Horses' hooves and wooden wheels clattered against the cobblestone street, flurries of water sent splashing by the movement of the carriage as it plowed determinedly through. The heavens had opened up and let down a downpour of rain, mercilessly drowning the city. The air was so thick with rainfall that one could barely see a few feet ahead; anyone with a sound mind had long since sought shelter. But the carriage wouldn't stop – couldn't stop, if it wanted to make it to the destination on time, which was of utmost importance. And even if it had stopped to rest, it was highly doubtful that any of the doors in that city would open for them. The citizens were far too wary to allow them inside.
The cargo of this carriage was human; three bodies swathed in blankets to keep out the cold, two of them fast asleep and barely visible beneath the covers. The third was a young girl, hugging a single sheet tightly around her narrow shoulders. She was glued to the window nearest her, forehead pressed against the glass and eyes hungrily searching the grayness outside, trying in vain to see through the heavy shower of water. She remained like that, silently listening to the pattering of rain and the soft breath of her companions until the carriage rolled to a stop.
Jolted by the sudden lack of movement after such a long period of traveling, the girl slowly drew back from the window and waited, watching the door expectantly. After a moment it opened and she recoiled back further as the rain invaded the formerly warm, dry haven. The tall man outside leaned in. His broad back blocked as much of the rain as possible – he was already thoroughly drenched from head to toe. He offered a curt smile and then looked over at the largest heap of blankets, which had yet to stir.
"Master Faulkner," he called out, reaching over to prod the sleeping man with one hand. "Master Faulkner, we've arrived."
Faulkner sat up with a start, shedding the numerous blankets he had wrapped himself in for warmth. He nodded to the driver, noted that the girl was awake, and shook the still-unmoving form on the seat beside him.
"Wyndon, wake up," he said gruffly. A small, fair head of hair poked out, tired eyes blinking in confusion. The older man stood up, considered the sleepy boy, and then picked him up with the ease of carrying a child's toy. He stepped out of the carriage and into the rain, doing his best to shield the bundle in his arms from the wrath of the weather. The driver of the carriage offered a hand to the girl, which she gratefully expected, and together the motley group hurried through the rain, following the towering form of Faulkner into the building ahead. To the girl it was just a shapeless mass, rising huge and intimidating before her. She titled her head back in an attempt to take it all in, and squeezed the driver's hand tightly; whether with fear or anticipation, even she couldn't be sure.
A few moments later and they were out of the rain. The closing of the heavy wooden doors behind them blocked out most of the sound; the young girl found herself within the largest room she had ever laid eyes upon. In her eyes, the ceiling above seemed to stretch higher than the sky. The walls were pearly white, marked only by the grooves that held flickering torches. It was all white and pristine but for the portion of the floor they were currently marring, water dripping from their bodies and shoes leaving muddy prints as they moved.
Faulkner set down the boy he carried and hastily unwrapped him from the blankets he was covered in, handing those and the girl's single sheet to the driver before rushing both children along.
"Late," he worried aloud, a hand resting on each small back and propelling them forward. "And we were the last trip. My apologies, but there's no time to change, they've probably already started." He guided them up a stairway, down a hallway, and to a set of tall double doors at the far end. He placed both hands on the smooth wooden surface, hesitated a moment, and then pushed them open, making sure both children could slip into the next room before the heavy doors swung shut.
At the sound of the closing doors, dozens of pairs of eyes slid towards the entrance, ogling the three newcomers standing there. The girl ignored them, her own curious gaze sweeping over this new room. It was larger yet plainer than the one before, empty but for a large amount of chairs scattered throughout. At the moment those seats were occupied by a handful of children around her own age, all staring at the soaking-wet strangers who had just entered.
Her eyes locked onto a figure standing in the center of all of those chairs. He was a large, rotund man, with closely cropped, graying brown hair, a lazily trimmed beard, and a benevolent smile. As he began to speak again – presumably continuing whatever speech he had been making before they entered – he almost instantly captivated the attention of the children again, her included.
"And your mission, your task, the ultimate goal of all of our lives, is vitam aeternam. Eternal life." His eyes met hers, as if speaking directly to her.
"Welcome," he said, "to the Academy of Alchemy."