Alex watched Claygon for a while longer, but he gave no other signs of coming to life, or showing intelligence, or turning evil and going on a killing rampage. He pulled out one of the notebooks from the basket attached to his forceball and wrote down the observation.
There was no doubt that Baelin and Jules would want to hear about what he felt he might be experiencing, even if nothing was actually going on. It wouldn’t be the first time a wizard had imagined that one of their golems or items had come alive. The problem with being around so much magic all the time was that well…magic often made just about anything possible, or even seem possible.
He looked at the vampire pumpkin while Holden drew the outline of an apple on the obsidian board. One tap of a finger made the apple diagram turn gold. For most folk, strange activities and sounds from a pumpkin probably meant…well, a rotten pumpkin or a village prankster.
When magic was involved, one actually did have to worry about blood-sucking squashes. And when strange things happened around you all the time, it made it hard to tell if you were imagining things or not. Sure, wizardry often had rules—particularly when it came to something as precise as spell arrays or alchemy—but magic in general tended more toward…guidelines.
Much like most other disciplines in life, facts about magic were only true until someone discovered that they weren’t. And that made it tricky to say that something was definitely impossible.
“-en apples are one of the oldest methods to reach immortality, of a sort,” Holden said.
Alex’s attention immediately returned to the professor. Talk of immortality tended to grab one’s attention.
“Now, that might be commonly known among those that have even a layman’s knowledge of alchemy.” Holden tapped the chalk on his palm then held up four fingers. “But did you know that there are four varieties of golden apple that grow on this continent alone?”
He drew four similar looking trees on the board, then drew four very differently shaped leaves. “The Malus Atalanta tree’s apples don’t bestow immortality when eaten: they’re tasty and their sheen magically draws the eye, supernaturally distracting and fascinating living creatures. That’s how the tree feeds on its favourite source of food: wild horses.”
Alex and Khalik shared startled looks.
“Malus Eris’s apples have a supernatural aura of discord, which causes…well, discord in all who behold the fruit within a day of it being picked. They have literally triggered wars when introduced into even peaceful environments. Malus Hesperides is different in that its apples are actually made of pure, yellow gold, which it uses to attract dragons: certain species of which are driven to hoard wealth, especially gold. The dragon will enter into a symbiotic relationship with the Malus tree, which permits it to harvest its bountiful crop of golden apples once every twenty years. In return, the dragon protects the tree from predators. Only Malus Idhunn’s golden apples—of any on the continent—have youth restoring and maintenance qualities: but the tree can only thrive in the presence of strong divinity, while prolonged exposure to mana—without divinity present—will cause it to wither and die. Still, they’re precious enough that the Nor-Polaric Pantheon guards them, and the Lord of the End covets them as much as he covets Irytshenan blood…which is a lot, by the way.”
Alex perked up at the mention of the Irytshenans, but Holden was already moving on.
“And the kicker? After harvest, the apples of all these trees look exactly the same, except for a couple of variations in shape and weight.”
He held up the textbook. “That’s why you have to memorize as many properties as possible if you want to identify magical plants. Now, you might be asking: why Magical Botany? If this is all about identifying and growing plants, couldn’t this be an alchemy class? Not so!”
The last two words cracked out like a whip, causing the class to wince. “Magical Botany is more than learning how to combine magical plants to make potions or staves. It’s about the plants themselves. It’s about their ecosystems: what’s their place in the world? What role do they serve? What happens if they’re gone? What happens if they’re too many of the species? Can they be crossbred? Can you turn a wild, man-eating tree into something as domesticated and common as wheat? These are the questions that you can answer with a strong enough education in Magical Botany. The study of plants created agriculture, and farming built everything you see around you. Well, that and magic.”
He gestured to the man-eating plant. “No big surprise, but magical plants are a liiiittle bit more complex to study and change than a patch of cherry tomatoes. With all that in mind, we’ll work together, get you started and—in no time at all—we’ll have your hands dirty. Literally, I mean don't wear nice clothes here: it’s plant class. We’re going to play with dirt. A lot.”
Khalik raised his hand.
“Ah, an eager one. You have a question?”
“Two, actually. First, I study earth magic; will that be helpful for Magical Botany?”
Holden threw back his head and laughed. “Does the sun rise? Of course that’s gonna be helpful. One of the first things you’re going to do is learn how to identify the six kinds of soil: sand, clay, silt, peat, chalk and loam. You’ll need to know what your babies are growing in, and an earth mage is already going to know how to identify different kinds of earth and stone, and modify it to suit their purposes. Earth magic and botany go well together. What’s your second question?”
“Do uh…” he paused. “No, never mind.”
“You sure? No such thing as a stupid question. Only stupid people who never ask questions. Usually dead people, in this business.”
“It is fine, you already answered it,” Khalik said quickly.
“Alright, then. Let’s start with the history of mortals, plants and how that extends to the history of wizards, other mortals, and plants of a magical nature.”
“What were you going to ask him earlier?” Alex asked Khalik as they made their way through the botanical gardens and away from the class.
The prince coughed uncomfortably. “I thought perhaps to ask him directly if he knew anything about dryads and their trees…but he was so serious, as was the subject. I thought: ‘how would I look if one of my first questions in class was about beautiful tree-women?”
Alex started to chuckle. “Oh, by The Traveller, that would actually be kind of embarrassing. ‘Yes Holden, I’m really serious about your class: I hear everything you say about respect! Oh by the way, can you help me talk up some dryads’?”
“Now you have me wondering if anyone else has tried taking that class for that reason,” Khalik said. “To be fair, that is part of the reason I joined the class…but no one else needs to know that. Oh, and speaking of that, why were you looking at the back of the class when he was telling us of affection and about golden apples? I am not sure if the professor noted it, but I did.”
“Oh…well,” Alex glanced back at Claygon. For a moment he considered talking to Khalik away from the golem…but they were connected. Claygon wouldn’t be able to detect all of his thoughts, but Alex had been watching him openly and mentally probing the connection.
If there was something approaching thought inside of him, then he’d already know Alex suspected something. Besides, if Alex talked about it openly, maybe it would give Claygon a reason to respond.
He shook his head.
Unless he was imagining it…or going insane.
He told Khalik of the slight reactions he thought he was feeling from Claygon, which caused the prince to watch the golem carefully as he followed them.
“I have not seen anything strange from Claygon, unless you count ‘being unstoppable’ to be strange.” He stroked his beard. “Are you going to tell your professor Jules and Baelin of your concern?”
“Oh you bet your ass, I am,” Alex said. “The worst thing they can say if I do tell them is, ‘you’re being crazy, Alex’ and maybe laugh at me a little. But, the worst thing that can happen if I don't tell them is…well uh, imagine smashed buildings, and fire, and screams.”
“Mmm, true.” The prince patted Alex on the shoulder. “Well, if you are crazy then this is still likely to end in smashed buildings, and fire, and screams. But I shall be there to put you down!”
Khalik grinned. “Think about it! The young, promising wizard turns to dark arts-”
“I don’t like where this is going.”
“-while his good friend, the handsome brave prince must—regrettably—slay him-”
“I really don’t like where this is going.”
“-and as you lay dying-”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
“You lament: ‘Oh, if only The Dark Wizard Alexander Roth had seen the light before! My only regret is that I only see a better way now as I lay dying! If only I had more time!’ And then, of course, you die while I lament your loss and wish there was more time-”
“There could be, just call a healer! Patch me up if I’ve seen the light, you bastard!”
“Ah, but that would ruin the moment and the drama!”
“The moment and drama are pretty ruined for me, cuz I’m dead!”
“But think of all the young wizards that will avoid your dark path whenever they walk by the statue that I have built to honour your memory.” Khalik faked a sniffle. “A memory of better times.”
Alex glared at him. “You know…I tend to enjoy the stories where the plucky, underestimated hero beats the shit out of the arrogant prince and leaves him unconscious in some botanical gardens. …or, you know, has a large, smashy friend do the same.”
“That would be cheating.”
“I’m supposed to be a dark wizard, right? I don’t care about cheating!”
“I thought you were a plucky, underestimated hero?”
“I’m both! Life is full of greys!”
“Hmmm,” Professor Jules mused as she peered into her piccoscope. Nearby, one of her cauldrons bubbled, boiling down a substance while she examined a sample for one of her experiments. “Have you noticed any common patterns with these anomalies?”
“Nothing,” Alex admitted. “One time I was really relaxed, one time I was in class. Claygon hadn’t encountered anything specific, the areas were different. Just nothing in common at all.”
“Ah, of course,” she snorted. “Life rarely conforms itself into proper experimental parameters. Observations are full of confounding variables: was I imagining something I saw? Was there some factor that day out in the world that made something behave in a certain way? Especially when it comes to magic, such things make it difficult to narrow infinite possibilities down into hypotheses and then finally, theoretical causal relationships.”
“Right,” Alex said. “Can’t even establish correlation because there’re so many differences with these little reactions from Claygon. There’s no pattern.”
He sighed. “So what do you think, am I just being paranoid here?”
“Well, as we just said Mr. Roth, we do not have much data to go on.”
“I mean like…an educated guess.”
She looked up from the piccoscope. “An ‘educated guess’ he says. Do you know what the difference between a ‘guess’ and an ‘educated guess’ is? The latter is made by someone who’s read more books. There might be value in that if the guess is about something that is known and studied, but the substance powering your golem is for the most part unknown. In short, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what’s possible, and saying otherwise, would be irresponsible.”
“Ah…I see,” he sighed. “But what about from the history of golemcraft? I remember the earliest golem went berserk because of too strong a connection with a wizard’s mind.”
“And do you feel that your connection to Claygon is constant or in any way overwhelming?”
“Then, if it hasn’t gone berserk as of yet—if it were a normal golem—then it is likely that it will not. Again, if it were a normal golem. We aren’t talking about the elementally-bound monstrosities here.”
“The what now?” Alex asked. “Elementally-bound monstrosities? As golems? What do you mean?”
“Ah, so you haven’t encountered that particular little historical detail, then?” Professor Jules stepped away from the piccoscope. “I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised: you are in between your first and second year, after all, though I sometimes forget. And this wouldn’t be knowledge you’d find in first year courses. To sum it up, after-”
A sound like a little bell rang out from a wall mounted time-keeper.
“Ah, the process is done,” she said. “Mr. Roth, would you mind handing me the mana spectrometer?”
“Oh yeah, sure.” He glanced over and had one of his Wizard’s Hands pick up the tool and ferry it over to her. He watched as she stirred the reducing liquid and guided the reaction with the tool.
Then she did something that caught him off guard.
From her apron she pulled out a strange, oblong stone with a series of glyphs etched into its surface. Alex frowned. He recognized some of the glyphs from a device he’d seen Jules use a few times before: a far-speaker.
A complex web of mana emerged from the stone and travelled through the floor, but the flow of the mana through the web was far faster now. His sense for mana was much more precise than it used to be, so he could trace every complex line of the structure. The design of the ‘communication’ web had utterly changed.
Where it had come out of the stone as a line before, now it spread out in all directions.
In an instant, Alex heard a familiar voice come through the stone.
“Professor? Is your reaction ready?” Amir Abu Saleh—Alex’s former lab supervisor—said through the far-speaker. His voice sounded much clearer than others had sounded when Alex had seen the far-speaker being used before.
“It is,” she said into the magical device. “Mark time…ready…go.”
Professor Jules and Amir conducted a reaction simultaneously while in different labs, keeping in constant communication and providing each other with commentary.
By the end, Professor Jules was very excited. “It seems there is a connection between the samples of the substance, despite them being physically separated by stone and yards of distance. Well done, Amir. Mark time and then you can start cleaning up.”
“Thank you, professor,” Amir’s voice replied.
The web withdrew back into the far-speaker.
“Wow,” Alex murmured as he stepped forward to help her clean up. “That little device got an upgrade.”
“Hm?” Professor Jules glanced at the far-speaker. “Ah yes. A new version just exited the prototype phase a month ago. Several of us are now testing its efficiency and so far, the advancements are impressive.”
“I’ll say,” Alex said, imagining how useful the device could be. He thought of Theresa’s parents—communicating slowly and sporadically through letters—and how much easier things would have been if they could simply reach each other instantly on a far-speaker. “What comes next with it?”
“After three months of field testing, this model will be patented and then enter production. I suspect, if things go well, you will see them in many places around Generasi within the next two years.”
“Not yet, I’m afraid. The design requires our strong ambient mana. But in time…perhaps. Ah, speaking of advancements. I was going to tell you about elemental-binding in golemcraft.”
“I’m surprised I haven’t heard about it at Shale’s.”
“I’m not. It is not truly an alchemical process, and the only place in the world that it is still used—with any degree of regularity—is within the Irtyshenan Empire. And it is not a kind process, even compared to the rest of wizardry.”