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Darkness filled the hallway around his sight. Adrian ignored the lack of illumination; a Ritual performed on his thirteenth birthday had removed the need for excess light. Out of the corner of one eye he caught the tell-tale effervescence of a house-elf’s residue; the magical signature left behind whenever one of the Little Folk performed their unique brand of magic. As ever, he tried to come up with an accurate description – as ever, mere words failed. How could one describe a shape in terms of color alone? Where did the realm of prose cross paths against the sublime artistry of mathematics?

Adrian shook his head. No matter. Minor matters, compared to his current task.

His path led through the ancient hall, soft footfalls echoing under the stern gaze of portraits older than the current reigning family line. Of England, of course. In secret, it stretched far beyond the mere centuries muggles construed as its true age.

Mahogany panels, purchased when such a thing was cheap, gave way to an innocuous door. No decoration marred its perfect surface, a mixture of wood types granting a subtle elegance. Edges of mahogany blended seamlessly into teak, rich portions of some rare wood transitioning throughout the center. Runes engraved by the carver remained hidden from view within the unseen seams; to break the defensive purposes would require the close-focus of a Grand Master Sorcerer, only two of which existed in Western Europe.

Adrian took a moment to gather himself. One never entered the Alchemist’s presence without checking his mental fortitude. Occlumancy helped.

As always, the door swung open at a touch, the faintest sensation alerting him to the blood sample withdrawn. Had he not been whom he was, he would have been someone whom no longer was. Flamel wards were considered insignificant in the world –at-large – no one but the Flamels actually knew of their presence. Similar to how the muggle world had remained ignorant to the devastating power of a common bacterium. With knowledge came power, and power accrued greater knowledge, if one had the time.

Inside, Adrian paused, just within the doorframe. Rooms, even in wizarding households, held themselves to a common standard. Typical structures included four walls, and a floor of some type. Ceilings were optional, frequently missing in conjunction with certain walls. Incorporating famous locations or events fell in-and-out of vogue, obeying vague fashions established by rules not even Merlin could have determined. He himself had created a room completely of gold, synthetic of course.

Nicholas Flamel had been amused.

By contrast, trees surrounded Adrian, uncountable plants stretching beyond eyesight. Ferns brushed against his hips, wide bodies flipping in a light breeze. Returning his gaze upwards, Adrian studied the lofty branches of the canopy’s understory. He’d half-expected a vast savannah, or the view from some forgotten mountaintop – both made their appearance in his past visits. One memorable occasion had brought him face-to-eyeball of a kraken, from some watery depth. Caution held sway over his steps even now.

Damn the Orientals and their fascination with tentacles.

The disciplined posture of his superior met Adrian’s eyes. The man’s titles were many: the Alchemist. Master of Gold. Despair to the Goblins. Line-Ender, seven times over. The old man sat upon a fallen timber, reclining against a propitious stump. Both hands were folded before his face, showing a pair of glittering eyes staring at nothing and everything at the same time.

Adrian cleared his throat. Grand-Master mages feared to attract the man’s attention; fewer sought an encounter. An Apprentice, however, held certain privileges.

“Young Mage,” the alchemist’s voice carried through the trees as if nothing were there. His eyes remained fixed upon the waving foliage in contemplation. “You bring news of the Maggia Sophia?”

“Yes sir,” Adrian glanced down only enough to seek out stepping stones across a stream. A dragonfly, wings shimmering through leaf-tinted light hovered at his ear, dashing away leaving only a faint hum in memory. He wondered if the insect had been a test – everything was with his teacher, sooner or later. “They accepted the contract.”

“Of course they did.” Flamel’s form did not waver. “They had no other choice.”

Adrian finally found himself close enough to speak without feeling as if he needed to strain his voice. “Sir?”

“Know the culture, know the man.” Flamel turned in his seat, hands dropping to fold across his lap. “The Italians are a passionate breed, unyielding tradition, accepting everyone. Not unusual in many regions, but rarely taken to such degrees. To refuse the contract would have been to admit inferiority. The Maggia Sophia consider themselves cultured caretakers of wisdom. They believe I honor them with this contract, despite its restrictions.”

“I see what you mean,” Adrian did indeed understand, if dimly. He found irony, considering his first Ritual. “Their pride keeps them from thinking?”

“Their passion,” Flamel corrected. “If given time to think, they would have realized multiple options were available. Couched appropriately, they will never consider those paths now. Because they have chosen, their choice must have been the best option. It now is the best option. By the time cooler heads understand, the situation will have attained traditional status, and therefore cannot be broken. Learned from, but not rescinded.”

Adrian pondered for a moment. “Does that not mean they’ll be on the lookout for something similar in the future?”

“Indeed. By then, other urgencies will occupy their attention. Nothing is quite so demanding as the present, even to a firmly grounded peoples. Goblins are an exception – their culture is a delight to ponder.”

Nicholas Flamel didn’t change his posture, but his aura seemed to become slightly more amused, to Adrian’s eyes. Faint tendrils of a lighter color wound their way throughout its darker hues. “You are wondering where we are.”

Adrian blinked. The thought had been crossing his mind – but only for a moment. “Yes sir. But I’m not –“

His Master rose, moving with the agility of a much younger man. “Come. Witness a true mystery. No matter how advanced our minds, there is always something new to consider.”

Obediently, Adrian followed in step.

“We are in a unique place, in the Colonies.” Flamel nodded at the trees, as if the name would explain everything.

Adrian quirked a single eyebrow upwards. “Sir?”

“There is a region of sand dunes along the central state’s northern borders. One of the Great Lakes generates a great deal of sand, pushed onto its southern shore every winter. Further inland, you see trees such as these; beeches, firs, white pines. Conifers and deciduous plants, living together. And yet when one steps beyond the simple to behold the extraordinary, he beholds – this.”

More hills met Adrian’s sight. Scattered grasses covered their slopes, struggling for foothold in the granulated slopes. He could identify by sight over four varieties of the stuff, and perhaps a half-dozen other plants all fighting to occupy the same region.

“Fascinating,” Flamel’s smooth tones caught Adrian’s attention. The elder man had paused by a half-dead tree, needles dropping from the lower portion like a brittle rain. Patiently, the apprentice waited. Listening did take a significant proportion of his job description after all.

“Observe the Jack Pine, Pinus banksiana. Flamel’s hand touched the tree’s bark; sending shudders all along the plant’s length, needles falling through both of their forms. “Its fruit responds to fire, yet it thrives here. Upon inhospitable sand. Tradition stipulates a need for soil, not sand. But it ignores tradition and thrives in a place inhospitable for many of its kind. Why?”

Adrian felt it necessary to interject. “Perhaps it’s engineered for this?”

An appraising eye turned in his direction. “Possible. A thought to consider. But it brings my thoughts to that which should hold to tradition, yet does not. What can thrive away from the normality, and grow where it should not? Designs for one area may grant strength in an unforeseen condition. We forget this too often. Why?”

Adrian felt as if the conversation went above his comprehension. He did as he always did in those circumstances, keeping his mouth closed.

“Of course,” Flamel nodded. “Missing a small point may skew understanding. Well thought.”

Holding himself still, Adrian tried to anticipate what the elder man’s brain had processed. Their earlier conversation sprang to the forefront of consideration, but the connection?

“Exactly.” Flamel turned away from the tree. “I must turn my focus upon England once more. The upstart is making efficient use of what little he knows, and my old apprentice plays at his old games once more. Wise fool. He knows he needs aid, and yet will not risk indebting himself again. One of my greatest successes; one of my greatest failures.”

For a moment, Flamel looked truly ancient, aged as the withered trees. At length, he shook himself, a new light burning in his eyes. “Come Adrian, I shall need records of as many Family Heads in Great Britain.”

Unthinking, Adrian opened his mouth, saying the first thing on his mind. “The Malfoy’s are originally from France, and Ollivander is –“

His master froze mid-step; a move that would bring terror to many, had they known of it. “Ollivander – the Olive-land-clan yes? And the distaff branch of the Malefica Family. Well thought, apprentice. Better bring the 15th century Old Families of France compendium. I will need to examine their connections most carefully.”

A wave of his hand caused the forest to fade away, receding into the distance. Shelves of books grew into sight, towering above the two of them like the trees that had once maintained their presence. One final question swirled around Adrian’s mind; he decided to ask.

“Sir?”

Flamel looked up, already consulting a vast sparkling globe, emanating light foreign to the room. “Yes?”

“That forest, the other times I’ve been in here. Was that … were they … real?”

The amused sparkle returned to the older man’s eye, making him seem like a mischievous elf once more. His gaze flicked down once, sliding back up to Adrian’s gaze. “One of your best questions yet, young Mage. Of course it could be a projection; magic loves those with such an imagination. But then, what prevents it from being real as well?”

Adrian watched the older man recede into his shelves before finally looking down at the warm place on his foot. Tiny black eyes, set in an unfamiliar face looked up at him. A rodent, white and black stripes lining a tan-furred body, stuffed its cheek pouches with the last remnants of a candy dish, almost daring Adrian to interrupt. After a moment’s stillness, the little form vanished beneath a bookshelf.

Waiting a full ten second count, Adrian turned on his heel, leaving the little room. Despite all he knew, how much he’d learned at the side of the Great Alchemist, he knew there was still far more to understand.

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