THE DARK GORILLAS
Max slept fitfully that first night at League headquarters, his dreams plagued by visions of potions, the faces of his parents slowly going out of focus just beyond his reach, and a laughing figure that was at one moment Professor Knox and the next the shadowy visage of a faceless rogue potioneer. When he woke well before his first-class session, he laid there in his new bed in the dorms, exhausted, and lonelier than he’d ever felt his entire life. Mole, at least, seemed to be at ease in his new surroundings. Max wished he could say the same.
Part of his anxiety he knew he could write off as being at a new school and having a new home. But it was more than that. He remembered well enough what it was like during his first few days at high school and then at the dorms and in classes during his first and only term at college. This was similar to that, but more intense. With those previous experiences, he’d carried himself with a certain degree of confidence. He’d gone to school knowing he was smart and would succeed academically, even if it took him a while to fit in socially. Most importantly, he knew he had the support of his parents, even if things didn’t go well in the friend department. Now it was the exact opposite: his parents were gone, and rather than their strength behind him, he carried the burden of delivering them justice, because at this point, it was clear no one else was going to do it for him. There was no one he could trust to help him. Breille, Remi, and London seemed cool, but he hardly knew them, and had no idea how much he could trust them. Detective Sanker, for his part, was a trustworthy person, and certainly looking for justice, but he was out of his element with this case.
“How am I going to do this?” Max asked, intending to only mumble to Mole, but apparently speaking louder than he intended.
“I say, what’s that, chap?”
It was London, a few bed stalls down, standing to stretch and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Oh sorry,” Max said apologetically. “I didn’t mean to wake you. Just talking to my cat.”
“No bother, no bother,” London said, walking over to Max’s area, apparently not in the least bit uncomfortable about having a new dorm-mate. “I’ve been known to talk to more than a few of my pets growing up. Parents thought me a bit bizarre at times, I’m sure, but I’m not too bothered by it.” London smiled and kneeled down to pet Mole, who eagerly leaned into him and purred loudly.
Max wanted to be annoyed by London’s intrusion, but it was hard to dislike someone that Mole liked, and the fact of the matter was that London seemed to be a genuinely warm person. Max sensed no hint of pretension, and certainly none of the animosity that Joyner had projected. It’s all right to let your guard down a little, Max reminded himself. Just so long as you remember the end goal here: the truth about mom and dad.
“So, what’s the deal with classes?” Max asked, keeping the conversation from turning too personal. “Are all four of us junior apprentices taking the same courses? And we’re on some sort of block schedule I’m guessing? I probably should have figured all that stuff out yesterday, I guess, but things got…a bit weird, I guess you could say. You know, with that Joyner business.”
“Yes, quite weird. Agreed. I didn’t anticipate Joyner getting expelled like that, but it was clearly for the best. And to answer your question, yes, quite right. We’re all on the same course track, and yes, we have a block schedule. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we have Foundations of Organic and Medicinal Potions with Dr. Acosta, Potioneering: a brief history with Professor Hildmar, and then Defensive Potions with Dr. Thorn McCracken. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, its Offensive Potions with Professor Pugsley Doodlesack, Transfigurations with Professor Tahra Dactyl, and then Secret Ingredients with Professor Knox.”
“So, today’s one of our lighter days, then? Since I’m new, right?”
London looked up from Mole and smiled. “I wouldn’t really say light. Professor Dactyl is kind of a pushover and whimsical, but Knox’s course is quite strenuous, and Professor Doodlesack is a taskmaster. Speaking of, we best get at it. You don’t want to be late to Doodlesack’s class. Trust me. I best go wake Remi. He’ll sleep to noon if you let him. You’d never guess he was a military brat before coming here.”
London gave Mole one more scratch on the head, then stood, stretched, and walked back toward his own bunk. “Oy, Remi. Wake up, you lug!”
Max couldn’t help but grin a little, but he didn’t let himself get too cheerful. There’s work to do, he reminded himself. Lots of it.
Professor Doodlesack was an enormously fat man, with legs the size of tree trunks, short stubby fingers, and jowls that buried whatever semblance of a neck he might have had. By some sort of cruel cosmic irony, he had curly locks that grew from the sides and back of his head, but a bald pate at the top of his head, making it look like was wearing a cap.
As London had warned, Professor Doodlesack was indeed a taskmaster, and wasted no time with pleasantries or trying to make Max feel welcome. Rather, Max was assigned a lab station and immediately put to task cleaning glassware, as were the other apprentices. When they were finished, he inspected their work, and any glassware with so much as a speck of dust or a water spot on it had to be rewashed. After that, Professor Doodlesack gave a demonstration on a topic that didn’t use a single bit of glassware. If Max wasn’t so intent on paying attention, he would have laughed.
The demonstration was on how to work with hydrofluoric acid, which had to be stored and handled carefully, since it could dissolve glass, not to mention flesh. Despite his girth, Professor Doodlesack had the nimblest, steadiest hands Max had ever encountered. He poured the hydrofluoric acid from the polyethylene storage bottle into a lead crucible without spilling a single drop or making the slightest splash, and then displayed numerous techniques for adding other ingredients and stirring the concoction.
When he was done demonstrating, he set the apprentices loose to don their personal protection equipment and then practice at their own lab stations, but using water rather than hydrofluoric acid at first. That turned out to be a good thing, Max realized. Max was solid with his lab techniques and had steady hands when it came to pouring liquids. Working with a highly dangerous chemical was a challenge he was up for. He could tell that his anxiety level was up as he poured the acid, but his hands were steady as could be. That clearly wasn’t the case with the rest of the apprentices, though. At least, not all of them.
Brielle was maybe even better than Max was, by the look of it, but London and Remi were obviously struggling. They dribbled their fake hydrofluoric acid onto their hands and the lab tables over and over again, and each time, Doodlesack was there to discipline them and make them do it again.
“Congratulations!” he bellowed. “You’ve just burned a hole through your lab table and dissolved two of your fingers off. Start it over. Do it again!”
At last, all four of them got it right with the water, and Professor Doodlesack gave them real hydrofluoric acid to use. Brielle was done first, then Max, and the two of them quietly exchanged grins before sitting back at their individual lab tables to watch London and Remi finish up. Thankfully, they both succeeded, but it took them a while and it was obvious to Max that they were both nervous.
“Thank the gods no one was waiting for you to make a potion in a hurry,” Professor Doodlesack remarked. “But good job, nonetheless. That’s all for today.”
Max walked out of lab with more adrenaline than he’d ever had leaving a class before, and was glad to have some time to relax over lunch with the other apprentices. The four of them went straight to the cafeteria commons to grab lunch, where a mix of older apprentices and potioneers were already mingling and eating.
“Bloody hell, that was nerve-racking,” London said as they all sat down at a long bench table together with their food.
“Tell me about it,” Remi agreed. “I’m almost as bad pouring stuff as I am at target practice. At least my dad’s not here to be disappointed with me in the lab.”
It was the second time Remi had mentioned something about having been raised in the military, and Max’s curiosity got the better of him. “So yeah, what’s the deal with that? You said yesterday that you got in trouble with the army or something and that’s why you got sent here.”
Brielle laughed. “Go on, tell him, Remi.”
Remi rolled his eyes and shrugged, but didn’t seem too embarrassed by the whole matter. “Navy, not the Army, but yeah. What can I say? I never was much of one for shooting, obstacle courses, taking orders from people, things of that sort. My dad’s a rear admiral, so we moved around a lot from base to base. When he got stationed in Hawaii a few years back, I heard rumors about some sort of secret laboratory on base where they were testing out chemicals with magical properties. That piqued my curiosity, of course, so I found the lab and snuck in one night. All was going well at first. I discovered the chemical they were testing at the time—what turned out to be an anti-nerve gas potion developed by the League—but then I got caught by guy in charge, a three-star vice admiral. Woops. I thought for sure I was going to the brig and that my dad was going to get discharged, but after asking me a bunch of questions, and looking at my school grades, they gave me an option: the brig or joining the League as an apprentice, with the promise that I’d enlist in the Navy after becoming a full potioneer. Military jail didn’t sound all that swell to me, so here I am.”
Brielle laughed again. “I can just see it, Remi standing there with a wide-eyed look on his face when that admiral came walking in. ‘What? I just wanted to make sure your chemists knew what they were doing…’”
Remi grinned, and rubbed his close-cropped head. “Yeah, pretty much. But what about you, newb? What got you here?”
Max paused mid-bite in his sandwich, realizing Remi was talking to him. He put his sandwich back onto his plate and shrugged, trying to act casual, even though his pulse had quickened. “Oh well, you know, I was really good at chemistry in high school and was all set to go to college, but I started hearing rumors about the League...” Max didn’t know why he was lying, but he just couldn’t bring himself to tell them about his parents and why he was really here. “…And so yeah, I’d heard of Professor Knox because I was looking at going to MIT, so I just tracked him down one day in a coffee shop and asked him point blank. He gave me some tests, and well, here I am.”
Remi shrugged, seemingly satisfied with Max’s story, but Brielle narrowed her eyes. “So, wait, I know you’re a local guy to Boston, too, but who were you hearing rumors from?” she asked. “I was the only one at my grade school and middle school who knew about the League—you know, because of my dad working here—but I never mentioned it to anyone. Not once. And I never heard anyone else talk about it on the outside. Who told you?”
Max bit his lip, not sure what to say. “Uhm, well…”
“Easy on him, girl,” Remi said. “It’s just his second day. Let me guess, Max, it was some conspiracy site on the internet, right? Reddit, 4chan, something like that. It’s not like everyone in the League or associated with the League has tight lips. Rumors get out there.”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Max said, probably too quickly, but Brielle let it go, and the conversation moved on to other topics. After that, Max kept to his food, pretending to listen to the others, but feeling ill at ease on the inside with the secrets he kept.
After lunch, the four junior apprentices made their way to Knox’s class on secret ingredients. Knox made no mention of what had transpired with Joyner the day before as Max and the other apprentices took their seats at their individual lab tables. In fact, he seemed to be excited as he pulled out a funky looking rock.
“Today we’ll be working with bezoars,” he said, holding the rock up. “Bezoars are stony concretions that form in the stomachs of ruminants and various other animals. They’re fairly common, in fact. The ancients believed they had magical healing powers, which of course was superstitious nonsense. Mostly, at least. The particular bezoars we’re working with are from the creatures known as Delgeth, a carnivorous antelope that in ancient times were enemies to Native Americans. The Delgeth were alternate natural wonders, with frightening powers if the stories hold true. They resided mostly in one of the secret places—a parallel realm to ours—but they had the ability to cross over to our world and hunt humans, hence their enmity with the native Americans. They’re all dead and gone now thanks to some unknown virus they likely caught here in our world, but their bezoars, like their bones, can still be found, both in hidden places and here in our world in the dens where they crossed over. The bezoars I’ve gathered here were found in just such a den, discovered by a potioneer long ago in New Mexico.”
“Would that potioneer happen to be you, Professor?” Remi asked.
Knox smiled. “Actually, this time, no. It was discovered by one of the very first North American potioneers, Elsie Freeman, an escaped slave who explored the west and became the matriarch of an important potioneer family.”
“Whoa, what?” Brielle asked. “A founding matriarch? How come I never heard of her?”
“Because, sadly, she and her family mysteriously disappeared one day in 1852, never to be seen or heard of again,” Knox said with a frown. “Whether it was slave catchers that took them away, or if they travelled together to one of the secret places and got trapped or killed, no one knows. A sad story, to be sure. But thankfully, we have the Delgeth bezoar, which Elsie Freeman learned about from the native Americans and tested extensively with potions. It’s perhaps the most important of all secret ingredients.”
Max glanced down at the glass jar on his table containing the bezoar. It looked like a misshapen river rock, about the size of a tennis ball, gray, with streaks of red and orange marbling it.
“While the Delgeths were generally considered to be evil creatures,” Knox continued, “their bezoars ironically do have a healing effect. Today, we’ll be using them to make a general healing elixir known as Tomorrow Milk, or in the native Keresan language, Naachama Huwiini.”
Knox went on, first giving a general overview of the procedure to make Tomorrow Milk, and then starting from the top and walking them step by step through the entire potion-making process.
Max followed along, completing the steps to make the base solution in a 1000 ml beaker over a heating pad, but he found his attention waning as he began to prep the bezoar itself by wiping it down with a series of clothes soaked in various solutions. Between the lack of sleep, the stress from Professor Doodlesack’s class, and then his anxiety over being in a new place and having no one he could trust or rely on, Max’s eyes began to feel heavy and his mind began to wander. Healing potions are good, I’m sure, but it’s not what killed my parents, or anything that will help me find out how they were killed…
“Ow!” Max felt a sharp pain and snapped out of it, looking down to see that he’d sliced a finger open on a sharp edge of the bezoar.
“What’s a matter?” Knox asked, glancing around to see who yelped.
“Nothing, it was me, but I’m fine,” Max said, grabbing a latex glove and quickly putting it on his injured left hand.
“Anything serious?” Knox asked, walking his way.
Max grabbed a paper towel and wiped a droplet of blood that had fallen to the lab table, and then noticed there was blood on the edge of the bezoar, too. He swore beneath his breath and wiped it off as best as he could right as Knox stopped beside him.
Knox peered at the glove on Max’s hand. “You cut yourself?”
“A little nick is all. I put a glove on just to be safe.”
“Good, but you’ll need to be more careful from now on,” Knox told him. “A little blood smear on your bezoar won’t affect this particular potion, but in most cases, it’s extremely dangerous adding in new ingredients, even in small quantities. That tiny bit of iron in your blood could have catastrophic effects in other scenarios.”
Max nodded, embarrassed. “I understand. I’m sorry, and it’ll never happen again.”
“Good,” Knox said, walking back to the front of the classroom and addressing the entire classroom again. “Now, once your base solution is ready and the bezoar is prepped, use your tongs to submerge the bezoar into it.”
Max and the other apprentices did as he instructed and placed their bezoars into their bubbling beakers.
“We’ll want to keep the bezoars in there for approximately seven minutes and twenty-three seconds,” Knox continued. “While we’re waiting, let’s discuss the various means of administering the potion. As we should all know, there are four main routes into the human body: ingestion, inhalation, absorption, and injection. Most potions we work with are designed to work best with one of the first three methods, but Tomorrow Milk works well with any of the four methods. Your choice for administering the potion should really depend on what ailment you hope to treat.
“Ingestion works best for internal ailments, particularly ones pertaining to the digestive system. Inhalation is ideal for respiratory problems, obviously, although you’ll have to vaporize the potion in one manner or another first. For external wounds, direct application and letting the potion absorb through the skin works best. All three of those methods will also eventually get the potion into the bloodstream, providing an overall healing effect. However, for severe internal bleeding or internal trauma, injection of the potion works best. Having said that, none of us are doctors, so I don’t recommend you go poking around for veins in whoever it is you’re trying to save. If you can get the help of a medic of some sort, you’ll be better off. If secrecy is needed, dump the potion into an IV bag or what have you.”
Brielle raised her hand. “Professor, when you say that the potion heals everything, do you really mean everything? Will it cure cancer, for example?”
The professor shook his head and frowned. “Sadly, no. It can help with secondary illnesses like pneumonia, but it can’t help the human body when its own cells have gone rogue. The potion is also ineffective with degenerative disorders. Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s disease…there’s still nothing we can do about those things, although we most certainly have potioneers working on it.”
Knox’s gaze became distanced and he went silent for a moment before snapping out of it to glance at the clock above the chalkboard. “All right, our five minutes are about up. Remove your bezoars and let them dry before storing them again. We’ll want to hold on to them because they can be used numerous times to make a new potion. I’ve generally been able to make a dozen or more potions with one bezoar.”
Max removed his bezoar with a pair of tongs and leaned down to look at his potion in the beaker. It didn’t look like much—a simple clear solution with a tinge of blueness to it.
“You’ll now want to transfer your solution to a volumetric flask for storage,” Knox said, holding up a tall piece of glassware with a wide bottom that tapered into a narrow cylinder up top. “You’ll each want to put the flask in your personal storage locker here in the classroom, and then keep three to four milliliters in a phial to keep on your person. If it comes to treating yourself, follow the same guidelines we just discussed. If it’s something internal, ingest it, snort it, or place a few drops on of your eyeballs—it’ll absorb quickly that way. If it’s an external wound, place a few drops directly on the wound. In fact, we’ll try that right now to see if your potion works or not.”
Knox held up a little pen knife with a mischievous smile on his face.
“Wait, what do you mean, good sir?” London asked. “You’re not suggesting…”
“Yes, my friend, I’m going to cut one of your fingers and let you see if you can heal yourself. Who wants to go first?”
Max glanced at his peers. London had a wide-eyed look of shock on his face. Remi was staring off into space—clearly daydreaming and ignorant of what Knox had just said. Brielle was the only one who seem unperturbed. Max looked at his own potion. He wasn’t scared of getting a little cut from the knife, but now that it came down to it, he wasn’t all that confident in his potion. Maybe the tiny smudge of blood had affected it, despite what Knox had said.
“I’ll go first,” Brielle volunteered. “I followed your procedure to a T, so unless you told us how to make it wrong, my potion will definitely work.”
Knox smiled and walked to her lab table. “You should know better than to think I ever make mistakes,” he said as he took Brielle’s outstretched finger and jabbed it with the tip of his pen knife. Brielle grimaced a little, but didn’t make a sound. She simply grabbed a pipette from her lab table to suck up a drop of her potion and dabbed onto her bleeding finger. She leaned in close to watch for a moment, then smiled.
“It works,” she said holding up her finger. “I’m healed.”
“Excellent, who’s next?”
Max sighed. Neither London nor Remi looked ready to volunteer anytime soon, so he might as well get it over with. “Me, I guess.”
Professor Knox walked over to him. “Luckily for you, you already have a cut. Take off that glove and let’s see it.”
Max did as he was told, exposing the jagged little cut on the pointer finger of his left hand.
“It’s already healed up a bit,” Knox noted, so he jabbed it with the pen knife. “There you go,” he said, as if he’d just done Max a big favor.
It stung a little, but Max wasn’t about to complain after Brielle had taken her jab so stoically. He let the blood well up on his fingertip for a moment, then grabbed a pipette to administer the potion the same way Brielle had done.
The droplet of Tomorrow Milk washed the blood away from his finger tip, bubbled for a moment, and then the wound was slowly closed over, from the outside in, like he was watching a time lapse video of a wound healing on fast-forward. The pain was gone, too.
“I’ll be damned,” Max said, relieved that the potion worked and that the contamination he’d gotten on the bezoar hadn’t affected it.
“Indeed,” Knox agreed. “It worked more quickly than usual. Why don’t you put a couple milliliters in a phial for me so I can test it later. That’s rather curious.”
“Of course,” Max agreed, and pipetted some of his potion into an empty phial. “Here you go.” He wanted to ask whether the blood had maybe had an effect after all, but Knox had already the phial away somewhere in his jacket and was walking away.
“Excellent, two for two now,” he was saying. “Only two apprentices left. Is one of you going to volunteer, or do I get to pick who goes next?”
Remi realized Knox was talking to him and snapped out of whatever thoughts he’d been absorbed in. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Sounds like a volunteer to me,” Knox said.
Before the professor could reach Remi’s lab table, though, the young Asian man Max had seen in the library working with the magical ladder came running into the classroom shouting.
Knox, startled by the sudden intrusion, nearly dropped his pen knife. “Piss on a pot, Henry! You scared the wits out of me. What is it? I’m in the middle of class.”
Henry. Max remembered now. Brielle had told him about Henry. He used to be Knox’s apprentice, and now he was a full potioneer and Knox’s assistant. By the looks of it, he was only a few years older than Max, maybe in his early twenties.
Henry stopped in mid-motion holding an iPad, and looked from Knox to the four apprentices eyeing him expectantly. “Oh shit, okay, uhm, here put these headphones on,” he said, scrambling through one of his pockets to pull out a pair of earbuds and plug them into the iPad for Knox. “It’s Canning on video call…it’s urgent.”
“Blasted Canning. Everything is always urgent with him.” Knox took the earbuds from Henry like they were squirming bugs and placed them in his ears with a grimace. “Canning, what is it?” he asked, squinting at the iPad Henry was holding up for him. “Canning? I can see you, but I can’t hear a damned thing. What is it?”
“Hold on a sec,” Henry muttered, adjusting his glasses before tapping frantically at the pad to adjust the volume, clearly flustered.
What the hell is going on? Max wondered. What’s so damned important that he has to come in here interrupting our class and can’t let us hear what’s going on?
Apparently, Knox felt the same. “I still can’t hear,” he said, and with a tug, he yanked the headphone jack out of the iPad.”
There was a squelching noise as the plug came loose, and then Canning’s voice at full volume: “Azazel! It’s him. He’s here. Can you hear me, Knox?”
Max recognized the voice coming out of the speakers. It was the man he’d overheard get in an argument with Knox back in his office.
“What?” Knox demanded. “He’s here where? Where are you?”
“Back home, visiting my parents.” Canning’s voice was panicked, but hushed, like he was worried someone else might hear him. “Knox, he’s here with his creatures! The Dark Gorillas. I saw them—the biggest, most gruesome transfigurations I’ve ever seen. They’ve broken through the front door. My protective potions and wards have slowed them down enough for me to get my parents into our secret library, but I can hear them getting closer. What do I do, Knox? I need that transfiguration potion you said you were working on!”
Knox’s eyes narrowed into thin slashes of determination. “You’re a potioneer, dammit! Fight them with your own potions. Fend them off as long as you can. I’m on my way.”
Knox shoved the iPad into Henry’s chest and started for the door.
“Wait!” Henry yelled after him. “I’m coming with you.”
Knox turned around and blinked his eyes, as if he’d forgotten that Henry and the apprentices were even there. “No, it’s safer if I go by myself. But I do need your help. I haven’t even made the transfiguration potion yet. I need Phoenix Ashes to make it. Can you go to the secret place and get them for me? Right now. It’ll be dangerous, but I know you can do it, and I’ll just have to make do with what I have to help Canning.”
“Of course,” Henry agreed.
Knox grabbed Henry by the shoulders. “Thank you. Be safe.” He turned then to the apprentices. “The rest of you. Class is dismissed, and pretend like you never heard of this. That’s a direct order: you’re to speak of this to no one until I return.”
With that, Knox rushed out the door.
Henry watched him go, then turned to the apprentices. “All right, you heard the professor,” he started to say, but then Canning’s voice crackled over the iPad speakers again.
“Oh, my god, the doors are cracking! They’re getting through.”
Instinctively, Max and the others hurried to Henry’s side to look over his shoulder and see what was happening. On the iPad screen they could see Canning, who was holding his phone up in front of his face. He was wild-eyed and blubbering in fear. “My parents! They’re so old! How can I protect them? Knox? Knox? Are you still there?” In the background, they could all hear wooden doors splintering.
“Put your phone down and get some potions ready!” Max yelled, while everyone else watched in stunned silence. He didn’t know Canning, but the entire situation struck too close to home for him. “You heard Knox. Fight them!”
Canning just blubbered some more nonsense and shook his head. A moment later he flinched violently and the sound of doors crashing inward filled the iPad speakers. Canning’s face went still and he quit blubbering. “It’s him…” he whispered.
It was clear to Max and everyone else that Canning was too frightened to fight. There was no helping that now. “Canning,” Max urged him instead, speaking in whisper, “turn your phone around so we can see them.”
Canning didn’t say anything, but he did as Max said. The view on the screen slowly rotated around the room, past a shelf of books, past an elderly couple who were clearly his parents, huddled together on the floor, and then around to the feet of three dark figures standing atop the crumbled oak doors. Two of them were giant and more gorilla than human, with fur covered feet. Standing between them was a human, shrouded in black. The view on the screen slowly panned up, and for the briefest of moments Max glimpsed the face of Azazel smiling. And then the video feed went blank.