just ask for I.M...they might tell you where I am..." And with that he was gone, door closing behind him. Off to Park's - at least for the Jameson. He wasn't kidding when he said he'd figure out the Summoning himself. He wasn't the top of the class for nothing.
The man sighed and readjusted his glasses, going back to his heavy spell tome. Another cocksure university kid, hellbent on raising the dead or whatever the trend was this year. He'd be back within the hour for both -- the bookstores were dying out, but his was always the same.
"Jameson..." The woman at the counter hummed, checking her computer. "Emma Jameson, right? Mystery novels are to your left, near the back wall."
Changkyun sighed. "No. Hadsworth Jameson. Totally different author. It said you had the book when I looked online last night."
"I'm sorry sir, our online system is a bit outdated." The woman bowed in apology. "We're in the midst of a changeover..." She gestured to the magic section, which was nearly picked clean (and a sign hung overhead proudly announcing the new Starbucks that would be in that spot.)
"Fuck," the young man said under his breath. He'd have to figure it out on his own. He certainly wasn't going back to *that* shop...
"If you'd like, I can place a call to a nearby shop, and they'll be happy to pull it for you," she offered.
"Trust me, he won't," Changkyun muttered. "Thanks though."
The young woman bowed deeply. "Terribly sorry, sir. The arcane is moving out of fashion, I'm afraid."
"Too bad it fuels all of your technology, huh?"
"Sir, electronics are fueled by science."
Changkyun smirked as he turned away. "And science is fueled by magic."
She smiled again. "Let me make that call." Her voice was quiet as she spoke on the phone, but seemed to get the information that she needed. "Sir, are you familiar with Imugi Books? They said it's in stock and they'll be happy to pull it for you."
"Yeah, I'm familiar with them."
"They're open until ten, if you'd like to go there to make your purchases."
"Oh, I am sure it will be that easy," the boy muttered, then offered a smile to the woman that softened his fox-like face slightly. "Thank you for your help, miss."
"Please come again!" She bowed once more, secretly glad that they were moving out of the arcane business...there was always something off about those patrons.
Changkyun sighed and made his way back to the first shop. He really didn't need to see that smug asshole's face again....
"Welcome back," the same voice called out, again not needing to look up. "Decided not to strike out all on your own?"
"I was told you would have a book I requested pulled and ready for me," the younger man said blandly.
"Right...about that." The man wordlessly tilted his head again, the books quickly flying from their places on the shelves and onto his desk. "Pulled."
"And why was this so difficult before?"
"Because it's fun to screw with children."
Changkyun arched an eyebrow, unimpressed. He pulled out his wallet and took out the appropriate currency (fortunately the wallet was charmed to keep mundane and arcane bills separate). "That should be enough."
"And your soul." The man turned a page. "Better sell it to me than a demon. At least I can put you to work that doesn't involve being degloved."
Changkyun scoffed. "Yeah, right......listen, stop acting like you know everything. You aren't *that* much older than I am. You don't know everything."
"You're forgetting the first rule they taught you, kid."
"I'd sense if you were centuries older than me," Changkyun said with a sigh. "Seeing isn't always believing but there are some things that are truths, mister."
The man shook his head as he finally took Changkyun's bills. He banged at an old-fashioned register - that and the Victorian-era telephone on the wall being the very few signs of anything slightly modern inside. "You young mages..."
"Keep going.....tell me that I don't know what it's like to have it rough, that I don't appreciate what others have done for me, that I'm naive and stupid. Keep going. I've heard it all before. You don't know me or my history..." He was so tired of it - and the weariness in his eyes was proof.
"...Are terrible at guessing ages," he finished, leaving it at that.
"Fine....you are ancient and all knowing and all that bullshit. Really helped keep the arcane alive, didn't it? That's why I have to go to back alleys to find what I need unless I want a Frapuccino..."
"You'd come to the back alleys anyway, wouldn't you, Changkyun?"
The younger man frowned. "Stop acting like you know me."
"Oh right, you're all so obsessed with propriety. Changkyun-sshi."
"You know that's not what I meant," Changkyun said with sigh. He pushed the money towards the older man. "Just take this and I'll leave you alone. You won't have to worry about my young, uninformed ass again."
"Right. See you Tuesday, then."
"No, actually you won't," the younger man said quietly, some of his bravado gone. He was tired of being treated like this by older mages. He *was* smarter than most - and younger than the rest of his class. He'd find some other way to get the information he needed - and if that meant he summoned a demon on his own, then so be it.
~jfc, how long does it take to get a book?~ Jooheon texted. ~That shop's so cool, isn't it?~
~I'm done and I'm not coming back.~
~Wow, seriously? You don't want to learn from -the- Yoo Kihyun?~
~I don't give a shit who he is. I'm tired of being treated like I don't matter.~ Yes, the name was familiar but that didn't change how he felt.
~He's a fucking archmage, dude! Only one who can cast magic without words! Nice guy, too.~
Changkyun grew pale but his stance didn't waver. ~Nice to you maybe. He's a dick to me. You can come back next time. I'm done.~
~And you want to do that crazy demon stuff, right? He summoned Nybbas...and lived to tell about it.~
Changkyun swallowed and glanced up at the clerk - the archmage - eyes drifting down to the scars on his wrists. ~Well, he doesn't give a shit about me and the feeling is mutual.~ With a nod and a quiet 'thank you' the young mage took his books and turned to leave.
"Til Tuesday," Kihyun murmured, watching the boy leave. He already knew how it would play out - he'd need some sigil or another, or tools, or find that Minari didn't provide all of the instructions for safety reasons. He'd try again to dissuade him, hoping that just maybe, he'd snap out of it.
~Probably means he could take you as a student.~
Changkyun shook his head as he left. ~Not likely.~
~Suuuuch a pessimist. You coming up tonight for incantation study?~
Changkyun offered a slight smile as he looked down at his phone. ~Yeah….someone needs to make sure you idiots don’t mess everything up too badly.~
~I wonder who ended up summoning a frogurt instead of a frog last week...~
~Probably someone whose name ends in -heon.~
~Funny, it's someone whose name ends in -kyun who always gets the rainbow sprinkles that the frogurt had...~
~Except that you are transferring your own tendencies onto someone else, Jooheonnie. Who has the highest grade in this class?~
~Don't look at me, I only track my own.~
~Heeeey, in the end I'm only competing against myself, right?~
~Sure.....you say that now but who is always looking over my shoulder?~ Changkyun smiled as he continued down the alley, ignoring the dark corners and strange scents.
~Me? Hey, it's easier than borrowing your notes after class.~
Kihyun locked up his shop, still quietly preoccupied with his encounter just before closing. Another young mage, risking his life to show off...he'd be trying his best to stop it, from afar (nothing to do with that university, ever again, he vowed.) A figure ahead caught his eye - the young Changkyun, seemingly preoccupied with his phone and not with his surroundings. Didn't he know how dangerous the district became at night?
~Like I'd let you do that.~ Changkyun sent with a genuine smile that made his face brighten. There wasn't much that did that but Lee Jooheon was one of the few. Changkyun wasn't one of the legacies, those born into wealthy magic-infused families. As far as he knew his parents hadn't known anything about magic. Of course he didn't know much about his parents either. He was dumped off at one of the government-run orphanages when he was small and he never had that "You're a wizard, Harry" moment. Nope, the discovery of his ability took place in 7th grade science class when he nearly set the teacher on fire. He'd pretty much been on his own since, hacking into school records in high school so that he could graduate early and get into University (with the help of a few selective transfers of funds from some who would never miss the small amount.)
No, there was very little Im Changkyun feared. After all, it couldn't get much worse than he'd already had it...
~So I peek at your notes and you get my frogurt failures. Win-win!~
There it was. Out of the corner of his eye, Kihyun could see it watching the young mage. Shades were common, usually banishable in controlled situations by students, under the watchful eye of a more skilled practitioner. He could see Changkyun draw closer, still tapping on his phone, and held his breath. Shades were generally harmless, but at this time of night, with no general humans around…
Changkyun chuckled. ~That’s not how it works, Jooheonnie~. He meant to add more but stopped as he felt a stillness in the air that was different than a moment ago. He looked around, eyes narrowing as he hummed a ward of protection. (That set him apart from others his age who would have jumped first, then thought of protection). Something still wasn’t right…
~That's totally how it works,~ Jooheon insisted. ~The store isn't THAT far away, bro. What's going on?~
Kihyun nodded, the ward and his reaction were satisfactory, better than what he would normally expect from an upperclassman--even they still forgot to cast sometimes. He still needed to focus, needed to remember all his incantations as the shade reached out, its claws easily slicing through the outer reaches of the ward.
Changkyun didn’t have time to answer as he threw up another ward, his incantations coming swiftly in that low voice even as he fought off the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. He staggered back against the wall as the thing tore apart his first ward and threatened the second.
That was it, Kihyun couldn't stand back and let the kid be shredded. No matter how good he was, shades in uncontrolled situations were strong and unpredictable -- this Changhyun didn't deserve to be bleeding out on the street thanks to an angry shade trying to reclaim its territory. He strode forward, quickly past the two, only having to thrust his hand out before the shade howled and disappeared into a fine mist.
Changkyun had begun to shiver as he felt a vice-like grip around him, his seconds ward crumbling like tissue paper. Suddenly he could breathe again, the cold gone and the alley not quite as dark. He sank back against the nearest wall, his breaths coming in rapid gulps of air.
Kihyun waited until he was certain that there were no other creatures lurking about that caused harm to humans; this must have been a rogue creature escaped from the university. "See you Tuesday."
The young mage looked up and finally recognized the clerk - the archmage. "Why?" was all he said, still stunned from what had happened.
Kihyun paused mid-stride. "Why what?"
"Why did you stop?" came the honest, quiet answer. No one did anything for Im Changkyun. He was no one and everything he had ever managed to do to succeed he had done for himself, no help from anyone.
"Being a headstrong, overly ambitious student is irritating, but no crime. I was not going to let you become shade food to prove some silly point about shooting too high."
“No one would have missed me….except perhaps Jooheon,” Changkyun replied bitterly. “Why are you so certain I will be at the shop on Tuesday?”
All mages went through it, Kihyun remembered, biting back a comment about being a little too old for his angsty teenager phase. "You'll see. Study hard, you'll need it for Tuesday."
The younger man shook his head - it was no use arguing with someone who evidently thought he was always right. Of course, getting as old as Kihyun was could make you lose your wits. Pickle your brain with magic. Thank god that probably won’t happen to me.
He paused as he turned away, a muttered word so faint it could barely be heard slipping past his lips as he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up.
"Thank me by not going through with the summoning. A shade ripped through two wards like tissue paper. Think of what a demon could do." With that, Kihyun resumed walking, disappearing into a separate alley.
“You don’t understand…” Changkyun murmured as the other disappeared. “Sometimes you have to do the impossible.” That was the last the boy said before he left the alley himself, a little colder and a little more cautious than he had been only moments before.