The new alchemy building appeared at dawn on the summer solstice. Everybody knew it was the new alchemy building because it hadn’t existed previously, and because Alchemy had been carved into the glowing blue stone over the lintel. The doors were made of a black substance that might have been rock and it might have been glass. Roots and vines made of platinum snaked over the door’s rippled surface. Electric blue pulses shot through the silvery metal at irregular intervals.
The building itself was only one story and appeared to be no larger than one of the greenhouses behind the Astronomy Center. The exterior size meant nothing, however, since the interiors of many buildings were much larger or much smaller than earthly physics allowed. The exterior of the building was constructed of the same substance as the door, carved all over with unfamiliar symbols, all chased in vines of platinum. The roof was domed, glowing blue like the sign above the door.
The new alchemy building appeared in the middle of Sugg’s Meadow at the foot of Newton’s Hill. Its appearance angered the family of manticores that had taken up residency after the last lunar eclipse. They’d laid claim to Sugg’s Meadow and the Cryptozoology Department had built them comfortable housing and built jungle-gyms for their enjoyment. The new alchemy building had vanished half the manticore residence, along with three manticores who’d been deeply involved in a mating ritual. It was widely hoped they’d return, as manticore breeding habits were quite mysterious and no one had had opportunity to study them before. The head of the Cryptozoology Department offered sacrifices of bloody pork in an effort to calm the remaining manticores and keep them from attacking the student body.
The vanishing of the three manticores because of the new alchemy building caused a great rift between the Cryptozoology and Alchemical departments, as might be expected. However the English Department was quite put out because they were on the list to get the next building. Alchemy, they said, already had more than enough. History, Political Science, Anthropology, Xenology, Ancient Languages, and Necrobiology concurred and declared that Alchemy must give up one of its buildings to make things fair. The matter was put on the agenda of the next Faculty Senate meeting and the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, and Deans of all the colleges were summoned for questioning.
Alchemy protested, saying they had not asked for the new building, and pointing out it was inconveniently situated, since Sugg’s Meadow was located far from the the department’s other buildings and on top of that, no one had been able to get inside. There was no lock and no doorknob and no instructions. It was, declared the highly revered Doctor Corginski of Animal Sciences, a puzzle.
The problem of the new alchemy building remained at the top of the Faculty Senate Agenda for the next five years, as it continued to occupy Sugg’s Meadow, the three missing manticores had not returned, and the English Department continued to bitterly complain.
Students and faculty alike wondered at the obdurate building, postulating all variety of theories as to why the building had appeared, why it refused to open, and when it would depart. Families picnicked and wondered. Campus tours walked past and pondered. All agreed that pre-eminent scholar, Doctor Corginski, had been correct: it was a puzzle.
Nineteen-year-old Nora Emery was considered a prodigy by all who knew her. She could solve any math problem, though she had never read a math book. She spoke a dozen languages without ever studying a single one. She played any instrument fluently upon her first try. She cooked like a five star chef. She had an encyclopedic memory for facts. She ran marathons and excelled at every game.
The one thing Nora Emery could not do was get a date. Nobody found her the least bit entrancing. Not one boy, not one girl. Not a single soul of any race, whether scaled, skinned, or furred. She was a pariah. A prodigy pariah and nobody was going to take her on a date, and nobody was going to let her take them on a date. She was destined to be a spinster. She might as well be a leper, only leprosy was curable and her inability to attract romantic attention was not. She was, in a word, hopeless.
She wasn’t ugly. She’d examined herself quite thoroughly. She was quite symmetrical, which most species found pleasing. She was clean, well-kept, and reasonably fashionable–her best friend Bryan saw to that. She’d studied other girls her age and found though many of them were not as attractive as she, all of them had no trouble establishing a romantic connection, and they were far pickier than Nora. She refused to exclude any race, gender, smell, mannerism, or quirk from the pool of candidates. She couldn’t afford to. Even so, she was virginal on all fronts: never held hands, never been kissed, never touched any of the bases, much less home plate. She felt quite sure she’d be good at sex, should anybody wish to engage with her in such an activity. She’d made the effort to study sexual positions and acts and felt quite confident she could perform as required.
She only needed the chance.
After careful consideration, she decided she should go to a university, one that offered a variety of mating options, and that would also not bore her to tears. She’d found all her previous schooling to be a complete waste of time. The only reason she remained was because she hoped for a boyfriend or girlfriend, and school was an optimal place for meeting prospects.
After a lag year to think and research and search for love in other forums, she’d decided on Miskatonic University as her optimum choice. The campus was large and lively, with an expansive range of students and faculty from many cultures and dimensions. Surely she could find someone there who’d find her romantically attractive. It didn’t hurt that the University itself was also interesting. Much of it was unknown and unknowable and offered unpredictable questions and puzzles. At this school, Nora was sure she would not be the only prodigy, and perhaps she would not be quite the prodigy everyone said she was. She was tired of being so prodigiously prodigious.
It was mid-June on the solstice. She’d retreated to Sugg’s Meadow to stare at the puzzle of the not-so-new alchemy building that was now five years old. She’d become an alchemical expert in her second term of school, as well as becoming a licensed veterinarian, a beekeeper, an underwriter, a medical technologist, and acquiring twelve more language, four of which she could only speak when certain ghosts appeared and consented to talk to her. One spoke dead languages to dead people, after all.
In her first term, she’d finished all her courses in astronomy and astrology, as well as divination, psychology, psychiatry, and elementary education. She felt like a failure. She’d been at Miskatonic University for an entire year and she’d yet to find any hint of a potential lover. She was dispirited, to say the least.
She found solace with the not-so-new alchemy building. It was mysterious and curious and when she visited, hundreds of questions bubbled in her mind. The novelty was that she had no answers, nor had she been able to find any. When it came to the not-so-new alchemy building, she was as clueless as anybody else.
It was a delicious feeling. Usually. Today, she only felt sad.
Today was the last day of week-long festival celebrating the birth of the university and all its accomplishments. There had been many events, including dancing. Lots of dancing, as well as flirting, handholding, snuggling, and kissing. Not for Nora. She’d asked fifty different people to dance with her, and all had refused.
There had to be something very wrong with her. Very wrong. And since she was pretty enough according to many beauty standards, the problem must be inside, in her soul. The facts seemed clear: she was irredeemably broken. She would never find anyone with whom she could discover love and sex. She was doomed to be alone.
She sighed, wrapping her arms around her knees as she sat on the grass in front of the not-so-new alchemy building’s door. Usually she liked to imagine the door opening. She liked to think about all the possibilities of who or what might be inside. Today, she only saw the closed door. An emphatic refusal of entry.
What should she do now? There was no point continuing her quest. Never mind that all she wanted in life–all she lacked–was that soul-to-soul, heart-to-heart, flesh-to-flesh connection. She couldn’t chase the impossible forever. She had friends and she had her parents. Not everybody was as lucky as she. People had told her that and Nora believed it. She needed to decide what to do with her life. People had told her that, too, and Nora knew it was true. People told her she could do anything, but that, she knew, was a lie.
She could not find love.
She could not open the not-so-new alchemy building.
She could not be happy.
The sun passed its zenith, its heat penetrating her shirt and dampening the hair along her neck. Her skin reddened where the sunlight licked.
Manticore babies scampered through the grasses beside the not-so-new alchemy building and streaks of red flew up to the top of Newton’s Hill. Bees buzzed, bobbling around the wildflowers sprinkling the lush meadow grass. Near the sidewalk, pigeons perched on a bronze statue of Erodyiausxu Suggrudvenedripled Aldeomeeereeecudus, the first visitor from Creelonya, and the first chair of the Prism World major in the Xenopology Department. Nobody could ever pronounce his name properly, so he was called Doctor Suggs. He resembled a cross between an octopus and a rubic’s cube. His three eyes were cut crystal, the facets scattering rainbow flecks across the ground.
He’d come to Miskatonic to teach because he could never go home. He couldn’t have the one thing he wanted, so he made do. Nora was quickly coming to the conclusion that she must also make do.
She didn’t really need to declare a major. She could master all of them in another three years. But then what? Did she go explore? Did she research? Did she teach? What was her destiny? Her fate?
Another question she couldn’t answer.
She needed to choose and then her choice would be the answer. For whatever she did must therefore be her fate.
She found no comfort in that.
Hunger growled in her stomach. She stood, her body stiff from sitting so long on the ground in one position. She walked up to the door of the building and examined it. Then, as she did every time before she departed the meadow, she walked around the building, scrutinizing the carvings, running her fingers over the walls. Sand her mind told her, her fingers feeling like they pulled through a steady fall of fine grained sand. Glass. Her fingers skimmed a cool, smooth surface, feeling the brittleness. Stone. The wall warmed and turned more solid, more dense beneath her fingers.
Nora didn’t think about the changes, how the wall had never felt this way before. Didn’t think about what the carvings might mean. She didn’t think at all. She was tired of thinking. Instead she just felt.
She didn’t notice when the blue pulses of energy started coalescing, when they slid up her hand and wrist, when they smoothed up her arm and coruscated over her body. She didn’t notice with the wall turned translucent. She walked through, through the dream of sand, glass, and stone.
She had imagined so many possibilities for what the building contained. Fanciful ideas. A treasure trove. A charnal house. A worm farm. A war bunker. The most logical was an alchemical laboratory and she’d supposed this must be the truth.
She was wrong.
Inside was a garden, the likes of which she’d never seen. Strange plants grew with leaves that made no sense and stems that could not be stems and flowers that startled and fascinated.
The floor was gold and silver and platinum and every known metal and more she didn’t. The light was a slow moving kaleidescope, streaming colors she had never before seen and hadn’t know that her eyes could register. The air was simultaneously humid and dry, cool and hot, dank and fresh. Her senses reported the impossibilities to her brain, which rejected them. And yet her senses continued to report and under the assault, her mind opened and accepted. What else could it do?
“I was beginning to think you’d never come.” The snappish voice spoke in staccato.
Nora started and turned, looking for the speaker. “You were expecting me?” She realized she was not speaking English or any other language she’d heard before. It was entirely new.
“And who else? It’s time and past time for you to be about your business here. There’s more work to be done than can be managed in a lifetime, and yet you’ve dawdled like a lazy lobster.”
Lobster wasn’t really the correct word, but Nora didn’t understand the meaning of the speaker’s actual word. The reference was beyond her frame of experience.
“What am I supposed to do?”
A sound of impatience and disgust. “Mix, transform, create. What did you think? This is your laboratory.”
A frown creased Nora’s brow. “It’s a garden.”
“Are you mocking me? If you are, I will leave. I am not going to be mocked.”
“Wait! No! Don’t go. I’m not mocking. I just don’t understand.”
Swollen silence. “You understand everything.” An accusation.
Nora shook her head vigorously. “No. I don’t. I don’t understand why no one wants to love me. I don’t understand why the building refused to open until today. I don’t understand what you’re telling me. I don’t know what a lobster is.” She repeated the word she’d translated as lobster.
A rustle of leaves and flowers, and then a being stepped into sight. It was tall and thin, with a circle of eyes perched like a crown on the top of a knob that seemed to be its head. A delicate appendage fell down from just below, curling and reaching like a tiny elephant’s trunk. Uncoiled, Nora thought it would reach to the floor. Given that the creature’s eyes were more than four feet above her, she estimated the trunk to be around nine and a half feet long. A bell-shaped cluster of tiny tentacles surrounding a sphincter fluttered at the end.
The rest of the creature reminded Nora of an upright praying mantis, only its body and legs were far more rubbery and flexible. Its arms ran along its slender torso, four on each side, with the middle two being longer then the outer two. Its wings started about a foot below its eyes and went to just above the floor. They folded over one another, lying thin, flat, and transparent along its back.
Its stomach was covered in pale orange plates, contrasting with the dusky green of the rest of it. Its hands resembled its mouth, except for having longer tentacles and no sphincter in the middle. Its six feet were widely spaced in a circle, each one ending in a mass of tentacles resembling mopheads.
“Who are you?”
“Amavala. I’m your lab assistant.”
“I’m sorry, but assisting me to do what?”
A pair of antennae uncurled from the crown of Amavala’s head, in the middle of its eyes. They wiggled and flicked in what Nora thought might be agitation.
“What do you mean? To find the answer, of course.”
Amavala’s trunk thrashed and its feet stomped, sending up little puffs of metallic dirt. “There’s only one question you want the answer to.”
Nora frowned. The only thing she desperately wanted to know was why nobody wanted her. But that wasn’t the sort of question alchemy could solve. She said so.
Amavala made a rude sound. “Of course it can.”
“What do you mean, like a love potion?”
“Don’t be stupid. You are not stupid and you are trying my patience.”
“How can alchemy tell me why nobody wants me?”
“And how am I supposed to know that? That’s your job. You have to figure it out. You’re the scientist. Postulate your thesis and do your experiments.”
“I–” Nora was going to say can’t, but she didn’t want Amavala to abandon her. She licked her lips, trying to think logically. “Who sent you? How did you know to find me?”
Another rude sound. “You did of course. When you started over.”
When she started over? Started what over? Was time-travel involved? She hadn’t studied Transsagumology yet. That didn’t really matter. What mattered was that alchemy couldn’t solve romantic love. She said so.
Amavala glared, the tentacles around her mouth stiffening into a spiky halo. “Of course it can.”
“But alchemy is about transformation of matter.”
“Don’t be so narrow-minded. It’s certainly about transformation, but it’s also about melding and mixing.”
“But love isn’t matter.”
“It’s the mixing of two or more beings who exist in some material form. Correct?” Amavala spoke as if Nora was a particularly stupid child.
“So love is a product of the alchemy of existence.”
“I guess so.” Nora considered, then shook her head. “What about pheromones? Admiration? Mental attraction?”
Amavala’s arms waved impatiently, batting the plants. “All products of the physical. The magic of the physical, to be precise, which is alchemy.”
It made a sort of sense.
“Why a garden?”
The words slapped her. “Because that’s your choice.”
Her choice? Nora rubbed at the throbbing in her forehead. Everything she’d ever learned and knew always came so easy, but this–it was confusing. She didn’t like confusing.
All the same, an electricity ran through her.
What if love was really was a product of the physical? Could alchemy lead her to love?
What if she decided not to follow this line of research? What would she do? Learn everything Miskatonic had to teach? And then what? She’d still be lonely. Unhappy.
Was love the only road to happiness? Another question without an answer. Nora didn’t think alchemy could solve that one. Or maybe it could. If she figured out how to create love for herself, then she’d find out if it filled up the emptiness inside her.
“Why not?” she said at last.
Amavala glared, and then shook itself, ripples rolling through its stiff gelatinous form. “I should think you’d be more enthusiastic, but you always were a soggy puddle.”
Again a word that didn’t translate quite right. Weren’t puddles soggy by definition?
“How long have you known me?” Nora asked.
The creature’s look was testy. “Since the first time.”
“How many times? How come I can’t remember? How come you can?”
Now Amavala made a smug sound. “Find out for yourself.”
The creature spun around and vanished into the alien foliage, leaving Nora by herself.
She looked up and around. She couldn’t see any walls or a ceiling, only the ever-revolving light. She was surrounded entirely by the strange garden and no idea how big the building was or where to go.
Nora wasn’t afraid. It was just a garden after all. She took a few steps and a puff of something glittering and yellow erupted from the purple throat of an orange, bell-shaped flower. Reflexively she ducked and lurched away before any could fall on her. The dust settled on the leaves of the plants around it, then bubbled and gold hairs sprouted wherever they landed. Looking closer, she could see the hairs bending to rub against the curling leaves. It seemed almost tender. The leaves rippled on an invisible wind, as if they responded with delight.
Like the yellow powder had been a gift. Or a caress.
Nora had ducked and wrenched herself away so she wouldn’t risk being touched. Reflex.
“Amavala?” Her voice carried, growing louder and bouncing back from invisible walls.
Nora couldn’t tell how far away the creature was or what direction.
“What’s this orange flower and why did its pollen grow gold hairs on other plants?”
“Alchemy,” came the snipppy answer.
“This is your garden. Your laboratory. You’re the researcher. Research. Library’s to the north, living quarters to the east, door to the west, lab to the south.”
The tone of finality said that was all Nora was going get. She chewed her lower lip. She knew where the door was now. She could leave. She turned in a circle, considering. And if she left, if she yanked herself away from the puff of possibility, would she regret it? Would she ever find what she was looking for?
She took a slow breath and let it out, straightening her shoulders. The door would wait. If she wanted, she could find it tomorrow. There’d always be time to run, to give up and quit. Now was time to reach.
She took a step, and then another, and pushed her way through the garden, lured by curiosity and hope.