“Oh, come on, professor,” Alex pressed.
It had been a few days since the Festival of Ghosts and he’d been trying to convince his professor to let him take the special exam. Unfortunately, he’d gotten the same answer as always.
“Professor Val’Rok let me do it,” he said, trying not to sound sullen, but probably failing.
“And when Professor Val’Rok is your teacher for potions, maybe you can ask him to let you take the exam for credit. Potions and alchemy are about safety procedures, and leaping ahead is an excellent way to get killed,” she insisted. Then she sighed and looked around the lab as her grad students were removing their safety gear.
Normally, they would have had a significant clean up period after a session in Jules’ lab, but Alex had been taking care of that more and more quickly as he’d gotten used to procedure, and as his proficiency with Wizard’s Hand had grown.
It was to the point now that—by the time the experiment was finished—he’d already cleaned up and put away most of the equipment. The grad students literally had nothing to do after their work was done.
“I must say, you’ve been demonstrating some very advanced skills as well as a genuine ability to anticipate what’s needed, though,” she sighed. “All of your potions have been perfect, your marks on the midterm were perfect and quite frankly, I’m starting to wonder if you might be some old master of alchemy who’s shapeshifted into a student just to play some sort of joke on me. At this point, I’d quite frankly be surprised if you didn’t also receive perfect marks on the final exam.”
“That’s the plan,” he said with no hint of smugness. It was just simply a statement of fact: that wasthe plan.
She gave him a look and sighed. “I…must admit, it is occurring to me that perhaps I vastly overestimated how much hand holding you needed when I first met you. At first, I thought you were overconfident and would soon find yourself in over your head. Then, I thought you might be monstrously talented, but lacking in caution.”
She shook her head. “But you follow procedure to the letter, and I’ve not seen one single attempt of you trying to be cocky in a way that would cause you or others any harm.”
Jules looked at him very seriously, and he could almost see the mental calculations going on in the experienced wizard’s mind. He kept very still and didn’t say anything in case he twitched in a way that made her distrust him.
“I have…” she finally said. “…when you first met me, you asked me if you could work on projects on your own.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Alex said.
“Honestly, I still don’t believe you were ready then…but I do think that you honestly are ready now.”
Alex barely resisted the urge to jump into the air as high as he could and scream.
“I think your learning could benefit from taking on a few individual experiments on your own,” Professor Jules continued, looking at him almost suspiciously. “But that doesn’t mean you’ll have free reign to blow yourself up in my lab.”
“I definitely do not want to blow myself up in your lab,” he said with a straight face. “Or—now that I think about it—anywhere else.”
“Mhmmmmm.” Her look deepened in cautiousness. “Quite honestly, there are a number of potions assignments this upcoming semester that just will not challenge you, and so you won’t get any useful learning from them. My point in seeing that you take the second semester potions course is to make sure that you get the fundamentals you might not get otherwise, not to have you waste your time on work that won’t challenge you.”
She glanced at her grad students. “Therefore—you’ll be supervised by a grad student—and you’ll start with certain projects that I will have approved of. In between, you’ll also be afforded time and lab space to brew your own potions, as long as they are restricted to potions that you have already successfully brewed in class.”
“Right,” Alex said, keeping a straight face.
It wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but it was enough. As long as he had free-run of the lab, and as long as the grad student wasn’t hovering over him all the time, he should be able to slip in a sample of the dungeon core’s remains and perform his analysis on it.
The apparatuses weren’t built in such a way to start screaming: “Alert! Unauthorized substance detected!” or anything like that. The only issue would be if the analysis itself caused some sort of sudden, visible reaction: it was a completely unknown substance from a highly dangerous creature, after all. Then again, Professor Jules did say that it had been analyzed before and hadn’t mentioned anything about: “And it resulted in half of the research team’s gruesome deaths” or anything like that.
Finally, if anything did go wrong, it’d be better to have an experienced wizard in the lab with him. Blowing up an apparatus and having someone there to treat him would definitely result in him having a lot of very awkward questions to answer, but better that than to be lying in a smouldering, untreated, dead wreck on the lab floor.
“And this will be next semester, right?” he said, trying to control his eagerness. Besides analyzing the dungeon core, having more freedom in an alchemy lab sounded like a lot of fun, and it was hard to keep himself from turning into an obviously over-excited child over it. He realized Selina probably felt similarly when she really got into building something.
“Yes, right from week one,” Professor Jules informed him. “Assuming, of course, that you don’t somehow lose your head and let the final exam completely annihilate you, Mr. Roth.”
“Understood, professor,” Alex said. “I’ll do my best.”
“Okay, here’s the plan.” Thundar looked up from his massive pile of study notes at the end of the table in Alex’s apartment. “I’ll sneak into Ram’s house and throttle him with a chain while you sneak into Hartman’s house-” He referred to his battle magic professor while making a gripping motion in the air. “-and smother him with a pillow.”
“That’s a genius idea,” Alex said in mock seriousness, half-rising from the pile of force magic notes in front of him. “We’ll catch them off guard, Khalik can weigh their dead bodies down with magic rocks, and then we can toss them into the ocean for the fish.”
“Or we can just feed the bodies to Grimloch!” Thundar grinned.
“First of all, don’t involve me in your murder schemes,” Khalik said. “Secondly, don’t you think you’ll be the first suspects?”
“I dunno,” Thundar grunted. “I’d be shocked if Hartman didn’t have a lot of enemies.”
“You’re both going to have one great enemy if you keep going on like this and don’t let me concentrate!” Isolde finally snapped, glancing up from her mana manipulation notes. “I swear you two go on more than two old millers meeting over drinks at a summer fair!”
Isolde—pale and dishevelled again now that exams were on—looked at them with murderous eyes. One of her eyebrows twitched.
Selina, who’d been quietly reading one of her textbooks across the room, got up from her chair without a word and—her face still buried in the book—casually padded across the apartment to Alex’s room and set her book down on his desk. When she was about to sit down, she paused, padded back over to his door and shut it.
Silence fell over the cabal.
“Perhaps…” Khalik suggested, his voice lowered. “We could all use a quick break.” He reached over to a jug and poured several cups of lemonade for the group. Isolde watched him carefully, just in case he spilled any liquid on their precious notes.
When they all had drinks in hand, they slid their chairs slightly from the table. Alex leaned back in his, enjoying the sweet and tart flavour of the cool drink.
“So, how’re we all feeling about exams? Progress report,” Alex said.
Isolde frowned. “Mana manipulation is difficult as ever, but I am making great strides in it. I must admit, the cabal has made my studying far more efficient, since we can help each other answer questions.”
“Indeed,” Khalik said. “I think I am near done with my revision. Alex, your grasp of magic lore is a real help. I think I might rise a few spots on the list.”
“Aaaah, I complain but I’m gonna do better than I did on midterms, I think,” Thundar grunted. “Even in Hartman’s class: ugh, what a guy. Battle magic should be fun!”
“Maybe you’ll get another professor for second semester,” Alex suggested.
“Naw, still Hartman,” the minotaur said mournfully. “For second year I hear it’s professor Konrad—who’s supposed to be as crazy as a demon with a belly full of special mushrooms—but a much better prof.”
“Well, that’s something to look forward to,” Alex said. “Well, none of my professors are switching for second semester…except for maybe mana manipulation. I really don’t know?”
“Still Val’Rok,” Isolde said. “Who still marks just as hard…at least according to other members of the class. I’ve had little trouble with him.”
“Right, then all the same for me,” Alex said. “And honestly, I’m pretty happy with that.”
Even Ram wasn’t actually a bad instructor, he just wasn’t Alex’s favourite person.
“Glad we get to keep Baelin,” he finished.
“I’ve been thinking about him,” Khalik jumped in. “I keep thinking about what you said he was doing on the Festival of Ghosts.”
“Doing what now?” Thundar squinted.
“Did Alex not tell you? He apparently spent the festival with others from far away,” Khalik said. “How’d he put it, Alex?”
“Something like ‘so far the names of where they’re from wouldn’t have any meaning to you’,” Alex recalled.
“Well that’s real ominous sounding,” Thundar said.
“But fun to think about.” Khalik ran his fingers through his sculpted beard in thought. “Where perhaps do you think they might be from? And what are they? Somehow, I can see the chancellor at the supper table with all sorts of strange beings…demons or demon lords, celestials and other spirits, elemental monarchs…devils, maybe.”
He threw a look at Alex, who recalled Hobb.
“Heh, that’d be kind of cool,” Thundar said. “Maybe one of those…wazzat thing you said was in your potion professor’s lab, Alex?”
“A lesser shoggoth,” he shuddered. He imagined Baelin sitting at a massive table with one of those squirmy, tentacley, horrible, shifting things. “I don’t imagine they’d be great dinner companions.”
“Perhaps he simply meant other powerful wizards, or other wizards in addition to the beings you described.” Isolde sipped her lemonade, her head tilted back and her eyebrows knitted in thought. “Have you all ever heard of the ‘Many-Spheres Theory’?”
“Yeah, there was a brief reference to it in the Magic Lore textbook,” Alex said. “But I don’t know any details.”
“Well.” She drew herself up in her chair. “It proposes that the stars above may nurture worlds much as our own—complete with life, plants, civilization and their own magics. Even their own gods, entirely different from our own.”
“Hohoholy shi-” Thundar began.
“Language.” Alex glanced at the closed door to his room.
“Oh right, sorry. Just was gonna say, I can think of at least three different bunches of priests who’d start foaming at the mouth in a rage at you even suggesting that.”
“It is merely a theory,” Isolde said. “But many wizards and astronomers believe it. It is a fact that powerful archmages do not tend to abide in the world forever, despite many being near-immortal. Some are said to go to different planes, but perhaps there truly are different material worlds out there as well.”
“Hah, what a romantic notion that would be.” Khalik smiled wistfully. “Just you, your magic, and your cabal.” He gestured to the ceiling. “Off up in the heavens exploring the stars.”
Two memories came back to Alex in that moment. One was of the painting in Baelin’s office—the round obsidian table beneath that sea of stars above. The other was of the flying silver objects burning through the blackness between stars that he’d seen while going through The Traveller’s Portal.
Perhaps there was something to those theories after all.
Maybe if he got to know Baelin better, he could ask him. Or maybe information was in some deep level of the library where the ninth-tier spell guides would be kept. If the library even went that deep.
‘Wouldn’t it be thrilling to find out?’ Alex thought.
“Alright, break’s over,” Khalik said. “Before we think on stars and wonders, let’s try and pass these exams as best we can.”
The exam period went by so quickly that it felt like Alex had barely blinked by the time it was all over. In the end, it felt like a blur of study sessions with the cabal, endless library readings, and memories flying through his head provided by The Mark.
Written exams were again fairly easy—though professor Jules had thrown in a few brain-blasting calculation questions that Alex was sure she'd put in just to spite him—and most of the practical examinations had also gone well.
Even FORC-1550 wasn’t too, too awful.
It was fairly embarrassing when he could only demonstrate going through half the spell array for Force Missile to the teacher’s assistant invigilating his practical test, but it felt very good to see the look on their face when he activated Lesser Force Armour, Force Shield and two Wizard’s Hands spells all at once.
When the marks came out, he still hadn’t made the Honours List for that course, but he’d certainly done well enough for himself, if he considered his goals and limits.
Campus exploded in celebration of the end of exams again, and—for a time—all thoughts of the demon summoning seemed to be forgotten.
At last—with Sigmus approaching—it was time for a break, and Generasi provided the students with a three-week break from course work. Some of the students, who lived close enough to the university to make the journey, or had access to teleportation magic—travelled home for the break.
For others, though, the plan was to stay and enjoy the sights of campus and the city without the grind and pressure of classes.
Alex had two major things planned: the first was for he, Theresa, Selina, Brutus, Thundar, Khalik, Najyah and Isolde to spend a day exploring some of Generasi’s countryside. He’d seen the wine country so often from various sky-gondolas that he was eager to get a good look at it up close. He also planned on picking up some extra shifts at Shale’s Workshop and, most exciting…
…he and Selina would begin the first step of a long process he’d been impatiently looking forward to.
Together, they would begin sculpting the body of his golem.