I didn’t want to track any mud or excess water, so I removed my shoes and left them off to the side as I entered. There was a rug in place for that, nestled just beneath an umbrella stand that was lacking said umbrella. Then I took a moment to simply look off into the Living Room to the side, rather than proceeding down the corridor to the doorway leading to the workshop.
His home hadn’t changed much since the last time that I was here. Though there was one exception to my left. There, among the numerous smaller plants running down the wall and crowded around the windows, was a very large flower pot. Inside was a living plant with spear-shaped leaves that had a barbed base running along the stalks, shaking as its small, humanoid form crawled along the dirt.
It was an Solana, a docile monstrous plant. I couldn’t tell if it would become a Mandrake or an Alraune, since it hadn’t matured enough yet for the reproductive organs to develop near the tail end of the growth stage. But, from the lessons I had from my time spent in Magical Herbology class, I could guess it probably wasn’t cloned from a mature one since those had signs of its eventual gender—it was born from a seed.
Monstrous plants of this nature were harder to cultivate in captivity. They required soil that was extremely nutrient-rich and mana-suffused to grow properly, uprooting themselves in search of those things when they used up what was in the surroundings. The academy had the greenhouses and the resources to grow a mature one under Magister Flourish’s care, but only a spirit like Elsa could tend to one in a less than ideal environment like this.
Since I was sure Elsa would care for it when she returned, I left the monstrous plant to its own devices and instead turned my attention to the hearth on the opposing wall, nestled between the rows of shelves with books and photos on them. It was just past the table that sat in the center of the room, on top of a long stretch of carpet laid over the petrified floorboards, with a sofa and armchair on two of its ends.
There I spotted the small figure hiding in the shadows. “Aeria, I know you’re hiding there. Come out.”
“Are you mad?” she asked, her whisper carried on the air. In her haste to see Elsa again, she probably only remembered that she’d left me in the rain after she’d gotten the Mountain Spirit’s attention.
“We’ll be having a long talk on the virtues of patience, but that can wait until later,” I told her. “For now, let’s head into the workshop and wait for Mister Rieth to arrive.”
She took another moment before she followed me into Mister Rieth’s workshop. It was warm inside. Heat permeated the solid stone flooring that stretched from wall-to-wall through the athanor that rose up to my head.
It was positioned where the hearth was on the opposite wall, the tower model furnace aglow with a gentle firelight. Instead of firewood at the bottom, its rampant crackling a potential distraction, there was an Igniem diskette in the bottom section, slowly releasing the heat stored within it as a result of Elsa’s influence no doubt. And inside of the furnace were plants that were being dried on the topmost section, baking in the confines the athanor to remove the excess water and increase the potency.
On the table next to it was a retort that was laying atop another diskette, the contents within it being boiled into steam before going through the neck. A fragment of Glaciem ore had been inserted within a slot there, chilling the section enough that the steam flowing through it condensed once more. A copper-toned liquid then dripped out into the vial waiting at the end.
“I hope she has rock candy for us,” Aeria said as she went over to the table furthest from the furnace.
I sat down in one of the chairs against the wall until Elsa appeared once more before us. Unlike before, since she held things in her grasp that she couldn’t turn to stone, she entered through the door by gliding from the petrified wooden floor to solid stone with no difficulties. Her humanish-digits had lengthened, becoming more efficient to carry a tray containing a teapot, cups, snacks, and a small pouch of some kind.
“Close your eyes and hold your breath,” she told me as a granular substance of some kind then slithered into the air from the pouch and towards me. I felt it brush against my body and the water soaking me turned into water vapor, transitioning from liquid-to-gas without heat before being drawn away. “All done.”
“Thank you,” I said as the Mountain Spirit then used her sinuous digits to set the tray down and Aeria swooped in to devour a chunk of rock candy that was bigger than her head. Because it was uncharacteristically soft, due to how it was made, she practically inhaled it. “I really hope it didn’t inconvenient you to do all this for us.”
“It’s no problem, Sweetie,” she told me as she poured me a cup of tea. “The snacks are leftovers and I was already making the tea for when Wilhelm returned, since I didn’t want him to catch a cold. He ran off to delivery some medicine to this nice girl since she couldn’t leave her little boy behind, so he’ll be back soon.”
“Has he been busy as of late?” I asked as I stared down at the cup. From the scent of the tea and coloration, it was an infusion. “I wouldn’t want to get in his way with my request.”
“Not so busy he can’t make time for you,” she assured me. “How have you been? Are you getting along well with your little shop?”
“We’re doing fine from a financial standpoint by my understanding.” Whether or not my parents saw it that way would be a different story, but at least we weren’t in the red. “It will be up to my parents to decide if things are going well enough for them, but I am prepared to argue up to a point.”
“I meant how you’re doing with your neighbors and the community that you’ve become a part of. Have you been making a personal effort to reach out to those around you and help them? After all, if you treat them as if they were family, they’ll do the same for you.”
“…I’ve been a bit busy myself and I’ve never been the most social of individuals,” I told her. “Alice and Johan have an easier time communicating with the customers in the storefront anyway.”
“You should still try, otherwise it won’t get any easier.” She then turned to Aeria, who just finished off a third piece of rock candy. “And have you been helping him?”
Aeria wiped her mouth and nodded. “Yep! I help Kowl more than anyone else. Even Alice.”
“She has come a long way from when we first met,” I admitted. The problems that primarily arose were when she either got bored or binged on sweets…which she was doing now. “Your guidance is to thank for that. I’m grateful that you were willing to lend us your time and advice, despite us being strangers then.”
“I’ve gotten so accustomed to watching over Wilhelm’s ancestors in their youth that I was more than happy to help.” She sighed softly. “Now if only he would settle down and have a child instead of being so stubborn.”
I… don’t really think I should comment on that. But, while we were on the topic and waiting for his arrival, I decided to broach another subject that had me curious since I met the fire spirit inside of Alice. “Elsa, do you remember your birth by any chance?”
“You know, it not exactly polite to ask a lady something that will reveal her age,” she chided me gently. “But, to answer your question, not exactly. Before I was a spirit, I was a part of the whole mountain. My birth could very well be considered from the moment the mountain itself came into being.”
“Then how about when you became aware of yourself as an individual?” I asked. “Do you remember that?”
“I had no real concept of time or urgency back then, so I can’t tell you how many years I spent simply observing the world around me while unaware I gained a physical form. It could have been anywhere between one minute to one hundred years before the animals in the mountain reacted to me and I realized I had become something else entirely that they had to act around. That was when I started identifying myself as a separate entity around maybe around two or so hundred years ago.”
“Hmm… if spirits can’t really identify themselves as individuals without outside notice then I suppose Aeria might be older than I gave her credit for. She said she didn’t remember that many details about her birth, but if she was just floating around until I spotted her she wouldn’t really notice.”
“Wind spirits tend to be easy to notice when close to the ground because they’re so lively, so she probably was born sometime around then,” Elsa said. “Even if she wasn’t, time doesn’t really affect us as much as the experience and memories we gain all. A contract helps with that, allowing us to grasp things and feelings outside of our natures better. She’s probably closer to being human than I was a lifetime ago.”
Aeria perked up at that. “I am?”
She nodded. “It took me generations of contracts with the Rieth family to become who I am, watching them grow into fine adults while learning from them. It gave me a purpose that I’ve grown to love, for both the good and the bad, and I hope to keep doing so from now on. But unlike his predecessors, Wilhelm is so reluctant to have children that I can’t help but worry that if something happens to him then I’ll have to try and find his uncle and aunt instead.”
“Is that a problem?” I asked before taking a sip of tea. There was a hint of bitterness, but the sweetness was just enough to cover it up. If I had to guess, she used rinnelberries that had the fruit’s sugar concentrated beyond normal amounts by her ability.
Elsa sighed softly at the question. “There are ore veins deep within the mountain that I could bring up with enough time, but I can’t bring myself to do something that harmful to the land unless enforced by a contract. Wilhelm’s father, Theo, was my previous contractor and wouldn’t make me do it when his brother and sister wanted to mine it. So, they had a big fight over me and eventually moved away.”
“How unfortunate that the promise of wealth turned them against one another so easily,” I said. Spirits had limits within their dominions. For her to shift even a portion of the land that makes up the mountain would take an enormous amount of effort and time on her part. Enough to seriously strain her, if not harm her because she was going against her nature as a spirit to cause such a drastic, unnatural change. “Let us hope it never comes to that then.”
“But, if it does… then, what about Kowl?” Aeria said, unaware she was speaking of Mister Rieth’s potential passing with more enthusiasm than one should. “He can be your new contractor. Then we’d be like sisters, and you could stay with us and Alice!”
Elsa shook her facsimile of a human head slowly. “Kowler’s a sweet boy, but very few humans can hold more than one contract at a time. Besides, I raised Wilhelm as my own child and want to watch over whatever children he does have someday, as I have for generations.”
That was probably for the best. It was true that with Elsa bound to me it would be much easier to handle minerals and plants, which were the part of the foundation of my field of Alchemy. But I had no intention of convincing her to abandon her current contractor since that would just be unfair considering how they’d treated us so kindly when we were imposing on them.
I made a mental note to talk to her about how insensitive that was later on as we moved the conversation along.