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The Tree of Thoth

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He hated Vayne Aurelius. So very perfect. Mister Popular, Professor Zeppel’s pet, always willing to lend a helping hand and always perfectly blameless when anything happened. Things like equipment from their workshop ending up in Flay’s.

Flay had recognized them, (and being able to identify someone else’s equipment from the scratches was all sorts of creepy: how much was he spying on them, anyway?) assumed they were rigged to fail and confronted Tony. Well, had burst in, brandished them at him, and said, “Muahahaha, I didn’t know you had it in you to do something so diabolically clever, but I have foiled your evil plot!” Flay had demanded they return his equipment and Tony had no idea what he was talking about.

The resulting argument had drawn over the pink-haired one and the beastgirl, and the latter had said, “Well, we didn’t take them either, right Jess? It had to be you guys!”

‘Jess’ had laughed nervously and looked away in a way that didn’t fool anyone. Especially not Flay, who had just been humiliated, and Tony, who was grinning like it was his birthday and wasn’t going to let this drop.

So they’d dragged it out of her, Renee had told him later, and surprise surprise, Vayne had helped her with the theft. Oh, they all said he was utterly blameless, of course. As though he was some puppet who had only lifted up other people’s property and taken it away because Jess had been pulling his strings.

He didn’t even seem ashamed about it at all. Did he just assume Roxis didn’t know?

Poor little orphan who had grown up in a mansion. He’d been raised by a mana, had one practically from the cradle according to Zeppel, who had gossiped about the strange boy he’d found to everyone. How ignorant and savage the peasants were, driving a child out of town for showing signs of alchemy!

For theft, more likely.

But it had been, well, theoretically possible that he was simultaneously an alchemy genius and just that stupid. That he didn’t know right from wrong.


Acting so reluctant and saintly, Vayne said, “You don’t have to do this.”

An order was an order, and “I want to see the extent of your power as well.”

As Roxis readied himself to attack his enemy let the mask drop, and it became clear that Vayne wasn’t the only one people had been gossiping about. The strength of their mana would decide this? Not Vayne’s own skill, and not Roxis’?

 That didn’t matter, Vayne was saying. What mattered was having a mana. Vayne had one. Roxis didn’t. And that bit about his allegiance being his undoing? His allegiance to what? To alchemy?

When Roxis lost he realized that he would never hate anyone as much as he hated that smug, conniving snake. He would get him for this, he would humiliate him as Roxis had been humiliated. After they left his facade collapsed and he had to punch his fury into the ground. “What a difference, just having a mana!” Because Vayne hadn’t won on his own merits, calling on Sulpher’s power slowly to rub it in. “Damn this!”

Was this why Tony hated Flay, the delinquent who wasted the teacher’s time and the priceless opportunities Roxis had fought for? Roxis had thought he hated people like that, but Flay was nothing next to Vayne. No, now he knew what it was to truly despise someone. He wondered if Flay was like this under the foolish exterior and what Flay had done to Tony to make him abandon all good sense when it came to him.

When he finally managed to compose himself he made his way to the tree, only to find that Tony had burned it down.

The huffin tree was nearly extinct. It was said that it could not thrive without the presence of mana, which was very likely why the one that had once grown on the Rosenkrantz estate had died decades before he was born. No one had taken it down: mushrooms were useful alchemic materials, after all.

This one had been healthy, flowering. And then Tony had killed it to spite Flay. Roxis had thought he was just going to pick all the blossoms so everyone but Flay’s workshop would have access to the best materials. But no.

Roxis had been planning to come back later in the year and get a seed for the collection he was gathering. The estate’s gardens and greenhouse had once had every plant an alchemist could want, but it had been long enough since they had been used that his uncle hadn’t known what many of them were, let alone how to take care of them.

At first he’d thought Renee and Tony had been standing in front of the tree to protect it, but, “You did this?”

Tony had, and why had he? “Look at their faces! Haha, man, I feel so much better.” Didn’t Roxis?

He hated Vayne, yes, he understood that desire, but, “This is…” Wrong. He had never felt so ashamed in his life.

The beastgirl was honestly outraged, the thief was saying how horrible it was. The tree hadn’t done anything wrong (unlike her and Vayne), and that was true.

It was vile, and there was nothing left to say, so he left, defeated. He could just have used the Wings of Icarus but decided to walk instead. He needed to calm down before he had to face Tony again.

He shouldn’t be regretting this partly because it made him look bad. First Vayne had proven that he was stronger, and now Vayne had proof that Roxis was an accessory to a crime far worse than stealing lab equipment. 

He’d wanted to score high on the final on his own merits, not because of a crime like this. That would practically be cheating, and his father had taught him better than that.

He should at least try to revive the tree. The last of the Megaheals from home might not work on trees at all, but wasting them would be a fitting penance.

When he got back to the tree he was glad Tony had taken the blossoms with him instead of handing them to Roxis then and there to spite Flay’s workshop with what they couldn’t have. Because, if he’d had them, he would have felt compelled to surrender them to Vayne. Why hadn’t he left with the other two? He didn’t want Vayne to watch him try to revive the tree. Didn’t want Vayne to see him fail again.

So he kept out of sight as Vayne talked to his mana. Vayne asked if it was really dead and seemed genuinely sad and regretful. Well, people could be nice to animals and cruel to people. Roxis couldn’t hear the mana’s answer: The Mana of Sulfur only spoke to Vayne.

But Vayne sighed and seemed to be agreeing. “Yeah, if only someone knew how to save it.” They stayed there awhile longer, a moment of silence probably. Roxis chafed at the delay: if there was some thread of life still in there every second counted. He took out the last of the bottles: had he really wasted that many trying to survive against Vayne?

He heard a voice beside him and growled, “What?” before glancing back, then down.

“Oo…” More indistinguishable muttering, ending in, “ave tree?” It seemed he’d intimidated it. The Mana of Wood had appeared before him and he’d snapped at it? Wonderful.

Well, a horrible first impression wasn’t going to matter. The tree’s fate was bad enough. There was no way this Mana would pact with him after that. “I don’t know if I can, but here.” He held out the bottles.

It floated towards the tree, wanting him to follow, so he did. It was penance, after all.

“Roxis?” Vayne seemed honestly surprised instead of hostile, wondering why Roxis was here instead of assuming he was here to gloat. That was strange: the type of person Vayne was would be gloating in Roxis’ shoes, and normally people without any principals assumed everyone was just as bad as them.

Roxis ignored him as he knelt and poured the first one. “These were synthesized by my great-great grandmother and they’re still potent, but I don’t know what good they’ll do.” Best not to get the Mana’s hopes up.

“Do you think you can save the tree?” Really, Vayne should become an actor, not an alchemist.

The Mana of Wood was saying something again. He tried to puzzle it out but it didn’t make any sense. “I’m sorry?”

“Will oo… wif me?” The mana pointed to himself and then Roxis.

He wanted to demand that it speak up, since he must have misheard that and raising his hopes was cruel. “Do you mean…”

The mana nodded.

“I would be honored.” There was no response he could give other than that. “But I haven’t done anything to deserve it.” Maybe if he saved the tree he would.

“Well, you’re trying, right? We just gave up.”

Trying? Trying didn’t count for anything. The real world didn’t grade on effort, or else Vayne wouldn’t be here and Roxis’ father would have passed the entrance exams. He didn’t want to snort at Vayne in case the shy Wood Mana assumed it was directed at him, but he dared a glare as he poured the second bottle.

He tried and tried again, until he was down to the last bottle, and none of them had any effect. Yet another sign his legacy was worth nothing at all. “Damn this,” he said quietly, not wanting the mana to hear, pushing his fist into the ground far harder than was necessary for balance. He threw the last bottle at the tree before standing and turning to face the mana. “I’m sorry. The other students most likely told the teachers by now, and if they could save it they would be here already. I shouldn’t have gotten your hopes up.”

It shook its head, clearly telling that it didn’t mind, but he did. “I wish I knew a potion that could save it, but…” Before he could finish Sulpher leaped up into Vayne’s arms and the ‘golden boy’ began to glow. Silver, not the gold of his name.

Roxis  couldn’t help scowling. He should be happy the tree would be alright, but wasn’t it just like Vayne to watch Roxis struggle fruitlessly? Why hadn’t he done this before? He was probably doing it now only to show Roxis up.

 A book appeared in front of Roxis, open a fourth of the way through. What was a recipe for a plant stimulant doing in a book called Theory on Crystals?

An elixir that regrew plants from their roots after the rest had been damaged in the process of harvesting? Yes, the part s above ground had been charred, but something might remain deep down, where his potions hadn’t reached yet.

“Mrow.”

“Sulpher says that should be what you need.” As though Roxis hadn’t already figured that out.

The mana of wood perked up. “’Ank oo,” clearly meant ‘Thank you!’ “Are oo the ana… ecipe?”

Vayne seemed to have no trouble understanding, of course. “I don’t know, Sulpher’s always been Sulpher.”

“No, oo.” It was actually comfortable enough to disagree with Vayne?

“Me?” Vayne pointed at himself, clearly not understanding what the mana was talking about.

Roxis interrupted. “You take this. I can’t create it without a mana, after all.” Not at the necessary strength, not in time.

The Mana of Wood floated over to him again. “I’d… Help?”

“I can’t accept your offer when I have done nothing to deserve it.” Roxis turned away.

“Roxis…”

“I won’t take charity from you.” Of all people. “If anyone deserves to pact with him it’s you.” Not me.

“You were the one who made the recipe appear. I didn’t even try. Sulpher’s never done that before.” So Vayne hadn’t known he could.

Perhaps that was true. And the shy little mana was looking at him pleadingly.

Roxis sighed and let principle slide. “If you’re certain, I would be honored.”

It smiled and he felt the mana’s power fill him, but this wasn’t the time to experiment. Now he used the Wings of Icarus. He couldn’t bear to be too late now, not when he had already made the pact. He wouldn’t let the Mana of Wood regret his decision.

Even so, it took time to run past the monsters back to the hilltop. “Why are you still here?”

“Nikki and Jess don’t care about the exam after what happened.”

“And what about you? Have you decided to follow in Flay’s footsteps and blow off all your exams?” He worked while he was talking, looking for places where roots came near the surface.

“The Vice Principal wouldn’t want that. She was worried that he’d be a bad example. Jess and Nikki don’t want to be like him, but if our grades fell or we got detention she might take back her permission to use the workshop.” Vayne seemed honestly afraid of that.

“Stop pretending. It’s only the two of us here.” Well, four, but no one counted Mana unless they made a point of appearing. Alchemists preferred not to think about the fact there was always someone looking over their shoulder.

“Pretending what?”

“That you don’t know what I’m talking about.” That you actually do just want to help. “I have my own mana now.” Probably weaker than Vayne’s, otherwise Vayne wouldn’t have been so willing to let him have it, but still, a mana. “I am grateful for your help, Sulpher, but Vayne? I want you to know that I hate you. I will challenge you again, and this time,” he told him as the new sapling shot up behind him, petals blown loose by the sudden movement, “I will win.”

Chapter Text

Roxis sighed happily when he opened the door to the workroom and found no one there. Once again, he considered joining the new workshop that was trying to gather enough members, but he’d made a commitment to this one.

He wished he hadn’t. He’d gotten stuck with all the cleaning duties, Renee would insist on telling him the latest gossip no matter how clear he made it that he was working, and now that Roxis had a mana Tony resented him. It rubbed it in that Flay had finally pacted with the Mana of Gold and Tony still wasn’t having any luck.

He’d gotten the ether level of the new healing potion he was trying (V-heal, for his fifth attempt to replicate the Megaheals) to a hundred when the door slammed open and just as quickly slammed shut as he heard someone dive out of sight. “What’s going on?” He advanced, cards out, and saw the beastgirl. “I thought better of you.” Even if not by much. She was in that workshop, after all.

“Hey, wait a minute, I’m not here to bug you guys!”

“Then why are you here?”

“It’s the last place they’ll look.”

Ah. “Who is it this time? The boys you’ve been leading on or their girlfriends?” He wished Renee didn’t keep him so well-informed.

“Them and the music class,” she whispered, glancing fearfully at the door and gesturing for him to keep his voice down.

 “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything, I just sang! I didn’t know they were going to have a contest or anything!”

“A contest?”

“For the chance to audition. That’s how I decided to choose the alchemists I pact with, but then I was visiting early and heard her singing.” A mana sitting on a lute appeared next to Nikki.

“She’s the Mana of Sound,” Nikki explained sheepishly. “I just said yes when she offered to pact with me, and then some of the people who were listening to me sing got really upset.”

“Well, if you didn’t know,” it’s the mana’s fault for breaking her word and not giving the others a chance, not yours. “Tony is in detention and Renee is keeping him company. You need to be out of here no later than three.”

“Thank you! You’re a lifesaver.” She grinned at him. “I guess you aren’t that much of a jerk.”

“Is that anything to say to someone doing you a favor?”

“I’m sorry! Don’t throw me out!”

“Just keep quiet. I need to get my homework done before they return.”

Except she didn’t. After poking through the books she asked, “What’s up with you and Vayne anyway?”

“I hate people like that.” He was looking forward to flattening him in the upcoming competition. Tony had said he was more than happy to take Flay and leave Vayne for Roxis.

“Like what? Wishy-washy guys? I don’t like them either, they’re so annoying. They tell you whatever they think you want to hear and you don’t know what’s really going on in their heads. Like my fanclub. Most of them don’t like me, they just like my voice and tail, but they’re all, ‘Oh, Nikki, I’d do anything for you.’ Yeah, right up until they find somebody else, and then they’d ditch me like their old girlfriends.” She needed someone responsible enough to help her raise lots of babies.

“ Vayne’s not like that, though. He’ll tell you if he thinks something is stupid, even if he still just goes along with it because he wants to keep everybody happy. They kept running him out of towns. That happened to me a few times, and it was really annoying. He’s still kind of worried he’ll be kicked out of Al Revis. Can you believe he was actually happy when he heard they don’t let people leave until they graduate? Well, he doesn’t have parents, so it’s not a problem like it is for Jess.” She kept examining everything on the table while she was talking. “Wow, you’re growing a huffin sapling in the workshop? Is that even allowed?”

“It’s in a pot.” He was starting to wonder if she had been sent to spy. “As for Vayne, he’s two-faced. Honestly, of the two I prefer the doormat he pretends to be.”

“What? Vayne?!” Her tail stood on end when she was surprised. “Are you serious?”

“You were there when he made fun of how I didn’t have a mana.”

“Uh… what?”

“Our battle. Before he summoned his mana’s power. He said the battle would be decided by our mana, when I didn’t have one.”

“Right, that was a weird thing to say.” She’d never thought of it that way. “This is Vayne we’re talking about, though. He doesn’t know how to do subtle.”

“Well, he’s been keeping almost everyone fooled.” Except me.

“Vayne? Are you serious?”

He gave up. There was no point trying to get her to think ill of her friend. “You’ll see.” Eventually.

“Right. Well, I guess I’ll see if the coast is clear. Thanks, Roxis!”

The polite thing to say here was ‘you’re welcome,’ but she definitely wasn’t welcome in this workshop. “Just don’t let Tony know you were here.” He’d throw a tantrum.

Hanging from the ceiling, Flay smiled. This was just sounding more and more interesting! It looked like his future sidekick already had a rival, but what was all this about dark secrets?

There was quite a bit about Vayne that was strange, but that just made him a more intriguing and fun addition to Flay’s workshop.

Roxis’ mana appeared. “Yes, what is it?”

“He’s not bad.” Roxis’ mana only talked intelligibly when they were alone. Renee’s mana seemed to scare him, and he never even manifested when Tony was around.

“He’s lying to the whole school. Theofratus never had a wife or heir, that was why Professor Zeppel went to appropriate his library while investigating rumors of a demon in the area.”

The Mana of Wood shook his head. “He’s not, but he’s not lying.”

“He believes it?”

The mana nodded.

“He’s still… I’ll defeat him this time.”

No, Roxis and Tony were going down, Flay knew. It would just be too much fun to have Roxis in his workshop to miss this opportunity.

“He doesn’t know. Sulpher told everyone not to say.”

“His mana babies him.”

“Um…”

“Well? Speak up.”

“I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

“Don’t worry, you know how the infirmary and the Wings of Icarus work.” Roxis started taking notes on the ratios.

The Mana of Wood hesitated, but finally decided to keep silent and disappeared.

Inwardly, Flay cheered. A conspiracy among the mana? This just kept getting better and better!


“Why don’t you try this, Jess? You’re better at throwing things than I am,” Vayne said after the third ball failed to hit a target.

“Aww.” But she took the remaining two anyway. “Watch, I’ll show you how it’s done.”

“Ah, here you are!” Flay ran up, carrying four of the pink and blue clouds-on-sticks.

“Vayne can have mine,” Pamela said cheerfully. “Jess, can I have that bear, please?” Jess had just won a pink bear that looked a lot like Pamela’s. “Teddy’s getting worn out helping you guys.” And would need a new body to possess soon.

“Sure, Pamela.” Jess handed it to her. “Vayne! You weren’t watching!”

“I’m sorry.” He looked at the clouds-on-sticks, no, cotton candy that Flay had pressed into each of his hands. “Are you sure that you can eat these?”

“Of course!” Flay held up a stick, already stripped bare.

“Yeah, see?” Nikki opened her mouth wide and almost pounced on hers. “Thanks, Flaya!”

“Yeah, thanks Flay!” Jess took hers after she handed the bear to Pamela.

“Freeloaders!” Flay said again, but he didn’t really mind. Vayne smiled as he finally took a bite.

“Mrow?” ‘How does it taste?’

“Really sweet.” Vayne held the other one out to Sulpher, who pushed his nose at it and finally licked.

Hmm. ‘Put it down.’ It didn’t taste very good, but it looked fascinating to play with.

“What are you doing? If you don’t want it, don’t… Oh.” Nikki realized why Vayne had done that when she saw Sulpher start to bat at it and push it around. “That looks kind of fun,” she realized. Although she wouldn’t do that on a dirt path. “Hey Flaya…”

“Freeloader.” Still, Flay drew out his money pouch. “So, how are you liking it, Vayne?”

“It’s… different.” Strange.

“Do you want another one?”

“I don’t know. Sulpher?”

Sulpher was trying to lick the sticky pink stuff off his fur and really wishing he hadn’t done that. Not that he’d let it show: he was a cat. He had meant to do that. ‘No.

“No thank you.”

“Ah well. Two for me then, Nikki.” Flay handed her enough to get one for herself as well. “So, you don’t know how to throw a ball either? This must be remedied!”

“Aww, Vayne, your mana looks like a bit like mine!” Maybe if Pamela dyed Sulpher pink…

Vayne had won a yellow bear for Nikki, passed on Sulpher’s recommendation that she use it for pouncing practice, and learned the difference between under and overhand before Flay dragged him off to get ready for the tournament. Festivals really were a lot of fun, huh.

Meanwhile Sulpher considered wishing that the stuff would disappear from his fur, but that would mean letting Vayne, or the other Vayne at least, know that he’d made a mistake. Unthinkable.


While the tournaments were technically two-man teams, mana didn’t count. Otherwise alchemists with mana would have had to fight solo. Roxis didn’t want the Mana of Wood to fight for him the way Renee’s mana did. Ancient being or not, he looked like a child and there was something just wrong about that.  Roxis didn’t mind drawing on his power to use techniques, of course, like tossing seeds and watching monsters get impaled on their branches, but he drew the line at a child taking a hit for him. The way he made a little noise of pain and then got back up just made it more unbearable.

But the Mana didn’t want to see him get hurt either, so they compromised with a technique where Roxis used the acorn it dragged around everywhere to take hits for him, like the ghostly shields.

The way Tony kept dragging him to the old ruined schoolhouse and the catacombs under the library after finding out he’d been scared by Pamela was another reason he couldn’t stand him. Plants grew better when there was sunlight: of course he was at a disadvantage underground.

Generally it was quicker to just kill the enemy monsters then set all that up, but against other students he needed to be cautious. He would say one thing for Tony: he was skilled with that scythe. He hadn’t given up because he didn’t have a mana. Of course, he had quite a lot of practice fighting fellow students.

The two of them flattened their first opponents, which was only to be expected. The real challenge would come later.

No, what was puzzling was why Tony was smirking instead of scowling. He’d been arguing with Renee all day yesterday, practically begging her to come watch him instead of spending the day ‘washing her hair.’ Roxis knew she wasn’t here: if she had been, Tony would have headed right towards her to brag. Even if Tony wasn’t sure if she was here or not, he would have combed the crowd for her. No, he had to know that she was somewhere else or else he wouldn’t be standing by the platform. Smirking.

“Do I want to know?”

Tony’s only response was, “Heh heh…”

Roxis fingered the packet of mandragora seeds in his pocket and wished he’d brought something to put Tony to sleep with that wouldn’t harm him. Just until their next match.

“Hey Roxis, have you seen Jess?” Typical. Let her take shelter from a horde once and Nikki kept acting like they were friends or something. He had enough trouble with Tony without Tony wanting to know why Flay’s beastgirl was so chummy with him.

“No.” Now go away, he glared at her.

Tony just laughed again.

“I hope she didn’t actually drink that stuff…” Nikki said, ignoring Tony. Jess had been talking about some sort of super-soldier potion she was going to make. Nikki had worried maybe Jess would try to slip it to her too, so she hadn’t drank anything but water all day. That was safe, there was no way one of Jess’ potions would be clear and tasteless instead of a weird goop. “We’re supposed to go next after Vayne and Flay. Oooh, where is she? If you see her, make her wait here, okay?”

She raced off without waiting for a response.

“Tell me you didn’t.”

The only response Roxis got was another laugh.

Chapter Text

What was it with alchemists today, he wondered as he watched Flay and Vayne take down their opponents, one of whom had some sort of fire mana. The super-senior (Flay wasn’t the only one who couldn’t graduate) hadn’t done anything but summon it and had it use a few skills. Even Vayne was far more imaginative and intelligent when it came to applying his mana’s power. Or perhaps all of those techniques were Sulpher’s ideas.

Roxis wasn’t surprised when he won, but he was a bit amused when pink stuff appeared in Vayne’s hair. Sadly, it didn’t seem to be gum, from how easily it came out when Vayne dumped a bottle of water over his head after the match and scrubbed at his hair. “Sulpher!”

Sulpher just looked pleased with himself as he licked his now-clean fur. “Mrow.” Did you want to fight with a pink sword?

“What’s wrong with pink? Jess has pink hair. Where is Jess, anyway?”

Now Tony laughed loud enough to catch Flay’s attention.

Roxis had known it. “I won’t be party to this. A victory due to cheating is worse than a loss.” It was giving up before you even started. Or worse. Roxis hadn’t used it since coming here, he wasn’t suicidal, but he was still aware of his other deck, the one his father had given him. They were perfectly ordinary playing cards, no different from a tarot deck.

And as long as everyone kept believing that then no one had to be burnt at the stake.

His father had spent years traveling the world trying to find a mana and a teacher. Trying to gain the power of alchemy, he’d discovered its lost half. Just because he didn’t have the head for ratios and figures necessary to pass the entrance exams without mana power didn’t mean he was stupid. Roxis really couldn’t feel sorry for Vayne being run out of towns: he and his father had been forced to leave quickly often enough, when people thought the cheerful blond was a little too lucky. It wasn’t as though it was anything to cry about.

 No, they were just ordinary commercial playing cards. Knowledge was what made the difference, and the power to use them. Al Revis’ reputation hinged on having nothing to do with magic, especially not anything that could possibly be mistaken for black magic. If a sorcerer were found among the students?

He should have tossed them over the edge of the island when he found them in his luggage, even though they looked like a perfectly ordinary deck. The fact they were a gift from his father just made it worse, really. The school would have to make an example of them both, or else alchemists everywhere would be tarred with the same brush and then who would heal crippling wounds or cure the pox?

Since he’d gotten his mana (and became constantly watched, not that he really minded) he hadn’t dared take them out. But he couldn’t throw them away.

“Tell them where she is or I’ll forfeit.” He wasn’t using his other abilities, but part of the cost of them was that cheaters would pay and he couldn’t risk that. Not after having come so far.

“You’ll what?”

Roxis just gave him a look and drew his combat cards.

“Hey, this wasn’t our idea!”

A test, then? For Vayne, probably. To see if he actually cared about the girl. He did not like the Professor’s methods. He did not.

Sulpher did not act anything like an ordinary mana, yet Vayne had power. Sulpher acted like a perfectly ordinary cat. A black cat. The cause of Theofratus’ death was unknown. Witches would grasp after any power, including alchemy, and Zeppel had gone there to keep the books from falling into the wrong hands.

The school taught alchemists to defend themselves against the unprincipled and wouldn’t let them off the island until they’d mastered that as well as alchemy because there were dangers out there.

It was better to bring someone suspicious to the school than let them run around loose and endanger innocent people. But once they were here, someone had to keep an eye on them, and deal with them if it became necessary.

He’d thought Tony and Renee being in charge of student discipline was ridiculous until he’d realized that they had been chosen for combat skill and willingness to use it.

He’d been sought out on his first day here by the group whose job it was to deal with people like him and hadn’t figured that out for months? He was such a fool. No, he couldn’t quit, because then Tony would have even more reason to dislike him and the people in charge would want to know why.

Maybe that was why Roxis had agreed to Flay’s ridiculous request that he join their workshop if he and Tony lost. He’d wanted a way out.

As he hesitated Flay was giving Vayne his marching orders. His guess was that Renee would put up enough of a fight to test them and then let them take Jess back safe and sound. They wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to this, after all. If people found out they would ask questions and the idea was to avoid a witch hunt.

Well, he was all for that. Hopefully Vayne would get back before it was time for them to fight. He was prepared to bet they would only meet up in the final round, it would make sense to structure it that way, and the professors would want to see him fight for themselves. Hopefully Roxis and Tony would be able to press him hard enough that he would resort to dark powers to keep from losing.

So everything would be fine, he wouldn’t be cheating, and perhaps if he kept telling himself that he’d believe it.

Roxis stalked off in search of something to calm his nerves. This was an alchemy school: of course people made alcohol, even if it wasn’t served in the cafeteria. A lot of the other freshmen had been horrified by that, ones who had grown up drinking only small beer and milk because their local water supplies weren’t purified by alchemy. Roxis remembered getting horribly sick the first time his father took him on a trip. He’d been told not to drink any water but he’d grown up with the manor’s alchemy-protected supply and hadn’t taken the warning seriously.

The school tried to discourage people synthesizing drunk, but if people wanted to drink anything hard before assignments and supply runs and failed or were nearly killed? Then it was a good thing they’d learn their lesson here, where they’d probably survive it.

He made it back in time for their next match, of course, and once the judge ruled that mandagoras grown with the power of a mana and under the control of an alchemist were legal he took out his opponents himself instead of using them. He just hadn’t wanted his battle with Vayne put on hold while they made a decision.

Roxis also made a point of not speaking to Tony, which was petty but satisfying. Tony craved attention and acknowledgement and being ignored drove him up the wall. Roxis did it more often then he probably should, since he had to share a workshop with him, after all.

The referee Flay had shanghaied to replace Vayne as his partner was a member of the Combat Professor’s workshop, and fairly good, actually. He had a technique that enhanced his sword with the power of the Cyclone Mana. Roxis had wondered about infusing his cards with poison and sleeping powder, but he had to touch the things himself, after all.

It wasn’t until it was time for their match that Roxis started to worry. If Vayne didn’t return, if Jess wasn’t safe, then he would have to make a choice. Perhaps he could draw out the battle?

Luckily, once they were standing on the platform, Renee danced in. Literally.

Nikki rushing in next and saying, “We got her!” was redundant. She’d been using that technique to make her fan club go away since she’d learned it.

“Like, I appreciate the exercise, but can I stop already?” Now that she was no longer being driven before Nikki Renee started just shaking her hips instead of dancing properly, probably to give her legs a break.

“We’re about to start, it’s the last possible moment. What heroic timing. But where’s Vayne?”

“He took Jess to the infirmary, just in case.”

Flay frowned. “Even if he did rescue the damsel in distress, we still have the final confrontation with the villain!” He would be very disappointed if Vayne stayed there. No, he wasn’t the type to want thanks and he’d be very amusingly embarrassed if a grateful maiden threw herself at him.

“Pamela said she’d stay to watch Jess, just in case.” Only knowing Pamela this was ‘in case she dies and I get to keep my new friend, instead of, ‘in case she needs anything.’

“Ah, there you are! Almost perfect timing.” If Jess had needed to be taken to Melanie then that came first, as much as it detracted from the moment.

Vayne looked even more disheveled than usual as he climbed up onto the platform while Flay and the referee thanked each other, but he quickly got ready for battle and didn’t seem any weaker than normal. They’d both been fighting all afternoon. It was fair. As the Vice Principal ordered Nikki to release her fellow student and come with them as a witness he readied himself, smirking. Flay might have seen the mandragoras and Roxis had practiced several of his other skills during the warm-up matches, but Vayne didn’t know them and Flay wasn’t going to have time to brief him.


In the end it didn’t matter. Flay and Vayne still won. Perhaps if Tony had a mana he would have been able to hold Flay off, but instead Roxis had to spend far too much time getting rid of Flay’s flying metal things. They were very distracting, as were Tony’s demands that Roxis do something about them.

When Tony and Renee got back from reporting Tony got one last dig in.

“Hey, you’d better get all your stuff out by tomorrow. I don’t want any of Flay’s stuff in our workshop.”

Roxis really, really didn’t like Tony. ‘All Roxis’ stuff,’ meant not just equipment but the huffin tree, the tangerine tree, the grapevine against the wall, and the smaller pots containing spinacherbs, various flowering plants and root vegetables. And if he didn’t get them out tonight, Tony would throw them out, meaning he’d have to set all that up all over again.

It had either been growing all of those or constantly being sent out on gathering missions because certain people kept using his materials. Flay’s workshop would be even worse: they didn’t like him and as the new member he would doubtless be stuck with the lion’s share of the work.

Renee had announced that she was going to lie down in her room with her feet in a tub of cold water: no help there.

…Maybe it was a good thing he had let Nikki in that time. He had a favor to hold over her head.


“No, not Flay.” Tony would not be happy if he knew Roxis had let him in. “And weren’t you just in the infirmary? If the pots were light I wouldn’t have asked for assistance.” That left, “You can’t touch solid objects: why are you even here?” and…

He smiled at Vayne. “You can carry the trees.” Or he could try, and either sprain something or have to ask Roxis for help. Or both. “Nikki, help me with these pots. These two need direct sunlight and that one needs shade, the others can go anywhere out of the way.”

“Oh, you do have flowers! This’ll make the workshop so much prettier.” The ghost was smiling at him.

As he packed things up Roxis made a mental note to ask if they had any books on exorcisms when he next wrote home. He’d be in serious trouble if he actually got rid of the school’s semi-mascot, but it would be a comfort to know that he could, should the need arise.

“Do you have any pink flowers?” He suddenly heard from right behind him.

Staying sane was a need, right?

“Vayne, let me help. We’ll get it out the door and then Flay can carry it the rest of the way,” he heard Nikki say.

Jess and Pamela, but mostly Pamela, directed the placement. “No, we can’t put the trees there, that’s Vayne’s spot.”

“Yeah!” Nikki agreed, eyeing the prime sun-warmed patch of stone in front of the window. Every time she went up to the roof people now people followed hoping for a concert, but Vayne would loan her his spot anytime she wanted.

“I don’t mind,” Vayne said as Roxis wondered what they were talking about. “We can nap in the loft anyway, there’s sun there and it’s more comfortable.”

“Mrow.” ‘I can’t climb ladders, remember?’

“You can ride up on my shoulder, right Sulpher?”

At first Sulpher didn’t want to dignify that with a reply, but Vayne needed to be helpful, after all.

“You still take naps? How old are you, two?”

Roxis was amazed when Vayne started counting on his fingers. “I think I remember… six winters? Sulpher said my birthday was probably early fall, so…” Then he laughed sheepishly. “I don’t remember a lot about growing up, though.”

“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with taking naps!” Nikki said.

“Not for beastmen,” Roxis acknowledged. “It depends on the subspecies, but most are less diurnal than humans are, if not outright nocturnal.”

“Sulpher’s kind of nocturnal, and I need to go with him when he wants to go do something at night. So I’ve been taking naps when he does so I don’t fall asleep in class,” Vayne explained.

“Your mana orders you around like that?”

Basically, yeah, but he didn’t like how Roxis was saying this like it was a bad thing. Sulpher was his friend. “I don’t mind.”

Sulpher twined around his legs. “Take me up there.” He didn’t like all this rearranging of his territory. “And wake me when it’s over.” So he could examine the new environment.

Vayne knelt down so Sulpher could jump up onto his shoulders. “Uh, sorry guys. Sulpher’s kind of tired.”

Tell her not to use the trees as scratching posts.” Nikki needed to grow out of that kittenish habit.

“Uh…” She wouldn’t do that.

Sulpher gave Vayne a look. He needed to be more observant: there were scratches on one of the posts holding up the loft.

Vayne just climbed up and curled up on the couch.

“Aww, they’re so cute.” Pamela smiled fondly. Fluffy mana like Teddy were the best, weren’t they?

Flay coughed. “Whipped.”

“Putting all the trees there will block the light that gets to the cauldron, though,” Jess said. “If only they were smaller.”

“Oh, that’s not a problem.” Roxis summoned his mana. “I think we should let the huffin grow naturally, but the tangerine tree would be better as a bush, and we can just have the grapevines grow around the window. What do you think?”

His mana, shy since there were so many people here, nodded, “Es,” and went over to pat the various plants so they grew that way.

“Can you make the flowers grow all over the walls too?” Pamela floated over, and Roxis wanted to tell the ghost to stop pestering his mana. It was obvious that he was already more scared of her than he was of Tony.

The Wood Mana considered her very, very scary. Roxis was a lot braver than he was, and Pamela scared even him. And Pamela lived in the dark underground, like mushrooms, and they ate trees.

Chapter Text

There were more people in this workshop than Roxis was used to, so there wasn’t space for him to have a work area to himself that he could just leave set up all the time. Flay, like Tony, didn’t use the workshop and Pamela seemed to dabble about as often as Renee did, but Jess was almost always fiddling with something, Nikki actually did her homework, and Vayne was this workshop’s equivalent of Roxis, in that he did all the actual work.

He soon learned that new guy or not, no one was going to force him to do chores when that was what Vayne was for, and Vayne, unlike Roxis, didn’t glare at them. He sometimes said that something wasn’t a good idea, raised his eyebrows or would be making snarky comments if he had any skill with words, but he always went along with whatever crazy thing the others were doing this time. Roxis had to admit there was a certain fascination to it, like watching a city burn.

It wasn’t that Vayne was afraid they’d be mad at him if he put his foot down, he just seemed to shrug, go, ‘if that’s what you want,’ and then go along with it to see what happened. It wasn’t that he didn’t seem to know how to say no, it was more like the idea of saying it never even occurred to him. How on earth did he get those grades with such an empty head? The concept of creating a recipe had never occurred to him? Really?

Being ignored didn’t bother Vayne, he was probably used to it, living with a cat, but Roxis quickly found that the perfect way to drive him quietly insane was not to let him help.

And Anna, the new member, insisted on doing all the cleaning and straightening up herself. Since it was Vayne’s job to do everything in the workshop by default, her saying that it was a mess had made him feel bad. For the first few weeks he kept hovering around or glancing at her while she was sweeping, after she’d said no when he asked her to give him the broom and let him do it, and Roxis considered watching that out of the corner of his eyes one of those little quiet joys in life.

As was his new kitten.

Not to mention that little drama mostly kept Vayne too distracted to attempt making friends with him. No, the problem was Nikki. Roxis just wanted to get his homework done, watch Vayne be uncomfortable, work on his research, and leave the workshop each day before the insanity contaminated him. Did she really have to keep trying to make friends with him and chattering in his ear?

And Anna’s constant nagging was also distracting. Even if he mostly wasn’t the one she was nagging he still heard all of it.

They eventually decided that he was more of a problem than Anna, judging from how they forced sacrificial-lamb Vayne to talk to him before confronting her. Probably they were worried about her sword and demonstrated willingness to use it on people. Well, on Flay, which didn’t really count.

They found him being quiet and working hard more disturbing than obsessive-compulsive nagging cleanliness. That said a lot about them, not that it wasn’t all already obvious.

Not to mention they seemed to think they were clever, and just because he wasn’t impressed and didn’t want to get involved in their useless banter…

“But it’s pretty fun, talking like this,” Vayne said, not just happily, but as though this was some fascinating discovery that he had made and was kind of proud of. As though this trite little platitude was not only actually true, but something that he had observed instead of being told. Had been not news to him, news was something you were told, but some amazing discovery that had changed his life for the better. ‘Wow, being around other people is actually really awesome! Who knew? You should try this, it’s great!’

It was then that Roxis started to actually consider the possibility that Vayne might be for real. Or really, really crazy.  Perhaps his cruel remarks to Roxis had been inspired by that insanity. Maybe he was one of those unfortunate souls with split personalities that kept getting mistaken for cases of demon possession. Or maybe Vayne was just possessed by a demon instead of actually being an evil, deceptive serpent.

All he could do was stare at Vayne, who seemed to realize he’d said something weird and looked simultaneously sheepish and happy. Because he was happy here in this madhouse, and he wanted to share it with Roxis.

After Roxis managed to pick his dropped jaw up off the floor he knew he had better get out of there immediately in case this was catching. “I’m going to the library.”


“Did you hear that? Maybe you were right all along. Maybe he just is that infuriatingly innocent and completely ignorant. Maybe he didn’t actually mean to hurt me with those remarks. Maybe pigs do fly!”

The Mana of Wood knew he should wait until Roxis had stopped ranting, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise.

“He just looks at me, and maybe he really doesn’t get how infuriating it is that he’s so perfect. Maybe he doesn’t try because he doesn’t get that there’s anything to try to be. He’s just such a child! No, a puppet, a perfect little slave who’s only happy when he’s being ordered around. Maybe Theofratus started dabbling before his mysterious death and made him that way, although one would think he’d pick a woman.” If he were going to have brainwashed servants. It was a fairly common dark practice. “And that is just disturbing on so many levels. Can you imagine Vayne in a maid outfit? It’s frighteningly easy!”

Roxis reached up and the wood mana took that as a cue to make the branch grow to drop the fruit in his hands. “He’d smile, and curtsy, and say, ‘Yes Master,’ and not see anything wrong with this picture. You know, that would explain a lot. Theofratus Aurelius was the most famous alchemist of the current era, if he went the way Palaxius did back in the time of the Empire…” He shouldn’t say things like that aloud, things that would have to remain secret if they were true.

But, “If so, then someone has to do something about it. Or else he’ll fall prey to someone the instant he leaves the academy. Perhaps that’s why he actually likes Flay.” Flay was definitely the type. “He needs to learn how to say no before he ends up like that again. Or perhaps I’m being too suspicious. Perhaps he really is Theofratus’ son and he kept him locked up in the woods so that his enemies wouldn’t know that such a perfect hostage existed. Maybe he just grew up trying to make his father happy with him so that he’d stay longer, and then when the man stopped coming he didn’t know how to act around normal people and made them think he was possessed or crazy. That’s definitely what he makes me think.”

One of Roxis’ mandragora plants ran up with something it had taken from a monster up ahead. “Yes, thank you.” And the others kept insisting he bring someone along with him on supply runs when he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, honestly.

“And having a mana that takes the form of a black cat is bad enough. I thought he was doing it to gloat, that no one had figured out he was evil even though there were such obvious signs, but what is the Mana of Sulfur doing, taking that form? Of course, given the popular connotations of that element,” sulfur and brimstone, “perhaps he was Theofratus’ familiar, not mana, and decided to take Vayne’s soul next when he died. Well, that would be easy, he’d sign anything you put in front of him.”

“But you like cats.”

“Yes, but what does that have to do with anything? Sulpher’s not really a cat.” Roxis headed up the next rope ladder and looked around. “Over there, I think… If the rest of the students find out that Theofratus actually did have lands instead of being a wandering alchemist someone’s going to drag him to her bedroom and then force him to get married for the sake of the child, and he’d have no idea what was going on. And I’d find that very amusing if it weren’t for how the children would turn out.”

Very few people who weren’t nobility actually owned land. Alchemists were often given grants for services to various kings and archbishops, so they would have been snapped up on the marriage market the instant they got licensed if it weren’t for the fact no social climber wanted to spend years living like a wandering monk waiting for it to pay off. Of course, that didn’t apply to Roxis, whose family already had lands. He had needed to beat them off with a glare before Renee did something and they suddenly left him alone.

He didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, and he really didn’t want to know what she’d told them. Ignorance was bliss when it came to some things.

“If it weren’t for the fact he wouldn’t recognize a hint if it were dropped from a great height onto his empty head he’d have a gaggle of them following him around.” As it was, when someone gave him a sign he had permission to start courting them he didn’t recognize it and they took it as lack of interest. “If he weren’t so handsome he’d have a chance, but even though he has hair like an old blind man who cut it himself? Honestly, he’s just too valuable a prize for his own good.”

That, his mana agreed with him about.

“You’d think Theofratus had conjured up an incubus, or created life the way the ancients did. According to legend, anyway,” Roxis added hurriedly. “He’s like a pretty little doll.” Roxis shook his head.

“Ohohoho, tell me more.”

Startled, Roxis whirled around to see a great beast, like a white lion with a green gem set in its forehead. “Don’t startle people who are standing on branches hundreds of feet off the ground!”

Her tail lashed, amused. “Is that any way to speak to the Mana of Light? So, you have a pretty little friend who might be in danger from dark powers?”

“He’s not my friend. I would think the way I was insulting him would have told you that. It’s pure speculation and likely slander, which is why I was saying it to my own mana in confidence.” Eavesdropper.

“If he’s that unique then I should examine him thoroughly. He may need my help, after all.” Somehow, Roxis doubted that there would be much help involved.

“He already has a mana.”

“You seem to doubt they’re actually a mana. The power of light would allow me to break dark spells. A handsome young man, all alone in the world, in need of some… guidance. I wasn’t intending to actually pact with any of the hopefuls, but this sounds very promising.” She jumped over him instead of vanishing the way mana normally did, which told Roxis that she wanted him to follow her.

Well, why not? As much as she rubbed him the wrong way, this could only end well. If Vayne was under some spell then hopefully she’d break it and he’d stop being so infuriatingly like a perfect china doll, if he and/or Sulpher were a demon then he would have been right all along, and if the situation was entirely innocent then hopefully the Disciplinary Committee would stop keeping so close an eye on this workshop, and by extension him. There was no actual downside, and, “What are you doing here?” Had they been following him?

Once again Vayne was the one to speak to him. “Well, you weren’t in the library.” He looked at the mana. “Hi, are you a friend of Roxis?”

She was almost licking her lips, watching him. “You’re the most interesting thing I’ve seen in hundreds of years. And so handsome, too. I could just eat you up.”

“Um, thanks, I guess?” Compliments always made Vayne sheepish.

Sulpher’s fur didn’t bristle, but it was clear he didn’t like the way the mana was looking at Vayne, or the predatory way she circled them. “Very interesting indeed.” She sat. “I’ve decided to pact with you.”

“But I already have a mana,” Vayne said as the others stared. Pacts with multiple mana were incredibly rare. Theofratus had two, three counting the Mana of Sulfur, it seemed. No one still living did. 

She still seemed to be laughing inwardly as she looked at Sulpher. “I think it would be best, don’t you agree? I’ve worked with alchemists for millennia, loaning them my mana power, and you don’t have much experience with that, after all.”

“You want to replace Sulpher?” Vayne seemed horrified by the idea, closer to refusing than Roxis had ever seen him.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t do that.” The way she said it, Roxis wouldn’t put it past her. “I think we can work well together, don’t you? For the sake of this dear little thing?”

Sulpher started to hiss, then he seemed to change his mind. He sat down and started to wash his paws.

“If it’s alright with Sulpher,” Vayne said to her.

She smiled, showing a great many teeth. “Good boy.”

Roxis started to wonder if he should maybe be feeling a little guilty right about now. Mana were guardians of the natural order, and generally wouldn’t tolerate demons and such. And if there wasn’t anything unnatural about Vayne then he really was that ridiculously innocent and vulnerable to predators.

And Roxis had just led a predator right to him. One that had wasted no time in sinking its teeth into the nice juicy steak he’d told it about.

If it weren’t Vayne he would definitely be feeling guilty. He reminded himself that he hated Vayne and this was just one more price Vayne would have to pay for being so obnoxiously perfect.

He tried to ignore how this mana instantly hit it off with Flay and Pamela.

Chapter Text

Anna appeared to be from someplace even further to the east than Cathay, and couldn’t have had much experience with Latin. Her grammar was better than the Vice Principal’s, but she must have misinterpreted something or missed some nuance, given how she seemed to think she should kill them before they killed her.  Or something.

Or perhaps she was simply prone to paranoid delusions. He’d identified her mana as the Mana of Dreams, after all. It must have chosen her for a reason.

Apparently they considered the Wood element more important than Wind there, which made him want to read their alchemy texts. They didn’t have a universal spoken language, like Latin, but instead a standardized universal written one, with symbols instead of sounds, which sounded rather easy until she’d explained that the people who lived on the islands she was from had created an extra alphabet to, as far as he could determine, explain what some of the symbols they’d changed around too much actually meant. A ‘vulgar script’ instead of a ‘vulgar tongue.’

Not that he’d say this to her face, he liked breathing, thank you.

The teachers had obviously recommended she change her name to be more intelligible, which was a common practice. Until fairly recently all the students had their names cast in the Latin model, and many had given themselves Latin names after it had stopped being mandatory, like Theofratus Aurelius for example. (No one would actually name their son golden brother of god.)

It had seemed odd that they’d translated her name into one of the vulgar tongues instead of Latin until he’d recalled what le mouri meant.

No, he had no intention of picking a fight with someone whose family name meant ‘the death,’ or anything along those lines, thank you very much.

So he set a boobytrap in case she came after him and then took a cue from the other workshop members for once and made Vayne do it.


Vayne didn’t seem to be acting any differently now that he had two mana. Nor did he seem to realize that having them both visible at once was showing off, but that was typical.

As far as Roxis could tell, the Mana of Light hadn’t done anything worse than licking him, which Vayne seemed to like. Well, he’d been raised by a mana in the form of a cat, after all, and viewed it as just a sign of affection. The mana also seemed to function as a portable sun-warmed (and carpeted) napping spot, replacing the one Roxis’ trees had taken up.

Vayne looked almost cute curled up on top of the mana, generally with Sulpher on top of him. Like a pile of kittens.

His own kitten was much cuter, of course.

What bothered Roxis was the way the mana kept watching him, although to be fair he was watching it. Still, if it didn’t want him to watch it suspiciously then it shouldn’t keep smiling like a cat that had gotten into the cream. Like it knew something he didn’t know, and the joke was on him.

He hoped that it was just something to do with Vayne and not something to do with him. Something like what he could do with the other deck he still carried in one of his pouches.

Eventually he found out that it was both.

He suspected it when the mana ‘confronted’ him about his own secret In the exact same way it had confronted Sulpher about Vayne. It had blackmail material on them both, and was not afraid to use it.


Flay mentally gave himself a pat on the back for getting Vayne to join his workshop. First he’d led to Pamela becoming an official inhabitant of the Flay Cave, and he’d also found himself his very own rival.

Flay was so proud.

And then he’d gotten himself a mana after Flay’s own heart.

Flay was going to find out what it was holding over Roxis’ head (and use that to extort the secret of that booby trap out of him) one day, but for now he was very happy to just watch.

The rumor that Roxis was one of those boys who liked men had circled the academy fairly soon after his arrival, but Flay, who was one of the top three rumormongers on campus, had instantly identified the handiwork of Renee. She’d clearly done it to keep the girls off Roxis’ back and hence away from Tony.

No, the fact that she allowed him to remain in the workshop meant that Roxis either had no interest in young men or had the sense not to be interested in Tony. No matter what else happened, Flay’s rivalry with Tony would never end in better than a draw. Flay might have become far stronger and gotten a mana, but Tony, unworthy soul that he was, had somehow won Renee. Beautiful and wicked Renee, one of those women born to wear black leather and… Ah, she’d have made a far more stunning arch-enemy than Tony.

He was trying to shape Vayne up into a proper sidekick, but he had to admit that barring an accident of birth, Vayne would have been perfect for the role of the beautiful and innocent damsel in distress. He was definitely strong and good-hearted enough, but he was really too goody-goody to get in there and seriously fight evil. Unless Flay found the proper incentive.

This scene the Mana of Light had set up was almost perfect. The villain demanding the hero surrender and do their bidding for the sake of what they held dear as the damsel looked on. Except Vayne clearly wasn’t the thing being held hostage and was confused instead of properly distressed.

“Hey, why is Roxis just standing there?” Nikki, who had come in a minute ago, asked him.

“Shh.” I’m watching this.

The Mana yawned. “I like the tortured look, but it’s getting boring. Vayne, why don’t we take a walk over to the fac-“

“Alright!” Roxis practically yelled, and stalked over to Vayne, seized his hand hard enough Vayne winced, and proceeded to shake it with a ‘the thought of killing you for this makes me very happy’ smile on this face.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Pamela chided him.

Roxis relaxed his hand by sheer force of will and then lifted Vayne’s up and down slowly. “There.” That had better be it.

“That’s much better. See? I knew that if you just gave Vayne a chance you’d be able to get along. I think you two have the potential to become very close friends.” Judging from the hint of emphasis on ‘close,’ maybe the rumors weren’t entirely false. Was that what the mana was holding over Roxis’ head?

Flay couldn’t have that. No warrior of justice could stand by and allow someone to be persecuted for following their heart.

Roxis just growled and stormed out. 

“Thank you for trying to help, but I think you just made him hate me even more…” Yes: Vayne was clueless.


Oh no, a bonding moment. Over how they had ended up here, no less. At least Flay wasn’t here. Jess had been forced to come to Al Revis, Anna had wanted to (and she’d gotten a mana, so she would have been ‘invited’ anyway), Nikki had been invited, and Pamela didn’t remember. They were all lucky bastards, and… Vayne didn’t know his father’s name?!

Roxis thought of his own family, several generations cramped up in a decaying manor, and how it was a relief when his father dragged him on trips. Next to that he couldn’t imagine only vaguely remembering his father, and a workshop…

And did they really not know who Vayne’s father was? Roxis could only hmph at that. Maybe they really were all ignorant social outcasts who hadn’t heard the fuss about it? Except Flay, of course. Roxis wondered what he would have said if he were here.

Vayne hadn’t even known, though? Just that his father was an alchemist, “or something?” He hadn’t had any idea what having a mana meant, what any of it meant?

They really didn’t know? Seriously? Were they kidding him?

Of course, Anna was above gossip, Nikki was excluded from all cliques but this one due to the bad reputation she’d earned early on, Jess was really just that oblivious, and as for Pamela…

On reflection, yes, he could believe that Vayne hadn’t known. He really was just that… It was unbelievable that he’d never asked Sulpher about him before, but this was Vayne. Even Jess and Pamela agreed he was strange.

The Mana of Light had called him the most interesting thing it had ever seen.


From how Isolde had brushed him off, telling him to go with his friends, she seemed to have decided he wasn’t worth recruiting. Well, that was a good thing, really. The way she had said she was certain Vayne wasn’t Theofratus’ son had confirmed that it was her in charge, although he’d really already arrived at that by process of elimination. Although Zeppel could just have been pretending to be so generally nice and weak.

What really just rubbed it in, however, was that the Great Beast was still alive. Surely Theofratus would have told her that, from how close she’d implied they were. She’d sent them right into a trap: hardly the action of a teacher without a good reason to do so. Perhaps she’d gotten tired of sending Tony and Renee to test Vayne to see if he used dark powers when thwarted. Well, he’d used something when they were all about to die.

Why would the Mana of Sulfur have the ability to conjure recipes or weaken a dragon like that? Yes, there was something very strange going on, and the Mana of Light had manifested in order to watch, smiling.

He didn’t quite know what to think of all this. There was some puzzle, something going on, and his own Mana was keeping secrets from him about it. He wasn’t going to interrogate it, of course. But his mana wouldn’t keep a secret from him unless there was something important involved.

To protect Vayne?

But Vayne hadn’t even asked the obvious questions about his own situation and parentage until now. Either Vayne had suffered some sort of permanent brain damage, which would explain a lot, or he was choosing not to ask those questions, not even of himself.

At this point, Roxis didn’t know if he wanted to know either.


He didn’t really object to having to learn to do co-op synthesis. It was an important part of alchemy, after all, and if he could put aside his own ego to do it with Vayne he could do it with anyone. He’d been amazingly petty, blaming Vayne when Vayne was trying so hard to be helpful it was nauseating. He’d gotten so frustrated when he couldn’t do it, and the answer had been in the freshman textbook all along. He’d had to laugh.

They really were bonding, weren’t they, he thought to himself as he watched Sulpher nap on top of the Mana of Light as it watched them work. It didn’t quite make sense. If the Mana of Light wanted to torment him, then why was it trying to make him learn to get along with Vayne? It could have kept making him feel forced into everything, channeled that resentment towards Vayne, but instead the motive this time had been his own pride.

Or perhaps it was because Flay had scripted out the scenario that they’d ended up feeling like partners in the endeavor. He didn’t quite get Flay’s aims, but he didn’t seem outright malicious. Especially not towards Vayne and the other members of his workshop.

After all, if they were his then if they were miserable that reflected poorly on his leadership skills.

What with one thing and another, it felt like no time at all before the next festival, the next contest.

It was a trivia contest. Roxis had to partner with someone to enter. There was only one sane choice among the workshop members. Well, perhaps Nikki, in a pinch, but since Flay hadn’t grabbed Vayne as his partner…

Flay, willingly take a quiz, even a quiz show? Of course not.

He’d been putting off asking Vayne, not wanting to be the supplicant, but when he was the one Vayne asked of course he said yes. It said something that Vayne had picked him instead of one of his friends. What it said was that Vayne admired him. Knew that he was the best option. Considered the person who had barely managed to come here worthy of the time of the son of Theofratus? No, Vayne was doing this not to win but for fun. He actually wanted to spend time with Roxis, and for once it wasn’t annoying.

Well, he probably would have been far less happy with it if they hadn’t won. There was something about being called a champion… And Vayne saying that it was all Roxis really made even it better. It really did seem more like earnest flattery than false modesty, even though, “Being overly modest can be taken as a form of sarcasm,” but Vayne sold himself too short. It was like he had some sort of inferiority complex. He’d been cheered by this same crowd last year, and yet this still felt unreal to him?

Even though Vayne hadn’t contributed anything to the third task (Roxis had a black muscat among the vines that now nearly covered the workshop’s walls), he’d been the one to bait his and Roxis’ hooks and caught the winning fish for the first task. Roxis had fished before, of course, but it had mainly consisted of sitting there with a book waiting for a tug on the line. Vayne had fished for himself and Sulpher almost every day, he told Roxis, casting expertly.

Strange how that confidence had deserted him now, in the moment of triumph.

Of course, Roxis was used to watching contests and so on. Was Vayne bothered by the crowd or something?

He realized that he was feeling fond of Vayne now. Well, perhaps it was just the glow of victory. He’d told Vayne that Roxis agreeing to partner with him didn’t mean they were friends.

Yet maybe it was starting to. It wasn’t as though he had any other friends here, besides his mana of course. And Vayne was…

Vayne was too helpful. It felt like he was putting up a front to get them to like him. It felt false. But maybe he wasn’t putting up that front to deceive them, but just because he wanted to be liked. Welcomed. Wanted. Not sent away.

Maybe instead of being given an unearned feast of admiration he was struggling just as hard as Roxis. Perhaps he really did admire Roxis’ work ethic.

Or maybe Vayne had him outclassed in that area as well. He’d thought Vayne was lazy, always taking naps in the workshop, but that was before Roxis had, in a moment of temporary insanity, allowed himself to ingest one of Jess’ potions.

“I know why I’m here, but why are you?”

“Sulpher wanted to go for a walk,” Vayne explained, getting out his latest project and looking at Roxis worriedly. “He’s nocturnal, so I’m used to being up now. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m ten hours away from being considered insane and I still can’t find an antidote that will allow me to sleep.” He’d stayed in bed all night last night, even though his limbs had twitched with suppressed energy, demanding that he get up and run around. He hadn’t slept a wink. “Damn this…”

“Your nose is bleeding again.” Vayne handed him one of the handkerchiefs he’d made a large batch of yesterday.

“Thank you.” Roxis rubbed at the bags under his eyes and just used the cloth to stop up his nose. He looked a sight as it was: no dignity left to lose. Even though he would have hated Vayne for seeing him like this a few months ago. At least Vayne wasn’t cracking jokes about this the way Flay would have. A bloody nose was a perfectly  normal symptom of extreme sleep deprivation and the stress Jess’ potion had placed on his body. How on earth had Anna gotten the idea it meant he was aroused? He was too exhausted to be aroused!

“Maybe… Eital?”

“Yes?” The mana of light manifested next to Vayne.

“Would you mind if Roxis tried to sleep on you?”

“What?” Roxis demanded.

“She’s really warm. It always puts me and Sulpher right to sleep,” Vayne explained.

Roxis shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Roxis…” Vayne looked really worried for him. “Do you think we should just go to Melanie?”

“No, not after what Jess told us about her situation. Even if I said I took it willingly,” and he hadn’t really been forced, “it would be another black mark on her record. And how can I call myself an alchemist if I can’t even cure this?”

“If you say so…”

Vayne really did go right to sleep, curled up with them like a pile of kittens. The room was dimly lit: Roxis was trying to create a restful atmosphere, so the brightest source of light was the mana itself. Sulpher sometimes got up to prowl around, light reflecting off his eyes in the gloom just like a normal cat’s.

The lack of snoring was one more way Vayne was just too perfect. He wanted to envy that peaceful breathing, say that Vayne was taunting him, but it really was restful.

As he worked it felt more and more like a waking dream. The crackle of the fire under the cauldron and the sound of someone breathing nearby reminding him of all the times they had camped outdoors, traveling.

When he felt a cat jump up onto the table and rub against his arm he stroked it reflexively before realizing that it was Vayne’s mana. But Sulpher pushed against his hand so he kept doing it as he read.

The next night Vayne didn’t leave the workshop except when Sulpher wanted to walk around. He stayed the entire time, just being there if he could do nothing else to help.

There was something Vayne could do, if he had the ability to pull recipes from midair, and Roxis almost asked him twice, but his tired mind still kept him from saying it no matter how desperate he was. If there was something uncanny about Vayne’s power? The Mana of Light might be interested because it didn’t have proof.

For some reason, he knew that Vayne would be in danger if he did anything more than he had. Or something. It wasn’t as though he was rational at the moment.

So he didn’t ask that night, nor the next, nor the next, as Vayne grew more and more worried and more were added to the pile of blood-soaked cloths in the wash basket (it was technically Nikki’s week, but Roxis was unsurprised when Vayne was the one to take care of it).

The first night he was able to sleep again he thought of that quiet scene as he drifted off, and when he woke he found that he had dreamed of it.

Chapter Text

He wasn’t going to risk having his father’s gift out on the open, let alone use it as a weapon. Well, it had been given to him for his own protection, and as a weapon of last resort, but he was certainly not going to use expensive official cards to hit things with. Not only would that be stupid, but incredibly disrespectful. Duelists who disrespected and angered the beings they called upon lost. Shadow magicians who did that got eaten.

But there was nothing wrong with making duplicates of the cards to use as a whip, properly reinforced of course. The razor edges and so on would make it obvious they were fake and prevent them from being used to cheat.

It was still too risky.

Or that was what he thought until Nikki received a deck designed just for her from one of her admirers, had responded with, “Hey, these are kind of pretty,” and not to be outdone others started showering her with expensive cards.

Many of which were fake: these were alchemists, after all, and they didn’t know any better.

At first he’d thought that Nikki would eventually just discard them as she did most other gifts and he could take the useful ones for himself without anyone noticing, but then he’d walked in to find Jess and Nikki trying to figure out the rules.

“No, no, that’s not how it works at all. Can’t you read?” That was what he said as he sat down and started showing them how to play, but the real reason he intervened was that Nikki had been about to improperly summon a very powerful being in what might just be a friendly duel but was still a duel (strike one). The being in question was Ouroboros the Bronze, otherwise known as Uroborus the Dimension Mana, who paid particular attention to alchemists (strike two). Then, to top it all off, the card was a fake (strike three).

Nikki might be incredibly foolish, but she kept Jess busy. Not to mention that since Uroboros was one of his own cards, allowing this might have gotten him angry at Roxis. Guilty consciences made it hard to sleep and he needed to catch up on his rest as well…

Well, alright, perhaps some of it had to do with him possibly not wanting anything bad to happen to her. She looked more like a mouse than a proper cat, but he knew he was vulnerable to cats in need. He knew better to show it, however. That was practically begging them to walk all over you.

At first he considered discouraging them from playing. Jess complaining that the rules were too hard gave him the perfect opening, but he’d gotten himself in lecture mode and really, alchemy was far more complex than this and she would never have been able to pass the entrance exams with that attitude.

Not that she had.

So he’d indulged himself, venting that old grudge by repeatedly beating them into the ground.

It always felt good to win. It was a vindication, after all, besides the natural desire to be respected for your talents and achievements. He was absorbed enough he didn’t really register that Vayne walking in meant his mana was also present, listening. It put him in a good enough mood that he even started to talk about his past and his father before remembering why he must not.

“Why don’t you learn how to play, Vayne?” Jess asked, likely wanting an opponent that she could beat easily.

Nikki had constructed a deck entirely of the cards she liked, after Roxis removed the fakes, while Jess had picked them solely on the basis of what she thought would help her win. He didn’t doubt that Nikki would improve faster than Jess: she’d already done better against him.

The cards were made with the potential to become symbols of the spirits, to channel the power of the spells they depicted. Roxis frankly thought the man who had made a business of selling such disguised talismans was mad: he had to know that he was putting objects of power in the hands of children and he was risking dying in the flames. That no one had caught on yet made sense, given shadow magic’s ability to conceal, but one dishonorable action, one slip-up that angered whatever entities were guarding him?

No: temporal authorities were the last thing he had to fear, really. He would be dead before they could drag him to the pyre.

Roxis, however, had no such guardians. There were several that favored him, yes, but he would have to make sacrifices to the stronger ones for them to notice him, just as summoning them in the game required sacrifices.

He had a mana, finally, but no particular patron spirit. His father had patron spirits, but had never been able to win a mana.

Roxis frowned at himself as he watched Jess drag Vayne to the courtyard’s vendors, Nikki bouncing along beside them. He’d made his decision when he came to the academy and left his own deck behind. The Rosenkrantz family needed another alchemist. Yes, his father had been able to cure illnesses and fulfill the family’s traditional duty to help those in need with shadow magic, but he’d almost been arrested for performing alchemy without a license several times, even though he’d claimed that the potions were from the family’s stock.

But what happened when the next plague came? In emergencies, countries had the right to press alchemists into service producing cures and healing items as well as to seize private stocks. So his father would not be able to help without questions. How could their ancestors have created a cure to a disease that didn’t exist in their time? Were they holding back stores that could save lives?

Roxis was a Rosenkrantz. The family couldn’t sit back and do nothing in order to protect itself in a crisis like that: their ancestors would be ashamed.

Someone needed to be an alchemist. Someone needed to restock their stores of real alchemical potions. The power his father had found was nothing more than a stopgap.

Roxis had made the decision to be that alchemist, not a duelist. To heal and make traps with synthesis instead of spells. He fought for himself instead of using monsters and mana to shield him…

Except, he realized, remembering the packets of mandragora seeds & such in the pockets like the one he kept his deck in, he was.

Alchemist or not, he was still using enchanted cards and summoned monsters to fight. He still liked nothing better than a hard-earned victory. Managing a perfect ether level didn’t even come close.

…Roxis really did hate to admit it, but in the end Jess might be the true alchemist, not him. She was the one who loved to experiment for experiment’s sake, to toy with creation not towards any specific end but just for the joy of seeing what would happen.

He knew he would agree to teach Vayne how to play without the Mana of Light even needing to threaten him. He knew better, he really did, but there was still a part of him that wanted to fight Vayne on an even field, on his field, no matter the consequences.

Shadow magic forced people to reveal their true selves, and wasn’t that what had frustrated him about Vayne all along? What was he, a cruel manipulator or an oblivious child? A man or something else?

“Roxis? Jess got the cards you recommended.” Nikki’s admirers had focused on style over substance: the initial deck had been… decent, if fluffy, but there wasn’t much in there suited to Jess’ seemingly-blasé-but-also-ruthless personality.

She was very like the wind, wasn’t she?

“And, I was kind of wondering…” Vayne continued, one hand on the back of his head sheepishly, Sulpher sitting at his feet and the Mana of Light appearing behind him. “Jess had me get a few packs so I wouldn’t just be borrowing Nikki’s cards, but I don’t really know anything about…”

“Show me.”

“Are you sure?” That was easy, too easy. “You don’t mind?”

“Pass up an opportunity to defeat you? You should know me better than that by now.” If he let Vayne build his own deck it would be shamefully easy. “No, open them yourself.” Honestly, they were looking for cards willing to answer the call of Vayne, not Roxis. Although no wonder Vayne didn’t know about that.

 Roxis also pushed the few decent cards left after he, Nikki and Jess had claimed their shares towards Vayne. “Pick out the ones you take a liking to. This is a game: it’s supposed to be fun.” And spirits preferred those who appreciated them.

Vayne set the contents of the first pack out on the table, one by one.

Roxis blanched. “You have got to be kidding me.”


Roxis scowled, covering his deck to hide it from the shame of defeat. “I know you haven’t played this before.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t apologize for defeating me.” That just made it worse. The superior duelist, the stronger soul, was meant to win, and now Vayne was rubbing that in.

The first few games, Vayne had been showing him his hand asking for advice, which Roxis had given and then told him to reshuffle because how was he supposed to compete with draws like that? Every single time, Vayne got perfect counters to Roxis’ own cards. Every. Single. Time.

The sixth time, Roxis had told Vayne not to show him his hand, since drawing good cards didn’t mean anything without the skill to play them. After that, Vayne had said things like, “Um, this one?” and “This one goes with this one, right?” and then Roxis had lost.

Quickly. Badly. Horribly embarrassingly. Game after game. “You aren’t having either of your mana look over my shoulder.” That wasn’t a question. Roxis hadn’t been pushed far enough to call a real shadow game yet, nor was he suicidal enough to do that in front of three mana (counting his own), but there was enough power in the air that karmic retribution would have been swift and sure. “Do you know anything about the game? Did anyone tell you about it?” Theofratus, possibly?

“Well, Nikki said that you’d said something about thinking of the monsters as your allies, and that if it felt like a card wanted you to play it than you probably should? And that you should think about what you needed when you were drawing.”

“Give me your deck.” Roxis stuck his hand out.

Jess had asked for him to shuffle for her. Vayne, who never said no to anyone, hesitated to hand it over.

“No, you shuffle, I’ll cut.” Hmm.

“Is that enough?”

“Yes.” Roxis quickly and expertly cut it at the one-third mark. “Now, pick a card. No, picking up a card is called drawing! I meant decide on a card in your deck.”

“Like the black cat?”

He’d gotten the first of three in that first pack. A black cat with red eyes, fat and proud, reminding Roxis not so much of Sulpher himself but how he appeared while changing into his weapon form. “The Cat of Ill Omen? Fine. Now, put your hand on your deck. Picture that card in your head, call it into your hand. Focus on how you want to draw that card. When it seems like either it will work or it won’t, then draw.”

Vayne didn’t seem to know what he was getting at, but obeyed regardless. “Is this ok?”

All Roxis could do was glare at it. It seemed as though the damn thing was smirking at him specifically.

Perhaps it was.

“Try it with another card.” Maybe the Cat of Ill Omen was the only one who had taken a shine to him?

“Um, Solemn Wishes?” It was. “Pot of Greed, Overpowering Eyes, Brain Control, Dying Wish, Bastet… That’s weird.”

“Vayne?”

“Yeah, Roxis?” Do you want me to stop now?

Roxis put his head in his hand. “I hate you.”

“Is this... that weird?” That wrong?

Roxis did not like dogs. He wasn’t even looking at Vayne’s eyes, which surely resembled a kicked puppy’s. No: less betrayal and more fear, perhaps. “Alchemist of Black Spells.” He drew and showed Vayne the card without looking at it. Vayne’s relief confirmed that he’d succeeded. “Not really, but make sure you shuffle thoroughly and have your opponent cut the deck, otherwise they might claim you cheated.” It had happened to his father often enough.

It wasn’t cheating if anyone could do it. If they were worthy, true, but a fair game wasn’t about equality. No, a game was fair when the best man won.

Vayne was better than him at alchemy, and now this?

He would have liked to say it wasn’t fair, but fair just meant a fair chance at victory. In order for someone to win, someone had to lose. He hadn’t claimed it was unfair when Vayne defeated him the first time, even though Vayne had been helped by two others and two mana. Only a true loser would claim that it was unfair when they lost.

What a duelist did was try again, harder.

Chapter Text

Roxis was surprised to see mana within crystals under the school –why on earth hadn’t they been released? – but it wasn’t a new concept to him, unlike the others. Nor was it news that alchemy had a dark past.

Alchemy was associated with the pagan gods Hermes and Thoth. They had once been considered aspects of the same being, and the teachings of ‘Hermes Trismegistis’ were really an amalgam of Greek philosophic natural science and Egyptian magic.

The classical Greek and Roman gods were respectable, even fashionable these days, as long as everyone made it clear that they didn’t actually believe in them, they were just myths. The monstrous, often animal-headed Egyptian gods were still considered dark beings. In its rush to distance itself from the taint of magic, Al Revis had discarded all traces of the lore of Thoth from its curriculum.

When Roxis’ father had been unable to learn Hermetic alchemy, he had turned to the other half of the art, hoping that if he mastered it he could pass the exams. Roxis had studied it along with Hermetic alchemy, but it had actually proved detrimental to passing the exams. Quite a few things that everyone knew were impossible to accomplish with alchemy could be accomplished by its lost half, and so on.

In ancient times, Greek proto-alchemists had advanced themselves by trying to purify the corrupt elements of their souls. Egyptians had believed that people had not one single immortal soul, but several, and had strived to call forth their nobler selves and, sometimes, discard their base ones.

The Egyptians believed that those souls would survive as long as their names remained and they were remembered. Criminals who were unable to restrain their base selves sometimes had them taken away, sealed into tablets. Commoners hoped to prove worthy to have their soul-beast depicted on a tablet, as another guarantee of immortality. Priests and magicians would create tablets for their own soul beasts, and call them as well as other spirits forth to do battle.

And the souls of a pharaoh? Several of them were nothing less than divine. Ra the sun, Set the defender of the realm, and Osiris the lord of the dead.

Only two pharaohs had their true divine selves sealed away. One was known as Exodia: the other remained nameless, a secret his father hadn’t been willing to risk death to uncover.

The images of the cards were the images of those tablets, and thus partook of their magic.

So if a human soul or a pagan god could be sealed in stone by the magic of Thoth, then it seemed perfectly logical that at some point someone had tried to adapt that to Hermetic alchemy and sealed mana in crystals.

Perhaps they just didn’t know how to release them? Roxis was examining a crystal and trying to resist the urge to discover if drawing a sketch of it would allow him to summon the mana within when they heard Jess’ scream.

Ah. That would explain why they weren’t trying to free the mana, even though there were tons of students like Tony and deserving alchemists like Roxis who had a hard time finding mana. Ahem. Not that he was angry or anything.

This mana was, however. Roxis would be angry at alchemists too, under the circumstances.

No one had seen Isolde in awhile: had she knocked Vayne out and released the mana to finish him off? What did she suspect?

Or perhaps he should be asking what did she know, if she truly had been Theofratus’ friend.

When the others returned to campus in varying degrees of dismay (except for Flay, who was pleased with both the fight and the mystery), he remained. “Dour.”

“Yes?” When Roxis called his name the Mana of Wood appeared, looking nervous but speaking intelligibly. He stuck close to Roxis’ side: being underground this far away from the sun was a little scary, and the crystals were far more so.

“Would all of them react that badly to being released?”

“You… can?” That was a little close to a stutter, but a pause was better than mumbling intelligibly.

“It’s clearly possible. These aren’t symbols of the mana,” like the ones helping hold up the school. Really, they’d seen that they were using an imprisoned mana to maintain the Corridor of Mist, so why was everyone else so shocked by the concept? “Just traps. It should be simple enough.”

“But, if you do that…”

“Well, obviously I’d have to make sure I wasn’t caught at it.” That wasn’t the issue.

…Wait a minute. “I wonder if there’s a key. Are the crystals all individual, or is there some central monitoring device or spell, I mean glyph.” Glyph was the ‘it’s not really magic, of course not’ term modern alchemists used for permanent spells. “Something that would release all of them at once.”

There was. The dust around it lay thick and undisturbed, obscuring the gold color of the fan-shaped ornament on the statue’s arm. Gold, the ultimate pure substance, was commonly considered the goal of much of alchemy. Perhaps because it never tarnished, but Roxis thought that the real reason was that ancient alchemists had indeed dedicated a lot of time to making gold, not just for monetary purposes, but because it could enhance the power of magical devices.

Perhaps even Isolde thought it was just an ornament. Roxis itched to try it on, but he disliked the idea of being struck by lightning for blasphemy just as much as being burnt at the stake, thank you very much.

“My my my. I wonder where they found it.” There were entire tribes dedicated to protecting sacred treasures like this.

It was clearly being used to cast several spells, but that panel didn’t have an image engraved on it, so…

…well, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little insurance. “Dour, would you mind floating underneath the walkway and attaching this to the ground under that statue?”

Mana were the foundation of this world. It was disgusting to see such powerful and noble (even if his mana didn’t look like it) creatures treated like this. It would be… appropriate to free them and allow Al Revis to be judged. Would the school’s mana love it enough to defend it against their brethren, or would it be punished for its hypocrisy?

Alchemists didn’t do things like that, he reminded himself. Not to mention that a mere student magician shouldn’t be acting as though he was a priest with the right to call forth such powerful beings to sit in judgment.

There was also a risk that the card would be found there and traced back to him even if he never used it. Which he would not, it just wasn’t safe.

“Of course, I tell myself things like that and then the next thing I know I’m teaching Vayne how to call on this power in full view of the Mana of Light. Honestly…”

“Eital…” his mana looked around to see if they were being watched. “She knows about the, um, paper glyphs and things.”

His mana knew? Well, of course his mana knew. He’d realized that the Wood Mana would be able to sense magic embedded in paper months ago, he just hadn’t wanted to put that goodwill to the test. It was easier to pretend to ignore the unspoken, and he wouldn’t want to wear on his mana’s goodwill. “I know. How likely is she to turn me in the instant she gets bored?” Since his mana wouldn’t.

Dour shook his head. “She likes oo. An…”

“What did I say about mumbling?”

“Sowwy.”

“No, what I said was don’t apologize... Never mind. ”

“It’s not bad. A lot of mana don’t like it because the people who started trying to use it again did this, but the Mana of Light is very old, and she says mana were more respected then, even though the other people respected us even more.”

“You might not think it’s ‘bad,’ but most humans do. How many mana know about me?” Roxis asked as he started to head back up. There were interesting ingredients to be found here and hopefully Pamela was far, far away still.

“Um…”

“Oh, don’t tell me the gossip is all over campus.” Someone would slip. Perhaps Renee’s Azureflame Mana. He had suffered at the hands of alchemists and was quite dedicated to preventing further abuse.

“No, but, um…” His mana hesitated to say it, which likely meant…

“It’s about Vayne, isn’t it.”

“…Es.”

“I can’t ask you to reveal other people’s secrets and expect you to keep mine at the same time, so I won’t press you. I happen to live in a quite flammable glass house, after all.”

“Ank oo.” His mana was practically hiding behind his legs.

“People nowadays say that it’s impossible, and it is with alchemy alone, but the ancient Greek alchemists had the ability to create homunculi.” He had a few in his deck for that reason. “But that’s not all he is, is it. And no, you don’t have to answer.”

His mana’s silence said enough.

“Eital does realize that if I go down I’m likely to take Vayne with me, correct? He seems to be far more important to Isolde than I am, and given the choice between naming my father to an inquisitor and getting Vayne in only slightly more trouble than he’d already be in, there’s really no contest.” Try to hold out, and they’d just end up finding out all of it. Anyone could break, and with Isolde involved, truth serum was the least of what he’d have to worry about.

His mana didn’t want to think about it.

“Well, I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day.”


Sulpher had been listless lately, and Vayne was clearly worried. Honestly, alchemists nowadays. “It’s rare, but mana can become weak like that.”

“Huh?” Nikki asked. “Aren’t mana, like, spirits and stuff?”

“Merely physical weapons might not be able to harm beings that truly exist in another plane of reality, but there are ways around that.” Bringing together the two planes, for starters.

“The legendary mana-slaying weapons?”

Roxis wasn’t surprised Flay had heard of those. “They aren’t mana-slaying, they just destroy the matrix they use to shape a form that can exist on this plane of reality.” That was easily fixed. Well, with ancient alchemic magic, at least. “In order to kill them, you’d have to severely damage the element as well. I’m not surprised by what Ms. Isolde said, that killing a mana unleashed devastation. I wonder which one it was… In any case, there are quite a few healing potions that act directly on the spirit, allowing them to be used on mana as well as humans.”

Except the potion of the ancient healing master Dian Keto didn’t have any effect on Sulpher besides clearing his head and giving him a little more energy and willpower, as far as Roxis could tell. And it had been difficult to hide that it had come out of a card with all of them wanting to look over his shoulder, too.

“Mrow.”

“Sulpher says he feels a lot better. Thanks, Roxis.”

“Don’t thank me.” Roxis pushed his glasses up. “You owe me another game for this.”

The pretext of a rematch allowed him to get Vayne out of the workshop. “I’ve changed my mind. There are a few ingredients I need from the old schoolhouse.” If he’d said that first the others would have wanted to come with them.

Vayne cheered up at the thought of getting to help: they all knew by now that Roxis was at a disadvantage there. “Sure.”

They encountered a few other search parties, one seemingly showing up every single time Roxis began to think that they were safe. “Farther in.”

“Okay…” Vayne knew something was up, but he didn’t want to ask questions quite yet.

The next area was an echoing hall of girders: definitely no good, but before very long they came across a hidden grassy area with blooming flowers, which made little sense but this was Al Revis. It was likely some teacher’s old lab or private growing area. “Dour, let us know if anyone is nearby.”

“Is this what you were looking for? I don’t think the flowers will be open for a few more days.” Vayne knelt in front of the plant, providing the perfect opening for Roxis to dump the contents of an X-heal over Sulpher.

“Hss!” Sulpher snarled at him, the image of offended dignity.

“Roxis!” What the hell was that for?

“It’s not an injury to your spirit or your physical body, then. Did she do this to you?” Roxis asked Sulpher. “Or is it something else?”

Sulpher gave him an aggrieved look and turned around and began to wash himself pointedly.

“He’s still sick?” Vayne asked as Roxis took out yet another potion. “Hey!”

When this one was dumped over Sulpher, the change was immediately apparent. Brighter fur, clearer eyes… “Now, I think you really do owe me an explanation. I could have bought a small barony with that.” And yet, it was so very, very worth it, just to know that he was right.

“Sulpher?”

Sulpher was examining himself. “Mrow…”

“You’re really going to be okay?” Vayne was overjoyed.

“Ahem. As touching as all this is, I would like that explanation. Water of Youth doesn’t grow on trees, you know.” Yggdrasil leaves, however, did. Or a tree, at least.

Let Jess have the mana of one of the four foundation elements, let Flay pursue the mana of gold itself, and the Mana of Life clearly had done Pamela no good. He’d told himself all along that the real strength of an alchemist wasn’t that of their mana but their syntheses.  Dour might be small, shy, and considered a minor element (except in Anna’s homeland), but Roxis really wouldn’t trade him for the world.

After all, if he wanted the world, he could just buy it. 

Chapter Text

As Roxis copied the mental notes he’d taken on the proper care of his new Moonflower into his journal (he had a properly constructed Memory House, of course, so the notes and journal were just to be passed down to future generations), he reflected on what a stroke of luck it had been to find something like this in a place like that. He almost never went there, too: he could have graduated without ever finding out that there was a plant like this here.

The text he had found on it in the Library referred to it as having some ability to imbue spirits with energy. Zeppel seemed to assume that meant mana, but Roxis doubted it was that simple. Likely the plant had been brought here during the era when they were experimenting with Egyptian-style alchemy. The references his father had been able to dig up had precious little to say about plants, sadly. While Hermetic alchemy had focused on affecting the physical world with potions and so on, and the soul through that, the Egyptians had focused on affecting the souls, and through that the physical world. It wasn’t as though they hadn’t used their own, unique recipes: it was just that they were less centric and therefore more easily forgotten.

The most useful book on the subject he’d been able to find had been one on ancient cosmetics. It had definitely shown that the range of materials and processing techniques known in Egypt hadn’t been inferior to those of the Greeks or the Romans, at least…

He’d try substituting the petals for the more common sort of glowing petal first, he decided, and test the results on Jess…

“How’d the duel go?” Nikki asked.

“Hmm?” The noise he made was an uninterested inquiry for the sake of politeness. Couldn’t she tell he was busy and go away for once?

“The duel you were going to have with Vayne?” she prompted.

“Hmm?” The interrogative note was accented this time. What was she talking about?

“You left to go have a duel with Vayne. How’d you end up that deep underground? I thought you didn’t like it there.”

“A true alchemist doesn’t allow personal preferences like that to interfere with their pursuit of the arte,” he said, which was entirely a non-answer. Come to think of it, what had prompted him to go there? Not that he could argue with the results.

He remembered the trip down, he remembered that he’d been trying to cure Sulpher beforehand… maybe he’d decided to demand Vayne accompany him as a form of payment? But he would have been inwardly gloating about something like that. It would have stuck in his memory.

He couldn’t restrain a shiver as he remembered something else.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he told Nikki shortly, taking off his glasses to polish them. Perhaps they had dueled? Taking away memories was very possible, but why would either of them have invoked a shadow game?

Honestly, he shouldn’t have snuck in to read those books, especially not at night. His father had warned him the stories would give him nightmares. There wasn’t a malicious bone in Vayne’s body, well, probably not, and Roxis was fairly certain he hadn’t trespassed against Vayne’s soul in any way that would invite a penalty like that.

It was possible he’d just gotten overexcited by the find or something. Not everything revolved around Vayne.

He risked a glance at the young man out of a corner of his eye. That clinched it. Vayne looked guilty. Not just sheepish but guilty, glancing at Roxis constantly when he thought Roxis wasn’t looking. “Excuse me.”

There wasn’t a copy of the recipe for Water of Lethe on campus, unless it was in a teacher’s restricted collection. While students were only allowed access to many recipes after they’d passed a certain number of classes, there were some that were just too prone to abuse.

Well, to be completely accurate, there wasn’t a copy of the recipe for Water of Lethe, or the associated Water of Mnemosyne, on campus except for those in restricted collections and Roxis’ own head.

As soon as they were out of earshot he called for his mana, “Dour. Do you remember what we were doing in the Resource Center Depths?”

“Umno.” His mana seemed puzzled, then became frowny and even more nervous than the default.

“I’ll have to wait until they’re out of the workshop, I don’t want anyone asking what I’m making. I wonder if Theofratus had a copy of that recipe? Most likely. …in fact, that would explain where Vayne’s missing years are very neatly.” Almost too neatly. “Maybe Vayne just wasn’t able to derive the antidote. Or perhaps he keeps discovering the antidote, using it because he wants to know his past, and then using the Water of Lethe again.” Now there was a horrible thought.


The first thing Roxis did after taking the Water of Mnemosyne was put the flask he had made it in down very, very carefully. The second thing was to open the pouch he had kept the precious prototype Water of Youth in, only to find the tube missing.

The third thing was to pick up the flask again and throw it against the wall, because now he was truly angry and Vayne wasn’t here to have his head cracked open.

The way the flask shattered, sending shards flying everywhere calmed him down slightly, but not enough to care about how Anna would feel, finding the workshop covered in bits of glass in the morning.

Perhaps she’d miss sweeping up a few. Perhaps Sulpher would cut his paws open on them.

Roxis despised cruelty to cats, but in this instance he was, he decided, going to make an exception.

But even though it had been Sulpher’s idea to erase Roxis’ memories, tamper with his mind, trespass on his soul, Vayne had been the one to carry it out. Oh, he’d looked a little guilty, but he’d still done as Sulpher had said. Sulpher was just being a cat, really, but Vayne should know better. Should have had the decency…

Vayne needed to know better. Someone, some mana with that much power couldn’t be allowed to think that it was okay to abuse it just because someone else said so. Someone, someone who Roxis had foolishly come close to considering a friend should have said no and given Roxis that explanation instead of doing something that, that violating.

Roxis registered his mana saying his name and finally getting worried enough to be bold enough to tug at his sleeve, but he really couldn’t care about things like that now. Not when someone needed to be taught a lesson that badly.

Very deliberately, he drew that deck from an inside pocket, and started to walk towards the boys’ dormitory in a way that could almost be considered calm if it weren’t for the fact he slammed any door that got in his way behind him loud enough it almost sounded like a thunderclap.

Megido keys, keys that could open any lock, were another synthesis illegal enough that most didn’t know they existed. They, like the Water of Youth he had wasted on that mangy… ahem. They, like the Water of Menemosyne, were another synthesis he’d made in secret, in this case just in case he ever got imprisoned.

Normally, he’d have been irritated by what the people who had stuck their heads out their doors would think about him seemingly having a key to Vayne’s room, but at the moment he was beyond caring about little things like that.

There was nothing in Vayne’s room. Well, Vayne and Sulpher were there, as were the standard issue bed and sheets and so on, but there were no personal possessions, no marks of personality. This wasn’t a student’s temporary home, this was where an inhuman creature pretended to sleep. “We’re going to play a game,” he told the now-wide-awake Vayne after checking that the door he’d slammed shut behind him, startling the thing awake, had locked.

Sulpher hissed something that might have been an order to Vayne, and the Mana of Light appeared, surely preparing to threaten him, but Roxis hadn’t invited either of them to be part of this. This was between him and Vayne, and it was them the shadows closed around, obeying Roxis’ will far more readily than they ever had before.

Of course, this was the first time he’d ever invoked them for a true trial, as opposed to the games he and his father had played. The ancients had considered games and play just as sacred as more formal rituals, the Olympic games for example. But a game of celebration and a game meant to punish evil were two entirely different things.

So somehow he knew that without Sulpher there to give him orders, without his monsters to support him Vayne was vulnerable. Of course, this was between Vayne, Roxis, and the shadows, so Roxis couldn’t use his own allies either, not and deny Vayne his. That would be unfair. “Let’s play Truth or Dare.” Yes, there was no way Roxis would fail at a test of courage, and there was no reason not to answer any question Vayne asked truthfully, not when Vayne would lose.

For once.

He could feel power gathering around them, as though a thousand eyes were watching them. Judging from how Vayne almost squirmed, he could too. Roxis just smiled. “We both have the right to refuse, but he who refuses three times loses the game. He who answers truly or does the deed requested a total of three times wins. He who lies or fails at a task will suffer the penalty. You may go first.” Roxis would be more than fair. “Truth or dare?”

As Roxis had hoped, Vayne answered, “Truth.”

He could feel that the right question was, “What is your name?” That seemed like an easy one, perhaps to give the Shadows time to reveal his true self?

And yet when Vayne answered, “Vayne Aurelius,” red eyes snapped open in the darkness all around them and it seemed as though that space should have echoed with the sound of shattering glass, because the illusion, the lie that had answered with that name shattered just as easily as that flask had minutes ago.

Roxis felt the game, the power that he had invoked, shift around them, settle into a new pattern. He had been about to open his mouth to declare that Vayne had lost and speak the penalty when the being that stood there now spoke.

“Vanitas.” There was a pause, a heartbeat in length, as different eyes met his. “Your turn, Roxis. Truth or dare?”

“Truth.” He raised his chin high. He wasn’t afraid, even though he had known he was in the right against Vayne and now didn’t know who would win.

“What do I want you to tell me.” That voice lingered on the words, and finally laughed. “I don’t want anything from you. So I suppose you win this round. What do you want, Roxis?”

What Roxis wanted was for this Vanitas to tell him what kind of demon he was. Vanity? One of the seven sins, at Al Revis? Truly? As soon as he thought that, Vanitas said, “Truth, then.”

“What are you and how can you be stopped?”

“I am the Mana of Wishes, and all you would have to do is wish for me to die. That’s a total of three truths. That means I win.”

Roxis scowled, feeling the truth of that in the cold that surrounded him and cursing himself for a fool. Asking two questions at once? What had he been thinking? He’d allowed his own eagerness to know to defeat him.

“But I already broke the rules.” When Vayne had spoken the truth as best he knew it. “So what price should I pay? What do you want of me?”

What Roxis wanted was for Vayne to make sense, dammit. To stop being so confusing and vulnerable one second and cruel the next, with a child’s innocent cruelty. To be under control so Roxis could stop worrying about him, the annoying little…

“As you wish.” Those eyes slid shut, seeming pleased somehow, as Vanitas began to float, glowing silver-blue amidst the shadows, as Roxis strode forward and grasped him, with his hand and with his mind, feeling a now-familiar connection snap into place.

Some petty part of him thought, ‘who’s the prodigy with two mana now?’ but that was almost the least part of this triumph.

Such power! And he’d thought possessing the formula of Water of Youth was an excessive amount for any man to have. How had Theofratus resisted the temptation to become ruler of a new, far vaster, Empire?

All Roxis had to do was want to know, and he knew.

And knowledge was power, in and of itself.

As the shadows disappeared Sulpher threw himself at Vayne, meowing frantically. “I can’t understand Sulpher,” not-quite-Vayne said. Not wanting to understand him, no, but there was a hint of disquiet in that voice, a distress that the mana couldn’t quite grasp.

Roxis hated the idea of making a child suffer. “I wish we both understood him.”

“What did you do?” Sulpher was hissing at him, fur standing up on end in an entirely undignified way. Sulpher really cared about him, didn’t he.

“Oh, my new mana? I won him in a card game.” Well, not really, it wasn’t a card game, but it sounded so much better that way.

Chapter Text

All he had to do was want Vayne to kneel, and he did.

The power, the triumph, was intoxicating.

An artificial mana, proof that alchemy was an ‘unnatural science’ capable of playing god.

A mana with the name of one of the seven deadly sins as well. Far more damning than merely taking the form of a black cat.

“What is your wish?” Vanitas lingered over those words, because that was what it was for, granting wishes. Its purpose in existence, the only thing it was capable of feeling any drive to do, because it was in its nature. Granting wishes was the only thing it could desire, the wishes of an entire world narrowed down, distilled, transformed into the lust to grant them.

Yet now that the shadows had receded, the shell they had stripped away had begun to return, and there was still that trace, that shadow of Vayne there.

Vayne was afraid. Sulpher was upset, Sulpher didn’t want this, and he couldn’t grant his wish because he belonged to Roxis now, and it wasn’t right to kill Roxis any more than it had been to make him forget. Why had Sulpher made him do that when Roxis only wanted to help?

It wasn’t right to kill Roxis? Had it been right to kill Father? That had been Father’s wish, but, but there were things other than wishes, he realized, trying to put that nebulous feeling of wrongness into words.

Wishes were what he was made for, what was natural and came naturally to him. Hear the wish, feel the desire, grant it. Simple.

But Father, Sulpher, and now Roxis wanted him to think, and that made him think of…

As Vayne, he’d always had the sense that something was missing. He’d filled it with the workshop, with what they wanted, but there had always been the knowledge that things weren’t quite… real. That something else was real, and all of this was somehow as fragile as a dream, no more real than the Mana of Dreams’ chosen alchemist’s own delusions.

He’d had to speak the truth, and that revelation had brushed it away just as casually as the morning light did normal dreams. Brushed everything he’d thought he was away.

As Vanitas, he’d always known that people wished for contradictory things. Father had wanted him to understand the ramifications of human incapability, or something, and yet he’d wanted him to grant his wish for death, without… Father had considered death wrong, wished to save that girl, and yet he’d made Vanitas to kill him and…

So much easier to grant Sulpher’s wish that he forget. But Sulpher also wanted him to understand, and wanted him to learn how to be independent when that just wasn’t something he could grant. But he had to grant all wishes. But he couldn’t. But…

Do and not do. Shalt not and must.

“If it’s tearing you apart,” Roxis said, putting his head on the top of that confused head, “then let it.” Honestly, which of them was the blond here?

“What?” Two questions in that word: did Roxis really mean that and was it really that simple?

“If it’s impossible to try to do both things at once without doing them both badly,” no wonder Vayne had said something so seemingly either random or cruel. “Then don’t try to mesh the two. As the Mana of Wishes, you can’t understand what wishes mean to humans. As a human, you can’t perform the functions of the mana. One requires infinite desire and potential, the other individual. They’re mutually exclusive. In order to be yourself, you have to be both Vayne and Vanitas. It’s a basic concept, just not in alchemy as Al Revis teaches it.” Or modern theology as it was applied to humans. The soul was a many-aspected thing for all beings, not just God.

 “Not only is it impossible to reconcile the two, it’s unnecessary.” If it had been possible, Vayne would have already done it as Theofratus and Sulpher wished. “Honestly, even God the almighty and all-knowing had to create a separate demi-human self to understand us, and was incapable of doing so without that limited self.” As the Old Testament described. “You may be an extremely powerful mana, and a god according to the ancient definition, although I wouldn’t go around advertising that, I understand burning alive is rather painful, but you’re really not all that bright, are you. Of course, necessity is the mother of invention, and as a mana every task you face is either one you can instantly accomplish or utterly impossible. No wonder Theofratus didn’t bother to put anything between your ears but fluff, really.”

“If that’s…” What you think is a good idea/what you wish… Va… he, they didn’t know how to respond, caught between those two responses as they began to diverge.

Vanitas felt satisfied that the wish had been granted and things were simple now. Mana were elemental beings, meant to maintain harmony in their elements. For wishes and desire to be so out of balance had felt deeply wrong (a human might have felt nauseous), and now all was right with the world, or at least the aspect of it he existed to care for.

Vayne was confused, and didn’t like it that Father had died because of the being that was both him and not-him. Everything had been a lie, he’d lied to them, Father was dead and he…

Sulpher was right there, so Vayne was holding him before the impulse had a chance to fully form. If Roxis hadn’t already wanted him to feel better (and therefore wished that Vayne would do whatever made him calm down by implication) or Sulpher hadn’t wanted Vayne to come back, then Vayne’s first desire of his own would have been the realization that he wanted Sulpher.

But the good wishes of the people who cared for him meant he didn’t lack that comfort and therefore did not feel the want of it.

Sulpher had already known he wouldn’t be able to protect him forever, but that had been extremely distressing. A cat would never show such an undignified attention or emotion, but he found himself wanting to groom the kitten’s fur back into proper order and wishing Vayne had the form of a proper cat instead of a human so he could do that.

Light washed over Vayne, and an instant later a kitten’s head pushed against Sulpher’s side, mewling in a confused and piteous fashion.

Sulpher batted at it with a paw, paying lip service to proper tomly indifference to kittens, and then began to lick at the thing with the air of a long-suffering elder doing the thing a favor. Which he was.

“Mew?” ‘Sulpher?’

“Mrow.” ‘Hold still.’ Sulpher pinned the thing down with a paw.

Roxis told himself that he was not weak, he was not having a hard time resisting the urge to coo over the thing, and that he was still very irritated with Vayne. Right.

Well, what next? “I am very unhappy with you both.” He sighed, knowing there was no chance of getting the cat to apologize for tampering with his mind.

…he wanted to pet the kitty…

No: it was too late to suppress that urge, he knew, as Vanitas fit neatly into the cup of his hands. What an adorable little bitty kitty… Must not talk baby talk in front of witnesses, must not…

But he wanted to.

“Look less…” Catlike, adorable, Roxis ordered.

Vanitas murmured an agreement and stretched, becoming humanlike, but part of Roxis still wanted him to be a cute little kitten and so the ears and tail stayed, as did the slit eyes.

Roxis had generally found beastmen almost comical: some found them fearsome but he’d met quite a few while traveling. Nikki was really more mouselike in appearance, and while he’d never underestimate Lorr’s capacity for violence they weren’t anything like real cats, lacking their dignity and dangerous grace.

Vanitas and Vayne were neither human, cat, nor beastman, but Vanitas evened out at some ideal mixture of the three, Roxis’ ideal at least, and he remembered that vanity was not the sin most closely related to desire.

So he forced himself to take a deep breath. “It would be a good idea not to grant unspoken wishes without asking me first, unless there’s no time to ask.” For instance, if Roxis were unconscious and bleeding to death. “Or running them by Vayne, that’s his job, after all.” At whatever point Vayne became able to do it, and Roxis didn’t have great faith in his competency. “For now, the kitten form is fine.”

Itty bitty kitty he could put in a pocket , maybe with its cute widdle head peeking out… Ahem. “Since Vayne clearly still wants to be pacted to Sulpher, you may restore that pact.” It wasn’t as though Roxis had asked them to dissolve it, aside from his baser self going mine-all-mine bwahahaha for a moment. “In humans, the intelligence exists to rein in the baser instincts, among other things. We all suffer temptation: nobility is refusing to yield to it. You will not do anyone any favors by granting what their bodies desire as opposed to their selves. We suffer many contradictory desires and impulses,” for instance to pet the little Vaynekitty or strangle Vayne.

“You are the power of will that we use to achieve our desires as well as those desires themselves: continue to let individual humans do what they will with your element in the normal way, but I want you to read some of the tales of genies. Having something that grants us exactly what we wish for without taking extenuating circumstances and so on into consideration never ends well.” Vanitas-kitty purred when he stroked down its back with one finger, aww. “The saying that something is worth what you pay for it is true because it is through that effort and payment that we test and prove how much we truly want it. If something comes easy, you may find that you never really wanted it only too late, and if something is difficult that forces you to reflect on whether or not there is something else that might make you happier. Humans, greedy creatures that we are, wish for the moon without thinking about things like where would we possibly keep it or what effect that would have on the tides.

“You want things to be simple, easy, and fair. Well, really, who doesn’t? However, people are confusing, unique creatures, what makes one happy will devastate another, and it’s not possible to make it simple for us.” Roxis would hate him if he tried, too.

Sulpher yawned loudly.

Well, he really should stop lecturing, the trouble was that he was afraid if he stopped speaking his piece he’d start talking baby talk. “You were created by Theofratus, yes? Was he still a pure Hermetic alchemist in philosophy? What on earth was he trying to accomplish?” The creation of a perfect entity or some such rot?

“He wanted to die,” Vanitas explained, “without killing himself, because that would be a sin. So he wished for me to do it.”

Vaynekitty made weeping noises and Vanitas nosed at Roxis’ finger. Roxis froze and waited for the world to return, for it had been buried under clouds of red.

It took quite a long time before he was able to stammer out a word.

He’d thought he’d been angry earlier, at Vayne, but this?

It was a good thing it took so long, because if he’d been able to speak at first he had no idea what he would have said. Being forced to wait to calm down forced him to organize his thoughts.

“What… Was the man mad?” Almost certainly, Roxis realized, not that it excused anything. “Suicide is a sin because it is causing the death of a human being: in short, murder. A murder that can never be atoned for because once you are dead you are no longer in a position to be of use to anyone. Also, in order to be absolved, the first requirement is to admit that you committed a sin, and did something wrong that you feel the need to atone for and no longer make such errors in future. By forcing the blame onto you, Theofratus flat-out refused to do so. The man committed a cold-blooded, premeditated murder and tried to force the shame onto a blameless and brainless innocent, am I wrong?”

“No,” Sulpher agreed, returning to licking Vayne.

“Then I certainly hope the man’s fond of hot climates, because he’s doing to be spending a very, very long time in one.” Not long enough, never long enough.

Dear, dear God. The man had created life, if not a human soul, and he’d… Surely any alchemist with the depth of understanding of the universe it must have taken to achieve such a thing must have known what he was doing. He must have.

And he’d still done something like that. Tried to make a murderer out of an entity who didn’t have a choice in the matter. Who didn’t even have the understanding of good and evil that all men were born with, even though they were sinful enough to ignore it far too much of the time.

“You’re not a murderer,” he told Vayne. “Neither of you chose to kill him, you were simply following your nature. When a wild boar kills a man,” it is a dangerous animal and must be put down: no, that wasn’t the right metaphor to use. “When a lion kills to feed its young, it is merely following its nature. When a man kills his brother, that is an unnatural act,” and all men were brothers. “You are the mana of wishes, it is your nature to grant wishes. If he had hurled himself off a cliff, should the cliff feel responsible? You should try to make sure that your element is used properly, that is the job of a mana, but you are no sinner, you… Oh, no wonder. Honestly.” That explained it. No wonder he had been so frustrated.

Vayne had no soul. He didn’t have the intrinsic knowledge of good and evil that man had received as the consequence of its first, innocent sin. Vayne was an eternal innocent, not capable of grasping the things humans must in order to resist their intrinsic corruption. He was incapable of gaining the understanding that had so frustrated Roxis by its inexplicable lack.

Vayne was a kind, generous person, so it had made no sense when he had acted in ways no decent human would. Yet it made perfect sense if he was not human, but a mana.

If it were human, the Mana of Light would be considered cruel, but in the end it didn’t quite understand what it was doing, just like Vayne hadn’t, and didn’t, and couldn’t. He had been given life by a human, but lacked both humanity’s divine wisdom and inherent sin.

Raise a human child away from all evil influences, and they would still feel lust, still attempt to tell lies, still have instinctive knowledge of a catalogue of ways they could try to pervert the natural order of the world to their own benefit.

What had it been like for an entity born a true innocent to come face to face with the ultimate sin, the ultimate perversion of life and nature, in its first moments? Something Vayne still must find wrong and utterly incomprehensible?

He’d already felt like he should apologize. Now he felt like he should apologize on behalf of his species.

Chapter Text

“You’re the one who imagined him in maid outfits.”

“It was an example!”

“An example of your fantasies,” the Mana of Light agreed, moving its tail in a way that was halfway between a happy wag and a predatory lash. “What others do you have, hmm? The collar, of course. Perhaps a leash?”

“I don’t need one,” Roxis forced out through gritted teeth. “Which is what I meant when I asked the entirely rhetorical question of ‘What am I going to do with you?’ Which was, in any event, addressed to him, not to you.” Eavesdropper. Why couldn’t it have manifested a few minutes ago, when a distraction that irritated him would have been useful? He’d come far too close to yielding to baby talk too many times.

“I’ve known humans for ages, all over the world. You want to win, but you want to do it on your own merits, because otherwise it’s a loss. Vayne’s reactions were so adorable.”

“Mew?” ‘What do you mean?’ Vayne-kitten wondered.

“Such great desires, and he didn’t let you do anything for you.” Tsk. “Your strength of will, your passion: you enflamed him,” she said to Roxis now.

Speaking of it like that: what a, “P-Pervert,” he accused, trying not to look guilty, shamed, or interested at the thoughts of Vayne in a maid outfit, or collar and leash. Looking at the kitties was the lesser of two evils, he decided.

"He'd love to do whatever you wanted. It's so frustrating for him when you won't let him give you your desires, but that's what he admires about you. How driven you are, how hard... you're willing to work for your goals."

Frustrated, desires, driven, hard, willing.

"He wants you to be happy with him, he wants to satisfy your desires, but you'd rather handle it yourself." Handle yourself.

“Nngh.”

She leaned forward, moving in for the kill. “He’d love to do something for you, anything you wanted. Anything at all. If only you let him. I wish you’d let him.”

Vayne’s pact to Sulpher had been restored. Sulpher was still pacted to Eital. Roxis was too busy trying not to die of shame to form any conscious wishes other than that this not be happening.

What wishes did he have that could be fulfilled by someone else?

For instance, if Vayne had become his mana solely because Roxis wished for a mana, then he wouldn’t have felt that he earned it. It would have felt like charity. Well, he had been able to heal the Huffin Tree because of Vayne’s charity, but Dour had told him that he had already been impressed by his efforts to heal the tree, pointless or not.

Roxis wanted to be victorious, always, but it didn’t mean anything if it was just handed to you. You could tower over others by becoming great or by merely pushing them down into the ground so you looked better by comparison: a wish wouldn’t have made him any worthier, so it would have just been the second, despicable method.

Alchemy was an art form, an alchemist’s syntheses were unique, the style almost a fingerprint even in the more basic recipes. There was Jess’ deliberate, willful decision to ignore ratios and ether levels to invite the kind of lucky accident that lead to breakthroughs, Anna’s careful, exact precision that allowed her to perform difficult syntheses even without understanding the principles, Flay’s “man’s cooking” and many more.

For Vayne to grant him skill at alchemy could only grant him Vayne’s skill, Vayne’s style, not his own.

Come to think of it, that would explain much about Vayne’s style of alchemy. He never invented recipes, even now. He could mimic, try the easy alternate ingredients, but he always did exactly what was required to attain the desired result. No experiments that risked not attaining that result, none of the ‘good enough’ that was the mark of an experienced alchemist that knew when it wasn’t necessary to go by the book, and definitely none of the ‘a little less of this, and a dash of that would go well with it,’ that marked a master who understood the principles and knew that recipes really weren’t much more than guidelines.

Given how many things depended on the phase of the moon, the season, the humidity, and so on, recipes really ended up being for students, a sort of ‘average’ synthesis that could be counted on to work reliably enough and yet vary enough that it would force them to experiment with what was necessary to create the desired effects. A true master could make boiling hot ice cream.

In alchemy, the mana provided the power and the alchemist the direction, the creativity.

The drive.

Vayne was a mana.

And not just any mana, but the mana of that drive itself.

The force that drove humans to create, to improve their own lives, to get up out of bed in the mornings.

‘I want...’

‘My dream is to…’

‘I wish that…’

‘If only…’

But Vayne was desire, not achievement. People could have utterly irrational desires that they knew they didn’t really didn’t want. How many times had Roxis wished for harm to befall Vayne? Or for Tony to just drop dead?

He hadn’t wanted Vayne to be hurt, but to be able to claim victory over him. He hadn’t wanted Tony to die, just to stop being so damned annoying so Roxis could get his work done.

But those had been the wishes he had stated aloud, or in the privacy of his own mind, and those were what Vayne would have granted.

If Vayne wasn’t at his best, a victory would be meaningless. If Tony had died, Renee would have been distraught and forced Roxis to attend his funeral and so on. He wouldn’t have been able to complete any assignments for the foreseeable future, certainly

The wish itself often went against the underlying purpose of the wish. That was why humans repressed or refused to act on those irrational desires.

But Vayne was desire, both rational and irrational.

And Eital’s wish had removed his ability to say no to his desires.

At least Vayne wasn’t overwriting Roxis’ alchemy skills and replacing them with his own: Roxis didn’t want to be an eternal student. At least he, and Vanitas now, were able to recognize when the immediate wish went against the true wish, or the easy way didn’t really grant the wish itself.

They didn’t mind that he had such strong wishes to be a great alchemist. They were those wishes. Their power dwelled within him, as it did every human, and they liked how strong it was in him. Had liked it all along. Vayne had even said he admired Roxis’ hard work.

At least they weren’t changing him, because after all, they weren’t his wishes if he weren’t himself anymore. He wished he was more creative when it came to recipes, but it was for he himself to be creative that he wished.

So many wishes and desires seemed so simple but were in the end so complicated. No wonder Vanitas had been so confused.

But there was one set of desires that was extremely simple. The primal desires for food, beautiful things, and…

Vanity wasn’t the deadly sin most closely related to desire. Not even one of the top three. Top four, if you considered wrath to be the desire for someone to suffer and die. Of course, Narcissism was a form of vanity and that was desire for one’s self.

 There were desires that people suppressed for good reasons, and desires that people suppressed merely because they considered them shameful. Eital’s wish had made Vanitas release Roxis’ inhibitions.

Specifically, those related to baby talk.

“Aww, aren’t you two just the cutest little bitty kitties,” Roxis cooed, scratching under their tiny silver chins with two fingers. “You’d fit right in my pockets, you adorable widdle…”

“Well, that’s… close to what I was aiming for.” Embarrassing blackmail material was always welcome, but while this was sweet it wasn’t the kind of eye candy the Mana of Light had expected.

Sulpher sniggered. Or rather, he would have sniggered if that weren’t beneath his dignity as a cat. He instead yawned and stretched, but the sniggering was clearly implied nonetheless.

Vanitas enjoyed it shamelessly and Sulpher was pleased one of them had learned at least something of proper behavior from him. Vayne, however, had picked up enough of human culture to know that he really should be embarrassed, or upset at being teleported out of Sulpher’s paws, but he’d also been raised by Sulpher. He supposed that since he currently looked like a cat he should probably act like one, Roxis wasn’t angry at him for once and there were pettings. What would Sulpher do?

Well, no, Vayne probably shouldn’t order Roxis to spend at least an hour a day petting him.


Roxis had six hard, rectangular deck cases on the bottom half of his coat, three on each side. One for his fighting deck, one for the deck his father had given him, one for vials of various healing potions, one for the seeds and other offensive combat items he used, one for his notes and the last was for various small keepsakes or things he found while gathering and wanted to make a point of investigating later. He switched all but two to the inside while actually fighting so they were less likely to get sliced up. His combat deck’s pocket would be empty anyway and if the enemy wanted to let all the mandragora seeds and so on out, more power to them.

He wished he could figure out how on earth Jess got her bags to have more space on the inside than the outside, that would be incredibly useful. Oh, yes, right. He wouldn’t wish for Vayne, or Vanitas, to tell him how she did it, but rather to apply the same effect to his pockets. Yes, that would work.

His first ‘official’ wish had been for Vanitas to make sure that the Mana of Light never, ever mentioned his baby talk (or any other blackmail material) to anyone. Ever. Or that they’d spent the night in a kittypile, with his kitten too.

He loved cats. They were such elegant creatures, with such enviable grace, poise, and self-confidence. They were everything he aspired to be (except alchemists, obviously).

So why then did they reduce him to acting like the stereotypical old woman with too many cats? The kind of pre-alchemy herbalist who had become the archetypical witch because of the power their knowledge afforded them and how they had often let it go to their heads, indulging in small, petty vengeances that they’d thought would be considered acts of god instead of traced back to them?

Well, if he thought of it that way it was quite appropriate, actually. He wasn’t a proper alchemist, he was one who trafficked with dark powers as well. One who intended to live in a manor in the woods and own, or at least feed, lots of cats.

Of course, he wouldn’t be living alone. Family, family retainers, the people who actually farmed the land, and whoever he ended up marrying to continue the family line. Probably a younger daughter from one of the surrounding noble families, to mend those fences. Relations had become a bit… difficult, recently.

The Rosenkrantz family had been granted those lands for their alchemical services. Since so long had gone by without them producing any alchemists? With the Crusades over, there were far too many landless younger sons of proper noble bloodlines, and what the Emperor had granted the Emperor could take away if someone who had done something for the crown recently asked him to.

There were the lands across the sea, but the way they had become vacant so quickly was warning enough.

It was hard enough for the people of Christendom to survive without the help of alchemists in the jungles of Afrika, and trading ships to India and Cathay were often as laden with cure jars for the sailors as limes or whiskey (it was hard to get sailors to make water safe by boiling it, but they’d go out of their way to add alcohol to it). Luckily, those diseases rarely followed them back.

The people of the Americas had only possessed a handful of alchemists. There were fewer people there and hence fewer of the mana who enjoyed people and were willing to pact went there, so the traveling alchemists who had gone to the new world in search of new ingredients didn’t have the benefit of local assistance in finding recipes that were effective against those diseases and could be made with the materials available.  The native doctors had their own pharmacopeias, of course, so it was easy to find ingredients with curative properties, but herbalism and alchemy were two entirely different things. The fact they had so much in common just made the differences bigger problems.

Potions required testing in order to discover their properties, and apparently there was a plant there that had marvelous curative properties, especially for fever, but only at low ether levels. At high ether levels, the cure jars had worked but that almost hadn’t mattered when those who used them caught fire. Luckily, any alchemist with any sense knew to keep lots of nectars on hand when testing new syntheses.

Sometimes, Roxis was glad Jess and Flay weren’t proper alchemists, willing to read everything they could get their hands on in search of knowledge. He wasn’t sharing his exploding trap with Flay and he was never going to grow that plant if there was any chance Jess might find out about it.

Many governments were considering pressuring the Pope to tell Espana to withdraw from the new world. No one wanted those diseases, some clearly closely related to known ones but far deadlier, to spread.

His father’s arranged marriage had been a thinly-disguised attempt to get control of the family lands, and he had advised Roxis to try to return already married, because it would be better to have a true partner. Roxis hadn’t found anyone tolerable, however. Well, perhaps Anna, provided they had separate workshops and she didn’t attempt to tell him how to clean his, but she had family duties to attend to.

He couldn’t argue with that, after all.

Roxis sighed, dragging his wandering thoughts back to the coat he had been staring at. He knew he shouldn’t carry Vayne and Vanitas around in pockets. It would be hard enough to act normal after this without being constantly exposed to adorable little silver twin kittens. Oh, and Vayne needed to be able to keep up the masquerade. Roxis had wanted to know the truth, not to deprive Vayne of the happiness he had found here. Vayne was feeling awful enough after finding out about Theofratus without losing all his friends.

A warm weight leaned against his back. “I can just disappear, you know.” That was how most mana did it, after all.

Well, he probably wouldn’t lose those lunatics over it, but there was someone else they needed to watch out for.

“And if you want children, all you have to do is wish.”

“I thought I told you not to read my desires? Well, no, that would be pointless.” Vanitas was his desires, and now they were pacted he was even less able to ignore them. “And apparently making children is the most enjoyable part of the process.” Painless childbirth: one more reason alchemists were in such high demand. More importantly, “You can’t keep appearing like this, not when you might be seen.”

“You don’t want me to be seen.”

“Nor do I want to seem like a moonstruck fool.” Talking to someone who wasn’t there. “Either come up with some sort of alternate form – besides a tiny kitten! – for when you want to talk to me, or only do so in my mind. Unless it’s safe.”

“But the kitten form is what you wish for. Well that and this.”

“Looking like Vayne would if he had been born a beastman is no better.” If Vanitas just looked like Vayne, then people might not realize he wasn’t if they caught a glimpse. “Think of something.”

“I can think of many things.”

Right, that wasn’t the problem. “Pick something.” Which was incredibly difficult for the mana, Roxis knew. How did you select from among infinite possibilities when none was any more or less appealing than any other? Come to think of it, Roxis didn’t want a stupid-looking mana, so he clearly needed to pick for him because Vanitas had no taste. Taste was discrimination between good and bad, after all, which required preferring what was good. “What should we claim you’re the mana of? Hmm.” Sulpher, salt, “Mercury? I shall have to check the library.” To see if anyone had encountered a Mercury Mana and might be able to tell the difference.

“You could just wish to know.”

“We’ve had this discussion.”

“Yes,” Vanitas agreed shamelessly.

“…” Roxis gave him a look. “Well, someone takes after Sulpher.” As opposed to Vayne. “If I grow reliant on you, then what will happen when the time comes that you need to rely on me? Research is a necessary skill for alchemists. I’m perfectly capable of handling this myself, and I need to keep in practice.” And get better at it, in fact. “I know you need to grant wishes, and I already let you grant several this morning. So please forgive me for not being one of those lazy, spineless people who wants someone else to give them everything on a silver platter.”

“But you are,” Vanitas purred fondly, still draped over Roxis.

“What.” Oh, you did not just say that.

“All humans wish to have something for nothing. To have the fruits of their labors without the labor. Work is hard and unpleasant: wishing to avoid it is simple and understandable.” Natural and inevitable. “You don’t have weaker desires or fewer desires than others. You have even stronger desires. Ones strong enough to overrule the desire to just wish in addition to it. Sulpher says you’re an obsessed workaholic, like Theofratus. His desire was strong enough to call us into being.”

Vanitas liked the obsessed in the same way the Mana of Dreams liked those prone to paranoid delusions, Roxis realized, and wondered if he should feel flattered or peeved. He settled on irritated, both by default and because it seemed as though Vanitas was trying to irritate him.

But was he? Roxis had thought Vayne had been trying to constantly insult him and undermine him, so he should know by now that the normal signs of true intent didn’t apply to these two.

Vanitas wouldn’t feel any desire to do anything unless someone wanted him to, so who would want Vanitas to irritate Roxis? Besides the Mana of Light. And Sulpher, probably. Roxis didn’t want to be tempted to use Vanitas’ power, so Vanitas rubbing him the wrong way would make that easier and grant Roxis’ wish as well.

All wishes aside, Roxis was fairly certain Vanitas was fond of him, both for his ambition and how Roxis treated him. Both the ‘him’ that was his power within Roxis and the mana himself. Oh, Vayne too.

Al Revis was a school, full of young people with hopes and dreams for the future.  There were also glyphs meant to strengthen mana power. Would Vanitas become less powerful on the mainland? Or rather, his total power would remain the same, it would just be his ability to summon and apply it. The location of the fire mana didn’t affect the strength of the fires of the world.

Still, Roxis’ ambitions seemed something like catnip to Vanitas, or it might just be the cat ears and tail that were making him think that. Roxis thought Vanitas liked the feeling and therefore should logically enjoy Roxis’ presence and thus like Roxis, but Anna had told him of a philosophical question from her homeland: If a tree fell in the woods, and no one was there to hear it, did it make a sound? Did Vanitas’ fondness for his new pact-holder exist when Vanitas was incapable of feeling it, not buried among the collective desires of all beings, human and not?

Isolated from them, or at least somewhat insulated, Vayne might someday be able to learn how to identify his own desires, or so Roxis hoped. He thought that was Sulpher’s plan too.

He knew he shouldn’t pity Vanitas or Vayne. It was horrible to imagine a human who had nothing they loved, who felt no passion or purpose in life, but they were a mana. They had an intrinsic purpose, lacked the human need to find meaning in their lives.

Or Vanitas did.

What was Vayne supposed to do with himself now? Well, he had the purpose of learning how to be a human and feel what they felt in order to fulfill his, their, duties as a mana, but part of that was distancing himself from his mana nature so that he could have his own desires.

Did he feel lost, adrift? Probably not, Roxis knew. He’d been ignorant of his true nature and separated from Vanitas before: it shouldn’t be any different now except that now he knew what he was and that he had a purpose.

The real trouble would be the consequences of what Theofratus had done. And what Isolde would do once she knew Vayne knew.

Roxis knew Vayne wouldn’t be able to hide the shame he (wrongly) felt. She’d know if she even tried to meet his eyes.

He might need to actually threaten to release all those mana. Hopefully she wouldn’t call his bluff. Hopefully it would only be a bluff. It would be a drastic action, but pacting with Vayne had been a drastic action. Working with shadow magic was a little like Vanitas’ power, really. It removed inhibitions and made you do what you would in order to achieve your goal if there were no consequences. Even though there were, oh there were. That was the entire point.

He tapped his pen on the sheet of paper, thinking. “Vanitas. Perhaps I should put it this way: the ends don’t justify the means. The means determine the end. Cause and effect, in a sense.”

“All you have to do is wish.”

“A wish isn’t the cause, it’s the desired effect. If I used your power, it would be the cause.” How to put this? “The means to the end. And using your power would have certain consequences, just like using my own would.”

“You don’t wish to go to the depths of the Resource Center.”

“Exactly. So if I go, it would build character.” For one thing. “Finding the information, if it is there, would help improve my research skills, and who knows what other interesting and useful information I might find in the process? Not to mention ingredients.”

“I can grant you ingredients.”

“Yes. With another wish. And you can’t find me useful, unknown information because you can only grant me what I wish for and I don’t know what to wish for. If I knew what I wanted, it wouldn’t be an unknown or new concept. So, by going to find the information myself, I would be granting four of my own wishes in the process. If I used your power, it would take me two wishes to fulfill the only two desires that you can grant.”

Vanitas tilted his head, and Roxis wondered if he was finally getting it through to him. “…You’re right.”

“A wish is a goal, an effect of the actions taken to obtain it. For instance, if someone wished to win a tournament. You could grant them that by a wish, which would be cheating, or they could learn how to do it on their own, which would… Can you think of consequences?” That was actually an honest question.

It took him a moment, even though Roxis made a point of wanting him to be able to think of some. “The desire to feel that they are the best, the desire to be challenged… They wouldn’t be able to have those desires fulfilled if their wish was granted that way. Humans make so many wishes at once. So granting them one at a time wouldn’t be very efficient, would it?”

“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t grant wishes. You just need to keep in mind that for every wish someone voices or feels strongly there are twenty others that contribute to it or might even cancel it out. Your power is mana power: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using it. However, there is a saying that when all you have is a hammer, all your problems begin to look like nails. You make granting simple wishes so easy that I’m a bit worried that I’ll begin to see everything as a simple wish.”

Vanitas curled up to him. “You understand our power so well. Even better than we do-“

Roxis interrupted that, irritated that Vanitas was indeed that ignorant about mana. “Don’t be silly. Of course you understand your element better than I do. It’s just that that’s part of the problem. It’s so simple for you that it’s hard to grasp that other people find it complicated and how. I’m not saying anything you don’t know, it’s just that you haven’t been able to put it into words.” Honestly. “Dour?”

“Es?” His mana appeared almost hurriedly, and Roxis realized belatedly that this was the first time he had summoned him since pacting with Vayne.

“…I’m terribly sorry. I should have asked before pacting with another mana.” Now he felt like a horrible person.

Dour shook his head, eyes downcast. “’Ts o…ay.”

“No, it’s not, and I only summoned you now because I wanted to ask if you would do me a favor.” Shamefaced, Roxis looked to the side as well. “I’m sorry. I’ll find some way to make this up to you.”

“What id oo?” Dour stopped before saying the word want, looking nervously at Vanitas.

Roxis pointed at Vanitas. “He doesn’t really know the first thing about what mana are. Someone needs to teach him, and the Mana of Light is not a good role model.” God forbid. Sulpher’d corrupted him enough already without her getting her paws any deeper into him than they already were.

Dour paused. “…E?”

“The Mana of Gold is an old friend of Eital.” Roxis ticked their options off on his fingers. “The Mana of Wind is flighty and tends to let things slip. Siren would write a song about all of this if she knew. Pamela’s mana spends all of her time in that teddy bear,” they needed more sanity around here, not less, “and doesn’t speak to the rest of us. Anna’s mana doesn’t either, and how am I supposed to judge if they would be a good teacher or not if they’ve never explained anything in my hearing? You know a great deal of ancient alchemic lore,” like the Water of Youth, “you’re polite,” a little too polite, in fact, “good at assisting with syntheses and so on. Who else would I possibly choose?” He wasn’t going to trust anyone else with Vayne, not when he was so easily molded.

Dour gripped his acorn tightly, looking up at Roxis and Vanitas. “Um…”

“You can say no if you like. We both know that Vayne is rather slow and extremely irritating. I suppose I could just give him a reading list. It would keep him busy.” Roxis wasn’t a very touchy-feely person, but there was just something about shy little children. And kittens. So he put his hand on Dour’s shoulder, squeezed it once. “But I’d feel much more confident that I wouldn’t wake up one morning to find he’d done something stupid like give someone the Midas touch if you took him under your wing. Or acorn.”

There was a nod and an, “Es,” Dour replied, a small smile growing as he started to believe that Roxis really wasn’t going to replace him.

“Thank you.” Another squeeze and he removed his hand, pleased to see Dour come out from behind the acorn. Which reminded him. “Now, you really don’t have a mana form? Many mana have a natural form and only take on a humanoid one if they spend a great deal of time with people. For instance, Dour’s true form is that acorn. But I suppose that as a created mana it’s possible that you might only have the form he designed you with.”

“I do, but Sulpher said not to show it to anyone after what happened.”

Roxis decided he didn’t want to ask about what happened. Well, he would have to find out what sort of blunders they’d made early on eventually, in order to make sure they didn’t happen in future, but he could really only take so much stupid per week. “Well, I want you to show it to me.”

Vanitas glowed, and Roxis found himself in some sort of infinite plain. Would Vanitas not fit in Roxis’ room?

Not comfortably.

The red eyes would have been frightening, but the lumpy black mass seemed more like… he didn’t know what, but it wasn’t very threatening. What really ruined the effect, however, were the legs. They were such ill-fitting things compared to Vanitas’ body that they somehow ended up just looking incredibly ridiculous.

“A child’s scribble!” That was what the curves and bumps of the black body were making him think of! “No, you definitely can’t take this form. They’ll either run screaming or, more likely, start laughing.” Roxis couldn’t abide being laughed at, and if his mana was laughable that reflected poorly on him.

Vanitas changed to kitten form right away, seeming relieved somehow. Well, Sulpher hadn’t wanted him to take that form, so his wish had conflicted with Roxis’. Roxis knew already that things like that were hard on Vanitas, and Vanitas had copied much of Sulpher’s catly body language, including washing himself to recover dignity and composure after something happened that would have been embarrassing for lesser beings.

Roxis scooped him up and put him in a pocket. Aww, the kitty really did fit… “Ahem. Dour, when can you begin Vanitas’ lessons?”

A little half-shrug: anytime.

Roxis took the kitten out of the pocket, told himself he wasn’t disappointed he wouldn’t be able to carry a kitten around all day, and put it on top of Dour’s acorn. “Well, no time like the present.”

Vanitas licked fur that had been disarranged by the pocketing. “As you wish.”

They vanished, Roxis looked at the clock, and two frantic minutes later he was hurrying towards the washing rooms. Class in half an hour, his hair was a mess, and he still smelled like sun-warmed fur! At least he’d done all of his assignments in advance…

Chapter Text

“Come in.” Before anyone sees you: that was Roxis’ response to Vayne’s knock at his door. Of course, people already knew that Vayne was visiting him for study sessions. They just didn’t know what the two of them were studying. “I finally managed to borrow a copy of St. Augustine’s writings on mana and alchemy.” Another class was doing an assignment on it, and all the copies had been checked out. “Exactly how humanlike did you make your body?”

“Well… I breathe, and I can eat?”

“Mrow.” “He made himself edible.”

Roxis decided not to ask. “Be very, very careful that you don’t make it human enough to have desires of its own. That’s the true meaning of original sin.” He’d read through a few more of the theologian’s writings that might be relevant to Vayne while he was at it. It was a good thing he had. “In essence, humans are born with sinful desires, gluttony, sloth, lust, wrath, and so on. And, sometimes, the higher self will simply be incapable of overruling those desires. No matter how good a human is, it is inevitable that they will sin. Even the son of God violated one of the commandments.” Honor thy Father and Mother: he’d stayed in a city to preach once as a child without telling them and caused them to worry. Allowing himself to get carried away and not consider the feelings of others: a simple thoughtless action. Normal. Only human.

“That is why God does not demand that we never sin, since that perfection is impossible, but forgives us our failures and simply asks that we try to refrain from sinning and do our best to make up for it when we do. You, however, lack even our flawed ability to restrain ourselves.” Without a soul, it would be harder to realize that there was something wrong with some impulse, and the fact that he existed to fulfill desires would make it practically impossible. “You’re having a hard enough time with the desires of the human mind. No one can deal with the human body. You’re already close enough to human that the school doctor hasn’t been able to discover your secret, so be very, very careful.”

Vayne looked stunned by that concept and somewhat frightened. Good. “You know how many people have pursued Nikki even though they knew better. Don’t end up one of them.” Dragged around by their… Ahem.

“Right…” Vayne smiled, looking sheepish again. “There’s so much stuff I don’t know.”

Understatement. “People don’t teach theology here. The infirmary has fewer deaths to deal with that way. The exception to this is the theological explanation for alchemy, including the existence of the fourth aspect of God, who is well-known in the East but not really discussed in the West, except by theologians and alchemists.” The fact that fewer and fewer people spoke Latin was really harming public understanding of the Bible. “Even I tend to think of the Lord as a trinity, instead of having four aspects, like the four arms of the cross. Although some people are trying to equate the Holy Sophia, the Wisdom of God, with the Holy Ghost, since it is the Holy Ghost that grants understanding, although either way they are the same entity, as God is both plural-aspected and one being… that sort of thing needs to be left to the experts.”

Leaving out whether the Holy Ghost, the Voice of God, was technically an aspect of God or just the Metatron, which edged on serious heresy due to violating the Nicene Creed. Theoretically, as long as you believed in the Nicene Creed you would be fine and everything else was really just details. Or, God forbid, politics.

At least the selling of indulgences had stopped, between the objections and several alchemists volunteering to help with the construction provided it did, but the Italians were practically auctioning off the Holy See. By definition, the Pope was infallible. By that definition, there hadn’t been a true heir of Peter in decades.

Not that Roxis would ever say that out loud. Not when the Holy Roman Empire was such a powderkeg.

Except that he was going to have to teach Vayne enough theology to avoid getting himself in trouble and know why what Theofratus had done was entirely Theofratus’ responsibility and not Vayne’s fault in any way, shape, or form.

“The Holy Sophia is referred to in the Bible a few times, but mainly in passing and it’s easy to miss that she is a person instead of a concept if you don’t have a thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin, not just the words themselves but the turns of phrase. All alchemists do, by necessity, which is why it’s common to be asked a lot of questions about the Bible if you’re a traveling alchemist. Nowadays, priests aren’t as well-educated as they used to be, and so people will often ask for a second opinion.” Listening to sermons had often made him wince as a child: it was painfully obvious the spare noble brats didn’t know what they were saying, let alone how to pronounce it. “You can just remind them that you’re not ordained if it’s a difficult question or you don’t want to be bothered.”

Vayne looked lost. “If you’re asked about it by someone who knows you’re a mana, just say you don’t know anything. The position of the church and alchemy in general is that mana are part of this world in the same way beasts are and don’t possess any special knowledge.” If they were angelic beings, on the other hand… Or if the Creation Mana’s name had really been Lilith… He really needed to focus on telling Vayne what would help him survive, not concepts that might get him killed.

“Okay…”

“The Holy Sophia matters to alchemy, or Hermetic alchemy, since she’s at the root of the belief that alchemy can be used to refine the body and soul, purify them and bring them closer to their divine origins. Oh, yes, the Gnostic Heresy.“ Really couldn’t afford to forget them. “They believed that the world was created by the devil and that if awakened the Holy Sophia, knowing the depths of its evil and corruption, would smite it out of existence.” Although there was much more to it than that. “That’s actually been rather helpful to alchemy. No one wants to denounce it without good reason since that risks being accused of Gnosticism.”

“It sounds… really complicated, huh? Wow, Roxis.” Vayne smiled, sitting down on the ground next to the pile he was working on. “You really do know a lot about alchemy. I need to work hard too if I’m going to catch up.”

Vayne kept saying these things that either made Roxis despise him or feel incredibly… Like the way he’d felt when they won the quiz contest. “You’d better get started then. Well, time to check on Isolde.” Roxis turned back to his desk and turned over one of the five cards there, invoking the Eye of Truth. Another shadow mage would have seen him spying on them when he used this card, but Isolde was no shadow mage. 

“You’re spying on her? Is that okay?”

“She’s an alchemist. She has a mana looking over her should every moment of every day.” Well, they could say they had other business, and Roxis trusted that Dour would look away when Roxis was washing or things like this happened, but if you hated the idea of being watched then you shouldn’t become an alchemist. “So far she doesn’t seem to be doing anything especially interesting.” Back to studying, then. Or rather, sitting here and watching Vayne read in order to make sure that Sulpher didn’t make him stop reading and take a nap in the sun or some such thing. 

Then there was a sharp knock on the door of Isolde’s office. “Ms. Isolde!” The vice-principal opened the door after that warning. “What is this? Excuses worse than gypsy lawyers’!”

Roxis’ eyes widened. The Vice Principal’s grammar was never the best, but he’d never heard her speak this incorrectly. It sounded like she was just converting her thoughts in her own language to Latin instead of either thinking in Latin or taking the time to remember the word order rules. She clearly wasn’t even making the effort, which was very unusual for her.

“That cat… I know it became younger.”

“It’s not a cat, it’s a mana! Yes, I know,” Ernentraud cut Ms. Isolde’s objection off. “You say the boy is a mana. You say all sorts of things. But all this time, and not one bit of proof! And now you think a student has the water of youth recipe, which no one has been able to discover?”

Roxis’ eyes narrowed. “Well, that’s inconvenient.” Understatement.

“If he does have it, then everyone will benefit, won’t they?”

“And when he tells them he does not have it? Handing a student over to them… You go too far! If word spreads that they took one of our students, the peasants will think the worst, they always do.” She shook her head fiercely. “No! I will not be having with this! Al Revis takes care of its own problems, and a student is a student!”

“Speaking of which, the people who refuse to learn how to use their power properly, without abusing it, have been causing more and more trouble lately, haven’t they. Gathering in stronger groups. The Student Discipline Committee,” Tony and Renee, “are doing everything they can, but we’ve even had to contract other students to help.” The jobs. “If they get much more organized, we might have a real problem on our hands.” That was clearly a threat, as politely and regretfully as she put it.

“Huh?” Vayne asked.

“Graduation isn’t just a matter of grades. Later.” This was important. This was why he’d taken the risk of setting the eye of truth and kept checking it whenever he had a moment for weeks.

“The Inquisition, here?! No. The principal will not stand for it.” Ernentraud shook her head forcefully ,but she knew and Isolde knew she knew that the principal was weak-willed, the kind of person who fell for Pamela. He’d agree with whoever was yelling at him at the time, or that was Roxis’ impression of him.

“What’s the-“ Vayne realized that Roxis’ face going white meant he was scared. Roxis, scared?

Vayne was relieved when Roxis returned to his normal anger at the world’s unfairness. Sometimes he thought that Roxis wanted to challenge the entire world because it kept cheating.

“You don’t want to know, but you’re likely going to have to.” Narrowed eyes focused on the window, demanding it give him something he could use.

“One of the conditions of the school charter says that the instant anyone discovers the secret to making the water of youth, we have to give the recipe to the proper authorities, just like the recipe for gold.” Which had caused a world economic crisis, albeit lessened by the fact there were few alchemists able to make it. It was still highly valued, for jewelry and its other properties. Many court alchemists spent most of their time making it.

Damn.” Roxis cursed.

“You know how they envy the near-immortality of alchemists. If they suspected that we were keeping something like that a secret?” Roxis and the Vice-principal didn’t need her to explain the consequences. “But even that is nothing next to the power to revive the dead. That was the original purpose for which Theofratus set out to create a refined form of mana, who had power over more than the material world. To give a little girl her life back.”

Sulpher made a sound that Vayne’s magic translated to a disgusted snort.

“And why would they think something like that?”

“Well, I do have to write annual reports, don’t I? I’ve kept quiet about the artificial mana because I won’t let Theofratus’ name be sullied, but something like this? Of course, it would be better if we could handle it ourselves, you’re right.”

“You hold this school and all alchemy hostage? Despicable woman! It is just jealously.”

Isolde laughed. “Maybe you’re right. He chose it over me, didn’t he? His death and his revenge on the world that mocked him: an artificial mana even more dangerous than Mull’s Amalgam.”

Roxis’ breath came in through his teeth, almost hissing. “So it wasn’t a demon.” Somehow he wasn’t surprised.

“Far more insidious. No one wants the world to be destroyed, but a power like that? To bring back dead loved ones, to live forever? Theofratus… when he died, he was no longer the man I knew. He wanted everyone to weep with envy, knowing that he’d created something that made all our work look like a child making pies in the mud. He wanted the world that had rejected him to go to war over something they couldn’t live without. Even I’m tempted to bring Theofratus back, but the man I knew would want to stay dead. He wouldn’t be able to live with such a terrible sin, not just failing to save a child but setting in motion a plan to kill scores of thousands.”

“Is this true, Isolde?” Now the Vice Principal raised her eyebrow. “Why do you only say this now?”

Roxis heard a rueful laugh from behind him. “Should I not have?”

“Loosened her tongue? That depends,” Roxis had to admit, but he’d deal with Vanitas trying to be helpful later.

“Why? Because…” Isolde blinked.

Roxis cursed, sweeping the cards off his desk, hurriedly placing them inside a pocket. “It appears that no, you should not have. Tampering with someone’s free will is cheating,” despite how useful the information could have been, it wasn’t worth the karma, as this proved.

“What about your magic?”

“It doesn’t tamper, it strengthens.” Shadow magic brought out the true self, it didn’t seek to control or confine it. “Well, it can be used to control others, but we shouldn’t be talking about this now.” He scowled at the books scattered around the room. “Why can’t you read faster?” Books on mana theology, the argument claiming that alchemy was a natural science incapable of creating life, a history of Palaxius and his effect on the fall of the Empire: the reading list he’d selected for Vayne was quite, quite damning. Hiding the books wouldn’t help: he’d checked them out properly and the library kept records. Except… “Eital. If you go ask Pamela to wreck havoc on the library’s records, I’ll do one thing each of you asks of me.”

The white beast appeared and vanished again. The fact she reserved her quips for later showed how urgent this was.

Roxis began to stuff the books onto one of his now-bottomless pockets, then fished his deck out and handed it to Vayne. “Make it look as though we were busy playing, and hand me your Heavy Storm card.” That would allow him to wipe out any residue of magic, but Isolde would know regardless. It was just a matter of finding proof, and now that she knew more about the threat Vayne posed and Theofratus’ intentions, the Vice Principal might cease to oppose Isolde so fiercely.

He had to pause for breath after using something that powerful (the danger it posed caused some to consider it a forbidden spell), but he didn’t object when he felt Vanitas’ energy replenish his own. “Either she’ll come now or she’ll set up another trap, like the Great Beast. Something to make you reveal yourself.”

“You don’t need to… Roxis, it’s Eital and Pamela.” He knew what he was letting himself in for, and Vayne didn’t want him to do that on his account. “I’ll do whatever it is they want.”

“Pamela will already wonder why I’m doing this. It’s best not to bring you into it.”

“Won’t my mana carrying the message to hers do that anyway?”

“First, she’ll assume Eital did it for her usual reasons. Second, Pamela suspects we have a relationship of an entirely different sort. Since she thinks she knows what’s going on, she won’t feel any need to discover it.”

“You’re still… Roxis…”

“For heaven’s sake, stop trailing off constantly and finish your sentences.”

“Roxis, you… shouldn’t be doing this.”

“Better.” There had been a pause, but at least he’d finished. “And you are my mana. You loan me your power: I loan you mine.”

“The other mana don’t… Make people go to so much trouble. Not even Eital.”

“If I wanted a life of ease with no responsibilities, I wouldn’t have studied alchemy, I would have waited until my father died and sold the estate to a nobleman.” Roxis sat down opposite Vayne and picked up the hand Vayne had dealt him, observing the pretend game he’d laid out.

“This is… He was my father. I’m the one that...”

“You didn’t kill him. He killed himself.”

“And I don’t want other people to die because of me!” Vayne glowed, body radiant with power, eyes sparking with anger.

Roxis felt Vanitas manifest. “Your first wish. Not an easy one to grant.”

“’This is between you and me,’” Vayne quoted. “Ms. Isolde and I.”

“No, it was between her and Theofratus. I’m attacking with this,” Roxis said. So sit down, focus, and tell me if you think you can do anything to stop it.

“Dad…”

“That’s not good. It’s not going to solve anything, you know,” Vanitas said, and Roxis started paying serious attention. Vanitas was being the voice of reason now?

“I know, but…”

“If that’s really what you want.” It was Vayne’s job to be the one to understand human things like consequences and conflicting desires.

“What on earth are you…” The two vanished. “…Talking about… That idiot.” Roxis cursed, gathering up his deck again, focusing his will on the block Vayne had placed on their pact, wishing, no, demanding, that he lower it. There was no response. “Sulpher, do you know where that idiot went?”

“Mrow.” Sulpher got up, tail lashing a bit in irritation. Just irritation, certainly not worry.

“We’d best hurry, then.”

Chapter Text

Vayne wasn’t in Isolde’s office: neither was she. Cursing under his breath, Roxis headed for the workshop.

“Oh Roxis,” Pamela started cheerily.

“Later. Have any of you seen Vayne?”

“No. What’s up?” Jess asked.

“I have reason to believe he’s going to do something very, very stupid. We need to find him, now.” Hopefully all of them wanting him to return safe and sound would help.

“Are you serious?” Nikki’s fur stood on end.

“It’s Ms. Isolde. You remember how she said he wasn’t Theofratus’ son and sent us right into the claws of that dragon? And then what happened with the mana as well. Those were no accidents. I think Vayne went to confront her about why she hates him. Alone. I already checked her office, they must have left it together.”

Anna gasped, and Roxis prayed that when she went off she’d be aimed in the right direction. “I knew it!”

“We should check where we fought the dragon,” Nikki suggested. “It’s probably about Theofratus, right?”

“I agree!” Roxis wondered when Flay had gotten here, but knew it was pointless to ask. “Pamela, summon your monster allies to send out search parties!”

While Flay organized the others, Roxis tried to think. Isolde was going to want Vayne to die, but there were so many people who wanted him to live that surely she wouldn’t be able to manage it? Which left…

And Vayne wouldn’t want to be a casus belli. He wouldn’t want to endanger any of his friends or Al Revis.

For once, Roxis wished that he could use Vanitas’ power. He could get to the depths of the Resource Center on his own, but it would take valuable time. He wanted to rush there right away, but he knew he would get there faster if he took the time to make treasure capes.

The others assumed he was making them for them, so they could search faster, and left after taking their share. As soon as they were out of the way Roxis walked to the Resource Center. Running would have attracted undue attention.

Perhaps it was as foolish for him to go alone as Vayne, but  of course he couldn’t use dark powers in front of Flay, who fantasized about defeating evil.


He was out of breath when he arrived and cursed himself for a fool. Vayne could teleport. He’d known running wouldn’t accomplish anything but tiring him out. He’d even sent Dour ahead to check, and he’d still kept running instead of pausing to think.

Vayne was already sealed in the same crystal the mad mana had been. Isolde might or might not know how to release the sealed mana, but all Vayne would have had to do to seal himself away was wish.

Normally Roxis would have felt guilty about intruding on a woman’s grief, but she had no right to mourn someone who didn’t deserve it while the fate of an innocent hung in the balance. “Release him.”

“Theofratus, I’ve finally… Oh, it’s you. You should be happy. Don’t you remember how you hated him? He’s not Theofratus’ son-“

“I know he’s a mana and no, he didn’t wish for me to be his friend. That would have defeated the purpose.” Someone who was only your friend because you forced them to be? How could that make anyone happy? “Release him. Now.”

“Release him? Don’t you realize what would happen to alchemy then? He’s an unholy creature, like Amalgam. He may act innocent, but he murdered his own-“

“He didn’t murder Theofratus. You know damn well that… Theofratus created him for a single purpose. How dare you punish Vayne for the sins of a man who used an infant as his suicide weapon? Oh yes. I know everything. And I won’t even have to prove it: you know how gossip spreads.” He showed the Wings of Icarus to Isolde when she started forward. “Attack, and I leave. How did you imprison him?”

“He imprisoned himself. He knew that he was a murderer, that he had to be imprisoned for the good of the world.”

“You know his age. Theofratus must have told you what he was, so you know how to manipulate him. How do I release him?”

She smiled. “You could try smashing the crystal, but that would probably just kill him, even if you could find a way to do it.”

“Allow me to ask you a question. What do you think would happen if every single mana in these caverns was released at once? Oh, it’s possible. My family has syntheses that will break any glyph. I discovered how to accomplish that on my first visit here. I just can’t release Vayne without freeing all the others. But you’re the one in charge of taking care of the school’s dirty little secrets like this place, aren’t you? If anyone knows how to free only a single mana it’s you. Now, tell-Urk.” Suddenly he found himself paralyzed. In the next moment he was in front of Isolde.

“I won’t allow you to blacken Theofratus’ name any further!”

“How did you…” Teleporting someone like that? What synthesis could possibly allow her to do such things? Stopping his heart just by reaching out like this was simple enough, but what she had done to get him in reach was completely…

His body fell to the ground.

“He took notes on everything,” he heard Isolde mutter, upset not about the murder but the fact she still might not succeed in covering up Theofratus’ crimes.

As she started to turn him over to get at his pockets he grabbed her arm. “Not just notes. Letters. You have five minutes-“

She stopped his heart again. Or tried to.

“You can’t stop a heart that’s already stopped.” Currently, only the power of the trap he’d sent Dour to place on that golden talisman on the way down was keeping him ‘alive.’ For a certain value of alive.

Being undead was even more unpleasant than he’d read.

He scowled when he saw the light dawn on Isolde, but he’d practically handed her his secret, really. “So that’s why you’re helping him. I thought it was strange that you passed the exam. Your answers on the first test weren’t guesses, were they?”

“I’d be more worried about… No. You’re not worried about yourself. All you care about is Theofratus’ good name, may he rot in hell. Or… Perhaps not.” He kept talking to distract her as his fingers reached inside a pocket. “You were never tempted to use Vayne’s power to bring him back. You knew he’d just kill himself again and you didn’t want to see it. You didn’t want to face reality.”

The trouble with traps was that they had to be laid in advance. So he needed to keep her busy just a little longer. It was possible to kill this variety of undead, in fact that was a part of his plan, but he needed to do it at the right moment. “But you love him, or at least your idea of him. Don’t you want to see him one last time?”

“Tempting me?” She summoned her mana now and drew back, ready to fight.

Roxis sighed. “You just won’t listen to reason, will you?”

He fell to the ground, feeling the world start to gray out then return as his heart began to beat again. At the same time, a body appeared on the ground by Isolde’s feet.

Roxis scrambled to his own, hoping he hadn’t just brought back Isolde’s grandmother or anyone equally useless.

“…Theofratus?”

Roxis ran for cover while she was distracted and tried to think of what to do next. Fissure? No, Vayne wasn’t the weakest mana here by a long shot, and Roxis was running out of means to bring the dead back to life.

Perhaps if he freed them all he could wish for Vanitas to keep them from destroying the school? And just erase everyone’s memories? That plan was far too reliant on Vanitas’ power: would he even be able to stop all of the mana? They had their own powers, after all, and more experience using them. What if they even tried to harm Vayne, as an unnatural creature? Would the mana of the other students and teachers be able to protect their minds and memories?

“I-Isolde? What are you…”

Roxis supposed he knew where Vayne got it from. Although Sulpher did trail off a lot too, it was generally because he had actually decided not to say something, instead of just chickening out or not having thought the whole sentence through before saying it. Cats were supposed to be cryptic, anyway.

“Is that… Vain?”

Listening with one ear to the conversation, Roxis realized he’d made a mistake. The point had been to get Isolde to tell him if there was another way to open the crystal. Distracting her like this kept her from attacking him temporarily, but it didn’t do anything about the problem. Was the only reason for all this that he’d been desperate to come back to life properly? How in heaven’s name did Pamela stand it?

“I really should have just returned to the workshop and made truth serum,” he muttered, wondering if he should leave and do that now, but who knew what they’d do in the interim.

“And to think I was afraid that it would bring you back… Or is afraid even the right word?” Isolde laughed, kneeling next to him, but there was a hint of tears in it. “Oh, Theofratus…”

He ignored her. “Come out! Come out and grant my wish!”

The crystal shattered and Roxis scowled. Oh, so Vayne was listening to him instead of either Roxis or Sulpher now? Theofratus had no right to order Vayne around like that. Well, to be fair, perhaps Vayne just hadn’t thought to block his pact to a dead man.

“Why did you let her bring me back?!” Theofratus raved. “You knew I didn’t want that!”

“Me? I didn’t do anything.” Only one body, but that was definitely Vanitas’ tone of voice, that distant amusement. A being with limitless power couldn’t grasp human frustrations. Or so Vanitas thought. Roxis had observed that people claiming they didn’t want what Vanitas knew they did, aka lying to his face about his element, drove him up the wall. “I couldn’t, because no one wanted you back, after all. You knew that all along, didn’t you?”

“How can you say something like that?!” Isolde demanded.

“But it’s true. You can’t stand the sight of him like this. You want him to die again and stop defiling the memory of the man you loved.” Vanitas floated over to them. “Shall I grant your wishes?”

“No.” Vayne appeared, pulling Vanitas back by his coat. “We couldn’t wish for him to come back to life, but if he’s alive then I’m not…”

“He’ll just kill himself again. But you don’t want to be a murderer, do you? You’ve gotten much better at crafting your own wishes.” Vanitas smiled.

“What? Why are there two of you? No, it doesn’t matter, just grant my wish!”

“No.” Roxis stepped into view. “Vayne, what on earth did you think you were doing?”

“Roxis… I… I just didn’t want to hurt anybody.”

“You are a fool.” In the old days he would have said, ‘I hate you.’ “Can’t you think of how the others would feel? Now stop blocking my pact, lock these two in here, and come back to the workshop. Everyone’s looking for you.” They would have to release Isolde eventually… but only after they’d done something about her memories and made sure it worked. Just erasing them hadn’t worked on Roxis, after all, and surely Isolde had taken more precautions. Roxis had underestimated a cat’s ruthlessness, a stupid mistake.

“They’re all… looking for me?” Vayne started towards him, moving out from behind Vanitas. Roxis noted that he was walking on air and that it didn’t seem particularily strange. Well, he was used to seeing Vanitas float.

“You had us worried. Sulpher’s not happy with you.” The corner of his mouth quirked upwards at that.

“Right…” Vayne put his hand behind his head sheepishly, and things almost seemed back to normal.

“Oh, that’s not good.” Vanitas blocked Vayne’s path. “We have to grant our father’s wish. He wished that his creation would be incapable of going against his wishes.”

“His wishes?”

“You heard what she said. But I knew all along.”

“There were memories you didn’t share with me?” Vayne was taken aback.

“You were supposed to understand humans, remember? Their wishes, their desires. And so many of them are connected to how they feel about others. Why they want someone else to live, what they would do in order to be loved. If you had known, it would have been harder for you to connect with them.”

With the people Theofratus had created him to lead to their doom, to awe, tempt, and destroy with the power that was everything they ever wanted. The better he understood them, the better he could accomplish that.

“I knew it…” Isolde hung her head. “Theofratus…”

He just laughed.

“I can’t let you do that,” Vayne told Vanitas angrily, calling Sulpher to him in his sword-form.

“Oh? And how do you think you going to stop me?”

Vanitas’ smile almost seemed to be saying come on, I know you can figure this out, and Vayne tried to remember what Roxis had said about their power.

No. What Vanitas had said. That all he had to do was wish.

Theofratus might have created them, but Vayne wasn’t a vessel of his wish the way Vanitas (the older one of them?) was. He didn’t have to obey Theofratus. And a mana’s control over their element would always be more than humans could manage, Dour had taught them that. So… “I wish, I wish that you won’t grant any more of Father’s wishes!”

Vanitas smirked. “Ooooh, now that’s a little harsh. But if that’s what you wish, it shall be granted.” Looking over at Theofratus, he smiled at him, sweet and sharp. “Sorry, old man, but it appears you’re no more capable of controlling our power than he was.” He? Vanitas disappeared and reappeared right behind Roxis, hovering a foot or two off the ground still and putting his arms over Roxis’ shoulders. Roxis rolled his eyes, lamenting that he wasn’t surprised at all by this. Vanitas did it far too much.

“I hope you’re not too angry with me,” the mana breathed into his ear.

Roxis patted him on the arm, partly to reassure him, but mostly to make him be quiet. That tickled, and giggling during a confrontation was right up there with baby talk on anyone’s list of horribly mortifying experiences. “As I recall, you were the one to tell Vayne he was being an idiot.” Good mana. “Since he didn’t listen, it appears I’m going to have to beat it into his head until it sticks this time.” In other words, Roxis was angry at Vayne, not Vanitas.

Roxis took a deep breath. He despised emotional displays and so on, but it was one thing to display your emotions because you were weak and another to refrain from displaying them because you were weak enough to place your own dignity over a child’s distress. “I’m glad you’re alright,” he said, and touched Vanitas’ arm again, keeping his hand there for a moment this time.

The instant he let go Vanitas’ arms disappeared from around his shoulders, but the way they were replaced by a kitten snuggling up against his neck in his collar, under his hair, confirmed that he’d done the right thing.

“How dare you?!” Theofratus railed at Vayne. “I gave you life!”

“Father, I…”

“Vayne!” Idiot. “Honestly! If someone is making demands and you can’t just say no, then get out of range!” So Theofratus’ wishes would become lost in the sea of humanity’s wishes, with no more effect on Vayne than any of the others. “Vanitas? I want you to get Isolde’s Wings of Icarus away from her. Dour, would you mind terribly using a tree to block the entrance so they can’t escape that way?”

There was a tiny “Mew.” “Yes.”

O, but er ana is…

Fire?” Roxis guessed. He still hadn’t figured out how Dour managed to whisper his thoughts.

No, ‘one.”

“Stone? Well, she’s rock-headed enough.” That wasn’t good, it could just create a path or tunnel for her past the tree.

I shall remove the power of her mana,” Vanitas said, beginning to gather his own.

“Gah!” Roxis thanked god he wasn’t old enough to have to worry about natural heart attacks, because he’d already suffered one today thanks to Isolde and he didn’t want to go through that again. “Stop!”

“…Why?”

“Consequences! You need to think of them! Rendering a mana powerless, are you insane?” Or trying to destroy the world? No, Roxis told himself, it was just ignorance, just in the way Vayne’s well-meaning cruelty had been born of ignorance.

…Right, Vanitas knew this. “Its element would go out of control, wouldn’t it.”

You nearly destroyed Al Revis.” Theofratus would have been so proud. “And think for a moment about where we are.” Although Vayne and Vanitas would have survived the cave-in, Roxis wouldn’t have.  They could have brought him back, but he’d already died enough today, thank you.

 “Just put them to sleep.” It was only after Roxis said it that he remembered the term used for putting down unwanted animals.

And Isolde had meant for Vayne to sleep forever in the crystal. Turnabout was fair play, after all.

Chapter Text

“Did anyone see you come down here?”

Vayne shook his head. “We teleported.”

“What about when you entered her office? Or was she somewhere else?”

“You saw how we left your room. She was in her office, and she’d sent the Vice Principal away already.” Vayne glanced over at Sulpher, who was pointedly ignoring him. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s natural not to want to be a murderer. Actually, I think we can consider it progress.” A silver lining. “Is there some way to check that I came back properly?”

“Came back?” Roxis had gone somewhere?

“I died and was an… embodied ghost for a short while. Honestly, I don’t see how Pamela can stand it. Everything was so… dull and bright at the same time. I think for a normal ghost there would only have been the dullness.”

“You died?” Vayne jerked, startled.

“Only temporarily. Fixing that was what caused Theofratus to return as well. I should have thought it through.” Ah well. “I hope I’m back properly and won’t just die from a counterspell.” Well, actually, it was good that Vanitas wasn’t responding to these hints that Roxis wanted to know, Roxis decided, but made it clear, that yes, he did want his wish to know granted. “Vanitas?”

The kitten licked the side of his neck, which tickled again. “Mrew.” “You’re fine.”

“You died? How did you die?”

“Isolde did it. She has an ability to conjure people into range, or put them where she wants them, and then stop their hearts. Rather elegant, really.” How did she do it? “We can’t keep her like this forever.” Roxis sighed. “What to do? Wipe her memories, and her mana’s, and hope she doesn’t find out somehow that she’s missing several hours?” It had taken him awhile to make it down here. “You were able to gloss my memories over, but the lack of connection between point A and point B made it obvious once I thought about it. There’s also the matter of the Vice Principal. What did she tell her after I stopped watching? And yes, I do wish that you would show me.”

Well, that could have been much, much worse. Isolde hadn’t wanted to voice her suspicions, since it would have made her sound even more like a madwoman. She’d sent the Vice Principal away, saying she’d discuss it later, and then it hadn’t been long until Vayne arrived.

“She… She killed you?”

“Yes, that’s what I just said.” He sighed. Typical Vayne.

“I’m sorry. You came here because of me, and now she might find out about you.”

“First of all, I came down here because of me, not you. You are my mana, after all.”

“But if I hadn’t gotten you involved by letting Sulpher wish for me to tamper with your memories…”

“Yes, you were an idiot. I was aware of that when I pacted with you. I’m not going to renounce our pact, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Maybe you should.”

“And now you’re just fishing for reassurance.” Roxis sighed.

“Roxis!” Vayne was not!

“You want me to tell you that no matter how irritating you are I won’t send you away the way those villagers did the instant you slip up. The fact that you need me to tell you this is frankly insulting. I am not an ignorant villager. I knew what I was getting into and how foolish you are. And you should know me well enough to know why I will never give up your power.”

Vayne looked upset at himself.

“You don’t know? Well, I suppose it’s not a matter of not understanding me, but of not understanding yourself. Vayne, you, you two,” including Vanitas, “are the Mana of Wishes. Of desire, of dreams for the future. I don’t have dreams for the future. I have goals that I insist on, and will achieve no matter what gets in my way.” The entrance exams, the lack of a mana, Vayne’s incomprehending rudeness, anything. “In the end, they are what matters. In the end, if I had to, I would have no compunctions whatsoever about using your power to erase the memories of this entire school, or do anything else for that matter. And, in the end, I will always be drawing on your power, no matter how hard I try to channel it through my own effort, because your power is that force, that determination, that willpower. How could I possibly renounce something so integral to who I am? A born sailor would find it no easier to renounce the Mana of Water.”

Vayne didn’t seem to know what to say to that except, “Roxis…”

“I will not wake up some day and decide that I want you to leave. In fact, I wish that you two will not leave. And you had better not ever block my link to you again. That I am upset about.”

“You would have stopped me.”

“Yes. Because you were being an idiot. It would have been for your own good and I would have been right to stop you, you have to admit that.”

Vayne looked crushed somehow, as well as shamed, bowing his head. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Roxis rolled his eyes. “What are you on about now?”

“I won’t argue with you again,” Vayne said quietly.

Roxis had to rest his forehead on his hand. “Oh for heaven’s sake, when did I ever say that? I want you to leave the link open next time you feel like doing something so that I can argue with you. You sealed the link because you knew that you wouldn’t be able to stand against my force of will telling you to stop. You sealed the link because you knew that what you were doing was a bad idea. You are the force of motivation itself. Someday you will have enough control over your power and will have found something important enough that you will be able to do it regardless of my feelings. When that happens, I won’t be able to stand in your way and I should not.

“You are the force that drives a seedling up through the hardest of earth. You are the love that makes a man work himself into exhaustion so that his family will never know hunger. You are the strength that they’re talking about when they claim that their strength is as the strength of ten because their heart is pure.

“Yes, Theofratus was right. You’re also the uncontrollable desire that makes us give in even when we know that what we are doing is wrong and will only bring harm to us and our loved ones.” He’d grown up in taverns. There were heavy drinkers who denied that there was anything wrong even though they knew better, but there were also ones who admitted it, tried again and again to quit, but found themselves giving in again and again to a force as inexorable as the tides. “But it’s the purpose of a mana to bring their element into harmony with itself and the world. Someday, you will know what you want, what you should want as yourself and a mana, and I truly pity anyone who stands in your way then.” Perhaps he’d send flowers to their funeral.

He sighed and looked up. Vayne seemed even more lost now, with that air of apology that meant he still thought this was somehow his fault, that there was something wrong with him. Well, there were many things wrong with Vayne, but it was not wrong that he was a mana. He had a right to exist.

Vayne wasn’t in kitten form at the moment, but for a moment Roxis saw him as that sad little kitten. He could imagine how Vayne would look right now well enough. Sulpher was still pointedly ignoring Vayne, although he was glancing over and clearly would have gone to Vayne except that the point needed to be made.

Roxis felt the same sort of irritation at an embarrassing necessity that he’d felt earlier, dealing with Vanitas. Well, it wasn’t exactly fair, to do it for Vanitas but not Vayne. “Think of him as the kitten,” he told himself, and reached forward to stroke Vayne’s head, trying to get that hair into some kind of recognizable, forget presentable, shape. “It’s all right, you’ll figure it out eventually.”

Vayne leaned into his hand, and Roxis found himself scratching gently behind his ear. “Don’t think too hard, you’ll just hurt yourself. We should have a few hours’ leeway before we need to come up with something.”

“We should get back, everyone’s probably worried,” Vayne said, but he let Roxis push him gently but firmly to sit down.

“You’re a horrible liar even when you’re not mentally exhausted. Just calm down,” he said, trying to be soothing.

“Father, and Ms. Isolde.” Vayne scooted over a bit to lean against his shoulder. “He, he really did… And she was right, I’m a danger to everyone.”

“You disobeyed him. You won’t do as he asks of you, not anymore. And yes. You are a danger to everyone, I’m not going to tell you some comforting lie. However, we were all in danger already. Jess, well, you’ve cleaned up after her enough times. Flay’s also obvious. As for Anna… Well, Pamela’s already dead, there are very few things that she needs to fear. Although they’re all rather horrific… In any case, Nikki’s the least, well, no, she still has her mad admirers. You pose a threat to alchemy, yes, but on average you’ve made all of their lives safer, I suppose.”

“What about you?”

“What, you didn’t know what your mana was blackmailing me with?”

“That you can use magic that isn’t just common skills?” Properties of synthesized items.

“I haven’t made any pacts with demons, but some monsters are rather monstrous. If you are discovered, it would re-open the question of alchemy’s legitimacy as a science, as opposed to unholy magic. What my own father discovered about alchemy’s other history would do the same.” Vayne really was like a kitten, Roxis thought. He hadn’t grown into his power and had no trace of dignity, but Roxis could see the potential for it there. A young, vulnerable thing that needed someone to look after it so that it would be able to reach its full potential. Roxis had heard of people who kept cats like lapdogs, coddled pets that didn’t know how to hunt and weren’t even allowed outside because they were that incapable of looking after themselves.

He’d never do that to his kitten, or to either of Vayne. “But even if Amalgam was an artificial mana, alchemy survived Mull’s villainy, and Palaxius as well. Perhaps that’s even a good sign. You aren’t unprecedented after all.”

“Are there any precedents for your type of alchemy?”

“Well, a few thousand years’ worth, mainly in secret. A demon attacked and the pharaoh gave his life to banish it. His successor restricted the study of alchemy to only a few groups of priests and their descendants, who lived in hiding. That way, they would have magicians capable of defending the realm if anything like that ever happened again, but pharaohs would no longer be able to use it as a weapon of war, which ran the risk of it falling into the wrong hands.” Once a clever person knew something was possible, they could often figure out how to do it themselves. “My father didn’t want to take any risks, and performing alchemy without a license carries heavy penalties.” In some places, the investigation was done by the local inquisition, and they were paid with the confiscated property of witches, not unlicensed alchemists. So there was some incentive to secure a confession.

Sometimes it felt like having an estate was far more trouble than the honor was worth. “She implied that my answers to some of the test questions were familiar to her. So it’s entirely possible that they already know of Egyptian alchemy. There’s an Egyptian artifact here: it’s the keystone of the spell keeping all these mana imprisoned. I could free them all even without understanding the glyphs they used on these crystals, but I have no idea how to safely release an individual mana. Well, not without your power. I tried to threaten her with that so she would release you, but she wouldn’t stop to listen.” Ah well.

He kept idly petting Vayne’s head. It helped to think of him as just a large kitten. Something like the Mana of Light: he was a mana, after all. It definitely seemed to help calm him down. “We’ll figure out something.” Well, Roxis would anyway. He didn’t expect Vayne to contribute much. “You shouldn’t try to make her forget: all it did was make me angry, and she’s already suspicious of you. She’ll catch it, just like I did.”

“She was the one who suggested that I just go to sleep here, instead of dying.”

“Well, that’s… something. Vayne.” Roxis tilted the boy’s head up to look at him. “You must not die. No matter what. If a human’s body dies, our soul lives on. We do not die, but live forever. A mana’s element and spirit are one and the same. If you die, then you will be gone. Out like a candle’s flame. At least she had enough human compassion to spare you that.” He suppressed a shudder. “Or perhaps she was thinking of the effect it would have on your element. For the element of wishes, hopes and desires to be nothing but a rotting corpse? You might even be the mana of hope itself, and hope is one of the three cardinal virtues, the three strongest forces governing mankind. No matter what chaos Theofratus hoped you would create, your death would do far, far worse.”

“But it was fine without a mana before, right?”

“I wonder.” What Vanitas had said: who was ‘he?’ Roxis considered asking but decided not to disturb the kitten, who he thought might have fallen asleep. “Human desire has always been chaotic, no matter how hard we try to control it. Perhaps your birth might usher in a new age of virtue.”

Vayne looked even more sheepish at that. Roxis smiled, amused, and stifled a yawn. It had taken hours to run down here, even with the aid of a treasure cape, and it had already been fairly late in the afternoon. Vanitas was already asleep, all of this had tired Vayne out even though he hadn’t had to run anywhere, and why would an underground place like this smell of oranges?

Roxis’ eyes closed and they fell asleep leaning on each other.

Chapter Text

“Now what am I going to do?” Isolde asked, resting her head in her hands. No one answered: not the mana sleeping in the crystals nor the ones who lay sleeping around her. Not even her own mana answered her. If only there was an answer.

Theofratus looked so peaceful, so sane. Like the man she’d fallen in love with, but she knew that the instant he woke up he’d be just as wild-eyed as he’d been the last time she saw him. What was she supposed to do? She couldn’t leave him asleep forever, and when he woke up? Even if his creation no longer obeyed him, what if he managed to get back his original mana? Or found another one? His genius had drawn her and so many others irresistibly to him, whether they ended up loving him for his brilliance or hating him for his… it hadn’t even been arrogance, not at first. He just hadn’t understood that not everyone was as smart as he was. He’d said things that left even the teachers floundering in his wake as though they were as obvious as the sum of one and one, and not grasped that other people found this hard.

Isolde had been the one like that, where she’d grown up. Interested in things no one else bothered with, able to look at people and figure out why they did what they did. What they would do if something happened.

What to do to get them to do what she wanted.

It had been scary how easy it was, how little people thought about what they thought, and why they felt the way they did. It had certainly scared them once they’d figured out that this little girl didn’t only know them better than they themselves did, but could make them do anything she wished without them even realizing they were being manipulated.

It was like magic to them, but so easy for her. She’d thought that the only reason they didn’t see it was that they didn’t want to come face to face with themselves.

The maids would come to ‘have their fortunes read,’ ask her to meet the men they had their eye on, and a few times they hadn’t been happy when Isolde said it wouldn’t work out.

And then someone had refused to listen to her, and when the laundress and the mercenary from out of town were alone together it happened. Exactly the way Isolde had said it would, when she’d been trying to scare the silly girl out of possibly getting herself dishonored.

Or killed.

After that, the whispers had started, and she had known it would be best to stay out of sight for a bit. She’d been taking inventory in the cellars (she’d learned her numbers at a young age), when she met her mana.

Al Revis had been interesting, but she’d been at the top of her classes from the start and while many of the people were unique, and often at least a little mad, they hadn’t been… Even the teachers, some of them with over a century’s accumulated knowledge, had been too simple. The classes were simple: she’d often kept a book from the resource center under her desk, just glancing up at the board periodically to see if anything new had been added. Everything was so easy to grasp.

Then, a year later, Theofratus had arrived.

It was obvious from the time she met him that he was a genius. He would say things, and she would need to think about them. When she asked for an explanation, he blinked at her, then rephrased it, waited for her to nod and show she understood, then continued on. He wasn’t condescending at all.

That came later, when he finally realized that most people were simply incapable of grasping so many of the things that came so easily to him. That he was surrounded by fools.

Their idiocy didn’t make sense to him the way it did to Isolde, so he kept butting his head against it, and angering them, and getting angry right back, and eventually he’d stormed out, thrown away an apprentice professorship, and gone down to earth where at least people didn’t pretend they knew anything about alchemy better than he did.

He’d been happier than she’d ever seen him.

Traveling, helping people, pursuing his own projects without having to worry about jealous eyes, even adopting a cat.

While they hadn’t really talked about it they’d both known that someday he would be giving her a ring. It just wasn’t a good idea right now, when she needed to stay at Al Revis for the sake of her career and he needed to stay away for awhile for the sake of his temper.

He’d told her in one of his rare letters that he would winter in Prague, and she’d spent the months until then feeling cautiously hopeful.

He hadn’t been there.

He’d been drinking himself into oblivion in some small town in Denmark she hadn’t even bothered to find out the name of once Diemia used the earth to find him for her. Something about some girl, and while yes, a child’s life was important, his reaction just didn’t make any sense. None at all. He’d bought her time with Luplus’ power, given her a few years of life when no one else could, but when she told him that he just laughed, and laughed, and it hadn’t made any sense.

Not until she’d searched a house she’d thought was empty for his hidden notes (Diemia could find anything buried, he had to have known she’d look) and discovered the research he’d been doing that had been outrageous enough to force his mentor to tell him to stop. Giving someone more time was one of the great purposes of alchemy. Using cure jars and other medicines to allow people to live so much longer, save lives from being cut short…

Every alchemist used potions to keep themselves in the best of health. It was easy to reverse the signs of aging and lack of proper food: just by keeping themselves in peak condition an alchemist could expect to live two hundred years, if they were skillful.

Theofratus’ mana had been the mana of time. He’d done so much research into that irreversible decay, hoping to find the elixir that would reverse it.

He hadn’t. But he’d found a way to buy more time.

A child saved from a normally fatal disease by a simple cure jar could have as much as sixty years added onto their lifespan. So where was the harm in taking one of them as payment?

Theofratus had cured hundreds of people throughout Europe. Until that was used up, no time could pass for him, and without days passing there could be no end of days.

He hadn’t refused to kill himself because of the sin of it. He hadn’t killed himself because he couldn’t.

That girl’s fate had made him realize what he’d been doing, that ‘those fools,’ had been right all along.

There was still so much of it that didn’t make any sense, but Isolde didn’t want to understand why he’d descended into madness. She’d always wanted to understand before, and she should have wanted to fix things for him, but she’d tried as much as she’d let her and…

She’d lost him twice now. She couldn’t face a third time.

She sat there, leaning against the comforting bulk of her mana, tears dripping down her covered face, until she had to blow her nose.

“Ha… haha…” She laughed softly. Such an ordinary annoying thing. “What am I supposed to do?” She knew it was unfair to ask Diemia that. “Sorry.” The handkerchief disappeared as soon as she was done using it, and she steeled herself to look at the other two. Or three. Or four, which was strange.

Sulpher was stretched on the ground as she’d seen him lay sprawled over so many places before. It was so nostalgic: he looked just like he did back then.

It made her smile, remembering Theofratus’ kindness.

The two boys were leaning against each other and one of the short pillars. Unlike Theofratus, neither of them looked peaceful. Roxis looked focused, worried, brow scrunched a little, as though he was trying to attack some irritating problem even in his sleep. Vayne had the cutest little frown, and it reminded her of when she’d stayed at Theofratus’ home until he’d finally kicked her out, making sure he ate and just being there, trying to get him to remember what it had been like to work on projects with her. But he refused to share this one, refused to let it be their baby, and maybe that itself had been kindness? Not wanting her to have any of that vast sea of blood on her hands.

Vayne was Theofratus’ creation, the closest thing she would ever have to the child she’d wanted so badly, and that was what made him dangerous. He was what she wanted, what everyone wanted. Isolde kept trying to tell herself that he wasn’t, but he was, and that made it all the more terrible.

Human desire was infinite, people would wish for the moon and not think of the devastation that would cause, would want someone to love them without thinking of the others’ feelings… Vayne was the ultimate temptation, and while humanity’s greed was without limits no mana’s power was. They would fight to be the ones to use him and use him up, wanting more and more and more.

But… what if Roxis had been right? What if he could change that?

Humans thought they were in control of themselves. They weren’t, as the book said and Isolde had seen. They were controlled by the desires of their bodies, so easily led because it was so hard for them to think, to stand against their own wishes and say no.

What if desire, what if so many of those sins could be tamed? What if people could have the clarity to know when enough was enough, turn away from greed and gluttony? What if the desires of their bodies didn’t gnaw at men every second of every day, pushing those without the means to support a family towards heinous acts? What if people could realize that their neighbor being well-off didn’t make them any poorer? What if those who had been beaten into despair could have their will to struggle for love and survival renewed?

It seemed preposterous, too good to be true, but that was what previous generations had thought of alchemy.

Almost every single child surviving their first year? Impossible. People living into their sixties as a matter of course, with more than one of their own teeth? Drunken ravings. Being able to save limbs that were cut instead of removing them? Surviving the pox without even scars? There were places where no one had died of any sort of plague in living memory: describe the modern world to those who had lived before the rise of alchemy, even the  citizens of the Roman Empire itself, and they would have thought you were speaking of the kingdom of heaven, because surely only it was free of the ravages of time and disease!

Sources of light and fire that didn’t make cities as soot-stained as the pits of hell. Cities that…

Isolde had read the histories, the Domesday Books and death accounts of the bad old days. She knew what would happen if alchemy fell. She couldn’t allow Theofratus to unleash such horror.

But what if… What if the world could be kept from seizing upon Vayne’s power as the easy way to achieve their goals? What if he could be kept safe, able to tend to such a vital element? What if one day people were able to face their own desires instead of turning away from them, shamed by what ruled them, unable to face the truth?

What if one day sin was no longer inevitable?

But she couldn’t let Vayne live. Not when she could stop him. Not when she could stop the inevitable war, the inevitable demands for more, and more, until more horrific experiments were conducted. Until another Amalgam was made. One that might not be stopped by another such group of brave heroes.

No one knew if Klein and his companions had known that destroying the unnatural beast would disrupt the very fabric of the world around it. Bards sung that they had sacrificed their lives fighting a demon, but demons were easy to fight. They were creatures of another world. Mana might have their own plane of existence, but they were this world, even an abomination like that.

Isolde liked to think that he hadn’t known. He would have tried to send Lita to safety, if he had. Of course, once it was revealed that she was an unnatural creature as well? The casual cruelty she showed everyone around her, even those she liked (or loved, if she was capable of it) had proved she was soulless. Klein had argued that she couldn’t help it, but that was the problem, wasn’t it.

She could not have been allowed to live. Certainly not to have children.

Kinder to allow her to be remembered as a hero, as the normal girl her creator had wished her to be. And Arlin had been dying already, so luckily no one had been forced to make the decision to kill another of the heroes who had saved the world. He had succumbed to his wounds despite everything his mana could do to delay his death.

His mana.

Luplus, the mana of time.

Theofratus’ mana.

The mana of a false human had aided in the creation of another. Arlin had raided Mull’s own labs, surely Luplus had known many of the villian’s secrets. And not just the means of creating artificial humans, soulless beings that had been meant to be perfect slaves.

The secrets of creating an artificial mana.

Had he passed them on to Theofratus?

She pushed herself to her feet, using Diemia’s bulk for support. There was something else going on, wasn’t there. Something even bigger than Theofratus’ own mad plans.

Just imprisoning Vayne had been taking the easy way out. She had to kill him. Amalgam hadn’t come into its full power for years, the loss of stability and the rise of stronger and stronger monsters had happened gradually. Vayne hadn’t produced anything like the growloons… yet. Legend said that once ago monsters had been rare, and of only a few species, such as bear and boar. Once, wolves had attacked humans only rarely instead of constantly.

Even in death Mull’s creation still caused the world great suffering.

If his element was really hope, then the results of destroying him within a school, the school that held the future of alchemy, would be horrific even if the blast could be contained. An element so unstable, with no other mana to calm it? It might even warp the minds and desires of everyone in the planet.

Something had to be done. Some alternative had to be found. She could barely look at Theofratus, let alone force him to tell her what she needed to know, but there were others who could. She had to find a way to fix this. She had to find a way to prevent Theofratus’ name from being cursed alongside those of Mull and Palaxius.

If she could make Vayne wish himself dead? Make him die peacefully so he wouldn’t bring others any more suffering?

He had been ready to come to her again, ready to let himself die instead of just be imprisoned. She could have reminded him of his friends again, it would have been simple.

Then Roxis had managed to reassure him.

If he lost his pactmates, that would remove his ability to resist her wishes. She hadn’t wanted to do this, but…

She’d start with the one who had confessed to dark sorcery already.

“You had better not even think about it: I can feel it when you do.” The dark mocking voice of the other Vayne came from Roxis’ direction, and a silver kitten pushed out from behind his hair to meet her eyes. “Putting him to sleep is one thing, but I won’t allow you or anyone else to lay a finger on him.” Strangely, there was only a general air of threat in those words, a general predatory air like that of a far larger cat.

“I wish for you to go to sleep.” If the incense hadn’t worked, then perhaps a wish would reinforce it enough.

The kitten yawned. “Mmm… I wouldn’t mind that, not at all. But I will not let you hurt him.”

“Why? Did he wish for you to protect him?”

“No, actually, he wishes to be the one to protect us. Ironic, isn’t it?” And pleasing.

She tried to remember the tales of the genies Solomon had imprisoned. “Tell me what I would have to wish for you to let me kill him.”

“There isn’t any wish you can make. Not even if you wished for him to want to die. I will not allow him to die.”

Isolde frowned. “Not even if he wished to?” Theofratus…

“You’re right, it is strange.” The kitten put its paws on Roxis face to stand up and look at it. “I don’t think I want him to die. How interesting. Eital and Dour agree he’s a very interesting human. He has great amounts of our power, such great ambition, and yet while he wants that power he doesn’t want to use it when it’s embodied in us. And yet he does wish for us to have our power, and wants us to stay with him. To stay safe.”

“He cares about you.” That wasn’t the strange thing: Roxis might have given in to temptation, but he clearly wasn’t evil. Human beings could form even the strangest of friendships: faith, trust was counted as one of the three strongest forces, along with hope and charity, with good reason.

“Yes, he does, doesn’t he? Not just about Vayne the way the others do.” Although, Vanitas knew, the others didn’t know he existed, so it wasn’t fair to them to think that they wouldn’t want him around. Except that they would be shocked to find that Vayne had been hiding such a secret. Finding out about him would make them scared for Vayne, and so it would only be natural to want him gone. Roxis actually liked Vayne better now that he knew about Vanitas. “How very odd.” There was something just on the edge of feeling. An awareness that there was something to feel, if only he could fish it out of the sea of the world’s desires.

“You… care about him?” Isolde wondered why she was surprised. She’d had Vayne watched, she knew that he had grown attached to the others in the workshop.

No one had been able to determine if the two artificial humans had real emotions. Lita had been capable of despair (enough to attempt suicide) and certainly intense jealousy, but those were not so much emotions as the failures of emotions. Perhaps she had insulted others trying to feel good about herself?

Others pointed out that Arlin’s motivation hadn’t been the world but vengeance for his thrown-away brothers, a far better example of love and family feeling.

“…Yes. You’re right,” the small kitten said after a long time. “He wants me to stay with him, and I, I want him to keep feeling that way.” The kitten glowed: the light grew and drew back until a seemingly-human hand reached out to touch Roxis’ face. “Not for my power, not because I’m a mana, but because I was alone and he doesn’t want me to be alone. Even Sulpher wanted Vayne to be a happy human, so his unhappy memories and mana power were pushed to the side, hidden away in myself, and my creator only saw me as a tool. Roxis feels sorry for me. He wants to keep me safe.” He spoke in a soft murmur, amazed. “I want him to have everything he wishes for, anything at all. I’ll even refrain from granting his wishes, if that will make him happy with me. If that will make sure that he continues to want me around. I want him to stay this way, forever. I want him to always want me with him. He, he makes me happy, and it’s only natural to want that, isn’t it?

“I want to stay with him forever.” Isolde could see the impact that had on the wondering creature, so young. “I want to stay with him even if he doesn’t want me. I would do whatever it took to make him be happy with me again, because… I don’t want him to hate me. That wouldn’t be good.” No, that smile said. “That would hurt, wouldn’t it?”

“You…”

“This isn’t just what Vayne wants from the workshop, or what you wanted from Theofratus. You gave up far too quickly: he wasn’t something you really wanted.”

“You can’t mean that you…” She didn’t want him to say the word, to make any worse of a mockery of it than he already had, but then there wasn’t any point in preventing the word from passing her lips when her anger, the sheer passion with which she refused to hear him say it, was as good as shouting it to him.

“I want him to be happy, because he wants me to be happy. I would give up anything to make sure of that. Of course, right now there’s absolutely nothing else that I want in this world, so maybe when I discover how to want other things that will change, but for now that’s how it is.” The mana, head tilted to the side, watched the other student’s face as though some secrets of the universe rested there. “It’s very easy to feel this wish, isn’t it. It’s very strong. The strongest of the three forces ruling over humanity, influencing their actions and desires.”

Chief among the cardinal virtues. The one that endured even when trust was broken and hope was lost.

When she’d stopped trusting Theofratus to take care of himself and one day return to her, she’d gone to him, hoping to change him, make him the way he used to be. When she lost hope that he’d one day become the man she loved once again, she’d left him to die, because it was the memory she loved, not the man, and now the man’s existence threatened that memory, threatened the one thing she loved in this world.

“It’s not confusing at all. It’s simple and understandable.”

Isolde had put the world in danger because she loved the boy who had sketched diagrams for her in the dirt of the Living Forest. She could have stopped Vayne’s creation. She could have confined him, forced him to listen to her… She hadn’t. She hadn’t loved him, just his ghost.

“I love him.” And now the mana glowed again, turning to face her and gathering power in what was clearly a threat, like how a kitten’s fur would stand on end when it hissed at a marauding kobold. The mana’s next words were slow, and clear, and not mocking at all “And you want him dead.”

Chapter Text

The mana didn’t float closer to her: that would have meant moving further from his pactmates, but it still felt as though he had. “Hmm, now. What is it that you desire? Of course you couldn’t really wish to die, that would be too simple.” Too considerate for a human.

He could only use his power to grant wishes, so he had to figure out which of Isolde’s wishes he could grant in a way that would prevent her from hurting Roxis. Like the legendary genies and efreets Solomon had bound, that would either be as helpful as possible in order to attain freedom and immortality by earning a soul… or would twist the wish to try to gain freedom and vengeance on the ones who tried to use them.

“You wish to be married, to have children. Such normal desires… but you’re too wise to want a false happiness. To wish that Theofratus would become the man of your dreams instead of his true self. It would be very convenient for everyone if he would regain his sanity and desire to live, but no one wishes that except a lone fragment of his mind, and Vayne wished for me not to grant any more of his wishes.”

“He… he wants to return to who he was?” Did that mean there was some part of the man she had loved left? Did that mean there was still hope?

“Yes… but it’s a even smaller wish than your own wish for death. Humans want so many things, and when so many of them contradict each other it’s no wonder that you can never be satisfied…” Now he drifted towards her. “You want… things that I cannot grant you, not directly, so what should you wish for in order to attain your desire?” It really was a lot easier when he thought of it that way, Vanitas noted. A true wish was a goal, so in order to grant that wish he had to create a path to that goal. It was a loophole, but one that provided so many possibilities… “Most of your wishes have already been granted, haven’t they? It’s just that you don’t believe they have been. The wish has been granted, the goal is there, but you’re too foolish to reach it.” Pitiful. Now the mockery resumed

“And I can’t make you believe it, because that would be my belief, not yours. I can’t grant your heart’s wishes if they’ve already been granted, now can I? But I don’t need to protect Roxis from you by granting one of your wishes. All I have to do is prevent you from using my power to destroy what you already have.” Could he do that? He couldn’t use his power without a wish, but this wasn’t using it, just not using it.  

Isolde could see him growing stronger, starting to truly master and come into his power. Becoming even more impossible to kill. She had to do something, she had to stop him!

Why?

Why?! Because he had killed Theofratus, might destroy this world, would… Her hand and mouth froze, without the volition to call Diemia to her and fight. She knew that she should care, she knew that this was desperately important, and yet she couldn’t care about it.

Logically, she knew that it was necessary to stop him, vitally necessary, and yet her mind kept dismissing the thought. Finding it boring, almost. Bland? Unimportant?

Not worth the trouble of angering someone who could easily kill her. Stupid.

What she felt was refusing to comply with what she knew. She knew that she needed to destroy him and yet she could not get worked up to do it, couldn’t summon the passion necessary for someone normally calm and logical to override those tendencies enough to actually commit a violent act.

She couldn’t even make a proper prediction of the outcome. She couldn’t focus on the problem enough to think it through, because her mind kept shrugging, deciding it didn’t care enough to put the work in and trying to focus on something else, something that could still seem important.

“You’ve tampered with my emotions.” Logically, she knew that wasn’t a very nice thing to do, that she really should be angry about it, but she didn’t really care enough to make an issue of it.

He hated it when people claimed he hadn’t granted their wishes but done something else they didn’t want instead. It had happened far too many times in the villages, but he was too pleased with himself to let the accusation sting. “No I didn’t, because that would have been counterproductive. If I tampered with your emotions that would mean that you would never be able to trust us.” My, wouldn’t Roxis be pleased with how clever he was being?

“I was very angry with you, and then you did something, and while the reasons to be angry are still there I just consider them a waste of time.” She managed not to shrug.

Now he grew angry again, and that made her take a step back and try to figure out how to defuse the situation and leave politely. “That wasn’t what I wished for at all! …Oh.” Unintended consequences. “Right…” He peered at her. “Hmm, if that’s what happens when I stop supporting one of your wishes, what happens if I lend more of my power to, oh, that wish?”

Isolde focused, frowned, then started to grin. Of course, the relationship of the crystals imprisoning the mana to the ruby prism was obvious! Of course, adjustments to the recipe would have been necessary to contain a mana instead of either anchoring a human soul or providing a stabilizing matrix for a conscious mind that couldn’t use the soul for that purpose. She’d already ruled out the use of mana gems, but perhaps Roxis knew enough about Egyptian Alchemy to provide a starting point for figuring out how to gradually release the imprisonedmanasafely,possiblyevenOooohshiny!

Then she blinked, then blinked at Vanitas as she felt the tide of inspiration ebb. What had he done that for?! She had been that close to a breakthrough!

“That’s… really lazy of you humans, now isn’t it. No wonder Roxis warned us that humans were ruled by their desires. Our power is the force that drives all of you, it seems, not just Roxis. Without our power helping you, you can’t even control how you feel, let alone what you do.” The mana frowned. “That’s… you know, I think I find it annoying.” It was similar to the specific type of not-want Roxis had felt about Vayne, before finding out about Vanitas. “Roxis saying that we could help you cheered Vayne up, but it’s going to be far too much work.” And Vanitas didn’t want to. He didn’t like anyone but Roxis and Sulpher enough to want to help them. Well, perhaps Dour. “I can let you borrow my power to think about us with, I suppose, but not if you try to use it to take action against us. It would be foolish of me to give you power just so you could use it to hurt us.” Sulpher would not approve. “But dealing with him should be much simpler.”

“What are you going to do to him?!”

“If you wish to know, I’ll just show you.” Vanitas’ glow focused, and an instant later Theofratus’ sleeping body began to glow as well. And shrink. A bottle appeared in Vanitas’ hands and he poured it over the small lump, which sputtered and then yowled, in a sort of high squeaky way.

It took awhile for the bedraggled bundle of wet fur to manage to escape Theofratus’ clothing. The fact its eyes were closed didn’t help. It mewed piteously, nosing around for warmth.

“Well?” Wasn’t she impressed?

“You turned him into a kitten?” What?

“Yes.”And used one of the Waters of Lethe Roxis had shown him how to make to remove his memories. Vanitas didn’t actually need the item, but this way was more fun.

For him, not Theofratus. “He is wishing very strongly for someone to dry him off and warm him up. I can’t grant that, of course.” Since Vayne had wished that he grant no more of Theofratus’ wishes. Vanitas yawned, revealing teeth that seemed strange because they were normal ones instead of fangs, and floated back to where the others were.

“You can kill with a thought, revive the dead, make people younger…” The wildest dreams of kings and peasants. The ultimate weapon, the ultimate medicine, the ultimate poison.

“Oh, you’re still thinking so small?” Vanitas leaned against Roxis’ right shoulder: Vayne had already claimed the left.

“You really don’t understand anything about we mortals, do you? Not if you say all that is small.”

“Well, you’re right, but Father had much grander dreams. Roxis has been having Vayne read books so that he understands the world, its history and what we are, but I remember. I would wake, sometimes, as Theofratus worked on me. One time you were there.” She had wanted the child to open its eyes. “He talked, almost all the time. I have the power to change this world. Yes, I can grant every human’s heart’s desire, but I can also render all of those desires, and everything they have ever done for the sake of them, utterly meaningless. Not even Roxis knew that Amalgam was an artificial mana: Father did. Mull created Amalgam out of every single breed of mana, all that he could capture, so that he would have a mana of everything and use it to rule everything.”

Isolde folded her arms. “I thought you were going to try to convince me not to destroy you.” Or kill him.

“You want to know the truth, don’t you? I exist to grant wishes, after all.” He shifted a bit, clearly more for Roxis’ comfort than his own. “And his wish is for me not to abuse my power, or ruin humanity. So it would really be in your best interests to keep him alive, wouldn’t you agree? Unless you wish for me to stop granting his wish.” And run wild, fulfilling Theofratus’ dreams and her nightmares.

“What would all of you do if left alone?”

“Roxis wishes to become a great alchemist and restore his family’s name and status. To travel the way Father did, helping others.” Roxis was like Father, wasn’t he?

Vanitas would not let him go mad the way Father had. “And I want is what he and Sulpher want. Vayne’s first, and so far only, wish is to become an alchemist, so I suppose the best way to grant all that would be to travel together.”

“And when he starts to grow old?” As even alchemists did, eventually.

Vanitas smiled, seeming almost proud, or was that reading too much into that not-exactly smirk. “Roxis already discovered a means of avoiding that fate. And I wish that he will not die, so he never will.” Because she had made him aware of that wish.

“Do you really think this will solve everything? That if you keep me from attacking him or reporting you I’ll, what, just give up? ‘Discover that I had everything I ever wanted all along?’”

“No, you didn’t have everything you wanted all along, but now I gave you a kitten.”

“…and I’m supposed to forgive you for all you’ve done and forget what a danger you are to the entire world because you gave me a kitten?” What?

The mana blinked at her. Was that a rhetorical question, or was he supposed to answer it? “Yes?”

You can’t be serious.”

“Is that really not enough? Do you wish for me to turn you into a kitten as well? But then who would look after you? Sulpher already has us, Roxis has us, the other kitten and Dour, and Theofratus is of no use to anyone. The Vice Principal, perhaps? But Roxis was worried that it would cause trouble if you disappeared.” The mana frowned. And yawned, and stretched. “I don’t want to think anymore.” It shrank, becoming a silver kitten, almost as small as Theofratus, and proceeded to climb up Roxis, hooking its claws into his jacket, to curl up next to his neck.

The other kitten managed to get free of Theofratus’ coat, soaked, bedraggled, cold, and utterly miserable.

She found herself kneeling to scoop him up in her palms before she even realized it. So small, so… “Theofratus…” She clasped him to her chest, hearing the little noise of surprise and feeling him wriggle around a little, nosing at her palm and deciding he liked the warmth.

She needed to cure him, she told herself as she activated the Wings of Icarus to get her back to campus.

And yet instead of immediately dousing him with cure jars (even with an eyedropper) she rubbed him down with a soft cloth next to the cauldron fire and made him a little bed on her desk.

Chapter Text

When the woman was gone, Eital manifested and began trying to work them into a more comfortable (and more compromising) position without any jarring or sudden movements that might have woken them up. The silver kitten poked its head out of Roxis’ hair and blinked at her, but since he obviously knew what she wanted to do, he yawned and drew back behind the blond curtain again.

They were a single mana, but they manifested as twins thanks to Roxis’ lovely little idea. It made her laugh to herself, but not aloud. She couldn’t risk waking them up, after all.

If only ‘Vanitas’ had taken human, or at least beastman form as well, then she could have them all cuddling up to each other, but she wasn’t going to try to budge the kitten.

Now that Isolde had managed to make him realize that he wanted this pretty young man, things would start going much more her way. She just needed to point out to Vanitas that young men had needs, and did he really want to risk Roxis starting to want someone else more than he wanted him and Vayne? He loved Roxis, after all, and it was only fair that he ensure Roxis loved him in return. The way to a human man’s heart was located below his stomach, after all. Mana didn’t normally have the ability to manage such things, but Vanitas’ element had such interesting possibilities.

And Vayne’s feelings were Vanitas’ feelings: the only difference between the two was knowledge. Her tail lashed a little, pleased, in a way that seemed to tickle Vayne and made him push even closer to Roxis, who grumbled amusingly in his sleep but seemed willing to shift for the other’s comfort.

Could she try to position them face-to-face so they might kiss accidently? No, better not push her luck and risk waking them up.

In peasant houses and inns, humans often slept several to a bed with family members or fellow travelers. Roxis was used to ignoring accidental contact and Vayne was used to sharing his bed with Sulpher and herself.

Not that Roxis was a peasant. Such an elegant young man, without a noble’s sense of entitlement or a serf’s downtrodden spirit or lack of ambition. No, just enough rank to believe that he had value, little enough that he knew he had to fight for it.

If it wasn’t for the fact Vayne was the most fascinating thing she had ever seen, she might have decided to play with the other young man instead. Now, however, she would have to be doubly careful. Vanitas understood the games mana played as their politics even less well than he understood humans, and his… not quite capriciousness made him doubly dangerous. She had thought he was going to do something interestingly painful to Isolde, but he’d been mollified for some strange reasons and merely let the woman off with a warning and a kitten.

Vayne’s kind and trusting nature, on the other hand, made him easy prey.

Of course, Vanitas hadn’t cared that Isolde had used a synthesis to put Roxis to sleep: he’d only taken action when she’d tried to take Roxis away. He seemed to like snuggling up to the vulnerable young man. So certainly he wouldn’t be too angered if all she did was wound Roxis’ pride and ensure that the two of them grew… closer.

Roxis might have tried to have Dour be the only tutor the two of them had, but she’d gotten her paws into Vayne first (while Vanitas watched from behind his eyes), and between her and Dour, it was obvious which one was better at getting what they wanted.

And she really wasn’t going to stand for the Mana King of Light’s nonsense. Withdraw from the human world? Leaving behind all its sights and sounds, in particular those associated with what the East referred to as yang energy, the rays of light that pierced the darkness? Never. It was a mana’s job to bring harmony to and… encourage their element. Unlike her, Helios had no memories of Lilith, and it showed in his lack of true understanding.

She was Sulpher’s mana, too, and Sulpher wanted the kit to understand his element and grow independent, and lust was such an important part of humanity’s wishes. So she’d just lend a paw to the effort to… instruct the boy in the fine points of manipulating the powerful force he controlled.

And if it became possible to replace the mana who died, then there would be no more need to fear for their race and the harmony of Lilith’s creation, now would there?

Of course, such boring matters were really just icing on several delectable cakes.

Such handsome young men. Rather like that Arlin…

Luplus, unlike Helios, was quite a clever mana indeed.

And to think, Vayne had been the most interesting thing she’d seen in her entire life even before she’d found out how intimately he was connected to the second-most interesting thing.


“Aww, aren’t they so sweet?” Pamela held up Teddy to get a better look.

“Wow, that looks really comfy.” Nikki wished she could curl up with them. Roxis and Vayne would both make very handsome hubbies, and the Mana of Light had enough fur for all three of them. “But Vayne and Roxis? They’ve been getting along a lot better, but didn’t Roxis, like, totally hate him?”

Pamela giggled. “Oh, lately they’ve become such good friends!”

“Friends, huh?” Riiiight. Not that beastmen had anything against multiple partners. Sometimes it got really hard for people to have kids, and there were some people who thought marrying humans had something to do with it. Like horses and donkeys could have kids together, but then you ended up with a mule, who couldn’t have kids of their own.

It was really unfair that all the other girls thought Nikki had been trying to steal their hubbies. She hadn’t meant to steal anything! Sharing your hubbies was just polite, like hubbies sharing their wives with their wives’ other hubbies. Or their wives’ other wives, or hubbies’ other hubbies… “Jess?” Pamela clearly didn’t have a problem with it, but what about Jess? Or who knew what Anna would think about it? No wonder they’d kept it a secret, really.

“I’ve never seen a bomb like this before…”

Nikki’s tail stood on end. That couldn’t be good. “Wait, a bomb? What bomb?” On top of Jess having something new to experiment with, “They aren’t… dead, are they?” Like she nearly had been… Come to think of it, it was really obvious that they wouldn’t be just lying here like this. Didn’t Roxis hate Vayne? Ok, not really anymore, but Roxis wouldn’t let anyone see them like this and Vayne wouldn’t have let them worry.

Pamela giggled. “No, silly. It’s not that easy to die here.” She sighed, pouting cutely. “I wish I got to keep more of my new friends…”

Nikki nudged Vayne’s shoulder (much safer than Roxis’), used to the others. “Hey, are you okay? Come on, wake up!” 

His eyes opened and he blinked at her. “Nikki? What…” He looked around, both at them and seemingly looking for something else. “What happened? Ms. Isolde was… Did he put us to sleep too?”

A cranky sound came from somewhere around Roxis’ throat and a small paw batted Vayne’s head. Nikki sniffed the air, puzzled. She knew Roxis hung out with a kitten, but why would he possibly have brought it? No, this wasn’t his kitten, she didn’t smell it.

“Sorry.”  Vayne seemed to realize something. “Sulpher?”

No response from the cat curled up on top of one of the low pillars. Huh? That was a little weird, Nikki realized. Sulpher would curl up and nap a lot, yeah, but never more than a foot or so away from Vayne.

“Sulpher?” Vayne’s voice sounded a little pleading.

Sulpher jumped as though something had startled him awake, then sat back down and went, “Mrrow,” and began to wash a paw.

“Sorry,” Vayne said, sounding really pitiful now.

Sulpher stopped washing. The ensuing sounds and movements were ones, that, if he had been a human, would have been like this:

Rolling his eyes, followed by hanging his head while sighing in aggrieved annoyance (you are so stupid/I give up) and finally throwing a hand in the air while saying whatever and then waving vaguely in Vayne’s direction as if you say ‘you handle this.’

The small white paw obligingly whapped Vayne again.

Mollified, Sulpher padded under Pamela and past Nikki to jump onto Vayne’s lap, where he proceeded to turn around until he was settled, and then closed his eyes and at least pretended to go back to sleep again, tail twitching.

Vayne went, “Phew,” and started to stroke his back, finally smiling with relief.

His arm moving nudged Roxis, who grumbled in his sleep and rolled over onto the larger of Vayne’s two mana. This dislodged the small silver-white kitten that had been hiding in the hollow between his neck and his hair, which tumbled down Roxis’ back and, after shaking itself, started to climb back up.

“Aren’t you supposed to…” Vayne glanced at them before turning his eyes back to the kitten. “…you know…”

The kitten pointedly ignored him as it settled in the crook of Roxis’ neck and started to purr.

“Ok, I guess. Don’t blame me if Roxis gets mad at you.” Vayne shrugged.

“Wait, you’re talking to other cats now?” Nikki asked, puzzled.

“Um, he’s not a cat. He’s Roxis’ new mana. His name’s, um, Mercurius?”

“The mana of Mercury?” Jess looked up from the satchet-bomb, interested. “Can he really change his shape? I always thought that was so cool.”

Everyone looked at Jess. “I mean, every mana can change their shape over time, but the Mana of Mercury has the properties of the metal, right? He could change his shape, according to the book Theo… I mean, this traveling alchemist left.” Jess looked sort of guilty, because she’d mentioned a name?

“Theo, wait, Theofratus? You knew Theofratus?”

“Oh, no, he just passed through  my town when I was a little kid. I was interested in alchemy, so, uh, my parents brought some books from him! Right. And that was how I got the idea to go looking for a mana and caught mine.” In a butterfly net.

Jess was weird, Nikki thought yet again, but fun weird, like Flaya and everyone else.

As Jess chattered, Roxis had frowned and started twitching. The movements made the mana on his neck have to wiggle around to stay where it was, untll Roxis realized that there was something fluffy on his neck and managed to grope around to grasp hold of it before rolling over and peeing up at it. “Oh. You.”

It was the first time Nikki had gotten a good look at Roxis without his glasses, and she thought she liked him better with them on. Not that he was ugly or anything, but he definitely looked a lot hotter when they were on and his hair wasn’t all messed up. Which was probably why he wore his hair like that, huh. Nikki didn’t pay a lot of attention to her looks, since she could get boys just the way she was, but she felt kind of bad sometimes that the other girls in the dorms would spend hours and hours trying to make themselves look good just to attract one potential hubby. It was totally unfair, so Nikki could understand how they felt. Well, only a little. It was nice when things were unfair in your favor, huh?

Like her, Vayne looked cute with his hair all messed up. It, like, made you want to start grooming it so he’d purr.

Vayne really acted a lot like a beastman sometimes, now that she thought about it.

Although Roxis was the one acting more like a cat now, brushing his hair out of his face and getting himself groomed properly with an air of annoyance and, ‘that didn’t happen.’

“So you have two mana too now, Roxis?” Jess asked, completely ignoring his aura of, ‘I am not a messy person, so therefore anytime you see me look wretched I am not really there, so don’t talk to me.’ “You’re good at catching mana, huh. Do you use some kind of bait?”

Roxis blinked at her. “Bait?”

“Or do you use something besides a butterfly net? I tried pit traps for awhile, and then I realized that mana float, don’t they…” Jess smiled in that loveable airhead way of hers.

“Catching… mana?” In a pit trap? What?

“Yeah. I caught mine in a butterfly net, Pamela’s really likes bears…”

Pamela giggled and held up her Teddy. “Yup!”

“…Flay had to beat his into submission…”

They could all imagine Flay using that line.

“…Nikki’s came because she sang and Vayne does whatever his mana tell him to. So how did you end up with two?”

“…are you implying that you can’t see why any mana would want to pact with me?” Hoo boy, Roxis was cranky now.

Jess just laughed, and Nikki took a step back when she realized that Pamela was giggling too. They sounded really alike for a moment. “Wow, creepy…”

“Hey, listen! I did not pact with you because you caught me in a butterfly net! I took pity on you,” the mana of wind said again.

Although, really, it hadn’t so much been pity as the fact that a little girl running around the woods waving around a butterfly net and enthusiastically calling, “Here, mana mana!” like she was trying to catch fireflies or a kitty had just been the cutest thing she had ever seen. And then when Jess had tripped over a tree root and sat there, trying to catch her breath (just like she’d been trying to catch the wind), she hadn’t been able to resist appearing to make sure that the little girl was okay.

And then the net had been over her head, and Jess had been smiling this huge bright smile, even though she couldn’t draw the breath necessary to shout, “Yay, I caught a mana!” the way she clearly wanted to. She’d been struggling for air, and yet she’d been ignoring it and smiling. Still chasing her dreams when so many would have given up on ever living long enough to catch them.

For an instant, the face she’d seen hadn’t been Jess’s. It had been Lita’s, Iris’ daughter Lita’s, in those fleeting moments when she’d stopped trying to pretend that she was strong, arrogant, and perfectly okay. In the moments when she’d thought she’d been alone, and didn’t need to pretend for the sake of the others, not realizing that they would have preferred seeing her cry, knowing that she cried, and being able to be there for her to the hard, and hence cruel, façade she put up to protect them.

And, in that moment, the Mana of Wind, the element of freedom itself, had been well and truly caught.

Chapter Text

“You really shouldn’t be doing this,” Anna said again. Flay ignored her again.

“An evil mastermind, a creation of forbidden alchemy! Star, no, two sets of star-crossed lovers! A long-awaited vengeance, action, it’s perfect! Bwahahaha!” Flay threw his head back and laughed.

“I was afraid of this,” she said to herself. Luckily, she had a plan! Pamela had told her about what they’d done to get rid of Nikki’s crazy admirers the first time, and Anna had managed to synthesize a few last week, to use in case anyone made any improper advances on her, since sometimes they were just misunderstandings and even if there wasn’t any real harm done it was pretty embarrassing to kill someone who was just being nice.

So Anna tossed a Loveless Potion right into Flay’s big mouth. “There! That should make you stop being so obsessed with poor Vayne!”

“Vayne? No, this is bigger than Vayne. By the power of the Flay Bug, I now have the same blackmail material on Roxis that Vayne’s… No, Sulpher’s second mana does! His gunpower-based booby trap capable of defeating you shall be mine, and so shall all-“

“What trap capable of defeating me!?” Anna demanded, outraged. “I’ve never lost to Roxis!

“-his secrets! Vayne? Vayne, ha! He’s too nice to be a proper eldritch abomination. Isolde now, Isolde is Madam’s only rival for control of the school! A worthy opponent for Alchemy Man, motivated by a shared secret origin! My evil syndicate shall rise, and Isolde, not Renee or Madam, shall…” Gulp. “Anna, don’t you have any manners? It’s rude not to wait for the archvillian to finish gloating.”

What trap capable of defeating me?”

“He used it to force Vayne into fighting you, and in exchange took it down. There was a danger that civilians might be caught in the blast. Why do you ask, Anna? Now that Vayne is no longer Roxis’ rival, are you angling for the position?”

“What… Roxis doesn’t even use a sword!” And, and Anna already had a rival, didn’t Flay understand that? She was his rival, not Vayne or Tony!

Stupid Flay! She was going to slice him to pieces!

“How dare you toy with a young maiden’s heart!” she yelled, slashing again as he somehow vanished from in front of her sword.

“Bwahahaha!” he laughed, running ahead of her. He had no idea what Anna was going on about, but what he did know was that it was awesome. “It’s like my birthday has come early this year! Christmas in whatever month this is!” Schedules were for lesser beings who allowed themselves to be constrained by such base things as time and what other people thought they should be doing.

“Get back here and take responsibility!” Anna shouted, waving her sword in the air instead of sheathing it to run properly.

“Never!” he caroled, jumping from crystal to crystal.

Nikki watched Flay run through.

Then Anna.

“Weren’t Flay and Anna searching the Dragon’s Graveyard? What are they doing down here?” Nikki wondered. She wasn’t actually asking them, it was probably safer to wait to do that until after they’d calmed down. Even though theoretically there should only be so much rock under the school, if Flaya tripped it was a long way down to the bottom of this cave.

Pamela giggled, holding Teddy up to watch. “They’re so silly!”

Roxis wondered how long they had been down here. Flay was almost as good at moving around stealthily and getting where people didn’t expect him to be as Pamela was, and Anna was the fastest of all of them. She and Roxis were the members of the workshop who did the most solo gathering trips, Roxis because he could grow an army of monsters and Anna because she moved faster alone and could get in and out with the materials without having to fight. Although she was generally training by herself in some monster-infested area in the early mornings, starting around the time when Jess was coming into the workshop to fiddle with bombs.

No: there was no way Flay would have been able to hold Anna back if they’d followed him down and been here for the confrontation with Isolde. He shouldn’t have to worry about the possibility that Flay might know everything now.

Yet, now that he’d thought of it, it did worry him. He shuddered to think of what Flay would do with the knowledge. “Well, why don’t we leave them to it and get back to campus?” Roxis managed to say that almost nonchalantly as Flay and Anna made another pass. “Before anything else happens…”

“What did Ms. Isolde do to you guys, anyway? Jess found a bomb: are you guys ok?”

“We’re fine.” Roxis got to his feet, brushing the dust from his robes. “Right, Vayne.”

“Right.” Vayne looked almost disappointed that Roxis had gotten up, but he did the same.

“Ha! It would take more than that to take down my future arch-nemesis!”

Vayne’s face fell. “Arch-nemesis? I thought I was your sidekick.”

“Yes, but that was before the revelation of your origin story!”

“…Origin story?” Roxis and Vayne chorused.

“Yes! A mana of unpredecented power, created by a mad alchemist who sought to destroy the world, who turned away from that dark path in order to fight for justice as… Alchemy Man! And his sidekick… I’m going to have to work on that.” He paused long enough to look Roxis up and down. “You’re not very good sidekick material.”

“I should think not.” Roxis felt vaguely affronted by whatever Flay was implying.

“Oh, I know! You can be the one who does all the tedious research and makes the gadgets!”

“Gadgets?” Jess had never heard that word before.

“Like this!” Flay grabbed something off of Roxis’ lapel. “I call it the Flay Bug! It allows me to listen to conversations from far away and record them to play them back later! Bwa-“ The slash only made him pause for a moment. “Anna! Haven’t I told you before that you have to wait until someone is done talking to attack?”

“Spying is dishonorable!”

The other members of the workshop were too distracted by Flay’s Flayness for what he had said to sink in. Nikki, especially, knew better than to try to make sense of Flaya by now.

“I’m sorry, Vayne, I should have destroyed his listening device before, on the way down. I’ll take care of them both now! Yah!” She slashed forward, aiming for the small thing in Flay’s hand. To no avail. “You should have told us, but that’s no excuse for spying on you! Hand them over now, Flay!”

Flay just posed on top of the largest crystal, threw his head back and laughed, the sound echoing all through the chamber. “Or what?”

“Listening device?” On Roxis? And Flay had heard everything? “I don’t know what you thought you heard, but I won’t stand for this.”

“You think you can defeat me, the Great Flayv-.” Flay smiled to himself. No, that was for later. “You and what armies?”

“If you heard anything, then you know the answer to that question.” Or half of it: had Roxis actually mentioned that he could summon creatures as well as use spells at any point? The entire experience was a sort of frantic blur: he hadn’t been thinking, let alone thinking clearly. The fact he’d thought reviving Theofratus was a good idea was proof enough. “I don’t have time for this. Isolde is likely planning her next strike even now.” That was putting it in terms that should catch Flay’s interest. He stills started rummaging through his pockets for Water of Lethe. Even though Flay would make a deadly enemy if offended, that rumermonger would spread something this exciting over the whole school.

“And how are we supposed to plan to meet that attack if we’re kept in the dark about your true capabilities? You’ve been holding out on your friends: for shame! Now is the moment that the hero should reveal his secret identity to those he trusts, and share a heartwarming  moment of true friendship and loyalty that will give you the motivation to fight on, come what may!” Even if one of those friends later turns against you, you will still be bonded by the memory of that friendship, Flay thought to himself happily. “A grand saga to inspire the world, to show children everywhere that heroes do exist, and to inspire them to take up arms against evils great and small!”

When Flay took over the world (just for a bit), he was going to order a book burning of Don Quixote first thing. He was also going to have all the lady knights like Renee under his command wear miniskirts. He’d have a limited window to enjoy it while it lasted, and he needed to inspire people to rise up against him for their rights and dignity.

And, if they missed the miniskirts, then they would be welcome to join his evil syndicate.

“You don’t… want to fight me?” Vayne was trying to understand: Ah, innocent, simple Vayne.

“Of course I want to fight you! But not because you’re evil. I give you a four out of ten, really. You’re too nice for what Theofratus was going for. The other you is just as bad. He had an enemy out to destroy all he held dear at his mercy, and instead of suspending her upside-down over a shark pit, he gave her a kitten. Of course, if that’s the raw material Theofratus had to work with, I suppose I can forgive him for failing so badly at creating the next Amalgam. An evil force out to destroy the world, a band of heroes gathering to oppose it as in the days of yore: it would have been incredible! But you’re a fair consolation prize,” he reassured Vayne with a flippant wave of his hand. “Don’t worry, I can work with this.” He definitely could.

“What Flay should say is that we’re all your friends, Vayne.” Vayne was more than a friend to Anna, he was practically her student, and students were family. Even if she wasn’t worthy to take a student under her wing just yet, not until she grew stronger. “We don’t mind that you’re a mana. Right, everyone?” She looked around at the others for support.

“Wait, Vayne’s a mana? Is that even possible?”

“Really? I’ve never heard of something like that before.” Pamela loved novelty, after too many centuries in the same place with the same sort of people.

“What are you the mana of?” Jess asked, not disturbed by the revelation at all.

“Wishes,” Vayne answered her, and Roxis stopped trying to find the Water of Lethe he’d disguised as heal jars and looked at him. “And I guess it is possible, because Flay’s right. I am a mana.”

“What about Sulpher? Can mana pact to mana?”

“Sulpher’s my… Well, it’s more like I’m his mana than he’s my cat. He was Theofratus’ cat, and he decided to take care of me after I was made and Father… passed away. I didn’t know I wasn’t human until Roxis figured it out, and he pacted with me too.”

“You can make multiple pacts?” Pamela beamed. “Oooh, pick me, pick me!” That way she could keep Vayne, like Teddy!

“No.” The little silver kitten poked his head out from behind Roxis’ neck. “We’re not pacting to anyone else.”

“Who are you?”

“He’s the other half of me, and… It’s a long story.”

“Well, I don’t have anything else to do, right guys?” Nikki asked.

“You really don’t… Everyone, thank you.” Vayne smiled, sorry for the trouble and heartbreaking glad to be accepted even though he was different.

“Don’t worry,” Anna assured him. “Flay and Pamela are much weirder than you are.” If weirdness disqualified you from this workshop, there wouldn’t be a workshop.

“No one’s going to drive you away,” Roxis said finally, giving up. This would be good for Vayne. Flay had made it clear he didn’t consider Vayne an evil being, so Roxis didn’t need to worry about Flay trying to destroy him when he found out. The fact he had plans for Roxis meant he likely wouldn’t try to turn him in, either.

Of course, the fact he had plans for Roxis meant Flay had plans for Roxis.

Roxis was not looking forward to what Flay would do with the knowledge he’d gained. Knowledge was power, and Flay liked power.

Chapter Text

Normally, if Roxis had found himself in a city, or was it a temple, on the edge of the clouds, suspended in the crystal-clear sky he would have wondered what was going on, but this was a dream and in dreams even the most ridiculous things could seem perfectly natural, even a place that flickered between a palace of black stone and odd crystals, a dust-brown temple, a small town with cobblestone streets and an alchemist’s lab.

All overlooking the earth below, all looking up to the heavens. All the same place. That was how it should be, and had been, and always would be, from when there had been nothing but a garden here to the day it would be a city far greater than the ruined one that crumbled around him in some flashes of time.

In the same way, it seemed natural that there would be two people in front of him. The man looked like he’d stepped out of one of the paintings that hung in the manor: that was how traveling alchemists had dressed a few centuries ago. The woman was wearing an even older dress, something from a fresco, but the pouches and pockets, the wear and tear also left no doubt that this was an alchemist.

He knew, in the dream, that there was a bone-deep connection between the two of them, something that made the centuries that divided them not matter at all. They both had a certain family resemblance, with hair that wasn’t quite blond, brown, or red, and they both carried well-crafted staffs, which had been the weapon of alchemists when it was thought that drawing blood was somehow more impure than bludgeoning someone to death, that sang of power.

No, not power. Nor was it purity, although he somehow knew that these two were heroes, that they couldn’t be anything else. Nor was it faith or hope.

The power of alchemy was the power to not overcome evil, but to make it not matter. To change this impure world into a place where people didn’t have to kill countless people in hopes of saving their families, where the strong didn’t unleash horrors on the weak without even caring.

The power to purify the self, to free it of not just the corruption of age but the dust of ages, the darkness that wore down souls until they lost the idealism, the faith that things would be made right that these two had never given up. That shone through them as though they were somehow more real than almost everything else, as though it was the world that was a dream and they had woken up.

He would have been desperate to question them, to know how they had done it, to wonder if someday he might, but they brought with them a sense of calm, a certainty that all things could wait, would come in time.

“Thanks for looking after her,” the man said with a smile on his lips.

“Thanks from me too. She’s my granddaughter, just like you’re our grandson,” the woman agreed.

“You’re my ancestors?” They had the look, and once they told him it was as though he had known all along. That they were connected to him, even if not in the way that they were connected to each other.

“My name’s Viese, and this is Klein. He married one of my descendants.” She smiled happily. “You’re our… how many generations has it been?”

Klein just shrugged.

“But you aren’t in the hall.” And that was wrong, that two people this great weren’t remembered.

They laughed. “I’m from before your family had that name.”

“And I definitely wasn’t going to have my portrait painted when I was in hiding. Sort of,” the man corrected himself. Then his face became serious. “Do you really trust him?”

While Roxis had no idea who ‘she’ was, he knew that this was Vayne. “Not to do the sensible thing.”

The man looked at the woman, who said, “I think you take after me more than him, in some ways at least. Iris was a wonderful addition to our family.” Herself and her brother and this little girl who had shown up out of nowhere with a power that wars had been fought over.

“Iris? Of the Fortner line?” That name had been passed down for centuries, until it had become almost synonymous with ‘powerful female alchemist.’

“Their ancestor. The Fortner family is human, but there’s still a little something there.”

The man nodded. “It was an Iris that was the first to create artificial humans, although she didn’t quite… Lita’s always had poor health.” He worried about her. “The power of the Ruby Prism keeps her from  dying quickly or ceasing to exist when she dies, but when Theofratus took some of her years he didn’t realize that he was taking her eternity. Then, instead of returning it, and the ruby prism, to her, he had that mana destroy it once he was finished so that he could die.”

“You can’t mean… Jess?” But Roxis had thought Vayne had healed her.

“The only thing that can save her is the ruby prism, just like Elusmus couldn’t exist without one. At least he had a soul, so when Felt fixed the sword he was alright.” Until…

“I’ll have to find another way, no one’s managed to make a ruby prism in centuries.” There had to be some way to save Jess.

Awake, he would have pretended that he didn’t really like her, that the legendary ruby prism was the more important thing.

Klein shook his head. “It turned out to be a lot easier to just make one than to find another way. It’s not as hard as you’d think. If you’re the right kind of person.”

“The hardest part was finding the ingredients,” Viese agreed. “And they really just came to Felt.” As he fought to save others, as he faced dragons and searched for the truth.

“You both made the Ruby Prism? You’re immortal, then?”

They shook their heads. “Lita needed it more than I did,” Klein explained.

“Elusmus, and everyone… You have to make it for someone else. Someone, or some people, that you care about. That you won’t fail, no matter what.”

“Of course,” Roxis realized, now that he thought about it. No wonder even ‘the great Theofratus’ had failed. Every alchemist that he’d heard of tried to craft one for their own, personal benefit, or a testament to their skill.

“The recipe isn’t always the same, either.  They just have to be things with those powers, those alignments.” Things that represented all the best in the universe. “If you’ll try to make one for her, then we’ll help you.”

“Why?” Why him and not his father.

Klein gave him a look. “He didn’t need us.” He’d found his own path, figured out a way to do what he’d set to do despite all obstacles. Klein was proud of him.

“And I do?” He almost wanted to turn down their aid, but that was too petty a thought for this place.

But then, who was he to say what was petty, what was unworthy?

“Well, no,” Viese admitted. “But we want to help you, and Lita too.”

“And there’s Amalgam to deal with.” Klein frowned. “Arlin, too.” He admitted, “And Iris’ other descendants. You’re going to have a lot on your plate.”

“You’ll love Iris Fortner, she’s such a sweet girl,” Viese said, ignoring how Klein’s mood had darkened.

“The Fortner family survived?” A few centuries ago, after most of them left the city that had once stood where Al Revis now did, their new home had been besieged. They’d used some glyph to protect it, or that was everyone’s best guess, because there had been a roaring like the Leviathan itself had gone berserk and the city had vanished, leaving nothing but a deserted lake in its place.

“She’ll be fine.” Klein assured him. “She’s an alchemist.” Alchemists found ways to solve their problems, and those of the people they met on their journeys. “She managed to free Luplus, and he repays his debts.”

“I hope he doesn’t strain himself, my Iris is worried about him.”

“He’s one of her firstborn, he won’t die that easily.” Of course not.

Roxis raised an eyebrow at that, listening to all this. He had begun to wonder vaguely if this was a dream, but was it just a dream?

He didn’t know if he could bear the disappointment if this, if the potential he felt here wasn’t real.

Well, he was an alchemist. One way or another, he’d make it real.

“Arlin can’t use a ruby prism,” she reminded him. “He’s really been working hard to keep him from dying, that was how that monster was able to catch him.”

“Arlin’s been working on defensive techniques, too. When I met him his only really powerful skill nearly killed him when he used it.” It had made Klein angry, even when he hadn’t really understood what was going on. How could he do that to Luplus, to Lita, to all of them? Had he really thought that it didn’t matter if he died, that he had no one to live for and no one cared now that his brothers were gone, vanished into dust, never again to be separate from the rest of creation?

“Who is Arlin?”

“One of Mull’s homunculi,” Klein explained. “He saved Luplus from being imprisoned like the rest of the mana under your school. He helped us stop Mull, and they’ve spent the last few centuries traveling together and trying not to die.” But flesh wasn’t eternal, every alchemist knew that. Alchemists could create temples and glyphs that would last for millennia, but only by making them more than just mortal stone and concrete. “You’ll recognize him, he looks a lot like A-like Vayne, but older.”

That slip, what he’d said before? Was Vayne’s similarity to Arlin a ‘family’ resemblance, one they had because they shared a creator? “Vanitas is Amalgam?” Either he was wrong or Klein couldn’t be serious.

“Not exactly,” he admitted. “But you can see why I want to want to help with this. This is your fight.” He held up his hand to make sure that Roxis knew that he wasn’t going to take this away from him. “But mine, too.”

“And I have my own reasons, too,” Viese admitted. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all. If anything, I’m honored.” A rare smile, almost a grin, tried to form on his lips as he adjusted his glasses. This was an incredible honor.

Vanitas could say that Roxis was wonderful all he liked, but he was practically an infant and didn’t know any better. Roxis had always wanted to live up to the legacy of his ancestors, to make them proud, and a chance like this?

Viese smiled, motherly and sweet, and he would have wondered if she had Pamela-like tendencies if he hadn’t known her better than that. Klein just nodded.

They both took out their staffs, circling them in front of them to create glyphs in the air, glyphs that Roxis recognized after an instant as field synthesis glyphs. Those were an incredibly advanced technique, the person in the workshop that came the closest was Jess, and while she could synthesize despite distractions it wasn’t the same thing at all. She needed a cauldron and ingredients: it was just a normal synthesis that happened to take place on the battlefield instead of the pure ability to create from nothing but the raw power of the elements themselves. Even so, the fact that Jess could do even that indicated an incredible amount of raw talent that would have humbled Roxis if the way that she was wasting it didn’t make him so angry.

He held them in his hand, and prayed that this wasn’t a dream, that they would be in his hand when he woke up. “Like the ancient alchemists.” The priests who had shaped powerful spirits out of their very souls in order to protect.

“We couldn’t just leave,” Viese explained, looking down at the ground beneath them for the first time. “The human world lost the ability to do alchemy because of Palaxius, and so many people suffered.” She couldn’t let that happen again.

“Alchemy almost died out because of Mull’s hunt and Amalgam.” Klein couldn’t let that happen, either. “And Lita…”

“All my grandchildren, nieces and nephews…”

Those who made the ruby prism, achieved the Philosopher’s Stone, rose above the world. They became greater than the base world of mud and clay. Despite this, what Klein and Veola were saying was the complete opposite of being removed from worldly concerns.

No. They had become better than almost everything else because they were better. They had been granted this place, this ability to look down on the world because they weren’t the kind of people who looked down on it, but always had and always would watch over it.

He felt so deeply humbled, but that wasn’t shameful, it was liberating. Because if you didn’t know that there were people that were greater then you, then how would you know what to climb towards? Just knowing that this could be achieved? It meant… so, so much.

“We’re not the only ones who’ve managed to make the Ruby Prism, of course,” Klein told him. “They’ve all had… something that they wanted to do to make the world a better place. Even Palaxius.”

“I’m sure that young Iris will manage it, and you too,” Viese assured him. “You should probably wake up, before you get too worried that Faustus is playing with you, but I want you to remember.” She held up her hand, light gleaming from a gold ring. “We’re always with you, and so is everyone you’ve met. Family, friends, the people you’ve helped along the way.”

“There are things that seem cruel, things that are twisted in on themselves so that what’s good about them becomes what seems bad, but the world isn’t an unjust place, it just is. Stop saying things are unfair and focus on fixing them.”

Then they vanished into the pure, bright world around them, into the island that held all of the world, all of alchemy’s hopes. The hope that humanity could be purified, that someday all the world would be just like this, just like…

“Eden,” Roxis murmured, waking. There were no cards in his hand, but that would have been asking for them to get mangled. He didn’t need to check that they were in his deck case, he could feel their presence lingering still.

He cracked an eye open to make sure that he was prodding the right one of the two kittens lying on him. “Vanitas.” Wake up.

“Mew?” The kitten padded around to face him and yawned, wondering what Roxis wanted.

“You said something about how ‘he’ had failed to control you. ‘He’ was Mull, wasn’t he.”

Pure panic resounded down their link, and Roxis only realized after Vanitas had vanished that he probably should have waited until he was awake enough to have some tact to mention that he knew that Vanitas was, even if only ‘not exactly,’ the kind of demonic creature Roxis had accused him of being before he’d gotten to know him.

Vanitas, it’s too early for this.” Get back here.

There was no answer along the link.

“Not again.” Hadn’t he just fetched Vayne back after he’d had a personal crisis? Roxis lifted his other kitten off him, threw on his dressing gown and slippers, and marched out his door to pound on Vayne’s.

If Roxis had been thinking clearly, he would have headed straight for the workshop, since that was the most likely place to find him. Sometimes, it seemed as though Vayne slept everywhere but where he was supposed to sleep. Thankfully, for once Vayne was actually in his room, probably because they didn’t have any assignments at the moment.

“Where is he? Let me guess, the depths of the Resource Center.” The place that Roxis would least want to go.

“Are you asking about Mercurius?” There was only a slight pause before Vayne used the pseudonym: he was thinking unusually clearly, for Vayne, unlike Roxis. “I think he’s under the Old Schoolhouse, actually.”

“The place I want to go the second least.” And now Vanitas was being smarter than him, too. Yawning, Roxis started back to his room to put some actual clothes on.

“This isn’t about me, is it?” Vayne asked while Roxis, bleary-eyed, was trying to find a uniform that hadn’t been slimed when Jess’ pet escaped from her handbag (she’d put it there so the Vice Principal wouldn’t find it when she inspected Jess’ room again).

Giving up, Roxis held one in his direction and asked Vayne,” Would you mind cleaning this?”

“You mean, with a wish?”

“Yes, with a wish. There isn’t time to find some recipe that will remove this.” He shook it, then remembered that Vayne had been saying something. “Were you under the impression that I liked him best, or some nonsense like that?”

“Well, yeah.” Basically. Vayne managed to grant the wish without glowing, which was better.

Roxis supposed that was fair, and he would have admitted it if he’d been less cranky. “Aside from the fact that he looks like a cute widdle kitty… Ahem. A cat more often than you do, you’re the same person. You’re both equally idiotic. You did something that made me frustrated enough to tear my hair out last week, and now it’s apparently Vanitas’ turn. Turn around.” He motioned for Vayne to look away while he changed. The boy had no notion of propriety, which was one more thing he was going to have to learn. When peasant families shared beds at home and strangers at inns, failure to respect what slim measure of privacy there was made everyone angry, and Vayne was planning on becoming a traveling alchemist. “How deep are we talking about?”

“Deeper than we’ve ever been.”

 “Go get Flay, will you?”

Chapter Text

“This is getting interesting!” Flay proclaimed joyfully as he charged forward again, his most powerful attacks doing nothing but scratching them.

“You can’t be serious,” Roxis almost growled, scrambling to plant another set of seeds since the last one had been wiped out instantly taking blows meant for the others, just like the one before it. Dour’s acorn, which was indestructible, was providing cover for him most of the timebut the others weren’t so lucky: they were almost out of nectars and this was insane.

“Well, this is Flaya.” Nikki shrugged, after gulping back a heal jar to ease her throat. “Cover me while I sing!”

“One moment, this won’t take long.” There, he jumped back as soon as they sprouted and Dour’s power was no longer needed.

Thankfully, Nikki’s lullabye was able to put them to sleep… except that Flay’s attacks woke one of them up right away. “Stop that, we need to think of a strategy!” Anna shouted, trying to whack Flay over the head before slicing through into the dream dimension again to avoid the beast’s wild charge.

“Did Vanitas do this?” How could there possibly be monsters this powerful under the school? Well, Roxis realized, it did make sense. Provided the monsters could be kept confined, which the fact they weren’t devastating the school proved, they would make an excellent defense. The wind mana protecting the path up, hordes of monsters that could take on armies: he had to hand it to Isolde and her predecessors. Al Revis was well-guarded, and with it alchemy.

“I’m… not sure.” Vayne frowned. “It feels sort of like our power, but it’s not… right.”

“Relics, perhaps?” Amalgam had spawned monsters. “We’re going to have to go back and synthesize more treasure capes.”

“We can’t retreat!” Anna protested. “We’re going to have to fight them eventually. We need to think of a strategy before we get too far down: what if we got ambushed when the cape vanished?” They’d get wiped out instantly and lose all their progress, on top of the time they would lose making the capes.

“This is the perfect opportunity for you to demonstrate your skills!” Flay grinned at Roxis.

Roxis wanted to protest, but he also really did want to show off. He hadn’t even had a chance to look at his new cards. Sliding his combat deck into its pocket, he reached into his inner pocket to draw a card, focusing on the situation. What they really, really needed was some way for their weapons to work on these monsters: he couldn’t defeat them all with shadow magic, he’d be dead on his feet of just dead before they reached the bottom.

In a single motion, he drew the card and flipped it around his hand to read the name and description.

It was a new card, but it wasn’t either of the two who had appeared in his dream. It was, on the other hand, exactly what they needed. He smirked.

Waving at the remaining plant monsters he’d grown, Roxis declared, “I offer these three sacrifices to summon Felt, the Azoth-Forger!”

The being that appeared looked quite a lot like Vayne at first glance, between the silver hair and… basically his entire attitude. He even wore blue clothing, and it made Roxis wonder if Felt was another of Mull’s creations until his eyes were drawn by the power of the ring, just like Viese’s, that he wore. No: this spirit was from before Mull’s time. “I remove him from play to activate his effect!” Roxis mad e a mental note to find some more impressive and less technical way to say that when he was on the battlefield. He’d have to use proper terminology in the game, however, because otherwise it would just get confusing.

Anna screamed in protest. “My sword! What did you do!”

“He’ll be done in a moment!” Before the enemy monsters could attack, or that was how it was in the game.

It appeared that he worked that fast when summoned, too: their weapons appeared in their hands again, and Flay crowed with delight when his charge did actual damage. A few hits from Nikki’s hammer, and one of them just dropped dead.

“I approve!” Flay declared.

“Who was he? A smith like that…” Anna was impressed.

“Making equipment without an athanor…” Jess, who had been hanging back during almost all of this fight since Roxis was trying to get her to take it easy without making it obvious that he was coddling her, looked thoughtful.

Roxis would have found that incredibly scary if he’d actually been paying attention. Was that man his ancestor as well?

Growing up, there had been so many people disappointed that his father couldn’t cure them, that Roxis hadn’t found a mana at a young age and been admitted early the way they’d hoped. There had been whispers, and sometimes outright insults, from people who believed that the Rosenkrantz family’s glory days were over, that his father was nothing more than a vagrant, no better than a gypsy, that they had no right to their status that… He’d set his sights on Al Revis partially to prove them all wrong, to be honest.

He’d known that his family wasn’t weak, wasn’t made up of failures. Even if he had to keep all of this secret, perhaps one day he could tell his children that they should be proud. That they were the heirs of a great legacy, one as heroic as the vanished Fortners.

When their opponents were dead, Flay threw his head back and laughed.

“Flay? You’re sounding evil again,” Vayne informed him.

“Really?” Flay tilted his head, and with that smile and his hair shading his eyes, he really did look evil.

“Yeah…” Vayne said, voice trailing off. Flay had been acting weird since the last time he’d dragged Vayne off to play hero. Before, he’d been peeved with himself when told he was acting evil instead of heroic, since it was the opposite of what he was trying to do.

“Hmm.” Jess had wandered off (not too far, of course) while they were talking, since she’d seen something interesting. “Is this what I think it is?”

The particular intrigued and heading towards excitement tone to her voice attracted Roxis’ attention? “Hmm? What are you talking about?” There was an odd lump. “Hmm.” It definitely possessed some power…

“I think it might be, it really might be…” Jess started to grin.

“I thought they were legendary, after all some said they were made by fairies, but legends seem to be popping up all over the place. You may very well be right.” His fingers itched to pick it up, but Jess had seen it first.

“One of the teachers would know.”

“As though they’d let students keep something like this.” There were careful controls on the ingredients and recipes students of each level had access to, and with good reason. “We can’t even take it to the Athanor, if it is what you think it is.”

“I read that you could eat them and they would infuse your body with different kinds of strength: I wonder if you could use them in bombs?”

“There’s something that might give your body strength and you want to waste it on a bomb?” But Klein had said only the Ruby Prism would help, and if the rest of the dream had been true? But he’d thought Vayne had healed her. Well, if the lack of a soul’s strength made the body decay, then even if Vayne healed the damage it would simply begin again. “Why are you so fascinated with them, anyway?”

Everyone’s working on medicines and how to put things together, but you can’t learn about anything unless you take it apart and see how it works.” Like physicians did, with their grave-robbing. “I don’t understand why no one ever wants to talk about death. Death is an important part of life, there’s nothing dirty about it. It’s natural. Isn’t alchemy supposed to be about understanding the universe? But everybody studies creation and nobody studies destruction. We learn how to fight but they act like there’s something wrong about blowing things up, almost. Do you know how ancient most of the bomb recipes are? And the Roman books are full of ones that have been lost.”

“To be fair, we’ve lost their construction techniques as well.” No modern mason or alchemist could match the Parthenon’s endurance. “But you’ve really thought about this, haven’t you?” He was… surprised. “Is that really what you think, that modern alchemy is… missing something?”

“Of course. I read all the stories about alchemists when I was a kid, and Theofratus was the most powerful alchemist and he wasn’t able to cure me. An ancient alchemist would have.” She just knew it. “All the teachers say that alchemy isn’t able to create life, and that’s wrong, too. It’s not just that there are homunculi in the legends, but alchemy is…” She shrugged, since they both knew what it was. “There shouldn’t be limits like that just because people say there are. It’s wrong. People say that only God should be able to create life, so it’s a good thing that alchemy can’t, but why did he give us this power if he didn’t want us to use it? We’re supposed to have children, aren’t we? There’s nothing wrong with that!” Jess’ eyes flashed when she said that, fierce and determined. “There’s nothing wrong with Vayne being the way he is!” But was that what she was really talking about?

“You don’t need to tell me that.”

What was she saying, who was she defending?

(A flash, then, of a city in the clouds, of a brown-haired girl who had flung herself from it not because she was ashamed of what she was, but because Mother was dead, they were all dead, and she was weak and they had died because she had been weak, she hadn’t been able to help them, if they hadn’t been trying to protect her than maybe, maybe…

Mother…

But Jess was good at pretending that things weren’t wrong, so good at pretending she didn’t mind dying that she even fooled herself. She wanted to live, she desperately wanted to live, because if she died the there would be no more experiments, no more discoveries, no more of this wonderful world.

And Lita was good at pretending that things weren’t wrong, that they were all going to be fixed, that she didn’t need anyone even as she clung desperately to them, lashing out at anyone who might take Klein away from her, even for a second, because she couldn’t bear to lose anyone else.

She didn’t want to let herself cry, not ever, because that made her parents sad. It would have made Klein sad, and she’d wanted to be perfect for him so he’d stay with her, but somehow he’d liked Veola better even though Veola didn’t act cheerful, didn’t pretend that her past didn’t matter to her, didn’t try so very very hard to be perfect for him, and it had been so unfair!

But they’d both been her friends, so in the end she’d smiled and pretended it was ok, just like always, and Klein had put his hand on her shoulder and told her she didn’t need to pretend. That they wanted to know how she was feeling, that they didn’t mind hurting because she was hurting, that they wanted to be there for her, just like she’d tried so hard to be there for them.

Just like Vayne had told her that it was okay to be afraid, to not want to die.

And she’d fallen in their arms and cried.)

“There’s more to alchemy, I know there is. It isn’t just Vayne. There’s something more than just… This.” A school that didn’t let students leave, a place that kept mana imprisoned because they were afraid those natural forces would crush them. “What you did, just now, what the alchemist you summoned did. I’m going to learn how to do that, all of it.”

(She’d make them proud, Mother and Klein. She’d find a way to make something that would fix this, so her parents didn’t have to look at her with smiles that didn’t reach their eyes.)

“Well, you should probably start by paying attention to ether levels.” Saying that was almost a joke, Roxis realized. Since when had he regarded his one skill (except it wasn’t, not anymore) as a joke? Always?

Jess snorted. “That doesn’t matter. Sure, you get different effects, but sometimes the best effects aren’t at ‘perfect’ ether levels. You have to play around with it, or how are you going to learn what people missed by trying to do everything perfectly?”

Awhile ago, he’d tried to classify the styles of the other members of the workshop, and it turned out that he was right about Jess. She really had been inducing that chaos for the sake of a breakthrough, taking those risks for alchemy. Far from not taking this seriously, from wasting her talents and failing to treat alchemy with the proper respect, she’d been closer to its heart than he had ever been, all along.

“Are you already betrothed, by any chance?” Because Roxis thought he might be in love.

“Jess, Roxis! Where are you?!” They heard Nikki call.

“How could you lose them?” Anna yelled at Flay. “What if they’re being chewed on right this second? And you call yourself a leader!”

They hadn’t even noticed that the others had moved on, leaving them behind. They jerked, startled, reaching to grab the material and hurry to catch up by reflex. Their hands bumped into each other, before Roxis half-bowed, yielding the treasure to Jess.

“Excuse me? Is someone there?” They heard a female voice call. Who tried to yell politely In a dungeon full of monsters?

“We’re here,” they heard Vayne call back. “Who are you?”

“My name is…” She seemed uncomfortable with the idea of yelling a conversation. “Hold on, I’ll be there in a second!”

As she’d said, in little more than a second a great mana came charging up through the floor, stone surging out of the way like the splash made when a stone was dropped in a pond, cresting like a wave and falling back to a calm surface.

Riding on the back of the mana, clinging to a crag with one hand and an ornate staff with the other, was a young woman about their age, wearing a blue dress in a style they’d never seen before and a strange white headdress over dark hair.

Looking around as she pulled herself into a sitting position, she asked, “I didn’t hit anyone, did I?” Diemia should have been able to tell where people were standing, but she’d never tried that before.

Seeing Jess and Roxis, she frowned, puzzled. “You’re human? Or… do you know Gregor?” At least one of the people running up was a beastman who looked familiar. Iris had never met another member of Repre’s species before. Was this their world? “Oh, I’m so sorry!” It was rude of her to just start asking questions. “My name’s Iris,” she introduced herself as she dismounted and the mana she’d summoned disappeared. “I seem to be a little lost. Which world is this? My time doesn’t seem to be running out, but this isn’t home and it definitely isn’t Uroboros’  dimension.” His power had thrummed throughout that entire realm, and while there was a great deal of mana power here, none of it was his.

Chapter Text

“Uroboros’ dimension?” That was the mana that had gotten him into half of this whole mess, Roxis realized. If she hadn’t been about to improperly summon it, he would never have started teaching half the workshop the game, which had led to him starting to actually care what happened to Vayne and Sulpher. “Anna, do you know anything about that?”

“Well, I cut into another dimension, but it’s the dimension of dreams.” Faustus’ realm.

“Jess?”

“I don’t really know how I managed to make my bag do this. It just does.” One of Jess’ lucky accidents that she hadn’t figured out how to analyze or duplicate yet: no help there.

“Other dimensions, hmm?” Flay leaned forward, bangs shading his eyes.

Vayne was starting to get a little worried by how often Flay was acting evil.

“Um, guys?” Nikki glanced around. “We should probably keep moving, so we can try to find the other Vayne before it gets dark?” The idea of what monsters might come out at night down here made her fur stand on end.

“Right.” Roxis reminded himself that Vanitas was his mana, he’d pacted with the idiot and was therefore responsible for him, and it was unfair to blame Vanitas for delaying his interrogation of, ahem, his questioning of this alchemist on how she’d managed that strange technique and what techniques an Alchemist from another dimension might have. “We can talk as we move. Where’s Pamela?”

“I sent her on ahead, to scout,” Flay told him.

So Roxis did have to worry about her popping up right behind them. “I see…”


Despite their attempts to avoid battle (much to Flay’s disappointment), it wasn’t long before they found themselves in one. Somehow, Iris ended up beside him on the front lines, and he was caught between summoning something to end the battle quickly and trying to tactfully find out if she was going to try to kill him if he used dark alchemy in front of her.

She soon proved that he didn’t need to worry.

By performing a summoning herself. “Jiptus!”

“Did you just summon a mana?”

“Wow, you have a second mana too?” was Nikki’s question. “I thought it was really rare, but Vayne has two, or I guess Sulpher does, and Roxis has two, too!”

“I’m pacted to eight-I mean nine,” Iris told them. “Is that strange?”

Roxis adjusted his glasses. “It’s incredible. No one has managed anything like that in ages. It’s the sort of thing that happens in legends.”

“Well, it might just be that there weren’t any other alchemists to pact with. I’m the last alchemist where I come from-I mean, the second to last. That’s why I’m here, I think. Uroboros doesn’t need to be sealed away anymore, so he gave me another wish on the Dimension Book. I used my wish to ask if Mr. Crowley was still alive and if there was a way to save him. Have any of you seen him?”

They looked at each other. “I don’t know any alchemists by that name, no.”

“He must be down here,” Anna said. “Otherwise, she would have been sent to the village where he was, or the teachers at the academy. Instead she was sent to us.”

“Perhaps saving him requires Vayne’s power?” Roxis suggested.

“Vayne’s? What about yours?” Iris had first communicated with Roxis and Jess, after all, and Vayne wasn’t the only one with rare powers.

“She wasn’t sent to me, she was placed somewhere between where we were and the depths of his place where Vanitas is hiding. Perhaps Uroboros was trying to send her to Vayne and the spell was confused by the fact there are two of him. You said you made a wish, correct?” Roxis asked her.

She nodded. “The Dimension Book was intended to seal Uroboros away, and then it cured my illness, so I was almost afraid that it wouldn’t work.” She’d wanted to go home to the others so they wouldn’t worry, but Crowley was the only alchemist she’d ever met, except she hadn’t been able to meet the real him, and she couldn’t just abandon him. Speaking of which, “You and Vayne are alchemists?”

“We all are.” Jess smiled at her. “This is Al Revis, it’s an alchemy school. It’s really fun.”

“An alchemy… school?” Other people like her?

“Perhaps the book’s power was close to exhausted, and it needed more of the power of wishes,” Roxis muttered to himself, thinking aloud. The group ignored him as they told Iris all about Al Revis.

She looked as though all her dreams had come true, almost blushing with incredulous joy.

It was really very cute.

“I found someone!” Pamela said loudly right behind him.

“Pamela?” Iris exclaimed. “Is Winna here too?” Had he and the other researchers found a way to rescue her?

Pamela tilted her head. “Do I know you?”

No, this wasn’t her. “I’m sorry, it’s just that… You look almost exactly like a ghost named Pamela that I know.”

“There are more of her?!” Iris had to be joking. Except she really didn’t seem the type. Roxis groaned. This was just really not his day.

Pamela pouted. “You mean there’s another ghost as cute as me?”

“She may be an alternate version of you. Dimensions work like that sometimes.”

That was slightly better, but still. “Flay, there’s someone on the next floor. He’s got a mechsword just like you. I asked one of my friends,” the ones Pamela summoned in battle, “and he said that he was a possessed human. That’s just not very nice.”

“Possessed?” Iris gasped. “I have to hurry!”

It was only one more floor, and Flay sent Pamela on ahead again since seven was really too many people to keep track of in battle.

“Alvero? Alvero, is that you?” Iris was asking him when they caught up with her.

There wasn’t any response except an attack.

“I think this is Alvero, he’s possessed just like Crowley was.”

“Well, he can’t be one of the monsters native to this place, he’s far more fragile than they are. He can’t have been here very long, or they would have eaten him,” Roxis mused, starting out by planting seeds. “Vayne?”

“I don’t think Vanitas did this, but there’s something…”

“Please, we have to try to capture him alive!”

“Well, we ought to be able to manage that.” Then the strange man healed himself. His next attack cut right through Vayne’s decoy. Nikki took the next blow for Roxis, and he stared as she went sprawling. “Actually, we might have a problem.”

Iris spun her staff in front of her, glyphs appearing. Jess and Roxis gasped as the item healed Nikki. “That was instant synthesis!” Jess exclaimed.

“The lost secret technique of the ancient Hellenic alchemists: how did you do that?”

“Hey! Eyes on the battle, you two,” Anna scolded.

“He’s getting stronger!” Flay reported: he and Anna had joined Nikki on the front lines while Jess and Roxis had been trying to find out Iris’ secret.

“Jiptus!”

Thanks to Iris’ use of that technique, they were able to deal enough damage to him to keep up with his healing technique.

Iris would have cursed when he faded away if she weren’t too much of a gentlewoman. “I have to keep going.”

“Agreed. We’re still too high up. My mana is much deeper than this.”

“I hope he’s alright. The power that did this to Crowley, I’m almost certain it was responsible for binding all of the mana to monsters. Without any mana, alchemy started to fade away, until there was only me and Mr. Crowley, and we both thought we were the only ones.”

“A power that bound away mana…”

“Roxis?” Nikki waved something in his face. “I think this is for you.”

Cards? “Where did you find these?” He took them gingerly and tested a thorn. “Well, they seem willing to work for me, at least.”

“There are treasure chests down here.”

“What?” He stared at her. “That can’t be: who would come down here to restock them? The teachers surely wouldn’t want to encourage students to explore this area.” The chests scattered around Al Revis’ lands were placed there by staff members and constantly restocked, to reward students for their progress with recipes, healing items that would allow them to delve deeper, and so on.

“Professor Lorr’s workshop, silly,” Pamela told him. “It’s part of their post-graduate training. But they don’t put weapons in them: if you can’t figure out how to make weapons that let you survive here, then you don’t deserve the materials here.”

They all stared at her. “You knew about this place?” Anna wished Pamela had told her earlier: this was an incredible place to train and it wasn’t barred to early years!

“Why am I not surprised?” Roxis asked the heavens.

“Roxis? I think this is yours.” Vayne came out from behind something and handed him some robes. “Jess gave them to me along with this necklace for Sulpher, but they won’t work for me.”

“…They’re for Sulpher and I? Did Vanitas put these here?” Then why didn’t he just come back up, if he wanted to help them get to him?

Why did Roxis keep expecting Vayne and Vanitas to function according to sensible logic? He went behind the outcropping Vayne had used to change.

When he got back they got moving again. Flay had usurped his place next to Iris and was trying to get her to tell him about the evil villains she had fought while Jess tried to get her to tell her the secrets of her alchemy techniques. Roxis would have been more annoyed by that if he hadn’t been studying the cards Vanitas and Felt had given him.

“Are they good?” Vayne asked, about Vanitas’ gift.

“They’re odd. Very powerful, of course, but I’m more interested in the ones the alchemist I summoned made. These glyphs and letters: most alchemy materials are in Greek or Latin.” Egyptian secrets aside. “This is in… these are Solomon’s glyphs!”

“Solomon?”

“An ancient kind of Judea. He’s legendary for his wisdom, but really he deserves to be legendary for his ability to get away with murder – definitely took after his father in that regard. He wrote some fairly graphic pornography about a fellow monarch he was harassing that somehow made it into the Bible.”

“What’s por…?”

“Something I am not telling you about until you are older.” This was Vayne, for heaven’s sake! What had he been thinking, mentioning that in front of a child?! He coughed to hide his embarrassment. “In any case, he also usurped his brother’s throne and threatened to destroy the kingdom that God had given his people rather than give it up, so the rightful king, ‘father of the people,’ gave up the throne himself. And war would have caused that much destruction, because of this.” He showed Vayne one of the cards. “Solomon was incredibly talented at binding spirits, not just demons but the region’s water, fire, and air mana.” Come to think of it, there were some fire mana on the school grounds who definitely looked like the holy land’s efreets: had they fled that region with its alchemists when the new religion there declared pacting with mana a form of the worship of idols? Not to mention the dust devil Cyclone Mana. “That became the basis of the legends of the jinni, if you’ve heard any of them.”

Now that he thought about it… “Solomon’s miniaturized binding glyphs: perhaps they were the inspiration for binding shadows to cards instead of stone tablets? The Egyptians had to use these enormous pieces of stone, easily two or three times my height.”

“So they are good cards?”  

“They’re incredibly powerful, but I’m not going to discard either of my old decks for them. They wouldn’t be tournament legal.” And he was impressed by what had been done to his combat deck and wanted to see if he could reverse engineer it.

“Sulpher thought that the necklace wasn’t going to fit, but it shrunk down to fit his neck.” Sulpher had ended up deciding that he very much liked how it looked.

“Shrunk down to- I’ll want to take a look at it later.” As well as his clothing, there was something about the design that was nagging at him, but he had a mana to recapture and try to give a stern talking-to. Maybe he could manage to do that if he kept his eyes closed? Vanitas had gotten entirely too good at looking cute and sowwy… he meant sorry.

There weren’t even any kittens here and he was doing it.

“Careful guys, there’s another one up ahead. A lady with a big hammer!” Pamela proclaimed, right behind him.

She’d stop doing it if he stopped reacting, he knew, but the more she did it the more it got on his nerves and the more amusing his reaction.

“Yula? She was working for him before, just like Alvero, but she stopped.” What had happened while Iris was gone? Had the power that had possessed Crowley attacked the town and kidnapped them?

“I don’t know, she looks pretty mad…” Pamela decided that she definitely liked Iris. She had that cute little bow, and she was so earnest! Sort of like Vayne and Roxis put together.

She wondered if she could get Vayne to wear cute clothes.


“Well, that was easy.” Roxis had spent most of the battle jumping in to clear the sky of her attacks and standing in the rearguard shuffling through his two sets of new cards and taking mental notes. “Are we at least halfway there yet?” He wanted to get back, synthesize a few hundred sheets of paper for notes and calculations and raid the library for references. There was lots of research to be done. Lots and lots of wonderful research.

At this point, if Vanitas would just come back and let him get to the library, everything would be forgiven.

“…Actually, I’m not sure. There are…there’s something between us and where I think he is that might be him, but… it’s strange.”

“Can you wish to know what it is?”

“Yes, but not strongly enough. It’s not like Vanitas: he wants you not to come and to come at the same time, so I just have to wish a little to be able to find him to tip the balance and overpower the other wish. Whatever’s there doesn’t want anyone to know.”

“Do you think it’s what’s controlling them?”

Roxis winced. Iris was making him jump now? She was too soft-spoken: the others didn’t do this to him. Yet. “Please don’t walk up behind me and suddenly speak.”

“Roxis has fragile nerves,” Pamela added cheerfully.

“No.” Vayne shook his head, frowning. “Actually, Iris, could you wish for me to tell you where Crowley is and what’s happening to him?”

“Of course.” She clasped her hands together, closing her eyes in meditation that was almost prayer, glyphs appearing as they did when she summoned mana or used their power in battle.

Roxis wanted to know how she did that. An alchemy tradition that fused Hermetic and Egyptian methods? Summoning mana and invoking raw elemental power?

It was probably terrible of him to consider expressing interest in two women in one day by asking Iris as well as Jess if she was already betrothed or not.

On the other hand, they’d certainly both understand that his true love was alchemy, and really, if either of them did get upset with him, he could almost certainly borrow Vanitas’ problem-solving method. Only using the Rosenkrantz library’s more obscure contents on bomb-making and alchemy theory instead of kittens.

“Um, I think these are for you guys,” said Nikki, handing Roxis two rings. And a deep indigo tablet, but, but, rings.

Flay clapped Vayne on the back. “So, going to make an honest man out of him, are you?”

Vayne blushed. Roxis glowered. Pamela beamed. Nikki grinned. Eital’s tail wagged.

Chapter Text

“Mr. Crowley?” Iris said, hopeful but prepared for attack.

The man had steel-gray hair of the type that was called blue on horses and sometimes people as well, Roxis noted. The cape was odd, and seemed almost familiar for some reason.

There was no response but a spell, and he hissed at the feeling of that power. Now that he sensed it in full-force here, he realized what had been troubling him about the other two – besides the fact that they were clearly possessed.

It wasn’t that the power was familiar to him. He had never felt it before this, and he would pray he never felt it again if he didn’t already know better. Something monumental and terrible was happening, and the knowledge traced cold fingers down his spine in time with the pulsing anger he felt along his link to his allies.

This was something that was familiar to them, an enemy to be fought relentlessly, tooth and nail, a last scream of defiance in the dark where there was no prayer of victory to be had or any soul to hear it.

Even without that, he would have known this was something far more terrible than mere darkness incarnate. Plua was a very helpful mana, this was, “This is…” Something that did not belong here. An alchemist knew the powers of the world, of nature, and this was not something unnatural, there was no such thing as the unnatural or supernatural (what could be above nature, above the divine creation?), but this was something that did not belong here. That tainted, that reduced this world by its presence here.

Sulpher yowled, fur on end, fangs flashing, and leapt forward from Vayne’s side, summoning Eital to let him rip through the man’s aura, silver light dueling with a dark flame that somehow burned at not just the eyes but the mind. Vayne stumbled back, wide-eyed and not objecting to his mana ‘abandoning’ him. Roxis would have wondered when Sulpher had learned how to use Eital’s power so if he wasn’t well aware that cats kept secrets and there were far more important things to focus on.

Flay was only an instant behind: the mana of gold’s innate purity gave him power against demons and forces of the dark, and he used every one of his mechsword’s unique properties to drive the creature back, joy replaced with a rare and terrible focus.

Roxis had planned on using Vanitas’ gift for the rest of this dungeon, both because they possessed a great power to alter the flow of time and in order to avoid blurring the inscriptions on the cards Felt had forged, but if there was ever a time for a weapon that could handle demons, this was it. “Vayne, stay back!”

Obviously Sulpher knew something they didn’t: he was a cat. Normally, he protected Vayne by staying at his side, his very arm. He wouldn’t have left Vayne’s side without good reason, and for some reason the thought of that aura getting anywhere near Vayne, that creeping rust-darkness tarnishing his silver, was not to be borne.

Sulpher’s yowl was agreement, approval and most of all predatory fury as the stars themselves answered it by beginning to hurl down rays of that celestial light, the radiance of the next universe that shone through into this one.

There were some that said that cats were cursed creatures, because they disobeyed humanity, who had been given dominion over all the animals by God and therefore they were akin to the angel that had refused to serve mankind. There were others that said cats disobeyed humans so that humans would understand how God felt at their disobedience, yet always worked to defend them against the forces that prowled the night, spreading hunger, disease, and corruption to demonstrate what true love and loyalty were.

The ancient Egyptian alchemists had considered cats sacred: it was the Goddess of Cats who fought alongside the God of Fire to protect the Sun God from that which attacked at night, the Serpent of Darkness, A-

For a moment, his mind itself burned, and he grimaced not just in pain but in anger: not even his own pactmates, cards or mana, had the right to try to tell him what to think… and then the warning reached him.

Names have power. Do not even think that name.

The Serpent of Darkness, the Lover of Death: there were names aplenty for this. Names conveyed immortality, kept things that should be dead alive. Names could also weaken a creature, but that was an innovation of the Island of Destiny and Roxis was no bard, he wasn’t going to try to experiment with a third form of changing the nature of a thing, especially not now.

When… things came from the possessed man’s cloak to swarm those who swarmed him, Roxis grabbed Vayne, pulled him even further back, and shoved him behind a rock, then tried to figure out what to do next.

Tactically, he should wade in there, use his abilities to purify those things. However, if he went in there, Dour would try to shield him and those things might be able to affect Vayne through him if they sank their teeth into him.

It was probably quite selfish and cowardly of him to stay back and not suffer a danger the others were facing, but the other members of the workshop could handle themselves and Iris had handled this before. They were responsible for themselves and their own mana: Roxis was responsible for Dour and Vayne. Not to mention lost Vanitas, who was down here somewhere, and might already have been…

Speaking of which: “Vayne, I have a wish. I wish that I would forget the true name of the entity whose power that is.”

“You want to forget something?” Roxis, who hoarded knowledge like any dragon hoarded gold, who had still not quite forgiven Sulpher for tampering with his memories, wanted this?

He held his cards ready, just in case anything attempted to head this way. He was too busy watching to look at Vayne as he responded, “It wasn’t just the Egyptians. Greeks and their alchemists as well believed that fame was a form of immortality. As long as I know, you might find out through me, and that might even let it live within you. Just grant it.”

After Vayne’s power flowed through him, washing that poisonous knowledge away, he was able to breathe easier, but he could still feel his heart thudding in his chest, his mind scrambling for control as he fought down panic. “I never thought I’d envy Flay his berserker fury.” That sort of focused violence made it hard for the mind to be filled by darkness. Well, more darkness. Anna seemed to have her own, less… insane version (of course, knowing Anna…) and he tried to make a note to question her about it as though things were perfectly normal.

He really wanted to just stand here and wait for them to defeat ‘Crowley’ so this aura would go away, but the trouble with that? It would go away. Somewhere, deeper, closer to Vanitas. He could not let that happen. “I swear I am going to make both of you not just collars but leashes after this.” He used his left hand to reach for his other deck, keeping a close eye on the amount of power the enemy had left.

“What’s the plan?” Nikki had jumped back to ask him what he was up to, since the others were kind of busy. Jess had also taken cover, taken her cauldron out of her bag and started brewing up something fierce.

“Ask them to chip his power as low as they can, but not to finish him off. Can you get back here and cover Vayne for me after that?”

“Iris already asked us to do that. She doesn’t want him to get away again, but this isn’t like how he was before.” Nikki kept glancing over, keeping an eye on the situation. Wow, Sulpher was really good. So that was how a real cat fought, huh?

Somewhere within her, Norn’s blood went “Meow.”

“His power is darker?”

“No, before he was talking and he was a lot smarter. She thinks the thing that was in him left, but there’s still all that stuff left behind, like it’s still controlling him like the other two.”

“He was worse before?!” That was just…

Hadn’t Klein told him to stop complaining that the world wasn’t fair? “I might be able to do something.”

The ancient alchemists had used the power of elemental extraction, the way Iris did. If it was just a matter of removing left-over power, then, “If anyone defeats him, Iris should do it by trying to extract the elements from him. I’ll see if I have a card or something that can do the same thing.”

“To get that stuff out of him? That’s what Jess is working on. Well, she’s trying to make something to scrub all of that off him.” That smell was just ick. She wished she had an excuse to hang back… Oh, right, Roxis had just given her one. “I’ll let Flaya know!” She ran back in, using her hammer’s chain to sweep an area clean in front of her.

Vayne grabbed Roxis’ left hand, the one that held his deck. “You’re going, and you want me to stay here?”

“You have to stay here. You’re one of the great powers of this world, and unlike everyone else’s mana you’re young and vulnerable.” Dour might look like he was, might act that way because of whatever had sapped (what a terrible pun) his confidence, but Vayne was just a child. “Thatpower cannot be allowed to get its hands on you.”

“So you want me to just let you and everyone else fight while I stay safe?”

“Yes. I may have hated you when we first met, but there are far worse reasons to die. Not that it should come to that. I don’t want to die, after all.” And that was Vayne’s power.

“Roxis…”

“Please don’t say you aren’t worth it or that you don’t want others to suffer on your behalf or any of your usual rot. You know what? I don’t have time for this. I wish that you knew how I felt.” Vayne had more insulation from wishes than Vanitas did, but because of that he hadn’t learned the tricks for dealing with intense wishes Vanitas had, and Roxis knew what worked on Vanitas.

That familiar glow, and the subtle feeling of Vayne that ran through his mind and body now that they had pacted intensified, searching his heart as well as his desires.

There was a softness to it, like the fur of a kitten, but also a silvery-cool smoothness, like water but more, that soaked into him, soothing the burn of that reddark power. “Roxis,” Vayne said in a way that was half quiet amazement and half purr, wrapping his arms around him from behind. “You really do… Like Sulpher.” Human lips and nose nuzzled at his neck, but he titled his head to make room as easily as he did for Vanitas’ kitten form. They were one and the same, and what did form matter?

Nothing, next to that bright little childish happiness, that relief at being accepted that matched his own. He didn’t know when his eyes had drifted shut, but he reached a hand up to hold, to squeeze, one of the hands Vayne held him with. To be understood like this, it was…

…distracting enough he completely forgot about what he’d been about in the first place until Jess’ “Ha!” and the sound of a cauldron falling on top of someone and drenching both them and everyone in the surrounding area with one of Jess’ mysterious potions made him wince and realize that he should probably move just was the spray drenched him as well.

He automatically began to identify and catalogue ingredients. Lilywater, salt…

The less alchemisty parts of him grumbled that of course Vayne had been behind Roxis and mostly managed to avoid getting soaked with whatever this was.

He opened his eyes to see a very wet and very displeased Sulpher stalking towards Vayne. Roxis wisely got out of the way as Sulpher butted his head against Vayne’s pant leg, demanding to be dried, now.

His wish was granted, of course, and he was lifted up in Vayne’s arms, his mana serving him as a portable napping spot.

Roxis wondered why Sulpher couldn’t just sleep on Eital’s back as they walked along, it was much larger, not to mention warmer, but he wasn’t going to wake up a cat that was very pointedly asleep and making it clear that entire embarrassing and unpleasant experience of being drenched in some wet oily muck hadn’t happened.

Sulpher had just demonstrated how sharp his claws were, after all.

“Thanks, Sulpher,” murmured Vayne, seeming to wish that he had another hand to pet him with, so Roxis ended up obliging.

He’d be saying, ‘good cat,’ if that wasn’t something that got said to dogs and he didn’t like his blood where it was.

When he turned around, Iris had her arms wrapped around this Crowley person, who appeared to have no idea whatsoever where he was or why there was a young lady about a decade younger than him hugging him so enthusiastically. He patted her on the back distractedly, looking around for help or explanations. An explanation would clearly be very much appreciated.

Pamela was smiling cheerfully, Flay was cheering, “That’s the spirit, Iris! The heroine always gets her man! Hmm, is there a male version of damsel in distress?” Anna was waving around the white ziz-zag papers on a stick she’d been carrying when she’d tried to exorcise Pamela (Roxis would have would have been happy to assist, if not for the risk of expulsion), Nikki was trying to lick the potion off her arm and Jess was waiting for Iris to get out of her way so she could see if she had any excuse to try a couple more potions on him.

No, no help there.

As he watched Crowley realize this and thought back to his own first encounters with these lunatics, he felt the man’s pain. Roxis didn’t think he’d ever had so much sympathy for someone in his life.

Chapter Text

Explanations and commiserations were delayed by the appearance of a large flower.

All of them quieted down, their eyes drawn to the presence of an aspect of creation. Roxis wondered what a flower mana was doing here. He’d noticed that there were far fewer mana down here than one would expect and this was no common mana, one of the barely-existent ones given power to appear by Al Revis’ glyphs. Legends aside, normally the nymphs of individual trees, mountains, wildfires and streams (and other mana of that level) weren’t able to manifest even to an alchemist’s sight, let alone a normal human’s. It took a mana of something more powerful, more central, to gain enough power to think or manifest outside Al Revis. Here, however, sometimes you ran into weak mana rather often while gathering. Ones too weak to think, let alone pact with.

Fighting them, destroying their manifestations, had been incredibly frustrating for him before he met Dour. Mana, mana everywhere and not a one capable of pacting.

Something had to be done about the mana under the school. Even if they didn’t forgave alchemists, not in a thousand years, perhaps they would in two thousand.

Iris didn’t seem to be surprised by a mana appearing after an enemy had been defeated. She’d told them that was how she’d met hers. Crowley, however?

His eyes were filled with a longing all the more desperate for the despair that tainted it, the knowledge that this mana was not here for him, would never pact with him, but oh…

Roxis knew that look, that feeling had filled him often enough. Renee’s Azureflame mana, that burned with the light of far-off stars, Vayne’s Sulpher (even though it was really Vayne that was Sulpher’s) and so many others had filled him with that pain.

When he went home after graduation? He knew his father would be happy for him, yes, that had come through in his letters and his father wasn’t a man to resent the good fortune of others, but he knew he would see that longing there, no matter how quickly it would be suppressed behind his father’s pride in his son’s achievements and well-practiced poker smile. It was inevitable. What alchemist didn’t long to touch the universe’s heart, to have the love they felt for creation recognized and returned? What alchemist could refrain from envying another’s possession of a mana when they had none?

He remembered that ache.

The mana didn’t see Crowley’s expression, and it was better that way. He wasn’t the one she was here for, and was she to refrain from pacting with that person out of pity for him?

No: it was better to ignore the shame of those left behind. Better to let them watch, and see, and have hope that someday a mana would come for them, instead of pitying them and doing it out of their sight.

Still, the mana’s cheerful voice grated on Roxis.

“Wow, I’m impressed! No one’s made such good use of my power in I don’t know how long!” The flower floated over to… Jess? “My name’s Aroma, the Mana of Scent. Alchemists almost never use my element for anything but food, poisons, summoning more monsters, making perfumes to sell, you know. And you used it to free me! I really want to pact with you.”

“I’d love to!” After the pact was formed, Jess spun around, giddy as a child. “Yay, I caught another mana!”

“Caught?” Surely Iris hadn’t heard right? Jess must have meant ‘got.’

Crowley’s eyes closed, head bowing in defeat. He’d spent years trying to advance in the guild so that he could get access to more Alterworlds trying to find a mana, and then when he had thought he had finally found one it had taken his body, used him as a puppet and, to add insult to injury, allowed him to regain consciousness one of the very few times in he had no idea how many years to let him know that a mana, one of the last remaining free mana, had been sealed inside his own body.

So close to having a mana, to truly being able to revive alchemy, and yet so terribly far.

He’d known that it fed on his despair, enjoyed his pain, but he hadn’t been able to keep from giving it what it wanted, at that. Exactly what it wanted.

The taint was gone from his body: he had been freed, somehow, but even if he could find a mana now where he’d failed before, what mana would ever choose someone like him? Someone weak enough to be possessed? What sane mana would want to entwine itself with a soul that had been taken by something like that?

“What’s wrong?” the young lady asked him, concern in her gentle indigo eyes. She still hadn’t let go of him, thin but strong arms crushing his coat to his body, trying to hold him steady.

He knew that face and could guess at her name: he’d seen portraits of Fortners in countless books, and of course a black-haired daughter would have been named Iris. Had it used his body to get close to her? The heir of the Escalario?

What had it done, what had he done? “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” he finally forced himself to ask.

She shook her head, and he knew it was a lie: she was just trying to comfort him. “I’m alright,” she said, and he knew that was true.

It was at least some relief.

“My name’s Iris,” she introduced herself. “What about you? Are you alright?”

“I… don’t feel very well, no.” Queasy, woozy…

“I’m not surprised.” He looked up to see a blond young man, sharp-eyed and arrogant with it, walk forward to take a better look at him. “I’d say you look like you haven’t eaten in days. If that’s the kind of care it’s taking of the other two, then they might not last all that long even though it didn’t let us kill them.” He reached inside his coat, trying to find something useful.

“Here,” Iris said, offering him an elixir.

“That’s not food.” The young man reminded her. “While distilled healing power is helpful, real food is necessary for the proper functioning of the body. Let’s see, I have a cheesecake…”

“You and your sweets: What a man needs is steak!” A boisterous red-headed Raider almost shoved one in his face.

“We should probably get him to the infirmary,” a beastgirl suggested. “Ms. Melanie’s a little weird, but this is her specialty, you know?” She got a lot of practice. Students kept finding inventive ways to get themselves killed.

“We should, but the question is how. Neither he nor Iris have Wings of Icarus, and they’re keyed to individual students to make sure we don’t lose them.” They couldn’t be taken more than a couple feet away from the student’s body, which was the radius they needed to be in so that they could take effect instantly upon serious, life-threatening injury. The window between ‘nearly dead’ and ‘all dead’ was sometimes a very small one, and so that their companions had a window to revive them in, students were only transported to the infirmary with a few seconds to spare.

“I can take them,” another young man offered from behind the blond.

“I’m not certain he could handle the walk up – oh, right.” The blond rolled his eyes, chastising himself for his foolishness.

“We can ride Diemia up,” Iris suggested.

“No, you’d need someone to guide you since you don’t know where the infirmary is, and if Vayne does it then he can just teleport you there.”

“Really?” Iris asked. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” The silver-haired young man, Vayne, answered. “So I’ll drop them up and then come back down here?”

“…No.”

“But Roxis…”

“Vayne, that power is… something that corrupts. I’m worried enough that Vanitas is down here: I’d be happier if you went back to campus and stayed there until we returned. Given what we’ve found down here… It might be a good idea to tell Ms. Isolde about this.” As much as he clearly didn’t want to admit it.

“Ms. Isolde? Why?”

“Because she is in charge of defending the campus against unconventional threats.” And hopefully her vendetta against Vayne would take second place to that. She hadn’t moved since Vanitas had given her that little gift, perhaps because in this form Theofratus made quite a good hostage. If his crimes were revealed, which Isolde definitely didn’t want, he’d be killed, and Vayne and Vanitas were the only ones who could return him to normal, as far as he knew. “We don’t know why the… why Iris’ enemy made its way here, but it’s fairly certain it’s not to help our school or its students. She might know what’s going on.”

“What about Madame?” the redhead inquired.

“She’d come down here, make us leave and forbid us from coming back until it’s all settled. I can’t just sit around while my mana’s in danger.”

“Worried about the safety of your eternal rival, eh? Good for you, Roxis!”

Roxis got huffy at that. “He’s not just my rival, he’s my mana.My responsibility.”

“Are you sure you guys will be okay?”

The redhead laughed off Vayne’s concerns. “Never fear, I’ll handle things here! You just take care of things topside.”

“It will be easier to fight if we don’t have to split our concentration to guard you and an injured man,” a young girl who couldn’t be more than twelve agreed.

 “Alright.” Vayne walked over to the two of them, carrying a cat. “Are you ready?”

“Wait. How much further?”

“The place I’m not sure about is just a few more floors. The other place is deeper. Are you sure you don’t want me to come back, Roxis?”

“Wonderful,” Roxis said sarcastically. “And yes, I’m sure. This is Vanitas’ turn to do something stupid and put the two of you at risk: you’d better wait a week at least before taking yours.”

“Sure, Roxis.” Vayne smiled. “Alright, here goes!”

Silver light engulfed all three of them, and when it cleared he was on an infirmary bed, Iris still clinging to his chest, with Vayne standing beside it and getting out of the way of a very shapely nurse, heading to the door before she could ask him any questions about why people had arrived while still conscious, let alone people who weren’t students.

“I’ll see you guys later.” He waved goodbye, Sulpher jumping up onto his shoulder, before starting to head towards Ms. Isolde’s office, shutting the door behind him.

“What do you think, Sulpher?”

“Mrow?” About what?

“About telling Ms. Isolde.”

Sulpher just stretched a bit, which was as good as a shrug.

“Do you think she’ll try to do anything to us? Or… Roxis.” He personally wasn’t very worried about Ms. Isolde and what she could do. He was a mana, and she’d needed to use his own power in order to do something to him even before Vanitas had figured out all that about people’s feelings.

At first, he’d felt weird about talking to Vanitas. It was only partially guilt, really. Sulpher was the one who was sort of responsible for their split in the first place, and neither of them blamed Sulpher, but Vayne had felt guilty that he was the one who had been allowed to be ‘out’ and with Sulpher. Like he was the one Sulpher liked better. So it was fair that Roxis liked Vanitas better. Especially since Vanitas liked Roxis better. Not that Vayne didn’t like Roxis or Vanitas didn’t like Sulpher. Maybe they were the pieces that fit better with each of them? The way they were dividing themselves up felt very natural, but how natural it was felt weird to him sometimes. Like it shouldn’t be natural, or shouldn’t work that way, or be this easy, so it would almost be reassuring if there were small problems with it, since that would mean there wouldn’t be big ones?

Big ones like what Vanitas had revealed about what Theofratus had made them for, and that they, or at least he, had to obey Theofratus.

Vanitas had asked if he wanted there to be problems with it, and he’d said of course not, and Vanitas had said that was why there weren’t problems. It still felt…

Like this. The feeling that was them and not them: he was beginning to wonder if there was a third piece of them and it was one more secret that Vanitas hadn’t shared with him. Vanitas probably had a good reason, though. It had worked out ok the last time, hadn’t it? He wanted to help Vanitas, so therefore if Vanitas wasn’t telling him that had to be because it was helping them. Unless…

Wishes didn’t really fix everything: things could still be confusing and secrets could still be necessary, but he probably shouldn’t overthink it or worry too much about it. If it wasn’t being solved right now, then there was probably a good reason it wasn’t.

Thinking about things like this the way everyone did was hard. Vanitas still didn’t get that it was, and it was important that Vanitas not see it that way.

“I don’t want anything to happen to Roxis,” Vayne added.

Then he’ll be fine. Sulpher yawned. That’s probably why Vanitas left, just the way you did. Having two of you is convenient, but sometimes it means you have to do the same thing twice.

“Roxis said something about taking turns.” That it had been Vayne’s turn and now was Vanitas’ to do something like this.

Yes. It was very irritating, but you didn’t hand yourself over to Isolde just because you wanted to be irritating. You thought that your presence was hurting all of them. You couldn’t stay here unless you knew that they could take care of themselves, and that they wanted you here strongly enough that they didn’t care about the danger. That wasn’t why Vanitas went along with you: he only did because it was what you wanted. So he didn’t learn exactly what you did. Sulpher washed his paw regally in the direction of the Campus Grounds cat as they passed through.

“It wasn’t a test, I really was trying to… Wait. Roxis said something about things I couldn’t handle for him with wishes.” Or had he said it to Vanitas? “About being the strongest. That it’s a good thing if there are people that are stronger than you, that can do things you can’t to solve problems you can’t, because it means that if there’s something you can’t handle, then they can handle it. If everyone were in danger because of me, it would have to be something I couldn’t handle, because if it was I’d never let it threaten them. So, if he could get me back from Ms. Isolde, or Vanitas back from down there, that would be like… beating us. Like he’s stronger than us. And that would mean that he’s safe.” Right? Right.

He didn’t breathe a little easier at the thought, his human body wasn’t quite that accurate, but the relief. The lessening of the strength of the not-want of Roxis getting hurt (because it didn’t need to be that strong) was a cool sort of feeling, a smooth slide that felt like things going right, like slipping his hand into a stream to scoop out a fish.

So once he hauled you back you didn’t just try it again. You didn’t need to anymore, and since Vanitas is the same as you hopefully he won’t either. Sulpher was missing his afternoon nap for this.

The things he did for these kittens…

Chapter Text

“You know,” Roxis mused as they walked along, “I wonder. There’s a mana of song and sound, smell and taste are almost the same thing, but which mana governs sight? The logical choice would be the mana of light, but Eital said that it wasn’t her domain.”

“Isn’t that obvious?” Anna asked, surprised Roxis wouldn’t know something like that. “My mana governs the sense of sight.”

“I’m not talking about illusions or dreams, I’m talking about the perception of reality.”

“Well, what do you think this reality we humans perceive is? This world is an illusion,” Anna said, as though it was something she’d learned at her mother’s knee.

“Maybe the world you perceive,” Roxis muttered under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, nothing at all,” he quickly assured the young swordswoman.

Anna gave him a look, and would have considered trying out the wonderful sword the other Vayne had given her in the last batch of chests on him for that insult, but right then Pamela popped up right behind Roxis to announce that she’d found the next enemy.

“Aww, it’s so cute!”

Yes, even if Pamela hadn’t taken vengeance for her, Anna would have put it on hold after hearing that. Sometimes, Pamela’s idea of cute had a lot in common with Flay’s idea of a good fight.

The monster took the form of a large lump of flesh, with lots of eyes, on spindly legs. It had the same sort of evil aura as their previous opponents, except far milder than the last one. Still, there was something disturbing about it. “So, what’s the plan?” she asked Flay.

She should have known better.

“Wait.” Roxis realized saying that was futile at the same time Anna realized she shouldn’t have asked. He sighed. “Anna, would you mind asking him not to finish it off? You too, Nikki.”

“Gotcha.” The beastgirl wrinkled her nose. “Jess, can you make another batch of that stuff?”

“On it!” Jess really liked her new shopping basket: it was really sort of cute, and the padded edges made it a lot easier on her hands to brace herself as she pulled things out. It was just what she’d wanted!

It was sort of strange to fight without Vayne, Anna thought. The familiar rhythm of battle felt slightly off, less polished than normal. It wasn’t just that Vayne was a very talented swordsman. Pamela’s… friend could give them some information on the enemy, but it wasn’t what Roxis seemed to want. He was frowning at it in that way of his, as though the universe was going out of its way to irritate him and had better knock it off. Or was it the universe? “This can’t be Vayne, can it?” Oh no! “What if it already possessed the other Vayne and did that to him?!” Could they be fighting their friend?

“This isn’t Vanitas,” Roxis said firmly as he cast more seeds on the crystalline ground. “Jess, hurry up with that concoction of yours.”

“Almost done!” Normally she didn’t bother messing around with ether levels, but this wasn’t the exact same thing.

Well, Anna thought, maybe it was a good sign that Jess was concentrating on something besides a bomb for once? Still, “How are we going to keep it from escaping?” Anna wondered. Iris had grabbed ahold of Mr. Crowley to keep him from being dragged away, but she didn’t think you could hold on to this monster very well without blinding it in at least one eye.

“I think I can manage that, just as soon as Jess removes the other influence.” Roxis put two cards on the ground, one from the deck the smith he’d summoned had made, and the other one of his playing cards. Honestly, she was the youngest person in the workshop, and she was the only one who wasn’t interested in that game. Of course, she had a lot of reasons to doubt the maturity of the others. She’d thought better of Vayne, but on the other hand, if it wasn’t just a game then she should learn it. Vayne had made a good point, about learning alchemy to make her own future sword-style.

 “I’m ready! I just need some room!”

Flay laughed, striking a pose in his new armor. ‘For the strongest gangster,’ indeed! So the other Vayne already knew his intentions? “Force him back? Never fear, nothing can stop this drill!”

While the corrupted mana was still stunned, Jess used the power of the wind mana to send the cauldron flying up into the air, drenching the mana with her latest potion.

The sensation of something burning at the world went away.

What replaced it was worse.

“Spellbinding circle!” she heard Roxis call before sound as well was lost in the swirling chaos. In the memory of that time, when she’d lost sight of reality and woke up standing over…

For once, Anna wasn’t the only one lost in a terrifying vision.

The mana of the most terrible element in the world, the being that foretold the end of that world had mustered its power to protect itself.

“Your nature is pain, and Pain I name you. By the pact we already share I command you.” The circle and Solomon’s glyphs protected Roxis. “Take the form I desire,” was his first order, because now that he was getting a closer look, this mana wasn’t just red-black from that terrible aura. This was raw flesh, barely healed wounds, and this close the pain of them echoed along their bond.

 “There now,” he murmured, stroking the tiny thing’s back with a single finger, ignoring the claws and teeth that dug into the hand he cupped it in. Normally, he would have been gritting his teeth, cursing, and/or shaking his arm to try to get the damn thing off.

Yet this pain grounded him, rendering his mind clear somehow. Was it that the pain connected him to this small, pained creature? Kept him awake enough to remember not to use baby talk in front of the others? “There, it’s alright, you see?” If he’d been thinking less clearly, he would have said, ‘I won’t hurt you,’ but this was the Mana of Pain. It knew very well that a human being could not interact with another without hurting them. That pain was an inevitable part of mortal life.

The burning agony in his hand, the blood that dripped to the ground: they were all perfectly normal, nothing to make a fuss over, and that knowledge ached.

It made him want to change reality so that it was not so, and yet he could not. Pain was a guide: it told people when something was wrong. Should he alter the world to remove the thing that told people when they were bleeding to death so they could bandage a wound, starving so that they could feed, going insane from loneliness so they could seek companionship? Should he have removed his own sense of failure, that had told him that he still believed that he could do better than this, that he could still enter Al Revis and become an alchemist if he strived?

No, he could not, he must not, so all he could do was watch this small little thing, this child of the world’s ills, suffer. Wounds cutting across its scarred skin even sheltered in the palm of his hand. Fur that would otherwise have been silver red-black with old blood that kept renewing itself.

Who would create a mana like this? Being wounded to the quick but never dying as long as it continued to be wounded, because every wound was a death averted? Every pain proof that it yet lived?

Pain sounded a warning that things were not right as they were, the impetus for a wish that the pain stop, that things become better, and the power of its mana ignited that wish in his heart. But for that wish to be grated, for all pain to stop, this mana must die, and all of creation would soon follow. Its pain would never stop until it died, and how could it know joy if it was dead and gone?

“It’s alright, my brave little one. It’s alright.” I won’t throw you away. I won’t reject you, I won’t give up on you. “Poor, brave little one.” Suffering allowed survival. This mana suffered so that everyone else would. So that everyone else would live. “There is no nobler thing than what you do.” No greater sacrifice, no greater love.

This little one had felt it every time he had been wounded in battle, and it made him promise himself that he would take better care in future. This little one had felt it when he cursed himself, wondered if he was a weak fool who would amount to nothing despite his father’s faith. This little one had felt it when he’d been wounded by Vayne’s words.

Pain shared was pain halved. Joy shared was joy doubled. Everyone’s pain was shared with this mana, who bore it along with them, shared that burden, and that made him happy. This proof, here in his hands, that humanity’s pain mattered.

Perhaps the question wasn’t who would create a mana of pain, but what uncaring universe wouldn’t have one?

One that wouldn’t have an avatar of humanity’s hopes and dreams?

“It’s alright,” he assured the little creature. “It’s alright. I don’t mind.” He reached inside his coat for an X-heal, wet his fingers in it and began to try to smooth down the kitten’s matted fur. His fingers became even more streaked with blood, and he felt a quick sting, like a papercut, as one of those phantom wounds appeared on his hand instead of the mana’s flesh. The blood that trickled into the wound burned, the feeling simultaneously countered by the medicine, wounding and healing taking place in the same instant. He ignored it.

The kitten tensed in his hand, mewling as it didn’t when it was wounded. Was the cessation of pain, even temporarily, such a strange sensation to the creature that it was painful in and of itself? “Perhaps the lack of pain, the lack of your element is painful to you? I’m sorry, little one.” But he didn’t want to stop trying to soothe it, at least.

The kitten shook its head a bit, sharp tiny little teeth still buried in his left thumb, as it shivered and shifted its claws, finally pushing up into his hand as it tentatively decided that it liked the feeling. “No proper cat likes a bath: I won’t blame you for biting or scratching,” he told it as he poured more of the x-heal on his hands, trying to clean the matted blood from its fur even though he somehow knew that the stains would remain. Well, there was a difference between stains and matted tangles that must pull painfully at delicate, half-healed skin every time the kitten tried to move.

“You are the world’s pain, but it doesn’t have to be your pain, just like Vanitas and Vayne are the world’s wishes but those wishes aren’t necessarily their own. You feel like you’re starving, don’t you little one? I have some milk, and there’s fish if you’re old enough to eat it.” Well, this mana was centuries old, but looked so young. “You are starvation, but you don’t have to be starving. You are wounds, but you shouldn’t have to be wounded. You are loneliness, but you don’t have to be lonely. You’re with all of us, you know. Why don’t you stay, with me and with the other two of you? There’s Dour as well, and the rest of them.” Humans and mana.

It hissed: Vayne and Vanitas might have pacted with him, but Pain hadn’t consented to this. Roxis was just going to hurt it, like everyone else. He’d stop being so nice the instant he got what he wanted.

“You have the right to test me. What would satisfy you? What would prove my intentions?” He kept working, rubbing gently behind ears that had been bitten and torn. “To hurt you would be to hurt myself, if we were pacted, and I’m not a masochist.”

Even that was enough of a caress to make it start to purr, slightly and quietly, stopping almost right away in confusion. What was this? This wasn’t…

If it were to open the sort of link Mull had forced on them, then it would know what this human was planning, and it could hurt the human, make it feel the pain it would feel at the betrayal, at the false promises, at the destruction of the hope these words and touches had given it.

“Is that what you want? To know my heart?” Well, that was easy enough. Roxis had already pulled the shadows near to use Spellbinding Circle.

Roxis didn’t expect his trap to dissolve, or for the kitten to leap at him, claws and teeth easily tearing through the new armor.

He should have, he realized as he fell back. No traps, no defenses: that was what he had offered, so those were the rules he had made. If he were to try to defend himself, then he would have lied to Pain. He would be cheating, he would be betraying this mana who was his and not his, and he would suffer the penalty.

So he screamed, back arching off the ground, hands clawing at it, but didn’t do anything else, not as tears of agony gathered in the corner of his eyes. This wasn’t real, he told himself as the first of his ribs broke. He had to bear this, or else it would be real.

He’d offered the mana a place in his heart, and this was a test to see if he had spoken truly.

It was a human hand that pulled the bit of rib out, human except for the claws that cut at his chest to make room. He cried out as Pain finally forced his arm into Roxis’ chest, grabbing hold of his beating heart, and he had never felt so sure that he was going to die, trapped in an animal panic that finally forced him up, made him struggle even though he knew this would just kill him quicker.

Made him grasp at Pain, lips soundlessly (was this how Jess felt when she couldn’t breathe?) begging red eyes to stop, it hurt, it hurt and he was going to die, he couldn’t die, not after all this, not when there was ao much left to do, not when Vanitas would blame himself and drag Vayne down with him, not when Pain would be left alone to yowl in the dark, trying to hide away to lick wounds that would never truly heal that way, not when there were so many waiting for him, waiting for an alchemist to heal their own wounds.

Or that was what he wanted to be thinking of, but if that was all it was then he would have been able to pass the test, he would have been able to endure until Pain was safely nestled in his soul. So cowardly of him, to throw everything away at the threat of death. How ironic that it would kill him. Or worse than kill him: this was his soul draining away here, not mere blood. He would fade away, lost here for eternity, and he didn’t want that.

It hurt, it hurt, and why was the mana doing this to him when he’d just wanted to help? No, it was his fault that he wasn’t worthy, that he was too weak to bear this.

His head thumped down onto the other other Vayne’s chest, a strangled whimper escaping him as everything began to become that terrible gray. So that really was what death was like.

Or what death would be like here, at least.

Even this agony was better than that terrible gray.

And then it stopped. The mana disappeared, and he collapsed onto his hands and knees.

Everything snapped back to normal so fast that his first thought was that he really was dead: he noticed that the pain had stopped before he calmed down enough to realize there was still color to the world, even if most of it was the darkness that swirled around him here.

He could feel the mana, he realized after another few deep breaths. Curled up in that knot of failure, tangled up in the resentment of those who insulted his father or were given undeserved good fortune. The hurt he’d felt when first Vayne and then Vanitas didn’t trust him to help them, had walled him off and left to get themselves killed without thinking of how he would feel.

He could feel the mana flexing, turning around the way a cat did as it settled, grasping hold of his inner wounds. For a moment, they were soothed as well, until it sensed his panic at the thought.

Without those inner pains, how could anyone possess compassion? Compassion, sympathy, empathy: all of them were feeling someone else’s pain, and how could anyone do that if they didn’t know what pain felt like?

Still, it touched him, knowing his inner pain as Vanitas knew his heart’s desires, and that feeling of being truly known was something that eased the pain of loneliness that was the human condition. No two humans could ever truly understand everything about each other: all they could do was act with love and compassion, trying their hardest and accepting that they would need to work at it. Work at reaching for what Pain and Vanitas could do far more easily than they breathed.

He could still feel that tight grip around his heart, but now it didn’t hurt. For now. Pain held him in the palm of his hand, knew all of Roxis’ weak points, his secret shames, the words that would make him shatter. The broken, hidden places that everyone had: Pain had made himself at home there just as Vanitas lived in Roxis’ dreams and Dour had taken root in his desire to do alchemy for the sake of it, to heal and grow.  

No: Pain could tear him apart so very easily, and instead held him, soothed him, as Roxis had wished to do for the mana. He lay down on the ground, mentally exhausted.

You promised,” he heard, and it was only half threat as he reached up to his chest, cupping his hand over his heart to receive the manifestation of the mana he was now fully bound to. He tucked the small creature against his neck. No, not small, the world’s pain was no small thing, but it still needed to be soothed. Even if alchemists could not cure every ill they still needed to try.

“Yes, I did.” He had sworn it to himself years ago, and along with the other students at the entrance ceremony. “But there is… your half of the bargain.”

The flash of hurt the mana felt was conveyed to him: he felt it as his own.

“Vanitas, your other self, I hurt him. I phrased something stupidly, and he’s hiding down here, afraid that I’ll hate him, ashamed of what he is. Can you ease his pain, let him know that I don’t hate him for what he is? You could let him feel my pain, if that will make him come home.” His fear for his mana, so young and ignorant even if he was more than six years of age. “I’m sorry that I made him hurt like this.” What Vanitas must be feeling made him ache, and he realized that he was feeling Vanitas’ pain now. It wasn’t quite the same as what he had imagined, but at least he had enough understanding of his mana to be close? He wanted Vanitas to come back.

“Roxis…” His silver mana was there now, curled around him and reaching within him just as Pain was. “I’m sorry.”

“No” He let his eyes close, so tired. “I should have thought first. Are you alright? It didn’t find you?”

“I’m sorry I made you come someplace so dangerous.”

“You didn’t make me come anywhere. I came because I was worried about you and felt responsible. You are my mana. Well, yes, you should have known that I would come. Still, it turned out… for the best. You don’t have any other missing pieces, do you?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t even know about this one. Should I make him go away?” Vanitas would be lashing his tail and growling if he were in a more animal form.

“After all that effort on my part to make him stay with us? Don’t be silly.”

“You nearly died. You still feel so hollow.” That bright spirit, all those hopes and dreams that belonged to Vanitas, had nearly gone out. Vanitas realized that he was angry, incredibly angry with himself, and not just Pain-self. He had left Roxis alone. Instead of trying to keep Roxis he’d just ran, and he might have lost him.

“It’s a good thing I have all of you, then. That was part of it, I think. I promised that I was going to give Pain a place in my heart, so I wouldn’t see him as a tool or an abomination I wanted to get rid of. So I had to put my spirit where my mouth was.” Roxis’ mouth quirked upward at the irony of it all. “The shadow trial was making a hole that only he could fill. Or it was already there, really. We all have missing pieces and need other people to share theirs with us, it’s the human condition. He’s one of your missing pieces. Like Vayne, except Vayne’s not missing. Or at least he’s not the one missing this time. Hopefully you should all start feeling better now.” He patted Vanitas’ hand. “And if you’re all a bit more stable, then I won’t have to keep running all over the place and getting myself killed, so it’s all for the best.”

He managed to open his eyes. “Silver and tarnished silver… Is Vayne the one who’s supposed to do all the polishing? Silver spoon indeed… I think I’m a bit delirious.”

“Should I take you to the infirmary?”

“I don’t like that woman. She reminds me too much of Pamela. No, I want my own bed. And my own kitten, Sulpher and his insufferable other mana, you and Vayne and the new one and Dour, so I can see that you’re all alright. And I want someone else to tell Flay that I got what I came for and am going home: if he wants to press on than it’s his funeral. I want to go home.”

“I can take you home.” Vanitas could feel how much Roxis missed the estate, even if he’d been spending months at a time away from it long before coming to Al Revis.

“No. This needs to get sorted out, and I am not going back without my diploma.” He’d made a promise to himself.

“If that’s what you wish,” it will be granted, and it was.

Vanitas stayed in human form, sleeping half on top of Roxis. The other wasn’t used to taking human form, and didn’t look quite like them, even ignoring the different colors. His hair was longer, for one thing. Vanitas wanted to hiss at him, but Roxis wanted peace and quiet.

Roxis was his, though, and while Vayne wasn’t a problem this other self might have killed Roxis, which might have taken him away forever. Vanitas wanted a way to anchor him to this world, so he could never be taken away. There was a way to do that, he knew. Theofratus had found one, and Vayne was learning to be an alchemist. If Roxis could make one, that would allow him to stay bound to this world beyond death, and if he could make one for Roxis…

Chapter Text

“The nerve of that…” Isolde muttered to herself (and theoretically to the kitten on her desk, but Theofratus was playing with a ball of yarn she’d synthesized with catnip as an ingredient) yet again. An unholy sorcerer sending That Mana to tell her about dark influence under the school? “Well, they’ve got courage, I’ll give them that.” The description hadn’t rung any bells, so she’d agreed to wait a day to tell the other teachers so Roxis could rescue that blasted Vain. That was the name Theofratus had truly given him/them, after all.

It was the next day, but she was going to wait the full twenty-four hours. If there was a threat down there (and neither of Vain had the sense to lie, as far as she could tell), then maybe they’d even kill each other off?

She knew that was being too optimistic, but still.

No one had dared knock on her door since this morning, and Tony had quickly decided that whatever he’d come to ask her about wasn’t worth it. “Come in,” she had to say, because it was office hours.

The instant this was over, she was going on sabbatical.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Ms. Isolde, but Roxis is sick.” Vayne’s words came out in a rush. “I tried all the medicines, even what he used on Sulpher, and then I had to derive an antidote,” because Roxis had ended up six years old and still sick, “and he still won’t wake up.”

She raised an eyebrow at him coldly. “…And what do you expect me to do about it?” Besides maybe celebrate? “We have an infirmary for a reason, you know, and you’re the one with the power to bring back the dead. Why don’t you try cutting his throat?”

“Ms. Isolde!” How could she say something like that?

“Well, why not?” Vayne seemed lost somehow, and vulnerable. There was something off about his appearance, and not just that he was a mana that looked so convincingly human or that he rarely panicked. He’d had an edge of this desperation when Sulpher had been ill. Or old, rather.

“I don’t want to... hurt him anymore,” was the boy’s answer. No, the mana’s. “This happened because of me, well, because of the other mes, but it was my fault he died last time!”

“And he brought himself back.” After her secret technique that no one had seen and lived to tell about it. “Why don’t you just wish?”

“What if I make the wrong wish?! This is… it’s complicated, and you’re the one on campus who knows the most about these things besides Roxis, and he won’t wake up! Please, Ms. Isolde! I want to save him, if you help I’ll give you anything you want that I can, as long as it doesn’t hurt Roxis. Hurting me would hurt him, though,” he added, even though he must have wanted to give her what she wanted. “So I can’t promise you that. But… Please, Ms. Isolde!”

She paused. “…Information. I want you to promise to tell me everything you know about Roxis’ powers and your own.” A tool that could be used to hurt him: would he grant it.

“That’s fine, just, please! Hurry!” Vayne grabbed her arm and practically dragged her out of her office. She was so shocked that she permitted the liberty for a few yards, eyes wide, before yanking her arm back and running after him.

When they reached the boys’ dorms, she realized what had struck her as odd about Vayne: Sulpher hadn’t been with him. Roxis had been left tucked up against the Mana of Light for warmth, or maybe in hopes it would burn any dark influences out of him (too late for that) with Sulpher curled up next to him and Roxis’ half-grown pet cat (ordinary, as far as she knew) curled up next to what was probably his knees. Hard to tell, the way the blankets had been shoved into a sort of lump around him. Maybe Vayne couldn’t give other mana the ability to manifest away from their pactholders?

Or maybe, from the way Vayne had knelt on the bed and started fussing over the arrangement, he’d asked Sulpher to stay to watch over Roxis. “Where’s the other one? We don’t have any information on pacts with artificial mana, but if he’s been destroyed, that might have been too much of a shock for your friend.” So sad.

“He’s…” Vayne looked down at the floor, then the dresser, then the ceiling.

Isolde’s eyes widened again and she stared at the little silver kitten practically bouncing off the walls in pure panic.

“…Not handling this well,” Vayne finished.

“Well, that’s an understatement. Did you try making any wishes?”

“I didn’t. Vanitas…”

There was a long stream of meows from the little silver kitten. Fear for a loved one came through even though Isolde didn’t speak Cat.

“I thought we agreed you weren’t going to try any more wishes until I got back!” Vayne scolded, worried, then took a deep breath. “Vanitas tried wishing for him to wake up, first, since it was almost time for class and Roxis never misses class, but he just glared and went back to sleep. He tried it again, and the same thing happened. Oh, this was after I’d tried to wake him up by saying his name, shaking him, I even poured a heal jar over him.” He’d seen Roxis splash his face with cold water to wake up. “I tried a cure jar, too, and we looked around the room in case any monsters had crept in and were putting him back to sleep, and Vanitas wished for him to be well and nothing happened. Pain said he wasn’t hurting anywhere, but this isn’t normal!” Vayne was sure of it, even though his main experience with normal was through Roxis.

“Pain?”

“Oh he’s… there, by Sulpher.” Sulpher and a little black kitten she hadn’t seen against his fur blinked at her.

“Another one of you?”

“He’s from another piece of what Father used to make us. He was under the school, and whatever it was had a hold of him. Jess used her potion to exorcise him, and he was already sort of pacted to Roxis because we are. Now he’s pacted to Roxis too, but he was afraid Roxis was going to use him like the last alchemist he met did, so Roxis used a shadow game to prove he wasn’t and Pain hurt him during it. So he had Vanitas bring him back here so he could rest.” Vanitas had climbed up on Roxis now and was licking his face. “Vanitas said Roxis said that he thought he was a little delirious then.”

“A… shadow game?”

“A trial. It tests your soul, Roxis knows more about it than I do. This one was to prove that Roxis wouldn’t hurt him.”

The other kitten glowed, redblack instead of silver, and another teenage boy sat on the bed next to Vayne. “That wasn’t it at all. He was offering to share my pain, feel it with me, so that I could tell the difference between it and the world’s pain, the way you have two selves so that you can tell the difference between your wishes and the world’s wishes.”

This Vayne had longer hair and a slightly different face shape in addition to the different hair and eye colors. Vayne had a vague resemblance to Theofratus and… now that she thought about it, there was something else sort of familiar about Vayne’s face.

“So that place had us… act it out. To see if he would suffer for my sake without hating me. He passed, or I would have killed him. He thought he failed, I think, because he wanted the pain to stop, but that’s what pain’s for. Only a madman wouldn’t have wanted that to stop. Doing that… made a place for me, or made him make a place for me, so he could bear it without going mad. The other alchemist who tried to make a pact with us started to go mad just from a small thread of connection to us.”

“You hurt him!” Vanitas snarled, flashing into human form and trying to shove Pain off the bed.

“That’s what I am, and he didn’t mind! You hurt him too, I can feel all of it!” Pain snarled, daring Vanitas to try to make him go away from the one who had accepted him, taken him in to protect him.

“Stop arguing!” Vayne shouted, and another flash of silver light threw them away from each other. Vayne was breathing hard, fists clenched, as angry as he’d been at Vanitas when he’d revealed Theofratus’ orders. “This isn’t helping!”

The mana of light’s wolfish grin was replaced by a disappointed expression. Aww, no catfight?

As fascinating (and useful, to know that there was a Vayne who couldn’t protect himself just by wishing) as this was, childish bickering was one of those things that just grew more and more irritating the more you were exposed to it, and Isolde was a teacher. “Alright, make some room. I’ll start with the normal tests.”

“I already tried a heal jar,” Vayne reminded her as she pulled one out.

“There’s a standard operating procedure for this for a reason. You’re the one that dragged me here, so just be quiet and let me work. At the minimum, this should help me figure out what the problem isn’t. All of you, see if you can think of anything helpful, alright? I’ll have more questions for you after I’m done.” And then she’d have lots of questions. This new one would be the key to destroying them, she just knew it.

“Heal jar.” Pour. “Cure jar.” Pour. “Nectar.” There was no response to any of them, so she reached into her coat to pull out Idiot Diagnosis Emergency Kit #1, as Melanie had dubbed it. A bundle of tiny break-proof glass bulbs, labeled, corked shut and tied together with a white cord. The white was for the sort of problems students got themselves into and didn’t know how to check for themselves. Professors and graduate workshop members generally got themselves into more interesting ones, and there were different color strings for increasingly rare and complicated problems.

“Alright. Most traveling or healing-specialist alchemists end up putting together kits like this. They’re potions that detect certain conditions and change color,” she found herself lecturing. Well, it helped her think, and she was probably going to need to explain this one’s reaction. “This one detects inborn conditions, like your friend Jess’. Regular healing potions don’t help with those, since they restore the body to how it should be and this is a problem with how the body thinks it should be.” The potion turned a light blue, as expected, and Vayne gasped. “That color means he has an inherent condition, but it’s not life threatening.”

“What is it?” Vanitas asked, moving forward to lean over Eital and watch her work.

“Can’t you guess… nevermind. He wears glasses. Most cases of blindness used to be caused by disease: in fact, there was a single disease that was responsible for a full half of all childhood blindness.” A preventative for it was in the batches alchemists were trying to get to children all throughout Europe. “But if he’s wearing glasses, that means he has an inborn condition. Alright, next.”

Nope. “The liquid remained clear, that’s a negative.” Roxis was of hardy central European stock, too. Unlike their students from the rest of the world, Vayne would have noticed him drinking enough to put him down like this. Cure jars didn’t do anything for alcohol because it was a natural part of the body, as students often found out rather unpleasantly when they tried to concoct potions to counter drunkenness or cure hangovers. The only safe thing to do was drink heal jars and wait it out. While it was possible to drain all alcohol from the body, and students were foolish enough to ignore the wisdom of their seniors and try it fairly regularly, that generally resulted in an instant trip to the infirmary.

The third one was a better possibility. “There are some herbalist drugs that students sometimes take, and I’ve heard that your friend Jess has experimented with enhancement potions.” No, no reaction, not even the minor one that indicated the use of safe, food-derived enhancements, the ones that brought out the nutritive power of dishes. They must have worn off already.

The next one was, “Demonic taint or possession…” Nothing?

“Roxis doesn’t have anything to do with demons,” said Vanitas, glaring slightly.

“I was possessed, maybe that’s it?” Pain touched the wetness remaining on Roxis’ cheek: no reaction.

“Jess used her medicine on you before Roxis tried to pact with you, didn’t she?” Vayne recalled.

“A medicine for demonic possession?”

“Didn’t I tell you about that? She used it on Crowley.”

“That’s a very advanced synthesis for a student.” If it weren’t for Jess’ lack of discipline, Isolde would have given her a closer look. Maybe Professor Zeppel deserved her?

Well, on to the next one. “Pregnancy.” Not very likely, in this case, but it was the next one in line.

“Can’t only women get pregnant? That’s what Nikki said.” Had one of his friends taken it upon herself to give him The Talk?

“You’d be surprised. Actually, I believe that the recipe originated in ancient Egypt.” Wouldn’t that be ironic?  

It did have quite a fewlegitimate medical applications, and was also used for emotional reasons. Not to mention geopolitical. The recipe could be used to allow anyone to have a child, despite any inborn conditions, even old age or menopause, making conception difficult. It was a godsend for barren women, who would otherwise have their marriages annulled, and had likely prevented quite a few wars.

Despite that, a century and a half ago the principal had tried to ban lettuce from the grounds of Al Revis, after a rash of particularly vicious pranks that culminated in someone using it on him. Obviously, he’d been forced by the dignity of his position to carry the child until six months had passed and it was viable, which was a great personal indignity. The perpetrators had been expelled (over the edge of the island, at high velocity, according to the legends of the teacher’s lounge), and it hadn’t been until a few decades after he retired that a student figured out how to tweak the other ingredients so they could get a high enough ether level using spinacherb. Obviously, treating human life as a toy or weapon to use against others was as black as alchemy could theoretically get, just as bad as poisoning innocent people, so the legal punishment for forcing the potion on someone actually did consist of falling.

A much shorter distance, wearing a hangman’s noose.

Still, it was still good practice to go through every single potion on the cord for every student, regardless of outward symptoms or gender. Why, just last year poor Zeppel had to deal with a student who did it to himself on a dare (he’d been from the far northeast of Russia and had thought the others had to be kidding him that something like that was possible), and it was amazing what the little idiots could do to themselves by complete accident.

No, Roxis was too careful for something like that, but it would have been really funny.

Chapter Text

There was no reaction to that one, or to any of the next three, but then she hadn’t thought there would be.

Then a rich, deep red spilled down his cheek.

That was a pretty impressive reaction, or at least Vayne seemed to think so, drawing in a worried breath. For Isolde, it was incredibly anticlimactic. “That’s it?” She stared at them. “You’re mana, and you were panicking over this? Where’s his other mana?”

Vanitas looked even more panicked. “Dour hasn’t answered since Roxis fell asleep. Is he sick too?”

What the… “Of course not. This is… a good thing. You call yourselves his mana and you… Why am I surprised, it’s not like you’re real mana. He’s just meditating. What did he last synthesize?”

“Meditating? But he won’t wake up. He’s missing class.” Before, Vayne would have said that Roxis wouldn’t miss class even for the end of the world.

“I’ll write him a note.” This was a perfectly good reason to miss class. “What on earth did he synthesize? I’ve never seen this strong a reaction.” And the color, a deep, vivid ruby? No, it couldn’t be.

“I… ran away yesterday morning. Did he make anything before he left?” Vanitas asked Vayne, who shook his head. “Afterwards, he just went straight to bed.”

Isolde tapped her fingers on the nightstand. “Don’t be silly, he made something. The question is what. He must have spent some of that time sleeping, after a day like that, or maybe not. I know I’ve gone without sleep for days on end sometimes. Maybe one of Lorr’s predecessors left an advanced recipe down there?”

“Made something?”

Isolde gave Vayne a look that made him feel like some sub-human creature she really wanted to dissect. “Do you feel anything when you synthesize?”

“Well… it takes focus, and I feel the other person when I do co-op synthesis.”

“Is it because you’re a mana, and already grown past that point, or are you just incapable of growing? You’re talking about it like it’s herbalism, or cooking at the most.” At least cooking was an art form. “In order to make something you have to… can you even sense the ether level?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I suppose that’s something. If you couldn’t even do that much, you wouldn’t have the right to call yourself an alchemist. Alchemy isn’t just mixing and altering things. Alchemy is touching raw firmament, the building blocks of creation. In the beginning, there was only the primeval chaos, and then the light was divided from the darkness, the waters below from the sky above… By ordering nature, by creating division, traits are created. Existence as we know it came about. The first division was between the great ‘I am’ and everything else, between god and the universe. Then, the act of creation gave rise to the Creation Mana, Lilith, and from that divine creation came all the other mana, from Light and Darkness to… Alchemy is something that is only possible because we descend from the power that accomplished all that. Every time we perform a synthesis, we’re playing God, even if we claim otherwise. Doesn’t any of this sound familiar to you?”

It did. “That’s what Iris said. Uroboros was angry because the alchemists who touched his element weren’t gods, they weren’t perfect and had flaws.”

Vanitas seemed troubled. “So creating a Universal Mana… such a power would be in direct opposition to humanity’s power, the power of alchemy, wouldn’t it?”

“It would be everything that is not the divine, so yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean hostility. Just as air and water are in opposition to each other.”

“But that isn’t how ether levels work, is it?”

What mana didn’t know this? “Ether levels are affected by interaction, either positive or negative. Elements that support or undermine each other. Division elements… nevermind.” That was verging on advanced theory. Something each alchemist had to discover for themselves as they performed syntheses. Al Revis just provided the materials. It was up to each individual alchemist what they made of themselves.

Where did she start? This wasn’t really something that needed to be taught, it was something they learned by doing. If they didn’t have it in them to learn that, then they’d never end up here. “You must be using your mana power to do synthesis, that’s the only explanation. Wishing for it to take the form you desire instead of understanding that form.”

“What about Anna, then? She was performing very high-level syntheses, and she didn’t understand the most basic steps.” They’d needed to help tutor her recently to fix that.

“Miss Lemouri is a… special case. She can channel traits instead of bringing them into being through her own power. You’ve definitely fallen in with an odd bunch, haven’t you?” A natural born shaman, in fact. The principal had been seriously worried when she’d tried to exorcise Pamela, because she would have had the ability to pull it off even without training.

“But that’s a good example of why we start people off with low-level syntheses. Anyone who’s scraped their knee and seen what happens can understand healing, but there are traits far more esoteric than that. People need to see how a plant and some water can become the concept of healing in liquid form. You’ve heard of the healing knives some specialists use, yes? Can you imagine how hard it would be to take a sword, which has the essence of attacking and hurting, and reverse it? Cold fire is easy by comparison. Take gold. People have admired gold since ancient times because it’s something that retains its purity, never decaying, and yet at the same time, in the raw form, it’s as soft as some clays. It doesn’t remain pure by walling out the world, it… You’ve synthesized gold, right? If you were a real alchemist, you’d know why gold is one of the three things every alchemist strives to make.”

One of the unofficial graduation requirements, in fact. “Gold is itself. It can be adulterated, mixed with anything, beaten into any form, and yet it is the thing and the whole of the thing. If an alchemist can’t grasp that, if they can’t understand that trait, then they won’t be able to perform any higher-level synthesis. They could have the ingredients of the ruby prism in their cauldron until doomsday and never even be able to start, because they wouldn’t have the inner strength to survive the process.”

“Synthesizing can kill? But… that can’t be right.”

“It can break people’s minds, destroy their sense of self. An alchemist has to know who they are. Names are just trappings, a place in the world that we create. So is everything else external. Gold in a coin and gold in a crown are both gold. I would be myself even if I had been born a beggar or a queen, and I will continue to be myself even after my body is dust. Every alchemist has to strive to become like gold, to become themselves, as pure as they can, because otherwise they won’t alter the things they’re synthesizing, the synthesis will alter them. The soul becomes a lever, to move mountains. Every synthesis affects the alchemist. Your friend Jess keeps making bombs, and the Vice Principal is still letting her because she’d die if she stopped.

“Alchemists… we pick up odd personality quirks, we’re a little prone to getting obsessed, and there’s always a danger that we’ll decide to change the world no matter what anyone else wants or what we’ll destroy in the process. Gold is… the closest thing we can synthesize to a soul. It shows us how we need to be. Or it’s the first step, at least.”

The other two were lost.

“The school tries to ease people into it, to build on what students already know so there aren’t any shocks. But in order to perform alchemy, you have to destroy your view of the world. In order to create what you want, you have to see what is, and it’s always different from what you believed. You have to break your mind open, let the ingredients mix with you. Touch them directly, not just through the medium of flesh. With a synthesis you already know, that’s the end of it, but with new syntheses it’s not done when the item is made. You take what you’ve learned and you rebuild yourself. That’s what he’s doing. Weren’t the rest of them elated after they made gold? Didn’t you realize that it was so much more to them than just some shiny metal or sign of achievement? Well, it was a validation. By making gold, they began to see how to make themselves golden. He’s reacting like one of my students did, when someone thought it would be funny to slip a freshman that recipe. He made something, he faced something, and now he has to deal with it. He’ll wake up when he’s done.”

“What if he doesn’t wake up at all?” Pain asked, touching Roxis’ hair.

“If it was going to kill him he would have aborted the synthesis. It’s rare for someone to actually manage to destroy the barrier between themselves and the rest of the universe, even though some pagan cults in the East think it’s a good idea and actively try to kill themselves that way. It must have been close, though. Especially since I know that he has the Water of Youth. That’s the second of the three.” The essence of eternal renewal, of recovering from setbacks and damage. What could be this much greater than that? “No, he couldn’t have made the ruby prism. That’s just not possible.” Not for a sorcerer who was able to tolerate the presence of an affront to nature like this twisted, broken mana.

Pain and Vanitas looked at each other. “Does it have to be a synthesis? Could it have been something else that opened the soul?” Vanitas asked, starting to glare at the other.

“Well… I suppose. Egyptian alchemy is said to work directly on the soul, and sorcerers were even able to mutilate it, tear it apart,” she realized. “So you forced yourself into his soul, ‘Pain,’ and his mind is trying to figure out how to deal with that without ceasing to be himself? He treated himself as an object to synthesize?” Well, that was how an alchemist should be, but something like this? “But how is that possible, without an object, an example? Unless the shadows act as a cauldron, a place between life and death, of forming and reform… That can’t be.“

“So he… made me important to him? He really did make it so that he would never reject or try to use me?” The dark mana stared at her, amazed by her words, and then at Roxis, and Isolde had seen that wondering look before, on Vanitas’ face.

“He’s like that,” Vanitas agreed.

“Yeah.” Vayne had several friends, and he loved them all, but Roxis was the best.

“So that’s why. He was worried about you, that was the only thing he wanted of me, that you would understand and return. I nearly killed him, and that was all. I’ve met alchemists who have made the ruby prism, and they weren’t like that.”

“Gold, the Water of Youth, and the Ruby Prism just give an alchemist ingredients to use to achieve purity, examples to follow. It’s up to the Alchemist whether they end up a healer or someone like Mull.”

“So there really was something missing from Theofratus’ alchemy, then?” Vanitas seemed pensive. “Perhaps there is another way I can make things so that your wish can be granted.”

“If you were real mana, you’d know better than to think that’s just another side of alchemy.”

“Ahem,” the mana of light spoke for the first time. “They wouldn’t know. One of Lilith’s firstborn would.”

“Am I expected to believe that you’re the original Light Mana?”

A white head nodded regally.

“So? If there’s an equivalent to the ruby prism, what is it?” Of course there wouldn’t be.

“Making an ally of your other self, and eventually becoming one with it. The Greeks and the Egyptians both knew that the true self was something that already existed, and the surface merely its shadow in a dark cave. They were true alchemists, and alchemists of both groups made their own paths by synthesizing the traditions of both. By rejecting Egyptian alchemy, you’ve rendered it impossible to follow the path laid out by the Greek alchemists you study. Pathygoras wrote of analyzing the workings of the world with numbers and summoning them with music, but to him, they were the exact same thing. How can you understand a word of what you read, how can you understand anything you see if you can’t understand that?”

Her tongue hung out in wolfish laughter. “I didn’t come here to make a pact. I came here to watch your hopeless struggles and laugh. You humans founded a school on the ancient homeland of mana and ignore that you’ve imprisoned them in its depths, you pretend to be righteous by refusing to face the truth and cowering behind your lies. You’d rather declare that good is evil than face the fact that you might be and shape up order to move forward. No wonder no student of Al Revis has ever made the Ruby Prism, and only a heretic who rejects your teachings has managed the Water of Youth. You think you can reach the truth like that? Plua can call me a sadist all she likes, but how can the Light Mana not love watching karma at work? You fear the imprisoned mana will destroy your alchemy for its crimes, never realizing that you’ve already destroyed it yourselves. As it has before, this island will fall and alchemy will be lost once again, your hypocrisy has rendered it inevitable. The fact that you consider arrogant dross like Theofratus a genius just proves that it won’t be long now. No. Not long at all.”

Eital seemed to think that Isolde would try to argue with her, and was looking forward to demolishing her illusions, destroying her false hopes. Isolde was sorry to burst her bubble.

Not. “Yes, that’s absolutely right. Alchemy is doomed. It’ll disappear the way it has every single time some idealistic soul deluded enough to think that such flawed beings could become gods has tried to revive it. I don’t know why you mana keep pacting with us when you just suffer for it every single time. Mana are already beginning to withdraw from this world, and when you do pact it’s no longer with alchemists. Shamans and bards, holy fools and madmen, seers and destroyers, not alchemists. Take a look at that one, for example.”

Isolde waved at Roxis. “He was always complaining. Why wasn’t he let in, why wasn’t he chosen by a mana? Why weren’t his ancestors? They were born to be alchemists. And that’s why they weren’t chosen, isn’t it?”

Chapter Text

“We have to fix this.” Vayne looked at the other two for support. If alchemy died Roxis would be heartbroken. Anna could go back to her family and swordstyle, Flay had his heroics, Jess would keep doing what she wanted regardless of everything else, Nikki would have her family and Pamela didn’t have a life to lose, but alchemy was Roxis’ life.

“How?” Vanitas wondered.

“I know.” The third smirked. “You wouldn’t know because he doesn’t want to do it. I know because whether or not he has to has him tied up in knots.”

The implication that Pain knew Roxis better than he did made Vanitas angry, but he’d deal with that later.

“If it’s something that he doesn’t want to do then we can’t do it,” Vayne reminded Pain. “Let’s ask him when he wakes up.”

“You want to save alchemy?” Isolde asked Vayne. Well, Vayne was the one Roxis had been talking to that time in the depths, saying that Vayne could help redeem this world.

The one who hadn’t wanted to bother was Vanitas, but with Roxis’ happiness at stake?

“Yeah. I want to be an alchemist. I want to understand everyone and make this world a better place for them.” He smiled sheepishly. “It’s a bit arrogant of me, but, that’s my wish.” He shrugged, still smiling.

Isolde could only shake her head. “At this point, I don’t know why I’m trying anymore. There isn’t anything left to protect from you. Theofratus died, and it would almost be a relief if he died again.” Seeing him so bright and inquisitive, like the boy she’d loved, made her ache for things long since lost. “Alchemists and this school rejected him, drove him away with their envy and hypocrisy. He should have been a shining example for them, and instead they tried to drag him down to their level. I can’t forgive them for succeeding any more than I can forgive you.” She sighed, defeated. “Go ahead. Suffer and bring suffering and destruction to the world and your loved ones: I’ll just watch from the sidelines.” She’d taken Cassandra’s role long ago. She should have learned better than to try to avert disaster by now, really.

Vanitas looked at Roxis’ cat, then picked it up and held it out to her.

Her breath hitched, and if she was younger, if she hadn’t sealed her heart in Diemia’s stone along ago she might have cried. “You really don’t know anything at all, do you?” It made it hard to hate him, so she took the half-grown cat. 

When Pain nudged him Sulpher opened his eyes and moved on top of Eital, letting Pain lift the blanket heap up and snuggle next to Roxis. Vanitas permitted it only because he knew why Pain wanted to do it. Pain had been half-hearted about the pact before, wanting to make Roxis yield power and self-control without giving up any of his own. If the pact strengthened the way Pain now wished, then Roxis would have more control over Pain and would be able to make him stop deliberately making Vanitas scared he’d lose Roxis.

But then, that was what pain was, wasn’t it? A warning.

Vanitas had almost lost Roxis because he hadn’t taken enough care. If Pain kept him from doing that again, then maybe they could get along.

Maybe Roxis was right, and having him here would help the two of them figure things out.

Three of them, Vanitas corrected himself as he took kitten form and jumped up next to Sulpher.

They might be done, but Vayne wasn’t. “Eital?”

“Yes?”

“What happened was like a synthesis, right? Was it a co-op synthesis?”

“No, Roxis performed it with Pain as his mana. Or that would be my guess: I wasn’t there.”

“What about Roxis’ true self, then?”

She had to think about that. “…If he did what I think he did, then the synthesis would have been very similar to the one that combines the outer self with the true self. The outer self often died in the process, or nearly died. It fits.”

“So it was a big enough thing that Roxis would need to think about it this hard, or is he still hurt?”

“I wouldn’t know. You’re his mana.”

Vayne closed his eyes, bowing his head as he tried to feel along the link. “He still just feels irritated, like he’s concentrating, but a lot of the time when he’s irritated it’s pain disguised as that. But… When I don’t try to disturb him, I think he’s… Excited.” That was a relief. “Will this… change him?”

Sulpher was the one to answer that question. “Not overnight.” It always took syntheses time to sink in.

Theofratus’ thefts of time had seemed harmless, at first. It had been months before the first signs of erosion started to show: he’d been mixing his life with those of other people, people with different futures.

He’d thought he was handling at it first. Then he made one or two slips.

And then a landslide.

“That’s a relief.” Vayne looked sheepish again. He should want Roxis to change, to get better, but he liked Roxis the way he was, too. Turning to her, he said, “Thank you, Ms. Isolde.”

“For what?”

“For coming here and telling us what happened to Roxis. I didn’t know who else to turn to. Everyone would have helped, but I thought it was something strange. I should have gone to them first instead of bugging you, huh. Sorry.” He looked down at the ground.

“You owe me for it.” She didn’t know if she wanted explanations of their weak spots now, though. “If there’s anything that would help Theofratus, you’d better tell me right away.”

He looked up at that, genuinely surprised. “Of course, Ms. Isolde. I’d do that anyway. Even if we existed in some form before, he’s still our father and Sulpher’s friend.”

“I told you a long time ago that you’re not his son.”

“But… if he’d been well, then I might have been. And you would have been…”

At least he didn’t say it. If he had, she would have slapped him, at the very least.

“Um, anyway, is this really that common?” he asked as he opened the door for her.

As he walked her back to her office, she told him that, “It tends to happen more when people are involved in individual projects that mean a lot to them than in classes. And normally it manifests in some form of mania. There hasn’t been a case of deep meditation in… Actually, a couple of years now.” When someone had thought it would be funny to give a freshman the gold recipe.

A freshman had managed to pull that off, and he still didn’t have a mana. As much as she liked Renee, something was very, very wrong when a lady knight had a mana and Tony didn’t.

“Al Revis tries to discourage it. We lose fewer buildings that way.”

“Would an ordinary student have known that was what it was?”

“These days? No. That’s why it’s in the diagnosis kit.” Wait a minute…  Isolde thought for a moment, then began to smile.

“What’s so funny?” Vayne wondered.

“I’ll tell you when we get to my office.” By the time they got there, she knew for certain. “I get it. That’s the plan.”

“What plan?”

“Here I am, teaching you things, practically mentoring you. You come to me when you’re in trouble, too, even after I killed your friend. You’re trying to get me to like you, or at least see you as ignorant and harmless. You might not have the brains to think of something like that, but you’ve got the two of them to do your thinking for you. It’s easy to act natural if you don’t know you’re acting, and you play the lost little boy doing his best a lot better now. Roxis might not have seen through it if you’d been like this from the beginning.”

“It was my idea to go to you with this.”

“The day after Roxis sent you to me, knowing that he has blackmail material on Theofratus. Rubbing in that I have to keep your little secret. For now. I’d be in serious trouble too, for knowing that Theofratus was working on something like you and not turning him in.” She tapped her boot on the floor thoughtfully, making a click. “You attached yourself to Sulpher, and once you found out about Theofratus you wanted to be just like him. Cute. You want me as your mother, don’t you, and I’m betting that your wishes have power backing them even now. You almost had me. I as much as declared myself neutral, and a neutral party who helps you with things like this is only a step away from being an ally.”

“I do… want that. I wished that he hadn’t died, and… I don’t want to fight you, Ms. Isolde. I want to stay here, with everyone. I don’t want to be sent away, like before. Roxis would be in trouble too, and he has a family.” Something that Vayne valued and sort of envied him for. “If things were right, then maybe I could have traveled with you, like Roxis and his father. I…” He hung his head, unkempt silver managing to fall in front of his eyes. “Why can’t we?”

“Because Theofratus became a criminal madman and you’re even worse than I first thought. Do you know that Mull wasn’t the first to create Amalgam? He revived the creature that destroyed the last alchemy renaissance, and the battle destroyed his. Now, this era is ending, and Theofratus develops you. Did you really think that I wouldn’t put it together? You’re a herald of destruction. Your pet sorcerer’s dreams are going to come crashing down around you both,” she said, stalking towards him, “and it will be all. Your. Fault.”

He shrank back from her. “No, that’s not true! I don’t want that, I won’t let it be!”

“You’re an abomination,” she said, almost kindly. “You’re something that shouldn’t exist. Proof of alchemy’s hubris. What you want doesn’t matter. You can’t change what you are or why you are.”

He shuddered, closing his eyes as though that would shield him from her words.

“You should have stayed asleep in that crystal, with all the others. You wouldn’t have had to suffer like this, and neither would he. You love him, don’t you? The other two do, and you’re all the same thing. You have to realize that it can’t possibly work. Eventually, you’re going to have to give him up, and eventually you’ll betray him or he’ll betray you.”

“He won’t betray me!” Defending Roxis gave him the will to defy her. “He’s not that sort of person. If he were, he would have died yesterday, that’s how it works! In shadow games, those with weak hearts, who hurt others for their own gain, perish, and he doesn’t want to die! That’s power there, the will to live and to protect other people. That’s what shaped him, and it’s not evil! He’s not evil.”

“Shaped him. Growing up. His father, then?” He’d taken the exams several times, then stopped, going on a quest to find a mana and then tamely giving up, becoming a traveling card shark.

Panicked guilt filled Vayne’s eyes when he realized what he’d done.

“See? You’re already betraying him.” Just a few stray words, and now Isolde could send the inquisitors after Roxis’ father.

“I won’t let you hurt them. Either of them.”

“How dare you.” How dare Vayne feel betrayed that she was threatening them? “They’re both criminals. I’d be doing my duty. Face it, Vayne! The right thing to do is for me to turn you all in. What I’m doing now, letting you run around loose: that’s the selfish, rotten thing! I should be trying to kill you, I should be trying to save alchemy. You knew what had to be done once, when you surrendered yourself to me.”

“I did it so he’d be safe. I just want them all to be safe and happy, and why can’t I be? Why can’t you? It’s what we would have had, if… Roxis says it’s justice, that Father cursed himself by stealing their time, but if I couldn’t give everyone their time back, if…”

“If you were human.”

“I can’t be. I want to understand people, I need to be able to live with them,” or at least felt a want so strong it verged on need, “but I’m a mana. Maybe, if I can control my element, I can stop this? Fix everything?”

“By controlling people’s hearts.”

“I wouldn’t do that! It’s wrong, it’s, it’s unnatural, and I may not know everything yet but I am a mana! I won’t pervert my element like that! I’ve been here for a long time now, and I haven’t hurt anyone. I don’t want to hurt anyone, I just want to stay here.” The fake boy was on the verge of tears. “I just want to stay with everyone…”

“And what happens when they graduate? Flay’s leaving this year, isn’t he?” Both she and the Vice Principal were doing their damndest to make sure of it.

“Then I’ll visit them. I’m going to be a traveling alchemist, like Father and Roxis. We’ll be able to go everywhere and visit them all. I can visit Roxis’ home and see the water-powered elevator and the greenhouse and everything. Meet all of his family.”

“You have such simple dreams.” She shook her head, bracing herself against her desk. “You must realize that you can’t have them, and you should realize that your denial is destroying everyone else’s ability to achieve their dreams. I’ve had enough of this. Get out of my office.”

“Ms. Isolde,” Vayne whispered, and fled.

She’d as good as made a child cry.

Chapter Text

“We’re out of blood clay? Why are we out of blood clay? Did someone go through our supplies while we were gone?” Anna’s new sword, as wonderful as it was, didn’t have the power to strike her enemies dead, so she needed to make something else that would give her that power. “Ok, where’s that recipe…”

And thus it was that, in the early afternoon, Roxis was awoken by Anna slicing through the door to his room, howling for his blood.

Just another typical day at Al Revis Academy.

Roxis blinked up at her blearily. “If I give you a few drops will you go away? I need to get ready for…” Wait, it was light out. And there weren’t enough gawkers in the hall for it to be morning, when the other students were running around getting ready for classes. He turned his head carefully to glance at his clock. “I missed the entire day?!” Wait, wasn’t this week… “I missed one of Professor Lorr’s classes?!”

“Oh no, it’s finally happened! You’re turning into Flay!” Flay loved missing Professor Lorr’s classes. “Roxis, you have to resist the delinquent side!”

Roxis managed to roll out from under her while she was distracted. “A perfect attendance record, ruined! I failed the entrance exam, and only managed a proper score on a retest, do you know how easy it would be to for Isolde to have me put on academic probation if I fail anything?! I won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s class unless I make up for the absence, and Lorr’s make-ups are worse than his assignments!” He pulled a beaker and one of the sterilized knives for gathering animal materials out of his dresser drawer, making a practiced incision. “Here, you might as well have first crack at my blood. Much of it will be spilled today. If anyone needs me, tell them to wait in the infirmary, I’ll be along soon enough.” He headed towards the door, not bothering to change out of yesterday’s clothes. If he put on clean ones, they’d just get yet more bloodstains.

Anna blinked. “Professor Lorr sends you to fight terribly powerful monsters alone if you miss his classes?”

“Yes. He’s infamous for toughening up his students.”

Anna was torn. “Is it possible to do these make-ups without actually missing his classes?” She didn’t want to end up like Flay, but powerful opponents sure were tempting…

“Why don’t you come along and ask?” Maybe she’d be allowed to come along with him. Although that just meant they’d be sent against an even harder monster.

Of course, had Lorr been told they’d braved the depths yet? He might not know that they had weaponry this powerful.

Maybe Roxis might be able to get out of this without a concussion.

Except Lorr wasn’t in his den – Ahem, his office. When Roxis stopped the Vice Principal in the halls to ask her where he was so Roxis could do the makeup before tomorrow, she scowled. “Professor Lorr was called away by Ms. Isolde in the middle of class, and neither of them has returned yet.” When she got her hands on them… “Why were you absent in the first place? Has Flay finally gotten to you?” A dedicated student like Roxis?

“Actually…” he couldn’t tell her, he realized. While synthesizing an advanced item and contemplating it were as good a reason to miss class as illness, he’d need to produce the item as proof. Drat. “I was out gathering fruit for a project last night until dawn. I meant to take a brief nap before class, and I slept right through my alarm clock.” He sighed, pretending to be disappointed in himself.

“Hmph! How irresponsible. That is what weekends are for.” Especially since Sunday was a day of rest. “Make sure to sleep in the afternoon before making another expedition like that, Mr. Rosenkrantz. Should you see Professor Lorr or Ms. Isolde, send them to me immediately.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She nodded in dismissal and strode off.

“Lorr and Isolde? She can’t have…” Anna shifted into battoujutsu stance.

“Not here.” Roxis looked around at the other students in the halls. “We should get to the workshop.”

“Right.”


It wasn’t until they got to the workshop that Roxis realized that he’d woken up with only a single kitten in his bed. Sulpher was napping on top of Eital, and Vayne was working on the wooden table around the center of the room, keeping an eye on Jess, who was gleefully monopolizing the cauldron the way she did in the early mornings.

It was perfectly normal ingredient preparation, like any other day, except one of the bowls contained two kittens.

“Roxis, you’re finally awake! You had us worried. Vanitas and Pain kept poking you even though Isolde had said you needed to concentrate to finish, so I brought them here.”

“To… concentrate?” What? Roxis leaned forward to scoop the kittens up out of the bowl. “I just overextended myself yesterday.” First, a very powerful summon, even if the summon had come eagerly, and then a pact with a less… amenable aspect of Vayne.

One of Vayne had the ability to say no?!

Yes!

This was going to make his life so much easier in countless ways!

Must not cheer or start dancing around childishly like Jess. Must not talk baby talk to kittens, for that matter.

 He still grinned as he petted them. “How are Iris and her friend?”

“They asked Pamela to take them to the library. According to her, they’re buried behind about a dozen three-foot-tall stacks of books.”

That was a pity, he’d wanted to interrogate her. Well, he’d have his chance to ask her about summoning eventually. “Has the faculty done anything about them?”

“The principal let them both enroll, since they were here already.”

“Ah, Al Revis’ wonderful, fair-minded, rational admission criteria.” For the chosen of mana, it really was just that easy. Not that Iris didn’t deserve it. “Where would we be without them?”

“Alone in the manor except for Sulpher. And Vanitas couldn’t even talk to him. Jess would be in jail, too. I know they’re not fair, but I kind of have to be grateful. They’re why I met everyone.”

Roxis just shrugged. “I suppose.” There was that to be said for them.

“…Roxis?”

“What is it?”

“Ms. Isolde said that you were going to change because of what happened, but were you listening to yourself? That wasn’t like you.” And Vayne didn’t like it. First Flay, and now Roxis? Jess was acting strangely too: there hadn’t been a single explosion all day. “It’s kind of worrying me.” Scaring him was closer to the truth.

Roxis paused. Look down at the black kitten. “Put that back.”

“Mrew?”

“I said, put it back. You know what I’m talking about.”

There, that was more like it.

The kitten licked his finger apologetically.

“He did something to you?”

“I should have realized that I was feeling entirely too pleasant this morning.” There had been barely any kittens, and he hadn’t noticed? Normally, Roxis would have remembered what happened yesterday and been motivated to track Vanitas down and make certain he hadn’t been dragged down there again. Roxis wagged his finger at the kitten. “The same rules Vayne and Vanitas have apply to you as well. Don’t grant any wishes or ease any pain unless it’s an emergency or you ask first.” He scratched them under their little chins and sighed. “Honestly. Your behavior was acceptable when I thought you were six years old, but if you really are older than that then you should know better than this by now. You may be ignorant, but you aren’t stupid.

“Yeah. About that.” Vayne folded his arms at the kittens.

Who looked adorably innocent.

No, Roxis wouldn’t give in this time. He would muster the same discipline and reserve with which he had dealt with his own cat’s pathetic little mewing for its mother. “Just how old are you?”

Vanitas caved, between Roxis’ wish and the guilt he felt about how he had reacted when Roxis had mentioned Mull’s name. He took the form of beastman instead of a kitten, to prove that he wasn’t trying to distract Roxis anymore, and knelt on the table. “Father reshaped us, made us from a mana core he’d found. I remember him talking to himself, and he was convinced that we had been part of Amalgam, and I knew that was right. I don’t know why I said what I did, about Mull trying to control us.”

“Mull made Amalgam out of lots of other mana. You might have just been one that broke free when it was destroyed.”

Roxis was amazed. Jess had left the cauldron to listen in? But then again, “Does the name Klein mean anything to you?” he asked her.

“He was the hero who defeated Mull and Amalgam. He created a Ruby Prism, and saved Iris of Avenberry’s last daughter after Mull stole hers from her.”

Roxis made a mental note to see what he could dig up about those events. “Was this story in a book you read?”

Jess frowned. “I don’t think so. I never really liked storybooks.” Her parents had given them to her so that she would stay safe in bed, but she’d wanted to go outside. “Where do I know Klein from?” She prodded the thought like she would a half-formed recipe inspiration. It wasn’t exciting the way bombs were, but it wasimportant somehow, she just knew it. “I’ll let you know if I can find out anything that can help, Vayne.”

“Thank you, Jess.” He smiled at her, the kind of smile that made her wonder sometimes that if she’d been an entirely different person (not dying, for one thing) she might have fallen in love with him because of how kind he was. She didn’t think so. This was Vayne she was talking about, after all. He was the entire workshop’s kid brother, even Anna’s.

“Well.” She bounced on her feet. “You can’t get anywhere just dwelling on stuff. I’ll go make bombs and wait for it to come to me.”

Roxis watched her return to the cauldron warily and then turned back to Vanitas. “What would happen if I wished for you to know?”

Vanitas focused, gathering his power. For a moment, his face was peaceful, immersed in what he was. This was what a mana should be, comfortable and confident in his power.

Then he gave a strangled, terrified, little half-scream, handpaws covering his face as he hunched in, shamed, and vanished.

“Not ag-“

Before Roxis could even finish the complaint, Vanitas had returned and pressed himself against Roxis’ back, clinging with arms and legs. “Knowing hurt.” So he didn’t know anymore, he’d wished the memories away as Sulpher had wished Vayne didn’t have his. “Please don’t want me to know? Because I don’t want to, but if you wanted to…” He couldn’t, no, he didn’t want to deny Roxis anything.

Roxis reached up without looking (he couldn’t turn his head since Vanitas’ face was pressed against his neck) and scratched him behind an ear. “So. If the knowledge is something so terribly painful, then that must mean that you know.”

“And I’m not going to tell you.” Pain didn’t take a beastman’s form, nor did he kneel subserviently. Roxis hadn’t been able to get a clear view of his human form in the shadow realm, what with all the agony. He studied the mana now.

He wore red and black, of course, mirroring his eyes, but it wasn’t quite a true black. The dark, almost purplish red that dried blood sometimes became, or sometimes it formed a drop of that color as it oozed out could almost pass for a dark brown, in poor light or if someone wasn’t especially observant. He looked more like a grown man than the other two, but Roxis didn’t know if that was actually because his human form was that much older or because he carried himself with an air of experienced hostility instead of  coldness or a hissing kitten’s anger and betrayal (generally the best Vanitas could manage).

“Do you know why none of you are able to use your powers properly? These two, well, you know by now.” The pain they had endured was engraved on their hearts, and Pain could surely feel the echo of it in Roxis’, even if he hadn’t studied his other two… Selves? Aspects? “And you shouldn’t have been suffering like that.”

“We were never taught.” Now drop it.

Anna frowned thoughtfully at that. “Never taught? Mana need to be taught?”

“Of course we do. The first generation was taught by Lilith, and then the first Wood Mana taught his children the forest spirits, and so on down the generations, even when Lilith’s youngest children were too young to remember her. We weren’t taught. We were used.” Old resentment there, in his voice, that he (now they) hadn’t been given what all the others had. And yet, was there a trace of self-hate? Did he think that they didn’t deserve it?

Anna nodded. “Of course. Everyone needs training. Roxis, you’ve been training Vayne, haven’t you?”

“To the best of my ability. Why do you ask?”

“No reason, but you’d better take proper responsibility for your student!” Roxis’ student, not hers.

Anna made a rapid retreat. Roxis stared after her. “She just used the words ‘take responsibility’ and I wasn’t attacked.”

Vayne felt vindicated and wished he didn’t. “I told you that everyone was acting really strange lately.”

“Maybe she’s just growing up.”

“Oh, right. Ms. Isolde said something about her performing alchemy weirdly.”

“Well, that was obvious, from the way she was able to perform high-level syntheses with no idea what she was doing… Wait. Isolde said that? When?”

“This morning. You wouldn’t wake up, well, we could wake you with wishes but you just went back to sleep, and…”

Roxis grabbed his shoulders, almost shaking and fighting the urge to shake Vayne, even though it wasn’t his fault he hadn’t known. “Don’t try that again!”

“She said we shouldn’t disturb you, that it would just make everything take longer. I brought them here so they wouldn’t disturb you?” Was that the right thing to do?

“I strained myself yesterday. Badly. Shadow magic isn’t a toy, it was supposed to be reserved for the royal family, high priests… those with the blood and blessings of the gods. To deal with the shadow realm is to deal with absolute truth, absolute justice, and there is a reason Justitia is always depicted blindfolded besides lack of prejudice. To touch the shadows is to deal with raw truth, absolute fairness, the knife edge between sin and atonement, without the lies of darkness or the mercy of the light, and the human mind just simply cannot handle that. There are various defenses, and even though I don’t have a patron of my own to support my spirit my father’s patron and shadow watch over me on his behalf, but in Hermetic alchemy, an alchemist will not be able to perform a synthesis that their spirit is not strong enough to bear.”

Wait a minute. Something wasn’t right. As he described what had happened to Vayne he was starting to make connections that he should have made the instant he woke up.

“ Egyptian alchemy allows the summoner to do whatever they will and the price is that they suffer the consequences of their actions. I was a fool, I asked the shadows to prove something for me instead of making the effort to prove it myself, though my own actions and strength, and they exposed that weakness. I tried to have something else handle a test of character on my behalf! Those with weak hearts will perish, and I was not only weak, I was lazy!

“No, I can’t even say I was a fool or it was a moment of temporary stupidity, because the shadows force you to act how you will act, and that, shorn of deceit, is what I would have done! I would have tried to give him some leash, some threat to hold over me, so that he could feel safe because of that instead of because he trusted in the one he had pacted to! Oh, I would have told myself it was just a temporary measure, until he had seen enough evidence to begin to trust me, but the gift of a knife will sever a friendship. Who would be fool enough to trust someone who thinks of terms of stabbing people in the back to avenge inevitable harm instead of real trust, where two people need no sword to attack each other nor shield to defend themselves?”

That was the origin of the custom of offering a true friend not the right hand to shake but the left. Not ‘I carry no sword,’ but ‘I carry no shield.’ Not, ‘you can trust me,’ but ‘I trust you.’

“I should have died yesterday and I would have deserved it! I came to this school, I swore to do everything on my own merits, I thought I held to the tenets of both Hermetic and Egyptian alchemy as no one has in thousands of years, and now this!” Now he couldn’t stop himself from shaking Vayne, as he longed to shake himself, ask himself what he had been thinking.

“And that is why I was holding back your pain,” the dark one told him.

Roxis whirled to face him, and knew that he wanted to turn his fury on the mana, but his rage at himself was too strong, and he knew what would happen if he blamed another for his own weakness. “You… Do not do that again. I need to remember my punishment, I need to learn never to do that again. Do that again, and you will have an enemy for however long I live. And if you tamper with something that close to my true self, when shadow trials reveal that truth, then that won’t be very long.”

Pain’s eyes narrowed, and Roxis held them, daring him to say something.

Pain looked away first.

“Alright.” Roxis adjusted his glasses. “Jess, would you mind letting me have the cauldron for awhile?”

“Can’t it wait?” Normally, people were entitled to a little sympathy when they almost died. No one had told Jess that.

He wanted to say no, but, “I need it before dark.”

“Sure, I’ll be done a little before sunset.” The elemental associations of natural sunlight were ideal for making bombs.

Roxis started to clear space on the worktable. “Vayne, how are our supplies of holy crest paper and ink?”

“We’re pretty well stocked on both, but all our blood clay mysteriously disappeared, and we’re low on quite a few other things too.” Vayne had gotten so many ingredients ready because he was planning to stay up late synthesizing after Jess was done.

“…That would be why Anna was after my blood, isn’t it. Dammit, Vayne… nevermind, it will work better this way.” Blood clay with his own blood, standard ink and, “Does anyone know who’s… nevermind, you don’t drink.” It didn’t do anything to Vayne and Jess wasn’t allowed to because of her condition. “If you see Flay, ask him if anyone’s making barley beer. I’ll see what I can turn up myself, but I doubt anyone here has Ibis feathers except faculty, and I couldn’t let that get back to Isolde.” He should wish for Ibis feathers, but… No. This was an atonement for misusing a power by having it do something he should have done. “I’ll just have to see if I can find them in Zeppel’s office.” Tony’s ‘friends’ often used stealing something from him as a rite of passage. For freshman, since it was just that easy.

“Paper, ink, and feathers for pens? What are you going to write, Roxis?”

“There’s a traditional punishment for students, to ensure they learn their lesson. It’s known as writing lines.” No, they hadn’t used paper then. He would have to see if there was a recipe for papyrus, or perhaps there was something more appropriate?

Chapter Text

Roxis carefully set out everything and sat back to wait for moonrise at the top of the Millennium Tree. When a weight appeared on his lap he automatically reached down to pet it, only to find a human head, or at least a seemingly human head, there instead of a cat or beastman’s. “Vanitas I understand, but why are you being so clingy?”

“Vanitas is emptiness, the futility of man’s endeavors: that’s why you named him that. He needs a purpose to fulfill, a wish to grant: you give him warmth and power.”

“I didn’t name him: I asked him for his name and he gave me it.”

“He gave you what you would consider his true name. Or the name you would have given him.”

Actually, that did make sense. “So he had no true name before that?”

“Not besides Vain, and that was what Theofratus wished for the world, to strive in vain, and was himself. That wasn’t their name. Vayne has become Vayne’s name because that’s what he’s called: Sulpher and his friends named him.”

“Do you have a name?”

“Not besides Pain.”

That was as good as asking Roxis to give him one. Did the mana know what that meant or not? “Naming conveys a great deal of power in Egyptian Alchemy. Even knowing the name of the creature that possessed you would have rendered me vulnerable to it. Even the Greeks viewed having their names known to be a form of immortality.” If he really didn’t mind… “Pain rhymes with Vayne, and that’s really too juvenile. Dolor is the Latin, but that has no style to it.” He scribed random designs on the ground, testing out the pen.

“Malum.”

“Do you really want to be called Apple? Flay would never let you hear the end of it. Every word I can think of that describes your element either doesn’t sound right or is feminine. Tristitia, for example.”

“I’m not that attached to this form. It was someone else’s.”

“Why take it, then?”

“I only know two human forms well enough, besides my real one.”

“Really? Every human must have experienced pain. You should know all of us.”

“Well… There’s one more form I know.” Now there was a young woman’s head in his lap.

Roxis had two things to say about Pain taking that form. “First, if you don’t want me to figure out your origins, then don’t drop such obvious hints. Second, I was beginning to suspect that you all were a true child of Lilith, and sometimes it’s nice to be proven right.”

The young woman stared up at him, clearly wondering how Roxis had gotten all that from this.

“You look almost exactly like Iris Fortner, and she descends from the Mana of Creation, Lilith. Of course you would know your own mother’s form, if you knew anyone’s.”

“How did you know that?”

“Iris’ ancestry? Lilith’s adoptive mother told me. A rather nice woman named Viese.”

“Viese Blanchemont?”

“Probably, I don’t know her full name. An alchemist who created the ruby prism for someone named Elusmus, with a brother named Felt.”

“Elusmus…” The mana who had experienced all the grief in the world grieved for that person.

“You know him?”

“He… I’m not going to tell you.”

“You clearly want to tell someone, or else you wouldn’t be letting all of this slip. You’re practically begging me to figure all of it out and tell you that I don’t mind. Yes: you’re definitely just the same as your other two aspects.” He patted her on the head. “You look like Iris’ twin like this: wouldn’t she be surprised to meet her great-aunt.”

“Don’t joke about things like that.” The mana reverted to his previous form. “And that should be Aion and Eital, not me.”

Roxis paused, then deliberately put down his pen. “Eital and Aion? Sulpher’s Eital and Pamela’s Aion? Are you telling me that fluff-brained tease of a ghost is pacted to the High Queen of all Mana?”

“High Princess, you mean. Lilith isn’t dead, just… Or maybe she is dead. Maybe it was just that terrible and she chose becoming a human and dying.”

“Only, without a soul…” Mana and humans lost their manifestations and bodies all the time. When a human died, their soul didn’t perish. When a mana didn’t just demanifest but actually died? “That cannot be.”

“Why not?”

“We would have noticed by now. There would be… Wait. Egyptian Alchemy assigns the power of creation, or at least generation, to a different entity. Perhaps I can perform a divination… No, it would be the height of hubris to ask for that, or anything else for that matter, while I’m trying to atone and strengthen my heart.”

“Why not?”

“Helping others is simultaneously helpful and harmful. It is harmful because it intrinsically decreases their ability to take care of themselves by denying them the opportunity to grow. That is why no Egyptian alchemist would take over another’s battle or trial and try to win it themselves. Well… Unless you count hints. To ask a god for help, or you, or Vayne, or the shadows, weakens my heart by allowing their influence in. Right now, I may be too weak to bear it and still move forward instead of being overshadowed. And all of that made a lot more sense in the original language.”

“You speak Ancient Egyptian?”

“It’s still spoken.”

“It was a lost language even when...”

“Not lost. Hidden.” He remembered an underground sanctuary, where his father had barely gotten out with two eyes and then had to come back for Roxis because he’d stopped to look at the shiny gold round thing with the bas-relief of a person and there had been that strange man with a key and the next thing he’d known he’d been touching the key and his father was collapsing, half from relief and half from that familiar thinness that came with trusting too much to luck, channeling too much power. “My father found it.”

Roxis had never been able to understand how his father could have enough faith to do that in a world that hadn’t given him a mana.

“I know how you can give him a mana.”

“Oh? You can’t just give someone a mana. You aren’t party favors to be handed out.” They were great powers to be courted. “And I thought you couldn’t read my desires?”

“I can read sympathy. There are plenty of weak ones that Vanitas could compel. Or he could find a mana that wants someone like your father, play matchmaker. But I wasn’t talking about that. The mana that used to pact with your family disappeared, one by one, didn’t they? They just stopped showing up. I know where they are.”

The obvious place was. “Under the school? Under the school?!” They were, his family was… someone had been sealing their mana down there, even after Mull had stopped gathering them?!

“Ask Vayne what Isolde said. But Lilith is lost, alchemy is falling, and you had better free them all. Or maybe Esk should, she’d be better at it.”

“Esk?”

“Iris’ tenth mana.”

“Didn’t she say she had nine?” Nine was ridiculous enough, but having so many mana that you forgot the number? He didn’t think Iris would lie.

“She thinks he has nine. It’s a heavy sadness inside her, that she thinks Esk is dead.”

“And to think I thought you didn’t know much at all.” He patted this mana on the head even though it wasn’t currently female or feline. Or young, for that matter. “Or perhaps it’s only the things that are important to you that you don’t know?”

“I only know the painful things, and only when I look.” Pain turned his face towards Roxis’ hand, lapping at it in a way that was entirely inappropriate for someone that looked like a slightly older man.

“Well.” Roxis gathered himself. “You’re certainly more mature than either of the others. Or Eital would think so.” Personally, Roxis considered that sort of display immature.

“You don’t like me. That’s good, I don’t want you to like me.”

“You, or your element?” Roxis tried scratching him behind the ears. “You are just like the other two, after all.” And that likely meant that what he really ‘wanted’ was to be accepted. “We don’t have all that much longer to discuss this, however. Moonrise isn’t very far off, and I’m going to need to focus then.”

“What sort of ritual is this?”

“It isn’t a ritual. It’s a meditation. On… several things. Responsibility, self-discipline, right conduct… Hopefully, the part of last night that wasn’t a minor coma was spent sorting that out in dreams, but if you took my pain away, that meant all that time was almost certainly wasted. Or even worse, I might have learned the wrong thing from the experience, that it really wasn’t all that terrible a thing. Thus.” Roxis explained, renewing the ink in his pen, “this.”

“You’re a… pagan, isn’t that what they’re calling it now?”

Hmph. “Certainly not. There’s a difference between worshipping mana and other such beings the way the ancient Greeks and Egyptians did and giving them their due respect.”

“Pity. I could make you. I could make you do just about anything.”

“Perhaps.” Anyone could be broken, and Pain certainly had something akin to Vanitas’ ability to affect the thoughts of others. “But I’m certain that would defeat the purpose.”

Pain laughed. “I do like you.” He reached up to pat Roxis on the head.

For some reason, that made Roxis’ metaphorical hackles rise. Pain meant it as a sign of affection, not a challenge or a gesture meant to demean Roxis, surely, but, “Perhaps I should call you Thorn.”

Because while Vayne and Vanitas were too fundamentally helpful to deliberately act like little pricks, they were so good at doing it accidently that it had to be a part of their personalities.

Apparently this part.

“Shoo, I need privacy for this.”

“You’re an alchemist with a pact. You should know that you’ll never have privacy, especially with four mana.”

“I need peace and quiet, then.” Dour was using his powers to close all the routes to the top of the Millennium Tree, making sure that no one could make it up through the branches to find Roxis.

Vayne and Sulpher were helping Jess give Iris and Crowley a lecture on Al Revis-style Alchemy 101. Vayne was there to make sure that it wasn’t all Bomb-making 101, and Anna was there since she’d gotten very serious about taking every opportunity to brush on the basics and make sure there weren’t any more gaps in her education.

Roxis knew that Vanitas was probably here, just not manifested, but that was alright.

Thorn, on the other hand, could use some of the consideration for other people that Vayne had too much of.

“Is this a real religious ceremony?”

“Of course not. I’m not going to pretend to be a worshipper.”

“Then why all the preparations.”

“To put some effort in, obviously. If you’re making a gift, then you put some effort into it, the same with apologies. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.”

That pleased hum was probably as close as Thorn could come to a purr in a copy of a real human body. “You like my element, too.”

“It’s the same element. In order to want something, there needs to be a lack. There needs to be something unpleasant, or at least less pleasant, about our current situation in order to wish to change it. Knowing what not to do is how we arrive at what to do. You’re just as necessary as the other two. Several times as annoying – Well, to be fair, longing can be rather annoying, but I don’t dislike you. Well, as a reality I dislike being in pain. As a mana, you’re something that should exist.” Roxis wondered if he should pick any specific time to start: when it peeked over the horizon, when it was fully over the horizon, etc. “And the way you fish for reassurance just like the other two would be endearing in a childish way if I wasn’t busy trying to figure out the optimal etheric calculations for this. If you want someone who will enjoy your presence while I’m busy, go bother Pamela: she looks the type.”

“You may be right: it’s practically impossible for a ghost to feel any sensation at all, and that’s rather unpleasant, for humans.” Thorn grinned and vanished off his lap.

Roxis paused for a second, then facepalmed. “Why didn’t I just send him to Eital, while I was at it?” What part of his brain had been stupid enough to think Thorn could use expert training in driving Roxis insane? “They’re going to become fast friends, aren’t they.” It would just be his luck. “Well, I suppose that it would be fitting penance.”

He had to use a little more of the ink to work out the effect the current astrological arrangement and amount of moonlight would have on this meditation of personal change, but soon enough the moon rose halfway, and by the time it rose fully he’d blown the dust off his hierographic calligraphy and was copying the ancient ritual book his father referred to as, ‘How to not die in a shadow game for power-hungry idiots, apprentice priests and nobility, eighth edition,’ from memory. Specifically the passages on why you didn’t do the various things he had just done, and the grisly details of what happened to people who broke those prohibitions.

Sadly, there was no warning about ending up with possibly-sadistic, or probably-sadistic-after-Pamela-got-done-with-them mana. If there was ever a ninth edition, that really should be included. He knew the prospect terrified him.


Roxis went straight from there to Lorr’s office at the time the professor normally held office hours (the crack of dawn), to see if he could still do the make-up in time. He wasn’t there. Nor was he at class.

The Vice Principal appeared to have coerced Zeppel into substituting somehow, and it was amusing to see how terrified he was at the prospect of having to herd around upper-level monsters so they would be there for the students to fight.

“Miss Isolde isn’t back yet either,” Vayne whispered to him, after he came in a few seconds before the bell with Jess, Nikki, Iris and Crowley. Flay, Pamela & Anna weren’t in their classes because they were in different grades. Iris and Crowley should probably have had Anna take them to her classes, although even her first-year classes were almost over, but they were easily senior level in combat. Obviously they couldn’t attend class with Flay when he never attended class.

Roxis gave him a look. Whispering in class, especially Lorr’s class? That was what passing notes was for, since it didn’t disturb the other students. He did so. Do I want to know what you were talking about regarding Isolde yesterday, or is it something that will make it hard not to shout at you in the middle of class?

Vayne’s response read: …I’ll tell you later.

Chapter Text

“You promised Isolde what?!” Roxis wondered if he should put up a sign like Flay had suggested doing for Jess.

Only instead of, ‘X days since the last explosion,’ it would read ‘X days since Roxis nearly throttled Vayne.’ Although that didn’t have the same ring. ‘X days since Vayne, Vanitas and/or Thorn did something criminally stupid and/or inconsiderate?’

Regardless, “We have a perfectly good infirmary!” Even if the nurse was creepy in a Pamelaesque way. “How dare you bargain away not just your secrets but mine?!”

“What’s that, Flay?” Nikki wondered. Whatever he was eating smelled good. It was making her hungry, too.

“It’s a food imported from the Americas called corn. When dried and heated, it explodes!” Flay told her, munching another handful.

“Oooh.” Jess drifted over, having heard the word ‘explodes.’ “Can I try some?”

“They certainly are a lively bunch, aren’t they?” Crowley said quietly as he and Iris worked on preparing ingredients at the central table while the others were occupied.

Iris had decided that the best way to learn Al Revis’ alchemy was by doing every single recipe, even the ones she’d been making for months. Al Revis’ methods gave such better control over what properties items had! If only she’d known about ether level before… And the ingredients available here were different from those in the alterworlds, even though her alchemist ancestors had turned Valtessa into a garden for spinacherb, huffin trees, and other items that a lost city surrounded by strange beastmen desperately needed.

It was wonderful to have so many people to talk about alchemy with! She’d never regretted taking in the orphaned Edge when he lost his parents, but he’d never really been interested in alchemy.

Whenever she’d wanted to tell him about her newest synthesis and how she was so close to getting it right, he’d asked questions like when she could be done so he could cook dinner because they hadn’t even had breakfast, and could he open the windows to clear out the gas?

So Iris nodded happily. “Yes!”

“You weren’t waking up! I was worried, and if it was something we couldn’t cure how was I supposed to know Melanie could have?”

“Because she’s a trained professional, that’s why! You may have the power of a mana but you don’t know everything.” Roxis emphasized the last words, anger growing colder. “Whatever happened to the modest, self-effacing Vayne? Or did you always have such a low opinion of others, and were only deigning to spend time with those without your natural omniscience for the amusement of watching these buffoons bumble about?” He waved at Flay and the others. “You sure know how to pick them, if so.”

“Which of these do you think I should use?” Crowley asked Iris.

“Roxis!” Vayne almost took serious offense at that implication.

“Hmm, I don’t know.” Iris frowned. “Why don’t you wait until they’re done?” Roxis had exhaustive notes on ether effects that he’d offered to let Iris copy. 

Roxis adjusted his glasses. “You’re right, that was unfair of me. But you need to let others help you, Vayne.”

“I was worried that it might have happened because Pain, I mean Thorn, pacted with you. Or something else that you might have gotten in trouble for.”

“I suppose.” Crowley glanced sideways at Iris, whose concession to Al Revis’ theoretical school uniform had been to replace the shawl draped over her lower arms with the sleeves of a loosely-worn coat that had fallen off her shoulders.

Roxis said, “I suppose,” at almost the same time as Crowley.

“Jinx!” Nikki announced. “One, two, three, and you’re mine!” She grabbed Roxis’ arm and dragged him over the corner of the room, under the loft.

“What do you think you’re-“

Nikki shushed him and whispered, “Do you want to scare them away again? You need to lighten up, or else Vayne’ll feel bad and who knows what he’ll do? Isolde said some really mean stuff to him.”

“But Roxis is right. I should have avoided Ms. Isolde. I messed up.” Vayne followed them over, looking at his feet. “Roxis, she figured out that… your father. I’m sorry.” His voice was a quiet whisper when he finally got those words out.

Roxis froze.

Nikki waved her hand in front of his face a few times. “Roxis?”

“Hello!” Pamela said cheerfully as she floated through the wall behind Roxis. Then she blinked, floating there. “Good morning, everyone!” When those words didn’t get any reaction either, she floated forward through Roxis’ body, making Nikki jump, but not Roxis. “Wow.” She giggled. “Vayne, did you break him?”

At first, since Pamela was an equivalent of their Pamela and Roxis was a little like Winna – although he mostly confined his rants about research to alchemy, which Iris was interested in so they weren’t boring at all – Iris had thought that maybe Roxis liked Pamela and he was just claiming he didn’t so he wouldn’t feel embarrassed.

Except this Pamela wasn’t much like their Pamela – sure, they acted similar on the surface, but there was something very different underneath, and Roxis definitely wasn’t like Winna in that regard.

Iris missed Winna. She wondered how he and Pamela were doing. Edge was probably taking care of Nell just fine, and the Guild could take care of itself until she graduated and could bring this knowledge home to restore alchemy to Zee Meruze, but she missed home. The canal-lined streets, the stores run by her old friends, Grandpa Gramps telling his stories by the fountain, even the mist that appeared and dragged her back to the city if she spent too long in an Alterworld.

“Roxis?” Vayne sounded really worried. “Roxis?” He leaned forward against him, peering into his eyes.

To Iris, Vayne’s power felt a little like Fanatos, the mana of evil, and a little like all of the elements, synthesized into one. It was a wonderful experience to perform co-op synthesis with other alchemists, let alone with a mana!

Edge felt like her, which was why she’d ignored people who said she shouldn’t take in a strange boy she’d found trying to sleep under one of the many bridges, when she’d been gathering stuff for a pretend-synthesis. Edge was family, and she’d been hoping he’d become an alchemist too. Maybe it was just a talent, like the way Edge could see Rufina, and even touch her, all along, and other people could barely hear her voice. If Iris’d noticed Crowley…

Now that there were other alchemists, Iris could admit to herself that she’d been a little unfair to Edge. She’d wanted another alchemist to talk about these things with so badly that she’d kept pushing at him, and pushing at him, until he’d just wanted her to leave him alone about it. If she’d stopped trying to shove his face in it and force him to see that it was the best thing ever, then maybe he would have learned to appreciate it for its own sake.

She was disappointed in herself. She’d been focused on saving Crowley, not Yula or Alvero. Maybe if she’d tried harder she could have saved them then. But it was Crowley she’d spent her wish on, just because he was a fellow alchemist. That wasn’t fair to them, or him, that she wanted to be his friend just because he was an alchemist.

Although she was starting to really like Mr. Crowley now that she was getting to know him!

“Exanosis!” The dark Vayne laughed as the technique turned Roxis to stone. “Now he really is frozen like that.”

Vayne focused and the stone that coated Roxis crumbled to dust. Roxis shook himself, making most of it fall off his clothing. The surprise had jarred him out of it. “I’m alright. Well, now we know where Isolde and Lorr went. He won’t make it easy for them.” But Roxis was still afraid for him.

“What do you guys know about Isolde and Lorr?” Everyone turned around: two people had come in the door while everyone was distracted by drama or syntheses. The one who had spoken was a brash redhead with a scythe. Iris would have wondered if he was this dimension’s Edge, but while Edge’s temper was cool this person was obviously hot-headed.

“She, like, wouldn’t tell us what was going on with you, so it was something big.” The young blonde lady had a large sword slung over her shoulders. She made a show of looking at the fingernails of her free hand, but Crowley, who had spent years as a raider (surrounded by ones much stronger than he was), knew better than to mistake that for anything but a show of superiority and a threat. She was saying that she didn’t need to focus on them because they were no challenge, and she’d be willing to demonstrate if this held her up. He moved forward a little, prepared to cover Iris.

It was the least he owed her, after what she’d been through because of his weakness.

“She didn’t tell you anything?” Roxis didn’t dare let himself be hopeful. The fact she’d involved Lorr was proof enough that Isolde expected a fight. Perhaps she intended to be merciful enough to just interrogate and kill them both, and not blacken the name of any innocent family members by declaring that they were sorcerers in public.

“She left a note, that you guys said there was dark magic somewhere and she was going with Lorr and his workshop,” Tony told Roxis. They might have been in the same workshop before, but Roxis was in Flay’s group now.

“She went down there? And she’s not back yet?” Roxis frowned. “We were barely able to scratch the monsters there at first, but the professors should have better weaponry than that available to mere students.”

“Down there? Like, the depths of the Old Schoolhouse?” There had been rumors that some of the delinquents were in that area, but Renee hadn’t taken them seriously. It took serious gear to not just die there: you’d have to be nuts to use it as a base.

“Yes,” Iris told her, moving forward. She thought that these two didn’t get along with everyone else, from how they were acting, so a neutral (or neutralish, since she was in this workshop even though she was new) might help. “That was where they found Mr. Crowley and I. Oh, my name’s Iris Fortner. What’s yours?”

“Dame Renee D’Arcose. That’s Tony,” she added, tilting her head in his direction but not breaking eye contact with Iris.

Flay whistled softly. Renee never used her title, but then Iris had brought up that she was a Fortner first.

“So you’re the one who’s collecting mana like they’re trading cards. Going to try to, like, catch them all, are you?” Because if she even thought about doing anything to the Azureflame Mana, after everything he’d been through, Renee was going to take this too-sweet little girl and slash her though a wall.

For, like, starters.

“Well, several pacted with me, after I freed them from monsters, but there weren’t any other alchemists.” Iris’ eyes grew sad for a moment.

Tony snorted, eyes full of jealousy. “Riiight. Like there was no one else who wanted a mana.”

Iris would have said no, there hadn’t been. Except… There had been someone who had wanted a mana, and he was standing right next to her. She’d share, if she could, since Vayne was pacted to Roxis and Sulpher, but none of her mana had offered.

Mr. Crowley hadn’t asked, and there wasn’t even a glyph here that she could use to transfer their power to him so he could use their skills, the way Edge and Nell had.

“So: now there may be four damsels in distress,” Yula, Isolde, and the female members of Lorr’s workshop, “trapped by the forces of darkness in the depths?” Everyone looked up to see Flay posing dramatically at the edge of the loft, using it as a stage. When had he gotten up there? “To arms!”

“There are three days of classes left before the weekend,” Roxis reminded him.

“For shame, Roxis! As though class matters next to the fates of innocent people!”

Innocent? Ha! “You do remember that we are talking about Isolde? And that she killed me? In cold blood?” Did that ring any bells?

“And it’s only Zeppel. As long as you turn in the assignment, he wouldn’t dare give us detention for embarking on a mission of mercy!”

“True,” Roxis had to agree. What did it matter: his perfect attendance record was already ruined.

Anna was torn. A noble quest or avoiding delinquency? Wait, skipping class with heroism used as an excuse… It was a trick! Flay was trying to lure them into joining him in his deviancy! Except it was her duty to her family’s Honorable Sword of the Flowing Heavens to use it to vanquish evil as a lone sword traveling and righting wrongs: what to do?

No, she knew what to do. As much as it pained her to walk right into Flay’s trap, he was right. “We can’t just leave people trapped down there.”

“Right.” Nikki nodded. “And we’ve got Jess’ potion, so we should be able to save them all this time.”

“I’ll leave it to you,” Pamela said cheerfully. “Teddy and I have some important business to take care of. Bye!”

Everyone stared as she floated through the wall.

“Well, that’s interesting.” Pamela missing out on something this diverting? It was rare that someone did something so far outside Flay’s calculations.

“You didn’t know?” Tony laughed.

“Until Lorr and Isolde get back it’s just her and, like, Professor Karnap.” Since the principal and Zeppel were useless, Dior was old, and none of the other professors had more than adequate fighting skills.

“Professor Karnap?” Jess wondered where she’d heard that name as she bottled more of her potion.

Tony rolled his eyes. “The Vice Principal. What are you, stupid?”

“But calling her Madam Ernentraud is so much more elegant!” Flay protested.

“We should be able to take one of those warps down to where we fought… our last opponent,” Roxis said, not looking at Thorn. “We should probably split up into groups: there are too many of us.” Not to mention that he didn’t want himself, Vayne, or Thorn in the group with Isolde’s students, but they would need some people who knew what they were dealing with down there. “Wait, that’s right. Their weapons.”

“These blades are made with mana cores,” Tony told him, hefting his scythe proudly. “Don’t worry about us, worry about yourselves.”

Roxis didn’t need Tony to tell him that.

“I call Anna!” Flay announced, since Tony had Renee.

That meant Roxis, Vayne & Thorn would go with the two of them, making five. If Jess, Nikki, Iris and Crowley joined Renee and Tony, that would give them a group of six. Roxis wondered if Sulpher would be willing to assist in battle again. Perhaps Vayne could try to use one of Flay’s spare mechswords? Although a sword like Renee’s would be more his style.

Iris started to put away the ingredients she’d gotten out for the next synthesis she’d had planned. Using an athanor instead of a cauldron for weaponry was interesting: she wondered what effect that might have on making a ruby prism. It was so much easier to find the ingredients here!


All of them stared at the statues of their friends – or unacknowledged rivals, in Tony’s case. “They just… froze,” Anna said, stunned. “They killed that monster and then they froze.”

“Well.” Roxis pushed up his glasses as Vayne started to glow, granting their wish to free their friends. “I believe we now know what happened to Isolde and the others.”

“It’s a good thing we traveled in two groups.” This was a brilliant trap. Flay would have approved, if it weren’t for the fact it was being used against him. “Roxis, you join their group.”

Because if their group was the one that got ambushed next time, then if none of Vayne’s aspects (and Vanitas went with Roxis) was loose to free them, they could be trapped down here for eternity. Roxis grumbled, but there really was no way around it.

Chapter Text

Isolde and Lorr’s group hadn’t gotten much farther than they had before running into a monster and getting frozen.

“We have to be really careful.” Anna didn’t get scared, but something that could take out two professors like this? “Maybe one group should go ahead to clear out all the monsters, and the other group should only proceed when it’s safe or they need unfreezing.” Dibs on being in the group that got to train!

“Should I fix them all?” Vayne asked, sounding like he knew the answer but had to ask.

“Hey! You’d better fix Isolde!” Tony tried to be threatening. Since the workshop all knew Vayne’s power, they really weren’t impressed.

“No.” Roxis was happy to confirm that Vayne’s reluctance was only sensible. “Ms. Isolde, fine. Professor Lorr… I don’t want him to know we were ever here, preferably.”

“Alright.” Vayne did his little float and glow routine, and Isolde inhaled.

Then stared. “What are all of you doing here?” When had they appeared, and right in front of her? Professor Lorr was right here, and she’d thought Roxis had more sense.

Then she turned to Lorr and realized that he wasn’t breathing.

Thaaaaat was unexpected.

“Some of the monsters here will freeze everyone within a certain radius if they’re killed.” Or Roxis guessed that was how it worked. From an alchemy perspective, it was logical, but there were ways of selecting targets by using the killing intent of your attackers. The desire to do violence in their hearts left them vulnerable.

“You’ve been gone for almost two days full days now.” Renee wasn’t tossing a like in there or acting flippant? She must have really been worried.

“So you went to them.” That meant they almost certainly knew about Vayne. “I wanted to protect you two from this…”

Tony was outraged by what that implied. “Hey! What are we, chopped liver?” They wanted to help Isolde.

“If you were worried about an evil mana, you should have, like, said so?” Renee was the heir of Arcose, and the stories of the defeat of Mull and Amalgam (the true stories) had been passed down in her family, from the Lady Blaire who had known Klein personally before her marriage. Not to mention the alliance marriages with the lords of Duran, who were descended from Lord Delsus of Duran and Marietta of Kavoc, Knight of the Order of Alkavana, two of the heroes. “The school might have totally remodeled Avenberry, but there’s still some stuff left from what Iris of Avenberry left to fight him.” The rogue alchemist who had experimented on the Azureflame Mana had made his lair in the ice cave to study the mana power generator there. It was like the glyphs on the school grounds, sort of. “And I could have gone home, asked the mana chiefs, and come back.” Since she was graduating soon.

Flay stared at her. “You know how to reach the Land of Mana?”

What? Flay was the heir to Duran. The forest that you traveled though to reach the Land of Mana was on his ancestral lands, not hers. “If your dad didn’t tell you, than I’m not going to.” Of course, to be fair, he’d only given her the map to the Forest of Ocean Mist because she’d had a delirious mana wrapped up in fireproof cloth dragging along on the ground behind her and a sword pointed at his throat. If it weren’t for the extenuating circumstances, she would have gotten, like, in so much trouble for that.

“That stuffy old man?” Flay’s mother had been an alliance marriage: she’d fulfilled her obligations and headed back home so she could shack up with her boyfriend, Flay’s father could shack up with his childhood sweetheart, and nobody had to work very hard to pretend they didn’t know what was going on. He had lots of half-siblings, which was a good thing, since not only did they make good minions but they could rule Duran when he went out adventuring and conquering the world.

Although Flay’s father was pretty sure he’d get it out of his system and come home eventually. Delsus had.

So Flay hadn’t had a Duranish mother to tell him their old stories, and his father certainly wasn’t going to tell a flightly boy like him the truth until he reached his majority and settled down.

“Excuse me, but who is Iris of Avenberry?”

“The last Lady Iris of Avenberry? Your, like, ancestor?” Renee gave Iris a skeptical look.

“No one really knows a lot about the time before Zee Meruze became the way it is today.” A world-piece floating in Uroboros’ dimension, just like the Gardens of Ishtar, Grimore, and the others. Like Al Revis was floating, actually. “I think it’s been longer for us than it has been for you.” It had been much more than just a handful of centuries. The Escalario cycle had repeated itself at least a few times, she knew, and become ancient myth. A lot of people thought the Alterwords were the way it had always been, and the story of the old world the same as the story of the war of the gods in Ishtar.

Their dimension was where things went when they were torn loose from the world. Uroboros had been woken up (and upset) when alchemists had seized his power to deliberately tear a city loose from everything else, to escape their enemies, according to what the books here said. The thing that had possessed Crowley had said it was just power, but maybe that had come later? When Uroboros grew angry and wanted to sweep his dimension clean by returning all the world-pieces to the world?

There was a lake where Zee Meruze had been now, in someplace called Italia, and she didn’t have any idea where the other pieces had come from. What if there were people living there now? What if they were killed when the large pieces of land materialized on top of them?

Iris liked her home. It might be small, and some people might have resented the Guild deeding part of the land to create the Beastman Quarter at first, since there were people who didn’t have homes, like Nell and Yula since they’d had to sell theirs since they couldn’t pay the taxes, but… It was home.

“You don’t know?”

She shrugged. “Well, time is mutable.” Especially in the Grand Gardens of Ishtar, where that clock was. That made it easy to go to past, present, or future. There was another of the cenotaphs that controlled that in Posporia, but it didn’t seem to work.

Everyone stared at her.

She blinked at them.

“Excuse me: who are you?” Isolde asked. ‘And what planet are you from?’ she didn’t say.

“I’m Iris, Iris Fortner.” She half-bowed over her staff.

A staff, Isolde noted. They had once been the cliché alchemist weapon since alchemists spent a lot of time wandering around gathering ingredients and they made good walking sticks. No one really used them nowadays: they also symbolized wizardry, and some considered all magic dark magic. That, and a quarterstaff was a peasant’s weapon.

“Iris… Fortner.” She looked at her two students.

“The principal said her and that other one could enroll.” Tony indicated Crowley.  

Which told Isolde absolutely nothing. Bernard was Bernard: he’d been a compromise candidate for the post since Dior had wanted to go into semi-retirement, Lorr was too busy training his workshop and getting called in to deal with witches, monster infestations and dark alchemists, Isolde had lost the ambition to take over Al Revis and change things after Theofratus had died, the other professors would have strenuously objected to anyone trying to drag them out of their private research for longer than it took to teach the occasional class, the non-faculty candidates were politically motivated, Ernentraud had the treasury to worry about and Zeppel was Zeppel. Bernard had gotten the post since he was the most acceptable candidate who had fought the least hard against getting forced into it.

“Excuse me?” Anna raised her hand politely. “I don’t mind a challenge, but the longer we stay down here talking, the more likely we are to be ambushed.” She couldn’t spend the rest of eternity as a statue at Al Revis, she had a family style to inherit!

“Well, we’ve rescued Isolde. That only leaves three more damsels in distress, two of whom are right here,” Flay pointed out.

“The trouble is, how do we release them without…”

Flay waved off that potential problem. “Surely Vayne can manage a time delay. What say we release them in, oh, an hour?”

“Or,” said Isolde. “We could just do this.” She triggered Lorr’s Wings, then those of this students. “And send them to the infirmary where this phenomenon can be studied.” That was how things were supposed to be done.

Oh. Right. Studying. 

“Already starting to take advantage of you, aren’t they?” Isolde looked at Vayne archly. “Every single little problem.” She drew out every word, lingering on them.

The fact that Vayne didn’t have an immediate retort for that made the others worry.

“Vayne, you don’t really think that, do you?” Jess was the one to speak up.

“No.” He shook his head. “I want to help all of you, and I want to learn how to use my powers to help people.” He just… He couldn’t deal with Ms. Isolde, she made him want to run away and hide. She wanted to force him out, the way those villages had.

He had to be strong, though: he shouldn’t hide behind Sulpher, or Roxis, or anyone.

Vayne just didn’t know what to say or do. He couldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, because she didn’t want to hear anything from him but that he was sorry and wanted to die, and that wasn’t true!

“Leave him alone.” Roxis stepped forward, putting his hand on Vayne’s shoulder, and Vayne envied Vanitas’ freedom to become a kitten and hide under Roxis’ ponytail.

“Yeah!” Nikki declared, swinging her hammer in a way that wasn’t so much threatening Isolde as lashing her tail, indicating that Nikki had a lot of energy and could, theoretically, use it to pounce Isolde and claw her face off.

Although Nikki wasn’t going to threaten a professor, of course not.

Jess totally would, though. If it weren’t for the fact it would be so much more efficient to just smile cheerfully while toying with one of the shiny new bombs she’d pulled out of her basket.

Tony and Renee moved to back up Isolde. Renee just sort of strolled over, watching them and making a show of wondering if they were that stupid. Tony was the type who would draw his scythe and grr at them.

Which he did.

Isolde and Renee suffered synchronized embarrassment.

“It’s ok, guys,” Vayne said, then added, quieter, “but… thank you.”

Roxis squeezed Vayne’s shoulder before letting go, barely getting out of the way in time to avoid getting hit when Flay slapped Vayne on the back heartily. “I will support you,” Anna promised. Then she frowned. “Why haven’t any monsters shown up?”

The idea of being ambushed by a large group of those things grabbed everyone’s attention. As they scanned the area, Roxis did a quick inventory of his mana. Vayne was being stared at by Isolde, Vanitas was poking holes in yet another collar with his itty bitty claws, and Thorn… “Where did Thorn go?”

Anna dashed to the top of one of the crystal outcroppings, scanning the area. “Over there!”

“Spread out!” Isolde felt like she was leading a field trip. She was the professor here, so she felt obligated to ride herd on this bunch. If the freezing that had managed to get past her and Lorr’s protections was an area effect, then they couldn’t just go charging in like fools.

Hmm? They weren’t encountering any monsters. These crystal terraces were fairly thickly populated normally, and Lorr had told her, during the battle, that he’d never seen as many as they’d found.

“Thorn! This isn’t the time to practice by yourself!” Anna was scolding him when they arrived, talking over whatever he was trying to say. “Let me help. Ha!” she exclaimed as she lunged forward, quickly slashing the last monster in two.

She froze.

Thorn just sighed. “I tried to warn her.” He sheathed his blade and looked over at Vayne, who concentrated. When Anna could hear again, Thorn told her, “The stillness is an attack, even if it doesn’t cause physical pain. Something meant to cause harm and death to one’s enemies. Roxis made me realize that I control pain. I can choose whether or not to suffer it. I don’t have to fear this attack, or any other.”

Isolde frowned, thoughts racing. She’d thought that Pain, who they seemed to be calling Thorn now (was he posing as a student?) would be the weakest link among the three of them, if he lacked the ability to grant wishes. It should have occurred to her that the absence of his power could also be a deadly weapon, in the same way Vanitas could cripple her, or anyone else, by withdrawing his power. Vayne and Vanitas’ invulnerability wasn’t an intrinsic part of their power, but merely an application of it. Thorn… might actually be the hardest one to destroy.

But then, he hadn’t been made by Theofratus. Whatever crimes he committed, whatever he did to the world wouldn’t blacken Theofratus’ name any further. 

“I guess that makes sense, but…” Anna had really wanted more practice on the monsters here! Still… “No, you’re right. We can’t take any chances.” Darn.

“Mmr?” Vanitas poked his head out from behind Roxis’ neck. “Someone’s looking for Iris.”

“What? Where-“

The clash of scythe against scythe answered that question, as Tony whirled around, barely in time to block a blow that would have taken Crowley’s head off.

“Edge!”

Chapter Text

A long time ago, when Iris had been a little girl, she’d spent her days going all over Zee Meruze playing alchemist. Or that was what Manna and her other friends had called it. Iris had insisted that she was not playing, she was gathering ingredients! Just like Daddy and Mommy and Auntie.

It wasn’t a game, so she couldn’t stop playing to play dolls or shop or Raiders or anything, because Daddy and Mommy and Auntie needed lots of ingredients. They’d gone to gather ingredients, and they’d come home when they had enough, so Iris was going to do her best to gather tons and tons.

Everyone always looked away when she said that, and left her alone, which was good because she had to be a good girl and help out.

So Iris had begged the teddy bear people for some fur and picked flowers and even crawled down into the canals to get the slimy green stuff under the bridges, even though children weren’t supposed to go there.

Then, one day, she’d met another child there, sitting on the stone rim under the overhang, hugging his knees to his chest.

“Hi!” When he didn’t respond, Iris frowned, then realized that he was trying to make himself small, so she whispered, “Are you playing hide and seek?” Because she hadn’t meant to attract attention to him.

He looked up a bit, she could see an eye despite the fall of red hair. “No.”

“Are you down here gathering ingredients too? You’re all wet. I fell in a lot until I got used to it.” The algae on the stones could make them slippery.

“I fell in,” the boy said, and lowered his head back down again.

Iris pouted, poking his side. “You can’t stay wet. You’re going to catch a cold.”

“Whatever.”

Daddy had told her what to do when people said that, so Iris grabbed his arm. “Ok!”

“Hey! What are you doing?” He stared to her, getting pulled up a bit when she started to walk towards the sunlight.

“You said whatever, so I can do whatever I want. I’m taking you home,” Iris said cheerfully. “You can wash up and the Guild people can find your parents.” Because the Guild took care of stuff (especially if your parents had given them a retainer, just in case).

“I don’t have parents.”

“Everybody’s got parents.” Iris had three.

“They’re dead,” he said shortly, and dug his feet in, trying not to let her pull him any further.

“No they’re not!” Iris had declared, whirling around, suddenly angry. “People shouldn’t say things like that!”

He’d looked at her again, staring. “They’re dead. I fell in.”

“They’re not dead. Parents don’t die!” Iris’s fingernails dug into her palms as she clenched her fists, as though being ready to fight would make it true.

Iris had spent almost half a year gathering ingredients so they would come home, when everyone knew that if someone wasn’t back by the end of the day then they weren’t ever coming back. The alterworlds would force out any foreign life within a day. The only reason someone wouldn’t return to Zee Meruze was if they were dead.

Iris’ denial of that fact was probably why she wouldn’t realize that the Raider they’d brought food to in the Crystal Valley because he couldn’t go home had to be dead. Of course, he’d eaten, hadn’t he? Everyone knew that ghosts couldn’t eat.

And Daddy and Mommy and Auntie couldn’t be dead, because Daddy was the best alchemist ever and Mommy was the best Raider ever and no one would ever be able to beat Auntie, Auntie had told her so. Not even the monster under the bed.

The boy had looked at her, eyes that had been dull and dead suddenly seeming worried for her, and Iris had just glared at him even more fiercely, because there was nothing to worry about. “They’re coming back! They are!”

To this day, Edge didn’t know why he’d given in and let her take him home then. Maybe he’d been a little afraid of the crazy girl (and she’d been bigger than him, back then). Maybe he’d wanted to believe that she was right, and that they’d find his parents if they just walked up and down the streets enough, collecting those weird things. That maybe they’d find hers, too.

He’d hit his head when he’d fallen in, he remembered that, so he couldn’t find his old house. Iris told him to sleep over, and he’d just gone along with it.

Then the other girls, Iris’ friends, had asked who he was, and told him the whole story when he’d asked about Iris’ parents.

He hadn’t minded gathering ingredients before then. He’d wanted to believe that it could work, and Iris had told him stories of syntheses that could bring people back to life, so maybe they really could get their parents back.

But his parents were dead, and Iris’, and it wasn’t right. It wasn’t healthy for her to smile, and insist that reality wasn’t true, and gather up trinkets and pebbles endlessly as though they made any difference. Iris was his friend, he guessed, and he didn’t want her to go mad.

Eventually, she stopped talking about her parents, and she stopped gathering things that didn’t have any use, and instead started talking about becoming a Raider (to go look for them was unspoken) and becoming an alchemist and finding more recipes since her daddy had taken his book with him that day (and he wasn’t coming back, except maybe by alchemy).

He knew by then that Iris knew, she just wasn’t talking about it, wasn’t thinking about it so that she could keep smiling like that. And he didn’t want her to stop smiling, even if he wished she’d stop spending all day making concoctions in the kitchen and using up all the food and cooking utensils, not eating unless he went out and got something.

Iris needed him, so he stayed, for Iris. Even as they grew up, and it became inappropriate for a boy and a girl to share a house with no one else there (Edge had needed to punch a few faces in over that, and more after Iris invited Nell to stay too). If asked, he would have said that he didn’t have anything better to do, but…

They didn’t have anyone else, but they had each other. That was alright, wasn’t it? They could grow up together, and be Raiders, and stay in that house, and Iris would have a family, and maybe if everything was safe and she didn’t have to be sad anymore then she could look up out of her shell, the way he had that day, and lay flowers on the memorial that had been built for all the lost raiders, all the people whose bodies would never be coming back to Zee Meruze.

Then that Crowley had cursed Iris to die, unless she used her wish on the Escalario to cure herself, and if that happened Uroboros would kill first her and then everyone else. He’d tried his best to protect her, but Ash was right, he hadn’t known anything. He hadn’t been able to make any difference in the end, she’d still disappeared.

There was still the house, and Nell to look after, and missions to do. They’d saved the world, so life went on even without her. Everyone was walking on eggshells around the two of them, since Nell kept insisting that Iris was going to come back. Edge wanted to insist that was true too, but…

One day, almost a year after everything had happened, Edge found himself near that bridge after making a delivery. Normally he wasn’t one for nostalgia: he tried not to think of the past, but he still found himself climbing down to where he and Iris had met.

He was too big to fit comfortably on the little shelf anymore.

Unless he curled up, holding his head between his legs. Just like back then. Only Iris wasn’t going to come by and snap him out of it. Or maybe she would, if he waited long enough. Iris knew this place.

Except it wasn’t Iris who gave him a hesitant poke. “Are you finally ready to move on?”

Edge’s head jerked up. “Rufina?” Why was she in Zee Meruze instead of Valtessa?

The angel, whose wings were covered with fur instead of feathers on closer inspection, looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry that I lied to you. I didn’t come here to do good deeds. I’m a mana, a death mana.”

“You’re a mana?” Actually, now that he thought about it, “That was why those monsters were chasing you. They were trying to capture you, like the monsters we defeated that had captured mana.” That had given them power, until they’d beaten them, Iris had pacted with the mana, and given those powers to Edge and Nell.

Rufina nodded. “Probably. The death mana who used to take care of this place disappeared, so there are all these strange ghosts. Like Reize, although you guys helped him move on, and like…” Rufina looked quietly anguished, the way she had when she’d talked about completing her mission and going home.

“Like me,” Edge realized. He’d fallen in.

He’d been the reason children had been forbidden to play here, all these years. His parents had dived in after him, and he’d wanted to stay to reassure them, but they couldn’t see him, not the way Iris could. They’d kept visiting and visiting, as though that would bring him back somehow. And it had kept him here, because how could he move on when they were like that? How could he leave when they needed him to return to them?

Except he’d never been able to do that, never been able to fulfill the mission that had bound him here, not until Iris had come, looking for her own dead family.

“You were happy. I didn’t want you to know.” Rufina hated it when lives were cut short, and Edge had been nice when he’d been the only one who could see her and Rufina couldn’t remember why because of the damage the evil power that had tried to grab her had done to her memories. She hadn’t wanted to complete her mission, because then she would have to leave this world and Edge would have to go to another one where Rufina couldn’t go. He’d given her a mechsword to remember him by, and…

“Iris… Iris isn’t here anymore.”

…she’d known that he’d say that.

“…Nell.” No, he couldn’t leave.

Rufina smiled, trying to seem cheery. She should have known that he’d say that, too.

“Yula still hasn’t returned.” And how long Nell’s sister had been gone was worrying Edge. Alvero, the real Crowley: the two other people who had been infused with the shadow gem’s power had both died. Had Yula lied about going away from them for a long time to think? Had she just told Nell that so she wouldn’t worry when Yula didn’t return?

Had she just pretended to be ok long enough to find a hidden place to die?

“Are they dead?” Edge asked, frowning.

“I don’t know. This space is warped. It wasn’t supposed to exist like this, that’s why Uroboros wanted to fix it.”

“By destroying it.” Edge would never forgive Uroboros for being the cause of everything that had happened to Iris.

That aside, “I don’t have enough power on my own to see through everything.” The tangled spaces, the mist that enclosed all of it.

“Mana… can get more power from a pact, just like alchemists do from mana. Is that right?” Both Edge and Nell had lost the Blade powers that Iris’ mana had given them: yet another reminder that she was gone.

“You want to pact with me?”

No, Edge didn’t want to pact with any mana, but Rufina had looked so touched that he’d blushed, and after that he couldn’t say no without crushing her, so it was easiest to just go along with it. To go back to the house, where that glyph Ewan had put on their floor without a by-your-leave was, so he could start using her Blade power, and then Nell had somehow gotten the idea that they were going to Rufina’s world like it was some normal Alterworld to look for Iris and her sister, and how was he supposed to burst her bubble, either? When she was bouncing around all happy?

Honestly, sometimes Edge thought wanting to protect Nell wasn’t the only reason Yula had been willing to force her away. Edge had realized very early on that Nell was… special. It wasn’t that Nell was stupid, exactly, and sometimes she was actually very perceptive but there was something odd with her in the head. She acted the way people who didn’t know any actual kids thought small children acted, and she was too smart to be that stupid and too honest to be putting on an act.

Actually, Edge didn’t mind at all. Nell was cheerful, and helpful, and almost never threw frustrated tantrums or refused to listen to sensible advice because she didn’t want to. However, she still needed looking after, in ways an experienced raider of her age just shouldn’t, and Edge had already had a few words with Eva, the tavern owner, about the way Nell kept asking for alcohol and the fact they probably still shouldn’t let her have any even once she wastechnically old enough.

Nell needed babysitting, Iris had needed looking after.

Correction: just like Iris still needed looking after. She was still alive. And so were Yula, Alvero, and Crowley. According to the Mana Kings, that creature didn’t let go of the people it took. It would have Iris over his dead body, he would have said if that weren’t a little ridiculous under the circumstances. 

Chapter Text

“Iris!” A strange girl ran forward, rubbing her eyes to hide tears. “I missed you so much!”

“Nell! Stay back!” The man Iris had called Edge focused on Tony, their blades scraping against each other as they tried to find an advantage, a way to break the deadlock in their favor.

The resemblance to Tony was almost uncanny as they stood there, mirroring each other. They were the same age and they were both using scythes. Sure, Tony’s hair was a pure red instead of a reddish brown. And Edge was scowling instead of sneering. And their hair cuts, and outfits, but somehow…

Iris hadn’t thought that Tony looked anything like Edge when she met him. It wasn’t a clear relationship, like the two Pamelas. But now everyone wondered if these two were equivalents.

“Back off!” Tony said, the threat that Edge would regret it if he didn’t clear in his voice.

Edge’s only response was a dismissive, “Hn.” While Tony was distracted composing a response he jumped back, dodging the strike Tony made once his scythe was free, to stand protectively between them and Iris. Iris had run forward to hug the girl who’d collapsed, bawling her eyes out. Edge glared at them from a ready position, weapon out, almost daring them to attack. “Crowley…” The venom in his voice was more promise than threat. Crowley had cursed Iris, forced her to make the choice between sacrificing herself and letting everyone die. Crowley had taken Yula from Nell.

His family had been hurt and anyone who did that was going to die.

Crowley tried not to shrink back or scratch his head, but he didn’t know what he was supposed to do in this situation. He’d never seen this guy before in his life, so he wanted to say that the idea that it was personal between them was ridiculous. He would have no idea who he was if Iris hadn’t told him about her brother.

He just didn’t have a clue what to do. The thing that had possessed him had attacked them, Iris had said, but how could he apologize for things he hadn’t done? Not that Edge was in a mood to listen to apologies or pleas for mercy.

He’d lost months of his life. Someone had been walking around in his body and doing things under his name all that time. Iris had said that it wasn’t him, and he knew she was right. That was not him, that was something… something that couldn’t be mistaken for human, let alone himself. He’d wanted to believe that that would be it. She’d repaired the Shadow Gem and told the Guild that he was innocent, so they could both go home. Iris had made him believe that it would be just that simple. He’d wanted to believe that.

That thing had hurt people, was still hurting people, still out there, and people were going to look at him and see it. That terrible, terrible thing, and it had done so much more than Iris knew. It had taunted him with it. Sealing the mana away, tainting the holy grounds with darkness that could be traced back to humans, to alchemy, eventually?

Trying to destroy Zee Meruze and all the Alterworlds?

How could he ever go home, after that?

The only fitting response was helpless laughter, but Edge would think he was laughing at what he’d done to them. The situation wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny at all, and that was why there was nothing to do but laugh or cry.

“Edge, wait! Crowley’s not possessed anymore! It wasn’t him, it was the Shadow Gem all along, remember?” Iris spoke with such conviction.

“He’s lying.” Edge’s rage seemed to be receding under a mask of cold fury. He clearly had been trained not to let his opponents see his emotions or provoke him. “Iris, are you alright? Did they hurt you?”

“Edge, I’m fine.” Iris tried to stand up, but Nell practically had her in a death grip and she started bawling again when it seemed like Iris might leave her.

Edge took a breath, showing an emotion other than anger and contempt for the first time since his arrival. Iris was alright. They’d take her back home, and everything would be okay. Everything would be just the way it was: Rufina had promised not to tell her the truth. After so long knowing that Iris’ days were numbered, and then trying to cling to the hope she would return, she was finally safe.

Then his game face went back on. Because she wasn’t safe yet, but she would be.

“Whoa.” Nikki held up her hands to ward off his glare. “We’re not the bad guys here! Jess cooked up a potion that gets rid of that creepy aura, so Crowley’s fixed, and him too.” She pointed at Thorn and wished he was doing a better job of not looking evil. Flaya’s expression wasn’t helping either. This wasn’t a play, but Flaya treated everything as a play.

Edge snorted. “The ancient alchemists couldn’t do anything: he even possessed one of them.” This wasn’t something alchemy could fight, not without sacrifices, and Iris was not going to sacrifice herself. So they would just have to find another way. Edge didn’t know how, but he thought he’d start with violence. “Rufina took us to the Land of Mana so that we could go to this Alterworld to find you.” This wasn’t the real world to Edge: Zee Meruze was home. “They told us what he really is. It corrupts everything, Iris! Once it has a hold on someone, it doesn’t let go! There’s nothing anyone can do.”

And he’d asked, as much as he’d hated spending time in the Land of Mana when he could be looking for Iris. He had to make sure that the curse didn’t count, that Iris would be ok… That, and he hadn’t wanted to give up on Yula. Or have to hunt her down himself.

Nell would cry for weeks and Iris had yet to synthesize anything useful, like a means of getting water out of the upholstery before it went moldy without having to build a campfire in the backyard since Iris wouldn’t leave the cauldron. Zee Meruze was incredibly humid, and Edge had been doing the cleaning since he moved in. Before that it had been Guild people, but the account Iris’ parents had left wouldn’t last forever, so he’d done it. Embarrassing as it had been to be doing housework.

“That’s not true!” It wasn’t!

Iris had that cutely determined look on her face, but Edge told himself that he couldn’t cave, not this time. “Maybe he is free, for now.” He looked pale, as though he was horrified by what Edge had said. Edge would have thought that this couldn’t be the Crowley who had set them up, that this man was too uncertain, too easily upset to be that smug snake, if he hadn’t known what an actor he was. “But you repaired the Shadow Gem!” And he’d just gone along with her, just let her do it! He cursed himself for a spineless fool. “It’s still out there, Iris, and it can take him over again. Just like it did one of the Council of Nine!” The ancient alchemists who had crafted Zee Meruze, taken it out of the world, away from its savage wars and persecution. “We have to find and destroy it, or this will all happen again!”

And he couldn’t take it again. Because he just knew that Iris would seal the Gem away with the Escalario and die, the way Uroboros had been sealed, unless he did something. Last time, they hadn’t had an alternative because Crowley had put that curse on her. He wouldn’t let that happen again. “You made Uroboros listen,” he’d help them get here, “but Apep won’t.”

“Don’t say that name!” A blonde beastgirl who looked like Repre, a blond who reminded him of Winna somehow and a dark-haired swordsman all yelled those words.

Nikki winced, pawing at her ears to get that sound out.

Roxis raised his right hand to cover Vanitas and make him stay there, then whirled around to grab Vayne. As though that would do any good at all.

Thorn drove home the point not with the point of his blade but the flat, hitting Edge’s neck hard enough he wouldn’t be able to say anything like that again. Anna had been right about targeting the damage: it was effective. For instance, if he’d crushed the fool’s windpipe the others would have tossed nectars at him right away and fixed his voicebox along with it. Concentrating the pain and damage on the voicebox should keep him quiet for long enough.

Alright. Vanitas was shivering, but he seemed to be okay. Vayne didn’t look like he was going anywhere, and Thorn had backed off after silencing the fool who was trying to get them all killed, so it seemed safe to assume that he hadn’t been repossessed.

His mana had been accounted for, so now Roxis could yell.

“Apep? Who’s Apep?” Jess wondered.

Correction: Now Roxis could put his head in his hands and hate the fates that had surrounded him with such suicidal lunatics.

“The Division Mana,” Thorn answered, using that odd red speed technique to get his hands on Jess’ throat. Roxis knew he wanted to throttle her. “And don’t say that name,” he hissed, before letting her go.

“What, like, math? I know fractions are seriously evil, but that evil?” Nikki kept rubbing at her ears, even though she knew it wouldn’t do any good. As soon as they got back to campus, she was going to see if anybody had a brain bleach recipe.

Ooh, Jess knew this one! “It’s a fundamental part of existence. Without it, there would be nothing but the primordial chaos, according to the Greeks.” A sort of general mish-mash. Not chaotic in the sense of conflict, but chaotic in that it wasn’t ordered. There was nothing to order. “In order for there to be air, there has to be not-air. In order for there to be wind, there has to be air that isn’t moving.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Iris wondered.

“It’s the mana of tearing things apart.” Yes, Roxis realized, that made sense. He hadn’t been able to figure out what it was in Hermetic alchemy terms, since he’d assumed it was an entirely foreign being.

And it was. “In order to create something, you have to destroy what was already there. We destroy spinacherb to create healing potions.”

“In order to want something, you have to not want what’s already there,” Vayne said softly, to himself.

“Of course it’s opposed to alchemy,” Roxis realized. “Alchemists unite, we combine, we… We’re hastening the final days.” Oh hell.

Isolde finally looked truly interested. Unhappy, even. “You’re right. Every valley will be raised up, every hill made flat, nothing too hot or too cold, all the rough spots smoothed away.”

“But that’s a good thing.” Anna looked puzzled.

Isolde gave her a look. “Oh, right, you were probably raised in that pagan cult.”

Cult?” Must not kill teachers, must not kill teachers…

“Alchemy… No, it’s not just alchemy. Civilization. Order. Progress. Creating peace by bringing people together in understanding. Everything that searches for the fundamental truths. No, everything that does anything is working towards that day. We can’t exist without division, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a horrible thing. Imagine having your own being torn apart. Into other people, with their own lives, and you becoming complete would mean they as individuals had to be lost forever.” That was what it had been like for the early mana. “We’re undoing its work. No wonder it’s trying to destroy us.”

Wait. “Vanitas, Vayne, Thorn – get to the surface, all of you.” They were a mana that had been divided, weren’t they? How long ago had it really gotten its fangs into them?

“But what are you going to do about the monsters?” Vayne wondered.

“We’ve got how many alchemists here? We’ll think of something. Get going. No, wait. Make everyone here forget that name first.” In principle, he hated tampering with people’s minds and so on and so forth. This… was just the exception that proved the rule.

“Alright.”

“Hey!”

“Phew! That’s much better.” Nikki’s ears had been starting to ache from being rubbed too much. “He’s right, guys. There are names you just don’t use.” Names had power. “That’s why no one knows God’s real name, remember? People kept using it for magic even though not doing that is a commandment.”

“Call it Zorc Necrophilius, if you have to have a name.” That was in what Greek records there were. “The lover of death, the serpent of night.” The corrupter, who warped everything that was good. That turned even love itself, the emotion that bound together lovers, friends, and families, on itself. The way Iris had been cursed so that Edge and Nell would work to gather the gems, hastening her death and the death of alchemy.

It fit, it all fit. Now what were they supposed to do?

“Edge, you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. There’s so much that they know about alchemy here that no one at home knew!” Iris lectured Edge.

He just pointed at his throat, because obviously he couldn’t hold a conversation when he needed a heal jar.

“Uroboros and the Escalario send me here because I could rescue Crowley! They wouldn’t have sent me here if there wasn’t a way. Jess created this new synthesis, and there’s Vayne, and Roxis has a power that isn’t just alchemy!”

That made Edge start listening.

“Alvero is still alive, and Yula, too. You’re right, all this is happening because I repaired the Shadow Gem, but I wanted to know the truth. When we didn’t know the truth, Crowley could lure us into traps and I thought that collecting the gems was a good idea, remember? It’s always better to know. So please, Edge? Please come with us and don’t fight with everyone?”

Edge knew he shouldn’t give in to Iris’ cute determined expression, he wasn’t going to go along with something just because it was plausible and she was looking at him like that…

Who was he kidding.

Either way, until they broke the gem again or destroyed this Zorc, Iris wouldn’t be safe.

Chapter Text

“Alright.” Isolde took command after Edge had been healed. “I assume we’re splitting up into two groups.” Edge wasn’t leaving Iris’ side, and Nell clung to Iris again at the very idea of leaving her. Crowley would obviously have to go in the other group, to avoid renewing hostilities or giving Edge any opportunities. She knew she wouldn’t give up on destroying, oh, Vayne so easily. “Does anyone have any ideas as to how we can get past these monsters?

“I have a song that scares weak monsters away, but the ones here aren’t exactly weak.”

“I have a monster repellant and a monster attractant,” Jess suggested.

Iris agreed that Nikki shouldn’t sing. Repre’s singing had attracted monsters, and that was the last thing they needed. She wondered why Jess would mention the attractant. “Oh! Uroboros!” she realized. “If I summon Uroboros, he said that he would move me and anyone I was with out of phase with everything, so monsters couldn’t hurt or stop us. What if we used that, and the monster attractant, and went ahead of everyone else?” Hopefully, the monsters would all follow her.

“Good plan.” Isolde agreed. “And the other group will use the repellant. Iris will be in the first group, obviously. Tony, Renee, I want you two with her.”

“I’ll be in the group that takes the lead, of course,” Flay said. “We should get started.” He rummaged through Jess’ bag.

Roxis could say many things about Flay, and had, but no one could question his bravery. You couldn’t pay Roxis enough to do that.

“That leaves Crowley, Jess, Nikki, Anna and Roxis with me.” Isolde nodded and Roxis winced.

Still, she even knew about his father. He really couldn’t be in any more trouble than he already was, so there was no reason not to take out his deck and see if he had anything useful as they sat down to wait for the others to get far enough ahead.


Looking around the shadow realm, well aware that he was not here in body, Roxis asked himself, “Am I going to make a habit of having significant dreams awhile after Vayne does something irritating?” Well, it was better than beating his head against the wall.

“Hey, this isn’t a dream,” Roxis heard from behind him.

Instead of making him jump, this familiar voice made the tension ease. “I’d already figured out that this was no ordinary dream.” He turned around slowly, trying to hide how glad he was. “It’s been far too long, Father.”

“Sorry, I can’t exactly come up there for Parents Day.” The path to Al Revis was opened only once a year, unless you were faculty. Travelers were very carefully examined. “I got your letters. Eventually.” Mail got a little slow when you were on the road, even if the Imperial Mail had a policy of forwarding the mail of traveling alchemists to the next town for free and no one had gotten around to telling them that the Rosenkrantzes were a fallen family that no longer deserved that privilege. “Two mana, huh?”

“…” Roxis didn’t know what to say to that. Well, when in doubt: “One well-behaved and helpful one and one that’s enough trouble for three. Three hundred, really.”

“Do you think you can summon them here?”

Roxis paused. “Dour?” The mana of wood appeared. “I can’t seem to… I’m still sorting everything out. About Vayne, Vanitas, and Thorn, who needs to stop acting like a villain out of one of Flay’s little plays if he wants to make friends.” Although, in this workshop…

“And not terrify people.”

That was puzzling. “I haven’t had a chance to write you about him yet.”

“Heard it through the grapevine.”

Roxis automatically looked at Dour, at the word ‘vine,’ but his mana shook his head. He wouldn’t tell other people Roxis’ secrets.

“Your friend’s cat’s other mana is the sister of the Mana of Darkness, and one of her daughters is… someone I’d like you to meet.”

“You can’t mean…” After all these years? It was almost too good to be true.

“Roxis, I’d like you to meet Lutanus.” Despite the male name, the mana that appeared took the form of a woman wearing a red dress. “The Mana of Shadow.”

Roxis managed to remember his manners even though he was grinning with delight and bowed formally. “Welcome to the family, Lady Lutanus.”

“She’s already family,” his father told him. “She was pacted to several of our ancestors. Were you the one that unsealed her?”

“Lutanus, you were under the school? But how? They’re still putting mana down there?!” That was outrageous.

She smiled sadly. “A little further back than that. I used to be in charge of the Library of Eden, and when the town grew up into the city of Avenberry I stayed, until I was injured in the battle and sealed myself into a book that Mull eventually found. I didn’t make a pact with Viese, that was too soon after my first pactholder died, but I pacted with several of her and Iris’ children.”

“I wonder if Ms. Isolde has started to release mana. Or… you said Viese, didn’t you? She came to me in a dream. I wonder if she was the one who freed you.”

“She might have,” now that Lutanus thought about it. “She was a very nice person.”

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” He should be getting to know his father’s new partner, but there was something that had been bugging him.

“Of course not.”

“Do you know how old the… core of Vayne is? At first we thought Theofratus created him, but the legends say that Mull summoned Amalgam instead of creating it, and Vayne was Amalgam.”

“Well, the core of him would be as old as his element is.” The question was when the element had gained a mind.

“At this point, I think he has three elements. At least. Pain, desire, and hope. Of course, that can all be summed up by calling him the Mana of Wishes, that seems too simplistic. The recognition of the need to improve matters, the drive to improve matters and the belief that this is possible? He would have to be at least as old as humanity, and yet he doesn’t know the first thing about his element. Even Pain doesn’t: if he had then he would have known he didn’t need to suffer like that. Something must be keeping him from,” Roxis couldn’t think of the right word. “Is there something that’s out to keep him like this? Or is it just bad luck and battle damage?”

Was something trying to hurt his mana? “It’s not as though he’s not perfectly capable of getting himself into that kind of trouble on his own, but such an important mana ending up like this for at least a thousand years? When did it start, and why?”

“I don’t know. There wasn’t anything in the library about a mana of hope. Or love, for that matter. They aren’t physical elements, but neither are dreams and illusions. Ir-Lilith went into hiding after Palaxius and others fought a war over her. I know they tried to use her to create mana before that.”

“So he might have been created by Palaxius?” Perhaps, but Roxis wasn’t going to bet on it. At this point, he wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Palaxius had just played with Vayne, it seemed as though every great alchemist villain had at some point, and be told that Vayne had been created by someone before that, and then before that ad absurdum.

“It’s… Very possible. It may not just be a coincidence that Pain looks so much like Chaos.”

“There’s a Mana of Chaos?”

“No, Chaos was a human that Palaxius possessed.”

“There seems to be a rash of that going around…”

“That’s it, I’m coming up there,” Johann declared.

“What? You can’t…”

“Of course I can. I’ve got a mana. It would be illegal for me not to, you know how they are about unlicensed alchemy. I’ll just use the flying carpet so I don’t have to wait until the end of the year when they open the passage.” The flying carpet was an old family heirloom that was made to look like a green stingray. Klein would have recognized it as the one he’d found in Mull’s castle. “It’s going to take me awhile to work my way north, though.” Johann frowned. “This is really starting to worry me.”

“What is?”

“The fact that you still haven’t realized that you’ve been wandering around in the shadow realm for almost an hour. You didn’t get possessed again, did you?”

Roxis blinked. “I thought I was dreaming?”

“In the middle of the day? And I already told you that this wasn’t a dream.”

“O?” Dour frowned, then disappeared.

“We were… We got frozen by those monsters, didn’t we. I must have left my body and ended up here so that I wouldn’t get frozen along with it. Yes, I meant to call Vayne, but I… forgot.”

“Of course the thoughts got sucked right out of your head, this is the shadow realm.” Johann cuffed his ear, but not hard enough to really hurt. “You need to stop pulling stunts like this until you get yourself a patron. The shadow realm is not a toy, and I won’t always be here to bail you out. Do you want to end up a lost soul wandering here for the rest of eternity?”

“Vanitas would have missed me before too much longer.” Although, since he’d told them to stay up there, it would have been at least a day before Vanitas got worried enough to disobey orders. “I’ll start trying to find a patron as soon as I don’t have to worry about…” Suddenly all sensation seemed distant. “There, you-

“See?” Roxis finished, finding himself in the real world. “Dour?” Not Vayne?

His mana nodded, holding up one of the leaves he’d given Roxis to make the water of youth with. He floated up and dropped it on Jess’ head, since she was closest.

“They fix this as well?” Roxis was impressed when Jess started moving again. Well, it was a sort of living death. “Can you cure the others?”

“Es.” Dour nodded and floated back to Anna.

“Well, having Iris’ group go ahead so all the monsters would follow them clearly didn’t work. Some of them must have given up and come back here.” Roxis reached down to his other deck pouch, then frowned. Was he up to a high-level summoning after spending an hour wandering around in the shadow realm like an empty ghost?

Thank goodness Viese was only four stars, unlike her brother. “I summon Viese the Ring Alchemist!” For some reason it felt rude to just give her orders the way he would a monster, even though he hadn’t had any problem with ordering Felt around. Perhaps that was because Felt was so Vayne-like?

He was wondering how to phrase it when she broke the ice by asking, “What do you need?”

“Treasure capes. As many as you can manage, please. If it’s no trouble.”

“It’s no trouble at all. Hold out your arms?” He did, and he saw the synthesis glyphs appear as she made them on the spot. “There, that should last awhile. Let me know if you need any more.”

It was awkward to bow over a large stack of clothing, but he managed it. “Thank you, Lade Viese.”

“Your welcome.” She smiled. “But…” she frowned thoughtfully. “Would you mind calling me Granma?”

“If that’s what you would prefer… Grandmother.”

She smiled again, and vanished.

“What was that all about?” Isolde asked.

“’That’ was one of my ancestors. She created the Ruby Prism and helped defeat Palaxius.” And Isolde had best not insult her.

Isolde looked a little taken aback by those revelations. “You can trace your family line back that far?” She hadn’t been able to, when she’d looked for evidence of past dark dealings.

“I couldn’t, no, but the Lady Viese keeps track of her descendants, it seems.” He held out his burden to Jess, who threw one on right away.

“I’ll go look for more mana cores!” She ran ahead.

“Take more than one, they wear off!”

Anna grimaced, but took a good number. She didn’t like crutches like this, but then were necessary in order to reach the true enemy.

“How do you use these?” Crowley asked.

“Just put one on,” Nikki told him, demonstrating, “And the monsters can’t touch you. But they wear off eventually, so be careful.” 

Once they’d taken theirs, Roxis threw one over his shoulders and ran ahead, still carrying his share and Jess’. Both to make sure she didn’t get frozen again, and to hopefully minimize the likelihood of Isolde wondering what those leaves were.

Maybe she might think they were from some relative of the thyme plant. No, the greatest predictology mistress of the modern age wouldn’t be sidetracked by some terrible pun.

Chapter Text

At the head of the group was Iris, except when Nell’s excited orbit moved her in front of her. She was trying to strike a balance between hurrying and reassuring Nell, who was practically bouncing, wanting to get caught up and show how happy she was that Iris was back. Well, not back, not yet, and Iris didn’t know how she was going to tell Nell, tell either of them, that she needed to stay here until she graduated. Well, she could use the power of Uroboros to go home on breaks, but even then she would need to study and work on projects instead of going on Guild quests all the time.

Maybe if they could rescue Yula Nell would be too happy to have her heart broken by that disappointment?

Flay would have been at the front, except he and Tony had started fighting again. Who had started it was immaterial: they were both idiots. They had this endless cycle of provocation and challenge that was like the chicken and the egg only with idiot teenage boys. Renee knew better than to blame it on the infamous Norse redhead temper, she had Viking blood herself and they didn’t see her acting like this, much less like the usual blonde French noblewoman.

They were sparring more than seriously trying to kill each other, really. A dead enemy wouldn’t know that they were beaten, and this was about showing off and making the other acknowledge that they were beaten, not actual blood. She’d seen idiots like this at dozens of tourneys.

That little girl… right, her name was Anna, in Flay’s workshop, had asked about Renee’s marriage prospects once. Was it hard for women who had trained to the sword to get married here, too?

The idea of noblemen not liking warrior woman was just weird, really. Everyone knew that a nobleman’s wife had to be able to defend the property while her husband was away, and that meant the ability to manage an armed force. Of course, most of that was watching the food supply, making sure the walls were in good repair and so on, but it always helped to be able to keep the troops in line and oversee their training.

Not to mention that young teenage boys liked to show off. That was what tourneys were about (well, that and the more serious aspect of displaying why people shouldn’t mess with you). A typical lady fair might think it was quite nice if you won carrying her favor, but there was a difference between her thinking that you looked good because you hadn’t looked bad and winning the acknowledgement of someone who knew what all the maneuvers were called, how difficult they were to pull off, and could tell what your actual skill level was. They wanted someone who could talk swords instead of needles.

A wimp thinking that you were strong didn’t mean anything. The acknowledgement of someone strong?

Renee had told Anna that she should learn how to ride a horse and come out here during tournament season if her family had trouble finding her a husband, before she figured out that Anna had really been asking if Renee was engaged (which she was, not that it was any of her business) and if she was interested in Flay. Which she wasn’t.

Flay had no true heroic qualities. It was all about him and his ego, not helping the helpless. This fight was a case in point: he was picking a fight with Tony to pick on him and look good in front of her. He might not be truly evil, but he was far, far too selfish. Not to mention an idiot. If defeating Tony would win her heart, it would have happened by now, and picking on someone under her protection was not going to endear him to her. She would have challenged him herself and fought with her full power in order to teach him a lesson, but he would have liked that.

Tony, on the other hand, needed to learn some self control and stop letting himself be provoked so easily, but whatever. She’d just remind him of that later. Again. He might be a commoner, but if he couldn’t deal with people provoking him she would never be able to present him at court even when he did get a mana and become a notable alchemist. He’d get eaten alive and that would, like, totally defeat the purpose.

She was hanging back at the rear of the group so that she could keep an eye on everything, especially the monsters that thronged around them. She’d walked through monsters before, with a treasure cape, when she didn’t want to be bothered with picking on such weak opponents (it was really beneath her to kill anything that could be defeated with a single sword slash and was no threat: hardly chivalric behavior), but despite Iris’ promise that this wouldn’t just wear off, they still bore watching.

She would have preferred it if Edge had stuck near Iris instead of having the same idea of playing rearguard. It meant she couldn’t study him without turning her head to the side and being obvious about it.

She already had a fairly good idea of how he ticked, though. Obviously she’d had to make her feelings on the subject of him attacking Tony (even if he had meant to attack Crowley and Tony had just gotten in the way) clear.

Those feelings consisted of ‘you take his head off, I take yours,’ which was simple enough to convey to a fellow warrior with body language. You couldn’t finish training without attaining fluency in macho posturing. The really nice thing was that if she killed him he’d stay dead: no Wings of Icarus.

His response had been the same, only about Iris instead of Tony, obviously. If he’d wanted to be the one to protect Tony, then they would really have had a problem.

At that point, they’d understood each other well enough, which was possibly part of why he was sticking close to her. That type could only take so much chatter per day, and Nell and Iris’ reunion had already used his quota for like, the week, and they showed no signs of stopping unless something important happened. He was probably relieved to find someone sensible in this den of weirdos and alchemists.

It was good to have someone else reliable in this group, so Renee could watch them instead of just watching their backs. It was kind of obvious why Isolde had sent them with this group: it kept the wild cards out of her hair. Well, except that Crowley guy, but of course Isolde was going to keep the maybe-possessed guy near her instead of near them. She got excessively noble herself sometimes, like the way she’d kept what was up with Vayne a secret. Obviously Flay would have wanted to be in the group in front: Tony kept him distracted and Renee could watch them all for her.

Frankly, Renee was as glad as he was that no one was trying to talk to her. She was a noblewoman, she could be impeccably courteous and cutting to her worst enemy, but Al Revis had made her rusty when it came to that, as well as everything else, and her mana wasn’t as walled off as he usually was.

The little mana-collector girl was why, obviously. Azureflame had been caught by more power-hungry alchemists in his time than just the one Renee had rescued him from. He did not trust her, and if it weren’t for the fact that he was star-fire instead of another breed of it, he would have already attacked. No, he knew how to watch and wait, his vengeance had long grown cold as his flame.

Still, while normally his emotions didn’t bug Renee too much (she didn’t know how the others could possibly like having something else in their heads, messing with their composure and discipline), being around her was putting her on edge, in that way it got when you knew that there was a bad guy out there and you couldn’t do anything about it yet.

Fortunately Edge was painfully straightforward and couldn’t see through an act to save his life, so he didn’t know that she was feeling cold fury towards the one he protected (even though it wasn’t her own fury).

Or maybe it wasn’t just Iris. Renee and Azureflame didn’t talk. He’d been through enough and it wasn’t like there was any point in prying. He knew that she didn’t like the fact that he’d pacted with her against her will, which had forced her to go to Al Revis so she didn’t get locked up as an unlicensed alchemist, and she knew that forcing her to spend three years away from her career as a knight errant hadn’t been his intention. He hated being here a whole lot more than she did. He’d been experimented on and tortured by too many alchemists for them not to make his scales crawl.

Still, if she had to suck it up, he had to too, and she’d rescued him. That meant she’d take responsibility.

If whatever was going on had something to do with imprisoning mana, like the mana Iris had pacted with, then it was a threat to him.

He burned with fear as well as anger, she could tell, but it would be mean to, like, say anything about it. He could break his pact with her at any time, she certainly wouldn’t mind, but he’d still come down here.

It was brave of him, to face that fear, to stand with her against the enemy. He fought alongside her because she didn’t use his power. Sure, sometimes he gave her strength, but the sort that came from an ability, not the kind that came from an alchemist controlling their mana’s power. She didn’t expect it or acknowledge it. Saying thanks would have been speaking of it, and he wasn’t up to that.

“Do you know anything about Crowley?” Edge asked, but she didn’t mind when it was important information instead of chatter.

Sadly, her response was, “Not a thing.”

“Has he been trying to hire people for jobs, tempt them with power?”

“No.” That, she would have noticed. She was one of the top three rumormongers on campus, after all. “You should ask Flay. He’s, like, an idiot, but he keeps track of his minions pretty well.” Whatever captured his interest.

His dismissive snort conveyed what he thought of the idea of trusting Flay’s judgment.

“He’d just tell you whatever would have the most interesting results, anyway,” she agreed.

Now Edge was looking at her again, as though he hadn’t already figured her out.

“What?”

“Why are you here? At this school.” She seemed too sensible to be an alchemist.

“Not because I wanted to be. A mana chose me, and I had to come here.”

“…does Iris?” Did it really make a difference? Would she die if she didn’t train here or something?

“It’s not like your town’s signed those treaties. Zee Meruze disappeared before the school was founded. Your ruler isn’t obligated to force her to come here.”

That was a relief. “What did you do before you came here?”

“I was a knight errant. Defeating bad guys, rescuing the helpless, all that good stuff.” She examined her nails casually, trying not to show that she cared or missed it.

He seemed a little surprised, but also a little relieved. That was something he understood, something familiar in this place of crazy alchemists. “That sounds like the Guild.”

“Guild? What do you guys do?”

“Fight monsters, deliver medicine, investigate strange things, help end hostilities.” He shrugged. “Whatever the job is.”

“Hmm.” She nodded. “Sounds good.” Ahh, that was why she had felt like she knew this guy. There had been plenty like him training alongside her. There were those for who it was about glory, and the ones who got the job done.

“Do you have a Guild here?”

“They’re called chivalric orders. I’m a Knight of Alkavana.” She tilted her head. “It’s, like, Professor Isolde’s job to take care of demons and stuff like that, ok? If she decides that you’re right about Crowley, we’ll help you out. Otherwise, it’s none of my business.” So he could stop trying to sound her out.

 It was distracting, especially since they had arrived at a large area full of nothing but strong monsters. The blank-eyed delinquents were bad enough: it grated on her to have to leave people she recognized down here instead of fighting them so their Wings of Icarus would trigger and get them to campus so they could hopefully be freed from this.

This place wasn’t a lair of strong monsters, this wasn’t a home: they were in a barracks, some kind of sick storage room… or a gauntlet.

When Flay and Tony called an unspoken truce and separated, Flay going forward to take point and Tony falling back a bit and going so far as to wave her forward instead of yelling for her to catch up, then it was kinda obvious that there was something nasty up ahead. The Nell girl was walking on her tiptoes, Edge had gone forward to guard Iris’ other flank, and even Iris (the most stereotypically alchemisty alchemist Renee had ever met, and she’d only known her a few hours) was spinning her staff, going through a few of the moves she used to sketch out glyphs automatically, warming up, as she looked around them with eyes that would have looked veteran if they hadn’t seemed too much like those of a kitten trying to be fierce.

“Should we make Flay stop so we can wait for the others?” Tony asked.

“No.” She shook her head. “Repellant won’t get the others through that mob without a fight. Watch our backs.” She dashed forward to reach Flay. “Edge and Nell don’t have Wings of Icarus, so don’t do anything rash.”

“Ah! Now that’s more like it! I am honored to take instruction from such a fine lady of war.”

Calling her fine? Ugh.

She wished she’d gotten a chance to see Nell’s skills instead of only a few of Edge’s, but if Flay didn’t think that they were in serious danger (he wasn’t saying that he’d protect them or anything, and he’d be doing that if he didn’t have some reason to think they were both strong), she’d trust his judgment. If there was one thing she trusted Flay to know, it was who would put up a good fight. He’d picked her out of the crowd of freshmen right away, after all.

Their only options were to fall back out of this area and wait for the others, have Iris escort them to the enemy a few at a time, or forge ahead, find out what they were up against and either handle it themselves or send Iris back with the two who didn’t have Wings to meet the others and escort them to the battle a few at a time once she knew what they were up against and could tell Isolde.

If Edge and Nell weren’t liabilities, the last plan was a lot less risky.

Iris could only use this ability on so many at a time, and they couldn’t fight while she was using it on them. On the other hand, this might guard against conventional attacks but who knew what a demon could manage? It was better if Isolde knew what they were up against before she got here.

Or was that an excuse? Renee might despise meaningless, honorless battle, but this was a real fight. She’d missed those.

Training fights against weak opponents or disciplining miscreants just weren’t the same.

Fighting something that might be on par with a grand duke or Amalgam itself?

Now that was more like it.

She spun her sword in front of her, grinning in a way it felt like she hadn’t in years.

Chapter Text

Their opponents appeared out of nowhere when the first of them reached a certain point, as though there was some invisible tripwire.

“Big Sis… Big sis?” No, Nell was far from stupid. “Get out of my sister!” she yelled, fists clenched around the hilt of her blade as she hefted it and charged forward. Iris automatically noted which one and recalled its properties. The Peacemaker was effective against the unholy, which would be a big help if they were trying to win this battle.

No, what they had to do was keep them here long enough to free them. Iris dug for the bottles she’d filled with Jess’ potion.

“Sickle Rain!” Edge called, slicing the air with his scythe. Dozens of small sliver crescents flew from that rip in space, headed towards Alvero. They wouldn’t do much damage, but trying to dodge them should keep him busy for a few seconds.

Or they would have, if he had any sense of self-preservation.

But that required a sense of self.

At least they knocked him back a little. “Focus on the swordsman!” Flay ordered. “He has a technique that allows him to grow stronger.”

“Gee, I’d like to, but I’m a little busy here!” Tony called, dodging a swing of Yula’s huge mace. “Oh hell no, that’s not fair!” The head of her mace had flown into the air, and now there were more of them up there, waiting for their chance to catch someone off guard. “Tell me somebody has a technique to get rid of those!” No one answered. “Oh that’s just great.”

“Like, stop mobbing them!” Renee ordered. “I can’t get a clear shot!” Her sword spun in front of her, ready to fly, but she couldn’t target anyone without risking hitting someone. At least Iris was hanging back as she prepared her technique like a sensible person. Too many people on the battlefield led to injuries from friendly fire, Lorr made damn sure people learned that on the first day of class.

“Found it!” Iris held up one of the bottles.

Then cried out, turning her head to try to keep the glass from hitting her face, as one of Alvero’s flying stars broke it.

“Iris!” Edge ran over to her, which let Renee head forward and finally get a shot in at the blond. Well, no, it was probably dark brown, but it was hard to tell under all that dark aura.

“So, they can still think in there…. Or is their dark lord doing the thinking for them?” Flay wondered, his usual battle grin slowly turning into more of a smirk.

“I’m alright, Edge. I really shouldn’t have said that out loud.”

“Wow, I never would have guessed that it was a bad idea to, like, tell them what it was.” Renee rolled her eyes, then grabbed the front of Iris’ dress and pulled her behind cover. Edge followed, after glancing back at the battle. “How many more of those do you have?”

“Three,” iris told her, not yet fishing them out.

“Alright. We’re going to have to be smart about this. How good is your aim?” She asked the two of them.

“Iris and Nell are both clumsy. I’ll take one, I have a good throwing arm.” He’d gotten plenty of practice with kunai.

“Iris shouldn’t keep one, they’ll expect it,” Renee knew. “Tony’s got pretty good aim.” 

“Let’s tell Flay he has one,” Edge suggested.

Renee smiled brilliantly at him. She really liked the way this guy thought. If she didn’t have Tony, she would be making inquiries as to his pedigree.

“I should keep one.” When they looked at her, Iris reminded Edge that, “I can ride up to one of them on Diemia.”

Renee and Edge looked at each other. Edge didn’t like the thought of her getting so close to them, but they both had to admit it was a pretty good idea. “They might think that we’ve taken them all away from you.” Renee nodded. “Good plan.”

“Thank you.” Iris nodded, half-bowing over her staff again.

“Give me Tony’s, I’ll hand it off to him. Who do we try for first.”

“Yula,” Edge said firmly.

Renee arched an eyebrow at him. If she hadn’t gotten such a good impression of him, she would have assumed he was an idiot for suggesting that, since Alvero had that power-up technique Flay had mentioned.

Edge snorted. “Alvero’s no challenge.”

“I can reduce his power with the help of Jiptus,” Iris said, shifting her grip on her staff. “And Yula is Nell’s sister.”

Renee shrugged.

“I’ll call for Diemia right now,” Iris said, after giving the two of them their bottles. “Hopefully that surprise them.”

“Full frontal assault? Sounds good.” Renee looked her up and down, considering. Maybe she wasn’t that bad after all. “When Flay thinks I’ve given him one, he’ll be over the moon. You and Tony should try to get the other one then.”

Edge nodded, glanced at Iris, and headed back to the fight, charging like he was going to throw something right then. It should be a good distraction. Renee nodded in professional approval as Iris summoned her mana and charged in an instant later after Edge had knocked Alvero off his feet with a call of, “Harvest!”

Unconcerned for her ‘ally,’ the possessed Yula ignored his plight, ignoring a hit from Tony’s own scythe as well in order to launch more rocks into the air. “Grr, not this again!” Tony complained, grabbing Nell and pulling her out of the way of a falling one and blocking a throwing star with his scythe as she recovered her balance. “Worry about yourself, kid! Hey, a little help here?”

Or that was probably what he said, it was hard to hear over the scream of Flay’s summoned drill and the pounding of Diemia’s feet, stone on stone. With Yula pinned between them, it was easy for Iris to dump the elixir down Yula’s back.

Yula staggered, but was ready to fight again by the time Iris had slung herself down off of Diemia. “Big sis…” Nell looked hopeful, but when she saw that the dark aura was still there, only diminished she steeled herself to attack again. “Break Slash!” She cried out in pain when Alvero used the opening after Yula was knocked back and Nell was left trying to recover to hit her in the side.

“Nell!” Edge cried out, cursing himself. He hadn’t been able to get in position to hit Alvero while he was distracted, and now he’d hurt Nell.

“Knock it off!” Tony yelled at her. “I know she’s your sister but how do you think she’ll feel if you get hurt trying to save her, huh? Back off!” he told Alvero, taking a swipe at him before tossing an X-Heal at Nell. “She’s been doing this the entire time,” he griped at Renee as she pulled him to the side and palmed him the bottle. Delinquents got a lot of practice passing notes and bottles in class: he’d know what to do. “She just keeps ignoring the damage she takes, and I’m stuck playing healer!” Because there was no way Flay would take that role if he could get out of it.

“Iris! Now would be a good time for your technique!” Flay called as he felt the electricity he’d summoned into his body during a lull in the battle desert him.

“Right, Jiptus!” The poison mana weakened Alvero, countering the power absorbing more and more darkness into his body gave him.

“Grr… This is actually making me miss that blond traitor!” At least he could get rid of nuisances like the falling rocks. Tony made like he was racing towards Alvero so that he and Renee wouldn’t be too tempting a target… then threw the bottle to his side, hitting Yula in hers. The dark aura disappeared for a few, hopeful seconds, and even when it returned it kept flickering, on and off, dark and light.

She swayed and Edge opened his bottle, grabbed her, and tipped it down her mouth, hoping it would be more effective if it wasn’t blocked by clothes or skin. This meant they didn’t have any left for Alvero, but he didn’t really care. The others shouldn’t be too much longer anyway: if Renee thought that Isolde was competent she probably was.

Yula sputtered, coughing, her weight sagging into Edge’s arms and Nell cried out in warning as Alvero charged. Better to kill Yula than let her go free. Nell tried to block him but she simply didn’t have the mass, but she held him back for a few seconds, enough for Renee to join her in holding him back and Tony to yank on Yula’s arm, telling Edge to, “Get her out of here!”

The two of them carried her behind the same trees Edge and Renee had taken cover behind a few minutes ago. After they put her down, the two of them ran back to the battlefield, knowing that Nell would come after her sister and they would have to help Flay keep Alvero busy. Iris and Renee were hot on Nell’s heels. They were too focused on Yula to notice a gathering patch of mist going the other way.

Iris already had an X-Heal ready, and she followed that with a Cure Jar, in case that helped.

“Big Sis!”

“Uh… Nell?” Yula was still dazed after those potions?

Renee tipped her head back to look at her pupils. She’d seen this before. “Either of you got any food on you?” The pallor, the way her cheeks were slow to regain color when Renee pinched one of them?

Man could not live on heal jars alone, but they would keep prisoners from dying. The fact it left them emaciated and unable to think clearly without the nutrients the body and brain needed was just a bonus for dark alchemists.

“I’ve got lots of things,” iris said, surprised Renee wouldn’t know that. She was an alchemist. Renee didn’t have food on her?

“If you’ve got soup, see if she can keep it down. Then fish, meat. Watch her closely and hit her with a heal jar at the first sign of trouble.” People who ate after long starvation could drop dead, especially with the amount of food Iris was going to have to give her so that she could get back on her feet as quickly as possible. “Have a nectar ready. When Isolde gets here, she can sent them back to campus. She’ll be fine once that happens,” she told Nell, seeing the question on her face. “We’ve got a good infirmary. She’ll be fine.” Provided they got her out of here before Alvero broke past the men or any more enemies showed up. Speaking of which, she’d left the men to handle things by themselves? Edge, Tony and Flay?

Wait, was that Flay she had just heard crying for help? Had Alvero powered up that much that quickly?

She ran back to the battlefield, summoning her mana on the way. It hadn’t been a good idea to summon him when she already had five other allies to keep track of, but with Nell and Iris busy she might need the help.

The three of them wouldn’t have had any trouble keeping Alvero busy… if it had been the three of them.

Tony was frozen, looking at the mana that had appeared out of the mist. A small red-haired girl with a scythe? They almost looked related.

Was this his mana? It seemed fated, somehow. She was looking at him.

“Thank  you for rescuing me,” she said to him, and before he could stammer out that he hadn’t really done all that much she asked, “Would you like to make a pact with me? I’m…”

“Yes!”

“Alright!” She seemed delighted by such an enthusiastic response. It was obvious that this was an alchemist who truly wanted a mana, who would take good care of her and use her power to the fullest.

The two of them were oblivious to Alvero’s struggles to get to the mana, to recapture her inside his own body. Flay might have thought that the mana was making a terrible mistake, choosing Tony, but obviously he couldn’t allow the forces of evil to recapture her. Edge just figured that the fewer interruptions they had, the sooner the pacting would get done and the sooner Tony would get back to helping them keep Alvero away from Nell and Yula.

When Renee joined Edge, Flay broke away from the stalemate to clap Tony on the shoulder. Or try to: his hand went right through. “Sweet!” Tony grinned. “Hey, Renee! I’ll get her to Isolde!”

“Tell her to hurry!” Renee told him. “This guy’s almost dead!” She could see that in the azureflame’s light, and Flay had told them on the way here that if they killed them, the bad guy would just take them back. They had to free Alvero before they finished him off.

“Don’t worry, he heals,” Flay reassured her.

“Oooh?” Renee spun her sword in front of her as she felt her mana strengthen her. “Isn’t that handy.”

Tony crouched at Yula’s side once he got there and called on his mana. “Hey, can you make these two intangible too?” Wait, he couldn’t call his mana ‘you.’ What if she left him? “What’s your name, anyway?”

Several floors away, Nikki’s ears pricked up. “Hey, did you hear someone scream just now?”

Roxis shook his head. “No, but we’d better hurry.” They’d lost too much time being frozen.

Chapter Text

It was well-known among even the hardiest of delinquents that you couldn’t cheat in Isolde’s class without getting caught. Many delinquents put far more work into trying to cheat than they would have needed to get an A in the first place. Some of them, like Flay before he’d gotten bored with the entire concept of classes altogether (actually, he’d realized that passing equaled graduating, and his desire to stay in Al Revis had been stronger than his desire to soundly defeat every challenge and test placed before him), actually were aware of this, and tested themselves by coming up with clever means of cheating, ways of passing the class without using the material it had covered and so on.

The Vice Principal just let them think that she’d fallen for it. Lorr gave smartasses like that mandatory Extra Credit assignments (aka, sicced giant monsters on them) to make up for not doing what he’d told them to (and heaven help them if they tried to argue that technically they had). It was a good way to tell if they’d cheated because they were lazy or because they were clever and needed more work to occupy their time. Zeppel always fell for it, so that wasn’t any challenge. The others were hit or miss, although Isolde was aware that no one got anything past Dior, either, he just let them pass unless they needed to learn a lesson.

It was a point of pride for Isolde that no one had ever gotten anything past her. Anyone who had managed it would have bragged, they did it for the triumph of it, and Renee, Tony and their predecessors would have found out about it.

Of course, simply relying on her predictology skill wouldn’t have allowed her to keep a perfect record. No, even predictology had its weaknesses, its blind spots. She would have been a fool to rely on only one method of detecting cheating.

She would also have been a fool to tell anyone about the tricks up her sleeve, which was why not even Renee knew that Isolde used a charm meant to enhance her senses.

Normally, those were only used during syntheses, so that alchemists could notice fine details in their experiments more easily, since they came with the danger of being blinded and deafened by thunder and lighting, for example. Fortunately, the aroma material she wore purified her body of those and a host of other ailments. 

Which meant that she heard Tony’s scream clearly. It was hard to make out the sounds of battle, when there were so many monsters down here, but she’d recognize that anywhere.

In the absence of her workshop, Anna was the best underling present. Crowley was too polite and guilt-ridden to disobey an order, but she wasn’t going to let him out of her sight. Also, Anna was the fastest. “Anna, run back and tell Jess that we need to hurry, then catch up with me.”

“Understood.” Anna fell back. They were traveling at a slow run, on average, but Anna was purposefully moving in a circle relative to the rest of them as they advanced and Jess kept falling back and then sprinting ahead to catch up. Roxis had insisted on helping her after the second time, and with him and Nikki pulling her along Jess didn’t get short of breath.

At first, Anna had intended to ask Roxis what his intentions were, offering his arm to a young lady, but he’d looked worried. Not the sort of general ‘is anything wrong?’ worried, but the more specific, urgent worry of someone who already knew that some doom awaited and was trying to stave it off.

Anna had already noticed that Jess didn’t have a lot of endurance sometimes, and had offered to take her on bracing 4am runs, before Anna went to go train seriously and Jess went to go make bombs, but Jess had turned her down. Actually, now that she thought about it…

“I’m almost done,” Jess told her, stirring her cauldron and frowning. While normally she loved experimenting with different ingredients and seeing what things happened, this wasn’t a good time for things to go wrong. She thought she knew why the last batch had made them turn out glowy, but she’d had to put the third-to-last batch away to examine it later, since it would have made them safe by turning them to stone, and then they would have had to come back later.

“I found more mana cores,” Nikki told her, ignoring the monsters she ran through, protected by her treasure cape.

“Great.” She nodded, tossing one in when she felt a rise in the ambient wind energy. She already knew this one’s effects on the brew, she didn’t have to worry about it making things turn out weird.. “Alright!” Yes, she could tell that it had turned out perfectly. “Let’s go.”

Her mana appeared, lifting the cauldron up into the air.

“There’s a bunch over this way,” Nikki said, taking Jess’ right hand and looking at Anna, who took Jess’ left.

“We’ll get them,” the wind mana told her. What breeze there was down here whispered to her, warning those with ears to hear of the darkness. “Take care, ok?”

“We need to hurry,” Anna told the two of them as they helped Jess catch up to Isolde.

Roxis was waiting by the possessed students, or rather waiting surrounded by them, protected by his treasure cape. If he hadn’t stayed so they kept trying to attack him, they would have dispersed and they would have lost more time trying to track them down.

“Look out below!” the wind mana called cheerfully.

Normally, Roxis would have struggled desperately to avoid getting drenched by one of Jess’ potions, but honestly, with the amount of darkness down here? Surrounded by mindless, shambling fellow students? He’d rather risk any amount of Jess’ potions than risk that.

Freed of the dark influence, they collapsed to the ground, stood there trembling, and so on. The chivalrous thing to do was to ask them if they were alright, or tell them to trigger their wings of Icarus, but it took too long for them to become coherent, and he couldn’t dig out their wings of Icarus and trigger them himself, not without removing his treasure cape and becoming tangible again.

Jess’ solution to the problem of making sure they got back to campus was… unconventional, but efficient he thought as he lit the fuse and tossed it behind him.

Still, where was Jess herself? Her mana were already nearly exhausted from so many powerful syntheses, one after the other, not to mention carrying the cauldron. Their wings were already drooping, and it was tiring for a mana to manifest away from their alchemist. “Is she alright?” Because the most likely reason for them to press themselves so hard, wings and petals drooping, was that Jess was tiring.

The bomb going off behind him, triggering the delinquents’ wings of Icarus and whisking them away to the infirmary made it impossible to make out the aroma mana’s first response, so she repeated herself. “She’s fatigued, but she’s mostly alright.” The scent of illness had diminished.

“Getting a chance to sit down and catch her breath is helping,” the wind mana added.

“Good.” Jess had clearly been weakening as she tried to keep up with the rest of them. Telling her to slow down or let herself be carried would have been an insult, but then they’d run out of bottles of her potion to throw at the possessed students and she’d started making more.

He’d honestly forgotten in all the excitement that she was living on borrowed time, doomed to die unless someone replaced her stolen ruby prism, until he’d seen her go down on her knees, not to examine a new mana core she’d found but to clutch her chest. “I’m… alright,” she’d told him, getting back to her feet quickly, but her face was pale. She was pushing herself too hard, clearly, but… he had to admire her for it.

Nikki had picked up that something was up, and was helping now provided he explained later. It wasn’t his secret to tell, but she was Jess best friend and deserved to know. They’d given her both sets of archangel wings they had, and they bore some of her weight, but… “I found another Mist Core,” he said, throwing it to her mana as they ran.

“Thank foo,” the wind mana said, eating half of it in a few ravenous bites, before offering the other half to her partner. It didn’t restore as much of her energy as Wind Cores did, but they’d already run out of those.

“Roxis, hurry,” Anna called as soon as she came into view. “We’re almost there.”

“Finally… Oh my.” This many? The huge courtyard Anna led him to was full of poor, lost souls as far as the eye could see in this dim, distorted light.

“This is going to take at least five batches.” Jess pushed her sleeves up again and beckoned for her mana to bring her cauldron back down.

“Nevermind that now. Make one as fast as you can and then give it to Anna so she can take it ahead, they’re fighting Alvero. How many batches do you have materials for?” Isolde asked her.

“Four that will definitely work. A few more iffy ones.” This was not an easy synthesis. Using a mana core alone would have been tiring, but combining that much raw power with other materials?

Fortunately, if there was anything Jess was an expert at, it was raw power. All those mornings spent making incredibly powerful bombs were paying off once again. She flexed her fingers, feeling the power in the air. No sunlight? A wellspring of unholyness that distorted natural energies a couple hills over?

For her? No problem.

“Roxis!” Nikki shouted in warning.

As Roxis scrambled to pull on another treasure cape, Isolde examined the woman Tony had brought her. He and Nell had wrapped Yula in his mana’s gray cloak, like a stretcher. “Congratulations.” Despite the circumstances, she was happy for him. “If anyone deserves this mana, it’s you.”

“I didn’t really… do anything to deserve it.” What had he done to deserve this?! “Nell’s the one that deserves the credit.”

“Big Sis is going to be ok, right?” Nell asked Isolde, face set and arms held in her version of Iris’ cutely determined look. The one that said that they would make something turn out the way they wanted it to, it was just a matter of the universe deciding whether it wanted to do things the easy way or the hard way.

The universe generally had about as much chance of stopping them once they used that face as Edge did.

 This cloak! “You’re the spirit mana, Flay, aren’t you,” Isolde realized, finally remembering where she’d seen this mana’s picture before. Flay was one of the mana Klein had been able to call on, with the help of a lost Lineage technique and aroma material. She closed the cloak up again around Yula. “Keep her wrapped in it as long as you can manage,” she told Tony, since his mana manifesting would drain him. “It will help regenerate her spirit and heal her mind.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“C-Cr-,” Yula gasped out, trying to warn Nell. At first she hadn’t been able to make out the face of the man looking concernedly over this woman’s shoulder, but she had to keep him away from Nell.

“It’s ok, Iris fixed him. And we’re going to fix you.” Nell nodded.

“I’ll send her to the infirmary.”

“Me too!” Nell demanded, still in what Edge had secretly dubbed Killer Rabbit mode.

“Of course,” Isolde assured her, smiling slightly. She knew better than to argue with that. And it got another of the people without wings of Icarus safely to the surface. Two, with Yula. That left Edge and Iris. Not to mention this Alvero.

“It took three bottles, though.” Tony looked at Jess: he wanted to take one up with him, just in case.

“Three?” Jess looked up and frowned. “Which batch did I give Iris?”

“You used a force core, and the ether level was seventy-seven.” Thank goodness for trained memories. As a merchant’s daughter, Jess really should have been taught how to construct a memory house, but as ill as she was, of course they hadn’t expected her to inherit.

“Yeah… Um.” Pouring the last of this batch into a bottle, and dumping them into the bag Anna had made of a spare cloak, Jess mentally went over her inventory, already starting another batch. Right, she’d given Iris her best ones. The strength didn’t make a difference with the possessed students, as long as there was enough they got pretty wet, but three times the power of a dose of that version equaled… Allow for ambient power boosts and suppression…

Good thing this was the same thing as bombs. “Let me know if those are enough!” Jess told Anna cheerfully. If there wasn’t, then that was a job for overkill.

“Isolde!” Nikki and Anna said simultaneously. They’d gotten a lot of practice spotting when someone’s treasure cape was about to wear off on the way over here. She slung another over her shoulders.

“Once you get close enough to the fight, the monsters won’t follow you.” And Tony couldn’t blame them.

“I’ll send someone with more potion later,” Isolde told him, using her wings of Daedalus to send the three of them back to campus. “Help me carry Jess’ cauldron,” she ordered Crowley. Looking at Anna, she asked, “Why aren’t you already moving?”

“Right!” Anna took off, Roxis following a second later. Nikki hovered for a moment to see if Isolde and Crowley needed help, or Jess, but since they were managing ok she started readying her hammer, hurrying after the others.

Behind her, she heard Jess ask them, “Can you jostle it more? It’s helping me mix.”

Seeing Anna, Flay groaned with disappointment. Playtime was over?

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Anna demanded, as Roxis began to cast purification to get rid of the flying shuriken that weren’t Flay’s.

“Took you guys long enough.” Renee leaned on her sword hilt, giving them a look between boredom and annoyance. Her mana’s neigh seconded the sentiment.

“Do you have enough potion?” Edge asked. Flay might still be having fun, but with Iris’ help? Once they’d learned all of Alvero’s new moves, it had become too easy. He wasn’t fond of Alvero, but he didn’t deserve this fate. It might have been necessary to keep attacking him, but it still left Edge vaguely disgusted with himself. Tormenting a mindless… thing that had once been a person? Iris had started wincing, too. He hoped Alvero wasn’t feeling the pain they inflicted on this… perversion of him.

It was making him pity Crowley.

“Hopefully.” Anna cut through space to get behind Alvero and hit his back. Such a thing was dishonorable in battle, but this was no battle, it was an exorcism.

“Careful, he’ll try to destroy the bottles,” Renee warned her, but made no move to join the battle. For some reason, she was growing tired a lot faster than she should be. Maybe it was just that she’d never had her mana out for this long before?

“Right. Roxis?”  Nikki moved to cover him.

“One moment.” He knelt down to plant one of his seeds. “I’m not sure how long it will hold him,” he warned Anna, as his mana appeared, helping him channel power into the technique.

“It’ll be over in an instant,” Anna promised, getting out the bottles and blinking when Flay and Renee took up positions on either side of her.

“This one’s, like, not a total idiot.”

“Careful, he’ll try to destroy the bottles,” Flay warned her.

Anna nodded. “Right.” She sliced through into the dimension of dreams: she could wait there until Roxis’ plant grew.

“There is no escape!” Actually, there was, but Roxis had spent quite a lot of time around entertainers of various sorts: he knew the value of showmanship. Roots plunged up out of the ground around Alvero, wrapping around his body and trying to pin his arms and legs. Alvero probably would have broken free before too long, but Anna came out of the air right above his head.

“Ha!” she cried, dropping the remaining four and following them with her own body, the momentum helping her and the roots knock him to the ground.

Edge joined her as the roots vanished, watching Alvero’s eyes. Tired and dim, they seemed to recognize him. He somehow managed to force out a few words: “Careful, he’s got…” Before the strength left his body, and with it gold-streaked stormclouds.

“What a perfectly ominous time to fall unconscious,” Roxis murmured, reaching for an X-Heal. Saying there was a threat but not saying anything useful: how cliché. And yet another captive mana? Honestly. At this point, there could be no doubt that the attack on alchemy in Zee Meruze and what lay under Al Revis had the same cause. It was the same tactic.

Edge opened his mouth to tell Anna to get off Alvero, feeling that he should try to make him more comfortable, let the Raider have some dignity, but she had already leaped off and started chanting something, waving sticks with white zig-zag papers hanging from them.

At this point, he’d seen so many mana appear that it was nothing to get excited about. Well, he would have cared if there was some chance he’d get a new Blade out of it, but from the way Rufina had acted, he’d gotten the impression that she’d be hurt if he used another mana’s power. Think that he thought she wasn’t good enough or something, and that was the last thing he needed. The mana wasn’t likely to offer Nell one, not when she wasn’t even here.

Wait, didn’t mana usually say something when they showed up? What if this wasn’t a mana? He looked up and then hurriedly averted his eyes, blushing.

As Roxis administered first aid, Renee tried not to fall over and Flay wished he had more of that exploded corn, the mana that had appeared hovered there silently, staring at Iris.

Iris’ indigo eyes opened, wide and wondering, and her hand automatically went up to cover her mouth as it opened, a word trembling on her lips. They moved once, twice, before she spoke, the word soft and trembling, fragile as a soap bubble, unreal as a dream.

As she tried to speak the mana’s own eyes had widened. While the emotions on Iris’ face were indescribable, hers held recognition and terror, because she knew what she saw and could figure out what it meant.

“Auntie?”

It meant that her little girl had grown up all alone.

Chapter Text

Flay swayed on his feet, coming back to himself now that the fight was over. It might not be real berserker rage, but he sometimes disliked his own equivalent of it. It blinded him, in some ways. The power of the mana of gold running through his veins almost made it worse.

At least everyone was too busy to notice his moment of weakness. Edge was clearly no better off than he was, and he was also hiding it, but Renee… Renee was leaning against her mana? He blinked. That couldn’t be right. Maybe if she were falling asleep, but no. That steely-eyed gaze… He should probably stop admiring Renee and get ready for an attack, if she thought one was that likely.

A few yards away, Zeilia had Iris’ face cupped in her hands, watching a quiet tear fall and shaking her head softly, slowly. No, no, she couldn’t have failed, it couldn’t have been this long, she’d hoped Fee had made it even if Kreuz hadn’t, but Fee would have returned to rescue her husband’s mana. Or perhaps Fee had tried, and died as well.

After Jess was settled back in the trees, Isolde had run the rest of the way to find out what was going on. She debated breaking out the testing kit, but Melanie would do that and the immediate problem was obvious enough, which was why Renee hadn’t used hers earlier. “Help me carry him out of the way,” she told Edge. The feeling of darkness in the air hadn’t diminished, and they couldn’t leave a half-dead man in the middle of the most likely battlefield.

Once she had arrived, Roxis had turned his attention from Alvero to the shadows ahead, one of his sets of cards clenched in white fingers. The way he watched was an odd echo of Renee’s steady gaze, but obviously a sorcerer had nothing in common with a paladin. His awareness of the darkness was probably because it was akin to it and the darkness would attack itself as readily as the light, not because he was its enemy.

Anna followed them, waving her paper talismans, in order to give Iris and this mana some privacy. Edge didn’t mind being ordered to leave Iris for the same reason. Still, he smiled, slight and almost soft. “I guess she was right.” After all these years, she really had gotten one of her lost family back. Well, that was Iris for you.

“Auntie? Auntie, I…” I missed you so much, Iris would have said if it weren’t already known. She flung herself into Aunt Zeilia’s arms, feeling the slight bob before the flying mana used her wings to compensate for the impact.

“Oof… You’ve grown.” She’d grown. And that was tragic and it was wonderful, because her little girl was alive.

“I’ve become an alchemist, and a raider. Oh, you have to meet Edge… Edge?” Iris looked around. Nell already left with Yula… “Are they alright?”

“Isolde sent them back to the infirmary,” Nikki assured her.

“Oh, this is Nikki, that’s Renee, and Flay, and Roxis.” Iris realized that she was talking too fast almost babbling, but she had so much to tell her.

Roxis knew that he should stand and bow to greet her, but that would have meant turning his back on what loomed ahead. “I am honored to make your acquaintance, Lady Zeilia.”

“What he said.” Nikki grinned, happy for Iris. Flay wondered if he had a handkerchief on him that he could use to dab at his eyes.

Roxis knew that what he was about to say was in horribly bad taste, but it was a little urgent. “Forgive my impertinence, Lady Zeilia, but…” No, he couldn’t say it. Implying that a mana had to make a pact, even if that was the best way to ensure that she wouldn’t be recaptured? The situation would probably resolve itself in a moment, regardless.

That would mean that Iris had a total of eleven pacts. Roxis had never heard of anyone having that many.

(Actually, he had met someone with even more than that, but Viese wasn’t one to brag. Although, if you counted Edge, which Vanitas hadn’t, Iris was only two behind and catching up fast. Viese was so proud.)

On the other side of the ridge, behind the trees, Isolde and Edge lowered Alvero to the ground besides where Jess knelt, already working on another batch, guarded by Crowley, who was watching the direction they had come from (where all the monsters were) with worried eyes. That meant that his back was facing the direction the darkness was, but he’d have to trust that Iris and the others could defeat it, again, because he was no match.

He’d do what he could. He did turn when he heard them approaching, as did Anna, who had taken up a position on his left flank, hand on the hilt of her sword.

“Do you know who this is?” Edge asked. When Crowley shook his head, he said. “This is Alvero. He was a low-ranked raider.” Like you.

“I’m sorry, but no.” He felt like he should at least have known the names of the people who had suffered because of his weakness. “I didn’t know many people. I only joined the guild so that I could explore the alterworlds. I had planned to do enough quests to raise my rank and gain access to new areas after I finished exploring all of Valtessa, but I found the Shadow Gem first. Or it found me.” Alvero was probably Edge’s age, if not younger, although it was hard to tell when he looked so ill. Not that Crowley had ever been very good at guessing people’s ages.

Isolde picked up three of the bottles Jess had laid out, tied them expertly with a carrying string and handed them to Edge. “Go get Flay for me.”

He nodded and moved instead of asking stupid questions. It was like working with one of the members of Lorr’s workshop. Isolde winced, remembering that Renee and Tony were graduating and she really needed to get around to figuring out who the least bad prospects for recruitment were. According to Crowley, Iris wished to stay at Al Revis and learn alchemy. Since Edge had a mana of his own and she’d need to keep an eye on Crowley either way, that might be the least painful option. The trouble was Nell and what exactly had made Tony so irritated with her. Of course, Tony was easy to irritate, but it was already clear that the four of them were going to be a package deal.

“You summoned me, O Mistress of Evil?”

“I need you to go back to campus and tell Lady Ibis our situation.”

“Lady Ibis? Pamela?” What? Why would a faculty member want him to brief the resident fluff-brained ghost.

“Yes, Lady Pamela Ibis. I trust you know where to find her? I’ll have Renee brief Professor Lorr.” And fill Tony in on what was going on. Right now, Isolde really wished she had more workshop members: she needed reliable people in three places at once. Four, counting where she was right now. Which was why she’d had Edge come back here with Flay. “There’s something Tony needs to do as well, meaning someone needs to guard the infirmary who recognizes the signs of this possession.” She looked at Edge. “I want you to tell Melanie everything you know about this condition.” According to what Iris had told Crowley and Crowley had told her on the walk down here, he’d seen this before, if a less severe version.

“If you can convince Iris to go, I’ll go, but I am not leaving her down here alone.” Over his dead body, especially since Nell would kill him. Nell hadn’t wanted to leave Iris or Yula, not when she’d lost both big sisters to this evil once already and couldn’t bear it happening again, meaning he had to protect Iris in Nell’s place as well as his own.

“Iris has wings of Icarus. She’s safe. You aren’t. If you stay, trying to protect you will just distract everyone. Including her.” Also, Isolde had wings of Daedalus. So it wasn’t like he had a choice in the matter.

After he and Alvero had vanished, Isolde looked at Flay, arching a delicate eyebrow. “Stop undressing me with your eyes and go find Pamela.”

Anna gasped, covering flaming cheeks.

“At once, Queen of Darkness.” How had he been so blind all these years? Had he really been so focused on Madam and Renee that he’d missed Isolde? So deliciously evil! If Renee was born to beat fools into submission, Isolde had clearly been born to be an evil mastermind.

“That’s, that’s inappropriate!” For a teacher to say such things to a student!

“Mister Crowley?” Thankfully Iris’ appearance broke Anna’s train of thought. “This is Aunt Zeilia. Aunt Zeilia, I’d like you to meet Mister Crowley.”

A mana. A free mana. And once again one what would never pick him. He bowed, remembering the ancient formalities in well-read books. “It is an honor to meet you, Lady Zeilia.”

“This is Professor Isolde, she’s an alchemy teacher. Jess made the potion that let me free you, and this is Anna, she’s another alchemist.”

“So many,” Zeilia murmured. Iris’ father had been the last of a dying breed even when she’d known him. He’d had a reputation as a weak Raider because so many of his missions went wrong, Fee had told her, even though he was very skilled. Fee had already suspected that someone was out to hurt her partner, and it wasn’t long before they were certain of it. Nothing but shadows and coincidences, oddly strong monsters: they’d investigated half of Zee Meruze at one point or another, but there was nothing concrete.

Nothing except the fact that the only alchemy books remaining in the library were the ones that Ewan had put aside years ago to guard personally. The fact that Noella’s husband had died in an attack the Guildmistress seemed to suspect hadn’t been a coincidence. Most people thought that she was just refusing to let go, but Noella was no fool. In retrospect, it did make sense that Kreuz’s fellow student had died in a ‘lab accident,’ along with her raiding partners and her young son. That was why Kreuz had refused to have a child until he’d warded his home so tight she’d had trouble getting in sometimes, until he’d worked the bugs out.

Not many people remembered the names of the Nine that had created Zee Meruze, other than Iris Fortner of course, but she had been pacted to one of them.

“Alastor?”

He stared at her, surprised.

“Crowley. Alastor Crowley. You’re Dalia’s boy, aren’t you?” That blue-gray hair. “You’re even wearing a cape.”

“My uncle calls me that sometimes, but I always thought it was because it was the name of the Mana of Vengeance. I don’t know who my parents are, he wouldn’t tell me. I assumed that they’d had enemies and that was why I was kept inside.” Even when he’d trained well enough to become a raider, he’d been told to stay in Zee Meruze as briefly as possible. 

“Your uncle? Ewan?” He and Noella had done quite a lot for Kreuz, in their partner’s memory.

“You weren’t allowed to go outside?” He hadn’t told Iris that.”I thought you said you spent a lot of time reading.” Of course, she should have realized that didn’t add up. She’d spent a lot of time at the library too, she would have noticed someone else who had read the alchemy books often enough that if she started quoting a passage he could finish it.

“I wasn’t lonely. He’s not Ewan, but my father has a library. He was around most of the time when I was a child, and he showed me how to travel the alterworlds, but after Luplus was kidnapped he had to go looking for him.” And spend less time at the house, so no one would realize anything important was kept there.

“Luplus?” Zeilia grinned, sudden and fierce. “So that’s how he did it. That’s why you’re older than you should be.” Given how old Iris looked. Or was he Dalia’s son?

Isolde’s eyes narrowed. “Your uncle was pacted to Luplus?” Hmm? Theofratus had been pacted to Luplus. Of course, they didn’t have to be the exact same mana. One of them could have been the Time Mana of Aging, or something. Not that Isolde believed that for an instant. It was too much of a coincidence. “How long ago did Luplus disappear?”

“I’m not sure. At least three years before the Shadow Gem took me.” He shrugged helplessly.

“We tried to figure out how long ago it possessed him, but I thought there was something wrong with his memory,” Iris said. Zee Meruze’s calendar was a complicated affair, since they had no seasons. The Library was responsible for the Daycount and Domesday Book, which kept track of when significant events had happened, but unless people asked to be notified when their birthday was coming or kept a diary it was easy to lose track. Crowley had known Grandpa Gramps and a lot of the old people, but he hadn’t known any of the young people that were still growing, so she couldn’t try to estimate by comparing how big Papal had been when Iris saw her last with how old she’d been when Crowley had. Not to mention that Iris had also been with Uroboros for a long time, according to Edge and Nell, but it hadn’t felt that long. “But why didn’t you say that he was your uncle’s mana?” She could have summoned Luplus and reunited them.

It added up.

“Luplus…” Jess murmured to herself. She remembered that mana, a purple-wolf rabbit. She’d laughed when it appeared and said that Loopy was a much better name. Or Lupine. There had been all kinds of attempts to cure her, but Luplus was why she’d really believed that Theofratus could actually do something. Had it just been her first sight of a mana? The first concentration of element power pure enough that she picked it out among everything else?

She’d been pretty delirious then, too. Sometimes her parents were there, crying, and sometimes a kind dark woman with soothing hands and murmured lullabies was there, and the nice man with the fairy who told her stories with herself as the main character so she could have adventures, and the lady who had given her a thing that would let her go straight to the afterlife instead of dying, so she didn’t have to be afraid. She’d told her parents that, but they had just cried harder. She’d really liked that lady. She was really blunt and honest, so Jess had known she wasn’t just lying to make her feel better when Veola had told her that having a weak body didn’t matter, Jess could just learn how to blow things up, like she did.

Come to think of it, she had looked a bit like Viese. And the dark haired lady had looked a lot like Iris.

Awhile ago, Roxis had asked her where she’d heard the story of Klein and the other heroes who had fought Amalgam.

Now she knew where.

“That crazy…” Crazy like a fox. “He finally did it, didn’t he?” Then Zeilia realized what it meant, that they’d finally succeeded right before this happened. Leaving Crowley alone, letting him get possessed, the way Zeilia hadn’t been able to protect her little Iris.

“Luplus!” Iris called, demanding an answer.

The mana appeared, just as Crowley and Jess remembered him.

The mana appeared, and Isolde, Anna, Renee and Roxis realized that the darkness hadn’t been dormant. It had been waiting.

A furious neigh echoed from the crystal that surrounded them. “For Alkavana!” Renee cried, as they heard a sword strike wood.

Dour didn’t scream when he took the blow meant for Roxis. The cry of pain was small and soft as the swordsman turned his attention to Renee, who simply stood there, eyes closed, sword reaching up to the heavens.

Roxis wasn’t really paying attention. He really hated when Dour did that. It was Dour’s decision and he was an ancient mana and, really, one of them was more vulnerable than the other, so he should really just be grateful for his mana’s generosity and so on and so forth, but normally, Dour’s reaction was a mere “Oof.”

There was still a gash in the acorn. That strike had truly hurt Dour, that dark power must have harmed his element in order to do this to him, and, “You’ll pay for that.” To harm a mana was to harm the world, to trespass on the soul of a mana by harming them unjustly was to trespass on the soul of the world.

Call it vengeance, karma, an equal and opposite reaction: an injustice was an imbalance and the universe corrected those. It was as inevitable as gravity, and as merciless to those caught in the landslide.

Roxis’ hand closed around his true deck, and shadows closed around them both as Nikki and Anna led the charge to the battlefield.

“Whoa, what just happened?”

“A trial by darkness,” Isolde knew. “They’ll be back before long. Or something will. Renee?” She didn’t answer. “Renee?”

“She’s channeling the power of her mana?” So she’d been holding back before? Anna had heard that Renee couldn’t do that, but there it was, the aura of the heavenly dragon.

Isolde was rarely taken aback, but that did it. If she hadn’t known that Anna was a natural shaman, she would have assumed she’d made a mistake and this was simply another powerup technique. She immediately summoned her own mana, the stone behemoth closing around her protectively, mind racing as she tried to put together some sort of plan for this. Whatever they were dealing with, it was dark, powerful and hated enough that the azureflame hadn’t hesitated an instant to do something that it associated with violation. It wouldn’t have unless it knew what it was doing.

But the cost…

Probable Effectiveness: High. One-time use.

Anna seemed to have taken a cue from her, fingers flashing through symbol after symbol as her lips moved, quietly chanting. Some pagan spell, most likely, but backed with the trained will of a swordswoman, the understanding of an alchemist and the power of a true shaman?

Roxis had no right to challenge this evil by himself. Vayne was her friend too, and Iris’ friends had also suffered because of this evil. She couldn’t interfere in an honor duel, such a dishonorable action would make them deserve to lose, but there had to be something she could do to help.

Anna possessed the ability to connect with spirits and enter other dimensions already, as a shaman and as Faustus’ pactmate. It was simply a matter of meditating in order to sense Roxis’ spirit, and focusing her will to cut through what stood between her and her goal.

For someone who had been training to focus her mind and spirit, both as a swordswoman and to help her tell truth from illusion, since she learned to walk?

Her eyes snapped open and in that same instant her sword slashed forth, cutting into shadow. “Ha!” Without anger, without fear, without hesitation, she dove through.

Nikki was staring at the two of them. What, they didn’t even think Roxis had a chance? Of course, from what she’d understood of the whole Thorn thing, he’d still gotten in serious trouble even though he’d won. Yeah, better get ready to back them up.

“xA harr…”

Pacted to a stone mana, Isolde felt it immediately when the ambient earth and lightning energies surged with incredible power. A bard pacted to the Mana of Sound, using the Divine Language of Song, the tongue that had existed before the fall of Babel.

Probable Effectiveness: High.

Iris was dead tired, clearly, running on pure will. Even worse, if this was an intelligent darkness, it would know how to fight her. Then there was that mana. Her instincts were already telling her that he was probably going to beat out Vayne for the position of her most hated enemy.

Probable Effectiveness: Liability.

Crowley didn’t know anything about using the power of the Lightning Mana… And yet he’d just grown wings. Apparently she knew something about this. He’d also gain power from Nikki’s song.

Probable Effectiveness: Medium-Low, high unpredictability.

As a predictologist, she hated that.

What was Jess up to? A healing technique cast on them all answered that question. Reusable? Good.

Probable Effectiveness: Essential. Liability.

If the last group had some resistance to her potion, and tried to avoid getting hit with it, then this one would have learned even more from those previous encounters. It was fairly safe to assume that Jess would be targeted and they’d need a plan B. However, that would keep the enemy busy.

As for Roxis, he had invoked the powers of darkness on something like this. Even if what Vayne had said about it being a lost part of alchemy was correct, the fact that this form of alchemy had been suppressed indicated that the being behind all this knew how to fight it, while Roxis was an amateur who had brought Theofratus back to life and then ended up with some soul injury pact thing. Clearly he was going to screw up again.

The only question was dead or possessed.

Most likely dead, she thought when the shadows cleared away, revealing an uninjured swordsman swarming with dark power and a body thrown back on the ground before him.

“Roxis!” Nikki abandoned her song, charging in before he could get sliced up.

Iris gripped her staff tight, automatically going into a defensive stance while she tried to figure out what was going on. “Ash?” But he would never let that power have him and he’d seemed to know so much more about it than she did: How had it managed to get its hands on him? If he couldn’t keep it out, who could?

“Arlin!” Was he ok? What had that thing done to him?!

“Arlin?” Isolde echoed, shocked not just by the name but the fact the mana wasn’t the only one who had called him that. So much had clicked into place with that one word.

Crowley’s face was white, and had taken to the air almost automatically, too horrified for words.

A slasher’s smile under a shock of silver hair. “Hello again. Oh, don’t blame yourself.” Did Iris really think that what she did actually mattered? “The shadow gem was just a spare vessel. I would have returned soon enough even if you hadn’t repaired it. Everyone you love is just going to die horribly a little sooner, that’s all. Only fools and alchemists believe that creation is perfect, any plan is foolproof. Speaking of back-up plans,” he said, turning to Crowley, “This body truly is the superior model, but it’s always useful to have spares. If only Mull had understood that.”

Chapter Text

Yes, this was the smug snake that had deceived so many, the ‘Crowley’ that Iris had first met.

When the enemy had started talking Isolde had stamped her foot, sending a stone wall jutting up out of the ground where Nikki would run into it. They needed this information.

She’d worried that Iris would attack, since this was her nemesis, but Iris had learned what happened to people who simply reacted to what this creature of darkness said and did instead of thinking first.

“I’m impressed. Despite how much it must have tormented him to see you like this, he never let on that he recognized your body, not at all. But then, he’s had a lot of time to learn to lie. Really, I’m not surprised he lasted this long. Mull did good work. The so-called greatest alchemists are always the easiest to corrupt. They open their minds to the truth of the universe, holding nothing back, seeking to understand the grand design and become vessels of the great will in order to help others and allow them to possess the power of the gods.” Such a pity. “They might as well gift-wrap themselves.” He didn’t even have to tempt them, the way he had Alvero, Yula, so many others.

“I just couldn’t figure out how your soul was eluding my grasp, why I couldn’t slowly tear it apart and eat the pieces like the others. Not until I brought you back, like the others, to help me send Al Revis crashing to the ground. I was just starting to get frustrated by the fact no soul had entered your body when I revived you when you started screaming. I really fell for it. You’re so good at pretending to care that you fooled both of us. Just like your brother.”

That terrible aura grew even deeper, if that was even possible, the darkness gathering, readying itself to strike.

“Now why don’t you just come over here so I can repossess you, 'Crowley?' Without a soul, there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

The shadows swirled again, and Anna appeared, standing beside Renee. To the outer eye, it seemed as though the stood still, as the mana of dreams granted her a vision of the beginning of time.

This was an avatar of Amatsu-Mikaboshi. The god of the pole star, around which the heavens oriented themselves… And the god of evil, because he fed on negative emotions, and with the power granted to him by the world’s negative karma, sought to return all to the chaos from which he had arisen.

A lesser soul would have been terrified beyond words that they were facing such a being. Who could eliminate impurity from the human heart?

Well, beside an alchemist. It was kind of the entire point.

Who could grasp the true nature of such a being without going mad?

Well, besides a shaman. Someone able to survive a god’s presence in order to channel their will was the definition.

How could anyone, knowing its true nature, believe they had the strength to beat such a being back even temporarily?

Well, besides a future Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu master. Anna had been dreaming of battles like this all her life. It was going to be awesome.

The one thing that did worry her was that even though Al Revis was on an island, it wasn’t surrounded by sea. There were octopi, but no krakens, and it was hard to make sure that you were performing a technique correctly unless you either had a master watching you (and she was training by herself her) or you tested them against an opponent.

She hoped there weren’t going to be tentacles. How embarrassing to have a hole in her training like that! The dark god had better not even think of trying anything, because the idea of being defeated by a cheap technique like that was unacceptable, and he would pay the price.

Thus it was that Crowley’s existential crisis (which Roxis would have termed a Vayne Moment if he hadn’t been dead), the avatar of darkness’ speech, Isolde’s internal debate over Renee, Nikki’s attempt to commune with her Muse in order to create a song that would fix Roxis by fixing everything, just to be on the safe side (Nikki did not believe in thinking small)… Anyway, almost all of them completely lost their train of thought when Anna suddenly yelled, “If there are tentacles, you had better take responsibility!” And sliced through into the dream dimension before any of them were able to pick up their dropped jaws.

The only ones who weren’t stunned by what she had just said were Renee, who wasn’t all there at the moment and Iris, who had already decided that it didn’t matter what this person said about Crowley, he was still a good person, and had started focusing on one thing.

Waiting for an opening.

“Fanatos!”

Many thought that since Fanatos was the Mana of Evil, she nurtured and encouraged it. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Fanatos was the mana that dealt with evil. She used her innate understanding of her element to bring it into harmony with the rest of the cosmos.

Preferably by smiting its ass.

The fact that Nikki’s hymn had strengthened the power of her element didn’t hurt, either. Chips of crystal flew everywhere, and if alchemists didn’t use ear protection (since explosions were an everyday thing), the clap of thunder would have been literally deafening. 

Speaking of which, “Why are you lying down on the job? I expect better from you!” Fanatos said sternly, before vanishing.

‘Arlin’s’ eyes followed hers to the body of his defeated foe.

Which groaned. “Five more minutes…” said a voice that certainly wasn’t Roxis’s, with far more laughter than real disappointment. He quickly got to his feet, a wood mana appearing at his side.

“Oh. You’re still here?” Wonderful. “…Playing dead isn’t like you.”

“Want to guess what technique he was using?” the wood mana asked loudly and cheerfully.

“This body has new techniques of its own,” the serpent said, jumping into the air and summoning swords to shield it as Iris, who had noted how powerful Fanatos’ thunder had been, switched to a staff that used the power of lightning.

“Wow, you’re so wrong it’s not even funny.” The mana paused. “Well, no actually it is. Or it will be.”

“Popo, no punchline puns, ok?” As they bantered, the two of them were moving backwards towards Iris – the two staff-users might not have the range of a bowman, but they didn’t need to stay in range of those swords, either.

When he realized that Klein might be trying to get out of range of more than just the swords, the serpent floated over to Renee. Still frozen like a statue she made a good hostage: she wouldn’t be able to dodge the blast from any bombs. Isolde readied herself to summon more stone walls, in case it attacked her student.

“Nope, still wrong.”

“Popo… I know that my grandmother asked you to train me and other alchemists, but can you stop helping the bad guy?” Klein got a dis-element out of his pack and channeled his power into it for good measure. Since he and Iris were both using elemental attacks, lowering the enemy’s resistance to them was an obvious move.

“Do you have any idea how bored I’ve been?  I can’t believe you let me behind! You should have transplanted me to your new place so I could pact with your kids!”

“It’s kind of hard to move a tree without anyone noticing.”

“So?”

Klein paused, then half-nodded, half-shrugged, conceding the point. He was an alchemist, after all. The real reason had been that Popo was certainly a… character. He might have been recognized, until memories faded. Still, he should have gotten around to it a century or so afterwards. Sure, he’d been dead, but that was just another difficulty. “You’re right. I’ll take care of it.” Somehow.

“Great! See you, Klein.” The mana vanished.

“Hey, Professor?” Nikki had gone over and asked, watching this. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“Well, it certainly seems like either an ancient hero has returned or he suddenly got a lot better at acting,” Isolde said. His painfully shy mana, too.

“And the part where Anna threatened a totally evil being of darkness with a swordspoint wedding?”

Isolde was busy examining Renee, but she still turned to give Nikki a look. “Yes.” Was the insanity catching? Had she had hallucinations before?

Was it safe for Renee to use a technique that needed this much power and time to prepare when she was already exhausted? Would triggering her wings of Icarus to get her to safety even stop it, at this point? She was not willing to gamble with the safety of her students: that was why she hadn’t told either of them the truth about Vayne.

“Thank goodness.” Nikki sighed with relief and stretched. Singing like that had taken a lot out of her, but it looked like it had paid off. Well, back to work. “Wow, Flaya’s going to be sorry he missed this,” she said as she charged in.

Elsewhere, Flay suddenly threw his head back and laughed, long and loud and evilly.

Nothing out of the ordinary, really.

Zeilia knew that the middle of a battle really wasn’t a good time to teach someone to use her power, but channeling electricity into a spear and throwing it was simple enough. “Alright. Focus it into the air next. This time, you don’t want lighting, you want... There we go.” Fog gathered around them. “This is the cloud technique. Now shove it at him.” Clouding his vision. “Since it doesn’t affect the body, it’s not as easy to cure as normal blindness, but it’s not as effective. It’ll disperse after awhile.”

“Is what he said true?” First he’d been told about the family he’d assumed he’d had but never known, and then… What was going on?”

This isn’t the time. Focus the power into the wings I’ve given you next, it will increase your speed. I hope I don’t need to tell you to stay at a safe distance and keep dodging. It’s the Wings of Storm technique: it allows you to fly instead of hover, but it does take power to maintain.” Zeilia paused. “You’re a little more vulnerable to getting possessed than most people. It doesn’t make you evil, it makes you fragile. It’s a good thing for both of us that we pacted.” Otherwise it might have grabbed her, too. “Think of a soul as a wall between the minds of humans and the rest of the universe. It makes sure that they stay themselves. If I had one, I couldn’t be lightning. Normally, this thing can’t possess someone unless they let it in or there’s some kind of hole in the wall.” Or they’d deliberately lowered it. “In other words, the only thing this actually means is that what happened to you wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have stopped it. But we can stop it from happening again, so stop guilt-tripping and pay attention! You might not have a soul but you do care, your emotions are real, and this thing feeds on misery! Of course it’s going to lie in order to mess with your head!”

The circling swords blocked the furious blows of Nikki’s hammer. “Guys? Physical attacks aren’t working!”

“Gotcha!” Jess dived into her pocket (or handbag, technically) dimension.

“Understood,” Anna said, before reentering her own. In order to focus on her swordsmanship, she only used the minimum of common skills, and right now the only ones she had access to were healing techniques. That left item use, which always struck her as wasteful, aaaand…

He ignored them. “Hmm. Five minutes... You’re trying to buy time.” For what? The paladin’s technique? If she wanted to kill herself, she could go right ahead. He was looking forward to the reactions of the others. Typical paladin, summoning all the power they could, no matter the cost to them. She clearly wasn’t used to channeling mana power, and this was the Mana of Starlight. In other words, cosmic rays. She might as well have poured Jiptus’ own poison blood down her throat. His swords protected him from physical attacks and that type of thin, powerless light couldn’t hurt him.

Snuffing them out was always fun.

The beastgirl was using that song of hers again. How did she know a hymn to Lilith? Bards. Maybe he should have gone after them first, in Zee Meruze. They kept knowledge alive. Their abilities were narrower than what an alchemist could learn to do, but dangerous enough. And alchemists couldn’t get anything done if every generation had to reinvent the wheel.

The seer was trying to use her vision, but it had been clouded by hatred years ago. The shaman wouldn’t know how to invoke anyone useful.

…Where had the pink-haired one gone?

“Found one!”

…they were deep underground in a floating island. How the hell had she found a meteor, still half-molten from re-entry, to throw at him?

The solid matter didn’t hurt. The heat of the lava did.

“Immune to physical damage, huh?” Like that would do him any good. Jess grinned, watching what happened and cracking her knuckles before diving into her handbag again. She’d found some that were almost solid ice, those should work. Especially once she combined them with a few things.

Especially since Iris had called, “Nymph!” to bombard him with ice while he was off-balance, and that worked too.

Oh, right. She popped up out of the handbag and waved. “Hi, Klein!”

“Hi.” He smiled back, relieved. “How have you been?”

“Great, thanks! I think I’ve really got it down this time.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty impressed. Veola said her work had finally paid off.” The student had surpassed the teacher. In bombs, anyway. Poisons and mystical devices, let alone magic… not so much.

“You haven’t seen anything yet!” She grinned and flipped out of the bag. For a moment it seemed like she might attack with her bare hands, before she summoned her mana.

Actually, thought Nikki, Jess with wings was fairly normal. She got them when she used the Wind Mana’s power.

It was just that they normally went away afterwards.

Speaking of people with wings, so far the bad guy hadn’t tried to go after Crowley, but that was probably because he was too busy trying to figure out what the new guy was up to and didn’t want to split his concentration. At some point, he’d probably decide that having a second body to attack them with, or survive whatever Klein was up to, was worth turning his back on the alchemist for awhile, and then they were in trouble.

The real problem was that Renee was doing whatever she was doing, and Isolde was staring at her instead of helping. They needed to keep this guy pinned down so they could use the good stuff, but Nikki and Anna’s weapons were useless and Crowley couldn’t get in close, so that left Iris, Jess and the new guy.

Which was making it a little hard for him to find a chance to talk to them without the enemy hearing every word.

The serpent laughed. “Of course. I should have realized that you were just bluffing, even if you don’t know it. Nothing any of you do ever accomplish anything, alchemist. Especially now. You can’t do anything to me, not without killing your friend.” Another evil smile. “Far worse than killing him, actually. Everything that was your friend will be returned to nothingness, to chaos. You’d be doing my work for me.” Oh yes. “I’m almost tempted to let you.”

It pulled back from Renee and Isolde so her walls wouldn’t block the patterns its swords made, spiraling around him in preparation for something.

“Destroy him, Klein!” Luplus appeared over Iris’ head unsummoned. “It’s the only way!”

“No way!” Klein and Jess both yelled.

“He rescued me from Mull, I won’t leave him in the hands of this abomination!”

“Don’t even think about it! Reordering all of time so that he never ended? You almost killed yourself last time! You’re not doing that again, not on my watch.” Klein readied his staff, grinning. “You’re Arlin’s friend, and that means you’re ours, too. And do you know how much you worried your poor mother? Felt would kill me.” He channeled his power into a divine shield before the serpent’s attack hit. Wow, Arlin had gotten good. “You can’t just give up like that. This isn’t over: we’ll make a way to save him.”

“Make? You don’t even have a plan?”

“Well, Roxis did, but now I’m just sort of improvising. I figured I’d try this next.” Klein clapped his hands together.

He’d used the time he’d had to ready item after item. Dragon gems spewing gouts of flame. Beams and crystals of light. Wind-powered blades scything through the air. There was no warning, there was no chance to dodge: they were everywhere around Arlin’s body. All hitting all at once, in one blinding instant of incredible pain.

Except the ones that kept working, flame keeping his body off-balance.

“Hey, you finally got Living Item down!”

“Yeah. It took awhile, but I think I figured it out.” Awhile as in a few centuries, but no one was perfect. …Wait. “Why aren’t you purifying him?” Now was definitely the time.

Jess looked sheepish. They’d never really seen her embarrassed before. Who was this guy? “Yeaaah, about that…”

“What’s the problem?” Klein asked, before using another of his abilities to make sure everyone got the protection of the Divine Shield item he had, to be on the safe side. The enemy should be stunned for awhile after that, but he wasn’t going to take chances.

“I can get rid of the dark aura, but it’s not just the aura. He’s in there, right? So it will just grow back. We need to pry him out of there.”

“Soul alchemy.” Klein frowned, fiddling with something.  He couldn’t go ask Elusmus or Palaxius or this body would die. Or worse, get moved into while soulless.”Do any of you have any ideas?”

“What about Roxis? He might have something in his deck.”

He showed Nikki the card he had been fiddling with: his own. “When I said it wasn’t over, I meant Roxis’ shadow game.” Roxis had lost, and died, but that didn’t mean it was over. “Each of them got one summon, and the help they had earned. I’m, no, all of us are, what he has in play. He’s going to need everyone’s help, but we are going to beat this guy. Especially yours, Iris.”  He turned to Crowley, who had landed and tucked Zeilia’s wings in so he could hear (the constant crackling of lightning was a little loud). “You too. You might not have a soul, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. And Arlin wasn’t lying to you. You are family, and you do mean a lot to him. So much it’s a really long story.”

“Yeah.” Jess nodded. “So don’t worry about it. I mean, I don’t have a soul, and I’m fine.”

All of that was really just making him more confused.

Iris nodded. “I’ll do my best.” She didn’t know this person, and yet she knew him. If Edge were her he would have sighed that she was being too trusting again, and she wouldn’t have been able to put into words why not trusting this person would have been like not trusting Edge.

Because she did know him that well, and they were family, even if they had sprung from very different branches of a great family tree. Yet even that was secondary. They’d both made the ruby prism.

Nikki realized something. “Wait, does that mean that he can possess you too?”

“No, I’ve got…” Jess trailed off. “Oooh, riiiight.” About that…

“Hahahahahahahaha!

Elsewhere, Flay was glad that the Flaybug was recording that laugh for posterity, because he really needed to study it and take notes later. That was a good evil laugh. Delighted sadistic triumph.

Countess Iris of Avenberry had created her homunculi to help her defend her people against the brutal assault of a dark alchemist whose name was lost to history because no one who learned it had lived. The fact that she had created them for war did not make them any less her children. In fact, she had felt even more responsible for them because of it. She had created innocents, created children, forcing them into this terrible conflict, and that was why she had done everything she could to help them survive.

That was why they had loved her, and fought for her.

That was why, when they defeated that alchemist’s artificial mana, when one of them realized what was about to happen, that it would kill them all, and she only had enough power left for one teleport, she didn’t do the selfish thing and save herself. She didn’t do the truly selfish thing, and save the mother she loved, forcing her to live on when all of them were dead, with the guilt of causing their deaths.

She saved her youngest sister.

For an alchemist to create one ruby prism was a great accomplishment. A demonstration of great love for the world. A crowning glory, the end result of all their work.

To Iris of Avenberry, they were only ingredients. The finest of ingredients, to be sure, but that was what her children deserved.

No. They deserved better than this, but this was all she could do for them.

At the heart of every one of her children was the work of hers. A priceless treasure worth nothing next to the one it gave life to. They had all been designed with the ability to bear, to channel the incredible power of the jewel of alchemy.

Mull had taken and destroyed Lita’s, and Klein had replaced it. He would have found some way to make another for Arlin, but Arlin had not been designed to use such a thing.

Theofratus had taken and destroyed her ruby prism once again, and it hadn’t been replaced yet. Now, as then, she was dying for lack of it.

Normally, her ruby prism would have purified her. Now, there was a hole inside her, a void, awaiting a replacement part.

And Iris of Zee Meruze had repaired the Shadow Gem, a jewel of alchemic power, with a ruby prism.

And it had thought Arlin was a perfect vessel.

The shadow gem locked into place in her heart and a storm of dark power erupted from her, pouring into all of them.

Crowley was easy to recapture. The seer had plenty of darkness in her heart: all it would have to do to make its control permanent was offer her the power to destroy her enemy. A shaman was meant to play host to spirits. A half-trained bard was trouble, but they listened. Now that it controlled what she heard?

That just left the heiress and the ghost, and since its summoner was dead, it would be simple to exorcise Klein from such a tainted area. The ghost, and…

“Dragon Apocalypse!”

Chapter Text

It seems as though shadows appear around them, but Anna could have told them that the shadows had been there the entire time.

The game hadn't ended, after all.


Lightning, and an abused child.

For Zeilia, there's no difference. Until afterwards, she doesn't notice a thing, because she is lightning, and she already was going to smite that thing for harming her family. As a mana, she is one with the universe, or certain specific pieces, and so this is simply an aspect of her.

White lightning is still lightning.

For Crowley, it's simply a moment when everything becomes so clear. There wasn't really much to do at home but read and imagine, and now there's alchemy to think of, and guilt, and what he's going to do with his life. If he has a rest of his life that is his to do things with.

He's used to watching himself, now (a book called it second thoughts), so it's only another moment before he realizes that this diamond-sharp clarity isn't his. It isn't his mind that has glanced at his memories with vision sharp as an eagle's (or other flying predator) and found it so simple.

He was a child, caged and harmed, tortured and made to suffer. That is all it was, and that will not be permitted.

The fact that the raw elemental fury that surges through him is on his behalf doesn't make it any less terrifying. The fact that it's his fingers that are now tipped with diamond claws, his mouth that smiles with far too many teeth is extremely terrifying, in fact.

Pierced through with the light of truth, he'll realize afterwards that this is more proof this wasn't his fault (or else he would have been annihilated), but right then it's simply another possession.

He now knows what it is like to want to tear someone apart.


Vengeance .

For Isolde, the light is far from gentle.

Blaming a child for all Theofratus' sins? Isolde already knew that it was ridiculous, really. She just wanted to believe that getting rid of Vayne would make things right somehow. Cruel words, trying to find a way to make him want to die: her mind is callously clawed through, turning up every shameful memory, and there's nothing she can do to stop it.

She is weak.

It's this very weakness that let the darkness into her mind, and it's this very weakness that means there's nothing she can do to escape this creature's clutches.

It would eat her. It would reach into her fur muff and pull out the little one she has hidden there (she couldn't leave him behind in her office, unprotected). It would eat Theofratus in one bite, for his sins, for what he has done to an innocent child.

The only reason it doesn't is that there's something it's going to kill first.

Next turn, though, he's fair game.

She's in the clutches of a dragon, she knows, and wishes she could shiver. If she had that much control of her body, it would be much easier to get a hand free...


Wings, and a child's suffering .

For Slyph, it's fairly obvious what's going on. She is the sky that lightning strikes through, the wind beneath the wings of dragons. She grins, and it is the body they inhabit, Jess' body, that grins for them all.

For Jess, it's a rush of power, of will. This thing will not have her! How dare it try to trespass on her soul! (Never again!) She will have it out if she has to tear it out herself!

It's an alchemist's training that allows her to notice that the force that drives the shadow gem from her body is not her. It is a bit like her, after all. She's no stranger to being outraged on behalf of her friends. But she's never been so singleminded.

She had a mother, mothers, that loved her.

That's a rather big difference right there.

She's fought, she's been angry, but she's never hated, not like this.

This is all the world compressed down to three simple categories: that to be protected, that to be ignored, and that to be destroyed.

This isn't the mind of a beast. It's not the mind of a mana. Jess isn't sure, but she thinks this might have been human, once. There are hints that it knows what singularity is.

Now, though, it is something immense. Great, and powerful, and terrifying if not for one simple fact.

Jess, Lita, knows what it's like to be loved and protected. She grew up expecting justice, expecting fairness. Because she was dying, people tried to make it up to her in countless little ways, for example.

This presence only had a single taste of a world like that, but that was enough. Jess recognizes alchemy when it's running through, thinking with, her own mind. Unbreakable determination to live turned into an unshakable will to fight. To protect.

There was no prince of alchemy like Klein - no, there was, but he couldn't even save himself - so the maiden - no maiden, no, not for a very long time - was slain, sacrificed by the evil high priest.

Just as planned.

This was an exquisitely crafted machine, Jess might have said if she'd known the word. And Jess knew how reliable alchemy's ultimate creations were.

Jess isn't fond of storybooks, but she's had enough read to her. 'Once upon a time,' the story would go, 'a prince tried to rescue a princess,' even though it hadn't been a princess, 'who had been kidnapped by the king of thieves. Along the way, he met a slave girl and they were both captured by an evil sorcerer.'

Except in fairy tales, the prince managed to rescue the princess, instead of having to watch him fade away. In fairy tales, the slave girl would have been a princess in disguise. Fairy tales taught that heroes won because they were brave and maidens because they were deserving. They ignored the fact that wings, firebreath and sharp teeth were pretty good reasons for dragons to come out on top

A fairy tale that pointed out that when bravery wasn't enough and the world didn't care who was deserving, alchemists had better go make bombs would have been more interesting. Sometimes, you had to make the world change, make it play by the rules where good guys won, and you did that by changing yourself first.

'Once upon a time there was someone who was a pure-hearted maiden, a hero holding back a great beast, and a dragon that killed people. Then, she realized that being nice didn't get anyone anywhere, heroes always lost and a lot of people needed killing. So, she became a dragon, rescued a handsome prince, and nobody lived happily ever after because the prince had failed and practically everyone was dead.'

That would make for a really depressing fairy tale, actually.

It had never occurred to her before that the fairy tale rules, as unfair as they are, had to be fought for, too.

For thousands and thousands of years, she realized, studying this presence, reading its traits, people had been standing up and forcing the world to be a little more fair, and a little more right. And a little more, and a little more, until, well, the way she thought about death was considered the best way to be a few centuries ago. To just get over it. And now everyone thought it was wrong, according to Vayne. Maybe he was right. That change would have happened because of alchemy. That change was alchemy.

Klein wanting to help her, when they'd just met, had been nice, but kind of normal, in that it was what heroes did and Lita had known heroes all her life. But what if she had been born when someone who thought that random people were worth helping was really, really weird? What if she hadn't taken Klein for granted?

What if his desire to bring back alchemy and save countless lives... what if she'd realized how special that had been? What a difference it could make? What a precious thing it was? That here was a power that could change the world, a light in darkness and ignorance and Mull was trying to snuff it out?  Make alchemy an instrument of terror instead of what her mother had fought for?

Klein had been the key to changing all that, he’d fought so bravely simply because it was the right thing. Even if the world did one day become a place where that was ordinary, that didn’t make it any less precious.

Klein had been a window into a better world, and Lita hadn’t seen that.

The dragon had.


Personally, Renee had started to seriously doubt that Azureflame knew what he was doing. Wasn't this, like, black alchemy, for one thing? She knew he hated that, wouldn't want anything to do with it, and it was the first time he'd asked her to lend him her power, so she'd had to say yes.

Now she felt kind of stupid. Of course he'd known what he was doing, he was a mana. And of course it had taken a long time. This great a power of light? Miracles didn't come cheap, they took effort and determination.

It worked, so why did Azureflame feel so guilty? Why did he appear in front of her, between her and the ghost-pale young woman, who met his eyes with a dragon's unblinking gaze? If Renee hadn't known better, she would have thought that had to be a mana. There was that same feeling that she was looking at something more real than everything else. There was a myth that said that the stars were holes, cut-outs through which you could see the radiance of heaven. Azureflame always reminded her of that.

Azureflame wasn't cold. This light was pale, white as snow, no, white as the ancient ice at the heart of a glacier.

A soft, annoyed growl. Blue eyes blinked, once, a contemptuous dismissal, before she turned away.

Azureflame almost shivered, neighing softly with relief and shame.

"What was that all about?"

"...Normally, a being like that won't come without... sacrifices." He hadn't told her that. So that was why the shame. "I wouldn't have let her take you."

"Hey, since when are you allowed to make those decisions?" Renee asked archly, hand on her hip. When he turned, intending to apologize for risking her life, she added, "Like, I so did not go to all the trouble of rescuing you just so that you could die? Show some consideration."

"...My apologies." There was more slight surprise in that statement than any real apology. She was making a joke?

"Hey, I'm totally not complaining about a chance to fight a dragon, but you're like, my mana. I'm kind of obligated to rescue you," Renee said, not realizing how much this conversation had in common with Roxis and Vayne's relationship. "Like you're my kid brother, or grandma, or Tony or something. It's what good people do, ok? So you planning to just sacrifice yourself like that? It's kind of insulting?" Like she'd let that happen. She hadn't wanted to pact with him, but who got to choose family?

Also, she would kind of like an apology.

"...I'm sorry," he said, not entirely sure what he was apologizing for. Maybe everything.

But especially the fact that, when he'd told Renee to summon her, he'd assumed that Renee would be taken as well, and, at the time, hadn't really cared. He might have had second thoughts, but what good had they been when it was too late to stop? "I'm sorry."

Renee met his eyes now, and there was a bit of steel there. Strange, to compare a human's eyes to the ones he'd just seen and think that the human's were infinitely kinder. "That thing is going to kill everybody if it gets its way. You don't need to apologize for doing whatever it takes to stop it." She turned away, watching the three. "Not to me." Tony or innocent people were another matter entirely.

He had a moment to realize that she knew, and had already forgiven him, had forgiven him years ago, before she changed the subject. "Never heard of a dragon alchemist before. Makes sense, though." They could think. Some of the old ones, anyway.

"She wasn't a dragon, or an alchemist. Not trained."

"Seriously?" Renee had never gotten alchemist vibes from anyone that strongly, except Iris Fortner. That whole 'this is the way it is going to be' thing. Not subtle at all. And the stalking, the way shadows of scales keep appearing on that corpse-white skin, the sketches of wings, the slow blinking, the teeth...

"Natural talent. And years of torture." If she hadn't come for him, then who had she come for? The gods were about as picky when it came to summoners as Lilith's firstborn were when it came to pactmates. Worse. Aion might look down her nose at an alchemist, but she wouldn't kill them for the hubris of even thinking they were worthy.

And three of them? That meant all of her attention, all of her power, was here. Slowly stalking the darkness that had retreated out of the others until it took refuge in the body it had arrived in.

The other summoned spirit, Lilith's descendant, didn't seem to know what was going on, either.

"So who is she?"

"She doesn't have a name. That was used in the synthesis." One of the aspects of a human's being, and she had made herself more than that. "You'll see what she is." She is what you see.

The serpent scowled, gathering this pain-wracked body up. "How did you get here...This is the second time!" That she had thrown him out of a perfect vessel. "He can't have summoned you, each of us only got one summon. I know I didn't summon you..." Wait. He looked at Klein. "Cheating, are we? When that invites a penalty? There are fates worse than death."

He'd thought that the divine bloodline had died out aboveground, but if Roxis could summon and command a god, much less her? It must have something to do with Lilith's blood.

Possessing a member of the divine bloodline had let him control the three chief gods, and possessing the child it had been made to protect had given him Diabound. He'd thought this dragon-goddess, like Exodia and It, was beyond his control, but perhaps not. If he could control it...

If Klein had cheated on Roxis' behalf, then he could certainly demand the boy’s body as the penalty. If he could break the dragon, it would be more than enough revenge for denying him the prince's body. Son of the creator of the items, inheritor of that karma? The next pharaoh should have fallen right into his hands, Name or no Name.

Well, no use trying to carry on a conversation with her, trying to get information or a weakness. She'd done a much better job than Mahaado had when he'd attempted this synthesis, and Akunamukanon's faith in alchemy had been destroyed before he became, leaving Exodia crippled, still five instead of one. There was no weak little girl, still holding on to hope, or potential hero trying to hold back an inner darkness here. Nothing to work with. Diabound had also been created in order to oppose him, but Diabound had been easy to...aim elsewhere. He'd made plenty of use of that one, and had more planned. Diabound had been tainted by the desire for vengeance of those murdered to create the Items, just like the child it protected. The desire to harm others was child's play to twist to his purposes.

No, she'd made herself far too simple to be fooled, and she'd had no illusions to break. As for vengeance, her dragon had been breaking loose and avenging her for years. She'd known that just made things worse. Simple, overwhelming raw power did have something to be said for it... A natural force, like Lilith’s spawn.

Back then, he'd had his full power to work with, or almost. Now? "Hermetic alchemists, always trying to cheat death... If you'd played fairly, you would have won, with this move." If she touched him, he'd own Roxis. And soon enough she would attack. She might be savoring the moment, but she wouldn't refrain from destroying him for the sake of some man.

"Sorry, but I didn't summon her." Actually, Klein had been trying to delay things. He might not know who this was, but he could read elemental composition when it was as clear as this. That circling, forcing the serpent to pull its power back, wasn't gloating. There wasn't much time left before she/they finished herding the stray darkness into one spot, and then they'd strike.

"Who did? It doesn't matter, each side in this game was allowed only one summon..." Wait. If the paladin hadn't summoned her, and the fact the little fool was still breathing proved that, and the alchemist hadn't... What was the exact wording again? Roxis had tried to limit the power he could call on, and that was where the fool had slipped up. Only the spirit that they merited, that would willingly come to their aid: that part had been fine. No, Roxis had made his fatal mistake when he tried to word it so that he only challenged the part of Zorc in front of him, instead of facing the whole. Instead, he'd challenged the person in front of him, the body that was Arlin’s, and when it came to who had suffered more injustice, a nearly-failed alchemist had nothing on Mull’s favorite.

Wait. What if Klein was telling the truth? Suppose the avatars of the dragon weren't Roxis' summon, even by proxy. They certainly weren't his.

Who she had fought for, back then...

A child, betrayed by a father fallen to darkness. Possessed by that same darkness.

Not only that. Her own history.

A child, used as a slave, used in other ways, and this one had been Mull's... particular favorite.

"Oh, bugger me..."

She wasn't here because either he or Roxis had managed to compel her. She was here for Arlin.

This was going to hurt.

Well, it looked like his plan to bring down Al Revis by using these slaves had failed, but they were really just insurance, guards to keep anyone from finding the important one. No, all in all, this had gone well enough. Several vessels ripe for the taking, a chance to nip the potential rebirth of Thothian alchemy in the bud (one down...), and he'd located the remainder of Palaxius' little project.

True, the fact the has-beens were stirring was irritating, but the only real problem was going to be that cat...

Plotting, it pulled its power back, almost cringing in anticipation of what it knew was coming.

Then there was nothing but wings and claws and light, roaring as they struck, tearing him away from his vessel, tearing him apart for what he had dared, once again, to do to the innocent and righteous.

The shadows faded away as Ash's body fell, Klein was banished with the game’s end, Isolde and the others were returned to themselves...

And Roxis' body vanished, wings of Icarus activating.

Chapter Text

"...I need to stop being so blase about finding myself in the shadow realm. Or am I?" No, he didn't think that was all this place was. He could think, for one thing.

 

The gravestone with his name on it was kind of a clue.

 

"I really am terrible at this, aren't I?" Roxis sighed, leaning back against it. At the time, it had all seemed so clear. It had been thrilling, to feel that power. Be a vessel of justice. And then he'd invoked it on the wrong damn target. Challenging an innocent man to a shadow game: brilliant, simply brilliant. Especially when he'd specified a penalty like this.

 

He'd been so certain that he was in the right, that he was being clever, that he hadn't thought. He'd been like Edge, blaming Crowley, even when he'd known better. Stupid, stupid, stupid, to invoke a shadow game after wandering about in them for hours earlier. He should have known that he wouldn't be thinking clearly.

 

And the character flaws all of this revealed? Was he really so impressed with himself, so easily sidetracked, so... Both of his last two shadow games had been utter failures. All of them he'd messed up in some way, really. First he'd been utterly wrong about Vayne, and then the sheer idiocy of bringing back Theofratus!

 

No wonder he didn't have a patron.

 

Perhaps he'd fallen into the trap of thinking that he was good at this simply compared to the people around him, who didn't know the first thing about it. Maybe he'd wanted to feel that he was good at some form of alchemy.

 

Honestly, he completely deserved this. It was a very, very good thing he'd asked the Vaynes to stay behind, or else they might have been caught up in it. It was hard to get depressed about being dead when they could wish him back to life. Or his father could do it, in order to give him the thrashing he clearly deserved. It was hard to get too worked up about what would happen to the others, either. The group IQ had probably gone up, after subtracting his ego.

 

It did no good to say that he tried. Trying clearly wasn't good enough, he had to think. If wishing was all it took, then the Vaynes would never have ended up in that situation. And he'd have gotten a chestnut stallion for his seventh birthday, for that matter.

 

The first mistake had been, well, Vayne. He couldn't really blame himself too much for that one. Vayne was several varieties of riddle onto himself. Honestly, he should have challenged Sulpher, it had been Sulpher that had told Vayne to tamper with his memories. Except challenging a mana would have felt wrong, and... Well.

 

The second had been doing something rash just to stop being undead.

 

The third had been trying to find an easy method of reassuring Pain, Thorn now, as though trust was something cheap that should, or even could, come easily.

 

The fourth was letting his emotions carry him along instead of watching his damn wording. He'd let himself be certain of victory, when he should know that was asking for it. It had seemed so simple.

 

Perhaps Vanitas was right, that he wanted the easy way out of everything. Still, at least he made an effort not to give in to that laziness. To do things right. And clearly, he had to work harder at it.

 

"You're here early." Sound was strangely distorted in this place, so no wonder he hadn't heard the young man walk up to him. His clothes were around the same era as Klein's. They might have seemed like a fairly prosperous farm boy's except for the signs they were made by alchemy and the various rather odd symbols and devices.

 

"I doubt I'll be staying here long."

 

"No one does," he said, in a manner Roxis thought was oddly cheerful as he sat down.

 

"Is this the shadow realm's graveyard? Aren't you a little recent to end up here?" No one in that era should have been practicing alchemy that would consign them to this place, not outside Egypt.

 

"What? Oh, everyone ends up here. At least for awhile. Don't worry, as long as you stay around here the Reaper won't bother. There are glyphs." He waved almost idly. "Most of the families take them in shifts, but I've been here a few centuries."

 

"Shifts?"

 

"The upkeep. Generally, people don't want to stay around once their family's arrived. It gets a little boring. Before you ask about heaven, no one good enough to stay there is going to do that, not when there are people suffering on earth. Unless you made the ruby prism, reincarnation's the only option. Unless you want to keep the glyphs repaired, but most people find that pretty boring after awhile." After they got bored with looking for historical figures.

 

"Or getting brought back to life."

 

"That too." The boy looked thoughtful. "You aren't the head of the family, there's still Johann. Is he still studying shadow magic?"

 

"You call it shadow magic?"

 

"That's what our village did. Not that we knew that much about it. Wards, summonings... He really should leave shadow trials for priests. That's serious stuff. You aren't... you are." He looked at Roxis with disappointment in his eyes. "You're still in the middle of a game?" Shaking his head, he told him that, "You and Johann need to take death more seriously. If I've told him once..."

 

"You are an alchemist, aren't you?" Or maybe he wasn't. For alchemists, death was something to be overcome, not something to be accepted.

 

He looked down thoughtfully as he replied, not at Roxis. "Of course not. My sister picked it up after I died, but I'm a magician. Not an alchemist, not a priest. Alright, I wasn't a very good magician, but I've had a lot of time to pick it up, after Mull's growloons wiped out our village. I managed to hide Veola, anyway. Alchemy wouldn't have managed that." Mull would have seen through anything a student could have managed.

 

"What, in your opinion, is the difference?"

 

"Alchemists and priests always have this idea that they know what's right, or they're capable of figuring it out. It's always about changing things, having them fit some ideal. Or discovering that ideal. Magicians just do things and deal with the world as it is, or make our own place." They'd had their village, and even after Zedalia had left with those alchemists to change the world, the famous black sheep he'd been told not to be like had ended up settling down in the woods, a hermit with her cat. "I guess it's all the same thing, in the end, but if you want to put it that way then everything's the same thing. I blame Klein for the heroics. Ever since he married Veola, everybody's an alchemist, or they want to be. And now you and Johann." It was clearly making him a little worried. "The last time alchemists found out about us, it ended up with everyone dead, except Veola, and it was really hard to make sure she stayed alive. I had to get help. And now you're getting help from them?" Great. Just great.

 

"How did you know about that?"

 

"Scrying mirror." He held up the palm of his hand. "At least it's not just Klein."

 

"Do you dislike Klein?"

 

"He married my little sister. You don't have any little sisters, so you don't know what that's like. Mull had no idea she survived, and then Klein starts fighting with him and brings her into it." Oh boy. "I should go tell Esk about this." Misery loved company.

 

"Esk?" Roxis asked, standing up when his host did.

 

"Escalario. She's one of the Irises. I never call any of them Iris, I just can't keep them straight otherwise. Especially since the time distortion meant that we used to get one from Zee Meruze every few weeks."

 

"This place sounds livelier than I thought."

 

"Most of it's not, really. People show up, and the reapers make them move on. We've just got the glyphs  and, well, the lineage. Did anyone tell you about the lineage?" Sometimes it came as a shock.

 

"Yes, but what in particular?"

 

"Do you want to be reborn as a mana or not? Most people choose not to, for some reason." A mana was a mana, if they moved to some higher state of being it could harm the element. Sure, if mana died they stayed dead, no more chances, but that wasn't supposed to happen. "That's what's bothering Escalario."

 

"She can't decide?"

 

"No, she's just in denial about the fact that she already is a mana. I wish alchemists would take death more seriously. She's nice enough, but she's not dead. She needs to move on with her life." From his perspective, Escalario feeling that she'd existed for too many centuries was an insult to people who'd died when they still had far too much to do. Like, oh, him. It was hard to be bitter about it, he had moved on, it was just a little immature. Especially for someone who was technically older than him, given the time distortion, even if she had spent most of it asleep.

 

Visiting strange places, hearing their gossip, "I feel like a tourist. Are there rivers?" Roxis found himself wanting to map this place: old habit.

 

"Yes, but they're not on the way." Thank goodness. "You came over one, but you weren't woken up for it. We have an account." With the ferryman.

 

"How practical." Roxis was amused to note that the boy was alchemist enough to consider that praise.

 

"By the way, if you see any of the alchemists before I do, would you ask them to send Avenberry to talk to Escalario? I'll be sad to see her go, she's a natural with the glyphs." Mana of seals. "And it's not like she's whining or anything, but after awhile you get kind of sick of the same thing over and over."

 

Far too many people who went I'm dead/not human/whatever: woe is me! It wasn't like death was the end of the world.

 

"By 'the alchemists' you mean..." How many people were in that little club?

 

"Klein, Avenberry, Viese and Elusmus are the main ones."

 

"Main ones?" More than that had managed the ruby prism, surely?

 

"Palaxius spends most of his time here, Felt... he's hard to keep track of. And Veola spends most of her time with them," with Klein, "but she made the Bioframe."

 

"Bioframe?"

 

"Old, old magic." And Roxis was dabbling in enough as it was. "And most of them just keep researching until who knows what happens. Or they have their own projects, like Palaxius. Viese probably knows a lot more that are still around than I do. You can definitely count on her." He and Veola had bonded over wayward little sisters/brothers. It had made him really appreciate how good Veola was at looking after herself. Getting caught up in wars, getting turned to stone, getting kidnapped by Palaxius: risking being noticed by Mull was nothing compared to the stuff Felt and Lilith had put poor Viese through.

 

(Obviously, no one had told him about the fact that Veola had almost made the Chronolex instead of the Bioframe, giving up her life so that she could join him in death.)

 

"She was very helpful." A skilled alchemist, clearly.

 

"Ask her to give you her crash course, if you get a chance."

 

"On what?" Besides alchemy.

 

"How to defeat an army single-handedly when you've never used a weapon before in your entire life. Most of it's synthesis tricks, of course, but she's good."

 

"...Are you serious?"

 

"She grew up on a floating island. No monsters at all. Weird, huh? Felt played around with a sword for fun, but then she had to rescue him and was too worried to spend extra time training when she could be traveling. Al Revis covers most of the basics, and I'm sure you can think up equipment tricks, but she's good." If he'd been old enough to be shown how to summon ancestors, instead of just a few tricks and cantrips? "No one's ever had as many mana as she does."

 

"The current Iris is getting close," a dry female voice said behind them. They turned around: by now, Roxis had learned to identify Klein's time period, even if her garb was somewhere between alchemist and shopkeep. "You couldn't just stay in one place, could you. Klein was keeping your body alive while you were gone, but the game's already over." It was simple enough to keep track of her husband's soul.

 

Of course it was. He'd lost. Wait a minute: hadn't his host said that it was still going awhile ago? "What happened?"

 

"I don't know, I came here looking for you almost as soon as it started." Obviously. She held out an odd mechanical contraption on a necklace to him. "Put it on. I'll activate it."

 

"Wait. I need to find out what's happening back there first. If I come back to life in front of the wrong people..."

 

"The longer you spend dead, the worse it will be." She jiggled the necklace at him. "Come on, get going."

 

She was right: the longer he was dead, the more people would have a chance to personally verify that he was dead.

 

Thankfully, when the Chronolex returned him to the land of the living the infirmary was too busy for anyone (besides Melanie, of course) to have examined his body. She hadn't even removed him from the bed yet.

Chapter Text

“Open up,” Melanie told him.

 

Roxis said, “Ah,” obligingly.

 

She frowned, looking into his mouth, but took the tongue depressor out before it grew too uncomfortable. “Well, you’re free to go.” He stood up as she walked over to a cabinet. “Hold on. Spending so long in a deathlike state can have side-effects that aren’t immediately apparent, so I want you to just wear this stone for the next week, especially outdoors, and read this scroll if you notice anything unusual, like suddenly falling asleep at odd hours or sensitivity to bright light. The contents can be a little embarrassing, so I’m sure you’ll want to read it in private.”

 

Deathlike state? Roxis wondered. He hadn’t heard of anything like this, but he was very fortunate she hadn’t noticed that he was actually dead. The sheer number of people that were being dumped into the infirmary likely had something to do with it. They had the look of delinquents, but not the ones Jess had freed. No, they had been led off by Isolde, Zeppel, and the Vice Principal earlier, according to Vayne, who had come to sit by his bedside as soon as the others had used their own wings and Jess had told him they were all back.

 

Luckily, in the confusion, that had taken long enough that Roxis had been restored to his body before Vayne arrived. If he played his cards right, Vayne would hopefully never find out that he’d died.

 

Roxis getting himself killed because of an oversight after telling Vayne to go back to campus so he’d be safe, that Vayne was the one they needed to worry about? After as good as promising Vayne that he’d be alright, dying while Vayne wasn’t there? Not that Vayne being there would have made any difference, no. Vayne would have wished him back to life and lost the game, most likely. Still, after something like this, Vayne would never listen to a word he said about who was in danger of what ever again, and he’d have every right to. It wasn’t just a matter of pride, it was a matter of Vayne’s safety. He was the older one here… Well, no, he wasn’t, especially not compared to Thorn, but it wasn’t as if Thorn knew anything about keeping them safe, and someone had to do it until Vayne grew up and developed some self-preservation instincts. That meant him, since Sulpher had seized the opportunity to dump it on him in properly catly fashion, and if Roxis screwed up, Sulpher was going to kill him. So he was rather stuck with it now.

 

“Thank you,” he told Melanie, nodding in that way that was an abbreviated bow, a token of politeness instead of respect for rank that was supposed to not exist here, in the fellowship of alchemists. It was still polite to give her his thanks for looking after his dead body. Surely she hadn’t done anything to it, not when there were so many other students present, even if she did set off his ‘Pamela is here’ instincts.

 

“What on earth happened?” Roxis asked Vayne, after Roxis pushed himself out of the press of students and Vayne, slowed by his unwillingness to elbow people, finally caught up with him outside the infirmary door.

 

“Um…” Vayne looked sheepish. “You know about those two who went around saving students while wearing masks? I can’t quite remember what they called themselves…”

 

“They call themselves Flay and Vayne.” Who did he think he was fooling, pretending he didn’t know what he was talking about? Vayne was a terrible liar, as in he was terrible at it. “I already knew.”

 

“Really? Because even Pamela didn’t recognize us.” Vayne was impressed with Roxis’ perception.

 

As much as Roxis liked impressing people, the truth was that, “Sulpher told me. Identity-concealing masks aren’t a difficult synthesis: Flay must have bought the recipe from one of his delinquent contacts.” They made it hard to put two and two together while in the presence of the mask, and afterwards they fogged the memory of the encounter. Roxis didn’t know the recipe himself, but from the effects, he thought he could guess one of the ingredients. He hoped he was wrong. “Imagine if Flay had the water of Lethe recipe…” That was worth a shudder.

 

“Sulpher did?”

 

“Oh, yes. He started consulting me on some of the odder aspects of human behavior awhile ago. He was worried about all the bad influences that you’re surrounded by.” Actually, Sulpher wouldn’t have cared about Flay’s hero business if it had been only to impress girls, like Renee, it was doing it without thought of reward that seemed worryingly insane. Roxis had assured him that yes, Flay was doing it for entirely selfish reasons, like getting to be the hero, and Sulpher had gone away reassured. “Well?”

 

“Well what?”

 

“Well, what about the mask business?” Why had Vayne brought it up?

 

“At some point, I gave Flay an idea.” Vayne winced, both at the result of this and Roxis’ forthcoming disapproval.

 

Roxis just patted him on the shoulder before pulling open the door to the hall. “I assure you that Flay is capable of getting into more than enough trouble on his own, and coming up with more than enough ideas of his own. Do I want to know the details?”

 

“He founded an evil syndicate and is planning to take over the world. I found out when he had the leaders report to the workshop and instructed them to storm the depths for training.”

 

Roxis nodded, enlightened. “Oh, that explains all the people in the infirmary.” The way they’d rushed out eagerly to give defeating their adversaries another shot and acted with such unusual fervor should have told him it had to be Flay’s fault somehow. “You already told me what happened to the cured delinquents, but what about Iris and her associates?”

 

Vayne gave him an odd look.

 

“What now?” They were almost to the workshop door.

 

“You seem kind of calm about it.”

 

“About what? The overcrowding in the infirmary?” He was grateful for it, he would have said if he had any plans of telling Vayne the truth.

 

“No, Flay trying to take over the world. Because of me?”

 

Roxis paused, hand on the door. “Because of you? What nonsense. He’s had control of a delinquent gang for years. Since about three months after coming to Al Revis, according to Renee. He’s part of why Professor Isolde had so much free time on her hands: with a few exceptions, most of them have been too busy fighting over turf to cause much trouble for the serious students. The trouble is that the constant infighting has caused the leaders of the other groups, the ones who haven’t given in and graduated, to become unusually strong, so when a few of them decide to make trouble at once the Student Disciplinary Committee has had to outsource putting them in their place – Or do you not remember Isolde telling the Vice Principal that?”

 

“Oh, right, you were in their workshop for awhile.” That was how he knew all that.

 

“As a novice without a mana, I wasn’t brought along on anything dangerous, and in the current climate, there isn’t delinquent trouble that isn’t dangerous. The minor league bullies are all fighting each other. And now they’re getting themselves killed by monsters.” He frowned. With Flay’s gang occupied, would the others be free to run amuck, especially if they discovered Isolde’s attention was occupied? “In any case, the last thing you should be doing is blaming yourself for Flay trying to take over the world. Mana of wishes or not. This is Flay we’re talking about, for one thing, and honestly, he’d probably do a much better job than some people I could mention.” He opened the door. “And when I blame you for things, I at least try to do so only when it really is your fault. You can’t be blamed for acts of Flay. No one’s responsible for what he does, not even him.”

 

Al Revis’ buildings had thick walls and doors, to contain the blasts, and when the door was open they were hit with a blast of sound, all of them talking in loud voices, the way people did when they were trying to hold a conversation in a room with a lot of other conversations and good acoustics (the kind provided by hard walls, for example). Everyone kept having to speak up, to be heard over everyone else, and that forced everyone else to speak up, until they were using a volume more appropriate for shouting over the noise of battle.

 

And then about half the room made a beeline for Roxis, still talking over each other.

 

“I’m glad you’re alright.” Iris honestly was, but, more importantly, “Can you teach me how to summon like that? We think he’s going to come back.” Sooner rather than later, and she was going to be ready.

 

“Roxis, you ok? You might want to watch out, Anna’s planning your funeral. Vayne, will you please get Sulpher to tell me?” Nikki moved to Roxis’ side to grab Vayne’s arm pleadingly.

 

“Roxis, can I have Klein’s card? Thanks!” Jess asked, going directly for Roxis’ deck case.

 

Vanitas didn’t ask before the purring kitten materialized in his usual spot beneath Roxis’ ponytail and started shifting and kneading to get comfortable, which was a little distracting since all of this had been more than a bit stressful and the neck massage was making him wish he could just lie down and purr.

 

Thorn didn’t ask either before taking the scroll Melanie had given him, frowning at the seal, and slicing it open, unrolling it and jumping to his usual perch on the edge of the loft in order to read it. Not that Roxis noticed that his hand was suddenly empty, not with everything else that was going on, including the purring and the woman trying to remove an article of his clothing.

 

A stern voice, despite the note of fatigue, was still able to cut across the noise of the small crowd. Roxis was used to the workshop’s general insanity, and Iris had really become one of the family almost overnight. The fact she was technically a distant relation of his had nothing to do with it. At first, Roxis had thought of this workshop as a den of lazy, coasting fools and eccentrics, but he’d eventually come to realize that they all had something that drove them into their various forms of mania. Iris was an alchemy maniac, so they had all welcomed her with open arms.

 

This unfamiliar voice was not simply unfamiliar, but serious. While Flay, Pamela and Eital might make threats, and Anna didn’t make threats but promises (although fortunately they were able to restore her sanity before she followed through on them, most of the time), it was also threatening. Not especially towards Roxis, no, but towards anything that got in his way.

 

“Where’s Yuveria?”

 

“I’m sorry?” Roxis asked, looking towards the white-haired man that some had called Ash and others Arlin, as in the Arlin. He could believe that.

 

“Where’s Yuveria?” he repeated.

 

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone by that name.” Or had he? He’d done his best to commit his conversations with the ancients to memory, but the first one had been a dream, and they had a tendency to fade.

 

“Yuveria. The guardian of the Gardo Continental Drive?”

 

“I’m sorry, I haven’t heard of that, either.”

 

“Damn…” he muttered under his breath, using one of his sheathed swords to help him get up from the couch, ignoring Crowley moving to help him up, or were those hands to keep him from falling over. “The lineage boy doesn’t know either… Where could she be…” He shook his head to clear it, not pushing Crowley’s arms away but not learning against him, either. Trying to stand up with the air of someone who had been forced to stand on their own two feet, that if there was going to be any justice in the world, anything trustworthy, they were going to have to make it, and then learned better. Yet, even so, the help of others, the existence of people he could trust, was never something this man would take for granted. “I wish I could believe she’s just returned to the temple, but with that thing there, there’s no way she’d have let it get so far… I’m alright, Crowley.” There was no need for Crowley to help him, he’d manage. He had to put all thoughts of helping him out of Crowley’s head, so he’d stay safe.

 

“Uncle, you know you’re not.” Crowley didn’t push him back down to the couch, but neither did he let go of him.

 

“Nonsense,” Thorn suddenly said, loudly. Everyone looked up, only to find that he was engrossed in some scroll instead of commending on Arlin’s condition. “Sanguine humor in order to counteract the overabundance of… Who wrote this?”

 

Roxis wondered why Thorn was looking at him until he recognized the scroll Melanie had given him. “I don’t know, I haven’t had time to read it yet. It was given to me by the school nurse.”

 

“Countess Melisande von Bathory?” Thorn read from the base of the scroll.

 

“Ah, Nurse Melanie!” Flay interjected.

 

“She’s won the beauty contest two hundred years running.” Pamela pouted. “That’s just not fair. It’s supposed to be a contest of natural charm and synthesis skill. And why is she allowed to compete when I can’t?”

 

“Beauty contest?” How frivolous, Anna thought.

 

“Why was I not informed?” That there was such a thing. Ah, to have missed Madam and Isolde…

 

“It’s one of the contests held at the Conclave, every five years.” Held around the base of the pillar supporting Al Revis, so students who hadn’t graduated yet couldn’t attend. “They’re an opportunity for recent graduates to show off their skills and find a position, as well as an opportunity for senior alchemists, faculty, and prospective faculty to show off in general. The Conclave is something of a trade fair,” he explained to the foreigners. And Vayne. Much bigger than the usual town or trade fair, however, since the fact it was only held every so often was more incentive to show up for each one. “Beauty is a function of several things, including youth.” Water of. “Cosmetics are an ancient art. Perfume, of course. Dress, general air…” Wait. “Two hundred years?” That was pushing it, even for an alchemist specializing in health-related syntheses.

 

“Oops.” Pamela giggled in a way that indicated she wasn’t sorry at all. “But you shouldn’t ask too many questions, or you’ll be sorry!”

 

“Did any of you check the rest of the area before you brought me back up?” Arlin demanded, clearly unamused by everyone else getting sidetracked by beauty contests.

 

“Yes. I found a grove of stat fruits and some very powerful equipment,” Anna reported.

 

“No large crystal orbs or stone statues?”

 

“No, I told you before.” He’d asked as soon as he’d woken up.

 

“Oh, that’s right.” He wavered a bit on his feet.

 

His mana appeared next to him. “Arlin…”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

“Uncle, please sit down!” Crowley had seen him exhausted after some of his quests, especially when he had gone away for long periods and not been willing to answer Crowley’s questions (he’d told Iris and Zeilia that yes, he had been looking for her parents, or at least their bodies). He’d never seen him like this.

 

“You are not fine,” Luplus agreed, backing up Crowley.

 

Roxis finally had attention to spare for the hands on his person. Association with the Vaynes may have made him a little too used to people intruding in his personal space. “Jess, stop that. I’ll give you the card, but you should know better than to try to fool around inside people’s clothing in public.” Not to mention that touching someone else’s deck without permission was like touching anything else private and personal without permission.

 

Klein might have meant to give him the card, not Jess, but Jess had every right to want to speak with an old friend and if Klein wanted Roxis to keep the card, than he could argue with her.

 

Jess just smiled, in that way that said she knew he wasn’t really that upset by it, or upset by it at all, which was honestly true. He wouldn’t have let a stranger get away with something like that, but this was Jess, and being friends with Jess meant accepting the fact she did things like reach inside people’s clothing or make use of bombs when that was the fastest way to resolve the issue. He wanted to insist that she had no right to take such liberties, but, on reflection, she did. He didn’t really mind it because it was her, and she had only done it because she knew he didn’t really mind it.

 

Actually, now that he thought about it, he wondered if she had done it as more of a joke than anything else. The sort of normal workshop banter and antics that normally annoyed him but now were…

 

He groaned and put his head in his hands. He had grown to like this insanity. He was going to miss it when he graduated! He had finally lost it.

 

Or he did that after he handed her the card, of course.

 

“Thanks!”

 

“Wait, Jess was doing what?” Nikki looked around Vayne: they were still by the door, talking about Sulpher. Jess was a little out of it, and had done things like keeping weird unnatural things brought to life in her closet and poisoning Nikki, but those were in the pursuit of alchemy. Even Nikki wouldn’t take someone’s clothes off like that.

 

Roxis waved at her, not to worry. “She was making a joke.” Trying to reassure them or herself that she was still Jess, despite additional memories, and going a bit overboard. Wait, additional memories? Why was he so certain that she remembered being Lita? Well, if Klein had occupied his body, that was still his body. He reached into his case, the one Vanitas had enlarged like Jess’ bag, for a Water of Mnemosyne.

 

He found a wall to lean against before drinking it, Vayne coming to stand by his side while Arlin argued with Crowley, Iris and Luplus. He was right, the water did show him what had gone on while he was elsewhere.

 

Something odd happening with Renee, Klein and Jess catching up a bit, Isolde seeming to sense something about Renee, a very clever use of an ancient item technique, possession, additional possession when what he’d seen gathering around Renee finally manifested itself (very odd special summon conditions, but what did he know?), and turned out to be…

 

His father’s patron was a dragon. It had approved of Johann seeking lost, forbidden, dangerous knowledge and surviving it. Challenging the established order, even if in only a small way. The red-eyes black dragon would only fight for someone who earned it, would only fight as long as they fought. Johann had never summoned it for a game. He couldn’t get around the need for sacrificial energy the way Roxis had by using his plants to summon Felt, and dragons did not stand for disrespect. The traditions Roxis knew considered dragons symbolic of pride and Anna’s country’s neighbors considered them somewhat divine, at least the strong ones, and obviously prideful. The dragons were the closest tribe of monster, type of human spirit, to the gods themselves, and some of the gods were called dragons, among their lists of titles.

 

Sky Dragon seemed an odd title for the god of the dead, for example, unless one knew the legend behind why Osiris appeared that way when summoned. It wasn’t as thought the Egyptian Gods didn’t take multiple forms: Thoth, despite being named for the ibis, also was sometimes depicted with the head of a baboon.

 

Wait. Named for the ibis?

 

Roxis wouldn’t put most of this together until later, however. The question of what it meant on the metaphysical level that a dragon god had come in Arlin’s hour of need, when Roxis had specified the summon be what he deserved, was overwhelmed by what it meant on the personal level.

 

Roxis hadn’t actually seen a depiction of this particular god. Or goddess, rather. People who painted images of the gods in their summonable forms often died, since to make such an image was as good as announcing the intent to summon them. This dragon was far less well-known than the other three, but he had heard stories, certainly, from what his father had found. Legends got repeated more often when they were stirring adventure tales as well as somewhere between King Arthur and Barbarossa, the king that would come again. Of course, according to the stories told by humans, this dragon didn’t allow anyone to summon her, which was obviously false.

 

What his father’s dragon had told him was that the blue-eyes white dragon might follow the orders of only one summoner, but she would come to certain calls. When certain shadow games were invoked. Dealing with certain crimes. It was an alchemy of karma, after all, a magic of justice, and there were certain things that were very useful for a child to know, when he hung around in bars and his father went into strange and dangerous places with even stranger and deadlier people.

 

He’d been told that he should never give the blue-eyes white dragon an order, especially an order to appear, unless his intent was to give her a meal (and there were far less painful suicide methods). Yet, the person who called the shadow game didn’t have to pay in life energy for the monster to appear if it chose to show up on its own, and there were certain circumstances in which this one would.

 

Like circumstances in which little boys who were far too pretty for their own good would have a very good reason to need a dragon.

 

Vayne was far too pretty for his own good, as Roxis had noticed what felt like ages ago, and Arlin? Well. His creator had clearly been going for a certain sort of beauty, despite that ragged excuse for a haircut and the remnant smears of makeup meant to distort and disguise instead of ornament that doll-like face. Perfect, too perfect. Not the face of a soldier, no. Or not just the face of a soldier.

 

Roxis had wondered what use Theofratus had made of Vayne, with his perfect obedience and his too-good looks, and in some ways it had been a relief that he had only been trying to create a suicide weapon. That Theofratus had almost certainly died right away after Vayne woke up instead of using his creation to fulfill other desires.

 

The blue-eyes white dragon hated anyone who thought they had the right to command it. It would only serve under one person. It would, however, kill anyone who tried to do certain things to children. Would come to the defense of children who had been the victims of unspeakable acts, or trying to escape such a fate. Since Arlin wasn’t a child now, that meant that it must have happened back then, and Arlin didn’t have a soul to trespass on. Not by the modern definition, anyway.

 

So it must have been a purely physical violation, and there was really only one person who would have been in a position to do something to that to a war homonculous. The same person who had sculpted that too-handsome face, that body that had clearly been intended not to be intimidating, like a proper bulky war golem, but lean, delicate, and pretty.

 

Roxis had read up on Mull. He’d created the growloons, unleashing monsters that had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent people. He’d tried to summon a demon/recreate an abomination, depending on the version one heard.

 

Actually, Amalgam had been Vayne, hadn’t it? Or the part of Vayne that had become Vayne and Vanitas, in some form. It wasn’t like he understood quite how they worked.

 

“What’s wrong, Roxis?” Vayne was wondering, sensing a very strong not-want that was different from any sort he’d felt before. For some reason he couldn’t figure out what it was, which meant it had to be under Thorn’s jurisdiction. Was Roxis afraid of something really terrible happening?

 

“I’m fine,” Roxis lied. The little shivering kitten that had been some degree of suicidal because Theofratus had used it to kill. The… Vayne, there was really no way to adequately describe this but Vayne, the well-intentioned, too-pretty, too-innocent… Vayne.

 

They had almost fallen into the hands, come under the control, of a villain who made Theofratus look like a saint. Like the winner of some father of the year award.

 

Because there was really only one possible reason the blue-eyes white dragon would have come to the aid of Arlin. Would have been so outraged on his behalf. It could only be because once upon a time, he hadn’t been a strong warrior alchemist.

 

Or maybe he had been, that was the truly terrible thing. Maybe he had been, and he hadn’t known enough to understand what was happening. Why the fact Mull was his creator, his father just made it worse.

 

Mull, the same Mull who had nearly gotten his hands on Vayne.

 

“You’re not fine, you look like you’re going to be sick.”

 

“I think I am.”

Chapter Text

“He must be sick, he almost drank some of Jess’ medicine.” He hadn’t had the energy to put up a fight, and he’d looked at the goop and almost seemed willing to trust it before Vayne had managed to get through to him and gotten him to go to bed, where Vanitas, Dour and Roxis’ Cat could look after him.

 

“And why have you come to me about it?” When she had cured delinquents to check (although she’d fobbed them off on Zeppel), a report to the Vice Principal to make (which had mostly consisted of Ernentraud being short with her about her overreaction and assigning her additional classes) and syllabi to write (for the extra classes she’d been assigned because she clearly had too much time on her hands, if she tried calling up the school’s defenses for a minor case of mass demonic possession).

 

“You knew what to do the last time.”

 

“The last time it was…” Something that, on reflection, of course Vayne hadn’t understood. It might even not have been as simple as she’d thought it was, either. “He’s tired. Of course he’s tired, everyone is.” After a day like this.

 

“Maybe you’re right, but…” Flay was still full of energy, but that was Flay, and he’d had some time to sit down on his throne while ordering people around. Vayne could keep going, but he’d stayed on campus and he had a limitless spring of power to draw on. He’d had to heal Jess again, after she’d exerted herself like that (even though her mana had replenished her energy).

 

“You didn’t find anything wrong with him, did you? I assume you conjured up a diagnostic kit?”

 

“Right, I should have thought of that.”

 

“What’s the point of having the power to get anything you want if you don’t use it to help the person you… care for and avoid bothering me?” When she was tired, cranky and busy sweeping and searching cupboards. “How did you find me here, anyway?”

 

“The Vice Principal gave me directions.” After Vayne had gotten Roxis settled, checked him despite Roxis telling Vayne to go away and let him sleep, he was just tired. “I found her when I went to your office.” Vayne looked around. “I didn’t know you had a house.” It had been obvious which one was hers: Edge was still in the front yard beating the dust out of the old carpets with the flat of his sword. Rufina had helped him hang them from the tree branches.

 

“I sleep in my office. Or I did, anyway.” Isolde looked around at the furniture, still covered with dustclothes. “All the faculty are assigned a house. The vice principal generously offered our visitors from Zee Meruze a place to stay. Speaking of which, I know Iris was assigned to room with Jess,” and apparently she was brave enough to stay where all Jess’ roommates had fled, “but where has Crowley been staying?”

 

“…My old room.”

 

“You are aware that it’s against Al Revis’ regulations for people above a certain age to stay in the dorms?” It encouraged them to move on with their lives, to no longer have free room and board provided in the dorms and cafeteria.

 

“Well, we couldn’t just leave him out in the cold.” And the principal had taken them aside and said it was alright as long as Ernentraud didn’t officially know about it. “We were planning to help build him something, as soon as we had a chance.”

 

“Like a barn-raising, I’ll bet,” Isolde muttered. The whole community, or workshop, coming together.

 

“What’s that, Ms. Isolde?”

 

“Nothing. Well, for now, since four of them are recovering victims of demonic possession and the others are friends and family of the afflicted, who shouldn’t be parted from them in their time of need, it’s been decided that it’s my duty to watch over their recovery.” Joy.

 

Nell ran by, carrying two buckets of water, towels over her shoulder and a bandanna tied over her mouth. “Achoo!”

 

“Nell!” They heard from another room. “You shouldn’t come in here, you know you’re allergic to the dust,” Yula scolded, sounding very much like a big sister.

 

“But, Big Sisteer…”

 

Edge followed her in. “Nell, take over the carpets.” He’d bring her the sheets next, to be shook out. There wasn’t time to wash everything, they needed to make it habitable before they lost their second wind. At least that way, Nell would be outdoors where Rufina could fan her wings and make the dust blow away quickly. “Where’s Crowley?” he asked Vayne on his way up the stairs.

 

“Still with Arlin and Iris, I think. Ms. Isolde, do you know anyone named Yuveria?”

 

“Why are you suddenly acting like I have all the answers? When you’ve spent all this time refusing to heed my warnings?”

 

A small sneeze came from Isolde’s fur muff.

 

“Is that Theofratus?” Vayne asked, leaning forward and trying to peer into it.

 

Isolde snatched it away. “What do you care?”

 

“Of course I care, he’s my…”

 

“Don’t you care call him your father.”

 

Edge walked by with the sheets and pillows from upstairs, ignoring the drama. There was work to be done, and when it was done he could sleep. “Vayne, tell Iris where we are when you go back.” He didn’t want Iris around when he was cleaning, not when she’d had the longest day of any of them, so there was no hurry. It was a pity he couldn’t draft Crowley and Ash, though.

 

“Sure,” Vayne said, sad thoughts interrupted by the order. “Look, Ms. Isolde, I know you don’t like me, but… He’s ok, right?”

 

“He’s doing fine.” Isolde couldn’t help but be slightly mollified by Vayne’s concern. Silver-pale dangerous creature… She tried not to think of the dragon, but it was like not thinking of a pink elephant. Her mind kept returning to the demon no matter how hard she tried to block it and what it had shown her from her mind.

 

Edge came by again with two more water buckets and went into the kitchen this time. “…Who taught you how to sweep?”

 

“No one.” Of course not. “I’m a raider, not a maid.”

 

“A low-rank raider. No wonder you never ranked up, if you refuse missions for a reason like that… You’re holding it wrong.”

 

“Why don’t you do it, if you’re such an expert?”

 

Silence, a particular kind of arms-folded, expectant silence.

 

“I know,” Alvero admitted, tired. “That’s what got me into this mess.” Wanting to be the best without putting the work in.

 

“I’ll show you. If you don’t pay attention, you can just do twice the work.” It took twice the work to get the floor clean if it wasn’t swept right.

 

They both ended up eavesdropping, since it was less awkward than continuing the current conversation. Vayne had already gotten the impression that Edge was a lot like Anna from the way he’d attacked Crowley, but apparently they had cleanliness in common, too.

 

“So, I’m going to be playing den mother.” Isolde gave a wry half-smile. “Not that I’ll have to do a lot of it.” It was clear Edge was used to it. Isolde had no idea how to deal with children. Tony and Renee were supposed to be graduating, too. It would look bad if they got out of it and didn’t graduate, even for her sake. Since she technically had to have a workshop, she would probably just call this hers and have them do enough work to earn their keep that the vice principal wouldn’t argue that they didn’t qualify. It killed three birds with one stone, which was probably her idea.


“I’m sure you’ll be good at it. Ms. Isolde,” Vayne added on the polite address at the end, obviously tacked on.

 

She gave him a disapproving look.

 

“You are good at… When Roxis was sick.”

 

“Good at what? Diagnosis? I hope you don’t mean reassuring people, I had you in tears.” Or as good as.

 

“No, I was. Ms. Isolde.” He shook his head.

 

“You don’t give up, do you?” Trying to look cute, well-intentioned, innocent and needy. “Trying to seduce me into becoming your mother,” she explained, when Vayne looked like he didn’t know what she meant.

 

“Oh. I’m not trying to seduce you, but I don’t think I’m going to give up, either.” He wanted this, and he’d already asked Vanitas to make sure his wish didn’t affect anything it shouldn’t. This was one of those things that Roxis had said needed to be earned, made, not just wished for. If Ms. Isolde became his mother because of a wish, that would just be toying with her feelings. That wasn’t something he should do to anyone, and it wouldn’t make it real caring. “I’m not here for that, though. I’m here because I’m worried about Roxis. He was tired, but he felt sick, in his head, before he started looking really bad, and Thorn won’t let me find out what that was about, so it has to be something bad.”

 

“So you come to me?” Well, “Alright.” He looked too satisfied for her taste. “Not because of you, because if I stay here any longer I’ll end up dusting.”

 

They still weren’t allowed to escape the house before they’d carried the mattresses down from the upstairs bedrooms for Nell to go to work on. Isolde had never lived in this house, never even opened it up. A house like this was somewhere she should have lived with Theofratus, when they were both successful faculty, revered alchemists and researchers inspiring the next generation and raising a family of their own.

 

“Where have Iris and Crowley been staying?”

 

“With Jess, and in my old room.”

 

Edge looked thoughtful. Isolde couldn’t be asked to share a room, Nell wanted to sleep with Yula and he might have to share with Alvero. The house had two master suites, or master and mistress, since the principal at the time had assumed that Isolde would eventually be joined by Theofratus. If Ash and Crowley were related, they hopefully wouldn’t mind sharing one of the master suites, and there were also a nursery and rooms for two apprentices. He’d prefer to have Iris under the same roof, but on the other hand he really didn’t want to share a room with Alvero. He would have slept in the common area, that was what he’d done back in Zee Meruze, but this house wasn’t built like the ones he was used to. Iris’ house had a large area on the ground floor that was everything from family room to alchemy lab and a bedroom on the second floor. He’d spread a roll on the first floor, and put it away every morning. He’d considered that more than enough space and privacy, in crowded Zee Meruze, but apparently that wouldn’t do here.

 

He wished they used bedrolls here, they could have just cleaned two rooms decently enough for tonight and he could have worried about the rest of it in the morning, while Iris and Nell went to class and the rest of them got themselves sorted out.

 

However, the Vice Principal (who reminded him a little of Guildmistress Noella, even though they were nothing alike on the surface), had looked down her nose at that idea, so Edge was obligated to do it in the manner Al Revis considered proper, or else people would think that Iris had been a bad hostess and example or something.

 

Actually, Ernentraud had disapproved of Isolde expecting some young man who should be in school to do all the work, but Isolde wouldn’t be in the position she held now if she didn’t consider there to be more important things to do than housework and have skill in seeing to it that other people did what she didn’t want to. It hardly took a Predictology mistress to see that if she didn’t volunteer to do anything it would all be taken care of, aside from things like looking for the cleaning supplies (which she’d been doing when Vayne arrived) and hauling down mattresses in emergencies. Edge seemed to think that various people had various jobs and hers, like Iris’, were alchemy and raiding, or rather alchemy and teaching. His were raiding and household work.

 

“Ask her where she wants to stay,” he said finally. He didn’t want to separate her from her new, alchemist friends, and while he’d prefer to have Iris under the same roof as him, so he could be sure everything was alright, that things were at least somewhat back to the way they should be, he didn’t want her under the same roof as Crowley.

 

Seeing them together, even if not for very long at a time? He’d already known that at some point, Iris was going to get married, and then? Iris was like a sister to him, and it was fine for siblings to stay in the house when the next head of the family inherited, but her husband might not see it that way. He’d known that he might have to leave, move into the guild barracks until he found somewhere else. Nell had just made the problem more urgent, and more unbearable to think about, because if Iris married a man who thought in terms of infidelity, then he couldn’t have let Nell stay there and he’d had his doubts from the beginning that Yula would ever take her back. The guild barracks wouldn’t have let an unmarried man and woman room together, certainly not.

 

It might be true that Crowley wasn’t possessed anymore. It might be true that Crowley had several traits that would be ideal in Iris’ future husband, like being easily intimidated by Edge. Crowley already knew that Edge was serious when he made death threats on Iris’ behalf, and what would happen to anyone, husband or not, who dared to lay a hand on Iris was something that needed to be firmly established. Iris wasn’t someone who didn’t stand up for herself, but she had this tendency to see the best in people and make excuses for inexcusable behavior. There was no excuse for hurting Iris.

 

Except, perhaps, the one of total innocence. He’d already known that the real Crowley wasn’t the one who had hurt Iris, but that still meant that the real Crowley was a total unknown. Perhaps he was jumping to conclusions. Iris was quick to defend anyone, and if the only reason for the attraction had been that he was a fellow alchemist, well, they were all over the place here. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too much work to find a suitable one. Someone responsible and sensible who wouldn’t try to take advantage of Iris’ abilities.

 

If Sulpher had read his mind right then, he would have laughed and laughed.

 

After making their escape, and looking around to be sure there was no one on the path, Vayne told her that, “I really don’t think he’s just tired.”

 

“Do you have any other actual evidence you’re not just overreacting?”

 

“Well, Nurse Melanie thinks he became a vampire. Thorn said that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but she is the nurse.”

 

“A vampire? Why would she… Oh, right. He died again.” Melanie was used to students waking up in her infirmary. They only got a handful a century, but she’d been here more than long enough.

 

“He died again?!”

 

“Oh? He didn’t tell you?” How flimsy your support is, Vayne. It made her smile to see him realize that, remember how easily Roxis could be taken away from him. “She must have given him her, ‘So You’ve Become A Vampire,’ orientation scroll. There’s even a support group.”

 

“Do you think he became one?”

 

“I don’t know.” She hadn’t seen him yet. “But,” she said, in a way that would have been reassuring if not for the slight smirk, “there’s an easy way to check.”

 

Sadly, removing the anti-sunlight accessory and throwing Roxis’ windows open just made him grumble and roll over, not start to smoulder and catch fire.

Chapter Text

“Vayne, for heaven’s sake, close the curtains! We were down there overnight and there’s class tomorrow! Some of us can’t just catnap indefinitely the way you do, I need a good night’s sleep!” It wasn’t that Roxis minded rooming with Vayne, he was quiet, clean, and didn’t leave dirty clothes lying around, unless one counted the piles of previously-clean laundry Sulpher occasionally requested for napping purposes. The one problem was that he was in and out at all hours. At least there wasn’t any gossip about it: news of the new arrivals had quickly gone around the gossip chain, and Crowley’s situation certainly wasn’t unheard of. It was very Vayne-like to give up his room for the sake of the newcomer.

 

Roxis realized something. “Yes, I’m aware it’s late morning, not night, but the point is I need my sleep!” He pulled a pillow over his head.

 

“Actually, it’s late afternoon.” Vayne came to sit on the side of the back, resting a hand on Roxis’ back apologetically.

 

“You can’t be serious… you kept me up trying to make sure I was alright for that long? I already told you I was fine, and so did Thorn.”

 

Vayne looked at him, worried and disappointed. “Roxis, you died.” And you didn’t tell me.

 

“…Who told you that.” That brought Roxis out from under his pillow to glare at Thorn.

 

Actually, Thorn hadn’t been planning to. Normally, Roxis should have suffered for nearly going away from them like that, but, “It was my fault.”

 

“What? No it wasn’t, you weren’t even there.” Roxis’ hand groped around for a pillow (one of Vayne’s, specifically) to throw at him. For God’s sake, he wanted to sleep, not deal with people’s guilt complexes.

 

“It was my element. Feeling someone else’s pain. The wish to make it suffer for hurting Dour, and ensure that it would never be in a position to do so ever again. My element.”

 

That wasn’t a matter for a thrown pillow to make him realize that he was being childish. That was a matter for a glare. Roxis sat up, rubbing the remnants of much-needed sleep away from his eyes and caught Thorn’s while his right hand reached for his glasses on the bedside table. “My feelings. You are not responsible for them, I am.”

 

“I lent my power to them. To you.” And reason had been drowned under that outrage.

 

“Thorn!” Oh, that was beyond the pale. “What have I told you about helping like that?! And in a shadow game! When it’s my will and my feelings that are supposed to be on trial? No wonder I lost, if those weren’t my feelings! It was as good as lying under oath, my fault or not!” Goddamn idiot! “And I thought it was my fault that I’d gotten myself killed! I was beginning to think that I was an utter failure when it came to the only type of alchemy I have any talent for!”

 

“You aren’t. It was my mistake.” Apologies were insufficient when someone died.

 

“Again?!” Vanitas materialized in beastman form. In midair, too, because otherwise he and Vayne were too short to loom over Thorn menacingly. “Again! You’re the one that hurt his ambition!?” Damaged those bright hopes? Damaged Vanitas’ own element, in his chosen one, his pactmate?

 

Normally, slapping someone’s face might have been seen as petty. Normally, a slap didn’t leave clawmarks, blood dripping down Thorn’s cheek. This was an invitation to a duel, a declaration of war. “If you ever, ever do that again,” Vanitas hissed, “then I’ll destroy you.”

 

“Vanitas, he’s an aspect of you,” Roxis reminded him, putting his glasses on. Thorn? Thorn was going to pay for this, but Vanitas had already suffered enough.

 

Even so.” Vanitas’ voice was quiet, serious, and hateful. This was his most precious person that had been hurt. The part of Vanitas’ power that rested within him, the bright will he held at the heart of him and slept within, beloved and calming, that had been attacked. He disappeared, turning his back on Thorn, returning to Roxis’ side.

 

“I would deserve it.” So Thorn was not going to argue with Vanitas’ words, even if he did look down and away, not meeting Roxis’ eyes again.

 

Thorn’s admission and Vanitas’ attack had knocked the wind from Roxis’ sails. Now Thorn was looking pitiful, so he put his head in his hand, sighing. “No one died, not permanently at least, but Thorn… It’s the same as Vayne and Vanitas. You can’t just go around using your power on people without asking. I know this is probably a little hard for you to draw the line on, because your power acts on everyone’s hearts constantly, and I was calling on my willpower and determination, but that was mine, not yours. I know your element and its ramifications are absurdly complicated by humanity and I’m not expecting you to master it overnight anymore than Vanitas did, a certain fight with Isolde springs to mind, but can you please listen when I tell you that something is important to me? I told you the last time you tampered with my feelings related to a shadow game that you ran the risk of killing me, and I was right. I may have come back this time, but I’m not going to be around forever…”

 

“Yes, you are,” Vanitas interrupted.

 

Roxis tried to fight the urge to groan. He didn’t want to have this argument with Vanitas now, not when he was already dealing with Thorn and an overprotective Vayne and he’d barely had any sleep. “Vanitas…”

 

“You’ll just have to make the ruby prism.” Or become a vampire. “That won’t be difficult for you, and then you can live with us forever in the Land of Mana.”

 

“I’m flattered, Vanitas, but it’s not that simple…” Although Klein had said that it was, and he had already intended to try to make one for Jess, he’d as good as promised. Not that he had any idea how he was going to go about that, but he clearly had to, just as he had to deal with his mana.

 

Roxis realized that he had a headache. He should have remembered to eat something before he went to bed, they’d run out of decent food on the way down, after giving it to the rescuees. The only thing they’d had left was the green vegetable soup that turned out to be one of Jess’ potions in disguise half the time.

 

The frustration and being awakened like this certainly weren’t helping either. “No: I’m not fine. I have a headache, I’m hungry, and I’m dead tired. Are you happy now, Vayne?”

 

“Of course I’m not happy, I just wanted to be sure that you were alright and I knew you weren’t.” So he’d been stuck wondering why Roxis was lying to him, what he was concealing, and how bad it was. “What happened to Dour?”

 

“Dour… Dour?” Roxis repeated, and this time it was a request for his mana to appear. “Are you alright?”

 

Dour nodded, but didn’t look directly at him. “Es.”

 

Roxis held out his hand. “Let me see the other side of your acorn.” He knew when someone was just pretending to be fine, when they were that obvious about it. There was a difference between shyness and disassembly, and Dour had even less talent for lying than Vayne. Less practice, perhaps.

 

The gouge was still there. The wound was still fresh, green instead of browned over. He touched it carefully. “Will plant stimulator fix that, or will I need to make anything exotic?”

 

“It scarred a mana?”

 

Roxis jumped when he heard a female voice coming from right behind him. Only it wasn’t Pamela that had been looking over his shoulder. Even worse. “How long have you been here?”

 

“I came in with Vayne,” Professor Isolde told him, arms folded. “You’re not very observant, are you?”

 

At first he wanted to say something like, ‘as though you would be, in my position.’ However, she might have been fighting longer than he had, he doubted she’d been allowed to take a nap by the Vice Principal – and how had she found time to come here and irritate him? Not to mention that, as an expert in predictology, she was certainly trained to be constantly aware of her surroundings. No, mere lack of sleep was no excuse. “Yes, it scarred him. I suspected as much. That was what prompted my outrage.” To harm not just a mana’s physical manifestation but its element? For Dour to be harmed, right in front of Roxis, taking a blow meant for him?

 

“You’re unusually concerned for your mana,” Isolde commented.

 

“My mana are unusually concerning.” She should know, she’d concerned herself with Vayne and his affairs.

 

Isolde chuckled: he’d got that right.

 

Roxis got out of bed, looked towards the hook on the door and realized he was still wearing his coat. He hadn’t got undressed at all, except for his boots. He would have to change his sheets again, he noted as he reached into his pocked for the plant stimulators. They were as good as nectars for reviving the plants he’d grown to fight for him. Better, since they used more common materials and wouldn’t be used by any of the others unless they were out gathering, which was a perfectly good use for them as long as they shared the materials. Which they would, the workshop was good about that, except for Nikki sometimes, when it came to edible materials. “Put it down on the floor, but in case it germinates, try to keep the roots from growing into the floor?” They were on the second floor here, and students were responsible for repairs.

 

“Why are you here, anyway?” he asked Isolde as he carefully poured the first one on Dour’s acorn manifestation. “You certainly don’t care about my health, you made that quite clear when you killed me.”

 

“Normally, the health of a student would be none of my concern, but you’re a suspect, not an ordinary student. And Vayne dragged me over here.”

 

“Oh, yes, Vayne. The way he did last time, when he told you about my father?” Roxis had forgotten about that, in the midst of all the other bad news, but a chill ran through him when he remembered that his father would already be heading here, into Isolde’s clutches. He was able to muster a death glare, at least for an instant, before examining the cut again and uncorking another stimulant.

 

“Your father, right. Thank you for reminding me. Yes, Vayne bartered all his secrets and yours for your health. He was so worried about you.” That he’d made Roxis’ situation more worrying.

 

“Vanitas said that he wouldn’t let you hurt me.” Roxis didn’t know if that extended to his father, but he could at least try to seem confident. “We didn’t have a chance to discuss this before, Vayne, but I wouldn’t have thought you were the type for blackmail.”

 

“Blackmail?” Vayne didn’t know what he was talking about.

 

“Or perhaps that isn’t the best word. Forgive me, I’m not feeling well.” In any case, it was cruel to extort assistance out of Isolde like this, which was both unlike Vayne and damn stupid, since angering Isolde enough might drive her to get creative and find a way around Vanitas.

 

“Is there anything I can do?” Vayne asked.

 

“After Dour is alright, then I’ll eat something. I’m sorry,” he apologized to his first mana, putting down the second bottle and reaching for a third. “In all the excitement, I forgot about you. I should not have.” A pact was an alchemist’s oath as well, to Lilith and all mana. Normally it wasn’t the mana that needed help, but that just made it more important, didn’t it, to help them when they needed it. It wasn’t like Dour asked for, well, anything.

 

Dour shook his head, patting the stimulant into his acorn. “Itz ine.”

 

“No, you’re not alright, not yet, but it is looking better.” Roxis handed him a bottle to drink, in case that helped, while Roxis poured another over the acorn. Oh for heaven’s sake, now the floorboards were sprouting. Just buds so far, thank goodness. He should have put down a potionproof cloth first. He shrugged off his coat and put it under Dour’s acorn as it suddenly sprouted roots and a few thin branches. “It looks like drinking it is working better. That’s right, a plant would absorb this potion, drink it in through the roots.” Or any potion. He handed Dour another bottle, and, uncorking the one he took out for himself, carefully lowered a root into it.

 

A few more tiny swallows, a few more seconds, and the tree grew before their eyes, spreading leaves that seemed to have a familiar shape even though Roxis was certain he hadn’t seen any quite like them before.

 

He certainly hadn’t known any trees to have leaves with writing on them before. Much less hieroglyphics.

 

“What’s this?” Isolde wondered, kneeling down next to him to get a closer view of the leaves.

 

“Hieroglyphics,” Roxis marveled. “I knew you weren’t the wood mana, but these aren’t huffin leaves.” His mana wasn’t the mana of any ordinary tree. He’d wondered at the fact it was able to acquire Yggdrasil leaves so easily, but the Tree of Life’s leaves didn’t have writing on them. The Tree of Knowledge, perhaps?

 

Still, why hieroglyphics? And these cartouches…  Roxis’ eyes widened. His brain was still fogged by the lack of sleep and his rude awakening, but for some reason he was able to make this horrifying connection in an instant, just his luck. “The mahkoa kha renput.”

 

“Oh, right, you read hieroglyphics.” Isolde looked at him, frowning. She knew better than to believe in coincidences. Someone practicing Egyptian alchemy came to campus, and just happened to acquire a mana whose true form sprouted Egyptian writing?

 

Roxis shook his head. “That’s not what this says. Mahkoa kha renput. The millennium items. The Millennium Tree. I thought the name just meant it was an old tree, but there’s only one tree that would have the names of pharaohs inscribed on it.” His hands stilled, his eyes no longer reading the titles listed on the leaf he’d taken hold of, carefully, to see what was on it.

 

The names of pharaohs.

 

When they’d just met a monster out of myths and legends.

 

Like the legend of the nameless pharaoh.

 

It was a bad idea to use water of youth in front of Isolde, but she already knew he had the recipe, and it was the only way to seal those names away, unsprout that acorn, without hurting Dour by plucking all of them off and burning them. Good, the cut didn’t reappear.

 

After that, he had to sit down and catch his breath, heart racing as though… no, more than it did when he fought for his life. There was no way he was going to be able to convince Vayne that nothing had just happened. “Vayne, did you read that book of Egyptian mythology I managed to find?”

 

“I haven’t gotten that far yet, sorry.” Vayne went to his knees next to Roxis and put a hand on his arm. “Do you need help getting back to bed?”

 

“I don’t need it, but I wouldn’t mind help getting up.” More to have someone there, a steadying presence than because he had literally gone weak at the knees or anything like that. “One of the legends of Thoth, patron of Egyptian alchemy and one of two aspects of the patron of all alchemy, speaks of a tree on which he and Seshat, the goddess of… quite a few things, actually, mostly related to legal paperwork, which is not a minor matter. It’s the kind of thing wars are fought over these days, and back then, when writing was sacred, it was regarded with the respect it deserved. These were not minor gods, the like of Morpheus and Hecate.”

 

Roxis would have wondered if he was babbling, taking refuge in his studies, except he did need to convey to Vayne how important this was. “There was supposedly a tree upon which they wrote all the names of the pharaohs. Some versions say that they also kept records of their reigns there, but that would be included in their names and titles… No, don’t take me to the bed.” He stood up, pushing Vayne away. “Grab my coat, will you? I need to find Iris Fortner. I need to ask what exactly that seal she was talking about consisted of. It can’t be the same seal, it’s too recent, but if she can summon Escalario, she might know something.” A mana that had been human, or mostly human, and now dwelt in the land of the dead?

 

“So you’re the mana of this tree, and it’s the same one we have on campus?” Isolde tried to interrogate Dour, who quickly floated behind Roxis and vanished.

 

“The being that we encountered down there, the one we’d better call Zorc. He’s mentioned in quite a few Egyptian myths and versions of them. He sought to destroy the sun god every night, and he was fought off by Set and Bastet. That was why the alchemist in the legend of the nameless pharaoh named his son Set, he hoped the power of the name would give him some protection against what his father had done and the curse he’d invited upon the entire land, but especially his family, by doing something like that. According to the Egyptians, the name is one of the five aspects of a human’s… I would say soul, except some of these aspects are possessed by animals and mana.” Beings that didn’t have souls by the modern, Christian definition. “The name is one of those aspects. Names have power, even if nowadays it’s mainly bards that make use of the power of names and words, not alchemists. The legend of the nameless pharaoh is that he sacrificed his life, spirit… all of his being, but especially his name, to seal away this evil.”

 

“The way Iris’ ancestor sealed Uroboros away?” Isolde wondered if they’d meant to seal this with it. It had reappeared when the seal began to weaken, from what she’d managed to learn from Iris and the others.

 

“I don’t think that was it alone. The nameless pharaoh’s seal is still intact, there are some very dangerous people who work to keep it that way. And yet Zorc is still active in this world because it’s a force of nature, like Uroboros. Sealing the mana away didn’t make all the dimensions stop existing.” That would have been a disaster. “The seals are just locks on doors, on the worst weak points, but there are always going to be weaknesses in people’s hearts, places for it to enter. It will always have to be fought off every night, every time things begin to seem hopeless and people forget that the light will return. That they have to hold out until then.” Fight to defend it, fight for its return.

 

Roxis took a deep breath and began to tell the story properly. “A long time ago, Egypt was under attack. In order to save his land and his brother, the pharaoh’s younger brother performed a synthesis of the darkest alchemy.”

 

Isolde would have folded her arms if they weren’t already folded. She still raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re calling something dark alchemy?” So he admitted its existence?

 

“Thothian alchemy isn’t dark, any more than all Hermetic alchemy is dark, but the prince performed human sacrifice. He might have used a village of tomb robbers, but it was still human sacrifice. At the time, they believed that desecrating a tomb was an order of magnitude worse than mere murder. Like suicide. A murderer only kills his victim, a suicide damns. Desecration destroyed. They believed that destroying someone’s name and body, and tomb raiders would do that to keep the angry spirit from pursuing them, destroyed their victim’s immortal soul. How could they be called back at judgment day if there was no name to call them with? That was what they believed, but it still didn’t justify a massacre. Not the entire village, innocents and all. He killed ninety-nine souls, and turned their bodies to gold and their souls to power, but the hundredth, a child, escaped and sought justice. Zorc, who had tempted the alchemist into such a crime, used this desecration to enter our world. The pharaoh’s son sacrificed everything he was to seal him away, and used his name as that seal. He is known as the nameless pharaoh because his name is the lock, and the key of that lock. That name vanished from everywhere. The tomb that they’d already begun to build for him, this was before they started building pyramids, the official documents… everywhere.”

 

“And you think it’s on your mana?” Isolde hated to admit it, but he might be right. “If it was written there by one of the aspects of Hermes Trismegistus…” That wasn’t just any pagan god.

 

If she were to believe that Hermes Trismegistus existed. Admit that alchemy was more than just a science.

 

A science? Like herbalism?

 

No, alchemy was far more than that, and everyone knew it, scholarly arguments laid out in books and papers or not.

 

“The ancient name of this island, before it was called Avenberry, was Eden, wasn’t it? If the gods and the mana are indeed related, and Zorc is a mana as well as an evil god, than where else would such a tree grow, but here or the land of mana? The nameless pharaoh’s synthesis might have had enough power to change even something Thoth himself wrote, but…”

 

“But he was only human.”

 

Roxis shook his head. “Not technically. The members of the Egyptian royal family in that era were… Like Anna, but far more so. They could perform summons and spells that should have been far beyond them. They could do things that would have killed any mere mortal, even a most accomplished alchemist. They may have been what Palaxius was trying to recreate, by imbuing himself with Lilith’s power.” He paused, remembering the lineage.

 

“When did you find out that he was trying to do that?” Thorn wondered.

 

“…Honestly, I’m not sure.” So much kept happening, strangers and realizations, odd scraps of information and inspiration. “But that wasn’t all he was trying to do, surely…” No. Later. Even if it surely had something to do with Thorn, and hence Vayne. “Vanitas? Could you make me feel like I’ve had a good night’s sleep and something to eat?”

 

The kitten perked up. A wish to grant? “Can I clean your clothes, too?”

 

“That’s probably a good idea.” It was almost a tingly feeling, the change. “There, now I feel much better.” He pet the kitten, although he knew that there was a difference between feeling well and being well. Sleep and dreams were necessary if one wished to think clearly, for instance, and the equivalent of a potion couldn’t substitute for hours of dreams, the process Faustus governed. He knew that he was going to crash, after pushing himself like this, and crash hard, but it was important. “Where are Iris and Arlin?”

 

“Isolde’s house,” Vanitas told him.

 

Vayne had swung by the workshop on the way, to make sure they knew where they were going to be sleeping.

 

“Can you two take me there?” Roxis asked, dreading the next morning. Well, it was just Zeppel’s class.

 

“But you do have talent for alchemy,” Vayne argued, after the door was open and they couldn’t talk about the previous topic anymore. Vayne didn’t like Roxis saying he wasn’t a good alchemist any more than Roxis liked to hear the three of them guilt-tripping.

 

Roxis’ pace increased when Vayne said that, boots hitting the floor with almost unnecessary force. “No, I don’t. Jess has talent for alchemy. You have an outright instinct for it.” Being a mana. “It comes easily to Anna and Nikki, Pamela has the advantage of age, and even Flay orders the universe around like he orders around everyone else. I have to work at it. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was? When traveling alchemists would visit, wanting to see our ancient library, and they’d pity us or eye our library and gardens and think about how they belonged in the hands of real alchemists, and they’d either be happy, incredibly condescending, or both when they asked how I was coming along, or offered a lesson to see how my skills really were? That’s been going on as long as I can remember! Why do you think my father took his son along on trips where there was the risk of bandits or worse? If he’d left me behind another year, if I’d heard the words ‘past glories’ one more time, I would have killed someone.” Just thinking about them made his blood boil. “I’d bet Iris Fortner was making heal jars in the cradle.” Some people had all the damn luck.

 

“So you came to resent others for their good fortune and sought underhanded means of gaining the power and recognition of an alchemist.”

 

“Oh, be quiet.” It took a moment for Roxis to register that it wasn’t Eital who had said that. “Professor.” He’d just told a professor to shut up.

 

Why couldn’t Vayne have just let him sleep?

Chapter Text

Arlin, who Iris and Crowley were still calling Ash (Mister Ash, in Iris’ case) a little more than half the time, held up his hand to stop Roxis from speaking. “If you’re discussing something you don’t want that creature to know, I can’t be here for this.” Obviously. “I’ll tell you what I can,” if it was any of their business, “but unlike… Jess, I wasn’t built to incorporate a ruby prism. I have some defenses, but they’ve already proven that they weren’t enough once.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Luplus said, appearing beside Arlin. “If I’d been there…”

 

Arlin looked at him and shook his head. “It wasn’t your fault, it was mine for failing to protect you.”

 

Isolde was surprised to hear something so much like what Roxis would say to Vayne from the ancient. The difference was that when Roxis said it he was scolding Vayne for blaming himself. Arlin wasn’t scolding Luplus, he simply felt guilty for not protecting his mana partner. But then, an ancient alchemist was certainly able to do more in the way of protection than a student.

 

Then again, Roxis had rescued Vayne from her and then Thorn from this evil, while Arlin hadn’t even been able to rescue himself.

 

“There was nothing you could have done,” Luplus told him. “There were too many of it.”

 

“Too many of… That monster beat you and took Luplus?” As some monster must have defeated Iris’ parents and taken Zeilia.

 

“It snuck up on me. No, I knew something was following me, but there was nothing but shadows. I was looking for what cast them, I didn’t realize that it had hidden itself in them. At first it didn’t seem that difficult, and I thought I could force it to tell me who had sent it after me, since it knew about Luplus. Then it started splitting into several enemies, and when I defeated one it would just make another. They weren’t illusions or puppets, all of them were real.” Otherwise it would have been simple, he’d dealt with enemies using those techniques before. “I needed to kill it faster than it could make more of itself, so I made the mistake of summoning Luplus to slow them down.” He met each of their eyes. “That was when it trapped him. Don’t call your mana, they have to manifest for it to catch them.”

 

“Can you describe the item or technique?” Isolde asked, leaning forward.

 

“The same item Mull used to use.” Arlin’s eyes grew dark. “The same one I used to use, to seal them in statues and crystals.” At Mull’s orders.

 

He’d done it? Roxis leaned forward, the aspect of the crisis he’d come about momentarily forgotten. “Do you know how to release them?”

 

Arlin looked surprised. “It’s not difficult. Just focus the power of alchemy where they’re trapped and call them out.”

 

“Focus the power of alchemy?” Isolde prompted him.

 

“It’s very similar to performing elemental extraction, except instead of converting the object into raw elemental power it’s simply calling out what’s already there.”

 

“Elemental extraction is a lost technique here,” Roxis was sorry to inform him.

 

“I’ll show it to you,” Iris promised him. “It’s simple, really even if you don’t know how it’s supposed to work. I remembered watching my father use it, so when I started raiding I did what he did, but I thought it was just for disrupting the elements of monsters, not absorbing them.” A killing technique that broke their bodies apart, scattering the elements that made them up, not one that pulled their component elements into the alchemist. “Uroboros told me that I was supposed to summon them into me, so that I could use them to synthesize items, and once I knew that was how it was supposed to work, it was simple.” Pulling them into herself instead of sending them out into the world.

 

“Disrupting the component elements of the target?” Roxis sounded fascinated. “You would have to have a very advanced understanding of alchemy for that.” To be able to comprehend the elements a living creature, as opposed to an ingredient, was made up of and control them like that.

 

“There are two kinds of synthesis: synthesis from ingredients and synthesis from raw elements,” Arlin explained. “It’s only possible to synthesize from raw elements with the help of a mana capable of interacting with that element, but researchers in Avenberry discovered how to synthesize with ingredients without the help of a mana. Any mana.” The alchemist, or shopkeeper in Veola’s case, had to be the one to understand the true nature of the ingredients. “No one who doesn’t have a pact to at least one mana can use elemental extraction.”

 

“Really?” Iris looked surprised. She’d used elemental extraction before she’d found Plua and made a pact with her, but then again she hadn’t been doing it right. Maybe her old technique, ‘elemental disruption’ didn’t require a mana but actually taking in the elements, real elemental extraction, did.

 

Arlin gave her a measuring look. “Normally.”

 

“Normally?” Roxis repeated the word. “Are you referring to the lineage of Iris?” Perhaps Iris might not need a mana to use the technique because she had the ability herself?

 

Arlin looked surprised. “How did you know about that?”

 

“Wasn’t Klein a member of it? Apparently I’m a descendant of his.”

 

“He was, but he didn’t know what it meant. No one did, not even Mull, or he wouldn’t have let Klein’s grandmother just leave like that.” And Arlin didn’t want to think about what Mull would have done to Klein if he’d known that the alchemist was a human with the power of a mana instead of just some amateur, commoner. Mere background noise who was no threat to his plans other than as a distraction, so paying attention to a mere distraction would obviously have been counterproductive.

 

“Klein’s grandmother?”

 

“She and Mull were partners,” Arlin explained. “They both studied under her mother, and then went to Avenberry in search of knowledge and recipes. They found Zedalia’s village on the way.” Investigating an odd glyph, they’d discovered how to open the gate to the village of sorcerers that Mull had destroyed decades later when they refused to serve him. “Eventually, they argued over the means he intended to use to restore alchemy to the world, and the other two abandoned alchemy. Or that’s what he told me.”

 

“Klein’s grandmother taught him alchemy,” Jess chimed in. She’d been standing over the cauldron as their small group conferred in the loft, and Roxis and Vayne were so used to having her tinkering in the background that they’d almost forgotten she was there. Normally she was dead to the world when she was experimenting: a bomb could go off right next to her and as long as it wasn’t one of hers she wouldn’t notice or care, not compared to the synthesis she was focusing on. “He came to Avenberry to search for alchemical items, since she wanted him to discover them, and mana, on his own. It was kind of the opposite of Al Revis: Klein knew how to synthesize from elements but he wasn’t very good with a cauldron and ingredients. He needed Veola to make armor and weapons for us.” Pouring something into a bottle, she added. “Norman, he was a bartender, really knew more about the alchemy Al Revis teaches than Klein did, huh. So much for alchemy dying out in Kavoc. I think that it was just that it was so normal there that no one really considered it alchemy. Alchemy was the stuff with mana and elements, not mixing ingredients.”

 

“You really are Lita,” Arlin said, sounding almost amazed. “Regardless,” he said, trying to get back on track, “If that family had known they were part mana, Mull’s… Mull would have been told. He didn’t know. So how do you know?”

 

Roxis was confused. Didn’t Arlin know that the alchemists were still in existence? He had somehow gotten the impression that… Well, no, if they were still in contact with Arlin he would have had their help getting Luplus back. Was there some reason they weren’t keeping in touch, was there some secret? He dismissed the idea that they were only allowed to speak of such things to him because he was destined to create the ruby prism or something like that. If they were helping Jess, even if Jess hadn’t remembered until now, surely they would have at least let their friend, who did remember them and would have mourned, know that they were still alive.

 

“Klein must have told him,” Luplus suggested to Arlin.

 

“As in personally?” Arlin looked at Roxis thoughtfully. “Klein didn’t discover what that meant until… afterwards.”

 

“Zedalia thought it didn’t mean anything besides that he could pact to multiple mana,” Jess explained. “Klein didn’t even know he was a member when he came, I don’t think his grandmother told him. Actually, I don’t think she told him much of anything. He didn’t know who Mull was until Zedalia told him, either.” The woman who raised him couldn’t have told him much about her youth, if she’d left her own pilgrimage out. “Anyway, Roxis, Vayne’s right.” She left the cauldron to come closer to the loft and meet his eyes. “There are lots of ways to do alchemy. Klein was really good with what he did, just like you’re good with medicines and desserts, and he made the ruby prism.” Jess had heard Vayne arguing with Roxis as they came in.

 

“Yeah. Honestly?” Nikki stretched her legs and tail. “You’re really worse than Vayne ever was.”

 

“What?” Roxis leaned over the edge of the loft. A few months ago, he would have been horribly insulted. But Nikki wouldn’t have said something like that to be insulting, and Jess might treat terrible things lightly but she wasn’t like Pamela or Flay, she wouldn’t say something like this just for the sake of his reaction.

 

“Seriously, Roxis… Ow!” Nikki hit her head on the table before crawling out from under it, rubbing her forehead and further messing up her crazy hair. “You’re really good at alchemy, so when you say that you’re terrible at it, then what does that mean for everyone else who’s not as good as you?” It meant that they were really terrible. “Remember how you felt because Vayne didn’t think that what he could do wasn’t anything special? You thought that he was looking down on you because if his skills were insignificant, then you really weren’t any good at all? I know you don’t mean it any more than Vayne did, but, honestly? You really act like a jerk sometimes. Half our class thinks you’re looking down on them.” Well, more like all of them except the ones who knew Roxis, and he was kind of prickly so that was hard.

 

“Well, I am, they don’t have any work ethic. It’s near the end of second year and they arrived months before I did, how could anyone not know…” Roxis waved his arm, Nikki and Jess knew the kind of stupid questions some of the other students asked. “It’s because of the ones who won’t apply themselves that the rest of us have to waste half of every class session on review! I can’t stand people who have the talent and just waste it!” Waste what he’d worked so hard to approximate!

 

“Talent?” Isolde snorted. “You’re just using that as an excuse to look down on everyone. The kind of pride that comes from pushing others down instead of improving yourself? It’s despicable. You, the underdog? Throw away your illusions!” she ordered, imperiously and contemptuously.

 

Roxis whirled to glare at her.

 

Professor Isolde wasn’t impressed with teenaged dramatics. “You grew up comparing yourself to past glories and adult alchemists: of course you weren’t as good as they were. Then you failed the entrance exam because you came to it with an entirely different understanding of alchemy theory: I went through your file, you were practically correcting the questions.” Convinced some of them were trick questions, because it just didn’t work that way.

 

“The only kinds of ‘talent’ that matter are the ability to grasp concepts and the ability to work hard. People who have the first without the second are doomed to fail, because if it’s easy for them and they don’t know how to deal with it when it doesn’t? However, by working at it, people can learn what would otherwise be hard for them to grasp, and they can learn how to learn. Talent? Talent without discipline is worse than useless. Look at Renee, she could have been my successor but she doesn’t care enough about alchemy theory to work at it when she could be fighting. Look at Tony: alchemy comes absurdly naturally to him but he was failing his classes until he started putting the work into it because of his little rivalry with Flay. He didn’t get a mana because of his talent, she decided to pact to him because he ‘has spirit,’ which as far as I can tell means she picked him because he’s overly emotional and undisciplined.”

 

Far too easily provoked. Although, to be fair, Isolde had gotten the impression that the concern for Nell he had showed and how he had expressed it had been an important part of it. “You can look at ingredients and know their properties instantly: that’s not talent, that’s skill. Knowing what needs to be done without having to think about it, and knowing where to look to find what you don’t know? That’s what makes an alchemist. What makes an expert. If this was the old days and you were my apprentice, I’d have sent you to found your own workshop already. You’re a master comparing yourself to apprentices. Don’t you feel proud of yourself?” Isolde wondered archly.

 

“Let me tell you one thing you obviously don’t know: everyone judges normal by themselves. Vayne didn’t think his powers were anything strange because they were how he always had been, am I right? Not until they were pointed out to him. And if an artificial mana can think he’s normal, than someone who clearly would have gotten Fs in all my classes if he hadn’t done enough work to compensate for lack of understanding of the material can think that he’s below average and practically everyone else is incompetent by comparison.” Isolde was frankly disgusted with herself. This was forcing her to admit that Ernentraud had been right. How had she let anyone in her workshop labor under such ignorance? Roxis and his education had technically been her responsibility, and even if she’d given up on alchemy she should have owed it to herself to enlighten the boy. For the sake of making him annoy her less, if nothing else. “Congratulations: you’re a great alchemist, if a terrible predictologist. Now pat yourself on the back and get over yourself.”

 

Theofratus had been arrogant for the same reason, thinking himself surrounded by fools, and then he’d realized that the fools were the normal ones and become so full of himself. At least Theofratus had done his best to ignore the foolishness of others instead of constantly pointing it out in the first stage. Roxis managed to be as arrogant in his humility as Theofratus ever had been in his god complex.

 

Theofratus… Her hands clutched around her fur muff and the small treasure it contained.

Chapter Text

“Something’s been bothering me,” Jess said as Roxis stood there with his mouth hanging open like a fish’s.

“What do you mean, Jess?” Nikki asked, grateful for the chance to change the subject. Saying all that had been really mean to Roxis. It wasn’t like he was trying to be a jerk to people.

Well, not as much.

As before.

Most of the time.

He was being a lot nicer to Vayne?

Well, alright, Roxis admitting that he kind of had been holding their classmates in contempt because they weren’t as smart as him kind of did destroy any and all excuses Nikki could have made for his behavior. Isolde had outlined every excuse he had in that speech of hers, and instead of making what Roxis did seem reasonable, it had just made it seem more unreasonable and pathetic, because she’d acknowledged why he was doing it instead of just saying he was a jerk. So she’d seemed really reasonable by comparison.

Ms. Isolde had.

The bard in Nikki was taking mental notes, because that rhetoric technique had really worked.

“Arlin, you’re in danger because you can’t use a ruby prism, right?” Jess asked, frowning.

“That’s correct.” He was well aware of that, he’d been aware for centuries. Veola might be able to arrange for Lita to be reborn before falling apart and ceasing to be when she died because of the ruby prism, but Arlin didn’t have that luxury. If he died he was dead, unless Luplus warped time to undo his death, and every time Luplus did that Arlin’s mana and best friend risked his own existence. Not to mention the chaos and destruction that would engulf the world if the Mana of Time died.

He’d tried driving Luplus away once, after it was all over and Mull had been stopped, but Luplus hadn’t fallen for it. Had given Arlin a piece of his mind, in fact.

“How do you know that?” Jess asked.

“Mull couldn’t make the ruby prism, so he didn’t construct us to be able to use one.” Arlin wondered why she was bringing this up.

“I know he didn’t make the ruby prism, or give you one. What I’m asking is, did anyone ever try?” Jess nodded in Iris’ direction. “I mean, if Iris could use one to repair the Shadow Gem, then it can’t be that you’re incompatible because you’re debased or anything like that. That should have been as debased as it got. A ruby prism should be able to purify and fix anything.”

Roxis, Isolde and Nikki all stared at Iris. “You made the ruby prism?”

“Yes?” Iris blinked at them, honestly not understanding what the big deal was. “I wrote down all my recipes.” It had been in there.

Now Nikki stared at Jess, amazed. “You read through her recipes?” That big stack of them. “All of them, not just the bombs?”

Jess shook her head. “No, I could tell. I know what a ruby prism feels like.” Even when it had just been used as an ingredient in something else.

“You have the recipe for the ruby prism?” Roxis finally realized that his jaw was still dropped and closed it.

“Yes. Do you think they would help Mr. Crowley and Mr. Arlin?” If Iris made more.

“Can you even make more?” Isolde asked before the children got their hopes up any further.

Jess frowned, thinking. “Yeah, we’d need an aroma material, and a lot of the ingredients Klein used were things my mother had left behind that I don’t know the recipes for.” One-of-a-kind, or two-of-a-kind things.

“I have the aroma material recipe.” Isolde would be willing to consider a trade.

“Aroma material? The recipe I used called for a dunkelheit, dragon tongue, brilliant stone and a pentagle. Of course, I did get that recipe from Mr. Crowley. No, I mean…!” She blushed, covering her mouth and looking surprised at herself. “Not you, Mr. Crowley. The serpent.” She knew they weren’t the same person, and of course a recipe from the real Mr. Crowley would be trustworthy.

Everyone was staring at her again.

“So it might just be something similar to a ruby prism, the way your extraction technique was similar to the true lost art.” Roxis was surprised at himself. Why wasn’t he more disappointed by that thought?

Jess agreed that, “Yeah, it can’t be that easy. Mother made several, and it was a lot of work to gather and make the ingredients. They couldn’t just be things you found lying around. The Great Work has a lot of steps to it.” She looked disappointed, then seemed to have an epiphany. “Let’s get Flay to get us some dunkelheits and try it!” Flay was a senior. Normally he wouldn’t go get them ingredients from areas that were closed to them, but Jess thought that surely a ruby prism would be exciting enough for him to bend the rules.

For once, Jess was entirely wrong about what Flay would do for the sake of excitement. Flay had been involved in what happened to Tony and felt at least a little responsible for his workshop members. The fact the ruby prism was such an advanced synthesis was even more reason not to help them make it before they were even able to gather the ingredients on their own.

“I have some,” Iris offered. Nell had brought her lots and lots of alchemy supplies from home. “They’re in the middle one of the drawers you gave me, over to the left.”

Really, it surprised Iris that Edge had let her gather them, after what Edge must have thought about Iris’ obsession with gathering supplies for the sake of the lost.

“Great, thanks!” What harm was there in trying it? Jess asked herself. Wasn’t the whole reason she asked that she wanted to try to save Arlin even though he said and everyone had thought it didn’t work that way?

“Brilliant stone, pentagle, and dunkelheit: replace the dragon tongue with a high-level elemental accessory and that’s the recipe for the aroma material,” Isolde said as Jess ran off. “Well, the aroma material is something that purifies and brings out the true power of mana. Since the being inhabiting the shadow gem is a mana, that may have been enough.”

“Brings out the power of mana?” Roxis looked at Arlin.

“You may be right.” Arlin looked at Iris, who wondered what they were talking about.

Isolde was the one to ask, “What are you two talking about?” She folded her arms. “It’s rude to talk about others behind their back, and even ruder to do it right in front of them.” Rubbing it in that people were talking about them and they weren’t privy to it.

“It’s Iris’ decision.” Whether she wants you to know or not. Arlin told Iris that, “We should talk, but later.”

“Purifying and bringing out the true power of Mana?” Roxis looked at Vayne thoughtfully, and then reached back to pick up the kitten under his hair by the scruff of his neck and look at him thoughtfully. “Do you think it would help?” He looked around. “Where is Thorn when I want to ask if something is harmful or not?”

“He’s with Sulpher and Eital,” Vayne told him.

“…Sulpher and Eital?” Eital was bad enough, but Sulpher was conspiring with her now?

Before Roxis could even think anything along the lines of, “What else could go wrong,” they heard a huge explosion.

All of them turned in the direction the noise it came from and all of them but Iris, Crowley and Arlin thought, “Jess just blew up the athanor trying to make a ruby prism, didn’t she.”

“I’ll go see what happened,” Nikki said, racing out the door. Seriously, destroying the athanor? Jess was going to be in so much trouble. If she had. Nikki hoped she hadn’t.

Shortly after Nikki exited stage right she re-entered, followed by a slightly-singed Jess. “Wow! That was amazing!” Jess exclaimed, exalted. “We should totally do that again. With different ingredients next time. And I think it would be a lot easier with a co-op synthesis.” She brushed some soot off the aroma material she had produced.

“That’s great, but… Guys? We’re kind of going to have to wait until they replace the athanor.” Nikki looked sheepish.

“That won’t take long, right?” Right? Jess realized that, “I think Morry was crying…” She’d just blown up his baby, hadn’t she.

“That athanor is several centuries old.” Isolde would have said that it was irreplaceable, no one had the knowledge or equipment to make one advanced enough to instantly perform syntheses that took days with modern athanors, except Vayne’s silver head was in her line of sight. Well, he had said that he wanted to prevent alchemy from dying out, but replacing the athanor would require an explanation. Even though the principal would be too relieved to want to look the gift horse in the mouth.

Wow, Jess felt really bad now. “I should help him fix it, huh.”

“Miss Jessica Philomele! What is this?” the vice-principal asked, standing in the hallway. “Have you finally learned to take responsibility for your actions?” Would wonders never cease? “In lieu of expulsion, you will help repair the athanor.”

Wait, that meant that she’d get to play with all the parts and see how they fit together and how it worked? All because she’d felt kind of bad for someone and thought she should actually try to fix it instead of thinking that loss meant nothing (Jess) or someone else would fix it (Lita)?

Wow, it was going to be really easy to change her bad habits and become a better person if the universe kept rewarding her for it like this!

(Jess tried to ignore the part of her that said it had happened because explosions were awesome like that.)

“Repair it? What are you talking about?” Isolde asked her.

And was ignored. “Sir Arlin, as you are not a student, you would normally be prohibited from use of Al Revis’ facilities,” by law. He didn’t even have a modern license, making it illegal for him to practice alchemy at all. “However, we appear to be in need of your assistance.”

“I’ll repair the athanor in exchange for a license for myself and Crowley’s tuition,” Arlin said, to everyone’s mild surprise.

Ernentraud drew herself up to her full height. “Tuition? Tuition? Sir Arlin, this campus is fully self-supporting!”

“In midair, too,” Isolde muttered under her breath.

“We do not ask students or graduates to carry the burden of this academy: the staff of this school are fully capable of seeing to all its needs.” Tuition, indeed. He might as well have suggested that they were supported by tax money and had to bow to the whims of kings. No, Al Revis didn’t even accept donations, there had been too many with strings attached.

Al Revis grew its own food, made its own clothing, and when they needed items from the outside world they sold alchemy products. They accepted people as students who had never seen a coin before in their entire lives.

No, Al Revis’ financial success was entirely based on alchemy skill.

To imply they needed tuition money was an insult to the staff. Al Revis would collect tuition over her dead body.

Of course, would he have known that? “Ahem.” Ernentraud adjusted her robes. “The principal will make the final decision.”

“And if you believe that…” Isolde said, quietly enough only the people on the loft could hear. She found herself smiling when Vayne had to stifle a laugh.

“However, a faculty position would come with a house of your own. And other benefits.” He couldn’t be happy having to share the madhouse Ernentraud had foisted on Isolde.

“That…” Isolde had been counting on Arlin to help ride herd on them. Wasn’t the entire point of making her host them keeping the former-possessed people under supervision? Arlin would be taking Crowley with him, certainly, and that meant that the one who had been possessed longest and the other most vulnerable victim would be together, unsupervised. She couldn’t just walk in and search someone else’s home: what if the serpent returned and used it as a base?

This was her fault, wasn’t it. For being so obvious and so immature about Vayne. Stepping on too many toes. Offending too many of the other staff. As good as telling them that her judgment wasn’t trustworthy. Seriously, she was the predictologist here, what had she thought would happen?

Chapter Text

“You’re not going to go with her?” Crowley asked Arlin when the Vice Principal left.

“No.” He shook his head. “This kind of thing always involves meetings.” She was obviously going to go set everything up for there to be a formal faculty appointment & official interview with the principal, and there was no point in him tagging along and getting in her way. “I will need to speak with her privately beforehand,” he acknowledged. About who exactly was going to know that he was a homunculus. Who had Isolde told what about his nature? And Crowley’s, more importantly. But it was obvious that this Ernentraud Karnap knew more than Isolde did.

Speaking of Crowley’s nature, at first he’d meant to tell him privately, but now he was wondering if he was letting himself put it off just because he wanted to put it off. Lita should know, anyway. Just in case anything happened to him.

He reached up to smooth his hair back, a habit acquired when it was longer and he kept it in a ponytail and absolutely useless with a spiky cut like this. He made a note to synthesize a hair-growth potion. There was no point in trying to appear differently here, not when they hadn’t seen his previous disguise, so he might as well be comfortable.

Damn that Librarian and his digging around in that old portrait collection… At least he hadn’t pried after Arlin had told him that he had no idea why the man and his friends weren’t aging, but he was absolutely certain it had nothing to do with why Arlin didn’t.

Actually, he had made a fairly good guess, but with an unknown enemy capturing mana, the last thing he’d wanted to do was inform the city’s ruling quartet that they had become mana. It might have found out somehow and gone after them next.

After so many generations with a limited gene pool, he doubted there was a single person in Zee Meruze who wasn’t a descendant of the Lineage of Iris. Avenberry, Al Revis, whatever they were calling it this century might have glyphs to enhance mana power, but the air in Zee Meruze had still been filled with more of it.

Iris needed to know that the aroma material was crystallized mana power, and only a mana would possibly produce a ruby prism instead of an aroma material. An evolved mana, in fact.

She blinked at him, on the verge of asking him why he was looking at her so thoughtfully.

“What are you most interested in?”

“Alchemy,” she answered, without needing to pause to think.

“Do you have any other interests? Hobbies? Things that you care about?” he prompted her.

“Well…” She paused to think with a small frown. “My friends, of course.” Other than that? She really couldn’t think of anything. Well, she liked wearing clothes sometimes… that she’d made with alchemy…. Her frown deepened. She really was obsessed, wasn’t she? But, but alchemy!

“Alchemy.” Could it really be that simple? “Alchemy.” He stared at her in wonder. Well, if there was a mana of alchemy, it would make sense that it would manifest in the form Lilith had taken, when she incarnated and became an alchemist, but a mana of alchemy itself?

She might lose that power. It was normal in Zee Meruze for people to have odd obsessions, and sometimes more than one, like that non-fisherman who wasn’t a poet, either. It wasn’t rare for its citizens to stay at a certain age for a long time, either, like the current Combat Mistress or one of his old sparring partners. Arlin would bet he was still telling stories around the fountain, just like he had been when Iris’ parents were children.

It was possible for them to draw strength from an element without becoming mana. Every alchemist drew strength from the elements, the lineage was just better at it. There was a difference between being pacted to a mana and being a mana, between performing a synthesis on an object and on yourself.

Still, he was obligated to warn her that her current philosophy and way as an alchemist weren’t refining her immortal soul, but opening it, changing her very nature. If she was still human, she would probably be upset if she didn’t warn her before she was no longer human. Of course, if it already was too late, then telling her might just upset her. He’d already upset her while she was gathering the gems, though. She could handle it.

It really had been unfair of him to say those things, take everything out on her and her companions. It wasn’t their fault he hadn’t been able to find Luplus and free him and Crowley.

He’d forsworn alchemy once. After Mull had finally done something unforgiveable.

If Iris did embody alchemy, it was not Mull’s alchemy.

The thought made him smile, just a bit. A pity he hadn’t been able to be there when Amalgam extracted Mull. Ate him. It had been too dangerous for him to go there, with Amalgam about to wake up. Not without a ruby prism to stabilize him. He might have fallen apart the instant he set foot in the castle. Not that this would have stopped him if Veola hadn’t used an item, which he was more than half convinced had really been a spell, to put him to sleep.

It had been years before he’d forgiven her, but when they’d met again he had been forced to thank her. Luplus had already risked destruction restoring him to existence once. He shouldn’t have gone: he’d trusted the others to defeat Mull, and personal vengeance wasn’t worth his pactmate’s life.

He should possibly thank the Vaynes for killing Mull for him. Well, Thorn at least. From what he gathered, the other two might not appreciate it. Certainly Vayne wouldn’t.

Except for this Isolde and the beastgirl, he did need to speak to everyone here. While Roxis didn’t seem like the type to accidently become a mana, Arlin doubted he knew everything about the lineage. Arlin didn’t know everything about the lineage. Given how many times they’d surprised him, he wondered if even Lilith herself knew everything they were capable of, all the ways the chaotic balance between human and mana could tip.

The others from Zee Meruze would need to be told something as well, since they were in the middle of a lot of observant alchemists now, instead of people who had grown up in Zee Meruze and didn’t see anything odd about the lineage’s oddities. He was wondering how much he should tell them, and when, not to mention how when Lita waved up at him.

“Arlin?” Eden to Arlin?

“…Yes?”

“I was going to ask you to make me a ruby prism, since I know I can make one for you.” He was her friend. “But they’re not something that can just be bought and sold like that.” She couldn’t expect him to make one for her, or make her creation of one conditional like that. If Klein had only tried to create it for her because she had practically demanded it of him, he wouldn’t have been able to and she would have died.

“I don’t know if I can,” Arlin told her sadly. “If I’m even capable of making one,” being what he was. If either of them was capable of making one, it would be her. She understood their nature, he was a creation of Mull. “Even if I am able to make one, there’s already someone…” Several someones who came first, he would have corrected himself, because family came before friends whom he knew could find someone else to make them a prism, but then the door opened.

Even more centuries had passed, and she still hadn’t gotten the concept of privacy.

The woman that came in the door wasn’t beautiful by modern standards. She had a very Roman nose, and her face, while flawless, was too flawless. In real life, no one’s face was that perfect, unmarred, symmetrical. Looking at her, Crowley wondered if she was Arlin’s relative, while Isolde and Roxis thought of Vayne.

Jess thought of puppet shows. There was something jerky about her movements, even if there were no strings. Instead of flowing, everything seemed a little too deliberate, the starts and stops too definite.

It gave her an inhuman air, but she didn’t have the otherworldly air of a mana, and her movements were on the opposite extreme from the typical beastman’s animal grace.

Nikki wasn’t looking at her, she was looking at Arlin. Wow, she thought, she’d never seen someone literally struck dumb by the sight of someone like that before. It wasn’t even surprise, not quite. It wasn’t even merely that he was happy to see her. It was that when he saw her, everything else had gone away.

It was really romantic and she needed to write it into a song. There were songs about it, but she’d never experienced it for herself, so she’d thought it was either one of those clichés or if she tried to sing about it then it would feel like a cliché since she wouldn’t know what she was talking about.

She still didn’t know exactly how Arlin felt, but it was something real, and she was going to put it into song.

Isolde was the one who identified the jewelry as Roman-style. Hair ornaments set with gems the sea green color of her hair. From the shine, they were either modern reproductions, very well-tended antiques, or alchemic in origin. No, wait. Isolde’s eyes narrowed. Those ornaments weren’t set on her head or into her hair. They were attached to her head.

Well, that would explain why they clashed, more than a little, with the far more recent style of her clothing. A few centuries old.

Reminiscent of the clothes the heroes who had defeated Mull had worn. Was she from that same time period, that same region? Another of Mull’s homunculi? The material was finer than the practical garb they had worn, however. Even if it was clearly alchemy-made. And were those soot-marks?

Had it been a gift?

From Arlin?

She smiled, leaning forward a little, and the geometric lines of her face, constructed by some learned man according to the Classical principles of beauty and the golden mean, softened. She smiled, and the simple truth of that smile, the emotions behind it, were real enough that it eclipsed everything that marked her as unreal, as other. “Master Arlin.”

“Yuveria.” The normally-serious ancient homunculus returned that smile. He could do nothing else. “You’re alright.”

“All systems nominal,” she confirmed. “What is your status? Do you require repairs? I have made an additional study of homunculus construction since our last encounter.” In case he needed it.

“I’m fine. Thank you, Yuveria.”

Nikki’s eyes widened. She’d have to ask Jess to make sure, since as a beastman her color vision was a little lacking, which gave her problems with ingredients sometimes so she had to taste-test, but she could swear that Arlin was blushing.

“Wow, Pamela’s going to be disappointed.” Yeah, Jess had seen that blush too.

Wait, were they the same Pamela? Jess didn’t think so, but Lita wasn’t sure. The Pamela Lita had known had hit on Arlin, but that was because she’d thought he was an attractive young ghost because he was so pale. Perhaps she had sensed that he’d been close to death then, too. She didn’t think that either Pamela was serious about anyone, though.

Iris knew a different Pamela, so they probably weren’t the same person.

“Forgive me, where are my manners. Yuveria, this is Crowley, my brother, and these are Iris Fortner, Roxis Rosenkrantz, Lita Blanchimont, Vayne Aurelius and Nikki, members of her workshop, as well as Professor Isolde,” Arlin introduced them.

She bowed, the somewhat jerky formal movement reminding them that there was something odd about her. “It is a pleasure to meet all of you. I am Yuveria, guardian of the Gardo Continental Drive. Are you by any chance related to Mistress Viese Blanchemont, Mistress Lita?”

“Mistress?” Jess was surprised. Why was someone with that noble a bearing, not to mention the fine clothes and jewelry generally forbidden to peasants by law, calling a tradesman’s daughter mistress?

“Yuveria was constructed in Roman times,” Arlin hurried to explain. He’d called her Lady Yuveria when they’d met, and it had taken some time for him to realize why she had found being addressed with a title somewhat offensive, although of course she hadn’t said so. It had been horribly embarrassing. He’d been so young at the time, and offended on her behalf until she had set him straight.

She still made him feel so young, like he was once again only a few years old, meeting her.

“Constructed? Another homunculus?” Isolde raised an eyebrow. They really were popping out of the woodwork, all these things that should not exist, relics of alchemy’s dark pasts.

“Incorrect. I am an automaton, constructed by Master Elusmus as a component of the Gardo Continental Drive.”

“Elusmus? The alchemist who opposed Palaxius?” One of the creators of the ruby prism, from what Roxis could recall.

She nodded, her movements nowhere near as organic as those of a homunculus like Arlin, much less Vayne. “Yes, Master Roxis, although I was put into service when Master Elusmus was still the student and partner of Master Palaxius.”

“Ah.” Ah, that explained that.

“Huh?” Vayne looked at Roxis for an explanation.

“Did Master Elusmus consider you a mere component, or a slave?”

“I have the honor of being Master Elusmus’ slave, yes, Master Roxis.”

“You’re a slave?” He created her and he treated her like a slave? Vayne didn’t think that was right.

Roxis noted Vayne’s reaction and considered it progress. “It’s not quite what you’re thinking. Elusmus was an alchemist, and I would assume a patrician of high rank and noble blood?”

“Of course, Master Roxis.”

“By Roman standards, Yuveria ranks…” Flay wasn’t here, he and Vayne weren’t licensed alchemists yet and their families, not being Roman, wouldn’t have counted for much by Roman standards, “Everyone in this room.”

“Except myself,” Isolde added wryly: she doubted Roxis knew she was minor nobility as well as a licensed alchemist. “Although not by much.” Barbarian nobility barely counted.

“To refer to someone of her status as a mere plebian freewoman, much less an object, would have been an insult.” Elusmus had clearly considered her extremely valuable and had made sure everyone, including Yuveria herself, knew it.

“I have had the honor of calling Yuveria my friend for some time now. She was very helpful,” Arlin told Crowley, and Nikki was definitely picking up vibes of a mother introducing a new hubby to her children, or the other way round. Hoping the kid would get along with someone they really liked.

She wasn’t certain Yuveria returned those feelings, but the way she’d smiled? 

Chapter Text

“Mr. Vanheit!” The vice principal drew herself up to her full height. “Why are you not in class?”

The young man, who she had caught on his way out of the Resource Center after buying the things on Iris’ shopping list and enough fish and seaweed for that night’s dinner from the student-run shop hidden a little ways inside just looked at her. Was she talking to him?

Nobody called him Mr. Vanheit. Even the Guild officials used first names. The Guildmistress herself went by Noella, and she was the de facto ruler of Zee Meruze. Roxis, after coming here and being called Mr. Rosenkrantz for the first time, had felt the urge to look around and see if they meant his father, but Edge hadn’t even heard his father called that.

How did she even know his last name? Well, he’d signed some paperwork, but he’d helped Nell fill out the documents registering her as part of their raider group so Yula didn’t get all the money she earned and he still didn’t know her last name, not off the top of his head. Last names were for Guild paperwork and deeds to property, no one ever actually used them. The fact Iris was a Fortner had turned out to be important, but aside from that?

“Edge,” he corrected her. That was his name, not Mr. Vanheit.

“Answer my question, Mr. Vanheit,” she ordered him.

What in the alterworlds was she talking about? “Class?” What class?

“The class, Mr. Vanheit, which your countrymen are attending, except for Sir Arlin and Lady Yula. Skipping class on your first day…” She shook her head with an expression of vast disapproval. “Did Flay tell you this was acceptable? You had best think again! You have arrived very late in the year, Mr. Vanheit, and if you do not start treating this with the proper seriousness you will not only be assigned detention, but held back.” He was already the age at which many people graduated.

“I already know how to read, write and figure.” Beyond that, classes were for people who planned to work at the library, and that was really regular apprenticeship being called ‘classes.’ Iris was eager to study more alchemy, Nell had gone along since it sounded fun, and Alvero had gone since the alternative was more chores, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to Edge that anyone would expect him to attend, especially since Yula didn’t have to and he was just as much an adult as she was, and higher ranked. In the Guild, anyway. Mandatory classes were for children, and by the standards of the city he’d been raised in, he couldn’t have been any more adult if he’d been as bald and gray as Grandpa Gramps. If anything, between him and Yula, Yula would have been considered the immature one, even if she had passed her twenty-fifth year. Everyone knew how she’d abandoned her duty as head of household and tried to use dark powers to advance in the guild and get money.

Edge, on the other hand, was a responsible member of Iris’ household, a top-ranked raider, had performed missions for the Guildmistress herself and helped save the city. If he hadn’t been too stunned to react, and not the sort of person who argued with crazy ladies, he would have told her to get out of his personal space and remember common courtesy, for crying out loud. Who did she think she was, accosting someone and making demands so rudely? Even Phenyl, the guild’s young Combat Mistress, notorious for being short with people, wouldn’t have treated anyone like this. Well, not except that too-dumb-to-live suitor of hers. And she would have had the right to, if a guild member hadn’t been doing their duties, but he’d been going about his business when the Vice Principal had come up to him and started acting like, like he was a layabout who didn’t know his responsibilities. Like a certain so-called fisherman, when he’d been going with Iris to hand in her property tax at the library before he was tall enough to see over the counter. Had Ernentraud been at the bar?

“’I already know how to read and write,’ Vice Principal!” she corrected him. “Show proper respect for your professors.” She took his arm. “I heard reports that you were a well-behaved boy.” She should have known by now to take everything Isolde said with a grain of salt on this matter. “Come along, quickly now!”

Edge ended up sitting next to Alvero in his first alchemy class, listening with half an ear and spending most of the time worrying about the fish. Iris was the one who knew how to keep them cool, and he’d been raised better than to talk in class or shout in a library.

“I’m afraid that you don’t have a choice in the matter, young man,” Bernard said apologetically when Edge and assorted other people went to the office to plead his case.

The vice principal, standing beside his desk with her arms folded, nodded sternly at various points.

“Unlike Sir Arlin, you are not a trained alchemist, and unlike Lady Yula, you already have a mana. Unlicensed alchemy is not only a crime; it is against our school charter. While you are here, it is our duty to attempt to instruct you in proper alchemy practice. And morals! Even if you are already employed as a…” Bernard looked at the form, which had been filled out by the joint effort of Renee and Flay, one of whom knew how to sound proper and the other knew how to screw the rules. “High-ranked member of a Meruzian Chivalric Order and a family retainer to Lady Fortner and have other duties, including…” He looked down the list of things that were supposed to keep Edge too busy to attend class. “Oh, you like baking, do you? Ahem, Ernentraud…”

Iris, who hadn’t been told about the family retainer thing, wasn’t happy about it. “You know you’re family, Edge, not a servant! You don’t have to cook for us, I’d be happy to pitch in. You too Nell, right?”

Nell nodded, backing Iris up. She loved experimenting with cooking, and Edge always said no when she wanted to add the really fun ingredients. “Yeah!”

“He is a student! What kind of example would we be setting for the others, if someone under the personal supervision of a faculty member was allowed to be delinquent? Ms. Isolde, why did you not make it clear to the young man that he needed to attend class?”

“I assumed that he would be going with everyone else.” He’d even left the house at the same time as the others.

Actually, he’d gone with them all the way to the classroom, so that he knew where it was, before Pamela had shown him the way to the shop. After class, they’d gone to the workshop, since Anna had told them they had a place to keep fish cool there, and after hearing about his situation Flay had insisted on helping. Renee had been redoing her nails, but since he’d looked so helpless she’d been willing to sit there and veto some of Flay’s more extravagant suggestions and tell Edge a few other things to write on the petition. Honestly, Edge had gone looking for Renee more to escape the workshop and Iris’ pleading eyes than anything else.

At this point, since Iris had been alerted by Flay that his petition was being heard, he was resigned to the prospect of having to attend alchemy class. Not only was Iris ecstatic that he would finally be learning alchemy, but when he’d told Renee that he didn’t want to learn alchemy Rufina had appeared and wanted to know if he really didn’t want to learn to use her power and was he upset that he was in this situation because she’d pacted with him, and that was when it sunk in that this wasn’t just using Rufina’s blades, he’d actually pacted with a mana. A pact was a promise. Not learning how not to misuse her power would be doing wrong by her. He was officially stuck.

“You assumed. Typical! And you call yourself a predictologist.” Humph. Ernentraud looked down at Edge’s petition. Hmm? “Is this work record accurate, Mr. Vanheit?”

“Yes,” Iris said. “I’m sure it is.” Edge always kept track of their missions, and he would certainly never lie.

“Ms. Fortner, I was speaking to Mr. Vanheit.” Don’t do that again.

“Yes, Vice Principal.” Yes, Edge reflected, she was a lot like Guildmistress Noella, even though Guildmistress Noella covered her iron fist with a velvet glove and air of hard-working helpful niceness that would certainly never do anything more than ask for a favor but certainly deserved them.

Which was making him think of Iris, actually.

“A very hard-working young man… Were you really skipping class in order to purchase groceries and cleaning supplies?” Really?

He nodded.

After he nodded, Anna chimed in. “Yes, Vice Principal. I helped him put them away in our workshop so they didn’t spoil.”

“Hmm. Given your regrettable ignorance,” and they all knew whose fault it was, “I suppose we can overlook this one offense, provided your attendance for the rest of the semester is impeccable. Ms. Isolde, I hope you will explain how students are expected to behave and how classes function, especially electives and the grading system.” The fact that if Edge got As, he’d have to attend fewer classes, and once this year was over he could focus on the fighting classes, which he would obviously coast through. The system was designed to give potential delinquents incentive to exert themselves, by causing their class performance to have an effect on what they cared about: free time. It gave the good students time for independent research, and even the battle classes taught alchemic principles. A student couldn’t get those As, and that free time, without a proper understanding of alchemy.

Her eyes noticed a particular passage, reading over the petition. “Regarding his schedule, Lady d’Arcose might have some advice for him. I see she already has.” The Vice Principal kept track of the rumormongers, and Ernentraud recognized an Arcosian accent when someone who didn’t know any better had copied it verbatim on an official form. She’d been informed that Iris and her colleagues were from another world, effectively, but a serious, sober young man copying down, ‘and like saving the world,’ without realizing that Renee’s idiom wasn’t proper speech, let alone formal language showed how great their ignorance of modern culture really was. “Is that acceptable, Principal?”

“Erm yes, Ernentraud.”

Of course it was. “Mr. Vanheit, will you be accepting jobs during your free periods?”

“Yes, Vice Principal.” He’d assumed that he was going to. He had to pull his weight, after all.

“Come. I have a job for you.”

“A job?”

“Are you deaf, Mr. Vanheit? A job. Or perhaps we might term it a job interview.”

Thus, after entering Jess’ dorm room, scythe and mop in hand, to do battle with the ferocious goop monster (Jess’ first successful attempt at creating life) and escaping only moderately scathed (one arm dyed multicolor and voice sounding like he’d breathed helium), Edge was paid a slightly-better-than-stingy sum of money and told to report to the Vice Principal’s workshop on weekends for additional cleaning assignments and placement on the guard duty roster.

While Ms. Isolde’s workshop dealt with students that were a hazard to other students and the outside world and Lorr’s dealt with threats and especially vicious monsters, keeping everything ship-shape was the Vice Principal’s job.

Normally, poaching from other faculty was improper behavior (Isolde had seen him first), but after all the trouble Isolde had caused, she owed Ernentraud the quiet one with the disciplined demeanor and the work ethic.

Isolde would simply have to be satisfied with a workshop consisting of Lady Nell and Mister Couldn’t-Remember-His-Last-Name Alvero. In her opinion, it would be very little change from Renee and Tony. Unless, of course, Isolde actually stirred herself to look for decent candidates, which would be doing her job and a much better use of her time than crying wolf constantly. Mana abominations, dark alchemists and now demonic invasion… Isolde would be claiming that the sky was falling next.


“I’m so happy you’re finally going to be learning alchemy with us!” Iris practically tackled Edge after she and Crowley had assisted Roxis and Vayne with the usual post-Jess-potion cleanup.

Which really was just hanging around uselessly trying to figure out how she’d done it this time and if there was a cure until Edge’s voice went back to normal and Jess told him that the color would wear off eventually, it was just pigment, not a tattoo.

The one time something had gone seriously wrong with one of Jess’ potions, and Nikki had ended up in something of a coma on the rooftop, Jess had frantically raced to make a cure. She just tended not to sweat the small stuff, especially when Roxis enjoyed it so much, as much as he tried to claim otherwise.

“Finally?” That word made Vayne wonder. Why did Edge look like he wanted to be wincing, face carefully not looking unhappy so Iris’ feelings wouldn’t be hurt.

“Edge has never been interested in alchemy… Oh.” Iris’ face fell. “I’m sorry, Edge. I finally realized something, after I came here.” She pulled back a bit and took his hand. “I thought I wanted you to learn alchemy because it’s something I really love. It made me so excited, and I wanted to share that with you.” He was her friend, so she’d wanted him to have this joy. “But it wasn’t just for you, was it. It was for me. I…” At first she wanted to say that Edge wasn’t anything like her father, but her father had been great, so saying that might feel like an insult to Edge, like saying he wasn’t family. “My father would give me play alchemy lessons sometimes, with Mommy. It was something we did as a family.”

“Iris…”

Iris knew that Edge was about to say something like she shouldn’t feel bad about that, she’d taken him in. He should have appreciated what she was doing, tried to be grateful that she really did see him as part of the family. Tried to put up with it. For her sake. It was something he’d done to be considerate, and she hadn’t seen that, she’d just thought it wasn’t enough, that he had to be made to see reason, and then he’d love alchemy. Wasn’t that just like the people who had said that alchemy was lost, she should try to have a normal life and learn a craft that actually worked, because otherwise she might not be able to support herself. They couldn’t make her stop loving alchemy. Love wasn’t something that could be forced, either way. She shouldn’t have known that.

Something she’d told herself she was trying to teach Edge to make him happy, so that it was something he would enjoy, was something he’d had to put up with. Except, most of the time, “I wasn’t even thinking of you. I was just so excited, I would have talked to anyone. I just wanted someone to talk to about it, and you listened, but… It was something that made me happy, not something that made you happy. I know you were worried about me.” She’d worried him so much. Had he been afraid early on that she’d kick him out if he didn’t say yes to everything? He hadn’t had anywhere else to go. “I treated you like, like a captive audience.” She’d learned that term from Nikki. “If you don’t want to learn alchemy, I’ll do my best so you don’t have to. I’ll, I’ll do all your assignments. And Flay was talking about ways to cheat on tests.” She knew she could make it work! “You shouldn’t have to learn if you don’t want to.”

Edge’s eyes were wide. Iris had that cutely determined face on, the one that moved mountains and even Uroboros’ heart. And she wasn’t trying to force him to learn alchemy, she was, she was trying to keep him from being forced? She finally had what she’d wanted for years, and she was willing not just to give it up, but to fight not to have her wish come true? “…Iris?” What could he say to that? He felt… overwhelmed.

Iris had always cared a lot about him, and he about her. He knew they were family, blood or no blood. He knew she loved him. She’d been upset on his behalf before, she’d always been happy to help him. It was just that, when it came to alchemy, he’d wished she would stop helping him. Stop trying to make him read a book with her when laundry needed doing or else they wouldn’t look presentable and there were people who wanted Iris’ property. Stop dragging him over to the cauldron when he needed to either use that fire to cook dinner or go find firewood to cook in the backyard again.

When Iris started thinking about alchemy, she stopped seeing the world around her. She stopped looking at Edge, and started helping some imaginary Edge who had an alchemist inside struggling to get out. He, the real Edge, was forced to try to get out of the house without being rude or meeting her eyes.

This was alchemy. One of the things closest to Iris’ heart. He’d always known that she wasn’t quite rational about it, she loved it too much. He’d forgiven her for it years ago, it was just how Iris was.

Now, she was offering to protect him from having alchemy forced on him? Protect him from what she’d been doing for years?

She was thinking about alchemy and she was still seeing him.

He knew how much this meant to her. How much she was giving up.

It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him.

Elsewhere, (and there at the same time) Rufina tried not to feel heartbroken and Eital, watching that as well, smiled. “Ohohoho…”

With so little time until graduation, Tony was already feeling threatened that Flay would try something at the last minute. Edge going to Renee for help had worried him. Now Rufina was worried that Edge might really feel something other than brotherly affection for Iris, and, oh yes, Crowley had averted his eyes, so he must be afraid as well. Edge had helped Iris, after all. For years. And Crowley’s body had been used to attack her.

Roxis had already been impressed by Iris’ (and Jess’) love of alchemy: Vanitas couldn’t be tricked into jealousy, since he watched Roxis’ feelings so closely  (curled up in them), but Vayne, perhaps? Then there were Anna’s crushes on both Flay and Vayne, complicated by her family duty and the fact Flay was graduating soon. She’d yielded Vayne to Roxis, but if she thought Roxis wasn’t treating him right or was betraying him with Iris? Then, there was the fact that Vayne still felt guilty that he’d been with Sulpher and Vanitas hadn’t. He might start thinking that it was fair if Vanitas had Roxis all to himself. If Vayne started to distance himself, Roxis might not notice in time to prevent it from becoming serious, if he was embroiled in other dramas.

Twelve of them. A literal love dodecahedron. She was this close to crying tears of joy.

If she could get Vayne to show a flash of jealousy in front of Isolde, she would notice that there was trouble in paradise and hopefully try to take advantage of it by further muddying the waters. Then, of course, there was her adorable little brother. Thorn didn’t want to cause trouble for the sake of causing angst, but they needed to learn how important these bonds were, after all. It was for the good of them all.

It was also going to be so much fun.

Chapter Text

Isolde hadn’t missed that aspect of what the Vice Principal was up to, especially since Ernentraud had reminded her repeatedly and pointedly that normally workshops had to have a certain amount of members and Isolde had used up all the leeway Bernard’s weak will could get her.

A situation like this called for tea, more specifically tea with Lady Yula.

Iris and Crowley were already members of Flay’s workshop, and when he graduated that would give it eight members: a little crowded, especially with Thorn manifested and doing something half the time Roxis was in there, but from what Isolde had observed they’d probably consider it cozy, even if Nikki was the only one who might use the word.

Arlin wasn’t just qualified to graduate, he was qualified to teach. Having him as a workshop member was out of the question.

Alvero would make a good replacement for Tony, with a little work. He might be determined to better himself, but he knew the mind of a delinquent quite well. Nell seemed quite silly, but the girl had moral fiber made of high-grade titanium. An excellent good cop, and anyone who tried to bribe or suborn her would quickly find themselves in over their head. Excellent bait, better than Renee’s jaded seeming-willingness to deal.

“This is Theo,” Isolde introduced them, after she’d brought in the tea-tray and the fresh-synthed batch of Animal Cookies. She lifted him out of her fur muff and put him down next to the saucer of fresh milk she’d brought him. “Isn’t he the cutest little kitty?” Oh yes he was.

Lady Yula of Meruze was easy to peg: Nobility fallen on hard times. Not quite pennilessness: her clothing had been both expensive and practical before she’d gotten possessed (even if tailor-made didn’t compare to alchemy-made), but clearly the sort that considered itself penniless, fallen far from their former glory. Apparently that ambition had been what allowed the serpent to snare her.

“My ancestors were alchemists as well as the lords of the city. Two of them were on the Council of Seven, the alchemists that made Zee Meruze what it is today,” she explained when asked about her family, after taking a bit of tea (with sugar, no milk & she’d never heard of lemon). “After Zee Meruze was isolated, we only had so much farmland, and the alterworlds were almost all hostile. The inhabitants of Dakasus refused to trade, and wouldn’t even allow us to hunt or harvest there.”

Isolde wondered if this had been because they were already hunting and harvesting and didn’t appreciate theft.

“Posporia has always gone to war at the drop of a hat, it was a few centuries before anyone discovered that there was more to Grimore than a monster-haunted old castle,” some edible monsters, but no farmland, “legend says that Ishtar was in the middle of an incredibly devastating war when we first encountered it, so the portal was sealed until a drought in Valtessa made my ancestors decide to risk it, and even without a drought, when the other worlds were like that, no one wanted to place all our hopes on Valtessa.”

“Hence your land use policy.” She’d already asked general questions about the city from several of them, in passing.

“And the taxation.” Yula nodded. “My family always was determined to set a good example. That was a good thing, in the beginning, when we were growing crops on our lands and we still had alchemists. The taxes were a pittance. Then, mana began to disappear and the four of them founded the guild.”

“The four of them?”

“The former guildmaster, his wife, the current guildmistress Noella, Chief Librarian Ewan, and the Innkeeper.”

“Innkeeper?”

“Yes, Innkeeper.”

“Is that a position of importance where you’re from?” Isolde took a sip of tea. “It doesn’t seem like you’d have a lot of visitors.” It was obvious once she’d given it a little thought, of course.

“Everyone needs a place to sleep.” Yula grimaced. “Guild members can sleep in an alterworld and be returned to the barracks in the morning, but that has its risks. They generally rent barracks quarters. I’m thankful I didn’t have to embarrass myself that much.”

“It’s an embarrassment?”

“To go crawling to that woman for a place to sleep as well as work…” Yula sniffed. “Noella’s husband wanted to make peace with the alterworlds out of high-minded sentiment. Noella’s always had her eye on the bottom line. Once trade became reliable, the price of crops fell. Even ordering all the public cropland converted to tree farming instead didn’t allow my grandfather to make enough profit to pay the taxes.”

“Tree farming?”

“So we would have wood in case of a siege. Alchemy-enhanced crops grow quickly: trees don’t. We can’t exactly mine for construction materials. While we can’t stay in the alterworlds for much more than half a day, they can stay in Zee Meruze. Over the centuries, the inhabitants of several of the alterworlds have had their eye on Zee Meruze, especially the Squawks.” They and the Pengies had the least arable land. The crystal valley of Dakasus was pretty, but only hardy, slow-growing plants could handle the so-called soil that covered most of it.

“If you did most of your farming in Valtessa, they would have had to go there and burn those fields in order to starve you out,” Isolde pointed out.

“The Pengies managed it twice. Their portal isn’t very far from the one to Valtessa.” Yula lowered her teacup. “People in Zee Meruze rarely study history, and honestly that suits the guildmistress. It’s very important to her that everyone get over those little squabbles.”

“But you don’t think that she’s very noble.”

“The guild is essentially a private mercenary army. She completely destroyed the authority of my grandfather and the town council. Not that they had much left,” Yula acknowledged. “My great-grandmother didn’t realize that there was a problem: she was an alchemist and didn’t pay much attention to crop prices. My grandfather couldn’t find a mana.”

“I hear that more and more often,” Isolde commented, holding her cup and leaning back in her chair.

“Well, now we know why… The former guildmaster was an alchemist that my great-grandmother trained. So, he worked out a bargain where we could rent most of our land to the guild to pay the taxes, keep the manor, and have enough left over to meet our traditional obligations to the city.” Nobility didn’t sit around doing nothing, after all. They were responsible for funding the literacy classes, ensuring that everyone had a decent amount of food and help finding a place to sleep, and holding court and trials. “The guild was happy to take over policing, in place of the city guard.”

“Hmm.” Yes: this was how many free cities had gotten started. Had this Noella thought it up herself, had it simply happened, or had there been political history books in that library of theirs?

“After her husband’s death, Noella was no longer so generous. She threw herself into the work of the guild and practically became a ghost. If Nell hadn’t told me that she’s seen the woman herself, I would have thought she’d died years ago and the position had been handed to a successor. Before… what happened, no one had seen her except high-ranking guild officials in years. After my mother took office, Noella decided that covering our taxes and expenses was too expensive, and she wanted to offer embassies to the beastman. Supposedly, they wouldn’t have been satisfied with a simple lease.”

Yula seemed to think that was ridiculous, but Isolde knew how embassies worked: they were a very important resource for traveling alchemists. That the inhabitants of the alterworlds would prefer to own their embassies, not rent, even with a ninety-nine-year least, was perfectly obvious. An embassy was technically part of the country it belonged to. If one were, in reality, owned by the ruler of Zee Meruze that would defeat the purpose. Isolde could think of wars that had been started over smaller backhanded insults.

It wasn’t Isolde’s job to enlighten Yula, however… Oh, drat. If she managed to inveigle Yula into her workshop, it would be her job. Perhaps she could point her at the political history books, find some way to get her desire to reclaim her family’s position and honor to motivate her to look it up herself, correct her own woeful ignorance? Because, frankly, Isolde hadn’t been the heir but she’d been raised by parents who knew that they had a very beautiful and very intelligent daughter on their hands.  Not only did intelligent heirs look for intelligent helpers, but noble houses with an embarrassing firstborn son or daughter often went looking for a spouse who could keep them from doing anything too stupid. Then, Isolde had become an alchemist, which made her an even more desirable catch. If she hadn’t preferred research and Theofratus to power, she would have been a duchess or perhaps even Princess Consort of a minor client kingdom by now.

Isolde knew what it took to rule a city or country with potentially troublesome neighbors, and in her expert opinion she wouldn’t have let Yula be the Chatelaine of a wood shed, let alone the ruler of an independent nation. The young woman simply didn’t know the first thing about politics.

Yula went on to say, “She, or ‘the Guild,’ gave my mother a choice between selling all our property for an amount of money that seemed very generous, or no longer renting it, leaving my mother unable to pay the taxes. My mother would have had to confiscate it from herself and offer it at auction with all the money going to the city.” Not their family. “A Pengie named Cerber owns the manor now.”

“Iris has nothing but words of praise for Guildmistress Noella.” Isolde’s voice was carefully neutral, pointedly so. Normally, she would have said something like that in passing, fiddling with the tea, but with old grudges it was best to drop hints from a great height with maximum force, so they’d have enough momentum to bash through the accumulated resentment and hard-headedness.

Yes: as Isolde had predicted, Yula was insulted by the implication enough to say something rash. “I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that Iris Fortner is a trusting fool who will let anyone take advantage of her.” It wasn’t until she said that that Yula realized how much she’d let her old bitterness take control again. “The manor isn’t Noella’s fault. Not really.”

There, that was better. “What happened?”

“Nell. It happened when she was four. We couldn’t understand it. She was such a bright girl, reading by the time she was three. She looks just like the pictures of my great-grandmother, and we all thought… Well.” There wouldn’t have been any mana anyway, not unless she’d gone raiding like Iris and Crowley had, and then she might have been the one who ended up on Crowley’s position. “Then, she suddenly took ill. She was delirious half the time, and if it hadn’t been for the fever we would have thought she’d gone mad.”

“A fever can cause delirium, yes… How did she catch it?”

Yula shrugged helplessly.

“No other symptoms?”

“No.”

Curiouser and Curiouser. “What sort of delirium?”

“She’d fly into rages. Ewan found something in the books called berserker rage, but that was self-inflicted, and she was set off by the tiniest things, when we could even figure out what caused it, and that wasn’t long after Ser Fortner disappeared. There weren’t any alchemists left. My mother bought up some of everything left in his stock,” at generous prices: they couldn’t cheat an orphan, and that had been the first thing they tried. “She hired everyone she could to go through the library, financed expeditions to the alterworlds… Fortunately, Nell got better on her own a little after we sold the library, or what was left of it-“

Yes, very suspicious. “What was left of it?”

“I think one of her first attacks was in there. Paper everywhere.”

“The alchemy books?”

Yula didn’t know. Her memories of that time were all a frantic blur. She’d been terrified both for and of her sister, even though she’d tried not to be jealous of the attention or resent the fact that she had to give up so much herself. All the jewelry she should have inherited. “I’m the one that sold the manor.” After Mother had died. “The guild had a buyer waiting. I wouldn’t have been able to pay the taxes on it and hire a nurse for Nell. Not unless I progressed quickly in the guild.” There wasn’t any other way to earn money in those quantities. “And it’s very possible to die doing hazardous guild work, and that would have left Nell in charge of the manor.”

“She seems able to look after herself.” In terms of not killing herself if left home alone, at least.

“She still acts like a child half her age. She wouldn’t have been able to pay the taxes and she would have been swindled. If Iris’ household hadn’t taken her in I would have had to make her a ward of the guild, the instant I calmed down.” Yula shook her head. “I was too hard on her, but she kept screwing up missions and I couldn’t take it anymore. I can’t blame Crowley, I… I failed as a sister.” She’d wanted to scream, she’d hated her so much then, and at least she’d only cut with her words, at least they had been the only venom she’d spewed at her. Except no, she’d been far too willing to attack Nell, when Crowley’s missions involved doing so. Far too eager, with that excuse.  “Then I went off to die, and here I am.”

“Her childishness is the result of the disease or poison? Are you sure?” Because, frankly, Isolde had seen much, much worse. Nell had a fairly good head on her shoulders, and was a competent fighter. Whatever was wrong with her, it didn’t seem like it could be too wrong. Before alchemy had found cures, most people kept by some inborn condition as perpetual children had other symptoms. Nell might forget to watch her feet when she was excited, but, again, Isolde had seen worse. There were people who simply refused to grow up, and Nell was growing up quite pretty. The sad truth was that cute little girls, especially ones of noble blood, didn’t really need to grow up. Maturity came from challenges and setbacks. From having to work for one’s goals and learning when they had to settle. Like Jess, spoiled because she was doomed to die (why force her to grow up when she wouldn’t live to?), young pretty noblewomen were often deprived of what was necessary for maturity. Strive and suffer for a dream? Not when there would be suitors competing to hand them everything they ever wanted on a silver platter. That was a real problem for families with female heirs who needed to be taught that they couldn’t solve all their problems by looking cutely pitiful, even though most of the time they could.

Isolde had traveled with Edge and Nell in the depths, and it had been very clear that Edge couldn’t say no to Iris or Nell when they acted like that. Well, he’d say no, he’d try, he really would, but if Isolde had seen Roxis meet his cat the comparison would have been obvious.

Crying cutely just wasn’t fair. ‘Maternal’ instincts weren’t exclusive to women, after all.

No, Nell’s childish behavior might be anything but foolishness. It had gotten her a roof over her head when Yula abandoned her, hadn’t it?

Isolde had escaped that fate because she was bookish by inclination and Renee’s family had sent her off to the Order of Alkavana as a page the instant she turned seven. Her mother’s parents had done the same with her, and Duchess D’Arcose had absolutely hated it, being the kind of person who got up at 4am so that she could take a two-hour-long bath every day, with all sorts of bath things and maidservants washing her back. Her orders for those exotic bath things kept the duchy’s alchemist rich enough he could spend the rest of his time researching the region’s folklore. This was not a woman who liked camping or the Spartan lifestyle.  Still, Renee had said, her mother had insisted that Renee be sent to train as a knight, because it taught discipline. The discipline it took to get up at 4am every day would allow her to accomplish whatever she wanted to do in life. Crafting the trade policies that had made Arcose rich enough its people were more than happy to put up with tax money paying for bath things, for example. Other rulers would have had dissidents preaching about wasteful spending, but the people of Arcose thought their duchess was worth it.

Perhaps Nell just needed a mentor who would make her grow up. Edge and Iris might have been too indulgent. People who had made successes of themselves (and two orphans like them certainly qualified) often gave children too much of what they wished they’d had and not enough of what had made them successful. Before that, Yula had been trying to ignore Nell, and by doing that she might have taught Nell that the only way to get attention from her beloved sister and sole remaining family was to be troublesome.

It was quite possible that Nell was simply smart, perceptive, motivated… and coasting. Why follow annoying social conventions when they didn’t really apply to her? She could obviously get away with it, after all. She wasn’t a bad girl, so if that was all it wouldn’t be hard to straighten out. Just shove her into a few situations where tears didn’t make Yula, Edge or Iris come to the rescue.

“After this long, I don’t know. Mother was sure of it, but Mother wanted to believe she’d get better.” Yula didn’t know what to think anymore. “I’ve been thinking that I should just accept her for who she is.”

“Which might be harder if this isn’t who she is.” Isolde picked up her teacup again. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll ask Melanie to have a look at her.” And Ernentraud would be easy to manipulate into the bad cop position. She’d taken Isolde’s first pick? Fine. See how happy her victory made her once Edge was furious with her for sending Nell home a few times in tears.

“…Would you?”

“She is a student. You’d be amazed what students do to themselves all the time.” If this was anything accidental. While it could be ‘cute kid’ syndrome, it could also be enemy action. The enemy had gone after the heiress of another of Zee Meruze’s founding alchemists, after all. “After Arlin was attacked and Iris’ parents murdered, but before Crowley was possessed,” Isolde mused. Long before Crowley was possessed, judging from Iris’ most recent guess at that. “Interesting.” She took a sip of her tea. “Speaking of students, are you interested in studying alchemy?” Because as just a patient, instead of a student, Isolde couldn’t really recruit her for her workshop, which was most of the point of this conversation.

“Is there anything better to do around here?”

“Not really,” Isolde said, and then realized that before all this she might have said, ‘almost anything, really.’ There were the music classes, a huge library…

She was wondering why the change: was she just tired of hating the people who had destroyed Theofratus, were Vayne and Roxis getting to her, was it Vanitas’ power affecting her or something else when her ruminations were interrupted by a startled squeak.

She lowered her gaze from the ceiling to see that Yula was no longer sitting in her chair. Rather, Isolde saw when she stood up and looked down, she was lying on it. “Oh, I should have warned you about the Animal Cookies. They give animals the ability to talk and turn humans into mystic beasts. Focus on turning human again.”

A determined squeak, and Yula did.

“Sorry,” Isolde apologized, sitting down. “They’re such a common prank here that everyone knows about them after, oh, the first week. I’m slipping if I didn’t realize that you had only been here a few days.” And had been watched too well to encounter a prank like that. What kind of predictologist was she?

“I’d better be on my guard.” Yula tried to smirk like her old self. “I should learn alchemy in self-defense.”

“Many do.” Since there were many who hadn’t had a choice in coming here.

Once Yula had gotten settled again, she asked, “You made them for your cat? What does he say?”

“He’s too young to have much to say. Just simple things, like that he’d like food or more petting.” Or, ‘love you.’ She wanted to hear that again, but he was so cute when he slept like this.

“What are mystic beasts?”

“Theoretically, they’re a type of beastman, but they’re not humanoid. They’re sentient and produce the occasional alchemist but they can’t even pronounce human words. They have hidden villages somewhere, but they’re rarely seen. Would you like some human cookies?” Isolde offered her the plate.

“Do they do anything?” Yula asked, even though she was fairly sure they didn’t, from how Isolde was smiling.

“Hopefully they taste good, but that’s about it.” She wasn’t as good a cook as Bernard, but at least she was better than Ernentraud.

 

Chapter Text

It wasn’t that Nikki minded having lots of people around. Actually, she loved having lots of people around because she hated being alone. That was part of why she wanted lots of hubbies, because she had a lot of love to give and it would probably get really annoying for them if she only had one person, at least until she had kits.

 

When the workshop started up, Flay was barely ever in and she was working on her singing half the time, but it had still been great that Vayne and Jess were always there to hang out with. It was because they’d become such good friends that she’d slowly become less and less of a bardic student and more and more of an alchemy-focused student, until they’d left her out of the loop about Siren and she’d ended up pacting to Siren.

 

The bardic students kept to themselves a lot, and were practically all in one workshop, and a lot of their classes weren’t even offered to regular alchemy students, because while bards could to a lot of alchemy there were a lot of things that people just couldn’t do unless they were a bard or worked really hard at it. That was why she’d started taking fewer music classes, because she’d wanted to take classes with Jess and Vayne instead of feeling like she was leaving them out.

 

Actually, if she’d known about the contest to pact with Siren, she probably wouldn’t have shown up for it anyway, because she’d kind of been neglecting her music and she would have had to practice really hard to have a chance, and that would have meant neglecting Jess and Vayne.

 

It had taken them a long time to forgive her after Siren, and the potential-hubby-stealing really hadn’t helped until she started really listening to the old songs, about love and what it meant to people that weren’t beastmen.

 

It was still really weird to think of only having one hubby. And what if he loved people besides just her, too? It would be totally selfish to say he couldn’t love anyone but her, but people were that selfish all the time in songs.

 

Anyway, after awhile Pamela had joined, even if she spent half the time in the library, like Flay spent half the time with his army. And then there was Roxis, who spent all his time in the workshop after he started getting along with Vayne, but also brought all his plants with him, even if they hadn’t taken up the sunny spot. Her spot had become the rug where she sit and sang with Siren, who could also play her lute while singing, and worked on new songs.

 

Then they’d found Iris and Crowley. It was weird to think of them like that, Iris-and-Crowley, but they kind of were. It had been really interesting, and Nikki had started spending more time napping beneath the table or watching from the loft, because she knew what friendship was like but she was pretty sure this was love.

 

It was the way they kind of fit together, and they totally hadn’t known each other very long at all but they could already finish each other’s sentences and hand each other what they needed without having to find words. Part of it was that Crowley was working really hard because he thought he had to make stuff up to Iris, but there was the way she’d smile back, that she was happy and he didn’t need to but she was just happy he was there and being so nice. Then he’d smile, in the helpless way Vayne did a lot, especially when it was Roxis.

 

She hadn’t thought of Vayne-and-Roxis as love before, but they were still Roxis-and-Vayne. And Sulpher. And Vanitas. “Maybe it’s family?” Nikki mused inwardly to her muse, swishing her tail.

 

Siren laughed. Musically, of course. “You could spend a thousand thousand years, and there would still be more to learn about love in all its myriad ways.”

 

They fit together. I thought that was just a myth.” That men and women were pieces of each other, and when someone met their soulmate, the missing pieces slid into place. Nikki didn’t notice that she was chewing on her tail. She really didn’t like the idea of that, that people only needed one other person when everybody needed friends, or that it was so, so trite. Love was supposed to be this big joyful glorious mad thing. Your heart was supposed to be overflowing, not just filled.

 

Except there was also the kind of comfy love that the workshop had, where she could come here and she’d always have a place to hide from admirers, Jess would always have help cleaning up her explosions, Vayne could be Vayne and not have to worry about them being scared or taking advantage of him.

 

Everybody in the workshop had grown so close because of what they’d been through together, though. It seemed cheap, compared to that, that Iris and Crowley had just clicked, become so sure that they could rely on each other after a few days. Even if Crowley was still nervous, Nikki could tell his heart knew better. It was just really cute.

 

Of course, the songs were full of people just looking at each other and feeling that kind of overflowing, crazy love. Tons of plays and ballads. And it was a good thing, right? That people’s hearts were open, that they could just look at someone else and be willing to love them. Willing to go rescue them from demons and dragons without even having had a chance to know them.

 

Wait, wasn’t that what Iris had done? Was that why Siren was smiling like that? “Are you telling me this was love at first sight?” Nikki’s hair and tail stood straight up. “Seriously?!” It had to be. Iris had never gotten to meet the real Crowley, she’d just seen his body. There was no way she could have fallen in love with him then for his personality, both because that had really been the snake and because if Iris was really in love with the snake, then she wouldn’t be in love with Crowley like this.

 

“Can’t you tell?” Siren asked. Nikki was the chosen of the song mana, after all.

 

Nikki’s tail lashed madly and she found herself bouncing up and down. Must not pounce, must not pounce… Real love at first sight! Well, and Iris had mentioned finding his notes, but wasn’t that because she’d wanted to know more about him in the first place? Recognizing her soulmate despite everything that stood in the way and going on an epic quest to rescue him?! Immortalizing something like this was every bard’s dream, and it was all Nikki could do to keep from pouncing them and making them tell her everything. Right now. She had to interview Edge and Nell too, because they were there with Iris, but it was so perfect.

 

The way they had their heads bent together over the synthesis, like lovebirds nesting on the same branch, and Nikki wondered if they’d end up holding hands if they went to the cliffs to gather materials. Crowley was still clumsy sometimes, because he hadn’t had control of his body for so long. She could see it now, the others scampering up a cliff face with well-practiced ease, one of the shortcuts Flay had shown them or Nikki had discovered, and everyone else would go on ahead. The workshop members knew what the others could and couldn’t handle. They’d know, after seeing him stumble a few times, that Crowley might have trouble, but they’d also know that Iris would lag behind, just a little, sticking with him, there to offer him a hand when he needed it.

 

He’d take that hand, and maybe blush a little, and they’d just forget to let go.

 

Nikki started making a list of what she’d need to eat when so that they needed supplies from there. Or maybe an expedition into one of the areas with a lot of minor demons and things? Roxis needed to get over his fear of the kind of place Pamela liked to haunt anyway, and it was fun to watch him sticking close to Vayne without realizing it. Even if it was probably half the subconscious idea that this place was dangerous and he had to protect Vayne, as well as half the knowledge that Vayne would protect him. Anyway, if Vayne had his back, it was harder for Pamela to appear there and surprise him.

 

Was this how Flay felt? Orchustrating everything. It was kind of manipulative of her, but she wasn’t doing it for herself, she was doing it because there was this grand artistic vision in her head and it would be so perfect. So beautiful. So cute.

 

She had to see it so that she could sing it, from the rooftops so that everyone could hear that things like this really existed. So this love could overflow from her heart, flow through her words into theirs, this light and joy could fill the world.

 

That was Ms. Isolde’s problem, wasn’t it? She didn’t believe in love and dreams anymore.

 

No, Nikki really didn’t mind that the workshop was so crowded, that the counter under the loft had been appropriated by Arlin and Jess for athanor stuff, and Yuveria was generally standing there too since she knew how it worked even though she wasn’t an alchemist. And Edge was sitting cross-legged on the rug with an alchemy book spread out on his knees and more lying beside him after he and Iris had tried to get Nell to study. She’d said she was bored until Edge let her go after Iris went to work on altena ingots with Crowley, although Nikki could she hadn’t got sick of it, she’d been bored all along but she’d wanted to be in the study group because Iris was there.

 

I wonder if Nell is jealous of Crowley? She just got her big sisters back, and now one of them is spending all her time with a potential hubby.”  Nikki wished she knew what to do about things like that. She didn’t understand jealousy, not really. And since she didn’t understand people’s feelings, when she tried to deal with them it felt like she was insulting their feelings. Like the way Jess had reacted when one of their classmates had a death in the family. Jess had been trying to make her feel better but she’d just made her angry. Well, it had worked, not that Jess had been trying to do it that way…

 

“Yes,” Thorn told her,  and Nikki rolled over, stretched, and blinked at him. “She’s jealous.”

 

Oh, right, Thorn could feel when people felt bad, like when Nikki had felt bad because she thought Nell might be sad that she was feeling neglected and Nikki didn’t know what to do about it. She really had to work on not just cheering people up with song, but on understanding the sad emotions so that she could put them in her songs and help people understand that everyone else was suffering, too. That they weren’t alone.

 

“You… really intend to do that?” Thorn asked her. “Why?”

 

“Well, think about Ms. Isolde. She thinks that…” It was so frustrating! “She’s just thinking of Theofratus and what he means to her instead of what he means to everybody, even though she says she cares about his reputation. Vayne isn’t a bad person, and there’s no way that finding out about Vayne will make people hate Theofratus. I mean, if Theofratus hadn’t created Vayne, I’d think he was a real bad guy. But if he hadn’t done those things and gotten that messed up, he wouldn’t have made Vayne. You’re not a bad mana, either. That’s what songs are all about, you know? Helping people understand other people’s feelings. And you’re a lot of really important feelings, just like Vayne. How can anybody understand anybody if they don’t know why they do things?” She sat up, shook her fur out a bit. Getting so excited had really messed it up: she wanted a hubby that would groom her after she got hit with inspiration. With all that was growing on, she was going to get tangles if she didn’t remember to brush herself more often, and how was she supposed to do that when there was all this exciting stuff going on?

 

“Like discord,” Siren said, agreeing with Nikki. To demonstrate, she touched two notes on her lute.

 

All of Nikki’s fur stood on end again.

 

“Discordant sounds are unpleasant, but because of this they let songs, which otherwise would only be harmony, convey unpleasant things,” Siren continued serenely as the noise assaulting Nikki’s ears slowly died away.

 

“What she said,” Nikki said, trying to smooth down at least some of her fur. If Sulpher was looking he would have sniffed and looked away, she just knew it. “You need to know math to make music, because music conveys the celestial harmonies…”

 

“I know Pathygoras.”

 

Nikki’s fur stood on end again. “Wait, wait, did you get to meet him?”

 

“I’m not that old.” Thorn looked away. Was Roxis right? Was he really trying to help them figure it out?

 

“He was one of mine,” Siren said.

 

“Anyway,” Nikki said, trying to pretend that hadn’t happened, “If people don’t know what war is really like, then they’ll think it’s just glory and excitement.” The way Flay seemed to. Or maybe he was trying to make it be that way, but the attempt itself was dangerous. “Sad songs make fewer sad things happen.” And she didn’t like sad things, like Roxis dying and what had happened to Vayne because of Theofratus and that cycle Iris had gotten caught up in. If people had remembered what happened last time the Escalario gems appeared, then Nikki was sure everything would have gone better.

 

Siren started humming, playing her lute, just a short song. “…the race that God made mad, for all of their wars are merry, and all of their songs are sad.”

 

Every one of the potential bards that went to Al Revis knew that one. Al Revis’ music department was trying to spread bardic lore throughout the world, just like alchemy. Because bards spoke the truth, no matter what lords wanted, and if people didn’t know what the truth was, how could they make the right decision? How could they make peace with their enemies if they believed those enemies weren’t people, people just like them?

 

“…Do you really mean that?” he asked Nikki, and she could hear the tentative emotion there. “Is that your dream? I can’t tell.” The way Vanitas could.

 

“My family…” Her first family. She had the workshop now. “I don’t like war. I’m sick of people being sad, and fighting over stupid things.” Why couldn’t Ms. Isolde just leave Vayne alone? Why did evil things have to show up and mess things up? “I like alchemy, but I’m going to be a bard, not a traveling alchemist. Don’t tell Roxis, ok?” Even if hopefully Roxis was getting over himself now. Still, he’d gotten everyone mad at him, and been mad at everybody, because he didn’t understand something like that? Even after getting to know Vayne? And most people didn’t think as logically as Roxis did. Weren’t willing to admit it when they were wrong, like alchemists were trained to. So it would be really important to speak to their hearts.

 

His voice grew a little more husky, the way Vanitas had been when he was really emotional, on the recording Flay had let her listen to of when Roxis had tried to rescue Vayne from Isolde. “That is what pains you… If that’s your wish… Except a pact is an oath to Lilith.”

 

“Huh?” Nikki asked.

 

“…You wouldn’t want to pact with me.”

 

Her fur stood on end again. Maybe she should learn to meditate or something, even if it didn’t work for Anna. “Seriously?!” She didn’t even notice everyone’s heads turning in their direction. “Are you kidding? Of course I’d pact with you!”

 

To be able to understand all the suffering in the world? What drove everyone else to anger and hatred? To be able to feel it with them, feel true compassion, and have the opportunity to spread it?

 

She couldn’t stop herself from pouncing this time.

Chapter Text

Feeling Sulpher’s disapproval and wish that he not grant any wishes anchoring him, Vayne cautiously reached out to the crystal. The wishes of the imprisoned mana were so strong! Well, they’d been trapped here for so long, most of them away from their elements: of course they were desperate for freedom. Of course they had every right to be angry: Vayne hadn’t resented being sealed in a crystal, but he’d done it to himself. To protect everyone. He’d just gone to sleep, he hadn’t been stuck there, eyes open, unable to move for centuries.

The really scary thing was that the mana they’d fought before, the Moon Mana, might be the sanest one here. Madness, lunacy, was part of the nature of the moon, since it was divided between moonlight and moonshadow, so Zweis Monde’s element had let her weather this intact enough to call out to him.

Now that he’d thought about it, he wouldn’t want this to happen to him, or anyone, not like this. He didn’t want to just leave them here. Even this one.

Vayne winced as he pulled back, walking on air back to the walkway. “Anna, I think you should put this one to sleep, too.”

“Of course, Vayne.” Anna had gotten permission for them to use the unclaimed workshop… somehow, and corralled all of them into making her zig-zag paper strips, ropes, all kind of things. She jumped over to the crystal and draped seals over it before jumping back. “I’ll give her good dreams,” she promised, summoning Faustus.

That was actually Professor Isolde’s idea, to help them recover so they could be released someday.

Vayne hoped the mana had good dreams, even if what it had dreamed of, what it had wished, when he touched it was a nightmare. He couldn’t unleash a mana that wanted to do something like that on the world, as much as he wanted to. Someday. He was a mana, so he could come back, right? Even if it took a century, he’d free all of them.

At least this was only the second they’d had to leave sealed? Second out of five, but still… “Alright, I’ll try this one next.”

“Hey, watch it!” Nikki said, only escaping being scorched along with the seals she carried by jumping into the air. “What’ll happen if these catch fire?” They’d have to make them all over again!

“Sorry,” Crowley said, backwinging so Yula could charge in to hit the fire mana away from where they were working with her mace.

“You apologize too much,” Flay said disparagingly. “This is a battlefield: these things happen.” They could always make more. In fact, they were going to have to, given how many crystals there were down here. Or rather, the other workshop members were going to have to. Flay planned to be elsewhere when they made the next batch: the fact he’d have to escape Anna was just a bonus! “Now, come!” he said, beckoning to the fire mana.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Isolde asked Vayne as she watched the battle, arms folded disapprovingly.

Well, that was Ms. Isolde. Vayne nodded, and Nikki noticed that he was really starting to look less sheepish. It wasn’t like he had to act apologetic when he was right about something. “She just wanted to fight, not to hurt anyone. She’s angry about what happened to her, and she didn’t get a chance to fight back, so…”

“Wow, for such a small fire mana, it sure packs a punch,” Jess commented, then remembered the Destruction Blast technique Klein had gained by pacting with the fire mana, Uru. That mana hadn’t been all that much bigger than this one. What ability did the wind mana have, again?

Of course, using those abilities would tire her mana out, and that wasn’t a good idea when she was trying to build another one of those bath chambers, like the one Zedalia had made. Klein had used it to infuse power from his mana into her body to keep her from getting ill: if she could find a way to replicate that, then she wouldn’t have to worry about straining herself anymore.

It wasn’t the same thing as a ruby prism, but right now, without the ability to infuse herself with the power of mana to replace that in the lost ruby prism, she couldn’t use most of her old techniques without exhausting herself, since they took a lot of strength and speed. That was why she attacked by throwing things from her purse now, but Lita had been strong. She could help out a lot more if she could use Lita’s techniques, especially since a lot of her skills weren’t very useful against the monsters under the old schoolhouse.

So she was extracting all the elemental power she could store, even if she could only use the elements Silwest and Aroma could. She’d gotten a lot from that fire mana, but what she couldn’t use was going to go towards infusing the athanor with power, just like what Arlin was gathering. Unlike her, his pact with Luplus let him use the fire element to synthesize items via elemental synthesis, but it was going to take a lot of all the elements, and especially fire, metal and earth, to make a new power core for the athanor now that Yuveria wasn’t sleeping there.

Morry had been really surprised that one of the components had just gotten up and walked away. He hadn’t even noticed Yuveria leaving, he’d been so busy trying to see if any of the control components were salvageable, until he saw another pair of sooty footprints in rather odd shoes.

Apparently Yuveria had gotten tired of dealing with the new school and found the sounds of working machinery restful, so she’d had the athanor built around herself and, well, not fallen asleep, she’d found the idea of falling asleep on duty insulting, but gone into power save mode. Jess didn’t know what the difference was, but Yuveria would know, right? Yuveria had still been aware enough that she would have felt it if the glyphs and machinery holding Al Revis up were in danger.

As Vayne touched the next crystal, Nell jumped back and Crowley dived down, spear-point first, knocking the mana back before swooping away.

“That was wonderful!” Iris called, holding some of Anna’s paper-strips-on sticks things.

“Mmm.” Arlin wasn’t as demonstrative, but then it was rare for him to be impressed with a fighter’s technique, these days. He’d trained Crowley, but with the sword. Still, he was picking this up rather quickly. “He’s certainly improving.” They had been created to fight, after all. Perhaps he was glad that Crowley actually had to work to familiarize himself with this mana’s power and unlock the true potential of the Zeilia Blades.

As soon as he finished speaking, a loud explosion echoed through the underground chamber.

Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned towards the source of the noise. Thankfully, the mana was too dazed to attack while their guard was down.

“A crossbow… that works by explosions?” No, this wasn’t like Delsus’ weapon at all. “A portable cannon?” Jess leaned forward avidly. Could she touch it, have it, take it apart? “Could I have the recipe?”

Yuveria lowered the large weapon she had almost casually braced against her shoulder and it vanished into the ether. “I do not think that there is a recipe.”

“No recipe?” What? “But that weapon was clearly created by alchemy,” Roxis protested.

“Master Felt didn’t use recipes. At least,” Yuveria corrected himself, “He didn’t use them for synthesizing weapons. I believe that he was trained alongside his sister, Mistress Viese, so I would presume he knew how to synthesize from recipes as well as elements.” She shouldered the metal contraption again when it looked as though the mana was about to recover. “This type of weapon is known as a gun,” she said, and fired again. After she put it away again and the echoes died down she continued. “And this subtype is known as a rocket launcher.”

That wasn’t what Roxis was concerned about. “He didn’t use recipes?”

“No. Master Felt had a rare intuitive grasp of weapon synthesis, fortunately for Master Elusmus.” Write down the recipe for alchemical weapons as powerful as the red and blue azoths? Even Master Palaxius hadn’t been that mad. Even with a replacement ruby prism, no ordinary alchemist would have been able to repair Master Elusmus when such a vital component of the Azoth, the sword he’d placed his soul into, had been damaged.

“A rocket launcher… It uses bombs to fire bombs…” That was what Jess was concerned about. “Maybe I should look up a cannon recipe.” She’d never been interested in them before. Yes, making cannon was an extremely lucrative profession for alchemists, but she hadn’t expected to live long enough to need to worry about making money and cannon were heavy. Even with her new shopping basket, it would have been way too much work to take them out and set them up during battles.

“Cannons aren’t permitted on campus,” Isolde told her, trying to nip that in the bud. She’d already blown up the athanor and severely scorched the inside of her workshop a few times: Isolde didn’t want to know what Jess could do with cannons.

Vayne certainly had found some very odd and very powerful friends.

There was a little patch in her bitter, twisted heart that was happy for him, she knew, and she didn’t want to be. It should be terrifying that he was becoming more competent. Even more of a prize. Prize mana, prize pupil: a prize wars could be fought over, like Lilith in ancient times, the era of Yuveria’s construction.

The precedent was there, those who didn’t learn from history were doomed to repeat it, Al Revis was sure to fall even if releasing the less hazardous mana now, like the one Vayne had just beckoned Arlin over to extract, would lessen the blow. Arlin didn’t know which of these he’d personally sealed, so he’d used one synthesis to change his skin tone and another to dye his hair black, a shade just slightly less purple-tinted than Iris. That was the kind of sensible caution that Isolde should be exhibiting, not tagging along on this expedition like, like they were her workshop or something.

The thought should make her shudder, but… Would it really be so bad? She was going to miss Renee and Tony, and Yula was no Renee, just as Nell was no Tony. Did she want to spend more time around these, these… children?

Well, what she wanted was the wrong question. She knew that. She couldn’t trust feelings like that when Vayne controlled them.

But she’d always wanted a child, Theofratus’ child, and here he was focusing like this, studying, trying so hard and… He was a good kid, but that didn’t change anything, she knew that, and yet… She smiled to herself, knowing it was her usual smile of ice. She knew that what she wanted didn’t matter, that she wasn’t going to get a happy ending. Even when it seemed to be in reach like this.

Wasn’t that what Vanitas had said? That she’d already had all her wishes granted, at least potentially, she just had to believe that? Theofratus had been brought back to life, Vayne wanted to give her chance after chance… She’d kept thinking about this over and over these past few days, her mind just running in circles instead of making any headway.

She couldn’t hate Vayne anymore. She’d forgiven him, but that still didn’t change anything. He might be able to make up for Theofratus’ crimes instead of just causing terrible things to happen, yes, but…

Enough of this. “Vayne,” she said.

Vayne paused, heading towards the next crystal as Pamela’s bear landed the finishing blow on the mana. “Yes?”

“See me tomorrow, after class.” Like they were a normal teacher and student.

“What about? Ms. Isolde.”

She smiled again, hard and sharp and yet somehow also fond. “So you’ve learned caution.”

“Well…” Now he looked sheepish.

“I just want to talk.” She paused. “I could give you my permission to bring Roxis, but I’m sure he’d come anyway.”

“…Does that mean you’re giving permission for him to come or not giving permission?” Roxis was crowding around Yuveria with Jess and Flay, so he hadn’t heard Ms. Isolde say his name.

“He can come.” You couldn’t invite a mana without their alchemist, after all.

Chapter Text

Vayne had never had a mother, let alone been dressed by one, so he had nothing to compare this to. Not that Roxis’ main focus was getting him to look respectable, even if he had told Vayne to get that dust off his sleeve. Obedient as (almost) always, Vayne had lowered his head to lick it off.

“No, no, don’t do things like that.” Roxis had grabbed his arm and pulled it away, brushing the dust off himself. “Do you want people to think that you were raised by wolves?”

“But Nikki does.” So it wasn’t just Sulpher.  “And I was raised by a cat,” Vayne reminded him. “Does that count?”

“Mrow,” Sulpher told him. “No.” Vayne certainly hadn’t been raised by dogs, and if he acted that way it would reflect badly on Sulpher.

“She does, but not only is it improper to do it in public, you’re not a beastman. You don’t have that excuse.” Roxis brushed harder. “And all you did was make the dust stick to your sleeve. Don’t you have any clean uniforms?”

“I thought I did, but I guess not.” Even though Crowley had moved out of Vayne’s room yesterday, Vayne hadn’t had time to move his stuff out of Roxis’ closet yet. There were a lot of clean uniforms in there, but they were Roxis’. He could fit into them, but they didn’t fit properly, and it was Vayne, not Roxis, who was more concerned about looking respectable when they visited Ms. Isolde.

“I should make you wash it by hand,” Roxis grumbled, heading over to his chest.

Vayne smiled, knowing Roxis would scold him if he tried to wish it clean. Not that he would, but it was nice that Roxis, like Sulpher, was concerned for him. It was important to remember to make sure that he had clean clothes, all these ‘life skill’ things. Things he needed to remember to think about.

“Here, use this.” Roxis handed him a vial.

“What is it?” Vayne examined the white liquid inside. Actually, there didn’t seem to be much liquid inside: the entire tube was packed with bubbles.

“It’s a synthesis used by traveling alchemists to get dust and odor out of their clothes when they arrive in a new town. No one’s going to respect an alchemist who can’t even keep their clothes clean. If that’s the kind of care they take with the items they make, I certainly wouldn’t buy a cure jar from them.” Well, maybe if the alternative was dying, but otherwise?

Roxis had found the recipe and made some after he’d had to ask Vanitas to clean his clothes for him. That had been embarrassing. Vanitas hadn’t minded, but it was the principle of the matter. Vanitas was his mana, not his maid. He couldn’t let Vanitas think that it was alright for alchemists to use his power for such trivial matters, or he’d be taken advantage of once again after Roxis was gone.

“Can I have the recipe?” Vayne asked, after opening it and tipping a couple drops, or rather clumps of bubbles, onto his sleeve.

“If you’re thinking of using it to clean the workshop so Anna doesn’t have to, there’s a reason I haven’t suggested that. Any alchemical potion will leave a residue of its elemental energies. If we used this to get rid of the dust on the floor, the workshop would have its water and air ether levels raised. Then Jess would have to cause explosions until the atmosphere became one more conducive to her work again.”

“So we can’t use it because that would make things harder for Jess?” To make bombs, Vayne presumed.

Vayne thought it was just Jess? “We can’t use it because it would throw off the ether levels in every synthesis we did. Especially as it wore off. It’s important to have natural energies in a workshop, since that way they’re as constant and predictable as possible. Although of course there are seasonal fluctuations, occasionally the phase of the moon is extremely important, especially with ancient recipes and so on.” Many ancient Greek alchemists had viewed alchemy as a way to study nature as well, so they’d actively tried to create recipes that were more responsive to natural fluctuations. For instance, there were recipes that could only be synthesized properly on certain days.

Even if understanding ether level was important, Roxis honestly thought that was nonsense and preferred modern, more reliable recipes. Thankfully, alchemists had eventually realized how silly it was to have an item for curing rabies, for example, which needed to be applied within twenty-four hours, that could only be synthesized during the dark of the moon. Saving lives was more important than astrology.

No, learning how to compensate for bad ether levels was even more important than taking advantage of good ones. “If Flay were an ancient Greek alchemist, he’d have poisoned himself by now.” Al Revis’ recipes had been refined for centuries in order to be nearly idiot-proof. Flay couldn’t have gotten away with his alchemy style in the old days. Jess was another matter entirely, now that Roxis knew that she actually was doing it on purpose, to see what happened. A lot more interesting things could happen with the older, less reliable recipes.

Actually, maybe he should give her some of the ancient recipes he’d dug up in the library. She would probably have a lot of fun with them. Once she was done helping repair the athanor, of course.

Vayne listened as he used the potion to get rid of the dust on his knees, but only with half an ear. A lot of the time when Roxis started talking like he was a teacher he was actually thinking aloud (except when he actually was lecturing somebody). Actually… “Roxis?”

“Yes?” Roxis answered, trying to remember when Jess’ birthday was.

“I know that you want to become a traveling alchemist, but have you thought about becoming a teacher?”

He hadn’t.

He actually hadn’t. He liked to travel, he wanted to see what it would be like to synthesize in swamps and deserts, to deal with all manner of problems, to be the Rosenkrantz alchemist his family and the nearby villages sorely needed and to wander the world finding interesting things to study and advance his understanding of alchemy, but the instant Vayne mentioned the possibility?

He wanted that.

“It’s not possible,” he said, and knew that he was trying to convince himself. “I couldn’t bring myself to teach a flawed form of alchemy.” To let another generation of students leave doing it wrong, when alchemy was capable of so much more. “Trying to reintroduce Egyptian alchemy would undermine the reputation of alchemy, and that can’t be risked. Maybe, maybe in the future, someone could, but not now.” The scientific principles behind alchemy were spreading, along with the rest of the Renaissance, but it was too soon. Everywhere there were grumblings, and if there was a backlash against too much change, too soon? Savonarola had burned paintings and potions in Florence, and even if he was an isolated madman, Roxis and Vayne had both experienced mobs. The lower classes were uneducated and vulnerable to demagogues, and unscrupulous nobles and the power-hungry took advantage of that. There were many who were unhappy with the power and respect alchemists possessed, even families like Roxis’ that couldn’t do as much (not openly, at least). Prayers might be answered with miracles, but heal jars worked all the time.

“Mew.” Vanitas nosed the back of his neck. “But you want it.” And what Roxis wanted…

“I can’t, I can’t let my students, or my family…” Roxis didn’t want to think about what it meant that Ms. Isolde knew about his father. He couldn’t blame Vayne for letting her figure it out, Ms. Isolde was canny and he was a child.

“Maybe you could… ease into it?” Vayne tried, since he didn’t like seeing Roxis like this, but even as he said it he realized that Roxis couldn’t. Roxis loved alchemy. As much as Iris, even though Iris was more open about it. There was no way he’d be able to hide that passion, once he started talking about it. No way he’d be able to hide his feelings about how alchemy should be if someone asked the right question. Once he’d started opening up to Vayne about it? Roxis would love to teach, and… Roxis would want to change alchemy, and if Vayne had learned anything from Ms. Isolde, it was that when people wanted something that badly, loved something that much, everything else, even things that they knew were important, could get swept away by the strength of those feelings. “Don’t worry, Roxis, I know you’ll find some way to change alchemy.” They were already releasing the mana under the school, weren’t they?

If Roxis hadn’t made that pact with them, then Iris would have come, rescued her friends, and gone, never knowing about Al Revis. He might never have known about Vanitas, much less Thorn, or the enemy. “They’re going to start teaching elemental extraction, aren’t they? Alchemy has already started to change. Because of you, Roxis.”

“That’s harmless enough,” even if it was a bit closer to magic, for alchemists to gather elemental power into their own bodies, to make things vanish like stage magicians. “But…” For alchemy to reborn, for it to change the way he wished it would, the world would have to change.

“Is that all?” Vanitas asked, turning into his beastman form and floating behind Roxis again. “I just have to change the world in order for you to get your wish?”

“You can’t do that with your powers,” Roxis said, trying not to roll his eyes or let Vanitas feel that Roxis really, really wished it was that easy. “It’s not right. You can’t just brainwash the entire world’s population.” No. Bad mana.

“Is it one of those things that has to be done slowly, with hard work?” Vanitas still didn’t like those things. He’d rather just use his powers and make everything better. He thought that Roxis would be proud of, or impressed with him then.

Actually, Roxis wouldn’t, because no matter how hard something was for anyone else, if it was easy for Vanitas than it was easy for him. Roxis would have been more pleased by Vanitas growing up enough to accept that sometimes things were hard and this didn’t matter, since when something was important, it was important enough to do anyway. Complaining that he couldn’t just solve everything like wishing was a little close to whining.

Roxis didn’t answer Vanitas question because the mana knew very well that the answer was yes. “I’m sorry. I know how irritating it is for you when people wish for things that they don’t want you to grant them.” Because even though Roxis knew it was a horrible idea, and something he couldn’t make Vanitas do, any more than Theofratus should have used him to kill, he still wanted.

Students. Oh, most of them would be like Tony, or Flay, or Jess, or Nikki, but didn’t all of them have their good points? Hadn’t he discovered that all of them really did have the potential to become ‘real’ alchemists? Then there would be the brilliant-but-uninterested like Renee, who would make him tear his hair out with the potential they were wasting (the way Edge had Iris), and the ones like Anna who had the talent and the drive but not the spark, and the ones who just wanted to make money but they’d be making money saving lives, and he owed Nikki and Ms. Isolde for giving him that wake-up call. He’d been so caught up in his own struggles with alchemy that he’d only seen those around him in that context, instead of for who they really were.

“It will happen,” Roxis said finally, even though it cost him, to say goodbye to a newborn dream. “Someday. All of us are out to change the world in our own ways, so it will change.” Someday, someone would be able to teach Egyptian alchemy at Al Revis. They might never know that his father had done so much to rediscover it, but what did that matter? His family had enough glory, and his father would finally be able to become an alchemist now that Lutanus had found him.

“Someday. One century, two…”

Roxis raised an eyebrow, even though Vanitas couldn’t see it. Why was his mana taunting him?

“You could be alive to see it. You could be the one to teach it. All you would have to do is work for a long time to bring it about.” Roxis would like that, wouldn’t he? “All you would have to do is become immortal.”

“The makers of the ruby prism may be eternal, but even if I could make one, well, I suppose a ghost could teach, but…” He would be a ghost like Pamela over his dead body.

“There are other ways,” Vanitas said, voice practically dripping with hints and temptation and it was so very obvious that he wanted Roxis to succumb.

Even though Roxis had half-joked about Vayne being a demon, while he was still wondering what on earth was going on there, he didn’t think any of them, even Thorn, had ever seemed so much like one as Vanitas did in this moment.

He adjusted his glasses, trying to keep his composure. He knew he shouldn’t let Vanitas become dependent on him. The mana had to get used to the idea that Roxis was going to be unavailable, on another plane at best, someday, and he was going to have to learn how to deal with other alchemists or decide what he wanted to do with his existence on his own. He should say no and change the subject. He should resist the temptation?

Who was he kidding? “What other ways?” Roxis asked, slowly, and he could practically feel Vanitas’ self-satisfied grin, the knowledge that the mana had won and was going to get to keep him.

Well, who was he to think he had more power than a mana did over their own element? Even if this was Roxis’ wish, it was still a wish. He’d played right into Vanitas’ paws, and maybe that was a sign that he was doing a good job?

Now he was making excuses for his weakness. He’d lost, that was all there was to it. Ah well. “Vayne, don’t forget your boots.” They were muddy. “And the aroma material and mana-eurism ring, I think. Just in case she has managed to find a way to curse or poison you that you can’t counter. We have been poking around down there: she might have found something of Mull’s.” The aroma material and that ring both contained mana power that should bolster Vayne’s own, as well.

“Right, Roxis,” Vayne said, sitting on Roxis’ bed to shine his shoes. He didn’t say that as much as he appreciated the thought, it was the thought that counted. As long as Roxis wanted Vayne to be ok, he would be okay. The accessories were just… nice. A tangible form of that wish.

With them, he wouldn’t forget it, even if Ms. Isolde did change her mind again and wish him dead.

Chapter Text

Well, Vayne looked… presentable.

It was clear that some (ultimately futile, of course) effort had even been made to tame that hair: its burnished sheen showed that it had been very thoroughly brushed, which was rare for Vayne, from her observations.

It was also clear that the whole thing was Roxis’ doing, from the way he stood stiffly next to Vayne, looking especially prickly on Vayne’s behalf. It wasn’t just his general protective front, the one proclaiming that, ‘if you do anything to hurt my mana…’ that was very unimpressive when she had far more ability to destroy him than he did her (well, leaving Vayne out of the equation).

And wasn’t that a foolish thing to do, discount Vayne.

The parlor she led them to was as spotless as it always was since Edge and the others had moved in. Technically, her orders were to keep the victims of possession under observation, meaning Edge didn’t have to stay here. Still, Nell was staying here instead of the dorms because Yula was here, and Isolde suspected that if Edge got a dorm room he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.

There was a very… homey atmosphere about the place nowadays. It wasn’t just the two sisters, but Tony and Renee visited her here instead of in her office now.

This was the house she and Theofratus would have shared.

That fact had made her seriously contemplate ‘accidently’ blowing it up, once upon a time, but now it didn’t seem so bad, really. The fact that technically, they were sharing it now probably didn’t hurt.

As she sat at the little table with its steaming teapot, she saw Roxis abort the impulse to pull Vayne’s chair for him. At first it made her smile, to think of the incredibly powerful mana as the woman of the peace, but then Vayne pulled his own chair out.

Somehow, it was even sweeter that Roxis had wanted to pull Vayne’s chair out for him because he knew Vayne well enough to know that he lacked proper chair-pulling form. The instant of screeching of the leg on the waxed wooden floor was terrible until Vayne hurriedly corrected himself.

Perhaps Roxis just knew it from attending classes with Vayne, but still.

“It’s the little things, like that,” she murmured, as Vayne sat, followed by Roxis. “You could make someone think that you’re perfect.” Make the screeching sound like a perfect melody, make everyone ignore everything he did wrong. He couldn’t make himself perfect, but he could make himself everything anyone ever wanted. Or make them want him so much they ignored all his flaws. Human beings were good at self-delusion.

Vayne looked disappointed, and wasn’t that proof that he wasn’t peeking at what she wanted? “Ms Isolde…” He still hoped that she might see that he wasn’t like that.

Roxis snorted. “Who wants to be lied to… Alright, I concede that a sizeable percentage of the population does,” he admitted, “but isn’t alchemy the quest for truth? Isn’t your own discipline centered around facing what will happen, instead of deluding oneself into looking on the bright side or failing to think things through properly?”

Well, she thought, he was on the offensive as usual. Because if he turned this into an argument between the two of them, focused all her anger on him, that meant she wouldn’t be able to focus on wishing Vayne dead. It was a good tactic, although she was quite certain that most of it was centered around the fact that he simply had quite a bit of anger in him, and not just on Vayne’s behalf.

If he were just a little less honest with himself, he would have made a good Crusader.

Just like her, really.

“How do you like your tea?” she asked, playing hostess. Sharing bread and salt was an ancient pledge of guestright, of truce. Scones were a form of bread, and since this wasn’t the desert and salt wasn’t as precious as water since it kept travelers from dying of dehydration, they served drinks nowadays. Personally, she would have been happier with a nice red, and the drink of fellowship where Roxis was from was the local lager, but since some of their students didn’t handle alcohol well Bernard’s predecessor had made it a policy that teachers not serve students alcoholic beverages, so meetings with students trying to impress potential mentors didn’t turn into impromptu drinking contests. Young men desperate to prove themselves would do the stupidest things.

For example, Tony, although he’d mellowed quite a bit now that he finally had a mana.

“With honey, thank you,” Roxis said, knowing the protocol from his childhood spent traveling like a gypsy. Vayne looked surprised: had he thought that Roxis would be so gauche as to refuse to drink anything she served? Please: she was an alchemist: the implication that she needed to trick him into eating or drinking in order to poison him would have been insulting if Vayne had any knowledge of the little details like that. “If Vayne had a preference,” being the mana of wishes, “it would be for large amounts of cream, I’m sure.” Since he’d been raised by a cat.  

“I’m sure,” she agreed, amused that there was a honey pot already on the table. The fact Yula had known what to do meant that they had tea in Zee Meruze, somehow. Well, it was a trade city, even if it traded with other worlds.

Was it her imagination, or was the place extra spotless today?

She should have known better than to think anything could be kept a secret in that workshop. Perhaps Roxis wasn’t the only one who had put work into making everything presentable, trying to make sure this went well in hopes neat hair or polished silver teakettles would hurry along a reconciliation.


Anna shook her head, tsking over Isolde’s tea-pouring and stirring form. The tea ceremony was an art form and important meditation, used to create harmony: her fingers itched to do it properly, for Vayne’s sake.

Flay disapproved for other reasons. “The fiend! It’s clear she’s trying to avoid a slip of the tongue that would give away her evil plans.” Serving them drinks made with leaves: had she no shame? “Now rum, that’s a man’s drink!”

“A man’s drink? What about Isolde, huh?”

“Tony, I’m surprised at you! To think that your own Mistress of Evil wouldn’t be able to handle a true man’s drink solely because she’s a woman.” A Man’s Drink separated the men from the boys: everyone knew that women grew up faster and Isolde was certainly very grown. Not that he would say this in front of Anna. Well, not right now, anyway: not when such quality entertainment was on. He made a mental note of it for later.

“Like, pipe down, you two? Some of us are trying to watch this?” Renee reminded them, blowing on the freshly painted nails of her left hand. That was the harder one to do since she wasn’t actually right-handed.

“Mrow,” Sulpher agreed, admiring his own claws. Renee had offered to paint them what she had assured him was like, totally, a perfect blood-red but that would really just be gilding the lily.

Nikki was startled. “Sulpher? Wait, why are you here? Shouldn’t you be helping Vayne?” Or lending him moral support, anyway?

Sulpher just washed his paw.

“I bribed him with an experimental recipe involving a slab of minced beef, two slices of bread, and cheese,” Flay informed her. “In case Anna required any assistance.”

“So far, I’m not having any trouble summoning the image.” Anna frowned. To think that it would be so easy to use the power of Faustus to spy on a member of the faculty! Flay’s infernal little devices were one thing, but hadn’t it even occurred to Professor Isolde to set wards around her new residence? “The hard part is getting it in color.” Most dreams were in black and white, the same as a landscape draped in moonshadow. 

“You’re welcome,” Eital said with false modesty, appearing in the midst of them.

“Hey, get down! I can’t see!” Tony called. “Aargh!”

“And now you really can’t see,” the mana of light said, although she allowed light to resume reaching his eyes again a second later, as she dropped to the ground to stretch.

“And, thanks to you, Nikki, we have them surrounded!” The power of Nikki’s mana meant that his Flay Bugs were picking up sound from every angle. “It’s almost like being right there with them!” And of course Flay would know what that was like. He had considered doing that, but there was always the risk that the Mistress of Evil would detect his awesome presence, even cloaked, and that would ruin everything. Well, that and in his benevolent generosity he had wished to share this event with the rest of the workshop. Workshops.

“Um, should we really be doing something like this?” Iris asked. “What if she finds out and gets angry at Vayne?”

Pamela laughed. “Please, this is Vayne we’re talking about. Of course Professor Isolde will know that he couldn’t have stopped us.”

Arlin, sitting on the couch in the loft and solely paying attention to his book, had to smile slightly at that. He had to admit that even though he should be the mature one, or at least the second most mature one, here, he was still paying attention to the conversation. Isolde held a key position among the faculty, from what he’d gathered, and if she truly was prejudiced against artificially created beings that could present a problem that he would obviously have to do something about, for Crowley’s and Yuveria’s sakes. The only reason he didn’t have a second-row seat, along with Yuveria, was that he had to set a good example now.

He hoped Nell didn’t describe how he’d treated Edge and Iris to Crowley: it wouldn’t occur to Iris and Edge, well, Edge wouldn’t, but Nell, in her innocence, might.

“Thank you,” they heard from Flay’s device. Or at least the people who were paying proper attention did.

“What did he say?”Tony asked, having missed that because he’d been grumbling.

“Thank you,” Iris, Nikki, and Crowley said simultaneously.

That covered up most of the sound of Isolde’s, “Your welcome,” but it was formulaic enough that they could guess what she’d said.

“I finished synthesizing the Exploded Rice!” Jess announced, happy with her latest attempt to replicate Flay’s Popped Corn.

“Oooh, pass it here!” Nikki stuck her hand up and waved. “This is making me hungry.” She was an active, growing beastgirl: most things made her hungry.

“So,” they heard Isolde say. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked you to meet with me.”

“Well, finally,” was Tony’s reaction. Renee kicked his ankle, quite gently with the side of her foot. She didn’t want to smear her toenails, after all. She hadn’t even applied the second coat yet.

“Shh!” Anna commanded imperiously.

“I do want to know, Ms. Isolde,” Vayne confessed.

“You want to know, but you still don’t know?” she asked him.

Now Pamela was the one to tsk. “Aww, Vayne…” He really needed to learn some proper selfishness, or he’d never find a girlfriend!

“Shh!”

“No, I don’t. Ms. Isolde, I… If I act like your privacy doesn’t matter, isn’t that the same as acting like you don’t matter?” Her own thoughts, the privacy of her own head? “I wouldn’t… do something like that. I don’t want to treat you that way.”

“Mro…” Roxis quickly jammed a scone spread thickly with Devonshire cream into the kitten’s face, even though that meant getting some on his hair.

All this time, Flay reflected, and Roxis was still so slow on the uptake. Well, not everyone could be like him. He would have known to shut the kitten up ahead of time. Honestly, and Anna said he was insensitive…

Maybe he should have insisted on fitting Vayne with his prototype communication device. No, both of them. While it was admirable that Vayne was finally growing a spine, however, that sometimes meant that he’d refuse things that were clearly for his own good. Not that he had yet, but that was because Flay knew to only present him (and Roxis) with offers they couldn’t refuse. If he had asked, and Vayne had refused, then Sulpher would have also refused to lend them a paw and Flay’s plan to spy on this little gathering would have been opposed by one of the few beings in existence capable of giving him a proper fight: his one and future rival, Alchemy Man!

Well, he’d just critique Vayne later. So far, he was giving him a seven out of ten. And Sulpher had insisted that Vayne didn’t know anything so gauche as puppy dog eyes…

Chapter Text

“That’s comforting,” Isolde said dryly, “Even though it shouldn’t be. Vayne, by now I hope you’ve gotten some idea of the power you possess. What it would mean if you were discovered. Not just to you, but to those who could be used to get leverage on you. And to countless other mana, like those you and your… friends have begun to free. Not to mention alchemy itself.” She put down her teacup, folding her arms in a way she knew she shouldn’t, because body language like that signaled a barrier between herself and the world. It was defensive. Weak. She still couldn’t cure herself of it.

Vayne nodded. “I know. Flay and I talked about what a supervillian-I mean evil alchemist could do if one got his hands on me.”

Roxis looked at him, puzzled. When had this taken place? Then he immediately felt foolish. Most mana might do nothing but attend on their alchemists and their element, but Vayne had a life, and so did Roxis. It wasn’t like he was Vayne’s mother, it wasn’t his job to keep track of Vayne every second of every day. He had a life, for heaven’s sake.

“What did he say?”

“He said that I only got a four out of ten as an evil alchemist’s creation meant to, well, destroy alchemy and make everything pointless. On the other hand, if he were a supervillian he wouldn’t want to use me, but only because I would make it too easy.” It had been one of those worrying conversations… “I’m not actually sure if I could blow up the world, because a lot of other mana would try to stop me.” Try to hold their elements together.

“There are machines and glyphs designed to soak up mana power, in the same way Al Revis uses glyphs to strengthen mana. If you thought ahead, or they did, you could wish for whatever you needed in order to grant your master’s wishes.” Isolde looked at Roxis. “Do you realize what you’ve done, teaching him the basics of predictology?” Trying to make him think of consequences?

“Increased his power exponentially, by showing him how to apply it intelligently instead of wasting energy wishing for things that won’t have the results he wants,” Roxis replied, and by acting like it was such a small, obvious thing he was daring Isolde to make something of it. Then he frowned, looking pensive.

“Mrow?” Vanitas asked, finally done licking the cream off himself.

“I know, I know.” Roxis still wasn’t happy. “Don’t mind me.”

“Roxis?” Vayne asked.

“I said don’t mind me. This is your big chance to try to come to terms with the mother you didn’t know you wanted until recently.”

“Is it that obvious?” Isolde asked him.

Roxis looked at her archly, and Isolde had to wonder if they were related. The two of them seemed to have far more in common than Roxis and Iris. “Now that you know he’s not really Theofratus’ creation, that means that Theofratus isn’t to blame for whatever he does. You’re only willing to let him exist because he’s not Theofratus’ son, not the son you weren’t allowed to have. So Vayne’s hopes are still in vain,” he winced at the accidental pun, “And it only goes to show that you were never concerned for the world in the first place. The fact your fears were valid on some level had nothing to do with it, they were only an excuse. Really, your only saving grace is your honesty. At least you were willing to admit that you went after Vayne, putting him and the world in so much danger for personal reasons. And now you want to sit and drink tea as though you weren’t trying to convince a child to kill himself, no, worse than kill himself, only a few weeks ago. Oh, Vayne will forgive you for it, and I know that what I should do is smile and nod and congratulate Vayne, for the sake of him, my family and the school, but, honestly, if I had to choose between you and Eital, to stand as family to Vayne, I’d pick Eital.”

Both of them were entirely selfish, but Vayne needed a little selfishness, in any case. At least the Mana of Light was direct, honest and didn’t threaten to kill people’s families or friends.

Roxis frowned. “Truth serum?” The aroma material wouldn’t have blocked it because truth was a good thing.

“The only potion I used was a calming one, and only on my cup.” Isolde looked thoughtful. “The cups were specially washed just this morning.” She fished a test kit out of one of her sleeves. “Pass your cup here.”

“I may just be overreacting and sleep-deprived. I’m sorry to accuse you of something like that.” Still, Roxis complied.

“Don’t worry about it.” Really, he had every right to think she would do something like that. If it would have benefitted her at all. An event like this was for small talk, making nice, trying to figure out how to get along with people. The truth had no place at tea.

“Do you think someone is trying to interfere?” Vayne asked.

Roxis and Isolde said, “Yes,” at the same time.

Vanitas said, “Mrow,” but they all knew that was a third yes.

“Right.” Vayne looked sheepish. “Of course they are.” He really did have the best friends in the world, didn’t he?

“Although, really, this is probably entirely my fault. I’ve been working on being more honest with myself after I was confronted with something rather unpleasant about myself, not to mention that I keep losing shadow games and it’s not fair to blame that entirely on well-intentioned meddling.” Roxis shook his head at Isolde. “Don’t waste any rare potions, please. It’s probably either something I cast on myself or Vanitas’ influence.”

“Mrow?”

“You did say that I should… Never mind.” At the kitten’s pitiful look, even though Roxis didn’t see it, he added. “Well, you are connected to my own desires. I didn’t say it was a wish, or anything that you did on purpose.   If it’s something that happened because you’re my mana that isn’t going to go away, then I simply have to work on my impulse control.”

“You’re a teenager,” Isolde reminded him. “And you’re upset with me, for good reasons. If I was making peace for so shallow a reason, then I might just change my mind for another shallow reason. Better an honest foe than a poisonous friend?”

“You really invited us here to make peace?” Vayne smiled, relieved.

The other two glanced at him: Yes, of course, hadn’t that already been established?

Vayne had to laugh, and soon Isolde joined in. “Well, I suppose wondering if Edge dosed the teacups was a good icebreaker.”

Roxis snorted, then reconsidered. “Edge? Well, I suppose one of the others could have put him up to it.” He shook his head. “It obviously couldn’t be Jess,” they’d be turning interesting colors by now, or something along those lines. “Flay wouldn’t have lowered himself to actually cleaning them.”

“Someone might have put something in them last night and then Edge removed it,” Isolde theorized, looking into the teapot. “He took Nell and Alvero ingredient-hunting to get them out of the house. Neither of them would have the alchemical knowledge required, so we can count them out.”

Vayne blinked. “Uh, Roxis?”

“Removing the one with inconvenient ethics and the two wild cards.” Roxis nodded. “That might be his contribution, in addition to the cleaning, I take it? I think we can safely discount Crowley and Yuveria.”

Isolde nodded. “Arlin’s obviously determined to set a good example for Crowley, so if he is involved, it wouldn’t be anything overt.”

“Ms. Isolde?”

“Don’t mind us.” Isolde waved off Vayne’s concerns. “We’re bonding.”

“…We actually are, aren’t we?” Roxis realized. “You are a very dangerous woman.”

“On my good days,” Isolde replied with jokingly false modesty. “Iris is a skilled alchemist and a very enthusiastic young woman, but someone would have had to put her up to it.” Talk her into actually intruding on something like this.

“Pamela could be hiding in one of the walls, to report back to Flay and surprise me when we’re leaving.” Roxis realized something. “Eital.”

“Oh?”

“Sulpher isn’t here. I thought that was because he was staying out of it, but he’s pacted to Eital. If she’s up to something, Sulpher’s assistance would be very helpful.”

“Thorn isn’t here,” Vayne pointed out.

“That’s because it’s none of his business… Or is it?” Roxis looked thoughtful. “I thought I was going to have to work rather hard to talk him out of trying to help, but Nikki said that she would keep him busy.”

“Wasn’t asking Nikki to watch him as good as telling the rest of the workshop that something was up?” Isolde wondered.

Roxis shrugged. “They would have figured it out anyway.” So why lie to Nikki when he was trying to do less of that? “And you told Edge, I presume?”

Isolde shook her head. “No, actually.”

“So it must have gotten as far as him by this morning.”  He’d assumed Isolde had told Edge because if she hadn’t told Edge, then she should have realized that someone else must have told him, and who else had to know if Edge knew. Whether Iris had told Edge or not, Edge would have told Iris, and that immediately involved Crowley and Arlin.

“What exactly did you tell Nikki?”

“That I wanted her to keep Thorn out of my hair for at least today.” Roxis pointed to Vanitas. “I may have tried to imply that this was because I had enough there already.”

“You’re acting like this is some massive conspiracy.”

The two of them looked at him again. “He really had no idea, does he?”

“Oh, he has some idea. Some,” Roxis added, acknowledging Isolde’s point. “Vayne, our workshop is headed by Flay. It contains Jess, who never does anything by halves; Nikki, who cares a lot about everyone; Pamela, who is bored and likes teasing me; Anna, who spins elaborate scenarios out of the air all the time; and the new people, who have proved they will go past the ends of the earth for friends and family. Then there are the mana, who see you as family, artificial or not, and Sulpher.”

“In other words, of course there’s some massive conspiracy to make sure that you’re happy.” Isolde looked down at her kitten, which had ignored the animal crackers the whole time and was asleep on her lap. “You have friends, Vayne. Very powerful and determined friends, who wish the best for you with all their hearts. Otherwise, I would have been able to eliminate you long before this.”

“What do you think would have happened if I hadn’t been invited?” Roxis asked Vayne. Rhetorically.

Isolde frowned. “If Renee and Tony are involved, it’s going to affect their grade, as my personal students.” She just wasn’t sure yet if she’d raise it or lower it.

“Renee and Tony?” Roxis had discounted them because, well, they were Renee and Tony. Even if Tony had wanted to do something, he would have had to convince Renee, and then since Tony wouldn’t work with Flay, Flay might have sabotaged Tony’s plans for amusement and to make sure they didn’t interfere with Flay’s own.

“They’re worried about graduating and leaving me with all this. Ernentraud told me that they were holding back several assignments.” They could only do that for so long without flunking. “It’s cute, really.” That they thought she needed them. Really, she’d be happier if they were off the island before it was attacked again. She hadn’t thought she was attached to them but, well, they were her students. “Flay’s already failed another year.”

“He has?” Vayne looked surprised.

“Of course he has. He’s already stayed here for several years: of course he’s not going to leave while you’re still here.” He should have expected this.

“What do you think they’re up to?” Roxis wondered. “Eital, Eital… Light…” Suddenly his eyes widened in realization. He groaned and thumped his head down on the table. “We’re being spied on.”

“Yes?” Isolde wondered why he was reacting so strongly, when they’d already discussed the possibility of Pamela.

“Flay has a listening device that he used to spy on us before. Remember when I confronted you after you sealed Vayne in that crystal? I’m sure he heard all of it. The impression I got from Anna was that it only conveyed sound, but if the Mana of Light is involved?”

“And possibly the Mana of Sound as well.” Nikki’s mana. One of Nikki’s mana, and the other had a personal stake in this, since the other two were his other thirds. Isolde nodded. “I think this will be Anna’s first time serving detention.”

Vayne stared at her, shocked. If Isolde knew Anna was listening, then she’d said that deliberately in order to provoke Anna into having one of her episodes. “That’s just… Mean.”

“And making you lock yourself into that crystal wasn’t?” Roxis shook his head as Vanitas hopped down from the back of his neck onto the table to investigate Roxis’ plate of scones with cream. “Still, at least you’re catching on.” He sat up straight again after Vanitas was off his hair. “What I want to know is,” he said, looking at Vanitas, “Is anyone using any method, potions or otherwise, to tamper with our thoughts or feelings?”

Vanitas suddenly sat down, surprised. “Mew?’

“Edge?!” Vayne and Roxis stared.

“Edge?” The workshop echoed, looking around at each other. Even Anna and Flay stopped running in order to stare at the wall where Faustus and Eital were projecting the image of the parlor.

Chapter Text

In the depths of the clock tower, Nell’s voice would have echoed and given away their position if it wasn’t soon obscured by the noises of all the gears and other devices around them. “Vacuum pipe, vacuum pipe… Aww, it got smashed!”

“That’s alright, Nell,” Edge assured her, only half-paying attention.

Alvero glanced back at him to see that Edge was standing with his face tilted up again, looking at the forest of intricate gears and chains and shafts that rose above them, up to the top of the tower and the clock itself.

“Hey, Edge!” Nell said in a way that wasn’t quite whining but was too childish for her age. “Are you even listening?” ‘Pay attention to me!’

Alvero had to stare at her: the more time he spent around her, the more she weirded him out. She wasn’t putting on an act to appeal to the kind of creepy guy that liked that sort of thing, nor was she doing it in an ironic way to annoy Edge & others and punish them for not listening to her. She was just too old and too good to act like this, and yet she was.

The first few times, he’d wanted to tell her to knock it off, since it was annoying, but he’d kept his mouth shut. He was here on charity, and Edge was only kind-of-mentoring him like this because, well, who knew? If it was pity, well, he’d take pity.

He would have been insulted before, if someone had taken pity on him when he wanted to be the strongest, the greatest raider in the guild since G.G. or the founder himself, but where had that gotten him? He’d leapt at an offer of cheap, easy power, reeled in like a fish. No, fish were smarter: they ignored Funan’s hooks and they wouldn’t have a good as put themselves in that demon’s ice chest. Raiders had to be smart as well as strong, to figure out where to find what was needed, to find the secrets of the Alterworlds.

He’d known that, he’d grown up on the stories. He would have thought that being defeated even with a demon’s power, dying & getting thrown to some other world and used as a puppet would have taught him his lesson, but it was when Edge had stood there holding a broom and looking at him like he was lower than the dirt he was supposed to be sweeping away for not taking it, not doing it right, doing his damn job?

Raiders weren’t heroes just because they went and killed powerful creatures and brought back rare goods, they were heroes because they killed powerful monsters that were killing people and brought back what the city, and their allies now too, needed. It was a raider’s job to do things like travel through time and traverse a dangerous Alterworld through scores of monsters to deliver a merchant’s order of five black fairy costumes. Because it needed to get done and it took someone strong to do it. So what if it was being a ‘glorified delivery boy?’

He’d turned down the jobs like that, or no, actually, he’d never gotten a job like that. Because he’d refused to do jobs that were ‘beneath him’ like picking up yet more of those shifty eyes for shifty-eyed Yach at the general store, and if he couldn’t be trusted with the little things, why would the Guild let him go up a rank and trust him with the big things?

And they’d been right, hadn’t they? Clearly he hadn’t been trustworthy, and not just because he’d been stupid. He’d been crooked, willing to attack a fellow guild member like that, just for power? Just for his own ego? He wouldn’t have proven he was the best if he’d beaten these two and Iris, he’d have proven he was the worst.

So he’d shut his mouth when he’d found himself about to say that Nell was acting like a damn brat and should shut up, because that was just pot calling kettle. At least Nell was willing to work hard for her dream, of restoring her family.

If this was rubbing his pride into the dirt, just to complete a mission, just to gather stuff from the place he’d been assigned to gather stuff, then he was obviously better off without that sort of pride.

“Hey, Edge, it is big, isn’t it?” Nell had tipped her head back to see what had distracted Edge. “Hey, do you think it’s bigger than the clock tower in Castle Grimore?”

“It is.” Edge turned to look at her, after looking up again. “Nell…” Was it making her homesick? The clock tower had reminded him of the waterwheel behind Iris’ house, the one that had powered the fans inside the house until a belt came loose sometime after Iris’ parents had vanished. He’d spent a lot of time investigating it, when they were young. It got him out of the main house and he’d wondered why they had a water wheel when they weren’t a mill. Iris had been really happy when he got it working again: she’d missed the sounds of the fans, the quiet squeak of all the gears. It had taken him awhile to get used to falling asleep with the contraption on, but it hadn’t been bad, to lie there and watch the stuff on the roof above his head move. To see that he’d managed to fix something, all by himself.

He couldn’t imagine being like Pamela, well, the Pamela in Castle Grimore. Finding out that he was dead had been a shock, but what if he ended up like her, unable to touch anything? To do anything for himself, or anyone else?

Rufina had assured him that her power meant he wouldn’t become one of the weaker, normal kinds of ghosts, and he could feel that her strength made a difference, but knowing that it could happen still frightened him, he didn’t feel any shame in admitting that. He’d never been an indolent person by nature, but he always had to find something to do after thinking about that, just to reassure himself that he could. That the items he gathered or teapot he was cleaning wouldn’t fall through his hands.

Seeing that he needed cheering up, Nell said, “It’s okay, Ed-ge,” elongating his name the way she sometimes did. “I’ve got big sis Yula back, and big sis Iris, and you. I’m not homesick.” She shifted back and forth on her feet, almost bouncing, still as energetic as when they started. “Come on, let’s go find another vacuum pipe! Hey, aren’t they pretty? With all the sparks inside?”

Edge nodded, lifting up his mechsword and slinging it over his shoulder again, grabbing the end of the chain with his other arm, as he followed Nell as she bounced ahead deeper into the clock tower. Edge’s mechswords kept getting more and more elaborate. Alvero wondered why he didn’t use the Rufina Blades. The instructor in their combat class, the beastman Professor Dior, had called him up to demonstrate. All the other students seemed to assume that of course the Rufina Blades, that scythe, would be more powerful than a regular mechsword, since it channeled a mana’s power. Why had Edge gone with the weaker weapon, Alvero wondered as he touched the hilt of his own mechsword. Was he giving himself a handicap, since the monsters here were clearly no trouble for Edge and Nell even though Alvero was starting to tire a little after only three hours?

He brushed his sandy hair out of his eyes – he needed to get it cut, the demon obviously hadn’t been taking very good care of his body – and followed. His share of the haul from that battle was just a single gear: he had to do better than that.

Maybe he should take a weapon synthesis class next? He didn’t have a mana, but a lot of other students didn’t have one yet, either, and Iris and Vayne had offered to do co-op synthesis with anyone who wanted the help. Flay was a mechsword user, so they had a lot of recipes lying around. Although there was something about Flay that bugged Alvero…

Thinking, he almost bumped into Edge as he went around a corner and started to go up some stairs that were really just stone blocks sticking out of a wall.

“Shh!” Nell hissed at him, a little loudly, finger over her lips. “Up there!”

Alvero carefully peered over the ridge. There were a few other students: in the same instant he saw them, he recognized it. That aura. “Here, too?” Edge asked, grimacing. “Isn’t the principal’s office right here?”

Rufina appeared next to him: there wasn’t room on the block with Edge, but she had wings. Alvero was still getting used to the way mana would just appear and hover. “Do you think they’re planning to attack him?”

“There are only a few of them, but there might be more behind that door.” The one Edge could see next to them.

“I only have one of the potions that-Jess made.” Alvero corrected himself before he said ‘that pink-haired girl.’ “She refined the recipe.” So it should work, especially if these were just cannon fodder.

“No.” Edge shook his head. Alvero had that potion in case he needed it. They were out of mana cores and he didn’t know when anyone would go back to that place to get more. Everyone had class, and going there wasn’t something to do lightly, not when they might run into more pawns of that demon. But it they could find its victims even on the main campus, then it might be safer to have the mana cores than not have them. “They should have those wings of icarus.” He wrapped the chain around his left arm. “Let’s kill them and let that nurse sort them out.”

That made Rufina giggle, and Edge glanced at her for a second, wondering why she’d done that, before returning to the matter at hand. He was used to Nell giggling at odd things, but Rufina was doing it now too?

“You and Rufina should stay back,” Nell leaned around Edge to tell Alvero.

Alvero wanted to argue. Sending the two of them against more than two enemies of unknown strength? From the way Isolde had explained to them, he shouldn’t get possessed again just by fighting a possessed enemy. He should help.

On the one hand, Nell was his superior in the guild, so he shouldn’t argue. On the other, was the reason he was willing to obey really because it was the right thing to do, or was it just because being near this aura again made him feel somewhere between scared and greedy? He remembered the power, the illusion of that strength.

It was only an illusion, he told himself. I was beaten so easily, remember? And then worse had happened.

Rufina vanished, after telling Edge to, “Be careful.”

Edge nodded, making a sound of agreement. It was the fact that he wasn’t doing it to reassure her, but because he actually would, that was his assessment, that made it reassuring. He wouldn’t underestimate something like this. “Alvero?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. Of the three Raiders here, he was the weak link. In more ways than one. They had defeated Uroboros, he hadn’t even reached rank three. At least the real Crowley had an excuse for that: he’d only been in the guild to get permission to explore different outerworlds, and the depths of the forest beginning raiders were allowed access to had kept him busy for awhile, until he’d found something there. Or rather, it had found him.

Edge seemed to see something in his face that made him nod. “Let’s go.” He swung his mechsword up over the edge of the ledge they were climbing up to and used it to pull himself up. Nell, standing on a higher block, just jumped. Alvero ran up after them, putting him in the rear.

The students summoned bombs on legs: all of them knew what it meant when an enemy like that activated themselves. “I’ll take them!” Alvero said, triggering his mechsword to send throwing stars flying at them. It wasn’t very glorious to keep the small fry off the other two’s backs while they dealt with the real threat, but it was the right thing for him to do.

“That was too easy,” was Edge’s assessment afterwards. The Wings of Icarus had triggered just fine: why would that demon make its victims that easy to rescue. “The ones in the depths were harder.”

“Maybe there’s a trap? It possesses them when they come here, then sends them down there?” Nell wondered, sitting down on the ground and looking through the students’ stuff.

Alvero, leaning against the wall, looked at her again. She dressed like that, spoke in a tone like that, but then she said things like that. He should be used to the fact that people were weird by now: she was like the inverse of Phenyl, and the guild’s combatmistress didn’t have anything wrong with her, but there was just something about Nell that didn’t seem right.

“We should go back and tell Iris.” Edge pulled out his Wings of Icarus, although he waited until Nell had agreed and both of them had used their own to trigger his. He wasn’t going to let either of them stay here and decide to put themselves in danger by scouting.

Back on the campus grounds, he nodded to Yach (who was calling himself Blossom here for some unknown reason) and followed the other two to the workshop. Although he didn’t want to say that more possessed people was a good thing, at least this might get the others to stop spying on something that was supposed to be private. He hoped Vayne and Isolde made up almost as much as he’d hoped Nell and Yula would, but they were treating this like it was a stage play, the kind the little kids still in classes in the library put on twice a year.

Chapter Text

“Iris!” Nell called, running into the workshop. “Where’s Iris? I thought she said she was going to be here.”

When Roxis, Isolde and Vayne had gotten to the workshop just a few minutes earlier, it had been empty. Roxis adjusted his glasses. “I would say they fled the scene of the crime, but they’re probably out looking for – You.”

As Edge followed Nell in, he was surprised to be glared at, and even more surprised to have something thrown at him by the Isolde woman. Confused, he reached out to catch it, presuming a teacher wouldn’t throw bombs around indoors. Although, knowing Ewan and Noella, none of whom were above being extremely inconsiderate or sending people all over the place without telling them why…

“Edge!”

He was even more surprised to be knocked to the side by Rufina. Nell cried out in shock and Alvero, still outside the door, took cover to the side, behind the wall of the workshop, when Rufina was suddenly encased in crystal. Even if Alvero had wanted to get in, and a moment later he thought better of it and did, he couldn’t have: the crystal, like those under the school, blocked the door.

Edge raised his mechsword to defend himself as Isolde threw a second crystal: it hit the sword instead of his body, but that contact was enough.

Nell shouted and swung at Isolde, but it was too late: the crystal had already formed around Edge, freezing him next to Rufina.

“Stay right where you are!” Roxis pointed at Nell, calling on Dour’s power to use the Root Bind technique. Stabbing up through the floor, the roots enclosed her in a cage. He doubted it would hold her for long, not when she was struggling as ferociously as that, but hopefully this wouldn’t take too long.

“Nell, it’s alright,” Vayne reassured her. “We just found out something weird, so Roxis and Ms. Isolde are kind of angry. I won’t let them hurt him… provided he wasn’t doing it on purpose.” Actually, if Edge had been… Vayne might be kind of angry too. He wasn’t sure yet.

“How long have you had that synthesis?” Roxis had just found out that someone had been using magic to warp his feelings, a trespass on his soul that truly warranted a shadow game, and he really should be focused on that… but he was also a Hermetic alchemist, and Professor Isolde had the most interesting recipes.

“I derived it within a month of Professor Zeppel bringing Vayne here. Unfortunately, or fortunately,” because using it might have put Vayne on guard, “I realized that it wouldn’t work.” Not without some plan that would make Vayne allow it to work, anyway.

“Why not? Couldn’t you have ambushed him with it?” As Isolde had just ambushed Edge.

“Not when Sulpher, and before very long the rest of them as well,” Vayne’s workshop, except Roxis, “wished him well.” Isolde kept a hand up her sleeve: it was easy to hide that when her arms were folded in front of her. “Of course, the downside is that we can’t interrogate him like this.” She looked up at Vanitas, who had jumped from Roxis’ head up to the top of Edge’s crystal. “Can you keep him from doing anything to either of us, once we release him?” She should have asked that on the way over, but after Vanitas confirmed that he’d been doing whatever it was to her as well? She hadn’t been so furious in years. Her temper normally ran cold, not hot.

“Mrow.” Vanitas made it an official wish, with the floating-and-glowing, just to be sure. He wasn’t happy either, although it was hard for him to wish harm on anyone. Still, Isolde and Roxis had been this close to actually getting along, and once that happened, Isolde wouldn’t want him dead anymore.

Vanitas would have made it so that no one was allowed to want Roxis dead, ever, but that would have included monsters, and Roxis would have noticed he wasn’t being attacked and been angry at Vanitas once he figured out what was going on.

Hopefully, once Roxis and Isolde were sure it was real, this would count as more ‘bonding’ and they’d get along?

He’d considered acting properly catly, like Sulpher wanted him to when he was in cat form, but hissing and scratching at Edge’s crystal would just have made it longer to fix this, since Roxis and Isolde would have wondered what he was on about and if he’d sensed evil or something.

He knew something was wrong when his pact to Roxis broke.

Isolde’s sleeves suddenly felt like they weighed a hundred pounds each: even though her sleeves were alchemically reinforced, they still tore. Her entire store of battle items, handy ingredients, notes and general miscellany spilled out onto the workshop floor. “Oh for…” Had she really accumulated so much stuff in there, over the years?

Nell, released from the roots, tried to get to her feet as potions, rocks, wrapped scrolls and so much else rolled by her. “Aaa!” she cried, her arms windmilling as she tripped over a teraflame.

Onto the pile.


“Out of the bed: there are more students queued.” Melanie gave Vayne a firm push that almost sent him tumbling onto the floor.

“Right, thank you, Miss Melanie… Roxis?” He couldn’t feel Roxis.

“Out of the bed, there are more students queued.” The next student was pushed out of bed, almost knocking Vayne over as he stood there, looking around the room.

“Miss Melanie?” Vayne stared at her.

Red-rimmed eyes almost glared. As if all the seniors deciding to take advantage of their free periods to go storm the depths of the old schoolhouse as some kind of goodbye to Al Revis wasn’t bad enough, now there had been a massive explosion on the campus itself.

It was high noon, the sunlight was giving her a headache, she hadn’t had a chance to sleep or grab a bite in over a day since the number of seniors dying in the depths obviously went up after the sun went down. They’d wake up here, high-five each other, and then go get themselves killed again.

If Bernard didn’t find her some help, and fast, she was going on sabbatical. “Out of the bed: there are more students queued.” She hadn’t taken a real vacation in how many years now? Vacation time really added up over the decades.

It would serve him right if she sent him a letter claiming she had a sudden family emergency. She doubted he’d get to it until after she’d finished packing her things and flown down off the island.

The Carpathians were nice this time of year…

“Vayne!” Nell grabbed him and dragged him off. “What about Edge?”

“Where’s Roxis?” He couldn’t find Roxis.

Maybe he just hadn’t reappeared here yet? Vayne let himself want to know where Roxis was. “I can’t find Roxis.” He reached out to his other pactmate, just to be sure. “Sulpher?”

It was rare for Sulpher to want a wish from him, but in the press of bodies Vayne decided that it was safe to grant it. A familiar black-furred body twined around his feet, carrying a small, upset kitten in its mouth as Nell pushed through the crowd like a small, determined snowplow.

“-it certainly is now.”

Vayne finally looked where they were going instead of scanning the crowd for Roxis. Even excited seniors and worried students knew to give the Vice Principal a wide berth when she looked like that.

“There’s nothing I can do about it with my pact broken.”

“Well, we can’t wait for the school year to finish so you can return home and find it again.”

“Pact… Broken?” Vayne gasped out after Nell let him go. “I can’t find Roxis.”

“So you broke your own pact as well?” If Isolde hadn’t known him by now, if she wasn’t aware what losing that pact meant to him? If she wasn’t certain this had been a complete accident, she would have been wishing him dead with all her heart.

“Here you are.” Thorn was taking advantage of a mana’s ability to hover. It said something about him that he still managed to look dignified and subtly menacing with Nikki perched on his shoulders.

She waved down at them. “Are you guys alright? There’s a crater where our workshop was!”

Jess, who had used her own wings to fly up higher and get a better view, flew down once she saw that Thorn and Nikki had stopped. “You blew up half the building!” And they hadn’t invited her?

“Ms. Fortner is also pacted to a stone mana. I’ll see who else I can round up among the students.” As the only faculty member with a stone mana, reconstructing wrecked buildings was Isolde’s job. The vice principal was right: they couldn’t let the students go without workshops just because Isolde had lost her mana. “Can I list it as a class?” Construction techniques were at least as relevant to alchemy as making musical instruments: most alchemists constructed their own workshops, for the optimal layout.

“Certainly.” Most of the time Al Revis needed construction it was listed as a class. They’d grown used to the convenience of having Isolde (and her mana) available. Ernentraud would have wondered why Isolde had even asked if Isolde weren’t quite aware that she was on probation. Still, Ernentraud wouldn’t have forced her to pay the students out of her own pocket or anything so petty. “There are several seniors who need a few more units.” She grabbed one out of the crowd. “The class listing will be up at student affairs by the end of the day.”

Vayne almost jumped when someone tapped him on the shoulder. “Roxis!” Vayne was so relieved he almost jumped on him, but Roxis wouldn’t have appreciated it.

No, Roxis wouldn’t have. He grabbed Vayne’s shoulders as the downbeat of huge wings heralded Flay’s arrival, riding the Mana of Gold along with Anna. “Can you reestablish our pact?”

“…No,” Vayne stared, face pale. Not even with Roxis right there. What was going on?

Right, he knew this. If just wishing for something wouldn’t solve the problem, he had to figure out what he had to wish for to remove the obstacle. “The reason I can’t is… Because Vanitas kept Edge’s power from affecting you. So if I remove that shield?” Was that right?

“Do it.” Roxis nodded. If it hadn’t been for the little claws digging into his shoulder – Vanitas had clung to the infirmary’s workshop waiting for him to reappear, then pounced, desperate – he would have been swaying on his feet. Normally, he’d have scolded Vanitas, but maybe the mana had felt his wish. He felt so wrong without them there: he hoped the nausea was only his body’s reaction to that. He hoped this would be as simple to cure as accidently eating something poisonous was.

He shuddered with relief as he felt them again: Vanitas, Vayne, Thorn, Dour as well as Vayne reached out to grant his wish that the pact be restored.

“Ms. Isolde?”

“Of course,” she told Vayne. Of course she wanted her pact back. Still, it was good that he asked permission before using his power on something so important.

“Alright.” Roxis took a deep breath. “What just happened?”

Remember when you told me not to nullify the power of Isolde’s mana?” Vanitas let Isolde and all the nearby workshop members understand him.

“Because it would have caused the stone around us to…” Hell and damnation. Roxis didn’t tell himself that he couldn’t have known: he’d known it was possible, and he was the one who had told Vanitas to do it, so it was his responsibility.

Isolde understood instantly. “Are you saying that there are two of them?”

Iris dropped down in the middle of them, followed a moment later by Crowley as he dismissed Zeilia’s power – he didn’t want to accidently knock anyone with electrically-charged wings. “Edge and Rufina are sealed in crystals and Arlin can’t extract them!”

“Ms. Isolde! Take care of this,” the vice principal ordered, as Bernard tried to apologetically hurry through the crowd towards the infirmary. She needed to join him and give Melanie a hand before they had a strike on their hands.

Chapter Text

When Edge and Rufina were released, the way they looked at Isolde made it very clear that if they weren’t Edge and Rufina, vengeance would have been forthcoming. Luckily for her, Edge had years of experience putting up with Iris’ enthusiastic experimentation with the various items she had found tucked away for a rainy day. He’d actually told her to test them on him, because if something went wrong, Iris had a better chance of figuring out which item would fix it.

Or that was what he’d said the reason was, anyway.

As for Rufina, it would have been a little petty for a death mana to kill Isolde for something she’d fixed, and aside from Edge, Rufina hadn’t really socialized with humans enough (being a mana of death and all) to know what was acceptable and what would be going overboard. Still, it would be embarrassing if she did something so petty, and she wanted Edge to think well of her.

If Isolde did anything to him ever again, though, she’d, she’d… She’d ask Eital.

“Two of them?” Isolde repeated.

Flay looked shocked (the key word being ‘looked’). “Professor Isolde, I’m surprised at you! Shouldn’t a teacher know that one plus three equals four?”

“What are you talking about?” Anna demanded, again. Flay had obviously figured out what was going on before they’d reached the edge of the crowd and the mana of gold had vanished out from under them. Since then he’d been making comments like that and bursting out laughing every so often. The instant she was sure that everyone was okay, she was going to chastise him for this behavior!

“Uh, guys?” Nikki pointed around them at the students picking through the wreckage of other workshops. Tony and Renee had just noticed them and were heading over, but before Renee pointed out that Professor Isolde was in earshot, he’d been swearing vengeance on whoever wrecked his stuff. She doubted he was the only one. “Maybe we should talk about this somewhere else?”

Isolde got a grip on herself. Seeing all the damage she was going to have to fix hadn’t helped her level of irritation. It was extremely embarrassing to get blown up by their own bombs. “My house,” she told them, and strode off.

She had more truth serum there, for another thing.

Edge cleared his throat pointedly. “So we aren’t tainted?” His first guess had been that she’d detected that creature’s aura on them and decided to contain them until they could be purified, just to make sure, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

Isolde turned around. “Tainted?” Did that creature have anything to do with this?

“Oh, right! Iris, we found more possessed students in the clock tower!” Nell remembered. The explosion and everything had put it out of her mind.

Iris frowned, and tried to catch Jess’ eye. “We’re going to need more mana cores.” Jess had taught Iris how to do that synthesis: with her mana empowering the ingredients, it was easy for her to make it effective enough.

“I’ll get some from Yach,” They were going to go past his stall on the way to Isolde’s anyway.

“Don’t you mean Blossom?” Iris corrected him.

Nell laughed. Iris was soooo gullible sometimes. “You really fell for it?”

Iris didn’t get it. “Well, didn’t he say that his people were traveling merchants? Is it really that much of a surprise one of his relatives is here?”

“Traveling merchants.” Edge paused significantly. “That can travel between… where?”

“Well, there’s the alterworlds… But Yach isn’t a guild member, that was why he needed us to gather all those things for him.” Iris frowned thoughtfully as Nell ran ahead. Now that she thought about it, “Do you think that they knew how to get here all along?” And hadn’t told anyone else? “How?”

“The same way we did.” Using the power of mana.

Up ahead, ‘Blossom’ looked a big grouchy as he handed Nell her mana cores. “Are you sure you’re not related to Noella?” The mana hadn’t intended to sell those until he got back to the Land of Mana: they were rare delicacies Pende would pay enormous amounts of pendelooks for.

Nell tilted her head to the side. “Mmm, I don’t know. Yula would know.” Yula paid attention to genealogies and everything. “Thank you, Yach!”

“It’s Blossom!” he called after her. Here. “I’m not the one from Zee Meruze!” Although they were all Yach, in the way all wood mana were Dour.


The largest room in Isolde’s house was the one with the cauldron in it, because it was a professor’s house and the school wanted to encourage apprenticeships and faculty members mentoring their workshops. Since it was urgent, Iris claimed the cauldron and Jess pulled hers out of her bag as soon as they arrived in order to start preparing for the syntheses, although they were focusing most of their attention on Edge and the others. Iris was worried about Edge: Jess was sure nothing really bad was going on, or someone would have said something earlier, and just wanted to hear what had caused the explosion. If the athanor hadn’t been wrecked before, it was now. Arlin and Yuveria had been spending half their time doing weapons synthesis for students while Jess followed recipes and made athanor components, since they’d decided that, yes, the students did need stronger weapons and armor that urgently, if they were going down there.

They’d almost had a small athanor, one at least big enough for rings and other accessories, done when this happened and it all blew up again. Honestly, Jess wouldn’t mind making another small athanor, because she obviously hadn’t given up on making the ruby prism. If she was going to blow up athanors doing it, then she’d just have to learn how to build small ones quickly. She was wracking her brains, trying to remember how Mother (or one of her mothers: the Lady of Avenberry, not Mrs. Philomel) had built that device to gather mana energy. Obviously she didn’t have centuries to wait for it to slowly accumulate, and she didn’t want to hurt mana by taking too much of their power, but some of the principles might be useful.

Even today, Jess was certain, no one, absolutely no one, knew as much about making the ruby prism as Iris of Avenberry.

If she really was still watching over her last daughter, then Jess was going to make her proud.

Tony was still in a bad mood, but he’d stopped cursing at whoever had wrecked their workshop when Isolde had said that it was entirely her fault. That was only half a lie: the chain of events wasn’t her fault per se, but she should have synthesized a special dress, like Jess had that handbag, to hold her things instead of just using the power of her mana to press them together and nullify the weight, the way the moon, made of rock, hung in the heavens instead of falling to join the stone mass of the earth. True, it was a good exercise, channeling earth element power like that, and the training had come in handy over the years, but even so. An alchemist should take pride in their work, and an alchemist’s clothing should never be found wanting.

Isolde realized that she was practically quoting one of her own teachers.

When had she started taking pride in being an alchemist, again? Did this have something to do with Edge’s influence? She’d think that it didn’t, because he didn’t display any excessive passion for alchemy, but since he could affect people’s emotions, “How do we figure out what his element is?” She looked at Vayne. “Is there anything dangerous about wishing for information?”

“We could try having Iris extract him,” Roxis said, but everyone knew that he wasn’t seriously suggesting that.

“Element?” Edge looked at them, then at Iris. Did she have any idea what this was about? Seeing that she was as lost as he was, he suggested, “Metal?”

Roxis looked a bit surprised. “Really?” But why would metal affect them like that?

“From the elements Iris has gotten when she extracted monsters since we got here, that would be my guess.” Since he had a mechsword and wore armor. “Could be fire, or…”

“I don’t think we’re talking about that sort of thing.” Roxis paused. “Are we?” He almost jumped when he heard someone speak behind him.

“It would depend on the alchemist’s skill. Some alchemists can only get a single element from extracting something: some can get more than one. As for compound or more advanced elements, such as holy or evil energies, it would depend on the alchemist’s level of awareness. A less spiritually advanced alchemist might extract water elemental energies from something composed mainly of spirit and illusion.” Yuveria could stand perfectly still, which humans almost never did, and she didn’t breathe or make any of the small noises. Except when she was walking or talking, she was as silent as a ghost. No, even quieter. At least Pamela would sometimes give herself away by giggling.

Vayne’s mouth opened, a little o of wonder. “It’s… family.”

“Family?” Roxis and Isolde repeated.

Flay grinned, delighted.

“Well, especially family, but also bonds, between people. So that’s why the pacts were affected.”

Wait, if it affected bonds… Isolde realized something. “Theofratus!” How could she have forgotten him?! “Excuse me,” she said, almost pushing Alvero out of her way to the door by sheer determination to go find him. She’d attached one of the wings of Icarus to his collar, but what if Melanie hadn’t revived him yet? He was so small: what if someone had stepped on him in the confusion?!

“So you’re another artificial mana?” Vayne asked Edge. He wasn’t alone?

Edge shook his head. “No.” Definitely not. He’d had a family.

Of course, since he hadn’t known he was a ghost, it was possible that he could be a mana and not know it either.

“No,” Vayne agreed, frowning. “Or are you?” His eyes widened. “Or am I?” He wished for more knowledge, and turned to look at Thorn when he felt the other aspect’s power jar him out of it.

“It’s not important right now,” the mana said, vanishing again. Sulpher stared at where it had appeared, before turning away and beginning to lick at a paw. Thorn letting Nikki ride him like he was some kind of a beast of burden had not been proper. Yes, Sulpher hadn’t raised Thorn, so the mana had a lot of bad habits to unlearn, but if he was going to take the form of a cat (or be a Vayne), then he was going to behave properly.

“The lineage of Iris,” Roxis said, and all of them, especially Iris, turned to look at them. “They’re, we’re,” he corrected himself, “part mana. Descendants of Lilith, the creation mana.”

Yuveria nodded. “Yes, that is correct.”

“Wait, so… can a human have mana powers?” Nikki wondered.

Edge kept himself from saying that he wasn’t human anymore, not… exactly. He didn’t want to be associated with a ghost like this world’s version of Pamela, anyway.

“The glyphs!” Jess suddenly exclaimed. “Remember that class? There are mana-strengthening glyphs all over campus!” They’d gone to see the main ones and figure out what they were for a class on glyphs.

“Hmm: is that why Iris has so many pacts?” Roxis looked at Edge thoughtfully. He didn’t think they were pacted per se: he’d presume Iris would have noticed. Yet, having a connection to a mana with power over pacts would be a sizeable advantage…

Hearing a small, “Mew?” Roxis reached back to pat the surely pitiful-looking widdle kitten.

“No, no, of course not. Don’t be silly,” Roxis assured Vanitas. No: one mana to mentor was more than enough. It wasn’t that he would mind having more pacts, if they found him worthy, but he’d like mana that knew what they were doing, which Edge clearly didn’t, and would be good influences on Vayne. If Edge was unconsciously using his power to influence people, when Vanitas and Vayne seemed to have figured out how to stop doing that, he wasn’t a good influence.

He wished Iris the best of luck, though. And Rufina, of course.

Chapter Text

Al Revis’ policy on school uniforms was two-fold: One, this was a school, a proper, respectable school, and uniforms were something that schools had. Their uniform had been designed by their founder, Lilie von Salburg, and showing respect for it was an important part of school pride, respect, etc. etc.

The second part, however, was the awareness that this was a school for alchemists. Principal Lilie and her successors had felt that if their students weren’t driven to tinker with and improve on the basic uniforms they were issued, then they seriously needed to rethink their choice of profession. There was something deeply, deeply wrong with an alchemist that didn’t feel the need to add one more pocket for gathering, or rearrange the jacket to make getting at a quiver more convenient, or felt that even that carefully chosen shade of blue clashed with their skin tone…

So as long as there was at least a nod in whatever they ended up with to the traditional uniform design, or at least the student had been careful to have there be some resemblance to a uniform for something, or generally seemed aware that the concept of school uniforms existed, the staff approved. Most of the real delinquents, those without any passion for alchemy, wore the basic uniform. Most of the students that actually studied wore modified uniforms. Most of the talented students wore something that, after a couple quarters, barely resembled a uniform.

Vayne wearing something so close to the basic boy’s uniform when he was almost done with his second year was another hint there was something wrong with the boy.

Even Roxis, whose dream had been Al Revis, not to mention that he’d needed to fit in, had made quite a few adjustments the day after he got brought up to the campus. Because he’d seen quite a few portraits of his ancestors in their own versions, and picked up that wearing the standard uniform was not proper for a Rosenkrantz, even if he hadn’t known that there was more to it than that until Anna told him. They’d given her a book on the school when they were trying to convince her family to send her, and otherwise she wouldn’t have felt right about modifying her own uniform, which she’d done before reaching the school.

Iris had replaced her shawl with a school jacket when she came, and the jacket had somehow ended up far more shawl-like, while still recognizable as a jacket. Crowley had only just gotten up the nerve to add a few more pockets: he still felt on some level as though all this good fortune might be taken away and didn’t want to bring it down on himself with disobedience or a screw-up. Edge might have been forced to wear the proper uniform even though it just really wasn’t him if Anna hadn’t recognized the way he looked at it and clued him in.

Nell had either been completely oblivious to the entire uniform thing or pretending to be until Isolde had called her into her office and told her that regardless of the customs of her native land, it was not appropriate here for girls as young as she was to walk around with so much of their breasts exposed. They had the occasional student from Bali or other lands where the women customarily went topless because of the heat. Normally, once they were introduced to proper breast support, once they spent a few days running around the grounds collecting ingredients and felt what a difference it made they never wanted to take their bras off again.

A teenager living in a house with two women who dressed like that and had little sense of shame or personal space: as a predictologist, Isolde should perhaps have realized that Edge wasn’t normal from the fact it had apparently never occurred to him to do anything about it, either take advantage of it or try to convince them to wear decent clothing to remove the temptation.

Instead, she’d seen how his eyes just slid over them without either lingering or avoiding the sight and assumed he didn’t see the appeal because he was gay and Rufina was in for a disappointment.

She should have realized that Vayne acted the same way, but two of them? When Theofratus certainly had nothing to do with Edge?

Well, the implications of this weren’t as bad for alchemy as an alchemist managing to artificially create life, but the theological implications of a human turning into a mana were astounding. Worse than the question of whether or not Adam had a belly button, which had been banned from discussion even though it seemed like a very silly question because there could only be two answers: yes and no, and both of them had nightmarish implications either for humanity or the universe as a whole. Of course, that had to do with physical details, and as a woman Isolde wasn’t exactly in God’s image either way, and this had to do with the nature of the soul.

While mana were sentient, mana powers required a certain permeability humans didn’t have, and because of this they might or might not have free will. It had been fairly well established that in certain areas they definitely did not have free will, the trouble was testing whether or not they had it outside those areas, especially with the determinism philosophy, which stated that free will was moot since a being, like God, that knew everyone and their starting point could predict with absolute certainty the choices they would make with that free will regardless.

Because of this, Edge was the most important discovery for theological science in, oh, three hundred years? Since St. Thomas Aquinas’ work with mana and defining good in terms of God’s plan expressed through nature, perhaps. It wasn’t her area of study, but she was a predictologist.

It wasn’t in the school’s charter that any mana hybrids had to be handed over, mostly because everyone had heard of the Lineage of Iris, even if they’d thought it lost. Still, there hadn’t been any major differences outside of a gift for alchemy, certainly nothing on the level of beastmen, so even though there was a legend that they were descended from some of the mana that lived in ‘Eden,’ as the school grounds had been called back then, no one had really been that excited about it. If you took local superstitions into account, half the world was descended from some god or elf or another. Great Caesar himself had seriously believed he was descended from the goddess Venus, and the rulers of Ancient Egypt and that country Anna was from were thought to be related to sun gods. Mana were relatively mundane and sensible.

And then there were beastmen, of course, who were considered to have human souls despite not being human on the outside. Many pagan cultures had used their magics to give people traits of their totem animals, the witch Zedalia had turned a wildcat into her student, Norn: there were many other examples. The position of the church was that since God had sent himself, as his only son, to be tortured to death in order to save humanity, and souls could be granted, God certainly wasn’t going to abandon anyone who followed him to death, so it was all moot and the big question was faith versus good works.

That was another kettle of fish entirely, one that was about to bubble over given some of the letters she’d received from home. Tossing Edge in the midst of it might either keep them occupied long enough for tempers to cool down or set off another major heresy like the Mohammadeans.

Alternatively, if the descendants of the Lineage really could have special powers, it might set off the fringe group that thought mana were angels and just claiming they weren’t for various reasons (angels could lie, and were capable of selfish actions), which would make the Lineage of Iris nephilim.

Since nephilim were actually forbidden, if the Lineage were nephilim that bred true, well, the most moderate reaction would be a polite request to stop having children, backed by a refusal to perform marriage or baptism ceremonies.

Given how much importance Roxis placed on his family name and heritage, she could imagine his reaction to that. While Roxis was mostly a moderating force on Vayne and Vanitas, from her observations, if he were motivated to use the trust he’d acquired, cash in all the favors he’d earned? Vayne, at least, knew right from wrong and didn’t like hurting people. She could picture him wondering if something was a good idea or not, but then deciding that if Roxis thought it was okay…

Well, no, that was really thinking too much of Vayne. Not when Flay could get him to go along with fairly ridiculous things even now. If Roxis’ wish was strong enough, Roxis knew he could use that power to keep them from thinking or objecting, surely.

Vayne was a very, very powerful weapon.

She had to think about this, which was why she’d had to get out of that room. She’d been trying to think of an excuse, even though observational data was important, until she’d remembered poor Theofratus.

Souls were supposed to be immortal, how could you have one that switched on and off? Not to mention that if soulless beings could be destroyed, and a souled being could be turned into a soulless one, a gift given by God removed by some other force, that meant it was possible to destroy a human soul. To cause a human being to die a final death.

If that was actually possible?

Suicide was one of the greatest sins there was because a human being choosing to commit murder without remorse damned themselves to hell. Normally, no crime could do something like that to the victim. The fate of someone’s soul was always, always (well, barring Papal decree, but even the power vested in Peter could only keep humans out of heaven or let them in, it didn’t let the Pope condemn them to hell) in their hands and God’s alone. It was not something that could be stolen from them.

But if a human could find a way to not just send another human to the next life but destroy their very soul? If the world knew it was possible, someone would do it.

Isolde herself had wanted to kill Vayne, even knowing that the poor boy would cease to be when he died, that there was no better life where he wouldn’t be a danger to anyone awaiting him, and she’d been willing to do it because of things that weren’t even his fault. It wasn’t his fault he was what he was, it wasn’t his fault that he could destroy the world or that Theofratus had made, or rather reforged, him. If she could do that, knowing all the implications, then what about someone who hadn’t really thought it through, or someone who was crazed with grief and sought vengeance? Who thought that even hell was too good for their enemy, or didn’t want to take the risk they might repent at the last second and be granted entry into heaven by God’s infinite mercy?

Even if it could only be done to descendants of Iris, the Lineage of Iris had been in existence for over a millennium. Who knew how many people counted her among their ancestors? And if they were allowed to keep having children, who married and had more children, how long would it be until the entire world was in danger?

Two of them.

Two of them.

No, it wasn’t just Vayne and Edge. Edge was just the proof that there was a danger to the world. There was also Iris, and if she and Crowley weren’t made for each other than Isolde was no predictologist, and Roxis himself. Given how small Zee Meruze was, there was Nell to consider as well. Yula, Alvero, perhaps Crowley, and an entire city of them in that dimension of theirs. All of them carrying a great gift for alchemy, the potential to possess the power of a mana and a threat to the entire world.

The serpent must not have figured out the implications of all this.

Otherwise, the last thing it would want to do was kill them all. Not before it used them to kill everyone.

It wasn’t only terror for Theofratus that kept Isolde from keeping properly calm around Melanie. It was rude to feel fear in her presence, although if Melanie hadn’t built up a resistance to lust, she couldn’t have worked around teenage boys. “Have you seen…”

In no mood for this, Melanie pointed to the exit. “Your cat ran out the door as soon as I revived it.”

Ah, yes, Melanie had that effect on animals. Her kind generally did, unless they’d made an effort to become recognized as pack leader or get control of their primitive little minds for some reason. “Thanks,” Isolde said on autopilot, rushing back out, ignoring the students who didn’t get out of the way fast enough.

She’d just managed to start being calm and rational about the threat Vayne posed, and now two of them? She couldn’t handle this, at least not until she could be sure that her cat was safe.

Chapter Text

“Alright. So, like, this isn’t the best time,” Renee said, rolling her eyes a bit. “But there’s not going to be a better one. You guys so need to just chill out sometimes,” instead of one thing after another. Of course, it was totally Flay’s fault.

“Wait, we’re inviting them?” Tony protested.

“Of course. Like, who else are we going to invite?” Their delinquent friends weren’t actually friends, because Tony obviously had better taste (she’d see to that), and, “We just have to invite Professor Isolde’s kid, you know? So that means we have to invite the rest of them.” And she kind of wanted to watch Tony rub it in Flay’s face a little.

“Invitations?” Nikki wondered, bouncing up on her heels. “To what?”

“Our graduation party.” Duh. Tony rolled his eyes as Renee handed Vayne one of the invitations that had been on the desk next to the cauldron. Good thing she’d brought them here before their workshop blew up.

He took it, opening the envelope by sliding a nail under the fold. “Oh?” That wasn’t what this said.

“Graduation party and celebration of our engagement,” Renee corrected Tony.

“You’re getting engaged?” Anna looked surprised, but only for a moment, and showed absolutely no relief.

“Wow, congratulations!” Nikki almost hugged Renee, but thought better of it. Then hugged Renee anyway.

Renee hesitated to say, ‘Get off me?’ in a cutting voice long enough for Nikki to bounce back, releasing her.

“So, when is it?” Jess asked.

“It’s on the invitations?” Like, obviously? “And, actually, we’ve been engaged.”

“For how long?” Anna wondered, while Flay stood there trying not to cry tears, even manly tears.

“Since last year,” Renee told her.

“And you’re letting it become public knowledge now because he finally has a mana?” Roxis asked, pushing up his glasses.

Renee nodded: of course. “I can’t get publically married to just a wandering alchemist. My mom would flip.” Not because she wouldn’t understand the whole love thing, but because of the whole politics thing. Hadn’t she raised her right? Of course, she had, which was why Renee was doing it this way. “Otherwise, we would have had to wait until he made professor.”

“Huh?” Nikki asked, totally confused.

“Renee is Lady Renee d’Arcose,” Roxis informed her, wincing at the idea of Tony making professor. “Marrying a commoner would be seen as a sign of weakness, and Arcose is a free city.”

“Lot of money, lot of metal, not a lot of land and not exactly the biggest army in Europe,” Renee agreed. “And that’s Sir Renee.”

“My apologies.” He nodded to her and went on, “So the ruler can’t be perceived as a deluded child who throws away the valuable advantages of an alliance marriage for a love match out of troubadour’s tales.” Someone sheltered who read too many Romances. “A powerful alchemist is a perfectly sensible match. Someone like Jess would be a boon to any city’s defenses. Unless you blew up the city wall at an inopportune moment.”

The joke made Jess laugh, in a way that said that yeah, she could see herself doing that. Even though she was really just joking: she wouldn’t make a mistake that might let an army in to attack innocent people.

Not even before she’d come here. She was cavalier about property damage, but people’s lives were… something else.

“Are we supposed to bring gifts?” Vayne asked Roxis, since he’d been raised by wolves (or worse), was aware of how little he still knew, and had no tact.

“Excuse me,” Roxis pulled him towards the door a bit before quietly saying, “Don’t talk about getting people gifts in front of them.”

Now Renee would be obligated, as the gracious hostess, to say that of course they didn’t have to when the actual answer was definitely yes, and then Renee would be obligated to waste a lot of time at the party telling people that they, like, totally shouldn’t have. He could picture her standing there, waving them towards a table with that look of disdain that he almost envied. What was worse was that it would be the truth: Renee was the heir to a city and an alchemist. If she wanted it, she could buy it or make it, so the entire gift-giving thing was useless to her, except for the part about the thought counting. Although he doubted Renee would care at all.

How was he going to explain all the levels of that to Vayne? The difference between him, from a family with old glory and not much money and real nobility? “Once we’re traveling alchemists, I’m not going to be able to let you out of my sight, am I.” Unless he wanted Vayne to make some verbal misstep that would make people think he was a stereotypical absent-minded alchemist at best and get them run out of town at worst. And Vayne had issues with being driven out of places, so it would remind him of his childhood and then Roxis would be obligated to figure out how to comfort him.

He could see how massively embarrassing it would be now.

What made it worse was that while before it would have been good to bring a gift, it wouldn’t have been required, because it was also a graduation party. If everyone gave every graduating student gifts, obviously no one would have time to synthesize anything else when the year started running down. Make gear for a traveling alchemist? They could make their own, so doing so didn’t really give them any benefit unless it was very high-quality, with a lot of time and effort put in.

“Like no, don’t. Really, don’t. I’ve got too much stuff as it is.” Renee rolled her eyes. Gag gifts from Flay. Gifts from admirers. Gifts from minor nobility or ambitious social climbers who thought they had a serious shot. Yearly carts of gift baskets of weird bath stuff from her mom, to cover all the holidays that took place when the portal wasn’t open. Well, ok, the real sponges had sometimes come in handy for synthesis. “Actually…” She looked at Nell and Yula. “Do you want to go through it with me? Since you didn’t come here with a lot of stuff. You might find some of it useful. You too,” she added, looking at Jess, who still smelled a little of smoke and hot metal even though getting revived at the infirmary normally fixed that. “And, like, if anyone else wants anything.”

“…Did you keep any of the flowers?” Probably not, Roxis knew. “I’m going to have to replace all my plants.” He had gathered seeds of all of them, of course, even the ones that weren’t useful in battle, but except for the ones he’d planned to mail home once the route to the ground opened at the end of the year and the ones that were useful in battle, he’d kept them in a chest in the workshop. Because he’d been experimenting with their alchemical properties and that was where he did alchemy.

Dour appeared and patted him on the shoulder. “Is o-ay.”

“Thank you.” For offering to help do it all over again. Roxis could synthesize the plant growth formula, but training them up against the wall and around the loft and such again would be extremely time-consuming without his mana’s assistance.

“Mew?”

Roxis sighed, “No, Vanitas. It wasn’t your fault and I could use the practice anyway. I’ll gather the others myself.”

“…Mrew?”

Roxis winced. “Yes, even the moonflower.” The thing was, the depths-depths didn’t bother him, even though they’d found possessed people and all sorts of things that were actually really disturbing down there. The more normal depths of the old Schoolhouse did bother him, because Pamela.

He wondered what it said about him that Pamela bothered him more than that. Of course, he was allowed to actually fight that thing, while Pamela kept getting on his last nerve and he couldn’t do anything about it.

“…Mmr?”

“First off, it was my wish, second, how were you supposed to know that it would break Isolde’s pact? Then, her sleeve ripping and the bombs getting everywhere was… One of those things.” One of those annoying things that happened.

“…Roxis?” Anna’s eyebrows were raised a little.

“Yes, what?”

“We know what you’re doing, but to anyone else it would look like you were talking to your cat.” Roxis really needed to get back in the habit of keeping in mind how that looked. It was one thing to talk to your mana, when they’d appeared beside you, it was another to talk to thin air. Or pets.

“Vayne does it… Which… doesn’t make it any better.” Seriously, had he just argued that something was proper conduct because Vayne did it?

“And he doesn’t do it anywhere near as much as you do.” Jess agreed, removing the finished grenades from her cauldron. She’d decided to tinker with the purification recipe a little, to get it in a form that would be easier to administer. This would get it everywhere, it wouldn’t take a direct hit.

Roxis remembered when he’d wondered if Vayne was a witch talking to a familiar or something: the fact Vanitas preferred cat form didn’t help. Doing this at Al Revis was one thing, but once he graduated, he’d be dealing with superstitious peasants and trying to keep them from noticing anything odd about Vayne. Roxis acting oddly would just make things more likely to go wrong for Vayne: it certainly wouldn’t help. Not to mention that he was in danger of becoming one of those people with too many cats as it was.

His cat, Vanitas, Thorn sometimes, Sulpher, Eital (because his mana’s other pactmate’s other mana was still part of the household)… He was still a teenager and he’d already accumulated five? He shuddered to think how many would be prowling around the mansion when he was in his dotage.

“Alright, I think we’ve got enough for now.” Iris cheerfully pulled her own syntheses out of Isolde’s cauldron. “Let’s go… What?”

“We’re going to throw an engagement party,” Tony told her.

“What?” Shocked, Iris looked at Crowley. “But I haven’t finished designing your ring yet!”

“…Wait, what?” Nikki asked, while everyone else just took that in.

“Um, ring?” Crowley barely managed to keep from stuttering.

Iris blushed. “Well, I’m the last Fortner, so I was hoping you wouldn’t mind taking on my family name.” Since Iris was inviting Crowley to join her family, she was supposed to be the one to propose, and put a ring on his finger to seal the deal. “How did you find out?” Was it because of Tony’s mana somehow? Even Edge and Nell hadn’t guessed, she was sure of it!

“Through a keen insight into human nature and brilliant detective work,” Flay told her. “Also, you told us yourself, just now.”

Arlin coughed politely “About my little brother taking on your family name.”

Luplus appeared next to him. “Well, he won’t be your only family for long, Arlin.”

“Not to mention there’s still you.” Edge’s eyes narrowed, momentarily diverted from the main issue by someone suggesting that Iris would just become part of someone else’s household… “Do you even have property?” Crowley’s house must have been confiscated by now, even if Edge doubted it had been auctioned off by the Library yet, not until Ewan got around to breaking down the other walls to make sure there weren’t any more secrets. It wouldn’t be safe. Iris, by contrast, had a home and a legacy that had been in the Fortner family since before Zee Meruze had…

“You’re going to get married?!” Nell’s enthusiastic exclamation forced Edge back to reality.

“Iris Fortner sounds much better than Iris Abenstein.” Although if they were using real names, Alastor Fortner rhymed, which wasn’t the most dignified. Still, he shouldn’t hide that he was the one known as Crowley. Even if he wasn’t.

“Kiesling, actually.”

Jess dropped her jaw and the sack of rice she had been holding, intending to make more banged rice since they were out of corn to pop. The grains scattered everywhere.

At least they weren’t bombs, Roxis thought.

“Kiesling?” she gasped, “Kiesling?!” Her mouth worked for a second without any sound coming out. “Are you telling me that Klein… Mull was… You’re his… They were married?!” Seperated, but, “Mull and Daphne? Klein’s grandmother Daphne?”

“Where you get that?” Anna asked Roxis. “Can I have some.”

“Vanitas,” Roxis said, after swallowing the handful of popcorn and lowering the bag so that she could reach in.

He didn’t want to become dependant on wishes, but this was totally worth it.

These things were much more fun when they weren’t happening to him.

Chapter Text

When Isolde gave up on finding Theofratus on her own and went home to rally a search party, she arrived just in time to see Yula slam her mace down on Isolde’s (solidly built) dinner table, yelling, “Order! Yuveria has the floor, and that means you too, Nell!”

“But, sis….” Nell whined, jumping up and down.

Yula pointed her mace at her. “Order, or I’ll have the bailiffs… Or I’ll have someone take you outside!”

There was one group of people clustered around the table, Iris and Crowley were in a theoretically-private corner, their voices raised a bit so that they could hear each other over the clamor, and everyone else was standing in the attached alchemy workshop, except the ones who were sitting on chairs that had been dragged over there, eating something and watching. Except Vayne, who was sitting on Eital instead of a chair.

Isolde located Nikki: bards all had good memories, so she’d give the best report. “What did I miss?”

“Renee invited us to her engagement party, and Iris was busy synthesizing, so when Tony told her about it, she thought he was talking about an engagement party for her and Crowley.” Nikki pointed to everyone as she said their name.

“A guilty conscience at work,” Flay chimed in.

“Then Arlin got upset because he didn’t want Crowley to give up his name, and Edge said that there was no way that Iris was giving up hers. So, Yula took over moderating that because she learned it at her mother’s knee, and Iris and Crowley went over there,” the corner, “to get away from the people arguing about them. Iris said that she was just thinking about designing the ring, and she wasn’t going to propose until Crowley graduated, because it was his dream too, and she said that of course she didn’t assume that he was going to say yes just because she tried to rescue him, and he shouldn’t feel like he had to. And then he started trying to figure out what to say to reassure her, and then Zeilia appeared and said to just kiss already. Iris got mad at her, for treating Crowley’s feelings like this was all a joke, and then Zeilia overheard Yuveria talking about slave boys and she went over there.” To the table. “And they stayed there being awkward and romantic.”

It was like a wedding ceremony, with the bride and groom’s supporters on either side of the aisle while the bride and groom were ideally oblivious to everything else. Except it was a table instead of an aisle, in this case.

“Apparently Zee Meruze has something called a prenuptial agreement, and it’s really important since Iris is the last heir of the Fortner family and Arlin doesn’t want anyone to treat his little brother like he’s anyone’s property or obligated to them. So he and Edge started arguing. Arlin seems to have picked up a lot of legal stuff, but Edge is holding his own by virtue of being really, really stubborn.” No wonder Iris’ enthusiasm hadn’t been able to push him into alchemy even with years of working on him. “Or, Iris’ own, anyway.” Nikki wanted a brother like him. Maybe she could borrow him once she started picking out her hubbies.

“Oh, and it seems that our Roxis is descended from the legendary dark alchemist, Mull,” Flay interjected again. Because it was really unfair, how lucky Roxis had gotten in that respect.

“I’m surprised you’re not worried about that,” Anna agreed, looking at Roxis.

Once he finished swallowing the popcorn he’d been chewing, Roxis told her, “Even if such things are in the blood, which I doubt? Percentage-wise, I think I’m safe.” There had been a lot of alchemists in his family, after all, and only one Mull.

“Apparently Mull and Klein’s grandmother Daphne were lovers, and when she left… She decided that her son should have his father’s name, so that people wouldn’t think he was a bastard,” even though he technically was, “and said that Mull was dead. Arlin doesn’t think that Mull ever found out: he didn’t find out until afterwards, when he was trying to track Klein, Veola and Lita down.”

“How could he not have known? Oh, right, you people don’t use family names as much.” In Anna’s country, people introduced themselves with them first, if they had them. Only nobles did.

“So, after Jess managed to get the details from Arlin, she ended up joining the arguing on Crowley’s side.” Well, what was supposedly Crowley’s side: he didn’t actually have anything to do with it. “Then Yuveria said that Iris should give her consort a certain number of personal slaves to make sure that he was taken care of in the manner which he deserved,” or some sort of flowery, phrase like that in the patrician dialect. Most people that knew Latin knew the commoner’s dialect, which was what the Church used. Nikki had made a note of it, to look it up later. Anyway, “otherwise it would be an insult, and then Arlin looked kind of worried,” because would Yuveria expect to be given slaves by anyone who courted her? “And Yula had to explain to Yuveria that Edge wasn’t actually Iris’ slave boy, because that was illegal. But Zee Meruze does have indentured servants, so Arlin had to tell Yuveria that he didn’t mind if Crowley wasn’t given any of those, really.”

“I think Yuveria didn’t realize until now that they had such a different view of the fact they were created to be slaves,” Roxis commented, before taking another mouthful. Dour, seated on Roxis’ right shoulder, clearly agreed.

“And now they’re arguing about Crowley’s dowry. Arlin wants to give Iris this house that might have been confiscated or something, or equivalent value in goods or property, but accepting a dowry is an implicit promise to do a bunch of stuff.”

“A dowry is something families give to insure the safety of their daughters, yes. I’m well aware of those customs.” It was money to establish a household, money to make sure the man could afford to give her a good standard of living, money that she could hopefully keep some of, or be refunded, if they divorced.

“Yeah, so apparently the amount that Arlin wanted to give is a big insult. A really big insult. He doesn’t mean it that way, it’s just because Crowley means a lot to him, but he’s implying that the head of the Fortner family can’t support Crowley the way Arlin’s family can, and giving someone actual property as a dowry means they’ll have someplace that’s their own, their own household, to live if they separate. And, if Iris loses his house or something, and then they have a fight?”

“Apparently they treat marriage very lightly in Zee Meruze.” Roxis didn’t approve. Marriages could only be annulled if someone was infertile or something like that, which could easily be solved by alchemy. Marriage was a promise to stick by someone, no matter what. If people didn’t take a promise before God, a holy sacrament, seriously enough to work together to make the arrangement work, then how would a secular document deter them from hurting or forswearing each other? A promise was a promise.

“Well, when there are so many people packed in such a small space, and everyone’s related to everyone…” Anna shrugged.

“One wrong move, and the entire city would be caught up in family feuds!” Flay agreed, with unwarranted enthusiasm.

“So letting people who can’t get along divorce only makes sense,” Anna added. Very practical.

“So he’s, like, making death threats against Iris if she every hurts his little brother. Only with money.” Renee was seriously taking mental notes, because she wanted to have more than one kid, meaning she had to make provisions for them and what might happen if someone unexpected inherited her city. “Trying to make sure she’s ruined if she sells off what should be Crowley’s property – because there, the head of household owns the property of all their family members – and doesn’t treat him right. He’s totally trying to, like, take the Fortner family name hostage to ensure Crowley’s safety.” Oh, Renee was still going to make actual death threats on behalf of her future children too, but this combined death threats and land grabs! On a small scale, even by the standards of a trade city, but still.

“No, some of those were actual death threats,” Flay corrected her. “He has commendable subtlety. Speaking of which! When they get married, we have to work out how we’re going to do the ritual threatening for both sides. At my cousin’s wedding, they arranged the chairs so that there were three columns.” And everyone had gotten up, bristling with weaponry, at the parts like, ‘Speak now or forever hold your peace.’ Flay had gotten to wave around a spear (padded, although that had given him even more freedom to whack people with it), and weddings had generally been great fun for him as a boy. “After all, we have to make a show of force in support of both our workshopmates!”

“And Edge can’t just turn it all down because Arlin really is worried about Crowley and Yula told him it would weaken Iris’ bargaining position in a divorce, or status, or something. Tony and Alvero got bored and left to go cure the possessed students in the clock tower. Vanitas has been making popcorn,” and Vayne was just kind of taking it all in. Nikki counted on her fingers to make sure she’d covered everyone, but then she realized, “Hey, where’s Pamela?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her for awhile.” The ‘thank goodness’ was implicit in Roxis’ tone of voice. He stiffened, preparing in case she took that opening to appear and try to spook him, but then he relaxed. “That’s odd.”

“It’s such a pity she’s missing this.” Poor Pamela. Still, this was another reason Flay was using one of his Flaybugs to record it all.

“Excuse me!” A shout cut across the din, and everyone turned to see Iris standing there, hands on her hips.

The mana of light assumed a hangdog look. Aww, show was over.

“I really appreciate that everyone’s looking out for me, and Crowley does too, but we’re only first year students! You shouldn’t be… I don’t want everyone fighting because of me.” Not again.

Edge looked guilty. “Iris…” He nodded.

“But, Iris!”

“Nell!” he almost barked.

“But I want to see Iris in that wedding dress!” The one she’d synthesized back in Zee Meruze. “She sacrificed the wish and beat Uroboros, and… Iris is supposed to have a happy ending!”

“Nell, I am happy,” Iris told her. “I’ve gotten to see you again, and meet all these new friends. I’ve gotten to find out so much about alchemy, and there’s even more to discover.” A whole place full of people like her, and she could take this knowledge home.

“But Crowley was the damsel in distress,” held captive by something much worse than a dragon, “and he loves alchemy, and you love alchemy, and…”

“Nell, there are a lot of people who love alchemy here.” Yes, if her world had never expanded beyond Zee Meruze, then she would have thought that they were made for each other. They’d have worked together to bring about the rebirth of alchemy. But now? “I don’t want to take Mr. Crowley’s choices away from him, either. It’s not fair to him to say that he has to marry me, Nell. That’s why I didn’t want him to know that I liked him.” She fiddled with her hands as she said that, blushing a bit.

“Honestly? That was a lost cause from the start,” Roxis told her. After all, when Crowley had woken up after his possession with Iris hugging him? “And, speaking as someone with a large, extended family, this is going to happen every time something like this happens. There are a lot of people who care about your happiness. Both of you. At least now you know what to expect.” And Iris knew how to tell them to shut up and stop trying to run her life. He really, really hoped Vayne didn’t develop feelings for anyone until either they graduated or he learned how to say no when bombarded with the good wishes of all his friends.

“Totally,” Renee agreed: Flay and Isolde nodded as well. This was one of the reasons Renee had picked out her future husband while she was someplace her mother could only get at her through mail once or twice a year.

“But, but, you are meant for each other!” Nell clenched her fists.

Nikki took a handful of popcorn of her own now that she was finished telling Isolde the highlights, but Iris wasn’t taking this anywhere near as lightly. “Nell?”

“Nell?” Yula started around the table, only to stop when Edge raised an arm to block her path, watching Nell carefully.

It was when Yuveria’s weapon appeared on her shoulder and she calmly said: “Warning: chaotic mana energies detected,” that the people who weren’t Nell’s sister and best friends realized that something was wrong.

Honestly, Isolde thought, now she was the one who wanted to yell, ‘Excuse me! Can you please stop having catastrophes for five minutes?’ Was it really impossible for this bunch to stay calm and normal? Permanent sanity might actually be too much to ask in this case, but she wouldn’t be asking for much, just a short break from this kind of thing, just long enough to find her cat.

How did they ever manage to attend class, she wondered as Jess threw a purification grenade at Nell on general principles.

All it did was really make her angry, pale grey aura of power and everything, but the sooner they had a fight or whatever and this got sorted out, the sooner they could get back to important things, like finding Theofratus before anything happened to him.

She was going to need more tea when this was over with. Of course, it was tea that had started the… mess before the current mess in the first place, so even that might not help.

Chapter Text

Roxis adjusted his glasses after picking himself up off the floor and checking to see if he needed to brush any dust off. Not when Edge had this floor waxed just last night, since company that Iris worried about was coming over and he had an Alvero to beat humility into. “Well, that was…”

“Disappointingly anticlimactic,” Flay finished Roxis’ sentence, or rather interrupted and talked over him.

“An… egg?” Iris peered down at it.

“What was an egg doing in my sister?” Yula demanded, gripping her mace tightly.

Eital ignored her, curled around the glowing grey egg that she’d lunged forward to tackle out of Nell, dumping the people seated on her onto the floor in the process.

Wax or no wax, Sulpher was still washing himself.

“It’s a mana egg,” Yuveria said, eyebrows raised. An unusual sight.

“A mana egg?” Unlike Yuveria, the others were actually surprised.

“Mana come from eggs?” Nikki asked, amazed. “But that’s birds.”

“And reptiles.” Also fish and frogs, but not this sort of egg. When the creation mana Lilith manifested as a human, and humans didn’t? Isolde tapped her foot on the ground. It was irresponsible for her to want to drag them off to go looking for her cat before she was sure the show-Ahem, the potentially dangerous event was actually over/resolved/done with.

Edge uncorked a nectar. “Iris?” Nell wasn’t waking up.

“Is this another of your aspects?” Yuveria asked Thorn.

“No,” he said shortly.

“How remarkable,” Yuveria said, although there was no great amount of emotion in her voice or expression. “Mana eggs are a nexus of mana energy that has not yet given rise to a new individual. Gaea and the other Protogenoi came forth from Chaos when their energies coalesced into mana eggs, according to the Greeks. Of course, this was before the existence of Lilith was discovered.” By Palaxius. “According to my master, while Lilith is not personally responsible for the creation of lesser mana, she must shape the first mana eggs of new elements, creating the children of Lilith, the Mana Kings and Queens, that give rise to lesser mana of their elements.” By providing a template, by holding the energies of the element stable enough that mana energies could gather into eggs without being disrupted by the energy flows of other elements and disruptions of the aethyr.

“So that would make this your younger brother or sister?” Roxis asked Thorn.

“Huh?” Vayne asked, puzzled.

“No,” Thorn said shortly, then admitted, after a moment, as though it was dragged out of him, “…Older. He wasn’t satisfactory.” Now drop it.

Roxis would have, but Vayne wasn’t very good at picking up on what people wanted from tone of voice, not when he read what they really wanted. “Not satisfactory? To Lilith?” That couldn’t be right, right? Mothers were supposed to love their children no matter what, according to Nikki.

What was this egg doing in my sister?” Yula asked Crowley again.

“Just because he gloated at me sometimes doesn’t make me privy to all his plans!”

Arlin gave her a look that clearly meant, Keep talking to my little brother and waving your mace around like that, and I will make you eat it.’

Which Yula didn’t want, especially not when Arlin was helping Isolde and her strings of potions try to figure out why Yula’s little sister wasn’t waking up.

“If you’re right about the onset date you gave me, that was before Crowley was possessed,” Isolde pointed out.

“You think they’re connected?” Had this egg caused Nell’s… illness?

“It was when she became overwrought that the energies manifested,” Isolde pointed out. “It may be connected to those berserk rages you told me about. But don’t ask me, ask the mana,” and stop getting in my light when I need to read these labels. “Eital seemed to recognize what was going on immediately.” So go bug her.

Eital was cooing over the egg. “Who’s an adorable little mana? I’m going to kill Helios, oh yes I am. Did the nasty creature hurt you? Don’t worry, big sister Eital will make it all better.” And kill Helios. He was supposed to watch the damn thing.

“How did your egg get in my sister?

Eital stopped nuzzling the egg, which she’d curled around to keep warm, and looked up at Yula. “How did my little brother end up in Uroboros’ domain?” she asked rhetorically. “I’m going to kill Helios. He was supposed to babysit while I was gone.” Make sure no negative energies got anywhere near the egg.

“Oh?” Flay inquired, interested.

Nell groaned. “Put salt in it, Iris…”

“Nell!” Iris hugged her. Yula started towards her then hung back, sad. It was Iris’ name Nell had said. It was Iris that had taken her in.

“Silence!” Professor Isolde ordered with her best Irritated Teacher voice. “Alright. Is anyone in any immediate, illegal mana-related danger?” As opposed to things that could be dealt with by the infirmary?

The students all looked at each other: the consensus seemed to be a shrug, since they didn’t know what was going on. Isolde took Eital’s yawn, Yuveria’s lack of reaction and Arlin putting his share of Jess’ exorcism potion back in his pocket as a no.

“Then stop crowding around the girl and gossiping. Yula, put her to bed.”

“But I’m wide awake,” Nell objected, getting to her feet.

“You just fell unconscious. Bed.” She was Isolde’s responsibility. “Eital. What is that egg’s element?”

“Emotion.”

“So it had something to do with her berserk rages as a child?”

Eital raised an eyebrow. Was Isolde a predictology professor or wasn’t she?

Isolde took that as a yes. “And she’ll be fine now? And you’re taking care of the egg? Excellent,” she said, without giving the mana of light a chance to speak up and start making trouble. “Then all of you can start looking for my cat.”

“Your cat? You mean Theofratus?”

“Yes, Vayne, unless someone decided to give me another cat, I do mean Theofratus.” This was one of those times that Isolde was glad that Al Revis took only teenagers and adults, that mana never chose anyone much younger than Anna’s age (when Anna was quite mature for her age). If this was what dealing with small children was like, they were worse than the usual students. Maybe she should be glad she and Theofratus hadn’t had any children.

Because, honestly, Vayne was not the Obvious Mana. Isolde was not having a good day, and… “By emotion, do you mean anger and hatred?” Isolde asked Eital. “Maybe worry as well?” What had she been thinking?

Vayne had just been worried about his father. That was not a reason for Isolde to want to strangle him. The question was not even in the top fifth, when it came to how dumb the things she’d heard this week were. She should not want to grab his neck and squeeze. She should not want to grab Yula’s mace and smash him with it, grinding him down into a mash of blood and bone on her floor like herbs in a mortar.

Vayne only barely managed to dodge in time as stalagmites pierced up through the floor, absolutely destroying the intricate wood inlay.

“Shh, shh,” Eital tried shifting her body to sort of rock the egg, but it wasn’t working.

“It’s hatching!” cried Anna, eyes wild and hand already on her sword.

“Siren, help! Rock a bye baby, on the tree top,” Nikki started singing.

“Ha!” Anna yelled, charging and slicing wildly at the egg, the assault forcing Eital to vanish.

“Don’t… It’s not his fault!” Vayne ran forward, tried to grab and stop her as the egg slammed into a wall, hit across the room by the force of one of her blows. “No one wants this! Anna, Anna, listen to me!”

Roxis knew that it would be very stupid of him to ask Vanitas to do anything when Roxis didn’t have a clue what was going on. “Thorn!” Answer me! You’re the one who knows about this, who drops cryptic hints and won’t tell me your origins outright and… Roxis staggered back, a hand touching his chest.

“What’s going on?” Arlin asked Yuveria after pulling Crowley with him to the edge of the room, as far away as possible, where Yuveria had retreated.

“The mana’s power is reacting in chaotic ways. The three of us do feel emotions, but the physical process is different from that of humans. That is also why Vayne and the other mana are unaffected: the mana is targeting human emotions. It may be a defense mechanism.”

“A defense mechanism?” Arlin asked, grabbing Crowley’s jacket again. “Don’t distract her!” Iris had summoned Diemia to cover her and Nell: all Crowley would do was give her one more person to keep track of. “Not unless you have something to contribute.” That would actually help.

“Anna! Anna-Ugh!” Vayne had to let go when she stamped viciously on his foot, then kicked that leg to the side and knocked him off balance, sending him sprawling as she lunged forward.

“Faustus!” Anna called, ramming her blade into the exact center of the egg, even as shards fell from it and vanished into light.

She let go of her sword and it stayed: she’d pinned whatever was in the egg to the wall. “Well,” she said, pleased, “That’s much better.”

“…You’re right,” Isolde said, head suddenly clear. “I’m fine. I’m fine, you can stop throwing things at me,” she told Jess crossly.

“He looks like a chubby baby beastman.” Aww, look at those cute little horns, thought Nikki. “Hey, Vayne, look at this: his fur’s silver, just like your hair.” She kept brushing eggshell off, since it had basically hatched anyway.

“Vayne, I need some holy crest paper, that seal won’t last forever…” Anna looked where Vayne was looking when he didn’t answer her. “Did something happen to Roxis?”

“The mana of hearts and souls.” From Eital’s perspective, this just kept getting better and better. Roxis was such fun. She didn’t need to make her own entertainment with him and Vayne around, Roxis was plenty good at tormenting himself.

Of course, just because she didn’t technically need to didn’t mean lots of fun wasn’t better than just fun.

“Illegal, probably dark and mana-related,” Isolde muttered under her breath, peeved and remembering what she’d said earlier. “Alright, clear some room! Everyone who doesn’t think they have anything to contribute, make yourselves busy looking for my cat!”

The workshop members all looked at each other. They all wanted to help Vayne: they weren’t leaving, not when Theofratus had been a big jerk to him. Nell had to stay since she had something to do with this mana: Nell wasn’t leaving Yula. Arlin had a lot of accumulated knowledge.

Iris wanted to help, but, “We’ll look,” she told Ms. Isolde, taking Mr. Crowley’s hand. They were new students, and she would hopefully be able to work better if she wasn’t so worried about her cat. “Don’t worry, we’ll find him. Mr. Crowley can check the rooftops.” And Iris had her mana, she could ask them to help.

“When you find him, bring him back here. I want to know where he found what he used to make Vayne.” In other words, no, this was not busywork or something she was telling them to do just because she was worried about Theofratus. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asked Yuveria, who turned around calmly in the doorway.

“To locate your cat, as requested.”

“Not before you tell me what it is you know about that.” She pointed at the mana. It was chubby: it really did look like baby fat.

“My apologies: my master has forbidden me to discuss such secrets.”

Isolde tried to stare her down: Yuveria held her gaze without blinking. “…So this does have something to do with Elusmus,” Isolde said.

Yuveria might have told her that was incorrect (that much was allowed), but that would have caused Professor Isolde to try to get more information out of Yuveria when her time was better spent helping the students, so the ancient alchemical creation simply turned and left. After a glance back at Isolde, Arlin followed. Edge wanted to, especially since what did he know about all this mysterious alchemy stuff, but he was still worried about Nell.

Chapter Text

While most tomcats weren’t the most responsible parents in the world, after finding himself with Vayne to look after, parents who didn’t at least see to it that their young were provided for and wouldn’t go around causing trouble for other people had become one of Sulpher’s pet peeves.

Even if this Helios wasn’t this mana’s parent, he had still been responsible for keeping him out of other people’s fur. Instead, he’d let that get its hands on the poor kit, and cause Isolde, who had almost been reasonable recently, to attack Vayne, forcing Sulpher to scramble to avoid getting hit by the stalagmites that pierced up through the floor beneath him.

After that, he’d made his way to the top of a cabinet to commence washing his paw while Vayne, Vanitas and Thorn fussed over Roxis. Honestly, Sulpher didn’t mind that there were three of them. One was a truly puny litter in any case.

This Helios clearly needed to be bitten in the back of the neck and shaken until he mewled for mercy, Sulpher thought firmly. Especially if he was Eital’s kit. She’d left him in charge, and he acted like that? Tomcats might not do the parenting normally, but that was because they knew better than to interfere with a queen’s authority. Honestly, if she didn’t have the right to chastise him first, Sulpher would have gone over there and bitten an ear off, maybe clawed one of his eyes out. Of course, this Helios wasn’t his kit (thank goodness), and mana, like humans, couldn’t really be held to proper tomly standards of behavior.

Really, all of this was bringing out the alley cat in him. Well, Theofratus had taken the cat out of the alley…

…and then abandoned the cat in an empty house and a forest with a kitten that needed looking after, so it was certainly a good thing Theofratus hadn’t taken the alley out of the cat.

Still, “It’s up to you how he’s taught some manners, and what manners, of course.”

Have I told you recently that I like the way you think?” Eital purred inside his head.

He yawned. He knew that the mana was trying to compliment him, but it was insulting to imply that a cat cared about what any non-cat thought.

Let me rephrase that: you have the right idea.”

Well, of course he did, but he still stretched, pleased. Entirely by the fact she was beginning to catch on, of course. It still didn’t qualify as proper worship. Still, it was good to hear that the person he had a bargain with recognized his genius, unlike Theofratus. Theofratus would have gotten himself in so much less trouble if he’d made those animal crackers Isolde made for the kitten version of him and listened to Sulpher’s advice.

Well, you could lead a human to milk, but you couldn’t make it think. Sulpher wasn’t sure yet if Vayne was more or less dim than the average mana. Eital seemed a bit brighter than him, but Eital was both older and a queen, and they tended to be far more sensible than young toms.

Sulpher jumped down into a chair and kneaded it with his claws out a bit. The fact it was Isolde’s cushion had nothing to do with it: he was thinking. He was also careful not to damage the furniture like that these days: he had to set a good example for Nikki as well as Vayne. At least none of Vayne’s aspects had ever clawed at the walls or furniture, even though Vanitas liked playing with balls of yarn these days. He hadn’t seen the point at first: Sulpher was sadly certain that he’d acquired the taste solely out of jealousy of Roxis’ real cat. Vanitas had wanted the human to play with him.

Now Vanitas was practically pawing at the human, although at least he wasn’t as frantic as he’d been when Roxis was unconscious after bringing Thorn home with him. Thorn was acting more properly aloof, although he clearly was concerned and didn’t know what was going on either, and Vayne was pouring Isolde’s waters over Roxis.

Just thinking of all those cold, icky potions in bottles made Sulpher have to wash his paw again, harder. Isolde was an evil woman, giving poor defenseless people baths and making innocent Vayne do it for her. Sulpher had made it clear to Vayne that Vayne was never using any of those IDEKs on him. Roxis throwing potions on him once had been more than enough, even if the Water of Youth had actually been quite beneficial.

Not that Sulpher would ever thank him for it. Thanking someone for giving him a bath? Of course not.

The entire idea was ridiculous. The offense to his dignity clearly made Roxis the one who owed him, not the other way around, regardless of the fact that Roxis had saved his life. Sulpher had more lives where this one came from, but dignity was beyond price.

Suddenly, he jumped down to the floor and ran for the door, then sat there, waiting for Vayne to open it.

“Sulpher?” Vayne looked up from Roxis to ask.

“He’s volunteered to help me go kill Helios and see what he knows,” Eital explained after she appeared.

“Um, two questions. Who’s Helios?” Nikki wondered. The name had come up before, but besides ‘the guy who was supposed to babysit the mana egg,’ which was just a guess from context, Nikki didn’t know anything about the guy. The answer to that might answer her second question, which was why Eital had put her two goals in that order. Maybe Helios was someone that came back from the dead, or something, and that explained why Eital thought she’d get answers out of him after killing him?

Or maybe she’d put her two goals not in chronological order, but in order of priority. For instance, killing him might be what she wanted to do the most, but she’d question him first, since she would be there anyway and there was something she wanted to know.

Or she just meant killing in the metaphorical sense. Which would be a good thing, because from the context, Nikki was pretty sure Helios was a mana, and Helios was the name of the titan responsible for the sun in Greek mythology. Not the god who was theoretically in charge of it, but the titan that did all the actual work. That had sounded like a mana to her, when she’d read those stories. The mana of the sun dying and the sun going out of control couldn’t possibly be good, even if Eital was the light mana and she could probably keep the sun from going out of control.

“He’s the light mana I put in charge in my absence.” Since she had more important things to do, she’d decided. Holding themselves, or being held, apart from the world of mortals clearly hadn’t worked. Hmm, speaking of which: “He’s had centuries to study that egg: he might know more about it.” Not likely, since Helios was an idiot, but Umbra had also been looking into it. While she was there, she was definitely going to ask Umbra and Tetri why they hadn’t kept an eye on Helios, kept him from letting something like this happen. Someone should have informed her, in Aion’s absence! At least she made sure she was easy to find, unlike Aion who kept hiding herself in bas reliefs and teddy bears.

“…So, this would be in the Land of Mana, wouldn’t it?” Flay asked. The Land of Mana that Renee had implied was on his own family’s lands and no one had ever told him about? “And you’re saying this Helios might know how to cure Roxis?”

“I don’t think he necessarily needs to be cured, he might just wake up on his own…” Vayne said, but no one was really paying attention.

“Well, I don’t know this Helios guy, but I know how to get to the Land of Mana,” Jess said. “At least, through the Forest of Ocea