The Aterland Chronicles

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Chapter 5: First Morn

After breakfast in the refectory, Arjan took the four Whytes to the Oratory’s classrooms. Like the dormitories, all of the classrooms led off from a central pentagonal hall. Each of them, like the dorms, was identified by a distinctive carved stone emblem above the door. Over the first was a simple open book. A giant winged bee hung over the second, over the third was a serpent whose body was formed into a ring as it appeared to be attempting to swallow its own tail. Over the final door was an intricately carved symbol made up from three interlocking triangles.

Arjan explained, “The book is the symbol for Cognito, it’s also on the potens pin worn by all of the Memorix novices and ascendants. The bee symbolises morphology and is donned by the Metamorphs, The Ouroboros serpent signifies immortality and represents alchemy so is worn by alchemists, and the vaulknut is the symbol of Magica worn by mages and wizards. Therefore, you’ll need to start in here.”

He leant forward and opened the heavy, wooden door to the morphology classroom.

“Enjoy your first day. You’ll have plenty to discuss this evening if yours is anything like mine was.”

The four new Mud ascendants rushed past them into the classroom.

“You’d better go, or you won’t get a good seat” encouraged Arjan “Hopefully they have thought to add another four.”

Inside the Morphology classroom, it was bright, cheerful, noisy and smelly. The walls of the huge, dome-shaped classroom were lined with hundreds of cages, housing just about every conceivable type of animal imaginable. The room’s aroma was a heady mix of musty straw, animal fur, feathers and excrement. Though not wholly unpleasant, it was enough to prompt Auriel to delicately hold the tip of her nose between two of her fingers as she entered. The centre of the room was dominated by a magnificent, round, goldstone table. It had a large open space at its core, and on its far side was an opening which formed a path to this central circle.

Rose sat down with the rest of her cell at the far end of the table and waited patiently for their first class. Soon all of them; Muds, Bloods, Golds and Whytes were seated. Everyone appeared subdued and quiet, but the atmosphere was electric.

Ash let his eyes wander around the room, and although the novices were quiet, the room was not. There was a cacophony of animal sounds radiating from the creatures in the cages.

He could hear hissing, cooing, barking, squawking, squeaking as well as some strange, unimaginable noises that he could not believe were generated by any living creature. He stared wide-eyed and fascinated by the variety of life in the cages in front of him. There were birds, winged reptiles and mammals, large insect-like creatures, cats, bears and even fish who seemed to be suspended in some kind of invisible liquid, floating and swimming around within their cages.

In a cage suspended on the wall at the back of the room, directly above the rear opening of the table, Ash noticed a large gold and red bird. It possessed a razor sharp, hooked beak, and long, curved talons. The label on its cage told him that the animal was a golden fyre hawk. Noticing Ash’s eyes upon it, the creature turned its two golden eyes to meet his.

“Well,” it said to him tersely, “ You seem to have found me, so how long do you intend to make me wait, before you let me out?”

Small shivers of flame shot out from the nostrils of the hawk’s hooked beak as it spoke. Ash’s mouth fell open; he looked around at the other novices but was surprised to see that none of the others was reacting at all.

“Lee,” he said, nudging him and pointing at the Hawk “did you just hear that bird ask to be let out of its cage?”

Lee raised an eyebrow “are you saying that you did?”

“Bird! Bird! How dare you!” The hawk screeched at him, “ I’ll have you know that I am an Aurum fyre hawk. Which means that you are in the presence of royalty, and anyway, it’s no good asking him, the hawk scoffed, waving his beak towards Lee. “He won’t hear me, he’s an Alchemist, so clearly, he will not have the potentia.”

Ash’s jaw dropped. Desperately he looked around at the other novices for confirmation from someone, anyone, that he was not going totally barmy. The hawk flapped its wings noisily, shaking its head.

“Come on….” Said the bird, “ I’m getting stiff in here, do hurry up young Ash, we haven’t got all day you know!”

Again he looked around at the other novices who remained in their seats, quietly waiting. Nobody seemed to be hearing any of this, except Ash. He poked a finger inside each of his ears, giving it a little wiggle.

“You’re not hearing me with your ears young Ash,” the hawk said, sounding exasperated. “Come on now, let me out, we need to begin, and it appears that the success of this lesson rests solely with you...”

Ash looked around at his classmates yet again, still expecting someone to say something. When no one did, he got up, ambled over to the hawk’s cage and hesitantly opened its bear claw toggle fastening.

The hawk, its wings flapping loudly, flew from the cage to the accompanying shrieks of the young novices, as it flew over their heads and towards the central arena of the table. As the hawk descended its form became phosphorescent and indistinct, a mixture of glowing vapour and solid form. On landing, the light dimmed to reveal Lord Irwin, the Morphology Magister.

“Well done Lord Ash,” he said “It appears that everything that I have read about you is true. I am very much looking forward to helping you to develop your evidently outstanding Morphology potentia even further.”

Ignoring Ash’s dumbstruck look he addressed the other novices, who were in possession of similar expressions.

“Welcome to Morphology first years. In this class, all of you will learn to use your potentia to communicate with other creatures to a greater or lesser extent. Most of you will have the potentia to practice verto, to morph aspects of your form to suit your purpose; forming gills, fins or wings when needed. A few of you will be able to develop your potentia further, enabling you to complete a full metamorphosis, such as the one you have just witnessed.”

An eager buzz emerged from the novices. They quietened as Lord Irwin raised his tone.

“However, before we begin your introduction to the world of the Morphology, I have been asked to present you with your ascendant’s pins and report cards. Your pins are for identification and safety purposes and should be worn at all times. Your report cards will give you an insight into how you performed in your previous ascension and indicate any areas that may require improvement. Those are the areas on which you should aim to work the hardest, over your next three years as a novice.”

Lord Irwin handed each student a sheet of parchment which had been folded into a triangular envelope. As Ash broke the wax seal, a gold pin slipped out into his hand. At the top of the pin was a golden bee and below this Ash’s name had been engraved onto a thin gold ribbon. He pinned it to his robe before unfolding the parchment. Inside was a beautifully handwritten script, it read:

‘Lord Ash. You had a good last ascent. Though there are, as you will see below, a few areas of potentia that you will need to work on. I am, however, extremely pleased to say that your class work in Morphology was exemplary and well deserving of the Morphology Prize that you were awarded on your graduation. You are certainly likely to provide the other novices with much challenge and inspiration this ascension. Welcome back to the Oratory of Aurum. Lord Bertram Dux, Prima Magister, Oratory of Aurum.’

Below this was a subject by subject report beginning with a grade.

’Magica: Grade C

Ash, you have developed your potentia in Magica to an acceptable level. Improvements can be made by striving to be less distracted in class and more frequent practice outside the classroom environment. Theodore Goldin, Magica Magister

Alchemy: Grade D

Your progress in Alchemy last ascent was slow. Your potentia in charm making can only be described as immature. However, you are much stronger in pharmacology, primarily due to your ability to commune with the pharmacon loris. You should endeavour to take all your classes more seriously this ascension to bring your potentia in Alchemy, up to the level of your Morphology studies. Alain De Lille, Alchemy Magister

Cognito: Grade D

Lord Ash, though you have displayed some conscientiousness in your study of the subject, I fear that Cognito is not where your natural abilities lie. I have rarely experienced a student who has generated such poor results.

However, it appears that when you are engaged in an area of study, you are capable of attaining much higher grades. For example, your retention of ‘The Dragons of Hydrargyrum’ and ‘Creatures of the Forests of Ferrum’ was almost faultless. I would hope that this ascension you will expand your interests more generally and thereby increase your breadth of knowledge. Clara Tesler, Cognito Magister

Morphology: Grade AAA

Lord Ash, you are by far the ablest Metamorph that I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. To my knowledge, your potentia is unsurpassed by any other ascendant past or present. I feel that I have little left to teach you, my only hope is, that you are able to put your great potentia in this area to good use in your future ascensions. Murdoch Tremayne, Morphology Magister.’

“What does yours say?” asked Auriel, as she pinned her open book pin onto her robe. Not allowing him time to answer, she went on, “I’ve C’s in everything except for Cognito. I got a double A in Cognito. According to Lady Tesler, I have an amazingly brilliant memory, which is strange because I don’t remember a thing about this place. It’s so bizarre they could be talking about anyone. It doesn’t feel as if this is about me at all. I wonder if it’s a good indication of how we are going to do in our classes this time around.”

Ash shrugged “I don’t know. I hope so, though because I got a triple A in Morphology” he said, “on the other hand, I was absolutely pants in pretty much everything else. I think that maybe this is supposed to tell us what we need to work harder on. I’m not really bothered really. I just want to find out what I can do with this ring...”

He made a flamboyant gesture with his right hand, finishing with a flourish as he dramatically pointed his ringed finger at Lee. Lee, however, was oblivious to this as he was focussed on pinning his Ouroboros pin onto his robe. He was taking extreme care to ensure that it was completely straight, with the head of the Ouroboros centred at the top.

“So…” said Ash, still pointing his finger at him, “How was your report?”

Lee regarded him blankly and recited his grades with indifference as if they belonged to someone else. “Double-A in Alchemy, A’s in Cognito and Magica and a B in Morphology.”

“That’s excellent!” Said Auriel

“Yeah... that’s great” said Ash a little grudgingly “Looks like you’re a real all-rounder mate. Guess I’ll have to put in some work if I want to compete with those grades.”

“What does yours say?” said Ariel, turning to Rose, who was now wearing a golden vaulknut pinned to her left shoulder.

Rose shrugged, turning the open parchment around so that they could read it.

’Lady Rose. This is your first ascent, and therefore there is, of course, no formal report card. However, if the Sooth is correct, then you are born of four of our oldest, and most important ascendants, the Rhodium Four. Lord Eldwyn, Lord Ruzha, Lord Ogin, and Lady Sevti, all excelled in Magica, and Alchemy. I, therefore, expect that you also are likely to excel in these areas.

This year will be difficult for you as a first ascendant, especially given the circumstances of your ascent. I will, therefore, be arranging for you to have extra classes with me so that I can prepare you for what may or may not come to pass.

Welcome to the Oratory of Aurum. Lord Bertram Dux, Prima Magister’

Auriel put an arm around her.

“Well, it looks like Arjan was right,” she said. “All of us seem to be gifted in the area of our potentia and you my dear, are truly unique.”

She tightened her grip, giving Rose a quick hug before continuing.

“It looks like you were right too; there probably is a good reason for us all to have ascended as one cell. We all seem to have strong, compatible skills, which would be just what you would need if you were to put together an elite group for some sort of quest. You seem to be destined to lead us, so I guess that means that we’re probably destined to follow. We’re a team now, and it would appear that our cells are our family here.”

Ash nodded, smiling warmly in agreement, but Lee frowned and sighed loudly.

“Really?” he said “Really? I don’t know how you can make statements like that, without the slightest bit of concrete evidence. What evidence is there that any such phenomenon as destiny even exists. I think it much more likely that we are all here due to some sort of equipment malfunction, rather than anything as dubious as fate. Also, I see no reason why I should think of Rose as my leader. She hasn’t even got a report card, which means, of course, that there is absolutely no evidence that Rose is skilled in anything.”

“The prophecy is evidence,” said Auriel, “ It predicted Rose’s ascendance.”

“The prophecy...” Lee sneered. “I could prophesize that one-day purple rain would fall from the sky, and if I waited long enough, it is statistically likely that there would, indeed, be a purple rain day. The prophecy also, I believe, predicted many things that have not occurred. The prophecy did not predict us did it? All of us, Ascendants of four different casts arriving together? Which is why it is much more likely that we are here because of a chance error of some sort.“

Rose smiled, “I really hope that you are right Lee, I really do. I can’t say that I feel much like a Djinn Slayer or a great magician. In fact, to be honest, the thought of all of this scares me to bits.”

They were distracted from their conversation by Lord Irwin as he began their first class.

“Novices,” He said as he lifted four small skeps onto the table, setting one out in front of each of the four cells. “It is time to begin, so please gather around here now, and pay attention.”

This request was entirely superfluous as the novices were instantly captivated by the mesmerising sound of the humming and buzzing of thousands of apis bees. The skeps were sticky, leaking their sweet smelling honey onto the table.

“Today you are going to learn one of the most important and vital, lessons of Morphology,” said Lord Irwin, he paused dramatically, “how to read the apis.”

Lifting up another skep from under the table, he placed it down in front of him.

“Apis are our primary method of communication over long distances.” He explained “The message transmission requires two processes. The first process involves a Metamorph communicating the message to the apis, together with the identity of the person to whom it is addressed. This process is generally carried out only by Metamorphs and so will be covered in morphology major classes only.” He paused at the disappointed moans of some of the novices. However, he went on enthusiastically. “Any of us can receive an apis message, which means that you will all need to be proficient in the second process; decoding the message, which is what we will be covering today.”

His attention was taken by a commotion at the far end of the table. Cries and yells of pain emanated from within the group of young Muds. One member of the group, Rowan, having pushed a forefinger into the hive in an endeavour to taste some of the honey, was nursing a red, swollen and visibly throbbing hand.

“Please do not interfere with the skeps,” Irwin said, a little too late, “the apis are very protective of their honey, and they possess a rather painful sting” He seemed flustered.

Lord Irwin tentatively pulled a phial of liquid from a small leather bag hanging from his girdle. Taking the boy’s hand, he uncorked the flask with his teeth and poured some of the sticky golden liquid onto the wound.

“You won’t do that again will you?” Lord Irwin shook his head and placed his ringed hand over the boy’s wound. “Veneno sanare,” he said, casting the healing charm.

The yellow stone in Irwin’s ring glowed brightly for a second, and the redness and swelling on the boy’s hand instantly receded. Rowan breathed out a long sigh.

“Thanks,” he hesitated, “Sorry.”

Lord Irwin, still appearing a little flustered, acknowledged his apology with a nod and then turned his attention back to the rest of the class. Nervously, he cleared his throat.

“If apis do have a message for you,” he said “then they will generally find you, wherever you may be. Then they will quickly make you aware that the message is addressed to you by forming a monitus. The monitus is a dynamic spiral formation that the swarm forms in the air, directly in front of you. I will illustrate, watch carefully now.”

He pulled open the small flap from the entrance of the skep and instantly hundreds of apis swarmed out of it. Flying up in front of Lord Irwin’s face, the swarm dipped, swerved, and formed into a swirling buzzing torrent, appearing to be a single entity. The monitus was round and wide at the top, and then it coiled and narrowed as it spiralled downwards like water swirling down a hole.

Lord Irwin spoke to the monitus “ indica mihi”tell me’.

Instantly the bees left the spiral, landed on the tabletop in front of him and then gathered into a seemingly chaotic huddle. Their movements rapidly became more organised, scurrying between each other in distinct figure-of-eight patterns.

“What you are watching,” said Lord Irwin, “ is known as the waggle dance, and if you wish to decipher it, you cannot only use your eyes.”

He hesitated, his tone implying something mysterious and exciting was about to be revealed.

“As the apis rub their bodies together, they accumulate an electric charge. This causes them to emit a modulating electric field. All ascendants possess an innate perception of these fields. This enables us to interpret their meaning with little effort, though it does take practice. All you have to do to perceive their message is to listen, but not with your ears, listen with your potentia. You need to feel the magnetism. I would like you all to try this now and see if you can pick anything up from them.”

He paused, allowing the novices to concentrate. They quietened, and listened intently to the humming of the apis, which appeared to intensify as the room stilled. Irwin waited a few minutes, and then asked: “Can anyone tell me what the message is?”

Noticing the lack of confidence on their faces, he attempted to encourage them. “Just let it come to you. You do not need to concentrate or even to think. In fact, it is better if you don’t think. Empty your mind and the message should appear spontaneously as if it were your own thought. The more vacant your mind, the easier you will find it.”

Ash raised his hand, “ I think, well... It makes no sense to me but are they saying ‘the manna is in the green jar?’

Some of the others were nodding in agreement, evidently having had a similar thought.

“Perhaps, Lord Ash,” said Lord Irwin, indicating a green jar on one of the shelves, “you would like check and see if you have made a correct interpretation.”

Ash sidled over to the large green jar, pulled off the cork lid and peered inside.

“Err... I’m not sure…. what is manna anyway?” he said, a crease between his brows.

“Manna,” said Irwin “is an incredibly delicious sweet, made from wafer and apis honey. It has a thick, honeyed topping, which is usually embossed with the image of a bee.”

“In that case,” said Ash triumphantly holding up a golden, oval shaped wafer between his fingers. “I guess I was spot on!”

“Well done Ash.” Irwin congratulated. “As a reward, you may share the manna with the rest of your cell.”

Ash beamed with pride as he passed the jar to the others. Lee took a biscuit.

“Well done Ash,” he said, with a sly smile and a lift of an eyebrow, “you evidently have a great talent for emptying your mind. It’s no wonder you are such an accomplished Metamorph.”

“Thanks, Lee,” said Ash “but it’s beginning to worry me, being at the top of my game already. It means that now, the only way is down.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that...,” said Lee

“Awe thanks,” said Ash.

“No, I wouldn’t say that.” Said Lee, snorting as he gave Ash the briefest and tiniest of smiles, “because you most certainly are not, at the top of your game...”

By the end of the class, almost all of the new novices could read the apis, with little or no effort or errors. Consequently, they all left the classroom content and eagerly anticipating their next lesson. However Rose, deep in thought, appeared to be somewhat downhearted. She had found the apis message almost impossible to decode, only managing to read her message with an enormous amount of help from Ash.

“You would think that with the vapours of four great wizards inside of me,” she said. “I should be able to manage to read an apis at least half, as well as everyone else.”

Privately, though, Rose was beginning to worry that she would turn out to be a big disappointment to everyone. ‘Maybe Lee is right,’ she thought. ‘Everyone’s expecting me to be this great wizard, the saviour of the Afterlands, and yet I can’t even read a supposedly simple apis message. Maybe the prophecy was just guesswork, perhaps I am just a mistake, an artefact of the ascension process, a chance error, a blip.’

Ash, sensing her mood, gave her a friendly nudge with his elbow, “ Hey! None of us is good at everything… except for Lee of course,” he said with a wink, “ but anyway, I don’t think you were brought here to read messages, Rose.”

Upon entering the Cognito classroom, the group of novices were instantly hushed by the imposing, scholarly atmosphere. The large round room possessed walls so high that the ceiling could not be discerned. Each wall was lined with beautiful hand carved wooden bookcases, each of them overflowing with books. Thousands, perhaps millions of books of every colour and size, filled every available space. Most of them were obviously ancient, and some of them were ridiculously large. There did not seem to be one space available to add another.

Giant ladders hung on circular frames linking walkways at different levels. High above them, they could see something moving, leaping quickly between levels. Rowan and Tamarix pointed up at what appeared to be two small, crooked men in red jackets and pot shaped hats. They seemed to be leaping fearlessly from one ladder and onto another on a lower level, a distance of over fifty feet. The room was dark and imbued with the musty scents of polished oak, old paper, parchment, and candle wax.

Towards the centre of the room was a circular area of comfortable seating, soft squashy chairs and sofas were placed next to polished wooden side tables supporting dark green oil lamps.

This seating area encircled another central area housing a collection of small hand carved wooden lecterns arranged in a circle around a circular plinth that supported a larger and a much more ornate podium. Its upper section had been fashioned into two fyre hawks, the wings of which provided support for the Magister’s books and notes.

Lady Tesler stood patiently behind the lectern and waited for the novices to take their places. The last of them to do so was Saffron, a young gold who looked around mortified, as she desperately searched for a spare lectern. Joel, her cell’s Alchemist, called to her, waving and pointing frantically to the relatively small podium next to his own, which was vacant. Lady Tesler smiled sympathetically as Saffron rushed to take her place.

“Welcome to Cognito young novices.” she said, “I trust that you enjoyed your first morphology class.”

She looked reassured as the students nodded in accord.

“That is good. However, it is Cognito that is by far the most important of all the potentia. I suspect that many of you will value the arguably more exciting aspects of Magica, Alchemy and Morphology over what may appear to be the much drier potens of Cognito. To do this is extremely unwise because Cognito is the potentia for the acquisition of knowledge and knowledge… is power.”

Her voice emphasised this last sentence, and it held a conviction of belief that was both convincing and beguiling.

“All of you here” she went on “possess the innate potentia to acquire knowledge through Cognito, to store this knowledge efficiently and to access it when needed. Some of you will be able to do much more than this. Some of you will have minds that are able to synthesise knowledge from all around you and rarely, one or two of you will be able to do all of this at an amazingly rapid rate. These gifted individuals will also be able to retain and access this great wealth of knowledge, indefinitely.”

Her eyes drifted over the faces of the novices, finally coming to rest on Auriel as she continued.

“These particular individuals will be invaluable to their cells because with great knowledge, comes great power. Now, to assess each of your current working levels, I will need you complete a small test.”

Subdued groans and sullen expressions followed this revelation, the Muds seeming particularly unimpressed. Lady Tesler flashed them a brief smile of amusement and went on.

“You should all have in front of you a copy of the book, ‘A Concise History of the Afterlands,’ by the native Ferrum author, Acer P. Green. Traditionally this is the first book that new novices read after ascension. ‘Concise’ may not be an entirely accurate description. As you can see it is a rather large volume, but most of you should be able to finish it by the end of the lesson.”

Ash raised his eyebrows, “Yeah” he said, flicking through the book’s vast number of pages with his thumb, “ like that’s going to happen.”

“To begin,” said Lady Tesler, “ I would like you to turn over the front cover of the book.”

She opened her copy and watched as they did likewise.

“Novices, please do not be too worried about this, acquisition of knowledge by Cognito is a relatively simple matter, and for the majority, it is automatic as breathing. Now please watch carefully” She said, demonstrating her actions as she proceeded. “First you must hold the book. It should rest lightly in your ringed right hand. When reading large books such as this, you will need to hold the top left corner in your left hand, like this.”

She illustrated using her own copy of the book.

“When you are ready to use Cognito to assimilate the knowledge from the book, you will need to give the command for the knowledge assimilation spell which is Cognosco. You will need to state this clearly, pronouncing each syllable precisely; Cog-nos-co. This spell, when cast correctly, causes the knowledge contained in the book to flow out from the pages and into your consciousness where it forever will become part of your memory. Do you understand what you need to do?”

They nodded in accordance.

“Good,” she said, “then you may begin.”

The acoustics in the Cognito classroom were as good as those of any auditorium and the sound of the novices giving their commands simultaneously was deafening. However, as they began to read, the room became hushed. Soon all that could be heard was the industrious sound of hundreds of sheets of paper flicking and rustling as the pages of their books turned independently and the novice’s potens stones pulsated and glowed. A shimmering stream of written words, symbols, numbers and images flowed from the books and dissolved into the eyes of the reading novices like snowflakes falling on water.

Some of the novices were able only to stimulate the pages to turn relatively slowly, others more quickly, and then there was Auriel. The pages of Auriel’s book turned so rapidly that they blurred before the eyes. A fast, steady stream of information flowed into her consciousness. She finished her first book in minutes, Lady Tesler, noticing immediately, brought her a second, even larger and grander than the first. It was entitled ‘Advanced Cognito - Maximising Memory Storage and Organisation’. Then, just a few minutes later, she returned with five more.

Rose watched Auriel the other novices, all seemingly engrossed as the pages of their books turned relentlessly and the knowledge held within leapt from the pages and into their consciousness. Faces aglow from the reflection of the shimmering prose, their expressions shifted as they encountered new ideas, learned about their new world and discovered their ancestry. Rose tried to concentrate on her book. She was sure that she was doing it right, but each page seemed to struggle even to turn and the flow of information leaving it and entering her mind was little more than a trickle. Lady Tesler saw that Rose was struggling.

“Lady Rose, are you having trouble my dear?” she asked, looking at the page number that Rose was reading as it struggled to turn in front of her.

Rose had only managed to reach the fifth page of the first book after twenty minutes of reading.

“I just don’t seem to be able to get it to work,” Rose said with a deep sigh.“ I couldn’t read the apis either, I don’t understand, shouldn’t I be good at all this?”

Lady Tesler bent down close to her, choosing her words with care.

“Occasionally it can take a novice a little while to settle into their potentia. You must remember Rose, the rest of the novices though they may not be able to recall, have done this many, many times before. You, on the other hand, are a first-generation ascendant and this is all new to you. It is similar to the difference between remembering and learning, the pathways have already been forged in their minds, but you have to forge them yourself.”

Taking Roses right hand in her own, she examined Rose’s ring.

“The potens stone in your ring does not appear to be glowing as brightly as it should. Your potentia is not being channelled effectively.”

Rose looked distraught.

“Don’t worry Rose,” Lady Tesler said in an attempt to reassure her. “I am sure that with a little more practice, you will be able to do this just as well as everyone else. You are to have private tuition with Lord Dux?”

Rose nodded, “Yes, at Midday today.”

“Good” Lady Tesler said, smiling she placed a hand on Rose’s shoulder, “then you should mention this to him, he may be able to help.”

As the lesson came to an end, Lady Tesler took a small gold bell from her lectern and rang it gently, three times, its bright musical chime filling the hall.

Rose jumped, startled as something had dropped down from above landing next to her with a loud thud. It was a red-faced, ape-like creature with dark hair, a white beard and whiskers, and it was wearing a red jacket and hat. Others quickly followed, landing heavily next to each of the novices. The creatures grabbed the student’s books from their lecterns, before springing back onto the ladders and swinging themselves upwards using their hands, feet and tails. Deftly they climbed high up on the shelving to return each book to its rightful place on the shelf.

Occasionally their endeavours were met with resistance from novices who had failed to relinquish their books quickly enough. The animals reacted swiftly; scowling, baring their teeth, squealing loudly, and yanking hard on the books until they were relinquished.

“Do not mind the Doucs,” said Lady Tesler with a casual wave of her arm. “Let them take your books, if you allow them to do their job they will not bother you.”

After another lesson of performing much less well than everyone else, Rose worried that this pattern would be repeated again in the next class, which was Alchemy. She could not understand why she was unable to cope the way the others did, even with the simplest of tasks. As they headed towards the Alchemy classroom, her sense of unease grew, and as soon as she inhaled the pungent aroma that permeated the air, she felt lightheaded and nauseous.

The Alchemy classroom was tiled from floor to ceiling with marble. Everywhere there were marble shelves housing bottles, jars and various shaped canisters. Their contents had all been carefully labelled and included all manner of herbs, minerals, spices, metals, medicines, poisons and potions.

Lord De Lille stood at the back of the room behind a large semi-circular bench. In front of him was a small conical bamboo cage, inhabited by a fury tricoloured primate, with a round head, small pointed ears, a narrow snout and two enormous black eyes. Its eyes were irresistibly captivating, pools of black surrounded by dark fur and separated by a white stripe, which broadened out at the tip of the animal’s shiny black nose. Its limbs were slender and long, supporting hands and feet with long spidery fingers and opposable thumbs.

“Quickly, quickly, take your seats we have not got all day,” said De Lille, banging a large marble pestle loudly on the bench. He waited impatiently for the last of the novices to settle into their seats.

“Welcome first years,” he said eventually, his bushy brows lifting as a wicked twinkle glinted in his eyes.

He raised his arms in a flamboyant greeting, the sleeves of his robe flapped dramatically like two large golden wings.

“Welcome, all of you. Welcome to the realm of chemistry, medicine, potions and charms. Welcome to the ancient science of creating something out of nothing and, occasionally, nothing out of something. Welcome to what will ultimately become your never-ending obsession, your quest to control the elements. Welcome to the cream of the potentia… Alchemy!”

As he said this, he forcefully pounded his pestle down into a large marble mortar. Instantly there was a loud explosion, releasing a blindingly white light. A chorus of gasps and whoops rang out from the young novices as brightly coloured sparks, and smoke billowed upwards into the air. Thousands of glittery particles that rained down showering them all with tiny specks of light. De Lille smiled smugly at their pleasure. Pulling at his moustache, he twirled it briefly between his fingers.

“Alchemy is the oldest and most valuable of the potentia.” He said, “It is the study of all the practical and ethereal elements, of charms and potions. You would not be here today if it were not for an Alchemist. It was the native Aurum Alchemist, Hermes Trismegistus, who discovered the elixir of life. It was this discovery that forever changed our world. It was this discovery that for thousands of years has enabled us to descend and ascend in vapour. Hermes was the first to brew and the first to consume a potion that he called ‘the white drops’. This elixir, made from liquid gold, was what enabled him to vaporise and later to achieve immortality. He became the first of the ascendants, the first of our ancestors.”

The room was deathly quiet. It seemed that everyone had forgotten how to breathe. Reaching down he grasped the bamboo cage by its handle, lifting it up he pointed at the animal inside.

“This creature is one of the rarest creatures of the Afterlands. Found only deep in the forests of Ferrum, this beguiling little creature is a pharmacon loris. It has been prized by Alchemists for centuries for many reasons. Primarily, however, because of the animal’s seemingly infinite knowledge of the medicinal and magical properties of vegetation, minerals, and natural compounds, both organic and inorganic.”

He took a small purple flower and pushed it through the slats of bamboo into the cage. The loris took it, responding with a stream of clicking, chirping noises as it buried its snout into the centre of the flower.

“Lorises know where to find almost all of the useful magical ingredients, they know how to identify them, and importantly, they know how to handle them safely. They do, however, need to be treated with care as the loris has an extremely toxic bite. This seemingly innocuous creature produces a poison by licking a gland on their arm, the secretion then mixes with their saliva which activates the poison. Predators generally give them a wide berth because of this, although snakes and dragons are quite partial to them, their scales offering some protection from their needle-sharp teeth.”

De Lille strode around the room going from bench to bench, holding up the bamboo cage to enable each group to get a clear look at the animal.

“It is traditional,” he said, returning the loris to his bench. “In this first Alchemy lesson, to offer a pharmacon loris, if one is available, as a prize to the cell whose Alchemist brews the most effective charm.”

An animated discussion began between the novices. It rapidly grew into a noisy din. Lord De Lille held up a hand until they quietened.

“Some advice, before you start,” he said, studying their faces seriously. “A loris cannot be forced to work for you; a loris has to be charmed. It is important that you listen very carefully if you wish to be successful if you do not listen, then you will undoubtedly fail this task.”

Clicking his fingers, a marble-sized ball of flame sprang to life between them. He flicked it towards Rowan and Cedar who, oblivious to De Lille’s instructions, were chattering excitedly. The flaming sphere flew across the room exploding just above their heads with a loud crack and a shower of sparks. Startled, their faces paling and their mouths frozen with unfinished words, they turned towards the Magister. De Lille’s eyebrows were raised above two eyes that were full of mischief. A wry smile pulled at his lips as he continued.

“In order to complete this task, each cell will be awarded a short amount of time with the loris.” He said, pausing for their faint murmur of excitement to quell.

“During this period, you will need to discover the essence of the loris. In effect, this amounts to the encapsulation of the loris’s particular pleasures and preferences. It is important that not only do you work as a team but that you use what you have learned today in your classes. Then ultimately, it will be the responsibility of your Alchemist to use his or her potentia, to brew the singularis charm. Be aware, there is no one recipe for this potion, each singularis is entirely unique to the individual for whom it is brewed. Yours must be wholly specific to this loris. You will find a selection of potential ingredients, more than you could possibly need, on your benches next to your cauldrons and fyre bowls.”

He motioned to the collection of trays which displayed miniature jars, small round cast iron kettles and marble bowls filled with kindling and small round coals. Then he lifted one of the cauldrons and pulled at a label attached to its handle.

“Instructions explaining how to use the equipment are attached to the material itself” he explained, “they are to be accessed using Cognito. Just use it as you learned this morning and make sure that you read all the instructions before using any of the equipment.”

He glared at a young mud, Rowan, who was fiddling with the sparking flints.

“Do not….” He said, his voice hardening, “ Do not, light your fyre bowls until I tell you to.”

Rowan grinned brazenly before placing the flints back down on the bench in front of him.

“Thank you,” said De Lille, a note of irritation in his voice. “When your cell’s Alchemist has brewed your charm, it should be decanted into a glass phial. The charms will then be presented to the loris. The cell whose potion is chosen will become the animal’s guardian. No one ever truly owns a loris. I will now pass the animal amongst you. Do not remove it from his cage. When you have had your turn and have decided on your ingredients, you may begin brewing your charm. Remember, read the instructions on the equipment first.”

Picking up the loris, De Lille strode over to the Mud’s bench and handed the cage to Tamarix, the Mud’s Alchemist. Glancing from her to Rowan he said: “You have five minutes, do not waste it.”

Ash turned to the rest of his cell and thumping his fist down on the bench dramatically said: “We’re going to ace this.”

Rose still felt as if she was about to throw up, she fought hard to show some enthusiasm.

“Lord De Lille made a point of saying that to do well we would have to work as a team,” she said. “I have a feeling that this was the most important piece of advice he gave us, and I think that we, more than any of the other cells need to learn how to do that.”

“Surely this is mainly a job for the Alchemy major? Ergo - me,” said Lee pointing to his Ouroboros pin. “Being the Alchemist surely I am likely to have the best chance of success in this, comparatively speaking of course. That is logical is it not?”

“Yes, of course,” said Rose, “but I don’t think Lord De Lille’s advice to work as a team was a throwaway remark, Lee. I believe he meant us to take it seriously. He said that we should use what we have learned so far, which means what we’ve studied today in Morphology and Cognito. So Ash, who aced Morphology, should be the one to commune with the loris, and Auriel you were able to read much further than the rest of us. How many books did you manage to finish?”

“I finished ten altogether and read up to chapter thirty-two in ‘Medicinal herbs of Ferrum’ by Fern Lindsey.”

She said this almost apologetically, being sensitive to the fact that Rose had not even managed to finish the first chapter of the first book.

“It does make sense if we each use our major potentia doesn’t it?” Said Rose “Ash communes with the Pharmacon loris, Auriel searches her memory for anything she can remember about the loris and then Lee, our Alchemist, brews the charm. In fact, the only person who is useless in this task is me.”

Disheartened and feeling rather faint, she sat down on her stool.

“No, that’s not true at all!” said Auriel “It is obvious what your role is. You are the only one of us who is seeing the whole picture, the way we have to go. Rose, it is obvious that your role is to lead us.”

Lee shook his head and frowned, “like the blind, leading the blind…”

A few minutes later, when Lord De Lille finally deposited the loris on their bench, Ash took possession of the cage. Holding it at eye level, he regarded the Loris with an air of intense concentration. Ash half expected it to speak to him, in the same way that the fyre hawk had, but a little disappointingly, it just gazed vacantly back at him with those two huge liquid black eyes.

Ash began to worry that he was a bit out of his depth, thinking that he would let them all down. Then all at once, and quite unexpectedly, a peculiar feeling of enlightenment spread through him, like warm soup on a cold day and he knew what he had to do.

Intuitively Ash closed his eyes, and at that moment his senses burst open like a giant puffball. He could hear the sound of water splashing, dripping and gurgling; he felt its misty spray on his skin. Then the songs and calls of a myriad of exotic birds and insects filled his head, and in his mind’s eye he could see a beautiful forest, star shaped fruits and orange cone shaped flowers. He smelled the aroma of woody spices and tasted the sticky, sweet, smoky flavour of tree sap,

When he opened his eyes, they were met by the unblinking, soulful stare of the loris. ‘Thanks, Sloley’ Ash found that he was able to communicate with the animal without speaking a word out loud, ‘I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.’

The loris heard his thoughts and responded by raising both its arms leisurely above his head. Through the bars, Ash tickled the loris under each arm with one outstretched finger, and it replied to this by smacking its lips together and producing a beautifully melodious clicking, chirping sound.

Then Lord De Lille wandered over and lifted the cage away from him.

“Lord Ash, it looks as if you have made a good impression on our little friend.” He said with a brief smile of approval.

Lee was instantly at his side. “Did it speak to you?” he said, anxiously “What did the loris tell you? Have you got any idea what we need for the charm?”

“He said that his name was Sloley,” said Ash, “and…. if I can get a look at the ingredients that we have…”

He picked up each of the Jars, reading the labels he peered inside and sniffed their contents. Sorting the ingredients into two groups, he placed them down on the bench in front of them. A smile of satisfaction lit his face as he pointed to the panel of containers on his left.

“Lee,” he said assuredly, “those are the seven that you’ll need to brew the charm.”

With a look of scepticism, Lee turned the jars around to read their labels. The jars apparently contained Starfruit juice, Saraca flower nectar, Cinnamon tree bark, Green Cricket oil, Maidenhair tree gum, Morning Dew and Golden peacock feathers.

“Wait just one minute,” said Auriel. In deep concentration, she picked up one of the jars Ash had discounted. “I think you may have missed something. I remember from reading the ‘Wildlife of the Forests of Ferrum.’ The author wrote about it being the habit of the Pharmacon loris to leave the forests and descend into the halite caves on the borders between Ferrum and Hydrargyrum. Apparently, lorises are extremely partial to halite salts. Confidently Auriel picked up the jar marked Halite crystals and handed it to Lee. I’ve a hunch that you’ll need to include this.”

“Strangely,” said Lee, with a look of surprised admiration, “that does make sense. It would be logical for the charm to include salt. I would need it to grind together some of the solid ingredients.”

Lee regarded the assortment of jars that Ash had set out in front of him. He closed his eyes in an attempt to reach into the black hole which should have held his memories, but instead contained only a vacant, impenetrable, fog. All of them now knew that Lee had the potentia of a great alchemist. If he relaxed and simply begun the process, then his unconscious mind should instinctively take over and enable him to brew the charm.

“Ok,” he said at last “let’s do this.”

First, he lit the kindling in the fyre bowl. Then taking a golden peacock feather he charred it in the flames, adding salt and cinnamon to the ashes and grinding them into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. He used the maidenhair gum to bind the powder into a small round pellet. Hesitating for a second, Lee studied the remaining ingredients, before adding the star fruit juice, saraca nectar and morning dew to the cauldron and bringing the mixture to a gentle simmer over the fyre bowl.

The others gathered around him, watching with fascination as he worked. Finally, he stood, tentatively holding the small red coloured pellet between his fingers over the cauldron of simmering liquid.

“What are you waiting for?” asked Ash impatiently.

“I don’t know I just feel like I have missed…”

“Magica!” Said Rose breathlessly, “we need to use Magica, think about it. We’ve used the other three potentia. Remember what De Lille said; that we had to work as a team, I‘m sure that means that we need to use magic in the charm.”

“I do not see how we can do that,” said Lee “We have not had our Magica class yet….”

“Lord De Lille told us to listen,” said Rose, “ he was very specific about that. He stressed that it was crucial that we listened if we wanted to be successful. Well, I did; I listened, and I remember what he called the charm. The potion he asked us to brew is known as a singularis charm.”

Rose spoke in an excited whisper. She had noticed that the Bloods on the next bench, though trying very hard to appear focused on their own task, were following their progress intently.

“So we must need to use a singularis command for this charm and cast it together using our potens rings.”

“Yes that’s right!” said Auriel “I remember now, in ‘Introduction to Alchemy’ it stated that all charms needed a magical command. Lord De Lille also said something about us needing to make the charm unique to this loris. So the command would probably be something like ‘Singularis Sloley’.

Ash arched his eyebrows at Lee. “What do you think?”

“The method that you three use to work your way towards a conclusion is truly fascinating,” said Lee pensively. “I have no idea how you could possibly generate a hypothesis originating from so many different presumptions. Most of them appear to be based on nothing more than intuition, and yet you still manage to come up with a premise that actually sounds logical.”

Ash frowned, looking at Auriel pleadingly “translate that will you?”

Auriel laughed, “He agrees with us Ash.”

“He does?” Said Ash “That’s great, so what are we waiting for then?”

Lee stretched out his arm and pointed his ringed finger at the cauldron.

“After three then; ready?”

Taking his lead, they stood around the cauldron, their ringed fingers pointing towards the simmering liquid.

“One….two…. three,” Lee counted.

On three, he dropped the small red pellet into the cauldron as in unison they cast the Singularis charm. Coloured sparks of light shot from their glowing potens stones. The orange liquid flashed brilliant yellow and then bright emerald green, as a small mushroom of orange smoke rose and then dissipated into the air above the pot. They stared at each other, aghast with awe and pride.

“I think we actually did it!” said Ash, punching Lee playfully on the arm.

Grinning broadly, Ash winked at the group of Bloods who were glaring at the four of them and trying hard to conceal the looks of grudging admiration on their faces. Rose, however, was frowning, looking down at her ring she rubbed at it furiously with her fingers.

“What’s up?” asked Ash.

“My ring; it didn’t spark like yours, it hardly even glowed, well not much more than it is now. How can I be of any use to anyone if I can’t even get my ring to work? Maybe Lee is right, maybe all this is just one big mistake. I am just one big mistake.”

Ash’s voice softened “Does it really matter Rose? Whether you are a colossal mistake or some kind of super wizard? Surely it’s who you are that matters, not what you are, and anyway, I think you’re alright… even if we’re not... all Whyte.”

She laughed in spite of herself. “Ash,” she said, “That is truly awful; even for you.”

Ash bent closer “Yeah I know, but it made you laugh, though. Rose, if this is really getting to you then maybe you should talk to Lord Dux about it like Lady Tesler said.”

“Yes,” she said, “I think I’ll have to.”

Lord De Lille came over to their bench to check their brew. He dipped a small strip of paper into the cauldron, removed it, and then waved it briefly in front of his nostrils. Drawing some of the liquid up into a small glass pipette, he examined it in the light from a small window.

“Well done you four,” he said, sounding impressed. “This looks superb, but we shall see. You’ll need to decant it into one of those phials.”

At that moment, there was a deafening explosion at the Mud bench. Thick black smoke rose in billowing swirls from their cauldron. It cleared swiftly to reveal four blackened faces, each pair of white eyes smarting as they spilt out painful tears, which ran down their faces and left honey coloured streaks on their sooty cheeks.

“Hmmm,” De Lille muttered shaking his head as he took in the blackened cauldron and singed hair of the soot-faced, Muds. “A little less enthusiasm and a bit more control in future, Lady Tamarix.”

The young mud girl’s face reddened under its black mask, her eyes brimming once more.

“It’s ok Tammy,” said Rowan, putting an arm around her shoulder. His jaw tightened as he looked over towards the Whyte cell and then at the Loris. “I reckon they’re nasty little critters anyway. I mean with their venomous teeth and all.”

Tamarix smiled weakly. “Thanks, Rowan, but I’d hoped we would have a chance to find that out for ourselves, and anyway, he looks so cute.”

When all of the cells had decanted their charms into a phial, Lord De Lille asked each of the Alchemists to bring them to the front. In turn, he took out the stoppers and poured some of each of the potions onto an appropriately coloured ribbon for each of the casts.

Draping the ribbons around the neck of each cell’s Alchemist, De Lille had them line up at the front of his bench. Then, opening the bamboo gate with a flourish, he released the loris from its cage.

Sloley sidled across the bench towards the first alchemist, Tamarix. Without hesitation, he jumped up onto her chest, grasping at her robe and pulling himself up onto her shoulder. Sniffing at the congealed black stain on her ribbon, he was instantly overcome by a series of violent sneezes. Rubbing his snout vigorously he leapt onto the shoulders of the Blood Alchemist, Tor-El-Van, resting there only briefly before moving on to Joel, the Gold cell’s Alchemist. Again he was there barely a second before the aroma of Lee’s charm drew him toward the Whyte cell’s young Blood. Leaping onto Lee’s shoulder, the loris released a stream of joyful chirps and clicks before nestling into his neck, rubbing his face against Lee’s cheek and purring loudly.

“It would appear that our Loris has made its choice.” Said De Lille “Well done the Whyte cell. You evidently work very well as a team, and now you have a fifth member.”

He clapped his hands together applauding loudly. The other novices joined De Lille in polite applause, though some appeared less than enthusiastic, Rowan’s hand clap, in particular, was sloth-like. He turned to the rest of the Muds, a sardonic smile adorning his face.

“Don’t worry guys, those ‘not-quite Whytes’ won’t have it all their own way. We’ll thrash them next time.”

Tor-El-Van, the Blood’s Alchemist, overheard him and nodded his head in agreement.

“If those not-quites had not had a Blood Alchemist in their cell, they would not have won,” he said, his voice low, “ The loris rightfully should have been ours. Neh-ke-ta, our Advocate, told us that the Blood cell always wins the loris. She also said that they shouldn’t be allowed to study at the Oratory, as they are not a pure cast cell. Their being here undermines centuries of tradition and she was right, already they are changing things. They will ruin everything.”

As the midday bell chimed, Lee glanced down at the small furry creature nestling contentedly into his shoulder, and he smiled.

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