Chapter Two: The Grimmoire
» Fandom: Axis Powers Hetalia
» Rating: T for now
» Classification(s): Humor, Romance, Supernatural
» Warnings: Violence, Language, Sexual Situations
» Pairing(s): Ivan/Alfred (Russia/America); Francis/Arthur (France/England)
Chapter Two: The Grimmoire
Dinner was a dismal affair. Matthew was sleeping off the effects of whatever turning orange did to a body, and Arthur had eaten and gone by the time Alfred dragged himself in, bloody and bruised. Somewhere in the north coast rock fields, a giant beetle was laughing its ass off. Francis wandered out of the kitchen to slip him a covered plate to smuggle to the disgraced Peter, but the cook was too busy to visit for long. Alfred was left alone with his thoughts and the dogs, sculpting hills and valleys in his rough-mashed potatoes and seeding this new land with broccoli forests and pea boulders. He threw the bones to the hound that always kept vigilant scrap-watch at his feet. When Francis saw that he chased him out of the room with a redhot crepe pan, scolding in rapid French.
Night took a long time to fall. The sun disappeared but its light hung in the air for ages, as if the color was too viscous to flow down the bowl of the sky and into the dark. Alfred watched it slowly fade from his bedroom window, flopped over the sill with his head resting on the cool mossy slate of the roof. It had a low enough angle here that on clear days he could climb out and bask in the weak sunlight. Those days were few and far between, as the Atlantic climate seemed to vacillate only between snow and rain. And fog. One was starting to form over the creek, and the rising moon lent it a mysterious pearly glow.
Somewhere on the desk he sat on was Kiku's note, a little crumbled from being in his pocket and blotchy where he'd spilled a boiling potion across it. It made good reading; apparently Wizard Yao was based in some godforsaken corner of Chinese jungle, with killer quicksand and a booming illegal magical artifacts trade. The Japanese boy wrote the same way he spoke, placidly and with great understatement, but still admitted that he feared for his life on a daily basis, that his master was completely crazy, and that there were so many other apprentices that he had a hard time remembering their names. Kiku always was a lucky little bastard like that.
Alfred had been stuck on this bucolic island hellhole for five years. Five years! The highlights of his weeks were mainland market days and Francis's pathetically French attempts at hamburgers. When he'd signed up for the wizardly life he'd somehow skipped over the 'years and years of dedicated study' portion of the brochure right to the 'flying griffins and heroic dueling whilst rescuing fair maidens' part. Well, so far he could turn silverware into toads (although he hadn't quite got the hang of turning them back, resulting in a high number of local amphibians with rosettes instead of warts). He could evidently turn feverfew into high explosives. He thought he had once turned the terriers invisible, but that had been difficult to prove when his only evidence was the fact that he could hear them barking but never find them. That was it as far as his heroic exploits went—he wasn't even ranked at the journeyman level yet. Ludwig was his age and he battled fucking dragons with his brother in the eastern forests. Alfred scrubbed potion jars. He toted water. He read theory until it fountained out his ears.
Magic had seemed so, well, magical, when he was a child and a mysterious robed man with remarkable eyebrows had found him and promised to teach him the secrets that governed the universe. Alfred went with him unquestioningly, because he was alone and completely fearless—two things children as young as he'd been should not be. Matthew was another lost child. Peter at least had parents— at least, people he'd called his parents, because as far as Alfred could tell from the picture on Peter's dresser they were both men. They were also wizards, wizards who apparently thought highly enough of Arthur to relinquish their only child into his care.
It wasn't that Arthur was a bad teacher. Alfred could admit that, in the privacy of his own thoughts. Sure, the man had a temper and without Francis (Alfred still didn't know how that'd happened—maybe Arthur 'collected' him the way he seemed to collect apprentices?), they'd all probably starve from his inedible cooking. But he was a good man. A good, dare he say it, father-figure. Alfred sighed gustily, flicking the flaking paint of the sill away. The problem lay in the man's philosophy on magic itself, which was that the best magic is the kind no one knows you've done. In other words, they learned magic in order to not use it— unless they had to.
Matthew was the brain, and once after a really bad row with Arthur he'd crawled out onto the roof where Alfred was sulking and tried explaining. Something about the equilibrium of the world, and the battling forces of darkness and light, and the balance of powers across the immense fulcrum that was the universe. Right. Alfred could see it—he saw it in the messy, exclamation-point-dotted letters Gilbert sent Arthur from 'the front', and the way Kiku carefully skirted around writing exactly what Wizard Yao did with the 'illegal magical artifacts' he recovered.
But Alfred was here. With Arthur the Incredibly Boring. Doing his best to do nothing. Dear Lord, what had he done to deserve this?
It was a rhetorical question with an unfortunately concrete answer. His mind shied away from it, because things like the Incident shouldn't count. Not when he didn't actually remember doing anything. What you didn't remember doing couldn't—shouldn't—be held against you.
But, in this case, it apparently was.
He must have fallen asleep thinking about it. That explained the old nightmares, given a touch of realism because after dark it got damn cold out on the island. Alfred woke shivering and wincing from the phantom twinges in his scars. He still didn't know how he'd gotten most them, but the nightmares liked to offer all kinds of lurid possibilities. He pulled himself back into the room and sat on his haunches, rubbing at his gummy eyes. He hoped to God he hadn't been crying in his sleep again. So unheroic.
A sudden clattering across the yard made him jolt, and angry energy shot through him as he recognized the sound—he'd been chasing it all goddamn afternoon. Glancing up, he saw the shadow of a dog-sized beetle briefly silhouetted against the opposite roof before it disappeared behind the tower.
"You have got to be fucking kidding me!" he said exasperatedly to the cool night air. As if taunting him, the beetle reappeared, climbing towards the top of the tower and Arthur's private study.
Before he could think too clearly about it, Alfred scrambled out onto the roof and moved as quickly as he dared across the rough slate, edging along until he crouched at the junction of the tower and main building. The damn insect had been one step ahead of him the entire day, and here it was again, jeering at his laughable attempt as it scuttled over the eaves. Gritting his teeth, Alfred carefully stood, bracing his hand against a window and almost falling in as it unexpectedly gave. He glanced into the darkened staircase, then back at the beetle.
This part of the manor was forbidden to the apprentices, but the spells that actually kept them out were layered near the bottom of the stairs. Sometime before the Incident, Alfred and (some other person he couldn't quite remember, someone younger, who?) had braved the roof and entered in just this way, shushing each other and giggling. They had made it to the study, but Arthur was there waiting for them. The tanning their hides received made an indelible impression on Alfred, one that even now made him cringe as he slowly swung his legs inside and shimmied down onto the landing.
He met no resistance as he ran up the spiraling staircase. There were strange tapestries, blobby cobwebs and candles that burst into flame as he passed them. So Artie liked nightlights, huh? When he finally reached the top he paused, breathing heavily, before reaching out and touching the scrolled oak door that marked the inner sanctum. There was no lock. There didn't need to be.
It fought him; he wasn't its master. The hinges yielded only after much mental prodding and persuasion, with a reluctant psychic groan that rattled the bones of his inner ear. He stopped then, held his breath to listen for the shout.
It didn't come.
He slipped into a room that was very dark, compared to the stairs. The moonlight spilling in through its high windows illuminated little: a slice of floor, a sliver of polished dark wood. Even with most of it in shadow black as pitch, its size could be sensed; funny, it was much bigger than he remembered. Wasn't it supposed to work the other way around? It must have dominated the entire top half of the wide tower, rising a full twenty feet to the rafters of the tower roof—all of it apparently devoid of the helpful little nightlight candles. Well, no matter. Apprentices might not be able to levitate, but they could do other things.
He closed his eyes and cupped his hands together, thinking of that afternoon's sunlight. Smooth, warm, heavy, like melting gold or puddled brass. In his imagination, it pooled in his hands like water. When he opened his eyes it softly shone there, and he gently tossed it into the air. It hung suspended in droplets, burning like tiny miniature suns.
The warm light gave the room a rich yellow glint that suited it. Two gleaming levels of bookcases towered above him, what must have been thousands of books filling them to the point of bursting and spilling over onto every other available flat surface: the floor, the massive desk in the corner, the sofas, the mantelpiece. Some of the piles were taller than he was. Some of the books were taller than he was. Old globes and broken bits of statuary were crammed into the spaces not occupied by books, geodes and dusty animal skeletons braced on the edges of shelves and hidden in corners. The whole room smelled like pipe smoke and old varnish.
A shadow skittered across a south-facing window, and Alfred's head snapped up to follow the patter of chitinous feet against the glass. He dove for the ladder to the second level of shelves and sprinted up it, lunging for the latch and prying at it as the sounds of the animal grew closer to his position. It gave and he froze in place, waiting for exactly, the right, moment—
It was sweet, sweet victory, to fling the window open and clothesline the beast with a fruity little decorative pane of stained glass. Insects didn't scream, but for his own satisfaction he imagined a tiny fading "AAAAHHHhhhh…" as it tumbled off the tower wall and to its unseen splattery doom in the shadows of the trees. He leaned out over the edge and whisper-shouted, "Fry in hell!"
Satisfied, he tugged the window closed and turned to lean again the wall, surveying the study once more. Arthur hadn't so much as moved a book in years, apparently; it really was just like he remembered it… although not exactly. For one, it was completely empty of raging wizards.
He was in Arthur's private study. Without Arthur. That is to say, alone. With Arthur's private spellbooks.
"Oh, hell yes," he whispered into the hushed quiet.
Twenty minutes later and Alfred was much less enthused about the prospect. It was as if the man had deliberately set out to create the most boring collection of books ever assembled in one place. Seriously, someone should be notifying Guinness. Titles like, "The Subtle Anatomy of Roses" and "Case Studies of Traditional Chinese Medicine" met his eyes everywhere he looked. More than that, it seemed that Wizard Prissy-Pants might be a stickler for order outside of his study, but inside there lived no such thing. The great Wizard Kirkland chose to file his books not by Dewey decimal or even alphabetically, but by a complex formula involving size, color, level of wear and tear, and title length. It was the only explanation for some of the stacks he kept stubbing his toes on.
"Okay, Indy, think," Alfred muttered out loud, ensconced in an ancient corduroy armchair so broken-in his knees were propped higher than his head. "If you were lame and British, where would you hide the really grisly stuff?" If Arthur went the purloined-letter route and hid everything in plain sight, Indy was screwed. There was no way Alfred could thumb through every tattered book and loose bit of parchment before someone or some spell noticed he was poking around where he shouldn't be.
The other option was hidden compartments and fake walls, which honestly sounded much more attractive to his inner Indiana Jones anyway. But, after twenty more minutes spent feeling around the mopboards and flipping over portraits, Alfred flopped back on the floor and admitted that this tactic was also getting him nowhere.
"Okay, okay," he said, staring up at the swirling constellations painted across the sloped ceiling. "New tactic. Where haven't I looked?" Level two he'd combed pretty thoroughly, considering that the room-circling platform was three feet wide and two of those feet were shelves, but the real challenge was the bottom floor. Christ, this place looked like a garage sale put on by the entire British Empire, complete with, ugh, tiger-skin rug. "North—" check. "South—" also check. "East and the fireplace—" mantel swept, bricks probed, firewood poked through. "West—" also clear unless the desk was—
The desk. Even now as he sat up and scooted around to stare at it, his eyes wanted to slide away and focus on something more interesting, like that urn with the battling gladiato—no! Desk. Scowling in concentration, he got up on his hands and knees and crawled toward it, as something tried to convince his mind that it was a dull old pile of wood heaped with nothing more captivating than pipe-ash and more frickin' books. He reached out an unsteady hand and encountered the body of the don't-look-here spell, a feeling like the smell of curdled milk moving up his arm. "Oh, gross!" The wood itself felt slimy, when he finally touched it. He swallowed hard against his gag reflex and began exploring the surface.
It didn't take him long to find the compartment, a disguised drawer that his eyes flat out told him did not exist, even as his fingers nudged it open and dipped into an almost physical layer of discouragement. A flood of nameless fear shot through his system like a taser charge, leaving him gasping and ready to run from the room for no reason that his poor beleaguered brain could substantiate, only react to. His hand closed over something dry and smooth, and his panicked system tried to convince him it was dangerous, it was poisonous, it was something dead and squishly decomposing. He was choking back bile, nausea threatening to overwhelm him as he grabbed whatever was in the drawer and ripped it out, scrambling to get out of the spell's area of influence.
After a few deep and steady breaths at the opposite end of the room, the adrenaline high started to fade and he could lift his head without emptying his stomach. He'd left a trail of loose paper and vellum scrolls from the desk across the study to the fireplace hearth, covered in geometric designs and cramped writing he recognized as Arthur's. At the end of the trail, right in front of him on the tiger-skin rug, was a large black book.
It was thin but wide, with an unmarked pebbly cover and faded gold edging. Alfred felt at his side for the poker and brought it around, delicately nudging the book's cover upwards. He halfway expected it to scream, or bleed ink or something equally as dramatic. It just opened, inert and unassuming. Once past the point of equilibrium the cover fell open with an audible thunk, like it was made of lead and not leather.
The pale, translucent pages were smoother than any he'd ever felt, once he'd gathered the courage to reach out and touch them, but the paper felt prickly and strange under his fingers, as if they held an electric charge. Now that he was away from the desk, the book had stopped projecting nameless horrors onto his poor psyche and lay quietly in his hands. He could— not see, and not precisely feel either, but sense the power fainting humming through the pages and warming his fingertips. This… this was a real wizard's grimmoire, not the little datebooks Arthur had given them to write in. This was real power.
The book had no title page or table of contents, only immediate crabbed writing, much in the manner of an illuminated manuscript. It did have different sections, different spells and summons and petite charmes. Some were vaguely interesting, others decided not so. Who the hell wanted to know how to instantly dry flowers and other plant parts? Arthur didn't even use this spell, he hung everything up in the greenhouse or distillery racks.
The handwriting was undoubtedly the wizard's; Alfred would recognize that spare, monk-like hand anywhere. For the first third of the book the text was sparse, with more sketches than words. It was actually enjoyable to look through, as flying ships and fantastical creatures would regularly interrupt the tidy scrawl. Like most personal grimmoires, this one progressed chronologically—or so Alfred assumed as the drawings became less frequent and the writing both more fluid and more prevalent. By the mid-point of the book, only the occasional technical diagram and brief heading broke the heavy monotony of the text. Bored, Alfred began skipping more and more pages, until one fell open with a voluptuous and gloriously nude woman sprawled across it.
Alfred stared for a moment, and then for another moment to better appreciate the fine attention to detail the artist displayed, before rapidly flipping back through the pages to find the spell the model belonged to.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, the entry wasn't in Arthur's handwriting. And it was in Latin. The one spell he wanted to read, and all of it was in Latin. Alfred would have laughed, but it was just too damn ironic. He was at best an indifferent student when it came to languages, but Latin was definitely his worst. It would take him ages to translate the entire thing, as it appeared to be several pages long.
As he looked closer, within the text a new script appeared, the foreign letters thorny and angular. The symbols almost seemed to move as he skimmed them, scratching like claws against the smooth parchment. For some reason, it looked more familiar than the Latin, in a way that made his eyes itch. He rubbed at them and kept reading.
The text ended abruptly five pages in, replaced by intricate diagrams and incised sections of circles within circles. The scratching writing dominated here, along with the more familiar futhark and astrological symbols of western wizardry. It was hypnotizing, the way the thorn-like letters coiled themselves across the pages. He noticed that nowhere was a circle completed; that was common of the more powerful spells. But more interesting to him at that moment was the fact that Naked Lady had friends, friends that were almost as beautiful and hugely-boobed as she was. What looked like the entire Playboy Bunny lineup was splashed across the pages, all with the same small subtitle: succubae.
Which could only mean one thing: summoning. He held a Writ of Summoning in his hands. And the summonees were damn sexy.
Without consciously making the decision, he took out the pad and pencil Arthur had given him that afternoon and began to copy.
Hand cramping and head splitting, Alfred looked up an eyeblink later and realized dawn had come. He'd lost an entire night in the pages of the grimmoire. In his hand was a pad he only vaguely remembered filling with Latin and breasts and weird, clawing symbols, and soon, Arthur would be up.
As if already asleep, Alfred slowly, dreamily gathered the contents of the drawer and braved the sick-making desk, although the discomfort barely registered now. He walked out of the study without a backward glance, down the stairs, and crawled out into the chilly sunrise. The cold shook him out of his fugue for a moment, enough to get him over the roof to his room without sleepwalking right off the edge.
He fell asleep gazing at the pad, mesmerized not by the swell of hips and curve of lips—he wasn't a good enough artist to have rendered them faithfully anyway—but by the alien sprawl of those strange letters, talon-like tendrils twining in cruel spirals through his dreams.
Jeez, Alfred, you are an angsty bastard at the beginning of this chapter. Go take some wizard Zoloft.