On the subject of teacher-student relationships, Chenek is certainly an alchemical master as well as an Elemental Lord, and has a great deal of knowledge he tempts potential students with. He is, however, not a very good teacher. He often violates the social contract of the educator, using his students for his own benefit, mistreating them, and teaching them skills without teaching them risks. Teachers like Chenek leave a trail of angry students behind them, and rightfully so. Stories about his students are often used to demonstrate the consequences of being a selfish teacher.
The first package arrived at my door with no fanfare, labelled simply to Makena Kuria with no address. The note said only that he was a fan of my work and wondered if these notes would help. I opened the package expecting a text or perhaps printouts. Instead it was an old, leather-clad folio. I opened it up and flipped through it, trying to get a sense of what it was about. Alchemical, obviously. Old. Old enough that the paper inside could barely be called paper, and was older than the folio. The leather was so aged it was only a few shades lighter than my own skin.
Deciphering the Sanskrit took a little while but oh, was it worth it. I took away so many things I was able to incorporate into my own work. I told myself that I’d given up magic long ago but clearly this was alchemy, not magic.
I knew it was bullshit even as I thought it, but it made me feel better.
By the time the third arrived, my curiosity had overcome my ego, and I wanted to know who was sending me the gifts more than I wanted to keep receiving them. I took the risk, installing and wiring a camera system to track who was leaving the packages. I added some of the things I’d picked up from the second volume, theories on the metaphysical properties of copper that I put to use on the wires themselves.
I shivered when it was triggered, and ran to look. The man at the door was in his late 30s or 40s, handsome, lighter in color than me but darker than the average. If I’d had to guess… perhaps from Ariana?
He looked directly at the camera and I blinked in surprise.
“Good work,” he smirked. “Nice, clean energy signature. Simple but effective. And you’re working awful fast through that book, don’t you think?”
I ran downstairs and answered the door. “Who are you?”
“I’m the man who’s been sponsoring your research. I like what I’m seeing. Pack up the books, you’re coming to study with me.”
“He doesn’t take many apprentices; maybe one in a century, sometimes not even that.” Mim was pale and pretty, with sparrow-brown hair and eyes. I could see she wore spellwork; she lit up like a firework when I looked sideways at her, though I wasn’t good enough to see through them.
“Are you his apprentice?” I asked.
“Not anymore, but I was. I have different titles now.”
I nodded. “So how long did you study with him, Mim?”
“A century, give or take. Long enough for him to get thoroughly sick of me.”
She laughed, and I laughed, and I assumed it was a dodge. Us ladies, we never give away our ages. Right?
It was trivial, once I had access to Chenek’s resources and my inheritance, to buy up the land of the village where I’d grown up. All of the children had gone into the city to work, and they didn’t send home as much money as they’d promised, or as much as their parents thought they deserved, or it just wasn’t enough. Most of them knew there wasn’t going to be anyone who cared when it came time to pass the land on. Spiting me because they’d spited my parents fifteen years before just wasn’t in their interests, and I won them over eventually with flattery and small whispers in my words.
I paid them well anyway, because it was better for the energy of the land and for the public relations. Chenek’s connections in the government helped a bit here and there, and in only a few seasons, we had ownership of the land from the narrow mountain pass all the way to the steps of the temple.
Of course, I couldn’t buy the temple, but I didn’t need to. Not at first, anyway. First, I got busy building the resort complex. The business proposal was a work of poetry, if I may be so bold, and one of my father’s oldest friends helped me secure the funding to build. The contracts were written in legalese thick enough to hide the spells. I did everything in my own name to keep from having to bother Chenek; I preferred to spend his limited time with me on alchemical theory. My master complained bitterly when he visited that I hadn’t been able to tamp down all the healthy energy of the place, and I had to apologize repeatedly.
The first time the monks walked up to the completed Ancient Wisdom Temple Resort and Hot Springs, the looks on their faces made everything worth it.
When I caught Thanh’s eye across the room, I nearly choked. Only Chenek’s training kept me from making a fool of myself. They glared, of course, but they glared with a consummate elegance which I wasn’t sure I would ever master.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” they said, with enough disdain that I found myself defensive despite all of my training. Thanh had not changed at all since I knew them as a teen. They were slim and sinuous, moving through the room more like a cat than a human.
“I organized it. In fact, I invited you, at Master Chenek’s request.” Not that I’d expected them to show. They generally made a lot of noise about how little they cared about everything.
There was the barest hint of flared nostrils and surprise at the title, as they put it together.
“You are Chenek’s apprentice now?”
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was not a muttered curse and, “I see you are even better at bad decisions than I remembered.” I don’t think I expected them to be impressed but… perhaps to acknowledge me?
“You don’t approve of my choice of master, I take it?”
They nodded. “You’ve known many different magic users; virtually any would be better than him.”
“You say that now, but he was the only one who reached out to me. Literally all of you knew me first, and some of you took advantage, but none of you offered to teach me.” I braced for a sarcastic answer.
“I could complain about your flaws all day, but ultimately, yes, that’s true.”
Thanh had complained about my flaws all day, once upon a time. There had been no comments about my skin or hair from them, which was a relief, but my awkward clumsiness, my inability to take the easy way out, and my tendency to get over-excited were all fair game.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that nothing had changed.
At first I thought it was some kind of rash. It itched like crazy, and I scratched until the skin bled. Then it dried and cracked, and I thought maybe it was psoriasis. I asked Mim if she knew anything that might help.
“Oh, we all have our little quirks after a while,” she said. “We just cover them with glamour most of the time.”
“You do?” Before I could tell her that wasn’t a challenge, she’d made a gesture of dismissal and I felt the energy around her shift.
Half the skin on her face sparkled and faded to scar tissue and exposed muscle. In spots, the rot went down to white, pitted bone. Old self-preservation instincts wanted to recoil, while my curiosity wanted a closer look; my brain’s compromise was to stand unmoving.
“You’ll look like the rest of us soon enough,” she said, and I understood why her grin was always lopsided.
Cool compresses eased the itching and warm ones helped the sores drain. I thought maybe I would get used to it, the same as Mim had.
Then the itching started in my brain – passing fears were no longer passing, but grew and settled like wyrms on a hoard. I began to worry that the food was full of the same rot as the rest of us and restricted my diet to things that tended to keep, honey and nuts and smoked meat. I didn’t want to go out without spelling my wounds with glamour, and then I didn’t want to go out at all.
I recognized it. I’d been diagnosed with disordered energies leading to an anxious temperament as a child. I resolved to do something about it, starting using the meditation and breathing techniques that I’d been taught, but I wasn’t fast enough for Chenek.
“I didn’t take you in out of the goodness of my heart, girl. I don’t even have a heart; all of my organs are unsentimental.”
This was the first time I’d seen him angry at me, and it was very different from seeing him angry at other people.
“I took you in because I thought you could handle certain things for me.”
“I am working on it -”
“I need it done now, not when you feel like it. Push through it like an adult.”
I stared at him, too shocked at my mother’s words coming out of his mouth to care what he wanted me to say. He stormed out when I didn’t respond.
For the first time, I was terrified of him.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that it was time to go.
Not that I had anywhere to go. I didn’t have any more friends than I had when I started. I put off leaving for that reason, trying to figure out some kind of perfect solution, but there was none to be found.
In the end, Chenek made the decision for me. “Final exam, Apprentice,” he shouted after me as I ran for my life.
I did have the resort, though. I spent two days in the basements, re-wiring the wards to teach them that Chenek was not welcome. They made my skin burn too, but they kept him outside. The staff politely ignored me as I draped myself over the stones near the hot springs.
“What did you do?” Chenek bellowed from outside of the grounds.
I didn’t answer the question. “You said you were done with me. Leave me be!”
“Return the books you stole!” he fumed. I didn’t answer. I hadn’t even intended to keep the books; I’d only left them at the resort the last time I was here, but his anger told me they were valuable and worth keeping.
“I’ll call officials! I’ll call lawyers!” he screamed at me. I felt him beating on the wards, and it took all the energy I had to keep the wards in one piece. He left, promising to return with paperwork.
The joke was on him, however. I am my father’s daughter; the one thing you don’t fight me on is a contract.
“What about you?”
“What about me?” Thanh answered.
“You don’t have any glamour on you, as far as I can read. I can see Mim’s now, when I look the right way. I’m sure you see mine.”
“I hadn’t, actually. I knew you were wearing some sort of illusion but I rarely bother to look at the things.”
I blinked. “You mean you’ve been looking at my…” I flailed my hands in the general direction of my neck.
“Your wounds? Yes, I have seen them this entire time.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“That would be rude.” They snorted, just enough that I thought they might be laughing. “Regardless, your question was about me.”
“Yes. Didn’t you have this… problem?”
They shook their head and I thought they were laughing again. “Oh yes. But if you study with Chenek long enough… well, glamour can only do so much. It requires that you start out looking human. Shapeshifting, on the other hand, requires more energy to maintain. The trade off is that no one can see anything but what you show them, no matter how skilled…” They trailed off.
“Can-” the question seemed far too intimate, but I had to ask. “Can I see?” It wasn’t just curiosity this time. Punchcard memories were being tugged loose, and there was the promise that something might make sense that hadn’t before.
“Oh, yes, definitely rude.” This time there was no doubt they were laughing. I didn’t laugh, and I didn’t concede.
They glared at me, but I was inured to that by now. The room had emptied as we spoke, and I was prepared to push until they attacked me if I had to. I wanted to see what was behind the chinks in their armor.
“Are you ashamed to show me?”
Their nostrils flared, and I wondered if I was pushing too far.
I gave no ground. Rather than reply, they were on top of me in a flash of motion. My head was slamming against the tile floor before I had really understood I was falling. Bright lights exploded in my vision and the room spun, but when my eyes could focus again I was rewarded with the sight of them, patches of moss-green scales on leathery skin, a snout that was clearly reptilian, eyes that blinked sideways at me as I fought not to pass out, broken claws digging into my shoulders, pinning me to the floor as it went dark.
Over time, Thanh taught me to remove the hooks Chenek had sunk into me. The process was a painful slog, but they stayed with me, and we learned to talk as equals. The sores healed eventually, a shiny-pale patchwork along my hairline and down over my collarbones and back. They didn’t seem to mind the scars, sometimes even tracing a hand down along the lace path. I never covered them with a glamour if I could help it; I felt I owed myself that. I wasn’t going to hide from my mistakes.