Alex nearly choked on his apple pie as Khalik worked to swallow his.
Isolde looked at Thundar as she stopped eating.
“What happened to them?” Khalik asked. “For them to fail altogether…did they run into another bonedrinker?”
“No…I talked to one of the group. She’s going to be in first year battle magic class with me. It seems it went bad right from the beginning. One of their members came in wearing a full shirt of chainmail.”
“He kept it on for a while, trying to tough out the heat, and finally took it off when the thing was about to cook him,” Thundar grunted. “He didn’t have the best reputation, so people were already annoyed with him. They were splitting their attention between him and potential enemies. Got ambushed. He went down first, broke their formation and the muupkaras swarmed them. End of course for all.”
“Oo,” Khalik made a face. “I am glad none of us were in that group. Hm? Isolde, you alright?”
“Oh, yes, fine.” She immediately went back to her pie.
Alex frowned. So that’s what happened to Derek. He’d have to keep that information in mind. If this Derek was going to be retaking POTI-1000, then they could end up in the same class, and he’d probably be looking for easy ways to pass. If he was inclined to cheat again, Alex would prefer to stay as far away from him as possible.
Alex stared up in shock, wondering if he had been truly cursed by Uldar.
The last week had passed quickly—almost in a blink—and he’d made advances with both his forceball and forcedisk spells. Learning the forceball so thoroughly was making mastering the forcedisk much easier, and he was starting to consider moving to Wizard’s Hand in the next week or so.
With repetitions, his reading comprehension and speed had increased sharply in the past few weeks, and he’d completely finished Dexter’s General Alchemy of Potions. Some parts toward the beginning of the book were in his memory so solidly, that he might’ve been able to quote the first fifty pages on command.
Selina would be starting her first day of school the next day, Theresa was attending her geography class, and there hadn’t been any news from Thameland.
He’d come to POTI-1000 with a spring in his step—first to arrive—and had found a seat in the second row from the front, on the far end. He was ready for the semester—and to begin his quest to advance enough to research the dungeon cores in earnest.
And then he’d walked in.
By some infernal luck, the newcomer kept walking past the other students filing into the class, passing row after row while Alex willed him to stop. He’d paused in front of the second row as an increasingly panicked Alex had switched from willing him to stop, to willing him to keep going to the first row.
And he had kept going.
Right into the second row.
All the way down.
The newcomer’s eyes had lit up with recognition, to Alex’s horror.
And then he’d dropped his bag on the long desk at the seat next to Alex.
“Hello stranger,” Derek Warren said with a thin smile. “I remember you from COMB-1000.”
The second year sank down into the seat beside him, while Alex wondered if Uldar was sending divine punishment after him, after all.
“It’s nice to meet a familiar face.” Derek smoothed his long, red hair and caught it up into a ponytail. “Thought I’d know no one in the first year class.”
‘Still don’t,’ Alex nearly said, before catching himself.
The last thing he needed was to get involved with this known cheater. He glanced up to the front of the class. Professor Jules was still setting up, drawing familiar formulae from Dexter’s textbook. In front of her were a line of flasks with coloured liquids in them halfway to the top.
She had thrown a few curious glances at Alex as he’d filed into the room, and her expression had become a mask of neutrality when Derek had entered. He’d seen that expression before on teachers when facing a student that it was obvious they did not like.
Yeah, it would be bad news getting even remotely involved with this guy.
“Uh, you were in my class?” Alex asked. Remembering people’s names often made them friendlier toward you and—by the same token—forgetting people often put them off.
Derek’s cheer faded slightly. “Yes, I was, though I didn’t make the cut. I heard you did though. I heard the chancellor praised you, a first year, specifically.”
That caught Alex off guard. “People are talking about me?”
“Classmates talk to classmates, and those classmates talk to friends. Then those friends talk to their friends, and some of their friends happen to be my friends,” Derek said. “Word gets around. It’s like that in all institutions. When I was a page for the Duke my father served, there were many other pages serving at the same time, and no one could sneeze without all the others knowing. Especially if you learned how to listen.”
“Uh, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Alex said.
“Ah, my manners are deserting me.” The second-year extended a hand toward Alex. “Derek Warren, second son to Count Theodoric Warren of the Rhinean Empire. And you…?”
Alex’s mind worked. The urge to tell him ‘My name is ‘Piss Off’, don’t drag me into whatever this is’ was strong, but he suppressed the urge. If Derek had heard what he’d done in COMB-1000, then what were the chances that he didn’t already know what his name was?
No, he didn’t really need to find out what Alex’s name was: he was opening the road to further connection. And that further connection would lead to something unpleasant, Alex could just feel it. Introductions were sometimes made to start bonds and then those bonds would lead to potential favours later. He knew the pattern because that was exactly what he hoped to do with his professors.
But what was he to do?
Standing out at the school would be helpful to him as long as it was because of talent. Making friends was great and would help him look normal; if he suspected that The Fool were hiding somewhere among the students, the first person he’d look for would be a standoffish loner that didn’t let anyone get too close.
Telling a random friendly student to ‘leave him alone’ would be a good way to stand out in the wrong way. And even if he would be in the clear suspicion wise because—who would want to have anything to do with a known cheater—what he didn’t need was to start making enemies, especially noble enemies who were known cheaters. He needed to shake the attention off of himself, in as smooth and quiet a way as possible. He glanced down to a student ahead of him in the front row: a goblin with a massive green head and large ears.
The little goblin was petting a familiar—a brownish green scaly creature with webbed toes and large teeth. It chirped like a bird.
“Oh, I’m-Oh hello, what’s that little guy’s name?” he turned and asked, in the same tone Selina would at seeing a pretty bird. He used The Mark to help him craft his facial expression into one of ‘distractible curiosity’.
“Eh? Who-wha-Oh, this is Harmlesss,” said the goblin, his head turning around almost 180 degrees like an owl.
Alex kept his expression curious, like he had actually gotten distracted in mid-conversation by a reptile. “Oh, he looks very cute…um…”
“Kybas,” the goblin said. “And he is now, but when he grows up he will be a powerful water hunter. Twenty feet long and able to kill water drakes!”
Alex paused. “I thought his name was Harmless?”
“It is!” Kybas scritched his familiar under the chin. “Funny joke! I am going to feed him lots of body enhancement potions so he grows up very big and strong! And killy. Then when bad guys are running and screaming, I can say: ‘No worry! He’s Harmless!’”
The goblin gave an evil little chuckle.
Alex shuddered, then paused.
“Wait, body enhancement potions?” He remembered Thundar’s body strengthening spell. “Are those permanent?”
He hadn’t seen anything about that in Dexter’s book. The recipe in there said that such a potion would only last minutes; maybe some of the ones from more advanced books were permanent?
“No no, they’re not permanent,” said the goblin. “But if you feed very many to creatures when they are still growing up, then they grow up very big and strong. It is expensive thing to do, but only best for my Harmless!”
Body enhancement potions helped with growth if fed to young ones, did it? For a mad moment, he imagined brewing such potions and giving them to Selina. He could brew himself up a giant sister, a sister the size of Thundar. A giant sister who would find out what he’d done and would have all the potion-boosted size and strength to snap him in half like a twi-Yeah, that was a stupid idea.
He told himself that maybe he did have issues.
“Um, excuse me,” Derek said.
Oh right, him. Alex had actually gotten distracted.
“Oh, uh, sorry, what’d you say again?” he asked. Sometimes I get distracted, you know.” He glanced to the front of the class.
Derek’s smile had faded a lot. “Um, I was introducing-”
“Wait, wait, look,” Alex pointed. “The professor is about to start.”
He then quickly faced completely forward, suddenly utterly focused.
“Ah, we’ll talk after class, I guess,” Derek muttered.
‘Not if I can help it,’ Alex thought.
“We are about to begin!” Professor Jules called out, drawing the class to complete silence. She glanced around, with a pleased look on her face. “Welcome, all of you to POTI-1000: The Alchemy of Potions I. I am Professor Jules, your instructor for this course and head of the potions department. I am so pleased to see so many of you here. Potions is a subject that I favour, of course, but it is not one with the best reputation among the wizardly arts. I blame part of that on too many bards’ tales. For some reason, so many tend to paint potion masters as dour villains who act against young, plucky wizard boys. Of course, I am sure you have never read a book or attended a play featuring such drivel. As,” she coughed uncomfortably. “I certainly have not.”
It was clear from her tone that she was lying, inciting a few chuckles from the students.
“But, of course, there are practical reasons as to why potions are not the most popular subject of study among wizards. The art is difficult. It is exacting. It is expensive. It is also a completely different discipline from spellcraft: studying potions will train your mana manipulation, but it is not a discipline that is involved much in the way with spell casting.”
‘Which makes it perfect for me,’ Alex thought.
“Spellcraft, of course, involves using mana to make magic circuits: no expensive components are required, and since many potions are similar in effect to certain spells, many view potions as not cost effective. Thus, potion-craft is often one of the orphaned children of the magical sciences. However, the art opens doors to its own great paths of power.”
She leaned forward with a dangerously sly smile. “How would you like to live forever, for instance?”
A murmur went through the class.
She turned to the obsidian stone behind her and drew a rough image of a flask. Within it, she drew several symbols from what looked to be different languages. The one Alex recognized was one from the church school that appeared in books that talked about Uldar:
The Symbol for Infinity.
“The Elixir of Life is one of the great crown jewels of potion craft and alchemy, and is one of the safest ways to ensure everlasting youth. It is also so difficult to brew and requires ingredients so rare, that only a handful of confirmed examples have been crafted through history, but—I assure you—if immortality is your goal for practicing wizardry, then you are far better off researching The Elixir than trying to make bargains with demon lords or engaging in the often dangerous combination of Blood Magic and Life Enforcement. Those paths generate far more deaths than they do success. With this one? Failures can result in spoiled pocket books, but less spoiled lives.”
Derek snorted beside Alex.
Kybas’ hand shot up.
“Ah yes,” Professor Jules said. “Mr. Kybas, what is your question?”
“Don’t explosions happen if there is failure in potions?”
“Of course they do,” Professor Jules said. “Wizardry is dangerous, no matter what discipline: you can also cause a mana reversal that destroys your body with spellcraft, be eaten by an otherworldly entity with demonology, or burn out your lifeforce utterly with blood magic. But I shall teach you to practice safely and intelligently. If you do not try to grasp that which is beyond you, the worst catastrophe you will face is a few spoiled ingredients. And in return? You shall open the door to many other disciplines.”
She turned and drew a strange apparatus on the obsidian wall.
“Alchemical Magic Item Creation-”
She drew a hulking humanoid. Alex blinked. It looked awfully similar to the large man-like figure made of clay that he’d seen when he’d first entered the city with Theresa, Selina and Brutus.
“-and golemcraft are just two of the advanced disciplines of alchemy that the art of potion brewing shall help you be trained for.”
She drew a tree and a beast. “The study of monsters and of magical plants is also related to alchemy and potions, and you will learn much of that sort of lore through this course. It is truly a grand, multi-disciplinary approach to magic that will give you a future skillset beyond spell arrays. POTI-1000 has a reputation of being difficult, and rightly so, but, I encourage you to try your best. Ah…I see we have another question. Ms…”
“London. Carey London,” a young woman said from the middle of the class.
Alex’s ears perked up. Her accent was Thameish.
“Ah yes, Ms. London, what is your question?” the Professor asked.
“You say that one can learn monster lore through potions and alchemy…has there ever been anyone at the university that’s studied The Ravener and its monsters? The Ravener keeps reappearing in my homeland and I was thinking that if it’s studied, maybe there could be a way to vanquish it forever. If that’s not a stupid question.”
Alex nearly jumped from his chair.
“Ah. Yes, this is a year that The Ravener has arisen in Thameland, isn’t it?” Professor Jules nodded. “Of course it’s not a stupid question. There is no such thing as stupid questions. The answer to that…”
She looked at the student gravely. “Is yes. There have been attempts at Generasi before.”