The grad students poured their mana into the cauldron, this time reaching deep into the metal vessel. Alex could sense the mana travelling lower toward the bottom of the pot. Then the glyphs flared again.
Professor Jules called to Alex, still standing by the door. “It’s likely safe for you to join us now, Mr. Roth, and I’d recommend that you do if you wish to see the extraction process. I believe you’ll find this to be a very valuable experience, and not one that comes around everyday.”
“Oh by Uldar no,” Alex muttered, staring up at the catwalk.
He took a deep breath, putting one foot in front of the other and making for the stairs. His skin prickled the closer he got to the lesser shoggoth, and the sensation of an unnaturalness, or even a wrongness crossed over his senses. He knew he was approaching something that should not exist in this world.
Yet, he pushed himself to keep going.
‘It’s stuck in the pot. It’s stuck in the pot. You’re surrounded by wizards with experience, and it’s stuck in the pot,’ Alex repeated in his mind. ‘You’re probably in more danger in The Barrens, and this is stuff you’ll need to get used to. Just pretend you’re Cedric for like…two minutes.’
Alex stepped onto the catwalk, met Professor Jules’ eyes from across the cauldron, and then looked down.
His heart felt like it would stop.
The thing in the cauldron defied his senses as they struggled to make sense of it. Its form shifted constantly: a writhing ooze of tentacles, eyes, mouths and organs. The surface of the main part of its body shimmered with images that were familiar, yet maddeningly corrupted: entire forests of giant tongues instead of trees, oceans filled not with water, but with infinite swarms of insects, and other vistas that made his skin crawl. From below its body, the runes at the bottom of the cauldron glowed as Jules’ assistants poured their mana into them.
Then the creature shuddered.
A strange substance began to flow from its sides like a mist, until it touched the metal of the cauldron. Then the substance congealed into a liquid—like vapour coming into contact with cold air. The droplets shimmered and twitched like they were alive before pouring down and pooling beneath the writhing lesser shoggoth.
Alex watched the liquid continue to pool until there was enough to coat the bottom of the vessel.
“Aaaand, stop,” Professor Jules said.
Her students pulled their hands away from the cauldron, and each took deep breaths as though they’d just finished sprinting. The lesser shoggoth watched all of them with a dozen eyes, before its pupils slowly shifted to the meat being held in professor Jules’ hand.
“It’s yours. A deal is a deal,” she said.
She tossed the meat down.
A mouth filled with serrated teeth split open vertically across blank flesh, and snapped up the morsel in a blink.
“And now, you are dismissed.” The instructor raised her hands once more and spoke a word of power that rang through the air.
Her spell struck the lesser shoggoth, and the creature’s form began to shudder. Its convulsions increased until it seemed ready to break apart…and then it did. It liquified and whirled in a circle like flood water around a storm drain. Then it flowed out of their reality.
Its physical form faded from Alex’s view. In a few heartbeats, he could no longer see it, though he could still feel something present. And then, like dissipating mist, the last of it whirled into that singular point in space.
And it was gone.
In its wake, it left a bubbling, shimmering liquid at the bottom of the cauldron. With a wave of her hand, Professor Jules ended the magical flame licking the sides of the metal, but the liquid within still continued to shimmer, shift and bubble. Within its surface, Alex saw colours that changed from hue to hue, lights that glowed in one heartbeat to then dissipate in the next, and shapes that would begin to congeal before abruptly disintegrating.
“Is that…” he murmured. “Chaos essence?”
“It is indeed,” Professor Jules nodded. “One of the most transformative substances in all of alchemy. With the right application of mana and other ingredients, it can become nearly anything or change nearly anything. …the trouble is getting it to change in a way you want it to. Getting it to stay in the way you want it to is even harder.”
She glanced at him. “It must never be touched with your bare flesh or any living material. …or any dead material, for that matter.” She paused. “You know what, for your purposes, don’t touch it with anything that’s not an especially prepared container.”
“Uh…what happens if I do?”
“Well, prepare for anything that touched it to start sprouting tentacles and eyes.”
He swallowed. “Can force magic touch it?”
“Yes, which is one of the ways to transport it.” She cast a spell into the pot, and a massive forceball appear-No.
It looked like a forceball—despite its much larger size—but it split open on one end, revealing itself to be hollow. With another spell, Jules caused the chaos essence to flow into the bubble, which then closed around it.
“Back away.” She raised the force bubble and slowly moved it to float above a metal container covered in different glyphs. “Those glyphs on the metal are protective,” she explained. Alex saw that some of the symbols were the same as those on the cauldron. Once the bubble floated over the container, she willed it to float into the metal one, then carefully split again, allowing the chaos essence to flow into place.
“Perfect,” she said, willing away her force construct. “Well done, team.”
Her graduate students exhaled in relief and began clapping one another on the back and shoulders.
“But-” she interrupted their little celebration. “We still have plenty of work to do in stage 2. Let us get to work.”
The rest of the experiment seemed to be far less likely to shorten Alex’s lifespan.
The feeling that he’d stumbled across an ancient cave of cultists faded as the professor and her students returned to the familiar processes of combining ingredients, adding mana through specialized mana conductors, and testing solutions.
He got to watch them test the chaos essence with half a dozen different specialized devices, each of which generated accurate readouts of its composition. Once it was confirmed that it was exactly what they needed, they poured a solution into the cauldron that they’d made during an earlier part of the experiment, and re-lit it.
They continued combining ingredients, adding in mixtures they’d created before the summoning. As the solutions came to a boil, they steadied the end of the mana vacuum and then poured their mana into the cauldron’s bottom.
Several of the glyphs began to glow around the lip of the pot, and the solution started to slowly stir itself.
“Actually, this part is fairly similar to the construction of a golem core,” Professor Jules pointed out.
She explained which parts of the animation potion would be used when crafting one. She also talked about which parts of the process would differ when crafting a core, such as an extra step that would involve solidifying the solution as though it were ice.
“Now, the chaos essence.” She pointed to the special container. “Can be used in golem cores too: anything that can cause changing properties, like mutagens or chaos essence can be used to make a golem that can evolve. For chaos essence, though it needs to be diluted: one part chaos essence for every nine parts stabilizing agent. Note that down. It’s key if anyone asks you, since you’re interested in working at Shale’s in the future.”
Alex jotted down every single tip or instruction she gave, though it was hard to tear his mind free from the sight and feeling of the lesser shoggoth. His imagination kept conjuring tentacles in every shadow in the lab and he had to use his meditation techniques to keep his concentration on the task at hand.
When professor Jules finally called an end to the day, he actually felt a wave of relief knowing he’d soon be leaving that room.
“You did quite well today,” she said to him at the end of the lab. “We’ll be continuing the process next week. Will you be available?”
“Yes professor, I definitely will be,” he said quickly, trying to keep control of his fidgeting. He needed to get out of there.
Frowning, she pulled off her mask—the lab had long been cleaned up—and peered at him closely. “Do you drink, Mr. Roth?”
“Uh, not really?” he said. “Like, during festivals, but never had much time for it.”
“I see. Perhaps you should go have a drink with a friend,” she said. “You handled yourself well today, but…sometimes magic challenges our minds, conceptions and emotions. Don’t be alone. Have a meal or a drink with someone you care about.”
“Yeah, maybe…I…thanks professor.”
He departed very soon after that.
Making his way out of The Cells was nerve-racking. Every shadow, every sound and every strange smell became some otherworldly threat, watching him from someplace beyond his sight. He thought he heard something shift above him when he was coming down the stairs. He doubled his pace.
Even when he finally stepped outside and was under the sun again, he found himself jumping at every sound.
His world had gotten bigger again.
It seemed that each time it grew, some disturbing discovery was involved.
First, he was branded as a Hero. Then they were fallen upon by silence-spiders and a hive-queen. Then there was the discovery of the dungeon core and the revelation about it. Then the attack by a mana vampire and the revelation that there were monsters out in the world beyond what The Ravener spewed into Thameland.
Now, he’d just learned first hand that not only were there planes beyond the world he knew, but that there were monsters beyond the world.
Things that defied even his basic senses.
If the silence-spiders could block all sound, then could other things—things beyond the rules of the world—avoid other senses? Some force magics were invisible, why not creatures whose sounds could be tasted and felt.
He paused on the way back to the insula, then looked to the castle.
He needed to do something…something normal.
Alex started toward the registrar’s office.
He entered the hall to find it mostly empty. Some students sat on the benches going over documents, and there was only a short line of three between him and the registrar’s desk.
The horned, blue-skinned form of Hobb sat at the desk, speaking to the student before him. From Alex’s angle, he could see that the registrar was writing something down on two different documents simultaneously. Both hands whipped across the pages at a speed that was almost a blur and—though Alex couldn’t see precisely what he was writing from his distance—it looked to be different things being written.
Yet, Hobb was still able to keep up the conversation with the student without looking down or pausing once. When he ran out of room on the pages, two blue-glowing Wizard’s Hands materialized, removed the documents, and brought fresh paper for him to continue on.
He never stopped even as he served the three students in front of Alex.
“Next!” Hobb called when the young woman in front of Alex departed after making a late tuition payment. Hobb peered at the young man from Thameland, his eye narrowing behind his massive monocle. “And what can I do for you today, young man?”
“Hello Hobb,” Alex cleared his throat. “Do you remember me?”
Hobb raised an eyebrow. “I meet a lot of students. Many, many, many students every day.”
Alex whirled to find a student had simply shifted his weight on one of the benches, and the bench—in turn—had shifted its weight upon its legs.
He exhaled in relief and turned around again. He found Hobb looking at him with his head cocked to the side. An intensity lay in his eyes. “Something the matter?”
The registrar’s lips spread apart in a wide grin. Slightly too wide.
‘Were Hobb’s teeth always that sharp?’ Alex wondered.
“No, it’s…everything’s okay,” he said quickly.
“Goood, goooood,” Hobb said, drawing out the words. “It wouldn’t do to have your nerve fail whilst winding the foundations of the universe around your fingers. Now, what can I do for you my young, young friend?”
“I…” Alex muttered.
He must have been imagining it.
Something about Hobb seemed to remind him of the lesser shoggoth. He shook the thought away, telling himself that his mind was playing tricks on him. Generasi was attended by so many races of mortals that Alex would have trouble naming them all. Hobb was just one of them.
A perfectly normal mortal.
Well, maybe not ‘normal’.
“I’m just wondering if there’s any accommodations, y’know, on campus? For visiting family, and such. There’s uh…no room in the insula for visitors…I was…wondering.”
Hobb stared at him for a full five heartbeats.
Then he burst out laughing.
His cackle reminded Alex of an ancient witch from a fairy tale or a demon hunting an unsuspecting priest in an old fable. It filled the hallway with a sinister mirth, and he carried on with it for a terribly long time.
Alex glanced at the other students.
Some were looking at Hobb in shock, while others simply continued on with their paperwork, as though this were a common occurrence.
“Why of couuuuurse, of cooooouuurse we have accommodations,” Hobb chuckled, finally regaining control of himself. “What are we, barbarians?”
He snapped his fingers, and a new sheet of paper appeared in his hand, which he slid to Alex with a proud smile. “We have on-campus accommodations as well as a list of inns and hostels associated with the school that your visitors can stay in for a…handsome discount.”
“Oh, uh, good.” Alex glanced briefly at the sheet. He winced at some of the prices, but others weren’t as bad as he’d feared they’d be. “Thanks, um. Do you know anything about what the inns are like?”
“I do, somewhat, and I can make recommendations if you…”
He paused, his eyes narrowing.
“Hmmm, are you normally this pale? It’s so hard to tell if that’s natural. You all vary so much in skin tone, and that tone changes so much depending on all the little whims of your emotions.”
“Uh, no I…well…uh…” Alex had broken out in a cold sweat.
“Hmmmm.” Hobb tented his fingers.
His nostrils flared.
“Aaaaaaah, you were part of a summoning, weren’t you?” Hobb leaned across the table and sniffed Alex closely. “Yes, I can smell some kind of otherworldly essence on you. I should have known. Most students who’ve engaged in a proper summoning for the first time have the exact same look as you.”
“Well, yeah,” Alex said, a little startled that Hobb had been so sharp. “Good guess.”
Hobb laughed again. “Well, it’s easy to deduce, frankly. Most folk don’t react well to learning that you’re actually trying to climb your way from the bottom of a very, very long ladder in the universal hierarchy.”
‘You’re?’ he wondered at Hobb’s use of that word.
“Well, fret not!” the registrar adjusted his monocle. “Not all things that go bump in the outer planes are evil or hungry. Sure, some elder things wish this world to be wiped out, but others simply don’t care about it. Some demons want to eat every mortal’s children, while others simply want to cause some minor mischief and make crop circles.”
His eyes seemed to flash.
“And some devils.” His mouth drew out that final word. “Want to trick mortals out of their immortal souls. Others, though, truly find mortals oooooh so fascinating. Some devils like mortals.”
He leaned a little closer.
“Like me. I find you ooooh so interesting.”
Alex’s nostrils caught the scent of sulfur.