Look, Iwaizumi didn't sign up to be a babysitter. Nor did he sign up to be broke. Somehow the Pantheon of Gods Up Above must've received the memo for another alchemist named Iwaizumi Hajime and accidentally made him the sole detective in charge of recovering treasure of the great lich Irihata that'd been hijacked by a band of thieves of the most unconventional kind.
And by unconventional, Iwaizumi means Blatant, Obvious, and flat out Unsubtle.
That is, incidentally, how he became a babysitter, actually.
He hadn’t intended on crashing at the Blue Castle—a massive gilded man o’ war dried and dragged out to dry land, and turned into an inn for tired travelers. Iwaizumi was tired, and all signs pointed him to the Blue Hills, a weary little village composed almost entirely of caravans and mead mills.
The brochure he’d bought from the bald man who’d directed him to these parts, and been looking at for the better part of the day boasted about the Valleys of the East, blue sunsets, and bluer waters, but so far, Iwaizumi had seen neither hide nor hair of any of those things. Instead, he’d been assigned this shitty little room with a bunch of rowdy little shits next door. He’s exhausted and doesn’t get paid enough for this, he thinks as he raps sharply on their door.
“Who is it,” a voice sing-songs, and Iwaizumi immediately freezes. He hopes it isn’t who he thinks it is, because if it is, he’s going to be in a situation he could really do without, thanks very much. Of course, the Powers That Be don’t really care how little Iwaizumi gets paid to deal with shit and the door opens to reveal—
“Iwa-chan,” the man at the door sounds dumbstruck. Which, to be fair, is the same boat Iwaizumi’s in right now.
“Oikawa. Uh. Nice to see you again. I’m trying to sleep next door, can you keep it down—“ The rest of Iwaizumi’s sentence is lost in a massive hug that Oikawa envelops him in, and—oh well, some things are so out of your control, it’s best to just give in.
“What’re you doing here! I thought you were busy training with Irihata-san.”
“Yeah, Iwa-chan, we thought you were busy with alchemy stuff, and that’s why you never replied to any of our letters. Or telegrams. Or scries.” Iwaizumi looks past Oikawa, and spots two very familiar faces.
Hanamaki’s drawl stays in the air for a bit, not quite an accusation, but clearly full of hurt curiosity.
“I was. I am still, I’m on a job now, though,” Iwaizumi replies, not quite making eye contact. It’s been a while since he’s made real contact with friends or family, and he’s not ready to talk about feelings in nearly the middle of the night in a dinghy travelers’ motel. “Why are you guys here?”
Oikawa stiffens visibly and Hanamaki’s face sours instantly. It’s Matsukawa who answers.
“Someone stole the Ring.”
“Someone stole the—what?”
Iwaizumi’s shocked into silence for a moment. Oikawa is one of the few to have been touched by the grace and rage of the goddess Ceres. The Ring, a source of her power, was the one thing he shouldn’t have lost, but yet here he is, pouting angrily with a thirst for vengeance burning bright in his eyes.
“You’re looking for the thief, right?” Iwaizumi asks.
“Yeah. They were dumb enough to leave traceable runes behind, so we’re just following that. That’s what brought us here to the middle of nowhere.”
Iwaizumi’s mouth thins into a line. It’s a similar case, and while he might be a novice detective, there’s no denying there’s something extremely fishy about this whole affair. He decides to keep this revelation to himself for now, mainly because he doesn’t really have any physical or magical evidence to back it up yet.
“I’m onto something similar,” is all he says, and all three pairs of eyes latch on to him curiously.
Iwaizumi changes the subject, and asks about things back home in the country; it’s been so long that he’s forgotten what it feels like to not have a massive workload, and pass by green fields cutting through fresh air, to just relax, and eat mom’s home cooked meals.
His friends look at each other, as if telepathically formulating a cohesive tale to tell Iwaizumi.
“Things aren’t—they aren’t looking up,” Hanamaki says finally, “since you left, the Marquis has fallen even more ill, and we think,” he drops his voice to a whisper, “someone’s been poisoning him.”
It seems like the night has many more past horrors to spring on Iwaizumi, so he settles back down to listen to what his homeland has been like since he left.
“Everyone acts like it’s okay, there’s nothing terribly wrong, it’s not like we’re overwrought by drought or war or famine. But there’s something so sinister about waking up in bed and looking out at everyone, and knowing they know the same things but refusing to act on it,” Hanamaki concludes, clearly frustrated.
“That’s why we started investigating on our own, and that’s when the Ring was stolen. We stopped snooping around because we didn’t have an advantage anymore, but we found these runes—“ Oikawa draws a couple in the air, and Iwaizumi’s eyes widen in recognition, “—and we had Mattsun look them up in his father’s library. It’s a tracer rune set, and they seem to have originated up here, in the northeast, so we’ve come to fucking destroy whoever thought they could cross us.”
“That’s being incredibly optimistic, considering we’re more or less underwhelmed in terms of power,” Hanamaki says, all wry. “We have between us one lamp, the book on tracer runes, and my spore library.”
Iwaizumi’s half mad and half amused at their unpreparedness, and says so, and earns himself three half-hearted glares. He apologises with a smile and returns to his room next door, finally falling face first into the cot. He hopes tomorrow can be less of an early start.
Early next morning, it’s clear the Gods Above really don’t like him, because at the crack of dawn, even before the sunrooster’s cry, there’s a cry from within the Blue Castle.
Iwaizumi’s not sure what these people are trying to achieve by banging at his door and yelling, “THERE’S A MONSTER OUTSIDE, RUN, RUN, RUN!!!” except causing panic and irritation. There’s protocol to these things, you see, and running around like a headless hen chick is not part of said protocol.
He gets up from his cot, and groans his way out, joining similarly aching friends in the blue sunlight. He might see the blue sunsets yet, if this lifestyle keeps up.
“Wha’s goin oooonnn?” Hanamaki yawns so wide, it’s practically the size of his whole face, which is nicely juxtaposed against screaming travelers, most of whom had thought the drunks at King’s Helm, the local soot-stained and grimly-lit tavern, would be the liveliest thing on their journey in these parts. Not, you know, a monolith of a swamp, currently digesting what looks like the remnants of a wheelbarrow from the gardens.
Iwaizumi considers running away, because technically, he’s a detective (however amateur and however private), not a sheriff or a man of the law. He doesn’t have to stop this walking methane churner.
This is a pleasant thought process, until it lashes out at Matsukawa, who’s holding two yawning idiots up, and is therefore unable to run. Now, Iwaizumi’s had his fair share of training but that wall he’s sprung up, straight from the earth below, still comes as a surprise.
Matsukawa makes a run for it, grabbing Oikawa by the collar on his way and disappears into his lamp where the garden melts into the wilderness that lies beyond Blue Hills. It’s a wonder that never ceases to amaze Iwaizumi even now as Oikawa yells at Matsukawa to let go, faint and tinny.
It’s just him and Hanamaki now, and true to form, Hanamaki’s struggling through a giant tome, frantically turning pages and muttering under his breath. Iwaizumi dodges the swing of a swampish hand, and winces at the tree that takes damage. There’s a whole swathe of muddy and stinky muck just where he was standing.
He raises a few more walls, with the intention of entombing the creature within the earth, but it’s surprisingly strong, breaking through with increasingly frustrated roars. Hanamaki signals at him to continue this distraction and it dawns on him that this is Hanamaki, after all, and Hanamaki always has a plan, however dumb, or stupid, or reckless. He’ll take any of those things over Becoming One With The Swamp right now.
It’s well beyond Iwaizumi’s powers to hold it back any longer and backs away as best he can, drawing it away from Hanamaki, who’s still absorbed in his spore library, trying to conjure a reading light to read the chicken scratch he’s labelled everything with.
Iwaizumi forges a spear straight from the earth and rams it into the creature's body, slashing it with all his might. It, predictably, doesn’t work, because you can’t cut through slimy gunk and not have it seal back together instantly. It does, however, annoy the creature, and it turns all its attention to Iwaizumi. Unfortunately.
A disgusting pseudopod of goo slams into him and before he can do anything, he’s raised into the air, over what can only be described solely in throwing up sounds.
This is the end Iwaizumi thinks, surprisingly calm about it, as he dangles over the creature’s maw. He shuts his eyes.
And then—a loud chant of an ancient tongue, southern and warm, crescendos and it fills Iwaizumi with a feeling of a humid and oppressive summer. He cracks one eye open just in time to see Hanamaki throw a handful of nothing into the ground by the creature and he raises his hand like they used to do during PE at the academy, not ceasing his chanting.
For a moment, everything stays the same—people screaming in the distance, glugs of methane bubbles rising to the creature’s surface and breaking, the normal stuff—and then the ground glows emerald green, and the earth erupts.
Veiny vines wrap around the creature, tight around its limblike extensions. One vine plucks Iwaizumi out and gently drops him to the ground, and all at once, the creature is mummified within green vines, unable to move even an inch. The earth swallows it, and in the midst of muffled cries, everything the creature had eaten, springs out around them.
The seam in the earth closes up, and Iwaizumi jogs over to Hanamaki, right when Matsukawa conjures himself and Oikawa out of the lamp.
Matsukawa rubs Hanamaki’s head, trapping him in a headlock, while Iwaizumi assures that he’s completely fine, really, Oikawa if you ask one more time, I’m going to clock you.
“That,” Oikawa says, fucking impressed, “was awesome! Those alfenveins, where’d you find them?”
Hanamaki looks tired and he must feel even more exhausted because he drops to his knees once Matsukawa lets him go, and murmurs something about cream buns, and butter scones, and chocolate pastries, and passes out.
“Raspberry pie!” He shouts, getting up and they look at one another, trying not to laugh out loud, as Hanamaki falls back asleep, curling into himself, snoring lightly.
“I can’t believe Makki’s plant library helped us out of this one,” Matsukawa says with a snort, as they carry their friend indoors, each holding one limb and groaning at the weight. Maybe the raspberry pie should wait.
The afternoon sun is scorching up above as they cut down the remaining alfenveins and sort through the junk the swamp monster had thrown up before disappearing. There’s all kinds of things, from wheelbarrows and hoes to rare jewels and candy. Iwaizumi doesn’t look very happy and blows a raspberry at the ground, presumably where the earth swallowed the creature, because he’s a real mature alchemist-slash-detective.
“We got kicked out of this dumb place for saving them and we have to clean it up? What kind of hospitality—” Oikawa’s in a similar state of discontentment, as he hacks at a vine sticking straight up from the ground like a stake.
Matsukawa’s got it the easiest, the vines melt away into nothingness at his touch. What little magic djinns have is useful magic, and Matsukawa makes the most of it.
Conversely, Hanamaki’s on the ground, almost glaring at the earth, saying 'Aha!' every few minutes as he finds a spore that hadn’t bloomed, and returns it to his spore library.
“Hey, what’s this?” Hanamaki says, calling everyone closer. It looks like one of those things they used to sell at the bakery back home, egg-like and chocolate-y and Extremely Large. As they gather round, a crack forms at the narrow end and spreads all the way down its side and cracks open, as eggs and egg-like things are wont to do.
“Mmrrp?” The thing inside the egg looks up at them with large yellow eyes.
“Oh, sugar honey iced tea,” Hanamaki says, breaking the silence first, “it’s a dragon.”
There were a hundred other things they could do with the dragon. They did speak to the inn-keeper, of course, but after that swamp monster fight, he wouldn’t even look them in the eye. They could’ve just left the dragon there, they’re not qualified cryptozoologists, even though Hanamaki had one mandatory beginner’s class in his first year at the academy. They could’ve asked around town, put up posters, anything—
“So, anyone want to tell me why I’m carrying this dragon when 1) it has wings and 2) Matsukawa’s lamp is right there.” Iwaizumi’s tone doesn’t match his words, and Hanamaki enlightens him, very kindly, for he is a saint of a fey, that the dragon has a name, thank you very much, and it is Gum Drop.
“I told you! Baby dragons need vitamin D to grow! How’s he gonna breathe fire when he’s older if he doesn’t absorb all that sunshine?”
“But why am I carrying him?” Iwaizumi grumbles.
Hanamaki stops and turns to look Iwaizumi dead in the eyes.
“Because you beat me in that arm-wrestling match literally two hours ago.”
So Iwaizumi carries the dr—Gum Drop to their next destination. The inn-keeper had, very unwillingly, mind you, told them there were very few permanent structures in these parts, and one of them conveniently happens to be the local magisterium. The plan is to double check the tracer runes, and hopefully get more leads to get them closer to the thieves.
The magisterium stands at the edge of the village, grown out of bedrock and moss, which is so kitsch, according to Hanamaki. He pulls Matsukawa and Iwaizumi towards the entrance and they leave Gum Drop in Oikawa’s capable hands, who’s, well, technically not supposed to be anywhere close to a holy place, lest Ceres realise that her Ring’s, well, not where it should be, i.e, in his capable hands.
“Yeah? You and me both,” Oikawa says.
The dim stone passage opens into a large cavern, illuminated, even in the bright afternoon, by flickering torches set in sconces across the walls. Perhaps some arcane magic keeps it looking and feeling larger than it is, because the far wall is a monolith, covered entirely in tomes on all sorts of subjects.
“Let’s get to work, shall we?” Hanamaki says, trying not to sound dejected because, well, the only books he’s read apart from his spore library are his mother’s copies of the Boggish Cupcakes and Other Marshy Delights series.
“Do you think magisteria stack books according to the Dewey Decimal System?” Iwaizumi asks, trying not to breathe in too deeply because there’s far more dust on these books than he cares to inhale at the moment.
“No, dumbass, this isn’t the twentieth century. But it might just use the Dewy Decimal System,” Matsukawa says, suddenly looking far too happy with that many books around him.
Even Hanamaki raises an eyebrow at that. But bad puns aside, this was a serious mission, and Matsukawa Issei is nothing if not his father’s son. That’s right, Matsukawa Ryo, who owned Djinn and Tonic, and had far more sleeves up his trick to arrange his alcohol in those fancy glass cabinets than any retired djinn had the right to. And what’s more? He’d taught his son most of them, you know, out of sheer boredom and just for the heck of it.
Matsukawa waves his hands around, like he’s swatting flies but in slow-motion, and dew drops collect on his palm. He chants something under his breath in an effervescent, bubbly sort of tune, and the dew drops fly out of his hand. They land on different books, glowing like the waxing moon around titles like Learn Runic Magic in 30 Days and Runes for Dummies.
“A-ha!” Hanamaki says, spotting a glowing copy at the far end of the shelf. It’s quite a thin copy, with blank title page. However, the very next page introduces the index, which confirms this book as what the need for their next step.
“What’d you guys find?” Oikawa gets to his feet, brushing his behind. Gum Drop is busy playing with his new friend: a local crow. The friendship seems one-sided, however.
“The runes are definitely from this area. Turns out there used to be a castle, like, full of dark magic and all that black market stuff, and also, apparently, goats,” Hanamaki says, trying to dry his hair out by patting it down vigorously. It got really humid inside, and he’s sensitive about his hair, alright?
“So, what now?” Oikawa asks, flopping back down. A zillion-year-old dark castle wasn’t much of a lead.
“Where was the castle located?” He asks, quite sure something was amiss from this narrative. Something fishy was going on. No town, however small, can be this quiet, this sleepy. This...well, dead.
“Around here, actually. The ship was ‘the juggernaut on which valiant heroes arrived, and freed the Blue Hills of the dark shadows that inhabited it, and the blue sunsets were never again a sight for sour rice’. Or something.”
Matsukawa raises a questioning eyebrow at Hanamaki. “First of all, I’m pretty sure it was ‘sore eyes’, why would that even say ‘sour rice’? And secondly, where was this during the years you spent, literally sitting next to me and complaining about Magic: A History?”
“It was dark, and I can only remember stuff in life-threatening situations.”
“You mom threatening you to bake you into her next batch of cupcakes if you failed the final wasn’t life-threatening enough for you?”
“You know what? The only reason I’m not saying anything back to you is because of dearest Gum Drop here. Be grateful.”
“Okay shut it, you two. The only place to go to next is where tongues wag loose,” Iwaizumi says, with an air of someone who knows a bit more about detective work than his peers.
Their table at the King’s Helm is sombre and quiet, a stark contrast to their surroundings.
“The only tongue we’re losing is yours, Iwa-chan,” Oikawa says softly. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell us you had no money!”
“Look, I only get paid after this case is solved, alright? How was I supposed to know first round of drinks wasn’t free?”
Oikawa looks appalled. “How were you going to pay them for this?”
Iwaizumi looks appropriately abashed.
“Alchemising silver coins out of iron barstools, again? Aren’t we past that age, Iwaizumi?” Hanamaki says in a moment of lucidity from under the table, both literally and metaphorically. Gum Drop is, thankfully, asleep under the table, one less mouth to unfairly slander Iwaizumi.
Matsukawa chooses that moment to return from his lamp, holding a twinkling necklace in his hands.
“Crisis averted,” he says pointedly, pooling the necklace on the table.
Oikawa and Iwaizumi look shocked. On the one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that Matsukawa can just pull a gold necklace out like that, considering that djinns are mysterious creatures with endless useful tricks up their sleeves, but on the other hand—
That was definitely a six hundred-carat gold necklace.
On the front of questioning, they’d struck gold, if not quite the six-hundred-carat kind. They’d talked around and it seemed their findings had been correct, leading to their current state of broke-yet-drunk. Some habits truly die hard. History indicates through word of mouth down the generations that there had, indeed, been a castle that had dabbled in dark arcane magic.
“The magic shrouded the Blue Hills entirely,” the man with spiky white hair tells them. He went by Bokutou Koutarou, he’d told them, offering his business card that read Bokuto Koutarou, Prognosticator in golden ink, with a telephone number next to a smiley face.
“My family’s been here a long time, but this castle went down aeons before that. Maybe you should talk to my partner! He’s the best historian in town. By which I mean he’s the only historian in town. Doesn’t mean he’s not the best, though.”
This catches them by surprise, because eccentric as Bokuto Koutarou is, they worry about their line of interrogation with another like him.
“Where can we find him?”
“Probably at home, exchanging cryptid-currency for the locations of tombs of old and forgotten heroes. He’s a necromancer at heart, you see. He thinks it’s completely foolproof, because if something goes wrong, well, I’ll foresee it coming.” He chuckles at his own joke and downs his whiskey which is suspiciously red. They take their leave and thank Bokuto for his time, who bids them a cheery goodbye, wishing them luck. As if Luck was going to personally come return Oikawa’s Ring.
The next person they speak to is the bartender himself, an observant fellow, as barkeeps are, generally speaking. They make excellent spies, and even better conversationalists. You know, to keep suspicions off them, generally speaking.
“Noticed anything strange in these parts?”
The bartender thinks it over and tells them what he knows, and they make little notes here and there. Oikawa does most of the questioning because if anyone can match the bartender’s charm, well, it’s Oikawa Tooru. He plays up his smile and the bartender smiles back in kind, silver-tongued, just like his hair.
“It was a pleasure talking to you, Suga-chan! Don’t be a stranger, okay?”
For a teacher at the academy, Oikawa sure hadn’t been slacking off on the study of the art of seduction. He says as much once they move away to rejoice at new information.
“You teach Horticulture & Agronomy to fifteen-year-olds,” Hanamaki says, slightly repulsed by the amount of hand-holding that they’d witnessed just now.
They get into a fight, after that, obviously. That’s just what you do in a sleepy little town like Blue Hills. The bartender himself forces Matsukawa and Oikawa from a tall man with a snake-like face. Or the snake with a human face, whatever. They’re asked to leave, then, and Hanamaki secretly plants an exploding pod—a gift from the popping cress that grew under the window ledge outside his bedroom—under their table, as a parting gift of sorts.
Earlier that evening:
“So, what’s the occasion?” Sugawara asks Bokuto, pouring him another drink.
“Oh, I’ve a feeling the King’s Helm will be closed a while,” Bokuto replies with a twinkle in his eye.
That night, they pool their leads and try to construct a plan of action.
“So, we know where the castle used to stand, right? What if we have that necromancer raise it for us so we can do some snooping around?” Hanamaki says, petting Gum Drop and feeding him some grapes.
“Why would he raise a castle that the locals are afraid of for a band of travelers he’s got no obligation to?” Matsukawa says, peeling an orange to feed Gum Drop later.
“Well, maybe we could give him some...incentive?” Oikawa looks pretty sinister in the low light as he says that.
“I’ll agree to listening to this madness if you stop scaring Gum Drop.”
“Guys,” Iwaizumi interrupts, looking pained. “I have to tell you something. I-I came here to solve a different case, remember? It has nothing to do with Blue Hills itself, though.”
“A thievery like ours, right?” Matsukawa says. “Why would you come here of all places to look for his stolen treasure, then?”
“Kind of. The reason I came here is because Irihata-san is from the Blue Hills. He grew up here. It stands to reason there might be something not quite right. The runes you showed me, the ones left behind that you guys traced? They’re Irihata-san’s own creations.”
Four pairs of eyes look at him in equal shock (Gum Drop looks too because he’s no longer being fed fresh fruits and that upsets him).
“What are you trying to say, Iwa-chan?” Oikawa asks, breaking the dead silence.
Iwaizumi takes a deep breath before saying—
“I’m suspecting insurance fraud.”
“What the fu—” Hanamaki slaps a hand over Oikawa’s mouth just in time, gesturing to Gum Drop on his lap.
“This castle seems to be the heart of the mystery, huh. How do we find this incentive to convince a necromancer to raise a castle of darkness?”
“Well, that depends on how quickly we can reach my favourite colleague in the world.” Oikawa says, getting up to look for a scrying bowl. “Wait, what was Tetsu-chan’s number again?”
A crow caws at the window, makes eye-contact with Gum Drop, and takes flight.
“Tooru! What unpleasant dilemma brings you to little old me this time?”
It’s good to know Kuroo is as smug as ever.
“How much for an info exchange?”
“One dinner, at a place of my choosing. Take it or leave it.”
Oikawa rolls his eyes, knowing it’ll be seafood, because Kuroo doesn’t have any taste buds. Or common sense.
“Fine, you wench. We want to know the location of a buried forgotten hero.”
“That’s a mouthful. Hold on a minute, let me grab my cards.”
Kuroo Tetsurou, Oikawa explains, is a professor of Divination. He used to be a temporary teacher, until the headmaster decided he deserved the post of Guy Who Deals With the Occult and Oracles. His favourite party trick was to give out the vaguest horoscopes, which is how Oikawa met him.
(Kuroo had told him to be wary of his demons, which could not be drowned, for they had lungs and gills.
Oikawa had found a frog infestation in his house the very next day.)
Kuroo comes back into focus in the scrying bowl, holding what looked like playing cards. He lays them out in a pentagram, and picks out one card at random. He shows it to them silently.
“Show off,” Oikawa says.
The card reads THE EMPTY GRAVE depicting the titular tomb in monochrome.
“What kind of tarot deck is that?” Hanamaki whispers.
“A DIY kind,” Kuroo replies before blue smoke engulfs his face as a voice chants:
“Castles fall by hero’s hand
Hero falls by sinister land
Open graves and empty hearts
Hero thou art, can you tell them apart?”
“Sure,” Kuroo says, waving the cloud of smoke away, “Valleys of the East, in the village of Blue Hills, near the magisterium. Which is where you guys are.”
They don’t even begin to question why or how Kuroo knows where they are.
“Whose grave is it?” Matsukawa asks, instead.
“You wanted a forgotten hero, right? How would I know if the name is forgotten?”
“Haha, very funny. Thanks, Tetsu-chan, I owe you one.”
“Of course you do.” And just like that, the scrying bowl erupts in flames, ending the conversation.
“So, we pay a visit to the necromancer, huh.”
For a necromancer, Akaashi Keiji sure looked the part—stoic and dressed entirely in black. He listens to their story with patience, and nods in dawning realisation when he learns it’s Bokuto who’s brought them together.
“So,” he says when the tale has been told, “what can I do for you, then?”
They look at each other, for confirmation, for strength, for possible vengeance in their near future. Then Iwaizumi says, “we’d like you to raise the dark castle.”
Akaashi blinks a couple of times, digesting this information. It’s not every day that strangers come over to ask for a hefty favour like that. Even when it’s not really a favour, they’re giving away an important location, and that’s pretty inarguable, really.
He pauses a second to contemplate this trade, which clearly leans heavily in his favour.
“Very well. But we can’t let anyone else know, or else, they’ll try to stop us.”
None of them even begin to question how easily Akaashi gives in. Maybe he’s just naturally that helpful. A crow on the branch just outside the windowsill caws into the drawing twilight.
“Well, here we are.” Iwaizumi stops at a clearing, just at the foot of a true blue hill. Just over the horizon, they can see the spires of the magisterium stretching towards the sky.
To set the scene in a single word: blue.
Everything is swathed in rich shades of blue, ever so much deeper than what meets the eye. The brochures sure weren’t lying when they described the sunsets as being viewed from beneath the seven seas, for the magic and cold air feel palpable, flowing around them like ocean waves.
The clearing betrays no sign of a castle, nor a grave, that is, until Akaashi starts chanting; first in ancient mortal languages, then in something much older, and much deader.
It unearths itself, first the turrets, then the ramparts, until finally, entirely, a castle, dark as night, hewn out of obsidian.
The drawbridge lowers itself, even in the absence of a moat, and they wait outside, hesitating for the first time in their journey.
“What now?” Matsukawa asks finally, cuddling Gum Drop closer to his chest.
“I guess we go in,” Oikawa says, steeling himself for what they might find inside. “Thank you, Akaa—Wait, where is he?”
The spot where Akaashi was standing, stands bare, with only wind whistling over it.
“I think he’s already gone to check on that tomb, huh? What a proficient guy. Also, kind of boring, but in a hot way? Like, who spends all their time trying to lionize someone dead and forgotten, and perhaps for good reason?” Hanamaki says, shrugging, as he takes the first step towards the dark castle.
“Wow, feeling existential are we, Makki?” Oikawa says, losing the tension in his limbs a bit. Hanamaki was a pain, that’s for sure, but he was seldom fazed, and when he was, it was always by the wrong things. An impressive and incredibly frustrating quality that was, much like Oikawa’s Ring, god-given.
Their footsteps echo in the narrow hallways, bouncing off of walls. They walk further and further, deeper into the heart of the castle until they come to a pair of stone doors, with jeweled pull-rings attached to them, as if waiting to welcome them to something.
“Let’s go,” Iwaizumi says at last, and clasps the shoulder closest to him, which happens to be Oikawa’s, who whimpers under the strength of his grip.
They split in twos and each hold on to one bejeweled ring, and tug hard. The doors give way to an enormous chamber, empty save for a single silhouette in the center: a throne. There is no silent moment of appreciation; two stone chimeras solidify from the shadows, each sharp claws and at least nine different kind of teeth.
“Ugh,” Matsukawa says, “It smells like a zoo in here.”
They get into their respective positions, Matsukawa protecting Oikawa and Gum Drop, twin blades appearing in his hands. Hanamaki, who has obviously not learnt from his past mistakes, turns the pages of his spore library, which shouldn’t even be called that because nothing is placed in order, let alone be conveniently found in time for something important such as this. Iwaizumi draws up their defense and offense quite a bit, what with his offensive alchemic training and ability to deny anything with a straight face (feelings included, with impending damage).
The chimeras flank them, drawing tighter and tighter circles. Iwaizumi strikes first, with Hanamaki shouting what he believes is ‘offense is not the best defense, oh my Gods, Iwaizumi!’
The beast he strikes first with the floor taking the form of a fist growls as it lands on the floor. The other, however, sees this as an opportunity to attack Matsukawa, who slashes and hacks away at the chimera’s wings like he was on Butcher Off!, the best cooking show on television right now. It howls, licking its wounds as it backs away, and they stand their ground like this until the chimeras decide that instant regeneration sounded like a great idea, and went for it.
Iwaizumi nearly breaks the north wall (and his own arm), rolling under one chimera, and transmuting the wall into one giant sconce that holds the creature tight. At this point, they notice that the empty gilded throne is no longer present, instead a lady (or three) stands in its place. In each hand she holds a torch, lighting up the throne room.
“Welcome,” all three of her say in unison, “I am Hecate. Prepare to die.”
“Lady Hecate,” Hanamaki murmurs, falling to his knees. Iwaizumi does the same. They touch their heads to the floor and whisper a greeting to the goddess.
“That is a shame. An alchemist and a scholar of plants. I would have been proud of you in any other circumstance.”
“Does that mean you can let us off or—” The bound creature roars.
“Or. Definitely or.”
As the conjoined ladies melt into one figure gleaming red and green, the other chimera wastes no time and jumps over Matsukawa in an attempt to get at Oikawa, whose focus lies in praying and farming, of which neither is helping right now. He cracks one eye open and pauses on the word for wheat in his native tongue and shrieks at a chimera face up so close.
Hanamaki has, in his life, never experienced an out-of-body experience before, but there’s a first for everything. He goes from first-person actions to watching himself pluck out charged elektraberry spores which burst in contact with any surface, including the chimera, the floor, and Oikawa’s face. It shoots up cherry-red smoke, which does the double duty of screening everything and knocking Oikawa out.
“Please tell me we did not kill Oikawa, I know he’s annoying but we already have one angry goddess trying to off us I would really like to be spared the wrath of another.” Hanamaki is quite literally in tears.
“Now’s not the time to fall to pieces, Makki,” Iwaizumi shouts, shielding them all from a green blow by pulling the ground under them apart.
Pure energy wreaths itself around Hecate’s hand as she raises it in attack. Instinctively, they know that if this hit lands, they’ll go from being people, you know, the kind with hopes and dreams, to becoming gory details on the wall behind them.
The beast howls in delight, if it can, indeed, feel emotions such as joy. It can, perhaps. Hanamaki wouldn’t know because his mother hadn’t threatened to bake him in her casserole dish yet, so he had no reason to study quite as hard at Chimera & Other Infernal Anomalies during his formative years for his singular cryptozoology class.
The only logical move is to scatter and keep the goddess at bay individually until help (or death, whichever comes first), arrives. Matsukawa and Gum Drop to the left, Iwaizumi on her right, both flanking her while praying Hanamaki knew what the hell he was doing by dropping Securum sporum spores to contain the damage within the throne room. Right in front of Hecate.
They dodge and parry and slash, and several spores of the rare and valuable muddenmist are singed to ash by red fire. Hecate redirects attack after attack, and soon enough, they’re all captured in mud (Hanamaki), the ornate chandelier that’d fallen during the battle (Matsukawa and a very cranky Gum Drop), and, ironically enough, a wall sconce (Iwaizumi).
They share worried glances and hope Oikawa wakes up in time to run away and call for help.
Oikawa wakes into a pale consciousness. The mist clears as he sits up, and just in his line of sight, he sees golden gates, gigantic and crafted with corn and wheat and barley.
He walks through them, feeling the same gentle breeze he used to feel walking past the rice paddies back home, and he hears a voice.
"Oh, my dear, this is a welcome sight."
Oikawa thinks perhaps that's just something polite, because he's covered in blood (which he hopes is not his own) and other filth he'd rather not name right now, if only to stop himself from emptying the contents of his stomach in the presence of a god.
"How have you been?" A lady draped in green brocade appears next to him, a chaplet made of herbs adorning her head.
Oikawa considers this. "Not great, my Lady. I, uh. I believe I just died?"
Ceres chuckles, clearly amused. Oikawa is not, because, well, because he'd just died. That's a big deal, right? Also dying right after looking at the face of a chimera qualifies as petrified to death. Which also qualifies as not cool.
Ceres is appropriately serious when she asks, "Tell me all that's happened thus far."
Oikawa's stomach contents drop to the soles of his feet. There's no way he can tell lady Ceres, Gifter of Agriculture, Nurturer of the Young Seed, Yoker of Oxen, the Divine Mother of Sweet Proserpina, the Griever, and somewhat like Oikawa's grandmother, except with more multigrain biscuits on hand than he would've liked, that he'd lost the Ring he'd been blessed with and that's why he was out here, fighting chimeras and other giant whatnots, rather than helping with the harvest back home.
"You've lost the Ring, haven't you? I know that already. Tell me what now, young one, what will you do?"
When Oikawa tells her about Hecate, Ceres does the unthinkable. She laughs.
“That is impossible.”
“Ma’am, I know this might sound rude, but it really is her, and if, by any means it isn’t, then we’ve got to stop her!”
There’s a tone of urgency in his voice, now that Oikawa is fully awake. He doesn’t care what’s trying to kill his friends, but he’s fairly certain that if he doesn’t bring Ceres back with him, things would not end well for any of them. And call it instinct, call it refined sleuthing, call it an absolutely garbage guess based on no evidence, but he knows that person back in the castle has his Ring.
It’s not that he’s completely useless without his Ring, he’s just frustrated to the point of rage because someone would go out of their way to steal something that maintains the economic and agricultural integrity of his hometown. The Ring keeps crops flourishing and ready to be sold to the market so venerable institutions like the local elementary school and the Annual Horticultural Statistics & Research Department at the academy keep running. It keeps harmony undisturbed, especially in the wake of their Marquis slowly deteriorating in ill health. Oikawa just wants to make sure that anyone who harms his home and his friends knows that it is a bad idea to cross anyone god-touched, ringless or not. Because that’s who Oikawa is essentially, a charming young man capable of terrible acts of meaningless chaos and good farming ethics.
Ceres looks at him with serious eyes and tells him his time isn’t done. The last thing he sees is her bracelet of rolled oats turn into a gleaming golden sword.
“-kawa. Oikawa!” Matsukawa shouts from his spot, trapped under the chandelier, “Your, uh, patroness? Mistress—”
“No, don’t say it like that—”
It’s weird, to say the least, to be in the presence of not just one, but two gods. They’d quickly figured—Hecate had explicitly told them, that is—they were in the belly of the war machine, for any insult to Hecate was a testament to proxy hostility, because Hecate was an adviser, primarily, of kings and queens and other members of the bourgeoisie who treated war like a game. She didn’t start wars but she sure played a part in it, like all deific beings.
“What is mine has been trifled with, and I shall not stand for it,” she informs Ceres, who tells her to take a seat and talk sense.
“You have corrupt a disciple of mine, sister. What have you to say about this,” Hecate says in a trembling voice, indicating either rage or hurt or both, which is a much worse and much likelier a scenario.
“Whatever do you mean? What have you to say about killing a god-touched? I bear you no ill-will and yet you lay hand upon this boy and his friends? Are alchemists not holy to you? Are not naturalists your students? Why bring them here to murder them in cold blood?”
“I brought them here to lure you in and to even the score. I dislike getting my hands dirty, so I had my dear disciples bring them in. Raising anything, from children to castles, is my sacred duty. And some variation on necromancy, isn’t it, Keiji?”
“Yes,” says one Akaashi Keiji, stepping out of Hecate’s shadow.
“I brought you to Blue Hills, to me, and I spied on every single step you took. Brimstone, Azoth, tell our audience why they’re dumb and should use charms to prevent eavesdropping.”
Two crows fly in and take human shapes on landing. One is the bald man who sold them all the same Blue Hills brochures. The other—
“Suga-chan!” Oikawa says, sounding deeply hurt and betrayed.
“Hi, Oikawa-kun! You did say not to be a stranger, so here I am.”
“They drew you straight into my hands, which will now crush you. Step aside, sister. I will deal with you later.”
Ceres, who does not like this ‘being dealt with later’ business steps forth and points her sword at Hecate. Wheat springs up from under her feet and weaves upwards, encasing green and red light. Similarly, grapevine and corn trap Akaashi, Sugawara, and the bald man, who’s been crooning to the chimeras to keep them quiet.
“No sister. You tell us what is happening, right this minute.”
Hecate purses her lips, intent on staying silent and let patience defeat her foes, but the wheat wreath tightens and she speaks. “That boy’s homeland flourishes under my command. Another of my devotees has been poisoned in the mind by you. No one else knows aboutdittany. Isn’t that right, boy?” Everyone turns to Iwaizumi who admits that it’s most unlike Irihata-san to commit insurance fraud, which apparently happens to be a Big Deal for the Powers That Be.
“I have done no such thing. I’m aware the land is under your command, and this boy merely watches over it. Isn’t that correct?” Oikawa nods his head vigorously.
“The insurance fraud is a cover-up for you trying to take over what is mine. Need I remind you, part of every sacrifice is mine?”
“You are being ridiculous. Hecate, you are tender-hearted, not tender-brained. Why would I steal land from you, when I have all I need?”
“Jealousy?” Hecate replies.
“Fun?” Matsukawa supplies.
“Greed?” Iwaizumi says.
“Bored of spending time with all that corn?” Hanamaki volunteers.
“Mmrrp?” Gum Drop adds.
“No, I have absolutely no reason to take the land. I am sufficiently happy and grateful for the bountiful harvest that is produced. But I am afraid you must give back the Ring to this boy. Agriculture is not a singular effort, and neither of us can benefit if crops fail this year.”
Hecate thinks it over as her red aura fades to green. The wheat melts back into the ground and Ceres says, “Come, sister. We are centuries past this kind of disagreement.”
Hecate nods and embraces Ceres. Everyone says awww like they did when they used to babysit Oikawa’s nephew and he’d do something adorable like tie his own shoelaces.
She reaches into her tunic pocket and throws the ring to Matsukawa, who has a surprisingly good catch. Hecate frees them, and apologises, but threatens them with hideous deaths if they ever mention her folly to a single soul.
“Thanks Akaashi-kun, you were a real charmer,” Hanamaki says, raising an eyebrow, holding Gum Drop like a baby.
“Does your partner know of this, uh, side business?” Matsukawa asks.
“Not strictly. I’m sure he’s aware at some level. It’s in his job description, after all. And—” he chuckles at his own humor, “—if harm does come our way, he would have...foreseen it coming.”
In another part of the chamber—“I’m sorry,” Iwaizumi tells the chimera, who turns his snout away, while Azoth, or as he tells Iwaizumi to call him, Tanaka, coaxes it into forgiveness.
Ceres ascends to a higher plane, leaving Oikawa to say their final goodbyes to Hecate.
“Thank you, my Lady, for not, how do I put this politely, incinerating my friends.”
“They’re sharper and stronger than I had anticipated. The alchemist and the spore child are both welcome to seek knowledge at any shrine dedicated to me. As are any of you.”
Oikawa recognises this as an olive branch, even though that’s a completely different goddess, and accepts her words with a wan smile.
The night sky is inky blue as they surface, some stars glowing brighter than others, entire constellations blazing up in the heavens.
They walk back to their inn, with no signs of a castle, dark or otherwise, behind them. The events of the night haven’t dampened their spirits at all, and Oikawa and Hanamaki are loudly arguing about the best way to grow carnivorous plants for horticultural purposes.
“Hey, Oikawa, here’s your Ring. Can’t believe we got this vacation because of a misunderstanding,” Matsukawa interrupts, breaking up what is evidently a futile debate, chucking a plain gold band at Oikawa.
“Thanks. At least the Marquis will have one less thing to worry about.”
“I’ve been thinking—”
“Don’t. It’ll hurt your teensy brain, Iwa-chan—”
“Eff you seek hay, Oikawa, I can and will crush your head if you don’t shut up. I was thinking...could it be that the person who ‘poisoned’ Irihata-san or whatever also be behind the Marquis’ sickness?”
“Meaning…” Oikawa says slowly, in dawning horror, “The Marquis is definitely being preyed upon.”
“I don’t know what I should be more concerned about, Iwaizumi not cursing and still threatening Oikawa, or the fact that we’re almost definitely doomed because whoever’s doing this just duped a goddess.”
“Two goddesses,” Matsukawa corrects, looking concerned. “This is bad news. We should get home as soon as possible.”
“I’m coming with you guys. I haven’t been home in years, and a fresh pair of eyes can make all the difference. And, I don’t get paid until I solve this case.”
They walk along the winding path, talking excitedly about a new lead, and the prospect of returning home as quickly as possible after a job kinda-sorta well done and taking a hot shower. Matsukawa slows down, the path isn’t wide enough for all four of them to walk abreast. Then, he stops completely, looking up at the stars. His eyes glow red for a moment. He takes something shiny and gold out of his lamp, something the size of a ring. It glows a little, indicating power and promise. He unfastens a couple of buttons and opens his chest up.
The heart inside doesn’t beat.
He places the gold thing inside the heart—hollow instead of blood and muscle—next to a tiny vial labelled Dittany.
“Mmrrp?” Gum Drop tugs at his trousers.
“Nothing you have to worry about,” he tells Gum Drop and walks with long strides to catch up his friends.