“To what do I owe the pleasure of being interrupted in my studies?” Anonymous demanded sourly. He clearly had been engrossed in whatever he’d been doing—his robes looked as though they’d been slept in, or more likely, fallen asleep in a chair in, and he had several days worth of stubble.
“Don’t be like that; I can assure you this will be far more interesting,” Malexandra told him. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Yesterday? Maybe. I was busy.”
“You don’t want to do blood magic on an empty stomach; I’ll have someone get you something.”
“If you’re already fortifying your magic with blood, I fail to comprehend why you need a confederate.”
“I’ll explain once you’ve eaten.” She drew a circle in the air with her finger, which, once closed, became a shimmery window looking into the kitchen. She stuck her head through, and Anonymous could hear her talking to someone. After a moment she withdrew, and a platter containing a bowl of rice and vegetables and a mug of tea was handed through. “Thanks, Devrin,” Malexandra said through the window. “When you see Aniya, can you tell her to go through the wards when she comes up?” She received a reply, and pinched the edges of the window together, closing it.
Anonymous asked between bites, “So, what is it that we are doing?”
“You’re eating. I’m sitting here waiting for you to finish.”
“You know what I mean. You said we’re doing blood magic,” he prompted her.
She nodded. “In more ways than one.”
“Which cryptic phrase means ever so much to me,” he said sarcastically.
“To put it plainly, we’re going to be undoing a work of alchemy.”
His fork clattered to the table at the word. “Alchemy??? But that’s.... The secret of alchemy has been lost for centuries.”
“That’s never been true,” Malexandra replied solemnly. “Such a thing is very hard to lose. It can be forgotten, yes, but then at some point someone turns it up and no one has any idea what to do about it. So there are people who guard that secret, in case something like this happens.”
“Then why isn’t one of them doing—oh.” He gave her a long look. “You know alchemy.” He said it half-disbelievingly.
She nodded. “Me, and two others in the world. But you understand, none of us would ever do such a thing.”
“But someone did?”
“Are you done eating?”
He nodded, and she reopened the magical window, shoved his dishes into it and closed it. She then opened her door, hung a sign that said, “Do Not Disturb on pain of very bad things,” and put up a ward around the room. Once finished, she took a small, ornate glass vial out of her desk and poured it into a small bowl.
Anonymous leaned closer to look at it. “Don’t touch it,” she warned him.
“I’m hardly an idiot,” he answered sharply, probing at it with his magic. He shuddered and sat back. “Gods,” he said under his breath.
“You see what it is?”
“Pure power, created through pure evil. I knew the fundamentals of the concept of alchemy, but I never realized how… much so.”
“You understand what I’m trusting you with then, in asking for your help?”
He did. Alchemy was the ultimate temptation, the ability to create infinite wealth and eternal life. Such a thing has, of course, an even greater cost.
“Malexandra?” he asked tentatively. “They say that you’re immortal…”
She gave him her very coldest glare. “If I thought you believed I would do such things, we would no longer be friends,” she told him. “They’re wrong. I’m long-lived, yes, but I come by it naturally, as you should well know.”
“I do,” he assured her. “I was only speaking of your reputation. Has it never been suggested that you’ve employed alchemy?”
“Considering that even you thought the knowledge lost, it has not occurred to the gossips that speculate on such things. And I would appreciate if that remains so. Now back to what I was saying before, can I trust you with this?”
“Of course; I would no more commit such acts that you would.”
“And you will tell no one what you know, or even that you know it? Not even your friend?” She put a slightly sarcastic emphasis on the last word.
“If by my friend you mean the king—”
“Do you have other friends?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. I was under the impression we were friends, as well as—”
“We are, but I don’t refer to myself in third person. And I was going to say, do you have other friends who I won’t call by name?”
He rolled his eyes. “He’s really not such a terrible person, you know. And he’s the best king we’ve had in the last two hundred years.”
“We have better things to do than argue politics, dear, especially as we won’t change each other’s opinions. Do you mean to tell him about this?”
“I hadn’t thought about it. Do you want me not to?”
“Of course I want you not to! Kings are the very worst people for wanting eternal life and gold, and the very best at justifying doing anything to get it. After all, it could help their kingdom, what does torturing a few children to death matter?” Her last sentence was, of course, sarcastic.
“Gods, is that what it takes?” Anonymous murmured, the sight of the liquid now making him feel slightly queasy. “He’s not like that, though, Malexandra. But I won’t reveal this to him, or anyone else. You have my word on that. Now what must we do?”
“I could destroy this by burning it or dissolving it in acid. But that wouldn’t tell us anything that could help us find the maker. We need to—”
She was interrupted by a young woman suddenly appearing in the beginning of the room. “Ah, Aniya. I was just telling Anonymous how we’re going to go about this. I’m going to need you to take charge of the timer again.”
Anonymous looked at the woman suspiciously. “Isn’t there a warrant out for-”
Malexandra gave him her most intimidating look. “Aniya will assist us with this. Now, what we need to do is take the spells that make this up apart strand by strand, looking for any traces of its creator’s magic. With something as powerful as this, it will be difficult, so we will take turns adding drops of blood to the spell.” She paused, then continued, “I should warn you, this could be… emotionally difficult as well.”
“I am prepared to proceed whenever you are.”
She lit a candle, pulled out two pins, and held them in the flame to sterilize them. She handed one to Anonymous, then took out a sheet of paper, saturated it with her magic, and held the candle to it. As the paper caught fire, Malexandra dropped it onto a plate and blew out the candle. “Aniya will tap the table every thirty seconds, at which time we’ll take turns adding a drop of blood.”
“I’ll tap once when it’s Malexandra’s turn and twice when it’s your turn,” Aniya told him. She was without doubt who he thought she was, but he let that matter rest and agreed.
Aniya tapped the table once and Malexandra pricked her finger with the pin and allowed a drop of blood to fall onto the paper, which was burning with unnatural slowness. Anonymous felt a surge of magic, and the two of them sent their magic into the fluid.
Malexandra had been right; it was emotionally difficult. Hatred and fear pushed into his magic, and it took more strength than he would have guessed to keep it out. He began to prod at the strands of magic making up the liquid, untangling them. He habitually took apart spells to study them, so it was not difficult. He examined the first strand he’d separated for anything that could lead back to the alchemist—and heard two taps. He plunged the pin into his finger and shook the drop of blood into the fire, then continued his examination of the magic.
It was just after his second drop of blood that he felt something, a sense of magic not part of the spell. He wrapped it in his own magic to isolate it, and began to test its properties. Two taps on the desk, he added another drop of blood to the flames, and was suddenly aware that he was doing most of the work. Malexandra’s magic was no longer picking at the spell. Anonymous felt its presence, but not its activity. He glanced up at her, but she was in deep concentration, so he shrugged it off and continued with the thread of magical energy he was examining. He cautiously sent a bit of his magic down it—
And a surge of fire and hate surged down the thread and engulfed him. A scream flew from his throat, and now he could feel Malexandra’s magic, just for a moment, because then he was unconscious.
He opened his eyes. The ceiling was that of the room he’d been in, though darker—hours had passed. “Malexandra?” It came out as barely more than a croak, but as he managed to look up, she was there.
“I guess I should have warned you about that.” He couldn’t tell whether she was kidding or she really had expected it. Knowing her, probably both.
“You found the alchemist. He found you right back.”
“I knew that much, Malexandra. I am quite aware that I didn’t lose consciousness due to your sense of humor. Probably. But what happened?”?
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Her tone allowed no argument.
“Does it matter?” she asked, and he knew she’d killed him.
“You have no doubt?” he asked, just to be sure.
“Yes, Anonymous, I have no doubt,” she said with less exasperation than she would have shown had he been able to sit upright. “I am completely sure. I would show you whatever bits of ash are left of the body if I knew where they are, but I don’t, and I hardly care enough to try to find them.”
“What about me?” He only meant to ask what his condition was, but before he could clarify she warned, “This’ll hurt,” and it did, so much so that he couldn’t pay attention to what she was doing, but when the wave of pain passed he felt almost normal.
“Thank you,” he told her, though less graciously than he would have had it not been her fault in the first place. “I’ll just leave now.”
“No. I already have one of the rooms set up for you. I know you well enough to not trust that you’d actually get sleep, if you went home.”
He glared at her.
“Anonymous, remember that you’re one of only four living people who know the secret of alchemy. Surely that’s worth it to you.”
It was, of course, but he’d never admit it to her.