Chapter 16: Alexis
By Renko Doremi Rodenburg
Maxwell paced back and forth near the window as Alexis carefully slid flexible glass cables into the intravenous ports on his forearms.
Both the intravenous ports and the flexible glass had been his own invention, irreproducible outside Luson. He double checked his equipment, and turned on the filtration machine.
In his veins flowed not the blood that filled the veins of lesser men. Instead, he had replaced all of the fluid with alchemical philters that conducted the soul far better than blood ever would. This, too, was of his own devising. The downside was that none of his organs were functional anymore after flooding his veins with mercury for years, and that his biological processes slowly decayed the crystalline fluids. This necessitated running all of his blood through a filter once a week, before impurities built up enough to have an impact on his health.
From his veins, dulled and muted colours were sucked into the large, glass filtration device he had built. Slowly, the fluids were separated into seven individual components by rotating flasks, the contents of which were then ran through various filtering devices before bright, colourful crystalline fluids were fed back into Alexis’s veins through intravenous drip-feed.
“Is this going to take long?” Maxwell asked him, still pacing back and forth at the window of Alexis’s laboratory.
“About six hours,” Alexis answered.
“Jesus,” Maxwell said. An unknown deity that the boy sometimes swore by- another thing that made him suspicious. “And you have to go through this every week?”
“It’s fine,” Alexis said.
It had been a week since mirror-girl and the two strangers had come tumbling out of the mirror in the spire attic. He had been trying to get some semblance of information out of them, which had proven extremely frustrating. So far he had concluded that Mary had most likely been displaced through time- although that theory had several issues- and that Fleur had originally disappeared from the spire because Maxwell had somehow hidden or cloaked her. Where Maxwell had come from was still a mystery. The boy’s primary talent of “being hard to notice” seemingly extended to a metaphysical level, making it as if he did not exist at all.
Which was worrying. If it was possible to vanish like that, were other people doing that as well? The boy dressed like a monk, so perhaps there was an entire monastery of intangible, invisible beings somewhere.
The door to the laboratory opened, and Mary entered, carrying a tray with a teapot and several cups.
Alexis had forbidden the three from leaving the palace of Autumn after bringing them there, but only Maxwell and Mary had obeyed him. Fleur frequently left, and implied there would be consequences for getting in her way.
There were books in the royal library written about Fleur, and none of them implied anything pleasant.
“Around elves,” Maxwell said. “Watch yourselves.”
This was the twenty-second time Maxwell had replied to something Alexis had thought but not said. He’d been mentally tracking it to try and figure out a mechanism behind the boy’s seeming clairvoyance, but wasn’t closing in on an answer as of yet.
“Here you go,” Mary said with a big smile as she poured Alexis a cup of tea. “Can you drink it yourself with all those tubes in your veins? Or should I help you drink it?”
“I can drink it myself,” Alexis replied. “The tubes are quite flexible, I can move my arms around if I’m careful.”
“Okay,” Mary said, only half convinced. Maxwell side-eyed her anxiously.
Of the three, Mary came across as by far the least threatening. This made Maxwell’s anxiety around her all the stranger. The three seemed caught up in some complicated spiderweb of conspiracies and plots, and were forthcoming about none of them.
With Autumn and Gunthilde hospitalized and Tintenzunge running the royal court in His absence, this was worrying. Groups were moving, right under their noses, plotting and scheming and working towards a checkmate Alexis could not see.
He was Bloodrose the Second, though. With enough information he would be able to see the pattern that was unfolding.
Then there was the prisoner in the dungeon below the palace, whom he worried he would not be able to keep confined for much longer. The witch, Achlys, turned the air around her bad or perhaps vented some kind of fumes. It was no longer possible to breathe unassisted in the dungeons, which made studying her bizarre body in the hopes of finding a cure for Autumn all the more difficult.
Autumn. He’d chased the witch while Alexis, Tintenzunge and Gunthilde were locked in battle with the worms. He’d raped her after catching her, which wasn’t entirely uncommon for the Deer God to do when His lessers invoked His wrath, but which had on this occasion been rather ill-advised. Whatever supernatural miasma or illness surrounded the witch had managed to infect even God, which should’ve been impossible.
“What are you thinking about?” Mary suddenly asked. “Your tea is getting cold.”
“I’m summing up all the facts we have to see if I’ve missed anything,” Alexis replied.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Maxwell said. “You never know who is listening.”
Alexis couldn’t help but raise a brow as he looked at the boy. “What are you implying, wizard?”
Maxwell shrugged. “You’re The Cleverest, I hear. You figure it out.”
Again and again the boy challenged him like this. He did it with Fleur too, who was seemingly intimidated by it, too.
The minor deity was afraid of Maxwell. And in turn, Maxwell was afraid of Mary. Something wasn’t adding up.
With a loud thud, the door to the laboratory flew open. A palace servant with a worried look on his face stood in the opening, hyperventilating. When he saw Alexis, his eyes widened.
“Lord Bloodrose, I am so sorry. Please forgive me for intruding upon you so. Lord Tintenzunge instructed me to bring to your attention the worsening situation in the dungeons, Sir.”
“Lord Bloodrose,” Maxwell said, visibly trying to suppress laughter.
“You’re excused,” Alexis told the servant. “I’ll attend to it today.”
The servant bowed, and left.
“Lord Bloodrose,” Maxwell said again. “Alexis Bloodrose? What kind of a name is that?” In response, Mary giggled.
“My full name is Alexis Bloodrose Eigenvector the Second,” Alexis explained.
Both Mary and Maxwell choked on their tea, laughing. The two were completely incapable of taking anything remotely seriously. If Autumn had been awake, they most likely would’ve ended up on His bad side already.
“Ingrates,” he spat.
Still, he realized the value in not being treated with the utmost respect for once in his life. Arrogance had toppled more than one kingdom, brought more than one alleged genius to his knees.
“Say,” Maxwell said a while later. “Are you making any progress on curing Autumn?”
“Hmm,” Alexis said. “It surely would go faster if you stopped just implying you understood metaphysics on a level I can never achieve and actually helped.”
Maxwell rolled his eyes. “If I think of something, I’ll tell you. But the situation is outside of my expertise and also outside of my comfort zone. I’m certain Fleur could help you more than I, but you really have to start learning how to speak to her. The girl comes with quite a manual.”
“Why Fleur? Why not you or Mary?” Alexis said, ninety-ninety percent sure he already knew the answer.
“It’s her sister you’re keeping in the basement,” Maxwell said. “I assume she knows at least a little about her siblings their magicks.”
So he had figured that out. It hadn’t been trivial to figure that out for Alexis himself- it had taken many nights in the royal library to piece together a semi-complete picture of the family of witches with ears like knives.
Of course, the boy hovered around the mirror-girl on a daily basis. He would have a sharper insight into her family dynamics, but like with everything else, he was being incredibly obtuse about it.
“How will Fleur react when she figures out we’re keeping her sister in the dungeon?” Alexis asked, still somewhat worried about incurring the demigod her wrath, especially with Autumn out of commission.
“She hates all of their guts,” Maxwell said. “They’ve had some kind of falling out in the past, and now slaughter each other’s lovers as a pastime.”
Again, Alexis failed to suppress his tic of raising his right eyebrow when surprised. “What if blood turns out to run thicker than water, might she be infuriated we’re interfering in their quarrel?”
Maxwell shook his head. “You’re saying that wrong. It’s ‘The blood of the covenant runs thicker than the waters of the womb’. It doesn’t apply to this situation at all.”
“Alright,” Alexis said, no longer trying to hide his annoyance. “So she won’t mind if she figures it out?”
“Heh,” Maxwell said. “She might reward you. Or help you update prison security to stop whatever the girl you’ve locked up is currently doing to get out.”
“It’s terrible that they’re still doing that dueling thing,” Mary said.
Alexis stared at her in disbelief, while Maxwell theatrically bashed his forehead into the wall a few times.
“What,” Alexis said. “Pray tell, what do you mean by that?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it,” Maxwell said. “I thought you were The Cleverest. She means that wherever she’s from, Fleur and co are going at it just like they’re doing over here.”
“Yeah,” Mary said. “Back in my time period, they were already doing the duels.”
“First,” Alexis said. “First of all, why did you wait a whole week before mentioning you know Fleur. Second of all,”
“There are problems with your time-travel hypothesis,” Maxwell said, finishing Alexis his sentence.
“Thank you, Maxwell,” Alexis said.
Mary shrugged. “I don’t know Fleur. I’ve heard of her. I study astrology. Telescopes use mirrors. Fleur invented mirrors. I’ve read about her and her kin.”
“Fleur did not,” Alexis said, annoyance boiling over, “Invent mirrors. I don’t know what they’re teaching in your version of the spire, but ‘mirrors’ are a simple phenomenon of physics. Maybe you’re implying Fleur was the first to discover mirrors back in some primeval history, but I highly doubt that as well as the girl doesn’t exactly strike me as a metalworking genius.”
“Then don’t listen to me,” Mary said. “You don’t have to. And what’s wrong with my time travel hypothesis? It’s summer where I come from, it’s autumn here. Clearly this is the future.”
Alexis shook his head. Maxwell rolled his eyes.
“There are problems-” both started at the same time, but Mary interrupted them.
“What problems? What problems are there with that?” She asked.
“Time,” Alexis said. “Does no longer move. As far as I’ve understood it, time also does not move where you’re from. It’s the same summer day eternally, correct?”
“Summer Unending,” Mary said, smiling.
“If that is the same timeline as this one, just in the past, why is time also not moving in your version of Luson? If the end of time occurred before your time, how did we ever get to this point in time?”
“I don’t know,” Mary said, stretching out the last word in an almost childish manner.
“Then,” Alexis continued, “we’re left with ‘time stopped moving on every day at once’ which makes even less sense. Is there a version of our world almost identical to this one, except it got stuck yesterday, whatever yesterday means in this context? Is there a world almost identical to yours except time got stuck the day after yours? Is it limited to days? To hours perhaps? Minutes? Do you see the problem?”
“Autumn comes after summer,” Mary said. “I don’t know why you’re overcomplicating it like this.”
“Maxwell,” Alexis spat. “If you don’t quit the ‘I know more than I’m letting on’ act I’ll have you drawn and quartered. I mean it. You get on my nerves in a way almost nobody manages to, not even Tinten.”
“I’m not doing that at all,” Maxwell said. “You’re projecting that onto me. You’ve made up this narrative where I’m some transcendentally powerful wizard and are justifying that after the fact. I’m sighing because we’re stuck in a maze with no exit in sight, and as long as we are, you’re keeping us locked up here in the palace. Happy?”
“No,” Alexis said. “Not at all.”
They sat in silence for a while, the only sound the whirring of machinery in the laboratory and the quiet tinkling of Mary stirring sugar into the ninth cup of tea of the afternoon.
“So,” she eventually said. “What is the next step?”
“Ideally, I need to draw some of Fleur’s blood to compare it with that of Achlys, as a baseline sample. Then I might be able to figure out what is causing the disease that spills out from her, and that’s step one to curing it. At the same time, I need to figure out how to fix Gunthilde.
“The Prince’s lover,” Maxwell said. “She doesn’t have the same disease? I kinda assumed, y’know, it was a sexually transmittable kind of deal.”
“You will not speak,” Alexis said, angry- “About Autumn like that.”
“Man,” Maxwell sighed.
“But no, Gunthilde has been infected by some kind of parasite the witch was using to raise corpses to do her bidding. The creature is hollowing her from within, and despite her almost limitless fortitude, I’m afraid she’ll turn into one of the living dead sooner rather than later.”
“Well then,” Maxwell said. “When you’re done with your dialysis you should get Fleur fetched so we can get started.”
Maxwell was starting to get to Alexis. Not just on his nerves. He was starting to make him feel anxious. There were things Maxwell wasn’t telling, and there were things Maxwell could not know, even accounting for telepathy or clairvoyance.
“Maxwell,” Alexis said, squinting at the boy. “What does that mean? That word? Dialysis?”
“Huh?” Maxwell said, seemingly caught off-guard. It infuriated Alexis to no end that he could not tell when the boy was pretending and when he wasn’t. “Your kidneys are bad right? That’s why you need that device?”
“Maxwell,” Alexis said. “How do you know that?”
“I must’ve picked it up in passing,” the young magician replied, attempting to brush it off.
“No,” Alexis said. “First, because ‘dialysis’ isn’t a word. It’s also not a conjunction of two existing words. Second, because there is no way you can have seen such a device before, given that I’ve constructed it from scratch based on my own designs to deal with the consequences of another invention of mine. You have a habit of using words I do not know the meaning of, and I just have to wonder, where did you learn those words?”
Maxwell shook his head. “Then I was mistaken. I used a word wrong or misremembered a word, and made a fool of myself. I understand that there’s a lot of pressure on your back right now, but this paranoia really does not suit you.”
Shaking his head, Alexis decided to let it go for now. If he kept talking to the boy for long enough, eventually Maxwell would let slip enough for him to piece together a theory on what was going on.
In silence, he waited for his ‘dialysis’ to finish.
It would be three days before he managed to get a hold of Fleur again. She came wandering into the laboratory with a bag full of groceries that Maxwell had apparently ordered her to get, as well as a pile of letters addressed to Maxwell.
“Lady Fleur,” Alexis said, looking up from a set of diagrams he was in the middle of deciphering together with Mary. Old schematics relating to the ‘Thessaloniki Device’ as Mary had labeled it, the mirror-machine on the attic of the spire. “We’ve been trying to reach you.”
“What?” Fleur stammered.
“We need your help,” Alexis said. “But first there are some things I’ve kept a secret until now that I should fill you in about. Can you take a seat?”
“I guess,” the girl said, looking over her shoulder at Maxwell, who was busy reading a letter. When he was done, he let the letter fall to the ground. Before it hit the ground, however, it caught fire and burned up.
“Maxwell,” Alexis said.
“Don’t even start,” Maxwell replied. “I’m not going to let you read my letters. This stuff’s between me and my employer, that’s private.”
Alexis slumped forward in his chair, hands in his hair. Maxwell’s mysterious ‘employer’, of course.
“Come on Bloodrose,” Mary said in her sweetest voice. “Things will be alright. We’ll have this machine figured out in no-time!”
Every time Alexis was about to be charmed by Mary’s naive sweetness, there was Maxwell. Staring. Distressed look on his face. Eyes darting around the room, scanning for the nearest exit.
Meanwhile, Fleur had taken a chair out from behind one of Alexis’s many desks, and had seated herself in front of her.
She was uncanny. Especially from up close it was disturbing just how inhuman she really was. All of her proportions were slightly off. Her arms too thin, too long. Her eyes slightly too large. There was an ethereal beauty to it, but not enough to fully drown out the instinct to flinch, to cower and run that she also evoked.
“Fleur,” Alexis began. “We are holding one of your sisters captive in the dungeons. She’s responsible for Autumn’s current condition.” He waited for her response.
“And?” She asked.
Maxwell chuckled in the background.
“Euh,” Alexis stammered.
“The Cleverest fails to account for every what-if scenario once again, brought to his knees by a woman’s indifference,” Maxwell said, laughing. “You know, I thought you much scarier the first time we met.”
“Maxwell,” Mary chided him. “You should be nicer to Lord Bloodrose.”
“And?” Fleur asked again, this time louder. More annoyed.
Not intending for Maxwell to get the better of him once again, Alexis collected himself.
“I want to draw some of your blood, to use it as a baseline while analyzing the blood of your sister. Maybe I can figure out what the pathogen is, and then develop a cure for Autumn.”
“Oh,” Fleur said. “Is it Achlys you’ve got locked up in the dungeon, then?”
“I think that’s her name, yes,” Alexis said.
Fleur shook her head and stared off into empty space. “Achlys,” she muttered.
“Anyway-” Alexis tried to get the conversation going again, but Fleur interrupted him.
“I can’t give you my blood. It’s dangerous for me if my blood falls into the wrong hands. I might-” she stopped for a second. “I might only be me, but it still has power.”
“Aw,” Mary said. “Fleur, don’t be harsh on yourself. You’re super special and cool. I’m sure your blood has crazy powers because you’re you, not despite you ‘only being you’, silly.”
They were almost like family, Alexis realized. Allegedly, Fleur and Maxwell had only picked up Mary a week ago, but she had seamlessly integrated in their weird dynamic. He felt a deep sense of loss, longing for Autumn and Gunthilde their companionship.
“Hey,” Maxwell said. “Do you know anything about Achlys’ powers? Maybe that can help.”
“No,” Fleur said. “She used to have some kind of dominion over memory or thought, but has since fallen in with Winter cultists. She longs to hasten the Lands Lost to their inevitable end. I’m surprised she managed to poison Autumn, but I applaud it. Perhaps we, too, will soon be taken by the North Wind, the Icy Death, the End of All Things.”
Alexis fumed with anger. “Just speaking those names out loud, here, on hallowed ground, would have condemned you to death had Autumn been awake,” he threatened her.
Fleur seemed unfazed. Again, insecurity its poisonous roots pierced a little deeper into his heart. She watched her every word around Maxwell, glanced at him after her every action. Desperate for approval, or perhaps afraid of finding disapproval. Yet the wrath of Autumn left her cold, and the looming threat of Winter only incited miserable, suicidal rants.
He looked at the trio again. Mary was engrossed in the technical diagrams of the Thessaloniki Engine. Maxwell was absent-mindedly flipping through a book, with Fleur intently staring at him.
“What?” Maxwell looked up, as if someone had asked him something.
“What are you reading?” Alexis asked, “And where did you get that? You weren’t holding it a minute ago.”
“Alchemy Most Dark, by one Aster Scarborough,” Maxwell said. “Fleur was intent on burning it, so I was naturally curious to its contents.”
“I’ve told you before,” Fleur said. “That book contains information no mortal is meant to know. It was bad enough the headmaster of the Spire was keeping a copy around, but you of all people should be going through it even less.”
“You don’t have to worry,” Maxwell said. “Thus far the things laid out in the book are entirely unappealing to me. I intend to neither coat my tongue in paints, nor to attempt to decompose myself into my own base components.”
“What,” Alexis said. “What?”
“What?” Fleur and Maxwell replied.
It sounded an awful lot like the things Tintenzunge got up to. It sounded an awful lot like what Achlys was talking about. Slowly, the oddest feeling came over him. As if that book was meant for him, for his eyes. He was The Alchemist. He was The Cleverest, consort and cohort of Prince Autumn himself.
“Oh, he’s figured something out,” Maxwell said, laughing. “Did The Cleverest finally put two and two together,” Maxwell began, but faltered when he saw Alexis get up from his chair.
“I’ve had enough,” Alexis spat. “I’ve had it with you.”
Boiling with rage, he charged the young wizard, whose smug expression finally disappeared as Alexis crashed into him, pushed him onto the ground and closed his fingers around his throat.