Alex carefully shifted the sack that held the dungeon core’s remains from his belt and slipped it into one of the leather pockets of his lab apron.
He glanced at Amir who’d taken a seat at the far end of the Cell and was pouring over notes laid out in front of him. The grad student kept looking up at Alex, dividing his attention between his notes and the younger student.
Alex nodded at him, but made a sour face behind his mask. When he’d seen how scattered Amir was, he’d hoped that the supervisor wouldn’t pay much attention to him during the lab. Unfortunately, Amir was multitasking while regularly checking on Alex.
Well, Alex would have to examine the dungeon core the hard way, then.
He’d concocted a plan while they were getting the equipment from the supply room: first, Alex would subtly prepare the sample of core remains. Then, he’d run some analysis on it while he was analyzing ingredients for the potion by slipping some into the testing apparatuses in-between the ingredients he was actually supposed to be analyzing for this lab.
To Amir—across the room—it would just look like Alex was doing the work he was supposed to do. He wouldn’t be the wiser unless Alex screwed up, or something unexpected happened, or the grad student randomly sprinted over to check on the experiment and demanded to know: “What the hell is that?!”,when he saw the dungeon core’s remains.
The downside was that he’d only be able to use the apparatuses that were required for the assigned experiment: a mana spectrometer and Kamookak’s Moss. They would test a substance’s composition and toxicity respectively; he’d used them a number of times, including during the lab where his classmate drank quicksilver. Other equipment—that could test different aspects of the remains—weren’t taken out for him this time since they weren’t necessary for this experiment. He’d have to plan on using those when he got access to them for future experiments.
He also wouldn’t be able to get many tries at the analysis today.
Mana spectrometers were run at different times depending on a substance’s composition. The more complex the substance, the longer a spectrometer would have to run in order to break it down and indicate what elements it was composed of. The issue was that running it for too long would often break a substance down too much and not generate any usable data. It would be like taking apart a large piece of wooden furniture to transport it: if the furniture wasn’t broken down enough, then it would never fit through doorways. If it was broken down too much, it would just be splinters: no one would have any idea how those splinters fit together to make up the piece of furniture.
It would be the same with a mana spectrometer: instead of coloured bands to indicate a substance’s composition, the read-out would just be a chaotic array of tiny dots.
With unknown substrates, it was best practice to use a variety of set times when using a mana spectrometer for analysis, making an educated guess as to what time would be a good starting point. For example, if one had a simple substance to analyze, they might start off with running the spectrometer for twenty-one seconds—the recommended time for first-tier potions—and if that didn’t break down the substance into all of its component elements, then the next step would be running it at the recommended time for second-tier potions, which was thirty-one seconds. Or the time for third-tier potions, which was thirty-eight seconds and so on.
The trouble was that figuring out how long to analyze the dungeon core’s remains would be a practice of trial and error, and if he kept running the mana spectrometer half a dozen times without a proper explanation, that would very likely raise some uncomfortable questions and an eyebrow from Amir. There was also the danger that the substance might be too complex to practically run it through this model of mana spectrometer: more complex substances took increasingly longer times for mana spectrometers to break down. A ninth-tier potion would take nearly six hours to analyze with this model, which was why more high-powered models were used with more complex substances.
He could only hope that the dungeon core’s remains would be simple enough to analyze and that it wouldn’t take suspiciously long, but only trial and error would determine that.
First things first, though. He would use Kamookak’s Moss to determine its toxicity, and for that, he would need to either melt the dust, or use a magical solvent to make it into a liquid.
He set his station up so that his mana vacuum was in the potion flask. Now came the first tricky part. Applying heat to the dust might have unforeseen effects, and he also had no idea if the mana solvent would react unexpectedly with it. The solvent was safety rated to not react dangerously with most substances, but there was always a risk when mixing any unknown substance with anything else.
Well, that was what the mana vacuum, mask, goggles, apron and gloves were for.
Carefully, he undid the bag of dungeon core remains in his pocket and took a pinch of the powder with his gloved fingers. He thought back to when he’d scooped up the substance with his bare hands back in The Cave of the Traveller: that had broken so many safety protocols that professor Jules would likely have had an aneurism if she knew.
He carefully dropped the dust into the flask, glancing over his shoulder and nearly jumping when he saw Amir looking right at him. “Everything alright over there?” the grad student asked.
“Yep,” Alex said quickly.
“Good, good,” Amir said contentedly, and went back to his work.
‘You literally were created by the gods to give me a heart attack, weren’t you?’ Alex thought grumpily as he weighed the substance, mentally subtracting the weight of the flask from the number the scale’s brass arrow pointed to.
Shifting the flask to the heat source, he activated it, bringing the flame up to lick around the hardened glass.
He watched the dark powder for a couple of minutes, but the heat wouldn’t melt it.
‘Alright, Plan B.’
He took up the bottle of solvent and poured some of it into a test tube; he would use a volume of solvent equal to the weight of the dust. He turned off the burner, waited for the glass to cool, and then added the liquid.
For a brief second, Alex thought he had killed himself.
The substance began hissing and steaming as it met the solvent; he imagined himself consumed by a horrible magical fireball. He kept his hand on the mana vacuum, watching as the reaction slowly died down.
“What was that?” Amir said suddenly.
“Oh, just dropped a bit of water into the flame. Stupid mistake, sorry,” Alex said quickly.
“Oh, well, be careful…but it happens.”
He heard the rustle of Amir going back to his own activities.
He let out a sigh of relief as the dungeon core’s remains and the solvent combined into a liquid that was as black as night. Alex shuddered as he remembered the inky blackness of the dungeon core, and how it thrummed as it absorbed its victims’ fear. He set the liquified sample aside and started on the assigned procedure for crafting a Potion of Haste.
Glancing at the time, he began planning how to complete each step of the procedure efficiently to get things done as quickly as possible. He was very conscious that he could run out of time, and that The Cell was booked for right after him. So, he’d have to finish everything and have it all cleaned up before time ran out.
Luckily, even though the Potion of Haste was more powerful than anything he’d made before, it had many core similarities to the Potion of Running Enhancement. He went through those steps quickly, applying the solvent to the solid ingredients for the potion—which didn’t hiss loudly, he noted bitterly—and then used his mana conductor to guide the reaction in the proper direction.
As he continued stirring the substance, he conjured a pair of Wizard’s Hands in front of him and willed them to begin the clean up. The magical constructs carefully carried some of the dirty tools that he no longer needed to the sink across the room.
He heard Amir give a grunt of approval. “Very good, we might finish on time if you clean up while you’re guiding the reaction.”
“That’s the plan!” Alex said with exaggerated cheer.
Once his magical hands had returned, he started using them for their realpurpose.
Carefully, he scraped away a portion of Kamookak’s Moss from the steel jar it was stored in and applied it to a small, coin-sized sample plate. He casually shifted his body so that it was well placed between Amir and his spell, then he willed Wizard’s Hand to take up a dropper and draw a sample of the liquified dungeon core remains. Carefully, he dropped a few drops onto the moss and waited for any colour change.
His jaw clenched when the moss changed from its normal blue shade to a yellow-green. That indicated that there was a slight toxicity to the substance, but not to dangerous levels. Sterilizing alcohol also made Kamookak’s Moss turn that colour: it meant that the substance could be handled, even have skin contact with, but ingesting it would likely be a terrible idea.
Alex was very glad he’d had his mask on when the stuff started hissing. Next, would be running it through the mana spectrometer, but that would have to wait until he was testing the potion’s composition.
He used Wizard’s Hand to carry the moss sample to the disposal bin, then returned his attention to the brewing Potion of Haste, glancing again at the glowing timekeeper on the wall. Ironically, a potion that doubled his speed in all things would have been very handy at the moment.
He gasped, glancing down; his potion was hissing ominously in the flask. Something it definitely shouldn’t have been doing.
His eyes grew wide as the liquid began to climb the sides of the flask and glow with a silvery light. Without hesitation, he hit the switch on the mana vacuum, watching as the energy was sucked out of the reaction and into the mana waste container. The energy still glowed in the container.
The substance—now without mana to fuel the magical reaction—immediately stopped climbing the flask. It merely boiled as flame continued to heat it; Alex cut the heat immediately.
“Damn it,” he swore.
“What happened?” Alex heard a chair scrape and footsteps begin to move behind him. Almost in a panic, he grabbed the flask with the dungeon core’s liquified sample and moved it behind the mana spectrometer, sliding it between the device and the protective shield that rose from the back of the work table.
He turned to Amir, making sure to get his attention. “Agh, reaction got away from me. Had to vacuum it.”
“Ah, that happens to the best of us.” Amir squinted at the flask of incomplete potion. “What step were you on?”
Moving his body slightly so that it was between Amir and the mana spectrometer, he described the part of the reaction he’d been guiding when things began to get out of hand. Listening to Alex’s explanation intently, Amir’s eyes lit up behind his mask.
“That’s it,” Amir said. “Swiftling’s Tears break down a lot faster than quicksilver, so if you don’t control specifically how they take in mana, they’ll get away from you.”
“Oooh,” Alex groaned.
“It’s a finicky ingredient.” Amir shrugged. “And this is your first time brewing a third-tier potion, right? That’s the point of doing this in a lab: you can make mistakes, learn from them and get better. If we’d gotten alchemy right the first time we tried something, we wouldn’t need a school for it. Start again, and use the mana from the first reaction to fuel the second.”
“Yeah, got it,” Alex said, glancing at the timekeeper as Amir walked back to his desk.
It was going to be close.
Quickly, he went through the earlier steps of the potion recipe again, using The Mark to guide him through all of his most successful moments. This time, he made sure to focus all his attention on the reaction: trying to speed through the steps with his focus split had been a bad idea.
He took a deep, meditative breath and guided the reaction through its steps, acknowledging each distracting thought that came to him and then letting them go.
This time, the potion went as per procedure and—soon enough—he had a complete Potion of Haste on his hands. Now came the sneaky part.
He decided to run the dungeon core sample through the mana spectrometer first, running the spectrometer for the same amount of time as he would for a third-tier potion. It would be the least conspicuous way to start, since a Potion of Haste was third-tier and so he’d be running it for that length of time too.
Adding the black substance to the mana spectrometer, he waited thirty-eight seconds, nervously tapping the desk. That half a minute felt more like half a day, and he nearly pounced on the mana spectrometer when the process finished.
Taking out the sample and the paper read out for the dungeon core sample, next he placed some of the completed Potion of Haste into the mana spectrometer. Letting out a sigh of relief at getting the process for the dungeon core finished, he glanced down at the results, making a quiet sound of discontent.
A lot of the read-out was a slurry of multiple shades; only some of it had come out as the coloured bars that indicated a substance’s composition. He’d need to run the spectrometer longer to fully break down what the dungeon core was made of.
He sighed, nearly about to put the paper down when he paused. Focusing more closely on the coloured bars, he realized something about the pattern.
His eyes went wide.
He’d seen this composition before.