There were few alchemists who also wielded the power of magic.
Not because the two disciplines were mutually exclusive. On the contrary, alchemy and magic were, in many respects, two sides of the same coin. Together, they created wonders greater than the tallest castle. And yet the traditional rivalry between the two studies had sunk as many endeavours as it had created. Alchemy was always viewed as the poor man's magic. Wrongly, too. For what was alchemy, but magic of the mind?
Marina Lainsfont was living proof of that.
A brilliant alchemist and a mage with few peers, she transcended the line between both genius and gifted. She willed the power of fire as easily as winter commanded snow. Her alchemical concoctions could cure disease as easily as she could spread it.
Between her spells and her cauldrons, Marina Lainsfont was the pride of both professions.
Yes, even when fully naked.
Marina stumbled as she landed on the raised pedestal in her workshop.
She recovered swiftly, despite the magical feedback coursing through her body. The only thing harder than casting that apocalyptically complicated spell was cancelling it. She'd never had to do that before. And she had to do it at short notice.
Ignoring the blisters and burns pinching her bare soles, she swept into her small bedroom and fished out whatever wrinkled robes and undergarments were first to reach her.
Then, she stopped.
Like a statue remembering to pose as stiffly as possible, Marina stood to attention as sweat started pouring down her face.
They … They knew what she wore underneath.
As if her loss wasn't en … no, it wasn't a loss. How could it be?
She hadn't been bested by superior spellcraft. Few would have. She had self-evaluated herself to be an A-rank mage. Not even the weirdos in Lotus House could have stayed standing against her if she willed them to the ground.
No, she had not been bested. Not even by that ridiculous scythe. A scythe! Of all the things she'd heard about Ouzelia, none of that included wielding a farming instrument as a weapon.
And an incredibly effective one when there was little room to manoeuvre.
That was the only reason she'd been forced back. Was a scythe suitable as a weapon of warfare? Doubtful. There was no risk of soldiers marching in formation with such a terrifyingly impractical weapon. But as a weapon of simple-minded murder in a closed space?
Why, it was incredibly useful.
Marina shivered. And it had nothing to do with her state of undress. She'd barely escaped that encounter with the clockwork doll. It wasn't just her weapon. It was how she used it. The speed. The strength. The precision.
It was not Marina's choice to blast everything with fire and hope something hit. She was no third-year dropout from the Royal Institute of Mages. Or worse, some fresh-faced apprentice from the Mage's Guild. Yet it didn't take the genius she was to know that striking a leaping cat was harder than simply blasting the entire room it was jumping around in.
And it still hadn't worked!
Marina seethed as she stuffed her clothes on. Those two were still there. Down the well she'd near enough dug herself. Neither the caverns nor the chamber were fully natural. She'd sculpted it to her needs, first as a summoning base, and second as a conduit ground. It'd taken her years of preparation to get that blighted plague to work.
Now it was over. She could no longer maintain control over the Withering.
She clenched her teeth as she pulled her socks on. The Withering. A name as cheap as it was devoid of the factual functions of the spell. But no matter how the simpletons called it, it left her too exposed to maintain while every poorly paid guard and hotshot adventurer in the lowlands had an eye on her inevitable bounty.
At least … if that's how she allowed things to proceed.
Her plans for the lowlands hadn't ended just yet.
She still had a choice. It was life or death. Not for her. But for those two. She chose death. More than death, in fact. Anyone who saw that corset needed to be thoroughly obliterated from this world. How was she supposed to explain that it was the only thing she had to wear? She was a mage, an alchemist, and a shopkeeper. In none of those things were keeping up with the laundry strictly required. That corset wasn't even hers. Or it was, but it was a gift. She didn't want it. She'd never even worn it before!
No, they had to die.
Especially the clockwork doll—thoroughly. She couldn't risk her being rebuilt and her memory core salvaged. It'd be difficult in her state, but she could do it. That doll was possibly at the level of the Red Knight, if he'd been drinking all night again. And Marina was stronger than that drunkard.
Marina sucked in a deep breath.
Her mana was depleted. But that was little issue. She had more stores of mana potions hidden throughout her store than her body could physically consume. She just needed her staff. Her actual one, not the prop she used as a child.
And then, she could deal with those ridiculous girls.
Was this how she was viewed when she was younger? If so, it was little wonder why the other children all seemed to despise her. Simple jealousy didn't explain it. Quite the opposite. There'd been no envy in their eyes. Just as their was none in hers now. It just annoyed her how unworthy those two were.
A girl whose sword could pierce the armour of her own creation. And a clockwork doll literally built to be superior. No matter how much anyone trained, how could they compete with a sword filled with more enchantments than a mage's tower? Or a clockwork doll whose cogs were hardier than both bone and muscle?
It was unfair.
And now she understood the stones the children had thrown at her. The unfairness was palpable. But she wasn't planning to toss stones. She'd tried that, anyway.
No, it was time to throw the entire ground.
That chamber would be their grave.
“Hey, hey. I didn't even get a good look. Think you can pick another robe for me? Red, if you can. It goes well with your narcissism.”
Marina swivelled around, fire blazing in her hands.
It wasn't because she didn't recognise who the bearer of that disgustingly sweet voice was, though. She could never forget. It was just so—grating. And if there was an opportunity to set her alight, then let self-defence be her witness.
“Really? You're going to be like that?”
The girl standing at the doorway crossed her arms and leaned to the side, not even bothering to feign unease at the flames burning in Marina's hands. But when were their meetings ever less than dramatic? She never dropped by for a cup of tea and a chat. Nor would Marina have ever invited her for one.
“I'm busy. Go away.”
The girl smiled, toying with the cuff of her checkered sleeve. Marina watched that part of her uniform carefully. She'd seen more than playing cards come out from there, although that's not to say they themselves weren't hideously dangerous.
“Sure, with you. It's time to exit, stage left.”
“I'm not finished. If you have a table to get to, I won't stop you. Don't you have customers to scam?”
“The House always wins. We don't need to scam.”
“That's a scam.”
“It's not. The winning percentages are all clearly written.”
“Convincing customers they can win despite the odds is a scam.”
“That's not a scam. That's just charisma. You should try it. Or is that wide-eyed shopkeeper thing the most alluring thing you've got?”
Marina fell silent. That front, brief as it was, was no longer available to her.
At least, as long as this girl kept distracting her.
“I have unfinished business,” she said, turning back to gather her staff from the concealed hatch. “Very time-sensitive unfinished business.”
“I know you do. You were discovered.”
Marina frowned. They'd been watching her.
“A temporary oversight. This will be amended momentarily.”
Marina turned around, scarcely believing the sheer presumptuousness of this girl.
Who was she to tell her what she could or could not do? Rolstein was not her playground. There wasn't a single casino in sight.
“You've done enough,” the girl added, fearless in the face of Marina's displeasure. “Destroying the town will not be helpful. Or have you forgotten why you were allowed to return? Have you not had enough of hearth and home yet?”
Marina turned away, only now extinguishing her flames. She would've turned away from everything if she could. Home had long since stopped to be here.
“I don't take orders from you.”
“You don't. Which is why I'm not the one giving them.”
Marina clicked her tongue. And yet not all of her poor mood was simply from allowing those two pests to walk free. She wasn't finished here. She still had work to do. More than any of these people would ever know, in fact.
And she planned to keep it that way. For now.
“... Fine. Where are you taking me?”
“Nowhere. You're taking me somewhere, though. We need to visit our winged friends, but they've sealed the door and swallowed the keys. You know a way inside.”
It wasn't a question, but a statement.
Knowing it was time to depart, Marina felt for her satchel, then remembered it had left her, such was the crudeness of the spell she'd been forced to cast.
For a brief moment, she thought about the letter that'd been left behind.
And then, she pushed it out of her mind. Another memory. Another regret. Another distraction. She needed none of those things.
All she needed was her work. And her results.
With those thoughts in her mind, she snapped her fingers. Once. Twice. Thrice.
The forbidden spelltome appeared with an ear grating bang. It wasn't suited for being kept in a dimensional pocket. But it wasn't suited for not being returned, either. It didn't fall into her hands. Instead, it veered away, as though hoping to bounce all the way back to the library shelf to which it belonged.
One day, it'd return.
But it wouldn't be via the hands of that clockwork doll. The next time they met, it wouldn't be in a chamber restricted by her own design of half the spells available to her. Nor would she be alone.
Well, neither would the clockwork doll, if she truly did serve as that other girl's attendant. Although she didn't believe that likely. The workers of that library already had a master, and it wasn't some bored nobleman's child playing at heroine. She'd defeated her stone golem, true. But that was clearly down to the strength of her enchanted sword. Frankly, she couldn't even be ranked. That girl didn't have the poise of a swordswoman. In fact, she didn't look like she had a single day's training in her life.
No, Marina had nothing to fear from her. The clockwork doll, on the other hand ...
Well, no matter. If either one of them survived long enough in the coming days to prove a nuisance to this insufferable girl dressed like she was about to oversee a poker table for perverts, she'd condone their temporary existence. Even longer than temporary, if necessary.
Marina Lainsfont did, after all, have all the time in the world.
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