I knew the man.
It was empty here; that’s the first thing I notice. The car rumbled and bobbed up and down, up and down, as I made my way through the forest path.
He lived here, somewhere in this bitter winter forest. God, I can’t even begin to understand how he could’ve stood any of this. It’s April already; winter should be over. There’s no good reason this place should be so cold. Even in the comfort of my car, the cold still bit, right down to the bones. I couldn’t feel my toes. I turned the heater up higher. It didn’t help in the slightest.
The dirt path is a sad and bumpy one, only faintly visible beneath the snow and ice, faded tire marks printed in the ground. This was the path he took, a two hour drive there and back again, slowed further by deteriorating roads littered with fissures and potholes— and that was when it was lucky enough to get any pavement at all. I’d never taken these roads before, and now that I am, I’m glad I’ve never had to. I shudder to think what it must’ve been like, to have to make this trip every week in these conditions. Maybe Freiburg’s spoiled me. Maybe the cold was making me grumpy. Maybe he was just more dedicated than I. But I never knew the man well anyway; it’s been nearly twenty years, but I only realized this just now.
I hadn’t heard of his disappearance until the day before.
The story, now. I’ll keep it short. A magus— foreigner, from the looks of it— arrived in town a few days ago. He inquired around as to where he could meet Der Zweitbesitzer von Freiburg im Breisgau. And so, he met me.
We met; we talked briefly. His German was atrocious, so we spoke in English. The conversation escapes my mind, some business with family and the Einzberns or something of the like. He thanked me; he left. He returned the next day, and stopped by to thank me again for the help. Offhandedly I asked, as one does in casual conversation, about how his business went. He told me that they had disappeared, their estate deserted, no sign of life at their castle. There was no business left to conduct. And so he left.
And so I found myself here.
I arrived after God knows how long— probably not long, but the cold. Christ, the cold. The car’s parked on the side of the road, and I pray it’ll still be there when I get back. I mutter a charm under my breath, lest some car thief— if there even were car thieves out in this frozen wasteland of a forest— try to jack it. And another wouldn’t hurt, I suppose, lest it freeze over in the snow. Better safe than sorry.
Something cracks beneath my feet. I look out of curiosity. A pale-green walnut sprout, frosted over in the snow.
The rest of the journey is not worth recalling. It’s a lonely, lifeless forest; that’s all this place was now. A month ago, I wouldn’t have even been able to drive this far, before the bounded fields would kick in. So they say. I don’t know, I’ve never tried coming here in the first place.
As I make my way down the path, I feel the bounded fields brush against my skin, an invisible membrane, feebly passing over my body in waves, down to the bone. It’s weak. It’s all so weak, now.
I see it now, a fairy-tale castle, its spires still capped with snow.
I cross the bridge, and enter through the front door. No one stops me. No one’s there.
I wander through desolate halls, looking for nothing in particular. Empty halls, empty rooms. Silence weighing on my eardrums like the bottom of the sea. Frosted window sills, air so cold it stung my lungs. A castle frozen in time by the endless winter.
I come across a room, holding a pool of shimmering ether. Instinctively, I knew. The homunculi had returned whence they came. No graves for dolls, I suppose. This would do just fine.
I didn’t know why I was here. Maybe to sate my curiosity, maybe to confirm the rumors. Even if I knew the man, this business had nothing to do with me. I made my leave. As I exited the castle, off to the side at the edge of the forest, I noticed a small house. His.
By the house was a small glade. Upturned earth; disturbed snow. In it, a single grave. The only grave in the entire estate.
It was a small, simple thing, a slab of white stone.
On it were two things. One, a journal. The other, a name.
Lea von Einzbern
Originally Posted by ContentsPart 1
January 14, 1987
A week ago I received a letter. I didn’t have to open it to know what it said.
Well, London, it’s been fun. Never thought the day would come, where I’d find myself missing you, missing the Clocktower, missing magi of all people. Yet here I am. The networking and politicking was a pain, but we’ve had some good times. At least the average magus can hold a conversation. It’s been five years, but I’ve been called back to the estate.
James said he’d send souvenirs; I don’t even know if he knows my address. Anderson offered me a position in his research team, a position that I wanted, but had to decline, unfortunately. I promised Eliza I’d call, maybe visit once in a while, but I don’t know if we even have a phone back home. Empty words all around. She probably knew this too, and cried at the airport. She never found out I was a magus. It was fun while it lasted, at least.
Two days ago. We arrived at the airport as the sun set. The man next to me ooh’d and aah’d at the view, but I had the aisle seat. I remembered little of the flight there, other than someone kicking the back of my seat the entire time, and boring myself reading a magazine about duty-free wine. It comes with Economy class. Maybe I should’ve splurged. As I got out of the plane, I saw it in big, white, blocky letters. EUROAIRPORT BASEL MULHOUSE FREIBURG.
I saw a wiry man at the terminal, faintly familiar, with messy brown hair and unironed clothes. He blearily squinted around at the passengers— at us— standing on tiptoes peering over a crowd, holding a sign with a name. Mine. I waved to him, and he didn’t notice me. I waved harder, and he looked in my direction, eyes passing over me. At some point, I forget when, I had to walk straight up to him, obscuring his view. And then he finally noticed I was there.
He laughed at it all, and introduced himself as Erwin. A friend and associate of Father. A magus, who didn’t look or act the part. I told him my name in turn, though he already knew it.
“Hell, I didn’t recognize you there for a second—” Liar. That was more than just a second, “—but Christ. Fucking hell. How long’s it been, what, six years? Seven? You grew tall, kid!”
So he said. Lies, again. I’m not tall at all.
But he laughed at that, and moved to take my luggage.
The drive from the airport to Freiburg took a little less than an hour; a comfier ride than the plane, at least. I was tired from the flight, so we booked a hotel. We’d leave for the castle maybe a day or two later. Erwin took me to the Augustinerplatz for dinner, the city square just as I’d remembered. We went to a bar— a new one, from the looks of it, as it wasn’t around when I’d left— and got potato dumplings with braised pork shoulder, and finally some good beer. Absolutely heavenly. It felt almost nostalgic. I didn’t know how much I’d missed this stuff.
Freiburg, I suppose, was the real ‘home’ for me. It was home for all of us, that’s how our family was. We grew up in Freiburg, and when our time came, we went to the Einzbern estate to fulfill our duty.
I called it homecoming, but I wouldn’t even be living here from now on. It was a weird feeling, even now. It’s like leaving home for a second time. First, leaving London, then leaving Freiburg. Home now was an old winter castle, a factory of dolls. Charming. I can just see it now; I’ll go mad from the isolation, madder than even the dolls themselves. Then again, I can’t change this. This is the duty of our family. I knew this day would come the very day I left.
This morning, we left Freiburg.
It was strange to behold. At some point off the highways, we took a ramp off into some old beaten path, the trees growing thicker, the air growing thinner and colder. At some point, it began to snow. Freiburg wasn’t a cold city— hell, it was one of the warmest in all of Germany— but here the winter really did bite. An almost jarring difference.
We drove and drove, for what seemed like what was far too long, given that on a map the estate shouldn’t have been too far away. Once in a while, I’d feel something creep over my skin, though I knew perfectly well what it was. The tell-tale signature of a bounded field. I felt eyes on me, but Erwin seemed unconcerned. I didn’t know what I was afraid of. Of course, they wouldn’t object to my arrival— they were the ones to call me here in the first place.
It had only occurred to me today, that I’ve never really been to the Einzbern estate.
It was my first time seeing the thing. Snow-capped spires jutting into the sky, walls flanked by flying buttresses, a giant of a castle looming through the falling snow. It reminded me of that Cinderella castle, from a cartoon I watched as a kid.
That wasn’t to be my new home. Mine would be the small hut out back.
Well, that sounds unfair. I call it a hut, but it was actually quite cozy. A wooden cabin, the size of a small house. Two stories. It has a porch and a deck that will probably never see use. Smoke rose from a chimney; I could see the glow of the hearth through the window. Erwin parked the car by the entrance— if you can call it that, seeing as how there’s no real proper path or road, no real in or out to this area. He helped me with my luggage from the trunk, just two small suitcases, and we made our way to the hut.
On the bottom floor, a workshop, a kitchen, a living room. Hundreds of clocks adorned the walls, some laying in a pile in the workshop, half-assembled and disassembled. I felt another bounded field in the air— an air-filtration spell, keeping the sawdust and mana in the workshop.
We made our way up the staircase, and dropped the suitcases in an empty bedroom. As mine landed on the bed, it disturbed a thick layer of dust. I coughed. Erwin laughed. With that out of the way, we visited Father.
He was in the only other bedroom in the house. We knocked; he answered. He was bedridden.
A young woman stood by his bedside, standing and unmoving, with silver hair and red eyes. My first time seeing an Einzbern homunculus.
As she saw us enter, she bowed and took her leave without a word. Erwin waited outside. And so, I was left alone with the old man.
We spoke briefly. He didn’t have long left. I was to continue the duty of the family. All this I knew.
I told him I understood, and took my leave. With that, I bid Erwin farewell, and watched his car disappear into the forest.
I spent the rest of the day cleaning dust out of my new room.
January 15, 1987
Work began today. There honestly was not much to do.
In the morning, I visited the head of the family, the eighth humanoid terminal Acht. We met in the chapel.
The Einzbern weren’t religious like that; I don’t even know if they believe in a God. Styled like a cathedral but anything but, Acht stands by his lonesome at the altar, where a priest would give his sermons. The aisles are lined with pews, though I can’t imagine what audience they would take, what faith they would preach. Light filtered through stained glass, their visages not of saints or angels, but of dolls like them— their legacy. Millennia of fruitless efforts.
In the center of it all, behind the altar, was the image of a woman, her hair like snow, her eyes like blood, her image that of a saint. Justeaze von Einzbern. The splitting image of all the homunculi in the castle. The sole replicator of that miracle this sad factory pursued.
Acht greeted me formally as I approached the altar. I introduced himself. He didn’t say much in response. He simply nodded and nodded, and told me they’d call me when I’m needed. And with that, I was dismissed.
And with that, I found myself without work.
They didn’t eat, they didn’t drink. They slept at irregular intervals, whenever their programming dictated it. I wasn’t needed there to cook, or clean, or to care for anything or anyone in particular. They were self-sufficient, a factory with no foreman. What the hell was I here for, in the first place?
A homunculus took care of Father, the same one from yesterday I supposed. He told me to leave him be, to focus on my work. And while I’d like to happily oblige, what work was there to be done?
I found myself sitting stupidly on the steps, watching the maids mill about. They don’t seem to notice me just lingering there, doing nothing in particular. Maybe, once or twice, one would glance on over, but they’d go on about their way, no comment or interest. Of course.
Or maybe I just hadn’t been sitting on the steps that long. I don’t know; I couldn’t keep track of the time.
At some point, I remembered the workshop in the house out back.
A workshop littered with clocks. The work of Father, which would now be continued by me. My time for research had been cut short as I was pulled from the Clocktower, but I supposed I could continue my work here. I looked around.
Every clock here is unique. We made these all ourselves— me, my father, my father’s fathers and mothers all the way down to the roots of our bloodline back to some shipyard in Genoa. Last year’s pieces hung beside kin centuries old. On their faces, they measure not just seconds or minutes or hours, but the phases of the moon, movements of the planets, the maps of the stars— the lifeblood of the planet.
All things lead to the Origin. Every magus knows this to be true. Some sought it through the language of the soul. Others sought it through the passage of time, or the cycle of death and rebirth, or the perfections of the human body. We sought it through the stars.
I picked one up from the table out of curiosity, a work unfinished, a light coating of dust on its surface. I brushed it off. Lights like pinpricks slowly shifted, delicate geometric motions, constellations and lodestars mapped out along its surface. I traced my finger along its surface, feeling them beneath my skin, bumps and grooves forming and unforming. Ursa Minor. Leo. Orion. Faint lines connected the stars as they moved, drawing out constellations, its intricate geometries forming magical arrays. The subtle flows of prana along the arrays mirrored the leylines of the earth, the breath of our planet a microcosm of the heavens, a reflection pointed at the sky.
In theory, anyway. It was half-built and lacked a case as well as several other components, the mechanisms and clockwork still visible like exposed innards, slowly shifting and clinking along, gears upon gears, chains upon chains. Many stars and corresponding leylines went unaccounted for, and would probably stay that way. With every star counted, ten more were found.
It annoyed me, looking at it. Astrology, perhaps, was not my forte, even if that’s essentially our craft. The more we learned about the stars, the more chaotic and random it all seemed. We tried assigning meaning and patterns to it all, a universe like clockwork, a carefully crafted machine, orderly and meaningful, but these meanings slipped from our fingers, leaving us— our bloodline— here. A family reduced to a father and son. We knew not if there was or was not meaning. Maybe it didn’t matter. Even if there was, I suppose, we wouldn’t be able to understand it in the slightest.
At some point, I set the clock back on the table. I noticed, for a moment, eyes on me. One of the dolls had been watching me from the door. She turned and left soon after without a word.
January 19, 1987
After several days of doing nothing in particular— dusting my room, wandering the castle, dusting the workshop, trying and failing to make conversation with the maids, dusting anything and everything I came across, the works— they finally needed me for something. Perhaps they took pity on me.
My job, in a sense, was to do everything for the dolls that they could not. This I knew. What I didn’t, was what they could or could not do. They could care for themselves, yes, but they distinctively lacked that human element. In other words, I was to be their eyes and ears, to deal with the rest of the world for them. Today, I was to go to town.
Good. I was starting to miss civilization anyway, and we were running short on groceries. Even if there were more rooms to be dusted.
I had just realized that Erwin took the car with him, when the Einzbern presented to me a car of their own, a Mercedes. I wasn’t sure why they’d need such a thing, but apparently they bought such a thing on a whim. Maybe for Father. Evidently, money was of no concern to them.
Before I left to town, they gave me two things. One, information regarding their bank accounts and finances— money, in other words, and God knows how much of it— two, a slip of paper. A contract. It was nothing much, just the terms of a deal, a purchase of a variety of materials, to be picked up and payed for today. Aqua regia. Prima materia. Pfahnen solution. Mercury and sulfur. This, I supposed, was what I was being sent to town for. One of the dolls was to accompany me. Protection, apparently.
Today, I got to experience firsthand the nightmare that was the Einzbern castle roads.
I hadn’t gotten to truly appreciate it on the way here, seeing as how Erwin drove here with relatively little difficulty. Maybe he was experienced. Maybe I was a bad driver. Maybe small paths perpetually encased in snow, with no other indications that they existed other than “there are no trees blocking you here” didn’t make for an exactly pleasant road to drive on.
Maybe I just should’ve gone to driving school, instead of hypnotizing that clerk.
The doll besides me stared blankly as I struggled to drive out of the snowy forest. She wore no expression, but I could feel a faint aura of disapproval. After some time— I’m bad at keeping track of time— she spoke. It shocked me, not that she spoke, but how it sounded. A bit more annoyed than I’d expect from a doll. It was the first time I’ve heard her voice.
“—Do you need help with that?”
My newfound hatred of snow and roads outweighed what little pride I had left. I took her up on that offer.
She was a much better driver than I. This surprised me; after all, why would a doll be programmed to be able to drive? Such was my thought process. But perhaps a doll that could drive had its uses, such as now. Getting me out of this hell, or compensating for magi who had hypnosis in lieu of proper licenses.
Before, the wordlessness of the drive was filled with muttered swearing and screeching tires, snapping twigs and crunching snow. But with her at the wheel, we were left with an uncomfortable silence, just a smooth, quiet ride. I deigned to fill it.
“What’s your name?”
And that was the end of that. We continued the rest of the drive in silence.
The drive to Freiburg seemed like it took less time than the drive from it. From the terms of the contract, we were to meet at some neutral ground, the Freiburger Münster. A lovely cathedral, though hell if I knew why we’d meet on the Church’s territory, or why they’d even accept magi and their heretical deals into their halls. Regardless, if those were the terms, who was I to object? I hadn’t even been working when the order had been placed.
We arrived just before noon. I could see it over the buildings, the most beautiful spire on Earth so they said. I would’ve taken time to admire the thing and see for myself, with its arcs and vaults and Gothic statues, but I didn’t. The thought slipped my mind; I really ought to visit the place again next time. In hindsight, I was nervous.
The cathedral was empty, which I should’ve found odd. But at the time, it felt normal, even right. I would’ve pinned the place as a tourist trap, but there wasn’t a soul to be found. As I stepped into the central aisles, making my way to the altar, I felt the shimmer of a bounded field against my skin.
At the altar stood two figures, neither of which I recognized. One dressed herself in a simple waistcoat and suit. The other, the garbs of a priest.
Their eyes drifted on over to the doll as we made our way over, walking silently by my side, though they turned their attention to me once I reach them. They frowned as they get a good look at me.
“A different man…?” So the magus said. The priest simply looked on without a word.
“My father, probably. But he’s ill. I will be taking over transactions from now on.”
She nodded. I extended my hand to shake, and she took it. We exchanged names. The magus was of the House Falkenhayn, first name not given. A long business associate, apparently; a dealer of alchemical materials. The priest, Father Heinrich. First name also not given. I almost introduced the doll, but they knew her already, leaving me hanging stupidly mid-sentence.
I handed over a check. Falkenhayn looked over it, squinting and muttering spells under her breath. She handed me a trunk. The doll verified its contents. The priest took the contract, looking it over, and nodded in approval. Satisfied, we parted ways, and exited the cathedral. I’d worried on how we’d get the trunk into the car, but it seemed the doll had the strength to lift the thing easily, surprising given her frame.
And that was the end of that.
The transaction went smoothly enough, to almost feel anti-climatic. I didn’t know what I expected.
An utterly unremarkable exchange. I don’t know why I remember it so. I felt the priest’s eyes on me the entire time, a silent wordless stare.
And what else, besides that? Nothing, really. I entertained the idea of lunch in the city, finally some good food rather than what I cobbled together at home, but I realized I’d have to take the doll with me. Did she even eat? Would she even eat? Would she just sit there, wordless and silent and staring and all, as I ate my meal? The thought of that chilled me more than that priest. Thinking of the stares, I’d probably physically implode out of embarrassment.
And so, I only ended hastily buying some groceries at the first market I could find, a small general store and farmer’s market. The doll waited in car, as I skimmed over the goods— dried foods, produce, cured meats, the works— hastily stuffing everything I’d need into a bag, as the girl at counter made idle conversation. “A new face in town?” “Where were you from?” “Oh, you came back?” “What was London like?” “You’re here for work?” And so on, as I nodded and answered without thinking, an automatic response like clockwork. Really, I just didn’t want to leave the doll alone in the car too long.
Thus passed my brief return to civilization.
AN: Thanks, as usual, to Frosty for beta-ing. If it wasn't clear by now, this fic is based on the section about Tuners in the extra info about the Einzberns, here.
Here, we are assuming the Einzberns to be living somewhere in the Black Forest region, as A) they were said to live in the mountains, and B) Illya is associated with the Rhine, what with the whole Die Lorelei thing and all. Thanks to the Questions thread for that. Pfahnen solution is something I stole from Dullahan. I still don't know what "pfahnen" means, or what language it's even from. Falkenhayn was originally named Falkenrath, but was changed so it could be a WWI reference; not my idea, as I don't know shit about WWI.
That dish he ate, by the way, was Schäufele with Kartoffelklöße.