The house was silent these days. The small orchard of lando trees and tangled tingleberry vines growing in the cool shade of the arbor were turning wild with no human hand to tend them. The walk was littered with last fall's leaves, and the tightly locked door stood as a silent sentinel over the garden, wreathed by bunches of karikari nuts.
Crunching leaves startled the small fat squirrel searching for fallen nuts on the lintel, and it darted up a nearby lando tree. It chattered down at the teenage girl who stopped beside it. She reached up to pluck an overripe fruit from its boughs and turned it over in her hands appreciatively as her male companion looked solemnly around the abandoned yard.
"Thanks for coming with me, Lita . . ." he said softly, brown-gold hair falling into stormy eyes. His fingers rubbed nervously over the polished crimson crystal at the end of his cane.
"Oh, it's no problem," she replied, her voice overly perky, as if by words alone she could dispel the melancholy air that had settled over the cottage and was now slowly spinning Klein into its grasp. "You didn't think I'd let you out of my sight, now, did you?"
He smiled with only half his mouth and did not look at her, his eyes locked on a wheelbarrow upended in the garden . . .
It was a beautiful day in early spring, the time when Daphne began to tend to her summer garden. The vegetable patch had been prepared and planted, and on normal days the clearing echoed with the sound of her singing as she and Popo used water element to irrigate the seeds.
But she was not singing this morning. It had put Klein on edge. He kept glancing up at her over the top of his book as he sat in the shady lower branches of a lando tree. There really was something odd about Daphne this morning. She was moving much slower than usual, and kept pausing to rest when normally she would work tirelessly for hours. Even Popo had noticed something was amiss. He hovered around her shoulders, looking concerned.
Klein kept glancing over at her until he realized that the sun had marked an hour overhead and he hadn't turned the page. He tried to force himself to keep reading, as his grandmother would surely scold him if he neglected his studies, and doggedly let his eyes travel through the next paragraph. Just as he was about to move on to another he heard a soft thud and a gasp, and then Popo's panicked cry of "Klein!"
The young alchemist immediately dropped the book and jumped from the tree, narrowly avoiding a sprained ankle, and ran to where Daphne lay against the overturned wheelbarrow. The soil it contained had spilled out all over the grass and she appeared half-conscious, unable to stand.
"Grandma!" Klein said in alarm, dropping to the grass beside her and helping her sit up. He nearly flinched as he felt her skin burning beneath his fingers. She looked dazed, her eyes unfocused as she looked up at him.
"Klein . . ." she said weakly. "I think . . . I'd better go inside . . ."
"I'll help you, Grandma, don't worry . . ."
"I think we should go inside first," Klein suggested, stepping up to the door. He pulled a small tarnished key from a pocket and fitted it in the lock, turning it with a soft click. He opened the door, which creaked loudly in protest, and the two filed into the musty entrance hall.
The place was unchanged, each painting and piece of furniture in the exact location he'd left it. Besides the darkness and the dust, it looked almost normal. A grandfather clock in the corner still ticked away slowly, counting away the hours to the abandoned abode.
"I'm surprised that the village boys haven't broken in and trashed the place," Klein said. "Grandma's reputation must still be keeping them away . . ."
"Reputation?" Lita asked, peering at a mirror on the wall. She wiped away the grime coating the surface and her own reflection stared back, face pale and ghostly in the darkness.
"Well, to them she was a witch," Klein said casually, walking over to the wall and tapping it twice with his cane. Light burst from the ceiling, and Lita blinked in the sudden brightness. The house looked far more cheerful when well-lit, but it still seemed odd and empty.
"This way, I think . . ." Klein said, beginning to ascend the staircase at the end of the hall. "I'll show you the upstairs . . ."
The days passed and Daphne did not get any better. At first, Klein had thought it was merely heat exhaustion from being in the sun too long, but as the week ran out and she showed no signs of improvement, he began to feel worried. He called in the physician from the small village nearby to look at her, but she was unable to find the cause. After the woman left with an apology and a worried glance at Daphne's bedroom door, the master alchemist called her grandson into her room.
"Klein . . . I know you are very worried about me, but . . . there's nothing you can do." She looked solemnly across the bed at him, grey streaks now apparent in normally blonde hair.
"What do you mean, Grandma?" Klein asked, alarmed. "We're alchemists! Surely there is something . . . somewhere--"
"Klein, Alchemy is not all powerful," she said softly. "I've lived a lot longer than I should have, thanks to it, but even alchemists have an end."
"What . . . what are you saying?"
"I've been on borrowed time for a while now, since even before you were born. Alchemists who mess with the fabric of age tend to flare long and burn fast, like a candle in the wind . . . Surely you have read enough of my book to understand that."
Klein was silent. He knew Daphne was old--over a hundred, at least--but he had never once entertained the notion of her leaving him. She looked so young, and acted so vibrant and carefree--it seemed she would live forever.
"You never thought of me dying, did you," she said, giving him a wry grin. "I must admit, I never really did myself . . . not till you were a bit older, anyway, and had a family of your own to occupy you . . ."
"Now don't you 'Grandma' me, Klein Kiesling. Although that would have been the ideal situation, you are ready to fend for yourself now. You know basically everything that I can teach you--the rest you must discover on your own, through experience. Alchemy is an instinctive art at its core, and book learning can only go so far. You are stronger than you know, Klein, and I am confident you will become a master alchemist."
"Grandma . . ." Klein looked down at the bedspread. "I don't . . . I don't want . . ."
She smiled at him. "I love you, Klein."
"I love you too, Grandma . . ." he replied, and left quickly so she wouldn't see his tears.
The tiny bedrooms were exactly as he had left them, sheets neatly made, books and objects from his childhood tucked away on the shelves. Lita sneezed as they entered his bedroom, and looked balefully over the year's worth of dust coating the room.
"This room was mine," he explained absently, stepping farther into the room. Lita walked over to the dresser.
"Oh, how cute!" she exclaimed, picking up the small stuffed rabbit sitting on the dresser. She shook off the dust and hugged it.
"That was one of my favorite toys when I was small," Klein said.
"It's adorable," she gushed.
"You can keep it, if you want..." he said, shrugging, a red tinge creeping into his cheeks.
"Really? Thank you so much, Klein!" She beamed at him.
"C-C'mon . . ." he said, the blush deepening. "I'll show you Grandma's room, next . . ."
More days passed, and Daphne seemed to be aging decades in the blink of an eye. Her hair was completely white, now, and there were fine lines across her features. Her movements were slow and labored, and she spent her time in bed.
It was halfway through the tenth day since her collapse when she called Klein into her room again. He approached the bed and the master alchemist smiled at him.
“Klein . . . I want to give you something.” Daphne slowly sat up, and a flash of pain flitted across her face. Klein made a little noise in his throat and made as if to help her back onto the pillows, but she batted his hand away. Shakily rising to her feet, she shuffled across the room, refusing Klein's protests to get whatever it was himself or to help her, and pulled a dusty volume down from the top shelf of her bookcase. She blew on it and then handed it to him. It was a heavy, leather bound volume, held shut with a strap and decorated with gold leaf.
"This is my alchemy journal . . ." She told him, sinking back down onto the bed. "It contains all of my notes, on everything I've taught you, and some things that I haven't . . . use it well."
"I . . . I can't take this, Grandma, it's yours . . ." he said, holding the book as if it were made of glass.
"Nonsense, child, it's no use to me now. Besides, I know it all by heart." She laughed, and started coughing. Klein hastened to her side, but she batted him away again. He could only watch as she continued coughing for another minute, before falling back onto her pillows again.
"Don't worry about me, Klein," she said, smiling at him. It was the face of a stranger, now. Her bright blue eyes were the only feature that her rapid deterioration had left unchanged.
"I have to, Grandma . . ." he said, trying not to choke on the words.
"I know you do, honey. But there's nothing you can do to prevent this. Nothing anyone can do . . ." Her eyes grew distant. "I'm tired now, child. Would you mind staying here while I take a nap?"
"Sure, Grandma," he said. "I'll stay with you forever."
They entered the bedroom, which was bigger than Klein's, but looked much smaller because it was incredibly cluttered. A large cauldron sat in one corner, the ashes beneath it cold and dark. There were many shelves full of books, and a table on which sat many small crystal test tubes and other experimental equipment. There were boxes of carefully preserved plant and animal specimens and on one wall, what looked like the stuffed head of a dragon.
"This was her bedroom, and her atelier, as you can see . . ." Klein said, looking at the clutter with a somewhat amused expression.
"Alchemists seem to have an affinity for collecting junk, don't they?" Lita remarked. Klein rolled his eyes, and Lita smirked. "Well, really. I'm not the one who kept picking up junk from all over the world and carting it home . . . We're fortunate that Delsus wouldn't let you keep more than nine of anything, or we wouldn't be able to fit through the door for all the items you'd have in there . . ."
"To be a successful alchemist one must have many talents," Klein said loftily, "one of which is being a pack rat."
He was smiling, now, which made Lita happy. He'd been acting depressed all morning and she was glad he was finally snapping out of it . . .
Or not. His eyes traveled around the room once more, and they settled on the neatly made bed.
"Klein?" she asked, as he walked over to it and sat down on the edge. He put his elbows on his knees and lowered his head into his hands.
She walked over and sat beside him, studying him carefully. "Klein . . . why did you want to come back here, anyway . . . ?"
"It's been . . . over a year, Lita," he said softly. "So much has changed since then . . . it feels like another life, almost. I guess I . . . just wanted to remember."
"But now that you do . . . it hurts," she finished.
"Yes. Very much so . . ."
He had awoken the next morning and found her dead.
She had a peaceful expression on her face, like she was merely sleeping, and having some pleasant dream. He hadn't let himself believe it at first. He spent ten minutes shaking her, calling her name, searching for a heartbeat, anything . . . but of course, there was nothing to be done. After a while he simply sat back down in the chair and cried.
Popo hovered by the bed in silence. His old alchemist was dead and his new one was in mourning. There was nothing he could do but wait.
They left the bedroom, and slowly toured the rest of the house, visiting the kitchen, the storeroom (which Lita was quick to point out, was packed to the ceiling with 'junk' Daphne had brought home) and the sitting room. Klein pointed out the painting hanging over the fireplace, which depicted Daphne and his parents, when he was just a baby.
They exited the house eventually, Klein tightly re-locking the door behind him, and circled around to the backyard. There in proud splendor lay the ancient twisted lando tree that had stood there since before Daphne had built the cottage and would probably still be standing when it fell to dust. It was the very same tree she had discovered Popo in, so many years ago. At the base of the tree were a neat line of gravestones, all of white marble and all with the name Kiesling. First in line were his mother and father, and then a slightly more weatherworn stone that was his long-dead grandfather, and then the newest of all, Daphne Kiesling, alchemist, mother, grandmother, and friend.
He walked up to his parent's stones, looking down at the names that were just beginning to show the touch of the elements. He stood contemplating them for a few minutes until he felt Lita come up behind him, wrap her arms around his waist and lean against his shoulders. He relaxed in her embrace, closing his eyes and listening to the wind. After a moment, he said softly, "I used to come here a lot when I was little, to play . . . I half thought that if I hung around long enough, maybe they'd come and play with me, too."
"Mm . . ." Lita said, managing to make the noise at once apologetic, amused, and inquisitive.
"I got over that eventually, but I still came here . . . Grandma never did, so it was a place where I could be alone."
He paused, and glanced at the stone on the end.
"She never really forgave herself, I think," he sighed "Although it wasn't her fault to begin with . . . She was gone a lot then, you see, with her research. My father hadn't followed her path and become an alchemist, so he and mother ran the local store . . . They'd dabbled at being mercenaries before they'd gotten married and settled down once they had me. They still helped out as monster hunters, once in a while, to help the villagers who couldn't protect themselves. But one day . . ."
Klein paused, and opened his eyes, staring blankly ahead. "I was five at the time. Grandma was out far away, searching for ingredients, and Mother, Father and I were at the shop in the village. Then, from out of nowhere, a huge baal swooped down on the town."
"A baal?" Lita asked. "You mean, like that awful thing Rurona summoned when she needed bat wings?"
"Yes, exactly . . ." Klein shuddered slightly, and Lita hugged him tighter. "I can still . . . remember . . . I was watching out the window and saw it come. Mother and Father told me to go and hide while they went and dealt with it . . . but they never came back . . ."
He didn't know what to do. He didn't know where to go. Mama and Papa had told him to stay in his bedroom, not to move until they returned, but they hadn't come for him. He crouched in the corner, knees pulled up to his chest, shivering with fear and waiting. But the hours passed and there was no cheerful "We're back!" from the entrance hall or the soft knock of his mother on the bedroom door. And long after the noise of the monster had faded away, strangers came in and found him there and took him into the living room and started talking to one another in excited tones and he had no idea what was going on . . . His parents were nowhere to be seen and the only thing the strangers wanted to tell him was, "We're so sorry . . ."
Just as Klein was ready to scream in frustration and force his parents to come to him, the door opened again and Grandma appeared, her face marred by a terrible expression he'd never seen on her before. She spotted him on the couch and swept him into her arms, muttering softly, "I'm so sorry," just like everybody else.
"What are you sorry about, Grandma?"
"Your mother and father . . ." She choked on her words. "Your mother and father have . . . gone away. And I . . . wasn't there to stop them."
Klein knew what she was trying to say, although she was too upset to tell him outright. His parents were dead. He was old enough now to recognize when grownups were trying to hide the truth from him, to keep him from being upset. He hugged his grandmother tighter, burying his face in her alchemist's garb, and she rested her chin on his head.
"Everything's going to be fine, Klein," she said, more to herself than to the child. "I'm going to take you home with me. There's a bedroom in the cottage you can have all to yourself, and we can read together and work in the garden and maybe I can even teach you about Alchemy. Would you like that?"
Klein nodded. Then, seized with a sudden, irrational dread, he asked, "You're not going to go away too, are you?"
"No, Klein, I'm not," she said, giving his hair a reassuring ruffle. "I'll always be here for you . . ."
"She didn't talk about them much after that . . ." he concluded. "Whenever she did, she'd start crying. She blamed herself, you see, for not being there, for not being able to help . . ."
"It wasn't her fault, though," said Lita.
"I know. But she still felt guilty . . . and I never really talked to her about it . . ."
He looked sad. Lita let go of his waist and moved to stand at his side. "Now you're the one feeling guilty."
"Yeah, maybe I am . . ."
He walked down the row of gravestones, dropping one of the flowers on his grandfather's grave, and then placed the rest of the bouquet on Daphne's. They were as white as snow, plucked from the base of Avenberry's mountains and kept fresh through alchemy during the journey. Klein had been hard pressed to hide his depression during their little journey to find flowers for Delsus' aged grandmother. He kept thinking on how he'd never brought flowers to his grandma. He'd brought frogs, of course, and sometimes monsters too--but never something as useless and meaningful as flowers.
He buried her the next day, beneath the shade of the lando trees, beside the graves of her husband and her son. It was a small, private ceremony, attended only by himself, Popo, and a half-dozen villagers whom Daphne had been acquainted with. Each put on a sad face and told him how terribly sorry they were and how kind his grandmother had been and how they knew she was in a better place now. And then they left, and went on with their lives, and Klein was left with the fragments of his.
He stood by the grave for an hour more, and then went into the house and packed his things. He locked the door behind him and never looked back.
"After she died, I just . . . took off." Klein said suddenly, still staring at the gravestone. "I couldn't stay here anymore, there was nothing left for me. Grandma had told me that alchemists usually wandered the world when they finished their book studies, to train and research new techniques. So I did as well. I started walking north, since I'd heard rumors of artifacts related to Alchemy there, and well . . . two days later, I ran into you." He shrugged. "And . . . here I am."
"Oh . . . Oh, Klein . . ." Lita looked stricken, putting a hand to her mouth. "Your grandmother had died only two days before we met? No wonder you were acting odd then . . . and I was so horrible to you, too . . ."
"It's fine, Lita . . . to be fair, I wasn't exactly a gentleman, myself . . ." he said, laughing slightly. "You had no way of knowing . . . and besides, I wasn't in the mood for pity."
"But still, I . . ."
"I thought you didn't want me to feel guilty?" he asked. "Don't you start it up yourself."
She laughed as well. "You're right, Klein."
They stood in companionable silence for a while, listening to the birdsong in the woods and the distant gurgle of the nearby river.
"I wish you could've met her, Lita," Klein said, finally. "She'd have liked you."
"As a person, or because I'm an interesting experiment?" she asked, jokingly.
"Both," Klein answered.
She rolled her eyes at him and laughed, then took his hand. "C'mon, if we
start heading back now, we can have dinner at that nice little inn we passed . . . unless you want to spend the night here?"
"Nah," said Klein, looking back at the house. "It was nice visiting, but . . . the past is the past. I've got to move on."
He squeezed her hand lightly. Lita stood staring into his eyes for a minute before she caught herself and started walking, leading him back to the front of the house.
"It was nice of you to bring those flowers for her," Lita said, as they strolled hand in hand back down the front walk, leaving the still annoyed squirrel to his tree in peace. "Very thoughtful . . ."
"Yeah, but she probably wouldn't have enjoyed them much anyway," he responded absently. "She was allergic . . ."
Then the meaning of his statement sunk in, and he started laughing.
"What is it?" she asked, confused.
"Oh, nothing, Lita," he said, grinning at her. "I've just been an idiot . . ."
"Tell me something I don't know," she replied playfully, punching him lightly on the shoulder.
"How about, you look very pretty when you're insulting me?"
"Knew that already too." She stuck her tongue out at him. "Come on, I'll race you!" She took off running down the walk, long brown hair whipping in her wake.
"H-hey! Wait! Lita!" He too began to run. Soon the sound of their footsteps and laughter died away, and the peaceful sound of nature once again dominated the clearing. A butterfly landed on the cut flowers decorating the gravestones, and the little squirrel descended from its tree to search for nuts again. The house stood silent sentinel over the garden, and time moved on once again.