"I don't think that's right," Edwin said as he stared at the formula. Calculations were scrawled across the paper, at times crossing over other calculations and then doubling back. They'd checked the formula twice but he had a feeling they were forgetting something. Again.

The potion bubbled and hissed loudly. "Of course it's right." Charles leaned forward and examined the liquid as it changed color. He shifted the blow torch in his hand, raising it higher on the glass. The potion bubbled over the top of the beaker.

Saki took a step back placing Edwin between himself and the potion. "Does that sound a bit off to you?"

A loud hissing noise filled the room every time one of the bubbles from the potion popped. "I really don't think it's supposed to be doing that." Edwin started to step closer, to take the torch away from Charles so they could dump the whole thing and start over. A snake's head appeared in the center of the beaker, rising up above the bubbles as more of its body emerged. "Shit."

Edwin knocked over a container of remoraxia as he flailed backwards. There were two sprigs from their firia tree on the bench. He grabbed them, waving at the potion as a second snake appeared. The snakes flicked their tongues in the air, pausing for a moment as if sniffing. Their heads quickly turned towards the humans and for a moment Edwin thought he saw something strange flash in their black eyes.

"I'll just leave you two to clean this up," Saki said as he turned and sauntered out of the room.

"What?" Edwin started to turn after him then shifted back as one of the snakes lunged forward, snapping at the twig. He turned to Charles. "Do something."

Charles set the blowtorch down and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Two more snakes appeared. The beaker containing the potion rattled against the wooden table. It was bubbling faster now, the liquid inside the beaker visibly frothing. "Huh." Charles cocked his head and fell silent.

The snakes swiveled between Edwin and Charles. Edwin squeaked every time they turned towards him. A yellow snake ventured closer, its tongue flicking rapidly through the air. Its eyes locked with Edwin's and he found himself unable to look away. There was something odd about the snake. Well, beyond the fact that it had formed from a combination of liquids entirely unlikely to cause life, let alone spontaneous snakes.

He was distantly aware of the glass cracking, of liquid spilling across the table, melting it in parts. With the liquid gone, the central mass of the snakes was revealed, a grayish writhing mass that grew larger by the second. More snakes appeared, some separating from the mass to slide off the table and disappear below. He should be moving, running, but he couldn't. The yellow snake slid closer, over the branch in Edwin's hand, forcing him to lower it under the suddenly increasing weight.

The table broke. The yellow snake pulled back, reeling into the massive coil of snake bodies. It was taller than him now, and wider. There was a loud pop once the yellow snake disappeared into the mass. The coils of snake bodies melted, falling away to form a pile of steaming goo on the floor. In their place stood a man, a very dark-skinned, handsome man. His eyes stayed on Edwin, eyes as black as the snake's.

Edwin was alone, he realized. Very, very alone with this new... thing. Person? He wasn't really sure. "H-Hullo." He took a step backwards and tripped over a chair. His head smacked against the floor. "Ow."

The man tilted his head as he watched Edwin fall and then turned, surveying the room. "Ssshaathaadaanuu? Shaa meh chopaahaa."

Edwin propped himself up with his arms. One of his legs had ended up through one of the square sides of the chair. He licked his lips and opened his mouth to speak. A snake slithered over his chest and he froze, waiting until it wandered off into one of the potted plants before turning back to the strange man.

"Ah. Um. I-I don't really know... I mean, I don't speak... whatever that was."

The man looked back at him. Edwin kicked at the chair. After about a minute of awkward struggling, he managed to free his leg. He scooted backwards on all fours until his back hit a pillar.

"We are sealed here," the man said. He had a stilted, high-class accent and there was an almost melodic tone to his words.

"Oh." Edwin glanced sideways towards the closest exit. The metal hazard doors were down. He did a quick visual scan of the room. All down, all sealed. Lovely. "Right. Yeah, that happens when there's been an... an accident." He laughed, or at least tried to. It came out strained and nervous, maybe a bit panicked. He was trying not to panic, but it was hard, what with being sealed in the lab with a man made out of a potion of snakes.

The man stepped forward. He was handsome, the male model kind of handsome that Edwin usually only saw on billboards or magazines. It was hard to pin down his nationality, or if he even had one. His skin was a few shades off from tan, but leaning towards a really dark green instead of brown. His hair was black, short and curly. He was big. Much bigger than Edwin and well muscled. He wore no shirt, only a pair of dark green pants tied around the waist with a thick black sash. As he knelt in front of Edwin he noticed that there were no irises in the man's eyes, just large pits of black that seemed to suck him in and not let go.

Sharply pointed nails surrounded Edwin's face as the stranger cupped Edwin's chin, holding Edwin's gaze even with the stranger's. "Why have you summoned me?"

"Bah. Buh. Ah." Edwin's mouth refused to work. He blamed it on the very sharp things pressing against his skin. "Ah. I... I didn't."

The stranger hissed. Edwin caught sight of a forked tongue before the stranger loomed closer, filling Edwin's field of vision. "Do you know who I am, mortal?"

Edwin shook his head the tiniest of fractions. One of the nails pierced his cheek and he felt a drop of blood roll down his cheek and onto the man's palm. The stranger pulled his hand back and stared at his palm. After a moment's contemplation, he brought his hand closer and licked the blood away.

Edwin's mind chose that moment to faint.

He woke up in the medical bay. Charles leaned against the wall, staring out the window at the immaculate lawn of the Conservatum. Edwin sat up slowly. His head hurt like hell but beyond that he felt fine. "What..."

Charles turned towards him. "Welcome back. Have a fun trip?"

He felt more confused than ever. "What?"

Charles's smile widened. "Get it? Trip? High? There was a gas leak. You got trapped inside."

Edwin frowned. He didn't remember any gas. "What about the snakes? The man?"

Charles quirked an eyebrow. "I don't remember any man. There were snakes, but that was just from the gas. Apparently remoraxia and firia make a pretty strong hallucinogenic when mixed in the right way. Who knew? But it's all cleaned up now."

That wasn't right. That definitely wasn't right. He'd felt the snake crawl across him, felt the strange man's touch. Edwin threw off the covers and stalked into the tiny bathroom attached to the room. The light flickered on as he stepped in. Edwin stared at himself in the mirror, turning his face from side to side. There was no mark where the man's nails had punctured his skin, not even the slightest indication that he'd been injured.

"You alright there?" Charles leaned against the doorframe.

Edwin waved the light off. "Fine."

Maybe it had been a hallucination after all. That made more sense than a man forming out of snakes. He resolved to put the whole thing out of his mind. It was just another failed experiment, nothing more.

His resolve lasted until he got home. The doctor had given him one last look over before he was allowed to leave the medical bay. Charles had followed him across the lawn, all the way to the residential sector though he'd at least turned away at his building rather than following Edwin all the way to his door.

Edwin had a small bachelor's pad near the west wall of the Conservatum. It had once been the groundskeeper's before the Conservatum had stretched to need an entire groundskeeping staff. It was small, as far as buildings in the Conservatum were concerned, though much larger than Edwin really needed, what with him living all by himself, but it was private. It stood apart from all the other buildings, back in a forgotten corner surrounded by woods. Most people didn't even know it existed. The scientists and arcana that lived on the grounds were rarely ones for venturing into the wilderness, even if said wilderness was less than an acre deep.

He absentmindedly pressed the combination to unlock the door and stumbled inside. The lights flickered on, casting light over the entire first floor. A very modern and mostly untouched kitchen sat off to the right. A small dining area to his left opened out into an entertaining area that melded into a patio on the other side of a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass windows that looked out onto a pool and a small but well-loved garden. Twilight was starting to fall, casting red and gold shadows across the surface of the pool. He ignored it all in favor of turning towards the open staircase in the center of the room. A shower and a good night's sleep was exactly what he needed to forget about this day.

There was a snake on the stairs. Edwin paused with his foot on the first step, then screamed and jerked backwards. His back came into contact with something soft and solid that definitely hadn't been there a second ago. He turned and screamed again as he saw the man from his hallucination standing in his house.

"You." He pointed. His mother's voice ran through his head, reminding him that it was rude to point. He lowered his arm.

The man raised an eyebrow. "I am Unshaela N'taka."

"Ah." Edwin leaned against the pole supporting the stairwell. "Edwin. I'm Edwin Carywen." The snake from the stairs slithered past Edwin and disappeared under the couch. Edwin desperately tried to avoid the panic attack brewing from the fact that there was a snake under his couch. "What... what are you doing here?"

Unshaela tilted his head. Every time he did that it made Edwin feel like he was a bug being examined and he didn't like it. He kept thinking Unshaela was going to squish him.

"You summoned me."

Edwin shook his head rapidly. "No. There was no summoning. Definitely no summoning." He wasn't arcana but he at least knew the rudiments of the process. "No circle. No magic words. No name calling."

Unshaela stepped closer. "You brought me forth."

Another panicked laugh wretched its way from Edwin's throat. "No, no, no. Chemicals. It was just a potion, an experiment. Firia leaves, powdered sandworm, a handful of reduced coppernauts, chemicals and more chemicals... No magic. None."

Unshaela quirked an eyebrow. "The firia is a sacred tree."

Edwin squeaked. "No it's not. No. I checked." Admittedly, he hadn't checked personally but his brother had assured him that there was absolutely nothing magical about any of the ingredients. Obviously his brother had been wrong.

Unshaela leaned closer. His black eyes were starting to really creep Edwin out. "Why have you summoned me?"

"I-I-I didn't mean to. I don't even know what you are." Edwin squirmed against the metal pole. "That means you can just go back, right? Go home. I mean I'm not holding you here. There's no binding circle, no fetter. So you can just... go. Right?"

"The situation is not that simple."

Unshaela was far too close. Edwin felt trapped between the staircase and the strange man-creature-thing. That brought to mind a very important question. "You never did say. What are you?"

The corners of Unshaela's lips quirked upwards. "No. I didn't." He stepped backwards, enough to give Edwin room to move. Edwin slid sideways away from the staircase. His hand went to his chest and he gasped in air. He felt like he'd been trapped under a heavy weight which had just been lifted.

When he turned back towards Unshaela, the man was gone. Edwin stared at the vacant spot where Unshaela had stood seconds ago. He moved back towards the stairs, looking all around his apartment but the man was gone.

"I'm hallucinating snakes and strange men," Edwin said to himself. "Oh, I'm going to have so many nightmares tonight."

Edwin found his brother deep in the arcana library on the third floor of the Conservatum Research Center. Alric had his nose buried in a large tome about twice the size of anything Edwin had ever picked up. He didn't look up as Edwin marched over to him.

"Unshaela N'taka."

"Bless you." Alric turned the page, sending a small cloud of dust into the air.

Edwin stopped at the edge of the table and folded his arms across his chest. "It's a person. I think. It's a something."

"That's nice." Alric's finger traced over a complicated series of runes. He silently mouthed the words.

Edwin sighed. "I need you to tell me what it is. Or, at the very least, how to get rid of it."

Alric finally looked up. His round wire-framed glasses slipped a centimeter down his very sharp nose. "Have you tried asking nicely?"

Edwin's mouth flapped like a fish out of water. "Um. Well, yes. Sort of. Mostly." Alric raised an eyebrow. "I suggested it."

Another cloud of dust filled the air as Alric shut his book. "Give me the details." Alric's entire posture radiated resignation as he stood, hefting the tome as if it was a box of tissues. He started down the hall without waiting to see if Edwin would follow.

Edwin scurried after him. His lab coat billowed behind him, though it didn't cut quite as regal a figure as Alric's arcana robes. "Tan-greenish skinned man. Eyes all black. Made out of snakes."

Alric stopped suddenly and turned. His expression was a cross between the time Edwin had dissected one of Alric's toad familiars and the time he'd tripped over the edge of Alric's first summoning circle. "You summoned something? Seriously?"

"No. Not quite." Edwin could feel his cheeks flush. "Lab accident."

"I don't know how you do it." Alric continued walking. "I assume this thing is contained?"


Alric's steps slowed.

"He keeps disappearing a lot."

Alric sighed. "And did you register the summoned with the office?"

Edwin toyed with the sleeves of his lab coat. "Well, no." Alric came to a halt. "You see, as it stands, no one... I mean..."

"Edwin." It wasn't fair how Alric was able to mimic their father's voice so well.

"I'mtheonlyonewho'sseenhim." The words came out in a tumbled rush.

He could almost feel Alric's patience wearing thin. "Once more, with breathing."

"I'm the only one who's seen him."

Alric's eyes narrowed as he looked over his shoulder at Edwin. "Does this have to do with that gas leak in the lab yesterday?"

Edwin shifted on his feet. "It wasn't a gas leak."

Alric let out a long-suffering sign. "Edwin, really? I don't have time to deal with your silly hallucinations."

"It's real!" Edwin shouted. Alric was already walking away. "I swear he's real." Alric disappeared around the corner, leaving Edwin standing amidst rows upon rows of books.

He turned, glancing at the nearest placard. Cryptozoology. Likely not helpful. He turned a complete circle, trying to gauge the best place to start. Maybe mythology, wherever that was? This was going to be such a long day.

Edwin reached for a tomato plant and jumped when his hand came in contact with something long, scaly, and definitely not a plant. He pulled his hand away and glared at the yellow snake that had curled up around his planters. The snake flicked its tongue at him and pretended to sleep.

"You don't fool me." He carefully reached over the snake and wiggled one of the baby tomato stalks loose from its plastic container. The snake opened one eye but thankfully made no move to bite him.

"I'm talking to snakes now," Edwin mumbled to himself. "Hallucinogenic gas, strange man, and now I talk to snakes. Snakes that probably don't exist anyways." The snake stuck its tongue out at him. Edwin stuffed the tomato plant into the hole he'd prepared and started packing dirt around it. "Going mad. Going really, really mad."

"Are you now?"

Edwin jumped and let out a tiny, very unmanly scream. He turned to find Unshaela standing on the patio behind him. Edwin was down on all fours and covered in dirt. Not exactly the best way to face a hallucination. He shifted, sitting up straighter but made no move to get off the grass.

"Yes. Quite mad. I blame you."

Unshaela quirked an eyebrow. Edwin didn't like it when he did that. It made him feel like Unshaela was laughing at him. He probably was, on the inside. That was more madness, right there, worrying about whether a hallucination was laughing at him. Right after it was the thought that Unshaela had been staring at his ass. Mad, mad, mad.

"Why exactly is your affliction my fault? You were obviously defective to begin with."

It took Edwin a minute to peel his jaw off the floor. "You." He pointed a dirt-covered finger at Unshaela. "You, you, you... you ridiculous iheathen/i. This is all your fault. Because of you, people think I'm going mad. I think I'm going mad."

"I fail to see where this is my concern."

"Just go home already!" Edwin screamed. It'd been five days since the accident. Five days of odd looks and people whispering behind his back. Five days of enforced medical leave because people thought he was under the effects of hallucinogenic gas, despite the complete lack of any traces of said gas in his system. He'd made them check twice.

Unshaela's lips quirked along with his eyebrow and Edwin was certain he was trying not to laugh. "I am unable to do so until my purpose is complete."

"And that purpose is..."

Unshaela crossed his arms and said nothing.

"I hate you!" Edwin threw a tomato plant at him. The snake wisely chose that moment to slither off towards the pool. There was a tiny splash, which meant Edwin would never be able to swim without wondering if there was a snake in the pool with him. He really hated hallucinations.

"You don't." Unshaela calmly brushed dirt off his chest and leaned down to pick up the mistreated plant. "You merely hate the consequences of my arrival." He stepped forward, bridging the short distance between them, and leaned past Edwin to deposit the tomato stalk into one of the pre-dug holes.

Edwin turned as Unshaela pulled away and stared at the plant. He touched the ground that Unshaela had filled in around it. It certainly felt real. The ground was solid and he was certain he hadn't done it himself.

When he turned back, Unshaela was gone.

"I don't think we should be doing this," Edwin said.

Charles waved offhandedly and dumped chemicals into the beaker. "Nonsense. You're not technically working. No rules being broken. You're just..." He paused, looked up. "...supervising." He turned back to the mixture. Only half the chemicals were the same as Edwin remember and there were thankfully no firia leaves in sight. "I think I got the right combination this time. Pass me the blowtorch."

"Shouldn't Saki be here?" Edwin dutifully handed over the blowtorch. Charles switched it on. The liquid in the beaker immediately started to change color, faster than it had last time.

"He chickened out. Said he'd had enough hallucinogenic gas for one pay period. Wouldn't it be great if we could duplicate it though? The military would love it."

Edwin frowned. "Not what we were going for, Charles." The liquid was starting to bubble rapidly. Thankfully it was absent of snakes, so far.

The glass beaker rattled against the table. "That just makes it a pleasant surprise." Charles leaned close to the beaker. Edwin's hand rose automatically. He had a bad feeling about this. He wanted to grab Charles and pull him back, to stop the whole experiment.

Black bubbles rose from the beaker, popping loudly once they got a foot or so from the beaker. The liquid turned from purple to brown to black. Edwin grabbed Charles by the lab coat and pulled him back hard.

"Something's wrong."

Charles clicked off the blowtorch. "It's fine. It's supposed to do that." The beaker clattered. A large crack spread down the front and started oozing black foam.


Time slowed. Edwin started to back away, pulling Charles with him. Charles resisted, turned towards Edwin. A jet of black liquid fountained out of the beaker. More cracks spread along the glass. Edwin's focus narrowed to the beaker. All he could hear was cracking glass and a building roar. Charles opened his mouth. Edwin's eyes widened. The beaker exploded.

A giant fireball expanded outward and upward from the beaker, scorching the banners that hung from the ceiling and enveloping the firia tree next to the water tanks. Edwin couldn't breathe. He also realized, somewhat belatedly, that he was no longer standing. He watched the fire sweep across the room from three feet below the blast level. Strangely, he couldn't feel the heat. The air around him was cool, colder than it should. He could, however, feel Charles's elbow digging painfully into his chest.

The fire went out with a loud poof. The tree and the banners smoldered, the tiny fires left behind going out one by one. Unshaela stood where Edwin had been, completely untouched by flames.

Edwin shoved Charles off and scrambled to his feet. "You..."

Unshaela's hand was warm against his cheek. "Our bargain is complete. I shall bother you no more."

"But-" Unshaela was already gone.

"Who was that?" Charles picked himself off of the floor. He brushed ash from his lab coat, leaving behind wide grey smears.

Edwin blinked, confused. "What?"

"Really tan guy with the funky clothes."

Edwin stared. "You could see him?"

Charles stared back. "Of course. He was standing right there. Speaking of," he glanced around the room, "where'd he go?"

He felt like pieces of his life had shifted suddenly, finally clicking into place. With that clarity he realized that there was a piece missing. "Home. He went home."

"Well that's annoying. Who's going to help us clean up?"

"Not me." Edwin ignored Charles's protests and walked out of the room. There was something he needed to do.

The summoning circle was more of a summoning oblong but it should be close enough to work. Edwin repeated the words exactly as they were written in his college spellbook, tacking Unshaela's name on the end. Nothing happened. Edwin stared at the book. He'd read the ritual correctly. He got down on his hands and knees and stared at the lines and sigils marked out in salt on his floor. He'd got those right too. The spell should have worked.

There was a puff of smoke. It hit Edwin right in the face and he fell backwards, coughing. When the smoke cleared, Unshaela was standing in the middle of the circle. His eyebrow was arched and he stared down at the circle with a disapproving look.

"Why have you summoned me?"

Edwin started to answer then promptly launching into another coughing fit. "Why didn't you tell me you were real?" He wheezed.

A smile stretched across Unshaela's lips. It was a dangerous smile but also one that made Edwin's stomach twist in a not entirely unpleasant way. "I didn't want to interrupt your existential crisis. After all, it was you not I that insisted I wasn't real."

"I hate you."

If anything, Unshaela only seemed more amused at Edwin's growing ire. "And you summoned me to tell me that?"

He frowned. His ire warred with his manners. Politeness won. "No. I summoned here to thank you. You saved my life, and Charles's, even after I kept asking you to go away. I'm glad you stayed. And thank you."

Unshaela leaned forward, the air around his face sparkling as his nose touched the boundary of the circle. "And? Wasn't there something else?" His smile was wide and mocking. Edwin hated it.

"I hate you." Unshaela kept smiling at him. Edwin capitulated in seconds. He pouted and stared at the wall. "And I missed you."

"Another contract could be arranged."

It was a stupid idea. He was an idiot for even thinking of summoning... whatever it was that Unshaela was and both his brother and his father were going to have coronaries when they found out what he'd done. That was, of course, assuming the wards hadn't alerted them already.

He couldn't look at Unshaela. "I don't want you here because of a contract."

"That is another possible arrangement." He could feel Unshaela's grin, even without looking.

This was dumb, dumb, dumb. Possibly the stupidest thing he'd ever done, and maybe the last. "I want that. I want you."

"Then you know what to do." Unshaela's voice came out a silken purr.

Edwin kicked at the nearest line of salt. He felt the magic drain away, leaving his living room once more mundane, if a bit more messy. Unshaela stepped out of the circle and offered Edwin his hand. Edwin stared at it, stared at the sharp, pointed nails and the strangely colored skin. Slowly, he reached up and put his hand in Unshaela's. Skin brushed against skin. Unshaela's touch was surprisingly warm. He stood. Unshaela didn't let go of his hand, though he turned towards the door, expression rapt.

"I believe it is time to meet your family, darling."

Edwin colored then paled then colored again. The front door burst open. Unshaela's hand tightened around his.

He was in so much trouble.