This was going to be a bad one, Tahlea thought. A very bad one.
Over the twenty-two days of her existence, the homunculus had come to know the signs. A coldness would start to steal over her, and she would begin to feel like she was dreaming. She could still see, still hear, still feel, but it was as if she was disconnected from what her senses were telling her, like she was watching or reading about someone else who was having those experiences even though she was still aware of all the information.
That part was disconcerting, but not wholly unpleasant. Unfortunately, it would only be the beginning, and what would follow, though, was very much so. She knew how it would proceed: the sensation of being smothered, as if the very air itself had become infused with a cloying, choking sense of wrongness. It would be as if something alien and evil filled the air, permeating every breath, every sound, every odor, everything, like she was saturated in it. It would grow worse and worse, pressing in on her, threatening to choke her, as if the nameless force would smother and envelop her soul.
She'd endured these attacks before, every third or fourth day since her creation, sometimes mild, sometimes savage. Tahlea had borne up under them before, but this one might well be worse than any of the others. She could feel it coming up on her already, like a winter night descending (had she ever seen a winter's night? No, and yet the metaphor came to her easily...). There was only one thing that she could think of to do.
"Fa...Fa-ther?" she managed to force out through lips that did not seem at all like her own. Even talking made Tahlea feel like a puppetmaster working the strings of her own body, but an apprentice puppetmaster at best, barely able to manage gross movements, let alone any kind of fine function.
Still, it was enough.
Above the rumbling of the athanor, the bubbling of chemicals in vials and retorts, and all the other sounds of what was possibly the finest alchemy laboratory in the kingdom, he heard. What was perhaps more impressive, even through the attention he was giving to his latest alchemical experiment, he heard her. Dr. Chartreuse Grande raised his massive head and turned to face the blonde girl who was his ultimate creation.
She could make no sound more intelligible than a whimper, but managed to extend a hand towards him. He rushed to her side at once, the soft yellow glow of the alchemic Rune he'd been working on fading as he abandoned it incomplete. His arm went around her, the fur of his pawlike hand soft on her bare shoulder as he gathered her to him.
"Tahlea, can you tell me what's wrong?" he asked, worry obvious in his deep, cultured voice. She clung to him, her face in his mane. His leonine features, he'd told her, were not the result of alchemy but of a curse once placed upon him. As it caused him no great hardship, he had not bothered to try and break it, despite the monstrous appearance it lent him. Of course, to Tahlea he was simply Father; he didn't seem unusual or unnatural to her at all.
Homunculi were artificial creations, outside of the natural lives of God's creations, and so they needed the love of others to survive. Unlike God's love, which was everywhere at once in its full intensity, the love of a single person was limited, centered on that person. Touch made it the strongest, and the hug seemed to pour a soft, gentle warmth into Tahlea, bridging the gap between her body and her soul. The suffocating fear seemed to recede, the air clearing, and gradually Tahlea felt as if she were drawing back into herself.
She let out a long, ragged sigh as the attack passed. Dr. Chartreuse's quick action had served as the antidote, banishing it far faster than if she'd tried to simply endure.
"Tahlea," he repeated, his free hand gently stroking her hair, "please, tell me what happened. Have I been neglecting you?"
"No!" she spoke up at once. "No, that isn't it at all!" She understood what he was asking: had he not been showing her enough love? Had he become cold, withdrawn, absorbed in his research and so denied her what she needed to survive? Tahlea did not know what these attacks were, but she was certain, instinctively, that that wasn't the explanation.
"That is a relief," he said, his tone of voice making plain that relief was precisely what he felt. "But if not that, then what? If you're having any trouble or pain we should take steps to correct it at once."
Tahlea took a deep breath, steadying herself, and began to haltingly explain what it was that she experienced when these attacks came upon her. She tried to be as precise as possible; Dr. Chartreuse liked to deal with specific data. It wasn't easy, and halfway through she took one of his great paws between her slender hands, holding it tightly for support as she tried to explain the worst parts. At last, she reached the end.
"You should have told me at once, Tahlea, the very first time this happened."
"The first couple of times you weren't there with me, and since it went away by the time you came back, I didn't want to worry you with a temporary problem."
He let out a heavy sigh, then cupped her face in his free hand, gently tipping her head back so that their eyes met.
"Tahlea, you are my precious daughter. I don't want you to think that your concerns, however mild or serious they might be, are ever beneath my notice. What's more, by addressing small problems quickly, we can try to prevent them from getting any worse. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Father." She paused, then went on to say, "Does this mean that you know what's happening to me?"
He gave a slow, grave nod.
"I believe so. At the very least, I have a hypothesis which is strongly supported by the known facts. I would like to run a few tests later, to rule out any chance of a breakdown in the magical processes of your existence, but I believe that this is very likely a purely internal problem, or perhaps I should say spiritual?"
"Spiritual?" Tahlea squeaked. That sounded ominous. Of course, as a homunculus, she was in a strange position so far as spiritual matters went. Ordinary, flask-born homunculi were not believed to have souls, but Dr. Chartreuse had explained that Tahlea was different, that she was built around the spirit of a fairy used as her core, and this was the reason why she was a more stable existence. This was apparently why she could walk around fully independent of her flask. Even so, though, matters involving her soul were complex and difficult questions for her.
Then again, humans who were centuries-old magicians still wrestled with spiritual questions, and Tahlea was not even a month old, so she had a right to be confused!
"Yes. I thought that something of the sort might happen, due to the nature of your core, though I was not sure as to the precise manifestation. Your shyness, I think, is a symptom of that as well, although a milder one and also obviously related to your age. I do wish that you had told me sooner."
"I'm sorry, Father."
"I know that you were trying to be kind, but do remember that it is part of a parent's job to bear the worries of their child." He gave her a broad, leonine smile. "You must let me do my part properly, after all."
He slid his hand from hers and crossed the room to his desk, which was kept well away from the experimental facilities of the lab. Tahlea had once asked him why he didn't have it in his private rooms, but he'd explained that he felt more comfortable in the laboratory and in any case it was no more difficult to maintain his correspondence there than in a different room. Dr. Chartreuse opened one of the desk drawers and took out an envelope, sealed with a dollop of red wax, and brought it back. The stationery, Tahlea noticed, matched that which the alchemist used.
"I'd intended to give this to you somewhat later, when you'd had a chance to get to be more comfortable in your new life, but I think that perhaps you should have it now. It may help you to explain some of what you are feeling and, perhaps, help you to feel better about it. Maybe it would have been better if I had given it to you right away after your creation; I had thought that waiting would be the best course, but I hope that you will forgive me if I was wrong."
He gave her the envelope; it bore only a single line written in a very small, slightly clumsy hand quite different than Dr. Chartreuse's: For Tahlea Grande. Tahlea broke the seal and took out the pages within, which matched the envelope in apparently being taken from Dr. Chartreuse's desk. She unfolded what appeared to be a letter written in the same tiny, rough handwriting, and began to read.
This must seem like a very strange letter for you to read. It's strange for me to write it, since we usually don't bother writing anything! Still, you're a homunculus now, and that's close enough to human that you probably should be getting used to things like books and letters. At least in this case, it's a pretty useful idea, so maybe there's good reason for them in your new life. Or maybe I should be saying, my new life.
Yeah, I know, it's weird, isn't it? I'm sitting here writing a letter to myself. Or at least to the person that I'm going to become. Dr. Chartreuse says that you probably won't remember anything of my life when I become you. Apparently it's got something to do with the nature of the soul versus the nature of the mind that didn't make any sense to me when he tried to explain it. Maybe you'll understand better? That would be neat, if you were smarter than I am, or even just learned more about these things. He says he might also be wrong, though, and that it might all involved be because of the difference between angels and mortal creatures. I'm not sure what he meant by that, either, but in any case if you do remember everything about my life you're probably laughing at how silly you—I—was acting.
But I'm going to assume that he was right and that you don't remember. He's smart like that. And if you do remember, it's not like you'd bother reading this letter anyway, because you'd know what it says!
Anyway, by now you've probably figured it out. The doc's probably told you by now that you're special and different from other homunculi because you have a kind of core inside you. Magicians can do a lot, but they can't make a soul in a laboratory, so to make his "ultimate" homunculus, he decided to start with a spirit that already existed. In your case, you've been built around the spirit of a fairy.
More accurately, my spirit.
That sounded kind of dramatic, didn't it? I guess I've always kind of been like that. I wonder if you are, too. The doc wasn't sure how much you'd be like me. I mean, the soul is the soul, but memories and life experience matter too, and yours will be totally different. So maybe you're not much like me at all.
Now, if you know anything at all about fairies, you know that we hate alchemy. The magic which humans call Glamour and the fey creatures summoned by it are the expression of the natural order of life. Alchemy is the artificial manipulation of the natural order, twisting it into false, flawed patterns to suit the whim of the magician. It is humanity playing God—and failing.
Tahlea couldn't help but flinch as she read the words that apparently she had written. The phrasing made her skin crawl. After all, she was a homunculus, one of those "false, flawed patterns" she'd talked about. If that was how she—or who she'd once been—had seen alchemy, then how had she ended up this way?
Fortunately, there was an easy way to look for answers. She turned back to the page and continued to read.
In essence, alchemy is like poison to us: it takes the very stuff of which we're made and twists and bends it all out of shape. Professor Gammel likens it to how a human would feel about a magician who cut up corpses and sewed the parts together to make new monsters out of them. Obviously, humans don't react to alchemy in the same way since they're not so close to the forces of natural magic as we are.
What you're probably asking yourself by now is, if fairies think alchemy is so awful, how did you end up with the spirit of a fairy as your core? First off, you can toss out the obvious and scary solution; Dr. Chartreuse did not summon me up to force me into this (seriously, if he did, would I be writing letters? Summoned fey aren't like ghosts or devils who are enslaved by the magician's magic, after all—he might be able to force one of us to submit to the experiment, but not write about it!). On the contrary, I volunteered.
That probably sounds crazy to you. Or maybe not; we have the same soul, after all, so even if you don't remember, maybe your instincts are the same and it all makes sense. The plain truth is, I understand where Dr. Chartreuse is coming from. Poking around with the laws of nature, hoping to discover some of the fundamental principles that underlie the creation of the mortal world, these things are exciting—indeed, they're fascinating! I've spent a great deal of my life studying magic (I hope you didn't think that just any fairy could give you two paragraphs on the theory underlying the glamour-alchemy divide!), and the plain truth is that I've hit a wall. Fairies can't use magic the way humans, or devils, or the greater fey can, and that hampers my ability to experiment. And, beyond that, being so rooted in glamour makes alchemy difficult and even dangerous for me to deal with.
Becoming you might just change all that.
It's too bad that I probably won't still have my memories after the process. Becoming a homunculus would be an amazing experience, and I could get right to work. On the other hand, I'd probably want to crawl right out of my skin, having my soul wrapped up in so much alchemy—it'd be like being saturated in a hostile environment at all times. Hopefully you won't feel the same way. or at least less so, because you won't have spent your life steeped in glamour.
I don't know whether or not any of this will interest you. A new life, a new body, a new kind of existence; you might be a completely different person than I am—or, you might be exactly the same as me, who knows? That's part of what's so exciting about this experiment! A person's soul versus their mind—what effects do they have on one another? I'm kind of annoyed that I won't actually be there to find out...but then again, I guess that I will, in a way! Anyway, I guess what I'm getting at is, I understand if all of this doesn't interest you (okay, I admit, I don't understand, but I know lots and lots of people who aren't interested in magical research so I suppose you could be one of them), but even if you yourself don't care, I really hope you can help Dr. Chartreuse in his experiments. Well, you'll do a lot of that just by existing, but you know what I mean. I'm not asking you to devote your life to research or something, since after all part of the point of a new life is to have you be, well, you and not me, but to let the doc do his tests and so on. Be patient with him; he's got a good heart, but he gets so busy using his brain sometimes that he forgets to listen to it.
Anyway, I guess I'd better shut up now before I get all weepy or something. We picked out my, your, new name together, so I guess from this point forward, I remain,
There were tears in her eyes as she finished the letter. She didn't quite understand why: the tone of it wasn't sad, after all. On the contrary, it had seemed excited, even eager to face the new world the writer was about to confront. Perhaps it was her concern for Father at the end, even though he wasn't Father to her, yet? Then again, the concern was probably not so much for Dr. Chartreuse but for the magical research that they'd both loved. Or maybe it was just that she wouldn't even know the name of the person she'd once been.
Maybe that was why she did it. Because Tahlea was Tahlea now, not the fairy whose spirit now made up her core. That, above all, was the dream she'd been entrusted with by her own soul.
She folded the letter and slipped it back in the envelope.
"Thank you, Father. I think I understand, now, what I was feeling."
"Yes. My fairy core, and the way that its interaction with the world is entirely through the senses, the existence of a creation of alchemy. I think that causes a disconnect, as if the environment is somehow twisted, because of how glamour reacts to alchemy." She smiled at him. "I think it's something that I can work on getting used to now that I know what it is. After all, a homunculus who is scared of alchemy would be kind of silly."
"I'm glad to hear it. But please, if you ever need my help, do come to me at once. I do not want you to have to face problems alone that you don't have to."
"Thank you, Father." She paused, then smiled impishly up at him. "There's something else that I learned as well."
"Oh? What's that?"
"Well, according to this, I'm certainly well-suited to be me. Apparently, I took after you even before I was your daughter!"
~X X X~
A/N: An athanor is a kiln or furnace used in the practice of alchemy.