The tripod furnace rotated tirelessly midair, the only support being strange indigo flames that licked at its sides.

Ocassionally, a lick of flame would detach itself from the furnace and stretch outwards, creeping towards the direction where Clarence sat not too far away.

Normally, when this happened Clarence would snap up the errant flame by the head, like one might pinch a snake behind its head. The captured flame would then reluctantly return among its fellow flame brethren.

But oddly enough, this time the rebellious flame had managed to dance around Clarence’s hand, winding through the cracks in between slender fingers for several minutes but the owner had yet to realize.

It was not until a strangely bitter smell of burnt herbs reached him did Clarence startle from wherever his mind had wandered.

The moment he came back to himself, he immediately snatched up the errant flame that had just been about to sneak back and merge to its main source.

Clarence stared expressionlessly at the little flame which flailed only for a moment in between thumb and forefinger before seeming to give up, both its head and long slender body drooping. Even the two long whisker like flame appendages on its head seem to droop as well.

It seemed to be aware that it had been naughty.

Clarence laughed grimly, “Afraid? It’s too late.”

With that being said a strange crystal flask carved with golden runes appeared in his other hand. Upon seeing this the little flame renewed its struggle but it did not deter Clarence in the least who easily unpopped the flask.

Almost immediately, it seem to have a magnetic affect on the little flame, sucking it into the belly of the flask where it could be seen swirling around like indigo blue gas.

Holding the flask up to eye level, Clarence watched as the indigo flame twisted and distorted into odd shapes before returning to its original appearance of a snake like body with a camel-like head adorned with antlers and long carp-like whiskers. It pressed its head up against the side of the glass, along with two tiny eagle like front claws.

Though it was difficult to tell so, but Clarence could see that it was trying to curry favor with him. And as if to confirm that, a high child-like voice echoed in his mind.

Master, I know I’m wrong. Please let me out?

“Hehe. Naughty children should be punished. Ponder your mistakes in there and when I remember to I’ll let you out.” Clarence quirked a corner of pale thin lips before placing the flask and its content on a shelf high and out of reach.

With that minor disciplinary session out of the way, he beckoned at the rest of the flames still obediently at work under the tripod furnace and had them return to their usual place of dwelling within his body.

Only then did he proceed to clean out the failed batch from the furnace.

As he did so, his mind couldn’t help wandering back to the fight last night.

While the Athanatos Society was not something he held much regard for, it was another case entirely if they had managed to gain the support of someone significant.

Again, the image of a snake eating its tail flashed through his mind, the muted gold embroidery barely visible on dark cloth but still managed to catch his eye.

The ouroboros had been known as a symbol of ancient Alchemists for centuries. It remained taboo, however, after the Alchemist Wars. And only until the rise of New Alchemists, or the Athanatos Society in particular did its use became popular again.

But nowadays, few knew that the ouroboros only represented a certain faction of ancient Alchemists, and not all ancient Alchemists as was the common assumption.

It was this little detail that had him unable to just dismiss last night and the criminal group completely.

Because the ouroboros belonged to the very same faction of Alchemists who had been responsible for the tragedies millennia ago.

Perhaps it was just groundless fears, after all both the faction and the Athanatos Society had been eliminated, the former millenia ago and the later decades ago.

That the Athanatos Society seemed to have survived to make a reappearance decades later should not be as much a cause for alarm as Major Fitzroy seem to imply.

Who was to say the Athanatos Society even had anything to do with that long dead faction?

But after pacing about his Elixir Chamber until the sun rose high up in the sky, Clarence finally took out an innocuous jade tablet and pressed it against the center of his forehead for a brief moment. After having done so he held up a long slender finger and pressed that against it as well.

Immediately, indigo flames spread from his finger and to the tablet, but instead of leaving scorch marks behind, a strange script in indigo blue appeared circling a stylized sun symbol.

“Avis.”

The cyan blue mechanical bird that had been perched still and immobile on one of the windowsills suddenly seem to come alive at  the call and swooped down to snatch the palm sized tablet. With smooth flaps of mechanical wings it turned and winged out the window.

Clarence watched without much expression as the cyan blue spot disappeared into the blue of the morning sky.

❂❂❂

Clarence wandered down the stairs, still lost in his thoughts.

He was just in time to catch his new freeloader making an idiot of himself.

Whoosh.

“PFFT! What the-!”

Mikhail had just been curiously fiddling with the big metal contraption in the resting nook that seem so out of place in the antique styled shop with its wooden shelves, tasseled curtains and checkered marble floors.

He didn’t recall what button he had pressed or what knob he had twisted but the Guzzler treated him to a berry flavored facial either way.

Leila who had been rearranging the shelf nearby screeched and jumped out of the way as the Guzzler suddenly transformed from a waist height spherical metal contraption to a height as tall as a grown man.

Wheels had suddenly sprung from a hidden compartment and pipes extended to wave in the air like a demented, metallic version of Medusa’s hair.

MEOW!

Miss Maggy’s tail was nearly rolled over and she shot up from her sunbathing on the rug and made a few quick leaps to get out of the way of the rampaging drink appliance.

But the Guzzler’s target was only the silver haired young man who leaped nimbly over the couches as he wiped at the juice dripping from his face.

Clarence watched unimpressed as Mikhail then proceeded to battle the Guzzler with the feather duster Leila had dropped in her escape.

“Enough. Return to standby mode.”

As if a time freeze spell had been casted, the scene of chaos instantly paused. Everyone then watched as the Guzzler reverted back to its usual innocuous if slightly out of place appearance.

It was silent for an embarassed minute as everyone seemed to not know what to say.

Mikhail was the first to recover with a sheepish grin. “Clancy! You saved me again.”

Clarence did not even spare the disheveled Sylva a glance and made his way over to the Guzzler to brew a cup of caffeinated tea.

“The Guzzler does not like people poking around his insides. Next time you provoke him, I’ll let him have his way with you.”

Mikhail’s easy grin cracked at that cold and dry comment. “I was just curious. Leila said it was a drink appliance. How was I supppsed to know it would attack?”

“Anyone would give you a beating with the rude poking around you were doing.”

“Yes, but not machines.”

“Now that’s why you deserve a beating. Machines have rights too.”

Mikhail blinked amber and turquoise at the young man calmly sipping at a cup of tea in front of him. He didn’t know if the young Alchemist was being serious or not.

“Why did you give it – er – attacking rights?”

Clarence spared the other a neutral once over before lowering long, think lashes. “This area can get quite unpeaceful with so many quick tempered Eximius and shady figures around. How can two defenseless Norms like me and Leila run a shop without some sort of defense?”

Mikhail muttered under his breath, “Defenseless? You? You’re the shadiest figure around.”

“Who was the fellow caught up in some shady underworld business?”

Mikhail looked at the other with a grievous expression, “I was being attacked! I’m the victim here!”

“Heh.”

❂❂❂

“See you tomorrow, Boss! Later, Mikhail!” Leila swung her magenta duffle bag across her shoulder while calling over her shoulder.

“Mmhm.” “Bye-bye.”

Clarence sat idly behind the counter while he directed Mikhail on displaying the paper parasols and unbrellas in eye-catching ways.

“Don’t you have any sense of aesthetics? How can you put a red cherry blossom parasol next to a fish motif umbrella?” Clarence tsked in dissatisfaction.

“But this one has lotus flowers on it also. The flowers look nice next to each other.” Mikhail protested.

“No they don’t. The colors don’t complement. Put it next to the one with a frog motif.”

Mikhail looked first at the white parasol with pink cherry blossom motifs and then at the pale blue parasol with green frog motifs. Dark blade like brows furrowed in bewilderment.

“I don’t think I’m the one lacking in aesthetics.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Boss.” Mikhail shrugged and did as Clarence instructed, surrendering under the tyranny of one Mr. Light.

Ding-ling-ling.

The wind chimes attached to the door tinkled merrily, alerting to the presence of a customer.

“Mr. Light! How are you!”

A voice as light and merry as the wind chimes rang out and Mikhail looked up in its direction.

Two young girls, one with sleek silver bright hair and another with dark sable curls entered the shop and made a beeline for Clarence at the counter.

They were dressed in identical blazer and skirt combination that made up their school uniform. Young Cruors not yet able to completely control aspects of their Cruor form as seen by the red-violets of their eyes.

This was only the fifth time a customer showed up and already he had seen at least one of each race. Clarence had mentioned the area to be populated with all kinds of Eximius and Norms alike but Mikhail finally got a clearer understanding of just how diverse the New Apple was.

No wonder Clarence felt a need to install a ‘bodyguard’ in the shop with so many Eximius around.

Even among their own race Eximius were quick to get into provocations which could often extend to physical fights in their other form. Even the most peaceful of the Eximius races, the Sylvas were not exempt from an occasional brawl.

So in a city where you can find Feras, Cruors, Sylvas, Magus, Alchemists and armed Norms he could imagine how busy the patrolling officers could be breaking up fights and conflicts.

Mikhail watched as Clarence charmed his customers, and even got them each to buy an Avis 1.0 – one in azure blue and another in canary yellow.

After the customers left, Mikhail piped up, “How come you’re not as nice and charming to me?”

Clarence gave him a side way glance out of the corner of his eye, “Are you one of my precious customers or a freeloader of suspicious origins?”

Mikhail pouted red cupid bow lips. “I’m hardly suspicious. I’m Mikhail Lebedev, 21 years old, Sylva and an aspiring musician.”

Clarence raised an unconvinced brow, “You, a musician? I recalled from last night that your core was a large archery bow, not an instrument.”

Mikhail protested indignantly, “Just because I’m not a Bard Sylva doesn’t mean I have no musical ability whatsoever. As a Warrior Sylva I can play music just as good as any of them.”

Mikhail looked around and spotted the large golden harp in the corner of the shop that Clarence had bought at an auction. He had meant to get around modifying it but never did due to procrastination.

Sitting behind it, Mikhail lightly placed long elegant fingers on the strings.

The afternoon sunlight streamed in through the bay windows and casted a golden halo over the young Sylva, highlighting silver strands and snow pale skin.

And, emphasizing an ethereal beauty that normally went unnoticed, overshadowed as it was by his carefree ruffian ways.

Gentle and resonating, the mellow and tranquil melody flowed from elegant dancing fingers to fill the shop.

While Wang Zifeng’s music brought to mind immortal dreamscapes where immortals lived on high misty mountains, Mikhail’s was that of the serene forests with thousand year old trees and the noble stags that roam within.

Clarence knew nothing about music but experiences of having heard some of the best had taught him how to appreciate superior playing when he heard it.

He was reluctantly impressed. There indeed might be a kernel of truth to the saying ‘all masters come from Lux.’ At least, when he had last been at the Lux Court music and dance could be heard all day and nights.

Clap-clap.

A light clap brought Clarence out of his musings and both he and Mikhail looked up.

Mikhail furrowed his brows with displeasure at having his and Clarence’s private moment interrupted. And he was just about to wrangle out a praise from the aloof Alchemist.

“I hadn’t wanted to interrupt earlier. How are you, Mr. Light?” Wang Zifeng’s musical tenor sounded and directed a slight but pleasant smile Clarence’s way and a polite nod in Mikhail’s.

Mikhail’s normally easy smile stiffened and immediately the words ‘fake’ and ‘hypocrite’ popped up in his head.

Clarence was mildly surprised at Wang Zifeng’s appearance. He had given the other the address to his shop but he hadn’t expected him to be here so quickly, barely a day passed.

“Mr. Wang, welcome to The Magpie. It seems you arrived just in time to hear another master musician, Mikhail Lebedev.”

Clarence raised a brow at Mikhail, “This is Wang Zifeng who also possess impressive musical talent.”

While Mikhail was happy Clarence thought so highly of his music and even displayed an amiability towards him that was a first, he didn’t feel as happy as he could have been.

Just where did this interloper pop out from?

Bi-colored gemstones and starry black met for a brief assessing moment before averting.

“A pleasure.” Two slender hands gripped each other hard in a handshake, white jade against snow pale. 

In his spot leaning against a shelf, Clarence had a center position to view their handshake and he idly noticed how aesthetically pleasing the contrast it presented.

But then again both men were of the head turning variety, it stood to reason that even their hands would be attractive.

“Oh? The Magpie’s quite busy today.”

A deep and slightly cold voice sounded from behind and Clarence’s attention was shifted from the ‘friendly’ meeting of two men who shared similar ‘hobbies and talents.’

Clarence was definitely surprised now upon seeing the expressionless but no less delicately handsome young Fera in his shop as well.

Did he miss something in the horoscope section of Leila’s morning paper or something?

Clarence looked at the three gorgeous men in front of him, all outstanding in different ways, and filling up the space of his shop with just their presence alone.

Silver blue swept over them curiously as their owner fell into deep, pondering thoughts.

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