“Stage Two of the brewing process is not delicate, but we’ll have to be quick today,” Professor Jules addressed her squad of graduate students like she was a general. She looked at Alex. “With chaos essence, it’s best to make sure the reaction isn’t drawn out: it’s too hard to predict, otherwise.”
He quickly wrote down what she said in his notebook word-for-word.
“Ah yes, where’s my mind these days,” she shook her head. “Team, this is Mr. Roth, a first year student. Today he’ll be assisting you with any ingredients you might need during any moment in the brewing process, and providing you with any tools you might want at any time. Think of him as one of your assistants and use him as such. In return, if he has any questions, please answer them if time permits, and allow him to observe you as you work.”
She glanced at Alex.
“Do as we say, keep out of trouble, and learn well, Mr. Roth. If you don’t know something, then don’t pretend that you do. If someone asks for a tool or an ingredient that you don’t understand how to handle, then please say so. Don’t bluff.”
“Absolutely.” He nodded emphatically, the ‘beak’ on his mask bouncing as he did.
“Right, now let’s get started with planning. Alex, have you gone over our safety procedures?”
He nodded, drawing out a booklet listing the safety procedures, ethical guidelines, required materials and tools for the experiment, which she’d handed him before they’d last parted.
Oddly enough, what followed next wasn’t similar to being in potions class. It was like being back in McHarris’ bakery: without his yelling and incessant bullying. Professor Jules’ team immediately leapt into action, and while they were preparing for today’s set up, Alex was given the task of reviewing the ingredients and tools, and remembering where they were located in the lab.
Some were labelled, but many others were not.
When one of the graduate students needed a tool, he would be expected to provide it quickly, but safely, and then return it to its proper place afterward. He was also expected to wash certain tools and provide ingredients when necessary.
For that, he needed to learn the system of organization quickly and—luckily—the lab booklet had given him a head-start on figuring out what was what. He walked past every table, flipping open his notebook and quickly drawing a diagram of the lab’s layout as it would look to someone standing above. Essentially, he created a floor plan, marking in every table as well as denoting the central cauldron and scaffold. On each table—in quick, meticulous script—he wrote the names for every ingredient and piece of equipment present, flipping back to the lab booklet several times to ensure he’d remembered the names of the tools properly.
He made sure to study the system of organization very, very carefully.
One thing that he’d learned well from his time at McHarris’ bakery was that there were few things more valuable than an organizing system that was efficient, and one that every worker knew well. That was one of the things he had to give the old bully: the baker had developed quite the system for organizing ingredients over the years, and was absolutely militant about it never being altered.
When he’d first started working at the bakery, McHarris had drilled that system into his head so thoroughly, that he dreamt about the different locations for flour, custards and salted meats for weeks. At the time, he’d resented how strict it was. Then, one day, about a year later, another assistant was hired.
He had been a young man with more experience than any of the others—having apprenticed to a baker for many years when he was younger. He had a lot of confidence in himself and got it into his head that the system used in his old bakery was better than McHarris’. One evening, he decided to surprise McHarris and change the system instead of just doing what he was supposed to be doing, which was cleaning up.
Maybe the apprentice had fantasized about coming into a new environment, seeing that everything was a mess and knowing exactlywhat to do to transform it into a model of order and efficiency.
Alex had even considered what it would be like to walk into Professor Jules’ lab today and use The Mark to improve the system they already had in place. In that fantasy, they would fall all over themselves, thanking him for fixing their way of doing things and then offer him permanent positions and greater opportunities. But, he knew better than to act on his fantasies.
McHarris hadn’t thanked the young man or offered him great opportunities.
He’d lashed him, berated him and summarily fired him. And before he would let him leave, he made him return everything to exactly the way he’d found it. Alex couldn’t recall ever seeing McHarris so angry ever, before or since, and that was saying something.
With that memory in mind, Alex let fantasies go and simply focused on learning Professor Jules’ system very, very quickly, and then finding ways to make himself as efficient as possible within it.
Luckily, with the skills he’d gained using The Mark there were some easy solutions for that.
Once he’d catalogued every piece of equipment and ingredient he was expected to know, he conjured his forceball and hung his basket beneath it. Concentrating, he paused for a moment, considering trying to cast Wizard’s Hand. The spell would have made much of what he was about to do easier, but he’d only made a little more progress with it. In another week he might have it down, but for now, he could only adapt and use what he had.
Casting forcedisk as well, he set them side by side.
One of the students looked down at him from the scaffold around the cauldron. She was busy tracing the glyphs lining the massive cauldron’s lip—passing her mana into each glyph as she did—and Alex noticed that each one lit up with a sapphire light as the mana flowed in.
Two other grad students were tracing the glyphs etched into the cauldron as well; one’s glyphs glowed a sapphire hue while the other’s were a forest-green.
“I wouldn’t use those if I were you,” the student who was looking at him said. “Those spells tend to be slow. It’s easier just to step down and pick things up, trust me.”
“Normally, you’d be right,” Professor Jules said from across the room. She was cutting up something that looked like fish-meat, but it was a strange blue colour. “But Mr. Roth has shown himself very adept at forceball. I trust you show similar control when it comes to forcedisk, Alex?”
Without looking at the spell, he used mana manipulation and the glowing spell to begin performing little tricks in the air. It twisted vertically and spun like a top before turning and flipping horizontally. It spun really fast, then slowly, then shot back and forth across the back of the room like an excited dog playing in the Beastarium.
Several of the graduate students paused their tasks to watch his display of forceball acrobatics. One even clapped softly when he finished.
“Alright, a simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed, Mr. Roth,” Professor Jules said, but her voice revealed her amusement. She looked at the graduate student that questioned him. “Does that satisfy you?”
“Yeah,” she said. “You must have practiced with those spells for a ridiculously long time.”
He shrugged. “I’m like a swordsmaster slowly becoming one with their weapon…except, y’know, it’s a couple of utility spells.” He paused. “You know, that sounded a lot more impressive in my head. Anyway, let me make sure I’ve got your system down.”
The grad student looked at him for a few seconds as Professor Jules shook her head and went back to work.
Alex went over his diagrams a few more times before finally nodding to himself. He wandered over to the students, watching them trace the glyphs into the lip of the cauldron. The booklet had said that the glyphs must be traced using mana manipulation, but hadn’t really gone into the ‘why’ or ‘how’.
He climbed the stairs and stood at the back of the catwalk, watching the closest glyphs light up under a student’s attention. He glanced back at Alex; the beak of the young man’s mask bounced lightly. “Hello, there, curious about something?”
“Uh...about everything actually,” Alex said honestly. “But what are those symbols for? Some kind of mana conductor?”
“Noooot quite.” The student traced another glyph, getting closer to one of his colleagues activating glyphs on another side of the cauldron. “This is a built-in protection circle.”
“Oh, to stop explosions and leaks?”
“No, to stop what we’re summoning in the cauldron from getting out of the cauldron.”
Alex paused. “Uh, summoning?”
“Oh yes, it’s the only reliable way to get your hands on chaos essence. The stuff’s almost unheard of in the material world, but it’s as common as water in certain creatures that occur on other planes. The cauldron’s built in part to serve as a summoning circle for otherworldly beings. And theeeeen-”
He pointed down to another circle of glyphs inside the bottom of the cauldron. “You see that other circle there? That’s similar to a mana vacuum but instead, it separates certain essences from any creature within the cauldron.”
Alex winced. “Sounds painful.”
“It can be,” the older student said. “But for the kinds of things we summon, they kind of deserve it, trust me. And in the end, they do live through it and then we banish them back to their home plane. It’s no worse than having a doctor bleed you a bit, I would say.”
Alex looked down at the glyphs inside the cauldron. There was something…sinister about them. There was an aura present that felt like they were tinged with pure malice. Or rage. A shiver ran through him.
“Uh…what’s being summoned?” he asked, pulling his eyes away from the cauldron’s bottom.
“A lesser shoggoth. You ever heard of them? Probably not, eh?” the graduate student asked.
“No, I haven’t” Alex shook his head.
“Well, the easiest way I can describe them is that they’re priests, in a way: the least powerful servitors in a divine hierarchy. Think local priest in a village church.”
“Uh…? Priests? What do they worship?”
The student gave a dark laugh. “You don’t want to know.”
“Um.” Alex glanced at the glowing symbols on the side of the cauldron, and began wondering if he needed an exit plan. “Uh, maybe I do.”
The student paused. “Okay, I won’t go into too much detail, but there are all sorts of…things out there. What lesser shoggoths worship are kind of like gods or demon lords, but they’re older. A lot older; old enough that they already existed when the gods of this world first woke up.”
“Oh.” Alex swallowed. “From what you said earlier, I take it they’re not friendly?”
“The lesser shoggoths? Absolutely not friendly. The things they worship? They’re most indifferent, actually.” The grad student finished up one side of the cauldron and stepped back, turning to Alex. “And that’s lucky for us: we’ll be able to do what we have to do without the big bosses getting mad. Well, probably. Records of them coming into contact with mortals well…let’s just say they tend to be found in ruins of dead civilizations.”
“Oh…and uh, we’re going to summon one of these priests and drain essence from it? That uh…well, uh…”
“Sounds like the worst idea ever conceived in the history of the world?” The graduate student laughed behind his mask. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Well, think about it this way. If a priest of one of our gods gets disrespected or robbed in the street by some villain, does their god immediately descend from the heavens to seek revenge? Do they descend whenever someone says anything blasphemous against them?”
“Uh…I guess not,” Alex said. If they did, then they probably would have gathered at Generasi demanding their priests be let in a long time ago.
He imagined it for a moment: a series of towering, glowing divine beings all lined up in front of the school’s gates like disgruntled villagers waiting to register their complaints with the local magistrate.
“Exactly.” The grad student pointed up to the ceiling. “If they acted every time a mortal angered them, then they probably would have blown up half the world by now. And these…older things? Well, they’re even moreindifferent.”
“But uh…what happens if one of these…lesser shoggoths happens to be a favourite or something? And us summoning and harvesting from it angers whatever it worships?”
“Then, I suppose, a vengeful entity from beyond time will materialize in The Cell,” the student nodded thoughtfully. “In displaying itself, we’ll be shown an existence so far beyond our comprehension that our minds will turn inside out, quickly followed by our bodies. Natural law will fail, and anything we understand about magic will go with it. Our souls will melt away in an instant, only to be reformed wrong, and we’ll try to scream, but have no mouth with which to-”
Professor Jules cleared her throat. She had brought out a series of sealed metal containers from a storage room in the back of The Cell, each of them suspended on floating stone circles. “If you have time to be idly scaring first years, then you have time to help me prepare the pre-made solution for Stage 2.”
“Right, right, sorry prof,” the student laughed. “I wouldn’t sweat it…Alex, was it? There’s always risks with magic, and we’re taking every precaution to make an unsafe process as safe as possible. And hey, if we wanted something without risk, we’d go work in a vineyard, am I right?”
The graduate student winked from behind his mask and then made for the stairs off the catwalk.
Alex slowly watched him go.
A part of him wondered if the local vineyards were taking applications.