Do you know about Runa Arakawa? No, you don’t? Really? Oh, of course, forgot that you refuse to study your history books because you are a delinquent. If you did, then this entire story may be very different to you. Very well, then. I’ll let the girl speak for herself...
All that was in the air was the smell of melting rock and lake water. The ground was damp, and each step Emi took made a mushing sound that was growing increasingly difficult to ignore.
She’d never been this far north in Balarand. It was far past the castle and the wealthy neighborhoods, close to a river port where even in winter the place smelled vaguely of rotting fish.
Was she out of place up here? Would the people who lived here notice that she was one of the affluent, uncaring folk who let Dannark occupy their kingdom and overthrow their leader? She hadn’t dressed in anything fancy, but she still felt uncomfortable, like every passing person would probably pause and pick her out.
Well, if there were any ruffians that thought she was an easy mark, that was okay. Beatrice would be there to protect her. She knew magic and all that.
“So, Tris, you never explained,” Emi said. “Why are we going to some girl’s house?”
“She asked me to,” Beatrice said. “I don’t want to elaborate further and spoil the, uh, surprise.”
They had walked all the way up town, close to the port heading up the Balarand River, where the houses were less compact and the city wasn’t as bustling anymore. Both wore warm clothes to protect against the winter; Emi had a toboggan on her head, and Beatrice had a scarf wrapped around her neck.
Not more than a block away from the lakefront, they reached one unassuming, dark blue house with a nice porch, cozy with one floor. Beatrice walked up to the front door and knocked on it. Now they had to wait.
In the distance, off the shore towards the Balarand River, laid a floating dock where several ships were anchored down to unload goods without going all the way to the main port. Another two boats were there for repairs, after they had collided with one another just hours earlier.
In the other direction from the port, there was a large smelt mill, burning up ore and creating lead for use in materials of all sorts. Sparks of fire and billowing smoke flew out of the chimney at the top. This was certainly not an area Emi would have imagined to find houses in, but she had learned recently that a lot of her assumptions about life in Balarand were completely wrong.
“Now that we’ve known each other for a few months, I must reveal one more thing about myself,” Beatrice began, her tone taking a sordid turn. “I will share with you my darkest secret. My most tragic responsibility.”
With all this build-up, Emi couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. With all this build-up. Her heart raced.
A dainty old lady opened the door to greet them, and Beatrice gave a sigh of relief. “Oh, Gods, Ms. Arakawa, you’re still fine.”
The woman gave a wide smile and exclaimed, “Little Bea! Come on in!” Emi gave Beatrice a sly glance and she shot a dirty look in return.
They entered the house. It was small and homely, decorated with various knicknacks gathered from throughout the city, and a bookshelf filled with assorted titles--some fiction, some nonfiction, some religious.
“That’s a lot of books,” Emi said.
“Yep. Back when they lived near Knoll Park, I loved coming over so I could read. Back when I used to... babysit.”
Beatrice was a babysitter, huh? That was her dark scary secret? It sounded cute to Emi. She wondered what Beatrice was like around children. Oh no, she was blushing already.
“I’ve made you some pastries,” Mrs. Arakawa said, carrying a tray of baked goods towards the two girls. “You make yourself at home while Runa gets ready for whatever she’s got going on. Oh, that girl.”
Emi and Beatrice sat down on the couch, and Beatrice took one of the pastries. Beatrice took a bite and squealed. “Delicious.”
Emi didn’t eat anything and laid her head on Beatrice’s shoulder. “Are you ever going to tell me what’s going on?”
There was a loud banging sound from below them.
“You’re about to find out.”
A door at the side of the room swung open, and smoke began pouring out. A short figure wearing a blacksmith’s goggles emerged from the room, hands on hips in a defiant pose. Her face was covered in grime and soot. Emi jumped to her feet in shock.
She lifted the goggles off her face and gave a toothy grin. “You received my message. Excellent,” she said with a nasally snicker.
“Runa, hey, long time no see,” said Beatrice, cringing through her teeth.
Emi couldn’t place Runa’s age, but she definitely seemed a bit younger than the two of them. She was also a runt, standing at just over four and a half feet tall, with a plump face and bushy eyebrows. As a sign of a times, even a girl her age was already wearing ink-black lipstick.
She took off her gloves and walked over to the couch, where she took a pastry. She noticed Emi and glared.
“H-hi,” Emi greeted. “I’m Emi L’Hime.”
Runa grabbed Emi’s hand and kissed the top of it, leaving behind a dark smear. “You are a delight, milady.”
Emi stared at her hand for a second. She laughed in bewilderment. Beatrice rolled her eyes.
“Mom! I’m going to show these two my laboratory,” Runa shouted to her mother, who was in the kitchen making something.
“That’s nice, honey.”
“We’re going down,” she shouted again. She didn’t seem to need to ask for permission, but was seeking it anyway. Aw, she was a good kid at heart. “Follow me, ladies.”
They went into the smoke-filled room, which was actually a staircase down into a basement. “That’s the reason they moved away,” Beatrice said. “They needed a real house with a basement. For Runa’s work.”
“What work is that?” Emi asked.
Beatrice pointed towards Runa’s laboratory.
It was a chaotic mess of papers, runic symbology scrawled on walls and tables with rocks and tiny critters laying about. For anyone worried about cleanliness, this would be like looking at a warzone. Strangely, Emi felt a wave of calm wash over her instead.
“This is where I make the magic happen,” Runa proclaimed, stretching out her hands as if her laboratory were a natural wonder. “Quite literally speaking.”
She gestured to her table covered in large stones. “Right here is my golem dissection project. I have been trying to figure out what part of the rock is able to store magical energy and coordinate with other pieces to form the magical creature known as a golem. They have been known to form around pieces of ice, too, but last time I attempted to study one of those, it melted before the shipment arrived...”
“She shipped an ice golem to Balarand? Who is this girl?” Emi asked in a whisper as Runa continued rambling.
“Her father was a prominent businessman many years ago, but when he died, he gave his entire inheritance to his lover and newborn daughter instead of his wife and legitimate children. Ms. Arakawa is the fifth-richest person in the city.”
“Oh, wow.” Emi’s immediate thought was that Runa’s mother budgeted pretty well, then, from the looks of the house and area, and then realized that normal people don’t think about that kind of thing and she should stop being a rich brat.
“...And that brings us to the reason I needed to contact you so urgently, Ms. Ragnell,” Runa continued, talking like she were giving a lecture and not actually speaking to someone. “I have reached a crucial phase in the Homunculus Project.”
She beckoned to a table covered in glass, housing a dozen small rabbits jumping around and sleeping and eating from their bowls. “I have ventured into the furthest reaches of the fabric of soul magic. With this, I am one step closer to using the soul to create new life. I will become a God among mortals!” She cackled.
“What did you do?” Beatrice asked, peering at the rabbits closely.
“You cannot see? You were always rather simple, so I will explain. These rabbits, just one week ago, were no mere rabbits. They were insect larvae I found crawling outside my house!”
“Wow,” Emi exclaimed. “Pretty neat.” She had read about this sort of soul transfiguration magic when she was studying about magical incantations with Beatrice, but she thought it was only theoretical. This was certainly not theoretical!
“More than simply neat, my dear. I have transmuted them into new life, and now I will use this power to transmute them all into one being!”
She flipped a nearby switch, which set ablaze a furnace directly underneath the table full of bunnies. A large crystal dangling on a chain dropped from above and crashed onto the table. The crystal shattered and magical energy began swirling around inside the glass...
And then all the bunnies evaporated, dying in a fiery flash. Their bones turned to dust.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen... My calculations must be in error.” Runa ran off to a table to pore over some indecipherable papers, and left Emi and Beatrice to gaze at the carnage by themselves.
Beatrice looked down at the ground and covered her face with her palm. Her glasses tilted. “This was such a bad idea. I’m really sorry for--”
“This is so cool,” Emi said. “Thank you for bringing me here, Tris. I couldn’t have asked for a better date.”
She gave her a hug.