As the last of the glyphs were traced and filled with mana, there was a subtle shift in the mana in the air around the cauldon’s rim. It was so faint, that Alex doubted he would have detected it before he’d started training in mana manipulation at the school.
With a flash, a purple light washed through the glyphs, wiping away the colours left by the students and making every glyph on the edge of the cauldron all glow in the same hue. At the same time the mana shifted; all the subtle differences between each student’s mana was brought together, and became unified within the cauldron.
At that, Professor Jules began to organize her students like a general moving an army, and Alex went to work.
Standing by the tables, he would watch the students while keeping a distance, and then in quiet moments, ask questions about specific ingredients, procedures and tools they were using. He also asked which processes were similar to golem-craft, and the answers were not only interesting, but helpful for future golem plans.
As it turned out, many of the materials used for the animation of matter were identical to ones used in golem-craft. By asking questions, handing out what the students needed and watching them work, he learned a good deal about how each material was handled, and how that might differ when building a golem compared to the experiment they were conducting.
Many of the mana tools were also used in golem-craft, and Alex quickly examined them as the students or professor described them and their specific uses. His pen flew across the pages of his notebook when he could spare the hands to write things down, and he was left wishing he’d managed to master Wizard’s Hand already: an extra hand or two would be pretty helpful to keep up with all the information coming at him.
When things got busy, the time for questions ended and he was put to work, and—with a seamlessness that unnerved him—he instantly fell back into the mindset of an assistant baker with a very particular master. His mind stayed focused on making sure he was quick to get whatever was needed for each step of the brewing process. The pages of the procedure scrolled through his mind, helping him anticipate what they would need for the next part of the experiment.
That’s where his spells came in handy.
Using forcedisk and the forceball’s basket, he was able to use them to create a system where he took a request from one of the students or the professor, and instead of constantly running back and forth between the table and cauldron, he was able to simply ferry what was needed back and forth between them.
When someone was done with a tool, he would send over the forcedisk for them to place it on and then he’d bring it over to the sink for washing and drying. As his system continued, he noticed several of the grad students throwing him curious looks.
He decided to ask another question.
“Uh, Professor.” He cleared his throat. “Um, is there a reason you all don’t use spells like Wizard’s Hand? I know forcedisk and forceball wouldn’t usually work well, but Wizard’s Hand has the dexterity to handle delicate stuff, right?”
“Right you are, but there are two issues there. One, Wizard’s Hand still proceeds very slowly compared to simply walking over and fetching something yourself.” She glanced at his crimson spells, zipping about the lab. “Well, at least it does if someone doesn’t put a ridiculous amount of practice into it. But, the mana manipulation and spellcraft required for our work still necessitates full attention. Controlling a Wizard’s Hand spell while engaging in the mana manipulation required for this alchemy, would be a good recipe for both failure and disaster.”
She glanced at the glowing glyphs around the rim. “And when you’re dealing with conjuring otherworldly entities, you want to have as much of your wits about you as possible.”
Professor Jules had led his labs and set up this experiment with the calm collection of a veteran. Now, though? Her voice was strained.
“Okay, then I’ll just make sure you have everything you need and keep out of the way,” he said.
“Yes, you’d better.” She frowned, her eyes flicked to him. “What you’re about to see, Mr. Roth, is perhaps the earliest form of wizardry. Before the formulae, the ingredients, the safety procedures, the spellcraft and the harvesting of mana…there was this. The old ways.”
She paused. “All the ingredients are ready to proceed…except for one. If I were you, I would stand near the door.”
Alex nodded, and quickly took up position near the door to The Cell.
He watched Professor Jules and her graduate students ascend the catwalk around the cauldron. Before this moment, the room had been filled with orders, discussion and planning. Now there was only a grim silence.
The air seemed to prickle with intent.
Alex watched as they all nodded to each other, and then Professor Jules looked to one of her students. “Ready the bait.”
A gloved young woman raised the strange blue meat the professor had been cutting up. It now glistened from a coating of an odd, reddish salve that emitted an unnerving mana. Alex wondered what the thing would have smelled like if he didn’t have a mask on.
The student spoke an incantation, conjuring a Wizard’s Hand which lifted the blue meat and slowly lowered it below the rim of the cauldron, down into its depths.
As soon as the bait had been deposited, the student cancelled the Wizard’s Hand.
Professor Jules drew in a deep breath. “Are we ready?”
In reply, a series of nods met her. To his surprise, she also glanced at Alex standing by the door. His heart began to thud in his chest.
But, he also nodded.
“Let us begin then,” Professor Jules said.
She spoke an incantation.
An unnatural fire sprang up beneath the cauldron, hugging its metal sides but not touching the scaffolding or catwalk around it. As it flared and crackled, the shadows of the wizards on the catwalk rose high over the room’s walls and wavered with each pop of the flame.
Professor Jules slowly raised her hands above her head.
And then, she began to cast a spell.
Words of power poured from her mouth with her exacting efficiency. Not a single word could Alex understand. They were sharp. Guttural. Awful to listen to.
And there was a terrible note of longing in them.
A calling that disturbed him to his very bones.
Something shifted in the air.
As her incantation continued, her students joined in, each adding their own words until the room was filledwith the strange, disconcerting speech.
Spell arrays formed.
Magic circuitry came alive.
The glyphs on the cauldron reacted, glowing brighter.
The hair on Alex’s neck began to rise. Never before had he seen anything like it. In his time at Generasi, all the magic he had witnessed was a mix of wonder and exacting, mathematical precision.
This was different.
In the shifting light, crackling sound, and awful words slipping through the air, the wizards around the cauldron didn’t look like a professor and her graduate students. Their beaked face coverings seemed to change before him, turning into the ancient death masks of some forgotten demon. Their coats and aprons seemed to glisten like the skins of slain beasts.
His imagination began to run.
The room filled with apparatuses and safety equipment shifted, turning into an ancient cave, filled with primal power. The friendly academics became ritualists from a time when the world was younger. Darker.
A time before Generasi and before Uldar and all the things he took for granted.
Something disturbed the air.
Something had entered the room.
He couldn’t see it. Couldn’t smell it. Couldn’t hear it.
But, a long forgotten part of his brain—the part that knew well why mortals feared the dark—sensed it. On the scaffold, the volume of the incantation rose, and the fire began to writhe as though wind battered it.
He shivered, and suddenly his mask felt stifling.
Alex Roth edged slightly closer to the door.
Then the air began to shimmer. He felt something touch it. His mana vibrated in his body, reacting to it with familiarity: he knew it like he knew the touch of The Traveller’s mana.
What was happening above the cauldron was similar, though far more twisted. And ugly.
Something poured out of the air and down into the cauldron. A massive presence filled the room: a mind so vast and old, that his life seemed tiny, like a mere flickering candle flame before it.
It felt like when he’d reached deep into the dungeon core and felt what was behind it. But this felt even more alien. Even colder.
The entity continued pouring from whatever lay beyond the air, to splash deep into the cauldron.
It gave a final shudder, and then, it was fully in the room.
The cauldron shifted as something heavy moved within, suddenly filling it. Alex could hear something slithering against the inner surfaces—like a mass of snakes writhing against the metal of the cauldron—and then there was a slurping sound, like someone sucking the pulp from soft fruit.
“What…what the hell…” he whispered.
The volume of the incantation rose higher, until every wizard was screaming it. It echoed off the walls, and the words combined together until all became a gibbering mass of noise.
“Now!” Jules cried.
She slammed her gloved palms onto the rim of the cauldron. Her students immediately followed. The glyphs flared so brightly that they stung Alex’s eyes.
For a second, the thing inside the pot went silent.
And then it screamed.
Alex pressed himself to the door. When the sound hit him, it…it hit all of his senses. He didn’t just hear its scream: he felt and smelled it. He even tasted it, and the taste made him gag under his mask.
Tentacles suddenly shot up into the air, each of them shifting with all the colours he’d seen on the cauldron, and some he couldn’t even put names to. They made his eyes burn, and he squinted like he’d been staring at the sun. Tears ran down his cheeks, but he didn’t dare look away.
The tentacles lashed out, slamming into translucent walls that rose above the rim of the cauldron. Glyphs flared as the thing pushed against the magic.
“This one’s strong!” Jules shouted. “Feed the cauldron! 20% more mana. Now!”
Her students gripped the rim and Alex felt the mana once again shift in the air.
The creature screamed at a painful pitch, then tried pushing against the barrier again. This time, the glyphs didn’t flare and it scratched against its glassy cage in vain. Its tentacles shuddered, smashing against the binding magic, while they shifted and sprang pointed thorns like a rose.
Still, the wall did not give.
Its flesh shifted again, transforming into hooked claws that scraped against the barrier. Still, its cage did not fail. With another scream, its tentacles shifted once more, forming bony flanges like a mace.
It snapped the tentacles against the barrier, but that too was futile. The barrier held.
The ends of the tentacles shimmered, splitting open to reveal long mouths filled with fangs, they bit at the barrier, but to no effect. The lesser shoggoth howled in frustration.
Alex felt a shift of…something in the air. It wasn’t mana. He didn’t even know how to describe it.
Something impacted the barrier. Glyphs flared.
“40% more mana!” Jules barked.
The students grunted, feeding their mana into the cauldron at whatever unseen attack was slamming into the barrier over and over again.
…until abruptly, it stopped. There was a pause, like a breath being held, then, there was silence. Alex felt a strange probing begin to fill the air.
“That’s right,” Professor Jules said. “You are trapped, Servitor. You cannot strike our bodies. You cannot strike our minds. And you cannot touch the vessel you are caged within. By these three facts, I declare you bound.”
Then the lesser shoggoth spoke.
What came from it weren’t words as Alex understood them, and their sound crossed his senses again, feeling like the legs of crawling insects against his skin and deep within his ears.
“That is right,” Jules said. “We do wish to bargain. You have feasted on the flesh of Pterophyllia.” She raised another piece of the coated blue meat. “A delicacy to you.”
Again that horrible voice answered.
“As I thought. In return for this second portion, I ask that you donate a portion of your chaos essence to our cause. We do not require much, and your life will not be harmed by this donation.” Jules paused. “Once we have harvested what we need, you will have your freedom again, as well as this portion. If you comply, the process will not cause you suffering, or whatever passes for it amongst your kind, and you will be freed to return back to your plane without delay.” The professor seemed to tighten her grip on the lip of the cauldron before she continued. “…do we have an accord?”
There was another silence.
Then a short grunt.
“Good. I will show that you may trust me in future.” She glanced at her students. “Now. Activate it.”