The Cells loomed before him across the grass.
Though it had been long fixed, the stone was still blackened in parts from previous accidents. There seemed to be a dangerous energy surrounding the building, one he noticed more strongly than before. He wasn’t sure if he was becoming more sensitive after a week of solid meditation practice or if it was just his own nerves colouring his perspective.
After all, today—in his second week of POTI-1000—would be the first day he’d be actually entering the building. Taking a long, steadying breath, he started striding toward the structure. It was his first lab in potioncraft, his first step into a new art, and the true beginning of his journey to make a golem.
Also, it would be his first chance to impress Professor Jules.
Earlier in the week, during the lecture portion of POTI-1000 she had told them that the day would start with an explanation on lab safety, followed by the simplest of tasks: learning how to use a mana conductor in order to transfer mana to a special potion that would change colour as soon as mana touched it.
Hopefully, it would be easy, but nerves ate at him anyway.
He took a deep breath, acknowledging his emotions and then gently pulling his mind away from them. To calm himself, he focused on the mana manipulation box, shifting his hand into his bag to grip it.
He exhaled and let his mana run through.
It rushed into the maze like a trained racing stallion, but with the agility of a show jumper. The Mark gave him his previous successes as a guide, and once again, he broke his personal best for going through the mana maze.
In a minute, every single glyph lit up on the box, and he grinned. Each time doing it made it a bit easier: after spending so much time on the exercise, his mana felt like it was flowing like water, and between all the practice he was putting into casting spells and this exercise, his mana pool had expanded.
Soon, it would be time to try maintaining two first tier spells at once.
If he did that, he would know he was ready to start studying a second-tier spell.
But those were plans for later.
For now, he put the box away and marched up to the building, taking out the round wooden card that served as his student identification. On it was inscribed a new symbol drawn on in class by Professor Jules. It allowed him access to the building during certain predetermined time periods: when POTI-1000’s labs were held.
The glowing glyphs on the doorway brightened as he approached, flashing in time with the symbol on his card. There was a click and the iron doors parted, revealing a stone hallway that would have been pitch black if it weren’t for the glowing forceballs suspended at equal distances.
In some ways, it reminded him of entering The Cave of the Traveller all over again. He stepped inside, wincing as the door quickly closed behind him with a firm click. His footsteps echoed through the hall and the stones held a sinister look cast by the deep, green forceball light. Strange odours reached his nose.
Acids. Brimstone. Burning meat. Fire and wood, and smells like those coming from the golem workshop. He passed a series of iron doors in the hall and from one, he smelled something sickly sweet and alluring. Something about the scent pulled slightly at his mind, not enough to alarm him, but enough to let him know that something was unnatural about it.
His footsteps quickened.
At last, he reached Cell-207 and pulled open the door.
He had never seen a dungeon before.
Well…he’d seen a Ravener dungeon but not a castle’s dungeon. He had heard about castle dungeons in bard stories about impossibly attractive, good-hearted thieves who broke out of them to save swooning lovers from grim fates.
Whenever he’d imagined one, this room was pretty much what came to mind. It was dark, with more green forceballs to give it a sinister look. Again, he was one of the first students to arrive—though not the first. His plan had been to make sure he could wedge himself between two other students to avoid Derek and Carey. The few others present looked unnervingly like demons in the shadows and green light.
Mana apparati hung from the ceiling or were perched on desks like evil, mechanical spiders. The room stank with faded smells of old potions.
Professor Jules was already at the front of the room, writing the agenda for the day on an obsidian slab. She gave him a quick glance and a nod before returning to her work.
“Alex! Alex! Over here! I have a free spot over here!” a familiar, inquisitive, bouncy voice called from across the room.
‘Speaking of demons,’ he thought as he recognised the voice.
His head slowly turned in the direction of the enthusiastic Carey London as she waved at him from across the room. “I have a free spot beside me!”
She patted the seat next to her, one at the end of the long experimentation tables where they would be practicing.
He sighed. On the one hand, talking to her drained him more than running sprints, but on the other, with her beside him on one end and no seats on the other, there was no chance for any known cheaters to slither into a seat nearby.
There were stools open on the other side of the table, but the mana waste containers hanging from the ceiling would be more than enough to block any views and conversation.
He dropped his bag beside his fellow Thameish student. “Hey, Carey, you all ready to horribly blow ourselves up?”
Her smile froze. “I uh, not really.”
“Oh no, that was a joke.”
“Oh uh, I see, she said. “Well, Uldar will hopefully keep us safe through today’s lab and through all the others during the semester.”
He mentally noted not to make morbid jokes around her anymore. Unless…if he kept doing it, she might stop ‘subtly’ hinting for him to join her Uldar-centric society.
He placed the idea in the back of his mind as an ‘emergency weapon’.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the seats to fill up, and he noted that there were metal shutters on the inside of the windows as well as on the outside of them.
“Alright, let’s begin,” Professor Jules said. “Welcome to the first Lab of POTI-1000, where you will do much of your learning for the semester. Like any art of wizardry, there is only so much that reading a book or listening to lectures can tell you. True learning comes from practical application: here is where you will engage in that practice. But in order to do so, and survive the rigors of alchemy. Safety. Comes. First.”
She waved a hand toward the tables. “Beneath your work stations you will find aprons, coats, gloves, and masks…they’ll make you sweat like you were on the Barrens of Kravernus, but you will be kept quite safe by wearing them. Please put them on. Choose your correct size as they will be yours after today, and you are expected to keep them laundered and in good repair. Should they become damaged, please report to the desk in the basement of The Cells for replacements.”
Alex and Carey glanced at each other then reached beneath their tables and chose the right size of equipment. It consisted of a heavy leather coat—reinforced and treated to avoid chemical burns—with an apron for increased protection. The mask was similar to the ones used in the golem workshop, though the ‘beak’ was shorter. The gloves were heavy as well, and by the time Alex finished slipping on the whole outfit, he felt like a knight who had just strapped on their armour.
He and Carey looked at each other.
“Well, now I know how a bird feels,” he said, pointing to the ‘beak’ of his mask. “Now if we could only get the flying part down.”
“Oh, I think I’ve heard that there’s a potion of flight we’ll eventually have to brew,” she said seriously.
He made a mental note not to make any jokes with Carey London.
The first part of class went by fairly quickly, as Professor Jules explained the most common procedures in The Cell. Much of it was common sense: don’t taste anything without having her examine the potion first, don’t rub anything on the skin and always wear the safety equipment. She absolutely stressed the importance of alwayshaving the mana vacuum lowered into the mixing flask during the entire process of potion brewing, and making sure that both the vacuum and the waste container were fully operational.
Not doing so would be grounds for immediate ejection from the lab.
Some things were less obvious, though. She taught them to only smell any potion or ingredient by holding it away from the face and wafting the scent toward the nose with their hand: a process when one was trying to identify ingredients in the field. Another was a specific method to remove gloves that did not involve touching the outside of the glove with one’s bare hand.
She also showed them a station that magically produced clear, neutralizing water to flush their eyes in case anything got through their masks and the location of the emergency kit. After that, she taught them the importance of washing their hands and equipment at that station before every single lab and after it was complete.
From there, she then cast an illusion that floated at the front of the class: which showed a series of scenes that looked to have been simulated using actors, stage effects and simple magic. It was a bizarre display. Each scene went through examples of students not participating in proper safety procedures, and then receiving increasingly horrific and gruesome injuries simulated through makeup and a lot of bad overacting.
The entire thing was so over the top that he almost burst out laughing several times during the scenes. Luckily, he had the sense to not appear like a maniac and to keep his laughter stifled.
From across the class he heard Kybas’ voice breaking down in strangled chuckles as the illusion went on, and Alex was sure he could make out someone sliding their stool away from the little goblin. It seemed that he and Kybas shared a similar sense of humour.
When the illusion finished, Professor Jules glanced around at the entire class. “Did you pay attention to the information? I hope you did…”
With a smile like a scheming devil, she drew a large sheath of papers from beneath her table. “Because we’ll be having a quiz on it immediately.”
Groans echoed through the class.
Alex blinked. Well, that was a surprise, but he had been paying attention to the safety procedures anyway.
Just in case, though…
He focused on The Mark, thinking of getting better at ‘lab safety’. Instantly images of himself putting on gloves properly and paying attention to the illusionary scenes rose up, focusing on the most important aspects of the presentation.
A smile crept across his face.
…he wondered what University policy was on using a heroic blessing to enhance one’s learning during a test. Would it be considered cheating? Probably not a case that came up very often. Besides, The Mark was using his own memories: he was basically just consulting himself.
At least, from his perspective, which was completely unbiased, of course.
Between his own diligence and The Mark’s support, he tore through the short, multiple choice quiz like Cedric through a horde of unsuspecting silence- spiders. The questions ranged from simple at the beginning, to twisted in ways to make sure that students were truly paying attention to the specifics of the safety procedures.
With The Mark having illuminated details, neither proved to be much of a challenge, and he was the first to proceed to Professor Jules and present her with his finished test paper.
She raised an eyebrow at him as she glanced down toward the sheet.
Her eyebrow raised a little higher as she scanned over the answers, then produced a pen and checked off each question.
He smiled as she wrote and underlined “100” at the top.
“For someone so eager to go ahead of themselves, you surprise me with your diligence toward safety,” she said quietly, handing him another sheet of paper. Look over this sheet and once I say the quiz has ended, you may set up your workstation.”
“Thanks, Prof,” he said, already looking over the piece of paper as he made his way back.
Thanks to his newly trained reading speed and comprehension, he had the entire procedure read over in detail by the time he sat back down in his seat. His eyes paused at a line buried in the relatively simple procedure, and he barely resisted a chuckle as he doodled a small, bulging-eyed fish at the top of the sheet, then laid the paper in front of him.
As the other students finished, Professor Jules graded each test with shocking efficiency, and either congratulated successful students, or told them that they would have to review lab safety procedures found in the textbook. There would be another quiz for them.
“Alright, well done. None of you did so poorly that I’d have to stop you from proceeding with the next part of the lab. You all now have your procedure sheets. Please set up your workstations and raise your hand when you are done.”
Alex quickly followed the procedure written on the sheet—similar to one described in the textbook, just without that second-to-last line—and placed his potion flask in the centre of his workstation, cleaned it, lowered the mana vacuum into the the empty flask, flicked the switch on it into the ‘ready’ position, and then inspected the mana waste container.
He was the first to raise his hand.
Professor Jules looked over his workstation, giving a nod of approval, and then glanced down at the top of his sheet. She quietly gave him a thumbs up and a nod before examining the rest of the class, correcting a few of their apparti’s positions.
When she was done, she addressed the entire class: “So. How many of you saw the second to last instruction: ‘please draw a bulging-eyed fish at the top of your procedure sheet’?”
The class went silent. Many of them looked fairly comfortable, and a glance to his side revealed that Carey London had been one of those who’d caught the instruction. Alex quietly gave her a nod of congratulations.
Other students, however, immediately snatched up their sheets; their faces became stunned as they found the hidden line. Professor Jules watched them, looking a mixture of stern and amused.
“All alchemy is about detail,” she said. “The procedure you have in front of you today is a single page, because you are simply using a mana conductor to activate a prepared solution. First tier potion recipes can range anywhere from two to ten pages. The most demanding potion procedures can literally fill several books: every step written in one of those books will be important for your success and safety. Read all material carefully, and do not assume you have the answer just because you think you’ve skimmed all of it. Detail. Detail. Detail. Now, once you are all done drawing your fish—yes, I am going to make you do it—we can begin.”
She quickly went through the rows of students, pouring the solution into their flasks using carefully measured glass tubes, and inspected their stations one more time.
As she poured the solution into Alex’s test flask, she nodded to him. “You may begin. Raise your hand when you’re done.”
Eagerly, Alex took up the mana conductor and lowered it into the potion.
Professor Jules had made it one step away from him when he raised his hand. “Done.” He said.
She paused, and slowly turned around. Her eyebrows rose and she owlishly blinked several times. “That…” she paused again, then looked at him carefully. Her eyes seemed to be searching him for a long moment. “Mr. Roth, do you have a few minutes after the lab?”
He couldn’t contain his smile. “Absolutely.”
“Good, please stay behind for a moment.”
She quickly moved on to other students. As he watched her go, he caught several people looking at him in surprise. Carey was staring down at his potion while holding her mana conductor steady in her flask. “Uh…” she murmured. “Well done.”
“Thanks-” he began to say.
Then he paused.
He caught Derek Warren staring at him from one of the other seats, but the red-haired young man quickly shifted away from Alex’s gaze.
Alex frowned, watching as Derek took a surprisingly long time to change the colour of his solution. His speed compared to the rest of the class wasn’t bad, but considering that he had taken most of the course already?
It seemed that Mr. Warren had surprisingly little idea as to what he was doing.
And in a field of study like this? That could be very dangerous.