Chapter 1: The Missive
The festivities of the New Year had drawn to a close, taking with it all of the cheer of the holiday season. What remained was the chill in the air, fields left to fallow and dreams of warmer days on the horizon. It was at this time of the return to routine that Reigen received a letter.
As he looked over the missive during breakfast, Serizawa draped himself across Reigen’s back. “What does it say?” the Mage asked, both out of genuine curiosity and as an excuse to continue crushing his slighter lover with his frame. Serizawa took great pleasure in using his strength to tease Reigen.
“It’s from my friend, the Earl of Mitsuura,” Reigen said, his tone strange and unreadable. “He says he found it.”
“Found what?” Serizawa asked. Reigen only spoke a few times before about his friend and Serizawa knew little about the man or what he could be seeking.
Reigen turned his gaze to share a look with Serizawa. “The Mutus Liber,” he said, as if the name held meaning to Serizawa. “It’s a recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone.” The smirk on Reigen’s lips was mischievous. “Kenji wants me to help him make it.”
Serizawa was shocked at the proposition. “I thought that was a myth.” He had been privy to miraculous things but that seemed beyond impossible. A Stone that was said to not only transmute one element into another but also, somehow, cure all known ills to Man? A mad king turning himself into a dragon was one thing, this was another.
“Oh yeah,” Reigen agreed. “It’s probably total garbage, but an invitation to a fabulous castle during the slow season and a chance to mock one of my closest friends?” His grin was infectious. “Who could pass that up?”
Serizawa was appalled at Reigen. “That’s not very nice.”
The Apothecary blew him off. “It’s Kenji,” he said, “he can take it.” The affection in his voice softened the harshness of his words.
“How long will you be gone?” Serizawa was not looking forward to spending the rest of winter alone but if it was what Reigen wished—
Reigen laughed at his paramour’s expression. “You act like you aren’t invited.” He kissed Serizawa’s temple in reassurance. Abandonment was the last thing on his mind.
The Mage stepped back, finally giving Reigen a little breathing room. “Are you certain it would be alright?” He did not wish to intrude.
“Kenji said I could bring anyone I wished and he has plenty of space, trust me.” Reigen rolled up the scroll, he was back to business. “Considering how long we might be away, we should bring the Apprentices,” he said. “Not only can we continue their training but they can meet Kenji’s Adepts as well.”
“Adepts?” Serizawa had not heard the term before.
“They’re like junior Alchemists,” Reigen explained. “Kenji has his own students; I think they’ll be around the kids’ age. It would be good for them.”
Serizawa did think that exposure to other disciplines would benefit the children. He just hoped it wouldn’t be an excuse for them to ignore their studies. “Where is this castle?”
“Northeast,” Reigen said. “It may take a few weeks to get there if the weather is bad.” It was obvious that was the one part of this scheme that Reigen did not look forward to.
“We should discuss this with their parents.” The adventure might be a long one and Serizawa was concerned about how the Apprentices’ families might take such a separation. He also knew that he had to express this out loud. Reigen had spent so long being Shigeo’s sole caretaker that he occasionally fell back into the role and failed to consult with the boy’s parents.
“Of course,” Reigen said. “But I don’t think any would refuse their children such a chance.”
As usual, Reigen was proven right. The Kuratas were thrilled at their daughter wintering in a real castle. They were simple folk and Tome’s Apprenticeship was giving her far more opportunities than they could dream. They had been proud of her as a tailor’s Apprentice but her studying under the Apothecary made them ecstatic.
The Kageyamas, however, were more reserved in their enthusiasm. Although going to the Academy would greatly benefit Shigeo, they were reluctant to separate their sons. Ritsu had work to do for his own Master and he would have to stay behind in Seasoning. Ritsu claimed he was alright with the situation but Serizawa had his doubts. His educational path was so very different from the others that it seemed inevitable that a gap would form between the two boys. Serizawa did not know how to ease that pain, he was an only child himself.
Teru, on the other hand, was very excited about the prospect of travel. The first words out of his mouth were questions about climate which, once answered, made him dash away to prepare his wardrobe for the trek. He also insisted on helping Shigeo with his packing once ready. “There is no room for rags in court,” Teru had insisted.
Tsuchiya agreed to let Reigen and Serizawa take sole responsibility for Shou for the duration of their time at the Academy. She confided that she could use the opportunity to search for Shou’s mother herself since she did not have to care for the son for a few months. Perhaps by the time they came back, she hoped, the former Queen could be reunited with the Prince.
Once permission was secured, the preparations for the journey could begin. Reigen knew that it would be at least a few days before they could set off. The wagon had to be packed, supplies secured, the shop closed up, etc. Traveling in good weather was far easier than in the fierce storms of winter. He knew this from experience, as did Mob.
Reigen sent a message to Kenji with a bird so that the Earl would be ready for them. No sense in surprising the man. Reigen could not wait for Kenji to meet his new paramour. He imagined they would get along famously.
She was still unattached, but for how long? Tsubomi was a great beauty, she would not be a spinster. Someone would win her affection and possibly soon. If he did not do something, Mob could lose his only chance.
Mob needed advice. He thought to ask his fellow Apprentice Teru, but he always seemed pained whenever Mob brought up Tsubomi. If anyone else discussed her he reacted very differently. It was not that Teru disliked Tsubomi, in fact, he seemed to find her rather charming. He just didn’t like Mob talking about her for some reason. Mob decided to spare his friend the discomfort.
He could ask Reigen or Master Serizawa but he didn’t wish to burden them with this when they were already planning the journey to the Academy. The logistics of traveling with four youths would be taxing.
The boy sighed, his problems and his breath fragile and cold in the afternoon’s crisp air. His wandering feet took him to the bridge where he saw Musashi resting after a hard run. Maybe the muscle bound youth would lend his ear. Musashi was a good friend.
The older boy looked up, raising his hand in greeting as he spotted Mob. “Hello, friend Shigeo!” Off Mob’s distraught expression he frowned. “What troubles you?” he asked.
Mob wasn’t certain how to phrase it. “What do you know about Tsubomi?” He hoped it was a neutral enough question.
“Tsubomi?” Musashi’s face lit up. “She is a little spitfire, that one,” he said. “I’ve known her since we were very small.”
As Musashi spoke about Tsubomi, Mob came to a realization: he knew nothing about her. He thought she was pretty and remembered her lack of fear at his burgeoning powers but he knew nothing else. He knew nothing of her dreams, her passions. He hadn’t known about her love of cooking and her desire to run her own restaurant. That she loved laying in fields of flowers in the hot sun, not for their scent but for the wildlife the blooms would attract. That she snorted when she laughed and would drag Musashi into her kitchen to try whatever new concoction she had imagined. That all the silks and jewels in the world meant nothing to her but a rare spice would set her heart racing.
Mob knew none of the things that Musashi did. The older boy’s knowledge had come from talking to her, listening to her, being her genuine friend. She had tended his wounds from their days in bondage and he had comforted her when the Claw Mages tormented her. Who was Mob, a distant admirer, too cowardly to hold a simple conversation?
It was in that moment Mob came to understand: he did not deserve to burden Tsubomi with his confession. He was unworthy, not because of his actions, but because of his inaction. Mob did not love her at all, he loved an idea of her.
Tsubomi was a young woman, not a vague concept of one. Mob would keep his false feelings to himself. With time, he could smother them, let himself be a true friend to this remarkable girl. Let her be with someone who truly knew her and allow himself to do the same.
“Thank you, Musashi,” Mob said, feeling lighter. “Tsubomi sounds amazing.” He got an idea. “Maybe you should talk to her.”
“About what?” Musashi asked, his gaze blank.
“How great you think she is.” Mob found that as the words came out he meant them. The older boy clearly held Tsubomi in high esteem, perhaps he would be a good match for her.
Musashi flushed bright red, the muscular teen thoroughly embarrassed. “I don’t think she’d—“
“Maybe she would,” Mob argued. Honestly, seeing Tsubomi on Musashi’s arm would not be the worst thing in the world. Mob admired Musashi, he was as tender as he was strong. He was kind to everyone and loyal to a fault. Any girl would be happy to have him and Tsubomi was not just any girl.
“I’ll think about it,” Musashi muttered.
Mob was pleased; now he could move on. The Apprentice had his own adventure to prepare for in a far-off land. He would let Musashi take on this one himself.
Chapter 2: The Apprentices Prepare
It sent her head reeling when she thought on it too much. Tome was going on her first real adventure. Yes, she had taken a trip with her Master and fellow Apprentice to the sea, but that had been a training exercise. She had spent the whole trip gathering ingredients with Shou. This journey promised study as well but also so much more.
Tome’s hands trembled with excitement as she packed. She was only gone for a few scant days that first time; this could be weeks or even months. It was all so different. It felt different, it even smelled different, it—
“Tome!” The Apothecary’s Apprentice jumped at the sound of a familiar soft feminine voice.
“Don’t sneak up on me, Tsubomi!” Tome complained. Her concentration had been completely shattered.
The dark-haired girl shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry.” She did not look particularly apologetic. Tsubomi glanced at her friend’s luggage. Tome was still in the process of laying out her clothing options in a haphazard process upon her bed. “I just heard that you might be going away from Musashi.”
“I’m going on a trip with my Master,” Tome confirmed, her voice filled with pride.
“Where?” Tsubomi asked.
Tome waved her arm in a dramatic arc. “To a castle far, far away!” She really had no idea where it was, geography was not her strong suit.
Tsubomi squealed and grasped Tome’s hands. “I can’t believe it!” She beamed with excitement. “Your first real adventure!”
“I know.” Tome could no longer maintain her apathetic facade. She loved Seasoning but it always seemed too small for her ambitions. The outside world felt more her speed but she was still too young to set off on her own. This sort of trip though was exactly what she had dreamed of.
The dark-haired girl hugged her friend. She knew exactly what this meant to Tome. “What will you be doing?”
Tome scoffed. “Studying with some Alchemists. Finding the secret of life, that sort of thing.” She said it as if it were an everyday occurrence.
The other girl pulled back, Tsubomi’s smile was sly. “Will there be cute girls there?”
Now Tome laughed, her cheeks pink. “Probably not.” Years before Tome had developed a crush on Tsubomi, the tavern owner’s daughter. When she had confessed, Tome had been disappointed that Tsubomi did not want another girl’s company in that fashion. However, Tsubomi did not reject her outright, but had resolved that they should become friends.
Although her initial hope had been dashed, Tome was always grateful for Tsubomi’s encouragement. Throughout their time together, Tsubomi had acted as a lookout for romantic prospects for her dreamer friend while Tome lent her own emotional support. Unfortunately, Seasoning did not have a large enough population of young people, let alone girls who liked other girls to provide Tome with a successful match.
“That’s not a no,” Tsubomi teased. She hugged her friend again. “You know, if you do find someone,” Tsubomi said, “I will always accept her in sisterhood.”
Tome returned the embrace, hoping that someday she would have a girlfriend to show off to Tsubomi. For now, though, she wished the subject changed. “I heard a rumor about you and a certain someone—“
Now it was Tsubomi’s turn to flush. “I don’t know what you are talking about.” She twirled some black hair about her finger. It was a blatant and hilariously bad lie.
“Did that muscle-bound oaf finally say something?” Tome asked, meaning Musashi. She certainly hoped so. She had thought the boy single-minded and dull at first but she grew to like him while the village was held hostage. Then after the Siege of Seasoning she thought him a hero.
Anyone who had the audacity to challenge a Master Mage without powers was worthy of admiration in her book. Yes, he had help from Dimple to actually win, but the initial resolve had been his own. The spirit had even admitted later that he wouldn’t have held up against Shibata half as well if it wasn’t for Musashi’s excellent physical condition.
Although it wasn’t his body that Tome thought made him a good match for her friend. During the year spent under Claw’s rule, Tsubomi bore a significant amount of emotional abuse from the Mages since she was on kitchen duty. Musashi’s compassion in those days, helping Tsubomi and even Tome with their problems when he had plenty of his own was impressive.
Tome had no reason to fear for her home and loved ones if he was around. She could set off on her journey and concentrate on her own growth knowing that he had Tsubomi’s back.
“Well, when Shigeo told Musashi about the trip he said a few other things—“ Tsubomi was determined to mine the moment for all the drama she could. In this respect, she was a typical teenage girl.
Tome grabbed her friend’s shoulders and shook her. She did not have the patience for this. “Are you two courting or what?”
Tsubomi giggled. “Yes!”
The two girls did not get much packing done that afternoon. There was simply too much to discuss and the excitement would stall them for minutes at a time while Tome rattled on one tangent or another.
Teru’s delays were for other matters. “These clothes are hideous, Shigeo,” he said. “They will never do for court.”
“We’re not really going to court,” Mob reminded his friend, who was determined to look through every item of clothing in his closet. “It’s a school.”
“In a castle,” Teru reminded him, holding up a simple but well-made shirt. He made a face as if something had died in front of him. “So, it still counts as court.”
“We should probably consult Master Rei—“ Mob stopped himself. Serizawa was his Master now but he still slipped into old habits. “We should consult Reigen, he knows the Earl,” Mob corrected. “He would have a good idea of what’s appropriate.”
“I still can’t believe he’s friends with titled royalty,” Teru said. His face held a good-natured smile. “You wouldn’t think he would be the type but the Apothecary is not to be underestimated.”
“No, he’s not,” Mob said. He had spent too many years under the man’s tutelage to be lured into complacency.
“Well, no matter what Reigen suggests we should still strive to make you look your best,” Teru insisted.
“Why?” Mob asked. If they were just going to study, what did his appearance matter?
The blonde boy was at a loss for words. He looked away, unable to meet Mob’s steady gaze. “It’s just important,” Teru muttered.
Mob still didn’t see why, but if it made Teru happy he would allow the other boy to help. “Whatever you think is best.”
The smile he got in return was radiant. “I know we don’t have much time but my parents sent more money and maybe the tailor can whip something up—“ Teru rambled. It was funny how coming to Seasoning had improved the boy’s relationship with his family. Even though they were still apart most of the time, the feelings between Teru and his father had grown warm.
Their letters back and forth were quite frequent but what Mob had noticed most was the shift in tone. Teru would read each one aloud to him when they arrived and asked Mob’s advice on his replies. They had started out formal and stiff but grew familiar and fond over the months. Apprenticeship agreed with Teru and his parents approved the changes in their son.
Mob hoped they would continue their correspondence while at the Earl’s Academy.
“We should go now,” Teru said.
“What?” Mob had tuned out Teru’s mutterings while he had been reminiscing about the other boy’s family.
Teru grabbed his fellow Apprentice’s hand and dragged him to the door. “To the tailor’s!” he shouted.
Mob, potentially one of the greatest magic users alive, was helpless in the face of his friend’s quest to “fix” Mob’s attire.
Tsuchiya, his temporary guardian, knocked on his doorframe. “May I come in, Sire?”
The boy bristled at the title. He hadn’t wanted it then and he certainly did not want it now. “I’m not a Prince anymore,” Shou reminded her.
The older woman shook her head. “Force of habit.” She approached the boy, standing just close enough for him to register her presence. “You haven’t done any packing,” she said.
“No,” he admitted.
“I thought you were looking forward to this.” Her voice was gentle.
“I am.” It was the truth. Shou did want to go but there was another part that wanted him to stay. In the Nomadic Kingdom of Claw, he had never had a sense of permanency. He had shifted from place to place, settling nowhere. Even in the company of his family he never felt that he was home.
Seasoning was different. He felt comfortable here, wanted. During the day he was with Master Reigen and his fellow Apprentice Tome, at night he was with Tsuchiya. It was almost perfect. It was almost home.
The short trip away had been fine but a journey of this length scared him. Would he lose the precious few gains he had made? His life was here, his friends were here. Would they forget him in his absence?
Tsuchiya decided to be more direct. “What’s wrong?”
It was moments like these that reminded Shou of just how young he was. He needed guidance. “Will this all still be here when I get back?” he asked.
“Of course,” Tsuchiya said, not understanding the boy’s question. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Why indeed? Why wouldn’t it? Was he just worrying over nothing? Were his anxieties over any problems that even really existed? Was Shou just torturing himself because of his father?
The red-haired boy sighed, of course he was. It wasn’t the first time he had done this to himself and it would not be the last. No one blamed him for the actions of Claw but himself. Someday, he would need to let that guilt go.
He looked up at Tsuchiya. “Would you mind helping me?”
The woman smiled, glad to be of service. “If you wish.”
Chapter 3: With a Single Step
It was three days before they could set out. Reigen had secured all of their needs for their trip, save one, a horse to draw the wagon. All during the planning stages he had worked toward obtaining one but the others had insisted a horse wasn’t necessary. They had four magic users in their party and that would be sufficient.
Reigen just rolled his eyes and told Tome that if the boys (and Serizawa) wished to demonstrate their machismo by dragging a heavy wagon through snow during winter than he could not stop them. Tome agreed with his assessment, adding on the caveat that if they got stuck that she was entitled to join Reigen in a round of “I told you so’s.” Dimple teased that mocking laughter would be temperature dependent but he would be more than happy to add to the chorus.
On that last day, the families gathered at the edge of town to say their goodbyes. The Kageyamas and Teru were all gathered in one large group.
“Take care now,” Mr. Kageyama said, ruffling Teru’s hair. He had grown fond of the blonde boy in the few months he had stayed with them.
“And keep warm!” Mrs. Kageyama tightened a thick scarf around her son’s neck, making certain that it covered his ears.
The boy sighed as his mother fussed over him. “I will.” Not only had he endured Teru’s wardrobe “improvement,” he now had to contend with Mrs. Kageyama deciding that now was the best time to embarrass him in front of everyone.
Tome did not fare much better with her loved ones. “Mind your Master,” her mother told her, futzing with the girl’s chunky hairstyle. It had grown fluffy from the static of her lined coat.
“Stay away from strange boys,” her father added, wagging a finger.
Tome just leveled the man with a steady glare. “I don’t even like boys,” she reminded him.
“Which is why you should stay away from them.” He said this with the sort of grin that stated: “I am your father and I am the funniest man in the world.” Tome, like most teenage girls, did not agree.
Ritsu and Shou were far more subdued. The small redhaired boy would not stop clinging to his friend. “Don’t get another new best friend while I’m gone,” Shou said, sniffling a little. To him, they were not just words.
“I won’t,” Ritsu reassured him. They did not talk much about the time they had endured under King Suzuki’s shadow but it colored all that they did. For Shou, Ritsu was not just a friend, but the final push he had needed to resist his father’s rule. Ritsu, although well known among others his age in Seasoning, had never felt close to anyone other than his brother. Shou had changed that. Since they had met, they had never been separated longer than a few days. This would be the first real test they had ever faced.
Reigen noticed that of all the Apprentices, Shou was having the hardest time letting go. Literally, he would not take his hands off Ritsu as if the boy would vanish if released. He had to step in if they were to move on. “The Earl of Mitsuura should have a large stable of messenger birds,” Reigen told them, “I’m certain he would lend Shou the use of one to send letters.”
Shou looked up, a small smile on his lips. “Really?”
“Of course,” Reigen reassured him. He was not telling tales out of school. “And then Ritsu can keep in contact with Mob too.” He gave his student one final push. “We won’t be gone forever, Shou. I’d like to be back in time for the spring plantings.”
It was just enough to give Shou the confidence to release his friend. After one or two last well wishes, it was finally time to begin.
The journey would be an arduous undertaking with dangers from man and beast, though the bitter cold would be the brunt of it. As the little troop made their way out of the village onto the treacherous road, Reigen came to a dread realization: Tome and Shou were going to try to out chatter each other the whole way.
“Then I dropped this great big bug right in the ambassador’s soup!” Shou said, hands mimicking the action.
Tome cackled wildly, thoroughly entertained by her fellow Apprentice’s tale. “Oh gods.”
“Yeah, I thought, ‘That’d teach Dad to say something mean to Mom,’” Shou finished his story with too many teeth in his grin.
Teru just shook his head, acting like he was too mature for such shenanigans.
“So, did it work?” Tome asked once her laughter had died down.
Shou’s face fell in confusion. “Did what work?”
Tome rolled her eyes. She did not know how the boy failed to follow his own story. “Did your Dad stop being mean to your Mom?”
The red-haired boy went silent for a moment. “No,” Shou admitted. “She was exiled a month later.”
An awkward silence descended on the party. “Um,” Tome struggled to think of a distraction. She fell back on a tactic she had seen Master Reigen use before. “At least you tried to help your Mom,” she said. “There are a lot of men who wouldn’t have the courage.”
Shou focused on how his boots traipsed through the snow. “I don’t know about that.” The crunch was loud in the ensuing quiet.
Tome wasn’t going to give up. “Back when we were all in Saffron Heights a lot of us just gave up on helping each other,” she told him. “We were all suffering and it seemed like no one had energy to spare.” She waited until her fellow Apprentice looked up her. “So, whenever someone did do something for someone else it meant that much more. My friend Tsubomi used to get yelled at by the Mages.”
Now Reigen and Serizawa paid attention to her story, they both knew about Mob’s feelings toward the Tsubomi girl. The Apothecary sneaked a look at his former Apprentice, but Mob’s expression was unreadable.
“I tried to listen but I had my own issues,” Tome continued. “Then Musashi would come by and he would listen to both of us, tried to ease our burdens.” Shou looked lost, uncertain what she was trying to say. “The point is,” Tome said, “sometimes we think our actions don’t matter because it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted, but they still might something to someone else. Tsubomi and Musashi grew close because of what he did and I think your Mom—” she wanted to say this the right way. “I think she appreciated you standing up for her.”
“Even though I threw a bug in a guy’s soup?” Shou asked, sounding doubtful.
Reigen was proud of Tome, but she just needed that tiny bit of assistance to fully get through to Shou. He slowed his pace to get near his Apprentices. “You were ten, Shou,” he reminded the boy. “You did everything in your power, your mother would know that.”
Shou bit his lower lip. “Yeah, she would.”
It seemed the boy was taking the discussion to heart. With Shou taken care of, Reigen wanted to press Tome about the Tsubomi girl but did not want to do so in front of Mob. He would have to wait until a better time.
It never came. The next several days were filled with the day-to-day of navigation and juggling the party’s needs. Weather became less predictable as they ventured forward and towns less common. The snow hindered their progress some, but not as much as the terrible winds. They were having to rough it more often than Reigen liked, thus he found himself more concerned with everyone’s physical rather than emotional needs. Serizawa was a tremendous help, with his experience in Claw’s military units, he was able to organize everyone as they camped for the night. He made sure warmth was a priority and kept everyone healthy.
One evening, Mob made Reigen’s worries about adolescent sentiments moot. They were setting up camp in a cave out of the latest winter storm. Serizawa and Teru were gathering firewood while Shou and Tome made supper. Reigen and Mob were laying out bedrolls when the blonde asked, “Did you ever talk to that Tsubomi girl?”
Mob knelt on Teru’s bedroll, patting it down. “I decided not to.”
Reigen raised an eyebrow. For four years he had heard about his former Apprentice’s crush on the girl. How pretty she was and how nice she smelled and do you think I should cut my hair? After Saffron Heights he had been sure Mob would finally talk to her and was stunned when he didn’t. Month after month, Reigen had encouraged the boy to do something and now he was just giving up. “Why?”
“I don’t think I actually love her,” Mob said simply. “I liked the idea of liking her.”
“Oh.” Reigen was simultaneously surprised and not. “That’s very mature of you, Mob,” he said, “and a little sad.”
The boy sat back on his heels. “It is a little sad,” he agreed. “Is it strange to feel sad that you don’t have a crush anymore?”
The Apothecary took a seat next for his former pupil. “No,” he said. “When you’ve had a strong feeling for long enough, good or bad, letting go can be a type of loss.” Reigen had seen such a thing many, many times over the years. Men and women had come to him for tinctures to dull the heart. “It doesn’t mean that you’ll never feel that way again.” Mob was a good boy, Reigen was certain that he would find his own happiness.
“I know. ‘Love takes time.’” Mob quoted. They sounded like words that he had memorized and taken to heart.
Reigen bumped Mob’s shoulder. “Sounds wise,” he said, “who told you that one?”
Mob snorted, he wasn’t certain if his former mentor was joking or not. “You did.”
The Apothecary had no memory of ever saying such a thing. “I don’t remember that one.”
“You do talk a lot,” Mob said, voice deadpan.
With mock offense, Reigen took to his feet. “I see that my wisdom is no longer needed here.”
“It’s true that I have Master Serizawa now,” Mob said, grasping Reigen’s sleeve, “but I think I will always seek your council.”
Reigen smiled to himself. “You’re getting better at flattery Mob. That’s a skill you’ll need in court.”
The Mage’s Apprentice panicked a little. “I thought you say the Earl’s Academy wouldn’t be like court.” Mob was sweating with anxiety, his magical aura flailed around him.
“I meant someday, Mob,” Reigen reassured him. “Kenji does still hold court, but he’s not going to torture his students with that.” Reigen too was not planning on putting his Apprentices through the rigors of court etiquette just yet. If the Apprentices were going to succeed as Masters, they would have to deal with royalty at some point in their careers. Shou was already experienced but Tome, she was going to be rough around the edges. If Mob was this worried just from the idea of dealing with court, he was also going to be a handful. Serizawa and Reigen would have their jobs cut out for them when the time came.
Mob sighed in relief. “Okay.” His breathing slowed; his aura diminished.
Before Reigen could continue, Serizawa and Teru arrived with their burdens. Perhaps the distraction would be better than any further talk. “Let’s help them with the fire, Mob,” Reigen suggested. The boy readily agreed and set to the task.
As they continued setting up camp Serizawa asked, “How much longer until we reach the Earl’s castle?”
“At least another week, unfortunately,” Reigen answered. “Are we good on supplies?”
“We’ll need to find another town between now and then but we should be safe on food,” Serizawa told him. “I think we’re doing well. We’re making progress and no one has fallen ill.”
Reigen gently pushed a finger against Serizawa’s lips. “Don’t press our luck,” he teased. “It’s all thanks to you, you know.”
Serizawa gave him a wry smile. “I’m just grateful to have something good come out of my days as a soldier.” By destroying the Kingdom of Claw, Serizawa felt that he had atoned for his previous life but that did not mean he did not still have doubts or regrets. He briefly entwined his fingers with Reigen’s, their palms warm. One thing Serizawa certainly did not regret was the man beside him. There was much he wished to say, to do, but their affection had to be tempered in front of the children. That had led to a few frustrating nights.
“We should check to see if supper’s on,” Reigen said, feeling the rising tension.
Serizawa agreed, reluctantly releasing Reigen’s hand. Anything more would just have to wait until they reached the comfort of the castle.
Chapter 4: The Earl's Palace
The presence of four magic users shaved down Reigen’s prediction for travel time by an entire day. To some it would not seem like much, but to their little group, that one extra day meant getting to true shelter all the sooner. The frigid winds had torn through their tents the night before and the only thing keeping them from freezing had been the magic users combining efforts to erect a barrier around their camp.
Even through the exhaustion the next day, Mob and Teru traded off moving the cart, pushing it through the ice and snow deposited on the ground. It had been hours of labor but it had all been worth it; for when they crested the last hill, they finally saw their destination.
The castle stood gray and proud in a sea of white. The snow had covered everything it touched, turning the landscape into a blank canvas. Approaching the edifice of stone was like nearing the end of the world. The Earl’s domain easily dwarfed Duke Roushuto’s summer palace in size and scope. Massive thick stone walls protected the Earl’s manor from unwanted intrusion, its parapets were tall enough to scrape the sky. Though primarily built for defense, the architecture was almost playful in places, reflecting the royal family’s unconventional nature.
“This is your friend’s castle?” Serizawa asked in awe. Even in Claw, with all the land they conquered, nothing was as magnificent as this.
“Pretty great, right?” Reigen grinned at his paramour’s reaction. “It’s been a few years since I’ve been here.” He encouraged their party to move forward, his feet were cold. “If you think this is nice now, wait until spring.”
“We’ll be here until spring?” Serizawa asked. That seemed like a long time to be away from Seasoning.
That gave Reigen pause. “I’m not really sure.” The Apothecary shrugged. “I did want to get early planting done—”
“Your buddy here has taste,” Dimple chimed in, not wanting to listen to a long rant about herbs and the proper way to grow them.
Reigen took the bait. “His forefathers built it but his Father put in some additions with the Earl’s involvement.” He had been on a thorough tour his first time there. “Kenji’s family has more money than they’ll ever be able to spend,” he muttered to Serizawa in sotto voice.
A thought occurred to Serizawa. “You could have taken Shigeo here after Seasoning was attacked.” It was far away from Claw’s primary activities and the fortress looked strong. The Apothecary and his Apprentice could have stayed there unmolested forever. “Why didn’t you?”
Reigen looked a little guilty. “I thought about it,” he admitted, “but hiding here wouldn’t have allowed us to track down his parents.” Reigen adjusted his coat up around his neck. “Not that I didn’t try.”
Dimple hovered over by Serizawa’s shoulder. “It was the biggest argument I’ve ever heard between the two of them,” he said. “They didn’t talk for days afterward.” Considering how the boy looked up to Reigen, the quarrel must have been terrible indeed. The spirit gave Serizawa a conspiratorial smile. “Obviously, Reigen caved.”
“Oh look, we’re here,” Reigen said too loudly as they entered through the open gate. A massive door of iron and oak greeted them on the other end of the courtyard, as well-maintained and strong as the rest of the castle. Reigen grasped the heavy knocker and slammed it against the door.
It was answered within a few knocks by an old man with a grey beard and a stern face. The wisdom of years was etched into his face and it appeared that every one of them made him miserable. Then he took one look at Reigen and his eyes lit up. “Mister Reigen, you’ve finally arrived,” his old voice was warm. The wrinkles on his cheeks crinkled upward as he smiled.
“Yes, Sir Durand,” Reigen said, “it’s been too long.”
“Indeed,” the man agreed, opening the door further. “Come in, come in.” He waved their little group inside. “I will call the Lord down and have the servants attend to your luggage.”
“Thank you,” Reigen gave the older man a slight bow and led the others into the castle’s grand entrance hall. Large glass windows let in a tremendous amount of light. With the sun reflecting off the snow, the whole room was illuminated to show off the exquisite carving and gold leaf work that dominated the decor. The Earl was a man of undeniable wealth.
“Sir Durand is the Earl’s seneschal,” Reigen explained to the others, “he takes care of the household.” An enormous responsibility to be sure.
“It allows our Lord to continue his work uninterrupted,” Sir Durand added. He rang a bell and multiple servants seemed to scurry out from nowhere. “Please see to our guests.”
With that, the parties’ coats were taken, luggage moved and orders for warm drinks taken. Even while working under Claw, Serizawa had never been served like this. Was this how royalty usually functioned? Just how delusional was King Suzuki about his own influence and breeding?
Sir Durand led them further into the palace to a cozy lounge area. A fire warmed the cold stone, casting a glow on the rest of the room. The sight was a welcome one. The Apprentices immediately sat upon the plush couches, eager to get off their feet. Reigen and Serizawa decided to wait until Sir Durand finished addressing them. “The Lord should be here soon—”
The door to the lounge flew open, admitting a young man with a curly mass of light brown hair and a patch of fuzz on his chin that was a mockery of a beard. The patterns on his clothes rivaled Teruki’s in sheer garish eccentricity. He took in shallow, panting breaths as if he had run from the other side of the castle. Upon seeing Reigen, he drew the other man into a tight hug. “Arataka!” he shouted. “It’s so good to see you.”
Startled, Reigen chuckled and patted his friend on the back. “Kenji,” he said. He pulled away; the Earl smelled vaguely of smelted metal. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this excited.”
The Earl of Mitsuura’s eyes were bright. “We’ve got a real chance to succeed this time,” he told Reigen. “The Philosopher’s Stone could be crafted within our lifetime.” Then the Earl noticed the others and released Reigen. “Are these your friends?” Reigen had written about the Apprentices and Serizawa when accepting the invitation.
“Yes.” Reigen put an arm around Kenji’s shoulder. “This is Lord Kenji, the Earl of Mitsuura. Lord Kenji this is—”
The Earl made a beeline straight for Mob. “This must be Mob,” he said. The boy was surprised he was recognized.
Mob nodded. “I am.”
Kenji smiled, grasping Mob’s hand and shaking his hand. “I’ve heard so much about you over the years,” he said. “I’m so glad to finally meet you.”
The boy flushed. “Uh, thank you.”
The Earl turned to the other children. “I’m sorry, I’m not as sure you who are,” he admitted. “I’ve heard some about you—”
Tome raised an eyebrow. “I’m Tome.” The girl had no problem putting herself out there.
Kenji laughed awkwardly. “Of course,” he said, ducking his head in embarrassment. “I should have known.” Of all of them, her identity was the most obvious.
Teru and Shou introduced themselves next, both being far more polite than Tome. The Earl greeted them with equal enthusiasm. As he moved from child to child it was clear that Reigen’s reassurance that the Earl would want all of them there was true. He was genuine and friendly, a far cry from the other royalty Serizawa had ever dealt with. He seemed easy-going, an amiable sort if a little odd. Serizawa liked him, if only for how he treated the Apprentices.
When it was Serizawa’s turn for introductions, the Earl gifted him with a special smile. “You must be the Master Mage,” he said.
“Former,” Serizawa tried to correct.
“You are one of the greatest Mages of our age,” the Earl said, “that makes you a Master Mage, whether or not the title was given to you by an illegitimate King.”
That was a sweet sentiment, even if expressed in a strange way. “Thank you,” Serizawa said.
When the Earl grasped his hand, Kenji leaned forward to whisper: “You have no idea how happy you make him. Thank you.”
Before Serizawa could ask what Kenji meant, the Earl told the party: “I’m sorry to say that I can’t give you a full tour of the Academy until after dinner. It’s not quite—” Kenji searched for the word, “presentable yet.”
Reigen wondered if the metal smell had something to do with that.
“But you could still meet my Adepts, or unpack, wash up,” the Earl offered. “There’s so much we could do.” The young man rambled, as if since the formalities were out of the way he had no idea how to proceed.
“Maybe we should clean up,” Reigen said. Even with the fire, his feet were still chilled. “It’s been a long journey.”
The Apprentices concurred, they were tired and damp from the snow. “Excellent,” Kenji said. He spoke briefly with Sir Durand then turned to his guests. “The servants will escort you to your rooms and your drink requests will be served there.”
“How will we be sharing rooms?” Teru asked.
The question confused the Earl. “There’s plenty of space, no one has to share a room.” The expression on Teru’s face was unreadable. “Everyone’s in the same wing though so if you kids want a slumber party—” It was obvious Kenji had been mentoring teenagers.
“Thank you, Lord Kenji,” Reigen said.
The Earl looked a little perturbed at the formality. Then the servants came and everyone’s attention was directed toward settling in. As Reigen and Serizawa followed the servants out, Kenji grasped Serizawa’s shoulder. “Do you mind if I borrow your friend for a bit?”
“Of course not,” Reigen said. He gazed at Serizawa, making sure that it was alright with the other man.
“It’ll just be a minute,” Kenji reassured them. His smile was pleasant if strained.
“I’ll meet you in the room,” Serizawa said. He was curious as to what the Earl could want from him.
The Apothecary trusted his friend and his partner so he left them alone. Once everyone else was out of earshot, Kenji turned to Serizawa, his body crumpled with nerves. “I need a favor,” he said.
This was not what Serizawa expected. “I’m listening.”
“I screwed up,” Kenji said, sounding anxious. “I need you to make sure Arataka won’t get mad at me.”
Did the Earl not have the book? That was the only thing that Serizawa could think would anger Reigen. “What did you do?” Serizawa asked, curious as to what this man feared.
“Before I realized I need him I hired someone else.” Kenji clasped his hands together, fidgeting. “The other gentleman has a history with Arataka,” the Earl explained. “If you could smooth things over, that would be great.”
Serizawa was suspicious. “What sort of history?”
“Look at the time!” Kenji said, his deflection was not subtle. “You should really get scrubbed up for supper.” He took Serizawa’s arm and dragged him from the lounge. “My chefs worked hard and made some hearty food to get all of your stamina back. Trudging through all of that snow is not easy on any man, even one as hale as you are.”
The Master Mage was not fooled or flattered by Kenji’s ramblings. Serizawa needed to know what was wrong with this mystery man. “Does this stranger have anything to do with how you met?” Serizawa asked. He only knew small bits of Reigen’s history with the Earl, mostly drinking stories. Arataka was reluctant to discuss much of his past outside of case studies with his paramour.
Kenji shook his head. “No, but I’ll tell that story at dinner, if you’d like.”
Serizawa was curious. “Yes, but—”
“Great!” Kenji stopped clutching at Serizawa, letting the other man walk unencumbered. “I promise,” he told Serizawa, “you are going to have a great time here at the Academy.”
With the uncertainty presented by this mysterious gentleman, Serizawa wasn’t so sure.
Chapter 5: The Lady Wyndham's Party
About Seven Years Ago
The party was a total disaster; Kenji had only attended at his father’s behest. There were dignitaries and royals there, Kenji was supposed to mingle and gain potential allies. How was he to know that he would meet the enchanting Lady Wyndham? That her sparkling wit and expansive bosom would captivate him so? That the cad Duke Roushuto would insult her honor and that Kenji would duel to defend her?
To be fair, although Kenji was an idle youth, even amongst royals, he was an excellent fencer. The Duke had managed a lucky strike on the Earl’s arm, but Kenji had finished the fight with a decisive jab into Roushuto’s side. The Duke had panicked at the violence and immediately apologized.
Kenji forwent any treatment for his wound (it was only a scratch) so that he could spend the rest of the evening in the Lady’s company. In the morning he had felt lethargic but thought it was a symptom of too much drink the night before. The wound burned, but he thought nothing of it. ‘Twas just a scratch, no reason for concern.
He had left his lodge that morning, intending to make the journey home as quickly as possible. However, riding his horse was proving more difficult than he thought. The road was rough, and his horse weaved all about. Kenji was not the greatest of horsemen, but he usually had more control than this.
At least he had no witnesses, except for a young man in a green cloak walking along the side of the road. The stranger turned his head when the sound of hooves reached his ears. The blonde man gave Kenji a critical look. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What do you mean?” Kenji called down. The road seemed rather hazy now. “I’m fin—” The Earl never finished his words. He felt himself fall; the young man’s eyes were wide in surprise.
Kenji’s side struck the ground with a dull thud. He heard, rather than saw the young man approach. “Hey, wake up. Wake up!”
When Kenji arose, he found himself laying in a rough bed, sunlight streaming through the window. The young man in the green cloak sat in a chair next to him, wringing out a damp cloth. “What happened?” Kenji asked.
“You fell off your horse,” the young man said. He dipped the cloth in a basin of water, then placed it on Kenji’s forehead. The cloth was cool and soothing. “But that’s not the main problem.” The man in the green cloak pulled back the sheet covering Kenji’s body.
Kenji was shirtless, his wounded arm bound in a clean bandage. “Your arm was infected,” the man in the cloak said. “I cleaned the wound and gave you some medicine, but I don’t know if it’ll take yet.” The edge of the bandage was tied off in a messy fashion. “I’m still new at this.” An Apothecary then, that explained the green cloak.
“Where am I?” Kenji asked. He needed to get his bearings.
The man in the green cloak wrinkled his nose. “We’re at a farm on the edge of town,” that explained the stench of cow manure, “I sweet talked the mistress of the house into letting us stay. I had to dig into your purse for the medical supplies.” The man gave him a lopsided smile. “Sorry about that.”
Kenji was not concerned about money, he had plenty. The fact that the young man confessed to it made him more honest than most. “You saved me.”
“We don’t know that yet,” the young man said. “I’m Reigen Arataka by the way.”
The Earl was grateful to know the name of his savior. “I’m Kenji, the Earl of Mitsuura.”
“Earl?” Reigen looked panicked for a moment before regaining his composure. “What were you doing with that infected arm?”
“I won a duel for a lady’s honor,” Kenji answered. He emphasized the “won” part.
“Why didn’t you get that cleaned?” Reigen was less than impressed by the fact that he was witness to the aftermath of a royal duel when it involved an infection.
“I was distracted by the Lady,” Kenji admitted.
Reigen opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Okay, I can’t ever say I’ve never thought with my dick but still—”
The Earl sighed the dramatic sigh of one who has first fallen in love. “She’s quite lovely.”
The blonde snorted at that. “Apparently.” He tapped the edge of the bandage. “How long ago was the fight?”
“Last night,” Kenji told him.
Reigen frowned at the news. He turned away from Kenji to pull up a satchel. Inside the satchel was a book. Kenji couldn’t see the contents, but Reigen’s brows furrowed as he consulted the tome. “You can read?” Kenji asked. It seemed that some of the royals Kenji knew were barely literate, a peasant who could read was highly unusual.
The blonde’s head jerked up. “Yes, my mother taught me.” He continued to scan the book and closed it. “I think the blade was dirty.”
Kenji sat up in alarm. “You believe the Duke poisoned his blade?” For the other man to sink that low--
“No, I think he’s terrible at maintenance,” Reigen said. “Hopefully this Duke got his wounds tended to. Don’t need two of you running around with infections.”
The Duke had run off the night before after blubbering his apology, followed by his servants. “I’m certain he’s fine.” Kenji had a thought. “How long will it be before I can travel?”
“If the medicine takes you could be back on your feet tomorrow,” Reigen said. “But it’ll still be some time for a full recovery.”
“You keep saying ‘if.’ Are you that doubtful of your own abilities?” Kenji was a little worried now.
“I’m just very new at this,” Reigen said. “I’ve only had a few cases, so I’d rather err on the side of caution. You might recover quickly or slowly; it all depends on your body now.”
That gave Kenji an idea. “Once you check my wound tomorrow, if it’s better will you accompany me back to the Lady’s castle?”
The Apothecary was suspicious. “Why there?”
“Well,” Kenji was a little embarrassed. “If it’s going to take time for my wound to heal, I would like to do so in Lady Wyndham’s company if I could.” It would be better than the smelly farmhouse or his father’s lonely castle.
Reigen caught on. “And having the word of an Apothecary might make her more sympathetic, you sly dog.”
The Earl flushed at the comment. “I’m not—not really.”
The Apothecary laughed at him then, cementing a lasting friendship.
That next morning, Kenji’s wound was indeed well enough for travel. Reigen and the Earl packed up their scant things and set off for the Lady Wyndham’s palace. Upon arrival, they were warmly greeted by her servants and the Lady herself. As Reigen observed once she was out of earshot, “She does indeed have huge…tracts of land.”
The Lady Wyndham paused for a moment and unfolded her fan.
The children all snorted at that point of the story. Serizawa just looked at his love with a horrified expression. “You didn’t,” he asked Reigen.
“She was not actually out of hearing range,” the Earl added, taking a swig of wine.
“That’s when I found out that the Lady Wyndham is not only a diplomat and a bastion of etiquette but a connoisseur of the filthiest jokes you have ever heard,” Reigen said. “The stuff she knows will put hair on your chest. Well,” he stared at Serizawa’s chest, “more in your case.”
Serizawa grasped Reigen’s cup and pulled it out of his reach. “No more of that for you.”
Reigen nodded, he understood his own limits. “That’s fair.” He did have intentions of enjoying himself later that night. Everything in moderation.
The party and the Earl’s Adepts were all at a massive table for their nightly repast. Food and wine flowed freely, although not extravagantly. This meal was simple hospitality, not a feast. Kenji had five Adepts he introduced at the beginning of dinner, four boys and a girl. Reigen and Serizawa’s Apprentices did not seem too impressed with Kenji’s students except for the girl Rei. Tome had latched onto the other girl, pulling the Adept into the seat next to her. Apparently, each Adept had some minor (very minor, Shou had muttered to Teru) magical abilities.
Although Tome had given up on obtaining magic for herself, she was still fascinated by the idea. Rei, a slight girl with curled light brown hair, had been shy at first, but quickly warmed up to the more outgoing Tome. From the high flush on Tome’s cheeks, Serizawa wondered if the Apprentice’s interest was merely friendship.
“So, then what?” Shou asked, wanting the story to continue.
“Yes,” Reigen asked, “then what? Have you actually married the Lady yet?” Even though they corresponded through letters, it had stopped during the year long search for Seasoning’s citizens.
Kenji groaned in disappointment. “It’s her family, they are still dithering over the dowry.”
Reigen, sympathetic to his friend’s plight, grunted in disgust at people he had never met. “It’s been years.” Too many years in his opinion. He had been looking forward to giving an inappropriate speech at the Earl’s nuptials.
“I know.” Kenji looked wretched. “There’s one strip of land in contention. Her brother insists it’s his even though he only wants it because his sister desires it.”
“That’s awful,” Mob piped in. The idea of siblings fighting distressed him.
“Is the land valuable?” Teru asked, wanting all the possible angles to the story.
“Only to my experiments,” Kenji said. “That’s why the Lady wants it, as a gift to me.”
“That’s so romantic,” Rei said, her hand on her cheek.
Tome nodded in frantic agreement. “Yup, beautiful story.”
The merriment could not last forever, doomed to die either due to the end of dinner or other means. Unfortunately for their happy group, it was the latter that sucked the joy from the room. The door to the dining hall opened to reveal a tall man with dark hair and a notched ear. He had an arrogant grin on his face, but unlike Duke Roushuto, his arrogance was not born of privilege but genuine confidence. He was not a noble, judging by his dress, but a warrior, most likely a mercenary for hire.
At the sight of him, Reigen suddenly looked very sober and Mob’s good cheer vanished.
“I took care of that monster that was plaguing the south fields, my Lord,” the man said.
Kenji gave the man a nervous smile. “Thank you, Isao, I know you’re not one for entertaining guests so if you want the servants to make you a plate they can.”
The man, Isao, waved off the Earl’s offer. “Nonsense, I can—” His eyes set on Reigen and Mob and the smile drifted from mere arrogance to an outright leer. “Shigeo!” Isao addressed the boy. “You’ve grown since I last saw you.”
Mob was reluctant to address the man. “Yes, it’s been a while.”
Isao’s expression never shifted as his words grew uglier. “It looks like you won’t need a babysitter for much longer. And if the babysitter isn’t occupied--” His gaze shifted to Reigen at that.
Reigen leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. “You’ve never really understood the Master/Apprentice relationship,” he said.
“I understood it was a pain in my ass,” Isao retorted. When he took the empty seat across from Reigen, the Apothecary stiffened.
Serizawa was about to intercede when Kenji spoke again. “Dinner’s just about over and I was going to give everyone a tour of the Academy,” he told Isao. “You’ve already been through that; it’d be boring for you. Why don’t I have the servants take your supper—”
“I don’t mind accompanying you again,” Isao said, taking a wine jug and pouring himself a generously filled cup. “Even retreading old territory can give you new information.” As he took his drink, he silently judged Reigen over the rim of his drink.
Serizawa understood why Kenji had asked the favor, Reigen’s eye twitched in irritation the longer Isao stared at him. As the group got up to take the tour, the Master Mage put a guiding hand on Reigen’s lower back. “Who is that man?” Serizawa already had a notion, but wanted his paramour to put it into words.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Reigen asked, glaring over his shoulder at the unwanted intruder. “He’s my ex.”
Chapter 6: The Academy of Alchemy
“I could possess him, if you want,” Dimple offered, hovering around Reigen’s ear. “Make him fall down a flight of stairs.” He wriggled his fingers with glee.
“As tempting as that is, no,” Reigen said, sighing. “Kenji hired him for a reason. And really,” the Apothecary had a hard time admitting this, “he’s not that bad.”
“Who is he?” Serizawa asked. The three of them hovered at the edge of the group as the Earl led them down a long hallway to the castle wing that held his Academy of Alchemy. They had to make this conversation quick; Isao was coming up close behind them.
“Isao is a mercenary, one of the best monster hunters in three kingdoms,” Reigen said. “He’s your buddy Shimazaki’s direct competition.”
Serizawa took this in. “If the Earl thinks there are monsters outside of the Academy, he would hire the best monster hunter he could, right?”
“Right, or it might be to fight something even worse,” Reigen muttered.
“How did you even meet a monster hunter?” Dimple asked, taking up position between the two men. “Not the usual type you run into.”
“I went on a work sabbatical and came here a few years ago,” the Apothecary said, voice low. “Kenji had a wild boar problem and hired Isao to take care of it.” He didn’t say anymore; they had run out of time.
They arrived at the heavy doors that marked the entrance to the Academy. An intricate carving of the sun and the moon graced the wood, carefully painted with gold and silver-leaf detailing. The two celestial bodies danced and merged, the color shifting delicately in the changing light. It was an impressive work and it was only the door.
“Alchemy as a discipline is concerned with primarily one thing: alleviating the spiritual and physical suffering of mankind,” Kenji announced.
“Isn’t that two things?” Dimple whispered to Reigen. The Apothecary shooed the ghost away.
“The ultimate symbol of the knowledge to do so is the Alchemical Gem, otherwise known as the Philosopher’s Stone.” Kenji was warming up to his subject. “To craft the Stone takes a great spiritual and physical power, only the purest among us can even begin the attempt. Which is why I have recruited these innocents on my quest.” He gestured to his five Adepts who waved awkwardly at the newcomers.
Shou and Teru did not seem impressed by their endeavor. Tome was too busy gesturing back at Rei to care. Mob’s expression was, as always, inscrutable to those unfamiliar with him.
Kenji was not deterred. “And here, is where they carry out their great work.” He pushed open the door with the help of the Adepts, to reveal an atrium that branched out into multiple laboratories and rooms with functions foreign to those outside of the Academy. Oil lamps cut through the darkness, fires burst forth from the forges and wide windows let the moonlight drift into the expansive room.
Reigen was impressed. “Three years ago, this was just another guest wing, wasn’t it?” That had been the last time he had visited Kenji. The Apothecary had always regretted not finding time to come back sooner, but duties and a rebellion had called.
“Yes.” Kenji was glad that Reigen remembered. “And now it’s been converted to a fully functioning Alchemy laboratory.” He ushered everyone into the atrium. As they toured the facility, it became clear that the Academy was fostering study in multiple disciplines, primarily metallurgy and botany, with some chemistry thrown in. It was the botany that drew Tome and Shou’s attention, considering their own Apprenticeship.
“So, you’re trying to distill some of these plants down to their basic essence?” Tome asked when they entered the chemistry lab. She examined the equipment. It was similar to what Reigen had back at the shop.
“Reigen taught me the process,” Kenji explained, “and I’ve been passing on those teachings to my students.” He had actually funded Reigen’s business after their first meeting and knew the equipment intimately. “You see, the closer we get to an object’s purest form, the closer we get to knowing its true nature.”
Shou did not think that sounded correct. “I don’t—”
Kenji did not hear the boy. “And of course, being a Master of Alchemy means being a Master of Fire.”
“Fire?” Shou’s attention was drawn in again.
“Go here is still learning to hone his magic,” Kenji said, placing his hands on the blonde Adept’s shoulders, “but when he does, I’m certain it’ll help propel him to the upper echelons of Alchemists.”
And Reigen’s Apprentice lost interest again. During dinner, Go had tried to show off his magical talent of creating fire but had barely made a spark. Compared to the miracles that Serizawa and Mob could create, all of the Adepts were, quite frankly, embarrassing.
The only one with real potential was Rei, a girl whose magic could see through objects. Sometimes. On occasion. At least Tome seemed to like her. But the twins who could communicate without speech and the boy who could bend spoons one out of five times were simply not in the same league as the Apprentices.
“There are a few different methods for crafting the Stone: Wet and Dry,” Kenji said, “but here at the Academy we are focusing on the Wet Method. Dry is just way too risky, right kids?” Kenji and all the Adepts laughed as if they were in on a big joke. The Apprentices, Reigen and Serizawa just looked at each other. They had no idea what Kenji was talking about.
Much of the rest of the tour was like this, Kenji telling the group some obscure thing that the party had no context for. Despite the beautiful surroundings, the commentary was excruciating. The adults fell back, allowing Kenji and the children to widen the distance as the Earl continued his tour. “Ugh,” Reigen groaned to Serizawa, “I think I’d rather endure Isao’s passive-aggressive jabs then the rest of this. When’s Kenji getting the book out already?”
Speaking of the devil would summon him to your side, which is how Reigen found himself with an unwelcome arm around his shoulder. “Are you finally ready to ditch the kid, ‘Taka?” Isao asked. “The offer still stands.” His voice dropped to a seductive whisper. “Hey, remember when I finally got you alone in that room with the big bed?” The hand on Reigen’s shoulder slid down to territory Isao fondly remembered.
Reigen and Serizawa were not as appreciative. In tandem, Reigen pinched the back of Isao’s hand while Serizawa jerked the other man to the side, putting himself between Reigen and the monster hunter.
“He’s spoken for,” Serizawa said, drawing himself up to his full height. He only had a few inches on Isao, but he was going to use every one of them to intimidate the monster hunter.
Isao sneered at Serizawa. He had felled beasts that made armies shake in fear, one man did not worry him. “Why don’t you let Arataka—”
“I’m spoken for.” Reigen’s glare was firm. Isao was part of Reigen’s past and the Apothecary wanted him to stay there.
“What, by this lug?” Isao pointed to Serizawa. “’Taka, there’s desperate and there’s—"
Before the situation could escalate further, Kenji called out to them. “Reigen, I have something to show you.”
Reigen gestured that he’d be right there. “No fighting,” he ordered the other two men before moving to Kenji’s side.
Isao was not a stupid man, but he also wasn’t one not to push limits when presented with them. He scowled up at Serizawa. “I admit, he’s a nice piece of ass,” Isao said, making Serizawa bristle, “but you’re second to that kid.” He spoke from bitter experience. “He will always put Shigeo first.”
“I know.” Serizawa knew this deep in his bones. “We will always put our Apprentices first,” Serizawa said. “We are their Masters. It’s what we do.”
“Shigeo’s not even his son.” The monster hunter shook his head. “Look, you say that now,” he said, “but when push comes to shove, you’ll see it differently.” Isao leaned against the cool stone wall. “We had a good thing going there for a while.”
Serizawa knew that by prying would only hurt himself, but he couldn’t help it. “How long were you together?”
“Four glorious weeks,” Isao said, his smile fond.
Dimple rolled his eyes at the monster hunter. “Are you kidding me?” He flew into the man’s face. “You’re this worked up over a month? I’ve seen boils that lasted longer than your relationship.”
Isao’s brows furrowed. “What does a little fart cloud like you know?”
The spirit’s expression was nasty. “More than you do. Reigen and Serizawa have something special.” He poked Isao’s forehead. “Get over it.”
“I’m not taking advice from a ghost,” Isao said. This was the most absurd conversation he had ever had.
“Then maybe take it from a Master Mage.” Serizawa placed a hand near Isao’s head, emphasizing his size advantage. “Do your job,” he said quietly, “leave Arataka alone.”
Isao’s eyes were steely. “He can make his own decisions.”
Serizawa’s retort was soft but final. “He already did.”
Whatever demonstration Kenji gave Reigen was over and the Apothecary returned to their sides. He looked annoyed. “Tour’s over, we’re going to bed.”
“What about the Mutus Liber?” Serizawa asked. He knew that Reigen had been looking forward to seeing it, if only out of curiosity.
“The Earl will show me tomorrow.” Reigen turned his gaze to Isao. “Are you still here?”
The monster hunter judged his chances and decided on a strategic withdrawal. “We’ll talk later,” he told Reigen and walked off.
“Don’t count on it.” Reigen couldn’t even muster the energy to snark at more than a murmur.
Dimple scowled at Isao’s retreating back. “What did you ever see in that guy anyway?”
“Wow,” Reigen said, voice dripping with sarcasm, “it’s like I was under the impression that a Guardian Spirit was going to murder me.” He gave the ghost the side-eye. “Then a strong monster hunter known to kill demons starts flirting and hey, maybe if I sleep with him, I won’t die.”
“You’re blaming me for whoring yourself out?” Dimple asked, tiny arms crossed.
Serizawa was horrified at the implication. If Reigen had genuinely liked Isao, that would have wounded Serizawa’s ego but it still was better than this. “I didn’t realize how terrified you were,” he told Reigen.
Reigen’s eyes darted away. “You do some stupid things when you’re afraid.”
Now Dimple looked uncomfortable. “What made you break it off?”
“Mob.” Not much more needed to be said, the others saw how Isao had acted at dinner.
Dimple broke the tension. “Sounds likes it was for the best.”
“Definitely,” Reigen agreed with a relieved sigh. “No regrets there.”
The words bloomed sour in Serizawa’s stomach. They should have been reassuring, but instead they fueled a doubt. If Reigen could dismiss his relationship with Isao so easily, what kept him from doing the same to Serizawa? How was Serizawa different? Or was he?
Before when he was with Claw, Serizawa would have let the idea fester, turn into a blistering wound that would never heal. Now he knew better, he had to discuss this now before it made him feel worse. When they were finally alone in their room, Serizawa asked: “’Taka, why did you come to me that night?”
The Apothecary was taken aback by the question. He didn’t need clarification about which night. “I almost didn’t,” he confessed, sitting on the edge of the bed. Serizawa perched next to him, needing that closeness. “None of us were in a good place,” Reigen continued. “Mob was still searching for his parents; I was looking after him and you—” the Apothecary hesitated. “You were just so miserable and hurt. And lonely.”
Serizawa recalled Dimple’s words about the appeal of the pathetic. “I was. My appearance was not particularly appealing.”
“Well, the smell wasn’t,” Reigen joked.
The Master Mage made a huffing noise. He remembered that day at the river all too well. How clean he felt, body and soul after bathing in the water and admitting to his past. He also recalled Reigen’s hands, warm and soft on his shaven face. The subtle shift of Reigen’s expressions as he had scrutinized Serizawa that day were etched in his mind.
“What changed?” Serizawa asked. He needed to know, he needed validation that he was not like Isao.
“Mob,” Reigen said. It always came back to the boy. “The fact that he liked you and the way you treated him.” He smiled. “When you taught him the trick with the laundry, Mob was so pleased and you just lit up. It was such a relief. That year had been hard on the both of us and having someone else around that he trusted, it meant a lot.”
Serizawa recalled that their first night together was over a week later. “You didn’t seduce me right away.”
“No, that was when I decided I was interested,” Reigen said, shifting a little. He wasn’t fully comfortable with this inquiry. “I still wasn’t going to act on it.”
That surprised Serizawa. “Why not?”
Reigen gave him an incredulous look like Serizawa should know this. “I thought I was being chased, that I could die at any time. There was no point in a real relationship if the Guardian was after me.”
Then there was the incident at the Duke’s castle. Serizawa could see the pattern that followed. He felt that he understood. Serizawa took Reigen’s hand and kissed the knuckles. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?”
“You never asked,” Reigen said, eyes locked on Serizawa’s mouth. “You were always content just being with me.”
“I still am.” Serizawa’s hands moved to cup Reigen’s face. He could see Reigen’s eyes sliding closed in anticipation. “Are you?”
“Am I what?” Reigen asked, barely listening.
“Are you content being with me?” Serizawa had to know.
“Yes.” Reigen closed the distance between them, kissing Serizawa with tenderness. When Serizawa wanted more, he opened his mouth sweetly and when Serizawa pressed him down, pinning him to the bed, he went easily. Their kiss broke and Reigen’s eyes were soft. “I never thought you’d want me for this long.”
“Do you mind?” Serizawa asked, nuzzling at Reigen’s neck.
The answer was soft. “No.”
This wasn’t enough. Serizawa had his reassurance verbally, now he needed it physically. “’Taka,” he kissed Reigen’s cheek. “May I?” He felt embarrassed to even ask.
Reigen spread his thighs, he knew what they both wanted. “Take what you need.”
If Reigen had any qualms about ringing for cleansing cloths from the servants, he did not show any. Serizawa had been spoiled living with the Apothecary and by having access to water and privacy. The Apothecary slipped on a robe from the closet and gave the bored servant his request. Once she was dismissed, Reigen shut the door and settled himself on top of the reclining Serizawa.
He could see his paramour’s discomfort with the situation. “Don’t worry,” Reigen kissed Serizawa’s nose. “I’m sure they’ve seen worse.” The robe gaped open, revealing the marks Serizawa had left on his body. They seemed far too red against the pale skin.
Filthy thoughts entered Serizawa’s head unbidden. Things he didn’t want to imagine but couldn’t help. “Is the Earl a hedonist?”
Reigen waved a dismissive hand. “No, but he’s royalty. He knows plenty of people who are.”
Serizawa wondered exactly how Reigen would know this. Just what sort of relationship did Reigen have with the Earl? The edge of the borrowed robe slipped further off Reigen’s shoulder and Serizawa’s eyes went wide. Had anyone else kissed Reigen that roughly, left the sort of marks Serizawa just had? “What’s that look for?” Reigen asked.
Tonight was the night for uncomfortable questions, there seemed no reason to stop now. Serizawa asked, “Have you and Kenji been intimate?”
Reigen’s entire face scrunched up. He grasped a pillow and whacked Serizawa over the head with it. “Don’t be gross.” He whacked Serizawa once more for good measure. “He’s like a brother, ugh.”
The childish reaction dispelled Serizawa’s jealousy. He felt foolish for even thinking it. He had observed Reigen and the Earl’s behavior first hand, Serizawa had no reason to even think that. “Sorry.” Meeting Isao had done terrible things to Serizawa’s mind, he would be the first to admit it.
A deep sigh and Reigen set the pillow down. “Are you going to do this with every man I know?” he asked quietly. His hand clenched into a fist, gripping the pillow tight.
The last thing Serizawa wanted was to be the possessive type. “No! I—” He loved Reigen, he trusted him. Serizawa never thought--
Reigen flopped onto his back, his playful mood dispelled. “I’ve only been with four people,” he told Serizawa, wanting this over with. “The first time was with a girl in my hometown. We were both young and stupid; we thought we knew what we wanted.” There was an awkward pause. “Neither of us liked it.” The memory seemed to pain the Apothecary.
This is not the conversation he wanted to have after making love. Serizawa shook his head. “I don’t need—"
“I’m just grateful she didn’t get pregnant,” Reigen muttered. Such a thing would have ruined both of them. “I met the second when I went into exile. Marc was a stable hand in a small town.” The Apothecary sounded regretful. “I actually liked him.”
He hated this, but Serizawa started it, he would see it through. “What happened?”
Reigen’s gaze was blank. “I showed him the book.” He meant The Medica Materia. “It turned out that he was friends with some of the boys from my village.” His smile turned bitter as he recalled that day. “He personally escorted me out of town.”
The story of the Guardian Spirit had not just made Reigen fearful, it had destroyed his life in many ways. “Next was Isao.” Reigen finished looking directly at his lover, “and you are my last.” The way Reigen said it made a pleasant shiver go down Serizawa’s spine.
Jealousy had made things awkward between them, Serizawa would make this right. “I’m sorry you felt pressured to tell me.” He almost offered his own history in return, but felt that this was not the moment for it.
“Well, I had to tell you sometime,” Reigen said, staring at the ceiling. “I haven’t exactly been forthcoming about my past.”
“I haven’t either,” Serizawa admitted. There was so much violence and blood on his hands that he had never spoken about. “But it’s all right if we want to take our time.” If Serizawa had not damaged their relationship too badly, he would have all the time in the world. He took Reigen’s hand again. “I do love you,” he said. “I mean it every time I say it.”
Reigen just squeezed the palm in his. “Me too.”
There was a knock at the door. Reigen tightened the robe around himself and went to answer. He took the offered cloth and water from the servant girl, who handed them over with polite indifference. She cared not what happened behind closed doors, she had her own concerns. When Reigen finished the transaction, he found Serizawa standing behind him.
“Let me take those,” Serizawa offered. He would clean them up, ready the two of them for rest. Before, he had shown Reigen how much he was wanted, now it was time for Serizawa to show how much he was cherished.
It was after breakfast when the Earl was finally ready to show off his discovery. He gave instructions to his Adepts on demonstrations they could perform for the Apprentices while he consulted with their Masters. Kenji led Reigen and Serizawa into a richly appointed study, filled to the gills with esoteric knowledge. Each book, in and of itself, would have been an adventure. Serizawa took a seat as the Earl brought out an old wooden box.
The crate was beaten, gouged with years of use. Its hinges screamed as the top was lifted, revealing the coveted book. The Earl tugged gloves onto his hands, to keep the precious prize from being damaged. Kenji set the battered tome on a stand so Reigen could peruse at his leisure.
The Mutus Liber was a masterwork of linework and form. Each plate depicted strange figures doing strange work. Creatures both natural and unnatural shared the page with men and woman, some clothed, some nude. The sun and moon, depicted with faces, adorned almost every page watching over the proceedings. Reigen looked over the sheets, flipping each page with a stick of polished wood, designed for the purpose. His face was intense with concentration. Kenji watched Reigen as he studied with rapt attention.
The Apothecary glanced up from his labor. “Kenji,” Reigen said, his tone flat, “what the hell is this?”
Kenji blinked at his friend’s reaction. “The recipe. It’s the Philosopher’s Stone.”
“How?” Reigen asked, hands flailing at the art. “It’s a series of increasingly ridiculous paintings. There are no words, Kenji,” he hissed. His hands curled to hold an invisible ball of anger.
“It’s the mute book,” Kenji explained like that made everything make sense. “I have had multiple experts consult on the text.”
Reigen scowled at his friend’s choice of words: text indeed. “Why am I even here?” It was a legitimate question. What purpose could an Apothecary serve to interpret symbolic nonsense?
The Earl laughed, trying to cover his nerves. “Because even with the experts there are some things we can’t decipher.”
“Of course, you can’t decipher this, look at it!” The Apothecary was practically frothing at the mouth in frustration.
Serizawa watched all of this, feeling dumbfounded. They had come all of this way for nothing. Yes, Reigen had wanted to mock his friend but this was not even worthy of scorn, just severe annoyance. At least it was just the three of them in the study, Serizawa was grateful for that. That and the wine Reigen was certainly going to down to drown out the wasted day.
“What could I possibly decipher for you?” Reigen asked. His irritation was not merely at the book. No, he worried that his friend had dragged him all this way for a diversion that wasn’t even amusing. He had always felt this would be a waste of time but to be this stupid? That was unforgivable.
That seemed to be Kenji’s cue. “We already know that it is a Seven Phase project to craft the Stone,” the Earl said, his enthusiasm growing. “Each Phase has specific steps to completion. The great Paracelsus created it once; we could do it again.”
“Paracelsus’ greatest contribution was making sure we don’t rub dung all over an open wound,” Reigen snapped. Not strictly true, but it was the most scathing thing Reigen could think of.
This was not the first time the Earl had seen his friend in this particular mood. He ignored it. “The book refers to something that Paracelsus called Nostoc. We need it for one of the steps,” Kenji said. “I was hoping you would know what that is.”
Reigen sighed; yes, he was familiar with it. “It’s this green mass that you can find after the rain sometimes,” he said, scratching an itch on the side of his face. “I’ve also heard it called star jelly or troll’s butter.”
“Troll’s butter?” Serizawa had never heard such a ridiculous name.
“Age of ignorance, Katsuya,” Reigen reminded him, lips twitching into a smile.
The Earl was excited by the information. “How do I find it?”
“When it’s dry, it’s nearly impossible to detect,” Reigen explained, “and I’m not sure how successful you’ll be in all this snow.” It generally grew in soil, but sometimes in rocks or just on the ground itself. Reigen had mostly come across it strictly by accident; he had never needed it for one of his medicines.
“You said it’s a green mass.” Kenji wracked his brain. “I have something strange growing in the greenhouse, could it be that?”
Reigen looked to Serizawa, it would not hurt to look. “Let’s go see,” the Apothecary said. He had no other plans for that day. The Earl locked up the book for safe-keeping and they made their way to the aforementioned greenhouse.
Once they reached it, Reigen and Serizawa were suitably impressed. Reigen’s own hothouse was easily dwarfed by the Earl’s contraption. If the Apothecary had access to this he might never need to forage again. “We can help regulate temperature if it becomes too warm with these ropes to open vents at the top,” Kenji demonstrated, grasping a pulley.
Reigen was interested but they had a specific task to do. He knew that if Kenji went off on a tangent, they would never get to it. “Where’s this green stuff you were talking about?”
“Right.” Kenji led them further into the structure of metal and glass. He took them to a tree with a disgusting bright green gelatinous mass at its base.
Reigen knelt down to inspect it. “Is that it?” Serizawa asked. It was one of the grossest things he had ever seen that had not once been inside of an animal.
The Apothecary nodded, “That’s it all right.” He had nearly stepped in it often enough on foraging hunts with Mob to know.
Ecstatic could not begin to describe how the Earl felt at the words. He fell to his knees, actually touching the Nostoc with his hands. Reigen and Serizawa both shouted in disgust.
“We’re so much closer to the Philosopher’s Stone. You have no idea!” Kenji’s smile stretched from ear to ear. “This needs to go to my Adepts at once.”
Serizawa looked around and spotted an old basket. He thrust it at the Earl. “Perhaps use this instead?” He did not want to think about royalty walking around with that foul substance cradled in his palms.
“Oh, right.” Kenji began scooping the Nostoc into the basket, chattering with excitement.
Serizawa and Reigen did not understand the implications yet, but Kenji was not mad. He was on the verge of discovery. When they came back to the Academy with their precious cargo the Adepts’ eyes lit up with the same passion as the Earl’s. They had been waiting for this ingredient as well. Each one was just as invested as Kenji in the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. They all believed that the pursuit of the Stone was a worthy endeavor, that its creation would be to the ultimate benefit of Mankind. That each one had a part to play and would be revered for their contributions. It did not occur to any of them that the quest might led to ruin instead.
"The Mutus Liber" is a real book. You can look and be baffled here: https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbc0001.2017gen18432/?sp=1
Paracelsus was a real person, Nostoc is a real thing. Some of the other random alchemy references are from actual texts on alchemy. I did the most boring research for this story. ;_;
Chapter 8: Four Phases
“May I have this chair?” An innocuous question from an offensive source. Dinner was to be served at any moment but it couldn’t begin until all the guests were seated. Isao stood behind the empty chair at Reigen’s side, awaiting permission. There were a few other seats available but Isao seemed rather insistent.
Although Serizawa had no fears about Reigen falling for the man, he was concerned about his paramour’s blood pressure. Apparently, some of his mood showed on his face because the monster hunter said, “As much as I’d like to sweep him off his feet, I am here to discuss business.”
Reigen thought it over. Although Isao had some bad traits, dishonesty was not among them. “Sure,” he told the man. If he could endure King Suzuki and the Duke’s company, he could handle an ex-lover.
“I’ll keep my hands to myself,” Isao promised. With everyone settled into a seat, dinner could begin. Isao accepted a glass of wine from the servants and turned his attention to the two men settled near him. He got right to the point: “I’m worried about the Earl.”
“Why?” Reigen asked, a servant set a plate of hearty food before him.
“After the Earl found the book, he contacted me about a job. He said he thought that the book’s presence might draw some nasty things to the Academy; he wanted me to take care of them,” Isao said. He tucked into dinner; the afternoon’s hunt had left him starving.
“What sort of nasty things?” Serizawa asked, a little intrigued.
“Monsters, bounty hunters, I don’t know,” Isao said. He was trying to finish chewing before speaking but did not always succeed. “I thought he was just being eccentric again but not now.”
“What changed?” Reigen asked. He ate slowly, disturbed by this conversation.
“In the weeks I’ve been out here,” Isao interrupted himself with a sip of wine, “monster and beast activity has increased.” That was a dramatic understatement. “There was almost nothing at first but now my traps are full every day.”
“That’s not all.” The spirit’s voice came out of nowhere as he phased through the wall to hover by Serizawa. “The spiritual activity in this place is nuts,” Dimple said. “Something’s going on but I can’t figure out what.”
Serizawa had felt a slight tingle under the skin all day. He wondered if it was related to these other signs. “Do you think the Academy’s activity is acting like a lure?” Serizawa asked. If so, he might need to discuss some sort of barrier with Mob and Teru. The Adepts’ magic was too weak to serve in a fight.
“Maybe,” Isao said. “But I’m more concerned about what I’ve seen in the traps.” He took a few bites, forcing the others to wait while he finished. The monster hunter kind of liked having Reigen hanging on every word he said, even if this was just business. “The way some of those beasts were tangled up, they weren’t hunting,” he paused for effect, “they were running.”
Sweat broke out on Reigen’s forehead. “Running from what?”
“That’s the question.” Isao finished off his glass of wine. He wouldn’t drink much this evening, he wanted to stay sharp in case of trouble. Especially trouble caused by a tongue waggling too much in front of a cute blonde Apothecary and his behemoth of a boyfriend.
“We should warn Kenji,” Reigen said. If monsters were going to attack the Academy--
“About what?” Isao argued. “Some suspicions I have? I just want you two to keep your eyes out as well.” He turned his attention to Reigen. “The Earl’s just a client to me, but I know he’s a friend to you.” He had no illusions about getting back into Reigen’s good graces but the little thankful nod opened up a floodgate of memories he didn’t want. Even one glass of wine had been too much. He stood up. “I’m going out to check my traps again.”
“The sun has already set,” Serizawa said. “Aren’t you worried about the cold?”
Isao gave the man a wry smile. “I’ll make this quick,” he said. “They’ve been filling up too swiftly to leave them until morning.” Serizawa may be a rival, but his concern was still appreciated.
“We can have a servant make sure there’s something warm for you when you return,” the Master Mage suggested.
Serizawa was too kind, maybe that was why Reigen was with him. Isao shook his head. “I’ll manage.” He got up, and had a quick word with Sir Durand before leaving the dining room.
Without Isao around as a distraction, Reigen and Serizawa decided to see how the children were doing. The atmosphere at the other seats was lively, the Adepts and Apprentices practically bouncing off the wall in excitement. Tome and Rei were especially animated. Serizawa had noticed the two of them growing closer and was a little concerned. Reigen, on the other hand, did not seem to be as worried about his Apprentice. Serizawa decided they would have a word later.
As Reigen stripped for bed that evening, Serizawa ambushed him. “This doesn’t seem like you,” he said.
Reigen finished tugging off his tunic before speaking. “What doesn’t?” The love bites were still livid on his skin. Serizawa resolved to ignore them.
“Encouraging Tome’s crush,” Serizawa said.
The Apothecary looked amused at his paramour’s prudishness. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Now Serizawa wondered if he was being purposefully dense. “Because it’s a long-distance relationship.” He didn’t think Reigen would want to deal with the pined ramblings of a teenaged girl. Serizawa didn’t particularly feel equipped to handle Teruki’s longing looks at his other Apprentice; he could not even imagine Tome agonizing over a girl that wasn’t even in the same village.
Reigen’s answer surprised him: “True, but someday the Apprentices will grow up.” Tome was already entering courting age. “They can’t stay in Seasoning forever.”
“Why not?” Serizawa asked. Seasoning was their home, why couldn’t they?
“Seasoning’s a small rural village, there isn’t room for multiple Masters,” Reigen said, taking off his boots. “The Apothecary shop only needs one Apprentice to eventually succeed me, the others will need to find their own way in other towns. It’s just practical.” He had been thinking more on this than Serizawa ever thought he would.
The Master Mage frowned. “So, you think Tome should leave?” he asked. He liked the girl and wasn’t certain why Reigen would decide she needed to go.
“Eventually,” Reigen said. “She still has years of training,” the Apothecary wasn’t planning on discarding his student anytime soon, “and, unlike Shou, she would have an easier time of it. Shou wants stability, she wants adventure.”
Serizawa recalled her excitement when Reigen had told her of the letter to the Academy. He also remembered Shou’s reluctance. Reigen’s reasoning was sound. Still, he didn’t like to think of the children leaving him just yet.
He felt a quick peck on the cheek. “Don’t pout.” Reigen was laughing at him again. “I’m not running Tome out and I’m certainly not talking dowry with her over a girl she’s known for a few days.”
Serizawa took Reigen’s hand, thumb caressing the back of it. “You knew me for only a few days,” Serizawa teased.
The Apothecary flushed, coughing in embarrassment. “We’re adults, that’s different.”
“Very different,” Serizawa agreed, pulling Reigen in for a goodnight kiss. It was the end of any discussion for that night. All that remained was brief intimacy and sleep.
The next several days were spent in a fever of work. Reigen found himself pulled into Kenji’s lab to oversee distillations and smelting operations he thought he had no business attending. The work with metal was over extremely hot fires that made Reigen fret every time an Adept went near them. Yes, his own equipment was not the safest but the Academy’s made him uneasy.
Serizawa and Reigen tried to incorporate the Alchemists’ bizarre processes into lessons for their Apprentices but found the assignment difficult. The chemistry could be melded but the metallurgy and more esoteric processes were just baffling. Kenji would rattle on and on about the heat of the Sun and the cooling effects of the Moon and Reigen would have to pretend he understood.
At least he could say that it was never boring. Bewildering and absurd, perhaps, but never boring. In the evenings, Isao would update Serizawa and Reigen on his hunts in the surrounding areas. Whatever was driving the beasts to run across the castle’s lands was coming closer. Dimple grew more and more agitated each day.
“Something’s coming,” he muttered. “I just know it.” Although he had been weakened by his experiences with Mob, Dimple was not exactly a feeble spirit. The fact that he was this shaken concerned Serizawa. Reigen tried to act more pragmatic, but his own worry visibly gnawed at him.
It was afternoon, over a week since the discovery of the Nostoc when it happened. The Academy’s students and mentors were taking tea in one of Kenji’s many studies. Isao had joined them, on the pretext that he needed a nosh to get him through the rest of the day’s hunt. Serizawa suspected he had less professional motives but would not stir the pot.
Kenji was insistent that all of their efforts were coming to fruition. “We’ve made it through Four of the Phases in a very short amount of time. This feels unprecedented!” Kenji said. “All of the other Alchemists I’ve consulted have only ever completed the first Two Phases.” He sniffed, eyes watering as he gazed at his Adepts. “I am so proud of you all.”
“My Lord,” Go, the blonde male Adept asked, “how soon can we get through the other Phases?”
“I don’t know,” Kenji admitted. “As I said, this is unprecedented. It could be days, weeks, even months.” Reigen and Serizawa were not staying past the first days of spring. They had made that clear.
“It’s still further than we’ve ever been,” Rei said. Tome beamed at the other girl, gladdened by her increasing confidence.
“Exactly,” Kenji said. “Once the work on the Stone is complete, we will be in a new enlightened era!” The Adepts cheered in response.
The door to the study opened and the frail figure of Sir Durand made his way inside. Kenji set down his tea, eager to entertain his seneschal’s report. The old man was well-known and loved by the rest of the household and its guests, which is why the strange aura he emitted felt so alien.
“Something’s wrong,” Serizawa muttered, getting to his feet as the seneschal came close, far too close to the Earl.
Sir Durand’s arms reached out not in an embrace, but a choking grip. Before he could place his hands on the Earl’s neck, Reigen tackled him to the ground. “Get out of here!” Reigen shouted.
Isao grabbed Kenji by the back of his jerkin and dragged him toward the door. “Let’s go, kids!” he ordered, pushing the Adepts before him.
“But Sir Durand—” one of the twin Adepts protested.
“We’ll take care of it, go!” Isao was used to being obeyed.
Rei took Tome’s hand, taking her out of the study with the other Adepts. The Apprentice turned her head back to her Master. She had already nearly lost him once.
Reigen struggled with the possessed old man, who thrashed about with inhuman strength. “All of you, out!” Any further orders were cut off when Sir Durand spasmed, sending Reigen flying off of him. Serizawa’s magic pushed all of the children out of the room save one, Mob. He would not be moved.
“Shigeo—” Serizawa tried to reason with the boy.
“Not until Reigen is out of here,” Mob said, his own magic flaring out.
Reigen shook his head as he stumbled to his feet. He was just dazed, not injured. The possessed Sir Durand floated just a few inches off the ground, glaring at his opponents.
The only members of the tea party remaining in the room were Serizawa, Mob, Isao, Dimple and Reigen. Sir Durand pointed a gnarled finger. The study door slammed shut, locking itself with a sharp click. “I’ll just have to take care of all of you, then the Earl.”
“What do you want with Kenji?” Reigen asked. He did not know what his friend could have done to offend a spirit.
The old man looked at him, eyes glazed black. “He meddled with forces beyond his ken. He must be punished.”
“Who are you to decide that?” Serizawa asked, crafting a small barrier of magic. He did not know this creature’s abilities.
Dimple, a malicious spirit who once held hundreds of other spirits under his sway trembled. “Oh no,” he murmured.
Sir Durand’s face split into an unnatural grin. “I am the self-appointed Guardian of all Books of Magic,” the creature inside him said.
Evil spirits no longer fazed the Apothecary. “That doesn’t tell us a gods-damned thing,” Reigen said. He was not taking any more of this mysterious intonation nonsense.
“Quiet, you fool,” Dimple hissed, trembling in fear. “Don’t you know who that is?” The spirit pointed a tiny finger. “It’s the Mage Mogami.”
Reigen’s stomach dropped. Oh, this was very bad indeed.
What started as a subtle feeling of menace grew to a dark miasma of red swirling around Sir Durand’s body. Mogami was no longer shy about making himself known. The old man hovered in the air, floating in a sea of dreadful red. “Two strong magic users,” Mogami said to himself. “At least this might be a bit of a challenge before I tear through the rest of this Academy.”
Reigen’s brows furrowed; they had to get the spirit out of Sir Durand, who knew how long his body would hold out? “Do you have a plan?” he whispered to Serizawa.
“Shigeo and I can try to come up with a spell, but it’ll take time,” the Master Mage answered. Exorcism was not his specialty. He had spent all of his time in the Kingdom of Claw doing combat magic.
The monster hunter considered his own options. “How much time?” Isao asked. He was more a man of action, used to handling problems physically than with magic.
Serizawa shook his head. “We don’t know.” Shigeo had more experience in this area, but he was still working on communicating effectively and on a spell this complicated--
Isao was not happy with that answer.
Neither was Reigen. “Fine.” The Apothecary was resigned. “I’ll see if I can distract him.” He separated out from the group. He took in a deep breath; he could do this. “What’s the greatest Mage of his age doing harassing lowly mortals when he should be resting in Paradise?” Reigen asked, his voice loud enough to echo in the room.
Sir Durand’s head tilted, as if considering. “There is no rest for the wicked, keeper of The Medica Materia.” Reigen startled at being addressed this way. “Yes, Reigen Arataka,” Mogami spoke through Sir Durand’s mouth. “I know of you.”
The Apothecary steeled his nerves, he could not falter. “That’s nice,” he said, “but why are you here?” He could see Mob and Serizawa preparing their spell out of the corner of his eye. Reigen had to keep Mogami talking and focused on him.
“Magic is a tool like any other,” Mogami-in-Durand said. “It can be used for good or ill but humanity is too stupid and wicked to tell the difference. Men can’t be trusted with it. I can’t do anything about those born with magic but I can keep books on how to use it--” Before he could continue, Isao lunged at him, sword drawn.
Reigen panicked, hands flailing. “Wait you idiot, you can’t kill Sir Durand!” What was the man thinking?
Isao scoffed in annoyance, but at the last moment, struck Sir Durand’s body with the sword hilt. The old man crumpled for a moment against the intensity of the hit. It looked like the sudden strike worked. Then Mogami raised Sir Durand’s head, eyes devoid of life. “I need a stronger vessel, thank you for giving me one.” Red mist swarmed out of Sir Durand, coiling around the sword hilt and up Isao’s arms. The miasma curled around the monster hunter, choking him.
This was not how this was supposed to go. Reigen stumbled forward to wrestle the sword out of Isao’s grasp but was too late. A strong hand tightened around his throat and slammed him against the study wall. Reigen’s feet could barely touch the ground as Mogami, wearing Isao’s face smirked at him.
“There we go,” Mogami purred. “Don’t move.”
Reigen clawed at the hand holding him, it would not budge. He wasn’t being choked, just trapped. He scanned the room for Serizawa and Mob. He could see the two of them frantic with worry, the work they had done on the spell dissolved in their agitation. The spirit had Reigen positioned in such a way that neither magic user could attack Mogami without risking harm to Reigen. The dead Mage was a clever one. The Apothecary turned his gaze back to the spirit wearing Isao’s face.
Mogami continued as if he were never interrupted, “Magic is a corrupting influence,” he said, “I know that all too well. I did great deal of good in my lifetime but caused so much more ruin.” The red aura swelled around Isao.
“How?” Reigen asked, maybe he could just convince the spirit to leave them alone. He had done it with Claw Mages before. “You saved people. How could magic be evil if you saved lives?”
Mogami was blunt. “I’ve murdered, Apothecary. I killed for money and for the power to save the one person I cared about most and all I accomplished was destroying her and myself. My poisonous life robbed my mother of hers.”
The legends about Mogami the Mage left all of that out. “What makes you think others will make that same mistake?” Reigen asked, prying for a weakness. “Not everyone is like you.”
“True,” Mogami said. “Not everyone has my foresight, little heartbreaker.”
That taunt was unexpected. “I don’t,” Reigen was bewildered. He had done no such thing. “I don’t understand. Where did that--”
Isao’s face smiled at him, but it was filled with pity. “You didn’t know,” Mogami said, voice sad yet taunting. “How you broke this man’s heart when you abandoned him for the boy.”
Reigen’s wide were wide. That couldn’t be true. Isao wasn’t that soft, he couldn’t have—
“Ironic,” Mogami said, the hand on his throat tightened while the other brushed his blonde hair back from his forehead, a parody of a lover’s caress. “Since you only bedded the man to ease the burden of protecting yourself off the child.”
Reigen’s blood froze. His lips suddenly felt dry. “There’s no way.” Even if Mogami could read Isao’s mind-- “There’s no way he knew that.” Isao didn’t know about the Guardian Spirit; Reigen hadn't even told Mob until the night they met Serizawa. The only one who knew Reigen’s motives was Reigen.
“He didn’t,” Mogami agreed, “but the book did.”
It couldn’t be. “The Medica Materia?” Reigen asked. Could the book really be alive?
“My connection is tenuous at best,” Mogami said. “Just enough to keep an eye on it. It sorrows when you weep and it is elated at your joy.” Isao’s smile shifted into a frown. “It also knows your guilt.” He loosened his grip, the aura blocking Reigen’s view of the room. “Despite your worst qualities, your cowardice, your selfishness, the book chose you. It is bound to you for as long as you live. However,” Mogami turned Isao’s blank gaze to the magic users in the room. “It did not choose your friends.”
Reigen suddenly understood; Mogami wasn’t after him. The spirit had just been buying time as well. “NO!” he shouted.
Isao’s hand dropped him as the man’s body collapsed, Mogami’s spirit leaving him. Reigen scrambled to catch Isao before he hit the ground. It was all the Apothecary could do. Reigen wanted to stop the terrifying spell, but he was no mage. He was only a healer.
Mogami’s red miasma split into two, each half stalking around the room. Mob watched the spell as it moved, materializing into two humanoid forms. The boy’s magic was a cool blue and purple, swirling to protect himself from the dead Mage’s menace.
Serizawa erected a barrier and called out to Reigen. “Arataka!”
“Not me!” Reigen waved at his paramour. “He doesn’t want me.” He settled Isao on the ground, placing fingers on the man’s neck. The pulse was there. He was breathing, he was alive. The Apothecary’s eyes darted back up to Serizawa. “Protect yourself!” Reigen implored but it was too late.
While Serizawa was preoccupied looking at Reigen, Mogami struck. One of the humanoid red figures slammed into the Mage, engulfing him. Serizawa writhed as he tried to fight off the spiritual invasion. The red figure dissolved back into mist and penetrated into the man’s body, through his mouth, his ears, his eyes. Mob, dear Mob, tried to hold off the second spell but succumbed just as his Master did in thrashing pain.
Reigen could only watch in horror as his loved ones fell to the floor. He wanted to go to them but he had three, no four, patients now. He pinched Isao, hoping to wake the man up. He could not deal with this alone. The monster hunter spasmed briefly, then sat up. “What happened?” Isao asked.
“I don’t know,” Reigen said. He pushed Isao away. “Check on Sir Durand.” He rushed first to Mob’s side, twisting the boy onto his back. The Apothecary checked the boy’s nose, he had planted face first onto the carpet. To his relief, there was no damage. Mob’s breathing was labored, but that was all. Now he could look after Serizawa.
He had a harder time getting Serizawa into a comfortable position, but he managed. The Master Mage’s breath was steady, his temperature normal. “Thank the gods,” Reigen murmured, cradling Serizawa’s head in his lap. If he had lost them, he didn’t know what he would do.
“This is bad.” Dimple deigned to crawl out from his hiding space. He was no longer shaking, but he was not in his best form.
Reigen could not rebuke the ghost; he did not blame him for fleeing. “What do you know?” he asked the spirit. Perhaps the spirit’s knowledge could help them formulate a plan.
“I met the Mage Mogami before he died,” Dimple said. “He absorbed a bunch of my fellow spirits and cursed me to watch over The Medica Materia. He mentioned he had cursed other spirits with similar tasks, so there’s probably a bunch of books with nasty ghosts attached to them. Apparently, Mogami’s beliefs about humanity and magic haven’t changed over the decades.”
“So, he was like this when you knew him?” Isao concluded. He had propped Sir Durand up in a comfortable chair. Apparently, the old man wasn’t too badly damaged.
The spirit nodded. “If he could help it, he’d get rid of all magic but this is the best he can do. Mogami figures if he couldn’t use magic to save his mother then it’s no good to anyone.” He floated down, placing his hand on Serizawa’s forehead. “The arrogant son of bitch has split himself in two, so he could get both of them at once,” Dimple said. “His soul is currently doing battle with theirs.”
“For what purpose?” Reigen asked, though he did not really wish to know the answer.
“He’s either going to take them over,” Dimple said, “or recruit them to his cause.”
Sweat broke out on Reigen’s forehead, he had to push down the fear. “How can we help them?” Reigen asked. There had to be a way he could reach Serizawa or Mob in this state.
“Keep their bodies safe,” Dimple said. “That’s all we really can do.”
Reigen almost wanted to cry. It was happening again; Serizawa and Mob were going where he could not follow them. They had to fight alone; they didn’t even have each other’s company this time. In the real world they had triumphed together, how would they fare in a world of Mogami’s making?
You don’t deserve your power. You don’t deserve your magic.
The air was thick with magical residue. The sun shone bright and hot, beating down on the conquerors and vanquished alike. Claw soldiers and Mages pushed through the rubble, looking for any remaining enemies who deigned to be brave.
Serizawa stood in front of the cannon, his breath labored, his normally unkempt hair and beard even more wild than usual. He did not listen to the murmurs of his comrades or the pleas of the enemy. All he could hear was his own heart pounding in his ears. All he could see was the smear of red and viscera on the fortress wall.
You don’t deserve your power.
A crow, fat and black landed next to the gore and proceeded to dine. Serizawa had to hold back the bile that threatened to unman him.
Serizawa Katsuya was a Mage for the Kingdom of Claw; he was twenty-five years old and he had just killed his first man.
For those interested in a general timeline, I had cobbled one together before my hiatus:
Chapter 10: The World Without
A strong hand clamped onto his shoulder. “Good job, Serizawa.” It was King Suzuki, coming in to inspect his new fortress. He was decorated for war rather than for court, although he had not stepped foot on the battlefield all day. He looked regal, he looked impressive, he was a king.
The phlegm lay thick in Serizawa’s throat. A man was dead, he didn’t think praise was warranted but he would take it. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
The King’s smile shifted into one of self-satisfaction, as it always did when someone referred to him by that title. “This fortress will give us an excellent base of operations,” he said. “Your contribution to this battle was invaluable.”
The crow was still eating, still judging with its empty eyes. Serizawa swallowed. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
King Suzuki’s hand moved away, but the weight of It lingered. “If your work continues to be of this caliber, you’ll be able to ask for any reward you wish.”
The Mage turned his eyes away from the crow and its meal. “Any reward?” Serizawa was a blacksmith’s son; he wouldn’t even know what to ask for. All he had ever wanted was control over his magic. Control that he had used for, for this--
“Think on it,” King Suzuki said, dismissive of his subordinate’s turmoil. “We still have much to do.”
You don’t deserve your magic.
It was the first time Serizawa killed a man; it would not be the last.
He had never been a clever boy, or a thoughtful one. Shigeo Kageyama had always been normal, dull, unremarkable. He wasn’t treated with any particular kindness, nor any special cruelty. He just was.
His parents tried to teach him farm work: when to plant, how to care for the animals, maintaining the irrigation system. Unfortunately, his mind was not the best at retaining information he did not care for. It drained out like water through a sieve. He knew he had to try harder, to be better, but it was just so hard.
Shigeo’s younger brother was intelligent, sharp. He was Apprentice to a lawyer; he was going to make the family’s fortune. As the older brother, Shigeo had to take over the farm, that was his calling, even if he wasn’t good at it.
It no longer mattered when the Kingdom of Claw invaded the village. They took everyone, rained violence down upon the helpless populace. Shigeo could only cower with his family until the Claw Mages came for them. Magic tore through his home, ripping apart stone and brick, shredding the thatched roof as the Mages searched for them. By the time they were all captured, Shigeo’s childhood home was gone. A fly perched on the ruins of Shigeo’s bed.
The Mages have magic, see how they use it. See what destruction they’ve wrought.
They took Ritsu away, Shigeo did not know where. He was allowed to stay with his parents, at least for the moment. Shigeo did not think it offered them much comfort.
The journey to Saffron Heights took a week. Shigeo had helped carry some of the elderly when they collapsed, but he was tired as well. He could only take them a scant few feet before setting them on the ground again. He was weak, he was useless.
The Mages used their magic to torment the villagers, tripping them, knocking food out of their bowls. Sometimes days’ worth of work would be undone by a single act of malice. Structures that Musashi had built with his own hands torn asunder. Bread that Tsubomi had baked for the starving scattered to the winds. Senseless, it was all senseless cruelty. All the while, the flies watched.
The Mages have magic, see how they use it. Why should they have it?
Shigeo was put to work as a manual laborer. He wasn’t any good at it, it just gave the Claw Mages more excuses to laugh, more excuses to bully.
He struggled carrying the massive sack of grain to the kitchen, they needed it to make porridge for the village. A Claw Mage casually wrapped a bit of magic around his ankle and tugged. Shigeo tumbled to the ground; the grain sack burst from a weak seam. A cascade of food fell to the ground. So much dirt, so much waste.
Shigeo’s mother came out of the kitchen, hands on her hips. She stared at her own son with pity, endless pity, before lashing out at the Claw Mages.
The boy stood up and winced. Blood. A stone had sliced him open, staining the ground red. He looked up from his injury, a black fly sat on the sack of grain, buzzing on one of the loose grains.
The Mages have magic, see how they use it. Why should they have it?
Shigeo would pick it up the grains, one by one if he had to. It was food for the village, food for his family. His torn knee scraped in the dirt as he knelt down. He set to work.
“What happens once they beat Mogami?” Reigen asked. He was not going to even entertain their failure. Serizawa and Mob were too strong for that. They had taken down a king, this fool should be less trouble.
“He would probably try to go after the Earl,” Dimple said. “Just because he couldn’t possess them doesn’t mean he’d stop.” As a spirit himself, he knew just what Mogami could do.
Isao took to his feet. “We need to prepare the Academy,” he said. “Set traps if we can.” There were too many lives at stake to rely on Serizawa’s and Shigeo’s will alone.
Reigen admired the monster hunter’s enthusiasm if not his reasoning skills. “He’s an incorporeal spirit, how do we do that?”
“I don’t know,” Isao admitted. “But I’ve dealt with other beasts, like werewolves and demons. Maybe some of those methods would work.”
Reigen was doubtful, but it wasn’t as if he had any ideas. “Dimple, can you watch over them?” he asked. “I’m going to help Isao.”
“All right.” Dimple floated into Isao’s face, pointed his fingers at his own eyes and then at Isao. “Keep your hands to yourself,” he warned.
The monster hunter rolled his eyes. “I’ve got other things to worry about, spirit.” He waited until Reigen was ready and they made their way down the hall.
When they were alone Reigen asked, “How much do you remember about being possessed?”
Isao made a noncommittal grunt. “Some.”
Reigen had doubts, he thought it was more than “some.” “I just want to say—” he saw Isao turn his gaze, oh so slightly, oh so hopefully, “I’m sorry for using you. I didn’t know that you had--” This conversation was so painful, he felt like a heel. “Genuine feelings for me.” If he had known, things might have gone differently. Reigen did not think he would still be with the man, but he would have been more tender, more kind in breaking it off.
The monster hunter’s shoulders eased their tension. “I uh, wasn’t exactly an open book then either.” That was an understatement. Isao gave Reigen a lopsided grin. “Does that mean we’ve got—”
“Not a chance.” Reigen was cutting that off now.
The monster hunter just laughed in response, it was good-natured and honest. “I had to try.” Things felt easier between them now in a strange way.
The Adepts, remaining Apprentices and Kenji paced at the entrance hall, awaiting their news. “How is Sir Durand?” Kenji asked, lines of worry etched on his face.
“He’s alive,” Reigen reassured, “but we’re not out of the woods yet.” He took his friend aside. “Serizawa and Mob are fighting Mogami but we don’t know how this will turn out. He’s a spirit so it might be difficult to contain him. Is there any place—”
“Arataka?” A feminine voice Reigen had not heard for years, one that should not be here, called out.
Reigen turned in horror to see his parents standing with the children. Both of them, standing there in their winter gear as if were perfectly normal for them to be in an Earl’s house. “What the hell are you doing here?” Reigen asked, flummoxed.
“We’re making a delivery for the Earl,” his mother said. “What are you—”
The Apothecary flailed his arms. “You know what, I don’t care,” he said. He had no time for long overdue reunions, this was a crisis. “Long story short, Mogami the Mage wants to murder everyone in this Academy for using The Mutus Liber to craft the Philosopher’s Stone.” Off his parents’ baffled expressions, he continued. “All of you need to leave while the Masters, minus the Earl, sort this out.”
“Arataka, why are you—”
Reigen ignored his mother. “Kenji, do you have anywhere they can go?” By “they” he meant his parents, the Adepts and everyone else not involved in the possible upcoming battle.
The Earl nodded. “I have a guesthouse a mile or so away.” Walking in the snow would be terrible but better than dying.
“Great, do you have any books on spirit hunting?” Reigen asked, hoping against hope. “And please tell me they aren’t in the same room with Mogami.”
“I’ve got an entire separate study for that,” the Earl told him. Thank the gods for eccentric rich people. “I’ll take you there.”
“Then you should flee with the others,” Isao ordered. Kenji nodded in agreement.
Teru broke away, heading back down the hallway toward the study where they had that ill-fated tea. “I’m going to see if I can help Shigeo.”
“Teruki!” Reigen called after the boy but to no avail. Teru was not his Apprentice, but Shou was. He turned to the redhaired boy. “Please stay with the Adepts, Shou,” Reigen asked. “If something goes wrong, I want at least one magic user around to help protect them.”
The boy understood the weight of the request, he acquiesced readily. “I’ll help too,” Tome said.
Reigen was so grateful for these children. “Thank you, Tome.” Even if she wasn’t a magic user, she still had maturity and a level-head. Those would be necessary if Mogami broke free.
The Adepts had seen the guesthouse before and offered to led the group to safety. As they departed, Tome looped her arm with Reigen’s mother. “Come with us, ma’am,” she said.
“Who are you children?” Reigen’s mother asked as she was dragged away.
“Oh,” Tome answered with a beaming smile, “Shou and I are Master Reigen’s Apprentices.” The answering squawk would have filled Reigen’s heart with glee under any other circumstances but now, he just wanted them gone.
With that, the entrance hall quieted. It was just Isao, Reigen and the Earl. Kenji took charge of the situation. “The books are this way.” He walked quickly, knowing that he too would have to flee soon. Reigen did not know if the books would contain anything useful but it was the only prospect he had. He only prayed that the angry Mage would not attack before they had any traps readied.
Another battle and more lives lost. More blood on his hands, more unearned praise.
Good job, Serizawa.
Was it? It had been three years since Serizawa had killed his first man. More soldiers had fallen to the violence of his magic in the time thereafter. Today, he had killed five with one mighty blow. He had meant to harm none but Serizawa was too strong, too powerful. The crows had fed well.
You don’t deserve your power.
Serizawa stared at the ceiling of his tent as he lay on his bedroll. Beside him, another man snored softly. Their coupling had been out of desperation after the heat of combat. They both just needed release. It had been all fumbling hands and stifled whimpers. Serizawa would not remember the other man’s name in the morning.
Each time Serizawa helped capture a target or felled a dread enemy the offer was the same, he could have any reward he wished for. But what Serizawa wanted he didn’t think the King could deliver: an end to the shame, an end to the fear, an end to the loneliness.
You don’t deserve your magic.
The other Master Mages had teased him about their own rewards, little bits of territory to be granted once the conquest was done. “If you don’t claim land now,” Shimazaki had said, “there won’t be anything good left. Just rocks.”
“I don’t want land,” Serizawa had said.
“What about money?” Shibata had asked, having asked for a small fortune in stolen jewels. “You could always ask for that.”
“I don’t want money,” Serizawa had said.
The Plant Mage Minegishi had plopped another tankard of ale in front of him. “What do you want then?”
Serizawa had no answer then and he had no answer now. He knew he would have to make a claim soon, if only to keep the others from bothering him.
A crow cawed from the flap of his tent. It was strange how they followed him around. Hatori had birds, but the ones that stalked Serizawa did not belong to him.
You don’t deserve your power. You don’t deserve your magic.
The tent flap opened, revealing Shimazaki. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Who’s that guy?”
“I don’t know,” Serizawa said. The name had slipped him already. It didn’t matter, not really.
“Just letting you know we’re staying here for a while,” Shimazaki said.
“Why?” Serizawa asked. The Kingdom of Claw’s armies didn’t tend to stay long in one place. He was used to moving around.
“We have to rebuild this place and a few others, something about King Suzuki’s next phase of conquest,” the other Master Mage said.
“Okay.” Serizawa didn’t care. He would do as asked; he would do as ordered. The crow sat as silent witness to this all.
You don’t deserve your power. You don’t deserve your magic.
No, he really didn’t. This was the last night that Serizawa would allow himself the company of another person. As he fell asleep, the crow tilted its head.
It shifted, glowing red, its feathered body twisting, cracking as it formed into a person. Mogami was not complete in this world, he was hazy, divided into the boy’s mind as well. He had picked through Serizawa’s memories, taking the most important dates and making him relieve them with Mogami’s own commentary included, of course. The Master Mage was in a deeper despair than he had been on the day he chose to leave this life. He felt more unworthy, more shaken. All he needed was one last push and Mogami could take over.
Mogami looked forward to his next move, the one designed to finally break the man.
Chapter 11: The Mages Have Magic, See How They Use It
The bags under his eyes were deep black, the beard on his face barely trimmed, and his hair a mess. He looked worse than ever. It had been a year since he had allowed himself a more intimate touch than a handshake or a clap on the back. Serizawa deserved nothing else, wanted nothing else from the other members of the Kingdom. They were like him, stained with blood and malice. The face that stared back at him in the mirror was one Serizawa could barely recognize. Had all his regret manifested in his very countenance?
You don’t deserve your power. You don’t deserve your magic.
“Pack your things,” Shibata ordered, his powerful body pushing its way into the tent, “we’re going to Seasoning.”
Serizawa turned away from his own reflection. “What’s Seasoning?” he asked, voice dull.
“It’s a village to the south,” Shibata explained, throwing some of Serizawa’s things into a trunk. “We’re beginning the next phase of the conquest.”
“Next phase?” Serizawa had known it was coming, but had not heard any details. He heard a crow cry in the distance.
A new voice chimed in; the King had arrived. Although much smaller than Shibata, his presence seemed to fill the entire tent. “I have built an army,” King Suzuki said, “now I need subjects.”
“Are we recruiting?” Serizawa asked. He had been on trips to recruit soldiers before; civilians would be a new challenge.
“Something like that,” King Suzuki said. He moved to the map pinned to Serizawa’s tent wall. His finger traced several locations, including Saffron Heights. “Those camps I’ve had you rebuild are to contain our new people until our conquest is complete. Once I have access to real land, we will relocate them. Until then we will keep them in these camps to learn our laws, create new customs.” His cold gaze landed on Serizawa. “I’m sending all of my Master Mages. Can I count on you Serizawa?”
Mogami extended his influence, this was the critical moment. In the real world, King Suzuki had sent only Shibata on this mission, but now if all the Master Mages went--
Serizawa stared at his hands. Did the man have doubts? Was he still plotting to leave? Mogami exerted more of his will, his plan had to succeed. He just had to shift Serizawa’s mind oh so slightly, keep him with Claw those few days longer.
The Master Mage met his King’s eyes. “You can count on me, Your Majesty.” Serizawa would go on this mission; he would serve his King once more.
The crow cried out in triumph.
“This is so stupid,” Reigen complained, lighting the candle before placing it into a glass jar. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
Isao looked up from the silver netting he was pulling apart. “This was your plan.”
“Well, I wasn’t expecting the spirit catching suggestions to be so dumb,” Reigen snapped. After skimming through several books on spirits, the only method that seemed immediately practical were the ones they were implementing.
The Earl watched the proceedings with a nervous fidgeting of his hands. “Should I go to the guesthouse or—”
“Just one more thing, My Lord,” Isao said. He approached the Earl and with one swift movement, plucked several of the man’s curly hairs from the top of his head.
Kenji yelped in surprise.
Reigen was horrified. “What did you do that for?” he asked.
“It’s a lure for the witch’s bottle,” Isao explained, placing the hairs into a blue glass bottle. He then added the pieces of silver netting. “I need the protection item now,” he told Reigen, shaking the bottle.
The Apothecary sighed, long and deep then pulled out the salt. This really was a terrible plan but he had little experience with spirit trapping. Any exorcisms he had performed had involved Mob or Shinra; capture was another skill entirely. He turned his attention to the Earl. “Please go before we steal any more of your parts,” he pleaded.
“Thank you,” Kenji said, dipping his head in gratitude. “Arataka, please be safe.”
Reigen was grateful for his friend’s concern. “I will.” He didn’t think anyone needed to worry about him, he had The Medica Materia for protection. The others though, he was doing this for them.
Meanwhile, in the study, Teru and Dimple were discussing their own plans. “It’s been too long,” Dimple said, hovering in the air in agitation. “I think they should have come out of this by now.”
The blonde Apprentice thought for a moment. “Can you help them?”
“Me?” Dimple was surprised at the proposition. “How?”
“I don’t know,” Teru said. “You can possess people, right? Perhaps you could possess one of them and give them assistance.”
The spirit considered the plan. He raised a hand and pressed it to Mob’s forehead. A single shock repelled him. Dimple shook his injured limb. “Mogami’s influence is too strong,” Dimple said. “Even if I could get in, there’s two of them and one of me. I can’t split myself like he can.”
Teru was not going to let the situation stand. “If you could go in, it would have to be Kageyama,” he reasoned.
“Why?” Dimple asked, his grin a teasing one. “Because you like him?”
The Apprentice scoffed; he would not be baited by a spirit. “It’s because you’ve known him longer, you fool. Master Serizawa is not as well acquainted with you, your presence won’t mean as much to him.”
Dimple picked up on the boy’s plan. “If I get Shige out, then we could work together to help Serizawa.”
“Exactly.” Teru found this idea pleasing.
“There’s just one problem,” Dimple pointed out. “I still can’t get in.”
Palms extended, Teru sat with his legs crossed. “Borrow power from me,” he said. “As it is now, I can do nothing. My power is useless. If you take it you can do something important, helping them.”
No one had placed this sort of trust in the spirit before. Dimple was a little honored. He took the boy’s hands, and with a minor spell, drew the Apprentice’s energy into his own body. Oh, Shigeo and Serizawa were perhaps the most powerful magic users in the land, but Teru was no weakling. This might be just what was needed.
Energized, Dimple withdrew from Teru and approached Mob’s prone form. Before, just the slightest touch sent a shock to Dimple’s system, but now, he sank in easily further and further into the deep dark.
The Claw Mages had done it again, ruined food that was meant for the village. They were barely given enough as it was but when a Mage pulled one of their little pranks, it could lead to many empty bellies. Mob wanted to stand up to them but he was so weak, so frail.
Which is why when Musashi finally said something, Mob’s heart soared. “You can’t treat us like this,” Musashi said. “If we’re supposed to be your subjects then we need a little—” A Claw Mage waved a dismissive hand, sending the muscular youth flying.
The crunch was what made the world stop spinning. It was the scream of pain as blood and bone poked through Musashi’s leg. It was Mob’s stomach dropping as one of the only people he looked up to was hurt. The world stopped; when would it start again?
The Mages have magic, see how they use it. Why should they have it?
Mob was helpless, he was frail. Mob was useless. He could do nothing, only watch as Musashi wailed. “Someone help him,” Mob cried out. “Please.”
The Mages have magic, see how they use it. Why should they have it? Why shouldn’t you have it?
Yes, why couldn’t he have magic? Why should those who abuse it have power? Why should they? WHY SHOULD THEY?
He could feel a tingling in his entire body, a force he had never felt before flowing through him. His very eyes glowed with untapped energy. Mob could teach those Claw Mages a lesson, he could teach them humility, he could teach them pain.
He took a step forward, the dirt and air swirled around him, his hair levitating with the sheer force. Mob raised a single hand, just as the Claw Mage had done. He wouldn’t even use his full hand to focus, just one solitary finger—
“Shige, you ready to get out of here?”
Mob’s concentration broke. He blinked; the world was still. No one moved, there was not a single sound. Not even a bird chirp or a fly buzz to break the silence. He spun around to face the voice. It was a green cloud-like ghost. A name pushed its way into Mob’s mind. “Dimple?”
“So, you aren’t completely lost here,” Dimple said.
“I—” Mob looked around. Everyone was still motionless. He walked up to Musashi, and touched the broken leg. The boy dissolved into dust. Mob stepped back in alarm. “What’s going on?”
“Mogami’s messing with you, kid,” the ghost said.
“Mogami?” The name was familiar but it was as if that knowledge was forbidden, locked away somehow.
Dimple was insistent. “We’ve got to get out of here because Master Serizawa is still in trouble and I don’t even know what Reigen’s doing right now.”
Reigen’s name changed everything. A flood of memories, real ones, hit Mob all at once. A blonde man in a green cloak who was kind, sarcastic and occasionally gruff. A man who had taken care of him all these years.
He was ten and he had just done a very, very bad thing. Shigeo was frightened, oh so frightened and he had dashed off into the woods. If he stayed in the woods, he could be alone. He could hurt no one else. He could live there and bother no one ever again.
There was one problem with the plan, there was already a man in a green cloak there, scraping moss off of a tree.
Shigeo crashed into him. “Hey, watch it,” the man said.
The boy wanted to apologize, but his eyes were red and wet. He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe for all the tears. The man’s face softened. “Hey, what’s wrong?’ The man in the green cloak gave Shigeo a handkerchief.
The handkerchief was destroyed by the time Shigeo could give it back. The man chose to bury it underneath the tree rather than keep it. “Do you want to talk about it?” the man asked.
Shigeo shook his head, he couldn’t, not yet. “Okay.” The man tried again. “You could come with me and forage for ingredients if you like.”
The boy was intrigued. “Ingredients?”
“I’m an Apothecary, I make medicine,” the man explained. “My name is Reigen Arataka, what’s yours?”
“Kageyama Shigeo,” Shigeo said. He had only heard of Apothecaries, but none ever came to the village. When people got sick, they had to rely on home remedies or travel. “But some of the kids call me ‘Mob.’”
“Okay, Mob,” Reigen said, nodding in the direction of the forest. “Let’s go.”
Shigeo hesitated. “Aren’t you scared of me?” the boy asked.
Reigen raised an eyebrow. “Are you serious, kid?”
“I—I have magic powers,” Shigeo said, still fearful. “I’ve hurt people.”
“Did you mean it?” Reigen asked.
Of course he hadn’t. “No.”
“Then let’s go,” Reigen said, taking to his feet. “Daylight’s wasting. If you need to vent or something, we’ll find a dead tree.”
Shigeo followed after the strange man. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Reigen explained, “you have magic and I have an education. Neither means anything if they’re not used to help people, right?” The boy nodded, hanging on the man’s every word. “Which means practice and control.” Reigen looked back at Shigeo. “So, the question is Mob: what do you want to do with your magic? Do you want to help people?”
Shigeo had never considered that possibility, that his magic could be useful. “Yes!”
“Then be a good person,” Reigen said, turning his head to the wind. “That’s all."
So many more memories followed: Tsubomi’s nonchalance at his powers, Ritsu’s drive, Musashi’s encouragement, Master Serizawa’s patience, Teru’s enthusiasm, his parents’ love. Mob was blessed in this life. He couldn’t believe Mogami wanted him to believe otherwise.
“We should go,” Mob said, there was much to do.
The color bled out of the world, becoming gray and dull. Only the people began to glow red, to condense and consolidate into a giant mass of spirit and flesh.
Dimple cowered. “Oh no, it’s Mogami.”
The boy watched this all with a dull expression. He was unconcerned with the dead Mage’s show of power. Mob had plenty of magic of his own. “I guess Mogami wants to keep me here,” Mob told Dimple. His aura flared around him, ready for battle. “Unfortunately for him, I have no interest in staying.”
Otherwise known as the overuse of italics chapter!
Seasoning was a small village; Serizawa did not see any reason why all of the Master Mages needed to be there. One of them would have been more than enough for these agrarian peasants. At least there was one blessing to come out of this unnecessary exercise: Serizawa had been forced to restrain himself.
The mission was to capture only, which meant that Serizawa could only use a fraction of his strength to avoid a messy outcome. Thus far, he had been successful. Serizawa wondered if it was because all these villagers were just mere peasants. An unarmed soldier was still dangerous but a farmer with a pitchfork was an annoyance.
The worst damage Serizawa had done was knocking out an overzealous blacksmith who thought he was a warrior. The poor man had rushed at Serizawa with an ancient pole staff in hand. Serizawa simply made a sweeping motion in the air, sending the blacksmith flying into a nearby stone wall. The blacksmith was out cold when he hit the ground. Shibata had picked him up then thrown him into a wagon with some other captives.
None of these people were any threat to Serizawa and he subconsciously reacted in kind. Perhaps he could control his own violence if he wanted to. If he made the effort, Serizawa realized, he could absolve his fear. Maybe he just needed more missions like this one.
Good job, Serizawa.
The Master Mage felt rather pleased with himself as the villagers were rounded up. They would be safe under Claw rule once they reached their new destination and would be happy once permanently relocated to their new homes. Serizawa was certain that these first would be given the best land to work. It was a beginning to King Suzuki’s glorious empire.
Good job, Serizawa.
Black crows shifted in agitation on the roofs and spires of the village, watching the action. Serizawa smirked up at them, they would have no meal today. They would have to fly elsewhere to feast on someone’s misery.
A discontented grunt interrupted his thoughts. “What are we doing here?” It was the Plant Mage, Minegishi. His dread plants coiled about his feet as he cleaned his fingernails. “I could be anywhere else in the kingdom and be just as productive.”
Serizawa disagreed with the assessment. “The mission—”
“Is beneath our talents,” Minegishi said. His eyes were lidded in boredom. “If this doesn’t get more exciting, I’m leaving.” With anyone else this might have been an idle threat but from a Master Mage it was a certainty. Serizawa opened his mouth to argue with his comrade.
Which is the exact moment they heard shouting from the other side of the village. A massive flash of light erupted from the same direction. “What is that?” Minegishi murmured. “So much power—” He took off, Serizawa following close behind him.
What was once a tavern was now a collapsed ruin with Shibata at its center. Stone and roofing tiles lay all about him, burying him up to his chest. The man’s head was thrown back, eyes closed; he was as unconscious as Serizawa’s blacksmith. Minegishi shivered in alarm. “Who could possibly?”
A glow drew the Master Mages’ attention. In the center of a great ring of magic stood a boy with dark hair levitating about his face. His eyes were determined. “Let them go,” the boy ordered. Before anyone could think to respond, there was another aura and Shimazaki launched himself at the child.
The blind Master Mage’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a shark’s grin. “Now I can have some real fun.” He raised his fist.
“What is wrong with you people?” a strange male voice hissed. “He’s just a kid!”
Which is how Minegishi and Serizawa discovered the young man picking the locks on one of the cages. The captured villagers tried to shush the man but it was too late. Blonde and wearing an Apothecary’s robe, he obviously had no idea how loud he was. Not until he noticed the two Master Mage’s staring at him. The man dropped his tools and ran.
The Plant Mage Minegishi extended his power, multiple vines rushed in front of the man to engulf him. The Apothecary tried to dodge but was quickly bound by the vegetation. He struggled against the vines, face red with effort, but to no avail. Minegishi reeled the man in, delighted at his catch. “What do we have here?” he asked.
Sweat dotted the Apothecary’s forehead from his physical exertion. His shrewd brown eyes assessed his two jailers. He licked his lips, assessing his next move.
Serizawa swallowed as he got a good look at the younger man. An intelligent face, clear skin, and a determined set to his rounded jaw did wonders for a libido Serizawa had thought dead. His bedmates from Claw had been a means to an end, just a bothersome necessity for intimate touch. This man made Serizawa feel actual desire for another person. He wanted to reach out and feel if the blonde hair was as soft as it looked, if the lips as inviting, the body as-- He was almost embarrassed at how attractive he found the young Apothecary.
“I don’t know what you people want,” the Apothecary said with a voice filled with confidence, a man speaking with equals not invaders, “but Seasoning is a peaceful village. We’re farmers, we don’t have much.” His arms visible strained against the vines. The man’s struggle was cute at this point, a kitten tangled in yarn. “You are just wasting your time. You should really be hitting a bigger town or at least a place with commodities you can sell off. Big army like yours taking on farmers and children, it’s unseemly.”
“Good thing we’re just here for the people,” Minegishi said. He was less enamored with the man than his fellow Master Mage.
The Apothecary shook his head, changing tactics. “Look, I don’t know where you guys are from, but around here slavery is still illegal. If you get caught, you’ll be hanged. There’s no point in that sort of risk.” Serizawa’s hand reached out of its own accord. The blonde man’s hair was soft, oh so soft. The Apothecary jerked away from the touch; eyes wide. “What are you doing?” His tone was different now, less self-assured.
“The King said I could have any reward I want, right Minegishi?” Serizawa asked, almost under his breath. The hand that had caressed the Apothecary’s hair took the younger man gently by the chin.
“Yes.” Minegishi had a strange look on his face, as if he couldn’t understand Serizawa’s meaning.
A crow settled on a nearby tree branch, its yellow eyes scanning the drama below. Its feet shifted as if anticipating something.
The words that came out felt like they were drawn from somewhere else, somewhere foreign to Serizawa though it was his lips that spoke them: “I want him.” The other Master Mages had requested land or things from their King but what Serizawa wanted as far more nebulous. He wanted to no longer fear himself, he wanted to no longer endure the loneliness that threatened to crush him, he no longer wanted to return to an empty bed.
Good job, Serizawa.
Serizawa closed the distance between them; an unseen puppeteer tugged on his strings. His face hovered before the other man’s, only a hair’s breadth between them. It was the most intimate he had been with another person in over a year. He pressed his lips against the blonde’s to devour him.
Good job, Serizawa.
You don’t deserve your power. You don’t deserve your magic.
The Apothecary’s lips were soft, the inside of his mouth warm, warmer than he could have dreamed. If just his mouth was this warm what about the rest of him? Would the rest of his body be this-- A sharp nip to his lower lip brought Serizawa back to reality. He touched his face, he was bleeding. The Apothecary had bitten him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
What was he doing? What was happening? It felt like his body was moving without his input. Serizawa’s hands jerked up of their own accord. His magic blasted the vines holding up the Apothecary and grasped at the smaller man. The purple magical aura forced the Apothecary up against the wall, pinning him, making him helpless before Serizawa.
You don’t deserve your power. You don’t deserve your magic.
“You could just take him,” Minegishi said, his tone flatter than usual. He stood there, almost a corpse for how lively he was. “He’s powerless, you can do what you want.”
You can take him, no one can stop you. No one can stop you.
Serizawa stepped forward, his feet not obeying his conscious commands. His forearm pressed against the wall next to the Apothecary’s head. The younger man sweat in terror. Serizawa leaned forward again, this time with his entire frame.
You don’t deserve your power. You don’t deserve your magic.
You can take him. TAKE HIM! TAKE HIM!
“Whose voice is that?” Serizawa shouted, grasping his own head. Everything stopped. Minegishi was a statue, the Apothecary was motionless with an expression of fear on his face, the crow’s wings were still in midair. The world was frozen but Serizawa could control himself again. He didn’t have the power to tamper with time, something else was happening.
Serizawa looked behind him to see the boy and Shimazaki mid-battle. They too were not moving. He had to think this through. Serizawa had been hearing the voice for a while now, years in fact, one unfamiliar to him. Someone or something was messing with him. He had heard about spells like this but they were remarkably difficult to pull off, nearly impossible in fact. They required some fixed point like a person or an object to work. One thing had to be the same each time the voice spoke.
What was the one constant? Serizawa looked around. It couldn’t be coming from the other Master Mages or the villagers, they weren’t present when the voice would start. What could it possibly be?
Then he remembered the crow, the one that didn’t belong to Hatori, the one that was always following him. Serizawa exerted a tiny bit of power, enough to kill a small animal. If it was just a crow it would dissolve in a shower of blood and gore, if not—
The creature vanished. Not a drop of red or a single black feather remained. All of the frozen people lost their color, weathering into dark or soft grays. What was happening?
“Master Serizawa?” A boyish voice, it was not the same as the taunting ones. It came from someone who looked like the dark-haired child with the magic, but this one was moving. This one was real. “I’m sorry it took so long,” the boy said, “but I think Mogami was exerting more influence here than in the world he made for me.”
Mogami the Mage? What could he want with Serizawa? “Mogami’s been dead for decades,” Serizawa said.
“Oh,” the boy sighed, “you still don’t have your memories back."
A green spirit, vivid and bright in the gray world hovered into view. “Yeah, it looks like Mogami did a number on you.” The spirit looked him up and down. “Wow, you look like crap. Reigen’s going to be pissed his hard work’s gone to waste.”
Reigen, Reigen, who was Reigen why was the name so familiar? He sounded important; Serizawa knew he was important. Serizawa scratched his head, needing a physical connection to something real. He needed something solid, he needed-- His gaze landed on the blonde Apothecary, still pinned to the wall. Reigen. Reigen. REIGEN. He dashed over to the simulacrum.
Reigen Arataka, his friend, his lover, his home. What had Mogami tried to make him do? Serizawa cupped the face of the fake Arataka, horrified at the other’s distress. He had told himself he would never let Reigen be this afraid. He respected Reigen too much, he loved him too much. Serizawa’s gut twisted. What sort of man did Mogami think he was to even push him into that scenario? How dare he? How dare he? “How dare you?” Serizawa muttered.
The years of neglect sloughed off him, a false skin of pain and disillusionment. The clothes from Claw dissolved, revealing the winter robes he had worn to the Academy. Serizawa stood tall, he stood proud in the false world crafted just to break him. He knew who he was, who he was supposed to be.
He was a lover, he was a teacher, he was a beloved friend. He was also going to be the one to destroy the remaining spirit of Mogami the Mage. He was going to erase the man’s legacy from the land. “Mogami!” Serizawa called out, his magic roaring bright around him, his full power finally coming to bear. “Face me!”
He did not have long to wait.
This chapter was hard.
Chapter 13: Wrath
The world could not hold in the face of Serizawa’s wrath. First to fall were the complex structures, the simulations of people. Drained of color, they stood in silence, a testament to the grief of Mogami’s constructed reality. One by one, they crumped to dust, leaving no reminder of their existence. The animals went next, sketchy and scarce as they were, they disappeared quickly. Within moments, Serizawa and Mob stood in a landscape devoid of sentient life. The plants would be next.
“Are you going to let us go or do we have to tear this place apart piece by piece?” Serizawa shouted. The ground below him shuddered, a negative answer. Ghostly red phantoms crawled out of the cracks in the ground, the crannies in tree bark, the mortar between stones and out of the sky itself. The spirit was not willing to let them escape.
Serizawa exerted more of his power, keeping to small bursts of energy in case Mogami himself made an appearance. Mob assisted him in his task, keeping any attacking phantoms at bay.
“How did you get here, Shigeo?” Serizawa asked. He kept his voice steady and calm, better to behave as if he had all the time in the world. That he wasn’t anxious to see Reigen, his Reigen again.
“Dimple helped me,” the boy replied. “Mogami had me trapped like this too and I fought my way out.” Mob obliterated a specter with a casual hand wave. “He’s using a lot more power here though.” The Apprentice followed his Master’s lead in holding his temper. “I’m impressed you figured out there was something wrong on your own.”
“These illusions were really top notch,” Dimple commented, chomping on a small phantom to fuel himself. The green spirit glowed brighter. “Although none of them looked like me.” He grinned and stroked his wispy chin. “Guess I’m just one of a kind.”
Mob answered in the blunt, unthinking manner of teenagers. “Or he just doesn’t think much of you.”
The spirit frowned at the insult.
Serizawa’s wrath deepened as he thought of what the dead Mage tried to make him do. Of what he tried to make him do to Reigen. “I don’t believe Mogami thinks much of any of us.”
“Humans have no business wielding magic.” Mogami’s voice echoed all around them making it difficult to pinpoint. “You are no exception, Serizawa so-called Master Mage.” This was rich coming from the self-appointed Guardian of all Books of Magic.
“What gives you the right to determine that?” Serizawa asked, raising his voice. If he kept the evil spirit speaking, he might be able to find him.
Mogami’s voice was snide. “A murderer has no place questioning me.”
It stung. Serizawa knew that Mogami was just taunting him but he hated how effective it was. Reliving those days of despair and shame had nearly driven him mad. Mogami’s spell had reopened all his old wounds, made them raw again. He resented having to heal from them all over again.
“Didn’t you say you killed for profit?” Mob asked, “and for power?” In the midst of the phantoms a single large yellow eye gazed down at them. It seemed Mogami himself finally deigned to make an appearance. Mob turned his focus to Serizawa. “What did you kill for, Master?”
It was an appalling question for his own Apprentice to ask. “It was mostly by accident,” Serizawa admitted. “It happened when I panicked or when I didn’t restrain myself.” He could still see those soldiers dead, all because of Serizawa’s own fear. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” he whispered, “I hated it.”
“And that’s why you left Claw,” Mob said, voice kind. “Because you hated killing, you didn’t want to do it anymore. You made a choice.” It seemed the boy had not forgotten that day at the river, the confession nor the tears. That moment had shaped his opinion of his Master and he respected the man all the more for it.
Serizawa understood what Mob was telling him. “I made a choice to change. I made a choice to be a different person.” He pointed up at the baleful single eye staring down at them. “And you knew that.” He threw the accusation at Mogami. “You were in my mind and you knew that I wasn’t that person anymore yet you tortured me anyway.”
“Magic is corrupting,” Mogami said. The yellow eye rolled in an invisible socket. “You would have done it again,” the spirit insisted. “All you needed was the right push.”
A push like assaulting the man he loved. “How dare you,” Serizawa said, “how dare you think that this is the man I am.” Before Serizawa had only used a fraction of his energy, now he gathered his most powerful magic about him. “You did this because you wanted to, because that is the kind of person you are.”
Mogami sent a new wave of phantoms at them, bigger and stronger than the last. The ground shattered beneath their feet. Serizawa and Mob’s magic kept them hovering in the air as they apparitions grasped for them. “You should leave, Dimple,” Mob said. “This is going to be bad.”
The green spirit wavered. “What about you two?” Dimple asked.
“We’ll be fine,” Mob told him, completely self-assured. “Tell Master Reigen to wait for us.”
A quick nod and the ghost raced away, to escape the battle in Serizawa’s mind. He pushed against the barrier, slipping through just before the blue sky shattered into nightmare black.
Bursts of magic in many hues smashed into each other, a firework display of raw magical power. “What good would your proof have even been?” Serizawa asked, a slash of purple flying straight at the giant eye. “What were you even trying to accomplish?”
The dead Mage didn’t have to say a word, Mob answered for him: “He wanted my help and your body.” Purple sliced into the eye; a painful screech shook the world. “That’s why he used less energy on me,” Mob said. “He thought that by making me think magic was evil I would become his assistant.” The spirit had been arrogant and underestimated the wills of both Master and Apprentice. Now, he would rue that mistake.
Serizawa signaled to his student and they began to coordinate a spell. A mishmash of colors swirled and swelled, creating a sea of beauty in the hideous damned black. “What would you have even needed my body for?” Serizawa asked.
The eye melted, coalescing into the form of a giant man, one dressed in dark Mage’s robes. “To cleanse this world of magic’s filth,” Mogami said. “With our powers combined I could have accomplished this.” The Mogami-thing made a fist. “This Academy and its Adepts need to burn. Fools toying with things they don’t understand.”
The Master Mage clenched his jaw. “And what would you have done with Reigen?”
“He was chosen. I wouldn’t have touched him,” Mogami said, almost regretfully. The figure’s face created a simulation of a leer. “Not unless he asked nicely.”
Serizawa could ignore the taunt this time, he understood the spirit’s game. “You’ve been away from humanity for too long,” the Master Mage said. “Four decades wandering and never going to Paradise have warped you.”
His Apprentice finished his portion of the spell. “You’ve forgotten what we’re really like,” Mob said. “That we don’t just change for the worse, but also for the better.” He smiled at his Master. “Often for the better.”
“You decided that all of us were like you,” Serizawa agreed, “and that we should suffer for your sins.” The spell was finished, it was time for it to be cast. “You have haunted this world long enough, it’s time for you to rest.”
The spell was too big, too dense for Mogami to dodge. A massive hand swung at the cloud of magic but to no avail. It crushed the spirit’s form, collapsing it from the inside. Mogami screamed growing smaller and smaller as his very soul imploded. Wind whipped through the air, battering the two human souls still inside. Serizawa took Mob’s hand, holding it tight.
The world grew dark.
Serizawa bolted upright, his head pounding. He was in the Earl’s study. Mob was on the floor still, eyes blinking as he regained awareness. Dimple hovered in the air, shaking with anxiety. “Took you two long enough,” the ghost muttered.
Sir Durand breathed a sigh of relief. “You are awake,” the old man said.
“Where’s Mogami?” Serizawa asked. He had no time for the other’s concerns.
“Master Serizawa are you—” it was Teru’s voice. The other boy was here too.
“I’m fine,” Serizawa lied. He staggered to his feet, trying to shake off his body’s sudden exhaustion. “Where is he, I don’t think—”
A small red mist about the size of a cat slipped out from behind a curtain and zipped out of the room. Everyone stared in shock at the sight. “Was that?” Teru asked.
Serizawa grunted in frustration and dashed after the errant spirit. After all that effort the thrice-damned dead Mage still existed. Serizawa could hear Mob trying to follow behind him. They had to get to Mogami before he possessed someone else. The headache dissipated the further Serizawa got from the study. That was the one blessing to this frightful day. It just never seemed to end. Unfortunately, Serizawa had no time to rest, only the next crisis to prevent.
The longer that Mogami existed in this world, the more energy he could collect. If he gathered enough, he would be a danger to all of them all over again. There was no way Serizawa could let this nightmare continue. Which is why he was startled to see Isao and Reigen losing their minds over a blue bottle tied to a fireplace.
The behavior was too baffling to just ignore. “What are you two doing?” Serizawa asked. “Mogami is--”
“In the trap,” Isao interrupted. His hands hovered over the blue bottle as if afraid to touch it. It was tied by string to the fireplace, nine knots strung together draped on the bottle’s front. The inside contained silver net, some salt and a malevolent red glow. “He came by, flew straight into the bottle and now he can’t get out,” Isao explained.
It all sounded completely mad. Serizawa stretched out some of his own magic and was flabbergasted at what he found. Isao was correct, the dreaded Mogami was trapped in a small glass bottle. After causing all that suffering, the spirit now had his own ignoble prison.
“I can’t believe the trap worked.” Reigen’s grin was effervescent. He latched onto Serizawa, pulling him into a tight embrace. “You’re okay and the trap worked. It worked, it worked!”
This was Reigen, his Reigen warm and in his arms. It felt like it had been years since Serizawa’s heart was this light. “’Taka?” he asked, “can I kiss you?”
The Apothecary pulled back, a sly grin on his face. “Sure, but you’ve only been out like a half hour, babe. I know you can’t get enough—”
Oh, Reigen talked too much but that was what Serizawa loved about him. The words he said were sometimes meaningless, sometimes profound, but there was nothing more pleasant than bringing him to silence with a kiss. In Mogami’s world, this had ended in pain but here, it was all sweetness. It was a startled giggle and a dusting of pleased pink across the nose. It was soft hair slipping through fingers.
The Apothecary had never looked more beautiful to Serizawa’s eyes. “For you it was just a few minutes,” he said, “but for me it was a lifetime.”
Reigen opened his mouth to spout some clever quip but he reconsidered when he looked at Serizawa’s expression. “You’re not just being poetic, are you?” he asked.
Serizawa shook his head, glad that Reigen understood. “No.”
The Apothecary reluctantly pulled out from his paramour’s arms. “Isao, can you bring the others back from the guesthouse?” he asked. “We need to discuss how to dispose of the witch’s bottle.”
Isao was agreeable. “No one wants that ghost back out in the world. I’ll get my coat.” Before leaving, he suggested one last thing. “Do you want to consult the books for a solution?”
“I’ll do that,” Reigen said.
Serizawa watched Isao depart with pleasant surprise. “He seems more agreeable.”
“We came to an understanding. What about you?” Reigen asked, rubbing Serizawa’s arms. “It looks like you had it rough.”
The Master Mage chuckled without mirth. “That’s an understatement.”
“Is there anything you need?” Of course, Reigen would ask; he was a healer through and through.
Serizawa took one of Reigen’s hands and held it for a moment, just enjoying the touch. There was much to tell, so many stories to share but he was weary. He needed time to process it all and time to determine how best to disclose his pain. The Master Mage kissed Reigen’s palm and spoke from the heart. “Right now,” he said, “all I need is you.” The rest could come later.
Chapter 14: Clove Hills
It would be at least an hour before the others arrived back at the castle. In the meantime, Reigen and Serizawa settled in the study with the book Reigen had consulted before. They found Mob and Teru talking quietly amongst themselves by the fire. “Do you need anything, Mob?” Reigen asked. From how Serizawa was acting, he knew that whatever happened while under Mogami’s sway was unpleasant. Mob, despite his experiences, could still be a sensitive boy at times.
“Not yet,” Mob said. He shared a look with Teru, the two of them speaking without words. “Maybe later.” Reigen knew that if Mob needed him at that moment, he would ask.
With that, Reigen began to read. Serizawa sat quietly, patiently waiting. As Reigen skimmed, he felt a weight against his left shoulder. Exhaustion had done in the Master Mage and he found solace leaning against Reigen’s body. The Apothecary did not mind. He used his free hand to card through Serizawa’s hair, feeling the soft curls, letting them play across his fingers. Serizawa sighed in contentment, eyes sliding shut. A simple gesture of affection but one sorely needed.
In the world Mogami created, Serizawa remembered all those years of isolation. The press of Reigen’s leg against his and clever fingers running through his hair had been the first wanted human touches he had experienced after his life in Claw. This, even through his fatigue, was a reminder of all he had gained. Serizawa would never get back the time he had spent in Claw or his innocence, but the happiness he had now was more than he could ever hope for.
Reigen hummed in discontent. “What is it?” Serizawa asked.
“There appear to be two options regarding the witch’s bottle,” Reigen started. The boys stilled their chatter; they wanted to hear this as well. “We can either throw it in the fire,” he said, letting the idea sink in.
Serizawa frowned; his eyes remained closed. “And risk releasing the spirit,” he said. He didn’t think he had the energy to fight Mogami if he attacked them again.
“Yeah,” Reigen was not fond of that option, “or we could bury it.”
Mob’s eyes were haunted. “And risk someone finding it.” He thought that solution inadequate, with the danger of discovery very real. If an innocent found the bottle, who knew what an angered spirit would do to them?
“It could be decades if we hide it well,” Teru tried to reassure the others,” or it could never be found at all. Mogami could even degrade into oblivion if left without a source of power.”
“Do you really think so?” Mob clung to the hope that his friend knew more than he did.
“Maybe,” was all Teru could offer. He had thought about lying but found he couldn’t. The blonde boy wished to be honest with his friend, even if it meant a lack of comfort.
“I can’t believe that’s the solution.” Reigen snorted in disgust. “Thanks a lot,” he muttered at the book, slamming it shut.
“There is a third option,” Dimple said. The others awaited the spirit’s plan with baited breath. “We could take the bottle to the Golden Order.”
Under other circumstances, Serizawa and Reigen would have agreed but even Mob seemed skeptical. “No offense to Shinra, but he isn’t very powerful,” Mob said. “I don’t know about the other Monks but I don’t know if they could deal with Mogami.”
Serizawa agreed with Mob. “The two of us together couldn’t destroy him completely. I don’t think the Golden Order would be more successful.”
“So, we ask Kenji to bury it,” Reigen said. The others shot him horrified looks. “What?” Reigen said, “I’m not burying it under the shop.” He did have a real reason to suggest the Earl. “He has a lot of land; Kenji knows what’s not being used.”
Thus, it was decided that some unused plot on the Earl of Mitsuura’s land would be the Mage Mogami’s final resting place. Now they just had to inform the Earl.
He took it surprisingly well. “I have some mines that have dried up; he can go there and we’ll block up the entrance,” Kenji said.
Reigen was taken aback by his friend’s blasé reaction. “You’re taking this really well.”
“The Law of Cause and Effect,” Kenji replied. “We are experimenting with natural laws and the order of things, of course we would attract negative attention.”
The Apothecary had no idea what his friend was blathering about and just agreed for the sake of the plan. The witch’s bottle would remain in the Earl’s vault until spring. Now that Mogami’s fate was settled, a new trial awaited Reigen and Serizawa.
“When were you going to tell us you were friends with the Earl of Mitsuura?” It was Mother.
Right, in the aftermath of Mogami’s capture Reigen had forgotten all about his parents. Everyone else had dispersed to their rooms to clean up before supper leaving Reigen and Serizawa to their own devices, or so they thought. Because there, in the study of Reigen’s good friend, stood two people he had not seen in person since his exile. Even now, he was not particularly keen on their presence. “Since the information didn’t come from Jodo, I didn’t think you would believe me,” Reigen said, smile tight.
The atmosphere in the study grew cold.
“That’s not fair, Arataka.” A strong man, Reigen’s father was a genial sort. Even with their troubles, he didn’t quite understand his son’s hostility.
“Isn’t it?” Not Reigen’s most erudite response but disappointment he thought long dormant was rising again. He turned his head to notice Serizawa looking at him. The Apothecary changed the subject, “this is Serizawa Katsuya; Katsuya these are my parents.”
Serizawa bowed his head, being polite. “How do you do?”
“Oh,” Mother said, examining the Master Mage. “This is Serizawa?” She offered her hand, pleased when he pressed a kiss to it as was proper. Serizawa had learned some courtly manners while in King Suzuki’s domain. “He is very tall,” she murmured as an aside at her son.
Reigen flushed red and coughed into his hand. “If you’ll excuse us, we need to prepare for dinner.”
“Of course.” Mother had an unreadable smile on her face. “We will be joining the Earl this evening; he has invited us.” Reigen held back his annoyance.
“We’ll talk there, son,” Father said.
They were playing this game then? The Apothecary bowed slightly to his parents. “’Till then.” He grasped Serizawa’s arm and practically dragged the man out of the room.
“I thought you didn’t talk to your parents,” Serizawa said as they made their way down the hall.
“I send letters every once and a great while.” Emphasis on great, Reigen corresponded with them approximately twice a year. Perhaps, when he felt like it.
“But they knew who I was,” Serizawa pressed.
“Yeah,” Reigen admitted. “Well, you’re the best thing that’s happened to me so I had to rub it in their faces a little.”
The Master Mage would never say so aloud, but internally he preened. It was just what he needed to hear. “You’ve never really told me what happened with your family,” Serizawa said.
Reigen rubbed at his eyes, the door to their room in sight. “No time like the present, I suppose.”
In the town of Clove Hills there were three seats of power: the village elder, Jodo the Apothecary, and the Reigen Farmstead. The Reigen patriarch was a farmer, through and through, a man of earth and substance. He married a woman of modest wealth, a daughter of merchants with designs beyond being a lady of the house. She wanted a business of her own and a partnership with an ambitious farmer was ideal for her. The fact that she also felt great affection for him was a bonus.
They had a son three years into their marriage, Arataka. He was intelligent, shrewd and had no interest in the farm whatsoever. His Mother had taught him to read which, as well as giving him an education also bred in him a wanderlust. Father attempted to temper it by teaching him how to manage the farm and the men who worked it, but the boy’s heart was not in it.
His closest friend in the years leading up to the fateful day of his exile was a boy named Taran. Taran was the eldest son of Father’s most trusted farmhand. Determined and a touch egotistical, Taran too felt that he was destined for better things. With his build and chiseled jaw, there were days that Arataka believed Taran was right. Then the farmhand’s son would open his mouth and dash all of Arataka’s hopes.
During their free time, Arataka would read the other boy tales of daring do and they would plot to leave the farm together for greener pastures. It was dreams that fueled their friendship, nothing stronger or sterner. “One day,” Taran insisted, “I will be a hero.”
“And me?” Arataka asked, teasing his friend.
“A companion or my patron!” Taran said. He liked the word; he had learned it from one of Arataka’s stories. “A good hero always has a patron to serve.”
“Sure,” Arataka said, shaking his head in fondness at his friend’s ignorance. “I’ll be your patron.” Then the two boys would scamper off to avoid chores, always ruing the punishment that would come later.
Over the years, responsibilities led them to spend less time together socially and more at work on the farmstead. Taran wasn’t keen on taking orders from his friend and Arataka even less so on giving them. When Arataka wasn’t on the farm, he was forced by his Mother to socialize in town to maintain the family’s standing. It was on these outings that Arataka grew to know the Apothecary Jodo and, eventually, to loathe him.
In his prime, Jodo had been a skilled and learned man, but the man that Arataka knew was a parasite, leeching off his own good name and accumulated acclaim. Jodo spent far less time in his shop than he did at social functions surrounded by his entourage of young men. He would gorge on food and attention, occasionally spouting some bon mot or creaky bit of wisdom. Arataka wondered if the man ever did any actual work. All of the stories he heard of the man’s greatness were from years ago, nothing recent.
At one such function, Arataka had asked Jodo’s assistant, the one with a terrible beard, “Are you Jodo’s Apprentice?”
The bearded man had looked at him like he had grown a second head. “No, we are his assistants,” the young man had said.
“And what do you assist him with?” Arataka asked, not satisfied with the first answer.
The bearded man, who was a little drunk at the time, slung an arm around Arataka’s shoulder. “Mostly with eating all this fine food,” he murmured, “and occasionally we field young women to chat up so he doesn’t have to waste his energy.” He squeezed Arataka far too hard to be companionable. “Maybe we could ask him if you could join us.” The man pinched Reigen’s cheek. “Cute face like that would draw in some fine fillies.”
Arataka resisted the urge to vomit. “Is he teaching you any medicine?” He did not want to think about these men trying to bed any of the town’s girls.
“No,” the bearded man’s foul breath fanned over the younger man’s face, “none of us have the head for it.”
The blonde’s stomach dropped. “None of you? He’s teaching none of you?” Then what were they all good for? What was their purpose?
“There’s no need,” the bearded man insisted. “He is the great Jodo. He can cure any ill.”
“He won’t live forever,” Arataka pointed out. The old man was already having problems with walking.
“That is future Clove Hills’ problem.” The bearded man then laughed and laughed, trying to ply Arataka with drink. It had taken a full half hour to get away from the man.
When Arataka later expressed his concerns to his parents, Mother had been unconcerned. “He could just be waiting for the right candidate.”
“He’s old, Mother,” Arataka pointed out. “He might not live long enough for that.”
“He is a wise man,” Father said. “I’m certain Jodo has his reasons.”
Arataka found out later that the old man did, and they were all selfish ones.
Chapter 15: Petty
“When you went to the temple,” Serizawa asked, “was it with Taran?”
Reigen didn’t answer right away, he was still washing his face. “I haven’t gotten to that part yet,” he said. He took one of the magnificently fluffy towels the Earl provided and wiped off the cool water he had splashed on himself.
They were nearly ready join everyone for dinner, but Reigen hesitated. There was too much exhaustion in Serizawa’s form to make Reigen comfortable. The man was slumped just from sitting on the bed. “If you’re not up for this we can always beg off,” Reigen said. “Have the servants bring supper up.”
Serizawa straightened his posture, he didn’t want Reigen to worry. “I’d rather not be isolated.” He had been through more than enough.
Reigen gave him a self-deprecating smile. “You still don’t have to put up with my rambling.”
“’Taka,” Serizawa would not hear Reigen speak that way, “when Mogami was in my mind, he took me back to when I was a solider.” When he saw that he had his paramour’s full attention, he continued. “All that blood was on my hands again; I nearly fell into despair.” He closed his eyes, trying to hold back the memories. Reliving them had made him feel vulnerable again. “I only understood what was happening when Mogami went outside of my own experiences,” Serizawa explained. “He tried to make me stay with Claw.” Now it was time for the hardest confession. Serizawa locked eyes with Reigen. “He tried to make me hurt you.”
The Apothecary gulped at the intensity of Serizawa’s expression. “Oh.”
“In my own mind I didn’t even know you but the thought of hurting you—” Serizawa took to his feet, “it allowed me to break free.” Serizawa needed Reigen to understand how much their relationship meant to him, how much it would always mean to him. “Talking about your past doesn’t bother me. I need it. I need to know that there is a world outside of my own head. My memories can’t be the whole of it.” He rested his forehead against Reigen’s. “Please tell me the rest,” he pleaded.
“I will,” Reigen promised, his cheeks warm, “but most of it will have to wait until after supper.” He could not handle all of this blunt honesty.
Serizawa smiled. “We have time.” Of that, he was finally certain.
It was at the annual Blessing of the Newborns that Arataka was finally able to speak with Jodo alone. The ceremony had ended so the crowd of townsfolk and high society were allowed to mingle. The largest groups had gathered around the infants, women cooing over how adorable the new crop was and fathers looking on with pride.
Arataka saw his opportunity when Jodo made his way from the revelers to a more secluded corner of the square. Then Jodo dismissed his lackeys to their own devices leaving the old man alone. The blonde approached with an air of nonchalance.
“Why do those men follow you around?” Arataka asked, sipping his celebratory wine. He failed to mask his grimace at the sour taste.
The old man gave Arataka a condescending look. “Those young men are my assistants.” Jodo explained this as if everyone knew.
“Yes,” Arataka said, “and I’ve heard exactly how they assist you.”
Jodo raised an eyebrow; he was amused at the younger man. “It sounds as though you disapprove.”
“I just don’t understand,” Arataka confessed. “If you want servants, just hire servants. What do you get by even having them around?” As far as he was concerned, the so-called assistants were just a waste of space and air. He felt that Jodo would get more out of the presence of a dog or even a dull-witted sheep.
The old Apothecary stroked his chin, feigning a sage appearance. “I’m certain you’ve heard the wisdom that surrounding yourself with youth keeps one young.”
Arataka was not impressed. “You could just as easily surround yourself with Apprentices.”
“Ah, this again.” Jodo rolled his eyes. He finally gave Arataka his full attention. “Yes, I’ve heard of your concerns young Arataka, but perhaps you should be more worried about yourself.”
Arataka could not read the older man’s tone. “Is that a threat?”
Jodo shook his head. “Just consider it some advice.”
“Then let me give you some advice,” Arataka said, determined to speak his mind. “A Master isn’t just measured by how great they are in this lifetime, but in the people they train. They take on Apprentices to keep their vast knowledge alive. Sometimes the Apprentice will even surpass the Master—”
The old man’s face shifted. For a brief moment, all congeniality left him, only bitterness remained in its wake. That was when Arataka finally understood.
The young man’s tone was flat. “You don’t want to take on an Apprentice because someday they might be better than you?” All of the respect Arataka had for the old Apothecary died a quick death.
Jodo’s face contorted with uncontrolled anger. “Watch your tongue.”
Arataka had hit a nerve. “Wow, I didn’t think the great Jodo would be that insecure about his legacy.” He took another sip of wine, loosening his lips even further. “That’s uh, that’s really petty.”
“The presence of youth can be invigorating,” Jodo said, “but it can also be an irritant.” The old man sneered. “Has anyone told you that you read too many of your mother’s books?”
They had actually. “I’d rather have a full head than an empty one,” Arataka retorted.
The old man grasped Arataka’s shoulder with all of his remaining strength. “Go back to your farm, boy,” he said. “It would be a shame if all your parents’ hard work was undone within a generation.”
Arataka was young but he knew when to beat a strategic retreat. “I’ll take no more of your time,” he said. Unfortunately, Arataka could not leave without own last word. “Especially since none of us know how much you have left.”
It wasn’t until that night that Arataka discovered Jodo’s plotted vengeance. At the party, the old Apothecary had told the Reigens that their son looked peaked and needed supplements for his health. That was how Arataka got stuck taking cod liver oil.
Serizawa could not help but laugh at his love’s misfortune. “How long did that last?”
“Three months,” Reigen muttered, still bitter. “It took me three months to convince them I was fine.” His partner’s cackling laugh carried them all the way to the dining room.
If Reigen had hoped to avoid his parents at supper, he was sorely mistaken. The couple had left two chairs empty beside them, gesturing for their son and his paramour to join them. Mother had an especially predatory gleam in her eye as Serizawa took his seat.
“We heard some interesting rumors from the children,” Mother said once they were settled. She was eager for the truth. Servants bustled about, setting meals in front of their charges.
“The children?” Reigen asked. Since there were nine of them, some clarification was in order.
“Your Apprentices,” Mother added. She scoffed as she took a bite of vegetable. Mother never thought much of Reigen’s claims to be an Apothecary. He had no training outside of his book; although schooled in botany, it was mostly related to agriculture. Her son had been raised to be a manor lord, not a man of medicine. Because of this, she rarely trusted anything Reigen said about himself and had little cause to believe what others said either. It was why he rarely communicated with his family.
“The boy claimed to be a former prince.” Mother laughed as though the very idea was absurd.
“He is,” Serizawa said, confused as to why Reigen’s Mother was acting this way. “I served his father for ten years.”
Mother just stared at Serizawa. “Excuse me?”
“Shou was the Heir Apparent to the Kingdom of Claw,” the Earl added. He was seated across from the miniature family reunion. “When the Kingdom fell, he lost his title.”
“I didn’t want it anyway,” Shou chimed in from the other end of the table. “Dad was a jerk.” The other Apprentices nodded in solidarity.
Father and Mother looked uncomfortable at the boy’s outburst. For a former prince, Shou wasn’t always well mannered.
“King Suzuki was quite mad,” Serizawa said, as if this explained everything.
“He wasn’t mad, he was a jerk,” Reigen muttered under his breath.
“You were with the Kingdom of Claw?” Father asked. The man was usually unfazed by anything but this news rattled him. Even in Clove Hills stories of the terrible deeds of the Kingdom of Claw had stricken terror into the townsfolk. There had even been discussion about how to prepare in case of an invasion. Taxes had been levied in preparation of town defenses. When word of the Kingdom’s fall had reached Clove Hills, the entire populace had breathed a sigh of relief. Now one of these feared men was with their son? Their Arataka?
“Yes,” Serizawa wondered exactly how much Reigen had told his parents. “What did you say in your letters?” he asked Reigen.
“That you were tall, handsome and mine.” Reigen put his hand on Serizawa’s thigh under the table. “I may have also mentioned you were a Mage but I don’t think they believed me.” He said this last in sotto voice.
Mother leaned close to Reigen, her hand on his arm. “Are you with him because of the Guardian Spirit?” she whispered. Her worry was genuine.
If Reigen had possessed the strength, he would have snapped the fork in his hand. She had no idea how much that question hurt. After finally making up with Isao, having that thrown in his face mere hours later-- “No,” Reigen said, very firm. “Jodo made up the Guardian Spirit.”
“No, he didn’t!” another voice protested. Dimple made his first appearance at dinner to peer over Reigen’s shoulder. “I’m right here.”
Mother and Father shrank back in horror.
Reigen sighed, maybe he should have written more often. “Mom, Dad, this is Dimple the former Guardian Spirit of the Book and now—” he couldn’t think of a proper way to describe their relationship. “What are you?”
The green spirit mulled it over. Dimple threw out some suggestions: “Companion, compatriot, partner in crime?”
Noticing that none of this mollified his parents, Reigen changed tactics: “Point being, he doesn’t want to kill me.”
“Nope,” Dimple said, “the book picked him fair and square and that released me from my curse.” He hovered between Mother and Father, giving them a conspiratorial grin. “Besides, I find him too amusing to kill.”
Father looked shocked. He was having a difficult time processing all of this. “But Jodo said—”
“He said a lot of things,” Reigen pointed out, stabbing his cut of beef. “Maybe what you should be asking yourself is why you took his word over your son’s?”
That effectively ended all conversation at their end of the table. Stony silence settled as they ate. Reigen didn’t spare his parents even a single glance. He had waited years for an apology, he could wait longer if necessary. He had a new life now, one that did not depend on their approval.
On the other hand, it did depend on Serizawa’s. The taller man just kept looking at him, as if he expected Reigen to suddenly change his mind. That some miraculous reconciliation would occur over dessert.
It wasn’t until they started back to their rooms that Reigen snapped: “What? What is it?”
“You could have been kinder to them,” Serizawa said.
Reigen snorted. “Why should I?”
“You haven’t seen them in so long,” Serizawa reasoned. They were at their guest room door. “There’s still a chance to make up.”
Reigen’s hand stilled on the handle. He looked up at Serizawa. “They aren’t your parents, Katsuya, they’re mine.” He needed to make that very clear. “You don’t know what they did to me. Until they apologize, I don’t owe them anything.”
Serizawa’s voice was gentle. “What did they do, Arataka?” He wanted to know, if only to see if he could ease Reigen’s anger.
The Apothecary softened. “Inside, I’ll tell you inside.” They went into their private sanctuary to continue Reigen’s tale.
Chapter 16: The Temple
It was early spring in Arataka’s twenty-first year when his life changed forever. He had already experienced one failed romance with a village girl and was debating whether to begin courting another. At some point he knew he would have to marry, produce heirs, and continue the family line. It was expected of him.
Duties at the farmstead took up most of his time. He had gone from being a mere observer to having his hands in nearly every aspect of the farm’s operation. Arataka had even ordered some new seed varieties for them to plant and test them for future sale in the market. He was growing into his own as the future of the Reigen farmstead. It was expected of him.
Although he and Taran still dreamed of adventure, it seemed likely that neither would leave Clove Hills. Reigen had responsibilities; Taran had no means nor ability to match his ambitions. They would live there, grow old there, and die there in Clove Hills. It was expected of them.
Some days, Arataka worried that expectations would drive him into an early grave.
Then came the dread news: the village elder’s youngest daughter Marie had fallen ill. She was pale, and barely ate. She grew weaker and weaker; what ailed her was mysterious. Jodo was immediately summoned.
Arataka hoped, with some bitterness, that maybe the old man would finally earn his keep. Jodo had failed to take on any Apprentices, despite Arataka’s attempts to guilt him. The young man had hoped that the old Apothecary could be shamed into passing on his knowledge, but to no avail. If Arataka had been fully honest with himself, he had hoped that his persistence would have impressed Jodo enough to take him on as a student. As it was, the village had only one Apothecary with a useless entourage.
The Reigens were at the elder’s home when Jodo made his consultation. After what felt like hours, the old Apothecary emerged from the girl’s room, face grim. “There is nothing I can do,” he told them. “She will not survive the week.”
Watching Marie’s family fall apart hit Arataka far harder than he thought it would. “Isn’t there anything we can do?” he asked his Father. “Maybe bring in a doctor?” Arataka thought there was one a few towns away.
“Why bother?” Father said, his eyes downcast. “If Jodo can’t help her than no one can.” He honestly believed it. Father was not the sort to shirk his responsibilities; if he thought there was no hope, there was no hope.
“All we can do is be there for her family,” Mother said, grasping her son’s hand. “It is a cruel fact of life that children pass all the time.”
Arataka could not accept that. “That’s not right.”
Mother agreed. “It isn’t.” She stood, ready to comfort the elder’s wife. “This won’t be the first time I’ve helped a mother through her grief.”
Such a simple admission, but it broke Arataka. That his own Mother was used to this was upsetting enough, that this was apparently common horrified him.
When Jodo packed up his equipment to leave, Arataka took him by the arm. “Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?” he asked quietly. “Do you have colleagues you could ask? Or references to consult—"
“Stop.” The old man shook his arm from Arataka’s grasp. “I’m going to respect the fact that you are acting out of genuine concern for the child.” Jodo’s beady eyes bored into Arataka’s. “But don’t question me again.”
With that, all life seemed to leave the elder’s household, all that remained was heartache. Arataka took his own leave, excusing himself to see to the farmstead. He would take on that responsibility so his parents could help the elder and his family.
Taran waited for Arataka at the gate. “Will Marie be okay?” Like many of the townsfolk, even if he did not know the elder’s family well, he still respected them.
The blonde glanced away. “Jodo says she’s going to die.”
Silence settled between the two young men. Taran had never been good at dealing with sensitive topics. The farmer’s son scuffed his boot in the dirt. “Saving her would take a miracle then?” Taran asked.
“Or just someone who knew what they were doing,” Arataka answered. He tilted his head, indicating that his friend should walk with him. The soil was still too frozen to properly till, but they could at least check on the equipment.
They went into the barn to inspect the plow. Conversation moved to work for a few moments, life had to continue. Finally, Taran could no longer stand it and said, “I have heard tale of a treasure outside of town.”
Arataka sighed, a little irritated at his friend. The blade would need honing before the thaw. “What good will treasure do a sick child?” The girl needed medicine, not money.
“Not just any treasure,” Taran insisted, tightening a loose bolt. “But a book that could maybe help little Marie.”
“Wait,” Arataka realized he may have heard of this too. “Is this the same one that keeps getting people killed?”
“They don’t all die,” Taran said. “And what’s a treasure worth without danger?” Arataka just glared at him. The farmer’s son really was stupid sometimes. “They failed because they weren’t brave enough,” Taran said. “Our cause is a noble one. The gods won’t let us falter.”
“But there’s no guarantee of success,” Arataka argued. “Even if we do get the book, it might not have the information that we need.”
“’Taka,” Taran gripped his friend to secure his attention. “We have always spoken of adventure; this is our final chance to go on one. If you don’t come with me,” Taran said, “I’ll just have to get the book alone.”
Arataka shivered at the words. He was stagnating here, becoming just another country lord with small dreams and small concerns. If he could have even one adventure of his own, that might make all the difference. That and he did not trust Taran to go to market alone, let alone on a quest. “Where is this place?”
“A temple,” Taran said. He gave Arataka a conspiratorial smirk. “I know the way.”
Time was limited, if they were going to do this, they would have to decide soon. Jodo had said Marie would not survive the week. “Tomorrow morning,” Arataka said. “I’ll secure us horses; you get us a map.”
Taran beamed. “Thank you.” He hugged his friend, both covered in the filth of the barn. “Thank you.”
The next day at dawn, they sneaked off of the farm with two horses, food for two days and a map. The quest was foolhardy, ill-conceived and ill-planned. So, it was with great surprise that they found themselves before a massive edifice carved out of the mountain. Whoever had crafted the temple had been a civilization of grand resources and skill. Grotesque creatures of stone seemed to leap from the entrance ready to devour all who would enter. Overgrown with weeds, vines and trees, the entrance, despite being reclaimed by nature, remained imposing.
The overall atmosphere was oppressive and heavy. Arataka dismounted, tying off his horse. The animal whinnied, pacing with nerves; Arataka did not blame the horse. He wasn’t enamored with the temple either. “We should probably get started,” Arataka said, getting a brief lay of the land. “If we take it slow, we should avoid any traps.”
That was when Arataka heard an unwelcome sound: horse hooves galloping away. He spun around to see Taran, the originator of the quest, the one the most gung-ho to be a hero, running away. Arataka was flabbergasted.
“Are you kidding me?” he shouted. “We just got here!”
Taran never heard his friend’s protests, he was long gone. They had come all this way for nothing. With Taran gone, there was no reason for Reigen to continue the quest. There was no need for him to enter the temple. He could just go home.
Which is why Arataka found it strange that his feet took him straight to the entrance. The grotesques were worse close up than at a distance. It almost seemed like the stone eyes were glaring at him. Arataka turned his gaze to the floor and walked straight into the abandoned temple.
The same intricate stonework that characterized the exterior continued onto the inside of the structure. Oil lamps flared to life as Arataka stepped inside. He gulped, taking it all in. The interior by itself was intimidating. He had heard tale of monsters and terrible beasts that would creep out of the crevices to attack all interlopers. He had no weapons, no way to defend himself. Arataka waited, bracing himself. Maybe he could talk the beasts out of eating him? But then nothing happened. Absolutely nothing.
Arataka moved on, still cautious, into the next chamber.
There were small holes in the walls and the floors, presumably where spikes or other traps were supposed to be. Supposed to being the key phrase. No matter where Arataka ventured, no matter how much noise he did or didn’t make, nothing happened. No snares, no spikes, no monsters, nothing.
It felt absurd to be disappointed, but Arataka was. Where was the danger, the flare? This temple had so many legends and stories around it and none of them seemed true. Yes, in a few places he found some skeletons and one body that was much fresher, but he wasn’t certain if it was the temple or sheer boredom that had killed them.
Well, if the entire place was going to be like this, there was no sense in dallying. Arataka picked up his pace, eager to leave the spooky space. Finally, he arrived in a spectacular atrium with a single pedestal. On that pedestal was a book. A single shaft of sunlight filtered in, illuminating the book with a beautiful glow. Of all the places in the temple, this was the most ethereal.
This had to be the legendary book. Arataka approached it with reverence. This was a book that men and sought and died to find. The Medica Materia looked like any book that graced his Mother’s library. It could have been at home anywhere. Arataka flipped open the cover. The writing was pristine, the pages unaged. He had no idea how old the tome really was, but it looked nearly new. He continued flipping through the pages, amazed at all of the illustrations and information.
“Huh,” he muttered. “Cures for practically everything and how to make them.” Arataka smiled, rather enchanted. “This is amazing.” He could spend a lifetime with this book and feel like he could never know all it contained.
A loud thud drew his attention. A massive green humanoid creature appeared, stretching its massive muscles. “Who dares disturb the rest of the Guardian Spirit?”
Fear choked Arataka’s throat, his muscles seized as he clutched The Medica Materia to his chest. He had come this far, he could not fail, he could not falter. He was no warrior but he had to do something. Thus, he did the only thing he could: he kicked the monster in the shin. In the ensuing mutual confusion, Arataka ran. He ran and ran, his legs carrying him as fast as he could.
The Guardian Spirit bellowed after him but he wasn’t certain if it was in anger or laughter. It did not matter. What mattered was getting out. When Arataka saw daylight again, he did not look back. He did not turn to see if the Spirit was after him. All he could think of was escape.
The horse was still there. Arataka secured the book in his saddlebag and mounted with great haste. It was not graceful, but it did the job. The horse was more than eager to run away, carrying its master far from the haunted temple.
All Arataka could do was cling to his horse, his heart pounding in his chest. He had done it; he had secured the book. He slowed the horse down to a reasonable pace. Now he had to get home. This was only the beginning. He still had to find a cure, but now perhaps Marie had a chance.
Chapter 17: Exile
Between resting and getting lost since Taran had absconded with the map, Arataka did not arrive home until the next morning. Weary but still elated with his victory at the temple, he braced himself for whatever would come.
His parents were frantic with worry. They swarmed the horse as Arataka dismounted, practically vibrating with anxiety.
“Where have you been?” Mother asked, grasping Arataka’s face, checking for wounds.
“Taran said—” his Father started to speak.
There was no time, a child’s life was in danger. Arataka simply said, “I found the book.”
Mother was confused. “What book?” She had recalled Taran mentioning a book but her concern for Arataka’s safety had blocked that conversation from her mind.
Arataka opened his satchel and showed them The Medica Materia. “The book led me to a possible cure for Marie but I don’t know how to get some of the ingredients,” he explained.
During one of his rests, he had sat with the book in his lap and flipped through it. He had no idea where to even start looking for a cure. It wasn’t until he had thought hard about the symptoms that the book pages moved on their own, revealing a particular medication. Arataka had turned the page, only for it to violently yank out of his fingers and go back to the cure. The book truly was magic.
Arataka continued his explanation. “Most are in the stores on the farm but these others—”
The look in his Mother’s eyes was one he had seen before. It was a look that would take no argument, a determination that whatever plot she had concocted would be seen to the end. “We’re going to Jodo’s,” she said.
“What?” Arataka was baffled. “Why him? He doesn’t think—”
Father understood Mother’s idea immediately. “The Apothecary has the largest store of herbs and cures of anyone around. He might have what you need.”
Arataka just laughed, feeling nearly hysterical at the suggestion. ‘I don’t think he’s going to be willing to help.”
“Darling,” Mother said, with her unique brand of confidence, “it doesn’t matter if he’s willing, he will.”
Which is how the Reigens found themselves at Jodo’s shop. They had scoured their own farm for most of what they needed according to the book but there were still key parts they were missing. Father knocked at the door.
They were greeted by Jodo’s bearded lackey. He had the look of a man who had taken in too much drink the night before. “The Apothecary will not be open today,” he said, his speech slurred.
“He will be open for us,” Father said and muscled his way in. Mother and Arataka quickly followed, taking advantage of the opening.
“What is all this?” Jodo protested from the other side of the shop. The man was disheveled and, despite being mid-morning, had just awoken.
“We have news of a possible cure for the elder’s daughter,” Mother said.
The old man shook his head, his eyes downcast. “There is no cure, the child is doomed.”
Mother would not be deterred. She put on her sweetest face. “Sir, there is new information—”
Arataka thought that arguing with the Apothecary was folly and when he felt the tug on his sleeve from his Father, he comprehended that the other man did too. Arakata had known his parents his whole life, but there had been a time before him when they had learned to love and how to communicate with each other unspoken.
Father led Arataka into the back of the Apothecary’s shop to the supplies while Mother droned on and on. This was the real plan, to distract the Apothecary if he would not cooperate willingly and take what they needed. There are rare moments when someone can see the best and the worst of themselves in their parents, to reconcile how their personalities were formed. For Arataka, this was one of those times. Even years later, after disappointment had soured his memories, he still held onto this remembrance with fondness.
Once they procured their ill-gotten loot, Father grasped his wife’s arm. “Dear, I’m sorry but I’m afraid that the Apothecary is right.” He stared at her with eyes filled with sorrow. “There is nothing we can do.”
Mother’s face crumpled. She issued her apologies and the family left the shop. “Did you find what you need?” she asked once the door was closed. His parents were better actors than Arataka had given them credit for.
“Yes, but I still need to make it,” Arataka said.
“Of course,” Mother said. “We should go to the elder’s then.” She led her family back to the house of woe. “If we are to make it, it should be there.”
There was one thing that Reigen could not understand: “Why are you helping me with this?”
Mother gave her son a sad smile. “I’ve helped bury too many children, ‘Taka. The hope is slim, but I would rather have it than not.”
Once the situation was explained, the elder and his wife were more than willing to allow the Reigens the use of their kitchen. Arataka and the elder’s wife spent the better part of the day following the recipe in the book, step by painstaking step. Mother brought them meals from the farm so they would not be interrupted. They made many mistakes, but were able to continue making progress.
Finally, their work was complete and all that remained was to administer the cure. The girl’s mother fed her the first dose. Marie had grimaced at the taste, but took it. She was too weak to protest. Then they waited and waited.
After a nap of several hours, Marie requested something to eat. It was the first time she had wanted food in a day. She ate without vigor, but she ate she did. The elder considered this a victory. It took days, but she improved.
The last predicted week of her life passed and she lived. The color returned to her cheeks; she was stronger than she had been in weeks. She was soon well enough to spend time outside. The girl had left Death’s Door behind. The Medica Materia had cured her, Arataka had cured her.
Word spread throughout the village. The young heir to the Reigen family was a hero. A party was thrown in celebration of the girl’s victory over death. Arataka enjoyed the new found attention, reveling when one of the village girls even suggested that he could be the new Apothecary.
Arataka was not the only one to hear this. When the girl left his side, Jodo approached him. “How did you find the cure, Arataka?” he asked.
“I found The Medica Materia,” Arataka told him, “it led me right to it.” It was the same story he had told over and over again at this party. The legend surrounding the book was enough to not need much further explanation.
“I thought The Medica Materia was supposed to be guarded?” Jodo said.
“The temple was a dud,” Arataka said, drink loosening his tongue. “There was the one Guardian Spirit but he wasn’t a problem.” Unknown to Arataka, the offhand remark would be one to seal his fate. It would fester in the old man’s mind, forming a plot that would tear a family apart solely to satisfy his own jealousy.
The scheme came to fruition the next morning. While the Reigens were at breakfast, a knock came at the door. Unused to visitors at such an early hour, Father answered. Standing the in the morning sun was the village elder, Jodo and about a dozen able-bodied men. “What has happened?” When greeted with such a crowd it was usefully to battle some beast gone rogue.
The elder’s face was grave. “I’m afraid we have to ask your boy to leave the village.”
Father looked from man to man, neighbors he trusted, those he had helped in their times of need. “I don’t understand.”
The elder’s gaze dropped to the ground. “He saved Marie’s life but in doing so put the rest of us in grave danger.”
Mother stood up. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
That’s when Jodo finally spoke. “Your son angered the Guardian Spirit of the Book when he took it from the temple.” The other men parted to give the old Apothecary the stage. “Tell them, Arataka. Tell them about the Spirit.”
The young man was surprised to be put on the spot. “He was big, green and I took the book from him. It’s over.”
“Is it?” Jodo pushed his way into the farmhouse, looming over Arataka. “You signed this village’s death sentence when you took that book. It was guarded for a reason, child.”
Arataka’s blood ran cold. “But the temple—”
“Was guarding a cursed book. It can save lives but it will doom others,” Jodo said, on a roll now. “That Guardian will stalk you, looking for that book. It will tear through all of us to get to you to take back its rightful property!”
The blonde shook his head, in denial. “That’s not true!”
“Can you risk that?” Jodo asked. “Can you risk the lives of every man, woman, and child in this village?” Then he put the final nail in the coffin. “Will you risk your family?”
His parents were uncertain, caught between their duty to Clove Hills and their duty to their own flesh and blood. They loved Arataka, but what could they do in the face of such opposition and the implied threat of physical violence the men presented?
The Reigens, all three of them, gave up. Mother helped her son pack; heavy silence lay between them. She could not offer comfort and Arataka could not receive it for they were not left to their own devices. A few of the men guarded them as they worked. Father prepared a horse; he would not leave his son without this small bit of his inheritance. Alone the barn, unknown to all including his son, he wept.
It took only an hour for the Reigens to finish. All of this took place under the watchful eye of the elder and Jodo. The Medica Materia was the final item that Arataka took with him, sealing it in a satchel he attached to the saddle.
The family walked to the edge of the farm, stalked by the mob eager to see Arataka’s back. Mother drew her son into a tight embrace. “Please write me, please stay safe.” Her heart was breaking. She kissed his cheek, the last time she feared she would do so. “We’ll send a letter once you’re settled.”
“There will be little chance of that,” Jodo told her. “The Guardian Spirit will follow Arataka wherever he goes. He will always endanger and be a danger to those around him.” The old man sounded sympathetic. “I doubt he will be able to linger long enough for you to write him back.”
Mother was stricken, her eyes wet as the implication set in. “Arataka, I—”
He could not stand to see his Mother cry. “Don’t worry about me,” Arataka told her. “I’ll be fine.” It was a lie. As far as he knew, Arataka would never be fine again.
“What did you want from them?” Serizawa asked, when the tale was over. “What did you expect from your parents?”
“I—” Reigen had spent so long stewing in his own resentment he had never considered that. “I think I wanted them to convince me to stay.” It sounded pathetic to his own ears once said out loud.
“Is that true?” Serizawa asked. It sounded unlikely. “Would you have stayed?”
The worst part was, Reigen knew he wouldn’t have. It had been a terrible situation and, at the time, Reigen truly believed he was going to die. He would have left even if his parents had argued with him. For them to do so would have offered only the barest minimum of comfort.
When in conflict, it can be difficult to suss out the true source of negative emotions. Reigen’s feelings were valid, but it was not because of his parents’ complicity in his exile. Upon reexamination, he didn’t blame them for that. He couldn’t blame them for that. He was angered that it had happened at all, that Jodo had done this to them.
So, what was it that fostered the resentment? What was it that had him craving apology?
“Arataka?” Serizawa asked. The Apothecary had grown silent.
Reigen waved him off. “I’m okay, just thinking.” When did it start? When did the anger overtake his affection? He thought back.
Months, it had been months later. What happened in that time? He met Kenji, he met Shinra, he set up his traveling shop---
Reigen stiffened. Oh gods, that had been the start of the schism. He had told his parents of his plan to become a traveling Apothecary, that he had secured funds to start his own business. He would be fine, they no longer had to worry how he would make a living. Then a single letter with a curt message: Please stop this foolishness before you get someone killed.
It was sent with love; it was sent with concern but it was not what Reigen had wanted. He was exiled, he wanted support from his distant parents but received only admonishment. If they had been in the same room, a resolution could have been easily reached but with miles between them it became impossible.
As Reigen thought on it, he did still need an apology. He had accomplished much in his seven some odd years in exile, he deserved some acknowledgement for them. Then he felt like he could let go and wouldn’t that be a burden worth relieving?
“Arataka?” Serizawa asked again, growing worried.
The Apothecary smiled; it was small but sincere. “I’m just tired. Let’s go to bed.” It had been an extraordinarily exhausting day. Any dealings with his parents could wait until the morning.
Chapter 18: Unwritten
Reigen did not want any drama before breakfast and resolved to face his parents after their repast. He wanted a full stomach if there was to be any bickering. An empty one made it harder to think of clever retorts.
It seemed that his parents had the same idea. “May we speak, Arataka?” Father asked, pulling his son aside.
Reigen agreed without fuss, better to get it over with. He sent his Apprentices to the Academy to assist with crafting the Philosopher’s Stone; Serizawa did the same. Kenji and Isao were more than capable of watching over the teenagers for a few hours. Serizawa determined that his presence in the upcoming familial confrontation would be prudent. He might be able to mitigate Reigen’s anger and keep him from saying something he would regret. The Apothecary was trying to mend a bridge, after all.
They chose the study with its warm fireplace and thick walls as the proper stage. With four plush chairs and piping cups of tea, it could have been a cozy reunion if tensions had not been so high. Reigen got right to the point, foregoing any niceties. “Did you mean what you said in that letter?” he asked, keeping his tone neutral. “The one you sent after I started my business?”
Judging from his parents’ reaction, they did not require clarification. The hesitation was brief but pointed. “I wish I could say I didn’t,” Mother said, a painful admission. “I meant the sentiment but not the way it was said.”
“What do you mean?” Reigen asked. Mother had always been careful about her words; it was one of the reasons why the letter had been so devastating.
“That night,” Mother explained, “when I received the letter, I was upset. You had never had any training and yet you were starting a business as a medical professional. Yes, the book is miraculous but experience is what crafts a great physician.” Her voice was soft. “You saved Marie but there was no guarantee you wouldn’t do more harm than good.”
Her son was loath to admit it, but his Mother’s concerns were warranted. “True,” Reigen said, “but you also know what I good study I am.”
“Yes,” Mother could not help the small smile that graced her lips, “but I also remember how often you would run off with your friend to avoid said studies.”
Serizawa sniggered a little under his breath. Reigen gave his paramour a glare, he was not helping. “My childhood is not what was in question at the time,” Reigen said. “It was my future.”
“A future you were robbed of,” Father said with some bitterness.
“I made my own way,” Reigen insisted. He was not going to bring up his reluctance to inherit the family farm in the first place. “I have a respected career now.”
“But then you were just an unfortunate exile,” Mother said. “We never knew where you were or if you were safe until we received a letter. We were terrified that the Spirit would kill you at any moment.” Her hands clenched in anxiety. “Then you told us you were starting a business and it seemed that the danger would only worsen. That you would draw unnecessary attention to yourself and bring the Spirit down on your head.”
It had been no mere parental overreaction but genuine terror then. Reigen had never considered that. Being a real Apothecary had just been an extension of claiming the book, not a possible death sentence. That and a desperate way to keep from destitution.
“I wrote the first words that came to my head,” Mother said, “and before I could write something more diplomatic the letter was taken from me.”
“Taken?” Serizawa asked, shocked. “Who would take a letter?”
Reigen knew only one man who would have cared. “Jodo.”
Mother confirmed his suspicion. “We weren’t always alone when we received our correspondence.”
“They wouldn’t leave us be for that first year,” Father added. “Every time the mail came, Jodo or one of his men would storm the house.” The older man’s jaw clenched at the still remembered insult. “I don’t know what they were looking for, but they read everything you sent us and every response your mother wrote.”
“I always write several drafts before composing a formal letter,” Mother said. Reigen remembered long nights of watching his Mother respond to correspondence. It was a holdover from her youth as a merchant’s daughter, a practice of breeding she never stopped. The way she dipped her pen in ink and considered her words was one of Reigen’s most comforting memories. When he was very small, sometimes she would have him sit with her and help her with turns of phrase. She often didn’t use them, but the exercise helped him later in life.
That someone would take one of his Mother’s creations before she was ready was slight enough but that it was done with the express intent of harming her son was beyond the pale. “Was that the only letter they took before you were ready?” Reigen asked, feeling more sympathetic towards his parents than he had in a long time.
Mother’s answer told him everything: “No.”
Serizawa’s hand grasped Reigen’s arm. It wasn’t to restrain the Apothecary but to temper his own anger. The Mage’s relationship with his parents was fraught due to his powers and service to Claw but the idea of having someone else interfere further infuriated him. He had never met this Jodo and prayed for the old man’s sake he never did.
“To be honest,” Father said, his face grave, “I don’t think they even sent the ones they took or else you had moved on before they arrived.”
That sounded odd to Reigen. “What makes you say that?” he asked.
“You never responded to the news that your cousin Yuto was dead,” Father said.
The log on the fire split into two, spitting out flame and char. The smell of burning wood suddenly seemed oppressive.
“He died?” Reigen asked, breaking the quiet. “When was this? What happened?” Yuto was one of the only other members of his family with whom he was close. The fact that he was gone shocked Reigen. “Why didn’t you send another letter? I would have wanted to know.” His voice grew high in agitation.
Father raised his hands in a placating gesture. “We never knew how long you were going to stay in one place,” he explained. “Every letter was a risk. It wasn’t until you settled in Seasoning that notes came from the same place for any length of time.”
And by then, Reigen was sending his correspondence only a few times a year. Each one shorter and terser than the last. Then there was the attack on the village. He sent nothing during those long months of wandering. The Apothecary stared at his hands, so much time had been lost.
Had Jodo just left his family alone, things would be different. Reigen would still have been on the run, would still have only communicated through the written word but the words would have been friendlier, more loving. Didn’t the old man take enough from him by driving him from his home? Did his vengeance have to extend to Reigen’s family as well?
“What would you have said,” Reigen asked, “if you had written the letter properly?” He had to know.
“I would have begged you to reconsider,” Mother said. “I would have warned you about the danger of such a venture.” It hurt to hear, but it was honest. “I also would have told you I loved you,” she said, “and how much we wished you were with us. How dim our days were without you and how cold our nights.”
That, at least, would have softened the other words. “And now?” Reigen asked. He felt vulnerable before his family in a way he hadn’t for a long time.
“To be honest,” Mother said, “the stories you told us, when you would tell us, all seemed so ludicrous. Something more out of your adventure stories than real experiences: meeting a Golden Order Monk, mentoring a magic boy, curing mysterious diseases. We didn’t believe you; I didn’t believe you.”
She took her son’s hand, holding it as she had done when he was a boy. Seven years had added creases and calluses that were not there before. Reigen had missed those hands. “It wasn’t until coming here that I could see differently. You’ve done well for yourself,” Mother said, her voice full of pride. “You’ve made some interesting friends, have a respected career.” She smirked at Serizawa, “A handsome companion.”
The Mage took the compliment with a significant look to his paramour. Reigen failed to ignore it.
“We would like to start again,” Father said, “if you’d allow it.”
It wasn’t quite an apology, but an admission that his current life was one worth living and one that his parents wished to be a part of. In the heart of the study, surrounded by people he cared for, Reigen decided that it would be enough.
“Would you like to see one of our lessons?” Reigen asked. “Our Apprentices are at the Academy now; we can join them there.”
Mother’s eyes were moist. “We would like that very much,” she said.
Father stood, his hand gesturing toward the door. “Will you lead the way?”
No, definitely not quite an apology but a desire for a new beginning. “Of course,” Reigen said, clambering to his feet. It was time to put on a show. “We are in the middle of a delicate operation so, of course, you will be asked to keep your hands to yourself,” he teased, opening the door. “The work is for trained professionals only.”
Mother knew when she was being bamboozled. “Then why are you leaving it to children?” she teased.
Reigen ignored the comment.
The next few hours were a blur of lessons, demonstrations and discovery. The Apprentices were on their best behavior, especially Shou, who wished to show off in front of the woman who disbelieved his royal heritage. They made some progress toward Phase Five but fell well short of their goal.
Reigen’s parents seemed less impressed by their son’s knowledge than by his patience in instructing his pupils. As the day waned and supper called, Father drew aside his son while Mother walked beside Serizawa.
“Has my son been treating you well?” Mother asked.
“Very.” Serizawa had not had the opportunity to speak with Mother alone and was curious as to what she wanted.
“Good,” she said. “He can be a little thoughtless sometimes and, despite your past, you seem to be a good man.”
Reigen had mentioned that his parents had expected further heirs to their farm, which made Serizawa wonder. “You are not bothered by our relationship?”
Mother raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
Serizawa felt silly for even bringing it up. “Never mind.”
The older woman chuckled to herself. “My son is bonded to a magical book, consorts with Mages and is crafting the Philosopher’s Stone.” She gave Serizawa a conspiratorial wink. “I’m certain that if it’s in the cards, I will be gifted with grandchildren in an equally unconventional manner.”
Serizawa had no response that seemed equal to the declaration. He remained silent, the pink of his cheeks the only indication that he had heard her.
“Come on,” Reigen complained, looking over his shoulder. “Kenji’s got wild boar tonight and I’m starving. Stop talking Katsuya’s ear off!”
Mother waved off her son’s rudeness, although Father had a few choice words about decorum. It was such a small thing but it clearly illustrated the difference that a single talk and a few hours could make. Before, the Reigen family could barely say a few words to each other, but now, they were teasing each other and even laughing.
Serizawa smiled to himself. Someday, he would like to have something like this with his own family. Perhaps he could convince Reigen to take another journey with him in the fall, this time to his own hometown. At the very least that evening, Serizawa could start with a letter.
The weather cleared after a few days. Although still cold, it was at least safe for traveling. The reappearance of the sun also seemed to drive away the shadowy dreams that plagued Mob and Serizawa. Neither Master nor Apprentice spoke of them, but Mob’s occasional haunted expressions and the way that Reigen woke to find Serizawa clinging to him told him plenty.
Mogami’s influence had not been for a mere half an hour for them but months, if not years’ worth of torment. It would take more than a few peaceful nights to shed his impact completely, but Reigen had confidence that both would pull through. Serizawa was a stronger man now than he was when they met in the cave and Mob’s independence had grown along with his height.
Reigen was proud of both of them and, in the days that followed, told them in subtle and not so subtle ways. “Proud of you, Mob,” he would tell the boy before ruffling his hair and scampering away before he could hear the Adepts tease his former Apprentice. With Serizawa it was in stolen kisses, shared looks and the occasional shoulder rub.
During this time, his family chose to leave the castle. The Reigen family had tarried long enough; they had their own business to see to in Clove Hills. “With the Guardian Spirit no longer a threat, you can return home,” Mother had offered during their goodbyes.
Reigen appreciated the sentiment, but it was too late. He had a new home, one with shelves of medicine and a garden in the back, with a well of cool water and a stream of customers. A home where he could teach the next generation, accomplishing what Jodo had feared the most. “I have too much in Seasoning to abandon it,” Reigen told her, “but I would not be opposed to seeing how badly Taran has fouled up the fields.”
His Mother’s answering scoff was welcome. They were comfortable enough to gently mock each other again.
Father drew his son into a tight embrace. “It’s been good to see you.”
The embrace was returned with equal heartfelt emotion. “I will come visit,” Reigen promised. When he pulled back, Serizawa was watching them with such affection it was difficult to take. In that moment Reigen resolved to be better about writing to his parents and that, someday, he would keep his oath. Just, perhaps not that year.
With the Reigens on their way, life at the Academy settled into a vague normalcy. There were still lessons to teach, animals to trap and a Stone to craft. Shou demonstrated vast improvement on his techniques, most likely because he wanted to show up Go, the Adept who claimed the ability to control fire. Mob and Teru were friendly with the other boys, but Teru showed obvious favoritism to Mob.
Favoritism that would have Serizawa taking his own paramour aside. “How does Shigeo not notice the looks Teruki gives him? How can he not see it?”
Reigen sighed, he had been in the boy’s company far longer than Serizawa. “Mob is a special boy,” he said, “he has the ability to show other’s his feelings and bring out the best in them. He is also as dense as a brick.”
At this, the Master Mage groaned. As the boys sprouted into manhood, he knew that this was only going to get worse. Reigen patted his back in sympathy, while also grateful that it was not going to be his problem.
Tome and her infatuation with Rei certainly would be though. As he caught them once braiding each other’s hair and telling each other girls’ sweet secrets he resolved to be harsher on Tome regarding her writing lessons. If she wanted this romance to continue, endearments would have to be passed through ink and scroll.
Work on Phase Five passed slowly, haltingly. Reigen, ignorant of Alchemic processes did not know why, but he could sense the frustrations of Kenji and his Adepts. Progress was simply not being made. Then Lady Wyndham made an unscheduled appearance and it seemed to stall completely.
She arrived in the late afternoon on a day when the children were already distracted, they had just received their missives from home. Each Adept and Apprentice eagerly poured over the words, although Tome still had considerable trouble. She was in the process of learning and the handwriting was not the clearest. Her parents, like many, were illiterate so they relied on the village elder to transcribe their messages. Which meant, that even at an age when most teenagers are embarrassed of their parents, Tome had it the worst. For not only was any strangeness shown to her, but it had been passed through the hands of the biggest gossip in the village.
She frowned at a word she was unfamiliar with. “Master Reigen, my dad’s saying something about cows.” Tome handed him the letter.
Reigen looked it over. “The word is ‘flatulence’,” he said.
“There is no way my dad knows that word, I don’t know that word,” Tome said. Which meant the village elder chose that word specifically.
Shou peeked over his Master’s shoulder. “Your dad’s asking if you can make a potion to make the cows fart less.”
Tome stiffened in humiliation; Rei was within earshot. The brown-haired girl’s eyes met Tome’s in sympathy before turning back to her own correspondence. Reigen tried to smooth the situation, “He’s teasing you; he knows it’s a dietary issue.”
It did not stop the snickers from the boys. Shou decided to help his fellow Apprentice but only added fuel to a different fire. “Don’t worry,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder, “at least he’s not starting fights like Ritsu.”
“What do you mean Ritsu started a fight?” Mob piped up from his corner of the study. His hair floated in agitation. “He didn’t mention anything in his letter to me.”
“Well, maybe he doesn’t want to tell you everything,” Shou said.
Mob looked stricken. “But I’m his brother!”
Before things could escalate, Sir Durand entered the study. “Excuse me, My Lord” he addressed Kenji, “but the Lady Wyndham has just arrived.”
The study emptied out quickly at the news. No one wanted to be the last to see Kenji’s mysterious fiancé.
True to their words, Lady Wyndham was just as lovely as Kenji and Reigen had described. She had brought only a few retainers with her, a far smaller party than a lady of her status would warrant, but it was clear that she was at the castle solely for Kenji. “I couldn’t bear the entire winter without you, love,” she told him.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been busy with the Stone,” Kenji said as way of apology.
She waved him off, “This is the first time you’ve been able to make real strides in your work. I begrudge you not. Besides,” Lady Wyndham unfurled her fan, “I’ve been dealing with my brother.”
The Earl’s shoulders slumped. “Still?”
Deciding not to dwell on the sad news, Kenji changed the subject. “Let me introduce you to my Adepts.” One by one, Lady Wyndham was introduced to the Adepts and Apprentices, impressing everyone with her grace and manners. She treated everyone with equal attention, regardless of status, including Dimple. The spirit preened at the attention. She was a true Lady.
Though when finally given Serizawa’s hand in introduction, she could not help her mischievous smile. “You must be Arataka’s new beau,” she said, “I look forward to getting better acquainted later.”
Later was at supper where she had arranged the seating. She placed herself between Shou and Serizawa on one end of the table with Reigen, Kenji and Tome across. The presence of a new face electrified dinner, especially as she had stories to tell.
Shou latched onto her as a new role model, much to Reigen’s simultaneous glee and horror. One could hardly find a better teacher for courtly manners than Lady Wyndham. However, she did have that repository of dirty jokes, and she delighted her new audience with a few age appropriate ones. The children squealed in delight while Reigen just buried his head in his hands. He knew that in the weeks to come, he would never hear the end of them.
“You know,” Shou said over dessert, “maybe if you told your brother you didn’t want the mine anymore, he’d decide he didn’t want it either.”
Lady Wyndham looked at Shou over her glass of wine. Her gaze was shrewd. “Hmm, not a bad strategy young one.” She took a calculated sip. “You did spend some time in court.”
The boy beamed at the praise.
“No offense,” Serizawa interjected. “But I would think your brother would have to be rather foolish to fall for such a ploy.”
The Lady gracefully rolled her eyes. “He once drank his own water on a dare to earn a sapphire ring for a girl when anyone with breeding could tell at once it was paste.”
“I take it he did not impress the girl,” Serizawa said, feeling a little queasy.
“He impressed upon her that inbreeding would be the better option,” Lady Wyndham said.
Reigen tried not to choke on his drink, only praying that his students didn’t understand the jape. Luckily, they did not and the rest of supper passed without further upset.
Within the week, Lady Wyndham felt like a permanent fixture at the Academy and the students were begging her to teach them some of her skills. The work on the Stone was waning, the Adepts at an impasse. Kenji hoped that by focusing on something else, their young brains could recharge.
Lady Wyndham agreed to lessons in court manners after supper for the remainder of her time at the castle. Unfortunately, it would not be very long for either herself nor Reigen and Serizawa’s party. The weather was warming, which meant that Reigen needed to leave soon if he was to make it for early planting. To be honest, the Apothecary was growing bored and he wished to return to his own routines.
It was their last week in the castle and Lady Wyndham had settled in with the students in the vast study. “Today’s lesson will be on how to diffuse a tense conversation,” she said, enjoying the teenagers’ rapt attention.
With that, Reigen and Serizawa exited the study. The Apothecary closed the door, leaving the students to their lesson. He glanced up at Serizawa. “We have a few free hours, what shall we do?” Although they loved their Apprentices, time alone was still to be cherished.
“We are leaving soon, yes?” Serizawa asked.
The Apothecary nodded, “It’s time to go. I have to reopen the shop and there’s little we can do here.” The work on the Philosopher’s Stone would have to continue without Reigen and the Apprentices. They had brought Kenji’s Academy to the Fifth Phase, now success would hinge on the efforts of the remaining Adepts.
Serizawa leaned down, his larger frame crowding Reigen against the door. His hands settled on his paramour’s hips. “Then I should like to have you one last time in a proper bed,” he whispered. The journey before them would take weeks even with the clearer ground. Taverns and pubs offered only so much privacy when traveling with teenagers.
Reigen gave the older man a sly grin. “As if that ever stopped you before.”
It hadn’t. Serizawa demonstrated his superior strength and resolve by throwing Reigen over his shoulder. Ignoring the indignant squawk, he carried his prize through the halls back to their shared bedroom. The servants paid the lovebirds no mind, favoring tending to their own work rather than the mischief of guests. No one saw them for many hours.
Their goodbyes were filled with both sorrow and the urgent desire to leave. The winter spent at the Academy had been fruitful but Seasoning called with the comforts of home and the missing faces of loved ones. The lure of the Philosopher’s Stone simply did not hold sway over Reigen and Serizawa as it did Kenji. Their Apprentices were also eager to go, especially Mob who now fretted over his brother since the younger boy’s letter to Shou.
The faster that they returned, the faster Mob could ease his mind.
Before they departed, Lady Wyndham had received a missive from her family. Shou’s ploy had worked and the jealous brother had relinquished his claim on the mine. The dowry negotiations could proceed which meant that, in the future, Reigen and the others could return for a proper wedding. Feeling that all was as well as it could be, Serizawa and Reigen pushed on. It was time.
As they crested the hill that had brought them to this fabulous destination all those months ago, Reigen spoke the words that had summed up their winter at the Academy: “Well, that was weird.”
That's the end of another adventure. I want to thank all my constant readers for your support. Thank you.