Alchemy of Souls: Episodes 19-20 (Final)
The rollercoaster that is Alchemy of Souls is hurtling its way to a gorgeous finale! Our leads are trapped in the ice stone’s confines, and fast running out of sensible options. Luckily, wild magical experimentation is our hero’s middle name. Meanwhile, the past is about to catch up with the older generation… and the consequences will be catastrophic.
EPISODES 19-20 WEECAP
We return, once again, to Bu-yeon in the boat. Turns out, it wasn’t just Mu looming sinister behind her — but also, her father. Whilst content to exploit her for their schemes, he didn’t even deign to dive into the water after her. Why? He’s irrationally convinced that she’s Jang Gang’s child. Mu determines that’s ridiculous: Bu-yeon’s immense spiritual powers derive from her blended Jin and Choi heritage, brought to the fore by the ice stone that saved her in utero.
Resurfacing on Sari Village’s shore, Bu-yeon was taken in by a kindly old lady who named her after her late granddaughter: Mu-deok. Finally, we have all the pieces.
Back at the Unanimous Assembly, the King is fast tiring of literary analysis: Words of the Heart resembles sentimental poetry more than it does an arcane treatise on the ice stone. But Jin, instructed by Wook, provides context: Seo Gyeong preserved the ice stone for his dying lover, Jin Seol-ran. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that Seol-ran’s conscience forbade her from using it.
After all, as Mu-deok learned during her mystical airborne tete-a-tete with Bu-yeon, the only way to win is not to play. The ice stone is uncontrollable — unless you choose to let it go.
Elsewhere, Dang-gu and Cho-yeon (the latter looking cute as a button in her traveling hat) have elected to do some sleuthing in Gaema Village. However, the newly-formed Two Seasons Detective Agency uncover more than they bargain for when Cho-yeon spots her father doing business at an apothecary.
He’s here to check on Shaman Choi’s original body: the one currently housing the Queen. And by “check on,” I mean “taunt and sedate.” Ha-sun, bloodied and despairing, listens as her captor — seconds prior to forcing a potion down her throat — insists that really it’s Jang Gang she ought to blame for her current treatment.
He’s not completely off the mark. Back when Shaman Choi was arrested for sorcery, her possessions were incinerated before her eyes. She suffered it all with laughing disdain — until it came to one particular book. That, she was willing to cast herself into the fire to save. Jang Gang, thumbing through the discarded volume, discovered instructions on an intriguing magical practice… the alchemy of souls. You can safely bet that one never made it into the evidence pile.
Back in the present, Woo-tak turns from his captive — coming face to face with his heartbroken daughter. (Also, Dang-gu is there.) Shock quickly modulates to violence: Woo-tak draws on Dang-gu, forcing him back at sword point. It’s only when Cho-yeon boldly intercepts with her dagger that he realizes the jig is up: for all the lines he’s crossed, he could never harm her.
Meanwhile, Do-joo, unsuspecting of the total emotional devastation that awaits her inside, enters the room with Do-hwa’s portrait. She is faced with the man whom she loved for years from afar. The man for whom she has a message. Jang Gang.
For now, though, we return to our heroes, who have hit upon a nuclear option for escaping the ice stone’s power-leeching embrace. If it truly is untameable, then why not give it back to the sky? The stone isn’t limited by a single form. Impenetrable fog could theoretically become rain. If Wook uses Tansu to distill his power into individual raindrops, he could free them — at the cost of his hard-won energy.
Mu-deok is resistant. With knee-jerk vehemence, she orders him to reconsider — then, touchingly, remembers that she can trust him with her feelings. So, she’s frank: they’ve worked so hard to glean every scrap of that power. She’s made her peace with an ordinary life, but she won’t condemn him to the same.
Still, facts are facts: they’re on a fatal time limit. Any time now, Shaman Choi could absorb the ice stone. Moreover, indoors, Yul lies dying. And, as Wook reveals, she owes him; Yul’s been protecting Mu-deok all along.
Luckily — or not — Wook’s not the only one bent on saving Yul. Armed with a worm, a plan, and a perilously fragile grasp on how blood transfusions work, So-yi’s taking matters into her own hands. Slicing her arm open, she frees the worm containing Jin blood. It squirms its merry way into Yul’s chest wound. He stirs.
Outside the ice stone’s circle of doom, things are getting dicey for Team Evil. Shaman Choi is itching to soul-switch; turns out, there are long-term health ramifications to leaving someone else in your living body. With the Unanimous Assembly ongoing — and the Crown Prince, whom Mu’s put so much effort into brainwashing, at risk — repossessing the ice stone would be unwise.
Nonetheless, Shaman Choi is feeling mutinous: why is sorcery reviled when the ice stone is venerated? Why did they decide she must hide her family’s legacy behind the acceptable face of royalty? Why, in short, is Mu such a toadying little coward? They seize upon each other’s sore spots with glee: she gloats over his illegitimate status; he mocks her crude beginnings as shaman-for-hire.
Meanwhile, Wook and Won have an uncomfortable discussion. Wook needs help to enact his plan. If the ice stone disappears, will Won claim it was him and deal with the fallout? Think of it, not as taking the credit, but as cleaning up Wook’s mess. Won, like Mu-deok, dislikes this immensely, but Wook must abide by the precepts of his master. No, not “live fast, gorge chicken, graphically envision murdering whoever annoys you.” Rather, “it is better to die than do nothing.” This isn’t stupidity — it’s vigor. It’s also the perfect callback!
At the Assembly, Cho-yeon and Dang-gu return with Woo-tak — and a burn-strewn individual in the body of Shaman Choi, who throws herself at the feet of the king. From there, the lies speedily unravel. Jin enacts a clever piece of trickery to prove that Shaman Choi and Ha-sun swapped bodies, releasing what he claims to be the cremains of Gwigu. It’s only when Shaman Choi recoils from the dust in horror that he reveals them to be common ashes from a brazier.
Thoroughly rumbled, Shaman Choi gets desperate, brandishing a knife to her own throat and making a hostage of the Queen’s body. Now, she finally gets her moment in the spotlight, and boy does she not waste it.
She reminds her captive audience of their own culpability. Sure, she swapped a few souls, slew a few bystanders, but what about Ha-sun, who approached her willingly for soul-swapping? Face-lifts not being a Daeho innovation, she wanted a new, designer body. And what about Ho-gyeong, who brought the ice stone out into the world? What about Jin, who risked everything to hush up Jang Gang’s forays into sorcery? Mu shuts her down with a deeply prescient comment: those with power determine what’s good and what’s evil. Shaman Choi has lost her power. He demands she hand over the final Soul Ejector — perhaps then, her brother can live.
Not on Woo-tak’s watch. Rather than let them manipulate his sister, he drives his own sword into his stomach, bidding Shaman Choi to escape. Grief-stricken, she complies, smashing her Soul-Ejector.
As she marshals her power to gather the ice stone, Wook prepares to use Tansu one last time. Outside, pillars of smoke surge into the sky, whilst another figure arrives on the scene: Jang Gang.
Wook gathers his energy, slicing it with a swipe of his sword. Simultaneously, Jang Gang uses his remaining strength to absorb the full blow of the Soul Ejector, nullifying it. Limping into the Assembly hall, he collapses before the King — steadily petrifying.
Here, as implored by Master Lee’s message, he confesses to having practiced sorcery — to being the root of all of the evil that followed. He means to die in order to absolve Songrim and Jinyowon of blame.
The king accepts this sacrifice — and, though Ho-gyeong and Jin look uneasy at the prospect of such scapegoating, they allow it. Jang Gang’s last act before voluntarily consigning himself to dust is to disavow Wook, declaring he is not his son.
Wook’s eyes snap open. He finds himself standing in a pool of water, surrounded by sky. At his feet lies the ice stone. As he bends to collect it, knowing he has lost all power to wield it, the King’s Star illuminates the night. Moments later, he is facing Mu-deok in the rain.
Mages flock to Jeongjinggak. They arrive to find a man standing tall beneath the King’s Star… Prince Won. Falling to their knees, they hail him as savior, which he tolerates as best he can, eyebrows twitching with vague unease.
Wook turns to Mu-deok. Both of them are powerless. But Mu-deok smiles, and Wook takes her hand. As long as they’re together, it doesn’t matter. It’s a moment of hopeless sentimentality — but, as ever, by gosh is it hard-won.
A few days later, Daeho is alive with gossip about an unexpected marriage. It’s the first hint of what will prove to be a delightful, eighteen-minute-long trolling campaign. But, for now, we open with Mu-deok and Yul. As is customary for lovers and exes alike, they intend to find closure on a bridge.
Typically, Yul is hiding how much his injuries pain him, but, by now, Mu-deok is wise to his ways. If he takes his bitter medicine, perhaps this time it will heal… in body and in metaphor. She thanks him for keeping her secret. Then, she returns the bird whistle. It belonged to the girl Yul wanted to take to Seoho Fortress — but, as Mu-deok says, that girl no longer exists. She can’t be Naksu for him. Still, she’ll press a hand to his chest and feel him breathe thrice. Between those breaths, they say goodbye.
At Chwiseonru, a beautiful woman stands before a mirror in bridal attire. It’s Mu-deok. And… okay, she’s trying it on for Cho-yeon. Nonetheless, she’s deeply pleased with herself, preening in front of the mirror. Ju-wol — as ever, committing to the path of greatest drama with glee — ushers Wook in. He catches her mid-twirl.
Approaching with the softest, most enamored look I’ve ever seen in his eyes — and that’s saying something — Wook informs her that here, in the room where they met, they’ve a very important ritual to complete.
Mu-deok fidgets, straightens, and peers through her eyelashes. Look, she’s embarrassed, okay! Wook points out wryly that it gets less embarrassing after the thirteenth time. As Mu-deok recovers from that, he goes on to say that he wishes to protect and cherish her forever. He doesn’t want to be discarded. He doesn’t want this to end. Therefore, will Mu-deok… allow him to quit?
Mu-deok gets it. Yes, she’ll let him quit as her pupil. With that out of the way, hardly missing a beat, Wook asks her to marry him.
There’s more cheerful trollery to come: next episode opens with Jin and Do-joo house-shopping together. However, they’re doing so on behalf of Cho-yeon and Dang-gu, who, as it turns out, will need a whole lot of living space: they’re expected to provide a male heir for Songrim, a female heir for Jinyowon, and presumably just keep at it if they don’t hit on the winning gender combination the first time. (My heart goes out to Cho-yeon and her mandatory pregnancies, but then, her mother did carry Bu-yeon for thirteen months. Hopefully, she inherited that spine of steel.)
Do-joo shares her very specific domestic fantasies as they tour the garden: a cottage, where she and her husband can plant balsam flowers to paint each other’s nails. To Do-joo’s shock — and hope — Jin promises to buy her such a house. This newfound smoothness proves far too good to be true: he bungles it royally by saying he’ll gift it to her when she marries Master Lee. Do-joo is forced to listen in disbelief as he proceeds to crow that he isn’t that dense — he notices these things!
Do-joo, in the grand tradition of many an affronted heroine before her, yells out her feelings in frustration: it’s Jin she loves! She had hoped he’d do her the courtesy of noticing! Then, in another great romantic tradition, she flees.
If only Jin’s romantic ineptitude was the last remaining problem facing Daeho. Alas, there’s the matter of Mu. He’s camping out in Cheonbugwan’s Murder Room, trying to hit on the winning combination of words with which to convince Won to embrace villainy. His first pitch is simple: he’s the only one who can help rid the world of Wook, the King’s Star. Well aware that Wook sacrificed his power to save them all, Won is disdainful. Still, just enough questions linger that he won’t arrest his former master yet.
For once, blissfully unconcerned by any political maneuvering, Wook and Mu-deok go ring shopping. This is not without its own hazards. Maybe it’s divine retribution for using the yin-and-yang jade initially meant for Wook and Cho-yeon’s engagement, but Wook finds himself haunted by the ghost of relationships past. Every single ring he picks out is a style he’s chosen before… for his seven different ex-fiancees.
Quite reasonably, Mu-deok storms off, but happily only makes it halfway across the Bridge of Romantic Longing. Here, Wook catches her and — in a foot-in-mouth moment almost worthy of Jin — declares that, if anything, his prolific collection of exes ought to make her proud; she’s the only one to win his heart! Mu-deok threatens scour his room for more rings, but Wook soon reels her into a hug. He laces their fingers together: he’ll hold her hand as if it’s a ring. That’ll be one-of-a-kind. (Oh, my heart — he’s definitely suaver than Jin!) Peaceably continuing to tease each other, they cross the bridge together.
Later, some first-rate meddling on Wook’s part convinces Jin to get his act together. Wook plans on leaving Daeho with Mu-deok for good — and he hammers home the message that, if no one convinces Do-joo to stay, she’ll be departing with them.
For what is likely the first time in his life, Jin enacts a successful romantic gesture. He approaches Do-joo in the garden. He opens his palm to reveal — balsam seeds. If she plants them now, they’ll bloom in a few months. He could use magic to bring them to blossom immediately, but… well. He tends to be slow. He’d like to see them grow of their own accord. Will she wait with him?
I do hope, for Do-joo’s sake, that by “slow” he doesn’t mean another twenty years — but, either way, when the two hold hands, I’m delighted for her. It’s enough.
It’s also torture for poor Master Lee, who happens upon the happy couple in the hopes of bringing fish for Do-joo. As the man who once used magic to freshen up flowers long past their bloom, he’s found himself at the short end of the metaphorical stick. He retreats with dignity so as not to disturb them. However, later, the two ridiculously adorably toddlers he’s befriended catch him ugly-crying by the sea.
Meanwhile, Mu has hit upon the perfect scheme with which to crawl back to political relevance. Shaman Choi once introduced him to a set of bells powerful enough to hypnotize any soul-shifter made using her custom Soul Ejectors. It’s implied that they were once used to make Cho Chung run wild. Now, he has his sights set on the daughter. Remembering Shaman Choi’s observation that someone must have made Wook change, the penny that is Mu-deok’s true identity has finally dropped.
Catching up to Mu-deok in the marketplace, he experiments once, to check. Sure enough, the sound of the bells sends her into an obedient trance.
Wook joins Master Lee for a spot of seaside fishing. However, for once, Master Lee’s heart isn’t in it; he keeps letting the fish swim away whilst making cryptic allusions to not being possessive. Talk, however, turns from his current heartbreak to Wook’s upcoming nuptials. Master Lee acknowledges that Mu-deok runs no risk of running wild — that is, as long as she does not reclaim her power. From the very first, he sensed that she inhabited the body of a powerful priestess: one sturdy enough to contain an assassin’s soul.
He also makes a worrying point: what if the ice stone is still inside Wook? Wook has no intention of finding out. He’s done with seeking power for its own sake. Now, he seeks only to protect his beloved.
He’s not the only one with that in mind. So-yi knows from brutal experience that the blood worm is sure to be causing Yul tremendous pain. Woo-tak gave her pills to lessen the impact. She’s determined to ransack Jinyowon and bring them to him. However, her sneak-thievery skills are rusty; she’s caught in the act by Ho-gyeong, who’s disinclined to spare the criminal who made a mockery of her daughter.
Luckily, she still has an ace up her sleeve — or rather, a blindfold. The embroidered silk proves that So-yi knew its owner before the deception. There’s nothing Ho-gyeong can do to her… not if she wants that information. Still, remembering Mu-deok calling her mother seconds prior to asphyxiating by her hand — she has a horrible suspicion.
Mu-deok returns to Songrim to resign her post, whereupon Eunuch Oh, sweetheart that he is, congratulates her on her engagement. Less inclined to offer his congratulations is his master, Won. Mu-deok defaults to her usual tongue-in-cheek blend of reverent-irreverence, bowing before him and hailing him as the King’s Star. But, Won’s not playing. He hates being flattered by strangers. Being flattered by Mu-deok, who knows better, feels even more like mockery.
Mu-deok nods. She understands — on every front. She’ll be out of his sight soon enough. Wook too. Won remarks, bitterly, that he could stop them both from leaving. And how, asks Mu-deok, would that make him feel? Small, replies Won, knowing that around Filthy Mu-deok, he is permitted to be petty. Resentful, seeing the two of them together. She should go far away from him — lest resentment turns into violence. As ever, between the two of them, there’s no sugar-coating each other’s sharp edges. But, honesty — however sour — is all he can stand to give her.
Events have conspired to eat away at Won’s defenses against Mu’s manipulation. Still, he does his best to issue an ultimatum: confess to his crimes, or Won will do it for him. Mu, however, has the upper hand, armed with the knowledge that Jin and Master Lee have been keeping the truth about Wook from Won. The power of the King’s Star is still in Wook. To the Prince’s ear, it has the ring of conspiracy. Mu promises to expose and destroy Wook — to which Won… has no ready response.
Amid all the ominousness, we have time for some truly ridiculous hijinks. Despite an ambivalent start, Mu-deok and Do-joo have speed-run their relationship upgrade from servant and employer to social equals — namely, by getting absolutely plastered together.
Mu-deok greets Wook with uninhibited delight, rising unsteadily to her feet and — to the strains of Do-joo’s drunken heckling — announcing her intention to fly. She rises expectantly to her tiptoes. Once. Then, twice, tottering alarmingly. The third time, Wook seizes and hoists her over his shoulder, to Mu-deok’s triumph, and Do-joo’s bleary amazement.
As Wook lowers Mu-deok into bed, she insists she has something to tell him. After all, if she waits until morning — she might die tomorrow! It has to be now. Regarding him seriously, she pauses, before informing him… that she likes him a lot. Seizing both the moment and the sides of Wook’s face, she smushes him into a kiss. This done, she collapses asleep. Wook fondly tucks her under the covers. However, that night, Mu-deok wakes to the sound of bells…
The next day, Cho-yeon travels by barge to her wedding, blushing as she dodges petal confetti. Ho-gyeong and Jin grouse in the background over precisely which of their heirs is marrying into whose family. Yul and Wook chuckle about how the newlyweds intend to sneak out and visit Cho-yeon’s imprisoned father. As for Mu-deok? She’s nowhere to be seen. Wook figures she’s too bashful to face him after last night.
The truth is, of course, far more upsetting. Mu-deok, entranced by the sound of the bells, was drawn to Cheonbugwan. Here, dead-eyed, she stood before Mu as he used his magic to awaken her powers: Naksu once more, reforged into his weapon. Her first, hypnosis-mandated target? Woo-tak.
As Mu-deok draws her sword, the petrification creeps across her hand. Blankly undeterred, she sets out to face the guards at Woo-tak’s residence. It’s ten against one, and it’s carnage. Mu-deok leaves them bleeding out in a matter of seconds.
Cho-yeon and Dang-gu, sweetly intent on sneaking away to see Woo-tak, arrive just in time to witness him cowering before their bloodstained friend. Aghast, they struggle to defend him — and it’s mark of their strength that they last minutes into the fight without dying.
The same can’t be said for Woo-tak. Amid sudden, headache-ey flashbacks to her own father’s death, Mu-deok sends her sword careening into his chest. This time, there’s no second chance for Woo-tak. Nor is there any breaking free for Mu-deok: Mu harnesses her grief, compelling her to target those responsible for Cho Chung’s demise.
Flanked by his supporters, Mu crashes the wedding, proclaiming Naksu’s return — and the fact that Mu-deok and Naksu are one and the same. The mages converge on the area.
Just like the very start, Mu-deok is surrounded by enemies on all sides. Cheonbugwan’s mages are dispatched with a few wild leaps and slashes. Then, it’s Songrim’s turn, with Jin at the head, aiming the very bow that that once dealt her a fatal injury. But this time, she’s not alone. Before the arrow can hit, someone dives in to cover her back. It’s Wook.
Before he can say a word, Mu-deok swings her sword. It plunges into the center of his chest.
Without hesitation, Wook grabs her arm, tugging her closer even as her sword goes straight through him. He hugs her close, defending her even as he chokes blood. As they sink to the floor, he says nothing but her name — until, for an instant, she comes back to herself. Stricken, she recoils to see him covered in blood. With the last of his strength, Wook takes her hand: his bloodstained fingers interlaced with her stone ones. Then, he drops.
Mu-deok is permitted half a minute’s grief. Then, the bells sound once more. As the mages rush towards her, she kicks up into the air, soaring above them to escape. Stone creeps across her face.
In the aftermath, Yul begs to be able to search for Mu-deok, but is confined to the premises at Sejukwon. Cho-yeon, shaking in vengeful grief, declares she will kill Naksu — but her mother insists she be brought back alive. Meanwhile, Mu curries favor with the royal family, scraping his way back into the king’s good graces whilst advocating for sanctions against Songrim. Wook’s body, meanwhile, is to be publicly cremated, like Naksu. For aiding the assassin, he is declared a criminal — even Do-joo and Jin are forbidden from wearing mourning clothes.
Mu-deok, stirred again by the bells, approaches the cliff above the grave of soul-shifters, where she once asked Wook to leave her when she died.
Meanwhile, as Wook’s friends weep by the pyre, Master Lee approaches to watch. He doesn’t cry. He knows that this isn’t the end. The flames leap, exploding higher until they burst into flurry of ice. Mu-deok jumps. As she sinks, she is caught by two figures. And Wook strides out of the fire. Blood on his robes. Unburned.
So… wow, huh? Folks, you know me; I weep at the drop of a hat. This time round, though? I can hardly look at the screenshots without sobbing. What absolutely kills me is that Wook and Mu-deok had finally wrested agency from their situation, against all odds — only for it to be dragged away again.
Mu-deok had decided she no longer wanted to be Naksu: instead, she chose friends, and love, and happiness. She could discuss her feelings without fearing the repercussions. She could get drunk, and wear makeup, and flirt shamelessly with Wook in public. Wook had finally gained independence: he was able to work towards the life he truly wanted, rather than the life he felt he ought to have — and, at the end, was strong enough to try and forge something new outside the hot mess that is Daeho.
Now, Mu-deok has once again been forcibly made into a weapon. Wielding a sword and being an assassin didn’t signify agency — rather, someone else pulling her strings. Meanwhile, just as Wook took a firm moral stance and actively chose to let go of power… power has come knocking on his door without permission.
It was such a well-crafted end to part 1 — gut-wrenching to the point of mastery. I dare you all to rewatch Episode 20 with the ending in mind: have fun listening to Mu-deok drunkenly worry that she might die tomorrow, and wincing so hard it hurts! But, the Hong sisters know how to make it hurt in all the right ways. Beanies, it has been one heck of a journey, and I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have. December cannot come soon enough!
As for the final image? Have one more round of heartbreak on me!