Shinya Shida never knew his first job after graduating the school of his dreams, Brothad Academy, his first mission would be to inspect the lost village of Saint-Amand-de-Coly, alongside someone he had lost on purpose just for the sake of it.
The charcoal haired boy just could not help be with that other boy for more than ten minutes straight. How could the chairman of the Academy thought this could be a good idea? Joining the recent graduates into groups to explore places with troubles, being the ones with excellent grades with the ones with lower to complement themselves.
"This must be a great, huge joke." The Boy murmured once he made it into the place, walking into what most likely seemed to be a ghost town by the atmosphere of it.
The village is as it was before, just devoid of the warmth that made it worthy of that term. It is a collection of buildings, roads laid like a carpet for a queen that will never come. Banners hang with slogans to be read only by the dust-laden wind. The market is all set up like it awaits the stall holders at any moment. The only sound is the blackbird that cries as if it can bring back the people who left tasty scraps if only it calls loud enough. Against the wall of the old courthouse is a bicycle, the chain dangling on the sidewalk. Ahead is the clock tower, forever stuck at half past noon. If Shinya stands still enough perhaps the time is indeed frozen, perhaps is just his bones that don't realize it yet.
The houses stand in defiance of the people who fell. They are no vulnerable flesh but concrete and steel, not as timeless as the mountains that ring the village but able to outlast the civilization that created them by centuries. Given enough time even the smooth grey will give way to a jungle of green and this “ancient” civilization will lay ruined for future generations to discover and perhaps piece together how they lived. Shinya wondered while he walked if they'll know how we, with all our labor-saving devices could barely glean six hours sleep, and even when the opportunity to rest came our stress levels kept us unwillingly awake. But for now, all he can do is walk ant-like between the monoliths, grey at his feet, grey at every side, under a carpet of grey that promises nothing but a storm, while his magician cape and hat kept rustling in the wind.
The wind passes almost unhindered, crossing down the streets faster than a freight train and howling just the same. In the plaza, there are still the fashionable store signs for coffee shops and delis. How decadent life had become to offset the awfulness our stressful work-lives. To just get through those mind-destroying hours at a desk people had to pamper themselves with everything high fat and sugar, keeping their tastebuds infantile and their waistlines saggy.
Suddenly, Shinya stopped.
"Oh, I'm sounding like Amina right now," he murmured, shaking his head. "I need to reach this silly haunted house or whatever and see what is bothering the neighboring villages as if the atmosphere itself wasn't enough."
And that was when he saw the target. It matched perfectly with the picture the chairman had given him and that other unpleasant person. His eyes widened with excitement. It was made of faux-Victorian architecture and built in a landscape that bore eternal grudges. The fence looked so flimsy, unobtrusive, almost non-existent; it was just three strands of wire that you had to squint to see on a misty overcast day. But what it lacked in visual presence it more than made up for in punch. Pale cedar planks that were yet to see a drop of rain stood unvarnished in the blistering August sun. Five feet tall with a foot of trellis on top giving a peek of the neighbor's yard divided up into neat little rhomboid shapes.
A gigantic tree was to be the jewel of the garden. The way the owners planned it we would be drinking in the aromas of the late summer blooms, soothed by the dead dry waterfall between the two ponds and sinking into the delicate skin of homegrown organic fruits. After a busy winter and spring in the warehouse, sorting inventory before the big boss's audit, the neglected tree was in no state to be the jewel of anything. The bark had a sort of creeping mildew and the leaves were curled in an unhealthy way.
"It does look haunted indeed. However," he opened slowly the door, coming inside. "A magician never fears the unknown!"
Nonetheless, against the dark night sky, all Shinya could see was the crumbling walls that were nothing more than a ghostly silhouette of some previous existence. The wind whistled through the trees bringing with it the laughter of children who once lived there and the caring call of a mother letting them know dinner was ready.
The house had become aware of itself somehow, of the history that echoed within the walls. Somewhere within, mixed with the pain, were images of soft flowers. Yet, if inside felt stagnant, just as a river, it simply needed to flow. And so one day, after time unmeasured, the house opened each door and window. It shivered at first, for the wind felt cold and it was used to the dust and the odor of nothing.
It was about to close, to find a way to love the isolation, to become one with the rats who crawled and the sticky spider webs, when in came the fragrance of soft flowers. The house shivered again, but in a different way, this time there was a small fragment of warmth, a tiny brave smile on the walls.
There were days that old house did shut every door and window, times darkly shrunken from the world, hoping to be invisible. Yet, as the seasons changed, as Earth circled the sun, the doors and windows opened all the more. They say that the pain blew right out of that house a little at a time and the nature that house craved entered a little at a time - the birdsong, blossom, and sunshine.
"This house is definitely strange..."
"Well, Shinya-kun, it is easy to say that abandoned houses tend to creak, not in the creepy horror movie kind of a way, generally speaking, but more of in the "oh shit, I should probably get out of here before this thing collapses on me" kind of a way. This was a house that had you hesitant to even step through the doorway. I saw you tremble even with that brave speech!"
"That voice... Izuno!!" Shinya turned around just to meet his companion's gaze.
"Geeze, it was rude of you to abandon me like that, y'know..." pouting, he made his way inside.
Izuno Imaizumi's tan wasn't all that dark, not something anyone would comment on. It made him softer, like a sepia tone in a photograph; delicate golden browns, darkening as the seasons wore on, giving his skin a gentle hue that brought out the amber of his eyes. In contrast, Shinji was so pale that they called them some sort of ying-yang duo which wasn't even a duo due to the fact that Shinya could not even stand the guy but had to endure it for the sake of being Amina's best friend.
And the girl who I just betrayed a few years of friendship and most likely will destroy me today when Izuno comes back to the Academy's dormitories 'cause I stole what was hers: the title of the most brilliant outstanding student.
"So? What's our mission?" Izuno whispered while entering the room, his mahogany hair being a mess under the pointy hat.
"You have not even read the mission? For Mashya's sake!" cursed Shinya. "Look, I do not want to spend an eternity here, so let's do it this way, you search the first floor and I will—"
Yet, it was a second too late. Izuno had already started the second floor.
"Come back here you—!"
Running up the stairs, Shinya thought the pictures followed his every movement.
Pictures are just conduits to best memories, the ones that are not fantastic enough or traumatic enough to leave a permanent mark on their own. Recollections are quite the opposite of these celluloid stills unless someone visits them often they will fade; and with them, the very best of everyone who has blessed their life will vanish from their mind also—as if none of it ever happened. It was in those quieter moments of joy Shinya saw the people beneath their troubles. That's when he noticed the pictures were clean.
That's why he stopped.
"The house, even if abandoned and with spider webs... it's clean." Shinya held a hand under his chin.
"So ya think we need to be careful?" Izuno crossed both arms under his neck, still walking.
It is easy to say that abandoned houses tend to creak, not in the creepy horror movie kind of a way, generally speaking, but more of in the "oh for Mashya, I should probably get out of here before this thing collapses on me" kind of a way. This was a house that had you hesitant to even step through the doorway.
That said, he stepped through anyway, ignoring the stupid creaking from the beginning, the Iznuno incident happened and now he was trying to catch him. It wasn't collapsing any time soon, and, if it did, he was going to survive even if it was only a premonition just for now
Shinya passed by cracked windows and moldy browned wooden walls with water stains painting as scars upon the skin. Slivers of light shone from the outside as if invited in to ignite these dusty hues. He walked through narrow doorways, yet ignored them, his eyes still searching. He was going to find what the chairman asked for, he was sure.
The old, stupid man had practically told him where it was. At that point, he could almost smell it, nearly taste it, like curdled milk on his tongue.
Shinya stopped when he came to a collapsed doorway. Izuno was there, staring at it perplexed. Wooden planks barred them from entering, still there from when the northern side of the house had fallen on itself. The boards were cracked and splintery, enough that he could tell it was recent. Still, he had to check.
Shinya approached, peering through the slats, the light streaming in. It looked just like the rest: quaint in size, aging, and creepy. A small bed, fitted for a kid, sat at one end, with a broken night table plopped next to it. The floorboards were caved and broken, leaving the two simple pieces of furniture sloped towards the dirt waiting for them. Then he still saw it... and went pale.
"Shinya?" Izuno asked when he saw his friend cower back in fear.
"T-There..." he said, pointing where he looked.
Izuno did the same, however, his reaction was different.
"Oh boy, this is my lucky day! We NEED to get these things out of the way!"
"A-Are you insane!?" he blurted. "W-W-What if...?"
"What if what?"
"Nevermind... We need to get to that place anyway." Recomposing himself, Shinya tried to think of reasons why one half was clean and the other all dusty. He shrugged his shoulders, trying not to overthink, after all, that wasn't his work. "If only Amina was here."
"Amina was mad at you."
"You stole her most precious thing..."
"It's just a stupid title!"
And so, they began to work.
The fence of sodden planks loosely nailed to an equally sodden and rotting wooden frame was a frail defense against the imaginary intruders One good kick and it would probably have fallen over, or at the very least a plank would have fallen out. The ivy that grew thickly to the left of the fence she once thought would tear it down, now she thought it was probably holding it up.
"Why would a plant be growing here?" Shinya thought out loud.
"Stop mumbling and start helping!"
But with a single spell, without any voice coming out from his mouth, Shinya burned a small portion of the obstacle.
"Of course, showoff," Izuno said spitefully with a playful tone.
And when they walked into the room, they witnessed it: A pure, white room.
It was the kind of brilliant white that would even make new snow look grey, the kind of white that sears into your retinas and makes you temporarily blind. However, it also held some strange familiarity to their own country, far far away and it gave away as well that it belonged to a girl.
Her room was like a wonderland for comic driven recluses. The walls were a deep white that pulsed in the light sprinkled with various posters, mostly of strange TV shows. Shinya doubted she could read whatever was written on the poster. Her comforter was pulled over her bed, even though she hadn't cleaned it. The result was lumps of varying sizes and shapes and the comforter was weighed down by her own body. A desk sat in one corner, littered with wadded up pieces of paper and pens. A few shelves were pushed against the walls and filled with books. Some books sat on the floor in front of the shelves.
However, the most amazing experience was seeing that said girl sleeping just like a beauty from a fairytale in her bed. Her hands cupped up together, while a veil covered her waiting for a prince to come and wake her up.
The sun shining across her face.
With an ease that the world craves to grasp, but never seems to capture.
For it keeps spinning and swirling around, chaos leaking from its pores. Blind, others wander the earth searching, no… yearning, and starving for the peace that this phantom has already achieved. Yet she sleeps alone, eyes closed to the world and its troubles. A brief smile stretches across her face as a gust of wind encircles her, a small flower lying in her clasped hands.
Examining her appearance, she was wearing a simple, long white tattered white dress that made Shinya wonder for home many years she had been actually sleeping there all along and if maybe she was the cause of this strange incident.
Upon closer inspection, she looked tranquil and quite innocent.
In another place, another time, perhaps the girl's ancestry would have been an advantage. Her skin was almost without pigment and her hair the palest orange possible, each strand almost translucent when seen on its own; hair tumbled forwards over her face, bleached whiter by the sun. But in the heat and sun, she was covered head to toe in cloth to avoid burning and few could afford the light and beautiful silks. The orange strands turned a dull brown at the roots, though if they matched her brows and lashes you'd never know it. Neither of them had ever seen a face so heavily made up, especially on one so young.
"Maybe if I kiss her she'll wake up?" Izuno said, moving up the curtain.
"Don't you even dare, Amina would kill you!"
"And me alongside the process..."
"I would appreciate it if you do not wake me up with such barbarian ways used in fairy tales, I am quite awake and you interrupted my nap!" her sharp voice startled Shinya and Izuno, while she manifested some magic from her index finger and a wooden branch attacked us and missed us. "Tch."
"That was rude!" Izuno blurted.
"You were the rude ones! Entering a girl's room without knocking... and waking me up..."
"I am deeply sorry um..." Shinya got interrupted.
"Whitehurst. Zinnia Whitehurst, what shall my intruder's names be?" her eyes were a mix of scarlet and white staring at them.
"Whitehurst-san, excuse our imprudence. My name is Shinya and this is my partner Izuno. We are from Brothad Academy and came here to explore some mysteries regarding this village."
"Ah yes, I came here to do the exact same thing but I must have fallen asleep." She admitted without shame. "Now then, we shall be a party of three."
"It seems dangerous though missus," Izuno commented. "I know you can attack with branches but..."
"Do not underestimate the powers of a legal apothecary, my dear boy."
And that's when Shinya saw what true, authentic, materia medica was.
"Tutte quelle scorie si trasformeranno in oro. Tutto ciò che è bloccato fluirà chiaramente. Portando benedizioni chiare e audaci!"
A light enveloped her body.
It was the kind of brightness that sears into your retinas making you close them for fear of going blind; a brightness that would make fresh snow look grey and dull. It was a brightness to rival the sun itself.
A flower that had been a tight bud in her hands (Shinya had no idea when she took it out once he could see once again) had begun to open, already had a deeper blush of pink. The winter should still be in force but already spring had pushed it back to moderate temperatures and the kind of gentle breeze you don't notice unless you stop and be present in the moment.
Zinnia stretched out her fingers to touch the silky pink petals, they were cooler than she'd expected, smoother too. She tried to will it to open faster, to see the beauty she knew was inside. But nature has its way, its timing, and it wasn't ready yet. A few more days of warmth and it would bloom, she just had to wait. However, the spell made it activate faster until it opened and became the most beautiful thing both boys had ever seen in their lives.
The blossom arrives like cake frosting inside the white room in delicious creams and pinks. The petals burst out from lower down the branches leaving the tips still in tight bud. After the denuded trees of winter, he had seen outside, their new and splendid clothes are a joy to see. Shinya wanted a step ladder to get close enough for their new-season aroma.
"What is happening...?"
"This is magic... Flower Magic!" Zinna explained matter-of-factly, yet proud of herself. "Now with a little bit of this..."
The orange haired girl let go of nine drops of an essence in a mister of rose water, along with eighteen drops of another unknown essential oil and nine more drops another quintessential oil. Shaking them to blend, then holding them between the petals, she repeated her spell:
"Tutte quelle scorie si trasformeranno in oro. Tutto ciò che è bloccato fluirà chiaramente. Portando benedizioni chiare e audaci!" Stretching her hands, she added; "Undesirable conditions, become into beautiful new ones."
It takes a second or two for the new information to sink it, even though it is right before their eyes, larger than life. Then, Shinya and Izuno feel their lips stretch wider into a gaping grin and their eyebrows arch for the sky. She's made it. And in the seconds that follow they can feel her squeezing her arms around the sparkling light that surrounded her and the potion that laid in her hands plus a wand made of branches which were simple and seemed to be a temporary placeholder.
"What was all that!? It was AMAZING!" Izuno approached her. "I never knew flowers could be used for alchemy!"
"Blasphemy! This isn't alchemy you pig! This is what an apothecary does. They use herbs, and... and stuff!" Zinnia puffed both cheeks while the room returned to normal.
Nonetheless, Shinya stared at her in awe, wondering how one so fragile and tiny could achieve this level of talent. She moved with feeling while chanting her magic, pouring forth an outburst of emotions through her movements, not only moving her body but transferring the words and people that watched her in pure amazement, her actions somber, her eyes filling with heartbreak and tears.
Shinya, somehow, felt her feelings, without her even saying a word to him. He didn't know what could make her so miserable, but that feeling flowed through her, reaching up and touching him. It was truly breathtaking.
It reminds me of Amina, that feeling. Perhaps that's why.
Shinya shaked his head, he had no time to think about something he was innocent of.
“Now we shall depart towards the unknown!” with her flower staff on hand, Zinna pointed towards a random spot, both boys sighing having no idea what they had gotten themselves into.
After exploring the old, abandoned house for a while, nothing of relevance could be found. In fact, Shinya was starting to forget what their original mission was and why they were following the girl who they just met.
“Say, Izuno,” he whispered. “We should remember our true purpose instead of going around this mansion.”
“Yeah, however, I think we should still stick with her since she’s our best bet to stay alive in this place. From what I heard there is a vengeful spirit here.” He replied, trying to hide his inner fears.
“Vengeful spirit?” Shinya tilted his head.
“Why yes, my dear boy. That is one of the things I came here to do… I think.” Zinna interrupted them, letting them know she could hear their secret conversation so plotting something against her would be useless. “We need to reach the deepest part of this place in order to cleanse it!”
“Well, good luck with that…” sighed Shinya. “We have another mission ongoing so—”
“OF COURSE, we’ll help!” Izuno yelled. “You seem to know this place pretty much so if we stick with you there are zero chances of us getting lost. Plus, if we help you, you could help us in return and it’s a win-win situation amirite?”
“Sounds plausible,” she meditated. “We help ourselves 50/50.”
Is this really happening?
“So, since we’ve reached an agreement, let’s explore the most suspicious place ever in a haunted or abandoned house!” Izuno stretched both arms. “The b-a-s-e-m-e-n-t.”
“Smart thinking, young one!” Zinnia patted him strongly on the back, and Shinya could see Izuno’s face been transformed into total pain. “Now then, let’s go!”
“Go, go!” Shinya’s partner illuminated the tip of his magic wand and everyone started to walk to the first floor again, towards a suspicious place even more downstairs.
There was a door, one that looked much like any other cupboard, except it lacked the usual grubby marks about the handle. In some households that might be a sign of a house-proud owner, but not this one. He opened it slowly. Beyond was a narrow staircase, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling to illuminate the bare boards below. Without touching the dark side-rail, the trio descended, his nose wrinkling before he could place what the stench could be.
“Wine?” murmured Zinnia.
“But how could it smell so bad?” asked Izuno.
“Bad conservation techniques.” Added Shinya.
The basement was once a wine cellar. The most exclusive vintages of the Kingdom were shelved in wooden racks, trusted to the natural refrigeration of the soil behind the dense stone walls. There are ancient brackets for candles every few feet, but it's been so long since they were used that there isn't even any waxy residue on them. It smells musty but in the dim light provided by the single bare bulb that dangles from the ceiling they couldn’t see any water seeping in. It's larger than it seems from the doorway, and there are some alcoves built in.
That was when they saw a covered mirror.
The looking glass that they stared into is wall-mounted; encircled by a frame of thread-like strands of silver, interlaced together in a mock-liana arrangement.
The mirror had that patina of age over the bronze frame, likewise, the surface of the glass was splotched black in places. Shinya stood and stared at himself, or at least the distorted image of himself. The mirror showed him the boy the world saw, all they saw, somehow it didn't seem right. Inside he was fireworks and rage, love and frustrations, ambition and fear. All they saw was an appearance you forget while you're still looking at them. He ran a finger over the frame, feeling its cool ridges and grooves and the layer of dust that clung.
“Don’t touch it!” Zinnia yelled, but it was a tad late.
The air is suddenly rent by the sound of breaking glass. Other than a gunshot there is nothing that gets Izuno’s attention sooner or heart accelerating faster. As always, he threw himself towards Shinya to get him out of the edge cutting shards. Breaking glass almost never heralds anything good.
At first, the crack in the glass is small, barely the length of a hairpin. It shines almost bluish in the subdued light that filters through the ocean. It's Zinnia that spies it first, running her bare finger over the top to see if it is all the way through. Before the distress button can even be depressed it accelerates, branching like a drunk spider's web before imploding.
“Are you okay?” Izuno gasped.
“Yeah… what happened? It suddenly exploded and cracked…” Shinya held his head, utterly confused.
“A crack runs across the glass, finding the weaknesses that were once invisible.” Zinnia crossed her arms, meditating. “It seems we found our wandering spirit!”
“Then what shall we do? This is ridiculous…” sighed Shinya.
“We got to capture them if not this village will remain as it is forever!” Zinna was ready to attack.
“I won’t let you hurt me even more!”
A mysterious voice sent chills down their spines, and by the art of magic, they were sent flying from the basement back to the first floor.
That’s when Shinya, Izuno, and Zinna began screaming, not knowing what to do at what they were experiencing.
Yet, it was the way Nogal was greeted once he and the others entered the house, unable to comprehend the unusual situation that was going on.