It took a bit longer to pass the academy grounds, the boundary being where the tree line ended. From there I skirted just above the grassland towards the lively sound of the town and hopped off my broom on the outskirts of Trikryss. I wanted to do a look around on the streets before I got back to the shop.
At ground-level you could feel the energy of the active little town, practically bouncing off the buildings and clapboards that were in plain view. It wasn’t the largest place around but, since it was close to the academy and a bit of a crossroads for travelers, it was filled with all sorts of characters. The sides of the cobblestone roads were clogged up with various stands to take advantage of that, merchants and passersby from all different regions mixed in.
I liked browsing the stands to see what they had on display. They were set-up in a lot of ways, each with their own appeal—from a blanket on the ground with little doodads from the north, to a tarp casting a shadow beneath a fresh fruit vendor from the east, and even a stand of boxes and glass from the west. One of the last kind had something that caught my eyes though, drawing me in like fish on a hook.
The glass display was being overseen by a stocky woman, whose face was covered with the exception of her eyes by a beige cloak commonly found out west. The case had some interesting stones and gems, nothing too expensive though, but one thing in particular interested me. It was row of flowers made of what looked to be crystal, with their stems in a glass bottle filled with water. Each bottle had two of them.
“Caught your eyes, did it?” the lady behind the stand said. “Those are a derivative of a breed of flowers native to my home region of Venterris, found only in certain parts of the desert. They’re called the Entwined Lotus.”
“So, it’s a real flower then?” I asked. “It looks like glass or crystal.”
She nodded. “The original has a bit of a myth behind it. Centuries ago, there were two dwellers in the desert. One was a member of the royal family, while the other was a simple water-fetcher, a peasant girl who had to venture from the safety of the walls to an oasis and retrieve water every day. They were in love, but because of their position such a union would not be allowed.
“Then, one day, she vanished while out in the desert, when a sudden storm engulfed the area. Distraught, the man beseeched the Desert Spirit for guidance and a sign she was still alive. It was then a single crystalline blossom bloomed in the desert sand in front of him and began to pulse with light, as if it were a heartbeat. The wind whispered in his ears, ‘As long as this blossom flickers with light, her heart continues to beat’.”
Well, now it was getting interesting. “What happened then?”
“He set out to find her, vowing that as long as she lived he would search for her.” The outline of a smile formed on the mask around her mouth. “It took him a year, and he faced countless hazards, but he eventually found her in an underground cavern illuminated with similar flowers. It turned out the spirit had taken mercy on her and allowed her to drink the spring water, which was blessed and kept her alive after she fell down and was unable to leave, for as long as he searched for her. Enamored by their love and his efforts, it dedicated the blossoms to them and the flowers sprang up in certain spots around the desert.
“Since then it’s considered a magical flower that represents the union of two people,” the saleswoman finished. “When two people make an oath, they let a single drop of blood fall onto both of the blossoms and then they glow, connecting their life to the pair. A specialist would then take the crushed petals and mix them into a ring mold, so when the rings were made they would allow the users to know the condition of their loved ones.”
“Wow…” Who knew the little things had such a history behind them? “And these are the same flowers?”
“Not exactly,” she admitted. “The original ones are so rare to find now that they’re expensive to an absurd degree. These inexpensive breeds were cultivated by horticulturist, but they lack the magical properties of the original flowers. Still, it’s considered a romantic gesture to give one to someone you like.”
“Someone I like, huh?” There was only one person I could think of to give something like that. “Alright, you got a sale. Gimme a pair.”
A minute later, I made my way from the stand towards Kowl’s shop. There was a nasty run-in with some trolls earlier this year and, since the spoils were ours, we made a hefty profit. His cut went to getting the place. With a loan from his parents he turned it into his workshop and got it running.
My cut mostly went towards paying back my parents for enrolling me in the academy, since the costs were heavy on them. They were just modest shopkeepers with no magical roots, so they weren’t really prepared for me to go there. I was repaying their investment and faith in me.
Also, since Kowl didn’t have an inkling on how to run a business shop, that fell onto my lap too. As such I stayed here now, under the same roof, and worked part-time. Everything was working out fine so far, I supposed…
…at least I thought as much until I reached for the door handle and a wet trill that sounded like something was gargling stones came from inside. The sound of bottles crashing off shelves followed in short-order. That couldn’t have been good.
Throwing the door open I came across Kowl, dressed in his casual shirt and pants, bracing himself against the store counter as the bottom half of his body was caught by an oozing, slime tendril. It extended from the door leading into his private workspace, where he would do his alchemy stuff and create things like this. From the angle I could see, it looked like a fairly big slime monster too.
“You’re right on time, Alice,” Kowl said with some strain as he struggled to hold onto the counter. “There was a bit of a mishap, to say the least.”
I dropped the blossoms and leaned over the counter with my wand in one hand as his grip gave out. I only narrowly managed to snare his outstretched hand with my free one, stopping him from being pulled into the room that held the bulk of the beastie. My good mood was gone now. “Ya hafta be kiddin’ me! What happened?”
“Aeria knocked over the container before I had the time to add the component linking it to me, so there’s no way to control it.” There was no urgency in his tone. Like if he was talking about the weather instead of worrying about how he was about to be some critter’s lunch. “Might I suggest a spell to cut me free?”
Fire was borne as I cast a spell to burn through the tendril. Focused through the wand, a thin rope of flames came from the tip. My Whip of Fire flared as I lashed it, a bloom of warmth washing against my skin as it severed the gelatinous appendage.
The slime let out a wet shriek, pulling the bubbling stump back through the door like a frightened critter. Kowl shut the door before he slid the lock into place. Wiping his brow, he then said, “It will probably self-destruct in a few minutes. The last one only lasted about four minutes, and this one wasn’t completed, so the chances of it surviving for long aren’t very high… I’ll need to clean the mess up afterwards.”
“Darn it, Kowl! Yew hafta be careful ‘cause ah ain’t gonna be—” I cut myself off when I felt my accent coming back strong. I tried to speak a bit more clearly since I got into the academy, but when I got really worried or angry it popped up in spades. “I mean, ya have to be careful because I’m not gonna be there all the time, and if something happened to ya…”
I trailed off and shook my head. “Where’s the cause of this mess anyway?”
“In a sugar coma,” Kowl said, walking over to a pile of fallen papers. Clearing it revealed the sleeping gal.
Aeria was a wind spirit Kowl needed to do his thing. Fog rolled down her back and hung there like hair, while her insect wings were folded up as she slept. The gal was one-part kiddie, one-part scary, and a handful if I ever saw one.
He picked the troublemaker up and set her down in a makeshift bed on the counter. “She found the stash of candy I made and gorged herself until she was flying around, knocking things over, and causing the Mire Propagate to go wild. Then she crashed… So, was your education productive today?”
The question bought back my earlier thoughts. I picked up the flowers and set them on the counter before I cast the spell I learned. Flaming streamers flew from my wand and began to reshape themselves into a copy of one of the flowers, blossom and stem and all. I held it up and said, “Tada!”
He silently compared the original blossom to the molded flame. “…It’s missing three petals.”
Figures he’d focus on that part. I was about to say something snippy when I was cut off by a warble from the sealed room. A death shrill followed as steam slipped through the cracks of the door. The slime critter must’ve started evaporating.
“That would be my cue to start cleaning up the place,” Kowl said. “I’ll leave you to mind the front.”
Once again, unladylike words escaped my lips as he walked away. Was it really that hard for him to say ‘Not bad, Alice’ or ‘Impressive, Alice’ at least? What’s a gal got to do to get a little praise? Honestly, if I wasn’t head over heels for that boy…
But the time for getting upset about it was over once the doorbell rang, snapping my attention to my job. Leaving Kowl to deal with the mess and putting my relationship problems in the back of my mind, I put on my work-face to greet the customers. “Welcome to Trikryss’ Sylphide.”
The customer was a rugged-looking man dressed in a half-cloak. There was a sword on his back. He must have been one of those adventurous-types. “We’re open for all your apothecary and alchemic needs. What can I get for ya?”
“I need four jars of standard Vulnerary Balm,” the big guy said. “Do you have any?”
“Sure do, just follow me.” I guided him to the glass cases on the right wall. Kowl had given me a basic outline of what did what in the shop and where it went, as well as what we sold and what we didn’t. Stuff like what he gave me during that troll incident to put a kick in my step, or the goo he used to make that slime critter, weren’t legal to sell since they were either heavily-regulated or obscure.
Mostly we sold medicines that were easy to handle and dealt with general problems, as well as a few pick-me ups. I didn’t know as much as he did when it came to knowhow on the effects on the body, so if it was something they needed his say on or a recommendation, then I had to call him up to the front. “Here ya are.”
The rugged-looking man took them and paid before leaving out. He was the only new customer for the day. The rest that came in were familiar with the layout and knew what they wanted. It made my job easier, although there were cases where I had to levitate down some of the higher-shelved stuff.
Things went rather well until closing time a few hours later, when the sun had gone down. The street-lanterns were lit through small crystals that were enchanted to store sunlight during the day and release the light once the moon shone on them. Flipping the sign to ‘Closed,’ I stretched to relieve the tension in my muscles from the working day.
All that was left was dinner, which Kowl had to make while I took care of the inventory and logs and such. Then it was off to bed. Glancing to my right, I found him dozing off in a rocking chair made for two people to sit in. After he’d finished cleaning up, he’d conked out and hadn’t stirred for a while, since he wasn’t needed today.
I prodded him with my wand. “Up and at ‘em!”
His eyes opened slowly and he sluggishly turned to face me. “What’s wrong?”
“Closing time,” I said, pointing to the window. “Go get started on dinner while I clean up a bit…and wake the gal up so she can eat too. Then it’s off to a proper bed for the both of ya.”
“Right,” Kowl grumbled as he went to the counter and nudged the elemental awake. Aeria fluttered around a bit to stretch her wings, before settling down on his brownish bed of hair. The pair then went up the stairs towards the kitchen that was on the second floor.
With those two out of the way, I took my time in tidying up, humming a small tune as I summoned the broom to my hand and began to sweep up the floor. I could have used a spell, but I preferred doing it this way since time wasn’t an issue. It was a nostalgic thing more than anything, reminding me of how I’d do the same for my parent’s shop before I became a witch.
It was strange how things changed so much. When I was younger, my dreams were simple. To take over my parents’ shop and have a loving family was all I could hope for. For those who weren’t born as part of the magical community, you were limited to the trade your family studied or whatever you could find an apprenticeship for. But now I could do so much more.
Magic was versatile enough that I could make a living doing just about anything. Not that I didn’t like what I was doing now. But options were nice to have. Thinking about it as I passed by a mirror, I parted the hair that was always hiding one of my eyes.
It was vibrant red, a sign of something that I went through when I was younger. There was also the scar between my breasts from the injury, which sometimes caused phantom pains. They were the only signs that I had been nearly killed that day, both causing me a different sort of pain every now and again. Yet it was because of them I could somehow do what I do and I met Kowl, who could be sweet when he wanted to be…
My right eye hurt, pulsating as the red iris flashed golden for an instant. I covered it and shook my head. The headache coming on would pass soon enough like it always did, despite being an inconvenience at times. I suppose power had a price.
“Aliccceeee~” called a tiny voice that rode on the air, growing louder as the small source flew down the stairs. The windy gal zipped around my head a few times before landing in my hair. “Kowl told me to tell you that dinner’s ready! We’re having those thingys you like!”
“I’ll be up in a minute,” I told her. She then took off in a blur, scattering some of the flyers we had printed up and leaving me to clean it up. I sighed. “What a troublesome gal she is…”
I briefly pondered if I was that troublesome when I was younger. I couldn’t imagine how my parents ever coped with me if I were that energetic. When I finished getting everything in order, I set the broom down in a corner and remembered the crystalline flowers resting on the counter. I took them with me up to the table in the kitchen with the others.
Aeria was tearing into her portion of the meal. She was too small to sit in a chair so she sat on the edge of the plate as she ate. You’d be surprised at how much she could pack away and then want more.
Kowl at least had the decency to wait. He was resting his elbow on the table and using it to support his head. He must be more tired than usual.
The gal stopped chowing down when I set the flower jar down on the table as a centerpiece and sat in the chair across from Kowl. “What’s with the flowers?”
I told the story I heard from the lady at the booth as we ate. Once dinner was over, I dealt with the paperwork involved in running the business. It was nearly another three hours before I could get some shut-eye. No one said managing a shop was easy, and the actual owner was already in bed by that point.
“I’m gonna make him learn to do this himself one of these days,” I mumbled to myself as I eased into the room. I aimed my wand at the lantern on the nightstand and lit it with a spell, the flame fighting against the darkness that surrounded it on all sides. Using the light, I changed into my nightgown in the bathroom and then slipped into bed next to Kowl, wrapping my arms around him as he slept.
He shifted a bit before mumbling in his sleep. Then he went dead to the world again. Pressed against him, I allowed the warmth of his body to envelope me as I drifted off to sleep myself.
And then I dreamed of fire and death.