The Chosen Two

“Owain!” Lissa cried out, as her son materialized from the Outrealm portal, “You’re late! I was worried sick! What if something happened to you?” “Worry not, oh splendorous queen! Though the currents of space and time themselves may have sought to bar my passage, nothing in this universe or any other is stronger than the love which pulls me back to home and hearth! Though the rough seas of the tumultuous tempests of the Outrealms may slow me, as long as this heart pumps the blood of angels and demons through my veins, I will not be stopped!” “Oh,” Lissa said, flatly, “I see you’re still doing… that.” “But of course, m’lady! For as surely as my sword arm aches for the blood of- hold on a second, where’s Ophelia?” “Ophelia?” Lissa asked, “You brought a girl? I can’t believe my precious little prince is all grown up! It feel like it was just yesterday that I was cradling him my arms!” “Er, well, technically, you were,” Chrom said. “I knew that, it was a joke!” Lissa said, annoyed, “Jeez, Chrom, get with the program.” “I-I knew that,” Chrom said, sounding very much like he didn’t. “As hilarious as it was,” Frederick deadpanned, “I’m afraid this isn’t the time for jokes. Someone very close to Owain is missing; I’ll postpone my told-you-sos until we’ve found her.” “Missing? No one’s missing, she’s just, a bit later than me!” Owain said, visibly freaking out, “And besides, Owain is the name that Fate stripped from me! I am now Odin Dark!”

“Ophelia!” Owain cried out, as his daughter materialized from the Outrealm portal, “You’re late! I was worried sick! What if something happened to you?” “Hah. Like mother, like son, I suppose,” Chrom said. “What? I am not like him/her!” Lissa and Owain said in unison, pointing at each other, causing Chrom to laugh even harder. “A-anyway,” Owain said, “O Exalted ones of Ylisse… and Frederick… I present to you the searing star of salvation, The Chosen One who was foretold to eclipse even the mighty Odin Dark, that we may destroy the evils which I alone am powerless before! Feast your eyes upon… Ophelia Dusk!” “Hi! I’m so glad to finally meet you! Er, I mean…” Ophelia said. “Hah! Her voice even sounds like yours, Lissa.” Chrom said. “What!? D-does not! And she doesn’t even look anything like…” She stared at Ophelia for a few seconds, then glared at Owain. “Owain! Why does your girlfriend look so much like me? “G-girlfriend?! This isn’t my- This is your granddaughter!” “My WHAT?” Lissa asked, shocked, “You… You adopted this girl who’s only a few years younger than you?” “No, mom, she’s my child. I’m married. And we… had a child.” “So you had sex?!” Lissa asked. “Gods, mom, why would you ask me that? You are embarrassing me in front of my daughter!” Owain said, blushing furiously. “You’re embarrassing me in front of my brother!” Lissa said, “And Frederick!” “Don’t mind me, I think it’s hilarious,” Chrom said, “And congratulations on having sex.” “YOU’RE NOT HELPING!” Odin and Lissa both shouted at Chrom. “But there must be something you can do to help,” Lissa said, “I mean, you’re Exalt, right? Make this illegal!” “Make what illegal, exactly?” Chrom asked. “Me being a grandmother! I’m too young to be a grandmother! I’m barely old enough to be a regular mother!” “A-A thousand pardons if I have offended you, queen mother, and a thousand more for you, his exalted majesty,” Ophelia said. “just Chrom is fine,” Chrom muttered under his breath. Ophelia continued, “I have long felt the tug of my Ylissean blood to a halidom I hoped to call home. I prayed that as a princess of two worlds I might be accepted in both and bridge the distance between our realms, if only by inches. But I see now that the life of a Chosen One is not so easy. Please know that I hold no hatred in my heart for you; I am but a foreigner to you, one from a land you’ve never so much as seen on a map. You have every right to cast me back to the world from whence I came.”

“AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH I’M SO SORRY!” Lissa cried as she ran to Ophelia and hugged her tight, “I never want you to feel like you don’t belong here. You are a precious princess of Ylisse and you will always have a place in my home and in my heart!” “Don’t worry, mom’s an incredible healer, so she’ll patch you up if she breaks any of your bones,” Owain said, half-jokingly. “Thank you,” Ophelia said, tears streaming down her face, “I just said all that stuff to sound cool, I really, really didn’t want to leave. I love you, grandma.” “I love you, too, princess,” Lissa said, “And you don’t have to think of me as your grandma. I can be more like your cool big sis!” “You seem more like mom to me,” Ophelia said. “I guess I’ll take it,” Lissa said, “But don’t you already have a mom? Unless… oh.” Her smile vanished as she let go of Ophelia. “I hadn’t realized that’s why she didn’t come with you. I’m so sorry I brought it up.” “N-no, it’s not like that! Her mom is alive! She’ll be here later, she’s just busy with… princess stuff,” Owain said. “Wait, so that princess of two worlds stuff wasn’t all talk? You really married royalty?” Lissa asked, surprised. “I-indeed I did, dearest mother!” Owain said, “Though I did not marry her because she is the princess of any kingdom, but because she is the princess of my heart, my soulmate, the only woman I’ve ever met who truly understands the enigma that is… Odin Dark!” Lissa sighed and rolled her eyes. “Why would you need me to be your mom if you already have one?” She asked. Chrom interjected, “Besides, if Owain’s your dad, wouldn’t that be kind of-” Lissa cut him off with a dirty look. “D-don’t get me wrong, my mom is a wonderful person!” Ophelia said, “It’s just… she and dad weren’t around much when I was growing up, so…” she started to blush and trail off, “it was nice when you said that you loved me and called me a precious princess.” “Oh, there’s no need to be embarrassed, sweetie! I was happy when you said you love me, too. And I’m glad you think of me as family, even if it is as a grandma.” She turned to Owain, exuding a cold malice that could chill a dragon to the bone. “You. What does she mean when she says you weren’t around much?” “W-well, mighty as Odin Dark may be, even he-” “Now is not the time for that bullshit!” Lissa snapped, “If you don’t explain yourself right this instant, I will go get my axe and not even the weapon triangle will keep you safe!” “I thought you of all people would understand, mother!” Owain snapped back. “Really? Because from what I heard, I wasn’t there to raise you because I DIED PROTECTING YOU. You’re here, very much alive, so what’s your excuse?” “I wasn’t on vacation, y’know!” Owain said, “You’re not the only one who’s saved the world! Since the last time I saw you, I’ve been fighting in wars, and battling monsters, and… and there was even another dragon, although he wasn’t nearly as big as Grima! The point is that that world could have become just as dangerous as the one I grew up in, and it might of if I hadn’t fought for it. So I was protecting her, I just had the decency to not die while doing it!”

Lissa and Owain were both shocked by his words. “That’s not… I didn’t mean that,” he said, “You sacrificed everything for me, and I am eternally grateful.” “You’re right, though,” Lissa said, “If you lived and I died, that must mean you’re stronger than I ever was. I’m proud of you, Owain.” She ruffled his hair affectionately. “W-well, I don’t know about all that,” he said, blushing, “I mean, it wasn’t that bad. The dragon was only like, maybe 4 or 5 times bigger than Nowi. Everyone else was all freaking out about it, but I was just like ‘Is that all?’” “I’m sure,” Lissa said, “After all, no dragon is a match for Odin Dark… but still, why would you put your own daughter through that after having gone through it yourself?” “Because I had no other choice!” Owain said, “As a parent yourself, you should know that that’s the only reason a father could ever have for abandoning her daughter.” “Couldn’t you have had someone else look after her?” Lissa asked, “We fought Grima after Lucina was born, after all.” “Who? There was no one we could trust. No other way. And even if there were, that’s all in the past. It can’t be changed.” “Well, actually,” Chrom said, before realizing he should probably keep his mouth shut. “I know you mean well, mother, but save your breath. The fact of the matter is that I’m the one who grew up without parents. I’m the one who know exactly what I’ve put her through, which is why there’s nothing you could possibly say that will make me feel any more guilty about it than I already do!” “I…” Lissa began. “I understand that you’re angry, Owain, but you shouldn’t talk to your mother like that,” Chrom said, “There are a lot of reasons a father might abandon his daughter. Not everyone who grows up with parents has parents as kind as you or Lissa. As a prince and a father, you would do well to remember that.” “I… yeah, you’re right,” Owain said, “It was kind of a stupid thing to say, considering how Elise’s father treated her. And when did you get so wise, Uncle Chrom?” “Wise? Me? That’s a new one,” he said, bashfully. “I guess you’re right,” Lissa said, “At the end of the day, it’s between you and Ophelia. None of my business.” “Thank you for understanding,” Owain said, “And Ophelia… I truly am sorry. I know I haven’t been the best father, but I will do everything in my power to be the best father in this or any other universe, or my name isn’t Odin Dark!” “But… your name isn’t Odin Dark.” Chrom said. Ophelia laughed. “I know, dad. I have seen firsthand the dangers you sought to protect me from, and know that, although your choice is a burden we must both carry, it was not the wrong one. So I, Ophelia Dusk, calling upon the totality of my power as a Chosen One, do hereby forgive you, Odin Dark, and exonerate you of this crime you never truly committed.

“I… thank you,” Owain said, tearing up as he hugged Ophelia, “The Fates chose wisely when they chose you. I love you so much.” “I love you too, dad,” she said. “I see you found the time to teach her… whatever it is that you do,” Lissa said. “I-I didn’t teach her!” Owain said, “I may have done it once or twice around her and she just sort of… picked up on it.” “Indeed! As a fated hero, the tongue of the chosen comes to me as naturally as my own breath!” Owain made a throat cutting gesture to try to get her to cut it out, but she paid him no mind. “As the venerated mother of Odin Dark himself, surely you, too, are a Chosen One! There is no need to hide your true splendor just because we stand in the presence of those too foolish to understand our awesome power!… and Frederick.” “H-hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Chrom protested as Frederick smiled. “You made her like this, Owain!” Lissa said, “Fix it! I can’t have my granddaughter spouting this kind of nonsense, people will think I’m the problem! And you may be all grown up with a wife and a kid, but do not think for one second that that’ll stop me from spanking your ass right here and now!” “Right, see, the thing is,” Owain said to Ophelia, “Mom isn’t a Chosen One, and she actually has very little patience for it, so if you could just-” “Impossible! Inconceivable!” Ophelia shouted, “If the Fates have not chosen Lissa, then they are fools! Unless… some vile sorcery has sealed her power and denied her her true self! I can scarcely fathom such villainy, but as a Chosen One, it is my duty to drive it away! Begone, foul spirit! Cower before the might of my HUG ATTAAAAAACCCCKKKKK!!” She gave Lissa a very ordinary hug. “It’s a lot cuter when she does it,” Lissa said, “Why don’t you ever hit me with a hug attack?” “W-well, even the learned Odin Dark has much yet to learn. This is my first time bearing witness to such a powerful move. Truly, she is already surpassing me in so many ways,” Owain said. “Well, now you do know it! So hit me with your best shot!” Lissa said. “But if I do it now, it’ll just feel forced,” Owain whined. “Not as forced as it’s going to feel when I have to physically force you to hug your own mother!” Lissa shouted. Owain yielded and hugged his mother for the first time in far too long. “I missed you so much, mom,” he whispered. “Me too, sweetie,” she replied.

As their group hug dragged on, Chrom looked to Frederick. “Well, this is kind of awkward, isn’t it?” he asked. “If you wish, I would be more than happy to hug you, milord,” Frederick said. “Oh, uh, thanks, but… I’m good,” Chrom said, awkwardly. “So… where’s grandpa?” Ophelia asked, when the hug was finally over. “Oh yeah, where is pops?” Owain asked. Lissa sighed. “Your father is… being your father.” She said. “So, what, is he skulking in a coffin or something?” Owain asked. “How did you know?” Lissa asked, taken aback. “Hah! I missed your sense of humor,” Owain said, “… but seriously, where is he?” “Probably still in his coffin, like you said,” Lissa said. “Wait, what? You weren’t joking? What’s pops doing in a coffin? Oh my Gods, is he dead?!” “What? No, of course not!” Lissa said, “I mean, probably not.” “Probably not? What the Hell does that mean?” Owain asked, panicked. “Your father thinks he’s turned himself into a vampire,” Lissa said, “Maybe he really has. He certainly isn’t eager to come out into the sunlight to find out.” “A vampire? Why on Earth would he do that?” Owain asked. “Research. He said it’s a state of undeath that allows the soul to remain mostly intact. According to him, vampirism could be used to preserve the life of people who couldn’t be healed by other means. Which is probably just an excuse he came up with for me because he knew I’d never approve if he said he just thought it was cool.” “Gods… I hope he’s alright.” Owain said. “Is he a Chosen One?” Ophelia asked, “He seems rather well-versed in the powers of darkness.” “No, he’s not like us,” Owain said, “He’s an actual dark mage.” “Aren’t we actual dark mages?” Ophelia asked. “You’re actual dark mages!?” Lissa asked, surprised, “What happened to your beloved swords?” “Well, my fighting style was more similar to a Hoshidan samurai than anything found in Nohr, so I had to improvise. And I was hardly a ‘dark’ mage, I just knew one spell to sap the very life essence from my enemies and restore myself with it.” “Is there other dark magic besides Nosferatu?” Ophelia asked. “Yeah, there are all kinds of hexes and curses that are too dangerous for ordinary mages. And your grandpa Henry knows damn near all of them.” “Really?” Ophelia asked, “Is he… dangerous?” “No, not to you,” Owain said, “He can be a bit… odd at times – which I realize is a lot, coming from me – but he’s a good man, when you get to know him.” “Well then what are we waiting for?” Ophelia asked, before running off to her new home, “Let’s go see him!” She stopped after a few seconds. “Er… which way is he?” They all laughed. “I’ll take the vanguard, milady,” Frederick said, climbing up on his horse and trotting in the direction opposite to the one she ran in. “And in case you all forgot: I told you so.”

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Satisfaction

I purposefully pushed the door open way harder than necessary, letting the slam of the doorknob against the opposite wall dramatically announce my presence to the bar, as if my shadowy black cloak and the blood-red rapier at my hip weren’t dramatic enough. I made a mental note to learn thunder magic so I could illuminate my dramatic entrance with a timely flash of lightning in the future.

“I hear that a duelist of some renown frequents this establishment,” I said, haunting the minds and souls of everyone present with the beauty of my voice, “I wish to put him in his place. Six feet under, to be precise.” I paused to give him a chance to step forward, as if it wasn’t obvious that he was the passably attractive man with half of the women in the bar frozen in terror mid-fawning over him. “I ask that you think no less of your hero for his cowardice. He may be a coward, but he is a wise coward, for he understands that it is better to live as a coward than die as just another stain on my blade. I wish you good day.” I turned around as if I was actually going to leave after starting shit like that. “N-now hold on just a minute!” he cried out. I smiled.

“And who are you supposed to be?” I asked, my robe swooshing dramatically as I turned back to face him. “I’m the one you’re looking for. The stylish swordsman who’s won dozens of duels and hundreds of hearts!” He said, “I am Art.” “Wow, nice alliteration. And you even ended with a cute little rhyme! How long did you practice that little speech?” I asked, hypocritically, as I’d spent quite some time perfecting my own dramatic entrance, “Anyway, I must say, Art is a rather fitting name for you.” “So you agree that my beauty belongs in a museum?” he asked. “No, I was going to say you’re a real fuckin’ piece of work.” Basically everyone in the bar widened their eyes and put their hand to their mouth like “oh shit”. The bartender whispered “Damn” under his breath. Art was at a loss for words. “I barged in to begin a battle of blades. You’re the one who went and waged a war of words. You fancy yourself a warrior poet, eager to show it, think that you’re so lit, but now that you’ve blown it, just ‘cuz your foe hit, back. You should go sit, down ‘fore I throw fists, teach you you don’t know shit, ‘cuz I am a pro… bitch.” I hesitated, trying to think of something that rhymed better, but I think I’d done enough to deserve a half rhyme. The bartender dropped the glass he was cleaning in awe, and everyone else was too awed to even flinch at the noise. And honestly, I was pretty awed myself, until I realized that I could have worked “tit” in there somewhere, and started trying to think of a synonym for “sexy” or “mysterious” that rhymed with “go”.

“Anyway, I hope the rumors of your fighting skills aren’t as exaggerated as the rumors of your beauty, or this’ll be over quick.” I said, breaking the silence because someone had to. “Just who do you think you are?” he demanded. “I know that I am a hot, strong lady who is about to kick your ass,” I said, “Unless you’re too much of a coward to fight me. Which is, y’know, fine, but do you really think your little harem here would still adore you the same way?” I gestured vaguely at the women who were clutching him in terror as if he could protect them from me. “I beg your pardon?” he begged, indignantly. “Your little band of whores only fawns over you because they think you’re cool, but if you refuse my challenge, you’ll prove you aren’t, and they won’t fawn over you anymore. Is what I was getting at.” I said. “How dare you!” he predictably sputtered, the way a dumbass would, “Your quarrel is with me, not these lovely ladies. I will not allow you to impugn their honor like this!” “Would you say that you demand satisfaction?” I asked. “I would! I demand satisfaction!” He shouted. “Awesome. So are you going to slap me with your glove so it’s a Proper Duel in the eyes of Men and Gods, or are we doing a good old fashioned Bastard’s Duel?” I asked. “What?” “Bastard’s duel it is, then! Now that we’re past the point of no takesies-backsies…” I address the women around him. “I’m so sorry I called you whores, I didn’t mean it, I just wanted to fight this asshole. I don’t think any of you are whores, unless you are actual, literal, whores, in which case you are wonderful whores who kick ass, and talk to me after I’m done with this loser if you want to make some money. Also, you’re still wonderful and kick ass even if you aren’t a whore, and you deserve better than this asshole, and I’d be happy to show you what that is in just a bit.” I tried to wink but my hood completely obscured my face so they couldn’t see it. They were visibly scared and invisibly aroused by my offer.

 

“Fill the minds of these innocent maidens with your perverse ideas no longer!” Art said. “’Fill the minds of these innocent maidens with your perverse ideas’, you say? If you insist,” I say, “Have you ever tried taking your fingers and-” “No more!” He said, “No more of this buffoonery. You have what you came for! I challenge you to a duel. When the sun first dips below the horizon on the morrow, we shall-” “Oh, I don’t duel on other people’s terms,” I interjected, “we’re doing this my way.” “But I am the one who challenged you!” He protested. “Did you, though? I mean, I basically tricked you into doing it, so I instigated the duel. And besides, I duel on no one’s terms but my own.” “Very well,” he sighed, “Name your time, place, and rules of engagement.” “Right here, right now, anything goes until you die.” “You wish for all present to bear witness to one of us slaying the other?” he asked in disbelief. “I wish for all present to bear witness to me slaying you,” I clarify. “Don’t worry, my blade drinks the blood of its victims to hone its edge. There won’t even be a mess to clean up!” I lied. “And if anyone doesn’t wish to see Art’s head, which is not that good looking by the way, rolling on the ground after I sever it from his shoulders, you’re free to leave.” “You can’t serious,” he said. “Why not? Are you not willing to die for the precious honor of your precious girlfriends?” I asked, hoping he’d forgotten that I’d made it quite clear that I would only tarnish their honor if they were into that sort of thing. “I’d die for them in a heartbeat,” he said, sounding like a giant dweeb, “But kill for them? Never.” “Then I guess it’s a good thing I’m not asking you to kill. Only to die. I’m sorry, am I not making that clear enough?” I asked. “Your terms are a duel to the death, are they not?” He asked. “I never said that,” I said, “I said it ends when you die.” “And I suppose under those circumstances, you would be declared the victor?” he said. “Yeah, I guess, if I were keeping score I’d chalk it up as a win for me.” “Then, under what circumstances would I be declared the victor?” He asked. “None,” I said, plainly. “So even if I were to kill you, if I went on to die of old age-” “when you went on to die of old age,” I corrected. “When I went on to die of old age,” he continued, rolling his eyes, “You would technically be the winner?” “I guess, hypothetically, yes.” I said. “So you hope to win by a technicality?” He asked. “No, I’m going to win by killing you. Do you want me to set rules for every impossible scenario you can imagine? Like, suppose you were to suddenly give birth during the duel and survive the whole ordeal. Should I hand down a ruling on whether or not the newborn child would count as a participant in the duel? They wouldn’t, by the way.” “So you think it’s more likely that I, an adult man who has never been less pregnant in his entire life, is more likely to give birth in the next hour or so than to best you?” “Well, in my mind the really unrealistic part of the whole scenario was me just hanging around for a couple hours and not killing you while you’re going into labor, but the point is that they’re equally unlikely because they will not happen. But if it really matters to you so much, what do you think your win condition should be?” “Well, naturally, I should win if you give up-” “Not gonna happen.” “Or die.” “Not gonna happen.” “How are you so certain? All men die. You said this much yourself!” “All men die.” I said, “I’m a woman, in case you couldn’t tell.” I sort of puffed out my chest in a really blatant way when I said the word “woman.” “All women die, too.” He said. “What of The Woman Who Waits?” I asked, causing him and everyone else to recoil slightly. “She is a goddess,” he said, “one whose name should not be thrown around so casually. And you are not her.” “Are you sure? Because it feels like I’ve been waiting an eternity to kick your ass. Can we hurry up and get this show on the road?”

“I…” he looked to the women around him, then to me. “No. What you ask of me is barbarism. I will not stoop to your level.” “Fuck. Probably should have waited until after the duel to give the whole ‘you’re not whores unless you are’ speech and take away your only motive to duel me. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how much easier my life would be if I diDN’T LOVE WOMEN SO MUCH!” I said, raising my voice at the end so all women could easily hear how much I love them. “It’s not that. You’ve made a mockery of dueling, an art which is very close to my heart. I will entertain your foolishness no longer. Begone!” “Make me,” I said, “Here’s the thing. I really like this cool, mysterious stranger persona. It’s fun to show up out of nowhere, be extremely charming and beautiful, defeat someone who was thought undefeatable, and gallantly vanish into the night. But that’s all just a façade. The truth is that I am a woman who very, very much wants for you to be dead, and no one here can stop me from making that happen.” “You would murder me in front of all these witnesses?” He asked, “Or would you murder them, too?” “Who I murder is entirely up to you, my friend,” I said, “If you agree to the duel, you are legally killed in civilized combat, and no one gets murdered. If you don’t, I murder you. Someone here probably rats me out. I won’t murder them,” I said, raising my voice and looking around the room to reassure everyone, “But I’m not afraid to kill however many guards they send after me in self-defense. And that blood would be on your hands. You don’t want that, do you?”

“Very well,” he said, drawing his blade, “I will fight you. Not for honor, but to protect this city and its people from a madman!” “Madwoman,” I corrected. “I’ll give everyone 10 seconds to leave before I say en garde and am no longer liable for what you see.” The bartender cowered behind the bar and most of the patrons scrambled for the exit as I dramatically counted down from 10. “En Garde!” My blade made a satisfying swooshing sound as I drew it and swung it at Art. He parried it competently and riposted. His swordplay, while technically impressive, was wholly uninteresting and hardly worth recounting. “It must be difficult to see and move under that robe,” he taunted, “You’ll regret giving yourself a handicap like that!” “Make me.” I said. “With pleasure!” He lunged at me with a clearly telegraphed thrust that I guess he wanted me to think was his special attack. In a move I’m sure he thought was very clever, he produced a hidden dagger from his poofy, douchebag-shirt sleeve and stabbed me between the ribs. Watching the triumph on his face melt into terror was so delicious I wished everyone else could see it.

He staggered backward in horror and stared at his dagger like a dipshit. “Is something wrong?” I asked. “There’s no blood,” he said, truthfully, as he held up his dagger for all to see, “There wasn’t… when I stabbed you, I didn’t stab anything! What are you!?” “As I said…” I dramatically threw off my robe revealing my skeletal body underneath, covered only by a top that concealed my massive titties and little else. “I am a woman.” He still seemed confused on the matter. “But you’re a skeleton!” He said. “A woman skeleton, yes.” I said. “But skeletons don’t have-” “Titties? This one does. And I’d suggest you stop staring at them. My eyes are up here.” I pointed to my clearly empty eye sockets. “That’s just a little, uh, skeleton humor for all of you. Anyway, you’re still alive, so the duel’s still on. En garde!” I graciously gave him a few seconds to ready himself before attacking him again. He countered me with more swordplay that was almost impressive in how unmemorable it was. It took so long for him to exploit any of the openings I gave him that I almost killed him without doing the whole thing where I let him think he won and then kill him in his moment of triumph. Almost. Eventually, he guarded one of my attacks with his dagger, and while it clashed with his sword, he took the opportunity to swing his sword at my neck, chopping my skull clean off. Well, it was more like I popped it off when he hit my spine so he’d think he chopped it off, but that wasn’t what he saw. I stood frozen, my sword still held against his dagger. He held his breath for a tense moment, then sighed in relief. Just when he thought he’d won, a scythe blade of magical red energy sprang from the tip of my sword. The bystanders gasped in horror, but before Art could react, I pulled the blade towards me, reaping his head off in one clean blow, sending blood spurting everywhere.

There was a short moment of panicked silence, then a much longer moment of panicked screaming. “OK, so I lied about my sword drinking blood,” I said, “But I promise, I’ll help clean it up.” I picked up my skull and popped it back into place. “Well, since we both lost our heads, I guess this is a draw,” I said to Art’s lifeless corpse, “Wanna go again?” I propped up his body and gingerly placed his head on his neck upside-down. It rolled to the ground as soon as I let go of it. “Oh… right.” No one laughed. Did they not get my joke, or could they not hear it over their screaming? “I was just joking, guys,” I explained, “I know that he’s dead.” Everyone was too busy crying, vomiting, or crying while vomiting to laugh. “Hey, I agreed to clean up blood, but vomit is off the table. Although, I may be willing to clean up some other fluids, if you catch my meaning,” I said, trying my best to convey winking without eyes or eyelids. Someone vomited again right after I said that, and it probably wasn’t because they caught my meaning, but it still hurt my feelings to think that it was. “Well, if no one’s interested, I guess I’ll see y’all later,” I said, cleaning up all the blood like I said I would. Everyone was still too upset about the whole beheading thing to give me a proper response. “You’re coming with me,” I said to Art’s corpse, reanimating it with a purple spark of magic. It picked itself up and plopped its head on its neck before following me out of the bar. “I wonder if I can catch up with any of those ladies who were smart enough to leave before the duel,” I mused as I wandered out into the moonlit streets.

Ebb

(The following was paid for by a grant funded by the generous contributions of @moonflowers. Her contributions to the School of Havoc’s art gallery can be found here. If you’d like to sponsor content in The School of Havoc Library, that is, commission me, you can find more details here)


“We should come here more often.”

 

This thought treads a well-worn path through my mind. I think it every time we go on a froyo date. I know that “Colder than a Witch’s…” is her favorite place in town, despite being perhaps the worst-named eatery in the entire manasphere. Which is why I know it’s the best to place to go if I want to discuss something with Stella that she’d prefer not to discuss. If I don’t take her on an actual date here every once in a while, she’s bound to catch on, but I keep forgetting. And every time I’m here I can’t help but imagine how much sweeter the Newt’s Eyes Surprise would taste if I could just enjoy it in peace with my girlfriend, but-

 

“So, what’s the bad news this time? Are you finally breaking up with me?” Stella asks, half-jokingly. “What? No, of course not!” I say, “I love you. I’ll always love you.” “Always is a long time to love someone like me.” Her tone says she’s just joking, but we both know better. “Well, you are pretty rubbish at kissing, but I’m sure you’ll get better at it eventually,” I say. She immediately looks down at her rocky road in a futile attempt to hide how much she’s blushing. “I… that’s…!” she sputters, too flustered to form a coherent thought, “It’s just, some of us haven’t done as much kissing as you have! N-not that there’s anything wrong with that it’s just, I don’t have a lot of practice.” “Then why don’t we practice right now?” I ask teasingly as I lean towards her and pucker my lips. She gives me a quick smooch, clearly self-conscious about how much tongue is usually involved when she kisses. “I only kissed you because I wanted to, not because you told me to,” she fake-pouts, “And besides, you know I wasn’t talking about my kissing.” “I don’t,” I say, “It’s the only thing I can think of that I don’t absolutely love about you.” “Well now you’re just flattering me,” she says, “You can’t really think I’m perfect except for one thing.” “I guess you’re right,” I say, “You’re so bad at kissing that it’s actually kind of cute, so I think you’re perfect except for zero things.” “I’m being serious,” she says, “If you think I’m perfect, you don’t know me at all.” “Well of course you’re not perfect. You may be a witch, but you’re still human. And humans are imperfect, but they are more than their imperfections. To me, someone like you is someone who’s brave, and determined, and cute, and powerful, and so much more. Always isn’t long enough to love someone like you.”

 

“I… wow,” she says, holding back tears. “Thank you, Luna. That was really beautiful.” “No, you’re beautiful!” I retort. She laughs, then leans in and kisses me. Or at least, she does what she thinks kissing is, despite it more resembling her trying to scrape leftover thawed yogurt off the roof of my mouth with her tongue. And I’d love nothing more than to keep kissing her, but it isn’t what I came here for.

 

“Anyway,” I say, after carefully disengaging my mouth from hers, “Why did you think I was breaking up with you?” “Oh, I was just making a really bad joke, because you only ever take me here when you have bad news,” she says, “Sorry.” “I do not only take you here when I have bad news!” I say, half-truthfully. “Or when you need me to do something I don’t want to do,” she says, “I’m guessing that’s the case this time?” “It is,” I admit, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t treat you like a kid who needs to be bribed with ice cream to do chores.” “As long as I’m getting bribed, you can treat me like a kid as much as you want. Should I call you mommy?” She asks, hopefully joking. “You shouldn’t!” I say, indignantly, “I’m not even that much older than you!” “Whatever you say, granny,” she says. “Granny? I’m 28! For a wi-” I suddenly remember that we’re in public, and lower my voice. “For a witch, that’s extremely young.” “It’s six years older than me,” she says. “Which is normal!” I say, “We are adults in a normal relationship.” “I completely agree,” she says, “Anyway, I think that makes us even for you teasing me about my kissing.” “Fair enough,” I say, “So, now that we’re even, no more calling me old.” “What are you gonna do, ground me?” She asks. “I just might, if you keep talking back like that, young lady,” I say. We both laugh, then watch the smile fade from our girlfriend’s face as we remember that we have more important things to do than exchange banter.

“Anyway,” I say, “Have you been thinking about what coven you might want to join?” “Uh, yeah, I looked into a few,” she lied, before immediately realizing that I could easily call her bluff. “Which ones?” I ask. “Yeah, witch ones. Exactly.” I bite my lip to prevent myself from smiling at her dumb joke. “C’mon, you have to admit, that was pretty good,” she says. It was, but I do not, under any circumstances, have to admit it. “Stella, I’m being serious,” I say. “OK, yeah, I didn’t really look into it,” she says, “Is there any way I could just… not join a coven?” “Well, technically, yes,” I say, “It’s not like you’ll die if you don’t join a coven.” “Then I just won’t!” She says, “Problem solved.” “Not doing anything isn’t going to solve anything,” I say. “There’s nothing to solve!” She says, “If you think there’s a problem, you need to explain it to me, because I don’t see it.” “Magical society isn’t very… accepting of witches who don’t join covens,” I say, “You’d be an outcast.” “Who cares?” She asks, “I’d proudly be an outcast of a society that refuses to use their power to help people.” “You know why we don’t,” I say. “Because you’re cowards!” Stella snaps. “They’re cowards,” she adds, apologetically, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you that.” “It’s OK,” I say soothingly, grabbing her hand to try to calm her down, “I know you’re upset, and you have every reason to be. But I don’t think that isolating yourself from everyone is going to help you in the long run.” “I don’t want to isolate myself from everyone,” she says, “Just everyone who isn’t you. You’d still love me, right?” “Of course I would,” I say, “But-” “Then it’s fine!” She says, “I don’t need anyone else!” “That’s not healthy,” I say, “You can’t spend an eternity with just one other person. You’d go mad.” “An eternity?” “Yes. You’re a witch now, remember?” I say, “And besides, other witches aren’t so bad. Most of them won’t see eye-to-eye with you at first, but you changed my mind, right?” “I guess…” she says. “And if you really want to make a difference, it’ll take more than just you and me,” I say. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she says, “As usual. But how do I decide? What if I join one and then later I realize I hate it? I don’t know if I’m ready to make a decision with consequences that I’ll have to live with forever.” “But you are,” I say, “You’ve decided to be with me forever, haven’t you?” “I guess,” she says, “But it’s not like I decided to fall in love with you. It just… happened.” “Maybe it’ll just happen again,” I say, “Er, I mean, like, you’ll fall in love with a coven. But you won’t know unless you try.” “And how do I try?” she asks. “Well, that’s what I’m here to help you with,” I say, “I am a librarian, after all. I can find information on covens you might find interesting.” “That’s a really good plan! It’s a shame we can’t do that right now, though. I guess we’ll just have to enjoy the rest of our date flirting and eating frozen treats.” “Not so fast,” I say, despite how much I want to accept her proposal, “There’s at least one coven I could tell you about while we’re here.” “And here comes the sales pitch,” she mutters under her breath.

“I understand why you’re hesitant to join the Mistresses of the Tide, which is why I’m not asking you to,” I say, “I’m only asking you to hear me out. I personally think you’d fit in great with my sisters. Maybe you’ll disagree, and that’s fine, but if you reject us without at least giving us a chance, you may regret it later on.” “I already gave you – them – a chance, and they blew it the moment I heard the word “Tide” in their name,” she says. “A tsunami is not a tidal wave,” I say, “That’s a misnomer.” “But it’s still the ocean, isn’t it?” She asks, “Would you ask a victim of arson to join the Order of the Undying Flame?” “No,” I said, “Mostly because I’m not in the Order of the Undying Flame, and I’m not sure that such a coven actually exists, but also, The Mistresses of the Tide are about more than just the ocean.” “Really?” She asks, skeptically, “Fine. You got me. What else are you about?” “Well, the Moon is of particular importance to us, obviously, but-” “Obviously?” She asked, confused, “How so?” “I… do you not know what causes the tides?” I asked. “I dunno, magic?” She offers. “Well, you’re not entirely wrong,” I say, “But more specifically, the Moon’s gravity. But even more foundational to our doctrine than the Moon or the Sea is the cycle, the ebb and flow, not just of the sea, or the phases of the moon, but all things in nature. That which rises will surely fall, so that it may rise again. Day and night, summer and winter, life and death. These cycles appear disjoint and unconnected, but like the sea to the moon, they all share an intimate relationship.”

“Intimate relationship? You mean like the sea and the moon are dating?” She asked. “I… don’t think that’s what I mean.” I say. “So it’s more of a ‘friends with benefits’ situation. Gotcha,” She says. “I’m not really sure that you do.” I say. “So then they’re just really good friends? Not that there’s anything wrong with two lesbians just being friends, but I wouldn’t really call that ‘intimately related’,” she says. I know it’s a bad idea to humor her any further. “I… wait, if they’re not going out, why would you still think they’re lesbians?” I ask, humoring her anyway. “Because they are?” She said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, “I already knew that. Did… did you not?” “So you knew that the sea and the moon were lesbians, but you didn’t know they shared an intimate relationship?” “What, do you think I should’ve assumed they were dating just because they’re both lesbians?” she asks, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Because I was clearly the one being ridiculous. “Anyway, I don’t know if you can really call it ‘just friends’ if the sea is always leaning in to kiss the moon. I mean, that’s what the tides are, right?” She asks. “Of course not,” I say, “If that were the case, then only the side of the Earth that’s closest to the moon would experience high tide. But the opposite side also does, because it’s further away from the moon, so the downward gravitational pull on it is weaker.” “Oh, so then it’s like… uh… when you sit down and your thighs do the thing?” “Yes. Exactly,” I deadpan, despite having no clue what “thing” she is referring to. “Wait, but isn’t the thing that she’s sitting on the Earth? That sounds kind of lewd. Does that mean the sea is constantly cucking the sky?” “Stella,” I say, gently but firmly, “You’re getting distracted.” “Oh, right,” she says, “We were being serious. Sorry, it’s just… I don’t care. I’m sorry, I don’t want to say it, but it’s true, and I have to. I know you’re all about the theory of magic, and how it all works, and why, and that’s brilliant. I love that about you. But it’s just not my cup of tea. It’s hard for me to learn and even harder for me to care. And I’ve accepted that about myself So, while I’m grateful for all the time you’ve spent trying to teach me, I don’t plan to continue studying magic.”

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” I ask. “Huh?” “Telling someone you love something they need to hear, even if they don’t want to.” “Huh. I guess it is,” She says, “I’m sorry you always have to be the one to tell me what I don’t want to hear.” “It’s fine,” I say, “And I’m proud of you for making a difficult decision like that on your own. I support your choice 100%.” Well, maybe not quite 100%, but I knew how much she hated quitting, and I didn’t want to make it any harder for her. “Thank you,” she says, “I know you liked our lessons, and of course I liked spending time with you, but I just think there are more productive things we can do apart, and more enjoyable things we can do together.” “Like coming here on an actual date for once?” I ask. “Yeah,” she says, smiling, “exactly.”

“But since we’ve pretty firmly established that this isn’t an actual date,” she says, “I guess you might as well continue explaining your coven.” “Oh, right,” I say, “Well, we mostly use water magic and lunar magic. Especially-” “Are there any really notable types of spells that I haven’t already seen you use?” she asks. “Well… not that I can think of,” I say. “Then what about the Oath, then?” She asks, “I guess it has something to do with how particular you are about what you drink?” “Uh, yeah,” I say, trying to muster the courage to say something I know that she absolutely does not want to hear, “You can only drink water in which someone has drowned.”

Her eyes widen in shock. “I… are you- No, I know you’re not stupid enough to joke about that. But I also didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to think I’d ever be OK with that!” Her face softens, just a bit. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you stupid. But you should have known I would never make that Oath.” “I didn’t expect you to be receptive of the idea at first, but-” “But what? Did you expect to convince me to be OK with being reminded of my parents’ deaths every time I drink anything for the rest of eternity?” She asks, nearly hysterically, “Or maybe you think I’m just overreacting. After all, the force of the wave probably killed them long before they could have drowned. Or maybe it was my magic-” “It wasn’t your fault,” I say, putting my hands on her shoulders and looking into her eyes, “You didn’t know you were a witch then. There was nothing you could have done. None of it was your fault. You know that, right?” “I, yeah, I just…” She breaks into tears. I hold her close and let her cry into my shoulder. I knew that somewhere on the path to eternity, time would heal her scars. And long before then her Oath would be stripped of its meaning, a seemingly arbitrary restriction, rather than a mandate to subsist on death. Just as mine had. The heartbreak she now felt, no matter how deeply, was finite, and would always be outweighed by the infinite regret of choosing the wrong coven. But, as I held her in my arms, trying to console her, I couldn’t say what I knew. I was neither courageous nor cruel enough to do so.

“I’m sorry,” she sobs, “I know I shouldn’t be crying, but…” “It’s OK,” I say, as she continues bawling, “If you have to cry, then you should. It’s OK.” She cries in my arms for several minutes, and I gently whisper “It’s OK,” to reassure her, and perhaps myself. She eventually calms down, or at least stops crying so loudly. “Feeling better?” I ask. “Not really,” she says, “I’m just more embarrassed than I am sad. Are people looking?” “Probably.” I don’t need to look around to know that they are, and that they’re doing a terrible job of hiding it. “You wanna go home?” I ask. “Yeah.“ We make our way outside, avoiding making eye contact with any of the other customers. Once outside, we find a secluded spot and open a portal home. I step through it, and immediately collapse onto the couch, sighing with my entire body. “Stella, sweetie, is something wrong?” “No, yeah, everything’s fine,” she says, as she moves the portal above the couch, “Could you sit up straight at the end of the couch?” “I can.” And I do. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but I want it on the record that I think it’s a bad idea.” “Noted,” she says, “Now, could you take your hands out of your lap?” I sigh and prepare a levitation spell. I cast it on her when she jumps through the portal, suspending her in the air. “Hey, what gives?” She asks. I slowly lower her onto the couch and wrap her in blankets. “Did you really think I’d sit there and let you break your neck against my thighs?” I ask. “Well, I could think of worse ways to go,” she says, smiling playfully. “Well, if it’s all the same for you, I’d prefer if you didn’t go at all,” I say. “Fair enough,” she says, “But the whole point was that I’d have my head resting on your lap.” I sigh and levitate her once more before sitting under her and setting her back down. “Better?” I ask. “Much,” she says, snuggling up against me. “I hope you didn’t have anywhere you need to be, because I plan to stay here forever and you’re not allowed to get up until I do.” “I’ll cancel my appointments, then,” I say, patting her head. It’s nice. I feel like I really could just stay like this forever. Or at least, I certainly wish I could.

“I’m sorry,” I say, hoping she’s fallen asleep and can’t hear me, “I shouldn’t have brought it up.” “It’s OK,” she says, “I know you were just looking out for me. And I wasn’t crying because of what you said, It was because-” “I know,” I say, hoping to cut her off before she can dredge her pain back up, “I know.” “I’ll get better, right?” She asks, “Maybe it’ll take ten years, or a hundred, or a thousand, but it’ll eventually stop hurting, right?” “It’ll get better,” I say. I hope. That was what I’d always heard, but seeing her grief firsthand has made me doubt. “I don’t know if the hurting will ever stop, but it will subside with time.” “That’s what I thought,” she says, “And I keep thinking that it has. But then something reminds me and it’s like it just happened yesterday. What difference will a thousand years make if I haven’t gotten any better in the few years it’s been?” “But you have gotten better,” I say. “I don’t feel better,” she says. “Maybe not now. But you did yesterday, didn’t you? And the day before that?” I ask. “I guess,” she says. “When we first me, you were more likely to cry for two days straight than to go two days without crying,” I say, “Grief, too, is a cycle. It will always have ups and downs. And even if the downs are just as low as they’ve always been, if there are more ups between them, that’s progress.” “So I’ll always feel this bad sometimes?” she asks, “Just less and less often?” “I don’t know. But no matter what, I’ll always be here for you. So if you fall… I’ll be sure to catch you.” I gently boop her nose with my finger. “Wow, that’s the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said, laughing. “Yeah, OK, Miss ‘If you think I’m perfect, you don’t know me at all’,” I retorted. “I… wow, did I really say that?” She asked, “Yikes. Sorry.” “Yeah, I’ve been waiting to give you shit for it this whole time,” I say. “Good. I deserve it.” We laugh.

Chroma [WIP]

“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH” As I stepped into the bar, I was greeted by a high-pitched shriek that could have easily been mistaken for a banshee’s. I figured it meant I was either in the right place, or a very wrong place. The source of the scream was a woman who would have stood out at a circus, much less a bar full of people desperate not to draw attention. She made eye contact with me and began dashing to the bar’s entrance, clumsily knocking into chairs and tables along the way. I tipped my hat over my eyes in an attempt to maintain a low profile and hoped that her screaming when I entered was just a coincidence. It was not.

“Hi! Welcome! I’m Chroma, I’ll be your server today! What can I do for you? Party of one? Or are you meeting someone who’s already here? Or are you saving a seat for someone who’s showing up later? Or do you have an invisible friend? That’d be so cool!” Her barrage of questions didn’t let up until she had to breathe. “Actually, I am meeting someone,” I say, “But this is our first encounter, so I don’t know what they look like. Would you happen to know anything about-” Her eyes answered my question before I could ask it. There was no mistaking that they were the eyes of a homunculus. I couldn’t believe that anyone could create a homunculus this convincingly human, but if anyone could, it’d be person I was looking for: The Master Alchemist. “Do I know anything about what?” Chroma asks, innocently, “The answer’s probably ‘no’ since I don’t really know a lot of things, but that’s OK! My sister is smart, and I have a lot of other things that I’m good at!” I’ve cut short the dying oaths of men who’ve wronged me, but I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt her when she sounded so excited. “What do you know about the Master Alchemist?” “Huh? Who? Me? Uuuuhhhhh, nothing!” she said, staggeringly unconvincingly, “I’ve never heard of them! Er, I mean, them! The singular them. There’s only one of them. Probably! I mean, that’s what you made it sound like, and you’d certainly know better than me.” I can feel the prickling gazes of the other customers. This is attracting too much attention.

“Well, I’m sure I’ll find them,” I said, “In the meantime, could you show me to a table?” “Of course!” She said, “Coming right up! We just had a table open up! Just sit tight while I get it ready!” She bowed and then walked to a table near the back of the room. The customers at the table, still eating, were physically shooed away by Chroma, who then returned hastily. “Follow me!” She said, not seeming to understand that I could see her the whole time. I followed her as she hummed to herself contentedly. “Here!” She patted one of the chairs. “The comfiest seat in the house! Now, what would you like?” She asked. “Actually, I’d like you to sit down and have a little chat,” I said, sitting in the seat opposite the one she indicated. “Really? I’d also like that a lot! But, you’re not sitting in the comfiest chair…” The way she insisted I sit on that specific chair was suspicious. I didn’t detect any suspicious magic from it, but I couldn’t take the chance that it was a trap. “You can sit in it. I insist.” I said. “Really? Wow, you’re so nice! Thank you so much!” She said, as she sat down.

“I’ve cast a concealing spell on the two of us,” I said, “No one can see you, or hear you talk. Or scream, if you want to do this the hard way. So-” “Wait, did you make us invisible?” She asked, cheerfully, “That’s awesome! Does that mean you want to be my invisible friend?” “It doesn’t-” “But wait, can people still see my clothes?” She asked, beginning to take off her jacket, “I’d better-” “You’d better not,” I say, sternly, grabbing her arm, “If you draw attention to yourself, I will make sure it’s the last thing you do. And you’re not invisible. It’s more like we’re difficult to notice. People can still see us, the spell just makes them not want to see us, in a sense.” “So you made us ugly?” She asked, “But you’re still so pretty! I want to look at you forever!” I was baffled. I had quite clearly threatened this girl’s life, but she complimented me like she’d already forgotten. Maybe she never even realized it in the first place. “Did I say something mean?” she asked, sadly, “Er, sorry, I didn’t mean to say you were just pretty, I meant to say you were beautiful! That’s even more pretty than just pretty!” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just sat dumfounded. “Is that still not enough? Then how about stunning? Gorgeous? Um, uuuuhhhhh…. Really really really really really REALLY pretty? I’m real sorry I don’t know enough words to say how pretty you are. But I’m sure you get called pretty all the time, by people who are way smarter than me and use words I’ve never even heard of, so just pretend I’m using those words, OK?” “I actually don’t,” I said, truthfully. This girl had made it quite clear that playing bad cop wasn’t going to get me anywhere, so I decided to try to win her trust. “You’re the first person to call me pretty in, well, a while.” “Shut up,” Chroma said in disbelief, “I don’t believe you. People tell me I’m gullible, but even I’m not going to fall for that.” “It’s true,” I say. “But… how? You’re probably the prettiest person I’ve ever seen! Is it because you keep using spells to make yourself uglier? I mean I guess it makes sense because if you were pretty all the time you’d have to keep dealing with idiots like me falling in love with you, haha,” she rambled. “I don’t think you’re an idiot,” I lied, “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.” “I… wow.” Crimson tears started pooling around her eyes. “That’s really sweet! You’re really nice! Surely people must tell you that all the time!” I laughed bitterly at the irony. “Not really,” I said, “I’m only nice to cute girls like you.” “AAAHHH! YOU THINK I’M CUTE?” She screamed so loud, I feared it’d overcome the concealment spell. Her entire body started blushing, taking on an inhumanly deep shade of red. “Of course. And I think cute girls like you are cutest when they keep their voices down,” I said. “oh sorry,” she whispered, as loudly as possible. “It’s fine. Anyway, why are you so surprised? Surely a young woman as adorable as you must hear that all the time.” “I-I don’t actually. I don’t think it’s because people don’t think I’m cute. I think they probably do think I’m cute because I am very cute. But usually they’re too mad about me messing up to say it. My sister and mom and dad aren’t usually mad at me but I guess it’s kind of weird for them to call me cute.” Mom and dad? Was she maintaining a lie that she was born to human parents, or did she accidentally reveal that there were multiple master alchemists? And who was this sister? Another homunculus? I considered pressing her further, but thought better of it.

“You seem really smart, so I bet you never mess up,” she said. I really didn’t need to be reminded of how untrue that was. “Then why don’t people call you pretty very much?” “Mostly because they’re too afraid of me,” I said. “Huh, I guess that makes sense!” she said, “I think the witch’s hat and the suit make you look really cool and pretty, but I guess I see how they look kind of scary.” “Are you scared of me?” I asked. “Nope!” she said, “I’m actually really strong! Are you really strong too?” “Hmm, I wonder,” I say, coyly. “I bet you are!” She said, excitedly, “But I’m still not scared of you! Because I’m really really strong! I’m so strong that I’m not afraid of anyone! Well, except my mom and dad. And that’s why I can’t fight you right now, because I’m not allowed to fight in the bar anymore.” Her mom and dad forbade her from fighting in the bar? Did they run this establishment? It would explain why someone as ditzy as her would be working as a waitress. And if they were so powerful, they had to be related to The Master Alchemist somehow.

“Your parents must be really really really strong, then,” I said. “Mm-hmm!” She said, “But only sometimes. Most of the time they’re just really strong.” “So you’re stronger than them most of the time?” I asked. “Yep!” She said, proudly. “Wow, that’s very impressive!” I said, “But how do they become really really really strong?” “Oh, they use- wait, I’m not sure I should be telling you.” Damn. I was so close. “It’s OK, sweetie, I don’t want to hurt them,” I said, “I would never do anything to upset my precious new friend.” “I trust you!” she said, “But, still, they’re very secretive about that kind of thing. They told me not to tell you.” They told her that, specifically? Did they know I’d try to interrogate her? I felt uneasy, but I had to press on. “It’s OK, you don’t have to tell me. I think they already know. They use potions, don’t they?” “O-of course not!” She said, clearly lying, “They don’t… they’ve never even heard of potions. What’s a potion, anyway?” “It’s OK, you don’t have to say anything,” I said, “I already know. Your parents are the master alchemists, and you’re a homunculus they created. They’re somewhere I this bar, aren’t they?” “I… no!” Tears started streaming down her face, red at first, then slowly in more and more colors, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, none of that is true! I’m not a honomc- a homnoc- a homoncleus! I’m a real girl!” I gently patted her head as I tried to reassure her. “I never said you weren’t a real girl. Even if you are a homunculus, that doesn’t change the fact that you’re cute, and strong, and nice, and fun. And you’re my friend.” “I… you really mean it?” She asked. “I do.” I said. And maybe I really did.

 

“There, there, everything’s OK now, Chroma.” I heard two voices speaking in unison, and two hands wiping the tears from her eyes. How? “You did a wonderful job. We’re very proud of you.” There were suddenly two people crouched next to Chroma in matching blue and red suits. They hadn’t teleported there, or I would’ve detected their magic. How the Hell did they get there?! “Are you the master alchemists?” I asked, hesitantly. “We are the ones you seek, if that’s what you’re asking,” they said in unison, as they stood up and turned around in one fluid motion. “Pestle and Mortar, at your service,” they said, before bowing, as perfectly synchronized as everything else they did. One had a blue eyepatch with a silver moon emblem, while the other had a red eyepatch with a golden sun emblem. “Those are your names?” I asked, “Seriously?” “Seriously,” They both said. “Do you always talk like that?” ‘At the same time?’ one said, ‘Not always, but usually,’ the other finished. “So how did you get here? What the Hell is going on?” I asked. ‘Really? Not gonna ask us which is Pestle,’ ‘and which is Mortar?’ “I don’t give a damn!” I said, “What I want to know is how you pierced my concealment spell!” “Oh, didn’t Chroma tell you?” they asked, “We’re really, really, really strong.” “You… you heard that? How?” I asked, “How long were you listening?” ‘The whole time!’ ‘We all were!’ “We all?” I asked, incredulously. “Yep, everyone in the bar. Your spell never worked.” I felt a pit in my stomach. They had heard me threaten their daughter’s life. “I-I’m sorry,” I said, “I was never going to hurt your daughter. That was an empty threat.” ‘Of course you weren’t,’ ‘you couldn’t have if you tried.’ ‘She is really, really strong after all.’ “You threatened me?” Chroma asked, innocently. “I… yeah, I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s OK!” She said, “I forgive you!” I smiled weakly. “So what’s all this about, then?” I asked, “What’s your end game? Who are you working for?” “Oh, we’re self-employed,” they said, “And this is the endgame. The big reveal that we’ve all been listening to you.” “But why?” I asked. “Why listen to me?” ‘Because it’s funny!’ ‘And in your case, a bit heartwarming.’

Pestle and Mortar

I could tell at a glance this bar was exactly the place I was looking for. It was a place for people who didn’t want to be found, which was exactly the kind of person I wanted to find. A place I felt right at home. Folks here kept their voices down and their hoods up. They left all laws at the door, but one rule held fast: mind your own damn business. At least, that’s how I’d been taught, but I suspected that some of my fellow patrons hadn’t been quite so well-educated. Some were definitely stealing glances at me. Or was I just being paranoid? I admit, I hadn’t felt this nervous about a “business” meeting since I first got into the “business”. Even marks who knew I was coming were easier to track down than the person I prayed I’d find in this bar. They weren’t even a target; just someone whose help I desperately needed, and could only desperately hope they’d give to me. “The Master Alchemist” was the closest thing they had to a name. Even my most reliable informants could only give me rumors of rumors of rumors. Their stories were vague and inconsistent, but there were two details they all agreed on: The Master Alchemist was real, and their potions were worth all the hassle of finding them. Days of separating fact from fiction, chasing leads, and finding dead ends, finally led me here. While wearing a black skull ring, I was to find someone wearing a black hood sitting alone, drumming their long fingernails on the table. I was supposed to sit down at their table, drum my fingers on the table the same way, and utter the code phrase: “Pardon my interruption, but my hare is very sick. Do you know where I might find some medicine?” This would, hopefully, verify my identity as someone who could be trusted. After that I’d have to improvise: my specialty.

 

As I sat at the bar, searching for someone matching the description I was given, I couldn’t help but feel that my gaze was being intentionally avoided, like someone was watching me, and taking care to ensure I didn’t notice. Or perhaps several someones? Or everyone? But probably no one. Surely it was all in my head, right? They had no reason to pay me any mind; not standing out is my job, and I’m the best at what I do. Unless it was the skull ring? I feared it was a bit too flashy for a clandestine meeting, but did it really draw that much attention? I took a deep breath and a deeper swig of my drink. I had to relax. The more I panicked, the more I stood out. I just had to not panic.

 

I started to panic. As I confidently made my way over to someone exactly matching the description I was given, I noticed someone else matching equally well. One had black fingernails, and the other had white, but other than that, they were identical. I stood there, frozen with indecision. The longer I stood, the more suspicion I drew, but I had no idea how to proceed. Neither matched the description better than the other: it was a 50/50 shot, any way you slice it. Unless there were others matching the description that I missed. Maybe neither of them was right. Was this all a setup? I shook the doubts from my head. Even if it was a setup, there was nothing I could do about it now. I continued on my way to the table I originally started walking to.

 

“Pardon my interruption,” I said, as I sat down at the table and began drumming my fingers, “But my hare is very sick. Do you know where I might find some medicine?” “What was that?” They said, “Sorry, this hood makes it so hard to hear.” I couldn’t stop myself from gasping as they pulled back their hood. “Could you repeat that?” She (or he?) Had unnaturally colorful heterochromatic eyes: the right was blood red, and the left was sapphire blue, encircled by a blue crescent moon tattoo. A star earring hung from their right ear, and they grinned at me through deep blue lips. I didn’t know what expected to see, but it certainly wasn’t… This. “P-pardon my interruption,” I repeated, “But my hare is very sick. Do you know where I might find some medicine?” “Well, he’s not what he used to be,” they said, “But old man Athos down the street is still an able apothecary. Perhaps he could whip you something up.” “Oh,” I said, uncertainly, “Thanks for the help.” Did that mean that Old Man Athos was the Master Alchemist I was looking for? Or was this just a random stranger trying to help me find hare medicine?

 

“Er, did I say something wrong?” They asked. “Huh?” “Well, it’s just, you don’t seem very relieved,” they said, “What’s wrong?” “Oh,” I said, mind racing to come up with an excuse, “It’s just, I already visited him, and he wasn’t able to help me.” “Really?” They asked, “He’s but a shadow of his former self, but I’d think he could make most medicines. Your rabbit must be very sick. My condolences.” “Ah, yeah, he is,” I said, “Thanks.” “Hm? Oh! I see now,” they said, “my apologies for being so dense.” “Huh?” “You don’t have a sick hare at all, do you?” “What makes you say that? I asked. “It was some kind of code phrase, right?” They asked, “The lie you came up with as a cover story was so convincing, I almost believed it. Don’t worry, I won’t rat you out or nothing. I’m just not who you’re looking for. I hope you find them, though!” “Yeah, thanks,” I said. “Come to think of it,” they said, “Don’t they look kind of like me?” They nod in the direction of the other person I thought may be the Master Alchemist. “Uh, yeah,” I said sheepishly, “Truth be told, I noticed that they matched the description I was given just as well as you did as I was on my way over to talk to you.”

 

I sat at the other table and repeated the code phrase. “And what makes you think I’m an expert on rabbit medicine?” They asked. Was this the wrong person too? “Oh, sorry,” I said, “Sorry for wasting your time.” “Hold on a second,” they said, “Have I seen you somewhere before?” How could I know? I could barely see their face! When they lowered their hood to get a better look at me, my jaw dropped. “Are you really that stunned by my beauty?” They asked. “Y-yeah,” I lied, because I was too surprised to come up with a more believable one. This person was a mirror image of the last one, save for their tattoo, which enclosed their left eye in a sun. “You’ll have to come up with a more convincing lie than that, I’m afraid,” they said, “What’re you after, really?” “Just some medicine for my hare,” I said. “And you came to a place like this for something like that?” They asked, incredulously, “Bullshit. It’s obvious that’s some kind of code phrase. And that ring of yours. It draws way too much attention; you’d only wear something like that here to identify yourself to your contact. What is it you’re after really?” “That’s none of your business,” I said, failing to hide my irritation. “So you admit that it’s not hare medicine?” They asked, “You shouldn’t change your story so easily. Are you new to this?” “No,” I snapped, “I’d be more than happy to show you what a dedicated professional I am, but I’m busy.” “And just what is this profession of yours?” they asked. “The less you know, the better,” I said, threateningly. “Oh, I’m sure,” they said, seemingly unimpressed, “Sorry I made you out to be a rookie. You seem to be under a lot of pressure, looking for someone so hard to find. Anyone could lose their cool in a situation like that. No hard feelings, I hope?” “Uh, yeah, sure,” I say, already looking around for someone else with long fingernails and a hood. “I guess you still have a contact to find, eh?” They asked, “Well, I don’t know what details you were given, but they kinda look like me, don’t they?”

 

I had to bite my lip to not scream out in frustration when I traced their finger to who they were pointing at. The person I talked to first. “Yeah,” I said, annoyed, “Exactly like you, in fact, and they pointed me to you. But now you’re pointing me back to them? What’s going on here, really?” “Not EXACTLY,” they said, “Our eyes are switched around, and I’ve my earring on my left ear. Also-” “So you DO know them!” I said, accusingly. “Of course I do!” They said, “Ours is hardly a common look.” “So much for sticking to your story,” I said, “Care to explain what the Hell is going on?” “Well, since the jig is up, I suppose we might as well tell you. Don’t you agree?” “I agree wholeheartedly.”

 

I reach for my dagger by reflex at the sound of the unexpected voice. I look to my right to see that the moon-eyed one has somehow sat at our table without me noticing. ‘Peace,’ They said, ‘No need for you to ply that profession of yours on us.’ “What do you know of my profession?” I asked. I’d never mentioned anything about my profession to them, or that I was an assassin to either.  ‘We know who you are,’ one said, ‘and why you’re here.’ the other finished. “How?” I asked, “And why? Who are you working for?” ‘And why should we tell you any of that? Do you have any ideas?’ one asked the other, ‘Nothing springs to mind,’ they answer. ‘Do you think it might be fun to?’ one asks. ‘Perhaps so,’ they answer, ‘That’s reason enough.’ Fun? Did they really have no better reason? I admit that I couldn’t think of no better one; they had the upper hand all along. They could have easily caught me off guard and possibly killed me, but instead, they played some childish game with me.

 

“Well, out with it, then,” I said, “How do you know of me?” ‘Well, you followed a trail of clues here, didn’t you?’ one asked, ‘Who do you think left that?’ “It was you?” I asked, “Then, do you know where I can find The Master Alchemist? Is it… Is it one of you?” ‘Yes. Exactly one of us. I think. Right?’ one said, ‘That was what I thought, but I can’t help but feel that it may have been both of us. Could it really be?’ ‘You think so? I was just thinking that it may have actually been neither!’ “What?” I asked, “You can’t remember which, if either, of you are alchemists?” “Oh, we’re both alchemists,” they said in unison. “Are you sure you aren’t clowns?” I asked, “Just who the Hell are you?”

 

“We are Pestle and Mortar!” They said in unison, ‘master’ ‘or mistress?’ “alchemists, at your service!” The punctuated “at your service” by standing up and taking a synchronized bow. I could hardly believe what I was seeing or hearing. “So I had to painstakingly analyze a series of esoteric clues and put up with your stupid games to find you, and then you just announce your identities to everyone here?” I say, too angry to keep my voice down. I thought I heard someone chuckle, but when I looked around the room, it fell silent. Something was definitely wrong here, and it wasn’t just these two. But they were so wrong, it was hard to notice anything else. ‘Does that seem unfair?’ one asked, ”worry not. Everyone else here already knows our identities.’ ‘Probably.’ ‘Hopefully.’ “But I still don’t, really,” I said, “You said you were Pestle and Mortar, but which of you is Pestle, and which is Mortar?” ‘oh, NO ONE here knows that. Isn’t that right, brother of mine?’ ‘No one save us, Sister of mine.’ “So now you’re siblings?” I asked. “We’ve always been siblings,” they said, “At least, since we were born. We’re twins, obviously.” “And if you’re the brother and you’re the sister,” I said, pointing to the sun-eyed one then the moon-eyed one, “Does that mean he’s a man and she’s a woman?” ‘That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw,’ one said, ‘Within a certain frame of reasoning,” the other added. ‘But is it in our frame of reasoning?’ ‘It changes so often, that I cannot recall. Say, do you know what phase the moon is in?’ It took me a bit to realize that the question was directed at me. “What? No, why would I?” I asked, “Listen, I don’t give half a damn about your names or genders. I just need a potion that only a Master Alchemist can make.” ‘Such impatience,” one scolded, ‘We can make your potion, but first you must pay our price.’ “I haven’t even said what potion I want made!” I said, “How are you so sure you can make it?” “Because we are Master Alchemists,” they said, in unison, “We can make potions that do anything!” “Anything?” I said, incredulously. ‘Well, I guess not quite anything,’ one said, ‘But to imagine and describe a potion we could not make would require a level of intellect and creativity that could only be attained by consuming our potions, I suspect.’ “Can you make a potion that would make you shut up and stop wasting my time?” I asked. It probably wasn’t wise to lose my temper with them, but I was nearing my wit’s end. They both laughed loudly. ‘Do you think we could, brother of mine?’ ‘A difficult question indeed, sister of mine.’ ‘The recipe and execution are simple enough, but I don’t think I could bring myself to deprive the world of your voice, dear brother,’ ‘I was thinking just the same thing, dear sister.’ I sighed deeply. No matter what I said or asked, they just steered the conversation in a different direction. Were they really just toying with me?

 

“Just name your price,” I said, “I will do whatever it takes to get this potion and then never have to deal with the two of you again.” “Our names,” They said. “I… what.” “Our names are our price,” they said, “If you can correctly guess” ‘which of us is Pestle,’ ‘and which of us is Mortar,’ “Then we’ll give you a phial of your potion, at no additional cost!” “I… are you serious?” I asked. “Of course,” they said, ‘If you get it wrong, however,’ ‘you’ll still get your potion,’ ‘but it won’t come in a phial’ ‘if you’re catching our drift.’ The potion I needed was a poison. Were they threatening to poison me if I got their question wrong? “But how am I supposed to know, if you’re the only ones who know, and you won’t tell me?” ‘We could give him a hint,’ one said, ‘But after giving him so many to lead him here, I’m rather tired of hints, brother of mine,’ ‘I couldn’t agree more, sister of mine.’ “So, what, I’m supposed to just guess?” I asked. “We wouldn’t recommend it,” they said, ‘Surely you’ve realized that you’ll drink your poison, should you guess wrong,’ ‘And surely you’ve realized that it isn’t worth that risk.’ I was hardly surprised that they guessed that I wanted a poison. The way they were always a step ahead, they probably knew exactly the kind of poison I wanted. And they were right. Nothing was worth that risk. A chill ran down my spine. Was there any way to answer their question without a lucky guess?

 

‘Perhaps we should ask him another question first, sister of mine,’ ‘I was thinking exactly the same thing, brother of mine.” They both each pulled an item seemingly from nowhere and placed them on them on the table. “Do you know what this is?” they asked. “A pestle and mortar,” I said. “Exactly,” they said, ‘but which one’s the pestle,’ ‘and which one’s the mortar?” I took a deep breath and closed my eyes as I tried to remember. “This one’s the pestle, right?” I asked, as I picked up the spoon-looking one, “And the bowl is the mortar?” “That is absolutely correct!” They said. “Does that mean that you’re Pestle?” I asked, pointing to the one who produced the pestle, “And you’re Mortar?” “That is absolutely incorrect,” they said, sounding serious for the first time since they sat down at the same table. “But you were the one with the pestle, and you were the one with the mortar!” I said. “So?” They asked, ‘We’re both alchemists.’ ‘We both have pestles and mortars.’ The one I thought was Pestle placed another mortar on the table, and the one I thought was Mortar placed a pestle in it. “See?” “If it wasn’t a hint, what was the point of asking the question in the first place?” “Point?” they asked, quizzically. ‘I don’t recall ever saying that the question had a point. Do you, brother of mine?’ ‘I do not, sister of mine.” “What?” I asked, “Why ask a question with no point?” ‘to trick you into thinking that it did have one.’ ‘Hold on. If that were true, wouldn’t tricking him be the point of the question, sister of mine?’ ‘Huh. Perhaps you are right, brother of mine.’ “I… I cannot believe this.” I said. “Can’t you?” They asked, ‘Since we’ve met, we’ve done little but try to trick you.’ ‘It shouldn’t be so unbelievable that we’d try it again.’ “I…” They were right. It was foolish of me to think that this was anything but a big joke to them. ‘Then again, there may have been another point to the question.’ ‘And what might that be, brother of mine?’ ‘Well, I don’t know about you, sister of mine, but I was planning on killing him if he answered incorrectly.’ I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Would they really have killed me for something so trivial? Could they have? I certainly wouldn’t put it past them. ‘Y’know, I didn’t want to sound rude, but I was actually planning the exact same thing!’ “You’d really kill me for something so trivial?” I asked. ‘Perhaps,’ one said, ‘Then again, doesn’t that sound exactly like something else we’d say just to trick him, sister of mine?’ ‘You make a compelling point as always, brother of mine.’

 

“Stop,” I pleaded, “Just… please stop with these jokes. They’re getting old. I’ll guess your names right now if it’ll put a stop to your nonsense. I don’t even care if I get it right.” They both laughed. “We’re glad you’re in a cheerful enough mood to joke about your situation,” they said, before suddenly becoming frightfully serious, “Because we all know that you do not want to get our names wrong.” I felt that chill down my spine again. They were right. As tedious as their antics were, nothing could possibly be worse than the consequences they promised if I mis-named them. ‘Y’know, maybe he’s right,” one of them said, ‘About what?’ ‘About our jokes. Perhaps they are getting old.’ ‘Are you referring to our bit where we refuse to tell people which of us is Pestle and which is Mortar?’ ‘The very same. To be honest, it’s been going on for so long, I can no longer remember how it’s a joke.’ ‘Neither can I, now that you mention it. Do you believe we should tell him?’ ‘I believe that we should.’ I hear more gasps than just my own. I look around, and notice that everyone else in the bar is silent. I realize they have been for a while. Has everyone been listening to me? Just what is going on here? I ask these questions, but I’m too close to getting the potion I need to care about their answers.

 

‘Well, go on then. If you believe you should tell him which of us is Pestle and which is Mortar, go ahead and tell him.’ One finally said after what seemed like an eternity. ‘I… am merely working up my courage, sister of mine. It’s been taboo for so long that it is difficult for me to say. Perhaps you could tell him in my stead?’ ‘I am afraid that I find it just as difficult. Since it was your idea, I will give you the honor, brother of mine.’ ‘I appreciate the sentiment, sister of mine, but I would appreciate it more if you could shoulder this burden for me.’ ‘Perhaps we should just say our own names, then, brother of mine.’ ‘A fine idea if ever there was one, sister of mine. I’ll let you say yours first.’ ‘After you, brother of mine… I insist.’ Seconds passed in silence. Or maybe minutes? What was taking them so long. ‘Ha, y’know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it almost seems like you no longer remember which of us is which.’ ‘I could say the same of you. I guess it’s a good thing we do know better, right?’ ‘Of course. A great thing, that.’ More maddening silence. ‘I, of course, have the utmost faith in you, sister of mine, but our friend here must be terribly worried that you’ve forgotten yourself. Won’t you please put his mind at ease?’ ‘Why would he be more worried for me than for you, brother of mine? If you wish to set his mind at ease, why not do it yourself?” No way. Had they truly forgotten? Or was this all just another part of the act? “YOU FORGOT, DIDN’T YOU?” they shouted, pointing at each other accusingly, “ME? YOU’RE THE ONE WHO’S FORGOTTEN! NO, I WAS JUST TESTING YOU, AND YOU FAILED! HOW CAN YOU TEST ME IF YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW IN THE FIRST PLACE?” The way their voices and gestures matched up perfectly, it was like watching someone argue with a mirror. “BECAUSE I DO KNOW!” They both pointed to themselves. “I’M PESTLE,” they said, before pointing at each other, “AND YOU’RE MORTAR!”

 

Neither said a word or moved a muscle. I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, some peace and quiet. I noticed that the rest of the bar had dropped their façade of disinterest; they all stared at Pestle and Mortar with varying degrees of confusion and concern. “You’re not fooling me,” I said, “This is all just another joke to you, and I’m not laughing. You might as well give up on whatever tricks you have in store, because I’m not falling for them.” No reaction. Not even a glimpse in my direction. It was a very convincing act, but an act all the same. Any second now, they’d burst into laughter and say they almost got me. Any second now. I knew they’d laugh it off. They had to. Yet they didn’t, after minutes of stillness. Had they gone mad? Had I? I couldn’t take it anymore. “I’ve had enough of this,” I said, conspicuously reaching for my hidden dagger, “If you don’t put an end to this foolishness, I’d be more than happy to-”

 

Suddenly, they both ripped the star earrings from their own ears and swallowed them, their faces stoic as their blood splashed onto the floor. They punched each other in the face, sending them stumbling apart from each other. They drew matching daggers and stabbed at each others’ hearts, but the tips of the blades collided halfway between them. My jaw dropped. I’m as handy with a blade as anyone, but I’d never be able to match my opponent’s movements that precisely, even in a choreographed fight. Who were these people? They continued attacking each other, each slash and thrust repelled by an identical motion. As their movements grew faster and faster, I noticed that their ears were completely healed. Was there some kind of potion in those earrings? It was the only explanation I could think of for their inhuman speed and precision. Finally, when their movements became almost too fast to follow, they each put their entire body into one final swing, causing their daggers to shatter as they met. They stood motionless for a moment before enveloping their hands in blades of red magical energy and continuing their duel, using both hands to attack even more frantically than before. If this was just a joke, they were taking it too far; I’m no expert on magic, but I know a thing or two about killing, and I had no doubt that a single blow from those mage-blades would be enough to kill anyone. Anyone mortal, at least. Their fighting intensified, and with it, their blades burned brighter and hotter, eventually changing colors from red to yellow to blue. All of my training and instincts told me it was too dangerous to stay there, but I was transfixed. We all were. It was no longer recognizable as a fight, or even an interaction between two people. It was as if they were moving too fast for their corporeal forms to keep up, leaving nothing but a vortex of color and light in their place. Suddenly, when their blades began to burn white hot, they stopped. The tips of their blades met between them, exactly as they had at the start of the fight. When I saw the look of anger on their faces, I was overcome by a wave of terror. The poison didn’t matter anymore. The Mark didn’t matter anymore. She didn’t even matter anymore. All that mattered was getting out of here alive. But I was too paralyzed by fear. I could only watch in horror as they withdrew their blades and silently fired beams of magical energy at each other. The two attacks collided, forming a swirling ball of magical energy between them that grew as they kept pushing. I’d never felt a more overwhelming magical power in my entire life, and the only thing preventing it from exploding with enough force to level the entire building was a balancing act that required precision akin to continuously stabbing two knives into each other without ever missing once. It was too late to run; not even I could escape the blast radius in time. In time, the magical energy between them collapsed in on itself, shrinking to a singularity before exploding outward in a blinding flash. When I dared to open my eyes again, they were gone. But, somehow, nothing else was so much as singed.

 

“What happened?” I asked aloud, as if anyone could answer my question, “Did they get annihilated?” “I bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” They asked in unison, suddenly standing on my table. I was so startled I nearly fell out of my seat. “Wh-what just happened?” I asked, “Who… What are you two?” “We are Pestle and Mortar!” They said in unison, ‘master’ ‘or mistress?’ “alchemists, at your service!” They did the exact same bow as before, perfectly in sync, as if nothing had happened. Everyone in the bar started standing and cheering. I stood up and started walking towards the door without a word. I was done. Whatever this was, I didn’t understand it, and I had given up on understanding it. All I could do now was cut my losses and leave. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” They asked. I stopped in my tracks. I almost turned around, but they weren’t going to trick me that easily. Not again. I continued walking. “Here, catch!” they said. They hadn’t thrown anything. It was just another ruse, so they could-

 

*crash* Something shattered on the ground behind me. I turned around to see a broken phial, its contents staining the floor. “Was… was that the poison?” I asked, hesitantly. “Yep!” They said, “We told you to catch.” I fell to my knees. I went through so much just to get this one phial, it was all for nothing. And I had no one to blame but myself. If I had just turned around… no. “You knew I wouldn’t, though,” I growled, “After all your bullshit, why would I ever believe anything that you said? This was just another one of your tricks!” I can no longer contain my anger. Even after seeing their power firsthand, I draw my blade. I have nothing left to live for. Nothing left to die for. I dashed towards them, lunging for one of their necks, but at the last second, I diverted my course to run behind them and stab them in the back. The other turned around in an instant and blocked my attack with their hand, not even flinching as I stabbed through it. ‘Of course we knew,’ they said, ‘Which is why this is the real poison.’ The one I tried to attack produced an identical phial and handed it to me. “But… why?” I asked, “Why are you giving this to me? Even after I almost killed you.” They both laughed. “Rest assured,” they said, “You did no such thing.” “I still might,” I said, indignantly, “My blade is coated in a lethal poison… that…” I realized how stupid I sounded as the words left my mouth. They laughed as they pulled my blade out of their hand and offered it to me. “We’ve built up immunities to poisons no one else has even discovered yet. Trust us, we’ll be fine.” They took a swig from a flask, and their wound began to close before my eyes.

 

“So… what’s the price?” I asked. ‘Oh, you’ve already paid,” one said, ‘In fact, I fear we may have overcharged you.’ “What?” I asked, “I haven’t paid you anything.” ‘Do you really believe that?’ one asked, ‘Because that poison seems to have come at great personal cost.’ “You mean all your stupid jokes?” I asked, “That’s my payment? You amusing yourselves?” “Not just ourselves,” they said, “But our lovely patrons, as well.” “Your patrons?” I asked, “This is your bar? But I thought you were alchemists.” “We are,” they said, ‘But when you think about it, drinks are just potions, aren’t they?’ ‘And food is just solid potions, when you get down to it.’ ‘But I guess you weren’t so far off the mark when you said we were clowns.’ ‘But what you didn’t realize is that you were just as much a clown the whole time!’ “Wait,” I said, looking around, “So everyone in here was watching me the whole time? I… you realize that I can’t let these people live, right?” “Of course you can!” they said, ‘You can trust them to keep your secrets,’ ‘By now you should believe we have ways of making sure of it.’ “But… but this is sick! It’s disgusting! You’re making my life into a drama for your perverted enjoyment!” “How many here thought that when you were in his place? Show of hands?” Every hand in the room went up. “And how many still believe that?” Almost every hand went back down. ‘We will admit that it’s a bit…’ ‘unethical, from certain perspectives,’ ‘But the fact of the matter is that you got a potion that no one else could make you,’ ‘And it didn’t cost you a single copper!’ ‘Just a minute or two of fearing for your life.’ ‘In fact, since we put you through so much, we’ll make two more potions for you, free of charge!” I sighed. “I got what I came here for. Maybe if I need another potion, I’ll come back, but I hope I never need anything that badly ever again. See ya.” “We actually have another show planned tonight,” They said, “Our next clown thinks he’s meeting the Legendary Alchemist at an underground masquerade ball, and he’s been told to wear a butterfly mask and heart tiara to identify himself.” I smirked despite myself. “Maybe I could stay a little while.”

Strength part ?-1

“The oaf you requested, M’lady,” Matthew said, as he and Hector arrived at House Ostia, “Though I suspect the inelegant clanking of his armor already alerted you to his presence.” “Many thanks,” Lyn said, “You’re as timely a courier as ever.” “Hey, I’m right here!” Hector said, “Don’t talk about me like I’m some package to be delivered! And Matthew, if I wanted your opinion on my armor, I would have asked for it!” “Well, I think your armor’s cute,” Lyn said, “It’s like a bell you put on a housecat so you know if it’s getting into trouble.” “I, er,” Hector said, starting to blush. “Bravo, Lady Lyndis,” Matthew said, “I thought myself the master of getting under m’lord’s skin, but it seems I still have much to learn.” “D-don’t say that like it’s something to be proud of!” Hector said.  “Although, now that I think about it,” Lyn said, “Why do you always wear armor? I’ve known you for over a decade, yet I can’t seem to recall or even imagine you wearing normal clothes like a normal person.” “Well, for all his many faults, m’lord is an honest man,” Matthew said, “He would never seek to deceive anyone into believing he’s a normal person.” “Quiet, you,” Hector said, “And the reason you can’t remember me not wearing armor is probably because I look so swarthy and bold in my armor that it overpowers any other memory of me. I’m sure I’ve worn ‘normal’ clothes since we met.” “But can you recall a specific instance?” Lyn asked, “Because I can’t. You even wore armor to our wedding.” “Only after I asked you if you were OK with it and you said that you were!” Hector said. “I was, and I am,” Lyn said, “But I assumed it was some kind of Lycian tradition until we attended Eliwood’s wedding, where he looked far more dashing in his suit.” “Of course he did!” Hector said, “He’s Eliwood! But you must admit, I looked swarthier than he did.” Lyn chuckled. “I must.”

 

“Well, surely there must have been at least one time that you saw m’lord without his armor,” Matthew said, “Lilina’s very existence is testament to that. Unless he keeps his armor on?” “M-Matthew!” Hector said, flustered, “Don’t speak of such vulgar things in front of Lady Lyndis!” Lyn laughed. “If I couldn’t handle vulgar things, I never would have married Lord Hector in the first place,” Lyn said, “Out of respect for my husband’s privacy, I can’t answer your question, but I have no qualms with him telling you himself.” Matthew looked to Hector expectantly. “I… this is ridiculous!” Hector said, “I… I am Marquess Ostia! I don’t have to answer your insane questions! Do you think Eliwood puts up with this kind of tomfoolery from his retainers?” “Y’know,” Matthew said, “If you refuse to answer the question, you’re basically admitting to the more embarrassing answer.” “I don’t admit to anything!” Hector said, “I just don’t want to dignify your question with a response? How would you like it if I asked about your sex life with Serra?” “How would you like it if I answered?” Matthew asked. “I, uh,” Hector stammered. “I know I rarely act it, m’lord,” Matthew said, matter-of-factly, “but the truth is that you are my dearest friend in all of Elibe. I’m not nice to you nearly often enough, but I’m going to try to make up for that by doing something very, very nice for you, right now.” “And what’s that?” Hector asked, a bit frightened by Matthew’s sudden change in demeanor. “I will warn you that you absolutely would not like it if I answered,” Matthew said, gravely serious. “Matthew, I’ve been your friend long enough to know when you’re trying to trick me,” Hector said, “Because you’re always trying to trick me! I won’t fall for your reverse psychology!” “I’m proud of you for seeing through my deceptions, m’lord,” Matthew said, “Next time I’ll have to come up with a more believable lie.” “You’d better!” Hector said, “You’d make a poor spymaster if even a fool like me could see through your lies.” “Hah, yeah…” Matthew said.

 

“Actually, m’lord,” Matthew said, “If you’ll forgive me for breaking character… I just want to say I really meant all that stuff I said. I know my antics can be tiring, even if you know it’s all in good fun. But even so, after all these years, after all the jokes I’ve taken too far… you still put up with me, long after everyone else decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. And it’s… hard for me to be sincere like this, when I could just brush it off with a joke, but you’re worth the hardship, m’lord. You’re a good man, Hector, and I’m honored to call you my friend.” “I… yeah,” Hector said, “Er, I mean… I feel the same way. As Marquess Ostia, everyone has such high expectations of me, and I always have to pretend I’m someone I’m not. But around you, I can just be Hector, the big rowdy idiot I’ve been since we were kids. And you may be a pain in the ass at times, but if it weren’t for you, I’d have gone mad from boredom years ago. And I never tell you how much I appreciate it, but I do. You’re my best fri-” The word caught in his throat. Matthew laughed. “It’s OK, m’lord,” he said, “there’s no shame in coming second to Eliwood.” “Glad I’m not the only one who thinks so!” Hector said. “Hah,” Matthew said, “I had planned to stop making jokes at your expense, but if you insist…” “Bring it!” Hector said, “We’re friends, and friends don’t hold each other back!”

 

“You two really are too cute together,” Lyn said. Hector blushed.  “You are a kinder woman than the likes of me deserves,” Matthew said. “See, isn’t it so much easier to just tell the truth?” Hector asked. “Nicely done, m’lord,” Matthew said to Hector, before turning back to Lyn, “To repay your generosity, I’ll tell you why m’lord always wears his armor. As I’m sure you already know, m’lord is deathly afraid of bears.” “I can’t say that I did know that,” Lyn said, “Why did you never tell me?” “Because I’m not!” Hector said, “Matthew’s just trying to make me angry!” “Then you would fight a bear for m’lady?” Matthew asked. “Of course I would!” Hector said, “I would do anything to keep her safe!” “I apologize for not making myself clear, m’lord,” Matthew said, “Would you fight a bear solely to prove your love, even if she were not in danger?” “I… no?” Hector said. “Because you’d be too afraid, m’lord?” Matthew asked. “No!” Hector said, “Because why would that prove my love? Lyn would hate it if I fought a bear! This whole thing is idiotic!” “Perhaps you are correct, m’lord,” Matthew said, “Suppose, hypothetically, of course, that I could signal a nearby bear to appear at this very moment. How would you react?” “What kind of question is that?” Hector demanded, “Of course you don’t have a bear nearby! That’s impossible… isn’t it?” “I don’t know, m’lord,” Matthew said, “I am rather tricky.” “I swear to all the gods, Matthew,” Hector said, “If you’ve somehow smuggled a bear into House Ostia as a sick practical joke, I am terminating you. And I’m not talking about your employment!” “An excellent barb, m’lord,” Matthew said, “But I don’t think you’d get so worked up if you weren’t afraid of bears. I rest my case.”

 

“He does make a pretty compelling case, dear,” Lyn said, “You did sound rather frightened.” “Because Matthew’s insane!” Hector said, “I absolutely believe that he would risk life and limb just to play a practical joke on me.” “You flatter me, m’lord,” Matthew said. “So you confess?” Lyn asked. “Yes!” Hector said, “Fine! I’m afraid of bears. Aren’t you? They’re large and strong, with sharp claws and teeth! I have a very normal amount of fear of bears! I’m tired of discussing this, so I’ll just let you say whatever ridiculous lie you’ve cooked up in that devious little brain of yours.” “Many thanks,” Matthew said, “As I was saying, everyone knows that in the event of a bear attack, you should make yourself seem large, right? And that’s exactly why m’lord wears armor all the time.” Lyn laughed. Hector physically bit his tongue to keep from interrupting. “My goodness,” Lyn said, “Why is he so afraid of bears?” “I thought you’d never ask,” Matthew said, “When Hector was young, his brother read him a bedtime story about a cartoon bear. I believe it was called-” “Don’t you dare speak his name,” Hector said, gravely serious. “What’s the matter, m’lord?” Matthew asked, “I thought you agreed to let me tell whatever ridiculous lie I’ve cooked up in this devious little brain of mine. The only reason I can think of why you’d interrupt me is if I were somehow telling the truth.” Hector sighed deeply.

 

“OK, fine, I admit it. When I was very young, I was afraid of a particular bear from a storybook that my brother read me. In all honestly, I’d forgotten all about it until this one,” Hector said, jabbing Matthew’s shoulder, “Brought it up.” “Why was your brother telling you scary stories at such a young age?” Lyn asked. “You misunderstand, m’lady,” Matthew said, “It wasn’t a scary story. I believe it was a tale about how friendship is the most powerful magic of all.” “You’d better hope it is,” Hector said, “Because friendship is the only thing keeping me from striking you down where you stand!” Matthew gave an exaggerated laugh, slapping his knee like he’d just heard the funniest thing in the world. “What’s so funny?” Hector asked, “That was no jest.” Matthew stopped laughing. “Well, then I find your words most troubling, m’lord,” he said, “If you think friendship is all that stops you from striking me down, then you must have forgotten about my lightning quick refl-” He was interrupted by Hector’s armored fist, crashing into his face and knocking him to the ground. “Hector!” Lyn reprimanded. “He started it!” Hector whined, “And I didn’t even hit him that hard! I’m sure he’s fine.” But Matthew remained on the ground, giving no indication that he was fine. “Is he breathing?” Lyn asked, “Maybe I should go get a healer.” Hector sighed. “Matthew, I know you’re fine,” he said, “But you’re scaring Lady Lyndis, so hurry up and-” Before Hector could finish his sentence, Matthew rose from the ground and punched Hector in the crotch with all his might.

 

Hector recoiled slightly from Matthew’s attack, but Matthew himself winced and cried out in pain. “And this, m’lady,” Matthew said, presenting his bloodied knuckles to Lyn, “is why m’lord wears armor.” Lyn laughed. “Is that so?” She asked, jokingly. “I… yeah, pretty much, actually,” Hector said, “Even a run-of-the-mill degenerate like Matthew could best me if he caught me off guard. And since a run-of-the-mill degenerate like him could always be lurking nearby, I have to always stay on guard.” “You wound me, m’lord,” Matthew said, “I’ll have you know that I am in fact quite an exceptional degenerate.”

Eyes – Fear

It is fear that stays my hand. It is out of fear that my blade, longing for dragon blood, but going unsated. rests on the neck of this pitiful creature.  But the fear is not my own. It is the fear of the wyvern before me which I cannot overcome. I cannot even understand this fear; wyverns, homunculi of draconic alchemy which take the likeness of both human and dragon alike, are said to be without emotions. They are a slave race, created only to unquestioningly serve their masters. What use would a tool created for such a purpose have for fear? Yet the look I see in its eyes is unmistakable. It is the same look I saw in my sister’s, the same look I see every night, never able to save her, over and over. But I can save the creature before me. So I do.

 

What the hell am I doing? I am compromising my mission. The creature before me is not deserving of mercy. It is not human. It is a monster. A dragon. My enemy. It is my duty to eradicate it. And I carry out my duty, without question. Yet here I am, questioning myself. Am I even myself anymore? I know that I’m panicking, that that is exactly what I cannot be doing right now, but- “Who are you?” It would seem that the wyvern can talk. “Shut up. It doesn’t matter who I am,” I say. It says nothing. Suddenly I have an idea. “Sit on the ground,” I command. It does as I say. “Now stand up,” I command. It does as I say. “Raise your arms in the air,” I command. It does as I say. This might just work. It has to. “You have to do whatever I tell you to, don’t you?” I ask. “Yes,” it says. “Then meet me outside this castle, in two hours,” I say. I give it directions to the cave at which I am currently stationed. “And you are not to speak of this to anyone else, human, dragon, or wyvern,” I say, “am I understood?” “Yes,” it says. “Good,” I say, “And, just so we’re clear, if you do not do exactly as I have ordered, I will find you, and I will kill you. And I don’t know if your kind can feel pain, but I will make you suffer. That is a promise. Am I understood?” “Yes,” it says.

 

I sneak out of the dragon’s stronghold, taking care not to get noticed again, and make my way to camp. When I arrive, I report directly to Archibald. “You’re back early,” he says, “What did you find?” I hesitate. I practiced my report all throughout my trip back, but my words fail me. “Were you spotted?” he demands. “By a wyvern,” I admit. His eyes widen. “And you killed it?” He asks. “No,” I say, “I… told it to meet us here.” “You WHAT?” he explodes, “Are you serious? You compromised our location? For what possible reason?” “The wyvern could have valuable information,” I say. “That doesn’t matter, Amelia,” he says, “What matters is that you were ordered to sneak in, determine the location of the mission objective, and return, undetected. You failed.” “Look, sir, I know I fucked up, but we don’t have time for you to tell me that. Even if the wyvern does betray us, we can set up an ambush.” Archibald sighs. He knows I’m right. He begins barking orders. “Geoffrey! Whip up an illusion to hide the entrance to the base, and get to scrying for anyone approaching our position. Amelia! Hide somewhere outside, where you can get the drop on the enemy and draw their attention from the entrance. Only initiate combat if you have been spotted, or you are confident that we can emerge victorious. Eleanor! You and I will wait by the entrance, hidden by the illusion. We will only strike once Amelia has diverted their attention. Am I understood?” “Sir, yes, sir!” we all shout. We do as he says.

 

Fortunately, Achibald’s plan was unnecessary. At the appointed time, a lone figure approaches. The wyvern. I emerge from my hiding spot. “Were you followed?” I demand. “No,” it says, “Who are you, really?” “Like I said, that doesn’t matter,” I say. “I disagree,” it says, “You saved my life. I’d like to know your name.” What? I don’t have time for this. “What do you know about the duke of this fortress? Where is he? How many does he command?” I ask. “I’ll tell you everything you need to know,” the wyvern says, “once you tell me who you are, and what you hope to do.” This is getting frustrating. “I don’t think you understand,” I say, “ I order you to-” “I don’t think you understand,” the wyvern says, “I’m not magically compelled to do whatever you say. That was a lie. I escaped because I wanted to. I chose to, for the first time in my life. And now, I want to know who you are.” I don’t understand what it’s getting at, but it doesn’t seem dangerous. “Fine. My name is Amelia. I’m-” Archibald bursts from the hidden entrance to the cave. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” he demands, “Don’t tell it a damn thing!” “Her,” the wyvern says. “What?” we ask in unison. “Calling me ‘it’ is disrespectful, is it not? I came here to escape that. But if you’re no better than my old masters, I guess I’ll be on my way,” she says. “Like hell you will!” Archibald shouts, “we can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Now talk, or we’ll torture the information out of you.” “Do your worst,” the wyvern says, defiantly, “You don’t even know if I can feel pain, do you?” “Of course you can,” I say, “That’s why you came here, isn’t it? Why would it matter how you were treated if you couldn’t feel pain?” It… or rather, she, says nothing. I address Archibald. “Sir, I believe it would be in everyone’s best interest if we treated her less hostilely.” “’Her’? What’s gotten into you?” Archibald shouts, “Why’ve you gone soft on me all of a sudden? The Amelia I knew would never let feelings get in the way of a mission. Does this have to do with your-” “Of course it does, sir!” I explode, “Everything I’ve ever done in this army, it was all for her!” I need to calm down. “But, my feelings aside, I think that she has information which could be valuable to the mission, and that torture is neither the easiest nor the quickest way to make her talk.” “And what do you suggest we do instead?” Archibald asks. “Just be nice to her, I guess.” I say. Archibald sighs. He acts all tough, but I know he doesn’t want to torture anyone.

 

So we’re nice to her. “My name is Amelia,” I say, “And the shouty man is Archibald.” He rolls his eyes. “Is it just you two out here?” she asks. “No,” I say, “Eleanor, come out and introduce yourself.” Eleanor cautiously emerges from behind the illusory rock wall, sword and shield in hand. “H-hello,” She says, “I’m Eleanor.” “It’s nice to meet you,” The wyvern says. Geoffrey comes out next, and begins speaking a bit too enthusiastically. “My name is Geoffrey. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Wow, you’re even cuter in person.” “Goddamnit, Geoffrey,” I say, “could you please stop being like that for just five seconds?” “Like what?” he asks. “Like yourself,” I say. The wyvern laughs. “ANYWAY,” Archibald says, “we’ve all introduced ourselves. Are you happy now?” “Not quite,” she says, “You still haven’t told me why you’re here.” Geoffrey pipes up. “Well! We’re here to slay the dragon, obviously. We’re the Dragon Corps’ most elite team. The Dragon Corps Fearsome Four, they call us.” “He’s the only one who calls us that.” I say. Archibald tells Geoffrey to shut the hell up and explains everything from the top. “Intel suggests that the owner of this fortress is in possession of an artifact which is of great importance to higher-ups in the dragons’ chain of command. It is unknown what they plan to do with it, but it is suspected that if their plans were to come to fruition, it could be devastating for humankind. Our primary objective is to retrieve, or, if necessary, destroy this artifact. Our secondary objective is to assassinate its keeper, if at all possible.” “I see,” the wyvern says, “How much do you know about this artifact?” “Unfortunately, almost nothing,” Archibald says, “It’s probably something magical, given how important it is, but other than that, it could be anything. Do you know of anything that could fit the description?” The wyvern thinks for a few seconds. “It sounds like what you’re looking for is the Firebrand Crystal. A ruby, about the size of a human fist, which contains an incredible amount of elemental energy. “Is it dangerous?” Archibald asks. “Very,” the wyvern says. “Then from now on, this Firebrand Crystal is to be considered our primary objective,” Archibald says, “Do you know where it’s located?” “Yes,” the wyvern says, “I can even show you a secret entrance that leads into the castle, not too far from where it is held.” “Excellent. Then we’ll head out as soon as Geoffrey notifies High Command of what we’ve learned. Geoffrey! Work your magic!”

 

“N-no, you can’t!” The wyvern pleads. “And why’s that?” Archibald demands. “Er, w-well, you see,” the wyvern stutters, “The castle as a sort of… enchantment on it, which intercepts any outgoing magical messages. If you do that, it’ll alert them to our location.” “Is that possible?” Archibald asks Geoffrey. “Well, I’ve never heard of such a thing being possible,” Geoffrey says, “But I’ve certainly heard of dragons doing things that were thought impossible, so I wouldn’t put it past them.” “It probably isn’t worth the risk, then.” Archibald says, “In that case, we’ll just have to head out immediately.” “Actually, I was thinking it might be a better idea to wait until tomorrow,” the wyvern says. “And why’s that?” Archibald asks, skeptically. “W-well, night will fall soon, and the dragons guarding the crystal, night dragons, actually see better in the dark than they do in the light, so it’d be easier to sneak up on them.” “Is that so?” Archibald asks. He seems unconvinced. “Also,” they wyvern says, “also, the guards change at the same time every morning, which would make it easier for us to take the crystal undetected.” “What happens if they notice that you’re gone?” Archibald asks. “They won’t,” the wyvern says, “They see us as vermin, a necessary evil required to overcome humanity’s numbers. Would you notice if a bee no longer pollinated the flowers in your garden?” Archibald doesn’t answer. “Regardless of your decision,” the wyvern says, “I’m not going anywhere until tomorrow morning.” Archibald draws his axe. “You’ll do whatever I say, whenever I say. Perhaps you’ve forgotten, but you’re a prisoner of war. Failure to comply with my orders will be met with swift execution. Amelia may have hesitated to cut you down, but I can assure you that I will do no such thing.” He’s talking about committing a war crime. He must be bluffing. Right? In any case, She wouldn’t know that. I have to say something. “Gods, Archibald, calm down,” I say, “She’s just trying to help us. What’s the point of interrogating her if we don’t use the information she’s given us?” “She’s right,” Geoffrey interjects, “I think we should do as the maiden says.” “That makes it two against one,” I say. “This isn’t a democracy!” Archibald shouts, “As squad captain, I take your suggestions, but I have the final say.” A tense moment passes. Eleanor speaks up. “I… I think we should be careful and wait.” Archibald sighs loudly. “Fine. We’ll wait.”