fleur_de_liz: (Default)
fleur_de_liz ([personal profile] fleur_de_liz) wrote2010-05-11 08:22 pm

Fic: The Lost Alchemist

Title: The Lost Alchemist

Author: [personal profile] fleur_de_liz

Fandom: DC Comics, Justice League International

Character(s)/Pairings: Booster Gold/Blue Beetle, many cameos
Rating: PG

Warnings: Mentions of minor character deaths, including death of a child.

Word Count: 34,000 words exactly!

Summary: In an alternate Earth governed by gods and ruled over by the all-seeing Oracle, where magic is the order of the day, there is a town called Marquette. This town has a terrible secret, one that seems to revolve around the enigmatic, enormous blue beetle creature named Ted. Traveling fortuneteller Booster Gold and his clockwork bird Skeets are determined to discover the truth about Ted, the Kord family, and the lost alchemist. But is the lost alchemist real, or is it as much of a fairytale as the story of the star who fell in love and fell to Earth? Will Booster be able to handle the cost when the gods demand payment? And what will Ted do when he is faced with an impossible choice and the wrath of the Black King?

Notes: This story is based on the Ted from Countdown: Arena, the giant bug. Thank you to my team of betas, [livejournal.com profile] poisonivory, [livejournal.com profile] doctorv, and [livejournal.com profile] pollums. Another tremendous thank you to [livejournal.com profile] pollums for the art and the posting help, because I am dumb and didn't code the fic while I was writing it. This is for the [livejournal.com profile] comicsbigbang!

ART ART ART



Once upon a time, in the sky above a far away land, there was a star. Like every other star in the sky, it watched over the land, silently listening to the wishes of the people below. But this star wasn’t content to just shine down on the world; it was different from all the other stars in the sky. It had a heart, and it was full of love for a beautiful girl. This beautiful girl wished on the star every night, looked up in the sky and asked for her true love to find her, and the star longed to be that true love.

Desperate to be with the beautiful girl, the star fell from the sky to the earth below. But the star was still a star, and the beautiful girl could not love it until the star became human. The star journeyed far to the south, to the realm of the Fire Goddess, the sister of every star. The star begged for the goddess to make him mortal, but she was hesitant, for she feared the girl’s love was not true, and the star’s heart would break. But the star insisted its heart would break if it didn’t become mortal, and so the goddess submitted. The star’s body cooled, and it became a mortal man. Because she loved her brother so, the goddess left him with the gift of Sight, and wished him well as he returned to his love.

But when the mortal star returned to the beautiful girl, he found her in the arms of another. He had granted her wish and brought the beautiful girl true love, but that love was not he himself. The star’s heart had broken, as the goddess had feared. The star could not return to the goddess, for he was ashamed, and so the mortal star wandered the earth, looking for a way to return to his home in the sky and leave behind his broken heart.


=

The caravan wagon rolled slowly through the town gates, charmed to move without a horse. It looked as though it had been separated from a larger group, a chain of Gypsies or circus travelers, its wooden body painted in garish tones of yellow and blue. It was trimmed with gold leaf, the gilt flaking off in rough patches. Though it had no horse, a lone figure sat in the coachman’s seat, steering the wagon as it rolled down the cobblestone path. It swayed slightly, a side-to-side rocking motion that mimicked desert ships.

The townspeople paid no real notice to the caravan wagon as it rolled through the center of town, too concerned with their own affairs. Had they given more than a moment’s glance to the man in the coachman’s seat, they would have seen a traveler untouched by the dust of the road, fair hair coiffed in an elegant Southlander style, eyes a piercing shade of blue. His clothes were as outlandish as the paint on his wagon, with a blue velvet tailcoat and a star-spangled watered silk waistcoat. He held his hat in one hand, blue like his tailcoat and dressed with goldenrod ribbons, steered the wagon with the other.

He looked about him, frowning, and banged on the window behind him with his steering hand.

“Skeets? Skeets! Skeets, I think we’re lost,” he complained.

The window creaked open. It was not another man whose head popped out through the opening, but a gilded clockwork bird’s, its carbuncle eyes taking in the view of the town. There was a faint whirr, almost a tick-tock sound, and the bird’s expression changed to one of concern.

“That’s impossible, Master, that road should have taken us straight to the City of Hub.”

The man folded his arms across his chest. “And does this look like the City of Hub to you? I don’t see any faceless sages.”

The bird, called Skeets, tick-tocked again. “The only way we could have gotten lost is if we strayed from the main road. Master, did you, by chance, take a detour while I was winding myself up again?”

“…No…”

Skeets made a soft clicking sound. “Master…”

“All right, I made a slight detour,” the man admitted, exasperatedly. “But Skeets! It was a man with a magic flute! How could I just ignore that? It could have been significant!”

The bird gave him a look of disapproval, its metal face clicking into a stern expression.

Sighing, the man rolled the caravan to a stop just beside the water fountain in the very center of the town square, then hopped down out of the coachman’s seat. He planted his hat firmly on his head and turned back to Skeets, eyes twinkling.

“I suppose I’ll just have to find out where it is you’ve led us to, Skeets. Try not to get stolen again,” he said cheerily, setting off before the bird had any chance to make a rebuttal.

The man took long, confident strides across the town square, his fine blue leather shoes clopping softly on the cobbles. The town was bustling with mid-morning activity, shopkeepers standing outside their storefronts, arranging their wares and haggling prices on their stoops. The man watched the people moving around him, clip-clopping down the cobblestone streets with their hatboxes and their paper-wrapped fish, utterly ignorant of the flamboyant man in the blue top hat. He stopped in front of a florist’s, the proprietor arranging dripping buckets of roses and daylilies under her green-striped awning, Almerac's embroidered in white on the canvas.

Smiling his most charmingly, the man sidled up alongside the florist, plucked a yellow rosebud from one of her buckets, and pressed a pushkin into her damp, dirty hand before she had a chance to protest his taking the flower. Still smiling charmingly, he fixed the rose into his lapel and touched the brim of his hat.

“I beg your pardon, good lady, but my traveling companion and I seem to have gotten turned about on the road. From the distinct lack of faceless sages, I take it this is not the City of Hub?” he asked conversationally.

The woman grunted and tried to push her long, brilliantly red hair up into the piece of cloth tied about her head. “Hub? Nah, Hub’s a good fortnight east o’ here.”

“Then perhaps you can tell me the name of this charming little hamlet upon which I have stumbled?”

“Marquette.”

The man frowned. “I’ve not heard of Marquette. Who is your patron magician?”

“We don’t have one,” the florist replied flatly.

The man laughed nervously, as if responding to a joke he neither understood nor found funny. “Don’t have one? Madam, surely you are mistaken. Every patch of earth on this continent has a patron magician. Have you no sorcerer? No mage? No devotee of the Kryptonian magics?”

“No,” the florist said, arranging heavy stalks of gladiolas in a leaky metal bucket.

The man stared in disbelief. “Nothing? Not even a weather wizard? Or an animal-speaker? What about an alchemist? At the very least, you must have an alchemist.”

“Used to have an alchemist.”

“…Used to?” he repeated. “Where is he now?”

The woman wiped her hands on her apron. They were less wet, but no less dirty. “He left. Or he’s dead. Or he left and he’s dead.”

“So you have no patron at all? No one?”

The baker from the shop next door, who had been eavesdropping on the entire conversation while he swept his front stoop and waited for his newest batch of rolls to finish baking, paused in his work. Leaning on his broom, he interjected, “Well, we got Ted.”

“Ted? Dare I even ask who is Ted?” the man asked, exasperated. “Some sort of town muscle? Keeps the riff-raff out?”

The baker shrugged. “He’s just Ted. Oh! And there’s the lost alchemist, but—“

“—But he’s just a legend, Bernhard,” the florist said sharply to the baker, who went back to minding his own business. She turned her attentions back to the man, who was fiddling with the rosebud in his lapel. “And just who are you to be asking all these questions, eh? Riding into town in your fancy magic wagon and your strange clothes. You some sort of circus man?”

“Ted don’t take kindly to circus folk,” the baker added.

“I, good madam, am a magician,” the man said grandly. “And if you have any hesitations about my abilities, I would suggest you gather at the fountain in town square at the midday bell. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed.”

Tipping his hat once again and still smiling charmingly, he made his way back to the caravan, pausing at a fruit vendor’s cart to buy an apple. He unlocked the back door of the wagon and climbed inside, the caravan rocking slightly and the stairs creaking under his weight.

The inside of the caravan was a hodge-podge of artifacts and mess. Maps and charts plastered the walls, charms and talismans of questionable authenticity hung from the ceilings, clothing lumped into messy piles over the workspace and the little cot-bed in the corner. Skeets stood on a little wooden perch, a golden key suspended from one perch leg. His head tick-tocked as he cocked it to one side and regarded the man suspiciously.

“Have you found our road, Master, or are we staying on and swindling these people until we are, once again, run out of town pursued by angry villagers and their rotten vegetables?”

“Skeets, I do not swindle! I simply embellish my natural talents for the amusement of the general public! Besides, we can’t go to the City of Hub with what little money we have, it simply wouldn’t do. I doubt the faceless sages will dispense any sort of wisdom without a pushkin or two in their palms.”

The clockwork bird whirred slightly, stretching its wings. “We’d have more money if you stopped spending it on foolishness.”

“You wound me, Skeets. I should have traded you to that fellow in Opal Town when I had the opportunity. You remember, the one with the monocle?” the man asked with false sweetness. He shoved a pile of clothes off a little wooden stool and sat, took a silver knife out of a map in the wall, and used it to peel his apple. He ate the apple slowly, observing the map that was previously the knife’s home. “We’re giving a show at midday, Skeets.”

“I am entirely unsurprised, Master. Are you going to prepare yourself?”

The man nodded, a piece of apple hanging out of his mouth. “In due time.”

Once finished, he made his preparations by checking his reflection in a cracked glass mirror, making sure there was no apple in his teeth. Smoothing his hair back, he smiled at himself, took the rose from his lapel and placed it in a little bowl of water, and curled up on the pile of clothes on top of his cot. He slept until the first chimes of the midday bell, Skeets clacking quietly on his perch.

As the bell pealed out across the town square, a crowd gathered, eager to see what sort of magician had blown into town. The town of Marquette rarely got traveling magicians, and when they came, they often left rather quickly. The townspeople rarely got to see any performed magic, and so there was a current of excitement running through the crowd. Their whispering and chattering grew to a great din that nearly overpowered the tolling bells as the midday bell finished its chimes. The man still hadn’t emerged from the caravan, and they were getting anxious. Suddenly, the coachman’s window swung open, and the clockwork bird flew out and perched on a streetlamp, its tick-tocking wings glittering in the sun.

“Citizens of Marquette, behold! Booster Gold!” Skeets announced grandly. The man, called Booster, suddenly popped out of a trapdoor onto the caravan roof, striking a dramatic pose while the mechanical bird continued its introduction. “Traveling from a far-off land, across the whole of Internationale, Booster Gold has come to astound you with his magical abilities. Booster Gold! Reading your past and predicting your future!”

Booster grinned charmingly as the townspeople clapped with polite disinterest. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s true. I do have a gift. Several, in fact, that I will share with you today. Prepare to be astonished now as I walk on air as plainly as you walk down the streets of charming Marquette.”

He stepped off the caravan roof and sure enough, continued walking right over the heads of the crowd below. Booster tipped his hat at a pretty girl, circled around the fountain, and climbed down out of the sky as if he were descending a staircase. Amazed, the people applauded a little more vigorously.

“For my next feat, I require an assistant. You, very burly man, you look like someone who knows how to throw a punch. Please, step forward!” he called to the town blacksmith. The smith looked about to make sure it was truly he the magician was calling, then hesitantly stepped forward. The crowd whooped and hollered, with someone yelling an excited, "Go on then, Mason!" The audience laughed, and the smith turned slightly red as he stood alongside Booster.

“Sir, I would like you to hit me as hard as you can. I promise I will feel no pain,” Booster said smugly. He tipped back the brim of his hat, then planted his hands squarely on his hips.

The blacksmith grunted, wound back one meaty fist, and let fly a tremendous blow that would have knocked any other man clear out of his shoes. Booster didn’t so much as flinch. It looked, to everyone watching, as though the smith’s knuckles were barely even scraping the watered silk of Booster’s waistcoat. The crowd applauded more enthusiastically as the stunned blacksmith slowly staggered back through the knot of bodies.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the grand finale,” Booster said. The townspeople groaned with disappointment that the show would be over so quickly. “Yes, I know, but the greatest moments of our lives are often fleeting, as ephemeral as magic itself. Now, to begin, I shall make my way back to the roof, so that you might all better see…”

He climbed back into the air and walked over to the caravan roof, standing once again on its blue and yellow tiles. The town square was silent, the crowd watching and waiting to see what the magician would do next. Booster adjusted his hat, tugged on the cuffs of his suit-jacket and shirt, and grinned charmingly.

“And now, good people of Marquette, I give you…fire!”

Great spurts of fire shot from his outstretched hands, exploding over his head in yellow chrysanthemums that sparkled even in the noonday sun. The bright lights showered the people in gold glitter, and starbursts continued to pour from Booster’s gloved hands as the crowd applauded wildly. He curled his hands into fists and the fire stopped. Booster swept off his hat and bowed low to his audience, still grinning charmingly.

“Thank you, thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, this was merely a demonstration of my awesome abilities, designed to get your attention. And now that I have it, let me tell you that although what you have just witnessed was astounding, it is not my true talent. As my mechanical friend alluded to, I am a fortuneteller and for a small fee, I can read your past, your present, and perhaps even your future. The line starts at the back steps of the caravan and forms to the right. I shall be taking customers until the evening bell. Thank you!”

With that, he disappeared into the caravan through the hatch in the roof while the crowd assembled itself into a line. Booster hurriedly threw the mess into several small steamer trunks, hiding the piles of clothes, the assorted knick-knacks, the odd magical scroll. He pushed one of the steamer trunks into the middle of the floor, closing the lid and latching it securely. His cleaning revealed a mate to the stool he’d sat on earlier and a rumpled quilt that he threw over the trunk to serve as a tablecloth. Booster opened the roof porthole wide to provide some light, opened the back door, and ushered in his first customer.

+

Booster told fortunes all day, and by the time he had read the last fortune, turning away the townspeople still waiting with a promise to read theirs on the morrow, the evening bells were ringing throughout Marquette. He was tired from using his gift so much, hungry, and hoarse. He shut the trapdoor in the roof, pushed the trunk back against the wall, and turned to his clockwork bird.

“Skeets, I’m going in search of some nourishment before I wither away to nothing but a dry husk of nothingness,” Booster announced dramatically.

“Don’t spend all the money we just made, Master,” the bird chided.

Booster scoffed, took up his hat and coin purse, and left the caravan. Skeets would see to it that they weren’t robbed, unless he himself was stolen away. It was certainly within the realm of possibility that someone would take off with the mechanical bird, given that Booster had done just that to its original owner. Looking back over his shoulder, he called, “Don’t wait up for me!”

Booster watched the sun slowly sink down below the rooftops, the Lantern Bearer carrying his light down into the Black King’s domain, turning the sky rose and gold. He stood in the middle of the cobblestone walk and watched as the shops closed up for the evenings, packing away their carts and wares, rolling up their awnings, sweeping off their stoops. The streetlights had not yet been lit, the salamanders still dozing curled around their coals. He sighed, then set off down the street, unsure of his destination. He should have asked one of the townspeople their opinion on eateries while he was reading their fortune.

“You put on quite the show, Mister Gold,” called a voice, the speaker unseen.

Booster stopped and smiled his most charming grin, trying to find the source of the voice without looking too obvious. “Why, thank you, kind sir! And if you enjoyed today’s performance, you should come tomorrow and have your for—“

“Yes, quite an impressive show for an errant fraud,” the voice continued.

“Fraud? Sir, I am no fraud. And, might I ask, just who are you to be making such bold and blatantly false accusations?” Booster inquired, now looking around for the source of the voice in earnest. The streets appeared mostly empty, the salamanders now scampering in their lamps and heating their coals to a cherry glow that lit the sidewalks.

“Someone with a great dislike for swindlers peddling paltry imitations of magic,” replied the voice. It seemed to be coming from a dark alley just to the right of where Booster stood, out of the reach of the salamanders’ glow. Peering out of the shadows was a pair of great big yellow eyes, eyes that seemed to glow in the darkness, eyes that were fixed squarely on Booster.

“Well, I should have you know that I do not put a great deal of stock in falsehoods made by strangers with great big googly yellow eyes who lurk in dark alleys,” Booster said haughtily. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I was on my way to dinner.”

The figure in the alley made a scoffing sound. “And I suppose you’ll be paying for that dinner with the money you stole from the townspeople.”

“I stole from no one! My abilities are genuine. I am not and have never been a swindle,” Booster argued hotly.

The yellow-eyed figure in the alley let out another snort of derision, a sound that made Booster want to drag him out of the alley and slap him across his smug, sneering face. “They are nothing more than cheap parlor tricks. Or do you mean to tell me that your ring is not capable of flight, your gaudy belt buckle invulnerability, and your gloves of producing fire?”

Booster stood there dumbstruck. No man had ever before discovered the trick to his abilities, at least, not while Booster was still in town. There were, of course, a number of people who had realized Booster’s abilities were nothing more than a few magical trinkets and a lot of smiling and cheery patter, but by the time they’d come to this realization he was already on the road again, the money long spent.

“The one thing I am truly curious about, Mr. Gold, is your so-called fortunetelling. What sort of trickery is that?”

“That, Sir, is no trick. I truly possess the gift of Sight, and I could easily read your past and show you,” Booster said defensively.

“Keep my past in the past, Mr. Gold, where it belongs,” the yellow-eyed man replied tartly.

Booster adjusted his hat. “Sir, I promise, I did not swindle your townspeople…much. The performance was nothing more than that, a performance. Something to entertain the unwashed masses. The fortunes, I read with as much accuracy as the Sight allows, and I only charged your countrymen two batsons. Most places I charge two whole pushkins for my services, so you’ve gotten quite the bargain. I am simply trying to make enough money to get at least partway to Hub.”

“Stopped to see the man with the magic flute, did we?” the yellow-eyed man asked wryly.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t,” Booster said defensively. He folded his arms across his chest and stared into the darkness, trying to get a better look at his accuser. “It has come to my attentions that you appear to know a great deal about me now, and yet I know very little of you. How about a name to start? Or should I continue to think of you as Yellow Eyed Alley Lurking Stranger?”

“…It’s Ted.”

“Ah, now the picture is clearer. You’re the infamous Ted I was warned about.”

Ted made a soft scoffing sound, his yellow eyes briefly extinguishing as he closed them, then opened them again. “So they told you about me, and yet you continued to hawk your foolish circus act anyway? Either you’re incredibly stupid, or you have a death wish.”

Booster laughed nervously and extended a hand. “Well, why don’t you and I discuss my death wish over dinner? You must know the best place a man can get a last meal around here.”

“You’re sure you want this?” Ted asked.

“Want what? Dinner? Yes, of course I do, I’m famished!”

“No, you fool, this.” Ted stepped out of the alley then, and Booster could plainly see why he was hidden there in the first place. The great yellow eyes were set in a huge blue head, great white mandibles protruding from his mouth like tusks. He was enormous, taller than Booster (who was considerably tall himself), and his body was covered in chitinous blue and black armor. The shell on his back was corrugated, and there did not seem to be any wings underneath, though Booster could not be certain. Each arm and leg bent at odd angles, four huge grasping fingers and four massive toes on each hand and foot.

Booster said nothing, his mouth hanging open just slightly, his hat stuck at a quizzical angle. He had seen many strange sights in his travels, but he had never before seen anything like this.

“Are you quite finished staring, or would you like to continue?” Ted asked wryly, his mouth quirked up into a smirk. Or rather, what Booster hoped was a smirk.

Booster shook his head quickly, then turned on his charming grin once again. “It’s your elbows. I’m fascinated by them. Dinner?”

“You aren’t the sort to take ‘no, leave me alone,’ for an answer, are you?”

“Absolutely not.”

Ted heaved a tremendous sigh and lumbered down the street, his feet scraping over the cobblestones. The few merchants still on the streets paid no real heed, and Booster wondered if they were all accustomed to the great blue beetle scuttling around their town. He paused, glancing back shell and shoulder to see if Booster was actually following. “If you want a halfway decent meal, you’ll want the Crimson Fox.”

“What if I want the best meal in town?” Booster asked peevishly.

“The Silver Sorceress, but their selection of ales isn’t half as good as the Fox’s,” Ted replied.

“Crimson Fox it is!” he cheered. Booster jogged a little ways to catch up to Ted, who moved surprisingly fast considering his size. “Have you lived in Marquette for long?”

Ted glanced down at him. “As long as I can remember. Why do you ask?”

“Well, seeing as how you have lived here for so long, perhaps you can explain to me why such a charming town as this has no patron magician,” Booster said.

“Marquette has me, it needs no other patron,” Ted replied tartly.

Booster tipped the brim of his hat with one thumb, following Ted around a corner, down another salamander-lit street. “Is that so? Then perhaps you are the reason the alchemist left? Or died? Or left and died?”

Ted was silent, saying nothing for the remainder of their walk through the meandering streets of Marquette. He spoke again only once they were stopped outside the bright red door and the swinging wooden sign of the Crimson Fox Tavern. “Master Thomas left this town because it is too full of ghosts. He could no longer be the patron of a town where so much misfortune had befallen him.”

Booster stared at his companion. “Master Thomas?”

“I served the alchemist and his family from the first day I came to be until the morning Master Thomas left, and I remain the faithful servant of the Kord family even now,” he said, noble and grave.

Intrigued, Booster held the door for Ted and followed him inside, marveling at the vaulted wooden beams and the salamander chandeliers, more salamanders scampering in the fireplace. The tavern was busy, bustling with song and chatter and the clank of flagons. The barkeep, one of a set of very beautiful twins, waved to Ted and immediately her sister ushered them to a table out of the way of the other patrons. Booster caught them staring, looking suspiciously and distrustfully at both himself and his very large companion. Ted took the seat against the wall, tucked into the corner, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Booster removed his hat and gloves, winked saucily at the girl, and sat.

“Two pints of ale, dear lady, and make sure they’re the bottomless sort. I have a feeling my large blue friend and I will be telling quite a few tales tonight,” he said, turning on his charming grin again.

Ted leaned forward slightly. “And if you please, Vivian, whatever is hot and waiting on the hearth.”

She smiled at him and nodded. “Pot pie tonight, Ted. I’ll bring it right over.”

Booster leaned in after the barmaid left, grinning wickedly. “I think she’s sweet on you.”

“Vivian is most certainly not sweet on me. She treats all of Marquette with equal kindness. If I seem to receive any sort of preferential treatment, it is because I saved both her and her sister from a most terrible fire three years ago,” Ted replied, eyes flicking toward Vivian as she returned with two foaming, spilling flagons of ale.

Booster took a long draw from his, foam white on his lip. “So, tell me, how did you end up working for the Kords? Are you some sort of homunculus that your Master Thomas created? Or are you simply some breed of wild insect common to the woods of Marquette?”

“I am most definitely the only one of my kind, and if Master Thomas created me, I have no memory of it. I have simply always been in the employ of the Kord family,” Ted replied, curling one hand around his flagon. It looked tiny in such a large hand, and Booster wondered how Ted could possibly drink from it. “And now that you have asked me a variety of inane questions, I have a question of my own.”

“They’re not inane! They are informative. Enlightening. I am gaining a clearer picture of the…er…gentleman I see before me,” Booster replied.

Ted gave him a look. “What do you hope to find in Hub, Mister Gold? People only talk to the faceless sages when they’re fairly desperate for answers.” He took a swig of ale from his flagon. Awkwardly, Booster noticed, which was the answer to his earlier curious contemplation.

“The same thing I have looked for in every city and town I have traveled to: a way home,” Booster said with a sober sigh. He cheered considerably when the barmaid returned once again with their suppers, and tucked in with great gusto. He watched Ted to see how he would handle fork and knife, and it was just as awkward as his drinking. They were like matchsticks in his massive hands.

“Why not beseech a god? I should think the Lantern Bearer would give you the answers you seek.”

Booster shook his head. “It is very unwise to beseech a god unless you have nothing to lose and absolutely everything to sacrifice in exchange. I have heard tales…” He paused and stuffed a mouthful of potato and gravy into his mouth. “…of people who have asked a boon of the gods and lived to deeply regret their asking.”

Ted speared a piece of pie crust with his fork and brought it to his mouth, knuckles bashing against his curved mandibles. “See now, and here I thought you had said you’d been searching for quite some time now, and I should think that anyone searching for so long would be willing to ask for divine aid.”

“I’m simply not desperate enough yet,” Booster replied. “I still have many highways to traverse before I come to that particular pathway. Now, what is this I have heard about a lost alchemist?”

Ted stiffened. “Where did you hear that?”

“Oh, you know. Around. I do so enjoy hearing the local gossip and rumor, it makes my journeys that much more interesting,” Booster replied, folding his hands and tucking them under his chin like a child entranced by a story, his elbows on the table and narrowly missing puddles of gravy and ale.

Now Ted was visibly bristled, yellow eyes wide with surprise and suspicion. “That is nothing more than a fairy tale, no different than the nursery story about the star who fell from the sky for want of a woman.”

“Indeed,” Booster replied. “But what is the tale?”

Ted made a horrible grunting noise. “You are positively insufferable.”

“Actually, I am insufferably curious. There’s a great deal of difference.”

Heaving a tremendous sigh and rolling his eyes, Ted explained, “Some people believe the Kords had a son who will one day come back to Marquette and be her patron alchemist. I know this to be a falsehood.”

Booster shrugged. “Do you truly know this? Perhaps he really is out there.”

“No, there is no one else. And I shall speak no more of it. Nor will you,” Ted said firmly.

Booster said nothing more about the lost alchemist, though he suspected there was far more to the story than what Ted was willing to speak of. He brought the conversation back to light and trivial topics, though Ted was clearly perturbed, and kept eyeing the door. Finally, after the pies were long gone and they’d drunk their share of ale, Ted clumsily rose from the table and pushed in his wooden stool.

“I have answered more than my fair share of inane questions for you, Mr. Gold, and so I take my leave. If you are not out of Marquette in two days’ time, I shall forcibly remove you. This is no idle threat, so do not think that because we have dined together, I have any amicable feelings for you. Your kind is a nuisance and I want you gone.”

“…Will you be settling the tab, then?” Booster asked, smiling his charming smile.

“Vivian knows to put my fare on credit. You are responsible for yourself. Two days, Mr. Gold.”

Booster lifted his tankard in farewell and settled in to finish his mug. There was something intriguing about the blue beetle called Ted, and Booster hoped that he could discover what made him so fascinating in a mere two days’ time.

+

The next day was cool and rainy, a fine mist of grayness enveloping the town square. Booster spent his morning drowsing in his little rat’s nest of a bed, and spent his luncheon wandering the town, looking for a salamandry so he could light the caravan, as the sun was stuck behind stubborn clouds. He found every other shop in town but the salamandry and was growing frustrated, standing outside the cheese shop and sulking as water dripped from the brim of his hat. Today he wore a suit of yellow velveteen, with a navy brocade waistcoat, and his beloved blue hat and blue leather shoes.

Booster was about to give up and simply read fortunes in the dark when he caught sight of a familiar hulking form dodging puddles on the opposite side of the road. “A fine and drizzly day, Ted! What brings you out of your dark and stinking alley on so lovely a Torasday?”

The enormous insect looked up at the sound of his voice, his expression one of vague annoyance. “Hello, Mr. Gold.”

“Booster, if you please.”

“I prefer Mr. Gold. If your incessantly questioning brain must know my personal business, I am to the apothecary for poison. It appears there are rodents in our pantry and our hearth-charms are no longer working as they once did. I see you are not busy robbing anyone, unless you are accosting them and taking their cheeses today,” Ted replied tartly.

Booster crossed the street and began walking alongside Ted as though they were close acquaintances. “Actually, I am trying to find a salamandry. There isn’t enough light in my humble abode to even see the tip of my nose by, and my last salamander evaporated four days ago.”

“The apothecary has salamanders. Our salamandry is gone.”

“Gone? Where did it go? Did your Master Thomas take it with you when he left Marquette?”

Ted sighed in annoyance. “Our salamandry burnt to the ground last Feast of Lady Beatriz.”

Booster laughed, dodging drops of water cascading down from a wet awning. “You must be joking. I do not believe I have ever heard anything so…well, ironic, I suppose. Imagine! A purveyor of fire-worms catching aflame on the very holy day of the fire goddess!”

Ted cracked what Booster believed might have been a smile as they turned the corner toward the apothecary’s. There were salamanders scampering about in the coal lanterns inside the store, and more in cages near the window, but upon trying the door, they found it locked up fast. Peering through the window, they determined the shop to be wholly empty.

“This is unusual,” Ted muttered.

“All the other shops I have passed thus far today have been this way as well. Does Marquette frequently become a ghost town at midday?” Booster asked, checking the window of the haberdashery next door.

“No,” Ted replied. “No, it does not.”

They walked on, hoping to find someone about, but the town seemed utterly deserted. It was just as they passed under the sign of the Silver Sorceress that Ted lifted his great head and looked about, eyes narrowed in concentration.

“Do you hear that?”

Booster frowned, looking as though he were concentrating hard as well. “...Where are your ears?”

“Never you mind. Do you hear that? It sounds like a crowd.”

“Well, it certainly isn’t coming from my caravan. I suppose this means we have found Marquette’s people,” Booster replied, following Ted around another corner and down a cramped alley, toward the sound.

The town center of Marquette was deceptively large, and it twisted and turned like a hedge maze. They suddenly turned another corner and found themselves facing an enormous crowd, the entire population of Marquette. They had assembled just as they had the day before for Booster’s performance, only now they were standing in front of a different caravan and a hastily-assembled wooden stage. Atop the stage sat a man in kingly costume, a table, and Bernhard the baker. Several other costumed figures wove their way through the cheering, applauding crowd.

“Oh no,” Ted muttered.

“Oh no!” Booster echoed.

Ted speared him with a poisonous glare. “You see? This is why I want you gone. You let one street performer in, you let them all in. I’ll be up to my teeth in tumblers by Lordsday. And all because you had to bring your little street mountebank fortunetelling show here.”

“Yes, yes, I know you hate me. Listen, I know those men,” Booster replied, pointing to the man onstage.
“I had a feeling you would. All card-carrying members of the Swindlers’ Guild, are we? Going to have tea and trade stories once I have cleared away the crowd?” Ted sniped.

Booster glowered at him. “I am not a swindler. Those people, however, are thieves of the highest order. I encountered them on my travels once before. They call themselves the Rider Tarot Gang, and gang they most certainly are. They dress as tarot arcana, see? The Ace of Wands, the Ten of Swords, the Fool, the Empress, and the Emperor, all cards in the deck. They roll into town, put on a show, tell fortunes with their tarot cards, do paltry parlor tricks that are in no way similar to what I do, and pick the pockets of the audience while they are caught unawares.”

Ted scowled deeply. His great brow furrowed and he cracked his knuckles, the sound of his joints popping drowned out by the din. "Something must be done about this."

"I agree wholeheartedly," said Booster, adjusting his hat.

Ted glanced over at him, and Booster was sure that if Ted possessed eyebrows, one would be raised inquisitively. "What business of yours is this?"

"If these ruffians steal all the money from your countrymen, then they will have no money to spend on me!"

"Ah. We are truly concerned about the welfare of the people," Ted said dryly.

Booster turned up the collar of his yellow velveteen suitjacket and stepped into the air, ascending his invisible staircase until he was above the heads of the onlookers, of Ted himself. Ted looked up at him, or more specifically, at the well-worn leather soles of his shoes. "I will appeal to the masses. You do...whatever it is you do best in these sorts of situations. I'm sure you are well-practiced."

With that, Booster strode forward, walking over the unsuspecting crowd. They were all too entranced with the performance onstage to even notice him, at least, not until he had reached the very front of the crowd and was blocking the view of the Emperor and the baker from almost everyone. Booster turned, adjusted his hat and tugged on his gloves, and attempted to appeal to the masses.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Good people of Marquette!" he called in his booming theatrical voice. The people stopped complaining about his interruption and watched Booster warily. This could be an even more exciting performance than what they were already seeing. The Rider Tarot Gang paused in their activities as well. "It is with deepest regret that I must inform you that you are being duped! These people can no more tell your fortune than a common garden turnip, and I have far greater belief in the abilities of the turnip!"

The audience gasped. From his chair, the Emperor frowned at Booster and tugged at the beard on his chin. "You look familiar..."

"The Walled City of Ivy ring any bells for you?" Booster asked snidely. "The name is Booster Gold, and you shan't likely forget it, Emperor. People of Marquette, this is the Rider Tarot Gang, and they intend to entrance you with their paper-and-pasteboard parlor tricks and steal the coin from your purses!"

Now the crowd was panicking, checking their purses and pockets. Some let up horrified cries when they discovered their money was gone. The Emperor's face went a deep, radish-colored shade of fury.

"How dare you!"

"I dare very easily, actually," Booster replied smugly.

The Fool, the Empress, and the Ten of Swords leaped up onto the stage, joining the Emperor as the baker scurried off, forgetting all about the tarot reading he'd been receiving. They were just as purple with fury behind their makeup as the Emperor, the spoils of their thievery forgotten. The Empress brandished a huge gold sceptre, waving it madly at Booster.

"He has ruined everything! Let's get him!"

Booster made a face. "'Let's get him?' For such an actress, that was rather a paltry performance, Madam."

The Emperor scooped up the tarot cards from the table and hurled them at Booster like throwing knives. "Pick a card, Gold, any card!"

One clipped Booster across the thigh, another knocking his hat askew. Letting out a cry of pain, he looked down and realized that the cards were razor sharp and had torn a gash in both his trousers and his flesh. Blood beaded along the jagged seam of broken skin, mixing with the wet mist in the air and going runny. Ignoring the pain, he climbed higher into the sky and swooped down like a falcon sighting its prey, connecting his left fist with the Emperor's chin.

"I'm going to break your neck!" the Emperor growled, yanking Booster out of the air and wrapping his arms around his throat. He struggled, heels sliding on the wet wood, the Emperor's forearm pressed tightly against his windpipe. Booster's hat tumbled into the audience, pretty Vivian from the tavern retrieving it from the puddle in which it had come to rest.

"Mmmphmm phuump," Booster mumbled around the hand clamped against his lips.

"What did you say, insolent whelp?"

"I said, not a chance!" he replied, breaking the hold and flipping the Emperor over his shoulder. He skidded across the wet stage, cracking his head against the edge of the table and lying motionless and dazed beneath it once he had finally stopped moving. The rest of the Rider Tarot Gang closed in on him, circling like hungry dogs as they cornered a hare in the woods.

The Ten of Swords charged forward with one of her sabres, cracking Booster alongside the head with the flat of it. He reeled, ears ringing with the sound of her steel, allowing the Empress to bunch her skirts in her hands and kick him with the thick heel of her riding boot.

"Taste my boot, Buster!"

"That's Booster," he replied, though the taste in his mouth was not shoe leather, but the metallic tang of blood.

The Ten of Swords charged again, but he was prepared for her this time and dodged her feint, sending her sprawling onto the very table the Emperor had fallen beneath. The Empress and Fool both charged at him like maddened bulls, and all Booster need do was leap into the air and let them crash headlong into one another, concussing themselves. Booster stepped back down onto the stage, standing upon the tabletop, waiting for Ten to make another move.

"You do not strike me as the sort of man who would hit a lady, Mr. Gold," she said, brandishing another sabre.

Booster smiled charmingly. "Well, my dear, you see..." He surged forward and punched her square in the face. "I believe in equal treatment when it comes to ruffians."

The audience applauded wildly, thrilled to have been witness to such a spectacular show. Booster bowed deeply, then gathered up the unconscious band of rogues and looked about for something with which to bind them. Distracted, it was not until a woman's screams gave him pause enough to look below the stage, where the missing member of the Rider Tarot Gang stood. He was the Ace of Wands, tall as a tree, standing impassively and watching the crowd roil. He had appeared out of seeming nowhere, black and white and monstrous, a bag of what had to be coins clutched in his enormous fist.

"How in the name of the Oracle did I manage to overlook you?" Booster asked, scratching his rain-damp head. "You must have taken some of Palmer's Patented Potion and changed your size while I was caught unawares."

"Are you going to fight him, Mr. Gold?" someone from the crowd asked eagerly.

Booster grinned. "Well, I certainly could, and I have no doubt that I would easily overpower this incredible lout, but I think I shall let Marquette's patron deal with him."

"Fool, this town has no patron," the Ace of Wands boomed.

"It is very clear no one warned you of me, then," Ted piped up. The crowd parted, sweeping to either side to make room for the enormous and very perturbed creature. He cracked his huge knuckles, a wicked grin on his equally wicked face. "It is a terrible shame you did not leave me more to do, Mr. Gold. I have not properly removed vagrants from town in quite some time. I fear I've lost some of my touch."

Booster bowed again, smiling at Ted. "My apologies, friend. Next time I shall rest on my laurels and let you handle things."

"You are going to return the stolen money, you are going to pack up your wagon, and you are going to get out of my town. Now," Ted growled, his yellow eyes aflame. The crowd pulled back even further, watching warily as he pressed forward.

The Ace of Wands was unmoved, standing there with his tree trunk arms folded across his barrel chest. Booster was a bit of a gambling man, but even he had a difficult time deciding which one to put his money on. The Ace of Wands seemed large and formidable, but then there was Ted. Booster had not yet seen Ted's fighting, only heard his threats, but threats made by a huge talking insect couldn't be all that idle.

Ted was right in front of the Ace now, feet digging into the mud, bracing for the impending fight. "Last warning. Pack up and get. Out."

"Make me," the Ace replied, his voice deep and booming.

Booster could hear a faint clicking, whirring noise, and realized there was a bit of a reverberation in the Ace's voice. A familiar, slightly tinny sound he heard daily. "Ted! He's a clockwork golem!"

"Even better. Now I don't have to pull my punches," he replied, winding up and striking the clockwork giant. There was a loud clang, the sound of hard chitin connecting with metal, and Ted jumped back, shaking his hand. "Tora's teeth! He's built a fair bit sturdier than I thought."

"Would you like a bit of help?" Booster asked.

"You stay with the rest of these churls, I'm taking this one down myself," Ted insisted, ducking as the Ace swung a fist at him. "Why do they call him the Ace of Wands, and not a different card from the Tarot?"

"I can think of one reason, but it's not something I can say in front of the fair maidens and young children standing here in the crowd. Thank you, Miss Vivian, for keeping my hat safe for me," Booster replied, winking at the redheaded lady.

Ted jumped back, the Ace of Wands lunging toward him again. He moved as though he were trying to squash the large bug between his hands, clapping them together. Ted kept weaving and dodging, but Booster was certain he was more focused on keeping the Ace of Wands away from the townspeople.

"Everyone get back!" Booster yelled, the crowd scrambling to give Ted a much wider berth.

Ted charged forward again, ducking under grasping hands and quickly twisting his head, trying to rip open the clockwork golem with his mandibles. He managed to sink one of the sharp white tusks into the sheet metal and when he pulled, there was a sharp metallic squeal like nails down a piece of slate. The metal plating ripped open, the inner gears and springs visible through the jagged tin.

"I will crush you!" the Ace of Wands hollered.

Ted wasn't fast enough to dodge the next blow, too close to the Ace. He grabbed Ted by the throat and tossed him, and Booster couldn't hide the wince as Ted landed on his back, his carapace scraping on the cobblestones. He rocked a little, trying to right himself, looking like a stuck tortoise.

"Hey!" Booster shouted, leaping into the air and running on the fog. He kicked the Ace in the back of the head, but it was like a gnat striking a dragon. "I believe that gentleman said to get out of town."

The Ace of Wands grabbed Booster's ankle and tossed him, sending him crashing into a wall. The invulnerability belt protected him from the worst of injuries, but it still left him stunned. Ted was on his feet again, and rushing toward the clockwork man, yellow eyes blazing. He dodged another blow from the Ace, reaching in with both hands and grasping the jagged pieces of metal he'd sliced open. He pried them further apart, widening the gap and further exposing his clockwork innards.

"Booster! Your fire!" he shouted.

Booster leapt to his feet again, climbing into the sky and racing towards the Ace. The Ace of Wands threw Ted aside once again, sending him toppling end-over-end and into a fruit wagon. The force of his impact shattered two of the wheels and sent the wares spilling into the road. Booster slid under the Ace's grasping arms and splayed one palm, fire pouring from his enchanted gloves into the heart of the clockwork beast. The Ace of Wands let out a horrible groan, his gears and cogs and springs glowing red hot. He flailed and struggled and batted Booster away, but he persisted, pouring as much fire into the Ace's mechanical belly as he could.

"Everyone keep back!" Booster yelled. The townspeople scrambled to get further away, just as Ted was struggling to get onto his feet once again.

The Ace of Wands belched thick black smoke, his arms spasmed and convulsed, and finally he exploded from the innards outward. The force of the blast sliced the clockwork monster clean in two, separating his top from his bottom. Ted lumbered over and stomped on the Ace of Wands' head until it had flattened, smoking gears spilling out over the pavement.

"We make quite the team, don't we?" Booster asked breathlessly, grinning at Ted, a smudge of soot on his cheek.

Ted gave him a look. "We would have been even more successful if you hadn't let the rest of those vagabonds go."

"What are you--" Booster looked up and realized then that during the fight, the rest of the Rider Tarot Gang had regained consciousness, climbed into their caravan, and retreated with all the haste in the world. "...Oh. Well, I doubt they will return. Not after what we did to them."

Ted picked up the bag of coins the Ace of Wands had dropped during the fight, shook it, and then peered inside. "I suppose we should start figuring out how to return all of this."

"Ladies and gentlemen, if you please!" Booster announced. "Anyone who has had their pockets picked, please form a line to the left so that we might return your valuables. Now, this is on the honor system, but if you're considering trying to hoodwink us, please take into advisement the fact that we just ripped a man in two. Miss Vivian? May I have my hat, please?"

Ted watched as the crowd assembled and Vivian stepped forward to return Booster's hat, who took it with a wink and a charming smile. He turned to Booster, and Booster wasn't sure, but that might have been a smile on his face, somewhere between the smashed fruit and the mandibles.

"Perhaps we should toast our victory at the Crimson Fox tonight," Booster suggested.

"Perhaps we should give this money back first before you make any sort of dinner plans," Ted retorted. "You never did get your salamanders, you know."

"They can wait," Booster replied.

+

After that encounter, attitudes seemed to change in Marquette, at least with regards to Booster. The townspeople were slightly more receptive to him, and business seemed to pick up following his encounter with the Rider Tarot Gang. When he wasn't reading fortunes, he'd become something of a lost goods finder, reading pasts to discover what had become of heirloom silverware, or a spare set of keys, or that misplaced bottle of ale. Booster didn't mind, so long as it was work.

Ted's attitude towards him was a marked improvement. Though still wary of him, he seemed less inclined to throw Booster out of town. One day became two, two became a week, and soon a fortnight had passed and Booster's caravan was still parked in the center of town. He and Ted dined every evening at the Crimson Fox, talked about town gossip and Booster's customers, and Ted would sometimes laugh and insist that behind the chifforobe was exactly where he had suggested Madam Cobert look for her missing pearl earrings. He'd even started calling Booster by name, as opposed to "Mister Gold," as he had been doing. Ted was thoughtful and clever and funny when he wanted to be, and genuinely cared about the people of his town, and Booster enjoyed his company.

Unfortunately for Booster, Ted had been right about one thing: the longer he stayed in Marquette, the more it seemed to attract the colorful and more scurrilous wanderers of the road. Booster aided in the removal of Farley Fleeter's Merry Madmen, a troupe of vampire enthusiasts called the Eastern Street Bloodsuckers, a three-eyed mystic known as Despero the Daring, and a belligerent knight called Carapax. He and Ted made a formidable team, with Booster providing all the showmanship and Ted all the muscle. Ted was, quite frankly, brilliant, and Booster took great pleasure in watching him trade barbs with the scum of the Swindlers' Guild.

Ted was part of the reason Booster had not yet moved on from Marquette. Booster had not gleaned any more information about him, or about the lost alchemist, which was most of the other part. The story had fixed in Booster's brain, burrowed in deep and itched at his mind until he could hardly focus on anything else. The townspeople all seemed to know something about it, and there seemed, at least in Booster's mind, to be some connection between the story and Ted, but not a soul was willing to speak about it. Those he questioned insisted that the story was nothing but that, a story, and no more true than the tale of the fallen star. Quite a number of people didn’t even want to speak about Ted, and a few insisted that if he didn’t protect the town so well, they would exile him to the farthest corners of Internationale. He was a terror, they said. But Booster couldn’t believe those claims, and he certainly couldn't leave well enough alone. He was desperate to know what had happened to the Kord family, what exactly was Ted's involvement, and why the townspeople always gave him that wary, sidelong glance.

"Master, I am beginning to suspect we are never going to Hub," Skeets said one Beasday afternoon, almost two and a half weeks since their arrival.

"Nonsense, Skeets. We will press on soon. We simply need a little more time, a little more money," Booster replied, consulting one of his scrolls.

Skeets flapped his wings, clacking with annoyance. "Master, you said that a fortnight ago."

"Ted hasn't forcibly removed us from Marquette, I see no reason to move on while business is good."

"I'm starting to suspect that Ted is every bit the reason we are staying," Skeets said dryly. "And not simply because you are trying to unravel some imagined mystery involving him."

Booster colored and buried his nose deeper into the scroll. "That's none of your business. And the mystery is not imagined, there is truly something going on in this town. You know what? I think I know how I'm going to get to the bottom of this whole sordid affair."

"I get the distinct impression that I'm not going to like what you are about to suggest, Master."
"I'm going to read Ted's past," Booster said determinedly.

Skeets tick-tocked, carbuncle eyes rolling. "I knew I wouldn't like it."

"Don't you see? Ted is probably the only person in town I haven't read. And he got very defensive when I asked him about the lost alchemist. So clearly he knows something. I'm going to find out what he knows, Skeets. It's the only way I'll ever be satisfied," Booster said, getting up and going through his steamers, looking for a different outfit to wear.

"Master, if you do this, I can almost guarantee that you will not like the outcome of your actions," Skeets cautioned.

Booster held up a blue and yellow striped waistcoat. "You are the most pessimistic clockwork creature I have ever encountered. I'm cleaning up and then I am going to supper with Ted."

"And I will pack our belongings, because I am certain that after tonight, we will no longer be welcome in town."

Booster ignored him and began dressing for dinner, washing up with water he'd taken from the fountain. He grinned at his reflection in the cracked glass and combed his hair neatly, dressed in his fresh outfit and splashed his throat with a touch of cologne. He looked more like he was going courting rather than having dinner with an incredibly large and intelligent talking insect creature.

"Don't wait up for me, Skeets," Booster called as he took up his hat and left the caravan.

Two and a half weeks of living in Marquette had made the streets familiar to Booster, and he walked them with the ease of a long-time resident as he made his way toward the Crimson Fox. People called out with genial greetings, waving from their stoops as they swept them off. He caught sight of Ted coming from the opposite direction, waving grandly. A few sparks flew off his fingertips from his gloves, and he couldn't help but laugh.

"Showing off, or genuinely glad to see me?" Ted asked, his grin huge and just a little intimidating.

Booster tipped his hat. "Oh, both, of course."

"Well, that's quite the greeting," he replied, propping the door open. "Are you going to regale me with another story of worldly travel and less-than-legal mischief tonight, Mr. Gold?"

Laughing, Booster slipped past Ted and into the tavern, tipping his hat to Vivian as he and Ted made a beeline for "their" table, over in the corner, out of the way of the other patrons. He just didn’t understand how, in spite of all the good he did in town, the townspeople were still somewhat leery of Ted. Booster could see it in their eyes whenever they passed by, just the glimmer of fear and suspicion. Ted slipped into his stool, back to the wall, and Booster slid in close.

"Two pints, Vivian, and we'll have the special," he called, gesturing toward the table.

"Constance will be right over, Mr. Gold!" she called back, wiping down the bar vigorously.

Ted sighed, watching the bar patrons. "That fire-swallower came back this morning."

"The fellow who called himself 'The Incendiary Man?' The one with all the tattoos and the accent?" Booster asked, dropping a few coins into Constance's apron as she brought over their drinks.

Ted nodded and took his mug. "The very same. I chased him out again, but I suspect we may see him at least once more. I think all the fire-swallowing has dulled his wits. It's a shame I'm not a water-witch, I would have loved to spit a typhoon in his face and see him swallow that."

Booster laughed, trying to find his opening. It was difficult to tell a fortune when the subject wasn't a willing volunteer. He would need to get skin-to-skin, or in this case skin-to-chitin contact in order to get a good reading. Usually he held a subject's hand, but he suspected that Ted would know what he was up to if he tried to hold his hand. There would be no way to do this while they were eating.

"Stew tonight, gentlemen," Constance said, passing over two hot bowls and plates of thick, crusty bread. "Enjoy."

They dug in, and Booster had to admit, it always fascinated him to watch Ted eat. He was awkward and clumsy, and Booster was positive that one day he would impale his hand on his own mandible, but Ted always ate like a human, with fork and knife. Booster wondered how he dined when he was alone, if he drank only nectar through a straw and ate air like a nymph.

When they'd sopped the last of the soup, and their mugs had been refilled, Booster decided to make his move. He rolled up his sleeves and sidled in, resting his arm against Ted's on the table. Ted said nothing, probably didn't even notice what Booster was up to. The tavern had grown particularly loud, with someone playing a fiddle and leading the drunkards in a rollicking bar song. Booster shifted his arm just slightly, took a sip of ale with his free hand, and opened himself up to his gift.

Images exploded into Booster's mind, visions of a life not his own. He saw a young man with piercing blue eyes and a lopsided grin, sleeves rolled up and pinned, standing over an alchemist's workbench. The badge of an apprentice was pinned to his waistcoat, but he moved with all the surety of a master. He dropped a liquid into a crucible from a glass pipette, then slowly sprinkled a yellow ore onto its surface, watching with delight as it created a flash and a puff of lavender smoke. The scene shifted, the man's features softened until Booster saw him again as a young boy, his mother pinning that very same apprentice's badge to a much smaller waistcoat. She bore his features, the same shape to her eyes, the same largish nose, the same curl of his hair. He saw two men, brothers by the similarity of their appearance, both with sharp blue eyes like the boy, both with the alchemist's crest on their lapels. The seal of the House of Kord flashed in Booster's sight, bearing the crown of alchemy.

He watched as the boy took to his studies, standing over the workbench with the alchemist, hawklike and severe, with a gleam of madness in his eye. There was another man, a mystic from the Southern Sands who bore a blue amulet shaped like a scarab. The boy was clearly enamored with both. Booster watched the boy become the young man again, his handsome grin proof of his pride, showing off his clearly advanced workmanship. He saw the young man remove the badge of his apprenticeship and press it into the alchemist's upturned palm. Then the world lurched. The alchemist and the mystic began yelling muddled words. Explosions rocked his vision, blooming like tea-flowers. Smoke filled his lungs. The young man cried out, struck by an errant wave of magic. His body convulsed wildly, twisting and metamorphosing, growing in size. His skin became hard, his hands distorted, his mouth stretched. His eyes changed from blue to an inhuman yellow. The other alchemist appeared suddenly to find the two men dead on the floor, the blue amulet shattered, the young man gone, and an enormous buglike beast standing dazedly among the wreckage.

"Booster? Booster!"

Booster came back to himself with a gasp, as if he had been underwater for far too long and was just now taking in air. He jerked away from Ted, falling off his stool and onto the floor with a loud thud. He blinked dazedly, as if unsure where or when or even who he was, and when Ted peered over the edge of the table to see if he was all right, Booster couldn't help but let out a startled cry.

"Booster!" Ted repeated, helping him to his feet and then forcing him down onto his stool. "Are you all right? Tora's teeth, I thought you were having some sort of fit. You went deadly pale and clammy, and your eyes rolled back in your head. Constance! Water, if you please."

"I'm all right," Booster said weakly, trembling.

"You best be. I can't give the Kiss of Life, I'd impale you," Ted replied.

Booster bolted down the cup of water offered to him and took a few moments to simply sit, panting, and absorb what he had seen.

"Are you all right?" Ted asked again.

"...I know what happened."

Ted frowned, which was always an impressive feat considering his facial structure. "Well, I am glad to hear that, but that wasn't exactly the answer I was looking for."

"Ted, I know what happened!" Booster shouted, sounding delirious even to his own ears. "I know what happened to the lost alchemist."

Ted speared him with a dark look, his yellow eyes practically smoldering. "I thought I told you that was nothing more than a fairy tale. There is no lost alchemist, Booster. Just let it go."

"No, Ted, listen. I saw...it's you. You are the lost alchemist. The missing Kord. It's you!"

Ted's expression turned even darker, colder, the sort of look reserved for the worst scum of the earth, and he ground out a single, "What." It wasn't even a question. More of a cold, dark pronouncement dripping with venom and disbelief. Ted's eyes flashed with some unnamed emotion that made Booster's stomach do a sickening flop.

"You. It's you," he persisted, as if his body had lost all control over his mouth. "You are Theodore Kord, your father was Thomas Kord, the Alchemist of Marquette. Your uncle was an alchemist. You have the blood of alchemists in your veins. You were an apprentice under your uncle, and you learned under another man as well, a man from the south with an amulet like a blue scarab. And you were...you were incredible. You were one of the finest young alchemists."

"I...this isn't true," Ted sputtered, his cold scorn quickly changing temperatures.

Booster continued to press on with his vision, cold sweat dotting his cheeks, his brow. "No, I saw it. The night you completed your apprenticeship, something happened. Something terrible happened between your uncle and the man with the scarab. And...and you! You were caught up in the middle. They never meant for you to be involved, but...you were struck by a misfired spell, or a backwash, and you became...as you are now. The other two...well, they blew themselves up, and when your father came, that was how you were found, in the house of your uncle. Don't you see? It's you, Ted."

"No! These are lies!" Ted roared, his rage boiling over now, hands slamming the table and rattling the cutlery and crockery. Diners all around them stopped and stared in silence, the fiddle screeching to a halt. "There was never a Theodore Kord! The Kords had but one son, Edward, and he died as I child. I saw him buried. Jarvis Kord was no magician, he was merely reckless, and I know of no man with any sort of blue amulet, scarab or otherwise. None of this is true! You lie!"

"But if none of it is true, then how is it I saw it in your past?" Booster insisted.

Now Ted was beyond furious, beyond even incensed. "You...you...get out. Get out! I have been far too lenient when clearly you are just like the rest of these liars and thieves. You have greatly overstayed your welcome. Get out of my town. If you are still here by sunrise, may the Oracle take mercy on you. Now get out of my sight."

"But Ted!"

"GET. OUT."

Booster grabbed his hat and ran, out of the stone silent tavern, through the winding streets of Marquette, not stopping until he had slammed the door of his caravan and sunk, breathless and speechless and utterly gobsmacked, onto his bed.

"So, how was dinner?" Skeets asked blandly.

"Skeets, I think it's time we find our fortunes in another town," Booster said, voice weak and shaky, face pale, eyes wide.

"I knew it would come to this. Didn't I tell you?" Skeets clanked.

Booster said nothing. He stuffed the hat onto his head, pulling the brim down low to hide his eyes, then staggered his way across the floor of the wagon, opened the window, and crawled through into the driver's seat.

"Well, I suppose now we'll get to see if those faceless sages are worth the price of admission," Skeets said, poking his head through the window as Booster started the caravan rolling again, guiding it towards the town gate he'd rode in through.

"I know what I saw, Skeets. It can't be a lie."

Skeets clacked quietly. "Sometimes people cannot face the truth, Master."

They drove through the gates of Marquette, the wagon swaying and rocking on the road. Booster steered the caravan in silence, Skeets tucked away in the back, probably winding his gears again. Booster's eyes stung, though whether from unshed tears or just exhaustion, he couldn't tell and wouldn't say if he were asked anyway. He didn't have much in the way of provisions, and he didn't know where he was going, but it didn't matter. He had enough that they could make it to the next small town, start fresh, keep pressing on towards Hub or whatever big and far away city he chose to lose himself in.

"...He was handsome."

"Who, Master?" Skeets asked, catching Booster's tired, quiet murmur.

He sighed and looked up at the stars. "The lost alchemist."

They drove on for untold hours, trying to put as much distance between themselves and Marquette as Booster could. His shoulders and back ached with sitting up in the coachman's seat, and his chin kept dropping to his chest and snapping back up as he fell asleep and roused himself repeatedly. Finally when the moon, the Lantern Bearer's gift to the White Lady, was high overhead did Booster pull off the road and stop the wagon. He secured the caravan, vision hazy with the need for sleep, then crawled back inside. Curling up on his cot, covered in old quilts and suitjackets and magic charms, Booster dropped off into sleep and dreamed of a handsome young man with bright blue eyes and an apprentice's badge fixed to his breast like a butterfly specimen pinned to a board.

+

"Master? Master! Master, you've slept through the entire morning and there is someone knocking on our door," Skeets announced, ticking loudly.

Booster lifted his head, peering blearily out from under his pile of quilts and clothes, wincing at the sudden intrusion of sunlight. It was well into midday, the Lantern Bearer carrying the sun high overhead. Booster paused in his half-conscious shuffling and rustling to listen for the knocks, his hair in utter disarray, sticking out in odd tufts. The knocking came, loud and persistent. He sprang from the bed and threw off his waistcoat, exchanging it for another that was hanging half off the cot, and put on a tailcoat to hide the rest of the wrinkles. He dragged a brush through his bedraggled hair to smooth it down, and when it refused to obey him, he jammed his hat down upon his head and stuffed the errant locks under the brim.

"Now, who is interrupting my rest?"

"Probably the local authorities, come to charge us with trespassing," Skeets mused.

Booster pushed open the door, blinking at the sun's full brightness. Ted was standing there, massaging the knuckles of his knocking hand and looking very perturbed.

"It's about time you answered that."

"What are you doing here? I thought you ran me out of town, never wanting to see my face again. Or did I not do a sufficient enough job of leaving in disgrace that you had to track me down and shame me further?" Booster asked.

Ted rolled his eyes and folded his arms across his broad, armored chest. "Forget fortunetelling, you should have been in theater."

"Why are you here, Ted?"

"Because I don't know if you noticed, but you never actually left Marquette. You merely circled around the entire perimeter of the town and ended up at her other gate. See? That is Kord Manor right there on the hill. I spied your garish little wagon from my bedroom window this morning," he pointed out, gesturing to a large and stately home overlooking the little brick-and-mortar neighborhoods on the outskirts of the town proper.

Booster glared over his shoulder, through the open door, at the clockwork bird on his perch. "Skeets, you are officially the worst navigating, talking clockwork bird ever."

"Do you know other talking clockwork birds with which to make that comparison?" Skeets retorted.

"Booster," Ted continued, his expression a little less severe. "I also came to tell you...well, I spent all night searching...it's a good thing you didn't get far because...well, follow me."

Booster stared at him. "I thought you hated me."

"I was furious at you for invading my privacy, yes, but I don't believe I ever made any comment about hating you," Ted pointed out. He offered Booster a hand. "There is but one man in the whole of this world I can even begin to consider a friend, and you are he. Now come on. Turn your wagon about and follow me back to the manor. You need to see this, and I cannot manage without your assistance."

Booster stepped out into the street, his hand in Ted's. How small it was, compared to Ted's huge, rough hand, his four monstrous fingers curled around Booster's soft skin. Ted offered him a small, shy smile and helped him up into the coachman's seat, standing back as Booster started the wagon rolling.

"I've always meant to ask you. What exactly does this thing run on?" he asked, keeping pace with the caravan, standing at the same height as Booster was sitting.

"Magic and bottled sunshine," Booster replied, tipping back the brim of his hat. "So, what is it you have to show me? It must be something big, to make you act like you like me again."

"Oh, it's...well, let's just say that if you choose to dine with me at the Fox again, I'll be asking Vivian to serve me crow," Ted answered, and Booster decided that if Ted had the ability to blush, which he doubted, he would have been doing so.

The drive up to Kord Manor's front door was tree-lined, the branches overgrown and looming over the path. The lawns were just this side of unkempt, the gardens shaggy and wild, the flowers all to seed. If Booster really looked, he would've been able to see little earth-sprites, kobolds and gnomes and brownies running rampant through the greenery. Ted sighed as Booster looked about, taking it all in.

"Master Thomas would be furious if he saw this."

"Really?"

"Well, look at this mess. This was his ancestral home, and did he ever take great pride in it. Once he left, all the staff left...well, everyone save me, of course. There was no one left to care for all the groundlings and keep them in line, so they just do as they please, which is let everything grow wild. And I have no control over them at all. I do what I can, but..." He sighed again, a low and mournful sound.

Booster looked up at the house. "You said your master left because of the ghosts..."

"It's not haunted. Well, not in the traditional sense. Master Thomas lost his entire family, one by one. First was his brother Jarvis. They were both alchemists, and some say Jarvis was a far better alchemist than Thomas. Then...his son." Booster noticed the falter in Ted's voice, but said nothing. "...Last of all was Lady Anastasia. They say she took ill, but I saw her, I sat by her bedside as she withered. She died of a broken heart. Master Thomas simply couldn't take any more suffering. So he walked out one day, and never once looked back. And I remained."

Ted pushed the door to the manor open as the wagon rolled to a halt, the hinges letting out an unearthly squeal. Booster leapt down from the coachman's seat and opened the window for Skeets, waiting for his to fly out and alight on his shoulder. Skeets was particularly heavy for a bird, and Booster was grateful he wasn't a larger species.

"Ah, at last the clockwork pigeon and I truly meet," Ted said, grinning.

Skeets bristled. "I am a phoenix, Sir."

Booster laughed, removing his hat as they entered the manor. His hair was still a mess, but Ted didn't seem to much notice. "No, he's right, you do look like a pigeon. Perhaps the unnatural union of a pigeon and a peacock."

"Here, have you eaten yet? I don't have much, a bit of bread and cheese and some apples, but..." Ted offered, trailing off as he gestured awkwardly with his hands.

Booster sighed with relief. "I am full famished, and would greatly appreciate any sort of nourishment."

"Then I'll see to a luncheon, if the rodents haven't yet succumbed to my feast of poisons. If you take the preposterously ornate staircase in front of you, then take a right, follow that corridor, and then enter the large, arched doorway on your left, you will find the manor library. I shall meet you up there," Ted instructed, showing his walking instructions with his hands as he spoke. "After what you said last night, I...I simply couldn't just let it go. It had rooted into my mind like a worm-root. So I...I spent all night searching and...well, I came upon something that makes me feel utterly foolish for ever having called you a liar."

"Well, now I am intrigued," Booster said.

Ted shuffled off toward the kitchen, leaving Booster and Skeets to navigate the manor. Skeets twittered Ted's instructions in Booster's ear as he ascended the elaborately carved staircase, They rounded one corner and ambled down a long hallway, taking in the number of rooms in the manor. It was not over-large, but it was certainly bigger than any house Booster had been inside. The walls were papered, and hanging in neat rows on either side were painted portraits of the Kord Alchemists, men and women all bearing the badge of the alchemist, generations' worth of talent. Booster found the visages of the brothers Jarvis and Thomas. Jarvis' eyes seemed to have a touch of madness in them, just as Booster had seen in his vision. Thomas looked stern, the sort of man who was never satisfied with anything. There was a small portrait beside his, that of his wife Anastasia. She was as beautiful in oils and acrylics as she had been in Booster's mind, with her auburn curls and her Northern dress of white furs and ice blue silks. Last on the wall was a portrait of a young boy, Edward, the child who had died. He looked more like his father than his mother, and he did not yet bear the sigil of an apprentice.

"Master, look," Skeets said, pointing to the wall.

"Yes, Skeets, have we not been looking at the portraits for some time now?" Booster asked.

The bird gestured more emphatically. "Not the portraits, the wall itself. The paper is faded between Anastasia and Edward Kord's portraits. There was another painting there at one time."

Booster looked closely at the wall. Sure enough, the paper was discolored in one large rectangular area that didn't quite fit either painting. "Two pushkins says this painting was of our lost alchemist."

They entered the library, staring in awe at the sheer number of books and scrolls lining the walls. Booster had seen libraries before in other towns, he'd even been thrown out of a few libraries, but this one was exceptional. The bookshelves and scroll cabinets had to have been custom built, and they were all completely filled with leather-bound, gilt-stamped books. It was utterly beautiful.

"The Kords have been collecting literature for generations," Ted said, coming in behind Booster, startling him a little. "Everything from alchemists' compendiums to nursery rhymes. I think we have at least three versions of the story about the star who fell to Earth."

"Did you know you have a painting missing in your hallway?" Booster asked. "Skeets says the paper's faded between your mo--between Anastasia and Edward."

Ted looked over his shoulder, frowning. "Your pigeon is absolutely right. That is definitely a portrait-sized patch of fade."

"Phoenix," Skeets insisted.

"Here, come sit and we'll eat," Ted suggested, taking his tray over to a small table. Booster pulled over a high-backed leather armchair to sit upon, while Ted settled himself onto the floor, curling in close to Booster’s legs. He offered Booster a hunk of bread and a good portion of cheese, as well as cut slices of apple and a stoppered bottle of something. "It's mead. I'm not particularly fond of it, but we seem to have a store of it in the wine cellar."

"This library is incredible," Booster said around a mouthful of bread and cheese.

Ted nodded. "It is. I regret not being able to take advantage of all it has to offer. So many books, and their secrets are hidden to me."

"Can you not read?" Skeets asked.

"Oh, no, I can read as well as any man," Ted replied, almost startled by the question. "I cannot physically read the books. My hands are completely unsuitable for turning pages. Too clumsy. Tora knows I've tried, I even thought about sticking a pin or something on the corners of the pages so I could turn them, but I'm afraid I would ruin them that way."

They finished their meal in awkwardly genial silence, Booster watching Ted to make sure he wasn't truly trying to get revenge and the food was poisoned. He didn't act like he was really hiding anything, though he looked somewhat uncomfortable and almost sad. Booster wondered if he should apologize for reading Ted's past without his permission. At the same time, he felt justified in his actions, knowing that he might have uncovered the truth for Ted. On the third hand, he worried about what would happen once Ted accepted the truth, that he was a man trapped in the body of a monstrous insect. On the fourth hand, which was quite a lot of hands, Ted had admitted Booster was his only friend, which was some small balm to his troubled mind.

"So what did you find?"

Ted stood with some difficulty and turned Booster's chair so he could rise from the table as well. He stood and followed Ted across the library to a huge bookshelf crammed with blue-bound volumes. He held up one hand, showcasing the books. "This is the complete history of the Kord family. Every family member has one of these books, detailing their lives from their birth until their death."

"Every family member?" Booster asked, arching one blond eyebrow.

"Every member but your lost alchemist," Ted replied, though he did not take any sort of cruel tone. He crouched low, toward the bottom of the shelf. "Here is Edward Kord's painfully small tome. He...he escaped my care one rainy day, thought it would be a game to hide. Got into his father's stillroom and..." Ted gave a great shudder and closed his yellow eyes. "He drank a bottle of poison, thinking it was blackberry cordial."

Booster winced in remorse. "Ted, I'm so sorry."

"Master Thomas didn't know who to blame more, me for letting Edward run off and not finding him sooner, or himself for forgetting to lock the stillroom door," Ted said quietly. He pulled another volume off the shelf and handed it to Booster. "This is Thomas Kord's history. This has what I found last night."

Frowning, Booster flipped through the pages. "But you said that you can't read, that you can't turn the pages."

"I can't. It's not what I read, it's what I didn't read. Let the book fall open in your lap," Ted instructed.

Booster did as he was told, holding the heavy covers and letting the pages fall open naturally. He watched as the book opened to a section of ripped out pages, jagged rows of vellum, the remainders of an entire fistful of history violently wrenched from the book. "There's...there's a huge chunk missing here." He kept flipping through the last handful of pages, looking for any sort of clue. He stopped when he got to the end of the book, looking at the handwriting on the last page. "Did you write this?"

Ted nodded. "It was hard, I can't hold a pen very well either, but the volume needed to be finished, ripped pages or not. I looked through Jarvis' book, and it's missing pages as well. Lady Anastasia's too. It's as if there are whole years that have been purged from the family history."

Booster turned the book over and over in his hand, examining it as thoroughly as he possibly could, though he had no idea what he was searching for. The pages had probably been burnt a long time ago, destroying any evidence they might have had. Skeets hopped down from Booster's shoulder and looked as well, clawing open the back cover and stepping on the flyleaf paper.

"Master, feel this. The back cover is unusually weighty, is it not? Here, look, the paper is peeling in this corner." He pecked at it with his beak, ripping back the ornate paper covered in the Kord family crest. The paper tore away, revealing a folded stack of ripped pages, each one in relatively pristine condition.

Ted's eyes widened. "I never even thought to look there last night. I searched the whole house for those papers. The Kords were fanatical about keeping their family history preserved, I thought they might've saved them, but I never expected...what do they say?"

Booster smoothed out the pages and began to read the tight, careful print. He wondered if this was written in Thomas' own hand. "'Today, Anastasia has bore me a son, and he is blessed to have arrived on the day of Anastasia's patron goddess. May the White Lady keep him in Her sight. He is perfect in every aspect, and I am certain he will be the finest alchemist this family has ever known. We have chosen to name him after our fathers, in her family's tradition. He will be Theodore Stephen Kord, and he is the treasure of my heart.' Ted, this is about..."

"...Anastasia and Jarvis' books. Do you think their missing pages are trapped under their covers as well?" Ted asked.

They knocked the books off the shelves and ripped off the paper, more pages tumbling from behind their colored crest-paper prisons. Booster tried to keep them separate, lest the histories mingle and the pages fall out of order.

"Here, this is from Jarvis'. 'Today began my nephew's apprenticeship into alchemy. Theodore is very clever and quick to learn. He will be incredibly skilled in a few years' time.' And here, this bit is from part of Anastasia's. 'Thomas has apprenticed Theodore to his brother, Jarvis. I do not trust Jarvis one whit. There is something about him, something of a madness. I have written to my dear friend Mr. Garrett, who is not an alchemist but a mage, and a powerful one. I should much like Theodore to learn from him, for he is of excellent character. It is my sincere wish Thomas had taken Theodore for his own apprentice, but he believes his brother to be the superior alchemist. Tora help me, but I do fear Jarvis.' Your lady Anastasia seems to have been right to distrust Jarvis," Booster said, reading over more of the pages silently. They all contained history involving the missing son, Theodore, and the more Booster read, the more it confirmed his vision.

Ted shifted books around on the shelf, a desperate and mad look in his eyes. "If this is all true, then there should be a book! Theodore Kord should have a history. Anastasia would have written it for him. It's tradition. Mothers write their sons' books until they are no longer apprentices, and then they take up their own history, for it is now shaped by their own hands. That's what she told me when she wrote Edward's. There has to be a book."

"A book? If you...if Theodore Kord lived in this house, there should be a bedroom, right? He should have clothes and toys and books and...and things!" Booster pointed out.

"I don't know. I don't...I usually sleep in my quarters, and they're just the servants' quarters. I've lived here for years and I've never seen any such bedroom. The manor is big, but it's not that big. There should be...come on. We'll go look," Ted replied, scrambling to get to his feet. He nearly knocked Booster over as he got up, Skeets letting out a clanky cry. He turned and smiled apologetically, offering him one huge blue hand, which Booster accepted with an echoing grin.

They followed Ted out of the library, down the hall again and around the corner to the other side of the manor house. Ted tore past several closed doors, muttering to himself, words Booster couldn't quite understand. He rounded another corner, and stopped short in the middle of the hall. Booster didn't see anything remarkable about the hallway. It was a corridor, the same as any other corridor. There were closed doors, there were walls, there was a large, ornate tapestry with the Kord family crest and the crown of alchemy woven on in a myriad of colors.

"This room was Edward's," Ted said, pointing to a sealed door across the hallway. "Nursemaids, tutors, personal attendants, these were their rooms. Master Thomas and Lady Anastasia lived upstairs, their chambers took up the entire floor."

Booster looked around, frowning. "And the rest of the rooms we walked by?"

"Guest rooms, extra studies for Master Thomas, extra studies for Lady Anastasia. She was skilled in the Northern arts, and she was probably more brilliant than Master Thomas. She used to show me some of her projects, and I have never seen anything as incredible as her talents. She used to knit lace snowflakes, and then they would transform into real snowflakes, as big as your hand. Well, maybe not my hand."

“Perhaps you’re not remembering the contents of these rooms correctly,” Booster suggested. “After all, how often do you go in them?”

Ted shrugged. “Every now and again to clean. But I suppose we can look through them.”

They opened every door, looking for any sign that Theodore Kord might have once lived there. There was nothing but dust and cobwebs and faded quilts in every room they surveyed. The wardrobes were mostly empty, and what clothes they did find were usually women’s dresses or old furs full of moths and mice. Neither Ted nor Booster was willing to open Edward’s bedroom. Booster took Ted’s word that it had belonged to the child, and he had no desire to stir up the ghost of the long dead boy.

“Maybe he lived in another wing of the house?” Booster asked, wiping a dusty hand across his brow.

Ted shook his head. “This was always supposed to be the children’s wing. Lady Anastasia was insistent. If there was a room, it would be here.”

Skeets lifted off from Booster’s shoulder, fluttering around the hallway, looking at the corridor from a higher vantage point. He perched on the rod holding the tapestry on the wall, peering over the side. “Master! There’s a door back here!”

“You’re kidding me. You’re kidding! A door behind the tapestry? That’s ridiculous, Skeets. That’s far too obvious. A door behind the tapestry,” Booster replied, laughing. He crossed the hall and lifted the tapestry away from the wall, peering behind it. To his surprise, there truly was a door hidden behind the heavy fabric. “By the Oracle, there really is a door back here!”

Ted’s brow furrowed deeply. “I would have noticed a door if there was one back here.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, friend, but there is most definitely a door back here,” Booster replied. Ted crossed the hall and took the tapestry’s edges in both hands, yanking hard until it ripped clear off its hanger. A door, just the same as all the other doors in the hallway, stood waiting behind it. “What did I tell you?”

With trembling hands, Ted tried opening the door. It was locked fast. “Booster my friend, stand back, if you please.” Booster backed away, pressing his shoulder blades against the opposite wall. Skeets flapped away from the door as well, perching on the lintel of the door across the hall. Ted took a deep breath and kicked the door as hard as he could. The wood splintered around the heavy metal knob and lock, and the door flew open, the hinges shrieking like tiny metal banshees.

“Well?” Booster asked, trying to look inside.

Ted poked his head into the room, taking in a sharp breath. “In the name of the Four Gods…” He looked back at Booster, his eyes wide. “Booster…I…we need a salamander. Or several.”

“Skeets, can you take a few salamanders out of the chandelier up there?” Booster asked, pointing to the metal light overhead. Skeets perched on one arm of the chandelier and plucked the scampering salamanders, coals and all, from their braziers, carrying them in his mouth into the room. Booster chased him in, watching as Skeets deposited the salamanders into an old, dusty lamp.

The room was moderately sized, though it seemed terribly cramped with all of the belongings stuffed inside. It was covered in cobwebs and a fine sheet of dust, the window completely opaque with dirt. The salamanders’ light sent the dust motes dancing, hanging in the air like a thick forest of insects. Booster dug a handkerchief out of his pocket and squeezed his way around piles of books and boxes of alchemical instruments, portraits and furniture, until he reached the windows. He wiped the panes of glass as clean as he possibly could, then pounded on the window latch until it released and struggled to open the window. A brisk afternoon breeze stirred up the dust again and chased it out of the room, billowing into the air.

Picking his way back across the room, Booster knocked his foot against a picture frame, almost putting his foot through the portrait. He picked it up, looking to move it aside, and let out a sharp, startled cry when he saw the face staring back at him. The jaw was a little soft, hair a rich auburn shade, just this side of curly. The nose was somewhat largish, but it didn’t look out of place on that face. A lopsided, boyish grin brightened a pair of sharp, impossibly blue eyes. The badge of an apprentice was pinned to a brilliant blue brocade waistcoat, glimmering with a design that mimicked the Kord family crest. Theodore Kord’s young, handsome visage was smiling at him, and it made Booster’s heart clench painfully.

“Ted…”

Ted edged his way into the room, hands trembling as he took the painting from Booster. “…He’s real.”

“That book has to be in here, underneath all of this,” Booster said, his voice sounding just a little tight.

They dug through all the old memories, stirring up ghosts and dust along the way. Skeets perched himself on the canopy of Theodore’s old bed, trying to chase the dust out the window with his flapping wings. They moved tattered old toys and too-small clothes, little leather shoes from his boyhood days and apprentice’s journals that had been worm-chewed. There were more portraits of the young man, as an infant, as a child, and with his parents. They were stiff, posed portraits, but Theodore’s impish grin was always present.

“Booster? I found it,” Ted said quietly, wiping the dust off a blue leather cover. He swallowed and offered it to Booster to read.

Booster shook his head and sidled close, holding it open in front of Ted. “You read it.”

“I…” Ted swallowed again, taking a deep and shivery breath. “All right. ‘Here begins the history of Theodore Stephen Kord, son of Anastasia Stefanovna and Thomas Kord, born this Torasday, the second day of Elevenmonth.’ This is…I…can you turn it towards the end? If this is truly my life, then maybe…maybe there’s something…”

Booster nodded and thumbed through the book, skimming over Anastasia’s account of her son’s life. He wanted to sit there and read the entire chronicle, wanted to know every little detail of this poor young man’s life. He picked up on glimpses and glimmers, tiny flashes of his brilliance, his wit, his kindness. He watched the color of the ink change, from blue to black, and suddenly he’d found the pages he’d been searching for.

“Here, Ted.”

Ted sucked in another breath. “…I’m not sure if I can…” He shuddered. “Oh Tora. ‘Theodore is gone. Thomas has just returned from what was to be Theodore’s graduation from apprentice to alchemist. He was so proud, and now…I do not know what has happened to my boy, my darling Fyodor. Thomas said that when he arrived, Jarvis and dear Master Garrett were both deceased, seemingly having killed one another in a magician’s duel. It appears, to Thomas’ eyes, that his brother had magical talent that went untrained all these years and drove him to madness. But that is not the worst of it. Theodore was utterly gone. Not a trace of him remained. Thomas has returned with a creature, the likes of which I have not before seen. It is, to my best description, a large blue beetle, of a similar shape to the scarab amulet Master Garrett carried. Thomas said he was the only thing left living in the remains of the house, and he does fear that this creature was created out of our son’s pain. But I do doubt it.’ Oh, Lady Anastasia.”

Booster took the book from Ted, hearing the crack in his voice. His hands brushed against Ted’s, feeling them tremble. He was frightened by what he read, by the truth that was buried deep inside him, and Booster could see that in his eyes. He turned a few pages and cleared his throat, intending to take up the recitation.

“Here, allow me. ‘Thomas blames himself for what happened to Theodore, and he has worked tirelessly to find a way to restore him, either to life, or from whatever thin air he has disappeared into. He treats the creature as a servant, and he does not see, will not see, what I see. It is my heart’s dearest belief that this poor beast is my darling Fyodor, trapped within a beetle’s shell, his own brilliant mind locked away. He knows me not, calls me Lady Anastasia rather than Mother, and Thomas encourages this. He thinks I should put away this history and declare our son dead, but I cannot do it. I will do everything in my power to restore him, body and mind, and I will continue to love him as my own child no matter what Thomas says. Theodore was blessed by the White Lady, and I know that She is still watching over him, even in this time of trial,’” he read, looking up at Ted.

He was shaking, trembling violently, eyes closed. “She named me Ted because she knew, or she hoped. But…I don’t remember ever being Theodore Kord. What if Lady Anastasia was wrong? What if I’m merely a homunculus brought to life by the fight? What if I’m not who she…or you, for that matter…what if that’s not me? I don’t…I don’t remember this life at all.”

Booster closed the book and set it aside, wrapping both of his hands around one of Ted’s and holding it tightly. “I saw it in your mind, Ted, it has to be your life. And I will promise you, right now, as your friend, that I will do everything in my power to help you regain what you lost. I promise.”

Ted swallowed and looked at Booster, and Booster felt his heart clench in his ribs. “You can’t promise that.”

“I’m quite positive I just did. Skeets, did I not just make that promise?” Booster asked, looking up at the bird.

Skeets flapped his wings, clanking quietly. “You did, and I don’t know how you’ll keep that promise, Master.”

“I don’t either, Skeets, but I am a man of my word, and I’m going to help.” He grinned. “After all, I’m sure you’re curious to know what it’s like to eat without those great monster teeth of yours getting in the way.”

Ted cracked a smile. “Do you really think you can accomplish this? After all, you are nothing more than an errant fraud who managed to luck upon a fortunetelling gift.”

Booster couldn’t help but laugh, rising to his feet and trying to help Ted up as well. “You know I’m not an errant fraud. I’m just…embellishing my natural abilities. Now, how do we go about fixing this?”

They spent the rest of the afternoon, and well into the evening, searching the manor for anything, any possible way to restore Ted to his original form. They returned to the library, yanking books and scrolls from the shelves, magical compendiums and appendices, grimoires, alchemical texts, translations of mystic texts from far-away lands. They read until their eyes burned and Skeets needed to be wound again, then broke for supper. They didn’t leave the manor, ate whatever Ted could scrounge up and drank mead from the wine cellar, then returned to their examinations.

Booster and Skeets searched through the night, tearing the whole library apart, searching for knowledge about the reversal of spells cast during magician’s duels, of what happened when the magics of two individuals blended by mistake, of accidental transmogrifications. Everything they found either led to dead ends or to more questions, and none of them left Booster feeling any closer to helping Ted.

Ted searched alongside them for a while, but once he tired of finding little, retreated into a corner with a stack of blue-bound history books, including the one they had discovered in what was once his own room. Booster watched him reading, or trying to, having a hard time flipping the pages of his own book. He was more comfortable rifling through the loose pages taken from the backs of the other books, and pored over them, reading about his uncle, his father, and most especially his mother. After a time, Booster came over and curled up beside Ted, holding out the books and turning the pages so he could read them, and together they read the secrets of Ted’s family history.

They spent the next day searching through Thomas’ other studies, checking to see if there were any books in any of them that might have answers they hadn’t already read. They were full of dust and dried alchemical compounds, but few held anything useful. When they had exhausted Thomas’ studies, they tried Anastasia’s, the books all written in Northern language. Skeets had to translate, and the secrets they discovered were no more helpful than anything else they found. They even tried looking through the books in Theodore’s room, the alchemy tomes from his studies with his uncle, the scrolls and texts from his tutelage under Master Garrett.

“Does Jarvis Kord’s estate still exist?” Booster asked, rubbing at his eyes.

Ted shook his head. “Master Thomas took all of his alchemical possessions, the majority of which we have already examined thoroughly, and then he burnt the house to the ground. Or at least, that is what he said in the history.”

“What happened to Master Garrett’s amulet?”

“I don’t know. Master Thomas never spoke of it. Or wrote of it. Nor did Lady Anastasia. I suppose it simply vanished or burnt up with the rest of the house.”

Booster sighed. “What about the alchemy workshop? We could try looking through there. Maybe you can still perform alchemy.”

“No, we can’t go in there,” Ted replied.

“Why not? Did Thomas ward it against intruders? Or is it too painful for you to go in there?”

“It is most definitely too painful for me to go in there,” Ted answered, though his smile was slightly wry. “I can’t fit through the doorway. Master Thomas had that room specially built, and the doorway is not wide enough for me. Besides, even if I did, I can’t remember how to perform alchemy. I’ve read the books in the library, and I suppose I understand the substance of it all, but…I could kill us both if I tried any of it. Alchemy isn’t the same as a magical gift, it is a science, and toying with it could be hazardous.”

Booster nodded and sighed disappointedly. “I’m not sure where to go from here.”

“Maybe there’s nowhere else to go,” Ted replied. “Perhaps this is the fate the Oracle has decided for me.”

“Don’t say that!” Booster said sharply. “I promised I’d fix this, and I will.”

Skeets finished winding himself up in the corner and flapped over, perching on the wing of the armchair Booster was flopped in. “Master? Could I speak with you in confidence?”

“You can’t say whatever you have to say in front of me, Pigeon?” Ted asked, grinning.

“As I have told you repeatedly these past few days, I am a phoenix, Master Theodore,” Skeets sighed. “And no, I cannot say what I have to say in front of you, it would not be polite.”

Ted shrugged. “Fine, fine. I’ll go and…I don’t know, search the pantry to see if there’s a long forgotten cookbook that could explain how to restore my supposed humanity. Or maybe I’ll go see if the Indestructible Carapax has decided to clank into town again.”

Booster was about to insist Ted come back, but one look at Skeets and the look on his clockwork face told him that he needed to hear the bird out. “What, Skeets?”

He ticked quietly. “Master, I don’t think you’re going to be able to keep this promise of yours. We are dealing with the combination of several magics, one of them produced by an untrained and mentally unstable alchemist. Untangling spells like that is virtually impossible. We don’t know what spells were used, what the intent was, or if some of this is due in part to Ted’s own personal heritage, as his mother was clearly gifted herself. Without this knowledge, we can’t even take him to another magician for a diagnosis. The only way we could possibly reverse these magical effects is if a god intercedes.”

“Then maybe we need to talk to a god,” Booster said quietly.

Skeets’ gears ground to a halt for just a moment. “You’d be willing to do that? You said so yourself, to beseech a god, you have to be to the point of desperation.”

Booster swallowed and looked out the door, where Ted was trying to hang the portrait of Theodore Kord back in the hallway with the rest of the Kord family portraits without displacing the other portraits.

“…If it meant giving back Ted’s humanity, I’d confront the Oracle Herself.”

+

For two days, Booster weighed his options, trying to form a plan. One didn’t just walk up to a god and ask for help. And even if one could, the gods were often moody and unpredictable. Booster wasn’t sure that even Ted’s own supposed patron goddess, Tora the White Lady, would show mercy on him, given that she had allowed him to become enchanted in the first place. He spent his time reading scrolls in the library on mythology, texts from those who actually spoke to the gods, and more of that time still searching for way to undo Ted’s curse without resorting to divine intercession.

He lay awake at night, staring up at the manor’s cobwebbed ceiling, wondering what he should do. In the time since they’d begun their search and research, he’d grown even closer to Ted. There were nights when Booster would be too tired to read another letter, and would turn to Ted to suggest they give up, only to find that Ted was already asleep, looking about as vulnerable as a giant blue beetle could possibly look. There were some nights Booster fell asleep curled up beside Ted, huddled in the protective curve of his massive body. There were other nights he caught Ted asleep sitting up, Kord family histories propped open on his chest, Skeets perched beside him to turn pages.

The White Lady was out, since she clearly did not keep Ted in her favor. Booster doubted he could speak to Beatriz, the Lady of Flames, either. She was incredibly temperamental, and those who asked favors of the Star-Sister usually found themselves deeply regretting it. There were stories that she lit aflame anyone who truly earned her ire. Booster shook his head, deciding that it was best if he avoided anyone who could possibly burn him up like a candlewick. The Black King was at the very bottom of his list of possibilities. Of the four gods of Internationale, he was the most terrifying, and also the worst to bargain with. Nobody ever made a good barter with the Lord of the West, and that was only after they faced the monster that guarded his temple. That left Booster with only one option, and even that one wasn’t a very good choice.

The patron god of the east went by many names. The Lantern Bearer. The Green Man. The Gardener. The Warrior. He carried the sun in his lantern across the sky every day, tricked into doing what was supposed to be Beatriz’s task, and carried the moon across the sky every night, hoping that his gift would please his beloved Tora. But the Green Man’s mood was changeable; sometimes he was benevolent, other times bellicose. He was powerful and terrifying in all his aspects, and those who followed him knew that he could either bring them great prosperity, or great ruin.

And Booster was going to speak with him.

He dressed in his favorite suit, the yellow velveteen, and dressed his hat with fresh ribbons from the milliner’s shop, checking his reflection in the mirror on a bright and sunny Gardnersday. The Lantern Bearer was the only god to get two days of the week in his name, one for each aspect of his personality. Booster hoped that because this was an omen, that because the sun was bright and the air clear and warm, that he was the Gardener today and not the Warrior.

“Skeets, we are going to speak with the Green Man today,” he said, smoothing back a lock of hair.

The bird clicked slightly. “We, Master?”

“You and I. Come on, we’re going to take a little walk,” Booster said, and offered Skeets his arm to perch.

“Why me, and not Master Theodore?” Skeets asked, hopping up onto his shoulder. “After all, he is the one under the enchantment.”

“Because I don’t want to disappoint Ted if we fail.”

Booster slipped out of the room Ted had set him up in within the manor, insisting that if they were going to be searching for days on end for a cure, he didn’t need to be running in and out between caravan and house. He wasn’t sure if he should be telling Ted he was leaving, or if he should just go. He felt badly just walking off, but he didn’t want Ted to try and come with him.

“Ted? Skeets and I are taking a walk, we’ll be back!” he called.

Ted’s huge head peered over the banister, staring down at Booster from upstairs. “Do you want me to come with you? I’m just…I can come along if you want.”

“No, no, it’s fine. We’re just going to run a few errands in town. We’ll be back in no time.” Booster waved at him and hurried out the door before Ted had a chance to insist he join them, missing the slightly hurt look Ted gave his retreating back.

Booster had thought about hitching up the caravan, but it was early enough in the day and warm enough that he didn’t mind walking down to town. The Kords’ manor was just at the outskirts of the town center, their front walk abutting the start of the cobblestone roads. Booster sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm his racing heart. In spite of all his planning, he still had no real clue about what he was doing, how he was going to get to the Green Man, and what he was going to say. He thought about Ted, about his inability to turn the pages of the books in the library, about not remembering his own mother, the science of alchemy he once excelled at. He thought about the way the people of Marquette looked at him, and that gave him pause.

“Skeets, we’re going to make a small detour before we attempt climbing into the sky,” Booster said.

“You know your detours are what get us into trouble, Master, don’t you?”

Booster shook his head and continued on his way, strolling down the cobbled roads, the sun warm on his back. By the time they got to the center of town, the sun had crept up higher into the sky, nearly to its midday peak. Booster swung into the bakery, smiling brightly at the baker behind the counter, who adjusted his cap and beamed right back at him.

“Hello, Mr. Gold! What can I do for you today? We didn’t think we’d ever see you again, you know. I think you’re the first person Ted’s ever kicked out of town and then let back in,” he said.

Booster nodded. “Yeah, I’m about as surprised as you are, Mr. Baker. I have a question for you, and I think I’ll take two of those sticky rolls.”

“Coming right up,” Bernhard replied, pulling them from the glass case and packaging them up in a little paper box. “What can I answer for you? Little funny, you know, since you’re always the one answering everyone else’s questions. Did you ever find Mr. Morice’s pipe?”

“Inside a washroom cupboard, most likely hidden there by Mrs. Morice,” Booster replied, sliding a pushkin across the counter. “Mr. Baker, why is it the people of Marquette are afraid of Ted?”

Bernhard Baker laughed. “Afraid of Ted? Nobody’s afraid of Ted, he’s kept the town safe and in fine order ever since Alchemist Kord left.”

“Mr. Baker, I’ve seen the way people look at him. What are they afraid of? Do they think Ted had something to do with the Kord boy’s disappearance?” Booster asked, trying to keep his tone light and conversational. Skeets remained silent, save for his ever-present ticking.

The baker’s expression darkened slightly. “That little boy died, Mr. Gold, as I believe you were told.”

“Not Edward Kord, Mr. Baker. Theodore. The lost son.”

“Look, Mr. Gold, I thought we all made it perfectly clear that we weren’t going to talk to you about this. It’s what got you in such hot water with Ted before. We promised Alchemist Kord we wouldn’t speak of what happened to his son. Nobody knows what went on up at Mister Jarvis’ the night he and that Southern fellow died,” Bernhard said sternly.

Booster raised one eyebrow. “So you did know about all that?”

“Of course I did. Everyone in town knows about it,” he retorted. His expression changed when he realized how much he’d said in trying not to speak of it. “…Some people think Ted’s the reason the Kord boy died, or disappeared, or whatever it was happened to him. Now me, I don’t know what to think. Ted doesn’t seem like the type that would kill a nice young man, but you never know. Now please, Mr. Gold, don’t ask me about this anymore.”

“Trust me, Mr. Baker, I won’t,” Booster said, tipping his hat and heading for the door. “After all, I plan on bringing the lost alchemist back to Marquette.”

“Now the townspeople are really going to hate you,” Skeets pointed out. “Why did you badger that man, Master? You know what happened to Theodore Kord.”

Booster shook his head. “I needed to know why the townspeople give Ted such dirty looks whenever he passes by. If I can’t save him, if I can’t undo what’s been done to him, I need to know how to make those angry looks stop. He didn’t do anything wrong, Skeets. He’s a victim. And they need to know that.”

“You could just tell them and save us from going to all the trouble of asking the gods for a miracle,” Skeets suggested.

“Skeets.” He gave the bird a dark look, darker than the one the baker gave him. “You know I promised.”

“I know. And I fear your promise will be the end of us both.”

As the midday bell rang out over the town square, Booster twisted the ring on his finger and stepped up into the sky. He started climbing, as if climbing an impossibly high, invisible staircase, walking on upwards as the air grew hotter. The higher he went, the warmer it grew, as he drew closer to the sun and the god carrying it. Skeets started to become oppressively hot on his shoulder. Booster shooed him off, and he took to the air, fluttering up alongside Booster as he climbed. He had no idea if the ring was even capable of reaching the Green Man, or if it would suddenly stop giving him the power to walk on air and he would plummet back down to the cobbles below. He glanced back down at the world beneath him, the town too small to see now. He could almost see the whole of Internationale, and it made him smile to think that from way up here, Ted was simply a tiny speck, smaller than even a normal bug.

“Master…” Skeets clicked, his metallic voice hushed.

Booster stopped walking. Standing in front of him was a giant, a man swathed in green, his hair a brilliant coppery red. He carried a huge green iron lantern, the sun a brilliant ball of light brighter than any salamander could produce. Booster was suddenly struck dumb, mouth dry as the Southern Deserts, and he was unable to think of a single word to say.

“Master, he’s going to keep walking if you don’t do something, and then he’ll be over the horizon and fetching the moon-pearl for the White Lady before you know it,” Skeets hissed, steam billowing from his beak.

Booster cleared his throat. “Um…excuse me! Great Lantern Bearer of the East?”

The god paused, trying to see Booster. To him, Booster was an insignificant, yellow bug buzzing in his ear. “What the…oh. A mortal. Great. Just want I wanted to deal with.”

To Booster’s amazement, the Lantern Bearer became smaller, until he was standing eye-to-eye with Booster, the lantern he bore still hanging in the sky, as huge as anything. The Green Man squinted, screwing up a face that looked as though it had been through a few wars, a sort of sour lemon expression that made Booster’s stomach knot unpleasantly.

“I’m called Booster Gold, and this is my…er…associate, Skeets. And we have traveled up through the air from the town of Marquette to—“

“Booster Gold? What kind of a name is Booster Gold?” the Green Man sneered. Booster thought he heard the distant rumble of thunder. “What are you, some kind of fancy circus man?”

“I’m a fortuneteller and a great magician,” Booster said, puffing up proudly.

The Green Man speared him with a look. “If you were a great magician, you wouldn’t be using a magic ring to walk up into the sky, would you? You’re just some common street performer with a bit of a gift. Now what in the name of the Black King do you want? I’m busy here, and I ain’t in any sort of mood to be dealing with stupid mortals and their stupid circus names.”

“Not exactly what I expected from a god,” Skeets muttered in his ear.

Booster swallowed. “Well, it’s about a friend of mine. He’s under a very powerful spell, been under it for years, and I was hoping that you could maybe…help him?”

“You’re serious,” the Lantern Bearer said. “You’re actually serious? Do you know how many people pray to me on a daily basis asking for help with spells? Do you know how many people sit out in their fields all day and all night whining about needing my help? And you’ve got the nerve to come up here and ask me in person? I ain’t the dispenser of magical aids, y’know. I’m a god. I got responsibilities. If I stopped and helped every single stupid mortal with their pathetic little problems, you’d never see the sun again. Which, by the way, I shouldn’t even be dealing with because it ain’t my aspect! Thrice-bedamned Beatriz should be hauling her fat ass across the sky, not me.”

The winds shifted, and the air suddenly turned chill. Now Booster could really hear the thunder, and the sky crackled with lightning. The light in the lantern was flickering, dimming, and Booster feared he had met with the wrong aspect of the god. This wasn’t the Gardener at all, but the Warrior.

“Please, he’s an alchemist, and he was turned into this creature. He’s got no memory of his past. I just…the village has no patron without him, and they’re afraid of him,” Booster continued, hoping his earnest pleas would appeal to the god’s better nature.

“Good! You dumb mortals ain’t afraid of enough. You need to be tougher. Fend for yourselves. Gods don’t like meddling with mortal business, and you know why? Because everyone asks for it! And you ain’t all going to get it! You got any other questions, Buster, or are you going to let me get back to my job?” the Green Man barked.

Booster swallowed. “If you’re not going to help me, then who will?” He’d wanted that to sound threatening and strong, but it came out a weak little mewl.

“You want help that badly? Barter with the Black King. He never turns down an opportunity to make a deal. Now don’t come bugging me again, you hear? Mortals don’t even belong in the sky. Ain’t nothing up here but gods and stars.” And with that, the Green Man grew to his gargantuan height once again, took up his lantern, and continued on his way, grumbling to himself in thunderclap tones as he walked.

Shaken, Booster slowly made his way back down out of the sky, Skeets following. The air was cooler on the descent, and Skeets dug into his shoulder with his talons, his weight just making Booster feel more burdened.

“Well, that was informative,” Skeets said.

“Shut up.”

Skeets ticked softly. “We could still try the White Lady. Stories say she’s a very benevolent goddess.”

“No. We’re going west,” Booster said, his voice low.

“Master, we can’t. You know the stories. The Black King makes bad trades. You could get Master Theodore his humanity back but lose your own. End up a chess piece on the Black King’s board. You know what they say, that his chessboard is filled with the lost souls of mortals who bartered with him. We can’t. There has to be something else we can do. Master, you have to reconsider.”

But Booster’s mind had been made up. To him, there was no other option. If the Green Man wouldn’t help him, he doubted the White Lady or the Lady of Flames would either. He walked back through town dejected, ignoring the busy bustle of the people all around him. He could hear them gossiping on the street corners, muttering about how odd it was that he’d returned, that Ted had let him, that Ted was odd as it was. He could hear the whispers, that such a handsome man shouldn’t want anything to do with Ted, and did anyone think that Ted would make Booster disappear just as he did that poor Kord boy. Booster heard it all, but chose to ignore it. He was all the more determined to save Ted and restore his humanity.

By the time Booster and Skeets returned to the manor, it was almost dark, and Ted was standing in the doorway, brow furrowed with concern. He ran down the front walk, and it pained Booster to watch him move in that awkward way, limbs bending so unnaturally.

“Where have you been? I was starting to think you’d skipped town. Did you see how fast that rainstorm moved in? Someone must’ve really offended the Green Man,” he said, barely pausing for breath, his hands smoothing down Booster’s arms as if checking for bruises. “Booster?”

Booster handed him the box from the bakery, trying to muster up a charming grin, but it was faint and halfhearted. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you. I just…lost track of time. Did you find anything new?”

“Of course not. I spent most of my day tidying the manor and airing out the rooms. Everything reeked of must and mold, Master Thomas’ workshop especially. Just because you’re on this insane quest to find a cure for my supposed enchantment doesn’t mean I can just neglect my chores, you know,” Ted retorted, ushering Booster and Skeets both inside, holding onto the box.

Booster nodded, wishing Ted had actually found something, so he wouldn’t have to do what he knew needed to come next. An audience with the Black King meant traveling to the farthest corners of the Western Shores, where he held court in a great palace built into the face of a towering cliff. It wouldn’t be as simple as climbing into the sky to see him.

“…ster? Booster, are you listening?” Ted asked.

He blinked. “What? Oh, sorry, I was thinking about…shoes. I’m considering a new pair. Do you think anyone in Marquette has blue leather?” Booster replied.

“You’ll have to ask the cobbler. I was saying, maybe you should have a look in the workshop again. Maybe there’s something in there that we missed the last time,” Ted suggested, putting the box down on a table in the hallway.

Booster nodded, adjusting his hat. “Sure, we can have another search. But first, I think a pint would do me a world and a half of good.”

+

They dined at the Silver Sorceress that evening instead of the Crimson Fox, as Vivian and Constance had laughed at their frequency of visits the day before. The Sorceress was bigger, the food grander and more elaborately presented, but as Ted had once pointed out, their ales were simply sub-par. Booster wasn’t paying much attention to any of it, though, so deep in thought, fretting over the task at hand. The Black King’s domain was at the westernmost edge of the continent, his palace carved into the side of a mountain. Few people even made it into his realm, let alone petitioned him, and there was talk that the gate was guarded by a horrible beast.

“You look troubled,” Ted remarked, reaching across the table to touch his hand.

Booster smiled and shook his head, putting on a false act of cheer. “Just a lot of thoughts clamoring for my attentions.”

“Booster…I just want you to know that if we never return me to my original shape, I’ll be all right,” Ted said, poking at his meal. “After all, I managed to survive this long without even knowing I had a different shape at all.”

“I promised,” Booster insisted.

“I know. I just don’t want you to go mad trying to fix what likely can’t be.”

Booster stewed for the rest of the meal. Ted’s nonchalant, defeatist attitude only made him more determined to find a cure, and gave him all the more reason to make the journey to the mountains in the west. The subject of their conversations wandered away from Ted’s plight and onto a story about a woman as tall as a tree and as strong as several oxen, but Booster hardly heard a word of it. He was too concerned with figuring out how he was going to get to the Black King’s palace. The caravan was simply too slow, and the Western Mountains were often stormy. He had the magic ring, but even that had its limitations, and it would still take him much too long to travel there. He had a third option, but he didn’t want to waste it. Then again, there likely wouldn’t be a better time to use such a thing.

They wandered their way home late in the evening, and Booster found himself startled at how quickly he’d begun to think of Kord Manor as home. He followed Ted up the familiar stairs and watched him retreat to bed, wishing him a good night. It had taken Booster a few days to notice, but Ted was sleeping in Theodore Kord’s bedroom now, as opposed to the little cupboard of a room in the servants’ wing. Booster often changed rooms, trying to find a bed big enough to suit his long legs. He waited until Ted had shut and latched the door before he scurried down the hallway, around the corner, down the stairs, around several more corners, and into Thomas Kord’s workroom.

In one of their many searches of the manor, Booster had come across, hidden away in a cabinet in the workroom, some of Theodore’s old alchemy equipment. For all of his attempts to scrub away the memory of his son, it was clear that Thomas Kord couldn’t bear to part with all of it. Booster stuffed the stoppered glass bottles and the slim notebooks of charts and figures into a satchel, slinging it over one shoulder. Into his pocket went a small jeweler’s box he’d pilfered from the master bedroom four nights ago and hid in the alchemist’s workshop.

From there, he slipped out to the caravan, where Skeets was removing the key from its keyhole under his right wing, having wound himself back up for the night. Booster took the key from the perch and wrapped the chain around his wrist for safekeeping while he dug around in his trunks.

“Master, what are you doing?”

“Looking for something,” he replied, shoving aside clothes. “Listen, Skeets, can you do me a favor?”

The bird clicked. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

“What? No, I’m just…okay, yes, I’m leaving. But I’ll be back. I think,” Booster said, grimacing. He pulled a box out of the trunk and set it down on a second, latched trunk. “I want you to make sure Ted doesn’t follow me. If I mess up, I don’t want him to know. Just…tell him I’m sorry. If I don’t, you know, make it back.”

“Master, you can’t go. It’s a fool’s errand. I forbid you to do this, Master; you will get yourself killed and then what am I supposed to do? And what would I even say to Master Theodore? I don’t think you realize how utterly mad this task of yours is, and I refuse to let you leave,” Skeets clanked vociferously.

Booster bowed his head, looking defeated. He started to put the box back, surreptitiously unlocking it and removing its contents without Skeets’ notice, slipping them into the satchel as it hung in front of him. “You’re right, Skeets. I won’t do it. I’ll find some other way to make Ted human again. I’m going inside to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

As soon as Booster had walked away from the caravan, he reached into the satchel and pulled out his prize. In his hands were a pair of shoes imbued with the power of the Mystic Speed Force, shoes he’d won in a game of cards many months and many miles ago. He slipped off his favorite blue leather shoes and placed them in the satchel, then carefully stepped into the speed shoes. They were more powerful than any seven-league boots, and he knew they would get him to the western mountains in no time.

Taking a deep breath, Booster pointed himself westerly, following the movement of the moon. He clicked his heels, took a step, and suddenly he was shooting across the land, faster than he could breathe. He skimmed over the ground, zip-zipping along, the wind whistling in his ears. He was glad to have left his hat behind with Skeets. He crossed water, raising plumes as he skidded over the surface. He crossed deserts, sand flying up in great waves. He sailed through forests, careening past trees, bouncing off them and leaving splinters.

He didn’t even have enough time to think about Ted, to wonder if Skeets had discovered his deception and snitched, to feel guilty that Ted was worrying about him. In a matter of heartbeats, Booster was approaching the mountains at the edge of the west and was trying to remember how to stop the shoes. He turned his feet, skidding across the wastelands, kicking up rocks and dust. He clicked his heels together, and stumbled to a stop at the gates to the Black King’s palace.

“Oh Beatriz, if you have any love for a mere mortal, please let the stories about the gate guardian be untrue,” he murmured.

Booster sat down in the dust and quickly removed the Speed Force shoes, placing them in the satchel again and replacing them with his well-worn blue leather shoes. He had no sooner finished tying the laces when a Cyclops staggered into view, scratching himself and grunting. This was the ferocious Brother Eye, monocular gatekeeper to the Black King’s domain.

Swallowing and tasting dirt, Booster stood and tapped his belt, turning on his invulnerability. He twisted his ring and stepped into the air, hoping that he could simply walk past the creature. He wished invulnerability was also invisibility, but he simply wasn’t that lucky. He climbed silently and cautiously, always watching the giant’s one luminous eye as it shone in the darkness. He climbed until he was certain he was too high overhead to be seen, then slowly stepped out towards the gates, holding his breath the whole time. Booster walked right over the head of the monstrous Brother Eye, the beast entirely unaware of Booster’s trickery. He didn’t descend out of the air until he was well inside the palace gates, as far from the Cyclops as he could be.

“Booster, you genius, you’ve done it again,” he said to himself, switching off the belt as well.

Slowly creeping along, afraid the Cyclops could still come for him, Booster made his way to the palace doors. They looked heavy, and he wished he’d told Ted about his plan, let him come along. He could’ve used Ted’s strength. Booster tugged at the handle with all his might, but it wouldn’t budge.

“…I have come to see the Lord of the West. Let me in,” he called. He had no idea if it was that sort of door, but it was worth trying. Brother Eye turned and growled at him, but there was nothing the monster could do. The palace doors swung open just wide enough to accept Booster, and slammed shut behind him once he’d passed through.

The foyer was exquisite, the floors tiled with black marble and alabaster, salamander chandeliers glowing brilliantly overhead. The salamanders lit in succession, guiding Booster down a long, high-ceilinged corridor. He could hear his footsteps echoing as he followed the lights, and the sound of water dripping in the distance. He’d never been inside a mountain, and he felt a little claustrophobic. The air was still and just this side of too warm. There were no windows at all in the palace, the sort of place someone could find themselves lost in for eternity, never knowing if it was night or day. It made Booster uneasy, and he swore he saw shadows flitting about in the darkness behind the columns on either side of the hall.

“Come in, come in. I haven’t all night to wait for you,” a voice boomed.

Booster swallowed and kept following the salamander lights as they illuminated one after another, dousing themselves after he passed underneath. The corridor opened onto a throne room with vaulted stone ceilings, suits of black armor standing guard in alcoves carved out of the living rock. The floor was patterned in the same black marble and alabaster, mimicking the large marble chessboard waiting atop its pedestal. Ornate stone chess pieces were poised in the middle of a game, the black side dominating the white.

“You’ve come a long way just to see me, little mortal,” the voice said. Booster looked up at the dais behind the chessboard, where someone was moving in amongst the shadows of the high-backed throne. A man emerged from the darkness, and Booster was surprised by his appearance. He didn’t look at all like a god, wearing an impeccably tailored black suit, darker than ink or night or Hell itself. He looked wholly ordinary in spite of his blacker-than-black suit, with carefully styled chestnut hair and laugh lines just starting to accent the corners of his mouth and eyes. He didn’t look at all like a powerful god, and that was what made him all the more terrifying. He was just an average looking man in a very black suit, sitting on a throne, his mere presence intimidating.

“Um, yes, I guess I did,” Booster replied, trying to gather his courage.

The Black King leaned forward on his elbows, scrutinizing him carefully. “How did you get past Brother? Few mortals…is that a flight ring on your hand there? Hm. He doesn’t usually fall for that. I’ll have to speak to him. Ah well, a first time for everything, I suppose.”

Booster swallowed and nodded. The cordial, conversational tone of his voice was more unnerving than anything. Maybe it was because he could feel the shadows roiling behind the sound, flickering in his eyes.

“Now, mortal, what is it you want from me?” He stopped, eyes narrowing even further, as if he was trying to look straight into Booster’s soul. “Wait a minute. I think I know you.”

Booster swallowed again. “You do?”

“I…yes. Yes, I see it now. Foolish of me, not to recognize you when you first walked in. Yes, of course I know you. After all, you’re rather the famous one, aren’t you?” the Black King drawled.

“I suppose…” Booster said. He felt uncomfortable, as if his skin was suddenly too tight. He didn’t like the way the Western Lord was looking at him, in the sort of manner a cat does when it has spied an unsuspecting little bird or mouse or vole.

“Well, then I suppose there’s no point in asking why you’ve come to me. After all, it’s what you’ve been searching for, isn’t it?”

Booster couldn’t help the hopeful smile stretching across his lips. His heart leaped, rising up into his throat. “I…you’ll help, then? You’ll restore Ted’s humanity?”

The Black King looked startled, as if he hadn’t heard Booster correctly. “You…what?”

“Ted. Theodore Kord. He’s the alchemist of the town of Marquette, or he’s supposed to be, but he was enchanted years ago when his uncle and this other sorcerer got into a duel to the death and there was a backwash, and he became this monstrous huge insect, and no one has ever figured out how to change him back or even that he’s the alchemist’s son because they all think he killed…himself, I guess. And the townspeople are all afraid of him even though he puts himself in harm’s way protecting them from thieves and arsonists and clockwork highwaymen,” Booster explained in as few breaths as possible. He was worried that if he didn’t get the whole story out and quickly, the Black King would dismiss him just as the Green Man had done.

The Black King stared at Booster in silence, as if weighing the merit of his story. Booster tried to look his most pathetic, his most imploring, hoping beyond all hope that the Western Lord would take pity on him, on Ted, and give them the aid he longed for. He didn’t want to think about what he’d do if he failed, or how it would feel to walk back to Marquette in the speed shoes with tears in his eyes. The Black King regarded his chessboard, lips drawn into a contemplative frown as he carefully fingered the pieces, not disturbing a single pawn.

“And what would you be willing to give in exchange, if I were to make such an agreement?” he asked slowly.

Booster’s back went poker-straight. “I—“

“Booster!”

He turned, only to find Ted and Skeets rushing into the throne room, the salamanders barely managing to light themselves in time to keep up as they thumped in from the hall. Ted’s face was contorted with worry, and Skeets’ ticking was almost as loud as Booster’s racing heart, the clicks of the mechanical bird’s gears echoing in the cavernous chamber.

“What…how did you get here?” Booster asked. He approached Ted cautiously, resting his hands in Ted’s, the huge fingers curling around them.

Ted glanced up at Skeets, perched on his shoulder. “Once your pigeon here realized you’d gone and taken your magic shoes with you, he snitched you out to me. Lucky for the two of us, Lady Anastasia had a ruby of instantaneous travel hidden in her wardrobe. She always had a few charms and amulets tucked away where Master Thomas couldn’t find them, in case she needed them.” Ted frowned, squeezing Booster’s hands just a little. “Booster, what are you doing here?”

“Keeping my promise.”

“You have not yet answered my question, mortal. What will you give me in return?” the Black King asked, sounding more impatient.

Ted’s eyes widened, huge and yellow and terrified. “Booster, no, you don’t—“

“Anything,” Booster answered, looking past Ted’s bulk to stare directly at the Black King.

“Anything?” the Western Lord echoed, his smile stretching in a way that was almost sinister. Booster felt a shiver roll down his spine.

Booster nodded. “Anything.”

“Then we have ourselves an accord.” The Black King rose from his throne and plucked the chess piece bearing his name from the board. He set it back down on a black square in front of it, overtaking the white knight that had previously occupied the space. “It is done.”

Ted let out a choked sound, staring at his hands with a sort of wide-eyed horror, as if his skin had literally begun to crawl. He trembled violently, shivering in ways his body should not have done, where even the chitinous parts were rippling like pond water in a rainstorm. Booster watched as he shook and writhed, moans gurgling up out of his throat. Skeets flew from his perch on Ted’s shoulder and settled himself a safe distance away on the helmet of a suit of armor. Booster wanted to go to Ted, hold him and comfort him, but he was afraid to touch him. This was very powerful magic, the magic of a god, and it had Ted tight in its clutches. His body twisted and shrank, mandibles retracting into his mouth, hands and feet warping, flesh softening. His joints popped and jerked violently into a more pleasing configuration. Hard armor became skin and scraps of blue cloth. His eyes flashed, the color all but boiling in them.

When, several long and shuddering breaths later, the transformation had finished, Booster stepped back and stared in awe. His mouth hung open as he watched a handsome man examine his hands, his bare feet. The tatters of a blue suit hung on his shaking shoulders and back, and his short, wavy auburn hair was darkened with sweat. He touched his own face, pressing his fingers against unfamiliar features, and then looked up at Booster. He’d grown into that largish nose, and the rounded jaw was a little more squared, but the eyes were still the same hawkish, piercing blue.

The lost alchemist had returned.

As if in a dream, Booster lurched forward slowly, his heart pounding in his chest. He reached into his pocket with all the finesse of a clockwork man, his movements jerky as he removed the small black box and flicked it open. Booster took the alchemist’s badge from its little velvet cushion and, with shaking hands that could barely work the catch, pinned it to the tattered remains of Theodore Kord’s blue brocade waistcoat. He swallowed, hands clutching at Ted’s shoulders, telling himself that he was simply bracing Ted and his weak knees, not wanting to admit he was truly holding himself up. “…Ted…”

Ted looked down at the badge, the very badge he was supposed to receive the night he was transformed, then back up at Booster. His mouth moved for a few minutes before he actually spoke, as if remembering how to use it again. “What…what have you done? By the White Lady, Booster, why—“

Unable to hear anything but the wild beating of his heart as it pounded like a rainstorm in his chest, Booster pulled Ted close and kissed him. Ted remained stock still, back stiff like an iron rod, hands opening and closing uselessly at his sides. Booster hadn’t felt his heart race like this in a very long time, making his blood boil, his very marrow burning.

“Ted, I—“ he started to say, breathless and lightheaded when he finally stepped back.

“You’re glowing,” Ted interrupted, voice shaky, face flushed.

Booster smiled shyly. “Well, I…”

“No, I mean you are quite literally glowing. You’re glowing like a salamander, Booster. What…I don’t understand any of…you’re glowing,” he corrected, eyes wide.

Booster jumped back as if he’d been struck, staring down at his hands, his arms. True to word, he was glowing; his skin, his clothes, even his favorite leather shoes were emitting a bright golden glow, flickering like flames. He let out a startled cry and yanked the satchel from his shoulder, patting his chest as if searching for a lost pair of eyeglasses. His heart was racing even faster, and it was then he realized what the Black King had asked for in return for Ted’s humanity.

“No…no, this isn’t…” He turned to the Black King. “This isn’t what I meant to give!” He started pulling off his ring, his belt buckle, his gloves. “Here, please, take these. Take my Gift, but don’t take…this isn’t what I wanted!”

The Western Lord scoffed at Booster’s offerings, watching them fall from his bare, glowing hands with disinterest. “You said you would sacrifice anything. Besides, everyone knows you didn’t want it. You searched the world over for a way to go home, didn’t you?”

Ted stared at them, clearly frightened, clutching at the tattered remains of his shirtsleeves. Booster’s heart ached even more, pressing tight and hot against the bone-cage of his ribs. “Booster? What is he talking about? Why are you glowing? What…what have you done?”

“You didn’t tell him? He doesn’t know what you really are? I’m sure, mortal, you are familiar with the story of the star who fell to earth. The one who didn’t want his heart after some fickle little woman spurned him?” the Black King asked. “Well, your very flamboyant friend here just so happens to be that particular star, and he has bartered away the heart that has caused him so much trouble. One useless heart to pay for the restoration of your humanity; I call that a more than reasonable exchange. Everyone gets what they wanted.”

Ted stared at Booster, hurt and betrayal clear in his piercing eyes. Booster’s heart burned, and he knew he had made a terrible mistake. He took Ted’s soft human hands in his own, even as they glowed brighter, grew hotter, his feet starting to float off the ground. “Ted, I’m sorry. I didn’t…that wasn’t what I wanted…please, I never meant…I want to stay with you, please, I never meant to give it. Please, Ted, I didn’t think he’d take it. I meant to give it to y—“

“I can’t…you’re too hot. I can’t hold…” Ted gasped, dropping Booster’s hands.

“Master!” Skeets clanked.

Booster shook his head. “Ted…Ted’s your master now. Take care of him, Skeets.”

He felt light, lighter than he had in years, still rising upwards. He could hear it now, the music of the stars, his brothers and sisters he’d lost so long ago. He was frightened, heart beating too fast, aching too much. The glow was becoming unbearably bright. He wondered what would become of his human body, and what the Black King would do with his heart. Booster looked down at Ted, watched him as he stared helplessly up at him, and Booster felt his mortal body give one final shudder as his heart wrenched itself free.

There was a brilliant flash of light and a mournful noise, something crystalline and musical and achingly sad, and Ted could have sworn it was his name. He shielded his eyes from the flash of light, and when he uncovered them, Booster was gone, leaving behind his silly charms and a fine layer of stardust on the marble floor. He bent to scoop up the trinkets, shoving them in the mostly forgotten satchel, which he clutched tightly in his shaking hands.

Ted looked up at the Black King, at what he held cupped in his hands. It was something brilliantly blue and flickering brightly, and Ted could feel its warmth from where he stood, halfway across the room. It was beautiful, and he felt a deep longing to touch it. He realized, in that instant, he knew exactly what it was: the heart of a star. The heart his only real friend had sacrificed for him.

“What have you done?” Ted asked, He could feel his jaw tightening. “What did you do to him?”

The Black King arched an eyebrow. “What did I do? I did nothing. Don’t you remember the story, mortal? The fallen star wanted to give up his heart so he could become like all the other stars and go home. Once he was no longer burdened with this, he returned to the sky. He’s just like all the other stars now. He lives happily ever after, the end.”

“But…no he doesn’t! He didn’t want you to have that! You heard him yourself, he was scared! He didn’t want to give his heart up. He didn’t want to go!” Ted protested. “He’s my friend! You took away my only friend!”

“Little mortal, I don’t think you understand how I operate. I make trades with you foolish little creatures. Your star was willing to give anything to make you human, and I took something that he didn’t want. Everyone is satisfied.”

“But…but I’m not satisfied. I…” Ted clenched his fists tightly around the satchel. Skeets swooped down and perched on his shoulder, clicking softly in his ear.

“Master Theodore, I understand your anger, but I wouldn’t do anything rash…”

“Give it back.”

The Black King’s eyes widened. He looked as though he’d just been slapped. “What?”

“I said, give it back. That heart doesn’t belong to you. It’s Booster’s. Bring him back, and give him back his heart,” Ted demanded.

“No one ever listens to me. I should have just gone with the man in Opal,” Skeets muttered.

Now there was the sound of thunder rumbling, and the whole chessboard shook violently. The pieces rattled, the suits of armor let out metallic groans, their visors dropping in startled expressions. The Black King rose to his feet, shadows roiling all around him like thick smoke. He snapped his fingers and materialized a glass sphere suspended from a golden chain, into which he deposited the heart. It burned a brilliant blue, tongues of flame lapping against the glass.

“How dare you speak to me in such an insolent manner!” the Western Lord barked. “I am a god! You are nothing more than a speck! An insect! This heart belongs to me by right, and until you know how to play the game, I suggest you cool your head.”

“Now you’ve done it,” Skeets clicked.

Darkness swallowed them both up, and Ted could hear the wind rushing in his ears, his feet lifting off the ground. Cold like a thousand needles stung his soft human skin, and his eyes watered painfully. When they stopped moving, they dropped into a deep snow bank with enough force to knock the breath from Ted’s body. He lay there, stunned, staring up at the cold gray sky and gasping for the air that hung in little white puffs over his head.

There wasn’t a single star to be seen.

+

Some long moments later, Skeets hauled himself up with a rattle and a clank, peering down at Ted. He stood on his mostly bare chest, gazing at him with as much scorn as a mechanical bird could possibly muster. Ted stared right back at him, blue eyes still startled wide, breath coming in short gasps as he bottled it back up in his chest. Thoughts crowded his mind, memories he hadn’t been able to touch for years, names and faces. One stood out prominently, a man with a disarming grin and eyes as blue as the heart of a star. Ted let out a quiet little moan as everything struck him at once. He was human once more, and Booster was gone, gone back home to the sky. Skeets was talking to him, and he was only just barely listening.

“…more than unusually stupid, Master Theodore. You really should have known better than to threaten a god. Now I have to watch you freeze to death and waste this human body of yours that Master spent all that time agonizing over returning you,” he said reproachfully.

“…I remember.”

“I should hope so. Master could think of nothing else but saving you. After all, you’re the only reason he stopped his quest to give up that damned heart and go home in the first place,” Skeets retorted.

Ted bit back a pang of guilt. He sat up, shooing Skeets away from him and rooting around in the snow for the satchel he’d been holding when the Black King had banished them. He found it half-buried, and snatched it up again, examining the contents. Letting out a triumphant bark of laughter, he began removing its contents and strewing them about. “No, you silly pigeon, I remember. I remember everything! I know who I am, and I know…I know…”

He opened one of the slender journals and laid it flat out in the snow in front of him. With one finger, wind-chapped and red with cold, he drew a complicated sigil in the ground, then ripped a tatter of cloth from his barely-there suit. He pulled the stopper from a glass vial with his teeth, dipped his littlest finger inside, and smeared a shimmering coal-black powder on the scrap of cloth. He spat on the cloth, lay it down in the middle of his sigil, leaned in close, and breathed upon it. An entire suit of cornflower velvet and sapphire brocade grew out of that one little scrap. Ted laughed and immediately tore off his old suit, careful to pin his badge onto his new waistcoat.

“Metonymous alchemy! Part-for-the-whole,” he said, buttoning his trousers. “I learned that when I was ten. Tore both knees of my best trousers. Knew my mother would have my head if she saw them.”

“Very clever, Master Theodore. But I should point out that your feet are bare, and without some protection, they will freeze,” Skeets pointed out, watching Ted add Booster’s magical charms to his wardrobe. He slipped the gloves onto his hands, the ring onto his thumb, too big to put on any finger. He had no belt, but clipped the buckle to the strap of his satchel.

“There’s a pair in here,” Ted replied, taking out one shoe. “Oh. I don’t suppose Speed Force shoes are a particularly wise idea, are they?”

“They are if you wish to return to Marquette before you die of exposure.”

Ted contemplated the shoe, turning it over in his hands. “But I don’t want to go back to Marquette. Not without…say, if he was…why does he call himself Booster Gold? I didn’t think stars had names.”

“He needed a name, and he thought one befitting a street performer would best suit his wandering nature. If you are truly foolish enough to want to face the Black King again, Master Theodore, I suggest we seek aid. And if we are to seek aid, you will need appropriate footwear.”

Ted sighed and dug around in his satchel again. He found a tiny piece of leather from an old project, and after drawing another alchemical pattern in the snow, crafted himself a pair of slippers for his feet. They were hardly sturdy enough to protect them from the cold. “You know, we could probably get wherever we need to be a lot faster if I wore the magic shoes.”

“We could, but you don’t know where we are going, Master Theodore, and we could run right past it without ever noticing. Besides, it would be more prudent to save the shoes when we need them most. If you are concerned, use Master’s ring,” Skeets suggested.

Ted looked down at his hand and twisted the ring on his thumb. He could feel the charm buzz slightly and carefully stepped up into the air, holding his arms out for balance. Skeets led the way, the milky pale light shimmering on his metallic wings. Ted gave chase over the barren snowfields, glancing skyward in the hopes of catching even the barest glimpse of a star. The sky, however, was always the same unchanging gray. He wished he could see them, wished he knew which star Booster was, where he was, if he was okay. He felt a great pain in his heart, and wondered if this was how Booster had felt when the woman he’d loved rejected him. He understood why Booster would have been so eager to give away his heart; right now he wanted to rip his own out and leave it steaming in the snow. And yet, Booster had called it a mistake and begged to stay.

“Why did he do it, Skeets?”

The bird glanced back at him, still clicking his way through the sky. “You would have to ask him yourself, Master Theodore. However, in my opinion, the Master did it because he cares immensely for you. To him, you were worth sacrificing anything for, when not even his desire to return to the sky was that great. Because of you, he had completely given up the search to find a way to remove his heart. I’m not even certain it hurt anymore, that is how much of an impact you made on him.”

“But he still traded it to the Black King,” Ted murmured.

Skeets tick-tocked quietly. “You know he did not mean to give it away.”

“I know. That’s what makes it hurt all the more. I don’t know what I have to do to get it back, to get him back, but I’ll do whatever it takes, Skeets.”

Ted sighed and kept following, even though the wind stung at his ill-covered feet. His face was cold, but the cold was a reminder that he had his face again, not the face of a monster. He looked to the sky, trying to track their movements by the stars, the sun, but he still could not see them. After what felt like and well could have been hours, a building appeared on the horizon. Skeets picked up speed, and Ted ran across the snowy air. It was a dazzling crystalline palace, illuminated from within, the light making the snow around it sparkle like a field of diamonds. Ted’s frozen breath hung in the air as he gasped in surprise.

“Skeets...” he breathed. “That’s the palace of the White Lady.”

“Well, to face the Black King, I thought it would be appropriate to seek out the White Lady. She is your patron goddess, is she not?” Skeets asked. He perched on the gate outside the palace once they’d approached, watching Ted climb down out of the cold air. “And this time, do try to mind your temper. Master already angered the Green Man, and you certainly earned no favors from the Black King.”

As Ted’s feet touched ground, the gates swung wide open for him, opening onto a long promenade. He followed the path to the great front doors, elaborately carved with flowers and birds, and touched one gingerly. Letting out a surprised gasp, he jerked his hand back as if he’d been burned, even with gloves on.

“It’s ice!”

“What else did you expect the Snow Goddess’ palace to be made from?” Skeets retorted.

Just as the gates had before, the doors swung wide for him, and Ted slowly made his way inside the palace. It was built entirely from ice, the furniture made from the antlers and bones and furs of Northern beasts. The floors, made from either glass or more ice, had a long carpet runner trailing through the front foyer and back under frozen doors towards the throne room. The doors opened as Ted approached, leading him in the right direction. There were no salamanders here to light the way, their fires too dangerous for a building of ice. Instead, there were the Northern glow-birds his mother had shown him pictures of from her bestiary book and told him about in her native tongue. The glow-birds fluttered in cages of ice, their soft aurora-colors illuminating the icy walls.

Eventually, Ted and Skeets found their way into the throne room, the ornate icy doors swinging wide open. It was a stark contrast to the Black King’s throne room, where everything felt claustrophobic and dark. The room was open and airy and bright, and the throne wasn’t even a proper throne but a comfortable looking chair, in which the White Lady was casually draped. She popped up to her feet as soon as the doors opened, smiling as if greeting an old friend. She looked as though she was cut from ice like the rest of her palace, with white hair and pale eyes, her wardrobe crisp icy blues and sparkling whites. But though her skin was just as pale as the rest of her, her cheeks and nose were rosy, and that made her smile even more dazzling.

“Hello, Fyodor,” she said, her Northern accent thick and lilting, her voice the sound of little icicles falling off frozen branches.

Ted immediately dropped to his knees, his head bowed. Even though he had spoken disrespectfully to the Black King, he knew better than to offend his patron goddess, regardless of his belief that she no longer held him in her favor. “My Lady.”

She laughed, and it was a bright, kind sound. “Oh, please don’t kneel. Here, come sit. You must be cold and tired and hungry, and I would be a poor host if I didn’t address that.” She waved her hand, and a small table and chair appeared, a mug of something steaming on the tabletop, a fur blanket slung across the chair. “I know you have come a long way, and I know your heart is troubled, Fyodor, son of my countrywoman.”

Ted swallowed and sat at the little table, wrapping himself up in the fur. The White Lady returned to her throne, sitting on it as if it were a favorite lounging chair in a cottage and not the throne of a grand ice palace. He took a sip of the steaming drink and nearly wept for remembering the taste of it, the same tonic his mother made on cold nights, which he drank while his father read aloud to him. He finished the whole mug, watching Skeets perch on an arch over the throne, shimmering in the glow-bird light.

“Lady, I must know,” Ted said, his heart racing, his throat dry in spite of the drink. “Why did you abandon me? Did I do something to fall out of your favor?”

“Abandon you?” she echoed, her pretty face screwed up in a frown. “Oh Fyodor, I have never abandoned you. You have always been in my sight. I have never forsaken any of my people, and you are no exception.”

“Then why have I been made to suffer so much? Why did you forfeit my humanity?” he asked.

The White Lady leaned forward on her throne, her white hair falling into her pale eyes. She looked remorseful, white hands folded in her lap. “On that terrible day, Fyodor, it was the will of the Oracle Herself that you were to die by your uncle’s hand. That you live and breathe is because I interceded on your behalf, because I knew you were destined for wondrous things. It was never my intention for your memories to be lost, or for your family to suffer such great pain, but I have never lost sight of you.”

Ted sat in silence, listening to Skeets tick as he sat above the throne, taking in everything the White Lady had said. He would have died that night. He would have never met Booster if the goddess hadn’t intervened. Booster. He sat up, eyes wide, remembering why he was here. “Lady, I came to ask a favor. The star who fell to earth, the one who fell in love and asked your sister to make him human…”

“Oh! Yes, I remember him! Beatriz felt so terrible about what happened to him. The poor thing,” the White Lady said, leaning back against her chair again.

Ted nodded. “He’s my friend. And he’s traded his heart to the Black King to make me human again, give me back my memories. Lady, he became a star again and I…I want him back. He’s my friend. Please, Lady, I know it’s how the story is supposed to end, that he goes back home, but…I don’t want to let him. I…I care more for him than…I have no other friends, Lady. My heart…he wanted to break my curse so badly, and I…I don’t want to be human if I cannot have him as well.”

The White Lady nodded, though her face was still sad. Ted didn’t have much hope, based on that expression alone. “Fyodor, nothing would make me happier than to bring your star back to the earth, but he made a trade with the Black King. Even if it is an unfair trade, he bartered, and it is a binding contract. The only way to gain that heart back is to offer him something of equal value. I’m sorry, but I can’t interfere this time. Gods really aren’t supposed to meddle in each other’s affairs. The last time they did, Beatriz tricked my dear Gardener into carrying the sun, and he still hasn’t forgiven her for that.”

Part of Ted wanted to rail at her, to accuse her of not caring, but he knew he couldn’t. She had taken a great risk when she had asked the Oracle, the Goddess Above All, to spare his life. To accuse her of being uncaring would be cruel, and it would be untrue. He knew if he were to barter with the Black King, he would have to give up something of great personal value to him. There was only one thing he could possibly even think of sacrificing for Booster, and though he was more than willing to give it up, it still pained him to think of losing it. The only other option was living a life without Booster, and the very thought of a life without his charming smiles made Ted’s own heart ache.

“…Lady…” he said slowly, still formulating his plan. “Is there anything you can do to help me? I…I know what I have to do, but I…is there any way you can protect me?”

The White Lady stared at him, pale eyes narrowed in thought. Understanding dawned over her beautiful face, and she smiled. “I see what your plan is, Fyodor. I can most assuredly help you with what you intend to accomplish.”

Ted felt a small wave of relief roll over him, though his heart still pounded in worry about what he needed to do. He had offended the Black King, and there was a good possibility that he could deny him the barter. “Thank you, Lady.”

“Oh, think nothing of it. Here, let me see.” She stood, reaching into the pockets of her gown, and Ted watched as her pale little hands dug around in the fabric. The White Lady frowned and patted her fur stole, then smiled and retrieved that which she had been looking for. “I haven’t bestowed a gift upon a mortal in some time. Couldn’t remember where I put the silly thing.”

Stepping down from the dais on which her throne rested, the White Lady pressed something into Ted’s hands, then kissed his forehead gently. “I’m afraid it isn’t much, but I know it will help you, Fyodor.”

Ted nodded, looking down at the gift in his hands. To his surprise, it was a shard of the blue amulet his former teacher had once used, the amulet that had no doubt played a part in saving his life the night he was transformed. “Thank you, Lady. I’ll keep it safe.”

“Be well on your journey, Fyodor. Oh! And this is very important. Even if you succeed in taking back your friend’s heart, that isn’t enough to bring him back. You will have to see my sister if you hope to return him from the sky. Take the heart to Beatriz. She’ll know what to do,” the White Lady instructed.

“Thank you for everything, Lady. Skeets? We have an awful lot of walking to do.”

The clockwork bird flapped down from his perch, settling on Ted’s shoulder once again. Ted tucked the shard of amulet into his waistcoat pocket and slowly made his way back out of the ice palace. He had no idea how much time had passed while they were inside, but the grayness of the sky had dissipated, and he could see sunlight. Ted walked a short distance away from the palace, his feet cold in the snow, and as he turned back to catch one last glimpse of it, he noticed a man clad in green descending from the sky and passing through the front doors.

“I have a feeling the sun isn’t going to be much help in navigating us westward, Skeets. Care to point me in the right direction?”

“One moment, Master Theodore; I need to wind myself again,” the bird replied, removing his key from a small compartment in one wing. Ted took the moment to retrieve the magic shoes from his satchel and slip them on his feet, the leather slippers taking their place in the bag.

Sighing, Ted tried to discern the direction on his own, using the wind as his guide. He was careful not to move his feet too much, afraid that one wrong step would send him hurtling off in the magic shoes, possibly over a cliff and to his death. “Here, Skeets, west is this way, isn’t it?”

“A little more to your left, Master Theodore,” Skeets corrected, finishing his task.

Ted shuffled in the direction the bird had suggested, and then opened the satchel wide. “It might be a good idea if you rode in here. I don’t know if my shoulder is the best place for you while we travel.”

Skeets let out a tinny sigh, but climbed down into the bag nonetheless. Ted swallowed, wishing he had a pair of lenses to protect his eyes. He took a deep, steadying breath, and then stepped. Nothing happened.

“Click the heels first, Master Theodore, then step.”

Ted did as he was instructed, tapping his heels together. He stepped again, and zip! He and the shoes were racing over the frozen landscape, heading back west, back to the mountains and the Black King’s palace. The wind stung even more than it had when he’d used the magic ring, sharp enough to slice his skin, but as he flew across the landscape in mere footsteps, the air changed and grew warmer. The snow gave way to forest, and to rocky beaches, and to wide open plains of waving wheat. The mountains drew ever closer, leaving Ted with little time to think about his plans. He hadn’t considered the Cyclops, and how he was going to convince the Black King to accept his trade. He wasn’t even sure if Booster would come back even if he got the heart. All he knew was the sound of the wind screaming in his ears, and the sound of his footsteps as they pounded across the landscape.

The mountains raced into view, and Ted soon realized he had no idea how to make the shoes stop. He dug his heels into the dirt, skidding along on the sharp gravel until he could click his heels and end the spell. The force of his stop sent Ted flying, and he landed in the dust outside the Black King’s gate. Hurriedly, he scooted back, yanking off the magic shoes and opening the satchel, both to free Skeets and to stuff the shoes back inside.

“How do you plan on getting past Brother Eye?” Skeets asked, watching the giant lumber into view.

Ted frowned. “The shoes are too powerful, I think. I’d probably run straight through the palace and into the mountain itself. Maybe I can walk over his head with Booster’s ring.”

“I suspect that’s how the Master got past him originally, and I suspect Brother Eye won’t fall for that a second time.”

Ted surveyed the area, then took stock of his supplies. He looked down at his hands, at the gloves, and in that moment got a brilliant idea. He pulled the ring from his thumb and set it aside, then removed his gloves and laid them in the dirt.

“What are you doing?” Skeets asked.

“What I was born to do, my mechanical friend. The work of my ancestors,” Ted replied, mixing powders from the jars in his satchel. He drew a symbol around the gloves in the dirt with a piece of rock, then dumped the powder on the palms of the gloves.

When he was ready, Ted put the gloves back on, the ring as well, and stepped into the sky. Skeets perched on his shoulder, his clawed metal feet pricking into the satchel’s strap. Ted walked until he was standing eye-level with the Cyclops, and did his best to keep his knees from shaking. He’d heard plenty of stories about Brother Eye as a child, and he was just as if not more terrifying in person.

“Hello, Brother,” Ted said cheerily, swallowing down his fear and grinning his widest, most Booster-like grin.

The monster roared, outraged that a mortal was trying to get past the gate. Ted clapped his hands together, shutting his eyes and ducking away as the fire gloves produced a brilliant flash of light and fire that blinded the Cyclops. While he was distracted, Ted ran for it, not stopping until he had passed through the gates and descended from the air right onto the front steps.

“Open the gates, Black King! I have a proposition for you!” Ted shouted. The palace doors swung open.

Ted raced down the long corridor, Skeets still clinging to his shoulder. The salamanders illuminated the way, burning brighter than they had the last time, recognizing the glimmer of alchemical power in Ted’s veins. He ran until he was once again in that cavernous throne room, the suits of armor practically glaring at him from their alcoves. The Black King looked just as thoroughly annoyed, rubbing one temple as Ted stormed his way towards the throne.

“You again? I was hoping you had frozen to death in the north,” he sighed.

“I think you know why I’ve returned,” Ted said. He removed Skeets from his shoulder perch, then set down his satchel and opened it. He took off his ring and gloves, unpinned his alchemist’s badge, and placed them inside the bag. The shard, however, remained in his pocket; Ted hoped it would keep the White Lady and his beloved former teacher close, would protect him.

“As I already told you, the heart is mine, mortal. It was a fair trade,” the Black King replied, waving a hand dismissively.

“Oh, I’m well aware. That’s why I’m willing to barter for it,” Ted said, rocking on his heels.

The Black King sat up, interested. He leaned forward, a grin spreading slowly across his face. “Really?”

Ted nodded. He stepped forward, his heart racing. He could see Booster’s heart still flickering brilliant blue in its glass cage, and maybe it burned just a little brighter because Ted was there. He wondered what it would feel like to hold it in his hands. He wondered if Booster knew he was here, standing before the Black King, his own heart pounding in his chest. He looked down at his hands, then back up at the Black King.

“So, tell me, mortal; what could you possibly have to offer me in exchange for something so valuable as that heart?” asked the Western Lord, gesturing towards the glass cage.

Ted smiled and stepped forward a little more. He picked up the white castle from the chessboard and moved it, putting the Black King in check. “My humanity.”

“You would give up the very thing that heart was sacrificed for?”

“To bring Booster home? Yes,” Ted replied without hesitation. “Do we have an accord? It is your move, Your Highness.”

The Black King had no other choice, and Ted knew the god was aware of this. He had to accept the trade, as it was an even exchange, a return of the original gift. Ted wasn’t sure if anyone had ever asked the Black King to take back his gift, but it didn’t matter. The Black King couldn’t not accept the trade. He sighed heavily, a sound of resigned defeat, and stepped down to the chessboard. With an ominous crack, the Black King moved his namesake piece and captured the white castle.

“An accord.”

Ted felt the transformation take hold instantly, making his stomach twist. It was just the same as that fateful night, when he first changed. His hands and feet burned, his skin boiled, his jaw cracked. His bones warped and shuddered, and his vision blurred. He grew in size, his limbs jerked into awkward angles, his shoulder blades shifted as they were covered by a thick shell. His mandibles sprouted from his widened mouth, wet with saliva and wickedly curved. And when it was finished, Ted was an insect once more. Great chest heaving, he staggered back, exhausted.

“The heart, Lord. Keep your end of the bargain,” he panted.

The Black King took the glass ball from its chain and reluctantly handed it to Ted. He could feel the heart’s pulsing warmth even through the glass, and though he didn’t want to ever let it leave his sight, he carefully put it inside the satchel. It pulsed against his side, warm even through the cloth of the bag.

“Just having the heart won’t bring him back, you know. You wasted your humanity, mortal,” the Black King said, his tone a bland sort of mockery.

Ted grinned, and with his insect’s face, it was more of a horrible grimace. “Oh, I know that. It’s why I’m taking it to the Southern Palace.” He hefted the satchel and crossed to the chessboard again, scrutinizing it carefully. Still grinning, he picked up the other white knight and moved it. “That’s checkmate, Lord. Come on, Skeets.”

He walked out of the palace, Skeets on his shoulder, leaving the Black King behind him. It was night when Ted stepped out of the mountain, past Brother Eye, out onto the barren plains. He looked up into the sky, trying to figure out which star was Booster. To him, they all looked pretty much the same, shining points of light illuminating a great curtain of darkness. He wondered if the brilliantly glowing golden one was Booster, or if it was merely one of his siblings. Perhaps it truly was Booster, keeping an eye on him while he made his journey to the South.

“I don’t understand how the Snow Goddess protected you,” Skeets clicked. “After all, Master Theodore, you still had to sacrifice your human body for the Master’s heart.”

Ted grinned and pressed a hand to his chest, over his own heart. “The White Lady’s charm might not have kept my body, but she safeguarded my memories. I still remember my name, my family, my powers. I am still the Alchemist of Marquette, Skeets.”

“Well, then tell me, Alchemist of Marquette, how do you plan on getting to the Southern Palace?” Skeets asked.

Ted opened his mouth, then realized he didn’t know. He had planned to use the magic shoes to walk there in moments, but he could no longer wear the magic shoes. His feet were too huge and misshapen to ever fit them. Nor could he use the magic ring, as it wouldn’t fit him either. He kept walking, trying to think of something. “I…let me sleep on it. By daylight, I might have a better idea.”

He walked on until he reached the edge of the forest, his feet aching and the satchel too heavy to carry anymore. Ted curled up under a tree at the very edge, where he could look up at the sky over the barren plains. Skeets perched on one of the branches, quietly winding himself as he watched Ted. Ted set down the satchel and removed the glass cage, wrapping his arms around it as he stared up at the stars. The heart pulsed warmly, and Ted could almost hear Booster whispering to him.

Ted fell asleep with Booster’s heart wrapped up in his arms, his eye to the sky, trying to find his friend shining brilliant gold in among all his numerous siblings. He slept fitfully, tormented by dreams of his past, of his fears that the Lady of Flames wouldn’t be able to help him. Though he had scorned Booster, called him a fraud, he had grown to care immensely for him, and these few long days without him pained his own heart. He wondered what Booster would say to him when he returned, if he would take back his heart, if he would come home to Marquette, or if he would scorn Ted as he himself had scorned so long ago.

When dawn came, Ted was already sifting through his journals. He searched them to see if he had any sort of alchemical equation to change the speed shoes, or to make the flight ring more powerful, or even just to transport himself and Skeets to the Southern Palace in the same way the ruby had first taken them to the west. The clockwork bird watched him, secure on his perch high overhead.

“Skeets? If we were to simply walk to the Southern Palace, how long would it take?” Ted asked.

“…Months, Master Theodore.”

He sighed, still searching his books. “Well, if we have no other options, we will just have to walk for months. I will walk until I have no feet left, if that is what it takes. But I hope that it does not take that. I rather like having feet.” He sighed again, carefully setting the shoes down on the ground. He left the ring alone, afraid of what Booster would say if he destroyed the ring in the name of alchemy, even if it was to bring him back home.

“Can’t you just enlarge the shoes?” Skeets asked.

Ted frowned, “I could, and believe me, that was the first thought I had. The only problem is that I’m not sure if the magic in the shoes would distort due to the enlargement. Best way to know for sure is to try it, right?”

He broke a small branch off the tree, scratching an alchemical sigil in the dirt. Ted wandered a short ways into the woods and found plants to use for material, added them to the corners, dusted the soles of the shoes with powder from one of his jars. It was amazing how easy the alchemy was, even in his monstrous body. Writing was the most difficult part, and he wondered if he couldn’t make himself something to make it easier. He knew as far as the powders were concerned, all he needed were wider jars. Perhaps, Ted thought, as long as he had his memories and his abilities, he could remain in this body. Then again, he’d enjoyed being in his old skin again, even just for a little while.

“Stand back, Skeets. I’m about to make the transformation.”

Ted scratched something else into the dirt, completing the circle, and the shoes grew in size and twisted slightly in shape until they were more befitting Ted’s enormous, four-toed feet. He sat and carefully put them on, then tucked the heart back into its satchel safely. Skeets hopped inside the bag, peering out suspiciously.

“Are you certain this will work, Master Theodore?”

Ted shrugged. “Absolutely not, Skeets. But I’m willing to try. Now brace yourself. I modified the charms that activate and deactivate the shoes, in part for simplicity’s sake and in part because I simply can’t click my heels together in this body. Are you ready?”

Skeets clicked, his body bumping against the glass sphere. “As ready as I suppose I can be.”

Ted nodded and swallowed. He turned himself south, keeping the light of the sun on one shoulder, and in as clear a voice as he could muster, murmured, “Go.”

The shoes set off, and Ted within them. He realized immediately that he wasn’t moving quite as blindingly fast as before, but it was still a startling speed. He attributed his slower speeds to both his tinkering with the shoes, and the fact that they were carrying a far heavier creature than a normal mortal man. He raced across the continent, holding the satchel as tightly as he could, terrified that it could open and the heart would be lost somewhere along the way. The air grew warmer as he ran southward, crossing small seas and vast deserts in the span of several heartbeats. He wondered if Booster would be angry that he gave away his human skin. He wondered if the Lady of Flames would restore it for him as a reward for returning her little star-brother’s heart. He wondered if Booster missed him at all, up in that lonely sea of stars, because he certainly missed Booster.

The long stretch of desert gave way to a tropical paradise; a lush garden of greenery and exotic birds, and in the quickly approaching distance, there sat a great palace. Ted swallowed, his mouth dry and tasting of sand. “Stop.”

The shoes halted, just before the steps of the palace. Ted sat carefully on the steps and removed the shoes, leaving them on the ground. They were too large to fit in the satchel, and he was quite certain no one would be foolish enough to steal someone’s shoes left outside the palace of a goddess. Especially not shoes fit for a large insect creature.

“What do you think, Skeets?” Ted asked, letting the clockwork bird out of the bag.

Skeets perched himself on Ted’s shoulder again, looking around at the great stone temple, covered in flowering vines. “Doesn’t look much like the palace of a fire goddess, does it?”

“Perhaps not, but I would think that a palace on fire would be most uncomfortable.”

They climbed the many steps to the palace doors, and found them already wide open. The interior was filled with the glow of scampering salamanders and flowers that shone like colorful beacons. It was pleasantly warm inside, and there were no ceilings, the whole of the palace open to the stars. Ted’s footsteps rattled the stones just slightly as he walked, following a painted path to the throne room. There was music in the palace the likes of which he had never before heard, until he realized it was the salamanders singing.

Beatriz, the Lady of Flames, was standing atop her dais, hands on her hips, when Ted arrived in her throne room. For a goddess of fire, she looked nothing like her aspect, swathed in silks of green, her hair a brilliant shade of viridian. She appeared terribly annoyed, and Ted wondered what he had done to offend her. He dropped to his knees, carefully cradling the satchel.

“My Lady,” he murmured.

“What’s this I hear about my little brother giving away his heart for a mortal?” she asked, her voice a thousand flickering flames.

Ted carefully removed the glass cage from the satchel and offered it to the Lady of Flames, cradling it gently in his huge hands. “He wanted to give me back my humanity, Lady. I don’t think he realized the Black King would take his heart in exchange for it.”

“Of course the Black King’s going to take his heart! He’s the first star to ever have a heart, it’s a rare thing. And I suppose you gave up your humanity to get it back, didn’t you? I can see the enchantment you’re under, plain as day. Went and asked Tora for help, didn’t you? Bet she didn’t give it. Tora never wants to meddle in other people’s business. Where’s the fun in that?” the Lady asked, opening the cage.

Ted watched her remove the heart from the glass prison, holding it in her bare hands. He wondered if it would burn him if he touched it. It glowed brightly, flickering blue and brilliant. “Lady, will you be able to give him back his heart?”

“I can, but it’s not going to do me much good at all. I know he’s just going to give the foolish thing away again,” she retorted.

Ted watched as the Lady of Flames looked to the sky. To his amazement, the daylight disappeared, giving way to starry darkness. “Lady, how…”

“Green Man eclipsed the sun. You picked a good day to come beg me for help. Now, let me see…” She frowned, searching among her brothers and sisters for one particular star. Ted could see it now, glowing a brilliant gold that outshone any other star in the sky, and from the way the heart flickered, he knew that had to be his own star. “Ah, there you are. Come on back down here. I’ve got something that belongs to you.”

Ted watched as the star leapt, a brilliant streak of fire crossing the dark sky and hurtling towards the ground. He wasn’t sure how the star knew where to go, and feared that it would land anywhere on the earth and he would have to search the world over to find him again. To his great relief, the star fell right into the Lady’s throne room, a whizzing comet of brilliant golden light. It whirled around the room, coalescing into a slightly human-shaped form of flickering fire that stood beside the lady.

“Your large friend here went and got your heart back for you. I was never mad at you for getting your heart broken, you know. It happens to mortals all the time. You should have just come to me in the first place,” the Lady scolded as she gently guided the heart back to where it belonged, burning within the star’s body. “Now be more careful with that this time.”

The burning form began to take shape, and the fallen star became less a cloud of brilliant light. He gasped, flexing fiery fingers and touching his chest, realizing his heart was back where it belonged. He still glowed with a flickering light, golden hair like a halo around his handsome face, and his eyes were as blue as his heart. Booster smiled shyly and offered one flame-flickering hand to Ted, afraid that he would burn him.

“You’re not human anymore,” he said, voice flickering with flames, just as the goddess’.

Ted took the offered hand, and to both his own surprise and Booster’s, didn’t flinch at all. He simply held it tight, as if he were the only thing keeping Booster tethered to the earth. In Ted’s opinion, he was. “No, I gave it up to get you back.”

“You…but…what about…” Booster stammered.

Smiling, Ted squeezed Booster’s hand gently, not shying away from the heat or the flickering flames at all. To his tough skin, it didn’t burn, but was simply quite warm. “I still have all my memories. I remember being Theodore Kord, and I remember being just Ted. I know you wanted me to be human again, but I wanted you back more.”

Booster stared at him, flickering blue eyes wide. “You…you did?”

“Of course I did. You’re my only friend, after all, and I have grown too fond of having you in my life to ever let you leave it. I walked the world for you, and I’d climb into the sky and pull you back out if I have to,” Ted replied. He pulled Booster into his arms, holding him against his massive chest. He wished he could return the kiss he’d been given what seemed like a lifetime ago, when he was still handsome and human. Booster was so warm, and he could feel his heart pulsing against him, in time with the flicker of his corona of flames.

The Lady of Flames coughed delicately behind them, and they reluctantly pulled away, smiling sheepishly at the goddess. She sighed, still looking somewhat perturbed at them. Ted looked over at Booster, who was giving his star-sister the most pathetic look he could muster. “The last time you made that face at me, you ended up regretting it. This time you have to promise that you won’t do anything foolish with this gift.”

“Will you help Ted too?” Booster asked.

Ted stared at Booster for a few moments, then looked up at the goddess. “Help Booster, Lady. I can live like this. I’ve lived like this for years now, and I can go on living like this for years to come. I have my memories, I have Booster, they’re all that matter most to me.”

The Lady of Flames scrutinized him for a minute or two, staring at where his waistcoat pocket had once been, or its general location. “You have a shard of scarab amulet on you. Or in you, I suppose. Did Tora give that to you?”

“Yes, Lady.”

“I don’t know how she always ends up with things that belong to me,” she muttered to herself. “Well, that certainly makes things a great deal easier for me.”

Ted watched the Lady of Flames as she drew up great gouts of fire and hurled them, enveloping both himself and Booster with her enchantment. Ted felt a great heat sweep over him, his body twisting and reshaping for the third time in as many days. It was less painful this time, and quite a bit faster, and when it was over he was whole and human again, wearing the suit he had fashioned for himself. Standing beside him in his yellow velveteen was Booster, as human as any other mortal, smoothing his hair back into its proper style.

“We will have to find your hat,” Ted murmured, unsure of what else to say to Booster.

Booster laughed. “We had better. That’s my favorite hat. I will be utterly lost without it.”

The Lady of Flames coughed again, and somehow they managed to stop staring at one another long enough to look at her.

“Alchemist, I have given you the ability to wear both skins. That shard of blue amulet you carry now in your pocket will aid you in changing forms. You can be as you are now, and as you were before, whenever you so choose,” the Lady of Flames said. She looked over at her brother, who was too busy staring at Ted once again. “As for you, you are once again human, and you will remain human all the rest of your days. Don’t make me regret this gift I have now twice given you.”

“I couldn’t regret it if I tried,” Booster replied, grinning foolishly at Ted. “I am quite certain my heart will never feel broken again.”

Ted smiled and offered Booster his hands again, small and smooth and fitting perfectly in Booster’s own grasp. He stared into those flame-blue eyes, and could feel his face heating with a blush. “Hello, Booster.”

“Hello, Ted,” Booster murmured, his own face quite reddened. He leaned in slightly, and Ted met him halfway, pressing their lips together in a shy, hesitant kiss. Ted’s heart was pounding, and he could hear Booster’s heart beating just as loudly. Booster pulled away first, brushing his fingers over the pocket where the shard was just barely pressing against the fabric. “Will you ever be Ted, the blue beetle again?”

“Of course I will. It’ll be even more fun to make the highwaymen run when the patron alchemist hollering at them suddenly becomes a seven-foot-tall talking beetle,” Ted laughed. He held Booster’s hand tight in his own. “I have all of your little trinkets. I kept them safe for you while you were away.”

“I missed you, Master!” Skeets chimed, swooping onto Booster’s shoulder.

“I was wondering where you were hiding, Skeets!” Booster laughed. “I wasn’t gone that long, you know.”

“No, but we have been away from Marquette for far too long. I fear it is now overrun with circus folk and hoodlums. Let us go home,” Ted suggested, hefting his satchel. He pulled out his badge and pinned it back onto his waistcoat, retrieved Booster’s trinkets, and turned back to the goddess. “Thank you again, Lady. We would be lost without you.”

She smiled, hands back on her hips. “Yes, you certainly would have been.”

Ted and Booster walked out of the palace hand-in-hand, and Ted couldn’t remember the sun ever seeming this bright, or the colors being this vivid. He smiled at Booster, who gave him his most charming grin, Skeets still perched on his shoulder. They stopped at the foot of the stairs, and Booster glared in horrified shock at the massive pieces of leather and suede waiting for them.

“…What did you do to my shoes?”

+

The people of Marquette didn’t much notice when Booster and his clockwork bird finally returned to town, but everyone stopped and stared at the man beside them. He was handsome and grinning and laughing along with the flamboyant fortuneteller, and most importantly he wore the crest of the Kord family and the badge of an alchemist. Word spread throughout the town that Booster had actually brought home the lost alchemist, that the Kord boy had returned after all, and soon the entire town of Marquette had gathered in the square to hear their story.

“Citizens of Marquette, behold!” Skeets announced grandly as Ted took Booster’s hand and climbed into the sky with him, standing so that they could be seen by all. “Theodore Kord, the Lost Alchemist of Marquette!”

People in the audience gasped, and everyone began to clamor for them to tell the story of how Ted had returned to town. Ted continued to hold Booster’s hand, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder as they stood suspended in the sky.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is a very long tale, one that is best told in several parts. It begins with a familiar story, the story of the star who fell from the sky for want of a true love,” Booster explained grandly.

It took a long time for them to tell their story, mostly because they kept interrupting one another, and Skeets would have to correct and clarify, and sometimes someone in the crowd would shout something at them and they would get entirely off track of things. By the time they had finished, the salamanders had long since started burning, and Vivian and Constance had brought everyone tankards of ale from the Crimson Fox. Some of the townspeople would swear that night that Mr. Gold had glowed a soft gold as he sat beside the alchemist, suspended in the sky.

In the days that followed, a great many things happened. Kord Manor was restored to its former glory as Ted bossed around the little ground elementals and chased them through the hedgerows, while Booster laughed and basked in the sunlight, of little help at all. He reopened his father’s workshop, took his rightful place as the Alchemist of Marquette, and the townspeople flocked to the manor once again. Booster took up residence in the manor, and though he was no alchemist, he continued to use his Sight and his parlor tricks to aid those who had grown to be his townspeople.

There were always highwaymen and swindlers to run out of town, and Ted had been right. It was now more fun than ever to be rid of them, especially when none of them were expecting the alchemist to suddenly change from a somewhat unassuming and dirt-smudged man to a seven-foot-tall talking blue beetle with razor sharp fangs. Booster preferred to use the brilliant flashes of light his showman’s gloves were capable of. And whenever they were through, they dined in the Crimson Fox, surrounded by people, regaling them with the stories of their heroics late into the night.

In time, the story of the star that fell from the sky and the lost alchemist of Marquette grew out of the small town, and crossed the whole of the continent of Internationale. People traveled from every corner to see if it was really true, if a star had fallen in love with a cursed mortal, if the alchemist had really once been a giant blue beetle. And people would sometimes see them walking, hand-in-hand, sometimes two men and a clockwork bird, sometimes a man and a very large beetle and a clockwork bird, but always together.

The people of Marquette would say that they lived happily ever after, but for the alchemist and the fallen star, their blue history book in the manor library had a slightly different way of putting it.

They lived together, happily, ever after.


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