The First Steps – 4.01

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“Another failure for the record.”

The admission came with no small amount of frustration as I entered the information into the research log. It had been the twentieth attempt. It had been the twentieth failure.

The resources spent. Time lost. Effort made. All of it was splayed out in front of me in the form of another page of the journal and another dead rodent that I’d finished dissecting.

I could still recall how it writhed in agony the moment I had a few drops of the liquid mana vaporized within a sealed vessel. I knew that pain very well considering what happened during my unexpected trip in the realm of the spirits. The failure of the potion to stop it only showcased what would have happened to me if not for Aeria—a reminder of the stakes involved.

Are you finally done?” My sylphid’s wispy voice was followed by a yawn. No doubt she was tired after helping to synthesize the failed sample.

I pushed my glasses up, so I could brush my eyes. “As much as it pains me to say it, we’ve hit the point where we can go no further.”

Her dark eyes folded in slightly and her tiny lips pressed into a pout. “Then, even if we can’t get the potion made, we can try merging again. If we do it when I’m not tired, then maybe I can hold it longer this time.”

I considered the prospect. Weighing the risks to the potential gains of undergoing the Spirit Symbiosis. But, in the end, I shook my head to reject it since I didn’t know every aspect of how it worked.

To be frank, I didn’t know enough of anything.

I didn’t know enough about the Fiends. I didn’t know enough about the spirit inside of Alice. I didn’t know how far this conspiracy that opposed it ran. I didn’t know how alchemy led to the creation of the homunculus and how it passed down magic through their generations.

I only had the barest of knowledge in regard to what I needed to accomplish and how to do it. That was finding the Archidoxia and using its knowledge to separate Alice from the spirit inside of her. The only source of additional information that I had was Magister Atra, which was a problem since I didn’t trust her given she’d altered my mind.

That kind of magic wasn’t common; it required natural talent to a great extent from what I could research.  There were measures and restrictions to it. For someone with it to be relegated to a simple magister, even at Amadeus Academy, I could only believe that she was hiding it to preserve her cover.

Leaving that aside, what knowledge she deemed to give me was only what she felt was necessary and directed towards the end goal of separating Alice from the spirit within her. That wasn’t good enough. I needed to get a look at everything.

Since I couldn’t rely on anyone else to hand the information to me without the risk of exposing that I knew something I shouldn’t, I had to seek it out myself. If alchemy was censored and filtered in our world, then the realm of the spirits would be the best place to search for the truth. Or at least find a clue of some kind to find one of the higher spirits that had the Great Work.

The problem was surviving in that environment and there were two factors that prevented me from reaching the solution.

The first was that Aeria was a spirit of the wind.

Even though a skilled alchemist and spirit could imbue items with qualities they wouldn’t normally have, or make things that had special attributes, we still could only do things that were inside of our sphere of influence. The winds carried water vapor and thus held limited amount of sway over water on a conceptual level. Hence why she was useful when it came to chemicals and medicines to an extent.

But she held no dominion over minerals, which were essential components. Sure enough, she could tease out reactions like she does with plants, but she couldn’t refine or manipulate them effectively enough to create what we needed. Even attempting to use alternative components as substitutes only gave us subpar results and would end in death one way or another.

The second was the matter of affording the components we used.

Back when I was in school, I had access to some rarer materials through them. Students received better rates in regards to suppliers, and so I could create things like the Fume Beast with greater ease and less cost. That wasn’t an option now that I was running the shop.

The industry standard for shrinkage, or rather how much of the supplies and product that we could lose without suspicion was around 4%. That was on account of the various factors involved with synthesis, in addition to theft or damages. We had been efficient with what we had before I had to experiment with the potion’s creation, but now we ran the risk of going over the limit if I didn’t stop now.

The shifting of the door handle and groan of the hinges drew my attention away from those concerns and towards the entrance to my workshop. Alice was entering the room. And she was levitating a crate in with her wand.

“The stuff for the next month finally got here. I checked and signed for ya but—” Her words were cut short when she spotted the rodent that had been cut open and its organs exposed. “What are ya doin’ this time?”

I pulled my glasses back over my eyes. “I was testing the results of a concoction I was working on. The results were less than exemplary, to say the least. I’ll dispose of it now.”

Taking the tray with the remains over to a bin, the moment I flipped the lid open a putrid scent assailed me. It was the scent of flesh and organic matter being broken down within a nest of slimes.

“I thought ya’d finished makin’ those critters,” Alice said as she finished levitating the crate through the door and setting it off to the side.

“I’m simply using them as a means of disposing of failed experiments and organic matter such as this. It’s convenient.”  I dumped the remains of the rodent inside of it, shut the lid, and then placed the equipment in the sink to be sterilized.

Alice only rolled her eyes and muttered about me being eaten one day before she removed the top of the crate with another spell. It was filled with containers, salve jars, amber glass bottles, pipettes, dried herbs, powders, and so on. Inventory for the next month from the wholesale retailers that we had an account with.

Before I could take stock, Alice fished an envelope out of her pocket and handed it to me. “That was in the mailbox too. I think it’s from yer folks.”

I flipped it over and noticed the seal on it. She was right. I opened the letter up and spent a few moments reading it…

Then I felt tension roll over me and leaned my head back to sigh. “Their timing could be better.”

Alice’s brow rose. “What’s it about?”

“Mother wants me to return home. Both to review my progress with the business now that it has been roughly a half-year since we’ve opened. And to celebrate my sister’s impending marriage, apparently.”

My parents were the ones who supplied me with the loan to get the shop after I withdrew from the Academy. It was an uphill struggle to convince them to do so considering the nature of the withdrawal, and I had to make several concessions and agreements. Part of that agreement was that they owned the shop itself, with the understanding I would gain ownership once I paid off the loan—with interest, of course.

To that end, Mother went over every financial statement I had to send back home monthly to ensure nothing was amiss. She used it to measure everything, including how the business was doing against the industry standard. Given the distance between where she was and the shop, that meant that as long as everything was in order and our net income on the statement was showing that we were doing well, she would have no complaints or any reason to come visit under normal circumstances.

Which was for the best considering our living arrangements.

Still, while I knew Mother would eventually call for me to return home for the sake of business, I expected another six months to round out a full financial period. It could just be a matter of convenience for my sister’s sake, but I should probably go through the documentation to make sure everything was in order. Or at least come up with a plausible excuse for anything that seemed amiss or the higher expenses.

Yay! We’re going back!

I turned to Aeria at the sound of her cheering with brow raised. “What about this situation is there to be happy about?”

We’ll get to see Elsa again!” A smile beamed on her tiny face and her wings fluttered in anticipation of the reunion. “She and Mister Rieth make the best rock candy!

Ah, that explains it.

Wilhelm Rieth was one of the alchemists in my hometown, a contracted Empiricist. His contract with Elsa and experience was enough to warrant a general license for alchemy. He had a broader scope but narrower pool of knowledge to draw from compared to me, who received a somewhat formal education. He was also the one who helped us when I first found Aeria and gave me insight into alchemy prior to enrollment.

Likewise, Elsa was a Mountain Spirit that he brought with him when he moved from his home in the mountains. If Aeria had something akin to a mentor, it would be Elsa given that it was she who had offered insight into what Aeria was somewhat capable of as a spirit. After all, Aeria was simply too young to know those things on her own, as if she had been born shortly before we’d first met.

…Then again, that was entirely possible given what we learned shortly ago.

It’s likely Aeria was born in the Spirit Sanctuary and passed through a gateway somewhere in the forest by my home without realizing it. If that was the case, then that was another location to look into.

I read through the letter again, noting the date. “We’ll need to depart within two days to get there in an ideal timeframe. That means we’ll also have to get the financial statements ready for review.”

“Shame I can’t come with ya ‘cause of school,” Alice said as she leaned over my shoulder to read for herself.  “I still wanna meet yer folks one of these days.”

I said nothing. We’ve had this sort of conversation before and it regularly ended with her less than happy. It was due to a conflict stemming from our different living circumstances prior to meeting in the Academy.

Alice’s upbringing was loving and warm, a product of her parents and community. Mine was very cold, with the emphasis of striving to succeed at whatever venture you worked towards, grasping whatever chance at profit you could gain. Down to their core, our upbringing were complete opposites.

Not to mention, bringing an employee would raise questions. Questions lead to answers being sought out. And those answers would likely bode ill considering the kind of people my parents are. If they found out about her living here or our relationship, Mother would consider it a potential moral turpitude and things would get complicated.

Well, even more complicated than they were. Leaving aside the spirit inside of Alice, there was the matter of her grandparents on her mother’s side. I don’t know how Miss Pyralis kept quiet about that with her daughter for this long, but that was another issue I wasn’t looking forward to the fallout of when it eventually came to light.

At any rate, two days wasn’t a lot of time. I would need to prepare the statements and ensure that there was a decent amount of merchandise for sale before Aeria and I left. So I guess I’d be taking a stimulant and pulling an all-nighter.

Then there was the matter of the potion. Aeria and I couldn’t make it on our own, but with Mister Rieth and Elsa’s help it may be possible. I didn’t want to involve them by giving away too many details, but if I asked for it as a commission then it may be possible to get something tangible.

If that was the case, the trip home could be truly beneficial in more ways than one.

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